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Saturday, 19 October 2019

WILLIAM HARTNELL’S DOCTOR WHO: 'MARCO POLO'

First broadcast: Feb/Apr 1964
Written by John Lucarotti
Plot spoilers: Medium To High




“I have taken charge of the travellers' unusual caravan, and set out into the Gobi Desert. The journey across this vast ocean of sand is slow and hazardous.”
- Marco Polo

Travel On A Budget

‘Tribe of Gum’ being so dire, arguably this is the first proper 'Who' historical. And historicals and hindsight, when they come in combination irony may well have to become involved. So let’s go with it. For a long while, hindsight held sway and the historicals were dissed by fans. After all, they were themselves consigned to the show’s history, a failing branch of evolution. It was only because of the fusty BBC’s ‘educational’ remit they lasted as long as they did.

More recently, hindsight’s glare has dimmed and people have looked more at their time. Contemporary viewing figures remained consistent between historical and SF stories. There’s even evidence that ‘Marco Polo’ was planned as a prestige story, which could do much to sell the show. Just as ‘The Daleks’ was shunted up the production order as other plans fell through, this was shunted down. (It was planned to go out before ‘Edge of Destruction’.) Colour stills were released of the cast looking resplendent in exotic finery and it was this, not ‘The Daleks’, which was granted the first ‘Radio Times’ cover (below). 



Overall, it gained higher viewing figures than ‘The Daleks’. (Though as ‘The Daleks’ served to establish the series, its numbers grew rapidly from episode to episode, arguably a greater feat.) It was even the story first considered for the spin-off films.

There’s many a story where the travellers actually do very little travelling at all, beyond the Tardis landing them at the start and picking them up again at the end. (‘Tribe of Gum’ would be an example.) Nobody even notices the Tardis’ presence, as if the chameleon circuit was working on the locals the same time it wasn’t on the viewers. The standard set-up is to then hang around a handful of stock locations till they start to look worn out.

Whereas, built around a caravan, ‘Marco Polo’ foregrounds travel. It was as near as the first season went to epic, with dialogue like “did you see those beautiful pavilions?”, “Some of them are made of solid gold.” It both spans a long time period and roves over a wide geographical area. A line extending across a map became a storytelling motif, just like an actual epic film. (To the point where it’s bizarre to think the show would soon be characterised by base-under-seige stories.)

Which may well be determined by the title. The story of Marco Polo is all about experiencing Eastern exoticism through a fellow Westerner’s eyes. Marco without gold pavilions would be like a pirate story without black ships or buried treasure.

Inevitably enough, then, fans of the historical seize on all this and pronounce the story a lost classic. There’s an added balefulness to this claim, as this is the first ‘Who’ storyline to be wiped. We can only read the script and watch the tantalising glimpses of the telesnaps, fragments of what’s now itself a lost past. “If ever discovered at any point [it] may very well be the best-looking Doctor Who story of the 60's,” insists ametaphysicalshark.

Which is completely wrongheaded. Not because it’s bad, but precisely because of what make it good. Were the missing episodes ever to show up they’d reveal that 60s BBC epic differed from the standard definition, that Cathy was three foot square and held together by sticky back plastic, the bamboo forest resembles a regional garden centre and the cave of five hundred eyes was actually more ocularly challenged than Horatio Nelson.

Being left free to imagine all those gold pavilions, unencumbered by the limitations of what they were actually able to knock together, is the way to do it. (When episodes are missing, fans are wont to stage reconstructions. I believe versions of this story already exist. But I shan’t bother watching any of them unless they’re done’Dogville’ style, with Cathay and other locations written on the floor of a sound stage and everything else evoked in dialogue.)

Channel Hopping

’Who’ has a many-hands history and portmanteau structure which led it to be – to use the technical phrase – all over the bloody place. You can find ‘arcs’ if you’ve a mind to, but only in wide frame, never in close-up. In the previous story, ‘The Edge of Destruction’, the Tardis had been established as a sentient object. Which is pretty much the way the future show would take it. Yet here it’s immediately reduced again to a mere mechanism, with creaking gears and brass buttons. And what clearer way to establish that than to break the mechanism? Essentially the battery goes flat, though they try to dress it up a bit more than that.

On the other hand, we’ve become too used to the Tardis being a microcosm of the story’s transforming logic, permitting the fantastical. (At its worst making the ship a repository of magic pixie dust.) Here the reverse happens, that magic rescuing portal is snatched away and leaves in its stead a clunking metal box to be carried about.

Which signifies the way this is quite a grounded story, jumping between epic scale and minutiae. Where these days the show is stuffed with magic wands and deus est machina devices, crucial plot elements here become how much water they have left or where a key might be. It frequently stops for digressions, to explain how fire burns less at higher altitudes or how Kubla Khan’s messenger system worked. It’s the nearest historical to ‘educational’ by some margin. At times, to a fault. (Ironically, that fleet-footed messenger holds things up somewhat.) But overall, a refreshing change.

And yet there remains a strange kind of double vision to it all. There’s the Shakespearian conceit of dividing your scenes between nobles and commoners. Except the commoners typically respond to the nobles, comment on what they’ve just said or attempt to carry out their orders. Whereas with this it’s more like two parallel tales are being broadcast at once, a heightened historical drama made for BBC2 and a cliffhanger-providing melodrama for BBC1 - superimposed over each other. (And in fact BBC2 wasn’t launched until about three weeks after this story was concluded.)

One has proper actors proclaim clearly scripted lines from inside period clothes. It would be sheer hyperbole to call such a thing ‘Shakespearian’. (Though that doesn’t always seem to stop people.) But there’s a seriousness of purpose to it, an assumption it’s not enough to serve up a mere adventure story, that does make it some junior, early-evening sibling to such Sixties history films as ‘Beckett’ (1964) and ‘The Lion in Winter’ (1968). While the other has scheming moustachioed bandits who laugh cruelly, one complete with eye patch and monkey on shoulder.

Let’s tune into BBC2 first. First, we should note the oddity of naming a story after a character, when they’re almost always after monsters or places monsters are likely to hang out in. In 1955, while still in Canada, Lucarotti had written a radio series about Marco, presumably without time travelling schoolteachers. And much of that Marco seems to survive.

He’s often presented as a kind of romantic hero, placing the less fortunate under his protection. When Barbara fears to hear a howling sandstorm coming, he replies: “Sometimes, it sounds like musical instruments being played. The clashing of drums and cymbals. I've heard it sound like a great many people talking as they trekked across the desert. It can also be like a familiar voice calling your name.”

Unusually enough, there’s a narration. Still more unusually, rather than one of the regular characters this is given to Marco himself. And this inner voice is used to give him a measure of psychological depth, the scenes swappingbetween plot summaries and soliloquies. “Have I made the right decision?” he asks at one point, having sounded certain of it earlier on.

‘Tribe Of Gum’ also had the locals wanting something from the travellers, fire. But that worked around an essential interchangeability between Ug and Zug (I think that was their names), both willing to capture the travellers for their own ends. Here Marco is distinguished by being unlike the Mongol Tegana. Tegana first takes the travellers for “evil spirits”, best bumped off. Marco rebuffs him, (“Why? Because their clothes are different to ours? Because their tongues are unfamiliar to our ears? No… I think the sun’s rays will dispel the shadows from your mind, Tegana.”), and takes them under his protection. Later, Tegana cannot comprehend why Marco keeps his journal, as if he lacks such interiority.

This quasi-Enlightenment reference to the sun feeds into a general theme of rational thought vying with superstition. (The eyes in the supposed haunted cave turning out not to be animate ghosts but sparkling quartz, and so on.) Which also maps onto the distinction between Marco’s dutiful nobility and Tegana’s treacherous schemes.

