Saturday, 27 December 2014

DOCTOR WHO: LAST CHRISTMAS review, 25 December 2014


A clever Christmas present from Steven Moffat.

Season's greetings. (Image: BBC)

I’ve always had a bit of an awkward relationship with my Dad and Christmas Days have sometimes been tense affairs. This year’s, though, was pleasant and quietly memorable. Equipped with his festive whisky and dry ginger, Dad mellowed out and became talkative, warmly reflecting that it seemed like only yesterday when I’d been a little boy. For once, he seemed genuinely pleased with the present I’d bought him, and found his talking Only Fools and Horses ‘Triffic Dad’ Christmas card funny. It doesn’t sound like much, but it means a lot.

Which is largely why I was so impressed that this year’s Doctor Who special got to the heart of what the season of goodwill is really all about. ‘Last Christmas’ is a clever title. Yes, it’s a pun on the classic Wham! song, but, as the Doctor said, the essential point of the yearly present-giving tradition, is that it might be the last time you have quality time with your family and other loved ones, so make the most of it. That’s a deeply mature sentiment that makes Peter Capaldi’s first yuletide voyage in the TARDIS genuinely deserving of the label ‘Christmas Special’. In fact, I think it’s the most sophisticated, honest and moving festive story that the series has done so far. ‘A Christmas Carol’ came pretty close, but ‘Last Christmas’ scores higher because the Doctor and Clara working out their issues, the seasonal angle and some very intelligent (and disturbing) science fiction all worked seamlessly togethernot to mention outlandishly.

‘There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive. No wonder everyone keeps invading you.’

The guest star status of Santa Claus is a case in point. Actor Nick Frost wasn’t joking when he said that he’d be playing a bona fide ‘Sweet Papa Chrimbo’, made up to resemble the one in Miracle on 34th Street. What’s stunningly clever is that the story kept asking just what Father Christmas is: an idea, a fantasy, perhaps – surely nota real person? Such a deliberately self aware approach can sometimes topple over into self indulgence, so for a complex idea like this to work the writing has to be very disciplined, and, once again, Steven Moffat more than delivered.

Before anyone at home could shout ‘You’re ripping off Alien!Professor Albert (Michael Troughton) said as much, and The Thing from Another World was on Shona’s ‘to watch’ list at home, so she’d obviously brought her enthusiasm for the film to the characters’ shared dreamscape. The collision of Victorian Christmas folklore and sci-fi motifs also made for some memorably surreal comedy business, with Santa’s assault force consisting of a tangerine, some bendy springs and toy robots, Saint Nick turning off Rudolf’s Red Nose by remote and a literal North Pole, while the Doctor and co. were threatened by gruesome alien mind parasites. In terms of storytelling and Christmas Day TV spectacle, that really is mind blowing.

The dream world scenario is appropriate to Christmas as there’s a tradition of seasonal fiction using it that ranges from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, right up to Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror special a couple of weeks ago. ‘Last Christmas’ is also the Doctor’s It’s a Wonderful Life as, distressingly, he gets to see what would have happened to Clara if he hadn’t gone back for her. Staying in a pleasant cocoon of illusion with your dead lover may be tempting too, but it’s part of the moral of festive stories that you learn from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Future or a kindly angel called Clarence and, as the terrific Samuel Anderson’s Danny Pink says, ‘get the hell on with it.’

Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman improve with every story. They’re so natural together now it’s hard to imagine anybody else travelling in the TARDIS, though that day will surely come. Capaldi now appears to be Dr Whody (nice new threads), and watching him prowl around the familiar Doctor Who setting of a scientific base under arctic conditions makes you realise – again – what a classic Doctor he is. Jenna once more showed off her range as an actress, playing a vulnerable, dressing-gowned Wendy to the Time Lord’s amusingly grumpy Grinch. It was particularly satisfying to see the Doctor cheer up at last as he took the reins of Santa's sleigh, revealing that his warmth and simple enjoyment of life are still there.

‘Last Christmas’ wasn’t perfect. To start with, I just know that for some people accepting Santa as a guest star in Doctor Who is a big ask. Bearing that in mind, it didn’t help that Paul Wilmhurst’s direction dragged in a couple of crucial places, particularly the pre-titles sequence, which seemed to go on forever – yes, we get the point, IT’S FATHER CHRISTMAS! and the scene where Shona (Faye Marsay) threw some shapes across the infirmary floor. She’s a brilliant comic actress and stole every scene in Fresh Meat and Pride, but the amount of screen time Faye’s routine was given shows that there’s a very fine line between funny and silly. Everywhere else Wilmhurst was on top form, notably in all the scenes with the brilliantly named Dream Crabs, and the heart-breaking meeting between the Doctor and the older Clara (and how long must that make-up have taken?).

