Peter Fleming in Edinburgh; Part III

Hi everyone, Tom here. Peter Fleming – architect of the golden age of children’s TV in the 1960s and 1970s – is still filling in for me once I’m up in Edinburgh. He’s here too, but his show’s been and gone now. Take it away, Peter!

Hello, everybody!

Goodness me – do you know, I never would have dreamed so many people would come to see my talk with Larry on the 16th. To talk to such an enthusiastic group of people was simply delightful. I must say, they were laughing rather more than I was expecting for a factual discussion, but I suppose the various tragic failures I’ve made in my life are rather amusing! Save the one that got a laugh followed by a round of applause. That was rather insulting. Larry had a marvellous time as well – but then, he is a comedian! They lapped up his old routines from the 1970s about ladies on the road. He was less happy with the late-night entertainment bill we managed to book ourselves onto the following evening – the younger crowds were less taken with it. Personally, I was relieved that my presentation was finally being met with the respectful deathly silence it deserved!

Since we had a little more free time, and young Tom had said, tongue firmly in cheek, “Please, Peter, don’t flyer for us – you’re just too slow, it’s awful,” and so on Thursday I went for a wander through the National Museum of Scotland. A very illuminating experience, bar a couple of mishaps. At noon, I inadvertently became tangled within the Doomsday Clock, but was able to pass myself off as a component. Then, after finally freeing my tie, I looked at some exhibits when I stumbled across a little fly, crawling across a case. Now, I have hated flies ever since I was a boy. I even used one of my programmes as a form of catharsis in 1973, but even What Disease Has Susan Contracted Today? wasn’t enough to ease my distaste. As such, when I saw the little creature, I decided to go in for the kill.

Now, the way to deal with flies is to wait for the critical moment before they fly away – when they’re at their most vulnerable! I outstretched my arm, inched forward, biding my time, keeping very still – but it turned out the thing had died, and so I was standing in that pose for several hours. Worse still, in that time, two young members of the museum staff mistook this stationary older gentleman for a new exhibit and swiftly erected a glass case around me. They were obviously trying to do a good deed, and they seemed remarkably keen, so I didn’t have the heart to break my silence and correct them. As it was, I stayed in the case for three days, and felt very secure indeed! When I finally became restless, it was only a question of knocking on the glass and startling a passing boy. All in all, an enjoyable trip!

The only trouble is, once I had left the museum, I wasn’t sure where I might be able to find Larry, who had all our door takings with him – as well as all my worldly possession (a signed invoice from Tony Hart). He said he’d be sure to take good care of them all, but now that I think of it, he didn’t say where we should meet once I came back from the museum. He had the keys to our hostel cellar as well. I don’t really know anybody here, I’m afraid. I tried to approach young Tom to ask if I might be able to stay with him over the next few evenings, but every time he sees me walking towards him, he accidentally runs at full speed in the opposite direction.

If anybody reading this is able to assist, do let me know.

Best wishes,

Peter

Sam & Tom: Unrectifiable is on 3-27 August (not 14), 18:10, Heroes @ Dragonfly (Venue 414), £5 adv/PWYW.

Siân and Zoë’s Sugar Coma Fever Nightmare is on 3-27 August, 18:45, Just the Tonic at The Community Project (Venue 27), £5 adv/PWYW.

Etcetera Double Preview FB2

Peter Fleming in Edinburgh; Part II

Hi everyone, Tom here. I’m still in Edinburgh with my double act, so Peter Fleming – an architect of the golden age of children’s TV in the 1960s and 1970s – is once again on writing duty. His show’s this week, but he’s had just enough time to report in. Take it away, Peter!

Hello, everybody!

What a busy Sunday it is today in Edinburgh, everywhere hustle and bustle. It calls to mind the dilemma of Father George, the Busy Priest (1967) – “I couldn’t possibly go to church, Marguerite! If I work on the Sabbath, the Lord shall strike me down!” With the speed of life nowadays, you couldn’t make that premise work! Luckily, our only problems back in 1967 were the accusations of disdain for the Christian faith. Do you know, I think Mary Whitehouse despised us almost as much as she despised all other forms of joy!

