Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Trains in Science Fiction 2: Survivors (Terry Nation 1975 – 1978)

Two things.

This won’t be the last time I talk about ‘Survivors’. Not by a long shot.

But this will be the last time I make the distinction between the desolate, savage and truly shocking series, ‘Survivors’ from 1975, and the glossy, glib, Doctor Who-lite remake from 2008.

We only talk about the original Survivors here. I say so.

‘Survivors’ is the third most famous creation from Terry Nation after the Daleks and Blake’s Seven. A virus wipes out 95% of the population of the world. This is portrayed with unrelenting bleakness. Three quarters of the cast are killed off in the first episode. In fact no cast member is ever safe in ‘Survivors’ with major characters being culled every other episode. Only one original cast member makes the whole three series.

Post apocalyptic and ruined worlds always tick my box. If good science fiction is about ‘what ifs’ then the destroyed earth has to be the ultimate premise. Threads, Day of the Triffids, Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, I love them all.

‘Survivors’ deals, with starvation, looters, rape, rabid dogs, martial law, fascists and small pox, occasionally in the same episode. We live in a time when the word ‘dark’ is used to describe a Harry Potter movie, but for once there is no other word. ‘Survivors’ is truly dark.

Let me give you some for instances.

In the episode ‘Law and Order’ a mentally challenged boy is wrongly accused of rape and murder. Our ‘heroes’ debate over what is to be done with criminals in a world without courts and prisons. They have a show of hands and take the boy outside and shoot him, then find out he didn’t do it.

In the episode ‘Corn Dolly’ Charles proposes that the women should let him impregnate them for the future of the human race. Two women fall pregnant but then die because they eat rotten fish.

In the episode ‘Revenge’ Vic, who has previously been permanently crippled and left for dead by Anne, tries to commit suicide. He then seeks revenge but then pleads with Anne to finish the job and by slaying him with a sickle.

One of my personal favourites is ‘A Greater Love’. Paul travels to a ruined Birmingham to gather vital medical supplies where he contracts a new fatal plague. On his return he is treated in quarantine by his rubber suited girlfriend. She declares her love for him as she administers a fatal injection.

Trains are used prominently three times in Survivors.

In the first episode they are used to demonstrate the broken links of the crumbling society. Train stoppages are shown as one of the first tears in the fabric. Great Malvern Station in Worcester is used as a location and doubles as 'Brimpsfield'.

In the second series Ruth travels to London and discover a dirty, broken London living in the rat infested London underground stations, Hanwell Station and Camden Station are used.

A lot of fans don’t like the third series but really this is where ‘Survivors’ gets most bizarre and feral. The cast are now dressed in rags and ride on horseback. The first steps to recovery and infrastructure are shown via the revival of a steam railway. The Severn Valley railway is used and the beautiful Headstone Viaduct is shown in another Series 3 episode.

The series is a long way from faultless. Producer Terence Dudley appears to not know what continuity is and thus decides to do away with it completely. The acting can be decidedly middle class and stilted. The dialogue can clunk. Although I love the slow ponderous pace, this may prove sluggish for the modern viewer.

What makes ‘Survivors’ fantastic though is it’s total singularity. It sets out with a goal, to tell you how absolutely foul the majority of people become in times of crisis and their complete determination to survive. It never blink’s from this intent, it never wavers.

'Survivors' can be bought pretty cheaply in a box set.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

N Gauge Trains

A letter from the N Gauge Journal Jul /Aug 09 Issue

A Thank You

I have a terminal illness and have been struggling to get my N Gauge layout finished as a legacy for my grandchildren. I so wanted just one set of signal lights working and after trying for three weeks had to give up as I’m too tired to sit and do any more. My wife phoned a local N Gauge Society member (Kevin from Hadleigh) who came and did a wonderful job. He was a lovely man and so very kind. I would just like to thank these members for their kindness and their help.

Fred Emery (18143)

It is with regret that I have to convey that Fred passed away on 28th June. Our condolences to his wife Judith. Ed

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Flash Forward versus Primer

Flash Forward (2009 Dir: David S. Goyer) versus Primer (2006 Dir: Shane Carruth)

When you see ‘Lost’ on the TV schedules and think, ‘who the fuck is still watching that?’ the answer is me. I sometimes suspect that the producers are rabid Hefner fans that are providing me with a personal service. I haven’t met anyone else who is still watching it.

I know they make it up as they go along, I know it will never truly make sense but for me it has an almost Becket-like sense of ennui. Meaningless idiot narratives looping endlessly, pseudo science and mythology, time travel theory for toddlers. It’s like catnip for geeks.

