On this day in November 1963 the first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast. A happy Who Day to my fellow time-travellers, may you never trip over your own long scarves.
I’m a child of the Space Age, an infant when humans first walked on a surface that was not of our world for the first time in all of the history of our species. While school chums had posters of football players on their bedroom walls, my walls sported posters of Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin. I remember being lucky enough to have some fabulous toys to play with as a small child, but my earliest memories of any plaything is my little silver spacesuit and helmet. Wearing my toy spacesuit and sitting in a cardboard box for my spaceship with my imagination taking me to infinity and beyond.
I wanted to be an astronaut.
I still do.
When I was just an infant human beings, for the first time in the history of our entire homo sapiens species walked on the surface of another world. Since hunter-gatherer times, long before the dawn of civilisation, human beings had dreamed of the moon, worshipped her as a goddess, called on her power over human affairs, and dreamed of what it was like to be there. But for tens of thousands of years nobody could be there – you could be an emperor or a peasant, it didn’t matter, the moon was forever there in the sky but out of reach. A pleace dreams are made of.
But when I was a child, human beings made the most extraordinary voyage in the history of humanity. We walked across ancient Africa, we spread out across Europe, Asia, the Americas and colonised the world. Much later we sailed across the vast oceans of our blue world, from those astonishing Polynesian travellers on reed boats sailing the vast oceans of the Pacific (some of the greatest natural navigators of all time) to the early voyages of Magellan and Admiral Zheng He to the great Age of Exploration and James Cook.
And eventually we took to the skies, in hot air balloons, dirigibles, and finally heavier than air craft – aeroplanes.And, astonishingly, only a few decades seperate those first few scant seconds in the air by the Wright Brothers at Kittyhawk and human beings walking on the surface of the moon.
Even as a child, watching and reading everything I could on the space programmes of the USSR and the USA, I wasn’t naive, I understood that the two world wars and the subsequent Cold War had driven this remarkable technological advancement, the kind of progress that took us from Von Braun’s V2 rocket, created as a weapon, in 1944 and 45 to his Saturn V rocket carrying humans to the moon in the late 1960s.
I knew this, but even as a kid I looked at the words on that plaque, on that statement on the first lunar landing on July 20th, 1969, “We came in peace fo all mankind” and I wanted to believe it. And to be fair, for many in the scientific and engineering community that was the case – they knew they were getting funding because of Cold War paranoia, military-industrial scheming and national pride, but they took that money knowing they could use it go push the frontiers of human endeavour, science, exploration and knowledge for the pure joy of knowledge. And some of them believed in that credo of “we came in peace for all mankind”.
And I wanted to believe in that too, and I still do. Because it spoke of something higher than national prestige or technological posuring, it hinted at a better future, where humanity was more advanced, when we were one and striving to be the best we could be. It’s the same reason Star Trek has been such a powerful influence on my life and so many other people’s lives, not just the characters and the stories, but the future it painted, a future where humans strove to be better than they had been, to be one species, regardless of gender, or skin colour, to create a world where we expanded our horizons because we could, for the betterment of all.
Yes, I know that was Cold War propaganda, but I still loved that message, I loved what it hinted we could actually be, beyond our our divisions and nationalistic, gender, and ethnic arguments, that we could all be humans exploring the great infinity of the universe, just waiting for us. And there we had three men, three men who truly did go where No Man Has Gone Before. And yes, I knew it was part of the nationalistic posturing and Cold War posturing, but by god I wanted it to be more than that, and I think many of us felt the same, because that one moment united humanity for a precious short time. We had done something beyond the realms of the dreams of centuries and the entire globe rejoiced.
It feels to me that too often we have stepped back from that first Giant Leap. Fifty years to this very day and we are still to go further – hell, we haven’t even been back to the moon since Apollo, much less futher. All those childhood comics annuals I read as a kid in the 70s told me we would be on Mars by now and that by the early 21st century we would all have affordable holidays on the Moon.
It’s fifty years on, it is 2019, and I am still waiting on that promised holiday in space. Oh sure, we have private corporations promising imminents low-orbit trips, but only for the super-wealthy. This corporate rather than national space programme has been hailed as “democratising” space, but that is rubbish, this is just for the extremely wealthy, that isn’t democracy, this isn’t for the people, it is the privatisation of the great Final Frontier by the wealthy for the wealthy with not an ounce of actual science involved, unlike the national and trans-national programmes. And my dream of every taking that trip above the clouds is as far away as ever, which breaks my heart, knowing that dream will almost certainly never come to pass.
None of that changes what happened on this day fifty years ago, though. Human beings who had started out in tiny groups of hunter-gatherers had, in the space of around 300 to 200, 000 years, evolved to use fire, the wheel, agriculture, ships, early flight and then slipping the bonds of Earth herself to fly into space and the moon. Think about that – dinosaurs, one of the most successful evolutionary genus to ever walk the Earth ruled the globe for a couple of hundred million years. In a few hundred thousand modern humans went from hunter-gatherers to walking on another world.
Seriously, think about that, think about how amazing that is. Think that within the space of a human lifetime, less some seven decades, we went from a few seconds in the air with the Wright Brothers to flying beyond our world. Our grandmothers lived in a world of horse-drawn milk-carts as girls and saw Armstrong, Aldarin and Collins flying in Apollo in their sunset years. That’s the space of time we’re talking about, it’s mind-blowing to think of how rapidly this took place, this most amazing voyage in the history of a species that has made a success of being natural explorers.
It often feels to me that we have not only stepped back since those heady days of Apollo and Gagarin, but we have become smaller. For all our technological advancements since then (when a mobile phone in our pocket, unthinkable back then, has more computing power than all of NASA had back then) as a species we feel smaller to me, we have lost that magnificence that came with the challenge of exploration. Today is it all about the Me, Me, Me individual The Way You Want It world. Not that I mind that entirely, but it needs to be balanced out against the collective, the Us. And Apollo united that Us for a few precious days, we transcended the everyday, glimpsed a better future where we grew and explored not for riches and honours but because we wanted to, because it was the best thing to do, because we were better than we had been before.