I’ve taken to distributing flyers on Cowgate – or posters to taller people – in the hope that they might come along and see my talk with Light Entertainment Larry on Wednesday. The trouble is my old bones have become terribly slow of late, so when I spot someone who might enjoy it, it takes me so long to lift the flyer that by the time I’ve managed it, they’ve been and gone! I did have some good luck the other day though, when by chance I flyered a young man clearly familiar with my programmes, particularly Steven, the Boor Who Mistakenly Believed His Lady Friend Would Find it Impressive If He Belittled Strangers Who Had Clearly Worked Very Hard for a Year (1966)!

Yet I was growing frustrated with missing the people I wanted to attract, so I have developed a useful strategy to combat my aching body. As soon as I see someone who I suspect wouldn’t be very interested, I immediately start to raise a flyer. Sure enough, by the time it has reached the necessary height, someone of my target audience has arrived to take it from my hand! And these people have proved as helpful as I could have hoped. Walking along later, I saw that once they had noted the event’s details, they had done their bit to spread the word to any shy punters who didn’t like to look up – the ground was absolutely littered with my face! “Come to Edinburgh,” they shall say, “where the streets are paved with Peter!”

As I progressed along Cowgate, I had a real treat when I stumbled across Larry! A great relief, as he went missing last week and I wasn’t sure if he would be back in time for our talk – or indeed if he was still alive! We do keep each other amused. Stopping, I asked him, “How are you, Larry?” Quick as a flash, he replied, “I’m miserable, Peter. I wish I were back presenting my dating show The Meat Market, getting paid £200 a day and the fearful reverence of all beneath me. Now all I can hope for is the warm embrace of death.” I burst out laughing, of course. “Oh Larry, you are a joker!” He shot back straight away with, “It’s not a joke, you bastard! I just want it to end! When will it end?!” I can never help but be tickled by his post-watershed sensibilities! As I walked away, roaring with laughter, I could hear his shouts of “Why can’t I die?! Why can’t I die?! Why can’t I die?!” echoing under George IV Bridge. Always committed to the joke!

Scramply-dacious regards,

Peter

Peter Fleming & Light Entertainment Larry: Haunted Videotape is on 16 August, 15:45, Heroes @ The Hive (Venue 313), £5 adv from the venue/PWYW.

Sam & Tom: Unrectifiable is on 3-27 August (not 14), 18:10, Heroes @ Dragonfly (Venue 414), £5 adv/PWYW.

 Siân and Zoë’s Sugar Coma Fever Nightmare is on 3-27 August, 18:45, Just the Tonic at The Community Project (Venue 27), £5 adv/PWYW.

Haunted-Videotape

Peter Fleming in Edinburgh; Part I

Hi everyone, Tom here. I’m away in Edinburgh with my double act for August. Very busy, so I’m handing writing duties to Peter Fleming – an architect of the golden age of children’s TV in the 1960s and 1970s – for the month. His show’s one day only, so he’s a bit freer to document his experiences, having followed me here. Take it away, Peter!

Hello, everybody!

Well, well, well, how lovely to be back in the city of Edinburgh! It’s certainly a lot livelier than when we dramatised it in my 1966 historical programme, The Hills Where the Pipers Lived. I remember that one received a lot of complaints, but exclusively from viewers in Scotland, and one largely tended to ignore those back then.

I’ve come along because my young friend, archivist and carer Tom is busy performing his ‘comedy’ here every day. The morning he left, he asked me, “You won’t be lonely, will you, Peter?” to which I replied, “No!” Unfortunately, he didn’t realise I was joking, and so when he immediately ran off to catch his train, I decided to follow him up. It took several days on my tired feet – to say nothing of the various wrong turns I took to Lincoln, Peterborough and Lincoln again, before finally overshooting and finding myself in Aberdeen – but I’m finally here!

