Monthly Archives: June 2015

Patrick Macnee RIP

Patrick Macnee RIP
We were very saddened to hear of the death of the actor Patrick Macnee, star of the classic television “The Avengers” at the grand age of 93.

This quintessential English-born actor almost defined the word ‘gentleman’, in his role of John Steed in that ground-breaking series, so much a part of life to anyone who grew up in the 1960s. “The Avengers” started as a fairly traditional spy and crime programme, but then broke its own boundaries as it transformed into a series that mixed fantasy and reality with great aplomb.

It featured most of the great actors of the period, and gave us an unforgettable line-up of co-stars including originally Ian Hendry, who was actually the lead in early episodes, Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, Diana Rigg as Emma Peel and Linda Thorson as Tara King.

But Patrick Macnee’s John Steed was never eclipsed by any of these talents. His Steed was probably the coolest character in the history of British television. A man who could emerge from a fight without a crease in his immaculately tailored suit, bowler hat still in place and umbrella to hand.

Patrick Macnee played many interesting roles over the course of a long career, including films such as “The Battle of the River Plate”, “The Howling” and “The Sea Wolves”, and was a staple in American TV programmes for many years, appearing as a guest star in a great many series. He played Dr Watson to the Sherlock Holmes of two old friends, Roger Moore and Christopher Lee. He acted in “Hamlet” with Lee when he was a pupil at Eton.

But it is as Steed that he will be remembered. An unforgettable character played by an actor who was every bit as iconic as the role he played.

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John Buchan’s “Mr Standfast”

In the Gaslight Crime blog of March 19th, I looked at John Buchan’s classic spy thriller “The Thirty-Nine Steps”, the first of his novels featuring his hero Richard Hannay. Today I want to look at the third Hannay novel “Mr Standfast”’

Although “Mr Standfast” is the third novel in the sequence (Greenmantle comes second) it is very much a sequel to “The Thirty-Nine Steps” – it concludes some of the outstanding matters of the first novel.

The novel starts in the summer of 1917, with Richard Hannay journeying to an idyllic manor house in the Cotswolds. Hannay, very much the amateur spy-catcher in his first adventure, is now a Brigadier-General, who has made his mark as a soldier on the Western Front. Suddenly he finds himself torn away from the trenches to participate in the old game of nailing a master spy and finding out how secrets are being sent from Britain to Germany.

It is a journey that takes Hannay from a English Garden City full of pretentious individuals to the poverty-ridden tenements of Glasgow. Then on a puffer steamer through the Hebrides before Hannay embarks on a long walk through the Scottish Highlands to the dramatic mountains of the Cuillin on Skye.

Buchan, a great walker himself, and a terrific describer of landscape, is at his best here. As a writer he had a considerable gift of summoning up Temenos – the spirit of place – in just a few words. Unlike a lot of authors, Buchan was no carpet-bagger when it came to backgrounds, particularly Scottish scenes. He had done all of these walks himself and in his youth was a rock-climber of some renown. The scenes in Skye are amongst the finest Buchan ever wrote. Nobody does it better.

But Buchan can write urban scenes as well. Hannay returns to London during an air-raid. He conveys very well the sense of shock in a city than finds itself under aerial attack – an unpleasant novelty for the people of England at that time. Then to the Western Front which Buchan depicts with great validity. He had been in the trenches and the dug-outs himself. Here we have some familiar though welcome Buchan elements; a sinister chateau, sudden and hurried journeys in the dead of night, the tales soldiers tell to stave away buried fears.

Then to neutral Switzerland where Hannay finds himself under cover once more. There is a description through a snow-bound Alpine pass which deserves its place as a classic of mountaineering literature – he captures the physical exhaustion, the sudden bursts of fear, the satisfaction that emerges when the climb is done, in a way that perhaps only a mountaineer can fully appreciate. Then back to the trenches for a thrilling, almost Wagnerian conclusion, where victory is achieved but at a terrible cost to Hannay.

