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Witchcraft and magic; film and academia

In which we ponder why both serious historians and the entertainment industry were dealing with the same subject at the same time

There’s a lot of pressure on the Symbolic Towers bookshelves at the moment, stacked several deep with books falling off the ends. The pile of books-to-be-read is growing, too, with books arriving on it faster than I can read them. Frankly, the cause is obvious – apart from me not spending enough time reading, I mean. The cause is: shopping trips to Whiteladies Road and Cotham Hill, and to the charity shops thereon. Several are specialist charity bookshops, and all seem to have a better quality of book stock than charity shops elsewhere in Bristol, presumably because of the university being close by. Recent selections have included God’s Architect, a biography of Pugin by Rosemary Hill; 25 Jahre Deutsche Einheitslokomotive;* and a classic historical work from 40 years ago: Religion and the Decline of Magic by Sir Keith Thomas. I’ve just started making my way into the latter, and it has started a few thoughts going round in my head. Not because of the book itself, interesting though it is, but because of other things that have coincidentally come together alongside it.

Last Friday, by contrast, we went along to The Cube for the monthly Hellfire Video Club horror night. This month’s theme was Folk Horror, with a British cinema double bill: Cry of the Banshee (1970) and Blood on Satan’s Claw (also 1970).** The latter has rather higher production values; the former, although a British-made film, was part of American International Pictures’ series of Edgar Allan Poe films. It’s one of the later, lesser-known entries in the sequence: directed by Gordon Hessler rather than Roger Corman, but still with Vincent Price as the top-billed star.

What struck me straight away was the similarity of content: which, obviously, was why they were put together on the same bill. Cry of the Banshee is set around the start of the 17th century; Blood on Satan’s Claw is set around its end. Both deal with witchcraft, beliefs about witchcraft, and intra-community conflict; in very different styles, and with different levels of seriousness, but still at heart the same subject. It was not, moreover, a particularly unusual subject for British film at the time: a couple of years earlier Vincent Price had starred in Witchfinder General, covering similar subject matter and with slightly more claim to historicity. Not coincidentally, it was a co-production between American International and the producers of Blood on Satan’s Claw, Tigon. Recently, in his BBC series A History of Horror, Mark Gatiss put forward a claim for this group of films to be considered as a “folk horror” subgenre,*** together with The Wicker Man (1973): another look at essentially the same themes, updated to a modern-day setting.**** In that film the side of witchcraft is represented by a modern pagan revival; Cry of the Banshee shows the mythical pagan witchcraft of Charles Leland and Margaret Murray, and Blood on Satan’s Claw shows the Satanic witchcraft which the real-life witchfinders of the 17th century believed they were hunting down.

The point of this post, though, came when I realised that the subject of these films – the period ones, at least – is in effect the same subject as their contemporary Religion and the Decline of Magic. That book covers the same period: roughly, 1500 to 1700. It covers the intersection between religion and folk magic, and how folk belief in magic and witchcraft changed due to the political-religious upheavals which occurred in the period under study – following the anthropological distinction between magic and witchcraft.

Being an academic history, it is slightly easier to see how Sir Keith came to write the book when he did. His interest in the period came from studying under Christopher Hill, the great Marxist historian of 17th century England; and at the time he was writing magic and witchcraft were being seen in a new light as a subject of historical enquiry. Thomas received input from Alan Macfarlane, whose research on witchcraft prosecutions in East Anglia is another work that is very much still on the historical and anthropological syllabus. The significance of Dr Macfarlane is that, as a historical anthropologist, he married anthropological frameworks and theories to historical primary sources. This level of academic interest in historical witchcraft beliefs is also what led to the complete discrediting of the previously-accepted idea that early modern witchcraft was a fully-fledged ancient and pagan religion, in works such as Norman Cohn’s Europe’s Inner Demons, published in 1975. In general, it is fair to say that Religion and the Decline of Magic is a major work within a subject that was getting a great deal of interest in academia at the time, and for the first time was getting serious interest paid to it which involved deep analysis of primary source material.

What intrigues me about all this, however, is the confluence here between academia and entertainment. What was going on, what underlying forces were at work, which led to the production of both horror films and weighty academic histories on the same topics at the same times? It is worth saying that Blood on Satan’s Claw, at least, does appear to present an underlying thesis which is not unrelated to that of Keith Thomas. Thomas points out that the Reformation led to the Church in England abandoning a large number of practices which can be described as magical; or which, at least, are barely distinguishably from magic both in an anthropological analysis and in the minds of the ordinary population expected to take part. In Blood on Satan’s Claw the village priest, apparently a Low Anglican, is ineffectual against the forces of witchcraft, and knows it; the heroes are the scientifically-minded local physician and the Jacobite judge, presumably still secretly following the old religion just as he secretly follows the Old Pretender. To defeat Satan, only a Catholic will do; but nowhere is this spelled out explicitly for the audience, and you will only realise it if you have some awareness of the film’s historical setting.

