Sunday, 1 June 2014

What to Watch Next: The Idiot's Lantern & Paradise Towers

A weird, supernatural force who constantly shouts "Hungry!" intimidates, then possesses its sanctioned authority figure, and starts making people disappear. The plots are about the same. Also some melodramatically delineated discourse about the generation gap, the Doctor using the local lingo against its self-appointed enforcers, and a lot of vintage '50s artefacts and Bakelite. Look at the decor in Tilda and Tabby' flat - it's a very Doctor Who mix of shiny skiffy things and bits out of costume dramas.

The Idiot's Lantern

Colour
"The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II"
If you don't care to spend eighty minutes on this, the link is to the actual crowning part. The full version is here - there was BBC coverage too, but that's black and white.

You should check out at least the start of the full version though, because the fade-in to "Jerusalem" from Shakespeare's "This sceptred isle" speech honestly is something quite special. Never mind that John of Gaunt's speech was a wee bit ironic in the original, what's more British than self-conscious irony?

The actual ceremony's relatively short - much of that running time is spent showing the processions to and from Westminster Abbey. You can see by the rain puddles that it's been pouring all day, though the rain doesn't show on '50s cameras (the production team left that out of "The Idiot's Lantern", perhaps from not wishing to soak the performers for several days during filming - well, that's the most charitable explanation possible.)

A couple of parts are genuinely memorable. The Latin word "Armills" seems ever so much more dignified than the "Bracelets of Sincerity and Wisdom", as the narrator solemnly refers to them, which can't help but make it sound as if the Queen is now Wonder Woman or something. And stunt flying-in-formation is always fun.

"Mt. Everest"
This BBC documentary sort of starts in the middle (the Mallory expeditions referenced fleetingly is a tale of tragic derring-do that deserves considerably better coverage, though you can look it up for yourself), but it gets the basic facts down. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made it to the top of the highest mountain in the world, 29 May 1953. There's a lot of contemporary footage, which is always brilliant.

Part five is where they talk about the coronation and the race to get out the news of the ascent out in time for the big day; there's also a counter-narrative about the excitement in India when the newspapers could report that one of their own had made it to the top...

And there's a quite touching anecdote about the Swiss climbing team. Just watch for it.

"Bakelite"
One of that early genre of unabashed advertising films, it's an entire half-hour given over to singing the praises of the Bakelite Corporation. I can't quite make up my mind if it's intentionally comedic or not, especially given the first few scenes. Happily, they drop the tedious "hurr hurr, I'm an amusing reporter who asks daft and obviously scripted questions" shtick fairly quickly in favour of just telling us all the entertaining things that can be done with a plastic made from phenol and formaldehyde.

Luckily for the Doctor, the molds that employed lead and asbestos in their creation don't seem to have been the same ones as the electrical casing that he's licking. Though maybe it wouldn't do him any harm.

"BT advert"
Maureen Lipman, this week's guest star, has done ever so many sitcoms along with her theatre work, as well as the grandmother is this long-running series of British Telecom adverts. Including this retro '50s one. Nearly seventy and still going strong, and haranguing Nigel Farage for taking umbrage with her commercials. Good on her.

(To some extent Lipman's imitating continuity announcer Sylvia Peters, who was at Alexandra Palace that day to take over coverage if the feed from Westminster failed; Peters talks about it a little here. Lipman's in good company - Elizabeth studied recordings of Sylvia Peters for her Christmas messages later on.)

"I Was There (At the Coronation)"
Young Tiger's contemporary calypso record. Possibly the single best tribute to Queen Elizabeth II, then or since.

Later in life he ended up working at...British Telecom, among other things, before returning to music in some. I can't find any records of the 2006 Electric Prom that was his last performance, but there's some archived pictures on the BBC website.

Paradise Towers

Black and white. There's a serious glam rock vibe to the TARDIS like that, isn't there? There might be a lot to be said for black and white versions of all the JN-T era stories...
"High Rise"
Trying to summarise a novel such as J. G. Ballard's "High Rise" is a bit silly: what one remembers is not the plot but the atmosphere, which starts with the hopes about a new housing development before slowly developing into a harrowing black comedy that escapes being a parable through its emphasis on concrete details - a useful storytelling technique that Stephen Wyatt makes full use of.

