Sunday, January 31, 2010

I'm Going To Go Back There Someday

A dour Sunday in the middle of what is turning out to be a decidedly harsh winter was probably not the best time to get entangled in self–reflection. But I suppose these things have to happen sometime.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Carrying on from the last post, I got to thinking about the handful of literary creations that have transcended their source material. While Fagin will always be entwined in the parish boy’s progress and Fitzwilliam Darcy remains the romantic interest of Elizabeth Bennet, the truly iconic characters are the ones that can exist not just in other media but outside of their original milieu.

If it’s Alice fate to forever tumble down the rabbit hole or step through the looking–glass, there is still some room for maneuver. Alice, written by Dennis Potter for The Wednesday Play and broadcast in 1965 to coincide with the hundred anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland, examined the relationship between Charles Dodgson and the Liddell family. Blending biographical fact with flights of fantasy, the play explored the source of Dodgson’s creativity that would eventually lead to the underground adventures of his eponymous heroine.

Twenty years later Potter revisited the characters in Dreamchild, this time focussing his attention on the elderly Alice Hargreaves (née Liddell), on the eve of receiving an honorary degree from New York’s Columbia University. Suffering the intrusion of unruly journalists whose attention she cannot fathom, conflicted childhood memories and hallucinations of the Wonderland characters come together to allow Alice to finally be reconciled with her memories of the unwavering adoration of the Reverend Dodgson.

Instead it has been left to Sherlock Holmes and Dracula to not only exist far beyond their authors’ writings but also influence the creation of many more characters beside. So it’s a shame that Michael Valle’s rather entertaining Sherlock Holmes and the Vengeance of Dracula, which has been knocking around for the better part of a decade, never went into production after the script was picked up by Columbia Pictures toward the end of the 1990s. Instead, at the turn of the new century, we got yet another screen adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles starring Matt Frewer as the Baker Street detective and the decidedly sucky Dracula 2000.

Even with the odd hiccup, such iconic characters are still afforded more freedom that figures from English myth and folklore. Film and television dramas featuring King Arthur find their roots either in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur, TH White’s The Once and Future King, or the legend of Tristan and Iseult. There are the odd exceptions like The Black Knight and Prince Valiant, which take place in Arthurian times, or ITV’s Arthur of the Britons from the 1970s where Oliver Tobias’ Arthur is a Celtic chieftain uniting tribes against encroaching Saxon invaders, or the BBC’s Merlin, pandering to the current interest in wizards, but for the rest the die has pretty much been cast.

Of course that’s not so much a bad thing because left to their own devices filmmakers come up with something like King Arthur. Supposedly inspired by recent archaeological findings that allowed the producers to claim it presented a more historically accurate take on the Arthurian legends, it replaced medieval knights with Roman soldiers, led by Clive Owen’s atrocious Artorius Castus, cost a lot of money and died on its arse. Of course what they forgot to understand was that when it comes to legends audiences want the legend, even if Camelot is a silly place.

The same could be said for the legend of Robin Hood, which has gone through any number of permutations from the musical Robin and the 7 Hoods, set in 1930s Chicago and starring Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, to Krantz Films’ animated outer–space adventures of Rocket Robin Hood, and beyond to Kevin Costner’s interesting accent and the bizarre sense of geography that contribute to the complete dog’s breakfast that is Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. I’ve said before that for me Robin Hood begins with Michael Curtiz and William Keighley’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, ends with Richard Lester’s Robin and Marian, and everything else is superfluous, but still they come.

Back in early 2007 Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris, creators of the television drama Sleeper Cell, sold their script Nottingham in a bidding war eventually won by Universal Pictures. A revisionist take on traditional legend, their story saw the newly appointed Sheriff of Nottingham investigating a series of murders in which Robin Hood is the chief suspect. That might have been an interesting take on the story, seeing the Sheriff as a benevolent character and Loxley a real outlaw. Soon Russell Crowe signed on to play the lead, Ridley Scott was onboard to direct with and then a couple of months after that Brian Helgeland was drafted in to rewrite the whole thing.

Having begun to read the script just before Christmas, giving up after twenty–odd pages, and then eventually finishing it on the weekend it was easy to see why more money was spent to switch it back around. The newspaper articles trumpeting the initial role reversal was the same sort of misguided rhetoric that tried to convince readers early on that the latest Sherlock Holmes movie would be all fisticuffs and chopsocky. While Robin Hood may have been suspected of the murders he ends up as a rather inconsequential figure, appearing in three or four scenes at most, as the whole thing turns into something more akin to a medieval CSI: Nottingham.

