Posts Tagged ‘popular culture’

Roy Batty

Science fiction fans mark some odd birthdays: that of The Terminator‘s Skynet on August 4th 1997; or 2001: A Space Odyssey computer HAL 9000 on 12th January 1999.

Today, 8th January 2016, is the birthday – or incept date – of iconic Blade Runner replicant Roy Batty.

This seems an appropriate day to reboot my site after a long absence from blogging. I have a series of posts inspired by Blade Runner and I’ll be posting them soon.

Please check them out!

BFI Dual Format Edition

DirectorTony Scott (as Anthony Scott). Writer: Tony Scott. Producers: Stephen Bayly and Albert Finney (uncredited). StarringRosamund Greenwood (Woman), Roy Evans (Man), David Pugh (Young Boy). Cinematography: Chris Menges. 52 mins, 1971.

The suicide of film director Tony Scott makes the title of his early experimental film Loving Memory (1971) bitterly ironic. This splending BFI Dual Format release contains the title film and two other shorts, One of the Missing (1968) and Boy and Bicycle (1965).

Tony Scott was, of course, the younger brother of Ridley Scott, and though both were successful mainstream Hollywood directors Tony is generally regarded as the more commercial of the two: his first Hollywood movie was the stylish arthouse vampire film The Hunger (1983), a box-office failure, after which he returned to advertising, but a successful campaign for SAAB featuring a Saab 900 turbo racing a Saab 37 Viggen fighter jet lead to him being offered the director’s seat on the gung-ho action flick Top Gun (1986); this was followed by a string of commercially successful blockbusters including Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), Revenge (1990), Days of Thunder (1990), The Last Boy Scout (1991), True Romance (1993), Crimson Tide (the first of a series of  successful collaborations with Denzel Washington, 1995), The Fan (1996), Enemy of the State (1998), Spy Game (2001), Man on Fire (2004), the time travel movie Déjà Vu (2006), The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009), and Unstoppable (2010).

The accident

Loving Memory is about as far away from these star studied, blockbusting action movies as it is possible to imagine. Despite being British neither of the Scott brothers have set much of their work in Britain: Loving Memory is Tony Scott’s only purely ”British” film (although Spy Game features some London scenes); it is a macabre character study which has been justifiably compared to Harold Pinter.

David Pugh as the Young Boy

The film concerns an elderly couple played by Rosamund Greenwood and Roy Evans, who we later discover to be brother and sister, who accidentally run over and kill a young cyclist played by David Pugh on a lonely northern moor – but instead of reporting the incident to the police the woman decides to take the corpse home with them. There she dresses him in the clothes of a second brother, killed in the Second World War, shows him her photo-albums, and tries to engage him in conversation. Her brother, meanwhile, gathers wood to build a coffin.

Rosamund Greenwood as the Woman

Greenwood has the only speaking part in the movie and largely carries it; she gives a subtle, heart-rending performance as a sister clinging to her past. Memories of the War hang heavily over the house – quite literally in the form of an aircraft propeller suspended from the ceiling that the woman boobytraps in order to prevent her brother burying the corpse. Greenwood had appeared in Jacques Tourneur‘s classic horror film Night of the Demon (1957) and Wolf Rilla‘s Village of the Damned (1960), and would appear as a witch in Nicolas Roeg‘s The Witches (1990), an adaptation of the children’s book by Roald Dahl; her distinctive features are beautifully captures in Chris Menges photography and reproduced in detail in the crisp Blu-ray transfer.

Roy Evans as the Man

Roy Evans, the brother, was a character actor who had previously appeared in Doctor Who as Trantis in ”The Daleks’ Master Plan” (1965-66), and would later appear in ”The Green Death” (1973) as Bert, a Welsh miner, and as another miner in ”The Monster of Peladon”  (1974). Here too he wears a miner’s helmet.

David Pugh would be a regular in the ITV children’s show Roberts Robots (1974)

Cinematographer Chris Menges had previously shot Peter WatkinsThe War Game (1965), Ken Loach‘s Kes (1968) and Lindsay Anderson‘s If…. (1968); he would later photograph Bill Forsyth‘s Local Hero (1983), Roland Joffe‘s The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986), which won him an Academy Award each; Neil Jordan‘s Michael Collins (1996) earned him another Oscar nomination. As you would expect the landscapes look incredible on Blu-ray, and the cluttered rooms of the elderly couple’s house are rich in detail.

Loving Memory  was selected for the Cannes Film Festival’s Critics Week.

One of the Missing (1968)

Director: Anthony Scott. Writer: Anthony Scott. Photography: Anthony Scott. Starring: Stephen Edwards (James Clavering), Ridley Scott (Unionist Officer, uncredited), Dave Edwards (Voices). BFI Production Board, 26 mins, 1968

One of the Missing (1968) was Tony Scott’s first film, an experimental short based on a short story by Ambrose Bierce about an American Civil War soldier trapped beneath the rubble of a collapsed building.

The film is a tense, claustrophobic film with virtually no dialogue other than an opening narration, and contains no synchronously recorded sound – presumably for budgeting reasons. Scott appears to have been inspired by Robert Enrico‘s Au Coeur de la Vie (In the Midst of Life, 1963), which also drew on Ambrose Bierce’s work.

Although Tony Scott would not return to the historical genre himself the visual style anticipates that of Ridley Scott’s 1977 film The Duellists.

One of the Missing is presented in it’s original full-frame format and shows a little sign of wear but that’s not surprising given the age of the source material.

Boy and Bicycle (1965)

Starring: Anthony Scott (The Schoolboy). DirectorRidley Scott. Producer: Ridley Scott. WriterRidley Scott. BFI Experimental Film, 25 mins, 1965.