As it happens, I shall be giving a talk about my programmes one afternoon, along with my dear departed (and revived) friend Light Entertainment Larry. I’m very much looking forward to it, and I’ve already begun advertising on the streets! I went up to the High Street on the Royal Mile yesterday. Goodness, what a lot of fans of my programmes there were! I walked past a little stage at the bottom, and would you believe it, there was a group of people performing an homage to my 1968 series, The Choir Who Wouldn’t Stop Singing.

When we made the programme, we had to save on production costs, and so we only filmed the eponymous choir singing three songs, and played those over and over again. Pleasant to chance upon of a mid-afternoon on BBC1, but very frustrating to any regular viewers! And those viewers’ experience was being replicated up the whole street, because if you were to walk closer to St Giles’ Cathedral in a bid to escape, or switch over to ITV, as it were, you’d find yourself confronted with the choir-based show that they were broadcasting in the exact same timeslot, Please, For the Love of God, Stop! Heady days!

I found myself having a very amiable conversation with a gentleman here as part of a youth theatre company. He thought he was being very clever when he suggested we exchange promotional materials – little did he know that, although he will now certainly come to see me, the likelihood is I won’t have time to see his gangster-and-circus-inspired musical production of Macbeth at all! I spoke to him for several hours about my work in television, and, do you know, as the hour went on, he seemed increasingly to resemble the title character from The Disinterested Prince (1964). The magic endures!

Best wishes, and scramply-dacious regards,

Peter

Sam & Tom: Unrectifiable is on 3-27 August (not 14), 18:10, Heroes @ Dragonfly (Venue 414), £5 adv/PWYW.

Peter Fleming & Light Entertainment Larry: Haunted Videotape is on 16 August, 15:45, Heroes @ The Hive (Venue 313), £5 adv from the venue/PWYW.

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OKNOTOK

My listening over the last month has consisted largely of an old favourite revisited. OKNOTOK, the 20th anniversary reissue of OK Computer, reveals new things about the album itself as different elements surface more clearly through the mix, as well as giving us the delight of three new-old tracks to listen to. They feel slightly closer in sensibility to The Bends, and join the pantheon of Radiohead b-sides that have come to be viewed as ‘transitions’ between two creative phases, like the My Iron Lung and Airbag EPs.  The full box set of OKNOTOK, in particular the C90 cassette of session tracks and demos, offer up further illumination, not just of OK Computer but of work by the band yet to come.

On first listen, I was most enthralled by Thom Yorke’s 4-track demos of songs not to be released for years. His piano version of Motion Picture Soundtrack stands out, and the unbroken purity of his voice at the refrain of ‘I will see you in the next life’ moves me in a way totally distinct from the Kid A version. Demos of The National Anthem and a studio version of the late-nineties incarnation of Nude are similarly exciting listens, and serve as a counter to the idea of creative ‘sea changes’ that come with new albums like In Rainbows, or Kid A and Amnesiac in particular. Ideas may be articulated in different ways down the years, but those original ideas themselves are the same, and Radiohead is still Radiohead. It’s fascinating to behold the germs of so many later works surfacing at this time, like the looping ambience that was part of an attempt at recording True Love Waits, later heavily sampled to create Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors on Amnesiac. Meanwhile the strings from Climbing up the Walls are the clearest precursor to Jonny Greenwood’s orchestral work and film scores that one could ask for.

Throughout the cassette, elements and fragments from various tracks accumulate to encapsulate perfectly the mood of OK Computer – not dissimilar to Grant Gee’s Meeting People is Easy (1998). An endlessly reverberating guitar riff from Lull and sound effects from Fitter Happier , amongst other splinters, create a soundscape that distils the musical mood of the album – vast cityscapes, intimidating, cold spaces. And the lyrical sensibility, the sense of detachment and alienation, permeates through the clips of a child innocently reading out the murderous lyrics to Climbing up the Walls, or the computer-sampled voice of Fitter Happier recounting Stanley Donwood’s Big Bird Story. The impression builds of a landscape too vast to accommodate individuals, left disparate and isolated on the outskirts.

