Category Archives: Television

Art and artifice: ‘Edge of Darkness’ (1985/2010)

Edge of Darkness (2010)

Edge of Darkness  (1985)

They say that comparisons are invidious.    They also say that Hollywood can take a great storyline and bend, fold, spindle and mutilate it until it bears no resemblence to the original.  Both statements may well be true but in approaching  the 2010 Hollywood version of Troy Kennedy Martin’s ‘Edge of Darkness’ we should also bear in mind that Tinseltown has now and again managed to honour the spirit of an original  TV series whilst possibly adding a little gloss here and there.

Only last year, Kevin Anderson’s ‘State of Play’ showed that this was distinctly possible.  However,  it has to be said that for every ‘Naked Gun’ or ‘Traffic’ or ‘Twin Peaks: Fire walk with me’, there are a whole host of insipid ‘Charlie’s Angels’ or ‘Dragnet’ type catastrophes to contend with. 

Of course, the logic behind such transformations from small to large screen is inescapably commercial.  After all, you are tapping into an established fan-base and curiosity alone should dictate that you are therefore likely to pull in reasonable initial box office returns. 

In the case of this year’s ‘Edge of Darkness’ remake, you are also drawing on the considerable and justifiable critical approbation earned by the original 1985 BBC mini-series.  There is also an element of continuity inasmuch as New Zealand-born director Martin Campbell made the original ‘EoD’ whilst still a young whippersnapper and returns to it now as an established Hollywood force with 2 ‘Zorro’ and 2 well-received James Bond movies on his CV.

The original TV version of Edge of Darkness was made at a time when the social fabric of the UK was severely stretched.  The country was groaning under the yoke of  a Thatcher-led Tory government that had secured a huge majority in the wake of the perceived ‘victory’ of the Falklands War and Mrs T. was exploiting our lack of a written constitution to centralise power at the heart of her Whitehall web.  However, for every action there’s a reaction – Clive Ponting was leaking documents to the press, the Miner’s Strike pushed the State to (and sometimes beyond) its limits before coming to an inglorious conclusion and there were inner-city riots in most major English cities during the autumn of 1985.

The late Troy Kennedy Martin in 1985

Troy Kennedy Martin, the original screenwriter for Edge of Darkness,  said that he wrote it out of some very real fears about the state of mid-80′s Britain allied to a sense of irritation at the completely apolitical nature of BBC programming during this era.  He also said that he never expected to see it made.  However, the fact that the storyline tapped into a whole range of prevalent liberal neuroses – about the proliferation of nuclear technology (even pre-Chernobyl), about Reagan’s SDI ‘Star Wars’ initiative, about the increasingly secretive nature of the British government and about environmental issues to name just four – struck chords with sympathetic individuals within the BBC.

The gestation of ‘Edge of Darkness’ may have been far from straightforward and even once production was under way there were disputes between Campbell and Martin and a wholesale mutiny among the cast about Martin’s original ending where Craven is transformed into a tree.  Nonetheless, the BBC assembled a stellar cast and crew with Charles Kay, Joanne Whalley, Joe Don Baker, John Woodvine, Ian McNeice, Hugh Fraser and Zoe Wanamaker supporting the marvellous Bob Peck in the central role of Ronnie Craven.  Eric Clapton & Michael Kamen supplied the haunting soundtrack and producer Michael Wearing had also been centrally involved in another high-water mark for 80′s TV, Alan Bleasdale’s ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ , an extraordinary saga of Liverpudlian life during the Thatcher years.

Charles Kay as the shrewish but dangerous Pendleton shares his thoughts with Bob Peck’s Craven

Bob Peck actually said at one point that during production, there was a growing sense among the cast that they were involved in something really special and once ‘Edge of Darkness’ began its initial run on BBC2 in November 1985, the public seemed to agree.  Viewing figures were high and critical response almost universally positive, leading to a rapid re-run of the series in three double-episode chunks on BBC1 before the end of the year.  The series was to win six BAFTA awards the following year.

“I told her to stay away from that Val Kilmer” – Peck & Whalley looking relaxed on set

‘Edge of Darkness’  departed from the standard policier/thriller format in a number of ways, but perhaps the most notable was the blending of hard-edged realism with new age mysticism.  Initially, this is mostly personified by Craven’s daughter, Emma, but is then taken up by Craven himself and eventually by Joe Don Baker in what is almost a show-stealing turn as the maverick CIA operative, Darius Jedburgh. 

Emma is killed inside the opening half-hour of the first episode, but returns (both as the ‘ghost child’  and eventually as her adult self) to act as Craven’s ‘spirit guide’ , emerging at key moments to counsel, cajole and even scold her father as he attempts to shed his functional everyday persona and become an enlightened being.  Emma has of course been involved with the eco-terrorist group GAIA (echoing the work of James Lovelock with his ‘Gaia Hypothesis’  which sees Planet Earth as a single organic entity) and, had she not been shot by McCroon would almost certainly have died from radiation poisoning as a result of GAIA’s clandestine and illegal attempt to penetrate the Northmoor facility. 