What I didn’t need was another ‘Lost’. ‘Flash Forward’ may be one of the few TV programs to jump the shark half an hour into its first episode. Both ‘Lost’ and ‘Flash Forward’ use endless expositional dialogue to explain the simplest ideas behind time travel as if the world had never seen ‘Back to the Future Part 2’.

Your stupidest friend is three times smarter than the writers of ‘Flash Forward’ however and you just end up shouting at the TV, “You can’t do that! It doesn’t work like that!”

The premise of Flashforward (everyone glimpses 2 minutes of their own future in six months times) is a scaffold made of balsa wood. Things don’t have to be believable for me to like them but they do at least have to adhere to their own internal logic. Four episodes in and the main characters still haven’t thought of things you thought of in the first two minutes.

May I suggest a time travel film that is twice as clever as you? ‘Primer’ is a 2004 film by Shane Carruth that was made for 7000 dollars. It is intelligent, slightly terrifying and mind numbingly difficult to follow. Two friends are making a machine that lowers the mass of objects but accidentally achieve time travel as a side effect.

The characters immediately think and do all the things you would think and do if you had a time machine but haven’t been mentioned once in 45 years of Doctor Who. At first they cheat on stocks and shares to make money but soon they become obsessed with creating time paradoxes and tampering with timelines and the subsequent causality. The plot becomes unfeasibly complex with bearded faces from the future, time machines within time machines, and ruminations on the endless possibilities and ramifications of what they are doing.

It’s like ‘The Tomorrow People’ remade by David Simon. In fact it is the ‘Wire’ like impenetrable dialogue and naturalistic acting which mesmerises you. ‘This can’t happen’, you think, ‘but if it did, it would happen like this.’

The film is made for almost nothing, shot guerrilla style in parent’s garages, apartments and storage warehouses. The look is stark, bare and refreshingly un-CGI. Likewise the soundtrack is minimal, acoustic and beautiful.

It’s a film made for DVD, as only with repeated viewing, pauses, rewinds and migraines does it start to reveal its magnificence. Predictably, as with ‘Flash Forward’ you find yourself going ‘Hang on a minute!’ when it doesn’t conform to your own notions of time travel cause and effect. The film has thought of everything however and you are wrong.

After about the fourth viewing you’ve started to get what’s going on.

This isn’t just a film, it’s a comittment.

Here is a bit of it.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Toots and the Matytals

What's that?

Feeling a bit down?

Life just piles up sometimes and it's hard to crawl out from underneath. I know.

Put on your headphones. Listen to this MP3.

Country Roads

Toots will take care of you.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Giles Martin and his Lego

Its 1979 and Giles Martin is ten years old.

He gets his big box of Lego from the cupboard under the stairs. He tips the bricks out onto the carpet in the living room.

He runs his hands through the bricks. He loves the feeling of pushing the bricks around on the carpet. Years later he will think of the feeling of Lego bricks on carpet and it will make him sad for no discernable reason.

Giles can make anything he wants with his Lego. He can be anything he wants to be.

Giles’ Father walks in, “What are you doing Shit head?”

Giles loved his dad but hated it when he called him ‘Shit head’.

“I’m playing Lego,” said Giles.

“Smashing,” said his Dad.

Giles hated it when his Dad said ‘smashing’ and ‘super’ but most of all he hated it when his Dad talked about ‘the boys.’

“What are you going to build?” asked his father.

“Don’t know yet.”

Giles’ dad got down on his knees and started sifting through the bricks. “Let’s see.”

Giles Dad found a baseboard and then started building a rectangular block shape. The block had a hole in the front. He worked slowly and methodically. Giles sat twiddling a fourer in his hands.

“What’s that?” Mr Martin asked his son.

“It’s a speaker,” sighed Giles.

“Super!” Mr Martin broke up the lego and started again. He was making some sort of cylinder shape. “It’s very hard to make curved edges with lego isn’t it?” he asked no one in particular.

Giles twiddled the fourer in his hands.

Ten minutes later, Giles’ Dad asked, “What’s that?”

“It’s a Neumann U87,” replied Giles.

Mr Martin broke the pieces up again. “Now I’d like you to build something. I’d like you to build something really super, something really smashing.”

“Would you like me to build an EMI Redd.37 desk with V728 amps and moving faders and everything?” asked Giles.

“That would be super Giles! Absolutely smashing.”

Giles thought for a minute, twirled the fourer in his hands. He was weighing up the pros and cons.

“Dad?” Giles started hesitantly, “Would it be ok if I went round and played with Dhani Harrison?”

“Shut the fuck up!” said Mr Martin, “Dhani’s got his sitar lesson. You leave him alone.”

