One More Before Doomsday

This post originally appeared in April last year. I am running it again to mark this summer’s extreme weather. Pour yourself an apocalyptic one …

It should, by now, be apparent to everyone that we are living in a dystopian sci-fi scenario, but who wrote it? John Wyndham? Too cosy, perhaps. Or there’s J.G. Ballard … he wrote extensively about various kinds of societal collapse, either in ‘hard’ sci-fi novels like The Drowned World, or in his later sly and speculative manner, e.g. High Rise. But Ballard didn’t do comedy and the black absurdity of Donald Trump requires a satirical touch. Kurt Vonnegut’s brand of savage, slapstick sci-fi fits the bill, but I have been unable to locate my copies of Cat’s Cradle or Galapagos to refresh ecstatic youthful impressions. (It has also been suggested to me that Channel 4’s 1982 comedy show Whoops Apocalypse is relevant, chiefly with respect to its portrayal of the President of the United States as a total cretin.) 

But one work of science fiction that has been haunting me over the past few weeks is the 1961 film The Day the Earth Caught Fire, directed by Val Guest from a script written by himself and Wolf Mankowitz (the same team behind the Soho musical Expresso Bongo). The idea behind this inventive British movie is that nuclear testing has thrown the orbit of the earth out of whack and sent our planet spinning toward the sun. London becomes hotter than Cairo and the city’s residents wilt and go mad in the heat. It is a great time capsule of London locations, and the heroes of the film – as unlikely as this sounds now – are journalists working on the Daily Express, then still operating out of its beautiful Art Deco building on Fleet Street, right opposite St. Bride’s church. The nominal stars are Edward Judd (the producers wanted Richard Burton but couldn’t afford him), Leo McKern, and the delightful Janet Munro. The newspaper scenes have a sense of authenticity amidst the dodgy science, and the verisimilitude extended to the casting of the editor of the Daily Express, a character played by a former editor of the paper. (Arthur Christiansen, editor from 1933 to 1957. A nice conceit, but Christiansen couldn’t really act.)

Fleet Street’s finest … Leo McKern, Edward Judd and Janet Munro feeling the heat outside The Express Building.

There’s a lot wrong with the film: the banter-ish, ‘Front Page’ type dialogue is cringeworthy, Edward Judd is a charm-free zone, and the special effects are often risible – but for all that it remains unsettling and eerily prescient. The clever use of genuine news footage, indicating drought and out of control weather, now looks like an anticipation of recent wildfires in Australia and California. The evocation of oppressive, unnatural heat is very effective: everything dries up or burns up and water becomes the most precious of all commodities. Black market water is spreading typhoid, alcohol is in short supply and even a warm Coke will cost you. As society buckles under the strain, decadent young people express their nihilism by wantonly chucking buckets of priceless water about, drenching themselves to the implausible sound of trad jazz. (‘Beatnik music by Monty Norman’ is the byline in the credits. The crazed, trumpet-touting kids were perhaps inspired by riots at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival in 1960. Was Acker Bilk a baleful influence on British youth? Discuss. )

And, as you’d expect in a film that trades in Fleet Street clichés (‘They say you used to be a writer’), there are many episodes where the hacks go the pub. The pub in question is ‘Harry’s Bar’, a private members’ club just next to St. Bride’s (a fictional one, as far as I am aware). By the end, the trip to Harry’s Bar has acquired a devotional aspect: the film concludes with our heroes assembled in the club – one that by now looks more like a bar in the Australian Outback – and wait to hear whether an operation to save the planet has worked. (The great powers set off ‘corrective’ nukes in an attempt to blast the Earth back to its correct orbit.) Harry’s Bar has run dry, but the manageress gives the small band of regulars a drink on the house from a special, reserved bottle of scotch. This scene reminds me of the titular bar scene at the end of Ice Cold In Alex, where an ordinary glass of lager is a miraculous answer to a fervent but unspoken prayer. And this link between booze and prayer feels pertinent to where we are now. Many of us are offering prayers of one sort or another, even non-believers like me who are simply praying for the pubs to re-open. Of course drink is not always the answer; but whilst we might not be able to drink Covid19 away, we can at least toast its demise. As Leo McKern says as he raises his glass in Harry’s Bar: ‘To the luck of the human race’. 