When the title of the special was announced, I was half expecting a duet between Peter Capaldi and George Michael on the Wham! classic to close the story. While that would have been a brain-scrambling, fourth wall-demolishing show stopper, what we got instead was just as good.

And full marks for a TARDIS showered with snow in the title sequence!

‘Happy Easter.’

Thursday, 18 December 2014



Being out of work in London, The Sweeney at 40, reaching my quarter century, a villain, the return of (my) Dr. Who and a vintage year for writing... 2014 had it all.

BFI Southbank, Thursday 7 August: Who's my friend?

It’s that time of the year again when, with the daylight going at 4 o’clock, it being so cold you don’t want to be outside and the end of the year approaching, you start thinking about the last twelve months in front of a twinkling Christmas tree. I haven’t done one of these ‘reviews of the year’ before, but 2014’s been such a significant year for me that I ought it might be worth putting down my thoughts about it.

Benefits Street
It began as the last fourteen months had: getting up, spending the morning doing work searches in Blackfen library, going back home to work on my and my friend Mike’s latest book The Callan File in the afternoon, watching Channel 4 news in the evening, watching something diverting then going to bed. I really can’t believe how the government expect unemployed people in London to survive on £70 a week Job Seekers’ Allowance when you have to cover food, heating, electricity and travel. The only socialising I did – unless there was something on at the BFI I could get a complimentary ticket for – was going over to my mate Sayer’s for dinner on Saturdays.

I did learn one important lesson: you can survive with very little. It may be a sign of these straitened times, but as long as you’ve got enough for beans on toast and your electric meter, that’s all you need. Friends reading this will know of my dedication to Doctor Who and classic television in general; the fact is, my DVD/Blu-ray collection is now half the size it once was, simply because I’ve sold so much of it to make ends meet. It was something I thought I never do, but once you take that step, you realise it’s an asset you have to use.    

On the plus side, I did get a helluva lot of The Callan File written.

You’re nicked!
This has been a classic year for the BFI’s coverage of television, thanks largely to the unstinting efforts of TV curator Dick Fiddy; their brilliant Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder season is still going on, so go along if you can. My BFI year got off to a great start in January with an event celebrating 40 years of everyone’s favourite 1970s cop show The Sweeney. Myself and Mike were involved in the organisation, choosing clips and writing viewing notes, as well as assisting in getting the band back together (probably, sadly, for one last time): producer Ted Childs, director Tom Clegg and, much to our surprise and delight, Sgt. George Carter himself, Dennis Waterman. We also asked along cameraman John Keeling, a hitherto unknown member of the Euston Films story who we’d met during research for The Callan File. We even sold around twenty copies of Sweeney! The Official Companion, which isn’t bad for a book two years into its second edition.

Many Happy Returns
Things picked up financially in April – I was back freelancing as a graphic designer at the place I’d last worked at, and God bless them for the opportunity – just in time for my 50th birthday. People had been so generous when I did manage to go out, buying me drinks and sometimes meals, that I was determined to say ‘thank you’ with a decent party and complimentary drinks, which I did at the pleasant Walkers of Whitehall bar on the day itself, Saturday 24 May. This is going to sound like false modesty, but I really had no idea so many people would turn up, including friends I was at school with (Debs, Adam, and Sayer), friends who’d come all the way from Ireland (Mark and Linda) and friends I hadn’t seen for over ten years (Jacqui and Dave). It was a special night.

In July, something happened which started my re-evaluation of living in London. At the end of 2013, I had to get a lodger as the mortgage company made it clear that after a year out of work, if I didn’t start making payments again they would repossess the house. Fair enough: they’d been more than understanding. Unfortunately, despite getting convincing work and previous-landlord references, the guy I ended up with – underneath his cheeky chappie, cor-blimey exterior – was a nasty, violent piece of work. It all came to a head when, with him three weeks in arrears and with no sign of any money forthcoming, I told him to get out. Cue my M&S bolognese melt flying all over the living room and a black eye.

As I came round on the sofa, I wondered how things had come to the point where I’d allowed someone I’d normally cross the street to avoid into my house to abuse my hospitality. This feeling was compounded in October at the subsequent court case, which I brought against my lodger for Actual Bodily Harm. Despite photographs of my swollen eye, a doctor’s letter about the injury and me being ‘a credible witness’ (the magistrate’s words, not mine), the lodger got off because he persuaded his then-girlfriend – who was in the house, but not in the room, when the attack happened – to testify as a defence witness and lie.