(Nor is it that far off some of the incidents that befell the inhabitants of idealistic housing projects. There's any amount of information out there concerning Pruitt-Igoe if you want details, to pick one fairly notorious example.)

So. A fan film that restricts itself to visually portraying the building's world by extracting the descriptions of its inhabitants straight from the text, set to odd electronic music, does the novel more justice than might be expected. Or you could just go read it yourself. Or watch "Paradise Towers", which for all the colour and silliness of Season 24 is a very sound story whose claim to having translated an SF novel by one of Britain's literary greats to Thatcher-era children's telly is surprisingly on the nose.

So Wyatt must have been thinking of someone like Arnold Schwezzanger to play Pex. Instead they got the inoffensive-looking Howard Cooke, who's quite decent at the part but doesn't look at all right. 

There isn't much in the way of similarities with Doctor Who that you can wring out of a movie where the protagonist barely ever talks, though, so then you wander off on a tangent and find the trailer for the 2011 version and start drawing out tenuous comparisons. More computer-effects trickery in the later version (check), a more sexualised hero (check), much more work done in the way of explaining the scenario to the audience in case they couldn't put it together themselves (check).

Though women apparently have a bit more to do in the later Conan feature, while the same can't possibly be said for the Doctor Who episodes (Kangs v. mum and faceless grandma; which do you think is more exciting?) That's not quite fair to Mark Gatiss, who was apparently working out issues with '50s homophobia in his original script, but still. For a story that's officially set around a woman officially becoming head of state, that aspect is essentially irrelevant to the plot and it could just as well have been any early major television event.

(Try to reimagine this as the backstory to "Day of the Moon" with Magpie selling colour tellies, use little girl River in place of Tommy, and both plots suddenly seem stronger and more interesting. Obviously it couldn't have happened, but it might have worked very nicely.)  

Rather fond though I am of Keff McCulloch (yes, not the most popular opinion), David Snell seems like an obvious choice for this particular story, and John Nathan-Turner's meddling is bewildering. Snell's style would have been perfect for music that initially sounds like the basic elevator music appropriate for such a building, but rewards attention with its unexpected artistic complexities.

More where that came from here and making an old chestnut sound faintly interesting here, and something more '80s-fashion here.


Obligatory shout-out to the most famous of Richard Brier's storied sitcom career, "Ever Decreasing Circles", in which he plays the slightly sad, self-righteous Martin. Co-star Penelope Wilton is his wife Ann (she does not introduce herself as being from anywhere in particular, sadly).

That being said, "Noah and Nelly", for which he did the narration, is many more times hilarious, and isn't even too incomprehensible if you're paying attention. Noah likes exploring, Nelly can knit anything in the world, and instead of walking into the Skylark two by two, the animals are all two-headed. Nice and simple. From there any number of plots follow.  

(This particular link is also a bit busted - sorry - but there's several episodes there to give you the general gist.)

"Dr Brighton and Mr Harding"
Stephen Wyatt is essentially a radio writer; his telly experience includes the DW story, some work on the Crossroads reboot (starring Freema Agyeman) that vanished in smoke, some random oddities, and yet more Casualty. Whereas his radio dramas are multitudinous and on the BBC all the time. So it was either more medical drama or a pleasingly different radio docudrama (well, it begins as one...) about irascible BBC star Gilbert Harding. Some kind soul's put together a better-than-the-Wiki-writeup here, if you want biographical details.

Really, though, no foreknowledge required. This story's brilliant, sad, and unexpected all at once. And - oh look - when you're done with that you can go watch Harding on "What's My Line" here. (Albeit there's something very odd about how they immediately get to the part where they know the chap's a government man who goes from door to door and then spent ages dithering around what sort of job that might be - and that "garden path" joke does sound awfully like a plant.)

But this brings us neatly back around to the start of "The Idiot's Lantern". Neat, innit?

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