I’m not, of course, trying to posit a direct connection between the two things: for one thing, both of the films shown at Hellfire Video Club were released the year before the book was. Rather, there seems to have been an undercurrent of some sort, forty years ago, which made this sort of subject a popular one in several ages. I have a feeling it was important in music, too. Also on the squeezed bookshelves is a work which for once I didn’t get second-hand: Electric Eden by Rob Young. It is a history of the folk themas which pervaded English music in the 20th century – which makes it sound also very academic. It isn’t, and its writer is a very approachable sort of chap, but it doesn’t exactly answer the question I’m posing, because it tends to follow a linear path of musical trends, parallel to the rest of culture.

There is possibly an answer in the growth of modern paganism. Modern Wicca emerged in the 1950s; by the time we are talking about, it was well known in mainstream culture and in the popular press. Moreover, as historian Ronald Hutton has shown, not only can the view of spirituality expressed in Wicca can be shown to have strong antecedents in British culture from the Romantic poets onwards; but even though the view of pagan witchcraft expounded by Margaret Murray can be shown to be false, modern witchcraft can nevertheless be seen to be descended from the types of magical beliefs and activities described by scholars such as Thomas.***** In other words, as a religion, it is a concrete expression of a number of strands of British philosophical thought and folk belief which have been rooted at some level in the national psyche since the medieval period.

However, that argument would seem to be the tail wagging the dog. Rather, modern Wicca became known in the mainstream for the same reasons that academics were studying the history of magical belief, and for the same reasons that popular entertainment was portraying the same themes. What these reasons were is presumably something deeper, and I am not enough of a cultural historian to tell you what they were and are. I do think it is somehow significant, though. At the start of the 1970s, something important was happening, culturally, that made the same themes arise right across the cultural spectrum: in academia, in film, in music and in religion. I feel as if, noticing the parallel dates between books and films, I’m trying to grip the edge of an iceberg.

* published in 1950 by Miba, in case you were wondering.

** you can see the event’s poster on Flickr.

*** Of course, other people might have said it before him, but I’m not well-versed enough in film history to know.

**** Incidentally, both The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw have fantastic soundtracks, although each very different in form.

***** Also incidentally, given that I bought my copy of Religion and the Decline of Magic on Cotham Hill, and that most of it has been marked up by a studious reader, the chances are it used to belong to someone studying on one of Professor Hutton’s courses.

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Is it about a bicycle?

In which FP has been to see an operatic adaptation of that classic 20th century Irish novel The Third Policeman, so writes a review filled with in-jokes

Thursday night: to the Cube Cinema. Not for a film, but for an opera: The Third Policeman, adapted and produced by a chap called Ergo Phizmiz. Having read the novel, I was intrigued as to how a stage adaptation would work: of all the books I have read, it is…

The Plain People Of The Internet: By, there’s no footnotes yet. What are you doing there getting forty words or more into a blog post already and not writing any footnotes?

I was wondering when you people might turn up. Somehow, I thought you might. The footnotes were something I was wondering about, because they do rather alter the structure and format of the novel.* How would they be presented, in operatic form?

The Plain People of the Internet: So did they put signs up on the stage then? Cards with the footnote text on? Or a simultaneous narration chap type of thing?

Well, no. The works of de Selby*** were integrated into the main part of the libretto. But now, you’re getting me ahead of myself. I meant to say how faithful an adaptation it was, but you people there have led me down the line of criticism much quicker than I had intended. Everything is getting turned and turned about, and we’re getting to the wrong parts of the review first. Which is ironic, really. The Third Policeman is sometimes said to be a classic surrealist novel, or a classic postmodernist novel, but at heart it really has a quite straightforward start-to-finish plot. No fiddling around with flashbacks or more complicated temporal structures: it starts at the start, ends at the end, and gets there directly.**** Nice and straightforward to translate into a stage production, so long as you manage to replicate the mood. The mood, indeed, is the important thing.

The Plain People of the Internet: The key to the whole lock, stock and breadbasket!

Indeed, if you want to put it that way. There have been innumerable…

The Plain People of the Internet: We counted them.

You don’t know what I’m going to say!

The Plain People of the Internet: Ah, but we counted them. Five hundred and twenty-seven.

Don’t be silly. Nobody has counted them, and there aren’t five hundred and twenty seven. There have been innumerable…

The Plain People of the Internet: Well then, how would you know?

Shush now. There have been innumerable dream…

The Plain People of the Internet: Fünfhundert, sieben und zwanzig.