English settlement
I woke up the day after the trial and decided that I just couldn’t do London anymore. If you’re young and don’t care London’s great, and if you’re middle-aged and well off London’s great, but if you’re neither of those then it’s a bloody struggle. I came to the conclusion that the only thing keeping me in the capital was the house – I could design or write anywhere – so why stay? For about five years I’d been thinking about moving back to my home county of East Anglia anyway. I’d tried living in Norwich for three months in 2010 and I’d picked up work from a standing start in six weeks; compare that with not one single reply to a work or job application in London over eighteen months between 2012 and 2014, and the decision to go starts to look like a no-brainer. A pleasantly alcoholic afternoon with my friend Ruth during the summer at a pub in Beccles, a small market town in Suffolk, when she told me about the thriving creative scene and general sense of community there, convinced me that that’s what I now wanted: somewhere my friends were a walk away, family are ten minutes by train and the pubs are within staggering distance. For this 50-year old man, that will do very nicely.

Just goes to show: a punch in the face really can knock some sense into you.   
Hello Sweetie
I fell back in love with Doctor Who this year. My oldest amour has been on the wane a bit in recent years; in general the stories remained good, but a succession of ever-younger Doctors was starting to resemble the line-up of One Direction. As a result, my interest in the character began to drift.
Peter Capaldi’s sardonic grump, however, is cut from the same commanding cloth as the Fab Four: William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, and, to my delight, I recognise the Doctor again. Perhaps inspired by Capaldi’s idiosyncratic – and, frankly, risky – casting, the writers in his first year have really delivered the goods. Not everyone thinks so: I’ve never known a series of Doctor Who to have divided my friends so much, but – ha! ha! – the viewing figures are on the up. 

One of the best days of my life was attending the premier of ‘Deep Breath’, Capaldi’s first story, at the BFI in August. That sounds a bit over the top, but the combination of my revitalised enthusiasm, Woodstock-style bonding/queuing overnight for tickets and meeting with the (very friendly) man himself is the best Doctor Who experience I’ve had for years, and that includes all the jamboree of the 50th anniversary. Things were turned up to eleven when I was commissioned to write two articles for the Doctor Who Magazine Yearbook 2015; I’ve been buying the official magazine, under all its various titles, since it started in 1979 and I’ve always wanted to write for it. Now I’ve done it. It seems dreams can come true.
Paperback writer
If I shuffled off this mortal coil tomorrow I’d be happy. That not meant to be fatalistic; I think it’s a good thing to be able to say at 50 that you’ve done all the things you wanted to do when you were starting out in life, and, with the prospective move back to East Anglia, 2014 feels like the end of one stage of my life and the beginning of the next. One other thing I’m particularly happy with is that the amount of writing I’m doing now, largely on this blog, is back to what it was when I was a teenager: it’s part of the daily routine again. 

On a professional level, The Callan File has been a joy to do. There’s never been a book on Edward Woodward’s spy series before, so everything me and Mike have discovered about Callan is new and exclusive. Add to that the many enjoyable hours we’ve spent interviewing getting on for sixty people, and I think it’s the best experience I’ve ever had writing and, consequently, the best thing we’ve done. You can decide for yourself next year.        

Hi ho, Silver Lining
So, I’m this far in without a map. All things considered, it’s a good place to be.

Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year!  XXX

Sunday, 16 November 2014



My second favourite last gang in town.

"I don't think I'm gonna let you stay in the film business."
(Image: BAD Central)

