Skip to content

Jodie Whittaker goes William Hartnell. Demons of the Punjab reviewed


During the first season of any new Doctor, we keep looking for bits and pieces of old Doctors.  Increasingly, and completely unexpectedly, I’m starting to see more and more of William Hartnell – in terms of situation if not in terms of character.

Vinay Patel has written the kind of story we have not seen on Doctor Who for a long time.  This story made me cry more than once.

In many ways this wasn’t an “adventure” at all, but a drama.  The Doctor did not save anybody last night, arguably.  History took its course.  Indeed, this was the closest we have come to a “pure” historical adventure since Black Orchid (1982).   Black Orchid itself was the first “pure” historical since The Highlanders (1966).  For sure, there were titular demons on show last night, but these demonic looking aliens weren’t intervening either.  Like the Doctor, they were there as witnesses.

We are taken to the partition of India in 1947 and the occasion of the mysterious marriage of Yasmin’s grandmother.  We are in the position of celebrating a marriage that we know cannot last, but we celebrate it because we love the moment for the moment that it is, and because Vinay Patel wants us to think of life itself, perhaps, as the mere sequencing of cherishable moments that do not necessarily join up in the way we might hope.  We are reminded that what we are watching is the making of Yas’s grandmother and therefore the making of Yas.

The fact that the Doctor didn’t really change history at all came as something of a relief to me personally.  The idea of having to fight some kind of alien threat that might have somehow made the partition of India “worse” than it really was is, in all honesty, an offensive idea.

I think Chris Chibnall has a vision for the show and it is a consistent one.  He is giving back to the show a relatively straightforward moral and educational agenda.  This show is now for young people who aren’t too proud to ask questions and learn things.  This does not mean, of course, that older people can’t watch it – only that those older people need to reactivate the curious adolescent within if they are to properly appreciate it.

We are back in early William Hartnell territory.  When the show first arrived on television, “Team Tardis” consisted of the Doctor and three companions.  Sci Fi adventures alternated with historical adventures, to complement the fact that there was both a science teacher and a history teacher on board.  When trapped during the French Revolution or the Aztec court, the Doctor was powerless to change history and the adventure consisted of the crew escaping back to the Tardis without being decapitated. Along the way, we all learned something.

Demons of the Punjab, like Rosa, is therefore something of a history lesson – and none the worse for it.  It is intended to provoke its presumably young viewers to ask a lot of questions and maybe check out some library books.  It is intended to excite impressionable young minds to consider the importance of knowing your history.

In some ways this adventure reminds me in particular of a later William Hartnell adventure – The Massacre.   This story, which is entirely lost and can only be experienced as a soundtrack accompanying sequenced stills, describes how the Doctor and Steven get caught up in the horrors of the sixteenth-century Bartholomew’s Day massacre in Paris.  It’s about how the machinations of a relatively few people can incite a powder keg and turn ordinary people who used to live side by side into bitter foes.  It’s about a sectarian war.  The Doctor is powerless to save anybody, but eventually returns to the 1960s to meet a descendant of this hideous context.

The larger context of partition is too horrific to be represented directly in a show of this nature.  Love is allowed to triumph.  Humour is permitted to intervene.  It’s that kind of show.

“My references to body and gender regeneration are all in jest. I’m such a comedian”


The Last Tommies. How The Great War ended on 22 September 2004.


When I was a boy, this time of year always belonged to WWI veterans.  They were octogenarians, lucid and ambulant.  And at the beginning of November they were allowed to talk.  Nobody was allowed to shut them up.  They would tell their stories any damn way they felt like.

Now of course, there are none left.  And I miss them.  It always seemed to me that when they were in charge of war commemoration, they were also in charge of staring at us young ‘uns and enforcing the message that it was our responsibility to make war obsolete.  Whose job is it to do that now?  Who is there now with the moral authority to tell young people to work for sincere and permanent peace?

I recently rewatched this programme “The Last Tommy” (2003-2005) which is available on Youtube.  Personally I can think of no better way of marking this centenary than by reconnecting with the lived first hand experience of those who took part in World War One.  These people endured more than human beings should ever be asked to endure.  To ask them to both relate and adequately interpret their experiences is utterly unjust.  They describe detailed living conditions, privations, sufferings and sorrows.  They also describe extraordinary examples of love and friendship between men under fire.  None of them are preaching although some of them are urging.


The centenarians who took part in this programme did not offer the same homogeneous experience of mud and blood and noise and lice, though these things featured prominently in various accounts.   They were all very different people.

Percy Wilson was a bellicose character who seemed still angry about the Armistice, believing that a more thorough-going pounding of the actual German homeland might have prevented Worlds War Two.

Jim Lovell, the last surviving decorated soldier, retained a very jaunty and positive outlook on life and offered the best evocation of that rarest of World War One experience – the actual excitement of battle – the ancient Viking experience of “berserking”.

Arthur Barraclough was a fitness fanatic still living in his own home with his own wife – a compelling examples of how improvised self discipline can preserve and extend life.

Harry Patch was a man haunted by unspeakably painful experiences who sought and found a kind of resolution unimaginably late in life.

Claude Choules was the youngest – a genial Australian with a smile that makes you just want to smile back at him.  More of a witness than a participant, he was little more than a child while he served in the navy, and it is essentially a child’s eye view of wartime casualties that he preserved and communicated.