Craven eventually begins to believe in GAIA’s philosophies and finds common cause with Jedburgh, who clearly pays lip service to the CIA’s Reaganite stance only  because it allows him a free rein to pursue his own agenda.  That agenda, as gradually becomes clear, is that Jedburgh is actually operating outside the system and has in fact become a highly moralistic crusader against the forces of the State and Commerce that are ranged against him.  His address to the assembled ‘top brass’ at Gleneagles about the ‘new age of plutonium lunacy’ and his depiction of Grogan as a ‘Teutonic knight’ shows that he has become the proverbial loose cannon as far as the power-that-be are concerned.   Even so, his depiction of Grogan taps into another mythical thread, this time about the Knights Templar who ‘guarded a special wisdom in the Temple of the Rock in Jerusalem.’  The following exchange between Craven and Jedburgh would suggest that the conventions of the standard ‘policier’ have been abandoned in favour of something rather more fanciful;

Ronald Craven: Why do you hate Grogan so much?
Darius Jedburgh: Because of who he is.
Ronald Craven: And who is he?
Darius Jedburgh: He’s part of the Dark Forces who would rule this planet.
Ronald Craven: You believe in all that stuff?
Darius Jedburgh: Yeah, sure.

Jedburgh makes his point about plutonium at Gleneagles

The mysticism that underlies so much of ‘Edge of Darkness’ is a product of Troy Kennedy Martin’s philosophies about television.  He wrote a polemical article in 1964 (‘Nats go home’) attacking documentary and narrative realism in televison and demanding a new vocabulary, punctutation etc that aimed to tell stories in visual terms and be prepared to take on new challenges.  New age mysticism and police thrillers do not necessarily make sympathetic bedfellows, but the characters in Martin’s script were so finely drawn that they were able to take this on board,  bypassing the rationalists and nay-sayers and reaching an audience who genuinely wanted to believe that the overwhelming hegemony of State and the Military/Industrial Complex could be resisted.  Ironically, at a time when we were all low on optimism, ‘Edge of Darkness’ hinted at the possibility of  better times ahead.

“Edge of Darkness embodies an avant-garde sensibility in a popular thriller, stretching the conventions without quite breaking them, and pushing on the boundaries of what popular television can do.”  (Tenpercent.wordpress.com.)

All of which brings us back to the 2010 remake of ‘Edge of Darkness’, again directed by Martin Campbell and with a new and fundamentally different script by William Monahan and Andrew Bovell.  Perhaps Campbell’s principal problem with this remake was that he was trying to tell the same story in a third of the time.  For this reason, the whole GAIA/mysticism subplot is ditched as are the elements of political chicanery where Bennett and Grogan play footsie with the British establishment.  Little time can be devoted to character development, particularly as Mel Gibson is on screen almost throughout and dominates proceedings in a way that Bob Peck’s Craven was never allowed to.

Of course, Hollywood has relocated the action to the USA – no surprise there.  Gibson’s Craven plays a seasoned Boston cop who loses his daughter much as in the BBC version.  From that point onwards the paths of the two productions diverge.  Peck’s ‘voyage of discovery’ becomes Gibson’s revenge mission – I lost track of how many times he pulled a gun on someone.  In this American ‘EoD‘ there is one  nice reversal with Darius Jedburgh  played by an Englishman (Ray Winstone).  Winstone is less jolly and more threatening in the role, but never has the scope to build his character beyond cameo status.  Also, frankly, the plot contrivance that has him suffering from a fatal illness is risible.

Not too subtle; Mel’s got his gun out – again…..

Gibson continues on his mission to avenge Emma, encountering bland corporate smoothie Danny Huston, who is light years less credible in the role of Bennett than Hugh Fraser was in the original.  There are no equivalents to Pendleton and Harcourt; indeed the US government’s only involvement is via Jedburgh, placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Northmoor crew.  One of the shocking elements about the original was to see the aftermath of the Gleneagles conference where all parties – Grogan, Bennett, Pendleton, Harcourt and the military – are seen hobnobbing over drinks whilst Craven and Jedburgh are hunted like vermin.  That kind of shock is avoided here ; after all it’s 2010 and it’s  Obama, not Reagan, in the White House.

So, what we are left with at the end of the 2010 remake is a fairly humdrum revenge thriller.  If you like Mel Gibson (personally, I’m indifferent) then you may be happy enough, but so much is lost in this abridged version.  The moments in the movie where Craven discovers that his daughter possesses not only a pistol but also a Geiger counter have only a fraction of the punch of the 1985 version. The dramatic scenes where Craven hacks into a Ministry of Defence computer to obtain a map of Northmoor and the story of Craven’s own expedition into Northmoor are missing – and sadly missed.

In terms of casting, no-one could ever have replaced Joe Don Baker as Jedburgh and the late Bob Peck’s mixture of dogged professionalism and nascent awareness would have been difficult for any actor to emulate.  There are clearly no American equivalents for Pendleton and Harcourt and the atmosphere of mid-80′s paranoia – the shadow of Thatcher and her ‘conviction’ politics, the spectre of Northern Ireland, the social tsunami of the Miner’s Strike – all are necessarily absent here.

I usually run the original version of ‘Edge of Darkness’ every couple of years just to remind myself of how grim a country this was to live in during the long attritional years of Thatcher’s misguided, misanthropic junta and remind myself how it has scarred this green and pleasant land.  In conclusion, I very much doubt that the remake can aspire to any equivalent delusions of profundity.  It does what Hollywood unfortunately does all too often; reducing the subtlest of narratives to so much popcorn mush.  File under ‘major disappointments’.