In Harry’s Bar, listening to the countdown over the radio …

For the cineastes out there, The Day the Earth Caught Fire is also notable for Michael Caine’s film debut in a bit part as a policeman (‘Stay clear of Chelsea, they say it’s pretty rough down there’); and also a groundbreaking moment of nudity in British cinema, when Janet Munro’s nipple is briefly glimpsed in her bathroom mirror. Society would never be the same again …

Keep Watching The Bar

An ancient alien entity materialises over the East End at the climax of Nigel Kneale’s ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, directed for Hammer by Roy Ward Baker in 1968.

From The Barnet Eye blog, October 2008:

My big brother once spent a whole evening sitting in a field in Somerset waiting for a UFO to appear. Apparently UFOs had been seen there every night for a few weeks. Around 9.30pm my brother decided that the aliens weren’t coming and adjourned to the pub with his friends. By the time they re-emerged it transpired that they’d missed some rather spectacular sights. They were told ‘It was awesome, first one, then two, then three lights appeared. They hovered there for five minutes and then disappeared’. Laurie later confessed he wasn’t too disappointed to have missed it, having enjoyed thawing out in a nice warm pub.

The release of the Pentagon report into ‘Unidenitified Aerial Phenomena’ (the American military’s coy term for Unidentified Flying Objects) feels timely for 2021, which is as batshit crazy a year as one can imagine. The declassified accounts of US Navy pilots are, perhaps, more revealing than the accompanying videos but the official admission of bafflement is new and actually a little worrying. And one thing is certain: the US government’s formal acknowledgement of ‘Other‘ will unleash a fresh wave of bar stool anecdotes from people describing things they saw on the way home from the pub. I like hearing these. A good friend once mentioned something he saw when he was a passenger on a commercial flight: a floating slab-like thing which fell past his window, a sighting that inevitably recalls the strange monolith in Kubrick’s 2001. My father used to talk of something he and my mother saw in rural Spain, a revolving, net-like object that they watched for about ten minutes before it vanished (which sounds as if it might have been a helix cloud). Someone I knew told me that he and a few friends witnessed a strange craft of some description take flight from a hill outside Taunton. He said it appeared from within a group of trees and rose slowly, silently for a few hundred feet, before projecting itself, in a jerky, zig-zag fashion, into the stratosphere. (Somerset seems to be a bit of a UFO hotspot, as per that piece from The Barnet Eye. My acquaintance offered an impressive story but I subsequently discovered that he was a lunatic, which rather took the shine off his tale.)

Naturally, I am especially keen to hear of UAPs – or even just UFOs – sighted over London but they seem to be relatively rare; but where science fiction is concerned the south-east rules supreme. The grandfather of quotidian sci-fi horror is, of course, H.G. Wells, whose Martian invaders landed in Surrey and promptly laid Woking to waste (a task accomplished in fact by 20th century civic engineers). Hostile aliens turning up in small towns are something of a British speciality, for example The Earth Dies Screaming – filmed in picturesque Shere, in the Surrey Hills – and Village Of The Damned, the village in question being Letchmore Heath near Watford. (Like Somerset Watford seems alive with alien activity; see below.) The latter was derived from a novel by John Wyndham, who took full measure of post-war unease. Perhaps noting the success of Village of the Damned, the 1962 film of his Day Of The Triffids was made with a bigger budget but also showcased the familiar as a backdrop for the unthinkable. Meanwhile, in the real world, the ultra-futuristic visions of alien engagement purveyed by Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott were created in very earthbound studios at Shepperton and Elstree. (Shepperton looms large in the history of British sci-fi: apart from the films made at the studio, the town gets knocked about by Martians in The War Of the Worlds, and was, famously, home to one of the most prescient and radical of all futurist authors, J.G. Ballard.) If you were watching TV around 1970 you would likely have seen UFO, a live-action Gerry Anderson series wherein Earth was protected against extra-terrestrial invasion by Ed Bishop in a white wig and Peter Gordeno in a string vest. (Anderson should have stuck to puppets.) But Quatermass And the Pit, a Hammer Films production from the late 1960s, was a real event: a grimy, downbeat alternative to the visionary transcendence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, made around the same time. Adapted from his TV series by the great Nigel Kneale and directed by Roy Ward Baker, the elaborate plot concerns the discovery of an extremely ancient Martian spacecraft during construction of a new tube line. The film connects extra-terrestrial contact with home-grown demonology and London folk memory (psycho-geographical sci-fi, if you like). It’s far too ambitious and the science is a joke but its climactic scene, wherein a horned alien devil rises over the East End, remains an imposing spectacle. By contrast the bit where a traumatised witness describes his vision of swarming aliens remains hysterical. The first time I saw this film I was a schoolboy and the day after it was shown on TV the playground was full of giggling herberts shouting ‘Jumping! Leaping!‘, thus affording supporting player Duncan Lamont a fleeting moment of fame:

