Monday, 23 September 2013

DOCTOR WHO: THE MONSTER OF PELADON reconsidered


GIVE IT ANOTHER GO.COM:
THE MONSTER OF PELADON
Re-evaluation of the Third Doctor’s penultimate story, the sequel to 1972's 'The Curse of Peladon', reveals an undervalued gem.

The superb Radio Times illustrations for the story. (Image: Radio Times)














Season 11 of Doctor Who is a great deal better than that old rascal Received Wisdom would have us believe. According to Mr Wisdom, apart from ‘The Time Warrior’ (which introduced Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith and the Sontarans), the series is marking time until Jon Pertwee leaves. The three stories leading up to ‘Planet of the Spiders’ rehash past glories from the previous four years and/or are hobbled by poor special effects.

OK, the giant reptile models in ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’ aren’t great, but they’re so tangential to the main point of the story, that condemning Malcolm Hulke’s thought provoking tale of green politics gone wrong because of them is something only hard core fans, hung up on the quality of production values, could do. After the Famous Five with adults tone of UNIT over the past two years, the security organisation is back to being unpredictable. Yates is a traitor (if a well meaning and misguided one) and at one point the Doctor wonders if even the Brigadier could be part of the dinosaur conspiracy.

‘Death to the Daleks’ (the third story in Season 11) apart from being innovatively directed by Michael E. Briant – witness the threatening, shadowy interior of the disabled TARDIS and the psychedelic, mind-scrambling attack on the Doctor and Bellal – gives the series’ most over familiar monsters fresh things to do. Mr Wisdom always says that writer Terry Nation rediscovered his mojo on his next script ‘Genesis of the Daleks’, but working with script editor-in-waiting Robert Holmes makes him raise his game in his 1974 screenplay too.

The Daleks can’t kill, so they’re forced into an uneasy alliance with the Doctor’s party. At least publicly: other Daleks hidden in their spacecraft develop mechanical weapons and emerge to stage a successful coup over the humans and the Exxilons. Apart from a couple of stupidly hysterical Daleks, the machine creatures are back to a level of characterisation consistent with ‘The Evil of the Daleks’ – curiously enough, since Nation claimed to dislike David Whitaker’s two Dalek stories. Their plan to use the cure for a space plague to blackmail infected planets is a scheme of ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ vintage.

Which brings us to ‘The Monster of Peladon’. The story is usually dismissed – Mr Wisdom, get your coat – as a club-footed allegory of the industrial unrest in the UK mining industry in the early 1970s. That’s only a topical surface detail: like the story’s prequel ‘The Curse of Peladon’, Brian Hayles’ script is broadly political – with a small ‘p’ – in the tradition producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks established for Doctor Who in 1971. The twists and turns of the story are very nimble for a six parter. There’s absolutely no padding, unlike the sluggish detour through the moonbase ventilation system in Hayles’ ‘The Seeds of Death’. (That sequence is so uncharacteristic of his writing in general, that it must have been put in via in-house rewrites).

Another Martian chronicle. (Image: BBC)
The Ice Warriors are back and I remember being overjoyed that they were indulging their warlike nature again (I was a bloodthirsty wee man). In a sign of the writing’s sophistication, commander Azaxyr (Alan Bennion in his third welcome appearance as an Ice Lord) is said to be part of a breakaway group of Martians who miss “the glory days” of conquest. The implication is that his and his warriors’ motivation in betraying the Federation to the enemy Galaxy 5 is driven by military nostalgia. With this detail in mind, it’s not surprising that the Ice Warriors are so well remembered as (until recently) all their stories were written by their creator. This gave them a consistency lacking in the Daleks and the Cybermen, written by several different people over the years, each of who had their own ideas about what the monsters were about.

There are very few creative gaffes. Terry Walsh, doubling for Pertwee in an otherwise brilliant and literally hard hitting fight with the rebel miner Ettis (Ralph Watson), is briefly but painfully visible in the Doctor’s costume and wig. In part 6, Max Faulkner is all too noticeably killed twice in quick succession. The desire of villain Eckersley (Donald Gee) to be “the ruler of Earth” is very corny given his practical attitude and reasoning throughout the rest of the story.