The third feature in this set stars Tony Scott (again credited as Anthony Scott) as the title character in the charming experimental short Boy and Bicycle (1965) written and directed by Ridley Scott. This tells the freewheeling adventures of a 16 year old cyclist in a Northern industrial seaside town.

As with One of the Missing there is no synchronous sound and the only speech is Tony Scott’s internal monologue. The script is funny, with Tony filling in the absence of dialogue with his own parodies of adult speech.

It’s not hard to see this short as the inspiration of Ridley Scott’s classic Hovis advert, “Bike Round” (1974).

The theme music was by John Barry and the incidental music by John Baker of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop; sound was by Brian Hodgson, also of the Radiophonic Workshop, and Murray Marshall.

Boy and Bicycle is also presented in its original full-frame format.

Read more
  • Bierce, Ambrose ”One of the missing”
  • Morrison, David (undated) Boy and Bicycle at BFI Screenonline
  • —– (undated) One of the Missing at BFI Screenonline
  • Newman, Kim (undated) ”Ridley Scott” at BFI Screenonline
  • —– () ”The Films of Tony and Ridley Scott” (published in the booklet accompanying the BFI Dual Format release)

Very sad to hear of the death of science fiction writer Harry Harrison at the age of 87.

Harrison is probably best known for his novel Make Room! Make Room! (1966), a powerful dystopia about overpopulation filmed – rather successfully – as Soylent Green (1973).

His anti-hero, James Bolivar DiGriz, alias “Slippery Jim” DiGriz, first appeared in the short story ”The Stainless Steel Rat” in Astounding magazine in 1957;  The Stainless Steel Rat (1961) was the first in a series of hilarious novels featuring the adventures of the interplanetary crook and his expanding family.

Bill the Galactic Hero (1965) was an equally amusing novel but with a darker subtext, a satire on the militaristic science fiction of Robert A Heinlein, especially Starship Troopers (1960). Harrison drew on his own experiences as a machine gun instructor

His other work includes A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! (1973), an early example of what would later be termed ‘Steampunk‘, and the elaborate Alternative World Eden Trilogy (West of Eden1984, Winter in Eden1986, and Return to Eden1988), an exercise in World Building comparable in scope and ambition to Frank Herbert‘s Dune (1965) and Brian Aldiss‘s Helliconia Trilogy (1982-1985).

Harrison was a good friend and collaborator with Brian Aldiss, and they were co-presidents of the Birmingham Science Fiction Group. They edited numerous anthologies together.

He was a proselytizer for the auxiliary language Esperanto, which is spoken in the future of his Deathworld series (1960-2001) and The Stainless Steel Rat; Harrison was honorary president of the Esperanto Association of Ireland, as well as a member of Esperanto-USA, and also the Universala Esperanto-Asocio (World Esperanto Association).

He was also a notable atheist, and often used his fiction to criticise religion. His most widely anthologised short story was ”The Streets of Ashkelon” (1962), first published in Brian Aldiss’s anthology New Worlds (1962), a taboo-busting story about an interplanetary missionary; and Make Room! Make Room! was an attack on the Catholic Church’s opposition to contraception, not a gothic nightmare about cannibalism – Soylent Green is made from soy beans and lentils, not people!

  • Aldiss, Brian (ed, 1962) New Worlds
    • (1982) Helliconia Spring
    • (1983) Helliconia Summer
    • (1985) Helliconia Winter
  • Harrison, Harry (1957) ”The Stainless Steel Rat” in Astounding
    • (1960) Deathworld
    • (1961) The Stainless Steel Rat
    • (1962)  ”The Streets of Ashkelon” in Aldiss, Brian (1962)
    • (1965) Bill, the Galactic Hero
    • (1973) A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!
    • (1984) West of Eden
    • (1986) Winter in Eden
    • (1988) Return to Eden
  • Heinlein, Robert A (1960) Starship Troopers
  • Herbert, Frank (1965) Dune

Lass O’Gowrie, Manchester, 13 July 2012

Starring: Alastair Gillies (Nat Mender), Claire Dean (Deanie Webb), Howard Whittock (Coordinator Ugo Priest), Louise Hamer (Misch), Benjamin Patterson (Lasar Opie), Will Hutchby (Kin Hodder), Michelle Ashton (Keten Webb), Phil Dennison (Grels, Medic), Leni Murphy (Betty/Executive/Nurse/Melamine). Writer: Ross Kelly, from the teleplay by Nigel KnealeDirectors: Ross Kelly and Daniel Thackeray. Producer: Gareth Kavanagh.

The Year of the Sex Olympics is the fourth production by Scytheplays, a Manchester-based theatrical group specializing in science fiction: previous productions have included Kevin Cuffe’s black comedy The Say Can Blues, an adaptation of Alan Moore‘s The Ballad of Halo Jones, and Together in Electric Dreamsan original comedy drama  about a the struggle between Sir Clive Sinclair and Alan Sugar for control of the British personal computing market (far more fun than it sounds!). It is based on Nigel Kneale‘s play of the same name, which was first broadcast in 1968 as part of BBC2‘s drama anthology series Theatre 625.

Watch, not do

Set in a hedonistic future owing much to the dystopian world of Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World (1932), the play presents us with a society stratified between the brightener-popping ruling class ‘High Drives’ of Output Area 27 and a mass of ‘Low Drives’ kept passive on a diet of broadcast pornography. Kneale’s script calls it a ‘McLuhanised world’ (McLuhan‘s The Medium is the Massage, an immediate bestseller, was published a year earlier) in which television is used to ”massage” the sensorium, the seat of sensation, into passivity.