Rooney on everything…

A bit of truth-telling before I get going.  My loathing of Awards Ceremonies is right up there with my loathing of Neo-Nazis,the ‘Big Brother’ TV series and the music of Queen.  Every year, however, there is one exception to this rule and that is the Manchester United Player of the Year Awards, as broadcast live by MUTV into your very own living room.  Here for three hours or so, you can get to relish some re-runs of the great or not-so-great season just ending, embellished with inane interviews and the wit and wisdom of Brian McClair, United’s Academy Director (who is so dryly amusing that he should really have his own show)

All of this glitzy nonsense takes place in one of Old Trafford’s identikit Hospitality Suites with about 700 people in attendance.  Included are most of the players from United’s first team, Reserve and Under-18 squads and Awards are presented to the outstanding performers at each level, along with the award for the Goal of the Season, the Fans’ Player of the Year and the First Team Players’ Player of the Year.  Wives and partners are also in attendance but not that trainee WAG the U-18 team left back pulled at some dodgy club in Ancoats last Tuesday.  The whole event is emceed by Jim Rosenthal who is nowhere near as obsequious as he is on ITV and generally does a sound job of moving things along.

First up was the Academy Player of the Year award and I was delighted to see Will Keane win this.  He really is an oustanding prospect and should become a regular for the Reserves next year.  What sets him aside as a special player is his apparent ability to freeze time when the ball comes to him in the opposition penalty area.  He doesn’t flap, or snatch at chances but just calmly tucks them away with a minimum of fuss.  A true penalty box predator who has already played for England at U-17 level and for whom the future is looking increasingly bright.

Will Keane (on the right) with his twin brother,  Michael – also on United’s books 

Next up was the Reserve Player of the Year and that was won by Ritchie de Laet, the Belgian centre-back who joined Stoke from United’s feeder club Royal Antwerp but completely failed to set the Potteries on fire.  However, he’s reinvented himself at United and is developing into a tough central defender, having also played a few games at full-back for the first team.  As Reserve Team coach, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has had a brilliant first season – and got the biggest cheer of the night – winning both the Reserve League North and the National Play-Off Final against Villa.  In a squad which has untilised no less than 46 different players during the season, De Laet has been a standout performer.  I would expect to see both Keane and De Laet featuring in the first team on a regular basis in the years to come.

Ritchie De Laet – not at Stoke any more

Unfortunately, things got progressively less interesting once we got on to the First Team Awards.  Fair enough that Wayne Rooney’s splendid goal against Arsenal at the Emirates should win Goal of the Season and fairly predictable that he would win the Fans’ Award, but I was really hoping that the Players themselves would vote for Patrice Evra, who for my money, has had a magnificent season, playing in virtually every Premier League game.  Jim Rosenthal tried in vain to think of further questions to ask Rooney each time he came up to get another award, but it was pretty dismal stuff compared to the erudite McClair, who is cutting an increasingly Hemingwayesque figure with his deep tan and scruffy beard.  Rooney did raise a laugh when he suggested that it made a change for Ronaldo not to win everything, but that was as good as it got.  Still, I guess he’s not being paid for his dinner-party repartee……

Patrice Evra in full flow….

Watching ‘Mad Men’……………

……or no longer watching ‘Mad Men’, to be strictly accurate as Series 3 of the best thing on British TV has just come to a jaw-dropping finale, with the Draper marriage and Sterling Cooper Advertising both falling apart. 

I am considerably relieved to discover that there will be a Series 4, with the principals  from SCA now operating out of a hotel suite and Don Draper moving back into the city as his wife files for a quickie divorce.  The narrative possibilities for the future are considerable as the mid-60’s, Beatlemania, Vietnam. flower power and men walking on the moon are  imminent.  All are likely to form part of the constantly scrolling diorama of ‘current events’ that acts as a backdrop to the parish pump affairs of the Sterling Cooper crew and their significant others. 

Betsy & Don Draper….the dream is malfunctioning

‘Mad Men’  is the work of the same people who came up with ‘The Sopranos’ .  To be honest, I wasn’t a ‘Sopranos‘ aficionado – by the time the word reached me  about what I was missing, I had missed too much of it to make jumping aboard a real possibility.  Same with ‘The Wire’….

But ‘Mad Men’ struck a chord with me even before it started.  Given that advertising was one of the benchmarks of the 20th Century’s ‘mass media’, I could never quite understand how there had never been any notable movies or tv shows about it before.  The only ‘Mad Men’ I could remember from the movies were Robert Webber’s portrayal of a brash,but shallow Madison Avenue ad-man in Sydney Lumet’s 1957 adaptation of  the jury-room drama ‘Twelve Angry Men’  (“Let’s run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes!”) and Cary Grant’s  turn as the equally lightweight Roger Thornhill in Hitchcock’s ‘North by Northwest’ from 1959( “In the world of advertising, there’s no such thing as a lie. There’s only expedient exaggeration.” ) – and neither movie was actually about advertising at all.

