Back in the UK freezer…..

“Flew in from Colombo Beach with Emirates                                                     Ev’rything was snowy white
Nearly froze my ass off waiting for a cab                                                                                  Why is UK weather shite?”

(Thumbs up to Macca for this one!)

Over the years I will admit to having some difficult entries and re-entries whilst travelling; arriving in New York City on a scorching, humid day in July was difficult, flying back into  freezing Manchester drizzle after a November break in sunny Tenerife was no fun,  but my recent arrival back in Birmingham after two weeks largely spent in 30+ degree Sri Lankan heat was the worst ever.  Stepped out of the terminal building in the warmest clothes I could muster and the wind just cut through me like a knife.  Hideous, and it only got worse later as I battled my way through driving snow to get some emergency supplies from the local Asda.  After that, the snow kept drifting imperceptibly down until it amounted to a considerable fall.  And there was I thinking that we would be coming back to gentle spring breezes and daffodils……oh well.

The Sri Lankan trip was quite an ambitious one, inasmuch as it featured a travelling entourage of 7 people – the Princess, the Partner and 4 friends.  The first week was spent doing a whistlestop tour of some of the island’s ‘must-sees’, so escaping from (frankly)  dull Colombo ASAP and off to Dambulla, then up to Kandy, further up to the tea plantations and cod-British eccentricities of Nuwara Eliya, then the long train journey down from temperate tea-clad slopes of the highlands to the banana and coconut trees of the coastal plain.

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‘Drunken’ pines at Peradeniya Botanical Gardens near Kandy – something in the soil makes them grow at these weird angles

Finally, off to the sybaritic glories of scruffy Unawatuna on the south-western coast, all bohemian shabby chic and sub-surfing atmosphere for a week of glorious indolence on the beach.  Finally, I could lay down my Tour Leader’s baton, I thought, but even then there pockets of unwanted excitement.

We stayed in a careworn but atmospheric guesthouse cum hotel right on the tideline, with the waves ending their long journey northwards from Antarctica just 10 yards from our bedroom doors.  However, there were other unwanted guests who frequent the beach zone and found their way into the ground floor rooms; the Princess seemed to get the worst of this – just 30 minutes after our arrival,  she discovered a large black scorpion in her room and also got a visit from its baby brother (or sister) later in the week.  There were also occasional large cockroaches, though thankfully not too many of them as my mate Adrian is phobic about them.  Those of us located in the first floor rooms had none of this and just smugly sat out on our non-infested balconies enjoying the view and the sea breezes.

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Sunrise at Unawatuna Bay from my scorpion-free balcony

Actually, the unwanted wildlife was really a minor issue and even I know enough about scorpions to know that the larger black ones can only deliver a sting equivalent to a British wasp.  Apparently, lethally-poisonous Indian red scorpions are now routinely being found in the northern Sri Lankan city of Jaffna,  having somehow made it across Adam’s Bridge,  so trouble may be just around the corner.

And so our week passed with lazy days in the sun and the occasional trip into Galle, just 10 minutes by one of the onomatapoeically-named tuk-tuks.  On one baking hot Galle day, Adrian and I strolled into the cricket ground – rebuilt since I was here in 2005;  it got wiped out by the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami – and spent 4 slow hours in the shade watching an under-19 college game where the ball was turning at right-angles and we saw only two overs of non-spin bowling.

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A slow day at Galle Cricket Ground

The batting side accumulated runs with glacial slowness – just 60 off 40 overs – and the fastest mover on the ground was a 3-foot monitor lizard that strolled casually across the outfield on his afternoon constitutional.

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Galle is a slightly schizophrenic town; the heat, traffic, commerce and noise of the New Town is all South Asia whilst  on the other side of the cricket stadium, the Dutch Fort area behind its ramparts is a total contrast.   No tsunami damage here worth the mention as the 40-foot high walls of the Fort largely kept the sea out.  Lots of chilled cafés and arty shops with an unsurprisingly European feel to it given that most of the buildings here were put up by either the Portuguese, who were followed by the Dutch, who were followed by the Brits.  It reminds me a bit of the backstreets of Seville, a little bit of Essaouira in Morocco and (inevitably) of Cochin in Kerala.

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In the Fort area of Galle

My 60th birthday was marked by the hotel staff with flowers all over the bed and the breakfast table.  I marked the day with regular dips in the ocean, a slow walk along Unawatuna’s Beach Road to do a bit of shopping – fake (but convincing) Ray-Bans for about a fiver,  nice scarf for Lyndsey the Greatest Barmaid in the world at my local, stopping off for a wonderful Peach Lassi at the Juice Bar on the corner where the stereo was blaring out Dylan’s ‘Shelter from the Storm’.  Then, in the evening, we went up to the other end of the bay and (for me) a sentimental return to Sun ‘n’ Sea, where my Dad and I stayed in 2005.  I was heartened to see that although the hotel’s founder and guiding light, Mrs Pereira, is gone (she died in 2006), her family have continued to run the place in very much the same spirit and any changes are superficial.

We had a nice meal at Sun’ n’ Sea, but didn’t linger as one of my birthday ‘treats’ involved a 5 am start the next (and final) day to go whale watching.  We were driven to Mirissa, further along the south coast and were out on the ocean waves very early.  The  waters here are like the M6 for whales,  who commute between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea on a regular basis.  The guys on our boat told us that they had been out the previous day and had seen only one whale in 6 hours, however having taken us about 10 miles south and east of Mirissa, we quickly saw several Blue Whales – about 5 in all, in multiple sightings – so everyone was pretty happy with that.

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Thar she blows; along with parasitic remora fish along for the ride

I’m not going to go all ‘Jon Anderson’ about the mystical nature of my encounter with the largest creature ever to have lived on this planet, but having only previously seen a whale (or part of one) on a plate in a restaurant in Honningsvåg in northern Norway, it was definitely preferable to see one ‘on the hoof’, so to speak.

Less than 24 hours later, I was plunged back into the freezing nightmare of the UK’s late winter cold snap…..the horror, the horror….and what an unpleasant contrast.  This kind of weather definitely makes me feel my age…..

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When I return I’ll be ancient…..

Off to Sri Lanka shortly to…. ahem …’celebrate’ my 60th birthday.

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Back at the end of the month…..

Man versus Food

What we are eating and – additionally – how much of it we are eating is big news right now.

It’s certainly big news in this house where,  with just 2 weeks to go before I swan off to celebrate my 60th birthday in Sri Lanka,  I decided that unless I wished to be mistaken for Moby Dick washed up on a tropical beach, then losing a few of my excess pounds might be a good idea.  No problem, help yourself – I have plenty of those excess pounds to spare, unfortunately.