According to Kneale, his inspiration for the play came from two theatrical productions rather than television: the hippie musical Hair, which featured full frontal nudity, and Kenneth Tynan‘s bawdy theatrical review Oh! Calcutta!, to which Tynan had invited Kneale. He tied these public displays of permissiveness to popular ’60s concerns with overpopulation and civil unrest:

The Year of the Sex Olympics was a double comment. First of all it was a comment on television and the idea of a passive audience. At that time, the population was a very hot topic and it was also the time when Hair was on and people were saying ”lets put porn on stage”. So I put these ideas together and took them to their logical conclusion, using porn as a socially beneficial element that turns people into the ultimate passive audience by hooking them on a substitute for sex rather than the real thing and so keeping the population down.”

— Nigel Kneale, Interview with Julian Petley & Kim Newman

Nat Mender (Alastair Gillies, a great improvement on Tony Vogel in the TV version) is a television producer on the Sportsex channel, currently broadcasting The Sex Olympics. Nat is, in the words of Kneale’s script, ‘a decahedral peg in a nonahedral hole’; his fellow programmer, the ambitious Lasar Opie (Benjamin Patterson), fits in perfectly. The third member of their team is the shallow presenter Misch (Louise Hamer) with whom Nat is having a loveless sexual relationship. Misch speaks of the viewing audience with contempt but Hamer plays Misch’s insecurity well: her hatred springs from the knowledge that her fame and beauty are transitory.

Nat also has a daughter, Ketten (Michelle Ashton) with Deanie Webb (Claire Dean), both of whom who he clearly cares for, though he is unable to express this love in terms that sound anything other than selfish (Gillies struggles to articulate his feelings despite his impoverished language are among this production’s highlights). Deanie shows more compassion for her daughter – though she describes herself as ‘the mother’ not ‘her mother’. When Nat and Deanie visit their daughter at the Child Environment Centre where children are raised without their parents and it appears she has been diagnosed as Low-Drive Nat is angry:

NAT: It all goes on my record! And your record too! What about that!
For an instant Deanie hardly grasps his meaning. Then she is on her feet and at his shoulder, whispering fiercely:
DEANIE: Stop it! Think about her!

Coordinator Ugo Priest (Howard Whittock, stepping ably into the shoes of the great Leonard Rossiter) is old enough to remember the old times – or at least remember people who remember the old times – before Apathy Control. He retains an articulacy rare in this world but is a passionate advocate of apathy, expressed with the zealotry of the convert:

PRIEST: Yes. I am an old days man. The big break-through when they found the sheer power of watching. It took ’em a long time. Old days, they always said there were things you couldn’t show, things you mustn’t say. You ever hear the word ”pornography”? (Nat shakes his head). ”Censor”? (Nat shakes his head again) Ah. Meant a man that… Well, he’d have put a stop to all this. all of Sportsex, Artsex – the lot.
NAT (baffled): Why?
PRIEST: Stupidness…
He takes another brightener. Nat wonders obscurely if he is being got at.
NAT: Like… Like I stopped that kinky team in there?
PRIEST (shaking his head): A censor stopped things being taken too far. We stop ’em from not going far enough. (He sucks at the brightener) But then this breakthrough. They found that if they screened everything… and screened it real kingstyle… then basically the audience would make do with that. In place of the real thing. Take all the experience at second hand and just sit watching, calmly and quietly.
NAT: Watch, not do.
PRIEST: Watch, not do – that’s when it started. Of course they wondered if it would work. well it’s what we’ve got out there now. And we know it does. the vicarious society..
Nat, who has been sucking brighteners fast, stares.
NAT: Vic -victorious?
PRIEST: Vicarious. Means substitute. This-for-that.
Oh, this-for-that.
PRIEST: Sorry, Nat. Dropping into old-days words. With thinking about those times. (Kindly) There was such a word, ”victorious”. To do with war..
(more confidently): War was… a kind of tension.
Right. And riots, and crises. Too many people in the world. I remember the old slogan: ”Fight fire with fire, sex with sex!” They dosed it – (he waves his hand round them) – with this. Doused everything in the end. No more tensions, nothing. Just cool.

The Live Life Show

Priest recognises that the audience is growing bored with sex and tries to introduce programming that will tap another bodily response – laughter. But his crass attempts at introducing comedy programming – custard pie fights and other slapstick – fail to raise a smile despite his insistence that this is what the audience wants like a demented cross between Gaius Sempronius Gracchus, Joseph Goebbels, and TISWAS‘  Chris Tarrant.

When aspiring artist Kin Hodder (Will Hutchby) accidentally dies on air during a protest provoking howls of laughter from the audience, Lasar Opie conceives of The Live Life Show, a live Reality TV show featuring a family on a remote Scottish island. Nat and Deanie volunteer, and take their daughter with them, perhaps hoping to create their own Walden, well away from the stresses and obligations of Output. (Since Co-ordinator Priest seams such an apt name for a preacher for the faith apathy it perhaps isn’t stretching it too far to read Nat as Natural and Mender as Healer.) For the first few minutes of this second half of the play we experience some sense of hope even if the conditions Nat and his family are to live under are harsh: they are a family at last – and that’s where stories end happily isn’t it?

Thereafter, the play becomes increasingly dark as the upwardly mobile Opie begins to manipulate their lives further for the entertainment of the audience. The family are not alone on the island: there’s the mysterious Grels (Phil Dennison at his creepiest) and his sullen partner Betty (Leni Murphy, in one of four roles in this production). Even Priest is shocked as events unfold.