Received Wisdom – your taxi’s outside now – also has us believing that there’s no sense of the Third Doctor’s impending doom. Wrong again, and the hints about what was going to happen in the next story are clever because they only become apparent in hindsight. Sarah comments that the Doctor always said “While there’s life [there’s hope]” and the Doctor, thought dead by Sarah, is woken by her crying. “Tears?” he wonders. “Anyone would think you thought I was dead.” Word for word in places, their dialogue foreshadows the Doctor’s regeneration/death scene and the reference forward is a remarkably subtle piece of writing. It was so subtle that I completely missed it when I was 9.
It’s no wonder that Doctor Who ­won a Writers Guild for its scripts in 1974. Deservedly so. It’s also worth stating that one story before his swan song, Jon Pertwee is still giving the part his all.

Ladies and gentlemen: Received Wisdom has now left the building.

This year, the BFI Southbank is hosting Doctor Who at 50, a 12-month celebration of the series’ half century. Details of the monthly events can be found here: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/Online/doctor-who-at-50
 

Sunday, 22 September 2013

DOCTOR WHO: THE DAEMONS reconsidered

GIVE IT ANOTHER GO.COM:
THE DAEMONS

Welcome to a new feature, in which I re-evaluate Doctor Who stories I’ve previously found underwhelming. All aboard the Fairclough Towers DVD player for a white witch, a Satanic master, UNIT in civvies, violent Morris Men and The Cloven Hoof: “I told Yates and Benton to stay in the pub!"


“Yes, Miss Hawthorne, I would like to defeat the Master,
but I’m a bit tied up at the moment.”

(Image: BBC)














I’m pretty easy going when it comes to Doctor Who these days, but for various reasons there are still a few stories I find it hard to sit through. In this anniversary year – and to be honest, so I could write about it – I thought I’d give some of them another go. First up, every fan of a certain age’s favourite story: ‘The Daemons’.

Here’s why I don’t like it: artistic cowardice.

When it comes to a mature presentation of the occult in Doctor Who, which ‘The Daemons’ is supposed to be, script editor Terrance Dicks and producer Barry Letts are juggling with porridge: they just can’t get a grip on it. It’s OK having invented, pagan religions on other planets – y’know, like they did every other week on Star Trek – but when it comes to dealing with the real thing, Dicks and Letts bottle it.

Why do a story about the actual Devil then get cold feet halfway through? Exactly the same thing happened with ‘The Satan Pit’ umpteen years later:

"So, IS it the Devil?"

“Well yes, but, um, we can’t go there with any potentially controversial religious questions, so even though it clearly IS the Devil, we’re going to pretend it isn’t.’

"Sorry?"

Quite. It’s the same kind of wibbly-wobbly thinking that adds ‘a’ to the name ‘Demons’ in the hope of avoiding any controversy.

Anyway. Nurse! The DVD player.

An afternoon on the sofa later…

‘The Daemons’ is completely mad. It looks like Doctor Who, that well known Saturday children’s series ‘that adults adore’ is really going to put its Time Lord hero up against Lucifer, the Horn-ed Beast himself. In the middle of the afternoon just after Grandstand, the Master (the stylish and faultless Roger Delgado) is conducting a Black Mass and quoting Alesteir Crowley. All in all, it looks like Letts and Dicks have been at the Patrick McGoohan pills.

Despite all this – or perhaps because of it – there’s a lot to enjoy. Episode 1 is striking for its accurate portrayal of a BBC production crew on location and the nicely jaundiced attitude of their guest archaeologist, Professor Horner (Robin Wentworth). When the producer nervously wonders what to do if the Devil does appear on the stroke of midnight, Horner has the answer: “Use your initiative, lad. Get your chatty friend over there to interview him.”