But there’s another character to be compared and contrasted against Marco, which is done in a more interesting way…

Back To Being a Box

Normally there’s a general problem the travels would be required to resolve before they could move on. Here, Polo has his own resolution to his own personal problem, and it’s not allowing them to leave. He wants the Tardis, to present to Kubla Khan as a gift so he might then be granted permission to go home.

So the hook of the story becomes both the tension in and the ambiguity of the time traveller’s relation to him. Obviously, they’re at odds. Not just over the Tardis. At times Marco seems to be ousting Ian from his protagonist role. He not only gets the inevitable final, decisive sword fight, it’s also him on that ’Radio Times’ cover.

But, both in a strange land, they have a natural affinity. And if he engages most with Ian then, like Ian, Marco has been travelling with a wise old wizard and has seen fantastical sights, but his heart yearns only to go home. His actions are reminiscent of the classic Jean Renoir quote “The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.” He and Ian respect one another even as they find themselves in opposition. (The orthodox complaint about this story is the emphasis on the crew’s desire to escape prevents them getting embroiled in events. But that’s only there to fuel this central tension between Marco and Ian.)

While Tegana sees witchcraft in the Tardis, for Marco it’s something similar to a helicopter - a mechanism beyond his ken, but which could in time be replaced. Taking it from its crew is injurious to them, but not terminally so. Eventually, they will be able to rebuild it. So the primary antagonism with him isn’t borne of conflict so much as misunderstanding. Finally, in desperation, Ian tries to convince him it’s a time ship. “No, Ian, that I cannot believe,” he replies, “If I did, I would give you the key.” (Though even if the Tardis isn’t working, it’s a little absurd they don’t show Marco its patented bigger-on-the-inside trick. Despite Tegana already pointing out it’s too small to hold the four of them.)

The later history stories are only joined to the science fiction stories at the edge. The science fiction element is used to port the crew into the setting, then it's job is done. The Tardis must then be stepped away from, whisked away or covered up by a handy rockfall or the like. The crew are only permitted to come back to it once the past is all wrapped up. And once in the past they are obliged to do as the natives do. If swords are in currency they must take up swords rather than use guns, and so on.

Whereas here there’s one science fiction concept but it’s central – even if it can’t function in itself , the Tardis drives the story. It is not a historical sharing scheduling time with an otherwise unrelated science fiction show because of Reithean broadcast standards. In its very marrow, it's a time travel story.

And ironically it's this rubbing up of the past against the present which serves to make the past more real – we're constantly reminded how unlike our world it is. Whereas later historicals degenerate into genre adventure stories, revisits to places we're familiar with from so many other films and TV shows. Given which it is perhaps significant that the time travel stories are where the journey into history goes furthest, through time ('Tribe of Gum') or through geography ('Marco Polo' or 'The Aztecs'). Beyond the crew, 'Marco Polo' features one European face. 'The Aztecs' has none.

Similarly to Ian and Marco, Susan and the Doctor are given equivalents. Susan’s is the young Ping-Cho, which gives her more to do than usual. (Even if she starts using Sixties yoof slang such as “fab”, when strangely she didn’t while living in the Sixties.) And the Doctor’s is the great Kubla Khan himself (below), as they bond over back pain and backgammon.



Fan lore has it we see a great transformation in him, described by David Callaham as “from the pre-Marco grouch to the post-Marco magician”. But if ’Edge’s journey back to the start of time was a reset button for their relationships, there’s little sign of it here. Just like the Tardis, the Doctor effectively goes back to who he was before all that. He’s the least sympathetic to Polo, openly calling him a “poor, pathetic, stupid savage”. Polo complains that the Doctor’s “both difficult and bad-tempered… I have had to endure his insults.” Unfortunately in a voice-over so Ian isn’t there to say “you should have seen him last week, mate.” He only really engages with Khan. And as Khan only shows up in the final two episodes, for the most part he’s as inactive as the Tardis. He spends a whole episode sulking. (Yes, really.)

Melo Without Drama

Meanwhile on BBC1 there’s just a melodrama on. And the truth of it is, it’s not even a very good melodrama. Lucarotti is much more successful at the high-falutin’ dramatics than what might seem the basics. Barbara, Susan and Ping-Cho obligingly take it in turns to get captured, which would we should probably take as par for the course. But cliffhangers are mostly resolved swiftly and perfunctorily, without lasting effect, as if things need to revert to stasis as soon as they can. Infamously, the solution to one is condensation. (I’ve never read the Target novelisation, but really hope it contains a chapter called ‘Saved By Condensation’.) Perhaps there should have been a cap-it-all cliffhanger where they escape heavy rain by coming in out of it



And like a bad magic trick, without flourishes to distract us our eyes inevitably fall on the cliches of melodrama. Tegana(above) is swarthy in his villainousness from his first black-of-beard appearance. His role is to not be what Marco is, which doesn’t make him much of a character in his own right. His only real development is to go from fearing the Tardis because it’s magic to wanting to possess it because it’s magic. None of which is helped by Polobeing a white European and the villain a swarthy foreigner. Henchmen demand payment in gold, “not Khan’s paper money.” Barbara first perceives the Mongols as animals. And so on.

And at (another) seven episode stretch, this soon becomes repetitive. New location – new plot for their doom – which inevitably fails but with Tegana surviving undiscovered to try again – and so on. He might as well end each episode crying “I'll get you next week, Barbara and Susan”. When Polo narrates “I fear the end is not far off”, you come to fear the very opposite.

While the blatancy of Tegana’s machinations grates. Marco is supposed to be a shrewd judge of character, for example guessing that Ping-Cho stole the Tardis key with Ian lying to cover for her. Yet he remains gormless over Tegana, who’s sussed by Susan in the second episode. A better ending would have been if the wily Khan had double-guessed him all along, despite being at such a distance. So when the finally clued-up Marco rushes to rescue only to find Khan standing casually over Tegana’s prone body. (“Yes, was there something?”)

Given all this, the initial temptation is to use the fast-forwarding powers granted us by modern technology to skip the BBC1 bits. Yet when you try to picture that, you realise it can’t be done. The BBC2 drama sections are like the consonants in a sentence, a series of formal encounters which impart information. But the BBC1 melodrama is like the vowels, of little meaning in themselves but necessary to link those consonants together. Without them those speechifying encounters would start to seem set-piece and stodgy. The bad here goes with the good. Like Marco and Tegana in the desert, they’re stuck with one another.

Fans’ talking-up of this story is perhaps understandable, but it leaves them blind to its faults. (One insists it would be “post-modern” to have criticisms.) Perhaps the historicals were an evolutionary branch that ultimately didn’t make it. So were the dinosaurs, and they were mighty and impressive. (Please just go for the poetry of that analogy.) This, however, is too much of a Triassic-era dinosaur, an awkward prototype of what only later became classic. Its production team may well have rated it, but that doesn’t mean we have to. You could call it an improvement on ‘Tribe Of Gum’, but that would be fairlyfaint praise. There are good historicals, including by John Lucarotti. But for us they all lie in the future.

Coming soon! From one over-long episodic travelogue to… oh, hang on, wait…

Saturday, 12 October 2019

SLEEP/ PARTIAL FACSIMILE/ ACID MOTHERS TEMPLE (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

SLEEP
Concorde 2, Brighton, Thurs 3rd Oct




I possibly enjoyed this gig by classic Californian doom metalers Sleep even more than the last time, perhaps due to the smaller venue. It remains the combination of heaviness and unhurriedness which is so masterful, tracks developing at their own pace, the sound taking time to marinade. (Creatively described by the band as “rifftuals”.) It thickens to the point where it’s impossible to tell bass from lead for long periods.

Though another change from the earlier gig is the release of their post-reunion album, ‘The Sciences’. In fact the set list leans heavily towards it, not always a welcome development but which happens here without marring things in the slightest.

