Tuesday, 29 October 2013

It was a dark, Dark Knight...

With All Hallow's Eve, or Halloween as it is more commonly known, just around the corner it's time for my own spooky themed post of the year, methinks.  This time I'm going to take a slightly different but hopefully no less spooky tack, doing my first Pinterest-inspired post in honour of my one of my favourite pop culture characters - the (sometimes) dark, Gothic, unnatural, eerie and mysterious superhero that is:


Batman, as well as having that frightening other-worldly mysteriousness about him as already mentioned, is also deeply influenced by Gothicism.  Which is probably one of the reasons he is my favourite superhero; who doesn't like a bit of Gothic symbolism in their fictional crimefighter?  I happen to like bats too (excepting the time one nearly flew into my face while I was walking down a dark Devon lane) and what is Batman other than a man dressed as a bat?  And bats are a Halloween staple!

I think another reason I'm drawn towards Batman is that mysticism surrounding the character.  He fights crime from the shadows; no-one know who he is or whether he's even human and he uses fear and surprise to overpower his enemies.  It's still good versus evil, but the contrast isn't as great (and in the case of the Joker, it could easily said to be in reverse).  That's also why Batman and Batman Begins remain my two favourite Batman films, with the superstitious and eidolic aspect being played up to great effect.  Probably a great many other Batman fans feel the same way and it is undoubtedly these characteristics, this flip-side of a traditional superhero, that has allowed Batman to endure for 75 years and remain an incredibly successful cultural icon.

The history of those 75 years is fascinating as well, with the character's origins from the 1930s and '40s (and earlier) just adding more to his appeal.


Created by the comic-book artist and writer duo of Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1939 Batman's first appearance in the May 1939 Detective Comics #27 is only eleven months after Superman's debut in rival Action Comics #1 (it was the success of the latter that spurred DC on to create a superhero of their own).  The idea of the superhero had gained currency in the 1930s and Batman was clearly influenced by the first, earlier prototypes of The Shadow and The Phantom.  Going even further back, Zorro has been cited as an influence, something writers worked into Batman's origin story (it was the 1920 Douglas Fairbanks Sr. The Mark Of Zorro that the Wayne family saw before the parents were murdered outside the theatre).  Bob Kane also took themes from popular culture of his youth - films like 1926's The Bat (and the 1930 remake/sequel The Bat Whispers) and Conrad Veidt's Gwynplaine in 1928's The Man Who Laughs.  (As a result of this there are some excellent vintage Batman parodies to be found on YouTube...)

In the 1940s Batman, like so many action heroes of the time, featured in a couple of movie serials - Batman in 1943 and Batman and Robin in 1949.  They're standard 1940s serial fare, very much of their time (especially the 1943 one, which features some very dubious propaganda) with pretty suspect costumes, sets etc.  I won't add them here, but they can be found easily enough on YouTube - here and here.  Again they have both inspired some excellent alternative thinking on the part of some YouTube users.

Glossing over the Sixties television series and film, which are good silly fun and set the tone for the next two decades but not the sort of Batman to feature here we arrive instead at the Tim Burton Batman films and DC Comics' attempts in the mid-1980s to return to a darker characterisation with graphic novels such as Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns.  The films Batman and Batman Returns featured this dark re-imagining to great success (and Michael Keaton remains, on balance, my favourite Batman/Bruce Wayne) but then Joel Schumacher took over - and the less said about that the better!


In the early 1990s, following the success of the first two modern Batman films, the cartoon Batman: The Animated Series appeared and this brings back many a happy memory of Saturday morning television, as well as furthering my interest in the character (the "Dark Deco" style in that series also helped!).  Then of course more life has been breathed into the character in recent years thanks to the "Nolan Trilogy" of films which culminated in last year's critically and commercially successful The Dark Knight Rises.  Thanks to these Batman's stock has never been higher - he still appears in DC Comics today, in numerous award-winning video games and fashioned onto (or into) almost anything you care to name. 

The Batman's next 75 years would seem to be assured, then, although rumblings continue over the decision to cast Ben Affleck in the role for the upcoming 2015 extravaganza that will be Batman vs. Superman.   However that turns out I'm sure the Batman will endure, continuing his adventures and forever striking a fearful and unnatural shadow over the cowardly and superstitious criminal.

*Below are the two "vintage Batman" videos mentioned earlier.  Who was your favourite Batman/Bruce Wayne?  Is Ben Affleck a good choice to play the next Caped Crusader?  Do let me know in the Comments section - and have a happy Halloween!