Arthur Halestrap is all quiet compassion and wisdom.  He was a deeply religious man who deplored war yet fought in two.  A dedicated commemorator, he emerges as someone who finds great value in ritual.

Alfred Anderson was for a while the oldest person in Scotland and the last survivor of the original 1914 army – the “Old Contemptibles”.  He was the last important witness to the mood of excitement that dominated the beginning of the war.  He was also the last survivor of the 1914 Christmas truce.

By the end it is Harry Patch who dominates.   It is not that he is demonstrably the bravest or the noblest or the wisest of these men.  It is that his emotional journey is the most compelling.

His extraordinarily resonant and powerful west country burr communicates the hideous way shrapnel eviscerates human flesh.  He was part of a Lewis Gun team, and the comradeship associated with that team still brought tears to his eyes.  From having no special grudge against Germany or Germans – and at one point shooting to wound rather than kill a German whom he regarded as just a soldier following orders like himself – he became possessed with bitter and lasting anger when a shell killed his Lewis team around him.

In the final scene of the documentary, it is arranged for Harry Patch to meet Charles Kuentz, the last surviving representative of the German army on the western front.  It is remotely possible that Kuentz was part of the artillery team that fired the shell that killed Harry Patch’s closest friends.  Kuentz’ own situation was complicated. A native of Alsace Lorraine, he was a French speaker with no particular love for the Kaiser, conscripted into the Imperial army against his will.  The meeting resulted in a handshake and an exchange of gifts.  The meeting also occurred on the 87th anniversary of the slaughter of Harry Patch’s Lewis Gun unit – what Patch himself described as his remembrance day.

As Harry Patch meets Charles Kuentz, you could plausibly argue that 22 September 2004 is the date when the Great War finally ended, ninety years after it began.  The date when the last two combatants of the Western Front met and shook hands and agreed wholeheartedly that war between nations should cease.

Happy 290th (possibly) Birthday (possibly) Oliver Goldsmith. Bless oh bless.


It is possible that Oliver Goldsmith was born on this day in 1728.  It is recorded that he might have told someone that 10th November 1728 saw his nativity.  As Goldsmith himself might have admitted though – he was very young at the time and might have been mistaken.  He was a whimsical cove and stuff he related about himself is rarely to be relied upon without corroboration.

Many aspects of Goldsmith’s life are uncertain, including which county he was born in (either Longford or Roscommon).  Large questions concern precisely how much of Europe he covered during his wandering and whether or not he ever acquired a recognised medical degree.

An Midlander, the son of a Church of Ireland minister in what might have been the least sectarian part of Ireland at the time, he had a gift for adapting himself to all manner of different social situations.  There was nobody who he wouldn’t drink with.

Most significantly he was the only Anglophone writer in the eighteenth century to triumph as a novelist, a poet, a dramatist and an essayist.  One of the very few people I can think of who has done likewise was Oscar Wilde. Like Wilde, Goldsmith was an amusing Irishman in London.  Unlike Wilde, Goldsmith’s talent was humour rather than wit.  Wit is interchangeable – recyclable and functions independently of personal context.  Humour is character-dependent and provokes mirth only insofar as it exhibits character.  Wit is for Twitter.  Humour is for Facebook.

Goldsmith was also committed to an ideal of generosity – generosity which sort of is and sort of isn’t its own reward.  He was the sort of person who gave away money freely without asking too many questions.  Given his unusual appearance and penchant for bright clothing, he soon became known to just about every mendicant in London.  He was very close to Samuel Johnson who made fun of Goldsmith (as everyone did) but who also understood Goldsmith personally and politically (as everyone didn’t).   Johnson helped Goldsmith to complete his two most serious poems – “The Traveller” (1764) and “The Deserted Village” (1770).

Like Johnson, Goldsmith had no eye for landscape for its own sake.  Solitude suggests to Goldsmith only the horrors of depopulation.  His poetic imagination was, to a great extent, governed by the ear rather than the eye and his evocation of rural bliss is governed by sociable chatter.

Famously, he argued for “Laughing Comedy” rather than “Sentimental Comedy”.  Like many great essays, his short blog-length piece of prose on this topic falls apart empirically and is a very dubious guide to his own work, let alone the work of the period. It retains its formal logic though, and is applicable to the life cycle of most sitcoms.  He certainly believed that if a comedy relaxes the nerves and stretches the smile then it has performed the task of putting people in a more benevolent frame of mind without necessarily having to carry the freight of a laborious “moral”.  I’m cautious of anyone who says that “laughter is the best medicine”.  It’s a slogan that feels like an insult to generations of life saving medical research. Nothing on earth is going to make me want to watch Patch Adams.  However, I’m sure that laughter was the most efficacious ingredient in “Dr” Goldsmith’s bag of tricks.

And he was a historian.  Some of Samuel Johnson’s friends opposed the idea of awarding the title of “historian” to Goldsmith.  He was no more a historian than ooh I dunno – Dan Snow is a historian.  He was a mere “compiler”.  It is true that Goldsmith conducted no original research and followed no consistent historiographic method.  His histories were, however, extraordinary popular and were continually republished.  As Peter Sabor has shown us – Jane Austen composed hilarious and revealing marginalia in her copy of Goldsmith’s History of England.  Eventually, as his work was continually republished and updated by unknown hacks, Goldsmith achieved the rare distinction of dissolving into the italics of his own book.  A bit like Gray’s Anatomy.