In the 1980s, everyone seemed to be doing stadium rock: Simple Minds, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Then Jericho (remember them? Me neither). Big Audio Dynamite were a refreshing alternative. Front man Mick Jones had (arguably) made punk iconoclasts The Clash global superstars, by introducing reggae and dance beats into their music. When he was fired from the band he’d founded by Joe Strummer, Jones set up a new musical collective with DJ and filmmaker Don Letts.
Mick and Don were backed up by Leo ‘E-Zee Kil’ Williams (bass), Dan Donovan (keyboards) and Greg Roberts (drums). In the image-obsessed ‘80s, BAD were a great package, looking like a cross between guerrilla rastas and Sergio Leone anti-heroes. This outsider aesthetic continued into the music itself, with BAD’s second single – and the first I heard – ‘Medicine Show’ sampling cool dialogue from A Fistful of Dollars (1964), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Duck, You Sucker! (1971), as well as the Humphrey Bogart classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). BAD went a step further with ‘E=MC2’, a tribute to the films of Nicolas Roeg, littered with samples from the psychedelic gangster flick Performance (1970). JoBoxers they weren’t.
They blew me away live, heavying up the bass and guitar riffs and playing everything faster. At a spectacular gig at the (sadly now demolished) Astoria on the Charing Cross Road in London, Mick fired witty quips from the hip and at the drop of a baseball cap went into Chuck Berry-style duck walks. By the time I saw them, BAD’s set was full of great, clever songs from their second LP No. 10 Upping Street (1986), including ‘C’mon Every Beatbox’, ‘Beyond the Pale’, ‘Limbo the Law’ and ‘Sightsee MC’. If the rousing attitude sounded familiar, it was because Joe Strummer had patched things up with Mick and had co-written some of the songs, also producing the album with attack and vigour. From this distance, maybe BAD missed a trick by not getting Joe out to do a few numbers. On the other hand, perhaps it was just too soon for an on-stage Clash reunion.
On their third album, 1988’s Tighten Up Vol. 88 (which built more bridges with The Clash, as bassist Paul Simenon supplied the cover painting – dancers at a rave by the Westway), BAD delivered their best set of lyrics yet. Together with songs about Imelda Marcos, horoscopes and the simple joy of playing music, ‘Applecart’ was a brilliant vignette of a once loving relationship collapsed into tedium and habit:
The silence between them
Makes the loudest sound.
Thinking it’s the wavelength
Turns the radio down.
They hardly know each other
And they don’t know where to start.
Don’t rock the boat
Upset the applecart.
The other stand out was ‘The Battle of All Saints Road’. I’d lived in London for two years by now, and the Zydeco/‘Duelling Banjos’ from Deliverance (1972) mash-up, about the increasing yuppyfication of areas of the capital that had been on the frontline in the 1970s, struck a chord with this immigrant Londoner. I was really looking forward to seeing BAD on the Tighten Up tour, but Mick fell seriously ill and was out of action for over six months.
BAD returned to the fray in 1989 with Megatop Phoenix. I didn’t get it at the time, but since then it’s become their album that I play the most. Ahead of the game as usual, Mick had been inspired by the Second Summer of Love and moved away from conventional rock song structures into a kind of Cockney house music. ‘Around the Girl in 80 Ways’, ‘James Brown’ and ‘Everybody Needs a Holiday’, among others, have an appealing nursery rhyme quality that’s hard to get out of your head once you’ve heard them. Reflecting the mash-up ethic of rave culture, the samples were more diverse than ever, including Laurel and Hardy, Laurence Olivier, The Who and Bernard Cribbins’ ‘Right Said Fred’.
BAD remained brilliant live. Their gig at the Town and Country Cub (still going as the Forum, happily) ended with a stage invasion and all the equipment disappearing from the stage. I can’t remember now if it was Mick or Don, but one of them came out and said, “Look, we’d like to do an encore, but can we have the gear back please?” Drums, guitars and amps duly bobbed over the sea of heads back to the stage until only Mick’s microphone was missing. The call immediately went up – “Where’s the mic? Where’s the mic?” – until the required item returned to its owner, ambling from shoulder to shoulder for all the world as if it was out for an afternoon stroll.
That was it for me really. For some reason the original line up split and the reconstituted BAD II recorded Kool-Aid (1990), which I’ve still never heard. Call me fickle, but my interest had switched to the Happy Mondays who, with their pounding dance beats and rock riffs, inherited the dance floors BAD had loosened up. The Mondays even sampled Performance on ‘Mad Cyril’.
I never thought I’d see a BAD reunion as, up until it happened, members of The Clash didn’t do nostalgia. Just getting to see BAD play live again in 2011 was an event, as for some reason the whole Underground network decided to go on strike that day; maybe Mick was testing our resolve. He’s a man to age gracefully, now sporting a fine line in bespoke suits, while Don looked as if he’d been defrosted direct from 1985; the rest of the band didn’t stop smiling. Tight but loose, they played everything I wanted to hear and encored with a triumphant ‘Rush’, easily the best of the BAD II recordings. Job done.
Mick remains inspirational. His touring archive, showing just how much of a pop culture magpie he is, was a great idea. On New Year’s Eve a couple of years ago at a Dreadzone gig in Notting Hill – his manor – he came on and sent everyone wild by playing ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go?’, and followed that up with ‘You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two.’ Of course.
Four years ago, an expanded and remastered This is Big Audio Dynamite appeared to coincide with the reunion, but there’s been nothing since.
So, fellers – how about legacy releases of the other albums?
Recommended Listening
This is Big Audio Dynamite (1985)
No. 10 Upping Street (1986)
Tighten Up Vol. 88 (1988)
Megatop Phoenix (1989)
The Globe (1991)

Monday, 10 November 2014

DOCTOR WHO: DEATH IN HEAVEN review, 8 November 2014


You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll punch the air. In it's tenth year back on television, Doctor Who remains unique, stylish and is better than ever.