Monday, 28 October 2013

A near-spectacular surprise

After two helpings of Captain Hastings (well, almost two) now it feels right to do an event post by way of a change.


Yesterday (Sunday) morning found me at the St. Luke's Hospice Vintage Spectacular in Basildon.  St. Luke's Hospice, I should explain, is a specialist palliative care charity serving the local area (and although there are several St Luke's Hospices dotted about the country, I don't believe they're linked other than by the services they offer).  They have two large charity shops in the towns nearest me, Basildon and Wickford, from where I have scored many a find over the years.  This was their very first foray into vintage fairs and while it would be something of a stretch to have called it "spectacular" it was well-organised, quite popular (I've never seen so many pin curls and vintage outfits in Basildon before!) and definitely has potential for becoming a regular event.

Some two-dozen stalls were spread throughout the sports hall of the local college, with a dancing area at one end on which the fine folks from A2 Jive (including a distant relative who I caught up with) doing their stuff.  There are some pictures on their own site here that give a good idea of the thing.  Going solely by the leaflet I picked up months ago I was not expecting such a wide range of different stalls and traders, but rather a selection of clothing and collectibles (by the way, did you know the difference between "collectable" and "collectible"?) that had been culled from the two charity shops in the preceding months.  Certainly the sparseness I've encountered on the rails and shelves of both branches recently had led to me to suspect that they were holding stuff back for this event but it turned out that only 3 of the stalls were the hospice's, selling the usual mixture of books, old (and "vintage") clothing and bric-a-brac.  Nothing like what I'd envisaged, though.  It was still a very enjoyable, typical vintage fair, however - similar to my other local one at Benfleet (indeed some of the stalls looked familiar!).  Many local stallholders had turned up, including Lawdy Momma from Battlesbridge - who also happens to feature on Ruby's latest blog.

I had the briefest of flashbacks to my hated school P.E. lessons upon entering the building as the interior layout was almost identical to my old school's sports hall - no doubt the [same] builders had followed a template!  It proved to be quite a boon, however, as it allowed the stallholders and dancers a bit of space.  The Vintage Tearoom were able to set up in a separate room, too, which also allowed them more space; they also had a delightful live singer, Miss Violet Rae, in one corner doing more than justice to 1940s and '50s standards.  Refreshments were more than reasonable too at 50p each for a cup of tea and a fairy cake.


I didn't leave empty-handed either.  As is usual with these events there was a mixture of "proper" vintage, repro and stuff labelled "vintage" that really wasn't (or at least shouldn't have been for another 10-20 years).  Prices were wide-ranging but I did manage to sniff out three bargains, two of which you can see above.  A classic brown leather suitcase that cost me all of a five pound note and a nice plain chocolate brown wool tie.  Neither are of any great age - probably not many years older than me! - but both have a timeless quality that will suit me well.  The suitcase is very similar to one I have that belonged to my father - in colour and size practically identical, so I like to think of them as a matching set now!  )Not that I go on many holidays these days...) The straps on this one are strangely counter-intuitive though - you have to push the metal clasps up and away from you to disengage the pin.  Takes a bit of getting used to!  For such a niggardly sum and in such good condition (only a couple of small dings and marks on the leather) I just couldn't pass it up.  If nothing else it will serve as storage for some items of clothing, away from the dreaded moths!

The tie, although labelled "vintage", was only £4 probably as a result of it sporting the St Michael's label (Marks & Spencer's luxury line) which only ended in 2000.  It was also immaculate, pure wool and an appealing colour, though, so home it came with me.

The third and final item is a really interesting score, from the St. Luke's Hospice stall itself.  The selection of books consisted almost entirely of cricketing tombs (you can see them in one of A2 Jive's photos, actually) - probably all from the library of a recently-deceased cricket fan.  Being something of a fan of the noble game myself, I cast my eye over them and one in particular leaped out at me.  Lo!:

The splendidly-named The Test Match Surprise is, in its own words, a "cricket novel", written by the English batsman Jack Hobbs (later Sir John Hobbs) and dating from 1926!  I haven't had the chance to look through it closely yet but it would appear to be the fictional tale of the trials and tribulations of a lowly cricketer.  It is wonderfully redolent of its period, when Hobbs was at the peak of his popularity following England's win at the 1926 Ashes.  The book itself has aged, of course - the cover is dulled, the pages brown and crisped.  More remarkably the spine is as tight as anything - I can barely open it more than an inch or two without fear of doing some damage.  It's slightly looser up until chapter eight, where there are crease marks from where the page has been folded, but after that...  You know, I wouldn't be surprised if it has never been read in its entirety since it was first bought.  And how much did this 87-year-old book set me back?  One whole English pound.

