Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Goodbye, Mrs Peel

I didn't really want to get to the end of the DVD of the last few episodes of the 1967 season of the Avengers, because I didn't want to see Mrs Peel leave. I've nothing against Tara King (Linda Thorson), but my memories are that the series got quite a bit sillier after she joined Steed - and she was definitely an assistant, rather than a partner.

However, the penultimate episode, Mission....Highly Improbable, had the added bonus of Nicholas Courtney playing the head of security at the secret scientific base - in a uniform and bright red motorcycle helmet that made him look like Captain Video! - and Francis Matthews as one of the scientists - the voice of Captain Scarlet, and Paul Temple in the TV series. So I took great delight in seeing The Brig chatting to Steed as they attempted to solve the mystery of the disappearing Rolls together.

And thus fortified, I went on to watch The Forget-Me-Knot, in which just about everybody loses their memory at some point, but even when they don't remember who they are, Steed and Mrs Peel manage to thwart the bad guys. The episode actually introduced Tara King really well, showing her to be resourceful and quick witted, and she joined Steed in the end titles. At the time, The Avengers was a very popular show with a fairly big budget - they had a helicopter for Murdersville! - and they obviously took great care with the replacement of the co-star.
This was also, I think, the first mention of Mother, and a clear statement that Steed was a secret agent. In earlier episodes, it's usually left vague, and he introduces himself as being "from the Ministry" or some such, usually with an eye-poppingly high security clearance. I'd forgotten Mother was in a wheelchair, too (was Ironside on TV in the UK by then, or was that later? The first season was certainly filmed in 1967).
The final scenes, when Mrs Peel's husband is discovered alive, and drives off with her (wearing a bowler hat almost exactly like Steed's) are really very touching. Patrick McNee confessed in the extras that he had gone off to his dressing room for a little cry after Diana Rigg had kissed him goodbye.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Women Warriors - Artemesia

I think I first found out about the Battle of Salamis from a children's encyclopaedia called The Living World of History - lots of full colour pictures, in this case of triremes crashing into each other in exciting fashion. There was the Oracle at Delphi giving the Athenians advice about how they should defend themselves against the Persians with the cryptic phrase "Put your faith in the wooden walls!" Some Athenians decided this meant barricades, but Themistocles realised that he needed to defeat the Persian fleet.
On land, the 300 Spartans fought and died at Thermopylae - and in Hollywood, someone decided that there ought to be a sequel to the film 300, and set the wheels in motion to produce one. I haven't seen it yet, but I was surprised when I heard that there was a major part for a woman in it. Although I'd known about the Battle of Salamis since I was about ten, I don't think I'd ever come across any mention of Queen Artemesia.
She brought five ships from Kos and Halicarnassus - the Turkish city which is now called Bodrum, but at the time was part of the Greek world. I lived on Kos for almost a year, and took tourists across to Bodrum on the ferry once a week in the holiday season, which meant that I learned a bit about the history - for instance, Alexander the Great passed through, and so many people gathered to see him that a bridge collapsed and killed some of them. The only queen I heard about was the widow of Mausolus, for whom the Mausoleum was built - the ruins of it are open to the public, though most of the stone was taken after an earthquake to build the Crusader castle on the harbour. Nobody talked about Artemesia.
Perhaps it was because she brought her five ships onto the Persian side of the battle....

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Philip Sandifer: Writer: Here Standing In Front Of You (The Time of the Doc...

Philip Sandifer: Writer: Here Standing In Front Of You (The Time of the Doc...: In this image, Clara is cleverly disguised as the number 2. It's December 25th, 2013. X-Factor  winner Sam Bailey is at number one ...

I just thought this was a lovely review of the Time of the Doctor

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Steed, How You Disappointed Me!

Having watched the first six Avengers stories co-starring Mrs Peel, from 1965, (and she is a co-star, not a side-kick), I found that the other DVDs I'd picked up were the last seven stories she ever did, from 1967. Only two years, and even now it's the role Diana Rigg is most famous for! So I was cheerfully watching The £50,000 Breakfast, which involved diamond smuggling and borzoi dogs, when Steed goes off to a cigar smoking evening with the man who went on to be the master of the house in Upstairs, Downstairs, but here was a posh but dodgy doctor. As he sniffs the cigar appreciatively, a couple of guys with steel drums are playing in the background. This was something quite new in 1967 - I remember a steel drum band being featured on Blue Peter not long after that, as something quite exotic and exciting. So I was just mentally congratulating the production team for finding a way to get some black faces into the show when Steed cheerfully greeted the dodgy doctor with "Why the jungle music?"
Oh, dear. Steed, I thought better of you than that.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Minister of Chance at BritSciFi Con