As I said I am not naive, even as a kid I knew the political and national and economic imperatives that drove the space programmes of both the US and USSR back then. But I chose to believe in the higher ideals behind it, because those are beautiful ideals, ideals of us being better as a species, of us striving as one to be better than we are, to push the boundaries, to further ourselves for the collective good of all humanity. Yes, I know, you may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one. And isn’t that a dream worth chasing…
Sensible Footwear – a Girl’s Guide,
Now this, my friends, has been one of the Brit comics works on my Must Read Radar for 2019; I know Kate has been working on it for a long time, a labour of love in many respects. Kate has been contributing to the Brit comics and cartooning scene for many years, from her Auntie Studs character to the critically acclaimed (and quite brilliant) Sally Heathcote, Suffragette with Mary and Bryan Talbot (reviewed here). Kate was also generous enough to create artwork for my short story Memorial to the Mothers which closed out the double Eisner-nominated WWI comics anthology To End All Wars (thanks, Kate! You can read that story in full here on the Woolamaloo). So it is more than fair to say I have heard snippets about this work in production for quite a while and now, finally, thanks to the nice people at Myriad (surely one of our most creator-supportive UK Indy publishers?) I had the chance to read it.
And then re-read it.
Short version: it’s brilliant – it’s a wonderfully warm, often very smile-inducing and laughter-creating, emotionally engaging tour through the last few decades of Queer life and culture in the UK and further afield, intertwining both Kate’s own life experiences as she grows up with the wider cultural and historical changes taking place, which gives Sensible Footwear both an over-arching, wide-ranging historical arc but at the same time maintaining a close, personal aspect to it that allows the reader to experience this as more than historical events or social-cultural changes, we can feel the impact on a more individual, emotional level.
From the hidden gay (predominantly male homosexual) subculture of the 50s and 60s (yes, including the delightfully cheeky and risqué Round the Horne) to the heady days of Stonewall and beyond, the Women’s Liberation Movement gaining ground in the 70s, the increasingly visible presence of LGBT people and the push for more tolerance for all, the horrible early years of the AIDS outbreak and more, along the way taking in lovely little asides on a myriad (no pun intended) of gay icons, from Dusty Springfield to characters from Coronation Street.
Woven through all of this socio-cultural history we also have Kate’s own story, from childhood through to that great rite of passage so many of us go through, the first move away from home to go to college, to adult life, to exploring what her own sexuality and romantic inclinations are, the friends and lovers she meets, the people who inspire her, the intolerant elements she and friends band together to stand against. It’s all laced with a lovely, warm humour throughout – right from the start, after an introductory scene of Kate and her partner Diane on holiday with friends, discussing the old days (a framing device used through much of the book, linking past and present nicely), we go to Barnsley in 1950 and Kate’s birth, which includes a cheeky moment of baby Kate seeing the ward sister and being somewhat smitten.
There is more of that kind of scene as we see her growing up – as a family wedding approaches the young girl wonders what the husband is actually for. And she is less than impressed at being dolled-up in a fancy, very girly dress to be a maid of honour, not her kind of thing at all, oh no. Mind you, she is rather taken with the bride. There are a lot of gentle intimations here that Kate is not going to grow up to be the “regular” young girl then young woman that her family expects (thank goodness!). Balancing this out, later sections in the book hark back to those earlier days, of getting older, starting to realise she is a lesbian and not knowing how to tell her family, how they will react, but we find out as we go on that actually there were more secrets in the family cupboard she simply knew nothing of when growing up and questioning her own feelings and inclinations, because those were generations that simply didn’t share certain things, not even among their nearest and dearest.
Even today coming out is often not an easy thing for anyone – growing up is rarely simple, we’re all trying to figure out who we are, what we want to be, looking for role models and inspiration and supportive friends who will help us. How much harder when society was so horribly bigoted and intolerant? Yes, we have plenty of bigots today – sadly they seem to be on the rise again, racism, sexism, homophobia – but it is still very different, both society’s general attitude and also the law’s stance (where LGBT people are recognised and afforded the same rights and protections any of us should have).
And here we get to see where some of those changing attitudes – and political and legal changes – came from, with groups inspired by Stonewall, the first gay rights movements, the increasingly important woman’s rights movements, the push for greater racial tolerance. I was reminded a little of Sally Heathcote, where Kate and the Talbots made it abundantly clear that the Women’s Suffrage movement was never just about the vote, it was about a whole range of important social issues, including healthcare and educational opportunities. Similarly here, we can see how the fight for tolerance, understanding and equality for any one group is, in reality, always about tolerance and understanding and equality for all. Or as congressman John Lewis, Civil Rights veteran and one of the original Freedom Riders, put it when equal rights for gay marriage was proposed in the US:
“I fought too long and too hard against discrimination based on race and colour, not to fight against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”
If you needed any more reminding of that, just think how the same, vaguely-worded Obscene Publications Act that was used to try and stop some gay publications – state censorship, effectively – was the same Act used to try and shut down counter-culture publications like Oz, or, even in the 80s and 90s Tony Bennett’s Knockabout having to fight the Act and HM Customs over importing underground Comix. Like I said, these rights and tolerances – or lack thereof – affect most, if not all of us in some way or another.
For readers of a certain age there is also a lot of nostalgia and a strong sense of “oh, I remember that” moments throughout Sensible Footwear, from the idolising Honor Blackman and then Diana Rigg in the Avengers (strong women characters that took no nonsense without every losing any sense of the feminine) in the 60s to the hideous Mary Whitehouse and her Festival of Light, using religion as a way to demand that what people watched or read conformed to what they approved of (chilling, and still has echoes today with some (mis)using religion as an excuse to practise bigotry), or “God’s Cop” James Anderton (a favourite of Thatcher), the imposition of the Section 28 whereby the government tried its best to suppress discussion of gay culture, to the emergence of AIDS and the rampant hatred that often followed this in the press of the time, rather than extending sympathy to those suffering illness or losing loved ones.
