Monday, 20 September 2010

Why Pratchett Matters

In declaring Sir Terry Pratchett to be my hero, there’s a temptation to focus on the iconic details of the man rather than the work: his idiosyncratic speech, the hat, the increasingly Gandalf-like beard, the way his inimitable humour and way with words can be found in everything from letters (have a look at his 2005 letter to the Sunday Times, in defence of pre-Rowling fantasy, for a model of economy, cutting wit and passion) to speeches (even the anti-euthanasia right-wingers like Melanie Phillips, who form such a barrier to Pratchett’s fight for freedom to choose the course of his own life and death, had to concede that his 2010 Richard Dimbleby lecture, Shaking Hands with Death, was a fine speech. Martin Amis even broke literary curfew and paid tribute to its dignity). But while Pratchett may be the wizard of contemporary literature, putting up an inspiring fight against a troubling situation, it is his novels that make him a genius. I haven’t met Pratchett. I read and reread his books. They are a life-long companion that changed the way I see the world. The dignity and wit we find in the man himself may be an offshoot of this, but it is his books that are his remarkable achievement.
Pratchett, like Dickens, is something different to an intellectual: he is wise. His intelligence is not articulated through references to canonical writers, or philosophical theory, or current world events, just as Jane Austen’s genius was not manifested in analyses of the Napoleonic Wars or the Slave Trade. The difference is that while Austen’s wisdom lay in her understanding of human beings and the complexity of love, friendship, desire and rivalry throughout unremarkable day-to-day lives, Pratchett’s wisdom is set out on a wider scale. His empathy with ordinary people and his gift for psychological insight and his delight in creating characters extends towards larger canvasses such as battlefields (Monstrous Regiment, Jingo, Only You Can Save Mankind) civilisations under threat from Imperialism, (Nation) cities suffering from racial tensions and bigotry (Thud!) or nations ruled by religious autocracy (Small Gods). Ankh Morpork, a city that appears in many of the Discworld books, started off as a playground for Pratchett to set funny characters in, but Pratchett developed it into a place full of violence and injustice without losing his feel for the interplay between its citizens. Monstrous Regiment is a novel about a group of almost certainly doomed soldiers trapped in a bloody and pointless war, while Nation tells the story of a young boy whose entire tribe are destroyed by a tsunami, and yet Pratchett’s profound insight into both situations comes not from exhaustive research but from his genius for understanding people. AS Byatt understood this, observing in a review of Thief of Time that Pratchett is a greater writer than even Philip Pullman, because Pullman, for all his extraordinary powers, has “designs on his readers”.
Pratchett’s use of dwarfs, trolls, vampires and numerous other species as denizens of the Discworld epitomizes this. They started off as standard fantasy archetypes, reflecting the earlier Discworld novels’ genesis as a parody of fantasy cliché, but as the series progressed, they are developed into people, so that readers forget they have rocky hides for skin or fangs just as they forget that the Discworld rests upon four giant elephants perched upon a giant turtle (something mentioned increasingly less as the series progresses). Crucially, however, they are not metaphors for real-life minorities - the trolls are trolls and the dwarfs are dwarfs. They do provide parallels with struggles against discrimination and bigotry in our world because that is what literature provides, but Pratchett understands the best way to explore social concerns and attack bigotry is to keep the concerns real but trust in your characters enough to give them life of their own rather than reduce them to predictable simulacra of real-life counterparts. When Aslan hinted that he was Christ, CS Lewis’s Narnia books lost any shred of depth or imaginative vision and stood revealed as clumsy propaganda. Even Phillip Pullman’s magnificent His Dark Materials trilogy suffers slightly in its last volume when the ideas the characters and plot symbolise are made explicit, threatening to diminish them. If we are to understand people (is there a more important aim for fiction?) we must not deny them depth, and depth is not possible if a character simply represents something else. Characters must be irreducibly themselves, and that is just what we find in Pratchett’s books.
Pratchett is a genuine magician. This was the point AS Byatt was trying to raise in a 2003 piece on the Harry Potter phenomenon for the New York Times that was unfairly attacked as a snobbish dismissal of JK Rowling. Byatt rightly pointed out that Rowling’s books have little time for the numinous, unlike Pratchett:

whose wit is metaphysical, who creates an energetic and lively secondary world, who has a multifarious genius for strong parody as opposed to derivative manipulation of past motifs, who deals with death with startling originality. Who writes amazing sentences.

A fine summary of Pratchett’s art, and it has to be admitted that, for all Rowling’s gifts, none of it could be applied to the Harry Potter books. The Potter books are emotionally engaging and told with flair, but Pratchett’s writing, like that of Philip Pullman or Alan Garner, is the heady wine of fantasy: if we are to understand this world, we need the courage to break it down. Just as seeing a different design of car engine, a different style of architecture, a different style of film-direction or a different style of writing can shed light on a style we were used to, so too can creating new worlds and understanding how they work enrich our understanding of the recurring assumptions, requirements and follies of our own.
Pratchett understands what stories are for. Intertextuality is frequently a dreary area, something that sounds more complex than it is, as are truisms about our need for storytelling (I can’t hear Ian McEwan say “I cannot live without literature” without roaring “you cannot live without oxygen!”) Pratchett, however, is the rare thing: a writer whose awareness of our need for fantasy and why it is we tell stories gives him a distinctive voice, but enriches rather than detracts from his insights into humanity, war, anthropology, happiness, suffering and death. Hogfather, in which the existence of the Discworld’s equivalent of Christmas is threatened, is both a celebration of the importance of Christmas - specifically the imaginative response it provokes in us as children - to our lives, and a denunciation of the dubious aspects of Christmas in its attitude to poverty and charity (there’s an acid retelling of Good King Wenceslas at one point which is as good as any of Angela Carter’s post-modern fairytales). The novels centering around the commander of Ankh-Morpork’s City Watch, Sam Vimes, are driven by a tension between what stories lead us to demand from cops (there are riffs on everything from In the Heat of The Night to Dirty Harry to Robocop) and the darker realities of police work and what its citizens require of it. The novels about Granny Weatherwax and the Discworld’s other village witches make rich use of the contrast between what we think we need magic for and the magic needed to help people in their day-to-day lives, as Granny and her kind defy the villagers’ prejudices and superstitions to keep the village going while purposefully not quashing such beliefs. The villagers think they performs spells and curses, but the spells they excel at are midwifery, providing the right ointment, kicking someone’s bad back into shape and making sure the sheep are looked after.
In Pratchett’s hands, the novel becomes at once accessible to everyone, and yet capable of complexity, of craft, of imaginative depth and nuance. Has he written popular fiction of stunning intelligence, bringing the numinous to the masses, or has he written literature that sells on an almost incomprehensible scale and appeals to teenagers, casual readers and anyone that devours comedy or fantasy? He has of course done both.
Pratchett has presented some of the best fiction of the past two decades to a wide public rather than a literary subculture. James Wood has not reviewed him, Tom Paulin doesn’t like him, the Sunday Times book section barely mentions him. Their loss. Instead he writes outstanding novels, and millions read him.

What Harvey Pekar meant to me

Harvey Pekar, the great comics writer, died this summer. This is neither a belated obituary nor a comprehensive account of everything Pekar wrote, but an attempt to convey how his work greatly affected me. It takes a while for a reader to get his thoughts in order when paying tribute to a mourned writer (although writers are never lost).
I devoured collections of American Splendour, admiring the way Pekar wove the minutiae of everyday life into well-constructed narratives - something only Philip Larkin has done as brilliantly. Larkin was a librarian, Pekar a filing clerk for a hospital, and yet instead of portraying these aspects of their lives as prisons to be escaped from through the wonders of art, Pekar and Larkin are refreshing in their understanding of the importance of work, and the way it shapes rather than shackles our lives.
What Harvey could do with an everyday event in the course of a few pages of comic panels was extraordinary. Consider his account of how the cistern in his bathroom breaks, and he asks his neighbour - with whom he has always enjoyed a friendly relationship, but has struggled to find any common ground to allow them to get to know one another - to help him, ending with a triumphant moment in which the neighbour uses a plastic ribbon normally used for tying up rubbish bags (Harvey couldn’t find any paperclips) to replace the broken hook in the cistern. My paraphrasing of it might sound absurdly trivial, but Pekar turns it into a narrative, capturing the joy of turning cordial relations into friendship in this tiny but delightful moment - an epiphany, as James Joyce would have called it. A beautifully observed account of Pekar’s relationship with a Rabbi with whom he initially gets along but then clashes with due to the Rabbi’s more right-wing views on Israel also stays with you, capturing the clash between one’s ethnic background and one’s political and social awareness which the Israel/Palestine situation provokes. Another story recounts the time Harvey had the opportunity to meet the actor and playwright Wallace Shawn, fresh from his celebrated film My Dinner with Andre. Aware of the affinities between the film and his own work, he hopes to ask Shawn for support, but gradually it occurs to him that Shawn probably has much the same problems himself, and he becomes too nervous to ask him. Only Harvey Pekar could turn a straightforward, humdrum encounter into a thoughtful account of thwarted ambition, artistic struggle and the tension between aspirations and day-to-day-life.
Harvey was canny in realising that comics were an ideal medium for autobiographical writing, because of the remarkable way in which they use layers. As anyone will know, a comic strip’s combination of text and pictures gives it two different narratives - what we see, and what the narrator tells us about it. In the case of American Splendour, this was enhanced by the way in which the artwork depicted Harvey-as-narrator too: you don’t just get the events of a particular day in Harvey’s life, you get the web of debate, angst, logic, motive, desire and reconciliation that has succeeded them in Harvey’s head in the days, months or years since. This technique opens up new possibilities for autobiographical fiction, a way of displaying the true complexities of actual, unembellished, mundane life without ever coming across as dull. You also get multiple Harveys, much as you get multiple Walt Whitmans in his Song of Myself. Turning the pages of an American Splendour collection, we might find Robert Crumb’s grotesque model, the more photorealistic versions by Gerry Shamray and Ty Templeton and the more stylised interpretations by Bob Fingerman and Hunt Emerson. The film adaptation of American Splendour realised this, shifting between the real Harvey, the comic-strip Harvey and a cinematic Harvey skilfully played by Paul Giamatti. Everyone can find a Harvey they can identify with.
To end this tribute with a slightly personal instance of what Pekar‘s work has meant to me, while devouring a Best of American Splendour collection, I came across an issue in which Harvey bangs his car, and while agonising about the implication - insurance, contacting the person whose car he banged against - opens his mail to find a fan letter from Colin Warneford, a British artist who has been heavily influenced by Harvey’s work, but whose Asperger‘s syndrome has made life so difficult that drawing comics are where he seeks solace. We instantly shift not only to Warneford’s words but to his excellent artwork, as he gives a heartfelt, honest, convincing and profoundly moving account of life with Asperger’s Syndrome. I have Asperger’s myself, and following the misconceptions spread by The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and the stereotypes about Rain Man style savants, here was one of my brethren finally speaking to me. How I had yearned to hear an account of Asperger’s I could identify with, and here it was within the pages of a book I was greatly enjoying. For that, and other things, I am very grateful to Harvey Pekar.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Down with the Literary