I know that, to some extent, the predilection for stacking on weight is about one’s genetic make-up.  Both my parents tended to be slightly or moderately overweight for most of their adult lives and to some extent this was about their body shape, which inclined toward short and stocky rather than svelte and slim.  Not surprisingly, I have picked up these genetic markers and have  probably been slowly piling on the pounds since my early 40’s.

My folks were also ‘foodies’ – they approached mealtimes with considerable gusto well into their seventies.  My Mum was a pretty accomplished cook of the traditional English type and, unfortunately, derived far too much of her self-esteem from what she put on the table.  In later years, with money a bit more plentiful, they took to eating out a bit more often and would frequently regale us with tales of meals they had recently eaten whilst on holiday in Cornwall or France,  even whilst in the midst of consuming a meal in this house.

Not that this offended me, you understand; both of my folks were always very complimentary about my cooking, which – to be honest – has become lazier and more uninspired as the years pass.  However, this ability to enthuse endlessly about meals already eaten was not lost on the Princess who grew up – perhaps unsurprisingly – to undergo an ‘eating disorder’ phase  in her mid-teens.  The two issues may not be connected, but I suspect that they are….

Giving up smoking a while back also accelerated this whole process; after all we all know about the compulsive oral aspects of sticking a cigarette in your mouth and once you stop that, food tends to take over and on go the pounds.

The other issue is probably lifestyle.  I do a reasonable amount of walking as a non-driver – that’s walking, not hiking – but have nonetheless became too sedentary for anyone’s comfort, least of all my own.

So, all in all, not a great recipe (so to speak) and I have slowly ballooned up to Zeppelin proportions over the last 12 months.  Finally, the penny dropped and I realised that the ‘I’ve quit smoking and now I’m fat but this will pass‘  mentality was just another example of false consciousness.

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The real situation is that gaining weight is not a corollary of stopping smoking but is, in fact, another manifestation of the same thing – in other words, my erstwhile and lifelong tendency to eat, drink, smoke and ingest whatever I wanted to,  in whatever quantity suited me,  without having to particularly cope with any adverse consequences.  That ship, like the one containing my carefree youth, is now hull down over the horizon and vanishing fast.  Bottom line: I just can’t live like that any more if I want to live much longer at all.

So, how to deal with this new and unpalatable set of circumstances?  Well, if I tell you that I live with a partner who is obsessed with her appearance in general and her weight in particular, you can probably guess that there was no shortage of advice on offer.  Trouble is, though, I’m not a Weight Watchers joiner or a calorie counting obsessive – it just won’t happen, no matter how many photocopied articles from mid-market tabloids shrieking about ‘New Year, New You!’ or ‘Try our new Miracle Diet!’ are left lying around for me to read.  Just not going to happen, I’m afraid.

Monitored by the Princess, I initially tried to be more judicious and make healthier choices about what I was eating and not to snack between meals.  I also tried to build in a 30-minute walk every day, but it just wasn’t working.  I was still taking on board too many calories for my lifestyle and my weight was such that even a short walk was playing havoc with my knees and lower back.  It got to the point where even getting dressed in the morning was a major effort and with a short walk to the local High Street now often leaving me wrecked, I could see the horizons of my world closing in.  This must be how it happens, I thought; before you know it, you’re housebound and can only get somewhere in a cab or when somebody offers you a lift.

So, about a week ago, I just decided on a radical solution which so far seems to be producing promising results.  I have simply stopped eating during the day and now just eat an evening meal.  I drink juice and coffee during the day and have been known to scarf down the odd tomato as I pass the bowl, but no solids really.It’s hard, of course; not as hard as quitting smoking but still pretty difficult.  The rewards after a week seem to be that I simply feel ‘better’ in a vague and undefined manner,  walking around is easier,  my clothes don’t  pinch so much and I have actually lost the best part of a stone.  My aim is to take to the beaches of Sri Lanka in a fortnight or so as a moderately walrus-sized obstacle rather than a genuine shipping hazard.

Strangely, all of this personal angst and re-assessment is going on at a time when the Government is telling us that we are in the midst of an obesity epidemic.  We also seem to be eating quite a lot of horse-meat, apparently, which is blowing a lot of people’s ‘My Little Pony‘ dreams out of the water.  I seem to recall eating minced horse-meat a couple of times in Sweden in the 70’s and my recollection is that it was like a slightly more intensely flavoured version of ground beef.  Back then, I think the Swedes also sold a version of ‘biltong’ – wind-dried horse-meat in chewable strips.  Yum!

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I think my appreciation of life’s ironies only grows more substantial as I grow older (and larger).  So it is that I find myself more than a little amused by the fact that it is at this very juncture of my life that I have discovered the joys of  a TV show called ‘Man versus Food’, which is shown on cable over here and is a great favourite with the Princess and many of her friends.  The name of the programme  kind of encapsulates my current predicament whilst the content is the kind of stuff which will – for better or worse – always be beyond me.

The leading light of ‘MvF’ was Adam Richman, a genial actor from  Brooklyn in his late 30’s who between 2008 and 2010 travelled around the USA, seeking out local culinary specialities and the diners, bars, cafés and restaurants that serve them.  These places often come up with ludicrous ‘challenges’ that speak directly to the competitive drive of Americans.  Typically,  people are required to consume insane quantities of the local ‘delicacy’, often within a time limit.  The reward  for those attempting (and succeeding in) these challenges is often nothing more than getting their meal free or getting their name on a ‘Wall of Fame’ in the restaurant or perhaps a t-shirt (usually XXXL)  that promotes the establishment in question.

In a typical episode, Adam and the ‘MvF’ crew will descend on an American city having previously researched the local delicacies.  Adam will visit a couple of places to try out said local delicacies before the main event, where he visits a place specialising in one of these deranged food challenges.  He starts in the kitchen to chat with the owner/proprietor or manager, finding out how the local speciality is cooked/assembled.  He then goes out front and takes on one of these ‘challenges’ in front of a crowd of hooting shrieking locals who cheer him on like they were at a baseball game.

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Adam Richman attacks another ludicrous plateful in ‘Man vs Food’

For example, the show I watched most recently saw Adam up in Portland, Maine, trying out one of Maine’s famous Lobster Shacks before moving on to a burger joint that specialised in a ziggurat of a burger with 8 beef patties, foie gras and grilled pork belly slices, bookended by a bun and pinned through with a long wooden skewer to keep it all together.  Surprisingly, that was not the (ahem) ‘Maine Event’.    That turned out to be a giant 6-pound plateful of frittata with potatoes, onions, pepperoni, bacon, broccoli and cheese, all bound together by 4 eggs.  It’s a  bit of a blur now, but I seem to recall that the challenge was to take this lot down in 20 minutes or less; then again, I could be mistaken, but it’s hardly important.  The main point of the show is that we get to gawp at the colossal burgers, steaks and plates of barbecue served up to ordinary Americans on a regular basis.  All of this is mediated by our engaging host Adam, who as he says in the show’s intro is ‘an ordinary guy with a serious appetite’.  Certainly, he can boast a high success rate in terms of defeating these challenges and can certainly put away huge quantities of food.