All-in-all, then, a very worthwhile and enjoyable day out with some lovely finds to show for it.  St. Luke's Hospice acquitted themselves admirably with their first vintage fair and I sincerely hope it will not be their last.  Judging by this one, I think that very unlikely.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Poirot: The Big Four; or, The Big Two-and-a-half...

... that being the rating, out of four, that I would give last Wednesday's PoirotThe Big Four?  More like The Big Disappointment for this blogger, I'm afraid.

Still, by popular demand - especially from overseas readers - here follows a vague outline (so as not to spoil it for those of you who haven't yet seen it!) of the episode, focussing particularly on the welcome return of series stalwarts Japp, Miss Lemon and Captain Hastings!

Well, focussing as much as possible considering one of the biggest problems with Wednesday's episode - after all the fanfare of their much-anticipated return Miss Lemon and Captain Hastings appear in this two-hour drama for all of about 10 minutes.  Japp fares better - being the policeman he is with Poirot for most of the investigation but really, to build up a chap's (or chappette's) expectations and then give us the barest serving of Lemon & Hastings - especially when the latter is so crucial to the plot of the original book - just isn't bally well fair!  Giving us an opening shot of Hastings on his hacienda and having him utter his immortal catchphrase as the first words of the drama certainly created the impression in my mind that he was going to play a major part in this adventure.  Oh well.

Hastings seems to have settled down to the life of an Argentinian rancher...
As befits a working landowner, Hastings sports a combination of checked tattersall
shirt, spotted neckerchief and matching waistcoat and felt sun hat.
All together now... "Good Lord!"

Things seemed to progress nicely, albeit to the more sombre scene of someone's funeral, with all three of the old supporting characters together again - even though it be in sad circumstances (possible spoiler alert ahead!).

Miss Lemon!  Best shot I could get of this dress, which begins a line of simple,
patterned tea dresses(?) with a nice neckline
Japp (Philip Jackson) has aged well and his wardrobe has improved too, as befits
his new rank of Assistant Commissioner
Traditional funeral attire for Miss Lemon and Captain Hastings

At the wake and some of the old magic glints through the sadness as everyone is in Poirot's flat again.

Not much to add about Captain Hastings' black [pinstripe] suit. 
Miss Lemon's outfit has a few nice touches around the neck and sleeves.
It all gets a bit too much for Hastings.  Awww!

And that for much of the episode is all we see of Miss Lemon and the good Captain, as the action moves swiftly on to the main meat of the story.  Which, sadly, bears little resemblance to the original novel.  This is a great pity, as The Big Four has long been one of my favourite Poirot novels with its cases of international espionage and high adventure all held together by the thread of the mysterious "Big Four".  I admittedly haven't read it for some time but it has always stuck in my memory as a particularly thrilling book in which Hastings had much to do, some of it quite dangerous as I recall.  Much has been written already, including by fellow blogger Porcelina, of the difficulties inherent in adapting a convoluted series of cases into a 90-minute TV drama (Mark Gatiss himself has called the original plot "an unadaptable mess") but I still think they could have done better than the disjointed parody that has resulted.  They certainly could have and should have used Captain Hastings more prominently!

Anyway, for a good while there wasn't much worthy of comment so here are just a few general shots of the episode that I felt could be included here:

Japp's wardrobe, as mentioned, is at it's best ever.  He even looks halfway decent
in white tie (although still not a patch on Poirot)!
Quite a nice suit for the Assistant Commissioner
The old brown trilby and overcoat make a welcome return, though.

Some things that thankfully haven't changed too much are the production values.  Certainly like all Poirots since the series' 2003 "re-imagining" everything has been filmed in much darker, tenebrous style which can still take a bit of getting used to after the lighter tone of the earlier episodes.  As a result the fashions on show tend to be a bit duller and more limited, as was the case in The Big Four.  A couple of the effects were a bit ropey too.  The props were splendid, though, as were the locations (despite being less wide-ranging than those in the novel).

Poirot has a beautiful Art Deco chess set (of course!).  Which, I'm delighted to
see, you can buy an example of yourself.

For the ladies, these were the best shots of the few fashions that cropped up during the episode:

Madame Olivier seems to favour checked suits...