There is some effective use vignetting to switch between the island and the Output crew in the second half of the play. The Salmon Room is a small intimate venue and the production makes as much use of the space as possible. The sets consist of little more than a console at which the Output crew direct their programmes and monitor audience response and there are few props: this is a production that rests on the actor’s commitment to the script and the audience’s imagination. The audience is much more implicated in the drama than the TV version, as sitting at home it is much easier to pretend the diegetic audience represent someone else: here we are complicit in the actions onstage. We don’t have recourse to feeling smugly superior to an imagined audience.

Reduced Language

Language reduction is a major theme of the play; the reduced language, Ad Speak, is a notable constructed language, owing something to the Newspeak of George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) – the difference being that while Newspeak was deliberately designed by a ruling oligarchy to prevent Party members from thinking unauthorised thoughts – committing ‘thoughtcrime‘ – the language of Sex Olympics has reduced itself naturally as words and concepts have become obsolete. Here, Nat struggles to articulate his thoughts about Will Hodder’s paintings:

NAT: Still not feel I got… the right words for it. They got to be somewhere. Where they go, Co-ordinator? Why they go, all those words?
People didn’t need ’em. They got out of having the thoughts so the words went too. 
Thoughts… (Slowly, making a discovery) Those pictures were thoughts!
That what they felt like. Old, old thoughts you had… Real jumbo thoughts you forgot you ever had ’em… until you saw!
Bad thoughts.
Why bad?
If they upset people.
Just the way they came out. You know, I can feel ’em now in my head. But I got no words for ’em.
They hurt?
Just the way they came out. You know, I can feel ’em now… in my head. I can think ’em. But I got no words for ’em.

There are no Thought Police in Kneale’s world as thoughts police themselves: the most chilling fact of Kneale’s dystopia is that it is one the populace have entered willingly. Yet Kneale is no linguistic determinist: Nat can feel his thoughts even if he cannot articulate them. He may be trapped in a prison-house of language but can see through the bars.

Adjectives and verbs are interchangeable in Ad-Speak (MISCH: They sick me too). The language is also slightly Russified like the Nadsat of Anthony Burgess‘ A Clockwork Orange (1962): Ad Speak largely omits definite and indefinite articles (”the”, ”a”, ”an”), a characteristic of Russian Grammar. There are fewer tenses, there are few cupulas to link the subject of a sentence with predicates, and word order is more flexible than English. Certain slang terms also  suggest a Slavic root (”bubbies’ from ”babushka”, for instance) and character names like Misch (derived from the man’s name Mikhail, but which has, like Nikita, been adopted as a woman’s name in the West) reinforce this impression. Kneale wasn’t suggesting that the UK had been invaded by the Soviet Union though, any more than Burgess was; more that nation states have lost all definition in a media saturated world. To use another ”McLuhanism” we are all part of the same ”Global Village”. (In the TV version the cast adopt a distinctly transatlantic accent). The cumulative effect is that Ad Speak sounds like it has been imperfectly translated from a language which has no native speakers. The cast, veterans of The Ballad of Halo Jones, are experienced enough with futuristic sociolects to make it sound natural.

Nigel Kneale… Prophet?

Most of the reviews have been along the lines of Nigel Kneale: Prophet but Science fiction isn’t prophecy and shouldn’t be judged as such – though there’s an almost irresistible temptation to discuss the play with reference to the ways in which it accurately anticipates some developments in television – in particular Reality TV shows like Survivor (1992 – Present) and Big Brother (1999- Present). Reality TV actually dates back as far as Candid Camera in 1948, and the Up Series had begun broadcasting with Seven Up! in 1964, so Kneale is deconstructing contemporary ’60s television here rather than predicting future developments. Correspondences between the play and contemporary reality are largely due to our ability to create signal from noise, and are a fine example of the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy.

The play is as interesting for what it ‘got wrong’ as what it ‘got right’. Science fiction isn’t about prophesy, and Kneale wasn’t ‘predicting’ the future, so when I use the phrase ‘got things wrong’ I’m not really suggesting Kneale was actually trying to predict the future – still less that his play should be judged accordingly; I would argue that science fiction attempts to do something different, and should be judged as an expression of the present rather than an experiment in futurology. One subtle and interesting way that The Year of the Sex Olympics is ‘correct’ is the way it shows that ‘Reality’ TV is actually constructed, not simply broadcast: Opie manipulates the events on the island, and is selective in what he broadcasts – denying the audience information about what caused Ketten’s fall, for instance, in order to increase suspense.

There’s a lot of sex and violence on television these days – but it’s largely restricted to imports from subscription channels like HBO and Showtime. There’s an awful lot less sex on mainstream TV than the 70s, and very little nudity: compare Russell T Davies‘ almost chaste Casanova (2005) with Dennis Potter‘s raunchier 1971 version, or the feeble Bouquet of Barbed Wire remake (2010) with the 1976 original; compare the casual nudity of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974), Not the Nine O’Clock News (1979-1982), Whoops Apocalypse (1982) or Hot Metal (1986-1989) with their ‘daring’ equivalents today. No ’70s cop show was complete without a shot of this week’s celebrity guest-shag getting out of the hero’s bed and buttoning up her blouse, or a raid on a strip joint. For a short while in the US it was even possible to discuss watching hardcore movies like Deep Throat (1972) or The Devil in Miss Jones (1973) in polite company: celebrities including Martin ScorseseBrian de PalmaTruman CapoteJack Nicholson and Johnny Carson have admitted having seen the former. The New York Times Magazine even coined the term ”porno chic” – but the mainstreaming of pornography did not long outlast the decade.