On the other hand, my experience of the USA, whilst limited to New York City should have taught me that what goes on in ‘Man versus Food’ is hardly unique to that show.  I can remember one of my first ‘eating out’ experiences at an Italian restaurant in The Bronx where I ordered an Escalope Milanese –  generally a thin escalope of veal, dipped in a mixture of seasoned breadcrumbs and egg, then swiftly pan-fried.  My dish arrived in a rectangular cast-iron dish,  about 18 inches long, 6 inches wide and 4 inches deep.  The majority of it was filled with a mixture of fried Mediterranean vegetables (tomatoes, capsicums, onions, aubergine etc), on top of which were perched 3 colossal Veal Escalopes, each one  beaten to a thin, irregular disc about the size of a standard dinner plate.  Just in case I was peckish, I got a huge pot of garlicky sautéd potatoes as well.  In Europe, this lot would have fed 3 hungry adults but this was mine, all mine.  It was indeed delicious, but my pleasure was diminished by the fact that I could only eat about half of what was on offer – and had to push myself to the limit in order to achieve that much.  This was hardly an unusual experience in New York and among the locals, there does seem to be the expectation that if you go out to eat, the ‘calibre’ of your meal is, to a considerable  extent, determined by the size of the portions.

Thankfully, living here,  I don’t really have to suffer the temptation of  American Diner food, though the ubiquitous Birmingham Curries are something I’m having to limit.    Of course, there will be plenty of curry in Sri Lanka as well, but just as much fresh fruit.

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Sri Lankan Crab Curry

However, even once I return from my 60th birthday expedition, I am going to need to be judicious about what and how much I’m eating and that is something that I’ll simply have to put up with from now on.  Just another of the delights of growing older…

The Ugly Duckling that never made the cut…..

For the last few years, I have ‘adopted’ a DVD box set of a TV drama series to see me through the long, dark winter evenings and this winter has been no different.

I’d set the bar pretty high for this, because in previous years I had chosen  (in 2010-2011) ‘The Sopranos‘ and (in 2011-2012) ‘The Wire’.  This winter’s choice was a little bit out of left field – a friend offered to lend me DVD Box of the first 4 series of ‘Fringe’, a rather obscure little sci-fi series made by some of the people involved in ‘Lost’  including J J Abrams, who also directed the most recent ‘Star Trek‘ movie and has now (apparently) been lined up to direct the first movie in the next phase of  George Lucas’ ongoing ‘Star Wars’ saga.

‘Fringe‘ was a series about which I knew little except that it had been chugging along on Sky TV in this country without ever threatening to break out into mainstream success.  From a distance, it looked more like one of those odd items that used to crop up on the SciFi channel – occasional pilots for potential series that never quite happened.  Yet for all this, as I began with Series 1 of ‘Fringe’, Sky were starting in on the fifth and final series of the show, so in the end the ‘Fringe’ saga would amount to 100 episodes.  I felt that, under the circumstances, that something good must be going on here, so although I’d been warned that the early shows were ‘a bit lame’ (to quote a friend), there was surely something here worth persevering with.  Armed with this conviction, I entered the murky worlds of ‘Fringe’.

Fringe’I soon discovered was shorthand for the ‘Fringe Division’ –  a small and marginalised sub-section of the FBI whose raison d’etre was to investigate all that weird stuff which Mulder & Scully left behind when ‘The X Files’ shuffled off to TV Nostalgia Heaven about 10 years ago.

Like ‘The X Files’, ‘Fringe‘ could boast a core group of dedicated individuals who would stick with the show throughout its five-series run from 2008 to 2012.  The inner quartet were headed by FBI Agent Olivia Dunham, played by Australian actress Anna Torv and she was aided and abetted by ex-hippie and (slightly) mad scientist Walter Bishop,  played by another Aussie, John Noble, probably best known for his portrayal of the deeply unpleasant and ultimately deranged Denethor, Steward of Gondor, in Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings‘.  Also in attendance were Bishop’s son, Peter (Joshua Jackson) and Lab Assistant /Earth Mother/ FBI Agent Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole).  In addition,  there were also regular guest turns from Lance Reddick, Blair Brown, Kirk Acevedo, Seth Gabel and – occasionally – even a craggy and rather infirm-looking Leonard Nimoy.

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L-R, Jasika Nicole, John Noble, Anna Torv & Joshua Jackson

So, after some initial manoeuvring, the Fringe Team set up shop in Walter Bishop’s abandoned lab at Harvard.  Obviously, Harvard isn’t subject to the same financial strictures as British universities; the idea that this huge space could remain mothballed for so many years with all Walter’s toys left intact defies any kind of logic.  In the UK, the lab would have either been converted and modernised or rented off as a Starbuck’s franchise.  But this is ‘Fringe’ and things aren’t always what they might seem.

So Season 1 chugs along after a promising pilot episode where a flight from Hamburg to Boston is taken over by some flesh-eating virus – or was it a giant mutant porcupine?  I cannot recall now, but I felt that it was worth persisting with the series – after all, it was that or multiple episodes of ‘Roller-Skating Celebrity Pets on Ice ‘ and suchlike.  It soon fell into a pattern – the Team get a call to go and check out some random piece of weirdness (mainly located in the northeastern USA), they resolve it and then move on to the next case.

Basically,  over the first couple of seasons,  ‘Fringe’   diligently set about fleshing out the back-stories of the leading characters, so we learn that there’s potentially (surprise, surprise) a big romance on the cards for Agent Dunham and Peter Bishop, and we also learn that Peter’s  father, Walter, before being locked up in a mental hospital for 17 years, had a fondness for blotter acid, psychedelic rock music and morally indefensible scientific experiments which would have brought a cheery smile to the face of Josef Mengele.  Even so, we are supposed to accept him now as a loveable eccentric who shows genuine remorse for his past misdeeds whilst acting as the Fringe team’s resident scientific guru, meanwhile  indulging a fatal weakness for all manner of American junk food – everything from strawberry milkshakes to red licorice sticks.

I suppose it helps if you are able to accept John Noble’s bumbling Worzel Gummidge persona and his apparent desire to atone for having experimented on and permanently damaged the lives of a group of helpless children with dangerous pharmaceuticals,  not to mention potentially destroying the universe back in his arrogant younger days.