Early on in the film’s development process they must have picked the plot apart and wondered what the point was. Three years later, with the release only a few months away, we’re back to pretty much more of the same with Robin of Loxley returning from the Third Crusade to face tyranny at home and use his military skills to restore justice to the land. And while it may just be another variation on the familiar theme, no doubt it will look spectacular.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Through The Ages

The last couple of days I’ve been ruminating at length over the comment from Brian Sibley in regard to the previous post in which he wrote:

I wonder if there are other iconic roles where people cleave to the actor they first saw in the part: Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, Mr Darcy, Fagin, Long John Silver or (with a new one about to fall into Master Burton's Wonderland) Alice...?

Before I gave consideration to the characters mentioned, his words immediately reminded me of the time back in 1993 when a new version of The Three Musketeers arrived on cinema screens, starring Chris O’Donnell, Kiefer Sutherland, Oliver Platt and Charlie Sheen as D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. I couldn’t see the point of it – especially with Chris O’Donnell and Charlie Sheen, for goodness sake – because for me those valiant musketeers will forever be Michael York, Oliver Reed, Frank Finlay and Richard Chamberlain in Richard Lester’s film version, made twenty years earlier.

Written by George MacDonald Fraser, the author of the Flashman series of novels, the film remained remarkably faithful to Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 novel while including a good portion of Lester’s trademark sight gags and slapstick, most of which involved Roy Kinnear as D’Artagnan’s manservant Planchet or Raquel Welch’s accident-prone Constance Bonacieux. Intended to have a running time of three hours, it was split in two by producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind with the darker second half, titled The Four Musketeers, released the following year.

Of course while I was enjoying the quartet’s attempts to save the Queen Consort of France from being discredited by Cardinal Richelieu and his lackey the Count De Rochefort, and surviving the wrath of Milady de Winter, there may have been much older members of the audience sighing at the bawdy humour or frowning as the numerous swordfights descended into brawls. For them Lester’s movies didn’t match up to the swashbuckling version from 1948, starring Gene Kelly and Lana Turner, which they had embraced as a child.

So what we have is a version for each new generation to imprint on. Although saying that I’ve just remembered that my first exposure to the adventures of D’Artagnan and his fellow musketeers was in the series of animated shorts, designed by the esteemed cartoonist and illustrator Alex Toth, that appeared in episodes of The Banana Splits, produced by Hanna–Barbera Productions. Then I wondered if the adventures of Fleagle, Bingo, Drooper and Snorky was perhaps my generation’s version of Teletubbies but decided it was best not to go there and move on instead before it devolves into comparing the merits of The Tra La La Song to Teletubbies say “Eh–oh!”.

Still, the diversion was helpful because while I could name which particular actors, actresses and, in one case, cartoon character played the roles that Brian specified, I was intrigued to try and work out why those particular performances are ingrained in my consciousness. Born in the mid–1960s, the combination of television and film adaptations featuring these characters would probably have been seen from 1970 onwards. Of course that doesn’t mean they were all new releases.

Coping with the terrible hardship of only three television channels and no DVDs or even VHS, there were still releases at the cinema and dedicated film seasons on TV that helped up make do in the face of such terrible depravation. There’s no point trying to be too specific about when I saw them because no doubt that unreliable memories from nearly forty years back will be juggling up the exact times of when, let alone where, I saw these films and television. So cut me a little slack if I get some of the dates mixed up.

Frankenstein’s Monster for me is Boris Karloff in James Whale’s Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. That seems like a complete no–brainer. Except he’s not the first actor I saw playing the role, so I’m afraid I fail on that one. The very first adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel I remember seeing is the US TV movie Frankenstein: The True Story, with Michael Sarrazin as “The Creature”. Though made in 1973, it didn’t turn up on the BBC until a couple of years after that simply because Tom Baker appeared in as the ship’s captain and he had already taken over from Jon Pertwee in Doctor Who by the time I saw it.