One day I will write rather more substantively about Goldsmith as “writer of history” as well as about “history” as literary category.  At this point, however, I may have to reform my dietary regime in order to be sure of living long enough to do so.

Goldsmith made people laugh and he made people cry and he practiced and sponsored generosity.  There was no kind of writing that wasn’t better off as a result of him visiting it.  And the great news is that David O’Shaughnessy and Michael Griffin are working on a proper Works of Goldsmith that will become available and become standard in about a decade’s time.

I for one cannot wait.


“The Rest is Silence”: The 1980 BBC Hamlet reviewed



This Hamlet was the last staging to be produced by Cedric Messina and represents a very deliberate break from the “filmic” vision promoted in that era.  And not a moment too soon.  Too late in the day it was realised that these productions worked far far better when the television audience was encouraged to imagine themselves in a theatre rather than in a cinema.

Initially, a far more cinematic and “realistic” staging was intended but (praise be), these plans were radically changed.  Instead we have a very spare and geometric design for the play – with battlements and beaches suggested with the simplest of studio effects.  It’s a world of fairly basic shapes painted dark grey and black.  The most colourful moment concerns the rather delightful trompe-l’œil  theatrical set for the play within the play, a set that plays teasing games with perspective.  Derek Jacobi has great fun with it – especially as he will never leave the actors to perform the play on their own and keeps inserting himself into the action.

This theatricality proves the redemption not only of this production but of the entire 1978-1985 series.  The Cedric Messina era, considered as a whole,  represents a disappointing wrong turn.  Rodney Bennett’s Hamlet, on the other hand, inspires confidence throughout.

Famously, Laurence Olivier, when casting his film version of Hamlet chose a Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) who was younger than he was.  Of course,  Olivier was heavily indebted to noted Freudian Ernest Jones for advice and oh how it shows.  This 1980 version oddly enough casts Patrick Stewart as Claudius – uncle to Derek Jacobi despite the fact that Patrick Stewart was (and is) about two years younger than Derek Jacobi.  Patrick Stewart manages to smile and smile and be a villain to great effect.  The smile he employs when  he’s making any kind of ceremonial address is truly odious.  You would call it a Nixonian rictus except that it’s toothless.  In the latter half of the play, when Claudius’s villainy is being plotted in real time, we start to develop a real interest in the character.  Thanks to Patrick Stewart, Claudius starts to look a bit like Macbeth.

The comparison between Hamlet Senior to Claudius is meant to be a transition from Hyperion to a satyr but in this production at least, it becomes easy to credit the idea that Patrick Stewart is Patrick Allen’s younger brother.

Patrick Allen, of course, is the voice of the End of the World.  If the 1980s had plunged into full scale thermonuclear war (as many of us thought it might), then Patrick Allen’s would have been the last voice most people in Britain would have ever heard.  Mr “Protect and Survive” stalks the stage in very shiny armour and when he purrs “remember”, I feel the need to cower in a basement (which I don’t have) in an inner sanctum improvised out of layers of tinned food.

Eric Porter offers a comparatively dignified Polonius.  He is prone to finger wagging, and it’s a particular finger that he chooses to wag, to the point where the finger becomes appropriately distracting.  The genius of the role is that nothing that Polonius actually says is particularly stupid.  None of the advice that he gives to Laertes is bad.  It’s just the way he says it – the sing song quality of his delivery.  Polonius is like a motivational poster – a creepy juxtaposition of abstractions you’d otherwise endorse but feel compelled to piss on.  And yet, you can see why his daughter would grieve for him.  You can see why his immediate flesh and blood would forgive him his mannerisms and take his truisms at face value.

Ophelia is Lalla Ward, most renowned as Romana Mark II who famously married Tom Baker (very briefly) before illustrating books for her subsequent partner Richard Dawkins.  She was always very cool and commanding as a Time-Lord and something of this gravitas is communicated in her performance here making it a little harder to credit her descent into madness.  You find yourself wondering if her herb and flower bestowing performance of doolallyness is any more authentic than Hamlet’s.  It is easy to see Lalla Ward though in your mind’s eye while Gertrude is describing her watery suicide.  Indeed, her elegance while onstage is only fully rewarded once she is being described offstage.

Claire Bloom of course is very lovely.  She is precisely the sort of player who could best illustrate a chapter by Ernest Jones on Shakespeare.  Gertrude is the most famous milf in literary history of course, but the bedroom scene as stage here is truly shocking.  She is the victim of an authentic sexual assault and is left in a state of uncomprehending shock and horror.  Hamlet is not her story and we get no hint of how and why she transferred her affections so quickly.  Hamlet’s joke about the funeral dinner serving as a cold buffet at the wedding goes unanswered.

There’s a certain I Claudius reunion vibe going on as Derek Jacobi (Hamlet/Claudius) shares a stage with Patrick Stewart (Claudius/Sejanus) and David Robb (Laertes/Germanicus).

Emrys James is a very kindly looking First Player.  He would go on to play an exquisitely moving Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra.

