Just when you thought you’d heard the last of the Vuvuzela, Zeit Online presents a special performance of Brahms and Ravel, in the Konzerthaus Berlin. As Uwe, Stephan and Helge prove, the Vuvuzela can be more than just an exceedingly loud background noise to the World Cup.
If investigative journalist Mark Ebner had three wishes, his first would be for a paid-off beach shack in his home-state of Rhode Island.
For the record, Ebner is the best investigative journalist since Hunter S Thompson. If you visit his web page, ‘Hollywood Interrupted‘ you’ll see the long list of his accomplishments. An award winning investigative journalist, Mark Ebner has covered all aspects of celebrity and crime culture for ‘Spy’, ‘Rolling Stone’, ‘Maxim’, ‘Details’, ‘Los Angeles’, ‘Premiere’, ‘Salon’, ‘Spin’, ‘Radar’ and ‘New Times’.
If that isn’t enough, then please note that for his journalism Ebner has put himself at some considerable risk, when investigating subjects as diverse as Scientology, Pit Bull fighting, the Ku Klux Klan, celebrity stalkers, drug dealers, missing porn stars, sports groupies, college suicides and Hepatitis C in Hollywood.
Now add to that his best-selling books – the now classic ‘Hollywood Interrupted’ (co-written with Andrew Breitbart) and ‘Six Degrees of Paris Hilton’.
Okay, if you’re still not impressed, let’s briefly mention his TV work as host and writer on the ‘Tru TV’ show and working with Trey Parker and Matt Stone on the Emmy nominated episode of ‘South Park’, ‘Trapped in the Closet’.
With such blue chip credentials, you begin to appreciate the talent that is Mark Ebner.
Born in Rhode Island in 1959, Mark’s earliest memories are of his mother, Eleanor, bathing him in a stainless steel sink. She died at the age of 28.
One of Ebner’s literary favourites is the Demon Dog of American crime fiction, James Ellroy. There is a connection here between these two distinctive and talented writers. Firstly, both lost their mothers at impressionable ages: Ellroy’s mother was murdered when he was 11, and her slaying has been an obsession and a focus for his writing since.
Unlike Ellroy, Ebner has kept quiet on his loss, and one can only wonder at the effect it has had on him.
Secondly, both had ambitions kicked started by television series. Ellroy was given a book ‘The Badge’, a compendium of true-life crime tales, which included the murder of Elizabeth Short, aka the Black Dahlia, written by ‘Dragnet’ star Jack Webb.
While Ebner’s ambitions to become a newsman were rooted in his childhood liking for the old b&w ‘Superman’ TV series. But unlike most kids of that age, Mark was more impressed by geeky newshound Clark Kent than his alter ego, the man in tights.
Ebner went on to attend the liberal-arts Bard College, whose notable alumni include the director Todd Haynes, actor Larry Hagman and Hollywood screenwriter Howard Koch, winner of the Academy Award for ‘Casablanca’, and lofty ambitions are reflected its motto ‘Dabo tibi coronam vitae’ (‘I shall give you the crown of life’). It was here that Mark first fulfilled his Clark Kent ambitions, as editor of the ‘Bard Times’.
After Bard, Ebner spent: “everything possible to avoid my calling until I got my first paid magazine gig at 25, for 25 cents-a-word. I could only fool myself into thinking I could write marketable screenplays for so long.”
He came up old school in his bid to start his career as an investigative reporter. The long hours putting together a “clip file” of published work, which he often did for free, then sending it on to editors with original story ideas. Okay, he received a lot of knock-backs and rejection letters, but ultimately, his nose for a good story won out.
And it was his dogged determination for a good story that paid off in 1996, when his now legendary undercover story on Scientology appeared in ‘Spy’ magazine. From its opening lines to its obvious that a maverick talent had arrived.
“I am an ex-drug addict who has solicited prostitutes in my day. I’ve also masturbated and inhaled at the same time, and I have been arrested more than once in my life. I dropped out of high school, and I’ve been under psychiatric care. Oh yeah, and I owe the IRS roughly six thousand dollars that they are well aware of.”
To steal a line from what a critic once wrote about John Lennon‘s first post-Beatles’ album, ‘The Plastic Ono Band’, Ebner had put his balls on the railway track and the train had stopped out of respect.
But there was method in his words, as he explained:
“In the language of Scientologists, the above information reflects what they include in their “Dead Agent Packs”-dossiers of all the dirt they dig up on people critical of their “religion.” Often they disseminate damaging information like this to the friends, family, landlords, and employers of anyone who dares speak of–or worse, publish anything derogatory about the “church.” So what I’m doing here is Dead Agenting myself before we begin, beating them to the punch.”