But since the British sci-fi boom of the sixties and seventies alien visits to these shores have been few and far between, writers and filmmakers being more preoccupied with environmental or psychological thought experiments. I will draw a veil over the second-hand horror stylings of Paul Anderson’s 1997 Event Horizon, or the blokey archness of Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, 2013, concerning a crowd of middle-aged farts who encounter aliens whilst on a pub crawl. (To be fair, Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin is supposed to be good but I’ve not seen it.) So allow me to lead you back to something like the real world, to a gym club on the Watford by-pass, where our correspondent from The Barnet Eye has a disquieting encounter:

I always start with a fifteen minute sauna. I settled down for my session and set the egg timer. After about ten minutes another guy came in (he seemed quite normal) and asked ‘Would you mind if I put some oil on the stove’. He did this. Immediately I noted the extremely strange smell of the oil. He laughed and said ‘It reminds me of home’. I asked ‘Where’s that then?’ The guy had a fairly standard, nondescript English accent. He replied ‘A very long way away’. Fair enough, I thought. He then said ‘Do you mind if I put some more water on the stove?’ The guy got the ladle and very deliberately put his hand above it when he poured the water on. As a result a big cloud of steam enveloped his hand. He looked at me and said ‘It doesn’t hurt, I come from a much warmer place’. I said ‘So where is that?’ He replied ‘A very long way away, I’m here as an observer’. Not being sure what was going on, I thought I’d try humour – so I said ‘Oh, you’re an alien then’. He replied ‘Something along those lines’. Now I’m a rather suspicious person but I’d just seen the guy put his hand in a cloud of steam that would have fried a normal person, so I thought I’d play ball. ‘Do you like it here then?’ I asked. ‘No, not really. You see the knowledge of your greatest mathematician would be less than that of an average five year old where I come from’. I asked ‘So is there anyone from here that you admire?’ He replied ‘We think quite highly of Mozart’. I asked ‘What about painters?’. He replied ‘Picasso and Matisse are quite interesting’. ‘What about the food?’ He replied ‘Well, the organic dark chocolate and organic oranges are tolerable’. Much as I would have loved to have carried on the conversation, I excused myself to take a dip in the pool.

‘Would you like soda with that?’ ‘Devil Girl From Mars’, 1954.

Thanks to Roger Tichborne of The Barnet Eye blog for letting me quote his account of his uncanny experience.

Summers In The Dark

David Hemmings, Nikon in hand, prowls Maryon Park in search of … what? ‘Blow Up’, 1966.

The abrupt blooming of London after a November-like May has produced a palpable frisson of excitement in the city, all that pent-up energy seeking release from Covid morbidity. Suddenly, London is beautiful again. It’s the kind of weather that makes you want to put on a pair of white strides, grab a Nikon and a velvet jacket, jump into a vintage Rolls, and drive around town in search of nothing in particular.

Directed by the austere Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni (a man who didn’t do jokes), Blow Up features David Hemmings playing fashion photographer ‘Thomas’ abstractedly investigating a murder he may or may not have photographed. Thomas is a composite figure, a confection drawing on contemporary fashion photographers John French and John Cowan (whose studio doubles as Thomas’s in the film), as well as more obvious models like Donovan and Bailey. The film is a remarkable time capsule of London in 1965. Unlikely spots in Peckham, Woolwich, Stockwell, and the bomb-scarred City are rendered significant and hypnotic, whilst groovy goings on ‘up West’ look deeply silly. The piazza of the Economist Building on St James’s St., a prime example of 1960s Brutalism, is buzzed by a Land Rover full of mimes, who then proceed to drive across London in a vastly irritating form of ‘happening’ (a distant echo of the Bright Young Things who capered so pointlessly in the West End of the 1920s). Or that scene in ‘Ricky Tick’s club (a real club but the interior is a sound stage at Elstree) wherein The Yardbirds pretend to be The Who – Jeff Beck smashing his guitar on film as he never did on stage – before a zombified crowd. This vignette is only slightly more comic when you discover that the lone female dancer in the stripy leggings is the young Janet Street Porter. 