Delivering the final lines we meet Ian Charleson’s Fortinbras, a remarkable actor who would be used later in the series as Octavian/Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra and as the unlovable Bertram in All’s Well that End’s Well.   His cold blooded resolution provides the perfect contrast to Jacobi’s Hamlet and there is something rather elegant (with hindsight) in seeing Hamlet “succeeded” as ruler by a man who went on to be the outstanding stage Hamlet of his generation.

This production of course stands or falls with Derek Jacobi.  He’s an older Hamlet of course and was in his early forties when this was filmed.  Considering this, the athleticism of the final fight scene is really rather breathtaking.  The sheer range of mood swings demanded of the role is exhausting for any actor in the role but one aspect of Jacobi’s performance that definitely stands out is his comic timing.  Hamlet is, of course, a hilarious play containing far more funny lines than most Shakespeare comedies.  Jacobi is expert and bits and pieces of business that accentuate the playful nature of his hero.  I especially liked the way he turned the book the right way up that Ophelia is pretending to read.  He’s also good at exploiting the interchangeability of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

The truth is that if you have Derek Jacobi, appropriately lit, given all the time he needs to play Hamlet, then you have all you really need for a magnificent production of the play. The rest is silence.  Jacobi was recognised, certainly by 1980, as the possessor of the most lovely Shakespearean voice since John Gielgud’s debut more than half a century earlier. His delivery is often slow and careful but never seems self-indulgent.  Above all, he’s not afraid of sounding pretentious and he does not gabble or garble famous lines (and the entire part consists of famous lines when you think of it), just to prove that he’s “acting” rather than reciting.  Jacobi loves poetry.  And he knows how it works.  Jacobi’s Hamlet, quite rightly, is never mad – incidentally.  He reaches states of high emotional intensity but he never “loses it”.  There is always method in’t.   He is dressed in Renaissance costume but he has a surprisingly modern way of wearing it.  He would not look out of place in many rock bands c. 1980.  There is also the Jacobi giggle – an astonishing musical device which is used strategically to disrupt expectations of significance.

If the music reminds you of an unusually memorable and scary 1970s Doctor Who adventure then yes you’re quite right it’s by Dudley Simpson.

Rodney Bennett, incidentally, directed three classic Doctor Who adventures in the 1970s – Ark in Space, The Sontaran Experiment, and Masque of Mandragora.  All three of these stories was scored by Dudley Simpson.  So what you are watching in this 1980s production is a kind of apotheosis of 1970s televisual talent. We shall not see their like again, because television does not work in the same way any more and is geared towards meeting different audiences with different expectations.


I have some reflections on other 1978-1985 BBC Shakespeare productions.


Two Gentlemen of Verona

Titus Andronicus

The Winter’s Tale:

Timon of Athens

Taming of the Shrew:

Troilus and Cressida:

Merchant of Venice:

Merry Wives of Windsor:


Twelfth Night:


Measure for Measure:

Henry VIII

Love’s Labours Lost:

Romeo and Juliet:

The Scottish One:

Much Ado About Nothing:

King Lear:

Here is Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Here’s Julius Caesar:

King John:

Here’s Richard II:

The BBC Richard III could not be more unlike the BBC Richard II…

Here is Henry VI Part III

Henry VI. Part Two:

Henry VI, Part One:

Here’s my review of the BBC Henry V:

BBC Henry IV, Part TWO:

But here’s my review of the BBC Henry IV Part ONE:

And the BBC Antony and Cleopatra:


Not to mention a sombre but intensely homoerotic Coriolanus:

Here’s Comedy of Errors:

And… All’s Well That End’s Well:

Helen Mirren in the BBC As You Like It:


Frankenstein has just become my fourth favourite Mary Shelley novel. Valperga, enjoyed.


Mary Shelley is one of the most fascinating historical novelists of her age.  My admiration for her writing, ever since, I was first disappointed by that mad scientist reanimating dead tissue thingy that she wrote – has risen by leaps and bounds.   Indeed, she excels in speculative fiction, historical fiction and gothic fiction.  Valperga is a text that deserves to be considered either as historical gothic or gothicised history as the mood takes you.  It is fascinated by the expanses of nature and the darkest recesses of the human heart.

Shelley’s characters are not wiser than the age in which they live – but that doesn’t mean that they’re happy with the age in which they live either.  Valperga (the name of a fortress rather than a person) involves rare and fascinating characters who are periodically convinced that humanity deserves something better to be the helpless playthings of rival warlords.

The novel tells the story of Castruccio Castracani degli Antelminelli who was became Duke of Lucca in the early fourteenth century and whose versatile successes resulted in Machiavelli writing a biography of him two centuries later.  Yet it is not really “his” story.

Castruccio is a condottiero who is slowly and inevitably corrupted by the supposed virility of a martial lifestyle and in so doing eventually becomes a ruthless practitioner of a version of realpolitik that will stop at nothing to secure rule of Tuscany.  Certain people do suggest to him, when he’s still a young man, that constant warfare has the practical effect of starving and immiseration the peasantry, but he’s also exposed to other people who counter that the peasantry are nowhere near miserable enough and need to be constantly reminded of just how fragile and provisional their worthless lives really are.

Mary Shelley’s novel, published in 1823, is clearly motivated by a regard for the Florentine model of autonomous republicanism and a sense that large nineteenth-century imperial powers seek to snuff out such exemplary demonstrations of civic liberty and virtue.  Think of Napoleon invading Switzerland.