However, it doesn’t really fly, I’m afraid.  Noble simply isn’t an accomplished enough actor to engender much audience sympathy or give his character the emotional depth that might make us think twice about him.   His passive/aggressive behaviour towards his son and his use of emotional blackmail to make himself the centre of attention soon render his performances a fairly constant irritant and it’s perhaps no coincidence that the ‘Fringe‘ episodes that work best are the ones where he barely features.  In fact, aside from son Peter, it’s difficult to fathom out why everyone seems so fond of him.

As for our romantic leads, this, too, is a romance made in hell, because  the ongoing love-fest between Messrs Torv and Jackson manages to whip up an emotional whirlwind that would have trouble blowing over a house of cards.

Miss Torv may have the regulation long blonde tresses and a trim enough figure, but she simply has no sex appeal whatsoever.  She plays a workaholic who radiates a kind of bovine lugubriousness that renders  her occasional romantic encounters about as steamy as a damp dishcloth.  Meanwhile,  Joshua Jackson puts me in mind of the former Swedish international footballer Tomas Brolin, who was once described by (I think) Mark Radcliffe as being like a ‘pretty pig’.   Jackson has the  porcine to go with Anna Torv’s bovine, which leaves only the diminutive Jasika Nicole, whose Agent Farnsworth gets to play the ‘straight (wo)man’ to all the others and does so very sweetly and effectively.  In fact, most of the supporting cast regulars do a great job by and large, but the lack of magnetism among the principals makes their job doubly difficult.

Donald A. Wollheim once wrote that science fiction was more important for the ideas it generated than it was for the depth of the characterisation of its heroes, so how does ‘Fringe’ fare on that level?  Last year I watched a much shorter series called ‘Terra Nova’ which featured an even more obnoxious cast but could boast some fairly nifty special effects.  It didn’t really help that much but it made the series marginally less grim to watch.

With that in mind, it has to be said that some of the pseudo-science dished up in ‘Fringe’ is quite interesting, if occasionally risible.  Best of all is the ‘parallel universe’ plot which runs for much of Seasons 2-4 before being summarily dumped at the end of Season 4.  The alternative Earth – well, we only see Boston and New York, really – has some interesting inversions and variations.  Anna Torv puts in her best performances as her  punky alter ego from ‘the other side’ and Walter Bishop is both sinister and megalomaniacal as the Secretary of Defence (with a ‘s’).

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The two Olivias – neurotic workaholic or punky go-getter?

In some ways, ‘Fringe‘ always struggled to build an audience and in many ways, it was remarkable that it survived for 100 episodes.  Clearly, towards the end of Season 4, the decision was made to run a curtailed Season 5 and wrap up the whole saga.  This final Season has only just ended and I’m still not sure whether to admire the boldness of the producers for the radical plot changes they made for that final 13 episodes.

Basically and as briefly as possible, a constant and (largely) unexplained feature of the whole saga was the role of the so-called ‘Observers’, a recurring group of bald and pasty-faced men with a weakness for dark suits and fedora hats who seem to crop up at important junctures of the plot throughout the first 4 Seasons.  These characters seem largely benign and neutral -hence the name they are given – but from Episode 19 of Season 4 (‘Letters of Transit’) , we are forced to view them in a different light.  They are – it seems – from our future and have developed the ability to travel through time but having been passive and benign for so long, from 2015 onwards, they become malign and aggressive, attempting to take over the whole world and imposing a totalitarian government highly reminiscent of Orwell’s ‘1984’  where they use mind control and torture  to keep the population cowed and submissive.

Having spent such a long time setting up the whole parallel universe storyline, it’s amazing to witness how it took the producers only one subsequent episode (Episode 20 – Season 4 – ‘Worlds Apart‘ ) to shut all that down and pave the way for the radical Season 5.  Such, it seems, are the effects of poor ratings…

Season 5’s thirteen episodes are set in the future – 2036 to be precise – and generally  feature only the central quartet – the two Bishops plus Agents Dunham and Farnsworth.  Blair Brown and Lance Reddick (as their older selves) appear far less often and the Parallel Earth makes only a fleeting appearance in the penultimate episode.  The series is notable for the appearance of Peter & Olivia’s grown-up daughter Henrietta, a member of the Resistance who are trying to stop the Observers from taking over and ruining the planet.  The Bishops plus Agents Dunham and Farnsworth have by 2036 been suspended in amber (don’t ask) for over 20 years until the resourceful Henrietta busts them out.  They are then free to resume their battle to defeat the Observers .

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Season 5 – Georgina Haig (L) joins the merry throng as Henrietta

At times, frankly, the plot – not for the first time – totters on the brink of disastrous absurdity, but having slogged my way through the general doldrums and occasional highlights of Seasons 1-4, I was in no mood to abandon ‘Fringe’ now.  With an almost grim determination I hung in there until the inevitable soft-sell conclusion where Walter Bishop finally got to redeem himself by saving the universe he once almost destroyed and Peter & Olivia were restored to a past where they got their lives and their daughter back.

As a series, ‘Fringe’ is like the Ugly Duckling that never became a swan.  It just never took off, possibly because the plot was initially too predictable, but then became too wild for mainstream viewers.   Possibly it was because of the leaden acting and the lack of chemistry between some of the principals.  I can’t help but wonder whether the ‘Fringe‘ fan-base felt cheated by the events of the final season or not.  I find it hard to imagine how anyone who sat down in 2008 to watch Season 1, Episode 1 and followed it week by week and Season by Season must have felt when all of that careful plot development effectively got thrown out of the window over the last 13 episodes.  Of course, you could argue that Fringe’ is just TV fluff and that we’re not meant to take it seriously, but the way in which the show promoted and projected itself would very much suggest otherwise.

Next winter, I think I may need to choose my Box set a little more carefully…

Another day in paradise…..

In about 6 weeks or so, I will be returning to Sri Lanka with family & friends to celebrate (if that’s the correct verb) my 60th birthday.  It will be my second visit to the island, having travelled there about 7 and a half years ago in company with my Dad.

That trip was ‘sponsored’ by the National Lottery as part of the celebrations around the 60th Anniversary of the end of World War II.  Veterans like my Dad were given the opportunity to travel back (with an accomplice, namely myself)  to places where they had fought or been stationed.  In his case, he could have gone to any number of locations; anywhere from Nova Scotia to Australia and most places inbetween.

He chose Sri Lanka because it was somewhere he had long dreamed of returning to and could never persuade my Mother to join him; she would never have coped with the heat and humidity.   Anyway, whilst sailors tend to spend most of their time on board ship if not actually at sea,  Sri Lanka was a place where Dad got to spend a good deal of time ashore in 1944-5.