In this novel we see a good example of what Buchan’s biographer Janet Adam Smith described as his “root-of-the-matter treatment”. Buchan takes a character and presents him at first unsympathetically, and at odds with the philosophy of his hero. And then he reveals aspects of the character which show a different side to that person, winning admiration. Here it is with the character Launcelot Wake, a conscientious objector to the war, holding views which are initially anathema to the warrior Hannay. At first it seems quite impossible that they could ever be comrades. Then gradually, over the course of the book, Wake’s real courage is revealed. We see him as a better rock climber and mountaineer than the skilled scrambler Hannay. A man who is prepared, despite his opinions, to fight courageously. The once unsympathetic character becomes someone Hannay can really admire.

Now in the 21st century, when our views on the Great War have become somewhat revised, we can side more with conscientious objectors. But when Buchan published the novel in 1919 the subject of pacifism, of men who simply refused to fight, was still almost too raw to be mentioned. That Buchan can go so bravely against a warlike dominant ideology and show both the martial and anti-war philosophies is a mark of a great writer, and that he can present a conscientious objector sympathetically is stunning given that it was written when the guns were still firing. The popularity of “Mr Standfast” as a novel may well have done much to create a better understanding of the wartime role of the pacifist in the immediate aftermath of the horror of the trenches.

For “Mr Standfast” is more than just a thriller. It looks deeply into issues such as courage. Hannay is no stock wartime hero. He often admits to very real fear, he recognises the bravery in others. His sympathy with the rank-and-file soldiers of a mostly working class army is portrayed as genuine and touching.

Hannay is what another thriller writer, Geoffrey Household, described as ‘Class X’. Despite being apparently part of the Establishment he can mix well and empathise with almost anyone, whether they be Clydeside ship workers, hill shepherds, private soldiers, or ministers of the crown and generals. It shows Buchan’s immense interest in people as individuals, rather than stock characters or folk penned into an artificial and quite ridiculous class structure. If he occasionally falls down to the modern reader with language that might be judged politically incorrect, it is because he was a man writing near a century ago, in a very different world with much different mores.

John Buchan famously described the Hannay novels as ‘shockers’, not intended to be taken very seriously amongst his wider canon of historical novels and straight histories. I think you can take humility too far. And I do wonder, in his heart, if he recognised just how good a novel like “Mr Standfast” really was?

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Arthur Ransome’s “The Big Six”

When boats are being mysteriously cast adrift on the Norfolk Broads, suspicious eyes are turned on Bill, Joe and Pete, the three young sons of boat-builders. The three boys have to call on the help of their friend, doctor’s son Tom Dudgeon, and visiting fellow birdwatchers Dick and Dorothea Callum to nail the culprit.

On the Norfolk Broads (c) John Bainbridge 2015

On the Norfolk Broads (c) John Bainbridge 2015

“The Big Six” is a 1930s set detective story for children, which means that adults can enjoy it as well. It is, of course, one of the famous “Swallows and Amazons” novels by Arthur Ransome. It is a thrilling tale of suspicion, chases, subterfuge and social comment.

It is the direct sequel to Ransome’s “Coot Club”, which has the same Norfolk setting and characters. In that book, Tom Dudgeon has to set loose a boat to save a bird’s nest – hence the local people’s belief that members of the Coot Club are responsible when lots of boats go adrift a few months later.

Are they guilty, or is someone trying to blacken their good name? This is a wonderful page-turner, and quite an amusing homage to 1930s detective stories.

Ransome was a fascinating character; after years of apprentice work as a hack writer in pre-Great War London, he went to Russia to study its folklore and story-telling traditions. He became a first-hand witness to the Russian Revolution, played chess with Lenin, and came away married to Evgenia, a jolly young lady who just happened to be Leon Trotsky’s secretary. He was probably a spy as well.