The essay also deals with witchcraft and daemonism, as well as with the now obscure “Paterin” heresy.

Mary Shelley does not give credence to the supernatural, but neither does she sneer at it.   The character of Beatrice the Prophetess is quite terrifyingly plausibly.  Having been seduced by Castruccio, she wanders about Italy heading in the general direction of Rome before ending up, we are told, in a castle full of blasphemous obscenity where a bunch of really dark stuff happens to her.   Shelley is very good at this incidentally, sketching the darkest possibilities imaginable in the most sinister yet economical yet vague way.

Despite the title page, as the narrative progresses the interest of the novel focuses on the perhaps unfortunately named Countess Euthanasia.  She it is who has to balance personal and political loyalties and who attempts to stay true to Republican principles while refusing to do anything to endanger the life of the tyrant she loves.  She fails and is driven into exile.

Valperga, therefore, manages to integrate wild and passionate gothic fantasy with intelligent political commentary.  It is a book that is ultimately in love with islands of freedom in a wicked world.  It is a book that perhaps only Mary Shelley was intellectually and emotionally equipped to write.

Post mid-term prognostications from a useless prognosticator


Anyone reading this must surely be aware that I’m useless at predicting stuff.  As a young man, I correctly predicted that John Major would succeed Margaret Thatcher as prime minister.  After that, all my predictions went to hell.  Essentially, you’re reading the work of the same man who was convinced that Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine would become the biggest band in the world by the mid 1990s.

Nevertheless, last night’s mid terms elections have re-animated the inept prognosticator in me.

The Democrats have retaken the House of Representatives and the Republicans keep the Senate. Always the most likely result.  The Democrats had a far more defensive game to play in the context of the contested senate seats.  A number of the senate seats the Democratics were defending predated the perverse popularity of Donald Trump.

Turnout was nothing short of spectacular last night.  What was learned, however, is that both Democrats and Republicans can be highly motivated.  Democrats were far better at motivating their people than two years ago, but Trump’s supporters remain intransigent and passionate.

The arithmetic has not changed.  Roughly 40% of the present electorate will support Trump no matter what and will deny the evidence of their own senses if their leader instructs them to.  Roughly 60% of the electorate opposes Trump.  In order to defeat Trump in 2020, then at least two thirds of this 60% have to show up to the polls.  And they have to show up in the right places.

So what happens for the next two years?

The GOP majority in the Senate means that Trump is unimpeachable and the GOP is now Trump’s creature entirely – defined only by abject and unconditional loyalty to a disgusting and delusional race-baiting serial sex offender.

Democratic control of congress means that it will be hard for Trump to pass legislation or agree budgets or fund giant unnecessary walls.

The distinct executive powers of the Presidency will still permit Trump to do a great many destructive things that do not require congressional approval. His military powers are considerable and largely unchecked.  He will be able to kill, but not to build.

Over the next two years, Trump will fire up his base by attacking the Democratic congress as the enemy within – the great obstructors of his nativist agenda. In rally after rally he will complain that Congress are preventing him from fulfilling his presidential mandate. His core 40% will remain intact and highly motivated.

Given that Trump will now be taking personal credit for saving a number of tight gubernatorial and senatorial contests, it is likely that he will double down on the xenophobic rhetoric he has exhibited in the last week.  He announced that he would like heavily armed troops to open fire on any members of the so-called “caravan” who looked as though they might throw stones.  He will have convinced himself that the idea of marines gunning down unarmed foreigners with automatic weapons is now a proven vote winner and he will repeat this pledge at various rallies in the coming months.

Of course, he may well not choose to act on this rhetoric. He probably won’t.  But a variety of freelance maniacs certainly will. There will be violence and there will be fatalities.

Some had thought that Trump’s base might be under-motivated once they achieved one of their key aspirations – a long term conservative majority on the supreme court.  Yesterday showed, that paranoid hatred of foreigners is just a strong a motivator so Trump will work hard over the next two years to keep his base frightened and disgusting – to appeal to the kind of ego weakness at the heart of racism – the belief that you are are only fully human if others are less so.

The Mueller investigation will hand out various indictments and reveal even more astonishing evidence of criminality – but Trump’s base will ignore all of this evidence as contaminated at source.  With the Democrats controlling relevant committees, investigations cannot be shut down or silenced.  Indictments will serve to motivate many outraged Americans to make sure that they vote out Trump next time.  But they will not remove the President or convert his core supporters.

The next two years are going to be crazy.  The election of 2020 will be determined on the basis of how many people are convinced that Congress, not the President, is to blame for the failure of government.  Democratic control of Congress will help stoke  “enemy within” rhetoric that Trump finds so necessary.   For the Democrats to win in 2020, it will be necessary for most of their more credible representatives to keep calm and above all keep organised.  The election will not be won by some opportunistically “centrist”  Democratic challenger who attempts to convert Trump’s base, but rather by one who can get a significant percentage of the anti-Trump majority to the polls.