Perhaps a factor here is their original split being caused by outside events. Their label baulked at releasing ’Jerusalem’, consisting as it did of one long track, a blow which effectively killed the band. (Though happily it was later released in a still-longer version as ’Dopesmoker’.) Which led to a decade of what would have been their history being snatched away.

But now it’s as if, after being rudely awoken, Sleep went back to their slumbers and picked their dreams up precisely from where they left off. (Some tracks were already demoed pre-hiatus.) True, they’re no longer with their original drummer Chris Hakius. But Jason Roeder, having sat the stool with Neurosis for nearly two decades, makes a fitting replacement.

I’ve never heard the first album, made when they were still a four-piece, but the consensus seems their sound was then still emerging. Maybe they needed to reduce to a trio to hit on it, simultaneously tight and enormous. There’s one long number…. well there were lots of long numbers but one in particular… where each instrument took it turn at the fore. You might expect it from the guitar. It also included the drums, while the fret players threw out resonances. And, believe it or not, the bass. When there’s effectively a bass solo and I’m staying with it, that suggests a band which could do pretty much anything.

’Sonic Titan’ from London…



PARTIAL FACSIMILE PRESENTS ‘MEDIA OS 5.1’
Rilato, Brighton, Sat 28th Sept



Partial Facsimile describe themselves as “a Brighton based surround-sound and visual-art collective specialising in research based projects, film soundtracks and site-specific performances.” I caught them four years ago providing a splendidly sense-shredding soundtrack to the classic ‘ Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’.

This show, ‘Media OS 5.1’, is about our modern information-drenched world. Or, as they put it, “the piece discusses the present overconsumption of digital information and its entertaining, yet beguiling effects on human behaviour.”

The two pieces are almost entirely different, as if each were worked out from the ground up. The only real similarity was the live film, though this time it was their own work and very much an accompaniment to the music. It felt, truth to tell, like a gig with an accompanying film. A series of songs, even if they were given linking sections.

The music was very post-punk in nature, channelling Joy Division down to the clattering metallic drums. If that description makes them sound derivative, it shouldn’t do. It was at the same time highly inventive, with each track being given a distinct character. Musicians swapped around, but the best moments may have been when three guitarists amassed for a sonic onslaught - post-punk into post-rock. And besides, as they say themselves:

“Partial Facsimile, has taken its name because we believe there is no such thing as any concept or product truly being original. We build on previous knowledge and apply our interpretation of the present through improvisation and composition.”

The weak spot, however, was the lyrics - which tended to the hackneyed. Pleas to consume less feel like the equivalent of those Sixties songs which went “hey Mr. Businessman, throw your tie away”. When the music’s effective at evoking a mood, as it is here, there’s no need for words to spell any of that out. It’s show not tell. (And let’s remember with Joy Division the lyrics tended towards the personal, any application of them as social comment lay in the mind of the audience.)

Perhaps the main thing about music should be the music. After all, many of those Sixties songs about “Mr. Businessman” are still good musically. Yet the film-show kept dragging your attention back to the lyrics. It was bookended with footage of tube travel. Which didn’t go well with the retro sound, as tube stations have scarcely changed any since Joy Division were around.

One sequence showed a QR code (those things which look like a crossbreed between a barcode and a crossword, and link to a website) as captivating a hopeless consumer with its array of wares, the Mephistophelian demon which has you convinced that it’s your servant. But there was also a QR code onstage which we were encouraged to snap to get extra info. (Useless to those of us without those cleverphones.)

The problem with this isn’t hypocrisy (we’re all going to be consumers to some degree so long as we live in a consumer society), so much as missed opportunity. With this sort of material there’s always going to be some conflict like that, and the best thing to do is to play into it rather than avoid it.

Which may be why music to capture our new quasi-virtual world is more commonly the electronica overload of Black Dice and others. Psychedelic music’s disorientation of the senses was back then an antidote to the workaday, suit-and-tie world, the sonic equivalent of Dali’s distroted timepieces. Electronica virtually reversed that, capturing the fear but at the same time the seductive sense of information as intoxicant.

My reaction to this mixed-media show was… well, mixed. My immediate reaction was to try and focus on the music itself and disregard all the surrounding themes. While… oh, the irony… the multi-media effects made that difficult.

A track from the album (as in not live)…



ACID MOTHERS TEMPLE
Patterns, Brighton, Sat 5th Oct



I could not now tell you hopw many times I’ve seen Japanese psychonauts Acid Mothers Temple, though it’s possibly now more than any other band. And I think it’s been long enough to pick up a change in their approach…

Time was when their fluidity seemed their strength. Their name was always appended with an ever-shifting second half (such as the Melting Paraiso UFO Club), with it shifted their line-up and with that their sound. All of which seemed part of the hippie philosophy of constant change, to give routine a moving target.

Their most recent release, ‘Paralzyed Brain’, bought at the previous gig to this, still specifies their line-up as “at the time of this recording”. But this may be the first time I’ve seen them with the same line-up twice in a row. And they’ve now dropped that second half to their moniker. (There’s still countless side projects, but they stem from an Acid Mothership.) Perhaps, after years of permanent impermanence, all that stardust is finally starting to coalesce into constellations.


Not that any of this holds them back in the slightest. Even when they play classic tracks from their catalogue, they always give them a new twist. Try this version of ‘Cometary Orbital Drive’, (actually from Brighton) with the languid mantra-riff guitar offset quite awesomely by the tight, urgent rhythm section…

Saturday, 5 October 2019

WILLIAM HARTNELL’S DOCTOR WHO: ‘THE EDGE OF DESTRUCTION’

(aka 'To Boldly Go Absolutely Bloody Nowhere')
Written by David Whitaker
First broadcast February 1964
Plot spoilers reside within


Intro: This new series of classic ’Doctor Who’ reviews is timed to cunningly coincide with the twelfth anniversary of Lucid Frenzy. It would start from the get-go. But due to time and space anomalies I have already blogged about ‘An Unearthly Child’ and ‘The Daleks’, so we skip straight to...

”You’ve been behaving very strangely!”
Susan, you could say that again

The Brink of Cancellation

As I may have mentioned before, one of the prize possessions of my childhood was the Radio Times’ ’Doctor Who Tenth Anniversary Special.’ As quickly as my clumsy thumbs affixed their prints to it, my young mind recognised what was clearly a sacred historical document.

Before video releases, before even the Target novelisations, this was your only window onto a lost world of previously transmitted episodes. And inaccessibility, as any fule kno, was a cast-iron guarantee of quality. This was a map of lost treasures where every square was surely filled with a promissory X.

...except two things confused me. Try as I might, there were two storylines I simply could not picture in my petit cranium. We will get to the second soon enough. But the first was the third ever ’Who’ tale, the two-part ‘Edge of Destruction’. The Tardis crew visit... nowhere at all? They think they may have been infected by an alien consciousness, then it turns out they haven’t. Phew, that was a close one, eh? I was not as yet familiar with the acronym WTF. But I did know that wet breaks at my school passed in a similarly uneventful way, and were chiefly marked by those involved wishing they were over.

As it always did whenever confronted by something it didn’t understand, my child brain concluded this must be something clever and grown-up. I’d return and re-read the entry, trying to make sense of it anew each time I was a few months older. It still sounded dumb. Which must mean it was very smart.

In retrospect it occurs that I may have been looking in the wrong place. My young mind assumed the show came to us from some heightened Platonic realm of unparalleled invention. After further consideration (and I hope I’m not spoiling things for anyone here) I have come to the conclusion that we are actually talking about a BBC TV show produced on the cheap and in a hurry. No sets but the Tardis itself? No actors but the regular crew? Need a clue? Try imagining the rustling of cash. Then not.