Maybe it was because for most of the time Sarrazin looked human until the process of reanimating the corpse began to reverse itself and he started to look the worse for wear. Either way the shocks and scares that stick in my mind include James Mason’s Dr. John Polidori pulling off his black glove to reveal his horribly scared claw of a hand and Jane Seymour’s head briefly rolling across the ballroom floor. Whale’s classic interpretation of the story must have come a little later and I have a vague recollection of BBC2 running a season of the classic Universal horror films that also included the likes of The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Lon Chaney, Jr in The Wolf Man and maybe even Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Tod Browning’s Dracula, starring Béla Lugosi, must have been part of the package although when I think of Count Dracula it’s Christopher Lee in the role that initially springs to mind. Why that is I don’t know because he first played the role before my time and I never saw any of his further performances at the cinema. In fact the first time I saw Christopher Lee on screen was as Count De Rochefort and then Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun, and then as Fu Manchu in the Harry Alan Towers–produced series of films when they were broadcast on television, possibly in the late 1970s.

Having missed the BBC’s 1977 production of Dracula, starring Louis Jourdan and Frank Finlay as Van Helsing, and John Badham’s version with Frank Langella released at the end of the decade, maybe it wasn’t until the 1980s that I was properly introduced to the many screen incarnations of Bram Stoker’s creation. By the time Bram Stoker's Dracula rolled around in 1992, I remember sitting in the West End cinema making a note of all the little visual tricks Coppola had pinched from Murnau’s Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens and the like.

The third character on the list is an earlier one to answer. I haven’t seen 1940 film version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice starring Laurence Olivier as Fitzwilliam Darcy and missed the BBC’s 1980 version, adapted for television by Fay Weldon, so when it comes to Mr Darcy the first image that comes to mind is Colin Firth in the adaptation broadcast in the mid–1990s, putting me in the same camp as a lot of hot and bothered young women. Having watched The Camomile Lawn a few years earlier on Channel 4, I was obviously more interested in Jennifer Ehle’s Elizabeth Bennet.

Though born just at the right time to see Oliver! when it was released in the late 1960s, the only musical I was ever taken to see as a nipper was The Sound of Music. So instead of Ron Moody, Fagin will always be Alec Guinness in David Lean’s classic version of Oliver Twist, no doubt seen on the BBC at some point although I don’t exactly know when. Once again, it may have been part of a film season because I have an inkling I first saw Great Expectations at around the same time. Although Pip’s encounter with Magwitch in the graveyard gave me the willies, Bill Sikes’ murder of Nancy, with the dog furiously scratching at the door, scared the bejesus out of me.

Lean had cast Robert Newton as Sikes and, probably like everyone else, it’s Newton who I picture as Long John Silver. Treasure Island was the proper book I read when I was four and remember reading it in my grandparent’s house and having to get my dad help me pronounce Hispaniola. Although there was a film version released in 1972 starring Orson Welles as Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous pirate – which would have been ideal timing for me – I wasn’t taken to see it because I must have already seen Disney’s classic adaptation from 1950 starring Robert Newton on television or watched a repeat run of The Adventures of Long John Silver.

So that just leaves Lewis Carroll’s Alice. Far too young to have seen the BBC television production directed by Jonathan Miller for The Wednesday Play and featuring Peter Cook as the Hatter and Alan Bennett as the Dormouse, the first screen adaptation I saw was Alice's Adventures in Wonderland with Fiona Fullerton playing the titular character, Michael Jayston as Dodgson and Michael Crawford as the White Rabbit. Yet strangely any mention of Alice in Wonderland makes me think of the animated Disney film from 1951 and I’m not sure why?

It may be that the musical version was stuffed full of so many now–familiar actors and comedians playing Carroll’s wonderfully exotic creations that Fiona Fullerton’s performance got lost in the mix. Or it may be that with clips of the animated feature being shown on Disney Time in my youth, and that particular version of the book being the one I’ve watched since, somewhere in my head Marc Davis‘ character design, based on voice–artist Kathryn Beaumont, has usurped Fiona Fullerton in my imagination. Is that something I should worry about?

In the meantime, those are the faces that immediately spring to mind when I hear those half–dozen character names. Feel free to chip in with what’s in your head while I go and have a lie down.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Holmes Away From Home

On the journey back to London after spending Christmas in the Westcountry I decided to try and work out what my ten best films of the year had been. Because I wasn’t having too much luck with the crossword it seemed like a reasonably good enough way of whiling away the time, at least until I actually put some thought to it.