If Trump loses in 2020 he can of course be prosecuted for his many crimes as a private citizen. As he should be.  The new POTUS may be tempted to pardon Trump in the name of “national healing” as Ford did Nixon.  They should not.  When Ford pardoned Nixon, it was partly on the basis that the humiliation that Nixon had suffered would serve as a sufficient deterrent to any subsequent POTUS thinking of comparable and provable abuses of power.  The triumph of something as shameless as Trump proves that Ford was, in this respect, wrong.

Cock and Bull – frames within frames

Reposting on the occasion of (the fictional character) Tristram Shandy’s 300th birthday…



When confronting film adaptations of classic novels – I’m a dyed in the wool miseryguts.  I mean, I will hate everything and bore everyone around with me about how profoundly wrong and stupid everything is.  The only kind of film adaptations I really like come in two varieties – there are the ones that are minutely, painfully accurate and detailed and run to about seven or eight hours.  And then there are the ones which are radical reinterpretations that take the central logic of the story and rearrange it within some radically different historical context.  Or far future.  In a different country.  Or on another planet.

I did like Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy/Cock and Bull  (2005), however, and I do show bits of it when I lecture on Tristram Shandy.  Like today.

The logic of making a film about making a film about a book that is about writing…

View original post 359 more words

“SomePting in the way, she moves…” The Tsuranga Conundrum Reviewed. A few spoilers further down.

Doctor Who Series 11

Who else thinks that this hospital ship pays tribute to the very beautiful and eerie design by the great Roger Murray-Leach for Ark in Space?  This episode understands the claustrophobic appeal of space horror – which is first cousin to submarine horror.   The most chilling moment occurs when a whoozy and disorientated Doctor realises that there is no exit – no “outside” to escape to.

But although this adventure nods at Alien more than once, it is a very different piece of work.  Alien involved cynical and selfish people with no interest in anything other than individual profit and survival.  So far, the Whittaker/Chibnall era has been all about teamwork, and this episode is no exception.  This is about people standing or falling together.  “Team Doctor” is not just a formal commitment to ensemble drama, but also an ideological commitment to ensemble living.  It’s political.  Deal with it.

We’ve had a number of comparatively “low stakes” adventures this season – which comes as some relief.  During the Moffat era, it sometimes felt as though the very nature of Time and Space were being compromised on a weekly basis.   Last night’s adventure involved the survival of a relatively small number of people.

Tonight we had an adventure with no villains.  The monster, the diminutive but toothy Pting, is not motivated by any monstrous appetites.  S/he has no interest in inflicting pain or subjugating the galaxy.  S/he just likes to eat spaceships is all.   If you’re unlucky enough to be on a spaceship with one, s/he will eat the entire spaceship around you.  Fittingly, the Doctor saves everyone essentially by allowing the Pting to enjoy a slap up feed before dispatching it on its way.

Complaining that the Pting isn’t really scary enough misses the point somewhat I think.    This episode is still about character development to a significant extent.  By the time this Doctor really does confront a Nemesis capable of gnawing a gaping wound in All That Is, I think we’re going to find ourselves caring more about everybody involved.  There is no clear “story arc” signposted as yet – nothing like “Bad Wolf” painted in the corner of the screen.  What we have are smaller adventures that inevitably anticipate larger ones.  Stick with it.

There’s some male pregnancy comedy along the way.  Our kid said out loud what we were all thinking…  “where does the baby come out?”.

There is much to get done in c. 48 minutes.  There are relationships to be explored, heroic sacrifices made and siblings to be reconciled.  It’s as well that the Doctor talks fast.  She reminds me of Matt Smith and Patrick Troughton in that she is never afraid to show fear.  She’s not like some Doctors who grin at danger and offer it jelly babies.

“Get a shift on” is becoming a catchphrase, but it’s also a way of describing the fact that she is often in a great hurry.  She runs down corridors energetically but awkwardly, from a human perspective.   PE classes on Gallifrey must have been organised on principles quite alien to the likes of us.

Yas still doesn’t have enough to do.  It’s as well that she’s going to be centre stage for much of next week.


Insensibility. Happy looking Wilfred Owen was killed 100 years ago today.


Here is Wilfred Owens, who was killed 100 years ago today, a week before all those guns fell silent.  And he’s smiling.  I find this photo far more poignant than better known images of him, because it reinforces just how profoundly unnecessary his death was.  When you see most pictures of doomed poets who died long before their time, their sombre expression creates a kind of perverse timeliness.   Happy pictures of doomed poets are preferable because they feel so much more inappropriate and they therefore provoke better anger.

This photo also helps illustrate the odd word “fleers” from one of his best poems.