When he wrote this article most people didn’t know much about Scientology or that they were an organisation you didn’t f–k with. I asked Mark was he concerned about the consequences of investigating such a cult?
“When my first-person Scientology expose dropped in Spy magazine in 1996, I wasn’t worried about the cult as much as I was concerned about my ability to navigate Hollywood circles. You see, in this town of hypocrites and back-stabbers, most of the powerful bunch were still blindly siding with cash cows like Travolta and Cruise. These people would pat me on the back for a job well down on the side, and then run from me at dinner parties. F–k them. I told them so, didn’t I? Scientology did threaten to sue me on publication, and Spy magazine wound up paying a good deal on 1st Amendment lawyers, but my attitude was, “You’re going to sue me? Bring it on, because I have a subpoena in my back pocket for all of your celebrity adherents, and I’ll serve them myself.” In the States you have to prove damages to succeed in such a lawsuit. I made it clear that I would open the books on everyone in that cult if I had to, and they knew to back off when they realized I was serious.”
Undercover work is a tough and lonely business, and Ebner has kept only a few close friends who know the man behind the hard-nosed journalist. It is to these friends that Mark gives his second wish of “Health, wealth, prosperity and joy for my handful of true friends.”
One friend is former film actor and now writer Douglas Steindorff, who describes Ebner as “incorruptible,” and “The unwitting voice of reason and truth. Despite himself he champions the weak and disenfranchised. He is what good cop wishes to be and a bad cop lives his life in fear of. A journalist, the kind of writer Mencken would like.”
Ebner lives in Los Angeles, a city that seems to be always reinventing itself, yet generally remains the same. A city of transience, whose oldest buildings are hotels, and a cultural inheritance inspired by Hollywood and its palaces of dreams.
H. L. Mencken was the ‘Sage of Baltimore’, who exposed frauds, ignorance and intolerance. In 2004, Ebner co-wrote a book with Andrew Breitbart, that did something similar with a now classic study of Tinsel Town.
‘Hollywood, Interrupted: Insanity Chic in Babylon – the case against celebrity’ is possibly the best analysis of the crass stupidity of modern Hollywood written, examining the excess and folly of Robert Downey jnr, Courtney Love, Michael Ovitz, Robert Evans, John Travolta, Angelina Jolie, Winona Ryder, Barbara Streisand and Heidi Fleiss amongst other. Of course, some of these tales are now infamous, but it was Ebner and Bretbart who put them in print first. The books beginnings came from an online correspondence between the two writers.
“Hollywood, Interrupted started writing itself via AOL Instant Messenger. Breitbart and I were so awestruck by Barbara Walters allowing Ann Heche to literally break down, jabbering in an alien language on national television, that we decided to define ‘celebrity’ as a disease and prescribe the antidote for it.
“Breitbart handled the moral outrage end of the book, and I shoveled in some investigative chestnuts. We kept filing chapters until our editor told us to stop. There is, was and always will be a grudging respect between me and Breitbart. He is one of the funniest, generous men I know.”
The book launched Ebner and Breitbart into their own celebrity, with appearances on network television and a nationwide book tour. While Bretbert went onto forge his own ambitious and controversial career with Breitbart.com, Ebner returned to his first loves – writing and reporting.
After the success of ‘Hollywood Interrupted’ some may have been tempted to opt for the easy option as guest pundit on the ubiquitous day-time chat shows. Not Mark, he stuck to his own rules, his own personal code that makes him exceptional, and brings together the style and nature of his life and work
“My life experience is my style, and my vision. I sacrificed every alternate ideal (white-picket and otherwise) to do what I do as a way of life.”
Returning to investigative reporting Ebner turned up another trump card with his next book ‘Six Degrees of Paris Hilton‘.
“I had written a story for ‘Radar’ magazine about a break-in at Girls Gone Wild goon Joe Francis’ home in Bel Air. Once the dildo-wielding perpetrator Darnell Riley had settled into prison life alongside Charlie Manson and Sirhan Sirhan, I started writing him letters – knowing there was more to the story. Darnell agreed to tell me everything, “and then some.” The “then some” became ‘Six Degrees of Paris Hilton’.”
The book reads like a factual account of James Ellroy’s fiction, exposing the connection between low-life criminals and high-end celebrities.