This particular adaption also seemed to have been cursed with the inclusion of an annoying, gabby actress (Flossie Munro, played by Sarah Parish) and an annoying, arrogant newspaper reporter (Mr Tysoe, played by Tom Brooke), neither of whom endeared themselves - or the plot - to me very much.  The episode was also extremely hamstrung, in my opinion, by a disappointing Big Reveal.  Even taking into account the smaller scale of this version, the unmasking of the villain turned out to be not only unexpected but also unbelievable.  He was completely without menace and had a motive so flimsy and far removed from the novel's dénouement that it made the previous 75 minutes seem rather disconnected and, dare I say it, almost hardly worthwhile.

Let's not end on such a sour note, though.  Part of the way through, Miss Lemon, Japp and Captain Hastings return [briefly] as we find ourselves back at the funeral/wake that began this story:

A highlight of Captain Hastings' wardrobe, limited as it is in this outing, is this
wonderfully well-fitted double-breasted overcoat.
Back at Poirot's, Hastings is determined to do what he can to catch The Big Four
I mean, he's really determined.  Remember that time he decided he'd solve the
case in Double Sin?  Even more determined than that.
He even has strong words with Japp.  I haven't seen him this angry since he
punched Miss Lemon's ex-boyfriend in The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman.
Once outside he calms down and stops to think.  In quite a poignant moment he is
heard to quietly ask "What do I do now, old chap?".

Here is where the could have introduced a bit more Captain Hastings - had him trying to follow leads, meeting with the reporter, the actress, Mme. Olivier.  But no, we don't see him again until about a minute before the end.  Thanks for that. (As an aside, it's struck me that no-one - from the Christie estate or otherwise - has thought to do a story or two with Captain Hastings as the main character.  Wouldn't that be great?  Adventures from his side of a case, or away from Poirot, or in Argentina.  Someone should really do that.  Are you listening, the Christie Community?)

A better look at Miss Lemon's black blouse

So having teased us half way through with another brief appearance of Hastings and Miss Lemon, we now have to wait until the very end to see them all together again.

Miss Lemon sporting a simple red dress with some nice collar detailing again.
Japp back in his [now usual] three-piece, and another look at Miss Lemon's dress.
Hastings burst in, having not been seen since he stormed out half an hour previously.
The episode ends not ten seconds later.  Still, every second with Hastings is a joy...

By and large then a fairly mediocre affair, saved only by the presence - however fleeting - of three beloved supporting characters from the past and David Suchet's consummate portrayal of Poirot.  There were a couple of gems in the dialogue - when confronted with a "Death" tarot card found on a victim's body Japp ruminates "Mrs Japp was dealt one just like that on Southend Pier.  'Gypsy Meg'.  Three weeks later the cat died".  We also get to see Poirot run for perhaps only the third time in the entire, well, run.  But for me the whole episode was neatly summed up by Poirot himself.  When his friends gather round at the end, he remarks "Where is Hastings?  Where is Captain Hastings?!".  It was a question I'd been asking myself for most of the preceding two hours...

Friday, 18 October 2013

The return of Captain Hastings (and the end of Poirot!)



If you live in the UK and own a television set then the chances are you'll have already started seeing the trailers for the final Poirot series, the first episode of which begins next Wednesday the 23rd of October.  ITV has been plugging it at every opportunity and for once I quite agree with them - Poirot has been a jewel in their crown for nearly 25 years and the [sad] fact that it is coming to an end deserves all the notice it can get.  Putting aside the fandom for a minute, I would go so far as to say it is a landmark moment in the history of British television.  I'm struggling to think of another TV period drama series of recent memory that has endured for a quarter of a century, with the same lead actor giving a definitive performance (from the very first episode, I think you'd agree) in what would fully deserve to be his enduring legacy.  David Suchet has been the Poirot parfait and, much like Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes or Fry & Laurie's Jeeves and Wooster, I doubt I shall see a better portrayal in my lifetime.

HEADLINE: "Last series of Poirot begins next week.  Nation in mourning."

In Poirot the main character(s) have become loved by the viewing public; we've travelled the years with them and although we may already have read the original novels there has been something about each adaptation that draws us in and makes us enjoy the story anew.  Agatha Christie's undoubted genius at writing detective fiction is of course a main ingredient of Poirot's success but thanks must also go towards all the actors who have appeared down the years (some big names in there further adding to the series' stature) and of course the top class scriptwriters (who have included luminaries such as Clive Exton, David Renwick, Anthony Horowitz and Mark Gatiss), not to mention the production staff who have done such a wonderful job with the sets, props and - of course - the clothes!  It could be argued that the series took a darker turn, which may not have suited some tastes, after the departure of supporting characters Chief Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson), Miss Lemon (Pauline Moran) and Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser) but even these solo episodes are still suitably atmospheric murder mysteries.  It is a further mark of the series that these three characters proved so popular that they were used in far more stories than they ever actually appeared in in the books.