But through all of this weaves Kate’s own story, or more accurately Kate and all the people she has interacted with, friends, lovers, other creators, support groups, family, beloved icons (Dusty!), a reminder of how what is personal and individual to us or our small circle of friends is also part of the larger picture of our ever-changing society, and this makes the events covered in this history much more accessible, more emotionally personal, regardless of the reader’s own orientation. The artwork moves from cartoon to an almost collage style when incorporating numerous old publications, or flyers or badges or media clippings from the time, with good use of colouring and shading for different aspects of the story or different times being depicted.. The art is also frequently funny – young Kate staring into a mirror after he friend asks if she may be a lesbian, trying to see if it is obvious, is just one of many parts that had me laughing out loud.
Sensible Footwear can’t, of course, be an encyclopedic history of all of LGBT culture in the UK for the last few decades, and Kate notes that herself – there is only so much anyone can cover, and besides, as she also comments, everyone’s experience is a bit different, so you can’t always show what every single person was going through. What it does do though is encapsulate several decades of LGBT history in a very accessible manner, often touching on areas some of us might not even have realised were important to the emerging Queer Culture at the time, and shows how it is part and parcel of the forever changing, diverse nature of our whole society, not apart from it. And most of all that wonderful, warm, personal aspect to the whole book that engages you, like a chat with a dear chum over drinks on a summer afternoon. A book that left me with a very satisfied smile on my face.
Kursk: The Last Mission,
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg,
Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Léa Seydoux, Peter Simonischek, August Diehl, Colin Firth, Max Von Sydow, Bjarne Henriksen, Magnus Millang
The K-141 nuclear submarine Kursk was laid down in the early 1990s, but by the time she was fully commissioned the former Soviet Union had collapsed. She became part of the Russian navy’s Northern Fleet, a class known to worried NATO observers as the Oscar-II class, larger than her predecessors at some 154 metres, a truly massive beast, stealthy, hard to observe even with NATO’s sophisticated submarine detection equipment, and heavily armed (this class was designed to makes holes in entire enemy battle groups all by herself), with a hull and conning tower reinforced so she could even surface through the Arctic ice. But by the end of the last millennium, with Russia essentially broke, much of this once-huge and impressive fleet is lying at anchor, rusting in the sea air.
For all the power Kursk and her sister ships had, we see a sadly depleted, run-down force – as the film opens we follow a group of shipmates from her crew, lead by Mikhail Averin (Matthias Schoenaerts), desperately trying to raise money for the champagne for one of their fellow’s wedding reception; none of them has been paid in ages, a common occurrence during this part of Russia’s history, wages not being paid by the state, little money even for fuel for regular sailing patrols. They each barter their prized submariner’s watches with the quartermaster to get supplies for the wedding, a warm act of brotherhood for one of their own, an act which leaves the new bride in tears.
And the next day she sails into the frigid northern oceans – for the first time in years the run-down, post-Soviet Russian navy is holding a major exercise, and Kursk is joining it, tasked with launching sneak mock attacks on several of the surface vessels. Despite the lack of pay and resources this crew was still reckoned to be one of the best in the submarine fleet, and their ship a tremendous achievement of engineering and power. As we see her leave her base, watched by their families, the gargantuan scale of this ship is quite clear, and you understand the pride her crew have in sailing on such a vessel. Sadly, of course, for those of us familiar with recent history we know this will be Kursk’s final voyage. On the 12th of August, 2000, an explosion was detected beneath the waves around the exercise fleet. The worst had happened.
You may ask what mileage there is in a disaster film based on real history, when we all know what the outcome is, and it is a legitimate question. I have to say it entered my mind early on, but Thomas Vinterberg crafts his film in such a way that you get to know the men and their families. We see their strong bonds at the start as they try to find supplies for their crewmate’s wedding, we see their families, we see a group of elite sailors who live and work in close quarters at sea and whose families live next to one another on shore, they are all one extended family, and it is clear they would do anything for one another. As we get to know the men on the ship and their families back home we become enmeshed in their lives – I found myself wanting, against the odds, against real history, for some of them to make it, even though I know that all of her crew perished down there, in the deep, cold northern waters, far from the light. But Vinterberg made me want that to happen, his Kursk really does pull you in emotionally to this desperate struggle for survival.
The explosion destroys the forward compartments of the ship – it is generally believed that a badly-made torpedo leaked the unstable hydrogen peroxide fuel (similar to that used in some rockets), causing an explosion, which in turn lead to a bigger explosion as it set off some of the other torpedoes. You can imagine the devastation this wreaks on the stricken ship. The crewmen we follow survive only because they were in the rear section. They are now stuck on the bottom of the sea in the last few sealed compartments, water leaking in, air thinning, waiting, hoping, praying for rescue. But the cutbacks in the Russian fleet have also affected their search and rescue teams – the British Royal Navy (in the shape of Colin Firth’s Commodore David Russell) and Norwegian navies monitor the situation and offer their own far better technical resources to rescue the men they think may be trapped aft, but a proud and suspicious Russia refuses the offers of help, until it is too late.
We’ll never know for sure now if those twenty three men surviving in the aft compartments could have been rescued if Russia had accepted that help more quickly. One officer there made a list of the surviving men, so we know they were there for some time after the explosion, hoping for a rescue that came far too late (Firth has his British officer down perfectly, the obvious despair and resignation mixed with that classic stoic and professional in public persona we expect of an RN officer). The rescue attempts by the Russians, the help offered by the British and Norwegians, the cutting back and forth from the slowly filling compartments of survivors to their frantic families on land, demanding information and being given little by the authorities, all builds to a tremendous if tragic emotional climax. This is all handled in a very realistic, down-to-earth manner, a million miles from the action of the likes of Hunt For Red October, in many ways it has the feeling of one of those classic WWII submarine films, when all the men can do is wait in their ship, deep below the surface and hope.
Yes, we know the outcome here – this event only happened nineteen years ago, we all saw it on the news, we all heard of the Royal Navy’s offer of help, the standard forgetting of enemies when in trouble at sea, because then all sailors are fellow sailors and the code is always to help, and the wait to find out that it was all too late. And yet Vinterberg’s film draws you into the desperate emotions of these men and their families so effectively you find yourself longing for a Hollywood happy ending that you know never happened and cannot be, but he ensures these men are not just some stereotypes, he gives them depth, families, makes us emote with them until we feel their struggle. And he gives them honour, heroism and professionalism as they face their end together.