A typical work day for Ebner involves endless phone calls, a lot of door-knocking, and waiting. And waiting… He still keeps a reporter pad to hand, and has only recently upgraded to a digital tape recorder. His life is his work – period. Something that becomes obvious when you realise over 85% of his most successful story ideas have been self-generated.
“My research is old school, gumshoe-style reporting. I hit the ground running, and immerse myself in the scenarios of my subject matter. Crime writing has its hazards, but I have good survival instincts, and I treat all my interview subjects with respect and transparency – unless of course I’m undercover.”
And as for the future?
“I am currently finishing up a non-fiction book for Berkley Books/Penguin on a high-profile kidnapping, developing a documentary television series called ‘Kill File’, and working on an unusually sexy drug trafficking story emanating out of Buenos Aires, Argentina.”
It’s seems a hard and often thankless occupation, but one that delivers books, articles and stories of such quality and insight, that we should all be thankful for Mark Ebner.
The dedication that he has to his talent and craft, is perhaps captured in a small life changing moment form his childhood, when he watched his father bring a dead tropical fish back to life with a heart massage. It was a great, if not perplexing moment for him, one that made him realise the fragility of life and that every moment is a life-changer.
Mark’s third and final wish is a wish for all of us: that we may have freedom from debt and financial insecurity. It says something of the man that he thinks of others before he thinks of himself.
In 2001, Channel 4 television, in the UK, broadcast a 20-part sci-fi short animation series called ‘Workgroup Alpha’. It starred Ed Bishop and dealt with a team of inter-dimensional consultants, lost on an intergalactic space mission. Bishop, with his association as Commander Straker from Gerry Anderson’s cult TV hit ‘UFO’, was ideally cast as Aquarius, the Enterprise Class Visionary, who with his fellow travellers explored “a whole new dimension in universal solutions”.
Though there is the passing hint of Frederick Pohl’s satirical sci-fi classic ‘The Space Merchants’, which imagined a world run by ad agencies, ‘Workgroup Alpha’ offered an intelligent and witty critique of the growing cultural obsession with corporate speak, focus groups, PR consultants, and all those other anemic constructs that have depersonalized our world.
The end credit to the series was attributed to the Butler Brothers, the name by which John and Paul Butler operate. Paul is the co-producer, writer and conceptual consultant. John is writer, designer, animator, composer, co-producer, and director.
I first heard about the Butler Brothers through friends, though it was always John Butler who attracted the most attention. His name was mentioned with that hushed reverential tone and nodding head of respect that said we had touched on some sacred matter. It made Butler seem almost mythical – a great creative artist who lived somewhere (no one seemed quite sure where, or if they did, didn’t say), a garret most likely, where he created, with help from his brother, these incredible digital animations, of such intelligence and imagination.
I thought at the time, this is how the locals of Montmartre and Montparnasse must have behaved, when they whispered to each other about the artists creating works of art in their Parisian, attic studios, at the turn of the last century.
When I speak with John, the analogy chimes closely, as he states his ambition is “To paint a picture of the world.” And then adds his fear is, “Running out of paint.”
It’s a statement that best sums Butler up – he’s artistic, ambitious, intense, honest, imaginative, genuine, creative and witty. He’s a real talent, which in these cloned days is a rare and precious thing – something John is aware.
“As an artist, I suppose my philosophy is composed of what interests me. I’m interested in what happens in the world and why. I’m not really interested in making art from or about art.
“I’m interested in human utility in the drone age. Human redundancy in the unmanned economy. I’m interested in the war between Finance and Humans.
“I’m interested in the Universal Transaction Space we all now inhabit.”
Hearing these clipped, bold, statements, it comes as no surprise that John’s favoured tomes are J. K. Galbraith’s ‘New Industrial State’ and Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle – that brutal novel of life in the meat packing industry.
John also has a penchant for French Literature and Michael Hudson, the economic historian, who he regards as: “one of the best guides to the way things are” while from the French, he claims, Balzac “tells you how much it costs.”
The Butler Brothers’ work is speculative science fiction that deals with the here and now. It is like a video of the horrors of Guantanamo Bay filmed in a shopping mall.
“Speculative fiction is important because the future seems to be behind us, and nothing lies ahead. We’re just waiting for the next upgrade.
“That is the essence of contemporary culture. It’s designed to disable the imagination.”
He describes himself as an “electronic artist” – someone who makes sound and vision using computers. Butler is like the John Carpenter of the Digital Animation World – writing, producing, directing, designing, animating, and composing the music for all of the Brothers’ computer graphic videos.