Twenty–odd years back I had been toddling off to see something like 75 films a year on average. Over the past twelve months the number had been considerably less. In fact I could only remember seeing Star Trek, The Hurt Locker and Up, although I was sure there had been a couple of movies back in early January I had made a point of going to see. For the life of me couldn’t conjure up the titles – which turned out to be Frost/Nixon and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – for a long time.

It wasn’t that the pair were instantly forgettable, but simply that over the last few years I’ve preferred to wait and watch films at home on DVD rather than sit in a large room full of strangers, especially now that the wait isn’t that long compared to back in the days of the antiquated sell–thru VHS tapes. While I removed myself from yet one more social activity, because of the constant stream of films appearing on disc from last year and the years before it, the original cinema release dates became meaningless. Or maybe I simply wasn’t paying enough attention.

Late December I picked up The Lives of Others in the Christmas sales, figuring there was still just enough time to watch the film with the possibility of it making the list. So I was certainly bemused to read the back of the case on the tube journey home to discover that it was actually three years old. Has it been that long? Either way, in those few days leading up to Old Year’s Night I didn’t get to watch it. So Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s award–winning drama patiently sits on the shelves alongside District 9 and Public Enemies, which I do know came out last year, waiting to be slipped into the DVD player at some point.

The fact that I haven’t made time for either of those films but did rent Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen early last month is something I find quite disconcerting, and a time will come when I’ll have to think long and hard about that particular decision. That stinking pile of rhubarb wouldn’t find a place in a top ten list if it had been the only film I saw all year. The same goes for the fetid Watchmen. For a long time I was wracking my brain trying to think of the big summer movies from last year and finally I remembered Watchmen, and then wished I hadn’t.

To take away the sour taste of all the hopeless CGI-spattered nonsense, when I wasn’t watching early Hitchcock or simply going back to Powell & Pressburger, there was Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity and The International, which harked back to the great caper movies and conspiracy thrillers of the 1960s and 70s even if they weren’t a complete success, Gran Torino and State of Play, and, because it’s always good to have a good laugh, In The Loop. No doubt there were more, but this was enough to remember last year by and in the end my favourites were The Hurt Locker and Up, with Star Trek and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button bringing up the rear.

Though Frost/Nixon was a decent enough little film, being reminded of it left me puzzled as to why, twelve months back, I had made the effort to go out and see it, especially given that it wasn’t a particularly cinematic scene. Not bothering to see many films in the previous year, especially having been put off by the endurance required to sit through The Dark Knight, I suspect come January of last year I was trying to make an effort and see movies at the cinema, although ultimately that didn’t pan out so well.

This past weekend I figured I’d try and give it another go because, well, what the hell! Given the choices when I got to the cinema, I plumped for Sherlock Holmes. Obviously it wasn’t one of the new New Year releases, and having been on release for quite a few weeks now, it was relegated to the size of auditorium where there was the possibility of hitting my head on the screen if I tripped on the way in. But it looked like a far better option than the computer–constructed nonsense like Alvin and The Chipmunks 2: The Squeakquel or, worse, Avatar.

I not particularly a fan of Guy Ritchie’s work insofar that I didn’t like the two earlier films of his that I’ve seen, and the opening scene in which Lastrade and Watson tool up in the back of the Black Maria made me wary that it was going to be two hours of east end geezers transported to the 19th century. I suppose there was some of that but there was a lot more besides. As a piece of Victorian blood-and-thunder not only was the film good rollicking fun but, rather remarkably, it actually stuck far closer to elements of Conan Doyle’s literary work than many of the other adaptations.

If there was a downside, occasionally there was a bit too much fiddle-de-dee fiddle and penny whistle on the soundtrack, and some of the quick patter between the leads had me wishing I could reach for a remote and bring up the subtitles. But Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law (who I’ve previously considered a long streak of weak piss) made an engaging, bickering couple and of course there was the great Eddie Marsan as Inspector Lestrade. Though pixels had to be employed to recreate parts of old London town they didn’t overpower a story that also found a fine way to illustrate Holmes’ powers of deduction.

That alone should have made my day but since I was out I decided to stay about. After half an hour polishing off The Times’ Samurai Su Doku I watched Up in the Air. With the next Bond film delayed because MGM is crippled by $4m debt and up for sale, in the interim we’ve got a hitman who takes away your job rather than putting a bullet in your head, which is probably right on target for the current economic climate. At its most bittersweet it reminded me of something Billy Wilder and Izzy Diamond would have conjured up by having a character counsel people to soften the blow of a dramatic change in their circumstances but fail to their own advice.