…dream sequences committed to literature, but none of them, to my ears, quite ring true. The Third Policeman is the only book I have read that does have the feel of a real, genuine dream. It has dream logic, hallucinatory dream logic, buildings with impossible perspectives or images that are two contradictory things simultaneously.***** It has dream-logic in the plot: the mechanics of Eternity or the machinations of the eponymous Policeman Fox.** And this is something that came across very well in the opera. The combination of live actors, Phizmiz’s music, projected video, shadow-puppetry and all, had a wonderfully dreamlike atmosphere to it, wonderful at capturing the tone of the book itself, both surreal and slightly frightening. Moreover, clearly the company had some finely-honed stagecraft skills: the projected video seemed to be a single stream, and the music was essentially continuous, so there was no space at all for the cast to miss any marks, whether acting on their own, as a group, or with partly-prerecorded dialogue. With several costume changes for two of the three actors, things offstage must have been hectic.

I would go back and see The Third Policeman again, but Thursday’s performance was the last one in Bristol. If you’d like to see it yourself, then it is coming up in the next few weeks in Rotterdam, Dartington and Bridport, according to Mr Phizmiz’s website. If you’re going to be around any of those places, I’d recommend it. Having read the novel, I was intrigued as to how a stage adaptation would work: of all the books I have read, it is…

The Plain People of the Internet: By, there it is: if you saw us coming, then we’re sure we saw that. And you never even told us: Is it about a bicycle?

* Someone once said, about this site, that the profusion of footnotes meant I wasn’t a very good writer. I see their point,****** but disagree. A heavily-footnoted work such as The Third Policeman is possibly as close as you can come to a hypertext narrative in book form, and reading it leads to one skipping up and down and flipping between two separate trains of thought, main text and footnote, as one goes. Rather, in other words, like browsing the Web with a dozen tabs all open at once, flipping to another whilst one waits for the first to load.

** Or, at least, the dreams I have have that sort of plot. Maybe not everyone’s dreams are the same.

*** A most distinguished and unique philosopher who is generally only to be found within the pages of O’Brien’s work.

**** It’s certainly not a postmodern novel when compared with Lanark, one of my favourite novels; although it did influence Lanark greatly – or apparently, at least. It says as much in the pages of Lanark, in a section where the book’s author lists all his various sources and inspirations, including some sources and inspirations which allegedly inspired passages which, if you look them up, don’t exist anywhere else in the novel. Now that’s postmodernism.

***** One of these – a cracked ceiling that is at the same time both just a pattern of cracks in plaster and a detailed map of the local area – was one of the few things in the book that didn’t seem to get mentioned at all in the opera.

The Plain People of the Footnote Internet: No Plain People either, but to be fair Mr O’Brien kept them to badger in his newspapery work. Now, here’s a thing. You know those horror films where your man thinks it’s all a dream, but then he wakes up and the evil axe-wiggler nightmare is still around and about the place? Is this the same here? You, reaading or writing on the outside of that screen there, thought that you had escaped into a footnote and had gotten yourself away from us, only for Plain People to jump in and interrupt your footnotes too? And does that mean we are about to tap you yourself there on your shoulder?

****** ie, that I can’t edit properly.

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Fourth Series

In which FP rants about Being Human’s writers not being able to coherently plot from series to series

This blog still gets quite a lot of hits from people searching for the locations used in the BBC supernatural drama series Being Human, particularly the house used in the first couple of series. Now, I wrote quite a bit about those two series on here, partly because at the time we lived in South Bristol, the series was filmed largely in South Bristol, and it was quite an enjoyable thing to watch. The last time I wrote about it, though, was to (successfully) predict one of the plot-lines of Series Three; however, when that series made it onto the screen ,I hardly wrote about it at all. I hardly wrote about it because, to be honest, I didn’t think it was very good.

Now, with at least two major characters killed off* at the end of Series Three, you might have wondered whether it was coming back. Google says that Series Four was announced back in March, but I have to say I didn’t notice. I did notice, however, more of those little pink filming location signs which used to pop up all over Bristol. Not by the Black Castle this time, so no more “Box Tunnel” plotline. Instead, this year, filming is going on in (drum roll) Newport, South Wales. Newport, the town city so good they called it Newport! Newport, on the beautiful River Usk, where you can get shot while having your hair done before getting your head stuck in a disused train. It’s that good.**

Newport might be awful, depressing and run down, but Cardiff has plenty of areas like that too. So, the next series of Being Human is going to feature: some sort of dramatic, thrilling climax based around the Newport Transporter Bridge. It’s essentially the only unique thing Newport has; and if you’re going to feature it, you may as well be dramatic about it. Well, either that, or the Manic Street Preachers are going to pop up in the background, which is less likely.

Noticing that Being Human is coming back, and writing this post, has made me think about exactly why I don’t think it is any good any more; why I think it shouldn’t come back. The biggest problem I have with it, I think, is that its writers don’t really have any sense of how to expand on their fictional world but still retain believability. Each series might make sense on its own, but the three series that have been produced so far, put back to back, make no sense at all as a single work: each new series has introduced new elements which completely break the world already established.

If you’ve watched it, you might be wondering what I’m talking about here. So, I’ll elaborate. Stop reading now if you have never seen the programme but might want to watch it in the future.