Kursk: the Last Mission is released by Signature Entertainment in cinemas and on Digital HD from July 12th
L’empereur de Paris / The Emperor of Paris,
Directed by Jean-François Richet,
Starring Vincent Cassel, Olga Kurylenko, Patrick Chesnais, August Diehl, Denis Lavant, Freya Mavor
Another evening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and this time it is a French period piece, based on a real-life historical character Eugène François Vidocq, who I must confess I had only vaguely heard of, mostly in relation to him inspiring later fictional works by the like of Poe and Balzac among others. This is classic poacher turned gamekeeper stuff, inspired by the actual Vidocq, a criminal who turned thief-taker, his familiarity with the Parisian underworld of the Napoleonic era and his own native ingenuity allowing him to track and capture the most wanted criminal gangs of the era in a way the regular authorities – mostly just watchmen with clubs and a heavy hand – could possibly manage. Vidocq is rightly famous in his native France as the founder and first director of the Sûreté Nationale and thought to be one of the first – if not the very first – private detectives.
But frankly, they had me at Vincent Cassel…
I’ve loved Vincent Cassel, with his charming bad-boy approach to so many roles, for many years, and the role of Vidocq seems almost tailor-made for his strengths, his ability to project competing, often contradictory qualities of ruthlessness, self-gain, dishonesty but also paradoxically heroism, resourcefulness, of doing the right thing when his back is against the wall. This role seems to suit Cassel especially well at this stage in his life and career, as he portrays the famous criminal, thought to have died in one of his infamous escapes years before, trying to go straight in Paris in 1805, but being drawn back into the underworld and the local law enforcement (the two are not as distinct as you’d expect, not back then). This is Paris in the era of Napoleon, but it has not yet been remade by Haussman as the broad boulevard Paris we know and love today, this is the older Paris, filthy streets, creaky, tilting old houses, tanners, butchers and washers working openly in the festering streets. The middle-aged Cassel’s more grizzled visage and a more world-weary sense about him fit into this scenario perfectly.
Yes, there are beats to this story you will recognise – the criminal trying to turn his life around, to be legitimate only to be dragged back into the murky underworld of crime (I keep trying to get out, they keep dragging me back in approach), the assembling of his own team to perform his task and win his amnesty, the creation of his opponent, just as intelligent and capable, and even more ruthless (his own Moriarty), you can spot all of these now common tropes, but it really doesn’t matter because this is beautifully done. The cinematography is gorgeous – you can almost smell old Paris, fights in crime lairs in the limestone tunnels beneath the city are lit by fire and candlelight to give them eerie aspects, contrasting against the opulence of the Imperial court of Napoleon.
Cassel is, as you’d expect, simply brilliant in this role – as I said, Vidocq could have been custom-made to be a Vincent Cassel character. Leo Carax regular Denis Lavant also essays a stand-out performance, twisting his body language and facial expressions into a cruel, mis-shapen, Fagan like criminal overlord, vile, despicable, ruthless and dangerous, without ever tilting that performance too far into parody (you believe how nasty and dangerous his gang leader is). A classy, stylish, period crime movie that should also introduce the rest of the world to the real, historic Vidoqc and his role as one of the fathers of modern policing and detectives.
Liberté: A Call to Spy,
Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher,
Starring Sarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache, Rossif Sutherland, Andrew Richardson
This is a rare beast – an Indy WWII spy film, which is, I’m pleased to note, heavily female-centric, both in front of and behind the camera. Liberté had its premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this weekend, including a good Q&A session with some of the film-makers and cast afterwards, and went down very well with the festival audience. While there have been many World War II spy films over the years, it is rare to see the female agents being foregrounded (the classic Carve Her Name With Pride sprang to mind, but not many others).
Pilcher’s movie, working from a script by Thomas (who also stars in the film as Virginia Hall), is inspired by real-life women who answered the call during the desperate days of the Second World War, as F-Section of the British SOE (Special Operations Executive) are attempting to infiltrate agents into Occupied France, despite knowing the far from favourable odds against survival. And they all know that if their cover is blown and they are arrested by the Nazis or Vichy regime, death is possibly the last of their worries, they will almost certainly face torture before any execution as spies. And yet these remarkable women still saw this as vital work that needed to be done and volunteered.
Two of the main agents we follow, Virginia Hall (Thomas) and Noor Inayat Khan (Apte) are among the first wave of women being sent into the field; you may be familiar with their names as both are based on real-life agents who risked all to ensure victory against the Nazis. Even if you have some familiarity with the real history, as I did, it doesn’t remove the excruciating sense of mounting tension that the film builds. Even before they have graduated from training in wartime Britain we’ve glimpsed a little of the mountain they have to climb, from the rampant sexism of the era through to a truly harrowing mock-torture scene designed to prepare the women for the sort of treatment they may face if captured by the Gestapo.
Noor, descended from Indian royalty is a gentle soul, but determined she must help fight the evil of Nazism, Virginia, an American in London (before the entry of the USA into the war) has been trying to become a diplomat but is repeatedly rejected by the State Department, partly on gender lines but also because she has an artificial limb (a leg lost during a hunting accident). Stana Katic’s Vera Atkins, technically a secretary a this point to F Section’s head Maurice Buckmaster (Roache), but really a manager of the department’s affair, pushes for the inclusion of more women agents in the field, and selects these women, among others, for that important first wave.
Katic’s Atkins is a complex character – she and her mother had fled the growing Nazi menace in Europe before the war, and she was not at this point a British citizen, and also concealing her Jewish heritage (anti-Semitism was pretty rampant in the era), mourning a lover posted as “missing in action”, and Katic has to convey all of this, the tightrope Atkins is walking every single day, in addition to the conflicting emotions her work is causing her. She is determined the women can and should be doing field work, and pushes them and supports them and fights their corner for their chance to show what they can do, but she is also racked with worry and guilt, knowing that some of those she is sending into the lion’s den are not going to come home. Noor’s pacifist, gentle upbringing clash with her compulsion to do all she can to fight evil, and also to show what Indians can accomplish (in the paternalistic, racist Imperial era), while Virginia’s determination that her disability will not stop her from fighting the good fight, despite being in constant physical pain, is nothing less than astonishing.