“I do these things all at once, as I tend to feel my way through a project. This is a typical writer / painter mode of working. I only figure out where it’s going half way through. This approach is not much use if you are commanding resources and directing people, so I prefer to do it myself.
“The advantage is that doing the wrong thing leads to discovery.”
“I make computer graphic videos rather than animations. They are narrative but are more like Power Point writ large than CGI films. I’m trying to make something like the Chamber of Commerce propaganda cartoons John Sutherland made in the fifties. It’s about pushing CGI sideways rather than forward.”
John originally studied drawing and painting at Art College, but he always wanted to move into something that could include music and, later on, narrative. It seemed inevitable that he would move towards animation.
The subject of his college thesis was Edgard Varèse, the pioneering composer who used a tape recorder as a compositional tool. He also made what was probably the first multimedia installation, the ‘Poem Electronique’ in 1958, the seminal collaboration with Le Corbusier and Philips Electric (they supplied the 225 loudspeakers).
This idea of synthesis between form and medium is key to Butler’s work, something he was introduced to in childhood. His father was an industrial cameraman and film-maker for Ferranti, the electrical engineering and avionics firm that had factories in Edinburgh and Manchester.
Through his father, John had access to magazines such as ‘Aviation Week’, ‘Space Technology’ and ‘American Cinematographer’, which has given him a language that has seeped into his work. It is akin to J. G. Ballard’s “invisible literature” – those scientific and medical journals that informed Ballard’s writing, or the way Thomas Pynchon wrote manuals for the BOMARC anti-aircraft missile that later shaped ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’.
More recently, Butler has used the language of commerce and economics, in particular ‘Forbes Magazine’. He cites a recent example:
“Delcath’s chief executive, Eamonn Hobbs, and chief medical officer, Krishna Kandarpa, said in an interview that the study was designed around a written agreement with the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of New Drugs, and that the lack of a survival benefit occurred because patients who failed in the control group got Delcath’s therapy.”
“I like the term ‘lack of a survival benefit’. It means they died.”
“Can you really believe there’s a company called Delcath? It’s pure Philip K. Dick.
“It’s those euphemisms that create the secret language of business, which I like so much. That’s why my dialogue is so stylised, I’m not trying to show how people really talk, I’m trying to channel the argot of commerce through them.
“I think that in about twenty years, we will all talk presentational English.”
His other childhood influences include Don Lawrence’s illustrations for Mike Butterworth’s ‘Trigan Empire’, which he read when it was first serialized in Look and Learn’ – the weekly educational magazine for kids. And understandably, for someone growing up in the sixties, the early Dr. Who, Star Trek and all of Gerry Anderson’s work, from ‘Stingray’ via ‘Thunderbirds’ and ‘Captain Scarlet’ through to ‘UFO’. It was as much the originality of these programmes as their subject matter that appealed, “There was no such thing as remakes or postmodernism. It was all brand new.”
However, it was a more recent work of science fiction that had an epihanic effect on Butler, namely Ed Neumeier’s work with Paul Verhoeven on the films ‘Robocop’ and the ‘Starship Troopers’.
“‘Robocop’ showed me that art could include everything. Politics, humour, experiment, excitement, beauty. That’s where the Butler Brothers brand comes from, they were a games company in that film.”
John works with seven computers on two desks in the spare room of his West End flat.
“It’s more of a render allotment than render farm,” he says.
“I always thought that was the point of having personal computer systems and home studios. You can create your own work independently rather than seek authorization to command resources. You can also improvise and explore freely.
“The disadvantage is that you’ll never achieve the production values that are so important today, but I’m happy to do without.
“I’ve never really been one to draw up a detailed plan / storyboard and then execute it exactly, though I do script things like motion capture and voice recording sessions.
“I don’t use live video at all, which I would compare to sampling. I prefer 3D, which I think of as synthesis.”
The Butler Brothers’ most recent work is a sequel to their excellent, yet disturbing, ‘Darkness Seed’. Called ‘Children of the Null’ it limns uncanny parallels between our current obsessions with technology and social networks, and their hidden costs on individual freedom. In the Butler Brothers’ world our modern technology has a more sinister purpose, it is used to “reaggregate” children as food for an alien parasite.
John describes the outcome as “quite horrific”, but though his view may be dystopian, he thinks it a fair assessment of our world.
“I was thinking of the way that, after 30 years of desocialisation, social media is reaggregating us into a more useful form via Facebook and its ilk. I’m convinced social media has been designed to kill off the peer to peer movement.”
For John the need to critically examine the world we live in is a given, and it is one way to tell the truth of what is really going on.