Series one: we have Emotionally-Tortured Pre-Raphaelite Vampire, trying hard to give up on the whole “killing people” thing; and Evil Villain Vampire, who is going to take over the world and doesn’t see any place for brooding emotional types who think they can live alongside humans in his worldview. Evil Villain Vampire is working in the police, so he can keep vampires under-cover and make sure their crimes don’t get exposed. E-T P-R V learns to rely on his friends, who defeat Mr. Evil Villain – in the workplace, note – and forestall the great vampire takeover. Sorted.

Series two: E-T P-R V and friends are fighting against some religious “scientists” who are trying to cure evil, and exterminate it if curing it doesn’t work. Our vampire protagonist is still being broody because he’s having trouble with the whole not-killing-people thing again. So, introduce Morally-Uplifted Mentor Vampire, who gave up blood-quaffing as a dead loss some centuries back, and who, way back before the start of Series One, taught Mr E-T P-R Vampire how to not kill people to begin with.

Now, this plotline might all make sense if M-U M Vampire (ooh, an apt acronym) lived somewhere exotic, somewhere difficult for a Totterdown resident to get to.*** Or, alternatively, if he’d**** been off on holiday somewhere, out of contact, for the whole of Series One. Touring the Amazon, perhaps, or spending three years trainspotting in Iceland. The only sensible explanation, indeed, is that that was indeed the case and it just isn’t mentioned: because it turns out that M-U M Vampire lives in a very nice house, literally a stone’s throw from E-T P-R Vampire’s workplace – where, remember, the Final Denoument took place in the previous series. Literally a stone’s throw. Not only did Evil Villain Vampire not notice, in the previous series, that an active let’s-not-kill-people mentor character was living two minute’s walk away, but E-T P-R Vampire could have popped round for some advice and a cup of tea in his afternoon break, and still got back to work before anybody noticed.

Series Three: the religious chaps have been defeated, the Core Team have moved to Wales, and the Evil Villain Vampire might not have been defeated quite so thoroughly as we all thought. But, what’s this? There are some other vampires! Who may or may not exist, of course. They might be somewhere in the depths of the Amazon, or they might be deeply under-cover in a second police team devoted to making sure vampire killings don’t get exposed. However, all the vampires are well-aware that these Old Vampires may exist, or may be just a myth that vampires pass down from generation to generation. All the vampires are well aware of the myth, even though it was never previously mentioned. In Series One, Evil Villain Vampire was planning to take over the world, was planning to become Vampire King Of The World, indeed, and nobody seemed concerned that there may, just may, be some possibly-mythical Old Vampires who might still be around and might disagree. In Series Three, it turns out, they were working in the same business as Evil Villain Vampire all along! But didn’t think it worth doing a thing about him, didn’t bother stepping in – although we’re presumably meant to assume that they would have stopped things going too far.

Basically, my point is that: Being Human hasn’t been thought through. It’s been planned one series at a time, and each time a series is made, the previous one isn’t even thought of. No doubt Series Four will introduce some other new characters: maybe a Great Pack of werewolves convinced that werewolves are going to take over the world, which everyone has heard of before and cunningly forgotten to mention. Or maybe the Old Vampires are going to turn out to include the team’s landlord from Series One, who hasn’t been seen for a while. Either way, something new will no doubt come in, and if the previous series are anything to go by, it will be something which would have made a vital difference to everything that has gone before, if we had actually known about it.

I will stop ranting, now. There are ways to do this sort of thing properly, but Being Human is probably beyond recovery. The annoying thing is, it would have been much better if someone had sat down, right at the start, and said: if we do get more than one series, what way will we go? And what do we have to do now, to make sure we can?

* Given that several characters are either dead or undead, and one has been “killed off for good” once before only to return when the writers ran short of plot, this is possibly not a useful measure of whether or not it will return.

** It’s hard for me to describe what an awful place Newport is, seriously, without you thinking I’m exaggerating for comic effect. Doctors in Newport have been known to use “move well away from Newport” as a treatment for clinical depression. Visiting Newport (in the 2010s) is like visiting a small town in northern England (in 1985).

*** Kingswood, maybe.

**** There’s an essay in the implicit and deep-rooted sexism that shows itself in the writing of the female vampires in Being Human, but this is probably not the place for it, and I am not the person to write it. It is, however, no doubt closely related to the vampire-as-sexual-predator archetype. Here, at least, note that only the male vampires are given any chance of redemption other than death; and that the mentor who demonstrates this the most is gay.

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And then again

In which there are updates on a couple of items

Well, hello there. Happy new year and all that.

I’ve broken the silence because, in the post below this one, you might notice that I said the one-off Dirk Gently adaptation broadcast on BBC4 last Christmas “very much had the smell of a pilot about it”. Funnily enough, the BBC agreed with me, so much so that it will be getting a short series in 2012. Whether the series will also be filmed in Easton, Montpelier and St Werburghs remains to be seen. Nostradamus himself would be jealous of my keen-eyed prediction skills.