It’s a complex, competing stew of emotions from these three leading actors (the male actors, such as Roache’s Buckmaster or Rissman’s Klaus Barbie – the infamous “Butcher of Lyons” – also given strong performances but the emphasis, clearly, is on these three women). And that’s before factoring in the raw, unrelenting tensions of their work behind enemy lines, the constant looking over their shoulders, moving from safe house to safe house, never being able to be certain who they can trust and who they should be more wary of, aware all the time that anything may give them away, that any person they are dealing with may betray them as the Nazis and collaborating Vichy authorities hunt for them, and this is all happening within an SOE department that is learning the basics of how to operate agents in Occupied Europe, and learning the hardest way.
I found this to be a remarkable film – despite an Indy budget, clever use of locations and a lot of help means that you would never think that while watching the Liberté (Pilcher and Thomas both talked after the film about the generous assistance they had in obtaining some excellent locations and other necessary pieces thanks to a variety of helpers, there was a very warm sense of collaboration by so many to get this film made). That evocative 1940s wartime setting is beautifully shot, the narrative is tight and tense, the emphasis on the women’s roles is handled with power and also a huge sense of respect (the actors spoke to the audience afterwards about their compulsion to do right by the real historical women their characters are based on).
Liberté, while of course a period piece, like many period pieces also has parallels to our own troubled times, from the way women are treated and portrayed in our #MeToo era to the notion of “resistance” to the advance of the black-shirted forces of intolerant darkness, the need for us all to make a stand, to swallow our fear and still carry on. It’s an engrossing, tense spy thriller, a heavy emotional experience, and comes with some exceptional performances from the three women leads, the story having added force knowing that it is based on real events (can any of us imagine what we would have done under those desperate conditions? Would we have volunteered? Would we have been as brave as these women?). Liberté is a powerful piece of Indy cinema, and highly recommended.
Dad and I went off down the Clyde coast over the holiday weekend, with glorious spring sunshine sparkling on the Firth of Clyde as we drove alongside. We visited the beautiful old station at Wemyss Bay, often counted as one of the ten most beautiful railway station in the British Isles. The old steel and glass canopy let the light flood into the station:
The canopies above the platforms have a gentle curve to them, which coupled with perspective and the natural light coming in makes them a popular subject for many Scottish photographers:
The station was built to connect a railway spur to the Glasgow line to the coast and the steam ships plying the waters of the Firth of Forth, and the station still has a working dock for ferries to the islands, with this handsome wooden and glass sloping (and again slightly curved) walkway to take pedestrians from the station down to the berthed ferries:
And talking of which, here’s one of the ferries, the Bute, coming into dock:
And on the way back up the coast we passed the beautiful Cloch Point Lighthouse, built in 1797 by Thomas Smith and his son in law Robert Stevenson, part of that great generational family of engineers, the Lighthouse Stevensons, whose line would also one day produce one of Scotland’s greatest writers, Robert Louis Stevenson, and whose remarkable feats of engineering still mark our coastline today and still protect mariners.
Horrified at the destruction of centuries of history, culture and art in the fire of Notre Dame. The last time I was there it was early spring, the sun had come out and shone on the centuries-old limestone. Walking around one side of the vast cathedral I looked up from the shadows it cast over the streets of the Ile de la Cite, to see the spire reaching up out of the shadows into a clear, blue heaven above:
In front of the iconic twin bell towers the first blossoms of spring were appearing on the trees in front of the cathedral. I was in Paris in the spring light, walking by the Seine and happy and drinking it all in. It’s ironic that mastering fire was part of what set early humans on the course to develop the level of civilisation that could create wonders like those cathedrals that took generations to build, and yet fire has devoured so much of our history and buildings, from the library of Alexandria to the Glasgow School of Art to Notre Dame last night.
One of the great rose windows, this one at the front, between the bell towers, welcoming the curious visitor and the faithful alike, spring sun on old limestone:
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos,
Starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone
My first film of the New Year and, oh boy, it was a damned good one too! You wait ages for a good historical, period film with strong female leads to come along, then January delivers us two, Mary Queen of Scots and this, Lanthinos’ rather excellent The Favourite. I’ve been itching to see this since I first saw the trailer a while back – Olivia Colman, here playing Queen Anne in the early 1700s (just before the Act of Union) is, for my money, one of our best UK thesps. Colman can play anything, from broad comedy to tragedy to kitchen-sink, emotional heavy drama, and here she uses her formidable acting skills to craft a layered performance where some others may have settled for something less complex, and it plays remarkably in the favour of The Favourite.
A synopsis of the plot makes it all sound rather straightforward and predictable: Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), the powerful and influential wife of the war hero the Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatis) has made herself the favourite of the often emotionally vulnerable and fragile Queen Anne, becoming so beloved by the Queen and so indispensable that her “advice” is often little more than her pushing her own agenda on the Queen and getting it through Parliament, while continually conspiring and scheming to ensure her own place.
Enter Emma Stone’s Abigail Hill, a cousin of Sarah’s fallen on hard times (the family fortune gone). Abigail appears sweet and innocent, but it is soon clear she is anything but, and she is determined to use her cunning to learn from her cousin and work her way up from lowly servant back to being a lady of society. Sarah, of course, is unlikely to simply let anything threaten her position with the Queen, leading to a battle of wits and changing conspiracies and alliances made in dark rooms, all concealed behind courtly protocol and polite masks, as we watch to see which can manipulate their way to a winning hand.
Except that really, really doesn’t do The Favourite justice. The complex webs of plans and blatant emotional manipulation practised by both Sarah and Abigail, and the way they dance around each other is a delicious delight to watch, and avoids the simplistic approach of one being good, one bad, both are conniving, ruthless, determined and others, including nobles, MPs, the Prime Minister and even Queen Anne herself are simply part of their Machiavellian scheming. The interplay between the two is just fabulous to watch.