But when listening to the individual components of songs from the album sessions, the sense of the individual standing against the cold world outside is foregrounded much more heavily. Listening to the isolated piano recording used in Fitter Happier, I realised for the first time that this hadn’t been treated in any way to sound, as it always had to me, somehow removed, distant, like an artefact resurfacing from history. Rather, it’s a low-quality recording of Thom Yorke playing the piano – suddenly the sublime piano demo of How I made My Millions sounds less incongruous alongside the studio tracks on the main reissued album.

That’s perhaps the greatest gift of the entire project – after twenty years of its reputation and status growing, interpretations of it growing more ‘definitive’, OKNOTOK puts OK Computer, and Radiohead, in a different perspective. Something that has built up in our perception of it over time has been a sense of exclusion in a paranoid, modern world. The music can feel as though it comes from an outsider’s viewpoint, away from the forbidding urban landscapes of the artwork. But in these domestic demos, individual components, to say nothing of the incredible notebooks and sketches of preliminary art and lyrics also included in the main box, lies a sense of the homemade that has never before felt so integral to the album. After listening to OKNOTOK, OK Computer feels far less exclusively to be about exclusion from the world, and far more about successfully finding a place within it.

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Victoria

As I write this on Friday evening, the news has reached the Doctor Who world that Deborah Watling, Victoria Waterfield to fans of the Troughton era, has sadly died. Watching her on VHS when I was a child was difficult, given how few of her episodes had survived the BBC’s archival purges. Nevertheless, what I was able to take in left a vivid lasting impression. The impact of her performance was as effective as an actor could hope for – she felt like our companion just as much as the Doctor’s.

I first saw Victoria on the Troughton Years video. (Goodness knows when I got my hands on it.) She featured on it in the only surviving episodes, at that time, of The Abominable Snowmen and The Enemy of the World. At once, I was struck by something open and honest in her face. There’s a level of wonderment and inquisitiveness, although the latter quality always seemed tempered by caution and vulnerability. It’s probably just how this self-conscious seven year-old would have been.

Perhaps more than any companion before or since, there was a very strong sense that Victoria’s was specifically there to be protected. Not surprising given how she was introduced in 1967 – a lonely captive, soon to be orphaned, having only just been reunited with her father. The Doctor and Jamie assumed a duty of care, and the close bonds between that TARDIS crew (especially between Jamie and Victoria) is tangible. That sense protectiveness was felt throughout her stories – and sometimes hard to escape from.

Look at how she leaves in Fury from the Deep (1968). Victoria doesn’t enjoy the TARDIS lifestyle anymore.  She didn’t join the crew out of choice but necessity. And her traumatic experience with a monster defeated by the sounds of her own screams is the last straw. I find it hard to imagine I’d be much different, and her fear was my fear. But her departure isn’t a miserable one – rather, it’s one of the most tender, and Victoria’s final episode, currently missing, is one of the greatest losses the programme has suffered in the BBC’s archival purges of the 1970s. Reflecting on this scene, I think it was Victoria’s gentleness that always struck me most clearly.

Her time on the show feels bookended by that intimate scene in Fury from the Deep and another in her first full story, The Tomb of the Cybermen. Discussing her recently murdered father, she talks to the Doctor while everyone else sleeps, in a conversation that still resonates with fans today, often in very personal ways. She could be prickly as well, when the script allowed her to be. A streak of the emancipation of the era emerges as early as The Tomb of the Cybermen. She talks back to men who condescend and bully her in The Ice Warriors, The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear too. Far more than the helpless child she was often made to seem.

But still I return to the vulnerability when I think of what drew me to Victoria. It isn’t to say that she wasn’t brave, but she was rarely delighted that she needed to be. It made me feel that perhaps there would have been room on the TARDIS for someone a bit more like me. I was so glad to be able to see more of her when nine of her missing episodes were recovered in 2013, and I was able to see The Web of Fear in particular, having listened to it pretty much every night going to bed when I was 10. It was doubtless a far more personal delight for Deborah Watling, not just to see some of her own work from days gone by, but to be able to see herself acting alongside her late father, Jack.