Settling, at various times, in the Lake District, East Anglia and London, he became an acclaimed feature writer and the author of the children’s novels about the adventuring Swallows and Amazons. Those children don’t actually appear in “The Big Six”, though there are links through their friends Dick and Dorothea Callum.

The novel, though set at the beginning of the ‘thirties, was first published in 1940 – a time when the very survival of the United Kingdom was questionable. The first readers must have perused its pages against the background of air-raid sirens, perhaps huddling in shelters against the falling bombs, or as young evacuees sent to safety in remote areas of the countryside. By that time Norfolk itself was part of an armed camp, soldiers on the march, airfields being constructed, fighters overhead and members of the Home Guard preparing to repel Nazi parachutists. Looking back a decade to a quieter England, must have been quite a relief to the book’s early fans.

A Heron at Horning (c) John Bainbridge 2015

A Heron at Horning (c) John Bainbridge 2015

The book, like its predecessor “Coot Club” is Ransome’s love letter to the Norfolk Broads. He writes quite beautifully about the countryside there. Years later, when I was an undergraduate at the nearby University of East Anglia, I used to journey up to Wroxham or Horning and hire a little boat and explore these same waters. The Broads are one of the delights of England. I was inspired very much by my childhood reading of Arthur Ransome.

Ransome writes with wonderful veracity about the Broads at a most interesting time. We see the early effects of tourism and boat hire, but there is a beautiful portrait of an eel-sett at night, the activities of an old-style village policeman, pre-war boatyards, doctors, solicitors and fishermen. More than a vanished world in so many ways. But the echoes are there if you go to the Norfolk Broads and look for yourself.

Norfolk Broads (c) John Bainbridge 2015

Norfolk Broads (c) John Bainbridge 2015

Ransome is particularly good at defining the class system, that silly institution that still bedevils so much of British existence. It’s interesting that the doctor’s son Tom Dudgeon is only very briefly suspected of being the culprit, even though he has form for casting off boats in the previous novel. But Bill, Pete and Joe, working class sons of boat-builders, are immediately under suspicion and persecuted in ways they wouldn’t be if they were perceived to be higher up the social scale. You can sense Ransome’s impatience with the class nonsense all the way through the book.

Like all good detective novels, there are lots of clues, red herrings, a race against time and a thrilling denouement. And characters that leap off the page.

If you haven’t encountered Ransome before this is a good one to start with, though you might like to try “Coot Club” first, or better still read all of the Swallows and Amazons novels in the order they were written.

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The Corpse In The Waiting Room By Pamela Godden

It’s always a great pleasure to discover an enjoyable detective novel by a writer new to you. This happened to me recently with The Corpse In The Waiting Room by Pamela Godden. Published in January of this year it is the first of a new series. Here’s hoping the next is well under way.

Set in 1920, the leading character Philip Tethering finds someone strangled on the day the body of the Unknown Soldier passes through Dover’s two stations. The platform is packed with townspeople come to glimpse the coffin, so almost anyone could have slipped into the waiting room and done the deed, an interesting premise.

The victim turns out to be a working woman from the village near the Tetherings’ comfortable middle-class home. Still rehabilitating from his war injuries, an initially reluctant Philip is drawn into investigating.

Pamela Godden is a very engaging writer. I really liked her Kent setting of Dover and its rural surroundings, immediately after the Great War. A resident of the town, she’s clearly knowledgeable about the area’s history and uses this to great effect. The story takes place from just before Armistice Day in November to the end of the year with some lovely descriptions of the autumn countryside slipping into winter.

I enjoyed her well-drawn characters too. Philip Tethering is interesting and likable with plenty of mileage. When the novel ended I was quite sorry to leave him and look forward to seeing how he develops. His family are appealing, they and the villagers he encounters are believable. The attitudes to class then prevalent are deftly shown with the gentlefolk and tradespeople we meet.

The plot is intriguing with no sign of motive for a way into the novel. It is fairly clued and gripping to accompany Philip Tethering as he works out the solution, narrowing down a long list of suspects. The motive of the murderer was a good piece of psychology and very apt for the time.