Colman’s Queen Anne, a woman marked by loss (seventeen pregnancies, seventeen lost children, stillbirths or miscarriages, quite terrible) starts off like a moody child, Weisz’s Sarah knowing how to cajole, persuade (or even slightly threaten) her to get her to behave, but as the film goes on Colman’s superb acting gives glimpses of far more emotional complexity, of a real person with real emotional and health problems, and, quite possibly, one who is not the innocent victim in this tug of war between the other two, but is perhaps well aware of their goings-on and maybe even secretly encouraging it and enjoying it…
The interplay between these three women is wonderful to watch, and the ridiculously complex court protocols and life are humorously undercut by humour, often quite bawdy (the C word features more than a few times and I was reminded of the poetry of Lord Rochester from that period several times). And how refreshing to watch a film not just with three very powerful and nuanced female leads, but females leads who totally (and rightly) dominate this story – the men, even historical heavyweights like Gatis’s Duke of Marlborough, are very secondary, there to move parts of the plot along but always behind these three formidable women characters.
Aardman, An Epic Journey, Taken One Frame at a Time,
Peter Lord and David Sproxton, with David Gritten
Simon & Schuster
Aardman Animation has, rightly in my opinion, become a national, and indeed international, treasure, a bastion of quality animation – most especially the fine art of stop-motion animation – all the while maintaining their warm, Indy, quirky, lovably eccentric British humour and sensibilities. Aardman, An Epic Journey follows the two founders, Peter Lord and David Sproxton, across more than forty years of history, and what a story it is – from schoolboy chums playing with a parent’s old cine camera, making simple animations on an old kitchen table to first early forays into television in the 1970s through to Creature Comforts, award-winning adverts that helped the young company thrive with a decent income through to BAFTA and Oscar glory and beyond to the contemporary internet era. All this from two young friends playing with an old camera and cut-out animation on a kitchen table…
The book is chronological, essentially a biography of David and Peter and Aardman itself, starting with their school friendship, a new hobby using an old camera, a home-made rostrum mount for it on a venerable kitchen table that was now surplus to requirements. What started as fun and experimentation rapidly becomes something more as the young lads find they can create their own animated shorts. In this they are hugely encouraged by their parents and others – encouragement and nurturing of talent will be a theme throughout this book, right from the start – and they are also inspired by various art books and some of those unusual children’s programmes of the early 70s, such as Vision On (a very visually-rich series aimed to cater for hearing-impaired kids).
(above and below, the book also comes with several pages of photos and illustrations from throughout Aardman’s forty-plus year history)
A family connection to the BBC and their home-made experiments gets them their first paying work with some brief animated snippets for Vision On, and then the follow-up, Take Hart. For the latter they would move away from their 2-D basic animations and start using a substance found in most children’s toy boxes, Plasticine. This time the idea wasn’t just for animated interludes but to have a character who could riff off the iconic Tony Hart, a foil to the much beloved art presenter. That wee Plasticine creation was, of course, Morph, and it would change not only the direction of their animation style but their entire career, the first of a number of Aardman characters who would become embedded in and beloved by popular culture.
The 1980s sees growth and the arrival of a young Nick Park, the arrival of Channel 4 (with a budget and remit to include more unusual works, including animation aimed at older viewers and not just for kids) and the huge expansion of well-funded advertising. Aardman had already crafted some interesting animation based around some free-range dialogue recorded by simply leaving a microphone at a homeless shelter, then working around the real-life dialogue, and this approach of using real-world, everyday people’s dialogue then building the animation around it found expression in Creature Comforts, the humans’ words now put into the mouths of animated zoo animals, to huge effect. Not only did this go down well and remain warmly regarded by many animation fans and inspire more advertisers to use Aardman (the ads being a great bread and butter income source for animators and artists between their film projects), it lead to an Academy Award nomination – and a win (amazingly A Grand Day Out was also in contention, so Nick both won and lost the same Oscar!). Aardman’s first Oscar and not their last…
As the 80s and 90s roll on Wallace and Gromit make their bow and soon become one of the studio’s most recognised and most adored set of characters (come one, who among us doesn’t love the humour, the craft that goes into those W&G films, the beautiful attention to detail, the multiple references to classic Brit films? How many of you are hearing the W&G theme music in your head just thinking about them?), feature films and co-operation with major US Hollywood studios like Dreamworks. This doesn’t always go smoothly – the smalller-scale, eccentric, people-driven Aardman style is very different from the big Hollywood system, and the book explores the ups and downs, although refreshingly there is no back-biting or snarky gossip here, just acknowledgement that the Hollywood studios and their approach didn’t really mesh with Aardman’s way of doing things, but also that those joint adventures taught them a lot about the business and helped Aardman.
Given the huge range of famous thesps who have lined up to voice an Aardman character it will not surprise you to learn the book also contains quotes from a number of famous actors about their time working with Aardman. Most, as Peter and David acknowledge freely (and almost gleefully) say their painstaking attention to details can drive actors up the wall and across the ceiling, requiring endless re-takes and re-recordings of slightly different voice techniques as the animators have a particular idea in mind to fit their characters, and they have to work the actors until they strike that note (also, as the duo admit, at first they simply were not used to directing actors). However this is all tongue in cheek – while I’m sure the endless re-takes for the voice talent does drive the actors mad, they all seem to understand that it is because of the perfectionism of the animators, and that the actual animation itself requires even more time and more excruciatingly painstaking work. And clearly they still all want to be a part of it.
There are lots of fascinating little sidebars to enjoy here too – those of you of a certain age will recognise some of the adverts Aardman made in the 80s and 90s and perhaps never knew it was their work (remember the animated skeleton advertising Scotch Video Tapes, “re-record, not fade away” or Douglas the wee man who came to life from a packet of Lurpak butter? All Aardman works). Or the fact that the Hawes Dairy in Yorkshire was struggling, until in Wallace and Gromit: a A Close Shave Wallace mentions Wensleydale, and the dairy finds demand soaring. Cheese-makers accidentally given a huge boost in sales by animated characters, there is something wonderfully Aardman about that, isn’t there? And I am sure Wallace and Gromit would approve.