It was the same for those artists of Montmartre and Montparnasse, for once they had shown the world ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, it would never be the same. Similarly, once you have watched a Butler Brothers film, you will never view the world in the same way again.
Images copyright © Butler Brothers 2010, used with kind permission
James Kennaway was a brilliant, talented writer, whose career spanned best-selling novels, block-busting screenplays and Oscar-winning movies. More than forty-odd years after his death, he remains one of Scotland’s most enigmatic and unacknowledged literary heroes.
Born in Aucherarder, Perth, in 1928, Kennaway first came to prominence with his 1956 novel ‘Tunes of Glory‘. An instant critical and popular success, it was made into a powerful film with Alec Guinness and John Mills in 1960.
In 1962, Kennaway adapted another of his novels for the superior psychological thriller ‘The Mindbenders‘, starring Dirk Bogarde (who was just at that cross-over point in his career, from “cheesecake” to serious actor), Mary Ure, and Wendy Craig. Later in the decade, another of Kennaway’s novel, ‘Household Ghosts’ about an incestuous relationship between brother and sister, received the big screen treatment starring Peter O’Toole and Susannah York in 1969.
Kennaway’s other books include ‘The Cost of Living Like This’, ‘Some Gorgeous Accident’ (the last published during his lifetime), and the filmic and beautiful novella, ‘Silence’.
Kennaway was an Oscar nominated screenwriter (‘Tunes of Glory‘) who also wrote the screenplays for ‘Violent Playground‘ starring Peter Cushing, David McCallum and Stanley Baker, as well as a successful adaptation of Morris West’s ‘The Shoes of the Fisherman’ and Len Deighton’s ‘The Battle of Britain‘, starring Michael Caine and Robert Shaw.
His short story ‘The Dollar Bottom’ was made into an Oscar-winning short film in 1981 with Rikki Fulton and Robert Urquhart.
Tragically, Kennaway was killed in a car crash in 1968, at the very moment he seemed destined for greater success.
A theatrical production of ‘Some Gorgeous Accident’ will be premiered at the Edinburgh Festival, this year.
Someone, somewhere, has probably written a thesis on fan letters, showing how the turn of phrase, spelling, sentence structure and language, reveal the psychology of the writer. I can guess the flaws my intense three or four fan letters reveal about me, both good and bad. That said, the replies were always pleasing – a signed photo, a message from a secretary, a written response. The reply that meant so much to me, in my mid-teens, came from the brilliant author, Derek Marlowe.
Marlowe inspired me to see the beauty of writing and the power a novelist has in telling their tale. His books took me away from the comfort of Sherlock Holmes, Alistair MacLeans, and dog-eared ghost stories, into a world of shifting ambiguous, complex relationships, through dark, witty stories told in beautiful language.
Marlowe’s response to my Biro scribbled missive was a typed, two page letter, in lower case and capitals. It is a letter I still cherish, for it gave me a sense of what can be made of a life – for Derek Marlowe was more than just a novelist, he was a successful playwright, a screenwriter, and an award-winning writer for television. In the letter he explained about his life and career, how he had started after being sent down from University:
“I was thrown out of Queen Mary College, London, for editing and writing an article in the college magazine. The article was a parody of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ reflecting the boredom of college seminars. Not very funny or special but times were odd then. Besides, I hated University and I think I’d made that rather too clear.
“I began writing plays since I had started a play for the College which took a surprising course. Continued with plays for about four years, went to Berlin, came back and then I realised, after writing DANDY (I was then a clerk) that I preferred prose to theatre. Besides, the person I was sharing the flat with and had done for six years, seemed better at theatre than me. He was and is Tom Stoppard.”
‘A Dandy in Aspic’ was Marlowe‘s first novel, and the one that launched him onto his successful career. It was the story of a double-agent, Eberlin, sent on a mission to assassinate his alter ego. ‘Dandy’ was made into a a so-so film starring Laurence Harvey, Mia Farrow and Peter Cook, of which he wrote:
“Regarding the film DANDY. The director, ANTHONY MANN died during the filming (a superb man and great director) and it was taken over by Laurence Harvey, the badly cast Eberlin. He directed his own mis-talent, changed it and the script – which is rather like Mona Lisa touching up he portrait while Leonardo is out of the room.”
Rather than follow the expected path of genre-writing, Marlowe followed up his debut novel, with ‘Memoirs of a Venus Lackey’, the disturbing tale of a roue, who examined the sins of his life from Hell.