The novel has a similar feel to the atmospheric Inspector Rutledge series by Charles Todd (written by Caroline and Charles Todd) – without in any way being derivative. The Corpse In The Waiting Room is subtitled A Philip Tethering Mystery Book 1.
Highly recommended – I’m delighted to know there’s more to come.

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BBC Drama – The Game

We’re hugely enjoying The Game – a period spy thriller which reaches its conclusion on British television tonight. Created by Toby Whithouse, it was written by him, Sarah Dollard and Debbie O’Malley. Unusually the view date was held back and it was shown on BBC America last year.

Set in London in 1972 when the Cold War was at its height and security services plotted move and counter-ploy like a game of chess, we both feel The Game is on a par with John Le Carre’s famous spy classic, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. And we don’t say that lightly.

The gripping storyline concerns a KGB (remember them!) plot in London, whereby a secret committee of MI5 spies must uncover the purpose of Operation Glass. Potentially terrifying in a world when nuclear attack was thought to be a possibility. A Russian defector may or may not be a gambit in the game, Soviet ‘sleepers’ are being activated, the trail is devious and the clock is ticking…

The characters are extremely well-written and cast, the acting so good it’s hard not to give everyone a mention. You get fine actors like Anton Lesser in a tiny cameo as the head of MI6. Guest Steven Mackintosh gives a chilling performance as a civil servant who enjoys beating women. (The violence is mostly off-scene and all the more effective.)

The great Brian Cox plays the enigmatic head of MI5, known only as ‘Daddy.’ Paul Ritter is the louche head of counter-espionage, in a performance so finely-judged you want to savour every gesture and Judy Parfitt does a wonderful turn, playing his domineering mother.

Victoria Hamilton as a high-flying field agent, Jonathan Aris, playing her diffident husband, Shaun Dooley as a plain-speaking Special Branch liaison and Chloe Pirrie as a gauche, young secretary are all superb.

The action is seen from the viewpoint of Joe Lambe, compellingly played by Tom Hughes . A brilliant young spy, seemingly detached yet haunted by events seen in flashback. He has a secret agenda and may well be that interesting device, an unreliable narrator.

The setting is beautifully done, visually and written. Seventies-set dramas often get the details slightly wrong but – as someone who remembers those times well – the clothes and homes look authentic. So is the slight whiff of paranoia in the air. This was the time of reds under the bed and public service broadcasts on how to build your own anti-nuclear shelter.

The feeling of early seventies Britain is vividly evoked. Evening scenes plunge into darkness with the power cuts, typewriters are clattering and the ashtrays are full in the offices at MI5. Spies play tape recorders with big revolving spools in seedy hotel-rooms and contact one another from K6 scarlet telephone boxes.

The photography is really effective with lovely moody shots of sombre spies under dripping umbrellas, grey city streets and dull suburbs. You don’t see iconic London sights as The Game was filmed in and around Birmingham. Using anonymous settings fits well with the shadowy theme, so does the edgy score by composer Daniel Pemberton.

All the classic espionage motifs are there, chases along swaying corridor trains and dark alleys, dead-drops and handovers, tailing suspects, frantic house searches, suspicion, tension and danger. This is a shifting world of secrets, lies and betrayal – and that’s just the office politics. MI5 has its own game within the greater one being played through the Iron Curtain.

Sadly British viewers don’t get enough programmes of this calibre these days. The Game really is a reminder of the Seventies, harking back to the golden age of British television when writing was intelligent and allowed more screen time to develop. Toby Whithouse has given the grown-ups a real treat.

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John Bainbridge Writer

We have set up another blog – John Bainbridge Writer – so that we might look in more depth at the world of independent publishing and our own writing, though on occasions our other blog and Gaslight Crime might overlap.

Do take a look and please click follow at http://www.johnbainbridgewriter.wordpress.com

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