(Above, the Aardman-created animated skeleton for Scotch Video Tape’s advert, below, another 80s boom for animators with the arrival of MTV demanding more visually interesting music videos, including the now iconic Peter Gabriel Sledgehammer video, shot in a remarkably short period of intense work and featuring among the crew very young Brothers Quay, now revered as giants of Brit animation)
I mentioned the encouragement very young Peter and David received right at the start of their animation experiments, even before they had made anything actually for sale. That becomes a theme running throughout this book, starting with the nurturing of teenage Peter and David’s interests and talents, then they in turn paying that forward, encouraging new animators like Nick Park and Golly, trying their best to make sure all their staff feel valued, encouraged, running mentoring schemes, becoming heavily involved in charity works, especially in their much-loved home-town of Bristol (even those Bristolians who aren’t animation fans love Aardman because they put back into their city and community).
This continues right up to the design of their latest HQ building and – as many of you may have read in the news just before the book came out – Peter and David, with one eye to how Aardman will run when they choose to retire, have put the shares for the company into a trust, effectively making all the Aardman staff shareholders of their own company, empowering the staff and rewarding them while also heading off any larger media company simply gobbling them up and changing them.
(above and below, the book has some lovely attention to detail, including these gorgeous end-papers, with original Wallace and Gromit sketches at the front and Shaun the Sheep at the back)
That note of encouragement and having fun is perhaps one of the nicest aspects of this book, perhaps even more so than the fascinating history of how this beloved company came into being and grew, of how its characters conquered our hearts. It gives this book a warm, smile-inducing quality, an utter delight, much like Aardman’s films themselves do. A lovely, open, friendly history of a great British film institution.
You can browse Aardman’s own YouTube Channel here.
Traces of the Great War,
(cover artwork by Dave McKean)
In the approach to the 1914 centenary I was fortunate enough to be one of the contributors for To End All Wars, edited by Jonathan Clode and John Clark (aka the cartoonist Brick), a graphic anthology timed for the start of the centenary of the Great War. One of our aims was to tell stories from all sides, using an international group of writers and artists, to avoid the poison of jingoism, to instead go behind the horrible litany of statistics of casualties and tell stories about the actual people. If truth is indeed the first casualty of war then perhaps individuality is the second – too easy to lose those who endured those times in vast legions.
Seeing individual people, people like us, people we can recognise, empathise with, humanises those events at a level we can comprehend emotionally as well as intellectually, and in Traces of the Great War, which draws on an international array of writers and artists, and quite a diverse crew at that, from bestselling novelist Ian Rankin working with the excellent Sean Phillips to Juan Díaz Canales (co-creator of the magnificent Blacksad, for my money one of the finest comics creations of the last couple of decades) to the brilliant Dave McKean collaborating with the poet Simon Armitage, Mary and Bryan Talbot, I Kill Giants co-creators Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura, to Marguerite Abouet (author of the wonderful Aya graphic novels) and Ergün Gündüz.
As with any anthology it always feels a bit unfair to single out some stories over others, but I can’t really go through every individual story here, and of course it is in the nature of collections that some elements will stand out to different readers, so not disrespect is intended to those I didn’t single out here – in truth I don’t think there was a weak link in this chain of tales, they all had something to commend them, and all took different aspects of that century ago war and the people who took part, and played them out with interesting hooks to capture the modern reader’s attention and take them not only back to that time, but to see how linked Then and Now actually are, that we today are all part of the same great tapestry that those earlier people were already woven onto, and to do so with much emotional honesty.
The collection starts with Robbie Morrison and Charlie Adlard’s “Without a Trace”, which manages the neat trick of being a century-later epilogue of sorts to the pair’s earlier WWI graphic novel White Death, but which can be read by anyone with no knowledge of that earlier work perfectly well. White Death dealt with one of the often overlooked arenas of this global devastation – the Italian-Austrian front in the Alps, where men had to combat the mighty peaks, snow and ice as well as the enemy shells and bullets. As with the better-known Western Front, even a hundred years on remains are still uncovered from time to time. In France and Belgium it is known as part of the “iron harvest” when the plough turns up old bullets, shell casings, helmets and often bodily remains of the fallen.
(Without a Trace, by Robbie Morrison and Charlie Adlard)
As with Flanders Fields so too in the remote, sublime beauty of the mountains; Morrison and Adlard have a carefree group of teens on an Alpine walk finding the remains of an Italian soldier of the Great War. Their shock quickly gives way to an all-too-modern reaction, the urge to take photos on their mobile phones. Their brief horror is replaced with larking about, until one youngster points out that this could have been their grandad’s father, that this was a person and that someone, somewhere was waiting for him to come home and never learned what happened to him or even had the small mercy of burying their fallen loved one. It’s short but packs in a huge emotional punch, and it’s a reminder of why, as we now move out of the range of living memory of those days, that each generation has to be taught about them.
Rif Reb takes an unlikely protagonist, a young punk anarchist in Paris, at a rich friend’s party, bored, escaping the crowd to explore the house’s library, finding (and stealing) a book of WWI poems written in a Haiku form, that speaks to this rebellious teen in a way the history books had not, leaving an indelible mark. Jean-David Morvan, Scie -Tronc and Hiroyuki Ooshima’s “Mines for the Miner” took the war under the tortured earth of the Western Front, with a young Welshman, a miner in civvy street like so many back then (most of those pits, like the war itself, are now history) finds himself once more pressed into digging dangerously below the land, but this time to “undermine” the enemy positions, a centuries old tactic used from the days of besieging castles before cannon existed, except here the miners and sappers would then leave an enormous explosive charge under the enemy lines.
(Unfathomable Imprints by Riff Reb)
My grandfather was a miner, severely injured by his time in the pits in the days when Health and Safety rules didn’t exist and working men were expendable cogs in the machine. This story captures that feeling of the civilian miner, a dirty, dangerous job that took so many of their lives, then adds in the complexity of war on top of it. Aurélien Ducoudray and Efa’s “Body to Body” sees an older Lady of the Night and a mutilated soldier in the bordello behind the lines, but instead of sex for sale the pair find some sort of comfort in comparing and explaining their respective war wounds, his bayonet scar, her Cesarean scar and so on. It’s a fascinating and unusual angle to take on emotional and physical trauma, drawn in a way that is intimate without being sexualised, despite the setting.
“When did war become entertainment?”