It's always nice to come across a kindred spirit, and at Stuart's Blog ( I came across a fellow member of the crowd which has been funding the Minister of Chance on its journey from audio series to film. He met some of the stars, including Paul McGann, at BritSciFi at the beginning of March, and blogged about it, and the Prologue film.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Big Finish: The Audio Scripts

I've only recently been getting into the world of Big Finish, the audio adventures of Doctor Who, together with spin-offs Jago and Litefoot (from the story The Talons of Weng Chiang), Companion Chronicles, and other audio adventures like Blake's Seven. Partly, I've been floundering because I didn't know where to start, though the Eighth Doctor seemed like a good bet, since the film and the audio adventures are all we have of him. So one of the first CDs I bought was Chimes of Midnight, where he's paired with Charley Pollard, who was supposed to have died in the R101 disaster in 1930.
Chimes of Midnight just happens to be one of the scripts published in the three volumes I found by chance in one of the other bookshops in Hay-on-Wye, and each script comes with a couple of essays about the story, and changes that were made to the scripts during production.

This was fascinating stuff! Each volume contains a script from each of the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Doctors, and I found that I could hear the voices of the characters as I read the scripts really quite easily, which is a mark of the quality of the writing.

We start with Loups-Garoux by Marc Platt, a werewolf story with the Fifth Doctor and Turlough, but it was the second story, The Holy Terror by Robert Shearman, starring the Sixth Doctor and Frobisher the talking penguin (of all people!) that really chilled my blood.
Then the Seventh Doctor and Mel (who actually comes over as being quite sensible and not screamy at all) go to Pompeii in The Fires of Vulcan by Steve Lyons, and the Eighth Doctor and Charley get involved in Gallifreyan problems with Anti-Time in Neverland, with President Romana - and oh, joy! Rassilon is played by Don Warrington, who has just the right sonorous tones for the First of the Time Lords. This one ends on such a cliffhanger that I will have to get the CD of Zagreus, which follows this story, to find out what happens next. It appears I may be in for a treat, as this is the 40th Anniversary multi-Doctor story, though some reviews say that it is very confusing. We shall see....

Volume Two starts with The Eye of the Scorpion by Iain McLaughlin, starring the Fifth Doctor and Peri in Ancient Egypt, followed by The One Doctor by Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman, which stars the Sixth Doctor and Mel - and Christopher Biggins as a con artist who is pretending to be the Doctor.
Dust Breeding by Mike Tucker has the Seventh Doctor and Ace, the painting The Scream by Edvard Munch, and the Master, and Seasons of Fear by Paul Cornell and Caroline Symcox has the Eighth Doctor and Charley hopping about through time from a Roman camp to the Court of Edward the Confessor to the headquarters of the Hellfire Club, via Singapore in 1930.

Volume Three starts with one of the best (and scariest) Fifth Doctor stories I think I've ever come across in any format - Spare Parts by Marc Platt. It's the origin story for the Cybermen, and also stars Sally Knyvette (Jenna from Blake's Seven) as the doctor developing the Cybermen. Nyssa is the companion in this one.
The Spectre of Lanyon Moor by Nicholas Pegg is a Tom Baker style romp complete with mysterious archaeological dig and UNIT (the Brig is retired, but still manages to save the Earth!) but with Colin Baker and his audio companion Dr Evelyn Smythe taking the part that was first intended for Sarah Jane, had Tom Baker agreed to take part. The Rapture, by Joseph Lidster is a Seventh Doctor and Ace story, set around a club in Ibiza, and the final story in the volume is The Chimes of Midnight by Robert Shearman.

I enjoyed all of them, and now I'll have a better idea of where to jump in to try more when I visit the Big Finish website again....

Friday, 18 April 2014

Castle De'Ath

Here's an episode of The Avengers from 1965 that has just about every cliche and stereotype about Scotland thrown into it. All the men (apart from one or two minions) wear kilts, including Steed - or "Jock McSteed" as he's introducing himself here. Only Mrs Peel wears trousers, apart from when she's borrowing a floaty white nightdress from Hammer Horror. In fact, Mrs Peel is the only woman in this episode.
It doesn't really matter why there are midget submarines in the loch - they're just an excuse for the phantom piper and all the rest, with Gordon Jackson being wonderfully grumpy as the laird. The climactic fight scene is fun, too, with Steed jumping onto the dining table, claymore and targe in hand. Though I distinctly saw a flash of white underpants under one of the kilts!
They filmed at a very fine castle, too, though it's about as far from Scotland as you can get - Allington Castle, near Maidstone in Kent. It's now a private residence (it's far too grand to be just called a 'house') and at one time it was a Carmelite Convent.