Go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I
am not mistaken in mine. (Image: BBC)

Christ it’s brilliant.
‘Death in Heaven’ is a textbook example of why Doctor Who will always be an important part of my life. No other TV series can have you open-mouthed in shock, shedding a tear and laughing out loud, sometimes in the space of one scene. This year’s finale is so focused, hard hitting and life-affirming, that it’s hard to believe it’s written by the same Steven Moffat who let through the indulgences of the Matt Smith years.
Cybermen have always been walking dead men, something that was very apparent in their first design but got rather lost in their remodellings over the years. It’s great to see the original idea put centre stage and alluded to through the gothic, Judgement Day symbolism of graves giving up their dead. What gives this concept extra dramatic punch in November 2014 is the metaphor that Cybermen are soldiers. Beginning as mindless drones of Missy – the ‘exits to the rear’ scene was hilarious and disturbing at the same time – and then reclaiming their humanity through ex-soldier Danny Pink (a never better Samuel Anderson), is very poignant in an episode transmitted the night before Remembrance Day. When Danny soared into the sky to save the Earth and the Brigadier was revealed as the saviour of his daughter Kate (Jemma Redgrave), I had the same lump in my throat as I did watching the Remembrance Day parade on Eltham High Street.
Delightfully, Michelle Gomez’s Master is absolutely barking – where else will you see a super villain riffing on Toni Basil’s 1980s hit ‘Mickey’? Moffat’s interpretation goes back to the original idea that the character is a mirror image of the Doctor; Gomez has similar physiognomy to Peter Capaldi and speaks with a Glasgow accent that becomes stronger when the two are together. I love the twisted psychology that she’s set up her scheme to corrupt the Doctor so she can ‘[get her] friend back’ because, the implication is, she’s lonely. It gives emotional depth to an idea going all the way back to ‘Colony in Space’ (1971).
Gomez really is sublime. Come back soon, darling.
There are some loose ends. Why were Danny and the Brigadier the only Cybermen able to retain their identity and memories? And Missy selecting the one potential companion who was essential to protecting all the Doctor’s past lives was a bit contrived (unless that’s the point). However, minor quibbles only.
The Moff has obviously been watching a few Hollywood blockbusters recently, not to mention the James Bond 50th Anniversary Box Set. ‘Death in Heaven’ is an entertaining riot of pilfered imagery, taking in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Airforce One (1997), Iron Man (2008), Goldfinger (1964) and, astonishingly, the pre-titles sequence of Moonraker (1979). Cybermen ripping apart an airliner in flight is a delightful nod to The Twilight Zone story ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’ (1963) and it made my heart sing to hear references to Thunderbirds (1965-6) and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-8), Doctor Who’s teatime rivals in the ‘60s. Something so sweet and geeky amid all the havoc and angst was delightful, not to mention an amusingly clever way of pointing out where UNIT comes from. (There’s a whole book about the Doctor Who/Gerry Anderson crossover, Simon Messingham’s dark, enjoyable novel Doctor Who: The Indestructible Man (2004).

‘Me and Sylvia Anderson – you’ve never seen a Foxtrot like it.’
Without a doubt, Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman are the best Doctor/companion duo since Tom Baker and Louise Jameson. Capaldi has the lion’s share of screen time, effortlessly demonstrating how his Doctor has finally come into focus after a year of working out what his character’s about and where it’s going. Lying to Clara (and himself), confronting Missy, saluting the Brigadier (unforgettably) and belting the TARDIS console with such raw anger it’s almost hard to watch – the Master wins again – shows how completely this man has reclaimed the character of the Doctor from the ‘romantic leading man’ it’s been since Paul McGann turned up. After being the focus of last year’s concluding story, Coleman has less to do but was fantastic in all her scenes, particularly when she sold the idea that Clara was really the Doctor, a great cliffhanger into the opening titles.
For me – finally – after ten years, they’ve got Doctor Who right: moral dilemmas, relationship drama, symbolism, surrealism, comedy, razor-sharp dialogue, over-the-top performances, moving, understated performances and a particular kind of English weirdness that, once again, makes ‘Doctor Who, the children’s own show that adults adore.’
From ‘Deep Breath’ onwards, Peter Capaldi has given me back my childhood. In this context, it made sense that Santa Claus (Nick Frost) dropped in to see how the Doctor was doing.
I can’t help smiling when I think what might be in store for all us children on Christmas Day.