Happy Birthday Mr Benn!

It seems that the lead character of one of my favourite children’s television shows is 50 this year. Mr Benn is 50! When did that happen? He’s as much a part of my childhood as Thunderbirds, The Magic Roundabout and Trumpton – which just goes to show how old I am. It was a simple enough premise – a man in a dark suit and bowler hat who looked like he worked for Homepride would go into a fancy dress shop, be met by a plump chap in a waistcoat and a fez (Rene from Allo Allo moonlighting, I suppose) and hire a fancy dress costume. He’d go into the changing room, put the costume on, go through another door and be in the world represented by his costume – so if he had a clown costume, he’d be in the circus, that kind of thing. He’d have a little adventure, cheer someone up, then go back to the shop, change back into his suit, and go home. That was it until the next episode.

I always thought there were hundreds of episodes (at least, I remember hundreds of them) but in fact there were only thirteen which have clearly been on rerun for years – a bit like Fawlty Towers only with less lunacy. They were lovely little stories, of which I am still incredibly fond, but I’m not sure modern children take to them the same way we did when we were younger. Testament to the human desire for a bit of escapism, an exhibition to celebrate 50 years of Mr Benn is being held at a Central London gallery and you can’t get tickets for love, money or a fancy dress costume. Whether or not it is being curated by a plump chap in a waistcoat and a fez is yet to be seen.

Hollywood Gothic

Don’t be fooled. I’m still reading Tim Powers’ Medusa’s Web and Old Hollywood plays a major part in the Gothic sensibility of the novel. To discuss all the films with a Gothic flavour that the great Hollywood studios put out over the years would require at least a couple of chapters, if not an entire volume, all to itself. Here, I just want to look at the lure of old Hollywood, and how Tinsel-Town came to have a dark side that was all its own. If you are lucky enough to get your hands on a copy of Hollywood Babylon, you’ll see what I mean.

Hollywood in the 1920s was rife with wild parties – if you could get in – starlets, drugs, sex and drink galore. Probably no different to the 1970s, except that the spangles were real and for the majority, it really was another world. Even a feel-good musical like Singing In The Rain hints at this – Cathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) has come to LA to become an actress, but starts off as a chorus girl entertaining guests at a studio party. Her acting career stutters after she upsets the studio’s big star, Lena Lamont (Jean Hagen), who then resolves to make sure Selden “never works in this town again”. The crucial part of the film’s plot deals with Selden protecting Lamont’s career by sacrificing her own, ghost-singing and speaking Lamont’s lines in the early talking pictures. Marni Nixon made a similar career, lending her singing voice to Deborah Kerr in The King and I (amongst other films).

It wasn’t easy being a film star in those days.

Even today, Los Angeles is the City of Dreams; the film industry creates dreams, and everyone wants to be in the business. Virtually every waitress or coffee shop barista has an audition coming up or a script they’re working on. There are more people than there are roles, and even my (just about scraped) pass at Economics A Level knows that supply is far outstripping demand. The studios are ruthless, hearts get broken and illusions are shattered. Hollywood is, after all, about illusion – nothing in the cinema is real, it’s all smoke and mirrors in the end.

It’s intriguing to me that this notion creates a very gothic sensibility, particularly with some of the older black and white movies. I love the old Universal horror movies, some of which are still quite terrifying because they allow the imagination to fill in the gaps – which is how good horror works, after all. And I really like how Powers weaves this into his novel. The old bits of film set that are scattered around the house render it more sinister than I suppose it is – but then I find circuses creepy too, and that’s a whole other story entirely! The references to the caption screens on silent films that Claimaine and Ariel quote to each other starts has a distinct edge to it, hinting at hypnosis, a Svengali relationship, that probably doesn’t otherwise exist. Indeed, a minor character informs Ariel that “doing spiders” was a big thing in Hollywood studio parties in the 1920s – hinting at the decadence of the period.

It’s always been known that there was a dark side to the film industry, but it’s interesting to see it being used as a Gothic motif.

A Terrible Confession

Yes, I’m afraid the rumours are true. I do think Anthony Scaramucci is gorgeous. He’s an obnoxious foul-mouthed twerp, but still – I could look at him for hours. Just as long as he sits in the corner with his trap shut.