A strong case could be made that what has done the most damage to the modern novel from the late 20th Century onwards has been the concept of the literary. This actually may not be so when one considers the impact of so much new storytelling media (film, TV, computer games, the internet) upon the novel’s standing as the primary method of entering another world, but clearly the idea of literary fiction, fixed ideas about what books must do to qualify as art rather than entertainment and the dependence on earlier writers has made the novel less interesting and potent than it was.
Firstly, the expansion of the publishing industry has led popular fiction to be much more badly-written, and literary fiction to consciously aspire towards the highbrow. The days of competent popular novelists like Nevil Shute, JB Priestley and Nigel Balchin are long-gone. Modern popular novels like those of Dan Brown don’t even qualify as what Orwell called the “good bad book” - a badly-written book with something in that endures: it might be pointless to observe that The Da Vinci Code isn’t as good as Great Expectations, but it’s rather more sobering to think that it isn’t even a patch on King Solomon’s Mines (let alone Buchan, Wilkie Collins and Fleming). Instead, it’s a product of an age that treats everything as a commodity, a book hammered into the vague shape of an thriller but with nothing of the soul which we find even in Rider Haggard. The Harry Potter books, very good though they are, are symptomatic of this to some extent, as they dilute the very concept of magic itself. Instead of the ambiguity, fear, wonder and imaginative texture you find in Alan Garner and Terry Pratchett, Rowling’s world is, to use AS Byatt’s phrase, “dangerous only because she says it is.” Even authorship is being treated with contempt. I fondly remember the days when the fact that Naomi Campbell had not written the novel published under her name was seen as rather funny and embarrassing, but now it’s seen as perfectly acceptable for publishers to sign up celebrities in this way.
In reaction to this, there now exists such a thing as literary novels, even though we would never use a phrase like cinematic films. The Man Booker Prize represents the commodification of the uncommodifiable - the factory where Art is made - much as British television gets round its reliance on talent shows by commissioning shows about Important Social Issues (The Street, Criminal Justice) to fulfil its Bafta quota. John Banville’s comments upon winning the Booker Prize for The Sea capture this perfectly. He remarked that it was “nice to see a work of art win the Booker Prize“, elaborating on this by arguing that Dickens was a greater novelist than James, but James was a better artist than Dickens, and that “there are plenty of other rewards for middle-brow fiction. There should be one decent prize for real books.” Art becomes not a term of fecundity and inspiration, referring to any outstanding creative work, but a genre, a reassuringly recognisable style of writing, another shelf in Waterstones, labelled “Real Books.”
A Man Booker judge from a few years earlier, the comedian and novelist David Baddiel, attempted to skewer this way of thinking in a piece that was unfairly reported (even by Booker impresario Martyn Goff) as a plea for the prize to focus on lighter, more commercial fiction. His actual argument was that many of the submitted novels that he’d had to read as a judge had clearly been written with the purpose of winning the Booker in mind. He admitted in a later article that a Banville novel - Shroud - had been among those he was thinking of, and it’s probably no coincidence that Banville, upon winning, praised the panel for not enlisting any stand-up comedians. The essential point that Baddiel had hit upon was that for a an author to have designs upon his book’s reception is anathema to good art - a book should be more concerned with being true to itself and its strengths than to pleasing a handful of judging panels and literary editors.
To define the literary novel, we should define what it is not. Dickens is probably the most obvious example - possibly the greatest British novelist, an unashamed popular entertainer, someone without a pious devotion to previous novelists and an author not initially embraced by the literati (Leavis and Henry James had their reservations about him). However, I’m going to choose a less obvious example - James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. They may have been embraced by the literary novelists - would John Banville and Jeanette Winterson exist without them? - and their techniques may be the techniques that the literary novelists have run to ground, but they seem to me to be perfect examples of the kind of novelists we are missing, as surely as Dickens. Firstly, they are trying to do something different - both wanted to represent consciousness in a way that had never been done in novels before. Woolf’s attack on HG Wells, John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett may seem like snobbery to the contemporary reader (and the snobbery is certainly there), but if one remembers the status of Wells, Galsworthy and Bennett at the time it seems more like the equivalent of an attack on McEwan, Martin Amis and Rushdie - a genuine attempt to break away from received wisdom and bring some originality to the novel (even if one prefers Wells to Woolf).
By contrast, Jeanette Winterson once stood by Virginia Woolf’s grave on BBC2’s The Late Show and proclaimed herself the heir to Woolf, while John Banville was described by Peter J Conradi in the Independent as “a new Henry Green”, but Woolf wasn’t an heir, and Green wasn’t a new anyone. They were trying to do new things with prose. Why would I want to read a new Henry Green, when I can read the old one? Ian McEwan recently argued that it was “ignorant and foolish” to ignore “the great conversation of literature“, but this is essential for literary criticism, not fiction. If you read a brilliantly-written, moving and thought-provoking novel, you don’t think less of it because the author shows no interest in Jane Austen. Kingsley Amis’s lack of enthusiasm for novels may have weakened him as a literary critic, but it doesn’t detract from our enjoyment of his own fiction.
A major reason for this is probably the rise of Literature as an academic subject. Amis and Graham Greene were among the last novelists for whom fiction was something they wrote rather than studied. Consequently the allusions we find in their work (and in that of novelists from Mary Shelley to George Eliot to Evelyn Waugh) are from poetry and classical texts, rather than novels. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is steeped in the myth of Prometheus, German romanticism and the ideas of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, but its strengths as a novel come from Shelley’s determination to tell a tale that will, as she put it, “quicken the blood.” By contrast Peter Ackroyd’s The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein is hopelessly indebted to another novel - Shelley’s - and makes no imaginative impact, just as Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot is revealed as a feeble Pale Fire knock-off with little human interest once one looks past all the adulation for Flaubert.
In interviews with Ian McEwan, one gets the sense of someone who writes novels because of the pleasure they’ve got from reading Updike, Bellow and Roth, rather than from the urge to tell stories. Martin Amis - whose fiction is similarly fuelled by his worship of Nabokov and Bellow - once dismissed an (admittedly ill-considered) manifesto for a troupe of writers who proclaimed themselves the “New Puritans” with the putdown “there is no reading behind the writing.” Surely, though, the problem with Amis and McEwan is that there is no writing behind the reading. Novels are not enough to make new novels.
Unfortunately the literary world often gets it wrong when it comes to appraisal. I have an old literature textbook from the sixties, (The Pelican Guide to English Literature) which I’m fond of looking through simply to see the dismissal of Orwell as embarrassingly bad and Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene as minor writers. Posterity rightly made them the three giants of the period, but the textbook marched to a different drummer, as I‘m sure did the literati of the time. I’m reminded of it when considering the fact that JG Ballard, a gigantic figure in post-war fiction, and one given to us by science-fiction rather than the literary world - never won the Booker Prize, and was only shortlisted once, when he lost to Anita Brookner (Flaubert’s Parrot was on the shortlist that night too). In forty years time, readers steeped in Ballard and less familiar with Brookner will be similarly amused by the judges’ decision. Even the finest novels with the “literary” tag have tended not to make the grade - Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and, astonishingly, Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong were not shortlisted, although the idea that six better novels were published in each of those years seems dubious.
It’s often said that British novels are no longer relevant to the outside world. This point needs qualification. There are two types of novels, the Pride and Prejudice type - which examines human beings’ internal nature - and the Bleak House type - which examines society. Neither of these two modes is superior to the other, but we tend to get sick of the former because the past century saw a deficiency of the latter. Kazuo Ishiguro’s wonderful novels, for example, examine human beings as exquisitely as Austen, but there have been few angry novelists in his time that mix satire with artistry in a way that would rival Dickens and Swift. To find that type of novel, we have to look to the genres, where we find Ballard, Philip Pullman‘s His Dark Materials, Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Terry Pratchett. There are also TV series like The Wire, which like Watchmen is far closer to Middlemarch and Bleak House - in achievement as well as scale - than any subsequent literary novel.
So let’s forget about the concept of literary fiction, a blind alley we stumbled into in the late twentieth century and which was behind none of the great literature of the past, and few of the best novels of recent years. Let’s not ask ourselves how well a novel compares with the novels that came before it, because you couldn’t do that with Tom Jones or Ulysses. If fiction is to become once again a prominent part of our culture rather than a subculture, than novelists should once again be encouraged, like Joyce, to do whatever the hell they want, rather than whatever Joyce did.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Whither the Middlebrows?




If, like me, you are in that strange hinterland between desire for intelligent writing and desire for entertainment, between a desire for narratives of danger and excitement and a desire for narratives that don’t insult the intelligence (that‘s right: a desire for both finger-steepling and sharks), you might wonder where your brethren are. You hungrily fall upon the literary criticism of people like Clive James, John Carey, George Orwell, Kingsley Amis, Nick Hornby and Zadie Smith - they’re more well-read than you are, but they have an interest in fiction that entertains. And yet…there’s something odd about the tension between their highbrow and popular tastes. Something that makes it hard to know exactly where they stand.
Let’s consider two interestingly different pieces by Zadie Smith. The first is her introduction to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, available here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2004/sep/18/classics.grahamgreene
It’s worth reading in full, but this is a triumphant moment:

When Greene died in 1991, Kingsley Amis - a man not given to generous estimations of his peers - gave him a neat, fitting obituary: "He will be missed all over the world. Until today, he was our greatest living novelist." Amis's and Greene's vision of a great novelist was different from the present conception: it was of a working man with a pen. An unpretentious man, in and of the world, who wrote for readers and not critics, and produced as many words per day as a journalist. English writers these days work in spasms, both in quantity and quality, and so keen are they to separate "entertainments" from "literature" that they end up writing neither. This was one of the few distinctions Greene did not concern himself with.

Now there’s a paragraph that left me hungry to read more of those writers (and obviously I include Smith herself), and with a penultimate sentence good enough to become a manifesto for contemporary fiction. However, a very different piece by Smith - “Two Paths for the Novel”, first published in the New York Review of Books and available in her recent collection of essays Changing My Mind as well as here
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2008/nov/20/two-paths-for-the-novel/?page=1 , presents a very different attitude to contemporary fiction. Ostensibly a review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, it starts off with a lament that “in healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene” but that “these aren’t particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked”. It’s immediately striking to see the move from an argument lamenting the shortage of Graham Greenes, to one lamenting the shortage of alternatives. Just as striking is how the article takes it as a given that you understand its references and assumptions: it’s not easy to understand what Smith means by “lyrical realism”, and the way she introduces the concept with the highway metaphor indicates that not only should the reader know what it is, but that it is in such abundance we‘re getting bored with it. The essay also lists authors’ names so frequently - and with such little sense of what they mean to Smith, or how their actual work relates to her argument - that it means little to those who haven’t read all of them.
Another problem for the reader that admired her Greene piece (and indeed Zadie Smith’s novels) is this article’s interest in solipsism, and its assumption that solipsism and philosophical theory are at the heart of the question of fiction. Netherland, Smith states, “colonizes all space by way of voracious image“. Those of us more interested in fiction than in philosophical theories may wonder if this is a problem, but her analysis continues:

It wants to offer us the authentic story of a self. But is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in in the form of coherent, lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past? Is this really Realism?

There are a great many words here that remind me of one of Orwell’s symptoms of the decline in writing in his magnificent essay Politics and the English Language: the increasing use of words that mean nothing. Examples that Orwell suggested were “plastic”, “vitality“, “natural“ ,“sentimental”, “Romantic“ and “living quality“; here we have a reliance on the word “self” and the equally tedious “authentic”. It’s hard to ignore the fact that James Wood’s latest piece - a review of David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, uses the words “vital” or “vitality” five times, and Wood is a discernable influence on Smith in her Two Paths article (but not in the Greene introduction). Although in many ways her article is actually a rebuttal of Wood’s views (he’s an admirer of Netherland), the style clearly owes something to him, not least in its assumption that whole swathes of literature can be summed up in a two-word phrase: Wood bemoans “Hysterical Realism”, Smith focuses on “Lyrical Realism“.
Just as the reader wonders if this is the same Zadie Smith that wrote White Teeth and On Beauty, we are presented with this acknowledgement:

I have written in this tradition myself, and cautiously hope for its survival, but if it’s to survive, lyrical Realists will have to push a little harder on their subject.