What Kneale didn’t foresee was the combination of feminism and a conservative backlash which made nudity – largely synonymous with female nudity – less acceptable on UK TV. People talk about sex more on TV, there’s much more strong language, and homosexual themes are more openly represented, but this has largely been a pragmatic consequence of the campaign against AIDS that began in the Eighties rather than an a result of the ‘permissive society’ or a ‘loosening’ of morals. There’s some hardcore content in movies these days, of course, even in the UK, beginning with Lars von Trier‘s The Idiots (1998), and continuing with  Catherine Breillat‘s Romance (1999), Baise-Moi (2000), Intimacy (2001), Vincent Gallo‘s The Brown Bunny (2003) and Michael Winterbottom‘s 9 Songs (2004), Shortbus (2006), Destricted (2006) and Trier’s Antichrist (2009) – but those are independent art house movies, often subtitled, consumed by a more middle-classes audience – the High-Drives of Kneale’s play – rather than the working-class Low-Drives. There’s also a quite a bit of simulated sex on subscription channels (Hung2009- Present, Game of Thrones2011- Present) but the audience figures for those are small compared with mainstream terrestrial television or subscription sports channels.

The consumption of pornography on the internet is still something looked upon as a dubious activity no matter how many people do it, and it is not regarded as socially acceptable as watching the latest Lars Von Trier movie. The so-called ‘adult channels‘ available in the UK are also heavily censored. The First Amendment guarantees the freedom to produce and distribute pornography in the USA but it remains a religious and conservative country; Janet Jackson‘s accidental ‘wardrobe malfunction‘ during  Super Bowl XXXVIII provoked a level of public outrage  not seen since 9/11 and led to an immediate crackdown on perceived ‘indecency’ in broadcasting. Explicit pornography has not become mainstream.

Nigel Kneale… Artist?

Kneale’s view of the audience as passive and sadistic is also too pessimistic. If anything, Kneale fails to appreciate how overly moralistic the public are. When audiences heard that Celebrity Big Brother 2007 contestant – and ultimately winner – Shilpa Shetty was the subject to racist comments by the other contestants, Jade Goody became the most hated woman in Great Britain since Myra Hindley: the controversy generated over 300 newspaper articles in Britain, 1,200 in English language newspapers around the globe, 3,900 foreign language news articles, and 22,000 blog postings on the internet. Jan Moir‘s comments following the the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately in 2009 earned her widespread vilification and the Stonewall Bigot of the Year Award (jointly with Father John Owen), and Jeremy Clarkeson‘s joke at the expense of BBC ‘impartiality’ lead to an equally strong reaction from the PCS. People don’t enjoy watching other people suffer unless they believe they have done something to deserve it – and the play gives the diegetic audience no reason to hate the protagonists. Suffering produces sympathy, not shadenfreude; the Ethiopian famine provoked Live Aid, not laughter.

Kneale was a perceptive critic of television as well as a great writer – but he was as vulnerable to moral panics as anyone else, and like many great writers TV writers (Paddy Cheyefsky, Dennis PotterAaron Sorkin) takes television at it’s self-flagellatingly low estimation of its own worth. Too much emphasis on ”Nigel Kneale: Prophet” has undervalued his true worth as ”Nigel Kneale: Artist”.

Kneale had an extraordinary imagination and a flair for conveying a fictional world through language alone that transcended his chosen medium. Until recently TV has been regarded as a disposable medium compared with literature or film; the BFI DVD release is out of print and expensive. Don’t miss this rare chance to see an excellent production one of Kneale’s finest works.

Future Performances:
Also check out:
Read More:
  • Blumenthal, Ralph (1973) ”Porno chic; “Hard-core” grows fashionable-and very profitable”, The New York Times Magazine, 21 January 1973
  • Burgess, Anthony (1962) A Clockwork Orange
  • Danthackeray (Dan’s blog)
  • EvansRobert O. (1971) ”Nadsat: The Argot and Its Implications in Anthony Burgess’A Clockwork Orange (pdf) in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Mar., 1971), pp. 406-410
  • The Fiction Stroker (2012) The Year of the Sex Olympics – LIVE!” (Review)
  • Huxley, Aldous (1932) Brave New World
  • Jameson, Fredric (1972) The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism
  • Kneale, Nigel (1968) The Year of the Sex Olympics – The Screenplay (pdf extra on the BFI DVD release)
  • Lowe, Tracey (2012) ”Greater Manchester Fringe: The Year of the Sex Olympics – Lass O’Gowrie, Manchester” at The Public Reviews (Review)
  • McLuhan, Marshall (1964) Understanding Media
  • (1967) The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects
  • Murray, Andy (2006) Into the Unknown: The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale
  • Orwell, George (1949) Nineteen Eighty-Four
  • Petley, Julian & Kim Newman (undated) ”Interview with Nigel Kneale”, Video Watchdog No. 47
  • Newman, Kim (2003) Sleeve notes to the BFI DVD release.
  • Scytheplays (Homepage)
  • Thoreau, Henry David (1854) Walden; or, a Life in the Woods

Picturehouse at FACT, Liverpool, 3 July

Just a quick note to remind people that Hammer film’s Quatermass and the Pit, an adaptation of Nigel Kneale‘s six part BBC Television seriel, is on a limited re-release for today only, and is playing at Liverpool’s Picturehouse at FACT.

The film stars Andrew Keir as Prof. Bernard QuatermassJames Donald as paleontologist Dr Matthew Roney, Barbara Shelley as Roney’s assistant, Barbara Judd, and the fabulous Julian Glover as Colonel Breen, and is directed by Roy Ward Baker. The music is by Tristram Cary.