I’m not sure, actually, that this is something one admits in polite company, but I was really quite upset that he was fired. The new guy (and the old guy, come to think of it) just aren’t as easy on the eye. If I turned the sound off during a Scaramucci press conference, it was just perfect. The combination of sharp suit, mirrored Aviators and “I could have been Sebastian Stan if I’d been twenty years younger and Romanian” insouciance won it for me. It didn’t matter what he was talking about, I was too busy swooning to listen. It was the best daydream I’d had over the past couple of weeks.

I’ll miss The Mooch now he’s gone. Could someone send me a signed picture to keep me happy please?

Where Has All The Good TV Gone?

I need a new TV show to watch now that all my favourites have either finished or are on their last series, but I can’t seem to find anything I fancy. I’m getting tired of Game of Thrones – especially now winter is here and the endgame seems to be underway. I’ve never got on with Preacher and if I’m honest, I just found The Handmaid’s Tale a bit depressing (it didn’t help that I’d read the book at university and didn’t enjoy it then either). The next season of The Expanse feels like it’s years away from being broadcast and I just can’t abide Poldark. So what do I watch instead?

Answer – nothing. I’ve gone back to reading, which these days feels like an incredibly radical idea, but since my “to read” pile needs planning permission it seemed like a pretty good idea. And so it has turned out. I’ve read some absolute corkers lately (and a few stinkers, but there we are). I might watch an occasional film over the weekend, but if I’m honest, I’m not missing the TV at all. It just isn’t grabbing my attention the way it once did.

Admittedly, a lot of what I’m reading relates to climate change and environmental matters – as recent blog posts will testify, this is an important subject for me – but since quite a lot of it is fiction rather than non-fiction, I’m able to imagine my favourite actors clinging on for dear life as the Pacific Ocean wipes out California or landslides destroy most of Sydney. Although that may have more to do with my love of disaster movies – few things makes me as happy as the sequence in The Day After Tomorrow when tornadoes devastate Los Angeles. I’ve seen it dozens of times and it never fails to entertain me.

It’s unfortunate that there is little television that has caught my attention lately. There used to be some wonderful stuff broadcast from Australia which I loved, because it was genuinely interesting and very well done – Deep Water and The Code being just two. I’m not sure about Top of the Lake because I missed the first series, but I note that the second has Gwendoline Christie in it, so that’s a possibility. Otherwise, I shall just keep reading until something comes along or I get to the bottom of the pile.

Fear of the Other

I found this on t’interweb a while ago:

Whilst on the one hand it made me smile – there’s nothing quite like humour to take the edge of terrorist incidents – it did make me think as well, but that’s partly because of what I know about language and also some of my favourite TV shows when I was growing up. And I’m not sure I liked what I concluded.

Daleks, as most people know. are the quintessential Dr Who villains; a totalitarian hive mind of slightly demented pepperpots intent on taking over the world. But has anyone (apart from me, who spends way too much time doing this) actually thought about what Dalek means? It’s a Serbo-Croat word that means “foreigner”.

Star Trek is just as bad, although we need to look at some of the latter day series to really see where they were going. They introduced us to these ugly bugs:

Now I had long gone under the impression that these were Romulans, but I am reliably informed (admittedly by Wikipedia) that these are Ferengi. Ferengi is Sanskrit for (wait for it) – “foreigner”. And if you hang around Thailand long enough, you’ll soon hear the word “farang” which also means foreigner and comes from the Sanskrit.

So now I’m wondering if my childhood viewing has tried to make me believe that all foreigners are bad guys and should be treated with suspicion. I doubt that this was ever the intent – and certainly Terry Nation was much cleverer than that – but it is bothering me. It’s that right wing idea that anyone who isn’t like us is to be feared and separated, which is almost a sure fire way of ensuring that they harbour prejudices in the future. And in light of recent terrorist events, that kind of separation, ghettoisation, “us and them” mentality really isn’t helpful.

That said, if anyone does have any photos of Daleks falling down the stairs at Baker Street Station, they’d certainly cheer me up.

Zombies and Philosophy


I am the first to admit that I often think of the strangest things when I’m in the bath. Like how zombism works. We all know that if a zombie bites you, you then become a zombie; it’s a bit like vampirism in that respect, and I suppose the analysis I indulged in this morning will apply equally to that. I hadn’t thought of that at the time; for whatever reason I was more interested in zombies. Perhaps it was the sight of His Lordship half asleep that did it.

Anyway, what I was pondering was this. If you kill a zombie, and then eat the zombie (a) do you turn into a zombie and (b) is it cannibalism to eat a zombie?