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HMS Victorious getting up steam in 1944

This was because his ship, HMS Victorious, was sent in to the dockyards at Colombo for a refit in 1944.  Such a procedure necessitated getting all the crew off the ship to allow the work to be carried out.  The crew were dispersed to all areas of the island on a variety of ‘shore duties’ – many of them spurious.  Dad spent his first three nights in Ceylon (as he knew it) sleeping rough in the grandstand at Colombo Racecourse before being sent off to an RAF base at Kolutara.   He said that he spent a good deal of his time ashore playing cricket and also driving trucks up to Kandy,  in the mountains.

Subsequently, he ended up standing guard on a newly-created air base  in the centre of the island at Minneriya where the main runway had to be cleared of elephants before aircraft could take off or land.  With this in mind, a guard post – a flimsy construction of woven banana leaves on a wooden frame – was erected at the end of the main runway and manned 24/7.

On night patrol  with 3 other ‘ratings’,  my Dad (as a Petty Officer) was issued with a Navy pistol and sent down to this guard post towards sunset.  Once it got dark, the jungle – largely somnolent during the daytime heat – seemed to come noisily to life, with all manner of shrieks, squawks and howls reducing the tough Navy patrol to a set of gibbering wrecks.  For them, the worst moment arrived as a huge (but probably harmless) black snake slithered through the banana leaf ‘wall’ and into the hut.  In an atmosphere of considerable hysteria, Dad took aim at the snake and fired, at which point the mortally injured animal thrashed wildly backwards and forwards for about 10 minutes  – increasing hysteria levels – before it finally expired.  The English abroad, eh?

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Fleet Air Arm crew ‘on guard’ at Minneriya in 1944

Dad and I called in at the former RAF Minneriya, which is now a Sri Lankan Air Force base  (SLAF  Hingurakgoda), but despite considerable efforts, we were unable to persuade the Sri Lankan military hotshots to let us in for a look around.  We obviously looked like Tamil Tiger desperadoes….

It was interesting to observe the change in the terrain around the base.  British servicemen had literally hacked the site out of dense jungle in 1944, but by 2005, the whole area was an open landscape, much of it agricultural.  Dad told me that during his time there, British fighter-bombers with extra fuel tanks were flying out of Minneriya to bomb Japanese fortifications in Burma.  One such group had a much-decorated South African squadron leader whose plane clipped the treetops upon take-off.  His plane came down in the jungle several hundred yards away and it took so long for  a rescue party to hack their way through to the wreckage, ants had consumed more than half of his mortal remains by the time the rescuers arrived.  Looking around what now seems to be a fairly benign landscape, this is hard to believe.

RAAF Dakota at Minneriya Airport, Ceylon, 02-11-1952.

RAF Minneriya in 1952 – by now most of the jungle was gone

Eventually, Dad rejoined the Victorious in Colombo, circumnavigating the southern tip of the island before docking at Trincomalee,  once described by Horatio Nelson as the finest natural harbour in the world.  After some time based at what is now the SLAF base at China Bay (one of Trinco’s many ‘creeks’ and inlets), Dad was off again, firstly to Sumatra, then the Philippines and some uncomfortably close encounters with Japanese ‘kamikaze‘ planes and finally  to Australia.  On VJ Day, as most of his celebrating shipmates were heading ashore to Sydney’s Circular Quay, Dad was banged up in the Victorious‘ sick-bay with chronic malaria and never did make it ashore in Sydney; he was transferred to a UK-bound ship and that was his War over with.

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Allied warships in Trincomalee harbour in 1944

In 2005, he and I spent about a month travelling around Sri Lanka, but things were rendered somewhat more difficult than normal by two ‘extraneous’ factors.  Firstly, the appalling Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 had happened only a few months before our visit and some areas we wanted to visit were still struggling to get back on their feet.  Secondly, the ongoing struggle between the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE (Tamil Tiger) rebels was still in full flow, so some parts of the country were ‘no-go areas’.

From Colombo, we headed north-eastwards to Dambulla and the ruined cities of Central Sri Lanka.  We also visited the airbase at Minneriya before heading for the east coast at Trincomalee.  There were plenty of police and military checkpoints along the road, but when they saw our white faces they simply waved us through.  We stayed at the excellent Welcombe Hotel on Orr’s Hill, well away from the centre of the town and gated as well.  I think that Dad & I were the only bona fide tourists in residence, because most of the other guests at the hotel were doctors, engineers, aid workers and so on,  representing a host of charitable concerns – Oxfam, Aid Australia, Médecins Sans Frontières and suchlike.

The east coast of Sri Lanka took the full brunt of the 2004 tsunami.  The Welcombe’s manager, Mr Da Silva, told me of how the headlands at the mouth of Trincomalee harbour had protected the town from the worst of the waves, whilst 10 miles north at Nilaveli, the devastation was colossal as waves swept inland for up to 2 miles, carrying massive amounts of debris with them.  South of Trinco towards Batticaloa and Arugam Bay it was a similar story.  Dad & I travelled north out of Trinco along the Nilaveli Road.  We made our first stop at the Trincomalee War Cemetery where Dad’s closest shipmate, Bill Allen is buried.

In the midst of a global conflict, Bill Allen met the most stupid and unnecessary of deaths.  Whilst stationed at  Trincomalee and awaiting further orders, HMS Victorious kept its crew occupied with various ‘busywork’ – such as my Dad’s regular cricket matches.  Being an aircraft carrier, the Victorious also used this ‘downtime’ to train its pilots and crew on the Barracuda dive-bombers which had replaced the old-style biplanes like the Alabacore and the Swordfish.   Bill was part of the crew of a Barracuda from the Victorious which collided with another plane in exercises off Trincomalee.  Dad returned to the ship after his cricket match to discover that Bill was missing, presumed dead and later the same day, the Victorious left to carry out bombing raids on Japanese-held refineries in Sumatra.IMG_0123As a consequence, for the next 50-odd years, Dad assumed that Bill’s body had never been found, but it was and he was buried – along with the Barracuda’s pilot – in the Trinco War Cemetery.  We visited the grave and left flowers – I would imagine we were Bill’s first ever visitors.  I tried to establish contact with his family in Leicester, but to no effect.

Further along the road towards Nilaveli, the littoral zone was strewn with tsunami debris and ugly clumps of wood and metal huts  that had sprung up as emergency housing for those affected by the tsunami.  Many of these had corrugated metal roofs and with the midday sun beating down, they must have been extremely uncomfortable inside.  However, we were told by some of the Aid Workers at the Welcombe Hotel that not everyone was interested in rebuilding communities.  Some people, provided with cash to build or buy new homes, apparently invested the cash in huge 4-wheel drive vehicles instead; it was noticeable how many of these huge 4×4’s could be seen on the roads around Trinco.