 
Even better than the real thing.
All the regulars are used well. I was never keen on Letts/Dicks’ view of UNIT as the Famous Five with adults, but thankfully what we see here is consistent with my favourite Letts story, ‘The Mind of Evil.’ UNIT operate as a credible security force, with the added appeal of glimpses of the people behind the uniforms. The Brigadier (the unflappable Nicholas Courtney) is on fine form, seen leaving UNIT HQ for a regimental dinner as Captain Yates (Richard Franklin) and Sergeant Benton (John Levene) stay in to watch the rugby. He "goes on somewhere" and is appropriately outraged by his two subordinates commandeering his helicopter.

At one point, it looks as if he’s about to swear on children’s television then, as if remembering the tender age of some of the viewers watching, modifies his language to describe himself as waiting around "like a spare lemon waiting for the squeezer" (still fairly risqué, in my opinion.) It’s also good to see Benton used in an original way, in plain clothes and undercover like Yates, applying his marksmanship skills to assist the illusion of the Doctor being a powerful magician.

Mercifully, the residents of Devil’s End couldn’t be further away from Pigbin Josh, the embarrassing comedy yokel in ‘The Claws of Axos’. It’s good to see both Miss Hawthorne (Damaris Hayman) and Squire Winstanley (the splendidly named Rollo Gamble) resist the Master’s mental dominance. Bert the landlord (Don McKillop) is a great low-key henchman, dazzled by the Master’s promises of avarice.

I love the philosophical discussion in the church crypt in episode 5 between the Master, the Doctor (an on form Jon Pertwee) and Azal the Daemon (an enjoyably theatrical Stephen Thorne) about the fate of humanity, as Azal has decided that the race his people were responsible for nurturing are a failed experiment that must be destroyed. The Master proposes a fascist doctrine – as the Doctor notes – while the Doctor offers Mankind self-determination as its salvation. I really like this aspect of Pertwee’s stories and it’s done extremely well here.

After that… Well, Azal’s ‘defeat’ is still bollocks, despite the nice exploding church. I just can’t believe that a civilisation as advanced as the Daemons could be freaked out to the point of self-destruction by the concept of self-sacrifice. Surely they’ve done a bit of it themselves on the way to their exalted status? It’s Letts and Dicks writing themselves into a corner – how do you defeat a being that is, to all intents and purposes, a god? The scene was weak in 1971 and it’s still weak now.

So there you have it. ‘The Daemons’ is made with care, is a lot more fun than I remember and clever with it, almost to the point of being self-aware in places. Watching it again has been a lesson in not letting one bad moment spoil an otherwise enjoyable whole. As of now, I don’t even mind Letts and Dicks’ determination to rationalise something as powerfully mythic as the Devil as a visitor from another planet. I hadn’t realised it before, but ‘The Daemons’ is the beginning of Doctor Who’s ‘aliens-as-gods’ sub genre, which in later years would welcome to its ranks the Solononians, Kronos, Sutekh the Destroyer, Mandragora and the Fendahl, to name a few.

The ending, however, still makes me want to throw things at the television.

Right then. Now where’s that DVD of ‘The Twin Dilemma’…?

This year, the BFI Southbank is hosting Doctor Who at 50, a 12-month celebration of the series’ half century. Details of the monthly events here: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/Online/doctor-who-at-50

Sunday, 15 September 2013

DOCTOR WHO: THE ICE WARRIORS DVD review

THE ICEMEN COMETH

The best Doctor Who DVD release of the 50th anniversary year so far is an absolute must-have. “I don’t think this one can smile, but by gum he can wink!” 






















Catalogue no. : BBCDVD3558

The evocative title is there to get the kids watching. There may be invaders from the polar regions of Mars in the story – and Bernard Bresslaw creates an entirely believable, reptilian alien culture through his tour de force performance as Varga, the warriors’ commander – but as in a lot of the Patrick Troughton Doctor Who serials, they’re not the main focus.

You can tell we’re in the television year 1967 as Scientist Penley (Peter Sallis) has resigned from his job at Brittanicus Base because of the bureaucratic intimidation of Leader Clent (the excellent Peter Barkworth, on leave from ITV’s The Power Game), a manager who’s people skills are severely lacking. There’s lots of talk about being an individual and not behaving like a machine, so I’m rather surprised that a big white balloon doesn’t come bouncing across the arctic tundra towards Penley. It would have looked entirely at home in this story’s monochrome TV-friendly, future ice age. Like the contemporary counter culture dropouts they’re based on, ‘scavengers’ Penley and Storr (Angus Lennie) grow inspiring beards.

