Thursday, 10 July 2014

Derry Good Plus

It’s impossible for me to think about Northern Ireland for any length of time without hearing the wonderful music of The Undertones in my head. One of my favourite groups of all time, ever, The Undertones did that supremely difficult thing of mixing pop tunes with crunching rock music: hard coated, soft centred stuff filled with life and energy and joy and excitement. I’ve been in a few bands in my time and tried to emulate this confection, and haven’t even got close.

If you want to know what being young feels like at its best, listen to the joyous ‘Here Comes The Summer’ – if you want to know what it feels like at its worst, then listen to ‘Teenage Kicks’, a timeless razor sharp pop song filled with yearning. The Undertones simply wrote great songs, seemingly artless, almost naïve things that, nevertheless, were full of emotion and profundity. They were clever, too – and funny - they called the opening track on their second album ‘More Songs About Chocolate & Girls’, after all.

All the best group’s progress, of course, and, with each release, The Undertones’ sound evolved into something more subtle and considered. Their songs became more complex and layered, and began to be about things other than chocolate and girls, quite often the situation in Northern Ireland. The band never became self-indulgent, but they did become slightly self-conscious, and their later records try a little too hard to be diverse. Surprised by their success and the sort of lifestyle it afforded them, the band lost their unity too soon, and split up (initially) in 1983.

It’s hard (and slightly pointless) to try and pick out The Undertones finest moment from their marvellous back catalogue but, if pushed, I would nominate the astonishing garage rock of ‘You’ve Got My Number (Why Don’t You Use It?)’, a jet propelled pop art vignette fuelled by hooks and oomph, as played by brilliant yobs in half mast trousers.    

Feargal's red polo neck and shooting jacket combo remains the outfit I'd like to be buried in.

Harry's Game

After ‘The Sandbaggers’ hasty conclusion, the likeable and capable Ray Lonnen starred in the critically acclaimed and hugely downbeat ‘Harry’s Game’, a programme about 'The Troubles' (a euphemism which seems a bit like calling World War One 'the big tiff') originally broadcast in 1982.

The programme begins with the ruthless assassination of a British cabinet minister by an IRA hitman (played by Derek Thompson, in-between ‘The Long Good Friday’ and his never ending stint in ‘Casualty’). The government can’t let this very public act stand, of course, so they send army officer and undercover specialist Harry Brown (Lonnen) to Belfast to track down Thompson - not to arrest him, not to bring him to justice - but to kill him, publicly, so everyone knows that the powers that be pay their debts. 

Brown was born in Northern Ireland, so it’s a homecoming of sorts for him and he can (almost) do the accent. He is also recovering from a complete nervous breakdown and doesn’t seem to care whether he lives or dies. He does, however, understand the rules of ‘the game’: in war, an eye for an eye is everything, no matter how futile it might be. 

Thompson’s IRA man is a much more reluctant player. He does what he is told, even though he hates it, and retains a core of unpredictable humanity (he loves his family; he can be kind; he refuses to kill a child). Brown is more detached, a hollow man who does what he has been trained to do because it is the only thing he really understands. He has a wife, a family, but he doesn’t give them a second thought, refusing to withdraw time and time again in order to see out the game. For what it’s worth, the end result is a pointless draw, leaving both players dead in the street like so much human rubbish.      

In hindsight, the Northern Ireland war seems incredible, unbelievable, impossible: if it wasn’t for the dead and the disappeared and the ongoing repercussions for those left behind, we might even be able to dismiss it as a terrible nightmare we once had. Neither side emerges with any credit: the British overlords are shown as arrogant and spiteful, men who believe the Irish are savages who need to be beaten into submission – the enlisted men are brutish and thick – and happy to wield the whip. 

The IRA treat each other like shit, motivating their soldiers with the threat of further violence. The men portrayed here are not comrades, or proud, principled revolutionaries, these are desperate, violent men who will do anything to further their cause, so much so that they terrify the people they are fighting for to the extent that they would rather commit suicide than cross them. It’s an appalling, depressing mess.

The production was (understandably) filmed not in Belfast but in a condemned part of Leeds and, yes, the accents are all over the place, but it has an enormous power in that it conveys an almost surreal situation (as seen from the relative safety of mainland Britain*) in sharp, horrible relief. At the centre of it, Harry Brown drifts around the streets, always under scrutiny, waiting to kill or to be killed, delaying the inevitable by an ill-fated liaison with a local widow. It’s a tragic, haunting programme, and one that makes you feel vaguely ashamed.

*England wasn’t unscathed, of course. I can remember armed troops on the streets and hearing the dull boom of the car bomb that blew a soldier’s legs off  a mile away, but then I lived in a garrison town, so the IRA brought the war to us. I can’t imagine how terrible life in Belfast must have been.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

The Sandbaggers

What can one say about ‘The Sandbaggers’ that can adequately describe what a superlative programme it is? My friend and colleague, Fearlono, once called it ‘televisual heroin’, which comes very close, but still doesn’t convey all of its intelligent but savage genius.

Lasting three series from 1978 to 1980, ‘The Sandbaggers’ is about the British secret service. There are no James Bond type characters, no nights at the casino, no pointed bon mots, no arched eyebrows, no super villains with mountain retreats or space stations; nobody has sex. Instead, an agent dies in agony in a crummy bedsit in Poland, lying alone in his own mess with a bullet in his spine; an intelligence chief who has been passing secrets to the Russians apologises profusely to a colleague and then bites down on a cyanide capsule; the department head has his own fiancée assassinated rather than risk her giving away national secrets. It’s a tough, supremely unsentimental show – and utterly compelling.