At Nilaveli itself, the formerly deluxe Beach Hotel had just been completely flattened by the waves, but work was already under way to rebuild it.  The beach itself was tranquillity personified – an empty, 30-metre wide stretch of clean white sand stretching in either direction for as far as the eye could see.  Only a tsunami -uprooted clump of mangrove root, lurking in the surf like a sea monster,  broke the calm.

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Later, I bought a conch shell  from a stall outside Koneswaram,  on cliffs near Trincomalee and  one of the major Hindu temples of eastern Sri Lanka.  For a thing of such perfect, radiant beauty, it seemed ludicrously cheap – about £1.50.  Koneswaram – as is so often the case in sub-continental temples, palaces and fortresses – was overrun by predatory monkeys who were fed on dried fruit and pieces of mango by dutiful pilgrims.  But not by snotty Brits….

We headed southwestwards again and found our way via Kandy and Nuwara Eliya to Unawatuna, south of Galle on another tsunami-battered piece of coastline.  Strictly speaking, Galle faces west, but the tsunami wrapped itself around the coastline and crashed into the city, with 15 feet of water in the streets of the New Town and the cricket ground famously inundated.  Our hotel at Unawatuna was similarly swamped, with the 70 years -plus manager, Mrs Pereira, swept from her breakfast table and out into the street.  She probably survived because she clung on to a shard of wood that turned out to be a splinter from the hotel’s front door.

Undeterred, she worked like a demon to refurbish the place and  had pretty much done that by the time that Dad and I arrived to spend an idyllic week there.  Next door, however, was a small handicraft shop and this had been wrecked by the waves with all the shop’s stock washed out to sea and the building trashed.  The owner’s wife had a small infant clinging to her and this was known locally as the Tsunami Baby because the Mother was heavily pregnant when the waves came, was likewise washed out into the street, but somehow survived to give birth just 2 days later.  Almost out of pity, Dad bought a tsunami-damaged conch from the shopkeeper and now they both sit in my living room; I don’t know which one I prefer.

In a few weeks I’ll be returning to Unawatuna, though not to the same hotel.  Mrs Pereira only outlived the tsunami by a couple of years and like my Dad she has gone, now.  Her family continues to run the hotel, but it’s a lot more expensive than it was back in 2005;  there again, most of them are.  Had Mrs P. still been around, I suspect I would have felt obliged to stay there, but that’s no longer an issue, so we will be staying at the north end of the beach where it will be a little noisier and funkier in the evenings and where the surf culture that now dominates Unawatuna is a bit more obvious.  Not great for my 80-something Dad, but a bit more like it given the crew I’m travelling with.

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Unawatuna Beach, looking south.

Unawatuna itself took a pounding from the tsunami and when I was last there, there were clear signs of this.  On the road into Galle, there was one bungalow in particular, built facing the sea, which looked as though it had giant holes punched through the middle of it – which indeed was effectively the case.  There were still piles of wreckage lying around and great gaps in the lines of palm trees facing the beach.  In Galle itself, the cricket ground – just across the road from the beach – was still being rebuilt.  This time, hopefully, we’ll be able to catch a game.

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Tsunami damage at Unawatuna,2005

All of which lengthy preamble brings me to The Impossible(2012) – Beware spoilers if you haven’t seen it yet……, which is a new movie about the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, made by Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona and based on the true story of the Belon family, who were caught up in the tsunami at a Thai resort and separated from each other before being reunited.

Sadly, the producers of the movie were unable to make the sums add up when it came to a Spanish-language version of the story, so the Belons became the Bennetts, who,  though based in Japan,  are quite clearly English.  Naomi Watts and Ewen McGregor play the well-to-do parents of three young sons who are escaping the cold of Tokyo for a Christmas break at a Thai resort which is all infinity pools and unctuous staff.

They have barely jumped into the pool before the tsunami strikes – some seriously impressive effects here – and the whole resort complex is annihilated before you can say ‘Tiger  Beer, please.’

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Watts and her teenage son, Lucas, are swept inland by the waves, bouncing off cars, trees and pieces of furniture along the way.  Watts suffers a really gory injury to her leg and is clearly struggling.  Lucas (brilliantly played by Tom Holland) soon realises that he will need to rise to the occasion if they are to survive.

There is absolutely no doubt that this movie is a genuine tear-jerker.  Quite early in proceedings, Lucas has to help his ailing Mother climb a tree to an imagined point of safety and for both this is a visceral moment.  She needs to be strong for her son, but she is weak, bleeding and in pain.  He is unused to dealing with life in the raw and it suddenly dawns on him that he will need to find reserves of strength that he has never used before and take charge of a situation where he would normally defer to a parent if they are to survive.  He even finds the strength to rescue a far younger boy of about 6 and alert some local villagers who are searching for survivors, then ensure that his Mother is taken to the local hospital.

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Naomi Watts and Tom Holland in ‘The Impossible’

Back at the coast, Ewen McGregor has rescued the 2 younger boys but has no idea of the whereabouts of Holland & Watts.  He decides that he must send the boys to safety in the hills on their own whilst he searches for his wife and eldest son.  The middle son, Thomas, played by Samuel Joslin carefully (and comically) explains to his Dad that he cannot abandon him to look after his younger brother because he’s never had to look after anyone before.

Meanwhile at the hospital, Lucas is anxious about his Mother’s worsening condition but can do little except wait.  Eventually, at her urging, he goes off to help other anxious Westerners to locate their families, but returns to find that his Mother has herself disappeared – and no-one knows where.  Eventually, the family are reunited but not before we experience some genuine apprehension about the likelihood of Watts’ survival.

There is no great secret to the appeal of ‘The Impossible’.  It’s a story about the resourcefulness of human beings and their capacity for compassion.  It’s a story about the strength of the human spirit and the powerlessness we feel when we are cast adrift in desperate circumstances.  Not that the happy ending experienced by the Belon/Bennett clan is necessarily typical.  At the hospital where much of the action takes place, the corridors and grounds are filled with anxious parents,  lovers and siblings who are desperately searching for loved ones who may be gone forever.  Even as the Bennetts are reunited, we see the grief and shock of many others playing out in the background.

And that is to say nothing of the local people who – unlike the Bennetts – cannot hop on to a jet and fly away to air-conditioned safety in Singapore.  Around the Indian Ocean, 283,000 people lost their lives and whole communities were decimated by this event.  Even so, I think it is futile to criticise Bayona for choosing to tell the story of a western family – it is for Thai and Sri Lankan film-makers and novelists and painters to interpret the events of 26/12/04 for their own audiences.  Even so, they will surely be able to identify with the depiction of events in ‘The Impossible’, if only because the story it tells is one that speaks in a language everyone can understand.