What’s remarkable about ‘The Ice Warriors’ is how contemporary the art direction, acting and dialogue all are, particularly in the figure of Penley. The music is phenomenal – composer Dudley Simpson’s combination of ethereal female vocals, quirky sound effects and flanged drumbeats is like nothing heard in the series before and appears to have been responsible for the careers of Portishead and Goldfrapp. It’s also worth noting that this is the first Doctor Who story where office politics are central to the narrative and the way the characters interact (as they would be again in the story’s sequel, ‘The Seeds of Death’). Because of all this, ‘The Ice Warriors’ doesn’t look like it belongs to the same series as the last-but-one story ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’. Some impressive production design aside, that serial’s out of sync performances and speech idioms range from laugh-out-loud melodrama, to American characters written and played by people who’ve clearly never met an American.

Another sign of the ‘The Ice Warriors’’ maturity is that Doctor Who companion Jamie (Frazer Hines) is allowed to reveal what he thinks about girls, hinting that he’s wondered what Victoria (Deborah Watling) would look like dressed in the Brittanicus Base’s revealing fashions. He’s also allowed to be a vulnerable action hero, temporarily crippled from episode three onwards by the Martians’ sonic weapons.

The great thing about Patrick Troughton is that he gives a slightly different performance as the Doctor in every story. Between the amiable manipulator of ‘The Evil of the Daleks’ and the amiable bumbler of The Krotons’, he’s quietly confident throughout 'The Ice Warriors'. However, his patience with the abrasive Clent isn’t inexhaustible: at one point, it looks like the usually placid second Doctor is really going to lamp him.


(Image: Rob Fairclough collection)
 
Extras
The animated episodes, courtesy of the company Quiros, are delightful this time, matching the visual pace of the surviving instalments, basing their picture compositions on the telesnaps of the story taken at the time and on how director Derek Martinus frames his shots in the four surviving recordings. The way the animators have caught Troughton’s likeness is particularly impressive. So confident are BBC DVD in the cartoons’ authenticity that they haven’t flagged them up as a special Extra, although they certainly are special. The reconstructed trailer for ‘The Ice Warriors’, notably highlighting Clent’s staff problems, is a real gem.

As has been the case ever since Dene Films took over producing the ‘making of’ documentaries, Cold Fusion is an efficiently made, engaging piece. It’s mainly notable for production designer Jeremy Davies’ cheerful admission that he found working on the “low budget” series frustrating, as well as his equally cheerful admission that after watching ‘The Ice Warriors’ again it exceeded his expectations. Lovely graphics, too.

Beneath the Ice – Animating the Ice Warriors highlights the commitment producer Chris Chapman and the animation team at Quiros had to accuracy. “The challenge with this one was to limit ourselves to what would have been possible in the late ‘60s,” Chapman says, a task made easier by access to the original shooting scripts. Quiros’ 3D test model of William Hartnell’s head is amazing. I wouldn’t mind seeing that approach developed in the future.

For completeness, the links from the video release are included; at the time they were made, they were as cutting edge as the animated episodes are now. It’s a pleasing indication of how closely the Doctor Who range has kept pace with developments in video technology.

In Doctor Who Stories – Frazer Hines, originally recorded for the anniversary documentary The Story of Doctor Who, the charming actor is on fine form. It’s fascinating to hear his reminiscences of the 1960s’ pop music scene, having songs written for by him by Alex Harvey – front man of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band – and the songwriters for Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdink (in case you were wondering, that is a made up a name). Frazer’s debut single, Who is Doctor Who?, was the only flop the songwriters had. (A similar fate befell Edward Woodward from ITV’s Callan with his premier 45 This Man Alone, a vocal version of the spy series’ theme).

In another well put together Photo Gallery, there’s some excellent photographs of Bernard Bresslaw being fitted for his Varga costume. It shows just how good an actor he was, as so much character shines through from under the heavy prosthetics.