Hemmings/Thomas at the wheel of a Silver Cloud Mk.III. According to IMDb, this vehicle once belonged to Jimmy Savile. I prefer to think that this is not true.

Blow Up is often considered an indigenous product but this is false. Like many key films of the 1960s, it was a result of Britain’s sudden contemporary resonance and shitloads of American money. This is a point worth emphasising. An Italian director and production team, backed by MGM, chose London as an emblem of an international cultural moment. And their other choices were shrewd. A Spanish literary source, a story by Julio Cortazar, was adapted by Edward Bond; they commissioned a jazz score from the young Herbie Hancock; and Don McCullin supplied Thomas’s photographs. (McCullin is as British as they come, but he specialised in global warfare, not fashion.) The Yardbirds onscreen line-up included both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, but the band weren’t first choice. Antonioni wanted The Velvet Underground, before they even had a record deal, because he’d seen them in New York as house band for Warhol’s Factory. (The Velvets couldn’t get UK work permits.)

Blow Up was a touchstone for generations of photographers who wanted the lifestyle shown in the film. Hemmings floats around London in his achingly beautiful Silver Cloud convertible, occasionally retrieving his Nikon from the glove box to photograph tramps and strangers in parks, returning to his period-perfect studio on Pottery Lane, W11, for a fashion shoot with Veruschka and erotic encounters with the likes of Jane Birkin and Vanessa Redgrave. That side of it has been comprehensively sent-up (Austin Powers etc.), but the best thing about Blow-Up is its luminous depiction of odd, forgotten corners of London and its feeling for the atmosphere of the city. I can’t think of another film that conveys the sound of London in the summer: the soughing of trees in a park, of footsteps in city streets. It took an Italian auteur with no local knowledge to make a film with such an authentic sense of place. Nearly sixty years on, the film’s London locations have acquired their own folklore: the red houses Thomas drives past in Stockwell, the calm and green of Maryon Park in permanently unfashionable Charlton (Antonioni ordered that park grass be painted green), the dawn over Chelsea Embankment as Thomas leaves a Cheyne Walk party, and so on. (Ian Sinclair devoted a fair bit of Lights Out For The Territory to Antonioni’s treatment of south London.) And the fascination of seeing – or not seeing.  The centrepiece of the film is a 45-minute sequence shadowing Thomas in his studio, obsessively, silently, poring over huge prints, before returning to the darkroom to make yet another ‘blow-up’ to explain what he saw in Maryon Park.  Any photographer will tell you that the level of detail he pulls out of that negative is impossible, but it doesn’t matter: this scene captures better than any other the romance of working in a darkroom, of taking a tiny slice of time and making it something you can hold in your hand. What you make of it after that is up to you.

I suppose I had this image in mind when I got my first job, at 17, working as a press photographer’s darkroom assistant. I remember 1979 as a beautiful summer, which sat oddly with the fact that I was spending most of it in the dark. Also, my employer was based in dusty, unlovely Streatham, not Notting Hill. And the romance of working in a darkroom is contingent on being in control of your working hours – like Thomas in Blow-Up, it’s best to work at night if you can – and choosing what it is you want to print. As a press hack’s dogsbody, I was entrusted with printing indifferent photographs of celebrities at events. (I once spent an entire day printing photographs of John Inman, a task with no attendant glamour whatsoever.) As luck would have it, my older brother lived in Balham, just a couple of stops away from Streatham, so I availed myself of his hospitality more than was really good for me. My brother was a loosely-employed actor in his mid-20s, using his free time to experiment with various kinds of home-brewing. Some of his preparations would have challenged the most grizzled of Fleet Street paps, so my virgin liver didn’t stand a chance. One hot evening saw us drinking lukewarm Holsten Pils in a ratty local pub, before heading back to his maisonette to attack whatever he had left in the flat: dregs of red wine, Pernod and, finally, fatally, his home-brewed mead. The next morning I gamely dragged myself to work and was immediately ordered to run off a dozen snaps of Joanna Lumley, looking radiant at some VIP do or other. Bravely, I stepped into the dark and turned on the red light. Despite the throbbing chaos in my head, I made a good start and got out a few prints; but before long the acrid smell of the fixing solution got to me and I was sick into the wash tray, all over the divine Ms Lumley, who didn’t deserve such an indignity. I was let go soon after that. David Hemmings I was not.