Most people will be familiar with the term ’bottle episode’. But there’s an extra twist. These usually scrimp on budget to spend the money elsewhere, such as an explosive finale. Here the BBC were just saving money! The two episodes are called ’The Edge of Destruction’ and ’The Brink of Disaster’, but they should really be called ’The Threat of Cancellation.’ 

Hilarious but true, plummy voices from higher up were then suggesting the show was spending too much on shoestring and cardboard and needed reining in. Two episodes were still to be made on the original production deal, so it was agreed they could go ahead (with those onerous restrictions) while the argument was resolved. David Whitaker then went home and wrote it over a weekend.

With no guest stars allowed, Whitaker’s conceit is to suggest an invisible one. The crew wake up after a crash (set up in the previous cliffhanger), with the Tardis not working. Through a process not necessarily involving logic, they contend that an alien intelligence may have stowed on board and is manipulating them. With hilarious consequences. Well, with consequences. Well, sort of. Okay, not really.


It should be said that bottle stories are not necessarily a bad thing. The New Who episode ’Midnight’ (rated by many, including me) is not just a bottle story, but one with a very similar set-up. And a great many stage plays are effectively bottle stories, simply because they may as well make a virtue of their limitations. They're like lab experiments. Stick the animals in an enclosed space, then introduce controlled ingredients.

In addition, genre fiction is often based around a ‘safe house’, akin to home base in games and sport – Sherwood Forest, Liang Shan Po, The Fortress of Solitude and so on. To temporarily take away that ‘safeness’ once it has been so established, that can be effective. (Though of course we probably have a stronger sense of the Tardis’ impregnability than contemporary audiences would, at this early point.)

And others have thought to combine this defamiliarising of home with the budget gains of a bottle episode. ‘Star Trek’ did it at least twice, and in fairly short succession, with ’Wink of an Eye’ (1968) and ’The Mark of Gideon’ (1969).

”Everybody's Havin' Them Dreams”

The story starts with the crew waking, but it’s like they're still asleep and having a collective nightmare. The Tardis becomes one of those places in dreams, ostensibly familiar but now rendered inexplicably sinister. (“I’ve never noticed the shadows before.”) They take on a stilted, intonatory way of talking, which suggests at both psychological disassociation and bad acting though not necessarily in that order. Dialogue is weird on about every level. (“He’s cut his head open.” “I’ll get some ointment.”)

As things turn out they had overshot the present and were going past the start of time. And the Tardis is tipping them off to the danger via visual prompts, mostly on the monitor but with one actual hallucination. (Not quite sure how it manages that one, but anyway...) So as the Tardis turn out to be the invisible presence they perceive, presumably its also the cause of their paranoia. So perhaps its indirect and unorthodox attempts to tip them off inadvertently induce a panic reaction. Except it doesn't really go into warning mode until after its been established everyone's gone doolally.

The Doctor gets a bump on the head. It needs bandaging, acting as a handy reminder the crash happened. But maybe having been in the same crash they all got identical bumps on their heads, inducing the same reaction. Fictional knocks on the head have caused people to turn evil or good, remember or forget things, manifest superpowers and wake up hundreds of years in the future. Quite possibly all of the above at the same time. But believing an alien spirit has possessed your mates.... then timesed by four... that’s a bit of a new one.

One possibility is that Whitaker went bonkers under the pressure of writing it, and got his own madness down on paper. Certainly the formula seems to be a variant on the formula 'crisis creates opportunity' where ‘problems equal material'. The untransmitted ‘pilot episode’ had been partly marred by the Tardis doors opening and closing of their own accord. That gets written into the script here.

We flirted earlier with the meta notion that the invisible menace is actually the show’s own cancellation. Which is not necessarily the media studies suggestion it sounds. As this completes the show's originally allocated thirteen week production block, falling off the edge of time becomes like running out of airtime, like driving off the page. At the storyline’s end time effectively starts over.

But with the persistent white flashes and references to time “running out”, if you wanted you could also see it as some parable about anxieties over the (then highly contemporary) Bomb. Which threatened the end of history, if not time.

Or it could be they're aping some Euro art movie. While the Doctor and Ian insist on the literal reading you’d expect of an SF show its Barbara, the arts teacher, who's the only one who interprets the Tardis' frantic messages as symbols. As the Doctor says to her “you read a story into these things”. Admittedly, not one that makes much sense. But then neither did Antonioni and he won awards.

But perhaps the closest comparison didn't arrive until later. Of course it's possible to play compare and contrast endlessly between 'Doctor Who' and 'The Avengers', but there's a bigger-than-usual overlap between 'Edge' and 'The Hour That Never Was' (below) - broadcast some eighteen months later. There's the same unsettling piercing noise, the same accident, the same waking up in some other-place resembling ours and yet not. (One where people are missing leaving an unsettlingly empty space, the other where relations between characters are essentially erased.) There's the same motif of the stopped clocks, played up by 'The Avengers' into the episode title. Set in an RAF base, the piercing noise in 'Hour' cannot help but resemble a siren alarm – which might seem to take us back to Bomb anxieties.


But it's more likely they're riffing on themes the culture of the day associated with more blatant Bomb paranoia but really ran deeper. As Bob Dylan put it in his 1963 number ’Talkin’ World War III Blues’, itself a somewhat sardonic example of the trend - “now it seems everybody’s having them dreams”.

In short we have an overlap rather than a match. Both stories suggest, crudely speaking, that the condition of modern living consigns us to Limbo - an edgeworld defined simultaneously by entrapment and absence. (Theological types please be advised I’m going from the colloquial sense of the term rather than the doctrinal definition.) It ostensibly resembles our world only to emphasise they way what is lost is so intangible and so essential. Stopped time is a frequent signifier of Limbo.

It’s not the bomb that threatens us, it’s modernity itself. If the Tardis had gone outside time, then perhaps so had the world the show was broadcast to. Everything that made the Sixties dynamic and exciting also made them uncertain, as if the links of social solidarity which had once moored us were now snapped and we were left adrift.

This sense of the past as ‘real life’, as connectedness, as a state we’ve since fallen outside of, is stronger in ’Hour’. Steed has served with the missing pilots in this RAF base, and tells endless anecdotes about their times together. A scene of the empty, Marie Celeste-like mess hall is succeeded by one where it's inexplicably back to bustling with bushy mustaches, beer and good cheer. But its at least implicit in ’Edge’, with its recurring references to past adventures.

Is this starting to sound like existentialism yet? (As in “a philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe.”) Its not something which started with the Sixties, of course, but the decade saw a spike of interest. Of course “interest” often meant no more than wearing moody black and smoking continentally, while trying to look like you were contemplating your own death, preferably in French. Think of Bowie's 'Join The Gang' from '67: “Johnny plays the sitar/ He's an existentialist”. Nevertheless, there had to be some fire beneath all that artistically blown cigarette smoke.

And 'Edge' often feels like a highly earnest existentialist drama, Sartre’s ’No Way Out’ (1944, below) performed by a mixture of Sixth formers overdosing on Quaaludes and old folks plucked from a retirement home who do not necessarily know they’re in a play. If we're not boldly going somewhere new, that's because we're being asked if we really know where we already are and the people we're with.


Though ostensibly set in Hell, ’No Way Out’ features many elements of Limbo, not least the hotel setting – transient, yet for the characters within the play eternal. They express surprise that this is not the setting they were expecting, the Medieval illustration Hell of pitchforks, fiery pits and triumphalist red dudes.