The DVD is an essential purchase for the 1967 Blue Peter footage about the Doctor Who Design a Monster "to beat the Daleks
" competition. I watched it forty-odd years ago and I vividly remember the end titles of the edition that launched the contest, repeating the clip from ‘The Power of the Daleks’ of the monsters screeching “Daleks conquer and destroy!” And how Mod do John Noakes, Peter Purves and Valerie Singleton look? Three very ace faces.

Would you get a mature and helpful reprimand about the consequences of ripping off other people’s drawings and designs from Cbeebies today, like the one viewers do here? I doubt it. The BBC’s lawyers would have a fit.

Verdict
If I’d been choosing the Troughton story for this year’s Dr Who at 50 BFI festival, I’d have put ‘The Ice Warriors’ on instead of ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’ in a heartbeat; for my money, even incomplete it’s the best Patrick Troughton story that survives in the BBC archives. Because of that, it’s entirely fitting that it should be the last Troughton DVD to be released.

What a shame there won’t be any more.

“Ice! Give me ice, man!”

Coming Soon


For more  on the BFI’s ‘Doctor Who at 50’ season, visit: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/Online/doctor-who-at-50

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

BLACKOUT Channel 4, 9pm, Monday 9 September 2013

WHAT'S THAT IN THE SHADOWS?

Humanity dies in a looted supermarket. (Image: Channel 4)
 














This speculative, ambitious and harrowing drama proved conclusively that modern life is rubbish.

Cripple just one modern amenity that modern society depends on – in this case, electricity by an attack of cyber terrorism – and, never mind twenty-eight days, within four everything will fall apart.

Blackout chillingly and non-sensationally showed just how quickly public order and law enforcement will unravel. Presented as a YouTube-ish compilation of mobile, video camera and CCTV clips, the mounting sense of panic and the ominous threat of brutal violence was all the more believable, reinforced by the casting of some excellent newcomer actors. (Ironically, the advert breaks were selling products that all depended on electricity for their manufacture).

Pleasingly, Blackout was a revival of the apocalypse fiction that flourished in the 1970s. Concepts like the BBC TV series Survivors and Doomwatch examined threats to humanity such as a global pandemic and a plastic-eating virus. A closer comparison is perhaps Alternative 3 from 1977, which in a spoof documentary style apparently exposed a conspiracy around the unexplained disappearances of scientists, transported to secret colonies on Mars because the Earth was dying. I remember watching it and it scared the shit out of my 12 year-old self. Just like Orson Welles’ 1930s radio production of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (performed as a series of fake news reports) in the days after Alternative 3 was shown, the papers ran stories about people jumping out of windows and running down the middle of the street screaming hysterically.

Blackout had a similar effect on my 49 year-old self, although I’m relieved to say I just sat quietly through the small hours thinking about it instead of doing anything drastic. The tension was steadily built up through four interweaved stories. In one, a self-sufficiency enthusiast found himself a target because of the generator he owned. In another, two teenagers start off thinking the crisis is all a big laugh, until their fumbling attempts to siphon petrol result in blowing up a petrol tanker. The disturbing question is raised: who will put out the resulting fire? In a third story, a young girl is helpless as medical staff turn off her comatose brother’s life support system. As he has brain stem death, they make the hard decision to use their dwindling supply of batteries to save patients who have a chance of recovery.

There was some hope in the darkness. In the final tale, a man wearing a restraining device because of an ASBO proved to be a decent person, helping a single mum to find her mother in a riot torn Sheffield.

The last few scenes were some of the most powerful drama I’ve seen on British television for a long time. I’m not going to reveal what happened in case you haven’t seen it. However, I’ll finish by saying that we’re only a split bag of sugar, some tins of processed meat and a jar of gherkins away from barbarism. It’s a terrifying idea that Blackout explored brilliantly.

Pleasant dreams. And don’t forget to turn those lights out.

Monday, 9 September 2013

ITV3 Crime Club

WATCHING THE DETECTIVES

 Cactus TV, Sunday 8 September 2013

On the set of Saturday Kitchen, made by Cactus TV. (Image: Hannah Wilson)


On a pleasant autumn Sunday in Clapham, myself, astrophysicist Will Howells and photographer Lili Gane contribute to an ITV3 special celebrating Colin Dexter’s Oxford sleuth, Inspector Morse.