The fact that I’m now only a couple of months from what is officially middle age but now prefer films like Up in the Air, Sideways and Lost in Translation, where characters are dealing with various mid–life crises, instead of trying to cling to the lingering flush of youth by staring, boggle–eyed at ass–clown empty spectacle is rather disturbing. Sometimes it pays not to get ahead of yourself.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Master Grace

Shaking off the stupor brought on by the languor of the festive period, the first week of the New Year galloped into the next at a rather worrying lick and shows no sign of slowing down. Stuck indoors, either hunched over the keyboard or poring over the reference material that is gradually beginning to be funnelled my way and piling up on the desk, afforded me the luxury of avoiding going out during the worst of the particularly unsavoury weather conditions.

Trying to negotiate the pavements slick with the crushed and refrozen snow, days after the first flurries blanketed the city, taking tentative, shuffling baby steps like everyone else so as not to have my feet slip out from under me was one thing, but the wind chill made it worse. With the lingering ear infection that has only recently abated, the biting cold felt like someone was repeatedly stabbing me in the head with a stiletto. Even breaking into my stash of codeine tablets, left over from the summer, didn’t really help alleviate the sudden, stabbing pains.

Staying in meant I had to forfeit an event at the BFI Southbank I was looking forward to attending, but having that time available meant I finally got around to catching up with the few remaining television programmes I’d missed over Christmas. In fact, during their last days of availability on iPlayer, I sat down and watched the two episodes of Doctor Who that marked the swan song of Russell T Davies and David Tennant. Figuring I was going to end up watching them eventually, it seemed like an idea to just press play and get it over with.

Over the past few years it has become something of a sport to gleefully knock Davies for writing the most abominably–plotted scripts that appeared to be slapped together without rhyme or reason, but this time it looked like he had actually put some effort into the story. There were instances when it didn’t always make sense, and if there were specific references to the Time Lords machinations that referred to the original run I didn’t get them. But most astonishing of all, I actually enjoyed The End of Time.

I might not have felt the same way if I caught the episodes when they were originally transmitted. Even by the time the Christmas edition of QI came around I was beginning to get a bit fed up of Tennant being carpet–bombed into the BBC’s festive schedule, even half expecting him to turn up and read the early evening news bulletin when he began to appear almost ubiquitous. Actually, it must have been a real downer for a lot of fans sitting down to watch the first part on Christmas Day, and expecting the typical nonsensical crash, bang, wallop only to find the episode given over to two old men contemplated their lives and impending deaths.

Once the theme was firmly established it made it much more easier to forgive the one or two things that didn’t work. With the overriding sense of melancholy permeating the narrative Tennant dialled down on the earlier boggle–eyed overacting, returning to the sort of performance he gave in Peter Bowker’s Blackpool, John Simm gave a far more considered and affecting performance than his over–the–top last go around, and Bernard Cribbins effortlessly stepped up to show the youngsters how it was done.

Anyway, that’s my excuse. Surprised that I hadn’t utterly loathed Davies’ episodes as usual, once it was over I give my skull a rudimentary once over for any serious bumps or cranial damage from a spill on the ice that I hadn’t remembered taking, just I case. When that was done and with a few minutes to spare before the clock ran out, most remarkably of all I watched them through for a second time just to make sure. Bizarrely when I got around to calling pals who were fans of the show, ostensibly to wish them a belated Happy New Year, when we got to talking about the show it turned out they liked it less than I had.

One thing a few of us agreed on was how great Nurse Jackie was. It’s usually the case that once Christmas and the New Year are through and normal service is resumed, television listings throw up some particularly tragic programmes, possibly based on the fact the schedulers were too busy partying last month to really care what they were going to put out for us throughout January. Two or three decent new shows appear but most slots are filled with the likes of The Man Who Can’t Stop Hiccuping or Muslim Driving School or Girl Who Cries Blood or, worse, the new series of Survivors, which were all gobbed out last night to sully our retinas.

After all the indulgences of December, both onscreen and off, there’s nothing better to start the year with a somewhat nihilistic and particularly vicious black comedy about a fucked up nurse and her fellow fucked up employees. It was a good idea by whoever it was stayed off the eggnog long enough to strip the initial five episodes across the first week of transmission before it went weekly so everyone could get a handle on the regular characters and guest roles like the guy who keeps being savaged by his cat.