Don Draper might look a bit like Webber and Grant with his sharp suits and saturnine good looks, but there is little that is shallow about him.  He is a dark and complex character and it’s sometimes possible to both admire and despise him within the same episode.  To all intents and purposes, Draper and his uptight blonde WASP-ish wife – plus three kids – are living the American dream out in Westchester County.  The intriguingly-named January Jones plays Betsy Draper with just the right amount of repressed  ‘preppy’ angst, but really starts to come into her own in Series 3.  Similarly, Don, who stalks Manhattan like a a feral Casanova in the first two series, is about to get his come-uppance from his wife, though not for the reasons that you might expect.  Series 3 is very much about the disintegration of the Draper marriage, whilst also following the increasingly byzantine goings-on at Sterling Cooper.  Having been snaffled up by a bigger (and British) fish in PPL, the busy boys & girls of the Sterling Cooper offices are about to find out that there are yet larger denizens of the deep.

Many people have remarked on how ‘well-dressed’ ‘Mad Men’ is.  The first series was notable for the fact that everyone seemed to be smoking, and pretty much all the time as well.  Now everyone talks about the fantastic clothes that are on show – particularly by the women characters.  The voluptuous Joanie, as played by Christina Hendricks,  is one of the clothes horses of the series and makes a welcome return to the fold at the end of Series 3.

Joanie knows best…..

Being ‘well-dressed’ is well and good, but the real strengths of ‘Mad Men’ are in the depth of the characterisation of its cast and the basis of that lies in its splendid scripts.  Quite simply, the quality of the writing in ‘Mad Men’ has just got better and better.  New viewers have about 6 months to catch up via the DVD Box Sets……

Watching ‘Cycling the Americas’

Just finished watching the third and final part of Mark Beaumont’s ‘Cycling the Americas’; the filmed (often by Mark himself) record of a 9-month journey along the Rockies/Andes chain from Alaska in the north to Ushuaia in the south.  As if the journey itself wasn’t enough, Beaumont, a 25-year old Scot bearing a disturbing resemblance to former United sharpshooter Ruud van Nistelrooy, also managed to build into his programme two 20,000 feet + climbs of the highest mountains in North America (Alaska’s Denali or Mt McKinley if you prefer) and  South America (Argentina’s Aconcagua). 

Mark Beaumont reaches the end of  his journey at Ushuaia in Patagonia

Mark Beaumont had already set a new record for cycling round the world and nowadays has become an adventurer-at-large.  Having secured the backing of the BBC for this project, Beaumont has also been busy seeking out commercial sponsorship from the likes of Orange, something that has not always played well with the cycling community at large, some of whom clearly see Beaumont as an opportunist and shameless self-publicist.  By way of an illustration, here’s a quote from the CTC Forum, an online discussion board for cyclists you can find at http://forum.ctc.org.uk

“…..Bottom line is that there are people who do things off their own bat, without thought or need of reward, sponsorship or fame, and there are certain people who without these rewards wouldn’t do these charity events or world records.
Eventually people decide for themselves who to give their respect to, but in an increasingly cynical world the number of people deserving this respect is sadly diminishing.
As for scooting around the world on a bike as quickly as possible with a large wedge of someone else’s dosh in my pocket and then calling it a world record……….OK its a world record but no big deal, athletically, spiritually or in terms of an adventure, just another tentacle of Corporate sponsorship…..”

Tempting to dismiss all that as just sour grapes and I certainly think there’s a whiff of that in there, but there’s also a grain of truth in there as well.  ‘Cycling the Americas’ was, as I mentioned largely filmed by Beaumont himself and whatever footage ended up on the cutting room floor (so to speak) what we have left is often as much about Mark and his moods as it is a travelogue of the fascinating landscapes through which he travelled.  I mean, yes, OK, we can imagine that it wasn’t a barrel of laughs cycling into a headwind through the Atacama Desert for day after day.  If it had been easy then he wouldn’t have been doing it and we vicarious travel junkies wouldn’t have been watching.  Even so, there were probably a few too many sequences featuring his agonised progress up hill and down dale and not enough about the countries through which he passed.  A military coup in Honduras is dismissed in a few sentences, no real explanation is offered as to why he had to take a ship from Panama to Ecuador, detours to chilli farms, bullfights and observatories seem random – and Bill Paterson’s background narration is often high on melodrama but low on information

Of course, some of this is due to the restrictions placed on Beaumont by the BBC.  A 9-month journey is somehow compressed into 3 x 1-hour programmes, which is clearly ridiculous, but perhaps the quality of the self-filmed footage wasn’t up to any more than that..or maybe it was just more and yet more agonised pedalling through mountains and deserts.

Mark Beaumont brooding in the Atacama desert…I think he’s brooding anyway…

Having followed Mark Beaumont’s progress from the very start via the BBC website, Facebook and Flickr, what was clearly an epic journey was not reflected in the resultant films – which were a tad disappointing if I’m going to be honest.  Maybe he will do better with a book, though not if it’s based on the transcripts of the films – and not if it’s as inward -looking. 

It’s understandable that endurance cyclists are going to be focussed on the drama of their own situation, the state of their bikes and bodies, the roads and the weather.  That is why this project would probably have been better if it had been covered, filmed and narrated by a film-maker, rather than by a cyclist.  However, with BBC budgets as squashed as they are nowadays, such a project would never have been made unless someone from ‘EastEnders’ or ‘Strictly Come Dancing‘ had been on the bike.  What price ‘Celebrity Tandems  Go to Vladivostok’ hosted by Ant & Dec?