Happy are men who yet before they are killed
Can let their veins run cold.
Whom no compassion fleers
Or makes their feet
Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers.
The front line withers.
But they are troops who fade, not flowers,
For poets’ tearful fooling:
Men, gaps for filling:
Losses, who might have fought
Longer; but no one bothers.
And some cease feeling
Even themselves or for themselves.
Dullness best solves
The tease and doubt of shelling,
And Chance’s strange arithmetic
Comes simpler than the reckoning of their shilling.
They keep no check on armies’ decimation.
Happy are these who lose imagination:
They have enough to carry with ammunition.
Their spirit drags no pack.
Their old wounds, save with cold, can not more ache.
Having seen all things red,
Their eyes are rid
Of the hurt of the colour of blood for ever.
And terror’s first constriction over,
Their hearts remain small-drawn.
Their senses in some scorching cautery of battle
Now long since ironed,
Can laugh among the dying, unconcerned.
Happy the soldier home, with not a notion
How somewhere, every dawn, some men attack,
And many sighs are drained.
Happy the lad whose mind was never trained:
His days are worth forgetting more than not.
He sings along the march
Which we march taciturn, because of dusk,
The long, forlorn, relentless trend
From larger day to huger night.
We wise, who with a thought besmirch
Blood over all our soul,
How should we see our task
But through his blunt and lashless eyes?
Alive, he is not vital overmuch;
Dying, not mortal overmuch;
Nor sad, nor proud,
Nor curious at all.
He cannot tell
Old men’s placidity from his.
But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns,
That they should be as stones.
Wretched are they, and mean
With paucity that never was simplicity.
By choice they made themselves immune
To pity and whatever moans in man
Before the last sea and the hapless stars;
Whatever mourns when many leave these shores;
Whatever shares
The eternal reciprocity of tears.
Compassion itself is something that “fleers”, something that becomes cruelly laughable in the context of an industrial scale of slaughter.  For centuries, poets have written odes to “sensibility”, so a poem to “insensibility” is long overdue.  Yet you cannot spell insensibility without sensibility.  While yearning towards automatism, towards an unfeeling state that makes existence on the western front bearable, the overwhelming state is of the sheer extent of humanity that is being excluded.
In Owen’s most resonant poetry, men may “die as cattle” but they are not cattle.  They are “gaps for filling” and yet every gap is still a gaping irreplaceable wound.  There is of course nothing more expressive than moments when all expressive language is exhausted and its inadequacy is frankly acknowledged.
Wilfred Owen loved his fellow men and he loved the way men love each other.  His time at Craiglockhart with Siegfried Sassoon gave (or restored) to him a sense of love that enabled him to see an artistic reason to live a little longer, even if that life was on the edge.  Had he survived the war, and had he survived the phobic age in which he would have lived, he could have become the greatest celebrant of same sex love of his generation – a love that did not need to perish in a hail of machine gun fire.  Despite his sincere belief, shared with Sassoon, that the slaughter was being unnecessarily prolonged and that the war could and should be ended, he could not abandon what he felt was his place at the front line.  He was, by all available definitions, a good officer who didn’t believe he should be anywhere else but “leading”.
I also like to see Wilfred Owen smiling because it reminds me of this poem – “The Last Laugh”…
‘O Jesus Christ! I’m hit,’ he said; and died.
Whether he vainly cursed or prayed indeed,
                 The Bullets chirped—In vain, vain, vain!
                 Machine-guns chuckled—Tut-tut! Tut-tut!
                 And the Big Gun guffawed.
Another sighed,—‘O Mother,—mother,—Dad!’
Then smiled at nothing, childlike, being dead.
                 And the lofty Shrapnel-cloud
                 Leisurely gestured,—Fool!
                 And the splinters spat, and tittered.
‘My Love!’ one moaned. Love-languid seemed his mood,
Till slowly lowered, his whole face kissed the mud.
                 And the Bayonets’ long teeth grinned;
                 Rabbles of Shells hooted and groaned;
                 And the Gas hissed.
Owen, who had grown up with a strong sense of Christian ministry, abandoned conventional religion because of its seeming indifference to human suffering.  But he was not one to slide into cosy agnosticism and religious confrontations continue to define his poetic imagination.   When men in agony scream out “Jesus Christ I’m hit” are they being instinctively profane or are they reaching out to a Saviour?  In this context it is impossible to tell because they are soon dead.
Mechanised warfare meant rarely seeing the face of your foe, but humans are hardwired to see faces everywhere.  As men become dehumanised, machinery becomes anthropomorphised.  Bayonets, shrapnel clouds and gas itself develop agency and start to exhibit a conscious sense of whimsy.  Guns have mood swings.  Humanity is not being destroyed so much as it is being obscenely redistributed.  When Owen was at his most grimly realistic he was also at his most spiritual, because he shows off the sheer power and extent of the spiritual even when he’s trying to subtract it.  Insensibility is a desired state, but it is impossibly far off – maybe just over the next ridge – maybe the object of the next big push.
But in any case, I like smiling Owen on this his anniversary.  He looks accusatory.

“There’s going to be a fight!”: Laurel and Hardy in “Blockheads” (1938)

This is, chronologically, the last Laurel and Hardy title that can be cited as anybody’s all time fave Stan and Ollie film without my eyebrows warping quizzically.  If someone tells me that Blockheads is their fave, I am inclined to nod appreciatively.

Rewatching it recently I was struck by just how good it is all the way through.  Part of the secret of this film is that it has barely any plot at all.  Hardly a frame is wasted just to advance any notional story.  This film consists of two peerless clowns continually clowning

We start in the heat of battle.  The year is 1918 and Stan and Ollie are two “doughboys” fighting on the Western Front.  In the course of the last big (and successful) push – Ollie goes over the top with the rest of his platoon while Stan is ordered to stay behind and guard the trench.  In the absence of any orders to the contrary, Stan does precisely that for the next twenty years.  Had he stayed for another year he could have found himself fighting two world wars simultaneously.  His supply of tinned food is copious and by 1938 an impressive tower of empty tins has accumulated.  He is only rescued from his endless and pointless patrolling of the trench when he takes shots at an innocent peacetime aviator, who lands nearby and belatedly informs Stan of the armistice.