After watching Monday’s episode it seemed a shame that the BBC didn’t schedule Nurse Jackie in early December because, “Here’s to you. And here’s to me. And if we ever disagree, fuck you! And here’s to me!”, would have made a great Christmas toast, with or without a morphine–laced glass of champagne to raise in celebration. Still, I’m sure there are plenty more occasions where it will come in handy.

Monday, January 04, 2010

The Blind Leading The Blind

Surely it’s long past the time where we should admit there are stories in speculative or science fiction that simply don’t work anymore. Or, to put it more succinctly, what still appears entertaining on the page after all the years since its initial publication can turn into absolute tomfoolery when adapted and updated for another medium.

Once back in London I started catching up with a few of the Christmas schedule programmes I had missed. After watching BBC4’s wonderful documentary Oliver Postgate: A life in Small Films that really should have been the end of it. Foolishly I carried on, just recently taking in the BBC’s two–part of adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids that had been dropped into the scheduling hinterland between Christmas and New Year’s Day. It really didn’t work for me.

It’s been a long while since I’ve read any Wyndham. Though The Day of the Triffids is perhaps his most well–known title, the story never really did it for me. As post–apocalyptic science fiction – later described in Brian Aldiss’ Billion Year Spree as a “cosy catastrophe” – I could understand if Wyndham intended to explore how the populace would react to a sudden breakdown in society, but the homicidal vegetation always seemed the weakest part of the narrative. A foe that could be defeated relatively easily, the story therefore included the added dimension of the majority of the population inconveniently blinded by the unexpected green meteor shower to make them a far more credible threat.

Having previously seen both the film starring Howard Keel, which strayed wildly from the original novel, and the BBC’s earlier adaptation, back when it was first broadcast in 1981, I started watching this latest interpretation to see whether it would find a clever way to address the failings. Instead what the BBC served up was a reheated version of Survivors with a side order of vegetables. The two significant changes were making the triffid extracts a replacement for fossil fuels rather than a superior vegetable oil and replacing the meteor shower that blinds Earth’s population with an exaggerated solar storm. The first alteration was quite intelligent. The second was absolute bollocks.

I’m beginning to think there must be a special Room of Stupid Science deep in the bowels of Television Centre where the writers of Doctor Who, the remake of Survivors, and this version of The Day of the Triffids, if they can’t be arsed to do any sensible research for their story, are given a day pass to pick out any old lazy bullshit to string their story together with. Wyndham’s original meteor shower blinding almost everyone on Earth was pushing it a bit, but at least the meteors could theoretically pass around the planet and be seen from every landmass. But having a massive pulse from the sun blinding everyone? Really?

I would have thought the news reports in the drama wouldn’t be about the solar storm but how the different continents around the globe could all be bathed in sunlight at the same time. That’s quite an achievement for a start. However much of an utter boob the writer of this version is, you would think they would have a basic understanding of night and day and how they come about. It’s not that difficult a concept to understand. Even before this event took place, I was beginning to have my doubts about the drama.

If memory serves, the novel opens with Bill Masen already in hospital with his eyes bandaged after his unfortunate exposure to triffid venom. The 1981 version, with John Duttine in the role, might have started the same way for all I know, but this time around obviously the audience had to be treated to the special effects–laden light show, simply because we’re in a time where viewers cannot be denied the shiny–shiny. The time shift means that Masen’s introduction is brought forward so, the flashback to his mother’s death at the hands of a triffid aside, we get to see him get a slapping from the juvenile plant. In doing so it presented, for me, two big concerns that would nag at me throughout the three–hour running time.

Back in late November I mentioned that one reason The Waters of Mars didn’t work for me was because, aside from the useless story the gormless munters running the Mars base didn’t seem to have any clue of what to do in an emergency. Here Triffoil, which exploited the animated vegetables for their juice, and its staffers were just as badly (if not utterly illogically) defined. Unless the drama was meant to be a veiled attack on the irresponsibility of big businesses, no thought had been put into the script about how the company operated.

Triffoil obviously prided itself with a one hundred per cent safety record because there were no medical personnel on site to deal with the slightest violent exposure to the triffids. After Masen is stung he has to be bundled into a car and driven to London for urgent medical attention. Luckily for him the roads were clear. But it struck me that given the violent nature of the triffids, something that Triffoil has kept secret from the public, wouldn’t the company have protocols for worse case scenarios, like the power grid at the farms going down thereby allowing the triffids to get free?