Charlie Gillett, 1942-2010

It’s generally those in the spotlight who get the headlines when they pass on from this life, but today we need to stop and pay tribute to one who laboured long and diligently behind the scenes to some extent;  the peerless Charlie Gillett, who has died after a long illness. 

I only met Charlie once back in the late 1970’s during the period when Dire Straits – thanks to Charlie’s ‘sponsorship’ – were starting their journey from obscure London pub rockers to global rock megastars.  He was extremely affable and I recall having a lively discussion in a London pub with him about South African popular music during which he dropped dozens of names that I couldn’t have hoped to remember but felt too awkward to ask him to write them down.

Apart from Dire Straits, Charlie was also responsible for bringing artists like Lene Lovich and Paul Hardcastle to our notice, but it was his relentless championing of world music which will probably be his true legacy.  In the end, Charlie was actually getting paid for compiling anthologies of World Music  – surely a dream job for anyone like me  who has spent much of their life putting together compilation tapes and (latterly) cd’s for mates.

Charlie Gillett; a man and his collection…..

Charlie was one of those writer/poet/impresario/presenter/journalist types like Joe Boyd or Robin Denselow who have been round the block a few times and who have seen the music business from a multitude of different angles.  In a way, he was a product of the 60’s and there are precious few people with such knowledge or wisdom or gravitas or humour left to us. 

My last real sighting of Charlie was last year when I sat down to watch the ‘Glastonbury Fayre’ movie (I wrote about it on this blog – see 16 Nov 2009) on a DVD donated by a friend.  They had lifted their old VHS copy from tape to disc and had done so from an old – possibly late 1980’s- Channel 4 broadcast of the movie, hosted by Charlie and Vivien Goldman.  In those days, Charlie had yet to be afflicted by his lengthy illness and still looked pretty perky.  His humorous  introduction to the movie was full of knowing,  impish fun, underpinned as ever by a bedrock of solid information.  He obviously preferred radio to TV, but he was good on the box, having apparently been headhunted to present ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ on more than one occasion, but always turning down the chance to be the next Bob Harris or the previous Annie Nightingale.  Our loss, but he was happy doing what he was doing on radio, though only for metropolitan audiences in the last 20 years or so.

They should put a statue up somewhere…..vaya con dios, Charlie.  We shall not see his like too often in the future.

The Trainers are not what they seem……

Now I am far too old to have been a part of the whole ‘trainer revolution’ of the 80’s and 90’s and….ongoing?  I’m one of those benighted old gits who think that trainers were something you put on if you were going to engage in some kind of physical exercise rather than something you lived in and which defined your personality.  I know, I know….there’s me then the dinosaurs, then darkness…..go figure.

Anyway, for some reason it has come to my attention that well-known globalisation experts Nike have this year issued a new ‘trainer’ based on the ‘Twin Peaks’ TV series.   Seriously…picture below…

 Note the blue owl on the side of the shoe…..apparently these trainers are not what they seem.  And inside, though you can’t obviously see it here, the insole is that black & white zig-zag pattern from the floor of the Black Lodge.

Thankfully, I don’t have to describe all the features verbally as there’s an excellent  and rather droll video review  with relevant clips from the series on YouTube – here’s the link:     

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9s1KH_GbyBI

My question is….WHY?   Why, some 20 years after the original TV series was aired have a global corporation like Nike brought out a shoe like this?   There must be a reason, but I cannot figure it – any ideas out there?

The shoes are about £70, which I would imagine is about par for a big clunky trainer like this.  I won’t be investing in a pair, but I would certainly like to know who, within the labyrinthine fastness of Fortress Nike, green-lighted this project – and why! 

As Leo Johnson would no doubt observe:  “New shoes!”

KITV4 Honolulu and the tsunami that never showed up….

“They didn’t think much to the ocean
The waves, they was fiddlin’ and small
There was no wrecks… nobody drownded
‘Fact, nothing to laugh at, at all.”

(Marriott Edgar – ‘The Lion & Young Albert’)

The internet never ceases to amaze me in terms of the way it shrinks our planet,  making yesterday’s exotica seem like tomorrow’s commonplaces, though this, I think,  kills the romance of travel and turns everything into an excursion.  My mate Ade’s eldest is now in Laos and communicating via Facebook as though she was in Leicester.  I was talking to someone the other day about the thrill of ‘Poste Restante’ mail pick-ups, where you’d arrive at some shabby backwater town in the wilds of Whereverland, turn up at the ‘Poste Restante’ desk at the local Post Office and discover one or maybe more letters from home.  There were no cellphones and calls from local landlines were insanely expensive and technically dodgy.  You really felt cut off from your friends and family – OK, so it wasn’t as edgy as Lewis & Clark traversing America to find the Pacific coast, but getting hold of those letters felt like a real treasure trove even though they were inevitably full of parish pump affairs and news of sprained ankles and cricket matches, of  maiden aunts and the British rain in the soft summer afternoons…..

Not for the Facebook kids, who are uploading their photos from internet caffs from here to Mandalay so that you know what they’ve been up to the night before even before their hangover wears off the following day.  Reassuring in these days of Somalian pirates and terrorist lunatics, but it does somehow diminish the romance of it all.