Whispers Underground and Broken Homes

Being books 3 and 4 in the Rivers of London/Peter Grant series by Ben Aaronovitch.
I really love the world that Ben Aaronovitch has created, and the way it is totally grounded in police procedure - and the way he can get round any tiresome police procedure by having the Folly as a semi-independent body which can make up the rules here and there. After all, it's a police department consisting of two and a half members at the moment, Lesley being officially still on sick leave after the events of Rivers of London (plus spooky servant and dog, of course). My Young Man is a PCSO, and I spent four years working for the Met as a Clerical Officer (as it was then, in the mists of time before computers), and all the police stuff really rings true.
So Whispers Underground takes us to the Underground system and the sewers, via the murder of an American student - which also brings in the FBI, as said student is the son of a senator. There's a lot of history about the building of the tunnels, and Ben Aaronovitch also takes a look at the world of modern art on the way, as well as continuing the plot lines concerning the Faceless Man (who almost killed Peter in Moon over Soho) and the river spirits of the city.
In Broken Homes, we go up into the high-rise flats of Skygarden, one of the post-war rebuilding projects that didn't quite create the brave new world the architects were aiming for.
I grew up not far from some much smaller scale high rise flats, at Kersal in Salford, which were early enough to still have coal fires, and badly designed enough that the only way to get the coal to the flats was in the passenger lift. They were mostly blown up in the 1980s - one block, now privately owned, still survives - and there is a website somewhere that has collected the memories of people who lived there, who were mostly really, really pleased to get out of the Victorian terraces of Salford to somewhere they could see rabbits from their balconies at the beginning.
In Ben Aaronovitch's version of reality, of course the Skygarden estate was built with magical principles in mind, and some of what he describes turns out to be real architectural ideas.
Along with the exciting action and interesting characters, he packs a lot of information into the books about London history and all sorts of other things, like the architecture here. Peter Grant has quite a few things to say about the design deficiencies of the flats, and one of the other characters shows him what the original vision for the building had been - literally a garden in the sky.
Along the way, they also encounter magical markets and demon traps, and start to discover more about the international magical scene.
I'm really looking forward to the next book coming out - and not just because Broken Homes ended on such a cliff hanger!

Saturday, 12 April 2014

More Widdershins

My Young Man has lent me the two Widdershins graphic novels that he bought at London Super Comic Con - and now I'm truly hooked on Kate Ashwin's world and looking forward to more stories.
This is a world just on the edge of becoming Victorian - Princess Victoria is mentioned in one of the stories - but where magic is real, and the town of Widdershins is the home of both a university of magic and a new railway station.
The second book, No Rest for the Wicked, introduces two new characters - an Irishman who can see spirits, and his friend a jolly German violinist. Jack O'Malley's unique talent is useful to wizards in Widdershins who are trying to get rid of unwanted manifestations caused by conjurations that went wrong (or "buggerups"). They also uncover a fiendish plot pitting science against magic.
In the third story we're back to Harriet and Sid with Vanishing Act, a story that was inspired by the classic Doctor Who story The Talons of Weng Chiang. Tim Chiang is the stage magician, and his assistant is missing - an assistant who has a talent for making mechanical marvels.
Once again there are good female characters - Harriet the bounty hunter, obviously, and Lei the Chinese mechanical genius in Vanishing Act, and in No Rest for the Wicked, police Captain Barber and Councilwoman Fairbairn.
Kate Ashwin updates her website every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Mind of Evil

I'd forgotten just how gritty Doctor Who could be in the Pertwee era.
This was one of the Doctor/Master stories that I don't think I've ever seen, and I always enjoy the Master's convoluted plots (and the way he usually has to ask the Doctor for help when things go wrong).
Here we have a prison riot, with UNIT storming the prison and shooting several of the prisoners dead, after some of the prisoners ambushed a UNIT convoy and stole a missile for the Master. And the Doctor is tortured. To quote Sue from Adventures with the Wife in Space: "When does Doctor Who turn back into a children’s television show again? This is more like Straw Dogs."
It was good, earlier in the story, to see parts for two Chinese actors, actually speaking Hokkien, with sub-titles. This was the dialect that the actress playing the Chinese Captain spoke, so she became the language coach for Jon Pertwee - though she said that she couldn't really understand what he was trying to say when she listened to the dialogue again. Still, it was a fairly unusual thing to attempt in 1971.
And Jo was really quite a useful companion - at one point she even disarms one of the prisoners as she tries to escape.
I was very impressed with the prison, too, which turns out to be Dover Castle (they couldn't film at a real prison for fairly obvious reasons) - but they did get a real missile from the RAF!