Ian Rankin is best known for his international best-selling crime novels, but he has penned a couple of comics before, and I know he is a voracious reader of comics, so I was interested in seeing what he did in collaboration with veteran comics artist Sean Phillips and Peter Doherty. The result, “War Games” (from whence the above quote comes from), has a man who lost his mother young, and was largely raised by his grandparents. After losing them and then his own father he has to perform that heart-breaking duty we all have to at some point – clearing out the belongings of a loved one who has gone, and in the process finds relics from his grandfather’s service in the Great War. Right away his memory takes him back to being a wee boy, out with his granddad, being taken to visit Edinburgh Castle, where his grandfather shows him a book of remembrance in the National War Memorial there, with the names of some of his old comrades. It didn’t mean much to the wee boy, as he says he remembered the ice-cream granddad bought him afterwards more vividly. But now he is a grown man with life experiences, he thinks back to what his grandfather was trying to tell him, to pass on to him a piece of living memory. He starts to explore this past, intertwined with his work running a modern-day computer games company, with perhaps a view to using some of the settings in a new video war game.
(War Games by Ian Rankin and Sean Phillips)
“War Games” works cleverly on several levels – there’s that reminder that the elderly, frail veteran you see was not always old, once he was young and strong, and he went through experiences that thankfully most of us today never will when he was that young man. It’s easy, especially with the cockiness of youth at times, to forget that older people were once our age, once younger. The story also works on that regret at not understanding that when young, when those people were still around. I’m sure I am not alone in wishing that I could, as an adult, speak again to old family members and family friends, to try and draw from them those stories to preserve them and pass them on. But we can’t go back; I was too young to ask and write down those stories before those I knew faded away and it is an eternal regret. I suspect many of us feel that way in later life. Of course, if you do get the luxury of exploring some of that past, it may lead you to down pathways you never thought it would, to see that now-gone loved one in a very different way – could that gentle old grandfather really once have shoved a bayonet into the body of another young man and twisted it? It’s a horrible thought, but we all have a past and for those who served that often means a past they couldn’t talk about, taking their stories with them to the tomb, lost to us forever.
Space doesn’t permit me to go into detail on every story, but before I conclude I have to make special mention of the collaboration between the great Dave McKean and the acclaimed poet Simon Armitage, with “Sea Sketch” and “Memorial”. November 2018 marked not only the centenary of the Armistice which ended the War to End All Wars (while sowing the bitter seeds of the next war), it also marked a hundred years since the war poet Wilfred Owen fell, only days before the Armistice. The poetry of Owen and others is one of the ways that we still experience the visceral, emotional impact of that war; those who served are now all gone from us, but their experiences, in their own words, are still with us. I’ve always thought poetry has a certain power that even the most lyrical prose can’t quite match; verse has an ability to engage with our higher thinking but also bypass it to deliver a shot directly into our emotional core, it can speak in metaphor and magic in a way that conjures feelings and imagery. With so many now revered pieces of poetry coming from that horrendous time it strikes me as very appropriate to involve one of our better contemporary poets, and putting him together with McKean is a touch of genius, the verse combined with Dave’s artwork has such strong, symbolic, raw, emotional power.
(Sea Sketch by Simon Armitage and Dave McKean)
The ranks of those who survived the slaughter of the War to End All Wars have thinned across the long decades, until finally the last veteran has departed to join his old comrades in whatever comes after this life. A full century has passed since the guns fell silent. But the echoes of those events still follow each generation down the decades – they shaped the events which came after them, which in turn shaped the events of the world our parents grew up in, that shaped our own and in turn will shape the world we pass on to the next generation. History is never truly about the past because history is never truly over, it’s all part of that same grand tapestry I mentioned earlier, and we are part of it, shaped by it and shaping it in turn.
It’s why it is important to understand those events and to comprehend their continuing influence on our own times. It’s important to remember that the Big Events of history were made by many people, all individuals, and we should not, cannot turn them into ranks of numbers and statistics but should recall them as people, like us, because many of them were us, they were our own families. And that simply we should always Remember. Traces of the Great War brings out that history but weaves it with the present, the consequences political, geographical, economic, that we still live with, but most of all it reminds us of the living, breathing people who once thought and dreamed and loved and were taken from us. But we Remember.
You can read my own story, Memorial to the Mothers, illustrated by Kate Charlesworth, from the earlier WWI collection To End All Wars, for free here on my blog.
“I was always a mad comet, a dark star...”
Phillip Hoare’s short film about the poet Wilfred Owen has a sad beauty to it:
Owen died on this day, one hundred years ago, killed just days before the 1918 Armistice would silence the guns of the Great War, into whose dark maw so many legions marched, never to return. I think of Owen often at this time of year, not just for his powerful poetry from the trenches, but because of his local connection to me. Recuperating from Shell Shock he was sent to Craiglockhart, just a short walk from my flat in Edinburgh (enlisted men were rarely so fortunate, they were told they were “cowards” if they showed Shell Shock, or if treated were given brutal regimes like ECT. Not so the officers, of course).
It was there Owen was encouraged by a pioneering doctor to use his dreams and nightmares from the trenches in his writing, and meets fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, both of these changing his writing style, increasing the power he pours into his verse. While recuperating there he would sometimes guest as a literature teacher at the school around the corner from my home; he probably strolled right past my street. Edinburgh is like that, it has as many layers of literary history and connections as it has complex volcanic geology. Here the road Sassoon and Owen walked on their way into town, arm in arm, discussing poetry. There where Stevenson ducked out of university classes in his velvet coat, to head to the pub around the corner from my old work. There where Conan Doyle met Bell, who would become his model for Holmes, here, behind rows of tenements and houses, the school where Muriel Spark studied, where a teacher would become part of her notion for Miss Brodie. Here’s where Robert Burns stayed, there is the grave of his beloved Clarinda, in the same kirkyard as his poetic muse, Fergusson.
Edinburgh it still like that – there’s the literary salon, the regular book clubs, the book festival, there are the cafes Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book in because it was cheaper than trying to heat her home when she had no money, there’s the pub where the fictional Inspector Rebus drinks, and his creator, Ian Rankin too. As a lifelong reader and as a bookseller it’s one of the aspects of Edinburgh that makes me love living here; the written word here is written into the cityscape…