Next, an historical novel ‘A Single Summer with L.B.’, which focussed on the fateful meeting in 1816, when Mary and Percy Shelley spent a summer with Lord Byron and his doctor, Polidori, a gathering that inspired the writing of ‘Frankenstein’. In the book, Marlowe gave thanks to Ken Russell (amongst others), who would later make his own particular version of these events in ‘Gothic’.
Marlowe returned to thrillers with ‘Echoes of Celandine’, which dealt with the loves, infidelities and obsessions of a melancholic hitman. Of this he wrote:
“ECHOES OF CELANDINE has just been filmed, starring Donald Sutherland and John Hurt (as Atkinson), David Warner (as Burbage) etc. It’s very good but held up by squabbling producers.”
The film wasn’t what I had expected, its location moved from Britain to Canada, and I found it too ponderous, and filled with an imposed alienation. Yet, there was still something of Marlowe in the film.
“About the novels. All characters are close or have been observed in some element of truth. One book went too far and I was sued for libel – but I shan’t reveal which one it was. Loner and anti-hero? Loner, certainly – even though I am married with four stepchildren and one son of my own – but not anti-hero. I’m for heroes, though if not Lancelot or Tristan, heroes appear out of the mould of the time.”
He followed ‘Echoes’ with ‘Do You Remember England?’ – a haunting novel about a doomed love affair. Reading it, I thought this book closest to who Marlowe was. The character of Dowson had the mix of his parentage – a Greek Mother, a Cockney father -and I sensed that like Dowson, in some way, Marlowe was a man who belonged to a different century. For Marlowe seemed a true Romantic, and to an extent a dandy, but I doubt he would have agreed with that. Yet, it should be noted that one of his heroes was Beau Brummell, whose biography he penned for the Dictionary of National Biography.
Another hero was Raymond Chandler, and it was Chandler who inspired Marlowe’s 1974 homage ‘Somebody’s Sister’, about a washed up PI, Walter Brackett. Then the haunting ‘Nightshade’ in 1976, about a mis-matched couple on a dark and disturbing holiday to Haiti. Of the central character, Marlowe wrote:
“Edward in NIGHTSHADE is an aberration in my character. I was going through stage of mysoginism (sic) and even misanthropy.”
At the time of writing he had just completed ‘The Rich Boy From Chicago’ and a 9-part series on Nancy Astor for the BBC:
“My next novel to be published in the winter in hardback, is called THE RICH BOY FROM CHICAGO – a five hundred pager, I’m afraid – but I think in this novel you will see the quintessence of all I have written.
“If you read RICH BOY FROM CHICAGO, you might detect in the charcater of Freddie, the protagonist and the life of Bax, a combination that could be me, good or bad.”
‘The Great Gatsby’ was Marlowe’s favourite book, and Fitzgerald’s influence can be seen in ‘Rich Boy’ and, more importantly, throughout Marlowe’s work. Both writers were incredible stylists, both were Catholics and both captured the time they lived in perfectly.
After his divorce, Marlowe moved to Los Angeles, where he wrote for TV (series and films as diverse as ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and ‘Jamaica Inn’). His final work for TV was an episode of ‘Murder, She Wrote’ – ‘South by South-West’. Tired with LALAland, Marlowe planned to return to England to finish his tenth novel, ‘Black and White’, but he contracted leukemia and tragically died of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 58, in 1996.
Sadly, Marlowe’s genius as a writer has been nearly lost, as none of his novels have remained in print. But through the internet, it is easy to find second-hand copies of his work, and I urge you to do so.
I kept in touch with Marlowe for the next five years, eventually meeting him for an interview in 1984. The cliche is never meet your heroes, but I am glad I did, for Marlowe was more than any fan could have expected – kind in his attentions, generous in his support, and always funny.
In his advice to a teenage wannabe writer, he wrote:
“Remember books last longer than reviews and the most boring part is typing the damn thing afterwards and planning beforehand. Never think too hard about what you are going to write – just jump in. I’ve never known the end of my book, nor even the middle until after I am halfwat through. And ignore anyone who says you can’t make a living out of writing. You can if you don’t limit yourself to novels in England alone and don’t want a Rolls immediately. I have never known a writer over thirty who has got the stamina to be poor. Talent doesn’t make for success. Courage does first. But above all, if you want to survive, heed Nabokov’s remark: I write for myself – but I publish for money.”