Smith has just pulled off the extraordinary feat of being patronising towards her own work.
Two pieces written by the same author: one so engaging, and able to reach seasoned readers of Greene and those new to him alike; the other labyrinthine, aimed at those who already share its assumptions and preferences rather than those who might wish to learn of them for the first time - a piece for those who are getting a little tired of lyrical realism, not those interested in finding out what lyrical realism is.
A similar split can be found in a strange piece by Clive James. James has written some imperishably wonderful literary criticism: his pieces on Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin are both the best things written on their subjects, and in their own right wonderfully invigorating encapsulations of what literature can mean to a reader. His article “The Guidebook Detectives” for the New Yorker in 2007 - available on here under a different title
http://www.clivejames.com/crime-fiction - opens with this:

If you’ve spent a couple of years being unable to get past the opening chapter of one of the later novels of Henry James, it’s hard to resist the idea that there might be a more easily enjoyable version of literature: a crime novel, for example.

Anyone unfamiliar with Clive James’s literary criticism would find this a good start to an essay, and if they shared the sentiments expressed there, would naturally assume they’d found a soulmate. However, if you’ve read any of his criticism, you might notice right away that something is not quite right. First of all, Clive James has read and extolled the virtues of far more difficult authors than Henry James (just look at his book Cultural Amnesia, which makes you wonder if it’s by the same critic) - let’s not forget this is the reader that taught himself Russian because he “could no longer bear not to know something about how Pushkin sounded”. Amongst the many indispensable quotes his criticism has provided over the years is the splendid affirmation “Boring you rigid is just what literature sets out not to do” from his 1980 review of a book on the academic study of literature by Wayne Booth, yet this is oddly contradicted by the idea of wondering if there is “a more easily enjoyable form of literature” in the later article. Again, if you’re unaware of this discrepancy, then by the time the suggestion that the appeal of a good crime novel lies in the hope that “we can get the art thrill and the thriller thrill both at once”, your instinct may be to cheer - after all, we all want sharks and finger-steepling in the same book, right? That’s certainly what this blog is for. And James has a point about the tediousness of the first 13 pages of The Wings of the Dove.
However, as the article progresses, it becomes clear an irony not easy to fathom is at work. James talks about his voracious consumption of various crime writers, but suggests that John Banville’s Christine Falls - which unlike Banville’s Booker-friendly novels is published as a crime novel under the name Benjamin Black - “actually does face you with the question of whether you really want your crime writer to have that much literary talent”. He then argues that

As a form for real writers, the detective novel is bound to be a dry well in the end, because a detective novel, no matter how memorable in the detail, is written to be forgotten

and ends by affirming:

But that’s just an adventure holiday. The real adventure, less gripping but far more memorable, is waiting to begin again on page 14 [of The Wings of the Dove].

Adam Mars-Jones was also struck by the strange structure of this article in his review (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/jun/07/revolt-pendulum-clive-james) of The Revolt of the Pendulum , a recent collection of Clive James‘s essays which included the piece:

[…] he pulls the rug from under the reader […]Doesn't he also pull the rug from under himself? (Clive) James's antipathy to Henry seems genuine, to judge by a reference to the style of The Awkward Age as "an invitation to suck up a sand dune through a straw". It seems perverse to defend high literary ambition while also rubbishing the book that you've chosen to represent it. […]

Mars-Jones also notes a:

civil war between cultivation and blokeishness inside Clive James, the inner aesthete and the inner mocker. Down-to-earth intellectual is not the easiest role to take on. When one of the competing strains appears in isolation, then the other is sure to be waiting in the wings.

What Mars-Jones has picked up on here is an enigma in James’s writing, and in Smith’s: a split personality between that of the well-read literary personality and that of the popularist. The structure of the article is repressive, as its author starts with one point-of-view and then seems to try and convince himself of its falseness. He starts off with an engaging and convincing attack on Henry James’s soporific prose and an infectious account of a hunger for crime fiction, and then abandons this line, even though his point that “He had not at present come down from his room, which she knew to be above the one they were in…” is a tedious sentence did not deserve to be abandoned - it may be Henry James, but it’s still ghastly writing. Perhaps the canonical figures are hard to criticise: like feudal overlords, they might stir rumbles of discontent, at the start of the article, but their power is reaffirmed in the closing paragraphs.
It’s highly appropriate that Larkin and Amis are strong passions for both the writers I’ve discussed (to complete this quartet, Zadie Smith once named Larkin as her favourite writer), as they pose a similar conundrum. These writers - themselves great friends - felt a profound affinity for populism. Larkin wrote some of the most beautiful and exquisitely crafted poetry of the twentieth century, and yet many of these poems - including some of his finest - are easily appreciable for general readers. Amis made fiction so enjoyable it’s a wonder the literati tolerated it.
They were educated men, but claimed to prefer entertainment to supposedly more cerebral writing. Both were passionate advocates of Dick Francis. Much has been made of Kingsley’s lack of patience with his son Martin’s novels, but it’s forgotten that he had the same problem with all of the novelists of Martin’s generation. There’s nothing wrong with their interest in Ian Fleming and Amis‘s passion for science-fiction (his books on the respective subjects, The James Bond Dossier and New Maps of Hell, remain unsurpassed in the way they combine an unpatronising, infectious love for their subjects with a refusal to abandon intelligent, unsparing analysis), but Amis’s absurd insistence, in an essay on Chandler, Hammett and Mickey Spillane, that Spillane is the best of the three leads one to wonder if what’s going on is some kind of alienation from the cultural scene rather than genuine incomprehension of difficult authors. An even stranger moment (in a review which can be found in the same book, Whatever Became of Jane Austen?) came when he referred to Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Blake, Dostoyevsky, Hemingway and numerous others as “all those characters you thought were discredited, or had never read, or (if you are like me) had never heard of”. Of course he had heard of them.
Perhaps, like Clive James’s too-brief rebellion against Henry James, they felt the need for a cultural pressure-valve, a momentary relapse from lives built around studying, reviewing, writing and reading literature. John Carey once wondered if Larkin’s delightful reply, in his Paris Review interview, to a question about Jorge Luis Borges - “Who is Jorge Luis Borges?“ - was mischievous. Anthony Powell, a friend and contemporary of Amis and Larkin, observed that “a wish for non-affectation [in] revolt against Eliot’s saying modern poets must be obscure [is] like a breath of fresh air first of all. Eventually, if carried too far, [it] becomes a sort of tyrannical Puritanism.” James himself understood this very well, suggesting in his Wayne Booth review that due to the overabundance of bad literary theory:

The best route to success for a dull artist might be to create a work that needs interpretation. On the other hand, the bright artist might go out of his way to avoid the attentions of the waiting owls. The result could be a seriously split literary culture, with the dummies pretending to be clever and the clever people masquerading as oafs. We have seen something like this in the determination of Amis and Larkin - both of them deeply cultivated - to sound like philistines rather than co-operate with the kind of academic industrialisation which separates the work of art from the common people.

The final figure to consider in this light is Nick Hornby, whose endeavours in this field gave this blog its name. In his “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns for The Believer magazine (collected in The Polysyllabic Spree and its sequels), Hornby offers an alternative to literary criticism, as he breezily discusses the books he has read or tried to read, making perceptive points along the way, and refreshingly discussing the practicalities and difficulties of reading itself as well as the books. Yet again there’s sometimes a tension between the passionate belief expressed that people don’t need to worry about wrestling with books they find tedious and views Hornby has expressed elsewhere, such as his 1991 review of JG Ballard’s The Kindness of Woman, a summary and quotes from which are available at
http://www.jgballard.ca/pringle_news_from_the_sun/news_from_sun22.html

those who have no time for Ballard's 'weird stuff' (although of course books such as Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition are among the most literate, challenging and provocative of the past 30 years) will be perplexed

Again, Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition are far more difficult and challenging books than the “literary” novels that Hornby assures his readers they are not alone in struggling with. It is of course unfair to label critics: you will never find one that likes all the things you like, and struggles with the same things you struggle with, but it’s hard not to see this as evidence of the same thing James warned of: intelligent writers like Hornby, Smith and James himself are so understandably anxious to break away from the “literary” culture that has dogged postwar literature, that they are overlooking their own indulgences or preferences amongst “literary” writers or texts. To move back a generation or so, the strength of Anthony Burgess as a figure on the literary horizon was that while he was no snob, contributing a delightful celebration of Ian Fleming in the form of his 1990s Preface to the Bond novels and his equally informed championing of Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan in his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classic edition, he didn’t feel the need to hide his admiration for supposedly more highbrow figures - happily declaring Finnegan’s Wake one of the world’s most enjoyable books. Perhaps, then, the biggest hero of this piece (for all the people I’ve discussed are cherishable) is AS Byatt. Byatt has won the Booker Prize, and her fiction belongs to the tradition of George Eliot and Iris Murdoch - uncompromising, highly “literary” novels of ideas. And yet she is also the finest critic of Terry Pratchett, championing him as a genuinely original writer of books of rare undiluted imaginative power. She is also the author of the best piece ever written on the Harry Potter books, which was unfairly called snobbish despite championing Pratchett, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper and Diana Wynn-Jones as superior writers. One is reminded of China Mieville’s praise for Doris Lessing
(available here:
http://www.believermag.com/issues/200504/?read=interview_mieville) as a writer:

who comes from outside genre but understands it and respects it. In the middle of a big literary festival, Doris Lessing, one of the great writers of the twentieth century, fêted by the literary establishment, was talking about this great book she’d read by Greg Bear. This is a woman who really keeps up with genre SF and is not embarrassed to say so.

The value of Byatt and Lessing’s contributions here is that like Burgess they don’t pretend not to be intellectuals, they just understand that there are popular forms of fiction which deserve unpatronising and fully appreciative literary attention.
Is everyone a closet intellectual? Has the lover of stories no-one to turn to? Who can tell. Just don’t get too excited if your favourite writer tells you they find Moby Dick boring - I guarantee you you’ll find them eulogising Conrad before long.

Monday, 28 June 2010

TV Shows you mustn't forget #1: Operation Good Guys

Here's the first in a recurring series in which I look at a TV gem I hope hasn't been overshadowed. Let's start with Operation Good Guys (1997-2000, BBC2, written by Ray Burdis, Dominic Anciano and Hugo Blick).

Easily underestimated because of the cut-and-paste quality which was also very much part of its charm, OGG was unusual in its combination of blatant improvisation and the spoof docusoap format used more smoothly in People Like Us and The Office. The first series followed a crack police unit as they attempted to nail Smiler McCarthy (“The Teflon don - nothing sticks to him”), the second and third series saw them demoted to uniform. DI Beach (the brilliant David Gillespie), a twisted modern version of Captain Mainwaring, led the good guys. His number two, Sergeant Ray Ash, tenderly played by Ray Burdis, worshipped his Gov’nor so much he’d clearly fallen in love with him: a fabulous comic partnership that owed something to Mr Burns and Smithers, but had a hilarious and touching quality all of its own.