It should perhaps be conceded that 'Edge' is not a modernist drama which invites comparison to Sartre. In fact 'Hour That Never Was' is a whole lot better, now I come to think about it. However, if it is not always highly thought of, it should be acknowledged there are some genuinely good moments. When, confronted by the apparition of the broken clock (below), a disturbed Barbara throws off her own watch. It's genuinely reminiscent of the reapplied lipstick scene in the surrealist classic ’Un Chien Andalou’ (below below). And Susan is given the most to do since the first episode. Though the once well-behaved schoolgirl has now become a scissors-waving delinquent. (There were, I kid not, complaints to the BBC.)



But overall this bottle episode is as half-empty as half-full. Besides, it is essentially smashed a little way into the second episode when they twig there is no invisible menace. The story has effective been the steeped aura of paranoia. With that let out, there is nothing left at all. The second episode should really be called ’The Middle of Bugger All’. Things then meander along until the actual problem with the Tardis is discovered. (I won’t reveal it here, not to avoid a plot spoiler but because if you don’t know it already you’ll never believe it could be that banal.)

Yet you don’t really get the measure of the thing by lining its successes up against it’s failings. As we'll see, Hartnell stories run the gamut. Some are genuinely good, others pitiably bad. Yet others are so blasted odd, so full of deranged conviction, you have to respect them even if you’re not sure you like them. The original production notes coined the term 'sideways', for stories neither going back nor forward in time. But it's also a handy tag for the otherwise uncategorisable. And the first outbreak of sidewaysness is right here.


Together For the First Time

...in fact, it’s the first of a fair few things. For a two-part filler, written for a show that could well have then been cancelled, this might seem counter-intuitive. Then again it was written by script editor, and effectively what we’d now call show-runner, David Whitaker. Even if the show risked cancellation, he had a space to fill and may as well fill it with something.

This means that, whatever you think of the description above, if you are interested in the development of the show you cannot skip this storyline! (Apologies to those now going as white as the Tardis monitor.)

Most significantly, Whitaker closes down one theme and opens up another. Which is the moment of untruth to my facetious comment that the episode lacks any kind of resolution. It undoubtedly wants for a proper ending, in plot terms. But the consequences - we are still living through them now. Even after ’The Daleks’ Ian and Barbara are still the central characters, thrust aboard the Tardis by happenstance not choice. As Barbara not unreasonably points out to the Doctor, it’s mostly been them rescuing him.

Here, though Barbara suggests the idea of the alien presence, it is the Doctor who takes and pins it on her and Ian. (He suggests they’re trying to blackmail him, despite this making no kind of sense. But as I might have said...) They become, like the injured caveman in ’Tribe of Rada’, an obstruction which he threatens to throw off the ship whatever the danger.

But of course while a strange Doctor is a good long-term plot enabler, an antagonistic one is not. We have already seen a kind of retreat from this. When the first episode was re-shot (albeit for technical reasons), the chance was taken to moderate Hartnell’s character. (We are now so familiar with this then-untransmitted ‘pilot episode’, it is impossible not to write it into his arc.)

Here the matter is brought to a head in order to lance the boil. In fact it's almost like a direct sequel to 'Unearthly Child', which ends with Ian struck unconscious and Barbara asleep. As things resolve, the Doctor gives Barbara a kind of Mel Gibson version of an apology. (He effectively says “my baseless attempt to kill you has given us all a chance to reflect and see life anew”.) 

He is still an irascible traveller, the cosmic writer of wrongs yet to come. Ian and Barbara remain the chief characters. But they have become a kind of honorary family unit. If this had a ’Friends’ title it would be ’The One Where Matters Are Brought to a Head, Until There’s the Nearest English Thing to a Group Hug.’ He even ends the episode by referring to a celebrity historical encounter, with Gilbert and Sullivan. I think this may well be the first of these.


We should also look at the function of continuity itself. At this point the crew would often remind each other (and, more likely, us) of previous storylines. (“Remember when I became a pagan God?” “Rather! That was a weekend and a half!”)

But normally these are illustrational, passing references. Here Barbara telling the Doctor that they have saved his fool life has a direct impact on the storyline. Again, this is in part forced on Whitaker by constraints. We need to be reminded of the background they are arguing about, and besides we need to be reminded of past actions because so little is happening right now! Yet, forced as it may be, it’s still significant.

There’s also some faux-continuity, as the ship’s memory bank shows us things the Doctor and Susan did before they were aboard. This of course minimises his role as an antagonist. But it also makes the series, like the Tardis, appear bigger on the inside. Which is to say, there has to appear more of it than there actually is. Today, steeped in countless spin-offs and fan fic, with lost episodes we can only imagine, this seems intrinsic. But at the time it was a TV show of which very few episodes had already been made. And it already appears to have some kind of virtual life, of which us TV viewers only get glimpses.

Introducing the Tardis

And more importantly, and of course most beloved to fans, for the first time the Tardis is revealed to be sentient. Okay, let’s not get carried away. As we’ve seen Whitaker’s only recourse to guest stars was to employ invisible non-acting ones. After feigning an invisible foe, he has to explain the weird stuff somehow – so we find an invisible friend. Had an episode of ’Holmes and Watson’ been subject to such circumstances, the French dresser in their flat might well have come to life.

Whitaker persistently referred to this storyline as ’Inside the Spaceship’, disappointingly suggesting he saw the Tardis as just a spaceship after all. Yet let’s remind ourselves of Ian’s comment on first sight of the blue box – “it's alive!” (Of course the Doctor seems unaware that it’s sentient despite later explanations that Tardises are “grown”. The most likely explanation for this is that they were making things up as they went along.)

We also should remind ourselves that, just like a later core concept revealed in ’The Time Meddler’ (all to come), this would prove to be a great idea in the right hands – and an equally ruinous one in the wrong ones.

What actually is it that's significant here? Sentient machines are of course a staple of children’s fiction, but they normally think in terms of their programming. Cars will say “would you like me to drive you somewhere today, huh, boss?” Doors will luxuriate in opening, sometimes annoying robots. 

I commented earlier how the show's initial scenario was quite similar to 'Lost In Space', with the untrustworthy Doctor as Zachary Smith. The main two differences being that Susan's related to him instead of Ian and Barbara (itself something of a last-minute decision) and (some way before K9) there's no equivalent to the Robot. Yet here the Tardis performs the Robot's most basic functions, the equivalent of flailing it's arms and shouting “danger, old bloke and schoolteachers, danger!”

But these comparisons merely highlight what's so idiosyncratic about the Tardis, how its somehow more than a machine programmed to think. It communicates, after all, not by info-screens but by symbols and hallucinations. This characteristic may be accentuated for us, who navigate a couple of dozen dialogue boxes in a day. (“You are about to fall off the edge of time. You will die and therefore not be able to undo this action. Click 'OK' if you still want to proceed.”) But it would have been there for contemporary audiences too.

Because more important than the sentience is the personality - it seems as strange and eccentric in its ways as the Doctor is in his. Whikater's novelisation of the later story 'The Crusaders' (to come) features Vicki (also to come) “staring fascinated at the lights that flashed and the wheels that spun, a constant source of never-ending delight to her”.

At this stage the Doctor and Susan are not runaways but lost. And the presumption seems to be that the Doctor built this ship, so not only is it imbued with his strange inscrutability and funny foibles, but they are also in some semi-symbiotic relationship. The lights that flashed and wheels that spun are Vicki's externalised perception of his mind. All of which would be played up in future episodes. While simultaneously undercut by that banal denouement where it's not just a mechanism after all but one made of the cheapest and most shoddy parts and the (later) news he stole the Tardis and (later still) the risibly pedestrian notion that he nicked it from a parking lot of the things.

'Edge' could not honestly be called an unqualified success. But given its awkward genesis, its is probably better than it had any right to be. As I might have already mentioned, it doesn’t really make much sense. (I did remember to mention that, didn't I? I meant to mention that it doesn't make much sense.) But the first episode at least has genuine atmosphere. And there’s a strange paradox to it. It’s a product of a singular necessity, a strange one-off, a curve ball. But it’s also the bridge between a semi-shapeless prototype and the show we know.