Look out, there’s a senior Superintendent about……

Anyway, I read about the Chilean earthquake on the BBC website just three hours after it had happened and after digesting the fact that the death toll seemed amazingly low,  my next thought was of a potential tsunami.  I saw a show on TV here a few years back where some guy went out to one of the westernmost islands in the Canary Islands archipelago – one of the non-touristy ones – where, due to a geological fault line, half of the island is on the brink of breaking off and dropping into the Atlantic, thereby setting off massive tsunamis.  As there is no land between this island and the eastern seaboard of the USA, the presenter was painting a rather ghoulish picture of cities from Miami to Boston being washed away by a series of 250-foot high waves.

Anyway, it seemed to me that the Chilean earthquake could set off a similar pattern of waves spreading outwards across the Pacific.  I soon discovered that Hawaii was only 15 hours away and that there was no intervening land mass to diminish the waves.  A real-life blockbuster began to take shape in my head – I could almost see the skyscrapers collapsing like dominoes into the boiling surf, the ships tossed like empty boxes, the people engulfed like ants in a flood….what a movie this would be.  I had Kevin Costner pegged for the hard-bitten geologist who tries to warn the islanders to take to the hills, with Michelle Rodriguez from ‘Avatar’ as his pouting succulent…. anyway, I digress.

A gratuitous shot of Michelle Rodriguez, who has nothing to do with this story.

To my delight I discovered the website for KITV4 of Honolulu, an ABC affiliate, which was running a live feed from their rolling news coverage of how Hawaii was gearing up for a potential watery Armagedddon still speeding across the Pacific towards them.  For hours, this noble band of journalists – about 4 studio anchors and maybe 6 ‘roving’ reporters kept all the balls in the air, repeating the Tsunami Warning that required evacuation of some of the lowland areas of Oahu and the outer islands, reporting on the good-natured way that the local populace was dealing with all this and trying to make sense of some of the scientific gobbledygook that the experts from the ‘Pacific Institute for Something Terribly Important to do with the Ocean’ were spouting.  Apparently, so we were told, the bays were at a greater risk than the open coastline because of ‘resonance issues’.  OK, fella, so my expensive tropical paradise lodge at Hilo Bay is about to be turned into matchwood by the Pacific, so could you at least try to explain why ‘resonance’ is such an issue?  The scientists, all in loud floral Hawaiian shirts, all looking like members of an unsuccessful Loggins and Messina tribute band,  were all uniformly hopeless in front of the TV cameras, and they were all very careful not to make any statements that would come back and bite them in the ass – phrases like ‘We are confident that….’ or ‘I think we can now say with some certainty…’  were as rare as hen’s teeth.

The TV station people were a mix of indigenous Hawaiians and ‘off-islanders’ and they were trying to project a strong belief in the ability of the population to maintain their cool and do the right thing.  The subtext for them was that there was a community here with the necessary skills to pull Hawaii through any forthcoming crisis.  Inevitably, there were moments where the pace flagged and we were treated to a revolving travelogue from some of Honolulu’s CCTV cameras – well, those close to the coast anyway. and though the horizon was duly scanned, it all seemed totally blameless.  Let’s face it; it was a gorgeous day, cloudless and with temperatures in the low 80’s – and yet the beaches were largely deserted apart from the odd refusenik who just wouldn’t be moved by the police, the media or anyone else.

The names were great, too, in a kind of  ‘Bama-lama-a wop-bam-boom-shang-a-lang’  kind of way.  All the journalistic gravitas these journalists had was somehow punctured when they were introduced as ‘Mahialeohea’ or something similar – and all the local information they gave out all sounded made up.  ‘Kahialeva Bay and Amalapeya Avenue are closed, as is the Rahoriponeya Expressway and the Wahikiwonna Marina.  Just brought back memories of that Spike Jones version of  the ‘Hawaiian War Chant’….

Anyway, the Beardy Loggins & Messina Boys were back on having no doubt mellowed out with a couple of big fat ones full of home-grown and they were confidently predicting that the New Riders of the Purple Sage were going to make a big comeback this year.  Oh, and they also said that the first waves would reach south-east facing (i.e. Chile-facing) Hilo Bay at about 9 pm last night (UK time).  The anchors picked up on this and we started to get some weird pronunciations – Chile became ‘Chill-ay’   (emphasis on the ‘ay’) – making it sound unbearably camp and Hawaii became ‘Har- vy-ee’  (emphasis on the ‘vy’) as you would expect a German to pronounce it.  Maybe they’d just been on air too long…..

An artists’ impression of a Beardy Hawaiian Scientist….

So, I tuned back in for the big Hollywood finale about 8:45.  By now the Beardy Boys were red-eyed and babbling about 6-7  foot waves; not a cataclysm but capable of serious destruction. But for once, nature refused to co-operate.  9 pm came and went and the waves rolled in at a deserted Waikiki Beach, but no bigger than usual.  Most of what activity there was seemed to be happening in one of the rivers – maybe the Wailuku – that flows into Hilo Bay.  Water here seemed to be surging in and out, with large-scale disturbance of silt and sediment and big rises & falls in the water levels within the river.

The Beardy Boys were still being exasive – ‘Does what has – or hasn’t – happened here means that the Japanese can relax?’ asked one reporter  ‘Well, I think I’d have to leave that to the Japanese to decide….’ came the usual shifty answer.  Nothing like Richard Dreyfus in ‘Jaws‘…now there was a beardy scientist who said what he thought and screw the consequences.  The Beardy Boys have clearly had a few lectures on accountability.  As for the TV folks, they did a sterling job and thankfully failed to observe that staple of US television, where, in a discussion, the speaker looks into the camera as though they are addressing their comments to you rather than to a colleague.  So well done KITV4 for keeping us going on the Tsunami that Never Was for upwards of 12 hours….a sterling effort…

The enduring impact of T.E.Lawrence…..