The rest of the Good Guys were armed response officers de Sade and Bill Zeebub, (Dominic Anciano and William Scully); the hapless “Bones” (Perry Benson); “Strings” (John Beckett), who harboured musical ambitions; Mark Kemp (Mark Burdis), the commissioner’s wet-behind-the-ears nephew; and Gary (Gary Beadle), an undercover officer with a drinking problem and a troubled marriage who had a particular knack for manic set-pieces. An episode where the team were sent for training by a survival expert who was slowly revealed to be a white supremacist, which was frightening for Gary as the only black member of the Good Guys, (“I’m not imagining it am I?” he asks the cameramen as the survival expert pursued him in a tank, “He doesn’t like black guys?”) was a highlight, as was an episode where the team, following a clandestine visit to a pub, are attempting to sneak back into their bunks at a police training centre but are let down by Gary’s drunkenness.

Sometimes the improvisation led them to dead ends: a gag about a cat turned into a hat isn’t very well-realised, and the less said about some of the lavatorial gags the better, and yet the joy is in how much gold they can produce from such scattershot methods. The cast’s enjoyment is crucial to this - they’re having the same thrill anyone would have performing comedy improvisation in front of a tv camera, and yet they somehow manage to take the audience with them. The skill of Anciano, Benson, Beckett and Mark Burdis’s performances lay in how in how they worked as a group, rather than layers of characterisation: their personalities were engaging and their characters were just distinctive enough to make them always recognisable. They worked like a Repertory company comfortable with each other’s sense of timing and improvisation, to provide a lively backdrop to the main two characters.

Beach and Ray gave the show its moments of genius. Beach stands alongside Homer Simpson, Alan Partridge, George Costanza and Basil Fawlty as one of the finest comic creations of all time. The writers and performers came up with some unusual variations on the Mainwaring model (Beach had an off-duty penchant for transvestism, was obsessed with J. Edgar Hoover and still lived with his mother), while Gillespie’s unsurpassable performance was able to combine dignity with a genius for eruptions of demented clowning. He falls under the spell of a hypnotic cult leader (a splendid guest turn from Sean Pertwee) which leaves him wearing “the Horns of Herne”, and proclaiming an intention to “levitate around the room” , goes undercover to take part in a boxing match against a boxer he wrongly believes to have been bribed to take a fall (“How’s the action on your mother’s mattress?” he jeers as the fight commences), and gives in to cannibalistic impulses while on a desert island survival exercise.

The strength of Beach’s relationship with Ray makes the show far more than a string of daft gags and hastily improvised plots. The episode in series 1 where the team have a day off, and Beach and Ray go shopping, is as delightful and touching a piece of characterisation as any comedy show has achieved (It’s because of sincere, warm and unusual moments like this that we don’t tire of the unashamed moments where, for example, after the commissioner’s golf clubs have been mistaken for a suspicious bag in an airport and destroyed in a controlled explosion, Mark confronts an airport attendent - clearly a genuine one, not an actor - with the comedy “exploded golf clubs” prop and demands to know what happened).

But it’s those eruptions that we treasure. For an example of the joy this could bring the viewer, let’s consider this scene from Series 2. The Good Guys are in Spain for “Operation Zorro”, which is set up as a major bust but which Beach clearly regards as an opportunity for a holiday. He falls asleep in the sun, and is hideously sunburnt. We see him, pitifully draped in full Elephant Man gear, crutch-bound, his voice a piping whisper. He pleads with passing children not to be frightened of him. We then have a scene where the team are helping him into a ice-filled bath in his hotel room. He’s off-screen in the bathroom, while the camera stays with several of the Good Guys angling a mirror for him so that he can watch the TV. We hear the poor soul’s ludicrous whisper coming back from the bathroom, commenting weakly on the mirror “Yesss, that’s perrrfect…”. Dominic Anciano corpses, clearly not in character. Extracting the dignity from a dignified character is something important to comedy, but few shows have set their heroes up for a fall so gleefully and humiliated them so triumphantly. This episode has taken such a delight in what it can achieve by inflicting cruelty on DI Beach that it reaches a stage where we don’t begrudge the actors their own moments of mirth, or feel that it detracts from the overall effect. They’re laughing with us, and so they should.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Are fairytales boring now? And other thoughts on clichés

China Mieville recently reviewed the Collected Stories of JG Ballard (you can read it here: http://www.thenation.com/article/disobedient-rooms) and observed something considered all too rarely in reviews:

[…] the trotting out of the crashingly uninteresting nonsurprise that a writer of such perverse and astonishing cast of mind lived in cheerfully anodyne Shepperton, a small town southwest of London. […]
It is more or less de rigueur for any article about Ballard to cite the supposed cha
sm between his environs and his mind. The ubiquity of the notion, of course, is good reason to investigate it in an introduction but not, one would hope, merely to recycle it, particularly since it is such a specious paradox. In the era of David Lynch, of films like The Burbs and Disturbia (now the title of a Rihanna track), even of a television series like Desperate Housewives, nothing is more constipatedly quotidian than the assumption that the suburbs are hotbeds of perversity, sex, violence and other lurid divertissements. Far rarer is the allegation that behind those sneered-at white picket fences, nothing is going on. The notion that the suburbs are really strait-laced, quiet and boring is a kind of anti-cliché, and it only exists as the faintest shadow of its putatively edgy transgression.

How refreshing to find a review that notices that many people have already made a particular point, instead of reiterating the point as if it were the reviewer’s. When Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach was published, every reviewer remarked - usually at the beginning - that the novel could have used Philip Larkin’s “Sex began in 1963 / which was rather late for me” as its epigraph. None of them seemed to realise that this point had had been made by every reviewer, let alone that it wasn’t complex enough to merit such parroting.
Popular Culture (and, as I must always say on this blog, all that means for me is something that appeals to a large range of people) suffers from this, perhaps because while it might be recognised that Coetzee and Roth are complex, the fact that Seinfeld, Father Ted, the first ten seasons of The Simpsons and the work of Terry Pratchett are too seems to be taking longer to catch on. Listen to Matthew Sweet or Mark Lawson talk about Doctor Who, and you’ll notice they repeat truisms - Doctor Who mixes sci-fi with quirky Britishness, Doctor Who works by mixing the mundane with the extraordinary, Doctor Who makes children hide behind the sofa, Doctor Who has changed with the times - but don’t say anything incisive about the show, anything that the listener or viewer has not considered before, anything that actually comes from a reading of the show rather than a plot summary. Newsnight’s embarrassing report on the 1988 Who story The Happiness Patrol, claiming that the BBC had attempted to bring down Thatcher in broadcasting such a programme, is the nadir of this. Had The Happiness Patrol been a novel or a play, it would have been established fairly soon that it was unlikely to topple governments, but because broadcasters prefer to speak in terms of plot summaries and truisms about the nature of the show rather than its actual content, the Newsnight feature got made (There are many admirable things Doctor Who achieved during the Sylvester McCoy era, of which I am a fervent supporter, but dealing a mighty blow to Thatcher was sadly not one of them).
Watch a documentary on vampires of the kind BBC4 might broadcast and you’ll notice people state that vampirism is a metaphor for sexuality ceaselessly, as if this was something more than a sentence. It creates the illusion of depth - because it’s about sex where you wouldn’t expect sex - but unless you have something further to say about this aged observation, it is neither deep nor interesting. When Angela Carter published The Bloody Chamber in 1979, her interpretation of fairy tales as explorations of violence, power and sexuality was fresh and provocative, but thirty-one years later I can’t help but feel that one comes across ironic retellings of Little Red Riding Hood (more recent examples include David Peace’s Red Riding quartet and Carol Ann Duffy’s male version “Little Red Riding Cap” in her poetry collection The World’s Wife) so often that wonders what a non-ironic interpretation would be like. The observation that fairy tales were cleaned up by writers like Charles Perrault and were originally much nastier, and the cute little irony that it’s adults rather than children who prefer them cleaned up, is a given now, which is why Steven Moffat’s recurring insistence that Doctor Who is really a fairy tale and not sci-fi at all is wearisome rather than imaginative. Once a juxtaposition - be it fairy tales and violence, fairy tales and the modern world, fairy-tales and sci-fi or, as Mieville noted, suburbia and the uncanny - starts to be made by everyone it is no longer a juxtaposition.
Consider the history of the clown. First, they were supposed to make children laugh. Yet ironically enough, they were quite frightening, so a spooky clown was quite an amusing juxtaposition. Batman’s nemesis the Joker first appeared in 1940; the Doctor Who story The Deadly Assassin (splendid despite its woeful title), which featured a virtual reality nightmare in which a clown appears for no other reason than to scare the young viewers senseless (watch that and then tell me clowns are funny) was broadcast in 1976; Stephen King’s novel IT, which portrayed a group of people who were all menaced by a monstrous clown in their otherwise realistically depicted small-town childhood, was published in 1986; the Doctor Who story The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, which began with the assumptions that circuses and clowns were supposedly fun but actually sinister, and featured the memorable image of evil clowns pursuing their prey in a hearse, was broadcast in 1988; the film Poltergeist, which featured a archetypical monster-under the bed scene where a child’s clown doll came to life, was released in 1982. And that’s just the actual horror material: casual references in 1980s and early 90s comedy - Kramer’s fear of clowns and crazy Joe Davola in Seinfeld, The Guild of Fools in Terry Pratchett’s Men at Arms, Bart’s fear of his clown-decorated bed in the Simpsons episode “Lisa’s First Word”, and a similar problem affecting the title character in the movie Problem Child - confirm that the notion that clowns are supposed to be cute or funny but are actually frightening has become a cultural norm.
So, in 2008, when an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures - “The Day of the Clown” - not only gave us a scary clown, but had its characters respond to the situation with dialogue of the “Aren’t clowns supposed to be funny?” / “I Dunno - I always found something slightly sinister about them” variety, one can’t help feeling that the show’s writers are lagging behind the imaginative capacity of most of its young viewers. What was once ironic is now standard. Clowns have gone from funny to scary to boring. The current version of Doctor Who is currently stuck with a similar trope that is supposedly subversive but by now rather tired: the everyday juxtaposed with the fantastic. The first episode of the newer version in 2005 featured an evil wheelie-bin in an everyday suburban street and window-dummies in recognisable shops coming to life (first seen in a 1970 Doctor Who story). Since then, we’ve had evil SatNavs, evil child’s drawings, evil diet pills, evil dinner ladies, evil teachers, evil TV personalities, evil Santas, evil Christmas trees, evil statues. This was fun at first, but by 2010, when we’re presented with an army of evil pensioners sprouting generic CGI tentacles from their mouths, it doesn’t strike the viewer who remembers the previous 4 series as a frightening juxtaposition but as a standard Doctor Who trope. Similarly, when the buzzer on a average-looking suburban front door asks a passer-by for assistance and he embarks up the familiar-but-sinister-staircase to the familiar-but-sinister top floor, we don’t feel that our sense of what is everyday and reassuring is being invaded by the monstrous or the uncanny anymore: we just know we’re watching Doctor Who again. What China Mieville observed has happened with the “suburbs aren’t what they seem” idea has also happened with the “something familiar from everyday life is out to get you” idea. Doctor Who needs to move on from this if it wants to become frightening again, otherwise we’re in for evil post-boxes in the next series.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

What's wrong with heroes? - Some Thoughts on Superhero Narratives

(As is established early on, this was written in the run-up to Quantum of Solace and The Dark Knight. The quote from Robert Wade on Bourne which I later used in the Quantum of Solace piece appears at one point, but I've left it in for now. Some of my comments on Batman might overlap with the Quantum piece, too. One other postscript: I've just discovered that the phrase "Umberto Eco" appeared randomly in the text, though I've now deleted it. Either this was a leftover from a note I made in an earlier draft, or there's a rather cerebral computer virus going around.)