In other futurology updates: a year ago, I predicted that the new government would last about fifteen months, collapsing over electoral reform. I now have three months left on that one, and the electoral reform has gone the way I always thought it would.* We will see. Nostradamus may not be quite so impressed. In slightly better news, though, we do now have the tea towel that we wanted this time last year. The downside to this: I now have to catch up on all the washing-up that’s been waiting since then.

* Despite being a Yes voter myself. No, not that Yes.

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The Interconnectedness Of All Things

In which a loose adaptation can be better than a faithful one

The problem with no longer having a connected-up TV, and relying on the internet for our TV service, is that we no longer get to see trailers. We no longer get to see trailers, we no longer see adverts in the paper, and so we don’t generally have much idea what’s coming soon on the good TV channels. It’s too easy to miss stuff we’d really enjoy watching.

A case in point: we only just caught Dirk Gently, BBC4’s rather loose adaptation of Douglas Adams’ novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and saw it on the iPlayer with a few hours to spare before it disappeared. I’m glad, though, that we did catch it. I first read the book in my early teens, and enjoyed it despite not understanding half the plot; so, when I discovered that BBC4 had done an adaptation that was merely 1 hour long, I was rather wary. And, as I said, it was a rather loose adaptation, keeping a couple of the characters unchanged, the names of a few of the others, and a couple of the best scenes from the book. One of the earliest scenes saw the titular Dirk, in his office, whitewashing a wall covered in scrawled notes – notes all pertaining to events from the book which had been scythed out of the adaptation. Symbolic, indeed.*

Watching the opening scenes, I thought to myself: that garden wall looks very like our garden wall. Ooh, the decorative stonework on that house looks very like some of the decorative stonework in our street. That street gutter they’re lying in looks very Bristolian, too. And then the camera swung round to show the disused Greenbank chocolate factory, just a stone’s throw from Symbolic Towers.** “Oh, I did see some filming was going on near there the other month,” said K: presumably, this was it. If you saw the programme and are as geeky as me about this sort of thing: most of the action took place on Camelford Road and Co-Operation Road in Easton, and around Falkland Road and Fairlawn Road in Montpelier, with one scene in St Pauls, and a nice shot of a City Farm mural on Mina Road, St Werburghs.

I said above just how loose an adaptation it was. Only the characters of Dirk and his secretary were retained, essentially, from the book; along with the names of the others, some of the best lines, and a flavour of the main plot device. Strangely, though, I thought it a much better adaptation than the one that BBC Radio did a couple of years back. The reason for that? The book’s plot is horribly complicated, and it’s set in what is essentially an alternate universe, hinted at in a pretty subtle way. It’s also, very clearly, derived directly from some of Douglas Adams’ earlier projects.***

Producing a new plot with a similar tone was, in all probability, by far the best way to create a Dirk Gently TV show. It helps with making it a modern-day production: the original revolves heavily around answering-machine tapes. It means you no longer need to know any Romantic poetry to understand what’s going on; you no longer need lots of hints that we’re not in the real world; and you don’t need to try to weld the loose plot-strands of the novel into the tighter mesh you need for a dramatic production. The tone, moreover, was spot on: you could barely spot the join between scenes and lines imported from the book and those written afresh. That matters because the new Dirk Gently very much had the smell of a pilot about it: if its writer is going to try to push things and take it further, it’s good to know that he can write the title character in a faithful style.

Maybe I’m wrong and it was always intended to be a one-off. You could read the ending either way, which in itself was probably intentional. We’d be happy, though, to sit down in front of an hour of Dirk Gently every week. All I can hope is that, if it does turn into a series, that a mathematically impossible sofa turns up at some point. I didn’t miss the book’s alien robot on horseback, or its idyllic Cambridge college scenes, but I did miss the mathematically impossible sofa. And the other thing we have to hope is: we do realise it’s on, and it doesn’t just appear and disappear without us spotting it.

* there were also, incidentally, some newspaper headlines we saw on-screen which were irrelevant to the plot of the programme, but came from the plot of the book.

** We did consider buying a house that was literally a stone’s throw from the shooting locations, but it had a rather nasty damp patch in the living room which looked, even at a glance, to be an expensive fix.

*** Saying directly where it was pulled from would probably be a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t read the book, so I’ve put it down here: the plot is partly derived from two Doctor Who stories that Adams wrote or co-wrote. If you know this before you’ve read the book, it becomes rather obvious which character is effectively a Time Lord, and where he keeps his TARDIS. None of this appeared in the new adapatation, apart from the general plot device of a time machine, which was handled in a radically different way.

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Quiet, please

In which the reference library is louder than you might expect, but somehow seems quieter than normal

Saturday night: to Bristol Central Library, for a gig by The Wraiths, a local band whose “thing” is setting classic poems to music. We’d seen them twice before, at various events,* but last night was the first time we’d seen them performing as a full band.