Further Reading: David Layton takes a Jungian approach:

“The split personality results from the trauma of this experience, which can be assuaged by the unified personality’s resolution of the conflict…. the TARDIS in this story becomes the 'head' in which the four aspects of the personality enact a psychodrama…. The Doctor and his companion, whoever she may be or however many there may be, are one person.”

(The entire article isn't on 'Edge' but it makes for one of the earliest and more convincing examples of his theory.)

A general plea! Should you like what you read, please tell someone. I am entirely dependent on word of mouth. And by a similar token, ’Who’ reviews a long time ago became exigencies; it’s as much about what I think of what you thought as what I thought of the show. So if you spot someone you think I should be reading but don’t seem to, please let me know.

Coming soon! Gig-going exploits for a week or two, then back to the classic Doctor...

Saturday, 28 September 2019

THAT CHANGING FACE (or CONFESSIONS OF A FIFTY-SOMETHING ‘DOCTOR WHO’ FAN)

...aka the sad and sorry tale of how a grown man came to decide there wasn't enough 'Doctor Who' material on the internet...


It’s an open secret with 'Doctor Who' that everyone’s favourite Doctor is their Doctor, the one they remember watching when they were eight. I’m no exception. It’s just that in my case my Doctor, Tom Baker, really was the best. (Honest, it’s official! Opinion polls almost always agree with me!) This was of course nothing but a fortuitous combination of circumstances, but the alignment had an effect on me. (Pity the poor sod who came of age during Sylvester McCoy.)

Yet it also seems significant that the show was a folk memory from the start. It had been broadcast before I was born and I’ve no recollection whatsoever of discovering it, any more than I have of meeting my best friend at infant school. So it never became my favourite show, that was all established before I gained any awareness of things. The show about a time traveller became timeless in itself.

Still, each Saturday night serving of my favourite show had a cumulative effect upon my youthful brain. I don’t just remember the show, scenes and episodes, I remember watching the show - the excitement leading up to it, the cliffhangers, the end credits and reversed time tunnel throwing me back out of it again for another week’s wait.

I can recall quite vividly my Dad coming back from the shop and plopping the Radio Times Tenth Anniversary Special on my lap. Or the very first time I came across the Target novelisations in a bookshop. Before video, these were my secret route into a secret lore that lay invisible to others - the time traveller’s history. I’d explain the discoveries to be found therein to my schoolmates, sparing no meticulous detail. They would respond by showing not the slightest interest whatsoever.

But, perhaps because he was the longest-serving Doctor, Baker’s era became a game of two halves. It’s not just that the show hit a peak and then inevitably started to slide down again. It's that a distinct fracture line emerged, and two landmasses pulled apart. Early Baker stands alongside the previous Doctors, Troughton and Pertwee. (Hartnell is perhaps more stand-alone.) While the later Baker went off with his successors...

...which again worked with my age, but this time the other way up. As I was becoming more of a teenage smartarse, and more aware of bad back projection and guns that rather resembled hairdryers but were probably less dangerous, the second landmass was emerging at the same time it drifted away from me. 

The strong storylines, necessary to distract you from the cheap production, were becoming more kitschy. When I peruse the story titles of Baker’s first three seasons, quite strong memories are instantly recalled. The following four (yes, another four), not so much. ’The Sun Makers’? ‘The Ribos Operation’? You what, guv? 

The presence of K-9 became a particular obstacle in my mind. I would earnestly attempt to circumvent the problem by explaining to my schoolmates that proper SF doesn’t have robot dogs with silly names in it. They would respond by showing not the slightest interest whatsoever.

Even Baker’s tenure didn’t last forever, and before long... well actually after long he was replaced by Peter Davison – surely the poorest-cast Doctor of all. Davison was less mistake and more category error, not so much a bad take on the Doctor as simply not the Doctor. It was like Tristram from ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ had inexplicably turned up for the wrong show.

This well-meaning foppish Englishman was like a parody of his predecessors, an idea of how the programme worked thought up by someone who had never actually watched it. The essential alien quality of the character had been swapped for some cricket whites, the air of mystery at the heart of it substituted by a stick of celery.

By this time, Saturday evenings were more often spent contemplating the lure of the pub than sitting down for some old show I once watched as a kid. Nevertheless it hadn’t sailed out of sight quite yet. I would watch odd episodes and at times be pleasantly surprised by the storylines, even if this involved squinting past the rather wet main characters.

I’d already left home but was back on a weekend visit when I watched the final episode of ‘Caves of Androzani’ with my parents. (Thought by some to be the finest storyline of all.) I can remember making a mental note that, if it had become this good, I should start watching it regularly again. But I mislaid the impulse and so didn’t tune in to see the first Colin Baker story, ‘The Twin Dilemma’. As this is often thought to be the worst storyline of all, that may have ultimately proved fortuitous.

For most of Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy’s era my somewhat precarious living arrangements didn't allow for a telly, or got between me and switching it on. Slightly more settled conditions led me to see some of the later McCoy’s. I tended to think they had some good ideas lying within them, but that didn’t mean that anything was actually working. When it went off the air, truth to tell, I barely noticed. By then I was into more mature stuff. (You know, superheroes who used excess violence then got depressed, punk bands who used tunelessness as a protest against the government... mature stuff.)

After that, adherence to the show became an auto-reflex in my mind. Run it up the flagpole and I’d salute. But I felt no cause to go and seek it out. Occasionally the Beeb would have a Doctor Who Special night. But I’d usually use those as social occasions and nostalgia-fests than something to actually watch. (Most probably in response to the way they were marketed.) We'd meet up to watch them, with beer and jumbo packs of Monster Munch. After all, by then I’d reached adulthood. I no longer had to read about wheezing, groaning noises. I was perfectly capable of emitting my own. Particularly after a night of beer and Monster Munch.

Things might well have stayed that way if not for the revival. I first flicked it on merely so I could slag it off with an air of authority, convinced we’d get the McGann mistakes all over again, only to find myself pulled into it. I’d often watch it with my flatmate’s young daughter, who’d not follow the plotlines and get scared by the monsters. I would sometimes tell her about the old show of my youth, and how things fitted in with the new. She would respond by showing not the slightest interest whatsoever.

I’m trying now to remember whether my interest in the old show grew when the Davies era started or when it went into it’s own second-half decline. Whichever, having never never really wiped the show from the hard drive of my mind, and started to become curious as to what it actually contained. How much would it match my ghostly memories?

Once, I was blindly brand loyal. Pretty much anything tagged as SF would get watched, read or absorbed through some orifice or other. Out of that whole slew, how come it was ’Doctor Who’ which stuck in my mind? How could it last so long, with so many different actors and production teams? And, given that longevity and extra-long list of cooks stirring the broth, how can there be things I feel so sure just weren’t 'Doctor Who'? Is it all an idea in my head, which I have attached to hazy memories of some low-budget old TV show? Would I stick to the same schema if watched it again?

And so I started watching it again. From the beginning, the ones I hasn't been able to see first time round through the unfortunate handicap of not having been born yet. And so I decided to review them too. Let’s see how closely they match my folk memory, given above.

Reviews stretching from the series' inception right up until the present day will appear in a strict weekly schedule...

...had you going there! Truthfully, they'll only cover the classic show and go up as and when I get round to it. They'll get interrupted frequently by the normal sort of thing. (And we are in the season for gig-going.) There won’t be much in the way of consistency of approach, I’ll respond to each episode as I find it. Themes, however, will develop. Of a sort. The length of each review will vary haphazardly according to how many things it occurs to me to say. A yet-to-be-determined number will be skipped over altogether. There’s a minority of stories I don’t even intend watching, when a critical mass of critics has already called them out as turkeys. Normal terms and conditions apply.