This is a good month to be a Nigel Kneale fan in the North West, with an adaptation of Kneale’s Year of the Sex Olympics due to be performaed at the Lass O’Gowrie, Manchester, on 13 July as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe Festival.

Fab Café, Manchester, 1 July 2012

Greater Manchester Fringe Festival 2012 kicked off today with a special Premiere presentation of Robots of Death and Storm Mine at the Fab Café on Portland Street. For this performance only, former Blake’s 7 star Paul Darrow appeared as Kaston Iago, a character he originally played in the series of Kaldor City audio plays produced by Magic Bullet Productions.

The Premier performance was a read-through by the cast, seated in front of a live audience and reading from the script, rather than the full theatrical performance, complete with props and costumes, that it will be when it returns on 21 July. This being the case, and bearing in mind that the star of this the premiere won’t be appearing in those performances, I’ll stick to reviewing the script for now – with some asides on Darrow.

Robots of Death is a free adaptation of Chris Boucher‘s 1977 Doctor Who story of the ”The Robots of Death”. Originally featuring the Fourth Doctor (the inimitable Tom Baker) and Leela (Louise Jameson) our heroes have now been replaced by the psychopathic assassins Kaston Iago and his partner Elska Blayes (Tracey Russell, reprising her role from the audios). Iago and Bleyes are not there to help anyone, they are there to kill a target – and anyone else who happens to get in their way.

For the most part the story remains pretty much the same as on TV: aboard the Sandminer Storm Mine 4, a huge vehicle trawling through the debris thrown up by the raging sandstorms of an unnamed planet in search of precious minerals, someone, or something, is killing off the crew one by one. Most of the actual work is performed by three classes of robot, the mute D-Class ‘Dums’, the more sophisticated ‘Vocs’ and a supervising ‘Super-Voc’. The human crew are a quarrelsome bunch, seething with either class entitlement or class resentment but oblivious of the fact the foundations upon which their civilization is built are no more solid than the shifting sands of the desert. The story is essentially a science fiction whodunitAgatha Christie‘s And Then There Were None (1939) done as science fiction – but this shift in genre is crucial as the themes explored are not simply those of a country house murder mystery performed in science fiction drag.

The major science fiction theme of the story is ‘robophobia’, an irrational – though in this case, perhaps not – fear of robots, which is also refered to as Grimwade’s Syndrome in the TV version – an in-joke at the expense of production assistant Peter Grimwade, who had complained about always having to work on stories featuring robots. (Grimwade was later to become a writer and director on the show.) Robophobia is a version of what robotics professor Masahiro Mori refered to as the ”Uncanny Valley effect”, or Bukimi no Tani Genshō, in an essay in 1970. According to the theory, the more human an automaton looks, the more agreeable it will be to human beings – but only up to a point. When the automaton approaches the point at which it can be mistaken for an actual human being, the non-human aspects (lack of human expression, intonation, body language, etc) unconsciously create feelings of unease. This effect is also said to describe the sense of discomfort reported by audiences of CGI films such as Robert Zemeckis The Polar Express (2004), Beowulf (2007) and A Christmas Carol (2009). Robophobia manifests itself in several ways in this story: at different extremes it induces Poul into a catatonic state; for Taren Capel, brought up by robots, it leads to over-identification by a process of what a Freudian would no doubt call ‘reaction formation‘ and cognitive psychologists would attribute to cognitive dissonance.

The Robots of Death” came towards the end of the three-year run of producer Philip Hinchcliffe, and it was script-edited by the great Robert Holmes. This period had been marked by a degree of Gothic excess unprecedented in a TV show largely aimed at children; the most fondly remembered stories of this period (”Pyramids of Mars”, ”The Brain of Morbius”, ”The Seeds of Doom”, ”The Deadly Assassin” and ”The Talons of Weng-Chiang”) are also amongst the most traumatic things ever broadcast before the watershed. Most of these stories were built around the Gothic theme of the ‘uncanny‘: the familiar made strange. ”Robots of Death” was very much part of this phase; it was also, however, explicitly political in its use of the uncanny to comment directly on colonialism, class, and exploitation, in a way the show had not been since the early Seventies. The story combines a specifically science fictional variation of the uncanny as a metaphor for alienation while retaining the signature Gothic horror codes of the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era.

Boucher wrote three stories for Doctor Who, the others being ”The Face of Evil” (1977), which immediately preceded ”The Robots of Death” and introduced the companion Leela, and the Quatermass and the Pit-inspired ”Image of the Fendahl”. He was script-editor of all four seasons of Blake’s 7 (also writing the episodes ”Shadow”, ”Weapon”, ”Trial”, ”Star One”, ”City at the Edge of the World”, ”Rumours of Death”, ”Death-Watch”, ”Rescue” and the notorious series finale ”Blake”) and on the detective series Shoestring and Bergerac; he would later combine the science fiction and detective genres to create the short-lived Star Cops in 1987. In 1998 he returned to the worlds of Doctor Who with the spin-off novel Last Man Running; this was followed by Corpse Marker (a direct sequel to ”The Robots of Death”, 1999), Psi-ence Fiction (2001) and Match of the Day (2005).