Sunday, 6 April 2014

The Avengers, 1965, British style

Having enjoyed the graphic novel featuring Steed and Mrs Peel, I had a look at some old episodes of the series from 1965. This was, in fact, the year that Emma Peel replaced Cathy Gale, and the very first episode starring Diana Rigg was The Town of No Return, followed by The Gravediggers and the Cybernauts.
Emma Peel is introduced to the programme when Steed goes round to her flat and finds her practicing her fencing. They obviously know each other well at this point, and later in the episode Emma is in bed in her room at the pub where they are staying, with Steed in the same room, fully clothed. Later, we find that Emma can let herself into Steed's flat and make herself coffee - and she remarks that he doesn't eat breakfast, which presumably means that she's been around at breakfast time at some point to find out.
It's interesting to see Emma Peel go undercover, first as a primary school teacher and then as a nurse, because in each case she is accepted instantly because she has a letter "from the Ministry" - who apparently allocated teachers and nurses willy-nilly across the country, even to private hospitals for Ailing Railwaymen. A far cry from present day cuts.
Because Emma is there to fight bad guys, in each case there has to be a bad woman (an icy blonde in each episode) for her to fight while Steed fights the men - though she does defeat one baddie by getting him to fall down an open trapdoor. She also gets tied up twice, though the second time is very funny, where she's tied to a model railway line to the accompaniment of silent movie piano music.
It was also interesting to note that solar power was mentioned in two episodes, and one character predicts tiny TVs and radios because of new transistor technology! This at a time when the most advanced computers relied on punch cards (which Steed reproduces with a pair of scissors to get into the Cybernaut HQ).
They're a little slower paced than we're used to now (they certainly got their money's worth out of the model train layout!) but the scripts are witty and just slightly bonkers, and still a lot of fun.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Thin Ice

Recently, I've started collecting audio dramas from Big Finish, the company that produces Doctor Who dramas involving many members of the classic cast. I've been enjoying the adventures of the Eighth Doctor, Paul McGann, and his companions Charley Pollard and Lucie Miller - there have been some extremely good stories, including Chimes of Midnight and Sisters of the Flame (which not only features the Sisterhood of Karn, but also has the voices of Alexander Siddig and Nikolas Grace in the cast!)
Branching out a bit from the Doctor who sadly never was on TV, my Young Man gave me Thin Ice, by Marc Platt, a Seventh Doctor and Ace story which was originally intended for the Seventh Doctor after the series was cancelled. Now the story is on audio, they can set it in Moscow with a huge parade in Red Square without worrying about the budget. The plot concerns Ice Warriors and dodgy East End gangsters in Cold War Moscow, a fish finger warehouse on the Thames, and an ancient Martian weapon, as well as some dubious dealings by the Time Lords - it's superbly good, and I'll be getting more of the Seventh Doctor's adventures soon.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Rudiments of Wisdom

I was so keen to find more comics like the Captain Britain series by Paul Cornell that I went on the dreaded Amazon - and found Rudiments of Wisdom, which focuses on Pete Wisdom and MI-13 (the British government department for Weird Happenings).
So - they send a helicopter gunship to Avalon to stop a fairy invasion (John the Skrull and Captain Midlands are along for the ride).
The giant Pantagruel awakes under a village in rural England, giving everyone there bad dreams.
Pete Wisdom provokes a fight in a Cardiff pub by making anti-Welsh remarks, to bring the Red Dragon into the open. That's The Red Dragon of Wales, Y Ddraig Goch, who has forgotten his glorious past and is now a thug and criminal. And there's a Bruce Lee look-alike to fight him.
A man who runs Jack the Ripper walks around Whitechapel opens the door to all the alternate universes where the different theories about the Ripper are true, and brings them through to this one - and then HG Wells' Martian war machines arrive, and the Skrull Beatles get the band back together....

I enjoyed this immensely.
There are some lovely in jokes, like Pete Wisdom's boss being called Mr Grimsdale (anyone from Albania would get this joke instantly, because for a long time the films of Norman Wisdom were about the only films that were allowed to be seen there - and his boss in the comedies was Mr Grimsdale. When Norman Wisdom visited Albania, he was treated like a superstar.). The dialogue is witty and intelligent, the female characters are well rounded, and there's a sub-plot where Pete is making a bit of a mess of choosing between the two women in his life, Tink the fairy (who he has to keep happy to keep her father Oberon, the King of the Fairies, happy) and Maureen Raven, who is a clair-sentient who works for MI-13.
The art, by Trevor Hairsine and Manuel Garcia, is also very good indeed.