Join with me now as we wander in the fourth dimension...

Saturday, 21 September 2019

‘IVON HITCHENS: SPACE THROUGH COLOUR’

Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

”It’s not really the subject that truly interests me, but the many possible ways of expressing it”
- Ivon Hitchens


Ivon Hitchens was one of the Bright Young Things of British Modernism, hanging out in Twenties Hampstead with the likes of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson as they plotted to reinvent British art. He’s chiefly known for landscapes, which is what we’ll concentrate on here.


’Curved Barn’ (1922, above) is one of many works which place a single building inside a natural setting. As is emphasised by the title, the barn roof is given quite an extensive curve in an environment where nothing seems straight. Nature essentially envelops the barn, a long branch stretching across the top of it. The barely differentiated greens and greys emphasise this, making all seem one undifferentiated growth. This nature isn’t expansive but confining.

But if the barn’s depicted as if part of nature, nature isn’t particularly naturalised. Though there’s a clear-cut sense of pictorial space (the tree trunk before the bushes, which are before the barn) there’s an undisguised artificiality. It could be a stage set or an illustration to a fairy story.


Compared it to ’Grey Willow By the Coast’ (1936) and all the works seem to have in common is an evocation of the English landscape in a restricted, rather sombre palette. Where ’Curved Barn’ is built up of gradated blocks of colour, ’Grey Willow’ is much more painterly. Something it needs to convey its point to us. The mist-shrouded landscape is barely any more recognisable than the two figures which approach. Paul Nash often painted the British landscape as unparseable, littered with strange and unyieldingly inscrutable objects. Hitchens goes a stage further, depicting it as undiscernible.

Everyone from the times talks of how those continental Modernist exhibitions, when first staged in London, packed a heady punch. Viewers emerged from them with their heads on at different angles. The challenge was always to absorb their developments without merely imitating them. One solution was to - somehow - Anglicise them. And there’s a British, rainy-day mysticism to this work.

Hitchens was like the anti-David Bomberg; rather than being transformed by the light of Palestine or the ruggedness of Spain he stuck obstinately to English landscapes for inspiration – thick, gladeless forests whose gloom the sun barely penetrates. He turned provincialism from restriction to identifying feature.


’Winter Stage’ (1936, above) is often regarded as a key work in Hitchens’ development. It’s not, the show informs us, the first to use the elongated landscape frame that soon became a staple of it. But, after ’Still Life’ (1932), it was the first use for a landscape painting. Its advantage is that the work can no longer be taken in at a glance, but needs to be scanned - as you would an actual landscape.

Curiously then the show then tells us almost the opposite, emphasising how its “divided vertically into three sections” as if we should see it as a triptych which happens to be joined together. Whereas what’s significant arrives when we join those parts together.

The object at a window was then a common composition in British Modernism, perhaps the closest you could get to en plein air painting without rain stopping play. Hitchens gives us two open windows for our money, both with objects before them. Unlike ’Curved Barn’ the work looks quite naturalistic. But at the same time it seems designed to screw with any separation between inside and outside.

Is that a window sill at lower centre? It seems to blend seamlessly into the forest behind it.If we look carefully into the ‘main’ forest, we can see at almost dead centre the angled roof and darkened doorway of another building. To the left of this, a cross also appears among the trees.

Hitchens extends this perspective through a smart use of shading. The colours are as dark and sombre as ever. But by lightening some of the foreground browns, to the point they almost but not quite border on white, he gains enough tonal variety to get his deep perspective.

It would be tempting to say this is a direct inversion of ’Curved Barn’, where the outdoors has now blended with the indoors. But it’s less about nature invading culture, the familiar Romantic trope of plant life recolonising a ruin, than suggesting the two exist in a more involved inter-relationship than we normally give credit to. (Sussex locals may also like to know this was painted in Ashdown Forest.)


Hitchens continued to work from nature, often travelling for miles to reach a favoured spot. Yet his work increasingly became abstractions from those scenes. See for example ’Tangled Pool’ (1946, above). There’s nothing wrong with this an approach, after all it’s the one Arshile Gorky took. Hitchens combined this with more visible paint strokes and an almost complete swapping-over of palette, where colours became vivid. The result is works like ’Arno II’ (1965, below).


Every so often, I start to wonder if that lowbrow guy who always asks “is that even art?” might not have a point after all. Is it really a painting, or just someone wiping clean their brushes? Let’s be clear… The least interesting thing about visual art to me is accomplishment, and I consider bizarre people’s veneration of ‘skill’ - which normally means lack of evidence of the painter’s hand. (“It really looks like a real dog!”, and so on.) But that had begun to be challenged by the Impressionists, a full century before. Elaborating the point to this extent seems like repeatedly underlining a sentence already written. You could say something similar about Frank Auerbach and Franz Kline, and in fact I already have.

Furthermore, the more elements you take from a work, the greater the significance that falls on those that remain. For example, colour. If it doesn’t require delicate brush strokes, ’Arno’ does need a strong colour sense. Something which scarcely matters with, say, Malevich whose colour sense was masterful. Whereas Hitchens’ is quite frankly lousy. Colours are slapped on like a kid in a sweetie shop, not knowing what goes where or when to stop.

If it doesn’t necessarily follow that abstraction loses your connection with landscape, that’s still exactly what happened with Hitchens. (Almost inevitably, this seems to be the period where he saw most acclaim. Equally inevitably, I found more than a few reviews on-line which enthused over this era.)

What could have caused such a decline? One possible answer is Modernism losing its cultural cutting edge by the post-war era, and so digging deeper into its formal devices - essentially collapsing in on itself. It became its own self-parody. But with Hitchens there may be something more specific. If he was one of the Twenties in-crowd, he was in particular a disciple of Ben Nicholson. Who had a similar trajectory, first absorbing Continental influences to find a very British take on Modernism - only to then succumb to mannerism and formalism.

The show valiantly attempts to make a virtue of this, telling us how Hitchens “brought continental colour to the English landscape.” And of course this pinpoints his exact failure. Restrict his palette, in the earlier works shown above, and he developed an exceptional talent for working within those limitations. Hand him the rainbow, and he literally painted himself into a corner. The post-war Hitchens is nothing but misapplied Matisse.


At which point all might seem lost. But, if he never got back to the level of the inter-war years and remained highly uneven, he still clambered some way out of this corner. ’November Revelation’ (1973, above) is formally similar to ’Arno II’, broad and boldly undisguised paint strokes. But its colour sense is more developed, setting dynamic strokes of crimson and orange against a steadier background of marine blues. Its ambiguous title, which could refer to a late Autumn scene or some more internal process, is perhaps significant. Now untethered to representation, Hitchens has come out the other end and is free to do things which could only be done in a painting.

“The essence of my theory”, he said, “is that colour is space and space is colour.” By which I think he means, the elements that make up a painting cannot be prised apart like engine parts. Those extended horizontal lines, for example, they couldn’t not be blue.

Hitchens had moved to a seaside location at Selsey. As his inspiration seems to have come from his local environment, and as I’ve already called those horizontal blues ‘marine’, the rest might seem to write itself. But that was in 1963, two years before ’Arno’, so if this was Selsey’s effect upon him it was very much a slow burn.

Equally, it could easily pass for an American Abstract Expressionist work. Except the dates don’t fit there either. That was a movement popularly known at the latest by the early Fifties. Hitchens was scarcely stumbling upon it in 1973. Perhaps he simply had his own internal processes to work through, falling into then climbing back up out of his own happy valley, which couldn’t be hastened along.

Coming soon (or possibly later): This mini-review, which has leaped between decades in a quite cavalier fashion was to be honest all I had time to type out today, so got promoted up the schedule. Normal tardiness in art show reviews is shortly to be resumed.