Even without the solar storm inconveniently blinding the populace, if a couple plants snuck past security and started snacking on innocent passersby it would be a PR shitstorm for the company. Wouldn’t they have worked out the best course of action to effectively destroy the triffids in one fell swoop if the worst came to the worst? It doesn’t mean that their safety measures have to work and stop the drama in its track before it has begun, but I was surprised that Masen, having apparently studied triffids all his working life, didn’t have one clue how to deal with them.

Involving himself in the security action when the Triffoil farm is broken into at the beginning of the drama, Masen tries to impress upon the eco–mentalist, there to film the treatment of the plants for whatever inane reason, the need to wear the protective glasses because the triffids habitually go for the eyes when they lash out. But after that, apart from the brief radio address in which he warns anyone listening that the plants are dangerous he doesn’t go out of his way to impart any of this tenuous wisdom to anyone else. For most of the time he doesn’t even bother wearing any protective goggles himself so that the triffids are treated like an inconvenience rather than a real menace.

What that left the viewer with is a retread of Survivors with the occasional homicidal plant attack. Just like the remake of Survivors, these buffoons made all the same rudimentary mistakes. There’s a wonderful scene in Shaun of the Dead where Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and their group of survivors sneak down a back alley behind the suburban gardens and encounter Jessica Stevenson and an almost identical gang that includes Martin Freeman, Tamsin Greig and Julia Deakin coming the other way. It’s like The Bizarro Jerry episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine, sick of their childish antics, makes friends with the exact opposites of Jerry, George and Kramer.

Because Stevenson’s character comes to the rescue at the end it’s obvious that her troop had the smarts to defend themselves against the zombie hordes whereas most of Pegg’s party of family, friends and fuckups get themselves chomped up. In a comedy you want to stick with the idiots who are going to screw things up completely, but since The Day of the Triffids was meant to be a drama couldn’t there at least have been some people with enough common sense to properly fight the plants? They don’t have to solve the problems instantly but instead have some idea of what to do in a crisis.

My old chemistry teacher had a touch–sensitive plant until one day a classmate put it next to an open gas tap and lit a match to see how sensitive it was to fire. At one point Masen uses a lighter and aerosol to beat back a triffid when they are raiding the provisions warehouse so why weren’t the survivors lobbing Molotov cocktails at the triffids or making a run to the nearest garden centre for some heavy–duty weed killer? I don’t quite understand this need to make the vegetable aggressors more terrifying by making the oppressed survivors complete idiots.

When vegetables weren’t attacking, the adaptation concentrated on how, when society goes to hell, a nobody can become a somebody. I liked the visual shorthand to show what a complete bastard Eddie Izzard’s Torrence was, nicking all the inflatable life vests from the front row of frightened passengers on his flight, but having him survive the plane crash by going into the toilet and piling the inflated vests on top of himself? It was almost as daft as his admission at the end that the London enclave had collapsed because the triffids had found a way into the sewers. Then what? The triffid tendrils worked their way around the U–bend and stung the survivors on the arse when they went to the can?

With its ill thought out and sloppy writing, this update of Wydham’s novel failed as a drama and simply continued to show the contempt programme makers have for science fiction. Just because Russell T Davies has bolstered his career slapping any old nonsense on the screen that the audience willingly laps up, does everyone think they’ll be able to get away with it as well?

When the treatment for this version of The Day of the Triffids turned up, someone at the BBC should have figured out that even with the introduction of the daddy issues that made Marsen a relentlessly miserable git it still wasn’t going to work. It’s a shame they didn’t decide to adapt The Midwich Cuckoos or even The Kraken Wakes instead.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Making Contact

Another day, another decade. All we can hope for, I guess, is that it’s better than the last. Whenever a new year comes around I look for some inspirational quote to make up for the drivel I spout the rest of the time. Unfortunately the only thing rattling around in my head right now are these words from Bertrand Russell:

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.

Since that doesn’t quite have the encouraging ring I was looking for, maybe it’s best to start 2010 with this image of the Earth taken by the crew of the International Space Station in late November of last year and let you make of it what you will as I proffer you a Happy New Year and a wish for wings that work.