You might think that a library – the Reference Library Reading Room, in fact – is a slightly odd place to hold a gig. Unusual, I have to admit; Lancaster Library is a regular indie venue, but this was only Bristol Library’s second public concert. The tickets impressed me, for a start: the organisers were clearly trying to set the theme.

Library bookplate or concert ticket?

The library reading room is an amazing space. Part of an early building by Charles Holden, the architect of various iconic London buildings,** it has a high, vaulted ceiling wtih two gallery levels. Unfortunately, I hadn’t thought to bring a camera along; the clatter of a camera shutter can sometimes be a little unwelcome at quiet, intimate gigs. I’ll have to come back on an evening sometime, when the library is open for normal business, and see if they’ll let me take some photos of the interior. It is, allegedly, haunted; the band tried to persuade the gig’s librarian organiser to give us a talk on the various ghosts that live in the building, but sadly it never occurred.

The gig itself can’t really be disassociated, in my head, from the venue. The overall effect was magical, the music filling the vault, although if anything they should have turned the volume up slightly. Although there wasn’t any support, the band played a very full set, two halves and an interval, and the library reference desk had been turned into a cafe-bar for the night. As I said above, we’d seen them twice already, but this gig, with a fuller band, was by far the best; maybe because this time, they were the headline act. They persuaded us to buy their CD,*** and happily encore’d away, slightly tentatively, at the end.

All in all, a great gig, and the second good gig I’ve been to at the library. I’m hoping now that the library sees fit to extend this event into a whole series of concerts: they have a wonderful room, after all, and it makes the music shine.

* and I have a photo of the first time we saw them performing.

** including Senate House, 55 Broadway, and various other Underground Group/London Transport Art Deco premises. At the time Bristol Central Library was built, of course, Art Deco had not yet been thought of, so it’s in more of an Edwardian Classical style.

*** or, rather, the CD of theirs that we didn’t already have.

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In which we discuss the Scott Pilgrim movie, one case of a comic-to-film adaptation that keeps all the spirit of the comic it came from.

Back, back in the mists of time – well, in December 2007 – I posted a review of Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together, the fourth, and at that point, the latest, book in the Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O’Malley.

Since then, of course, the world has moved on. In Spring 2009 the fifth book, Scott Pilgrim vs. The Universe was published, with shiny metallic cover. We quickly bought it,* and I intended to write about it on here, but somehow other things kept coming along and SP5 never got its review.

Forward to this year, and publicity started to appear for Scott Pilgrim, the movie version. The sixth and final book, Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour, was published this summer. “I really must write on the blog about this one,” thought I, “before the film comes out.” But it didn’t happen. So, last weekend, we went to see the film, not sure if we would love it or hate it.

Quick recap for people who have never heard of Scott Pilgrim, never seen it, never read the books: Scott Pilgrim is a 20-something slacker geek with no job, in a rather bad band, who starts dreaming about a mysterious girl. She turns out to be a real girl, a delivery courier called Ramona who knows the secret of using people’s dreams as shortcuts between places in the real world. Scott immediately falls in love, but quickly discovers that her emotional baggage is somewhat more real than most people’s, as she has a whole league of Evil Exes she’s dated in the past, who Scott must defeat in video-game-style fights before he can win her heart. Now, read on…

Adaptations often get a bad press. What works well in one medium, after all, doesn’t always translate; but if an adaptation’s not faithful, it can end up pleasing nobody. Scott Pilgrim vs The World, though, is one of the most faithful adaptations I’ve ever seen, despite the fact it has to cut six books’ worth of action down into one single film. From the moment it started, with the same fonts onscreen as in the book, it was, I think, as close to the comic as any live-action adaptation could get. Lots had to be cut out, of course – the books are set over the course of a year, the film over a few weeks at most – and due to release schedules the last act is radically different to the final book; but, overall, the spirit of the books is captured extremely well. Some subplots were pruned entirely; some of the backstory was moved to an animated short; and some of the characters’ emotional lives are simplified or made less explicit;** none of it feels missing from the film, though. Moreover, the film uses a lot of the books’ stylistic quirks. Just like in the books, each new character gets a little black caption explaining who they are and what they’re up to. Just like the books, the film is full of cunning references and semi-hidden jokes. The film does a very good job, like the books, of portraying a realistic world in which, nevertheless, video-game events can happen.

There are a couple of places where you could argue that the film’s better than the books: in plot terms, there are two places where the story is told in a slightly better way.*** In general, though, I still prefer the books: a much fuller story, because there’s more space to tell it in. At some point, I should write an essay about the ending of the series, and what I think it says about life; that’s not for today, but it says something that the books can inspire me to consider something like that.

Some reviews of Scott Pilgrim vs The World have said that it’s “too hyperactive”. It is, definitely, a fast-moving film: that’s what you get when you compress that much shelf-space into one movie. Philip French, in the Observer, complained that at 1 hour 52 it’s “overlong” – maybe that was the effect of the various fight scenes, which do come close together. Myself, I found it both witty and touching; but I did worry that a newcomer, someone who’s never read the books, would have no clue what was going on at all.