It’s hard to think of two films that could generate more excitement than The Dark Knight, coming this summer, and Quantum of Solace, coming in November. They are exciting not merely for being the next instalments in the respective Batman and Bond franchises, but because each is a follow-up to a film that reinvented the franchise and increased its popularity and credibility. The recent success of the Bourne trilogy – probably the finest action films to have emerged from Hollywood since Indiana Jones – confirms a current appetite for detailed characterisation and attempts to persuade the audience that this is taking place in the real world, rather than revelling in the sheer energetic lunacy of it all as so many action films do. In The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, Paul Greengrass has demonstrated more involving and hard-hitting ways of shooting car-chases and fights, while making the protagonist an action hero whose predicament is genuinely affecting and whose inner turmoil is as interesting as his lethal skills. Die Hard 4.0 - released in the same summer as Ultimatum - seemed very dated in comparison, belonging to the eighties Hollywood tradition in which explosions were enough. There’s a car chase in there, but it is no where near as strikingly photographed and bruisingly edited as the ones in the Bourne films. The trilogy has challenged the idea of the “popcorn movie”: films like Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Cliffhanger and Face/Off were based upon the assumption that those who paid to see action movies weren’t interested in anything other than spectacle, and so logic, character development and good dialogue were treated as secondary concerns, and little effort was made to avoid cliché. By contrast, the Bournes reject the “leave your brain at the door and enjoy” philosophy, demonstrate that action films can make for outstanding – rather than merely entertaining – filmmaking and that their screenplays can be affecting and though-provoking rather than escapist. As Mark Lawson recently pointed out, the fact that a director such as Paul Greengrass is as committed to working on Bourne movies as he is to United 93 says much about the healthy, fertile state of modern cinema.
The success of the Bourne films has considerable implications for other franchises. The recent revitalisations of the Bond and Batman franchises with Casino Royale and Batman Begins saw the production teams struggle with the dilemma that seems to have plagued adventure narratives since the 1980s: in a Postmodern age, should writers of stories with heroes or superheroes allow the hero to get on with his quest, or should they dedicate time to deconstructing the heroes themselves?
This problem is analogous to the threat posed by modernism to storytelling: the nineteenth century novel as favoured by Bronte, Wilkie Collins, Austen and Dickens, with its emphasis on tension, plot twists, cliff-hangers, suspense, romance and human interest, is replaced by the more analytical, less showmanlike techniques of Woolf and Joyce. First Chandler and more recently Thomas Pynchon (in The Crying of Lot 49) and Paul Auster (in The New York Trilogy) have shifted the focus of the detective story away from his case and on to the detective himself. Out goes the idea of a coherent mystery which is solved at the end, in goes the idea that the quest to find the truth is more important than the truth itself. Just as these writers moved from the story itself to the mechanics and nature of storytelling, so too do mainstream tales of detectives and superheroes move away from their cases and focus more on the heroes themselves.
The mainstream comics industry has much to answer for in this respect. No other artform - not even film - had previously been so homogenised and so unexperimental in its mainstream wing until postmodernism came along. Superheros and Villains stuck to their roles, and plots consisted of straightforward battles and mysteries. The publication of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns prompted a move towards examining the damaged psyche and moral cost of a superhero rather than merely giving them an opponent to fight and a problem to solve. Whether or not this influence upon comics and film is a good thing is debatable, depending upon the work yet to be produced, but these two works at least were exciting innovations. Watchmen, probably the finest of all comic books, took a simple conceit - what if costumed crimefighters actually existed? – and explored superheroes as people rather than ciphers, revealing them to have deep psychological scars, and daring to suggest that their interference might make the world worse rather than better. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight was less complex, but examined Batman as a figure of stark realism rather than of fantasy, firmly rooted in Spillane-esque violence and moral outrage. Like Moore, Miller questioned the effect Batman and Superman would have on society (in both books superhero interference increases crime and nearly causes World War Three), and insisted upon writing about the latter with an emphasis upon psychological realism.
The problem with this path is that ultimately, it can’t lead us away from the fact that Batman is an entirely nonsensical, artificial creation. His origin relies on some ridiculous coincidences (he’s rich enough to buy all this equipment, is a master detective, warrior and athlete and has a convenient batcave right underneath his mansion), and he lacks any kind of flaws that might distinguish him as a human being. The character is pulp through and through, and we are deluding ourselves if we think psychological realism is possible in his portrayal. Moore himself highlighted this problem when speaking of his own take on the character, Batman: The Killing Joke by Moore and Brian Bolland, a graphic novel which attempts to deal with the nature of the relationship between Batman and the Joker and the psychological predicament they face in the style of a two-hander drama rather than an action adventure. Moore reflects:

I mean, it doesn't say anything. It’s talking about Batman and the Joker, and says that yes, psychologically Batman and the Joker are mirror images of each other. So? […] You're never going to meet somebody remotely like either of those two people. You're not going to meet people who have been driven mad in that way.

This gives considerable insight into the futility of this desire for so-called realism. Instead of using the rich imaginative possibilities of the character, and attempting to tell the most inventive and entertaining story possible, deadly words like “Postmodern”, “grittier”, “darker” “more realistic” “psychological” and “more relevant” are uttered, and writers become more interested in theorising about a character than actually using him to tell a worthwhile story. Sherlock Holmes might have been a fascinating character, but Conan Doyle never forgot to give him equally fascinating cases.
The Bond films are on the edge of entering this cul-de-sac. Casino Royale, excellent though it is, has a touch of this problem. While Daniel Craig is terrific and both he and his love interest Vesper are well-characterised, the supporting cast and characters are forgettable. It’s important for the filmmakers to remember that Bond himself is only one ingredient. If we can contrast it with the great Bond films of the sixties – From Russia with Love, Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice, which remain the series’s artistic peak – we note that while Goldfinger features a fabulous performance from Connery as Bond, it also features equally fine villains in Gert Fobe’s Goldfinger and Harold Sakata’s Oddjob and a particularly satisfying, outrageous plot. Would anyone dare to make a Bond film about a plot to make all the gold in fort Knox radioactive, a woman killed by being smothered in gold paint, fights to the death between gypsy girls, butch lesbian colonels with poison-tipped shoes, a rocket that swallows other rockets or a base hidden inside a volcano? I’m not so sure - probably not “gritty” or “postmodern” enough.
The Pierce Brosnan-led entries in the series bravely showed more fidelity to making carefully crafted, lively, infectious entertainment than the trendier move towards grittier, darker introspection. The last Bond film of this type, Die Another Day, may have taken flak for its alleged “invisible car”, but you have to applaud the makers for their moxy in taking such an outrageous idea and having as much fun with it as possible. Bond films are nothing without a sense of the outrageous. The death knell for the series will be sounded when someone tries to portray Bond as a tragic character. Robert Wade, one of the scriptwriters for both Die Another Day and Casino Royale, observed of the differences between Bond and Matt Damon’s title character from the Bourne trilogy:

Whereas Bourne lives in the real world, we are talking about a heightened, intensified reality. You don’t want to be Bourne. He is a guy in hell. He hasn’t really got any joie de vivre. With Bond, you want to be Bond. You’ve got to want to be Bond.

So while Daniel Craig can lend the series an extra sense of danger and credibility, and the scripts can hint - as Fleming did – at the more murderous aspects of Bond’s job, they must not forget that we love Bond precisely because he is a fantastic figure, doing what we all want to do.
And yet one can hardly ignore the changing of the times. When GoldenEye was released in 1996, with the Cold War over and 9/11 nowhere in sight, it envisioned James Bond as a fixed constant in a changing world. Imagery of the decay and ruins of the Soviet Empire pervade the film, culminating in Judi Dench’s M’s famous outburst: “you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur: a relic of the cold war.” Brosnan himself – well-dressed, groomed, dignified, classically attractive, thoughtful, softly-spoken - played the part with an elegance that harked back to Fleming’s languorous style, with just a hint of weariness. By the time of Casino Royale, however, with Terrorism replacing Communism as the threat to pervade the writers’ imaginations, Bond ceases to be a dinosaur and becomes something much needed: a creature of the modern world. There’s never a hint in Casino Royale that Bond belongs to the past, and Daniel Craig’s interpretation – muscular, athletic, weathered, no-nonsense dress style, ruggedly striking, spikier hair, a brutal fighter – is that of the fully-trained commando as opposed to Brosnan’s seconded naval officer.
The script emphasises a need for Bond to exercise moral judgement, addressing the problems of cheering on a West-against-the-East action hero at a time when we are concerned with the folly of Bush’s War on Terror, mistreatment of prisoners at Guantamino and the appalling deaths of those such as Jean Paul Charles de Menzies at the hands of those who believe they are fighting terror. Indeed, when the script of Casino Royale was leaked online, many saw a parallel between the de Menzies scandal and a scene in which Bond is chastised for executing an unarmed man, which led to a brief tabloid accusation of the film attempting to use the tragedy for inspiration. While the allegation was, like so many Bond tabloid stories, mistaken - it now seems certain that the similarity is coincidental, and the script written before the tragedy – it provides a good indication of the topical whirlpool from which 21st century Bond grows.
The series 24 is less careful about the moral implications of its own hero Jack Bauer, with many commentators noting a right-wing sentiment in the more recent seasons of the show. Jack’s recurring use of torture to get the information he needs, and the scripts’ emphasis that he has no choice but to do this (usually millions will die if he doesn’t) take us into the sinister realms of propaganda and the “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists” mindset. The problem here is that heroes are black-and-white creations, and every child brought up on stories of good and evil will learn that real life has a lot more shades of grey. One shouldn’t take this too far and discourage children from believing in heroes: there’s nothing wrong with tales of knights and dragons, as long as one understands that there are no knights and dragons in the real world. As anyone brought up on superhero tales knows, our imagination is the only thing that allows us to take part in a world in which pure morals are championed and not compromised as they are in real life.
Bryan Singer’s recent, very flat film Superman Returns sidestepped the problem by failing to address any kind of change in the political climate since the character of Superman was created or worrying implications that his existence would raise, even though the film appeared to be set in the present rather than in a more stylised quasi-past as the original Superman and Batman Begins were. As a child I adored Superman - and still adore the original films - but as I grew older I became aware of both a poignancy and an uneasiness about watching someone save people from disasters, because of one’s awareness that these disasters are all too real - the Tsunani and 9/11 could easily be incorporated into a Superman story - but no-one will ever be able to swoop in and make everything all-right. 1987’s disastrous Superman IV – The Quest For Peace already made this mistake with a storyline in which Superman rids the world of all nuclear weapons, which is unsatisfying in much the same way that watching someone cure cancer in a film would be.
Watching Superman rescue people in Singer’s film, I was troubled by two things: first of all, surely Superman cannot keep rescuing everyone? He’s fast but not omnipotent. Secondly, what is the point of watching a saviour of a type that will never exist, and of seeing prevented things that we have to live with? When asked about the relevance of Superman in a modern age Singer replied “Don’t we need him now?” but the simple answer to such a question is we’re not going to get him. Superman doesn’t work as a role model because his powers come from absurd coincidences: the power of the sun just happens to give him flight, invulnerability and strength: his achievements are therefore not a goal we can strive towards. They result from brute force we aren’t capable of rather than his character or his decisions.
One can link this to the inability in childhood to accept death – we’ve all wondered why God doesn’t stop car crashes from happening, so we invent Superman to do it instead. There’s even a very thoughtful and moving graphic novel, It’s a Bird… by Steven T. Seagle, that deals with this problem. It tells of a comic-book writer reluctantly hired to write for Superman, at a time when his own problems - his aunt has died of Huntingdon’s disease, which he realises is hereditary, and his father has gone missing - are in need of a saviour. The book’s main thesis is that Superman has no relevance to the problems of real life; he triumphs by using brute force of a kind not available to mortals. The problem is the same one that Moore had with The Killing Joke: the strength of fiction is its ability to take us into the heads of human beings, and to understand how others see the world. When one writes of characters with experiences that have nothing to do with those that humans face, it’s hard to keep the story meaningful.
Then there’s the fact that Superman fights for “Truth, Justice and the American Way” – yes, it might strike you as embarrassing, but it’s also lazy for a scriptwriter to ignore it. Whether or not Superman would ally himself with America’s policies and how he would distance himself from, say, Bush’s foreign policy are issues which need to be addressed, even if not at great length. Many critics have indulged in tedious post-9/11 analysis of the current trend for superhero movies - which actually started slightly before 9/11, with Blade, X-Men and the majority of the footage for Spider-Man – interpreting superheroes as a metaphor for the last remaining superpower (personally I think the proportionate strength and agility of a spider doesn’t work particularly well as a metaphor for America itself – some metaphors you just can’t stretch). What they are reluctant to admit is that these movies remain conceptually if not actually pre-9/11, not to mention pre-Iraq, movies, telling stories unfettered - apart from the occasional lip-service – by the problems of using force to overcome adversaries, or whether the allegiance of a superhero should be to their country or to the world.
Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta - a rather more controversial, unsettling story that pitted a murderous costumed vigilante against a fascist Britain – was recently filmed, and could have provided an antidote to this. However, as Moore himself complained, the filmmakers would have done something braver and more relevant if they had updated the story to quasi-Bush America, rather than keeping the obsolete quasi-Thatcher setting. Would any one have the guts to write about a superhero who challenges his own President (I mean a realistic President, not Lex Luthor)?
Ultimately it results in a Jekyll-and-Hyde split between what might be called the camp or parodic coding and the dark, gritty or realistic coding. The former way of coding these stories is demonstrated by the sixties Batman tv series, the Roger Moore Bond films, Superman 3, the two Joel Schumacher Batman films and the 1977-79 and 1987 seasons of Doctor Who. Stories coded in the dark or gritty style include the Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig Bond films, The Dark Knight Returns, and Batman Begins. Although the former can be dire (witness Schumacher’s Batman and Robin) and the latter pretentious, both are equally valid interpretations. Superman 3 remains, for me, a better film than Superman Returns, the Tim Burton Batman movies or the X-Men movies, because while it doesn’t set out to be a realistic, darker or more psychologically complex rendering of the character, or to appeal to those who consider comic-strip adventures beneath them, it has a lot more fun along the way.
The X-Men films are hardly on a different intellectual plane, but because they purport to be a metaphor for oppression (with the fear of the mutants and their powers representing racism and homophobia), they can gain the status of films about “important issues”. Unfortunately, because awesome superpowers are such a clumsy metaphor for racism and homophobia (surely the mutants would be seen as Godlike rather then be oppressed?), the films don’t bear any kind of analysis or repeated viewing in this way, and so the fact that they forget to entertain – unlike Superman 3 – is what stays in the viewer’s mind. Sometimes the camp coding, when done infectiously and imaginatively, can be more worthwhile than the more futile exercises in the serious coding.
This Summer sees the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which will inspire just as much excitement for those interested in action/adventure done well as the build-up to Quantum of Solace and The Dark Knight, but for slightly different reasons. The original trilogy - Raiders of the Lost ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indian Jones and the Last Crusade – remain the finest action films yet made. And yet there is nothing gritty, psychological or post-modern about them
It seems to me that this call for greater introspection and analysis of the hero’s role will always be with us. Like Modernism itself, I don’t think it’s something we can ignore or avoid completely, and in many ways it can produce fine work – Watchmen, Casino Royale, Batman Begins, the Bourne films and The Dark Knight Returns being among the strongest examples. But it should be remembered that postmodernism is no substitute for creativity. Let us get on with telling stories about heroes, and telling them well – reassessing the nature of the hero is a secondary concern. If, in the far future, we start to hear about a “darker, grittier, more realistic” take on Harry Potter, there may be cause for concern…