Derek Marlowe 1938-1996
Once upon a time there were only three TV channels. BBC 1. BBC 2. And ITV, which was split up into local stations – STV was ours. Back then, TV finished at around 11 o’clock or midnight, depending on the day of the week, after the announcer reminded viewers to turn off their sets and unplug them from the wall (in case of fires). Then ‘God Save the Queen’ played out over a rippling Union Jack and colour snap of HMQ, and the picture shrunk to a tiny dot.
There might not have been much choice, but there were plenty of shows I’d rush home from school to watch. One was ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set‘ starring the embryonic Python team and the unforgettable, toe-tapping Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Another was ‘Michael Bentine’s Potty Time‘.
There always seemed something likable about Bentine. He smiled a lot, and had a wheezy asthmatic laugh. He looked like a well-to-do relative, back from a jaunt, in Cavalry Twills and an RAF blazer, with a look in his eye that suggested great adventures to be had.
Bentine was legendary by then. Born in Watford to a Peruvian father and an English mother, he had been party to his parents interest in seances and table turning, and developed his own psychic talents, which was to inspire his life-long interest in mysticism and the occult.
During the Second World War Bentine served in the air force, and in his autobiography, ‘The Long Banana Skin‘, he wrote how his psychic abilities meant he was able to see who would return from a flying mission and who would die. The actor David Lodge once told me how Bentine said he saw a skull instead of the face of those who were doomed.
At the end of the war, Bentine took part in the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. It had such a traumatic affect on him he was never able to describe what he had seen, other than to call it “the ultimate blasphemy”.
After the war he started his career as a comedian at the Windmill Theatre, home to nude tableaux, dirty macs and a generation of great unparalleled comedians – Tony Hancock, Morecambe and Wise, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Tommy Cooper and Jimmy Edwards. It was through the Windmill that Bentine met Secombe and Sellers and later Spike Milligan, with whom he formed The Goons.
He left ‘The Goon Show‘ after 38 episodes, and before fame struck, and followed his own route to success, travelling to Australia, before returning to present his first great children’s TV series ‘The Bumblies’.
During the sixties Bentine achieved international fame with the BBC comedy series ‘It’s a Square World‘ and made a superb but sadly neglected film ‘The Sandwich Man‘. But for all this incredible and brilliant work, to a generation of young things, ‘Potty Time‘ is what Bentine is remembered for best.
‘Michael Bentine’s Potty Time‘ (1973-80) followed the comic’s investigations into the funny and surreal world of cuddly, chubby, big-nosed puppets that reenacted their way through classic novels and historical events – Sherlock Holmes, Hadrian’s Wall, the Northwest Frontier, Vikings and Pirate Buses amongst others. The show was recorded live and with Bentine performing to his own taped voice, avoiding all of the explosions and with the puppeteers hitting their marks perfectly – timing, like the show’s viewing, was essential.
The show was simply genius because it allowed the young audience in on the joke, and encouraged them to let their imagination soar.
1. (n.) The state or quality of being independent; freedom from dependence; exemption from reliance on, or control by, others; self-subsistence or maintenance; direction of one’s own affairs without interference.
2. (n.) Sufficient means for a comfortable livelihood.
I was quite a serious little fellow when I was twelve, with a head full of questions and a liking for Spiderman, peanut brittle, horror films, Sherlock Holmes, H. G. Wells, Alistair MacLean and a girl with bobbed hair called Alison (who I knew was secretly a goddess and lived at the end of our street).
It was amid all of these distractions that I first saw Roger Corman‘s ‘The Man With X-Ray Eyes‘, late, one Monday night on TV. The film blew me away with its mix of beauty and horror and made me realise science-fiction, horror films and even Spiderman comics contained hidden meanings, useful directions, like a compass for our lives. ‘The Man With X-Ray Eyes’ was more than just a low budget sci-fi flick, filmed over three weeks on a budget of $300,000, it was a morality tale, which captured much of what I was thinking and feeling.
Here was the story of a slightly faded, but distinguished scientist, Dr. Xavier, (Ray Milland) who experiments with eye-drops that he has developed to help him see beyond the visible spectrum, towards ultra violet and X-rays. Having decided that to test his formula on animals or patients would lead to biased data, Xavier tests the formula on himself. At first, he thinks he is able to control the dosage and its effects, believing he has found a short-cut to understanding existence, claiming he is “blind to all but one tenth of the universe,” and that he is “closing in on the gods”. His enthusiasm doesn’t last, as the eye-drops dramatically alter his perspective of the world, and his role in it.
As that serious, little 12-year-old kid, I suddenly understood that the consequences of Ray Milland’s desperate ambition were akin to growing-up, and the knowledge I was soon to gain from the experience, from the impending physical and psychological change, would remove me forever from the world I had so easily and happily inhabited for the past eleven summers.