In general, for both me and K, it’s the case that we can’t watch films too often. Once we’ve seen something, even a film we both love, it has to sit on the shelf for a few months before we can happily watch it again. As we walked out of the cinema after seeing Scott Pilgrim vs The Word, almost the first thing we did was: work out when we have some time free to go back and watch it again. If that isn’t a recommendation, I’m not sure what is.

* Coincidentally, the day I bought it was also the day I auditioned to go on Mastermind – I stopped off at Forbidden Planet on the way home.

** A spoilertastic summary of some of the missing bits: Knives Chau’s character is much more developed in the books, and her father takes up a vendetta against Scott at one point, chasing after him with a samurai sword which can cut a tram in two. Scott does try to get a job in the books, if not a career, and there’s much more in the way of band politics too. Emotionally, the most important missing part is: Scott, when trying to escape from Knives’ father, accidentally goes inside Ramona’s head and discovers that in her mind at least, her relationship with Gideon, the ultimate Evil Ex, was a BDSM-style master-slave affair. This isn’t just the payoff to a pun set up right from the start, but is very important in the final end-of-series battle, where it’s also explained that it was Gideon who created the ability to enter someone else’s dreams. All this is only touched on very lightly in the film, hinted at by Ramona’s behaviour “below” Gideon in the Chaos Club scenes; her inability to resist his commands is nothing to do with her own desires, but the result of a microchip he implanted in her head. And that’s enough of the spoilers.

*** Spoilers again: the defeat of Todd, the third Evil Ex is directly caused by Scott in the film; in the book, it’s a bit of a deus ex machina. It’s set up earlier, so not a complete bolt from the blue, but Scott doesn’t really have much involvement with it. Secondly, the treatment of Scott’s extra life is handled better in the film, in that he has to “replay” the previous few scenes a second time, but knows how to handle them better; in the book he returns to consciousness straight after the dream/afterlife sequence with Ramona. You can, of course, find examples of video games that work in either way, but I preferred the film version.

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In which we suspect that some TV cameras might be taking the train

Regular readers over the past couple of years might have noticed that I quite enjoy spotting the filming locations of the paranormal TV drama* Being Human, filmed in a variety of easily-recognisable Bristol locations: Totterdown, Bedminster, Clifton, St George, College Green, and so on. Not for much longer, though, we thought: although the first two series were Bristol-based, the third series is apparently being moved over to Cardiff. Whether it will be the recognisable Cardiff Cardiff of Torchwood, or the generic anycity of Doctor Who, remains to be seen; but this was all clearly set up when, at the end of Series Two, the protagonists were forced to flee the house on the corner of Henry St and Windsor Terrace for an anonymous rural hideout. No more Bristol locations for us to spot, we thought.

Over the past week, we’ve been doing a lot of driving about moving house; we now know every intimate corner of every sensible route from south Bristol to east Bristol, or at least it feels like we do. So we were slightly surprised to see that, about a week ago, some more of these pink signs have popped up. “BH LOC” and “BH BASE”, as before.

We spotted them on Albert Road, near the Black Castle. “BH BASE” points along Bath Road, towards the Paintworks and the ITV studios. “BH LOC”, though, is intriguing. It points down the very last turning off Albert Road before the Black Castle end. That entrance only goes to two places: a KFC branch, and St Philips Marsh railway depot.

If you watched the second series of Being Human, you might remember that there was, indeed, a rather brutal train-based scene in a First Great Western carriage.** So, expect the third series to include, at the very least, an extension of that scene, if not a spin-off plotline. Or, alternatively, those signs aren’t really anything to do with Being Human at all, and it’s just coincidence that they pop up around Bristol a few months before each series appears on the telly.*** My money’s on that train from Series Two being the root of part of the Series Three plot; but, I guess, we’ll just have to wait, watch and see.

* Well, it started off as a comedy, and got more serious as it went along

** I was impressed that the programme’s fidelity-to-location included shooting that scene in a genuine local train, rather than just finding any railway prepared to get a carriage soaked with fake blood. Of course, it was probably a convenient location too.

*** The third possibility, of course, is that someone in Series Three tries to cure vampires and werewolves of their respective curses by getting them to eat large amounts of fried chicken.

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The Knowledge

In which FP plots to go on the telly again

Regular readers of this site might be aware that, in the past year or so, I’ve appeared on telly a couple of times, showing off my inner geekiness. If you weren’t aware: specifically, I was a contestant on the 2009-10 series of Mastermind, parading my knowledge of French history (I won, hurrah!) and steam trains (lost, but not because of the trains).