Yes, my mind definitely goes off on tangents most other people steer well clear of. And having done a very brief straw poll, it seems that the answer to the first is “no” and the other is “probably not”. Although the reasoning for both was exceedingly convoluted and depended a bit on whether or not one watches The Walking Dead.

That said, this does raise an interesting and important philosophical question – just what makes us human? Why would it be obvious that a zombie (or a vampire, since we’re extending the analysis) isn’t really human? It seems that having died (as both zombies and vampires have to die for the changes to take effect) they lose the essential something that renders them human – and since cannibalism is like eating like, a human eating a zombie cannot be cannibalism.

As to whether or not eating a zombie will turn you into a zombie, it seems that the key element is in the saliva (unless you watch The Walking Dead, where a whole different virus applies) – so as long as you steer clear of the zombie’s saliva, you should be all right.

I’m wondering now if random questions like this might interest a younger generation in some of the key elements of philosophy. I know many philosophy professors have used The Matrix to illustrate concepts of reality and I suppose this is just another part of that. I’d be interested to hear what other people have to say on the subject. Meanwhile, I’ve been told to have showers for a while – until my brain settles down a bit…

Surviving Armageddon


I’ve been reading a fair bit of post-apocalyptic fiction lately. I’ve said before that I like a good disaster movie and a decent disaster novel is no exception. I think they stand as a testament to the power of the human spirit that no matter what kind of disaster is faced, there are always survivors – well, that and the fact that without at least a couple of survivors, the plots would be pretty thin.

The book I’m reading at the moment, Metro 2034 by Dmitry Glukhovsky, is set in the Moscow Metro twenty years after a disagreement between superpowers turned nuclear and annihilated – or mutated beyond recognition – anything above ground. It’s worth noting that the Russian Metro system doubled as a nuclear bunker, so it could be sealed off in the event of a nuclear attack. For a novel written in 2009, it’s got an alarmingly Cold War feel to it – let alone being utterly plausible in its reasoning.

Anyway, this got me thinking. How would humanity survive if the world really did end? Naturally, the answer would depend entirely on the kind of disaster that befalls the planet- I expect an asteroid strike would pretty much obliterate the very ground we walk on – but there are a few ideas that seem to recur more often than others.

During the 1950s and 1960s, unsurprisingly one of the most common backgrounds to apocalypse was a nuclear war. This surfaced again briefly during the 1980s before the collapse of the Berlin Wall caused the Cold War to start thawing. Some people – presumably the very rich or intellectually important – would emerge from their bunkers into a scorched wasteland and start to rebuild the society they had lost along idealistic lines. Inevitably, however, some people had would have survived the massive doses of radiation, nuclear winter and acid rain to cause trouble for the boffins and drama ensues.

A variation of this is an Armageddon caused or manipulated by aliens – John Wyndham was especially good at this, to the point where his novels were termed “cosy catastrophes” by Brian Aldiss. I can honestly say that they certainly weren’t stressful reads.

In later years, the trend for wiping out the human population turned towards disease, either through genetically modified viruses released by accident or design, or by a previously unknown or forgotten plague striking humanity. No disease being 100% fatal – although some come pretty close – there will always be survivors or people who are naturally immune (or just don’t catch it) – but will they be the same? Offshoots of this idea lead to vampires or zombies; indeed, this is exactly how World War Z starts, with Patient Zero being found in China and the zombie plague spreading exponentially. Society rapidly divides into the “infected” and the “clean” and the battle for survival commences.

Less common is the climate change disaster, although more writers are looking at the implications of this as a basis for a thumping good dystopia. One of the earliest that I can recall is JG Ballard’s The Drowned World, but in recent years the idea has been revisited by films like The Day After Tomorrow or the novels of Paolo Bacigalupi.

With climate change, there is always the argument that humanity may be able to adapt to a rising temperature and sea levels so some form of civilisation may continue. What it would look like is anyone’s guess, but it would exist. The drama comes from change that is sudden and far-reaching, not allowing humanity time to adjust.

You can add to this list everything from global power failure due to solar flares, the moon leaving its orbit (changing the tides and possibly the seasons) to fundamentalist Christianity turning out to be right and the godly all disappearing in the Rapture. While people can think of a global disaster to wipe out the populace, they can usually think of a way it might be survived if we put our minds to it.

Let’s just hope that these global disasters remain works of fiction, shall we?