Monday, 12 October 2009

Wilko Johnson

A couple of weeks ago I went to see “Oil City Confidential” at the National Film Theatre on the South Bank. It’s a film about Essex R and B band Doctor Feelgood, that centres heavily on guitarist Wilko Johnson.

Last Friday I saw Wilko play live at Walthamstow pisshole, The Royal Standard.

I wish Wilko got to spend more time performing at the South Bank, curating Meltdown Festivals or one off showcases at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, but he will forever be treading the boards of the Half Moon at Putney.

Wilko Johnson doesn’t mind though. In ‘Oil City Confidential’ Wilko explains how down he has been since the death of his wife and that the only lift he gets is being on stage.

Wilko plays a set possibly identical to one he played in 1974. Wilko doesn’t care if the song is thirty years old or five days old. He doesn’t care how many times he’s played “She Does It Right.” He doesn’t even care that he’s in Walthamstow. He duck walks, he ‘machine guns’ the audience with his guitar, he plays it behind his head. But at all times he looks completely dignified, at home with his age and his surroundings.

This is what old men playing rock and roll should look and sound like.

I want to be like him when I grow up.

I understand why you may dismiss the Feelgoods and Wilko as boozy pub rock, and you’re half right. But at it’s best it’s vital, caustic and visceral music and forms an often forgotten link between your beloved sixties and your hallowed punk.

Special mention must also go to lank haired, buck toothed, sweaty, silk shirted bean pole Norman Watt-Roy on bass. Have you seen this man live? He played bass in the Blockheads, he played bass on Sandinista, he played bass on Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

He will survive a nuclear war. He looks like he has survived a nuclear war. My wife can’t take her eyes of him, she can’t close her mouth.

Here is a young Wilko teaching you how to play guitar like him on Rock School.

Here is Norman Watt-Roy in the worst interview ever.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Trains in Science Fiction: Deathline (1972 Dir: Gary Sherman)

These obsessive interests are havens; they are warm duvets on November nights.

When two merge, the resulting ellipsoid in the venn diagram becomes the mother lode.

Deathline is not quite science fiction, although what else can you call a group of stranded London Underground workers who evolve and mutate into a family of cannibals? It was promoted then, and packaged now, as a horror film (in America the film was called ‘Raw Meat’). Blink and you’ll miss Christopher Lee’s cameo, an obvious attempt to associate the film with the British Hammer series.

It really isn’t a horror film either though. Like many of my favourite films it doesn’t know quite what it is. It almost climaxes too soon with a blistering title sequence, featuring blurred neon, overloaded Moog, funky Helvetica and prostitutes.

Here it is if you don’t believe me.

You want to see all of it now don’t you?

The film was shot largely on location at the Russell Square and Warren Street Underground Stations. Writer/Director Gary Sherman takes his time with the camera and plot. Many tense minutes are spent slowly panning over the monster’s lair in the imagined abandoned ‘Museum’ station. As the cannibal tends to his dying family we are made to feel sympathy for him. This is a beauty and the beast story. He hesitates before eating the pretty heroine but the only words he knows is a garbled version of ‘Mind the gap’.

The best thing about the film is Donald Pleasance, but then Pleasance is the best thing about any film he is in. He plays a surprisingly realistic Policeman in an unrealistic London. The disappearances on the underground seem to be a minor annoyance to him. In fact even though his character has plenty of screen time he does nothing to advance the plot or find the underground train monster. We get a expanded look into the life of what could have been a bit part. It’s as if all the scenes from ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ had been inserted into ‘Hamlet’.

In my imagined version of the 1970’s Donald Pleasance continued to play, Inspector Calhoun in a whole series of London set horror films. He wouldn’t investigate, or ignore, pirate zombies on the River Fleet, phantom Route Masters and ghost dogs along the Greenwich Foot Tunnel.

At the time of writing ‘Deathline’ costs about £5 on Amazon. Go get it.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Getting started...

This is embarrassing. I'm 38.

I'm one of those people who sometimes pretend they don't know what Twitter is. When I know damn well what it is.

Sometimes I close the computer down, turn the phone off and bury myself under a pile of leads, analogue tape and stylophones. I say, "Now that's living."

Then someone shows me an iphone and then I think, "Maybe that's living?"

I don't want to be someone who says, boastfully, "I don't even own a TV anymore."

Sometimes I want to say, boastfully, "I don't even own a TV anymore."

I have too many things in my life that feed my ego as it is.

I'm going to blog because I want more people to listen to my music, but I'm going to do it by trying not to blog about my music. Well not much.

Look, I'll try my best to make this interesting but if this doesn't work out can we pretend it never happened?

Is that OK?