I always hope that more of Victoria might come back, but as I reflect on Deborah Watling’s passing, I realise that what was already there has in fact had a very impact on me already. I’ll miss them both.

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Ma Vie de Courgette (2016)

Ma Vie de Courgette is the story of seven children in a care home, torn from their homes and their parents by grim tragedies of one kind or another. It focuses in particular on Icare (Gaspard Schlatter), who goes by Courgette, and to similar extent on Camille (Sixtine Murat) and Simon (Paulin Jaccoud). But each child in the home has common qualities, and at the heart of the film is the collision between innocence and maturity they all embody.

It’s embedded in the very look of the film, and the style of its animation – a medium too often assumed to be exclusively for children. The physical scale of the film’s settings to its characters is deliberately mismatched – clearest during shots from outside. Against the exteriors of the buildings they inhabit, the windows they look out of, the cars they travel in, the interiors, and the children, are disproportionately large. Personal experience is emphasised, and its bleakness is played out within a world that feels distinctly like a toy set. A similar collision can be heard in Sophie Hunger’s music, where the childlike delicacy of a Blinking Lights-era Eels instrumental is embellished by ghostly reverberations – echoes of trauma past.

And for all the delicate music and the playful use of scale, the mood seen in the design work, especially character design, goes further to emphasise reality and its burdens. Sickly red noses for the children, bags and dark circles sagging beneath the eyes – the gravity of an imperfect world weighs down on them, in spite of the charm that can surround them. Character design and animation reveal much about a film through their deliberate choices. Alice’s fringe masking a scar over her eye; her anxious habit of tapping a fork at the dinner table; Courgette nervously fidgeting when he first sits on his new bed.

The film is very effective in the ways it explores the psychology of children, their tics and insecurities, not just in the design work but in their behaviour in the script.  Their loneliness and abandonment manifest themselves in ways that are immediately accepted but no less surprising – and very moving as a result. It’s perhaps at its clearest, certainly at its most insistent, in Beatrice’s (Lou Wick) constant habit of running out at the sound of every car arriving and with an expectant shout of “Maman!” Her inability to accept her separation from her deported mother is resolved in a way that, again, is as surprising as it is completely understandable.

These are children for whom a sense of separation, from both their families and ‘normality’, is a fact of life. Yet beneath the cosmetic differences, there’s everything to be seen that they have in common with the outside. The children are still children, and their innocence shines through. What is missing for some of them is a parent or family, in the traditional sense, to validate it. We see it in their interactions with the world outside the care home – especially their wonderment at the sight of other children making snowmen with their parents. A dividing line exists that we know has no justification. For these children, there are just the same curiosities, delights, and fragilities – all of these revealing much about Simon in particular, perhaps the most interesting character in the film.

When we first meet him, he has his self-appointed place as the head of the group, bullying new arrival Courgette and attempting the same with Camille. As the film progresses, his vulnerability becomes apparent (the moment when he receives correspondence from his mother is one of the most understatedly sad of the film). We come to see his thick skin as a coping mechanism, better to protect and lead the children in the home. He is looked up to implicitly, and mocked for his own sense of authority, but he is also trapped by his position. As seems clear in one of the final shots, by the gate of the home, he has assumed the lonely duty of a custodian – he is wedded to the place. Some children come and go, but some, like Simon, seem resigned to stay there – happy with each other, but still yearning for what is lost. A lingering sadness, and a compelling ending to a nonetheless touching, insightful and uplifting film.