As for me, I return to Sri Lanka in the sure and certain knowledge that I will be meeting more local people who will want to tell me what happened to them on that fateful day – and those are the most vivid and evocative stories of all.

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Hooked to the silver screen # 3 – Master of Disaster

Least said, soonest mended here.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘The Master’ has been subject to widespread acclaim, with ‘The Guardian’ voting it their ‘Film of the Year’.

Having enjoyed  Anderson’s 2007 film  ‘There will be blood’ and having previously seen and admired the work of both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, I had high hopes for this movie.  It seems to deal with the relationship between a demobbed drifter (Phoenix) and a figure (Hoffman) based loosely on L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Scientology cult.

Despite seemingly having little or nothing in common, these two characters are bonded somehow and the movie wanders inconclusively through the period during which they are getting to know one another.  Hoffman in particular is tremendous – full of blather and bombast, only one step removed from the ‘snake oil salesmen’ of the American West.

Despite his tour de force performance, ‘The Master‘ meanders ineffectually along for 143 minutes before simply petering out.  I have read numerous analyses of what each character symbolises or how this is really a love story and none of what I’ve read  makes much sense to me.

It’s not that I am the kind of person who must always have their narratives served up in a linear and/or naturalistic manner, but I’m afraid ‘The Master’ – Hoffman’s performance aside – just doesn’t cut the mustard for me.

‘The Master‘ strikes me as a film that is weighed down by its own portentousness and gravitas.  “Look at me”, it seems to be saying, ” I am a very important movie about very profound issues.”  For me, it was just a waste of an evening.

JOAQUIN PHOENIX and PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN star in THE MASTER

Joaquin Phoenix & Philip Seymour Hoffman in ‘The Master’

Hooked to the silver screen # 2 – 50 years of 007

Please note that for anyone intending to watch ‘Skyfall’, there are some serious spoilers herein…….

Being a fan of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien movies is one thing, but being a compulsive James Bond watcher is an obsession on a whole different level.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first Bond film – ‘Dr No’ – and this year’s Bond movie, ‘Skyfall’ is the 25th film to be  based on the Bond character, though the last of Ian Fleming’s original Bond stories was published in 1966 and the last movie to have any vague connection with the Fleming era was 1983’s ‘Octopussy’. 

Leaving aside the 1967  spoof version of ‘Casino Royale’, 007 has been portrayed by 6 different actors and despite huge variations in style and quality, most of the Bond movies have done seriously good business at the Box Office.

Everyone has their favourite James Bond and to some extent which Bond you favour seems to revolve around your age-group.  For old gits like me, the only Bond worthy of his ‘double-oh prefix’ is the original Bond, Sean Connery; everyone else is strictly second best compared to the SNP’s biggest fan.  Younger folk may prefer Roger Moore and his elevating eyebrows or Pierce Brosnan’s urbane charmer, whilst the Princess is a big fan of the current incumbent, Daniel Craig.

Still, whichever Bond leaves you shaken not stirred, it’s almost impossible not to notice the massive shift between the worlds inhabited by Sean Connery’s Bond and Daniel Craig’s latest version.

To prime myself for ‘Skyfall’, I ventured down into the LTSN Vaults to locate and view (for the first time in at least 20 years)  a copy of 1962’s ‘Dr No’, the original template for all that has followed since.  The story concerns your average megalomaniac, the eponymous Doc of the title,  half German & half Chinese, who is messing with radioactivity and radio waves on a small island just off the Jamaican coast.  His aim is to destabilise American rockets launching from Cape Canaveral but he soon finds himself under the scrutiny of the local British MI6 station.  Once he eliminates them, Bond is soon on the plane to Kingston.

When we first encounter Bond, it is in some high-stakes gambling club in London.  He is wearing a tuxedo,  smoking cigarettes from a  silver case and flirting across the chemin-de-fer  table with a striking brunette.  All the flunkies at the club treat him with the utmost deference and as he is summoned for a briefing with ‘M’,  the brunette can barely conceal her frustration –  Bond’s  status as a sophisticated denizen of London’s night-life is clearly established.

Sean Connery

On his way in to see ‘M’ he flirts again, this time with Miss Moneypenny, but it’s all business with Bernard Lee’s ‘M’, looking the epitome of the overworked civil servant and barely able to conceal his irritation with Bond’s maverick lifestyle.  As if to emphasise this, he calls in the ‘Armourer’ and forces Bond to swap his favoured (but  effete)  Beretta pistol for a brutal but businesslike Walther PPK – and is not fooled by Bond’s sleight of hand as he attempts to leave with the Beretta as well.

Once in Jamaica, Bond looks hot and bothered but still manages to repel no less than 3 attempts to kill him before he shrugs off his Savile Row threads for some funky beachwear and heads out to Crab Key to deal with the Bad Doctor.

Here the movie shows its age, especially in the way it deals with the character of Quarrel, a local fisherman who Bond pays to take him out to Crab Key.  Played by John Kitzmiller, the Quarrel of the ‘Dr No‘ movie is the worst kind of black stereotype.  He is  not particularly bright,  he’s rather superstitious and is also overfond of rum.  He rolls his eyes, refers to Bond as ‘Cap’n’ (might just as well have been ‘Massa’) and meets a grisly end when he is incinerated by a flame-thrower.   In the book, by contrast,  Quarrel has been Bond’s friend for several years, having trained him to swim long distances underwater and deal with potentially hostile sea creatures in the pages of ‘Live & Let Die’ – a novel which preceded ‘Dr No’ whereas the ‘Live & Let Die’ movie wouldn’t appear until 1973.  Ian Fleming may not have been the most enlightened of English colonialists, but he would surely have recoiled at the crude stereotype of Quarrel in this movie.

The best-remembered scene from ‘Dr No’ is undoubtedly the point where Bond encounters the shell-hunting Honeychile Rider, who emerges from the sea like a Teutonic goddess in a white bikini.   As Honeychile’s name might suggest,  in the novel she has strong links to Jamaica’s past and far from being the blonde bombshell of the movie, was in all probability partially Jamaican (creole).  Even so, it was the Swiss-German Andress who went down in movie folklore; the irony being that her English accent was so heavily Germanic that her lines were over-dubbed by another actress.