15 Greatest Action Scenes

From Russia with Love: Orient express fight. A savage fight to the death between Sean Connery’s James Bond and Robert Shaw’s remorseless assassin Grant. In a compartment aboard the Orient Express, Grant has Bond at gunpoint, but Bond tricks him into opening an exploding briefcase. The subsequent fight is superbly staged and edited, benefiting from both actors performing most of their own stuntwork, so the camera captures their snarling faces as they smash one another against the walls of the compartment (there’s a particularly neat moment when they bounce off the unconscious Bond girl without noticing). As Grant hooks a garrotte around Bond’s neck, it ends with one of those satisfying pay-offs in which only Q’s gift (a knife concealed in the briefcase) can save Bond’s life.

The Bourne Identity: Mini Cooper chase. Amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne (matt Damon) and his love interest Marie (Franka Potente) escape from the authorities in Marie’s Mini Cooper. Paul Greengrass’s two sequels demonstrated an extraordinary new visual style for the action movie, but it’s Doug Liman’s original Bourne movie that still just wins when it comes to most satisfying car chase. The build-up nicely links the moment when the action begins to the development of the two main characters’ relationship. Bourne is on the run, and Marie is in danger of being arrested with him. As the police close in, Bourne warns her that this is her last chance to get away from him, but Marie opts to remain in the car. A marvellously funky piece of music - Paul Oakenfold’s “Ready, Steady, Go” starts playing on the soundtrack, Bourne swerves the Mini into gear and the audience knows that Bourne and Marie’s destinies are now inseparable. As in The Italian Job, the small simplicity of the Mini makes it a joy to watch as it hurtles down alleyways, slides over zebra crossings and smashes through glass, and the ingenious stunt-driving is accentuated by setups and visual punch lines: Bourne saying “We got a bump coming” as the Mini leaps down a flight of steps, his little grimace of concentration as he changes gear when they reach the bottom, Marie going “whoa” just before they smash through an open phonebox door. The chase you hope all thrillers are building up to.

The Bourne Ultimatum: Bourne vs. Desh. An assassin named Desh (Joey Ansah), is closing in on an ally of Bourne’s, as Bourne rushes across rooftops to get there first. As Desh takes aim, Bourne leaps off the balcony of an adjacent building - a glorious bit of stuntwork - and comes smashing in through the window, where the two fight like savage bulls. Paul Greengrass’s way of directing action sequences is disorientating and terrifying. It’s edited at a furious pace, going for frantic close-ups rather than panoramic shots, with excruciating sound effects, as their hands scrabble for whatever object - a cookbook, a candlestick, a razor, a towel - is at hand. By the time Bourne has throttled Desh, everyone in the audience feels beaten up.

Casino Royale: free-running chase. Daniel Craig’s Bond pursues Molanka, a bomb maker, through a construction site, and refuses to give up the chase even when Molanka makes it to an embassy. Molanka is played by parkour - or “free-running” - champion Sebastian Foucan, and this extraordinary sport is skilfully integrated into the chase, making it in equal parts thrilling and beautiful to watch, with Bond having to counter his opponent’s unusual talent with sheer determination. The sight of Bond running up a crane is one of the most heroic images in cinema. It ends on a marvellous visual punch line - and with a very big bang - as Bond hands over his pistol to the embassy soldiers, only to pull out a second one, shoot his quarry and then a gas cylinder, vanishing in a puff of smoke. Highly appropriate for such a magical sequence.

GoldenEye: tank chase. Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond commandeers a tank and pursues the car of a Russian General who’s kidnapped the Bond Girl through the streets of St Petersburg, taking on armed Russian forces and destroying a good deal of the city in the process. 1995’s GoldenEye was determined to have fun, as it had been six years without a Bond film and the public were hungry for a return. Rather than apologise for being a Bond film - something the Daniel Craig movies tend towards - GoldenEye is a glorious reinstatement. There’s a big build-up to a spectacular shot of the tank crashing through a wall, a smartly suited Bond revealed at the wheel as the James Bond theme kicks in. What sticks in your mind in the subsequent chase is not just the lavish effects and model work and explosive editing style, but the incongruous sight of an immaculate Englishman at the helm of a tank - who actually adjusts his collar at one point as a wonderful punch line - , the Bond girl’s half terrified, half thrilled reaction to her hero’s rampaging rescue attempts, and the Russian General’s increasingly enraged hipflask-guzzling, all irresistibly joyous touches.

Blade: disco bloodbath. In the opening sequence, a very chic disco is taking place, with hip young things writhing to throbbing music. As the dancing reaches its frenzied climax, blood pours from the sprinkler systems, and the dancers sprout fangs. OK, so we’re watching a horror movie. Then suddenly a huge black dude in shades, armour and leather trench coat appears. The vampires snarl. He snarls back. They pounce, and he pulls out a shotgun and blasts several vampires into ash with silver bullets, rifle-butts one, and rams silver stakes into others, before finishing off the rest with a machine-pistol. We’re not watching a horror movie, but something way more exciting. Reinforcements arrive, and he puts away the gun and unsheathes his sword. His movements are balletic, ferocious, and awesome; the lighting, editing and techno soundtrack irresistible. Now that’s how a movie opens.

Blade 2: Blade vs. vampire guards. Having being drained of blood - the source of his superpowers - Wesley Snipes’s half human, half vampire hero leaps into a giant vat of the stuff. He rises from the blood in a clear nod to Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, and as dozens of henchmen approach defiantly clenches his bare fists. As they attack, he knocks them down like ninepins, sends them spinning like wooden tops into the vat, kicks, twists, and shoves, all to the sound of the Crystal Method‘s “The Name of the Game“. While watching this martial arts display and listening to the music, brutality ceases to become brutality and becomes art.

The Matrix Reloaded: Neo vs. the Merovingian‘s guards. The only sequence on this list from a lacklustre movie. The Matrix Reloaded may have failed to inspire, but the fight between Neo and the Merovingian’s men is a perfect example of how music, choreography, stunts and special effects create an aesthetic effect unlike any other. There’s a beautiful symmetry to the kung-fu and wire work. Neo and the henchmen swivel, somersault, leap, duck and almost dance, all the time playing musical chairs with daggers, swords, spears, maces and sai, to the strident sound of Rob Dougan‘s "Chateau".

Raiders of the Lost Ark: truck chase. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) pursues a Nazi truck and convoy on horseback, leaps onto the truck and throws out the driver. What happens next demonstrates how an action sequence works like a comedy set piece: it depends on the build-up of excess, and the increasing sense of audacity as the ludicrous occurs and yet maintains conviction. One of the Nazis from the convoy leaps into the truck and shoots Indy in the arm. He punches Indy in the wounded arm, and sends him smashing through the windscreen. Indy clings to the bars of the front grill which start to break off in his hands. The Nazi speeds up the truck and attempts to crush Indy against the car containing the main villains. Indy climbs under the bottom of the speeding truck, attaches his whip and slides out from under the back, dragged along by the whip in a nod to Stagecoach. He climbs back on, makes his way to the front, gives the Nazi the thump he deserves and hurls him out through the broken windscreen.

Spider-Man 2: train fight. Spiderman and Doctor Octopus are both gloriously realised onscreen, the latter in particular a superb fusion of CGI, puppetry and sound effects, so it’s a joy to watch them duke it out. The film - while not the modern classic it is sometimes made out to be - is better structured than its predecessor, so there’s a satisfying build up to their second fight, with Spiderman regaining his powers, his costume and his determination in time to confront Dock Ock - who’s kidnapped his girlfriend - atop a clock tower, in a fight which continues as they plummet onto a passing train at the bottom.