Unusual for a Doctor Who writer, Boucher displays a knowledge of science fiction literature: ”The Face of Evil”, for instance, had distinct echoes of Harry Harrison‘s Captive Universe (1969) in its portrayal of a civilization which has fractured into two groups, a tribe of Bronze Aged savages and another which retains traces of scientific knowledge coded as religious ritual. ”The Robots of Death” borrows liberally from several key science fiction texts, notably E.M. Forster‘s The Machine Stops (1909), Karel Čapek‘s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (1920) and several stories from Isaac Asimov‘s Robot series, in particular his novel The Naked Sun (1957). Forster’s short story features a machine-dependent society on the brink of collapse while Čapek’s play describes a robot rebellion (in fact, Čapek’s play is the origin of the word ‘robot’). The name Taren Capel is likely to have been derived from that of Karel Čapek. The Naked Sun features a similar robot-dependant society faced with the possibility that their servants may turn against them, and a protagonist who is mildly robophobic. The Sandminer is, of course, borrowed from Frank Herbert‘s Dune (1965). These intertextual threads are woven deftly together by Boucher to create a coherent sense of a fictional world in which we can believe his characters live and work, helped on TV, I should add, by some terrific art deco production design; although they were not used in the Premier performance of the play the group have recreated the beautiful robot masks used by the BBC.

Paul Darrow was magnificent in his one-off performance, a snarling Clint Eastwood just the right side of camp (depending, of course, which side of camp you regard as the ‘right’ one!). His delivery of the Doctor’s withering put-down ”You are the perfect example of the inverse relationship between the size of the mouth and the size of the brain” will stay with me a long time. The cast had been slightly rejigged for this premiere performance in order to accommodate the star so it will be interesting to see how the production changes when it returns later this month. The cast are excellent, snd you may recognize several from the Lass O’Gowrie‘s adaptation of Alan Moore‘s The Ballad of Halo Jones (look out for Dan Thackeray’s Together in Electric Dreams, by the way). and the producers have gone the revamped Battlestar Galactica route of freshening the story up by altering the sex of some of the characters. ”The Robots of Death” had been unusual for the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era in having decent roles for women other than the Doctor’s companion, and changes here, while making little difference to the pot, nonetheless open the story up to a feminist interpretation.

The play, however, is not a total success, and where it falls is largely where it deviates from Boucher’s original concept. On TV the Doctor had to investigate the mystery, then improvise an ingenious solution when Taren Capel was revealed. Here, Iago and Bleyes are aware of Capel’s presence from the start, and the story concludes in an unsubtle hail of plasma bullets. Worse, the last few minutes unveil another, previously unhinted-at force behind the events; it’s the equivalent of Hercule Poirot gathering all the suspects together in the library, only to reveal the killer is from an entirely unrelated Miss Marple story before spraying the room with a machine gun. The play itself has been made strange.

This rather unsatisfactory conclusion is included to lead directly into the second feature, an adaptation of Daniel O’Mahony‘s Storm Mine. Storm Mine is the seventh Kaldor City audio (counting the 20 minute story The Prisoner, included as part of MJTV’s CD The Actor Speaks: Paul Darrow), and the final episode to date. Although the first three stories, Occam’s Razor, Death’s Head and Hidden Persuaders are stand-alones, Taren Capel, CheckmateThe Prisoner and Storm Mine form a single continuing narrative, and it’s fair to say that by the final episode the series had built up a considerable backstory not adequately explained in this play.

Blayes comes to the fore in this story as awakes 18 months later on another Sandminer, uncertain how she got there; Iago is now reduced to a disembodied voice in her head. The story involves constantly shifting realities, with a much more sketchily defined background, and supporting characters lacking any sense of motivation, or indeed, reality. Whether the story is set entirely inside Blayes’ dying brain or inside the alien gestalt or somewhere else entirely is open to interpretation. The story involves several Buddhist themes derived from the teaching of Zen Master Linji Yixuan, founder of the Rinzai school:

Followers of the Way, if you want to get the kind of understanding that accords with the Dharma, never be misled by others. Whether you’re facing inward or facing outward, whatever you meet up with, just kill it! If you meet a buddha, kill the buddha. If you meet a patriarch, kill the patriarch. If you meet an arhat, kill the arhat. If you meet your parents, kill your parents. If you meet your kinfolk, kill your kinfolk. Then for the first time you will gain emancipation, will not be entangled with things, will pass freely anywhere you wish to go.

This teaching is echoed almost exactly in  Storm Mine:

When you set out upon a journey, kill everyone you happen upon: kill your friends and your parents and your children, should you meet them on the road. Kill the topmasters, the firstmasters, and the holy men; only that way can you become free. Only when you have killed everyone will you become truly enlightened.

The difference is that Linji was speaking metaphorically, and did not carry a plasma pistol.

Dates and venues of future performances:

Tickets for both productions are available from Quay Tickets (,

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On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like “1984.”


”Today, we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directives. We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology – where each worker may bloom, secure from the pests purveying contradictory truths. Our Unification of Thoughts is more powerful a weapon than any fleet or army on earth. We are one people, with one will, one resolve, one cause. Our enemies shall talk themselves to death, and we will bury them with their own confusion. We shall prevail!”

Prometheus (2012) has been hailed as Ridley Scott‘s first return to science fiction since the classics Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) – but this isn’t quite true. Scott also made this 60 second Apple Macintosh advert, 1984, in 1983. The advert was a coproduction between Apple Computers and Chiat\Day, and was written by copywriter Steve Hayden, creative director Lee Clow, and art director Brent Thomas, and shot at Shepperton Studios in the UK.

1984 was famously broadcast in the USA on January 22, 1984 during the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII but contrary to popular belief, it was not broadcast only once: it hadpreviously been shown in the 1am sign-off slot for KMVT, Channel 11 in Twin Falls, Idaho, in order to qualify for that year’s advertising awards, and a 30 second version had been shown in cinemas by ScreenVision.

The advert cost $400,000 to make with an additional $500,000 spent on airtime. The impact it made however, is estimated to have generated $5 million of free publicity.

