Posts from 28th August 2003

Aug 03

Characters taking over

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 403 views

(an addendum to Tom’s Prisoner Of Zenda item below): there was once a daily newspaper strip called Thimble Theatre, and its creator, E.C. Segar, needed his lead character, Ham Gravy, to take a sea voyage. He introduced a rough and tough sailor, who took over completely, until Ham Gravy rather disappeared, and the strip was renamed for the sailor. Popeye became, for me, the greatest daily strip the comics form has ever seen. Sometimes recognising that you have created something special, and changing direction to go with it, is the right thing to do.

KRAFTWERK – ‘Tour De France’

FT + New York London Paris MunichPost a comment • 308 views

Most reviews of Kraftwerk’s new album (eg. Dominique Leone’s fair-minded and mostly on-point Pitchfork write-up seem to me to have neglected something rather crucial. The clue is in the title – this is not a techno or pop record in the standard sense, it’s something rather more formal, a soundtrack. A soundtrack to an event that is now passed, but a soundtrack nonetheless.

So one way to judge it is – how good a soundtrack is it? Being as the Tour De France is over, we have to rely on our memories of the race, which merge into our impressions of bicycle racing in general, which further blur into our own experience of bicycle riding. The basic rhythmic unit of the album – a rapid click-track – sounds like the rapid spin of a free, well-oiled wheel. The small melodic ripples put me in mind of tree-lined French roads, the dapple of sunlight, slowly changing views. As an album about cycling, then, it works very well, whatever its strengths as anything else.

The main thing it doesn’t capture is the effort involved, which is a big part of the Tour and indeed of riding a bike in general beyond paper-round level. (For me anyway – obviously Ralf Hutter is a lot fitter than I am). For that you have to go back to the original ‘Tour De France’, included on the new CD in mildly remixed form. The rhythm bed of the original is a regular, heavy grunting, which merges into the (wonderfully pretty) tune – as a love song to physicality and exercise it’s unbeatable. It’s also a love song to and between the Tour’s riders – camarades et amitie, it ends – and this too is missing from the extended album, which prefers to explore the Tour from a sports-science point of view. This may well reflect a wider shift from romance to pragmatism in sports thinking, but more than anything it’s what leaves me ambivalent about the new record – an expansion of Kraftwerk’s most humane song that misses somehow what made it special.

Yesterday Isabel and I watched

Do You SeePost a comment • 3,038 views

Yesterday Isabel and I watched The Power Of Kroll, a Dr Who story with a very poor reputation indeed, chiefly because of its worthy attempt to realise the biggest monster ever seen on the programme. This is Kroll itself, an enormous squid beast which actually looks very impressive – provided there is nothing else in shot. The Kroll model gets to do two things – loom menacingly above marshlands, which is done by means of shockingly obvious split-screen effects; and attack an ‘oil refinery’ which is a model of an oil refinery sitting in a bathtub.

Really though it was highly watchable stuff, by no means a classic but not a disgrace either. Dr Who fans are notably touchy though about the more over-ambitious special effects the show used, as they imagine this is what makes people who don’t like the programme dislike it – or, worse, imagine it’s what makes people who don’t really like the programme like it. This is respectively piffle and snobbery. People who don’t like Dr.Who generally dislike it because it’s science-fiction, or a children’s programme, or because it’s full of wheezy old gags, all of which are fundamental to its appeal and couldn’t have been changed. The only people who would disdain Who because of naff FX work are people who take stuff like The Matrix seriously, and who cares about them?

(See, I can be snobbish too!)

The standout actor in Kroll was Philip Madoc, as the refinery’s second-in-command. He was also the only one of the ‘bad’ characters to survive, a feat he managed by being wonderfully grumpy, outrageously passive-aggressive towards all the other characters, and delivering all his lines in a bassy monotone so jaded you could make brooches out of it. In most TV series he’d have been dead in 30 minutes: his survival makes me come over all territorial, to be honest.

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Also: Do You See?, Brown Wedge, Pumpkin Publog

The Prisoner Of Zenda

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 368 views

The Prisoner Of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Yesterday I spent two long bus journeys reading this classic of Victorian adventure fiction. My rip was definitely roared but the novel seems to me an excellent example of the perils of an author letting a beloved character run away with him. The book is proceeding at a cracking pace right up until the middle, with the dashing hero playing deadly political games with grim-hearted Black Michael, an evil Duke. All well and good, but Black Michael has six henchmen, one of whom is introduced midway through and steals the book. Or at least he does in the author’s mind.

Avoiding spoilers as much as possible*, this new character starts cropping up in every chapter and eventually forces Hope to fluff up the climax of the book, avoiding any kind of climactic confrontation. The narrator and hero hammers home quite how much the author is in love with his new villain, by himself going woefully cock-eyed over his foe’s combination of evil, dash and gall. The sequel (not read yet) is named after him. Oh, he’s a nasty piece of work alright, but having spent half a book building up the depravity of Duke Michael it’s frustrating to see that tension slowly dissipate.

Adventure fiction is full of larger than life types so this beloved-character syndrome is a recurring one, especially prominent in serials. You used to see it a lot in Marvel Comics, particularly series with a long-running regular writer. The readers may have had their favourite characters, but if Chris Claremont suddenly fell for a new X-Man (generally a sassy young teenage girl with a wisdom belying her tender years) then woe betide you if you didn’t agree.

*If you want to get this book then PLEASE AVOID the Penguin Classics edition, or at least don’t read the back, which gives away the entire story of Zenda and its sequel in two paragraphs. But of course no discerning reader would be reading a designated Classic for something as vulgar as the story!

Bert’s Bar

Pumpkin PublogPost a comment • 288 views

Bert’s Bar in Stockbridge, Edinburgh is an absolute gem. For starters, they had Deuchars IPA on, which was absolutely lovely. They also did Scotch pies (with Desperate Dan holes in the top) at a superb ‘1.50 each. With gravy. Steak and peppercorn was delightful, with really good lean steak; the mince and onion was equally good. Veggie mates report that the Spinach and Cheese and Leek and Potato versions were great too. For another ‘2, they add mash and peas to make a pie dinner. They also do a great breakfast at a reasonable ‘4.

They had a telly on for sport, but it was tucked away high up, so it didn’t dominate the pub; watchers had to struggle, so there was none of the distratcion as people’s eyes get magically drawn to it and slowly kill off the chat between drinkers. It had little snug style areas and the tables were fixed to the ground. There was also plenty of room for those who wanted to stand, with lots of space provided for resting drinks.

Think of everything you’d want from a pub, and Bert’s had it. What made it even better is that it was the first pub we stumbled into upon arrival; no recommendation, just the nearest to where we were staying. Magic.