The French Connection. Gene Hackman’s tough New York cop Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle pursues an assassin by car - but the assassin’s in an elevated train and Doyle’s driving underneath. This unusual visual composition is enough to make it memorable, but the frantic cutting between Doyle’s charged face, the obstacles under the railway overpass - including a classic “mind that pram” moment - and the speeding train make it among the tensest chases filmed.

Bullitt: San Francisco car chase. Detective Frank Bullitt pursues two hitman through the streets of San Francisco. The touchstone of car chases, still impressive after all these years. McQueen, his Thunderbird, the rolling hubcaps and the hatchet faces of the two bad guys are iconic, and the sight of cars leaping over the hills of San Francisco is one of the enduring images of the cinema. The squealing of brakes makes for perfect incidental music.

Superman 3 - junkyard fight. Somewhat underrated, Superman 3 contains a sequence that was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen as a child Superman has been poisoned by some badly-synthesised kryptonite, and turned evil. Trying to fight off the effects mid-flight, he crash-lands in a junkyard and splits into two: a suited and bespectacled Clark Kent, and an unshaven Wicked Superman in a dark costume. The resulting fight is like a live-action version of a Loony Tunes or Tom and Jerry fight, but played straight enough to maintain tension. Clark hurls Wicked Superman into an acid pit. Wicked Superman leaps out and attacks Clark with a car bumper. Clark hurls tyres at Wicked Superman, encircling him. Wicked Superman breaks the tyres into pieces with a single bound, and drops a large magnet on top of Clark. He puts the unconscious Clark into a crusher, and symbolically crushes his glasses in his hand. Then Clark smashes straight through the wall of the crusher, grabs his alter ego by the throat and squeezes: Wicked Superman fades into thin air, Clark rips aside his shirt to reveal the brighter shades of the true Superman costume (I still find this a moving moment after all these years), and flies off to the triumphant John Williams theme. Perhaps it’s a depiction of the superego versus the id. Perhaps it represents the eternal struggle of good versus evil. The only thing for certain is that it’s a series of images with a unique effect on the viewer.

Kill Bill Vol.1: Beatrix Kiddo vs. the crazy 88. To justify its gruesome excess, Tarantino’s film needs a truly grand guignol climax to reach some kind of catharsis, and it doesn’t disappoint. This is probably the goriest swordfight filmed, as Uma Thurman’s arch assassin Beatrix Kiddo arrives to take revenge on one of the killers that left her for dead (Lucy Liu), but first has to fight her way through her gang of cronies, the Crazy 88, with only a samurai sword. It’s hard not to share Tarantino’s infatuation with Uma Thurman here, clad in that striking yellow tracksuit and wielding the “most perfect sword ever made by man”, her angry defiant beauty providing a heroic contrast to the brutality around her. The fight is so violent it shifts into black and white for the most part to get past the censor. Beatrix slices and dices, and even plucks an eye out (thank God for the black and white), but one could no more take offence than at the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where John Cleese’s Black Knight is dismembered but insists it’s a flesh wound. Just as the black-and-white effect disappears, someone cuts the lights and Beatrix and her opponents are seen only in silhouette. The fight has transcended violence and conflict between characters, and become purely aesthetic. It’s not quite comedy, it’s not quite dramatic tension, it’s something in-between.

Duel: final chase. Dennis Weaver’s stressed businessman David is being pursued by a truck driver suffering an extreme form of road rage. At the climax, David attempts to outwit his nemesis by driving up a steep grade, but just at his moment of triumph his radiator hose fails (has there ever been a more agonising moment in the cinema?) and his overheating car starts to lose speed. Spielberg’s first film is a thing of real beauty. The rusty, filthy, dragon-faced truck and the bland orange car are as superbly cast as Weaver. David reaches a precipice, turns round, jams his briefcase down on the accelerator, and leaps from the car as it ploughs into the truck. The truck gives the terrible roar of a behemoth as it and the smashed car plunge over the precipice. Filmed in slow motion, it’s oddly one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see in cinema. As David gibbers with glee at his victory, the audience has a sense of exhilaration that feels like it comes from somewhere deep inside us, and has lain there since the days of Beowulf and Grendel.

Doctor Who: a Forest of Weeds and Roses

(The following piece was written in late 2006/early 2007, just after series 2 of the modern version of Doctor Who. It's out of date in a couple of ways. Firstly, my view of the modern Doctor Who is less optimistic these days,and secondly Verity Lambert sadly passed away in late 2007. The article refers to her in a present tense, and there are mild criticisms of comments she made, though nothing snide or disrepectful. Also, of course, Doctor Who has gone on to win two more Hugos and a Bafta Craft award. I should also point out that my dismassal of stories like The Sensorites and Frontier in Space was my opinion after seeing them once. I haven't revisited them yet, but opinions can change...)