The Legacy of Lawrence of Arabia’ (presented by Rory Stewart in 2 parts, BBC 2010)

With Lawrence in Arabia’ by Lowell Thomas (1924)

The BBC have just broadcast a two-part documentary film hosted by Rory Stewart, a highly intelligent 35-year old ex Etonian already co-opted by the Tories to stand for a safe Lakeland/Borders constituency in the forthcoming election.  Stewart is certainly a colourful character; his USP appears to be to trek on foot (perhaps he ‘yomps’?)around his potential constituency, much of which is wild moorland.  This will no doubt play well among the isolated rural communities still recovering from the winter floods.

 Prior to circumnavigating the Lake District, Stewart was based in Kabul.  Known locally as Lawrence of Belgravia, his role in Kabul was to try to preserve what is left of the city’s old buildings for posterity.  Heaven knows what the Afghans made of this tousle-haired boy-man with his cut glass accent and rumpled suits – frequently abandoned in favour of native garb.  Before taking on this role in Kabul, Stewart had already walked across Afghanistan in the footsteps of Babur, one of the Mogul emperors, so trekking round Cumbria clearly didn’t present too many problems.

Rory Stewart – ‘Lawrence of Belgravia’? 

And there’s more on his overcrowded CV – until 2004, Stewart worked for the Foreign Office and was acting Governor of an Iraqi province in the wake of the invasion.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of his heroes is T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, who pretty much wrote the book (literally & figuratively) on Brits going native in the Middle East.  The fact that it is Stewart rather than some dull but worthy Oxford don who has been selected to present this show is not without significance.  As the picture above suggests, Stewart, too, is not blind to the potential propaganda gains of ‘going native’ and he  has no doubt acquired a whiff of glamour by association as we are invited to see him as a 21st century reincarnation of Lawrence.  A surefire vote-winner up in the Borders, no doubt.

Given his involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stewart’s  fascination for Lawrence is hardly to be wondered at.  Many Englishmen over the years have bought into the whole Lawrence saga and Stewart will not be the last to do so.

However, his particular interest in Lawrence arises out of yet another Allied invasion of the Middle East which, like the one in which Lawrence was embroiled, has brought highly dubious results to the area in political terms.  Hardly surprising therefore that those compelled to spend time out in the Gulf are studying Lawrence’s writings as never before – indeed, as Stewart himself points out, these days, US soldiers are fully expected to read some, if not all, of Lawrence’s ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ (or perhaps the abridged version: ‘Revolt in the Desert’) .

Myself, I am currently reading Lowell Thomas’ ‘With Lawrence in Arabia’, published in 1924 as a companion piece to his narrated ‘son et lumiére’ piece, ‘With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia’ with which Thomas toured the world and which featured incense burners and exotic dancers cavorting before murals of the Pyramids as well as filmed footage shot in Arabia and Syria by Thomas and his cameraman, Harry Chase. 

 Lawrence with Lowell Thomas

In 1914, as war engulfed Western Europe, Thomas was a reporter based in Chicago.  He was deputed by President Woodrow Wilson as one of a number of journalists whose official task was to ‘compile a history of the conflict’, but whose real mission was to find stories in the European theatre of war that would whip up enthusiasm for the War in the USA.  Thomas’ plan was to use the exciting new medium of film to record the story of the War.  However, the US Government balked at his budget and he instead recruited the financial support of a consortium of Chicago businessmen (they owed him a favour or two, but that’s another story) to finance his trip – it is to them that ‘With Lawrence in Arabia’ is dedicated.

 Thomas found little in Flanders to thrill his American readers & viewers, so he travelled on into Italy, where he first heard about Lawrence and his exploits in the desert from an Australian naval officer.  Thomas swiftly gained accreditation as a war journalist and travelled to Jerusalem where he first met up with Lawrence.

 In a series of skilful newsreels and written pieces, Thomas set about creating the romantic image of the white-robed adventurer who was leading the wild Bedouin tribesmen of the trackless wastes of Arabia in an extraordinary revolt against the moribund Turkish Empire.  American (and British) audiences bought into this amazing saga with huge gusto, propelling their country towards war.

 ‘The uncrowned King of Arabia’

Of course, it wasn’t quite that straightforward.  In reality, Lawrence was having to pay out huge quantities of gold to the tribesmen in order to dissuade them from returning home to their desert camps.  Their view of the conflict was purely tribal; only Lawrence and the Royal Family represented by Emir Faisal appeared to have a real belief in an independent Arabia governed by Faisal and his descendents.

 Elsewhere, the French and the British were already quietly planning to carve up the post-war  Middle East along colonial lines with the French assuming control of Northern Iraq and what we now refer to as Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, whilst the British would take control of Arabia, Palestine and Mesopotamia as well as retaining their foothold in Egypt.