The cast is superb, but Roy Marsden dominates as intelligence chief Neil Burnside. Burnside is a man possessed, willing to cut any corner, ignore any order, make any deal to achieve his goal. He drinks only coke and coffee and almost never goes home. His top man is Willie Kane (Ray Lonnen), an easy going, likeable guy who just happens to be a world class undercover man and assassin.  Kane is not a hero, and he hates violence, but he is supremely good at his job, even if he knows the best case scenario for his prospects is an obscure retirement on a pittance of a pension.

These spies are very much part of the Civil Service, and their work is complicated by departmental squabbling, uncomprehending superiors, complicated approval processes and penny pinching (they are allowed to fly to missions first class, to keep them fresh; coming back they are crammed into the cheap seats). Most of the time, their assignments, which are enormously dangerous, seem to be almost meaningless outside of the framework of the Cold War, a deadly comedy of manners; much of their work revolves around favours owed to other intelligence agencies. If they are caught they will be either imprisoned or put against a wall and shot and the UK government will deny all knowledge of them. Only now and again do we really feel that the missions matter, the rest is simply part of a chess game where half of the board is obscured.   
Halfway through the third series, creator and writer (and alleged former spy) Ian Mackintosh’s light aircraft disappeared somewhere in Alaska. No trace of him or the plane has ever been found. Writers were called in to complete the series (Mackintosh had already written the final episode), and the producers decided to call it a day without Mackintosh, leaving the narrative arc unresolved. It’s a real shame, as it’s an incredible series that could have gone on twisting and turning for years.  

Sunday, 6 July 2014




Who hates ventriloquists dummies? Everyone? Yes, that's what I thought. With this in mind, I was greatly creeped out by this episode of The Avengers from 1969, i.e. 'the Tara King year'.

I fully intended to cover this period of 'The Avengers' in some detail, but I've never really decided what I really think about it.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Friday, 4 July 2014

No Beautiful Woman Is Safe

‘Womaneater’ is an enjoyably daft tale of a mad scientist (George Coulouris) and his obsession with bringing the dead back to life. He hopes to achieve this morally equivocal task by using a huge, malevolent plant that he has transplanted from the Amazon jungle. He feeds it women, then, after it’s had time to digest its dinner, he milks it, puts the residue through some complicated looking scientific apparatus and the result is a drug which can (briefly) bring things back to life.

The obvious issue is an ethical one, i.e. is it worth taking a human life to be able to reinvigorate a dead heart for a few seconds? The answer is clearly ‘no, of course not, don’t be stupid’. Then there are other questions: why does the plant only eat women? And why do they have to be young and attractive? Only the savage misogynistic Plant-God knows, and he’s saying nothing, just waving his arms about and growling.

50’s starlet Vera Day makes for an attractive and down to earth heroine (elocution lessons haven't quite taken the edges from her working class accent) and the scene where her magnificent cantilevered bosom distracts her fiancée from fixing a car is priceless.

Relatively brisk at seventy minutes, I thoroughly and wholeheartedly recommend this ridiculous frippery, especially if you’re interested in gardening and/or reanimating corpses.


Thursday, 3 July 2014

W Is For Wyngarde

Peter Wyngarde plays Oberon, King of the Fairies*, in a 1964 ITV production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.  Never quite the crass, commercial machine the BBC made them out to be, ITV had a fine tradition of drama and the arts, although putting Benny Hill’s name above the title (he was playing Bottom, using his Fred Scuttle voice) and the rest of the cast underneath was, in the words of one contemporary commentator, ‘putting the arse before the court’. 

* Pack it in.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014





The sixties super group that never, ever was: Feathers. Never mind, Dave, you'll be fine.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Feathered Serpent

'The Feathered Serpent' is a weird one. At first glance, the notion of a television series for children about religious and political conflict set in the royal palace of the Aztecs seems a bit left-field but, believe me, it’s enormously entertaining, especially if you like to fancy seeing Diane Keen or Patrick Troughton walking around in their underwear (I make no distinction or judgement, the choice is yours).

I watched this as avidly a child, both gripped and appalled from the scary music and credits onwards. Much of it resembles a well-acted panto, but there are enough stabbings, witches, hallucinations, poisonings, mad bats and dancing skeletons to make each twenty five minute episode fly by. The aforementioned second Doctor has a particularly good time as Nascar, the extravagantly made up High Priest, who will happily kill anybody who dares to threaten the supremacy of his bloodthirsty God.

Despite the polystyrene pillars and painted scenery, there’s an energy and realism about the show, perhaps because it has some proper actors in it who take it seriously, and because it presents a rounded view of what is often simply dismissed as a somewhat savage civilisation. For the most part, the protagonists want stability and peace, and the apparent demands of their God (human sacrifice, mainly) are viewed as an unpleasant but necessary evil. It is never made explicit whether Nascar is a religious fanatic or a power crazed lunatic, but then it isn’t always very clear, is it?

Here’s the opening credits which, even now, cause minor vibrations along my skeleton. The haunted house theme is by David Fanshawe, of ‘African Sanctus’ fame, and I've decided I'm going to have it as my new ring tone.