It’s amazing what’s tucked away in London. Just off Clapham High Street, a converted church houses the premises of the production company Cactus TV. On Sunday September 8, I went along to take part in a series of new programmes being made for ITV3’s 2013 autumn crime festival. Celebrating the commercial channel’s distinguished line of fictional detectives, including everyone from Poirot to Scott and Bailey, they’re hosted by the lovely Bradley Walsh, himself a participant in crime drama in Law and Order UK. Affable and funny as ever, today he was looking dapper in a tailored suit that would have had The Avengers’ peacock spy John Steed raising an eyebrow approvingly.

The other guests were the actor Nathaniel Parker, who appeared in the Anthony Minghella scripted Inspector Morse mystery ‘Deceived by Flight’ and has latterly been starring in The Inspector Lynley Mysteries. A friendly man who couldn’t quite believe I’d watched his Morse the night before, like everyone at Cactus he was happy to be there on a Sunday. The other guest was a crime novelist whose name, I’m ashamed to admit, I can’t remember. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I waylaid him in the toilets and, to my delight, he enthused about being a huge fan of Edward Woodward’s shabby ITV spy David Callan.

My part of the show, which I think is called Crime Club, was as a quiz contestant. I was competing against Will Howells, who, in one of those coincidences that can only happen in London, knew me from some of the BFI’s Doctor Who at 50 events.

'Mr Callan!!!' The Author with Will Howells.
(Image: Lili Gane)
The quiz went like this: Round 1 was quick-fire, with the first player to answer correctly being given a series of clues that related to a specific episode. If he guessed the title he got 5 points. So it went three times until there was a clear winner. Round 2 had three tries at guessing the identity of a Morse character, again for 5 points each. I was lagging behind by now – with 2 points, which moved Mr Walsh to ask ‘You do actually watch Inspector Morse, don’t you?’ – but I made up for being, as they say, ‘not too quick on the buzzer’ in the Mastermind-style final round. Happily, I didn’t disgrace myself, scoring 7 points in 45 seconds that restored Mr Walsh’s respect for me. In turn, my respect for him doubled when he told me he was a fan of Callan too.

Post quiz, after my friend Lili just had to have her picture taken on the set of Saturday Kitchen which Cactus also make, it was time to say goodbye to our very attentive and enthusiastic PA Hannah Wilson and head out on to the rainy streets of Clapham. Will had to shoot off, but Lili and myself decamped to the nearest O’Neill’s for a debrief. Sitting at a table al fresco, we observed one of the local boys about town inhale cigarette smoke through a nostril in order to impress three of his lady friends. The more things change…

Mr Bradley Walsh with an old friend on the wall.
(Image: Lili Gane)
There’s no Irish blood in my family as far as I know, but regular readers will know that I’m a one-man Pogues revival. After I’d said goodbye to Lili at London Bridge, I wandered around on the banks of the Thames in happy, mildly alcoholic daze. As I took in the sights, the lyrics of The Pogues’ ‘The Broad Majestic Shannon’ came to mind:


The last time I saw you was down at the Greeks
There was whiskey on Sunday and tears on our cheeks.
You sang me a song as pure as the breeze
Blowing up the road to Glenaveigh.
I sat for while at the cross of Finnoe
Where young lovers would meet when flowers were in bloom.
Heard the men coming home from the fair at Shinnoe
Their hearts in Tipperary wherever they go.

Take my hand, and dry your tears, babe.
Take my hand, forget your fears, babe.
There’s no more pain, there’s no more sorrow.
They’re all gone, gone in the years, babe.

I sat for a while by a gap in the wall
Found a rusty tin can and an old hurley ball.
Heard the cards being dealt, and the rosary called
And a fiddle playing ‘Sean Dun na Gall’.
And next time I see you we’ll be down at the Greeks
There’ll be whiskey on Sunday and tears on our cheeks
For its stupid to laugh and it’s useless to bawl
About a rusty tin can and an old hurley ball.