Ollie, meanwhile, has settled into a very timid domestic existence, deferring to his wife in all things.  When he reads of Stan’s rescue in the newspaper he rushes to a veteran’s home to meet him.

Few moments in the entire Laurel and Hardy cinematic oeuvre are as moving as the reunion of Stan and Ollie in this movie. The pathos of the occasion is both heightened and deflated by the fact that Stan is sitting in a borrowed wheelchair having folded one leg in such a way as to give Ollie the not unreasonable notion that Stan has lost a limb in battle.  Having invited Stan home for dinner, he starts wheeling his old comrade in arms for some of the way before the chair is repossessed.  No matter, Ollie will carry Stan.  Sam was not more lovingly committed to carrying Frodo up Mount Doom than Ollie is committed to carrying Stan as far as is necessary.  It is hard to say which of them is funnier in this extraordinary scene.  There is something blissful about the calm way in which a healthy and bipedal Stan decides that if Ollie wants to carry him, that’s fine with Stan – why ask questions?  The stupefying length of time it takes for Ollie to realise that Stan has two legs is equally hilarious.  Even after Ollie has fallen over a couple of times and Stan has helped him up, he still resumes his heavy but heartfelt burden.

I won’t waste time itemising all the great jokes in Blockheads.  The movie makes great use of stairs.  Only in The Music Box (1932) is the slow ascent of steps more central to the character of the film.  The film also develops further the idea that Stan is not as other men, and is possessed of certain supernatural powers.  He has the power to manipulate shadows of roller blinds as they climb the stairwell.  He can carry a glass of water in one pocket and ice in the other.  Not only can he still light his thumb Way out West (1937) style, but he can use his other thumb as a functioning pipe.

The boys certainly had what you might call an “ecological” approach to some of their best ideas, recycling and reusing them when appropriate.  Much of the final third of this film is lifted straight from their first talkie Unaccustomed As We Are (1929) to the point of reproducing the very first conversation any audience ever heard Stan and Ollie verbalise on screen.  The final joke involving errant husbands leaping out of windows in response to gunshot is taken from the conclusion to We Faw Down (1928).

Somehow or other though, everything flows seamlessly.  The film is plotless but organic with each joke flowing elegantly into the next.  The reality is that watching Stan and Ollie mangle the apparently trivial demands of a few hours daily human existence is all you really need for any comedy.

Special mention goes to the delightful Patricia Ellis who plays the charming neighbour of the Hardys and who you feel deserves better than to be shackled to the hideous Mr Gilbert (played of course by long time L&H stalwart Billy Gilbert).  For most of the film it seems that Mr Gilbert’s only passion is the reckless and insatiable slaughter of wildlife, but we learn at the end that at least some of his safaris have been used as cover for extramarital intrigues.  A character who could cheat on Patricia Ellis is a particularly low form of life in my estimation.

Patricia Ellis does particularly well when pretending to be a chair in the Hardys’ bedroom, having to continually prevent Stan from sitting on her.  Indeed the final row leading to Mrs Hardy (Minna Gombell) finally storming out is an astonishing feat of rapid fire overlapping argufying, a joy to behold and to try to follow.

The truth is, no subsequent Laurel and Hardy films would be as good as Blockheads though golden scenes and golden moments are still to come.

I have some thoughts about other Laurel and Hardy films.


Swiss Miss:

Way Out West:

Pick a Star:

Our Relations

On the Wrong Trek:

The Bohemian Girl:

Bonnie Scotland:

Thicker than Water

The Fixer Uppers:

Tit for Tat:

The Live Ghost:

Babes in Toyland

Them Thar Hills:

Going Bye Bye:

Hollywood Party:

Oliver the Eighth:
Sons of the Desert

Dirty Work:

Wild Poses:

Busy Bodies:

The Midnight Patrol:

The Devil’s Brother

Me and my Pal

Twice Two:

Towed in a Hole:

Their First Mistake:

Pack Up Your Troubles


County Hospital:

The Chimp:

The Music Box:

Any Old Port:


“On the Loose”:

Beau Hunks:

One Good Turn:

Come Clean:

Pardon Us:

Laughing Gravy:

The Stolen Jools:

Chickens Come Home:

Be Big:

Another Fine Mess:

The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case

Hog Wild

Below Zero:



Here is Night Owls:

Angora Love:

The Hoose Gow:

They Go Boom:

Perfect Day:

Men O’ War:


Unaccustomed as We are Are:

Bacon Grabbers:

Double Whoopee:

Big Business:

That’s My Wife:

Wrong Again:


We Faw Down:

Habeas Corpus:

Two Tars:

Early to Bed:

Should Married Men Go Home?:

Their Purple Moment:

You’re Darn Tootin’:

From Soup to Nuts:

Leave em Laughing:

Battle of the Century:

Putting Pants on Philip:

Hats Off:

Call of the Cuckoo:

The Second Hundred Years:

Flying Elephants:

Sugar Daddies:

Do Detectives Think?

Sailors Beware!:

With Love and Hisses:

Love ‘Em and Weep:

Slipping Wives:

45 Minutes from Hollywood:

Duck Soup:

The Lucky Dog: