“Midnight Caller” ran from 1988-1991, and starred Gary Cole, who’d later become known to “The West Wing” fans as Vice President “Bingo” Bob Russell (and cult “Office Space” boss Bill “Yeah” Lumbergh). In fact, given that Gary Cole is pretty much in everything, one would be forgiven for thinking there is a secret protocol in the US Constitution that demands it. As an aside, his other great role was in the disgracefully cancelled after one season “American Gothic” where he played the sheriff of a North Carolina town who may or may not have been The Devil. But I digress.
Cole played Jack Killian, a former cop turned late night radio host. It was stylish for its day (especially as nearly every episode seemed to be set at night, which is hardly surprising, given its title), and was famous for Killian’s “Goodnight, America, wherever you are” signoff. Cool theme music too.
It was with huge excitement that I saw the first trailer for Guy Ritchie’s 1960s spy caper “The Man from UNCLE” released this week. In the early 1980s, this then 12 year old was fascinated by a TV show that had been off the air for over 15 years. It was kitschy by today’s standards, and ironically I only realised much later that I’d never even seen the first season which is hailed by fans as the best one, but rarely repeated because it’s in black and white. Although TG4 did, a few years ago, curiously enough.
What was it about the adventures of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin that caught my imagination so much? Certainly the international locations (actually all filmed in California. Every airport looked the same, save for a policeman in a different uniform and different tourist posters on the walls!), the derring-do, the wise-cracking of the two agents, and the beautiful yet sophisticated girls all played a part. But also, I was fascinated that UNCLE was international, the Russians and the Americans cooperating together against Nazis and megalomaniacs and of course the evil THRUSH organisation. It’s a concept that shaped my politics even now.
So, here’s hoping the new movie, out in August and starring Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer and Hugh Grant as their boss tips the hat a few times at their predecessor.
*”Open Channel D” was the standard UNCLE greeting when communicating with their New York headquarters.
“The Trip”, and its sequel “The Trip to Italy”, is almost certainly a very Marmite-y TV series, in that you either loved it or it just left you cold. I have to admit to loving it, but I suspect that’s more to do with the fact that I’m in my early 40s and recognise the bitter-sweet nature of both series.
The concept is simple, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing fictionalised versions of themselves, are commissioned to travel for a week through rural northern England visiting high class restaurants for The Observer. Along the way there is much room for celebrity impressions (their Michael Caine face-off is magnificent), banter, arguments and ruminations on two men realising they’re not young anymore. The sequel involves them doing the same in Italy.
The dialogue is both funny and melancholic, with both bringing their very considerable mimicry powers to the table, and willing to challenge public perceptions of themselves, and the scenery is beautiful. The food looks gorgeous.
The following is the transcript of a meeting held in Geneva, Switzerland, by the Grand Council of the SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terror, Revenge and Extortion.
Chairperson: …and with that in regard, let us turn to the December Proposal, prepared by our good friend Tony. We’ve all had time to digest it, and discuss it before this gathering. It is a radical departure from this organisation’s existing objectives. Yet I cannot deny that our friend has made a very cogent argument. Perhaps a short summary?
Tony: Thank you Ernst, and thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for inviting me today. To make a long story short, as my Irish friends would say, SPECTRE is about making money. The manipulation of power, law, politics and other extra-ordinary means to generate profit for this organisation and our shareholders. Now, what does an organisation need when it has all this money?
Mr. Stromberg: Henchmen? Underwater bases? Sharks?
Tony: Stability. The days of storing one’s wealth in gold or diamonds…
Mr. Goldfinger: (mutters)
Tony: …the days of storing one’s wealth in physical commodities or in cash or art are over. The sums of money are so vast as to make it an unviable proposition. Wealth is stored electronically, which makes it both safer but also more vulnerable. And not just hacking, but from terrorist threats to infrastructure too. After all, the Al Quaeda attack on our buildings in Manhattan seriously hurt our asset base.
Table: murmurs of approval.
Tony: The reality is that SPECTRE is now in the stability business. Our legitimate businesses generate more money than our off-the-book activities. Our late comrade Steve made us more money in five years than we had made in fifty. We need order. But what sort of order? The order that Putin brings in Russia, where your wealth can be confiscated by the whim of the FSB? China, where factions ignore the rule of law and confiscate private property? Then there is the threat of radical Islamic revolt, and the real threat of climate change which is endangering many of our prize real estate assets.
Dr. No: Please Tony, get to the point.
Tony: The point, my dear Dr. No, is that western democracy is the greatest defence available to us. You all saw what happened when we tried to rig the Russian elections. Putin rigged it better and confiscated every cent belonging to our allies. Xi is moving against our friends in Beijing. Only in the west…
Mr. Goldfinger: They’re trying to tax us!
Tony: Better taxes than dead, Auric. It’s an ugly world out there, and the west is our safe haven. That’s why I’m proposing that SPECTRE change its key objective from world domination to…
Mr. Stromberg: to what?
Tony: to defending western democracy. By improving our capacity to destroy the enemies of the west. The west’s enemies are now our enemies. We’ve started this already by taking over some key intelligence agencies.
Mr. Goldfinger: You’re not suggesting…
Mr. Stromberg: What are you talking about?
Tony: Your chairman Herr Blofeld knows that SPECTRE has been running British Intelligence since the late 1980s. Never you never wondered why MI6 hasn’t pursued SPECTRE since then?
Mr. Goldfinger: But that means..
Tony: Yes. Commander James Bond has been working for the people who murdered his wife Tracey for some years now, destroying our enemies, without ever knowing. James Bond is SPECTRE’s single greatest weapon.
Federal agents raiding a chocolate factory have uncovered evidence of the massive psychological torturing and poisoning of a small group of children at the direction of confectionary billionaire William Wonka. The world-famous candy manufacturer, who recently donated millions to the Republican party in opposition to “over-regulation in the workplace” was found to have drugged a number of children with experimental poisons. One child was transformed into a state of obesity and also suffered extreme skin pigmentation changes. One small boy was bombarded with radiation, and later died of cancer.
Files also revealed a shockingly casual approach to workplace safety, with one German national falling into an unguarded liquid chocolate manufacturing process and being sucked through industrial vacuum tubes. The child in question is still in residence in a leading German psychological facility. Two other individuals narrowly avoided being cut to pieces by a high speed fan. Another fell into a nut de-shelling device.
Federal agents expressed shock at the number and conditions of over one thousand pygmies, natives of a small African state, being held as an unpaid workforce. The pygmies had become discoloured by exposure to chemicals in the workplace, and had been turned a “grotesque” orange hue through daily exposure. Translators revealed that the pygmies had been told by Wonka that their homeland had been eaten by a giant monster. The state department is making arrangements for their return.
Wonka is believed to have perished later when he escaped in a glass sided rocket powered aircraft of his own design which, after failing to comply with instructions to land by federal authorities, was shot down by scrambled air force jets.
The American chatshow host Conan O’Brien remarked last year that he had noticed a significant change in audiences who attended the recording of his show on TBS. He pointed out that in the 1990s a guest who was the star of a successful show could assume that the great majority of the studio audience not only knew who he/she actually was, but would get references to their character and the plotline of their show. Everybody knew who Ross and Rachel were.
O’Brien pointed out that now, going by audience reaction, it is now possible to be the star of what is deemed a successful show and yet still have a large proportion of the audience have only a vague if any knowledge of the actor or their show.
Consider two numbers: “Game of Thrones”, arguably the most popular TV show on the planet, gets around 7m viewers in the US for new episodes. Now consider that “Only Fools and Horses” used to get up to 14m viewers in the UK alone. Sure, don’t go all mad: I know, I’m not comparing like-with-like. GoT appears on a cable network, OFaH was free to view. But the fact is, the huge choice we have now has completely fragmented TV viewing. There are exceptions: in the US the Superbowl gets over 100m viewers, but even that has to be taken in the context of the time. Why? Well, here’s another wild figure. The finale of “MASH” in 1983 got nearly 106m viewers, in a country with nearly 100m less people than the Superbowl broadcasts to now.
The media lock onto shows like “The West Wing” or “The Sopranos” or “Madmen” or “The Wire” but the reality is that relatively small numbers of people actually watch these shows, in whatever format they watch (Cable, download, etc). The finale of “Friends” 10 years ago got stateside 52m viewers. Seinfeld got 76m. Today, the biggest drama show on American TV (both cable and terrestrial) is “NCIS”, which gets, in a country of 320m people, an audience of between 16 and 20 million. True, they were finale shows, with huge amounts of publicity surrounding them, but the figures are still stark.
So what’s my point? I suppose it’s that we now live in a “television” (I use the word loosely, given the impact of Netflix and downloads) age where a huge increase in quality and choice has almost shattered the shared experience. It’s true that people now watch “Doctor Who” or “Downton Abbey” with one eye on Twitter, and that is a shared community, but the reality is that most people are not watching the show you are watching. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. But we all (of a certain vintage) remember Ross and Rachel’s first kiss. On the other hand, I’m afraid to write about Ned Stark out of fear that some of my readers don’t know who he is, or his destiny, because they haven’t experienced it yet.
If you like spy shows, politically incorrect humour and sexual vulgarity, Fox’s cartoon show “Archer” is for you.
It’s based around brilliant but incredibly self-centred and over-sexed agent Sterling Archer, operative of ISIS, and his battles against the KGB, terrorists, his domineering nymphomaniac mother/boss, his fellow agent/ex-lover Lana Kane, and people who stole his Black Turtleneck Is Cool look.
Try it. But be warned. This is not one for the kiddies or the faint hearted. Think “The Man from UNCLE” but with a lot of dick jokes.
“The Lives of Others” is a 2006 German film about the Stasi secret police in East Germany, and it is excellent. The star of it, the late Ulrich Muhe, had actually been an East German border guard before becoming an actor and opponent of the regime in the DDR.
When I first heard about it, I thought it would be a dour and depressing movie, but it is actually fascinating in its portrayal of life in a police state, especially one that pretends that it isn’t. It is a curious aspect of Communism that even its highest officials knew it wasn’t working, yet the system deemed the first person to criticise it a traitor, making it a self perpetuating failure. Curiously, the language used by the Communist officials in the film about loyalty is not a million miles from that used by Fox News. When watching it, if you replace the word “socialism” with “freedom” you’ll see what I mean. These bastards wear jackets in all sorts of colours.
The movie centres around an idealistic but lonely Stasi agent who becomes engrossed in the lives of a playwright and his actress girlfriend. It is also about how people try to live a normal life, indeed to get on, under the paranoid eyes of a monstrous regime. I won’t ruin the ending other than to say it delivers for the viewer, and is one of the more thoughtful yet accessible movies I have ever seen that seriously examines what it means to be free.
We in Ireland, as one of the few European countries to have never known fascism or communism, need to remember how lucky we are.
One of the curiosities about recent TV and movie drama set in tyrannical futures is that they tend to be set in an overhyped right-wing future, dominated by fascism, the religious right, or big business. It’s quite rare that, with the exception of Orwell’s 1984, which could just as easily be about fascism, you come across a fictional portrayal of a recognisable left wing tyranny dominated by, say, the unions and an overbearing state. In today’s climate, the idea of union leaders actively dominating a country’s political system is pretty far fetched, but in the 1970s in Britain, it wasn’t that radical an idea to extrapolate past the industrial chaos of the 1970s into a Socialist dominated Britain.
Ironically, it was that bastion of liberalism, the BBC, which produced the concept. “1990″, starring Edward Woodward as a rebellious journalist facing down the government’s menacing Public Control Department, ran for two seasons in 1977/78. Like most drama produced in the 1970s, it’s studio bound talkiness can be quite irritating to a modern TV audience used to speedy plot progress, save maybe for “Mad Men” fans, of course. I can’t say that I really recommend it as entertaining (You can find most episodes on Youtube and make your own judgement) but as a political concept piece it’s quite interesting for its novelty.
The show is set in a fictional 1990, seven years after the economic collapse of Britain leads to the coming to power of a hard left union dominated government in a general election where only 20% bother to vote. The government implements all the classics: nationalises nearly all business, introduces penal taxation, taxes imports and luxury goods and bans overtime (to create job sharing). It deals with the “rich fleeing high taxes” problem by introducing an East German exit visa system. You simply can’t leave, and a lot of the show is about Edward Woodward’s resistance leader Jim Kyle trying to help mostly talented people, or political dissidents, get over the English channel.
What’s interesting about “1990″ is the subtlety. The country is still nominally a democracy with a parliament (although fresh elections are indefinitely postponed), and there’s still a few non-state owned newspapers, but try to print anything overly critical of the state and the union shop stewards basically refuse to operate the printing presses. It’s an very right wing dramatic viewpoint that is hard to imagine on television today. The Home Office’s Public Control Department (PCD) basically operate as a relatively non-violent Stasi, sending opponents of the regime off to Adult Rehabilitation Centres where they’re electroshocked into being good citizens.
The state doesn’t like open Soviet style violence, because of the poor publicity it causes in the rest of Europe and the US, and so pressures people in more imaginative ways, such as Automatic Systematic Harassment, where an individual is targeted and subjected to every single legal inspection possible. Your car is constantly checked to ensure it’s legally compliant. Your taxes are scrutinised. Every form you have ever signed is gone over to see if you made any errors and therefore possibly broke the law. Your bins are checked to see if you are dumping things you shouldn’t be dumping. All legal, and individually all reasonable actions even in today’s society, but taken together it’s “the slow steamroller of the state”.
The cast isn’t bad, with Woodward (who shared the show’s conservative anti-tax philosophy) beginning to develop that shouty acting style he would later bring to “The Equalizer”. But it is very slow. Apparently, by the way, the concept of the show came to writer Wilfred Greatorex after his house was raided by VAT inspectors!
If you are going to watch the series, don’t read this, because I wanted to comment on how the series concludes.
Right, you’ve been warned. One of the basic premises of the show is that high ranking civil servants, although nominally under political control, are actually in charge. In the final episodes the Home Secretary Kate Smith (played coquettishly by the late Yvonne Mitchell, in her final role, and portrayed as a cross between Barbara Castle and Margaret Thatcher), a supporter of the regime, begins to realise that the public is tiring of the PCD, and betrays the PCD on television, announcing that the cabinet are shocked are the abuse of power by senior PCD officials. She actually leads a mob of angry citizens on a raid on PCD headquarters, but makes sure that they don’t destroy the PCD’s vast computer database because it’ll be allegedly needed for the trials of the PCD officials she’s only been instructing days previously. It’s a wonderfully cynical performance, and although it does herald a return to normal civil liberties and politics, it ends the series ominously.