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Doctor Who: The Doctor Falls (2017)

Things seem to be going out on a high, don’t they? To cap Peter Capaldi’s strongest series, and to prepare for his own departure as showrunner, Steven Moffat gives two of the finest scripts Doctor Who has seen since the early Matt Smith era. In The Doctor Falls, promises are fulfilled, problems neatly solved, relationships explored and strengthened. And as for that cliffhanger…

We carry on from last week’s exploration of the Cybermen with further leaps. They rise again as the terrifying army of before, but now we have a far more intimate understanding of their threat. To see a Cyberman’s experience from the direct perspective of the person within seems an obvious idea, yet has never been done before. It’s brilliantly executed, a refinement of Clara/Oswin’s experience trapped as a Dalek in 2012. Done with a monster that suits the idea better and, in Bill, happening to someone we already know, who has never been presented to us as a puzzle, never anything less than a human being. It’s a heart-rending performance from Pearl Mackie as she must see children, strangers and her best friends grow increasingly afraid of her. Her confusion, her innocence, her fear. The cruelty she’s subjected to. All devastating.

Yet she does receive a happy ending – one that’s satisfying symbolically, even if narratively it’s a pretty far-stretching call back. For Heather (Stephanie Hyam) to reappear after eleven weeks errs on the side of ‘convenient’, yet for perhaps the first time in ten years, a flashback comes that isn’t simply over-egging a point. A line that in The Pilot seemed a bit of throwaway sentimentality is revealed to have enormous significance, offering the path to rescue. It’s a satisfying enough device, which is to say nothing of the delightful symbolism at work when the programme’s first openly gay companion finds salvation in a gay relationship – the love that she was at the start of the series denied. I’ll miss Pearl Mackie, and Bill, but her story’s ending is the right one.

I’ll miss Nardole too – The Doctor Falls provides one last hurrah for Matt Lucas, who throughout the whole series has been as steadfast and reliable as his character. And, after all the weeks of excellent comedic moments, he has a farewell scene so touching in its understatement that it’s just as a sad a goodbye as all the others underway. Very welcome for a character often made second fiddle. There’s also something gratifying in the way that his plot in this episode is essentially a refinement of Matt Smith’s plot from 2013’s The Time of the Doctor – one that very much redeems it after that episode’s dizzyingly frenetic pace.

Instead, even as the action escalates, the episode’s strengths lie in its functions as a character piece. It interrogates not just the Doctor, but the Master and Missy too – at long last. What an opportunity it is to have a character meet themselves. Some very clever uses of structure are at work, harking back to The Day of the Doctor (2013) or Time Crash (2007). Here though, they feel more valuable to character, as the Master tries to prevent his journey down a path he dreads. Like showing Bill’s experience as a Cyberman, it feels such an obvious yet inspired move to have the two incarnations kill and betray each other. Of course they would. To say nothing of the narcissistic smut. Like Pearl Mackie, it’s a shame to see Michelle Gomez go, but she at least goes with the best end an incarnation of the character has had. The sense of an era ending is palpable.

Echoes of The End of Time (2009-10) ring out as the Doctor interrogates the Master and Missy, bringing flashes of honesty to the surface – not least when he demands whether they ever wonder how they’ll die. The answer isn’t far away, but it’s a revelation to see characters so consistently heightened suddenly blindsided by reality. Here’s the compelling examination of the Doctor/Master/Missy relationship that’s been teased all series, and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s worth noting the lack of music too. I don’t profess to be Murray Gold’s biggest fan, but his score for the last couple of weeks has been very effective. So too, however, has been the pointed use of silence when called for. I’m sure it won’t become the norm, but it adds to the sense of isolated futility as the Doctor makes his last, feeble stand against the Cybermen.

The showdown with his oldest friend (both of them), is another last stand. As powerful as his turns in The Zygon Inversion or Heaven Sent in 2015. And so many scenes here serve as the final mission statement from Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. The characterisation took time to find its feet, but his performance has never been less than exceptional. Now, he knows who he is, and he’s proud of it. And, like the Tenth Doctor, this is a character who knows as surely as the actor that his days are numbered. I’m so glad that it’s being properly set up by the scripts again (Matt Smith’s departure struggled with 2013’s dual role as the show’s anniversary year). With David Bradley’s arrival as the First Doctor, it seems this departure will be happening in the spectacular fashion Peter Capaldi deserves.

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