Having Doctor Who back on Saturday evenings has been a dream many of us had long given up on, but even less expected was that it would be brought back with such care and thought. It could have been done in a workmanlike way as Robin Hood and Primeval have demonstrated, or it could have managed to please the long-term fans while failing to gain any standing as a television programme in its own right (the trap the TV Movie fell into). Instead, it boasts remarkable special effects, intelligent writing, fine acting, impressive ratings, good reviews, a Hugo and three Baftas.
Yet the one thing this hasn’t done is improved the reputation of the original series. It still doesn’t look like we’re going to see any terrestrial repeats. The basic stereotype of wobbly sets has continued. This dismissal from critic Kathryn Flett seems to reflect the public’s recollection of Doctor Who: “Russell T Davies has done wonders, admittedly, but the original was cheap, dull, creaky and parochial”. The praise it attracts from critics tends to focus on how Russell T Davies has improved and revamped the series, and much less on the fact that he did so because he was a huge fan of the original.
Was I the only one a little stunned by David Tennant’s choice of words when presenting Davies with the Dennis Potter Award for Outstanding Television writing at last year’s Baftas? He applauded Russell for injecting heart and enthusiasm into a series “that many thought was beyond redemption” My reaction at the phrase “beyond redemption” was “WHOAA!” Surely the show I’ve followed all my life wasn’t that bad? It has occurred to few if any critics that the relaunch has succeeded not just because of Davies’s skill, but also because of the brilliance of the format.
Let’s consider that format. A show about a man who can travel to any time and place, in a ship small enough to be squeezed anywhere. A show that stars the most romantic of heroes, a dashing man of action who never carries a gun, and abhors violence, will tackle any evil, will not be trifled with and yet revels in the absurd and the childish, an anti-establishment figure who doesn’t have time for any government, can’t stand the military and stands up to evil on his own armed with nothing more than a sonic screwdriver simply because he wants to. A man who can arrive on any house and any street, and will employ anyone – no matter how ordinary - to help him in his fight, and who can inspire any one of us to do the same. A man who can change his physical appearance and everything other than his determination to fight evil and his mischievousness, allowing different actors to succeed each other in the role, playing the part whichever way they choose. A show that can give us gothic horror, satire, ghost stories, lavish futuristic sci-fi, comedy, historical tales or action-adventure. A show with no permanent actors and no fixed style. It’s a brilliant format, and it wasn’t created by Russell T Davies or anyone else (not even Sydney Newman, who initiated the programme in 1963 but couldn’t have foreseen the vast array of things we associate with Doctor Who). The success of the new Doctor Who where so many shows have failed (Randall and Hopkirk Deceased, Crime Traveller, Invasion: Earth, Strange, the Last Train, ) and indeed continue to fail (Primeval, Robin Hood, Torchwood) owes as much to the brilliance of the Doctor and the TARDIS as creations as it does to the considerable skill of Russell T Davies and his team, and his moxy in finally bringing it back to our screens. The shows I’ve mentioned lacked a central character as compelling, rich or as useful as the Doctor, and the absence of the TARDIS meant the range of stories they could tell and press attention and ratings they could attract were limited. After all, Randall and Hopkirk could never meet Dickens, watch the sun explode or find the Devil chained up on an alien planet.
Another regrettable aspect of the show’s revival is that it has contributed to one of the most woeful myths ever attributed to Doctor Who – that it had become unwatchable by the time it was taken off the air in 1989. It’s useful for the BBC, tidily explaining their lack of support for the show in the 1980s, and is supported by the programme’s dwindling resources, the criticism it faced from both the fans and the BBC and its low viewing figures during this period. One of the biggest perpetuators of this myth has been Verity Lambert. It was great to see Doctor Who among Channel 4’s 50 Greatest TV Dramas recently, but what a shame to once again see Verity talking about how the show had become a parody of itself by the 1980s, the programme cutting immediately to the Kandyman to demonstrate her point. Viewers with strong memories might remember a particular couple of scenes on the BBC One documentary on Doctor Who’s 40th anniversary: Verity Lambert talking gravely about the show descending into parody, cutting immediately to the Kandyman. The Kandyman becomes an icon of naffness allowing the whole of 1980s Who to be swept neatly away. Verity was at it again in the last SFX Doctor Who Special, in an interview with herself and Russell T Davies. She’s gracious enough to admit that Russell’s take is pretty good, but otherwise talks again about how the show lost its way after she left.
It’s interesting to note that in both the SFX and the BBC interviews she also speaks disparagingly of Jon Pertwee (from the early 1970s rather than the 1980s), arguing that he was “definitely more of an establishment figure” and that the show lost its magic from then on. Ironically, Pertwee was actually the most fiercely anti-establishment of all Doctors, his inability to escape from Earth only further exacerbating his intolerance of the military and bureaucracy. It seems that for Verity Lambert, Doctor Who went off the rails not so much in the 1980s, as in the post-Lambert era. Inevitably, there is a danger of seeing the period of the show’s genesis as more interesting than its subsequent two decades, in much the same way that Sean Connery will always remain the most fondly remembered Bond regardless of how good subsequent films are. The difference, though, is that in marked contrast to the Bond films, Doctor Who neither peaked nor established its exact nature in the 1960s – the first 1970s season is as crucial a manifesto as Season One, reinventing the show as an action-adventure programme and its hero as a non-violent James Bond. It’s actually far more different to Season One than Russell T Davies’s version is to the original run. Any narrative of the show peaking in the 1960s, becoming fixed in the 1970s and declining in the 1980s should therefore always be challenged.
Another myth regarding the show’s decline in the 1980s is that Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy were inappropriately cast. This myth was partly fuelled by their poor costumes – which become a useful visual icon like the Kandyman in demonstrating the decline: all one has to do in a documentary is show a brief clip of them – and partly by the disastrous attempts in the earlier scripts (such as 1984’s The Twin Dilemma) to make the Sixth Doctor less likeable. The most obvious example of this myth was is the infamous gag in Mark Gatiss and David Walliams’s sketch for Doctor Who Night suggesting that “towards the end any old f***er with an equity card” was cast. (It’s significant that this line was edited out for the sketch’s inclusion in the recent In the Beginning DVD release – now that Gatiss is writing for Doctor Who, a certain diplomacy is called for). The two actors themselves, though, are no more poorly suited to the role than anyone else – they’re certainly stronger and more likeable actors than William Hartnell, and more charismatic - though less consistent, and more likely to go over the top - than Peter Davison.
It’s also something of a misconception that in terms of experience they were odd choices – Davison, Tom Baker, Pertwee and Hartnell were hardly better qualified – who could have known for sure that someone that used to play angry army sergeants, a comedian, a relatively unknown actor and a vet from All Creatures Great and Small were going to be great Doctors? Dismissive remarks about the last two Doctors tend to accumulate due to their occupying the end of the series’ run - at a time of low popularity - rather than what they actually brought to the role.
However, what really riles about the myth is that by 1989, Doctor Who had undergone something of a creative renaissance. From 1987 onwards, the casting of Sylvester McCoy - the best all-round Doctor since Tom Baker - and Sophie Aldred as Ace - the first great companion since the 1970s - and the replacement of Eric Saward with a far more imaginative script editor, Andrew Cartmel, resulted in some of the most original and satisfying Doctor Who stories since the Hinchcliffe era. We start off with something of a stepping-stone in season 24 - it’s far from great, but unpretentious and likeable overall, with a sincere attempt to get back to telling fun and inventive stories rather than the obsession with continuity, past glories and gimmicky ideas (such as the Trial) that had marked out much of mid-1980s Doctor Who.
At the time, all the fans and critics noticed was an increasing cheapness and reliance of guest stars. When, in seasons 25 and seasons 26, we were presented with two of the finest seasons in the show’s original run, we never even noticed. The fact that the show was stuck in a graveyard slot, poorly promoted and visibly running out of money didn’t help - fans launched fanzine campaigns against the producer, wrote articles in the Daily Mail and appeared on Did You See berating the series’s alleged decline while great stories such as Remembrance of the Daleks, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, The Curse of Fenric (a strong contender for the finest of the original Doctor Who stories), Ghost Light and Survival passed them by. The truncated length – four stories instead of six – was also a factor in this, as it left us with only four or five outstanding stories overall: had the seasons been normal length, we might have had two or three more tales of the calibre of Fenric and Remembrance, making it a harder period to dismiss. It still strikes me as woeful that the series was cancelled after the broadcast of some of its finest serials. When the show returned, there was much talk about why and how, but little suggestion that maybe it shouldn’t have been axed in the first place. Hopefully the DVD release of Survival will remind newer generations that Doctor Who in the 1980s hadn’t entirely ground to a halt, and that outstanding Who stories didn’t begin in 2005.
The new series is better than the old in many ways: better effects and production values, obviously. The scripts are often sharper, and the characterisation of the companions stronger. For example, there’s a nice moment in Aliens of London where a policeman asks the Doctor if his relationship with Rose is a sexual one. He says no, and the matter is dismissed, but the fact that the script raises the issue - instead of ignoring it as the original series did – makes his relationship with Rose more convincing, and brings home the fact that it is non-sexual because the writer chooses to portray it that way, rather than because he is unable to allude to sex. (Remember, by contrast, the infamous decision in The Five Doctors not to give the Fifth Doctor and Susan any scenes together because the production team was frightened of drawing attention to the idea of Davison’s Doctor having offspring). It’s also a lot cannier and funnier in its use of pop-culture and teenage language to appeal to younger viewers (compare this with the “yoof” dialogue Ace was sometimes saddled with). It is more experimental – Dalek, Father’s Day, The Empty Child, The Girl in the Fireplace and Love and Monsters do bold things with the show’s format and characters that have never been tried before, and create genuinely outstanding drama. Most notably, the modern version is much more emotionally powerful - these episodes have far more of a remit to moving the viewer than the original series did.
We shouldn’t feel afraid to admit that the original series was also better than the new one in other ways. For a start, the original remains unsurpassed at claustrophobic atmosphere. It remains to be seen if the new version can create tense stories along the lines of masterpieces such as 1977’s Horror of Fang Rock or 1975’s The Ark in Space. Tooth and Claw was for me, one of the few failures of the relaunch. Its relentless humour (couldn’t the “we are not amused” joke have been tightened up a bit?) and the smug, flippant attitude of the Tenth Doctor and Rose in that particular episode (despite the horrors they have witnessed, they head for the TARDIS at the end of the episode chuckling as if they’ve just had the time of their lives at everyone else’s expense) robs it of tension.
It doesn’t help that the episode only lasts 45 minutes: it is hard to bring the Doctor and Rose to the location, establish a claustrophobic atmosphere and have them meet the supporting characters in such a short length of time. When you have elaborate jokes also taking up precious moments of the airtime, you end up with an excellent werewolf that gets little to do but walk around, some brilliantly realised Kung-fu monks who don’t get used at all after the teaser, and a very hurried climax. With Fang Rock or Ark in Space, on the other hand, we spend 90 minutes trapped aboard Station Nerva or in a lighthouse, wondering how the Doctor can possibly overcome this dire threat.
Another criticism - so far, a minor one - that could be levelled at the new series is that while all three seasons have featured a remarkable array of beautifully acted and believably written supporting characters (Florence Hoath as Nancy, Sophia Myles as Madame De Pompadour, Marc Warren as Elton and Jessica Hynes as Joan to name just a few), all of them have so far been the Doctor’s allies. The new series’s villains - such as the Slitheen, the Racnoss, the Carrionites, Roger Lloyd-Pack as John Lumic and Anne Reid as the Plasmavore - are by contrast more generic: even the Family of Blood, superbly macabre as they are, are not three-dimensional in the same way as the other characters in Paul Cornell’s story, right down to Rocastle the Headmaster - beautifully played by Pip Torrens - in his few but vivid scenes. Whether the new series can give us richly-developed villains on a par with Tobias Vaughn from 1968’s The Invasion, Harrison Chase from 1976’s The Seeds of Doom or Sharaz Jek, Morgus and Stotz from 1984’s The Caves of Androzani remains to be seen.
One other hurdle the new series may have to face is its stance on alien planets. We haven’t had an alien planet as evocative as, say, the Cheetah Planet from Survival: instead, the few stories from the new version set on other planets tend to move indoors fairly soon. Of course, when presented with stories of the calibre of Love and Monsters, Blink and Human Nature, it seems churlish to complain about their setting, especially as their plots and characters would be unsuited to an alien environment. However, whilst the Pertwee “exiled to earth” format allowed the Doctor to complain about the TARDIS not working and his struggle to escape from earth, it seems jarring that the Doctor and first Rose then Martha are travelling around the entire universe and we aren’t going with them. It’s a problem highlighted by the way that the temptation of the TARDIS, and the many sights it can bring, plays a major part in both Rose and Martha’s development as characters.
It would be futile to suggest that there were episodes of the original series as moving as Father’s Day, as ingenious as The Girl in the Fireplace, or as spectacular as The Parting of the Ways, but to my taste it would be equally wrong-footed to argue that Rise of the Cybermen is equal to 1970’s Inferno (which remains a masterclass in parallel Earth stories), or Rose to the same year’s Spearhead from Space (which is a much more satisfying alien-invasion story, with much more well-realised Autons). The new version is another chapter in Doctor Who’s long and chequered history: admittedly a hugely important one, but not the definitive one.
Steven Moffat, perhaps the finest writer on the new series, has expressed a different attitude towards the original series. In DWM’s Seventh Doctor Special, Who writers each contributed an article discussing the virtues of each Seventh Doctor story. While Gareth Roberts and Paul Cornell offered infectious celebrations of Paradise Towers and Battlefield, Moffat’s commendation of Remembrance of the Daleks was rather different in tone. It began by enthusing about the new series: “Right now, as I sit typing, I’m a few feet away from the stunning new TARDIS set…” before breaking off and saying, with a palpable sense of irony, “so let’s talk about Remembrance of the Daleks! No, actually, let’s really do.” Although he then praises the story, a patronising opinion of the original series as dwarfed by the new version is detectible.
The article gets more mean-spirited as it continues, with one odd remark: “I remember running home to see Part One, skidding… like a cartoon character. I’d say like Sylvester McCoy, but it’s not a place I really want to go”. It’s difficult to understand this cryptic reference – does he mean he disliked McCoy’s performance? A few lines later, he speaks of “Ferret Man suddenly becoming the Doctor” and “the little bloke from Vision On”. So total is this contempt that actually elaborating on what was wrong with McCoy’s Doctor, or even naming him, is considered unnecessary. It’s a shame that one of Doctor Who’s brightest current storytellers sees the show he wrote for two decades later as only really coming to life in recent years.
That given, it would be going too far to say that there was nothing wrong with 1980s Doctor Who: it went through a very turbulent time under John Nathan-Turner, and suffered under the uncertain hands of script editor Eric Saward. Seasons Twenty to Twenty-two in particular (but not, as is commonly assumed, the show’s last three seasons) appear to have no idea about where they are moving, with little cohesion, under-explored characters and a struggle to find suitable writers. As Gareth Roberts remarked in his recent DWM interview, they would have benefited greatly from the “tone meetings” of the current version. This was also the period that Doctor Who shrank from a teatime family show (something which its revival has restored it to) to a cult show dependent upon a not always appreciative fanbase, which led to its demise.
However, Doctor Who has been nothing over its forty-plus years if not inconsistent; right from the start, there’s been as much chaff as wheat. This is the show that followed City of Death with The Creature from the Pit, The Caves of Androzani with The Twin Dilemma. It’s an anthology show: Black Orchid, Carnival of Monsters and The Curse of Fenric are all excellent, but have remarkably little in common. To dismiss the whole of 1980s Doctor Who as substandard is as foolish as arguing that no decent film or novel has ever been published in that decade.
Furthermore, only two periods in the show’s history have ever been consistently outstanding and with a small number of misfires: the Hinchcliffe era and the current revival. The 1960s, Pertwee and Graham Williams eras are almost as variable in quality as the 1980s. A scan of the Hartnell era, for examples, reveals some great stories such as The Daleks’ Master Plan, but also some stinkers such as The Space Museum and The Sensorites. Even episodes that were thought classics - such as 100,000 BC and the first Dalek serial - are a lot ropier in places than we remembered. The Troughton era, despite having one of the finest Doctors at the helm, is a lot more problematic creatively than many remember, with a reliance on the unimaginative “base under siege” model (The Moonbase, The Wheel in Space) and as with the Hartnell era, a tendency for both the Doctor and his companions not always to be as involved with the main action as they should be (one of the jarring things about 1960s Doctor Who for those raised on the later periods is that when Hartnell, Troughton or one of his companions were due for a holiday, their character would simply disappear midway through the serial, which was very hard to smooth over in an hero-led adventure series). In the Pertwee era, one can line up the outstanding stories (Robert Holmes's two auton stories, the Silurians, Inferno, Carnival of Monsters, The Sea Devils, Invasion of the Dinosaurs, and many would add Curse of Peladon and The Green Death) with the duds (The Time Monster, The Monster of Peladon, Frontier in Space) and find something of a fifty/fifty split. Conversely, the mid-1980s might be one of Doctor Who’s less creative and consistent periods, and yet we still have Snakedance, Caves of Androzani and Revelation of the Daleks hidden inside them.
No matter how many weeds occupy a particular Who era, there are always a few hidden bloomers, and vice versa. Russell T Davies, who tends to be more diplomatic than Steven Moffat, reflected in a November 2003 DWM interview – not long after the announcement that he would be bringing the show back - that he had no particular favourite era, but loved “the whole thing”. This seems to me to be far more in tune with the nature of the programme. One can find pleasures or interests even in Doctor Who’s weakest seasons. The best analogy I have found for the brilliance of the original Doctor Who comes from Dr Johnson’s assessment of Shakespeare. Johnson had to admit that Shakespeare’s work didn’t fit into his preferred classical model of works of carefully structured, scrupulously considered works of Art (the Augustans didn’t like their literature to be frivolous or inconsistent). Instead, he saw it as “a forest […] interspersed sometimes with weeds and brambles, and sometimes giving shelter to myrtles and to roses”. There are a good deal of weeds and roses in Doctor Who’s original run: it’s as foolish to ignore vast swathes of the forest as it would be to insist that Troilus and Cressida, A Winter’s Tale, and indeed anything other than Shakespeare’s famous comedies and tragedies are worthless. Let’s not allow the fact that it is currently blooming to overshadow some of those past glories.