Miss Lemon!  Japp!  Poirot!  CAPTAIN HASTINGS!!  Just like old times.

We're about to be in for a real treat, though, with the first of these final four episodes -  The Big Four (SPOILER WARNING).  For it marks the return to the series (for the first time in twelve years) of those beloved character Chief Inspector (now Assistant Commissioner!) Japp, Miss Lemon and this blogger's favourite - Captain Arthur Hastings!  Oho, I can't wait!  I'm only a little worried that they won't get much screen time and that the actors won't have aged as well as their fictional counterparts (by my reckoning only 4 or 5 years should have passed during the entire series - excepting The Mysterious Affair at Styles and The Adventure of the Chocolate Box which were both set earlier in Poirot's career) although judging by the splendid picture above I don't think the latter will be too much of a problem!  More importantly, what are half of the vintage blogosphere, myself included, going to talk about once it's all over?!  It can't end, it just can't!

Now, finally, a question for you all.  We're about due another Captain Hastings post, I reckon.  In light of this upcoming event, would you like me to cover the welcome return of Captain Hastings in The Big Four or continue my chronological journey through the earlier episode with Problem At Sea?  Let me know in the comments below!

Thursday, 17 October 2013

WWI airfield Stow Maries to be restored



Crikey, has it really been 4 weeks since my last post?  Between a little bit of work, a little bit of play and re-learning how to knit (yes, I've tentatively picked up the needles again after a near twenty-year gap - more on that later!) I've not had much chance to blog lately, for which I again apologise.  Now's the time to get going again, though, with this excellent article about a First World War airfield right here in my home county of Essex. 

WWI airfield Stow Maries to be restored

With the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War less than a year away now, the wheels have already begun to be set in motion to mark this important centenary.  The B.B.C. has announced over 2,500 hours of related programming and the government has pledged £50,000,000 to remembrance commemorations, with commenters from every corner of the country discussing what should or shouldn't be done and how the money should be spent.  (Personally I'm delighted to see the Imperial War Museum London earmarked to get even more "massive" improvements and major events all around the country mooted too.  Not to mention the all-important educational aspect as well.  It all sounds good so far!)   

Stow Maries WWI aerodrome saved by £1.5m grant

RFC Stow Maries, c.1914
source
Already a small part of that £50m has been well spent saving an original First World War aerodrome in Stow Maries (near the town of Maldon in the mid-east of Essex) with the aim of restoring it to its 1916 condition in time for the commemorations.

One of only ten remaining from the total 250 RFC stations built during the war, Stow Maries is the most complete example in Britain with all of its buildings still intact - more than 24 in total, many with their original windows and other features still intact as you can see in the accompanying clip.  Built for one of the new Home Defence squadrons - otherwise known as "Zeppelin Busters" - to counter the new menace of aerial attacks by airships and Gotha bombers, Stow Maries was ideally placed to allow quick interception of zeppelins bound for London, Southend and northern towns.  Along with Suttons Farm (later RAF Hornchurch and from where Lt. William Leefe Robinson became the first pilot to shoot down a zeppelin on the 2nd-3rd September 1916),  Hainault Farm (RAF Fairlop), North Weald and Rochford aerodromes and also Joyce Green aerodrome in Kent, Stow Maries made up part of the London Air Defence Area.



Stories still abound of zeppelins bombing Southend and Purfleet, being spotted over Canvey Island and perhaps most famously being shot down in Billericay so it is wonderful to see this locally and nationally important historical site preserved and restored for future generations.  Already there is talk of using it as the base for some flying WW1 exhibits at future Southend airshows and the plan to have it as a place to teach the restoration skills needed to keep these aircraft airworthy is inspired.  I can't wait to see what else Stow Maries has in store!

By remaining unused (save for the occasional farm storage purposes) and overgrown from the end of the Second World War until only four or five years ago Stow Maries has managed to survive miraculously untouched.  It was on the market only a year ago with the very real risk of being redeveloped but it is now in the safe hands of aviation & history enthusiasts and successful businessmen, the Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome Trust and the Friends Of Stow Maries Aerodrome.  Thanks to the National Heritage Memorial Fund it is now in a position to begin realising its full potential as a fully restored First World War aerodrome, working museum and of course a lasting memorial to all the brave men (and women) who fought and served in the "war to end all wars".

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