 Those principally responsible for this were a French bureaucrat called Picot and a minor Tory MP and Yorkshire baronet, Sir Mark Sykes.  Sykes was (somewhat laughably) considered to be an expert on Middle Eastern affairs and, as Rory Stewart points out, had published several books on the Middle East, including one where it’s possible to find the following index entry; ‘Arab, character of – see Treachery’

 Lawrence was well aware of these clandestine moves and was clearly enough of a romantic to have a greater loyalty to Feisal than to the British authorities.  He felt that if he could get the ‘Arab Army’, as it was now called, into Damascus before the Allies got there, then Faisal could claim the symbolic secular capital of the Arab world for the Arabs and the Allies would have to respect that claim.

 He succeeded as well, though in the end it was a futile gesture.  Allenby just waited for the putative ‘Arab Government’ of Damascus to fragment into a series of tribal squabbles before graciously accepting Faisal’s desperate plea to assume control of the city.  Lawrence left Damascus for the UK the following day and never returned to the desert.

 However triumphant his successes against the Turks, Lawrence was to find that his next opponents – his own government and associated allies like the French – were to be far more obdurate.  Lawrence attended the Versailles Peace Conference as a special envoy to Emir Faisal who was there to press his claims for an independent Arab state even though he was worldly enough to understand that the British and French were unlikely to co-operate. 

 

 Emir Faisal (front centre) at the Versailles Conference with his staff.  Lawrence is to his immediate right.

Has there ever been a Peace Conference more guaranteed to set down markers for multiple future conflicts? Versailles must surely stand as a watchword for the kind of bumbling incompetence and vainglorious, short-sighted bureaucratic stupidity which has subsequently fuelled the comic creations of everyone from the Goons to Monty Python, except there was little humour for those who struggled to cope with the complete lack of understanding displayed by Sykes, Picot and their cohorts.

 The maps of Europe and the Middle East were redrawn to suit the imperial pretensions of the victorious powers without any regard to the feelings of the vanquished or, apparently, some of the Allies.  After all, the Bedouin had fought at Allenby’s side to free themselves of one imperial infestation, only to immediately be saddled with another.  Lawrence had promised all who fought alongside him an Arabia for the Arabs, but thanks to the bureaucrats, the maps of the Middle East were redrawn by men who had no conception of the tribal boundaries or loyalties that Lawrence had wrestled with as he pushed the Arab Revolt northwards.  Lawrence & Faisal struggled in vain to overcome the tides of red ink that were carving the Middle East into parcels for either the French or the British to administer as they saw fit.

 In the end, Faisal the pragmatist took the Mesopotamian olive branch the British offered him, becoming King of Iraq in 1921.  Lawrence the dreamer, the idealist, the romantic – he attempted to retreat from public life altogether, trying to lose  himself in academia or in the anonymity of services life just as Lowell Thomas was turning him into one of the 20th Century’s first media-constructed celebrities.  However, unlike Valentino, Chaplin and Lillian Gish, Lawrence was by no means always  a willing accomplice to his own public persona. 

 

 Lawrence initially retreated into the academic world in order to write ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’, but then enlisted in the fledgling RAF in 1922 under an assumed name.  His cover was soon blown and he then enlisted in the Tank Corps where he spent 2 unhappy years before returning to the RAF in 1925.  The publication of ‘Revolt in the Desert’ in 1926 brought a further surge in public interest and Lawrence was posted to a series of obscure RAF bases in modern-day Pakistan….and so the unhappy tale continues until Lawrence finally left active service in early 1935.   

 After the War came the peace, but not for Lawrence.  Like many before and since he found that war had defined his life whether he wanted it to or not. He died in a motorcycle crash near his Dorset home just a few weeks after becoming a civilian for good.  He was 46 years old.

 Amongst the many papers Lawrence left behind was a map now housed in London’s Imperial War Museum showing his vision for a post-war Middle East.  Significantly, the colonial influence of all the Great Powers – especially the French- is diminished.  Lawrence had also envisaged a separate homeland for the Armenians and British influence extending along the Tigris/Euphrates valleys.  It’s tempting to suggest that Lawrence’s vision for the post-war Middle East would have proven less of a disaster than the Sykes/Picot version, but of course, second-guessing history can be a dangerous game.

 Lawrence’s map of the Middle East as he hoped it might be after the War

My fascination with Lawrence is in itself, of course, a media-fuelled vision.  The main impact was created by David Lean’s magnificent ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (1962) where Peter O’Toole’s tormented adventurer storms unforgettably across the screen , re-igniting the whole Lawrence saga for another generation. Even Lowell Thomas gets in on the act as ‘Jackson Bentley’ in the film, played to good effect by Arthur Kennedy.  Had it not been for this film, Lawrence might just have been seen as another British eccentric like Sir Richard Burton. 

 What might Burton’s reputation be today if Lean had made a film of his extraordinary life?  One of the first ‘infidels’ to visit Mecca, discovering Lake Tanganyika and one of the sources of the Nile…it’s every bit as compelling as Lawrence’s exploits…..

Sir Richard Burton 

And then of course, there’s Indiana Jones; surely Steven Spielberg’s hybrid blend of Humphrey Bogart and T.E. Lawrence…..

 Meanwhile, Rory Stewart wanders the desert pensively or discusses Allied policy with Iraqi shopkeepers whilst reflecting on how right Lawrence was to try to prevent xenophobic pen-pushers like Sykes getting their hands on the keys to the map room. 

 Too late, Rory; that die was cast before you and I were even born…..