I also saw how Xavier was like H. G. Wells’ Griffin – ‘The Invisible Man’, driven mad by the changes he has wrought on himself. For the knowledge Xavier sought only reveals the terrible horror of existence, and worse, the “great darknesses. Farther than time itself. And beyond the darkness… a light that glows, changes… and in the centre of the universe… the eye that sees us all.”
As I watched and listened, I thought this wasn’t just an “eye” but “I”. The “I” that sees all. The “I” of self that fails to comprehend or respond to what it sees, and blindly and relentlessly consumes – without examination, without reflection, and worse, without accepting the responsibility at the heart of all knowledge.
That night, as I lay in bed thinking about Xavier’s black X-ray eyes, I knew I had uncovered something profound, something that changed me forever, and like Dr. Xavier, I could see through the present and into the future, and sadly knew Alison, with-the-bob, wasn’t a goddess after all.
Happy Birthday Ken Russell.
Few British directors have been as successful or as controversial as Ken Russell.
With the exception of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, few directors have managed to produce a body of work that has appealed to mass audiences across such diverse genres as science-fiction (‘Altered States‘), espionage (‘The Billion Dollar Brain‘), musicals (‘The Boyfriend‘,’Tommy‘, ‘Listzomania‘), biography (‘The Music Lovers‘, ‘Savage Messiah‘, ‘Mahler‘, ‘Valentino‘), drama (‘Whore‘), comedy (‘French Dressing‘), horror (‘Lair of the White Worm‘, ‘Gothic‘), historical drama (‘The Devils‘), and literary (‘Women in Love‘, ‘The Rainbow‘, ‘Salome’s Last Dance‘).
Like the greatest of cinematic auteurs, Russell has created his own distinctive visual language that makes his work instantly recognisable, unforgettable and artistically important.
If this weren’t enough, Russell produced an outstanding body of television films, which has yet to be equalled for their intelligence (‘Delius – The Song of Summer‘), artistry (‘The Debussy Film‘) and controversy (‘Dance of the Seven Veils‘). Indeed it was Russell who devised the bio-pic or drama doc with his BBC film ‘Elgar‘, a form that has been relentlessly copied since.
Today Russell turns 83, and as we wish him a very Happy Birthday, we hope that he is encouraged and supported to produce more of his wonderful, inspiring and idiosyncratic films.
11th December 1968 was the first time John Lennon played publicy in a band without The Beatles. It was a fractious time for the Fab Four. During the recording of the ‘White Album’ tensions flared – Lennon and Paul McCartney recorded their songs separately; George Harrison worked with Eric Clapton as guitarist on ‘My Guitar Gently Sleeps’; while Nicky Hopkins played keys on Lennon’s ‘Revolution’; and Ringo Starr had quit the band in August, then rejoined in September, just in time to form a united front for the famous ‘Hey Jude’ promo. The Beatles were changing, as their personal lives had greater influence on their individual creativity.
This was particularly true for Lennon, who was about to start one of his most prolific, creative and headline-grabbing phases.
In October, Lennon and new love, Yoko Ono were busted in a set-up raid at their London flat.
That same month, Ono suffered a miscarriage, but not before Lennon recorded the unborn baby’s heartbeat and released this unsettling murmur on the couple’s next album ‘Unfinished Music No 2: Life With the Lions‘.
Ten days after the ‘White Album’ hit the UK No 1 spot, Lennon guested on ‘The Rolling Stones’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus‘, with a hastily assembled supergroup, he called ‘The Dirty Mac’, in snide reference to latest chart flavour of the month, Fleetwood Mac.
The Dirty Mac consisted of Cream’s Eric Clapton on lead guitar, The Stones’ Keith Richards on bass, Mitch Mitchell, from The Jimi Hendrix Experience on drums, and Lennon as Winston Leg-Thigh on rhythm guitar and vocals.
The Mac should have been the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band ever. But this was just a one-off gig, where they performed a Beatles’ cover, Lennon’s ‘Yer Blues’ and gave a backing jam to Yoko Ono’s improvised warbling.
This odd mix of good and bad performance revealed some very unique talent at its height. But, it was also tarnished with a self-indulgence that meant such supergroups, such artists, were soon to be out of touch with a younger generation who sought their lead and aural pleasures with The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Roxy Music and The New York Dolls.
Lennon tried his hand at another supergroup the following year, this time with Clapton, Ono, Klaus Voorman, and Alan White, performing a Live Peace gig in Toronto.