It was all great fun and a grand couple of days out. Indeed, if you ever get the chance, I’d recommend going on either Mastermind, Countdown or Jeremy Kyle – they’re all filmed in studios alongside each other – because, if nothing else, the backstage food is very good* and it’s always nice to get pampered.**

Now, I’d never tried doing that sort of thing before, despite people saying “oh, you’re clever, you should enter [latest popular gameshow]”. And I don’t want to turn into one of those people who goes on every quiz show going, popping up every week somewhere across the TV schedules.*** But, even so, now the “you must not go on any other telly” bit of my Mastermind contract has (I think) expired, I’ve started casting an eye across the networks and thinking “maybe I could do that”.

I’m not sure that there’s much TV that I’m suited to, though. Definitely not that Channel 4 thing with Davina McCall, if it’s coming back, just because I don’t think I’m the sort of person who would get through their auditions. The more I look at the lists of game shows that are out there, the more I’m attracted to the ones where you don’t actually win anything material. Radio 4’s Brain Of Britain, for example – not TV but you get the point. I also quite fancy the thought of applying to Only Connect on BBC4, because I think I’m quite good at spotting links between things.**** The only problem is, that’s a team game; I don’t know anybody else who would want to do it (or even who watches it, apart from K), and I never know any of their music questions.

So – does anyone have any other cunning ideas? I will have to ponder it over, and see what I can enter. And, then, watch this space.

* Apart from their meringues, which were the worst meringues I’ve ever had – they had the texture of a stale bread roll.

** There were seeming armies of runners with nothing really to do other than be nice to nervous Mastermind contestants and their families. You couldn’t even try to get yourself a cup of water without a runner saying “oh, don’t get up, we’ll get that for you”.

*** Like the woman who beat me on Mastermind; at least, my mother said she’s spotted her on TV a few times before. I didn’t realise. Another of the contestants, too, was on A Question Of Genius not long ago.

**** If you don’t watch it: the aim is to spot connections between words or statements. A sample question: “12:00am, 1st January, 1970″ is one clue; “Newlyn” is another; the answer is “datum points”, because the former is the time datum for Unix-based operating systems, and the latter is the site of the altitude datum used by the Ordnance Survey. The full questions have 3 or 4 clues, but you get more points if you don’t use all of them.

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In which we consider how to package coffee sustainably

When I was growing up, back in the heyday of capitalism, “caring for the environment” was seen as a bit of a fringe activity. In school, we were all taught how important it was; but in the real world, nobody really paid much attention.

Fast forward to today: companies are falling over themselves to be Environmental, and to show that they Care with big green hugs, pretty flowers and all that. But in many cases this is pure greenwash: an attempt to look caring because they know that caring sells, because ticking the “environmental!” box makes their company look good. Look at the details, and there’s often no real benefit.

One advert that’s been out recently has been particularly annoying us. Kenco, who make reasonably tasty coffee, but whose advertising campaign is annoying, silly, and patronising. “We tried using 100% less packaging,” they lie, “but it didn’t work. So we’re using 97% less packaging instead.”

All well and good: less packaging equals less materials used equals less weight equals less fuel used in distribution. Sounds nice, on the surface. If you look at it with a longer-term eye, though, things aren’t quite so clear-cut. The traditional packaging, as you probably know,* was: glass jars. One of the oldest packaging forms there is, and one of the greenest. It’s so easy to recycle that we’ve been recycling it ever since it was first invented; all you do is clean it and melt it. OK, there was a period of 200 years or so when we didn’t bother; but glass recycling was one of the first forms of recycling to be widespread in this country in the modern period. Even back in the days when, as I said, I was growing up and nobody really worried too much about the environment, we would still take a trip to the village “bottle bank” once a week. I loved to take each jar from the bag, and jump up to get it in the hole, trying to get as loud a smash as I could.**

What have Kenco replaced their glass jars with? Plastic packets. What’s the recyclability of plastic packets in this country? Virtually nil. Can you reuse them for anything? Virtually nothing. So, we go from glass jars which can be easily reused or recycled, to plastic packets which are useless after you get them home, and have to go for landfill. Change in packaging weight: a 97% drop. Change in waste produced: an increase of enormous proportions. Not quite such a good-looking result. Moreover, glass is made from sand, of which there’s no great shortage; plastic is made from oil, which is getting harder and harder to find. Oh dear.

The big disadvantages of glass packaging, of course, are weight and bulk. Less packaging weight means lower transport costs, and less fuel used. Yes, true, this is a good thing for the environment. It’s even better for Kenco, though. I suspect there’s one single big purpose behind this change: cutting Kenco’s transport costs. Their purpose in the world, after all, isn’t to heal the environment, and it isn’t even to make reasonable-tasting coffee. It’s to make money for their owners, by a) selling more coffee and b) lowering the cost of producing that coffee. Trying to persuade us that their cost-cutting is good for the environment will, I assume, help them sell more coffee to some people. In the long run, though, it’s a much less sustainable way to package. It’s not really as good for the environment, as they’d like us to think.

* and still being produced, of course

** And that’s not counting glass milk bottles and fizzy drink bottles, sold on deposit and reused many times over by the manufacturers since, ooh, the railways first came along and made large-scale distribution practical.

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