Take my hand, and dry your tears, babe.
Take my hand, forget your fears, babe.
There’s no more pain, there’s no more sorrow.
They’re all gone, gone in the years, babe.

So I walked, as day was dawning
Where small birds sang, and leaves were falling
Where we once watched, the row boats landing
By the broad, majestic Shannon.

Says it all really.

The set of Crime Club. (Image: Lili Gane)
Finally, I’m in the final stages of writing a book on Callan with my friend Mike Kenwood. During the quiz, every time I pressed my buzzer a naked light bulb lit up above my head. Like our friend outside the pub with his stunt cigarette, sometimes you really can’t make it up.

We’ve got great lives.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

THE POGUES Hell's Ditch

THE ART OF FALLING APART



I've been listening to The Pogues' fifth LP a lot recently. As regular readers will know, my favourite work by Shane MacGowan's rag-taggle gang is Peace and Love. Hell's Ditch is currently joint favourite. For this release, long-time Pogues champion Sir Joe Strummer pared the production back from the bombastic electric guitars of the album's predecessor and went back to emphasising the acoustic instruments.

The result is an enduring work of melancholic beauty. Despite Shane disowning the album in later years, he's on form with the songwriting here. 'Rain Street', originally opening side two back when music appeared on vinyl, features some of his funniest lyrics and enjoyably earthy imagery:

'There's a Tesco on the sacred ground
Where I pulled her knickers down
While Judas took his measly price
And St Anthony gazed in awe at Christ
Down on rain street

'I gave my love a goodnight kiss
I tried to take a late night piss
But the toiled moved so again I missed
Down rain street' 

In accordion player James Fearnley's excellent memoir Here Comes Everybody: The Story of the Pogues, he movingly describes the wearying circumstances around the making of the record. Strummer was consistently upbeat but the band were almost worn out by the increasingly erratic behaviour of their lead singer. Throughout, Shane sounds as if someone is holding him and, perhaps, moving his mouth. 

But, as is often the case in rock and roll, this creative tension works to the benefit of the music. Hell's Ditch isn't musically very similar, but for some reason I'm reminded of The Doors' last Jim Morrison LP LA Woman. On that album's songs - coincidentally, their fifth LP too - and on The Pogues', there's the sense of an imminent ending powering the grooves. 

Philip Chevron, James Fearnley and Shane.
(Image: Brightestyoungthings.com)


The stumbling, gradually speeding up accordion introduction to the title track and the slowly building drama and ominous key changes of 'Lorca's Novena', the best Spaghetti Western that Sergio Leone never made, perfectly complement Shane's broken vocals (painstakingly pieced together from various recording sessions). On 'Five Green Queens and Jean', the last song on Hell's Ditch with Shane's singing so, poignantly, the last in The Pogues' recording career to feature him, the worn out poet pines for simpler days, before the band's career took off, when 'five green queens on a black bin bag meant all the world to me.' In his book, Fearnley writes, 'a tender song, it reminded me of Eyeore's happiness with the gifts of a popped balloon and an empty honey jar which Pooh and Piglet brought to Eyeore's Gloomy Place on his birthday.' As the song abruptly ends, you can almost hear Shane slump over the microphone, finally defeated.

In another curious Doors coincidence, The Pogues recorded two more LPs, Waiting for Herb and Pogue Mahone without their original singer. Interestingly, Fearnley's book doesn't cover those albums and he'd left by the time of the last one. Although the band came back with a mighty, valedictory single in 'Tuesday Morning' after Shane had been dismissed, their time was really up. I saw them on the same bill as the Manic Street Preachers when both bands performed a benefit gig honouring the Manics' manager Philip Hall, who died of cancer. Fearnley and Terry Woods weren't there and it was all rather apologetic. They literally weren't the same band who'd performed those era-defining concerts on the If I Should Fall from Grace with God tour.

The Pogues should have called it a day after Hell's Ditch - it would have been the perfect place to end. The last song, 'Six to Go', sounds like the lights have come up and their taxis are waiting.

Sometimes, falling apart can be beautiful.