Saturday, 14 September 2019

FOLLAKZOID/ MCCLUSKY*/ TEETH OF THE SEA (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

FOLLAKZOID
Patterns, Brighton, Sun 1st Sept


I saw Santiago psych band Follakzoid three years ago, and was much enchanted by their trance-out tracks. But somehow I skipped their return visit to Brighton. So I had to be told, in the few minutes before the band came on, that they had changed round their methods. And, rather than playing more or less tracks from their CDs, they now gave their set over to one gig-long freeform track. Which had induced a somewhat Marmitey reaction in the audience.

It turns out the band have reduced just as they’ve elongated, going down to guitarist, keyboardist and drummer. It’s the guitarist who takes things to the edge. Hands are off the strings for longer than on, mostly putting in short bursts which are fed through loop and delay. The playing part of music becomes a mere raw material.

Though the guitarist opens the set the drummer is given the role of holding it together, stopping it becoming too shapeless. The keyboardist often aligns with the drummer, and it becomes like a multi-coloured etch-a-sketch - they providing the frame while the guitar lines constantly overwrite themselves. Two work while one plays, the others standing workmanlike behind their assigned instruments while the guitarist arm-flailingly freaks.

But the keyboards play both sides, sometimes taking over the proceedings, at others providing distorted voice samples. As well as dynamism and intensity the sound levels range wildly, sometimes thumping you in the chest.

This does have the downside that at times you are waiting for inspiration to re-strike, making it something of a rough-with-the-smooth affair. But it’s become a kind of impro music and that’s often the deal you need to make. No kissing frogs, no princess transpires.

It feels like they’ve gone beyond being a human playback machine, and have worked out to do something live which could only be done live. And it holds to the band’s schtick, a paradoxical combination of depersonalising machine repetition with ecstatic states. Was it Marmitey? Me, I like Marmite.

Meanwhile, on new release ’I’ (purchased at gig) they’ve done something which could only be done on record. Previous releases were recorded old-school, the band playing together in one take. They sounded driven, pressing ahead, even as they also sounded ethereal. No longer. This time… well, I’ll let them explain…

“This record took three months to construct out of more than 60 separate stems – guitars, bass, drums, synthesizers, and vocals, all recorded in isolation. Producer Atom TM, who was not present for recording, was then asked to re-organize the four sequences of stems without any length, structural restrictions or guidelines.”

Their mission statement has long been “with each record to fill longer spaces of time with fewer and fewer elements”, and this really pushes that along. It’s as minimal as any minimal techno.

The feeling’s less ghost in the machine than ghost of the machine. Imagine that, as is supposed to be happening with cars, all ships became automated. They filled the seven seas, with only the trace of human presence about them. Then imagine they all became ghost ships anyway.

Jack Bray has described the effect of this as “at once ominous and tranquil.” To which I’d add, it seems at once an unmappably shifting space and strangely homely.

This does mean there’s only a loose connection between the band live and on CD. I mention this only because it’s the sort of thing which seems to matter to some people. (If pressed, I’d probably prefer the CD to the gig. But I’d prefer not to be pressed.)

There doesn’t seem much footage of this tour, and perhaps because you would need to hear the whole gig, so here’s the final track of the album…



MCLUSKY
Concorde 2, Brighton, Fri 13th Sept


Mclusky first formed in Cardiff in 1996, launching sharp, spiky punk onto the unsuspecting. After three albums, and the usual combination of John Peel plays, critical acclaim and unpaid bills, 2005 saw them call it a day. (Frontman Falco latter commented “We were poor. Poor-poor. Like with a lot of bands at that cursed nearly-perhaps-level… living off hope and experience and eating a lot of bread sandwiches… we toured too much to hold down jobs and earned too little to do anything else.”)

But they who liked the band tended to love them. They originally reformed as a benefit for a threatened local venue, but the bug re-bit. The asterisk added to the name signifies this is not the exact original line-up, with a new bass player. But the focus of the band was always Falco, so that scarcely matters.

This is a punk gig and, fittingly, the first word spoken on stage is “fuck”. People associate punk with rage. and it’s true to say there’s much to be angry about in the world. But punk also contained a fair amount of disdain, derision and scathing black humour. Think of the Sex Pistols. Or, for that matter, Mclusky. The word acerbic could have been coined to describe them.

With album titles such as ’My Pain and Sadness Is More Sad and Painful Than Yours’ and ’The Difference Between Me And You Is That I’m Not On Fire’, they tend to position themselves outside the frame of their songs, pissing in. It’s like a role reversal in which through their songs they heckle the audience. (Falco is known for a merciless way with hecklers, not a skill he needs tonight.) They, in their own words, “introduced me to the joys of doubt”.

I am not sure their songs are about very much. They’re more a clutch of aphorisms, waspish witticisms and strung non-sequiters held together by venom and spittle, individual lines like prongs of barbed wire clumped together but pointing off in different directions. (“Keep your passport near/ There is no other disappointment here”). Sometimes they seem to luxuriate in language for its own sake.

I mention this only as it may be a problem for those to whom punk means the song against nuclear weapons being followed by the song about why you should become vegan. I cannot say I am terribly bothered myself.

Their music is punkishly minimal. Starting as a three-piece, live it’s noticeable how they can drop down to two players for quite long periods. But less commonly for a punk band, they’re musically inventive, giving each song it’s own identity. They know how to pack a catchy tune, and can come up with what sound simultaneously like harmonies and taunts. Their default mode is a kind of nihilistic chirpiness, the energy of punk songs with crafted precision of the best pop songs, normally coming to a neat close in under four minutes.

In fact I could believe that in some parallel universe Falco, after receiving some evil-inducing blow to the head, went on to write conveyor-belt hit singles. And is now lazing beside a private swimming pool rather than standing on the Concorde stage before us herberts. Lucky for us if not him.

From Dublin. Following the code of the asterisk, the poster has titled this track ’Lightsabre C*cksucking Blues’



TEETH OF THE SEA
Green Door Store, Brighton, Fri 6th Sept


Teeth of the Sea say of themselves: “Taking on board influences like Morricone, Eno, Delia Derbyshire, Goblin, and the Butthole Surfers, they’ve arrived at an incendiary sound that marries the aural enlightenment of an avant-garde sensibility with the reckless abandon of trashy rock & roll.”

Is there such a genre as post-rock-but-also-dance? It seems there is now. At a time when you imagine every instrumental combination must have been tried out, Teeth of the Sea marry trumpet to electronic beats. And the combination’s a virtuous one, like watching a glider soaring effortlessly above crosstown traffic. It’s then made more virtuous still by their sampling the trumpet and drawing it down into the body of their sound, only for it to take off again later.

Then just when you think you’ve got their sound pegged, the finale abandons the trumpet altogether in favour of a bass and the trio go into full sonic assault mode.

There is perhaps something about it which is either proggy, aloof or some combination of the two. In other words, I’m not sure whether this came from the music or the attitude of the musicians. Of course this is what everyone always says about this type of music, that you don’t even get let into the venue until you’ve convinced the doorman you completed your PHD. That doesn’t stop it being sometimes true. And this tendency isn’t held back by the guitarist’s curious decision to throw in rock God moves.

But overall, much like the trumpet and the beats, it makes for a virtuous combination - something which hits your ears and stirs your feet at one and the same time. I might even go off and trademark ‘post-rock-but-also-dance’. I know a catchy term when I hear one.

Three tracks from Lille…

Saturday, 31 August 2019

THE LENS OF LUCID FRENZY VISITS EDINBURGH...

...with it's gravity-defying vertical accumulation of buildings, looks like some steam-punk version of 'Metropolis'. As ever, full set on 500px. More Edinburgh photos to follow, but probably something else first.