Ursula & Sean

So much for ‘Dr No’; the rest of the movie follows a predictable course.  After Quarrel’s death, Bond & Honeychile are captured and taken to Dr No’s elegant underground complex with hot & cold running everything and all mod cons.  The Doctor and Bond do some verbal jousting after which Bond is beaten up and locked up whilst the evil Doc prepares to destabilise another US rocket.  The technology of the ‘control room’ is quite hilarious – rather like something Gerry Anderson might have cooked up for ‘Thunderbirds’;  lots of big dials and goldfish bowl helmets.  In the end, of course, Bond escapes, frees Honey, destroys the control room and kills Dr No, escaping just before the whole complex goes up like a two-bob (nuclear) rocket.  The two survivors float off across the Caribbean with no fear of fall-out and consummate their relationship in the bottom of a sailing dinghy.  For 1962, it was probably pretty revolutionary stuff.

So what do we learn about the world through James Bond’s steely blue eyes?    We learn that it’s cool to travel the world (which not many Brits did in 1962)  and to be a British secret agent at the end of the colonial era.  We learn that women, like cigarettes and alcohol, are a resource to be consumed.   We learn that native Jamaicans,  if handled properly, will show you the utmost deference that is the Master’s due.  We learn that having a taste for obscure cocktails and knowing a little about wine is an instant sign of sophistication.  We learn that even the mighty USA has to play second fiddle when 007 is in town.  We learn that showing emotion is a weakness and that there comes a point where the talking has to stop and brutal force must have its day.  Bond sails through the corridors of Whitehall and the plantation club culture of pre-independence Jamaica like a man who is utterly certain of his place and the place of his country in the scheme of things.  He is one of the good guys and the bad guys like Dr No are just out there waiting for him to take them down.

Jump forward 50 years to ‘Skyfall’ , the latest Bond adventure to take to the big screen.  As has become customary with recent Bond films, everything kicks off  with a spectacular set piece. Daniel Craig’s 007 is in Istanbul, attempting to track down a computer disk  – carelessly mislaid by ‘M’ – which contains the names of every Western agent working under cover in any one of the world’s hotspots.  Bond arrives just too late to prevent the wholesale slaughter of a roomful of friendly agents and the theft of the disk.   He is then  driven by Naomie Harris at high speed through the narrow streets of the old city, before continuing the chase by motorbike across the roof tops of the Grand Bazaar and ultimately on the roof of a passenger train.  Finally, Harris, in contact with ‘M’ by radio, unwittingly shoots Bond and the villain escapes.

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Craig, Dench and Aston Martin in the background – old technology

Just this 10 minute sequence is worthy of a little closer attention, showing, as it does, that things have changed greatly for 007 since that Pan American jet from Miami touched down in Kingston back at the start of ‘Dr No’.  For one thing, Craig’s Bond is never in control in the way that Connery usually was –  he is playing catch-up from the very beginning.

As for technology, this is something that Bond movies have always embraced,   both in terms of the way they were shot and in terms of plot devices – cameras follow the speeding motorbikes, swooping across the roof of the Grand Bazaar in a series of breathtaking tracking shots – the Connery-era movies look very static by comparison.  Within the plot,  Dr No’s radio beams and Goldfinger’s lasers have now become ‘Skyfall’s ‘ hard drives and GPS trackers and suchlike.  Perhaps the only surprise about ‘Skyfall’ is that it isn’t in 3D, though that will presumably come.

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‘Skyfall’ – the opening chase sequence across the Istanbul rooftops

The next thing is that Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny is the driver of a souped-up Land Rover that hurtles through the Istanbul streets in pursuit of the bad guys. Despite a fairly obvious joke about her driving when she shaves a corner a bit too closely, Harris is about as far from her 1962 counterpart as it’s possible to get. Not only does she drive at high speed through crowded streets and use firearms, perhaps most tellingly of all, she is black.  Wonder what Quarrel would have made of that?  It’s pretty much for certain that Connery’s Bond wouldn’t have coped with it at all; in his world, women were either maternal or seductresses and black women were usually maids or housekeepers.

Poor James.  he has had to adapt his dinosaur ways to a vastly different world – even at work, things are changing;  the reassuringly gruff and headmasterly  Bernard Lee has long since been replaced by Judi Dench – a woman as ‘M’! What is the world coming to?  And ‘Q’, the armourer/quartermaster – initially played as an old buffer by the genial Desmond Llewellyn, who then handed over to the noticeably more eccentric John Cleese –  is now a mere youth (Ben Whishaw) who barely looks old enough to shave and seems to deal more easily with computers than he does with human beings.

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Ben Whishaw’s ‘Q’ – definitely new technology

The issue for Bond as he recuperates from his Istanbul outing in some anonymous eastern beach resort (rather like Jason Bourne in Goa at the start of ‘The Bourne Supremacy’ ) is of course ‘M’.  She is the mother figure for whom he harbours both love and hate – something that she reciprocates.  Bond catches a TV news report giving details of an explosion at MI6 HQ and knows that he must return to rescue ‘M’ from another of her former protegés,  Silva (Javier Bardem), who is the real villain of the piece.  He has started to publish names of some of the agents from the missing hard drive on the internet (with fatal results for them)  in an attempt to discredit ‘M’ who betrayed him to the Chinese years beforehand.  He also stages the explosion which kills a number of MI6 employees.

Bond returns to find things in a chaotic state with ‘M’ under growing pressure to step down and the subject of parliamentary enquiries.   She even addresses the Parliamentary Select Committee with a few mouthfuls of Churchillian rhetoric – “Ask yourself; ‘How safe do I feel?'”  Bond, meanwhile, is subjected to a series of physical and mental tests to determine whether or not he is fit enough to resume active service and fails most of them but is cleared by Mummy ‘M’ to take up the 007 mantle yet again.

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Craig and Bardem get up close & personal in ‘Skyfall’

Connery’s Bond would have found this battered, flawed, post-modernist 007 a very difficult pill to swallow.  The certainties of 60’s ‘realpolitik’ when we knew who the good guys were and who the baddies were have all disappeared for Daniel Craig’s Bond.  Silva is a maverick villain who has sprung from the very service that Bond represents, rather than being some doctrinaire Commie from  the Soviet or the Chinese bloc.  Also, the confrontational scene between Bond & Silva where Silva comes on to 007 would have reduced Connery’s Bond to apoplexy.  Craig just takes it in his stride – and maybe, just maybe it isn’t his first time….

With  Judi Dench’s ‘M’ fatally injured in ‘Skyfall’s’ climactic shoot-out and his Aston Martin similarly blown to smithereens, it might be tempting to see Bond as a relic for whom time has finally run out, yet at the movie’s end, 007 is up on the roof again, brooding over London’s skyline like some crabby guardian angel.

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Moneypenny – who has given up field work after her Istanbul experiences – comes up to retrieve Bond and take him down for his appointment with Ralph Fiennes, the new ‘M’, who promptly asks whether 007 is ready to go back to work.  The franchise must go on…..