The advert begins with a high angled shot of a vast cylindrical chamber, criss-crossed by transparently walled walkways. Through these walkways, which are lined by television monitors broadcasting political propaganda, we see grey, drabbly dressed, shaven headed and androgynous figures marching – or being marched – towards a large hall dominated by an enormous telescreen on which we see a Big Brother-like figure continuing the speech we heard in the walkways. Many of the workers wear breathing apparatus suggesting pollution – or possibly a fear of biological contamination. The speech praises unity and conformity of thought; his delivery and language – that of ”a garden of pure ideology” menaced by ”pest purveying contradictory truths” – deliberately evoke the speeches of Hitler and Stalin, Mao and Mussolini.

This sequence is intercut with slow-motion shots of an athletic young woman dressed in shorts and vest, carrying a large hammer, and being pursued by visored, fascistic-looking police. The woman is tanned, wears red shorts, and an Apple Picasso t-shirt, and represents the only colour in this dreary dystopian future. As the speech builds to its climax, and the rows of drab workers stare transfixed at the screen, the woman throws the hammer at the screen, which explodes showering the shocked audience with dust. The text ”On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like “1984.” then scrolls up the screen.

The future portrayed owes an obvious debt to George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) – particularly the ”Two Minutes Hate” sequence – and this is confirmed by the text; the notoriously litigious (indeed, Orwellian) estate of Orwell issued a cease-and-desist letter to Apple and Chiat/Day in April 1984 and it was never broadcast afterward except in retrospectives about adverts. It also shows a visual debt to George Lucas‘ THX 1138 (1971).

The advert stars discus thrower and actress Anya Major, who would also star as ”Nikita” in the video of the Elton John song of the same name. ”Big Brother” is played by David Graham, a voice artist who had played Daleks in their first four Doctor Who outings, ”The Daleks’‘ (1963), ”The Dalek Invasion of Earth” (1964),  ”The Chase” (1965) and ”The Daleks Master Plan” (1965-66), and therefore no stranger to voicing fascistic figures. Graham is most famous as the voice of Parker in Gerry and Sylvia Anderson‘s Thunderbirds (1965), in which he also voiced Gordon TracyKyrano, Captain Hansen, and others; he would be more visible in Doctor Who as the barman Charlie in ”The Gunfighters” (1966), and as the ill-fated Professor Kerensky in ”City of Death” (1979). The workers were cast from among 200 skinheads.

The stunning cinematography was by Adrian Biddle (1952-2005) who had previously worked as a clapper loader on Scott’s The Duellists (1977) and focus puller on Alien (1979); he was hired as cinematographer for Aliens (1986) by James Cameron on Scott’s recommendation, and would work on Scott’s  own Thelma and Louise (for which he received an Oscar nomination, 1991) and 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992). Other sf included Danny Cannon‘s disappointing Judge Dredd (1995) and Paul W. S. Anderson‘s entertaining Alien-rip-off Event Horizon (1997). His last film as cinematographer, which was dedicated to him, was James McTeigue‘s V for Vendetta (2006).

It was edited by Pam Power at The Film Editors, London.

The ”Big Brother” figure – identified as ”Prophet Mentor” in the text on the telescreen – is generally interpreted as representing IBM, which dominated the home computer market at that time; Steve Jobs certainly interpreted it that way when the advert was shown to Apple’s annual sales meeting in Hawaii in October 1983. Copywriter Steve Hayden denies this intention, however:

The real villain was our collective fear of technology, not a corporation either real or imagined…

The first version of the spot was more Jetsons than Metropolis. The intention was to remove people’s fears of technology at a time when owning your own computer made about as much sense as owning your own cruise missile. We wanted to democratize technology, telling people that the power was now literally in their hands.

If you can remember back that far, the Cold War was still pretty hot. Reagan was in the White House, and the Soviet Union was the Evil Empire. We knew that if fax machines could bring down dictatorships, personal computers could do infinitely more. The Big Brother of the spot wasn’t IBM—it was any government dedicated to keeping its populace in the dark. We knew that computers and communications could change all that.

Steve Hayden, 1984: As Good as t Gets”

Ironically Apple itself would later be seen as representing the same authoritarian ”big business” that this advert was satirising: Motorola, developers of a rival Smartphone, portrayed Apple as Big Brother in their own Superbowl commercial in 2011.

The advert was not popular with Apple’s board. Apple had originally bought two minutes of advertising time during Super Bowl XVIII: as an indicator of their lack of confidence in the ad 30 seconds of that time was sold to Hertz and a second 30-seconds were sold to Heinz. Chairman Mike Markkula proposed sacking the ad agancy. It has, however, been acknowledged as a classic.

The advert won both the 31st Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival – Grand Prix Award and the Clio Award in 1984; the Clio Awards Hall of Fame Award, and Advertising Age Award for Greatest Commercial in 1995; TV Guide – Number One Greatest Commercial of All Time in 1999; World Federation of Advertisers – Hall of Fame (Jubilee Golden Award) in 2003; and  an award for Best Super Bowl Spot (in the game’s 40-year history) in 2007. For the advert’s 20th Anniversary an iPod was added to the runner.

1984 Runner 11984 Runner 2

1984 Runner 31984 Runner 4

The advert has been parodied in both a Season Three episode of Futurama called ”Future Stock” (2002), and a Season Twenty episode The Simpsons called Mypods and Boomsticks” (2008) – in which Steve Jobs, ironically enough, played “Big Brother”.

And it still wasn’t the end for Scott and science fiction – as he later returned with a series of three Blade Runner inspired ”Futureworld” adverts for Barclays Bank.