Greetings gentle reader, and welcome to this slightly different version of my usual Eurovision Preview. As you know, this year’s Eurovision has gone the way of The Great Soprendo’s magic – piff paff poff. So here are the contenders for the first Semi Final – and what you have to do is listen, appreciate, enjoy, but also employ your critical faculties and come up with your top ten songs. Then simply send me an email, awarding 12 points to your favourite, 10 points to your second favourite, then 8, 7, 6, etc in true Eurovision style. I’ll then add them up and we will have a grand Opening the Envelopes ceremony next week.
Because the draw for the order of performance was never officially made, all we can do is look at the first half and second half allocations and ask Snowdrop, the Psychic Bear, to guess the order that the songs would have appeared on Tuesday 12th May. Over to you, Snowdrop.
Snowdrop has rubbed his temples and concluded that the first song to be performed is North Macedonia, with You, performed by Vasil.
Next up is Slovenia, and it’s Ana Soklič with Voda. Thank you, Snowdrop.
Psychic Snowdrop’s third choice is Australia, whose song is Don’t Break Me by Montaigne.
Fourth in the running order is Ireland, with Story of my Life by Lesley Roy.
Snowdrop’s temples are really throbbing now. He’s going to be such a diva when this is over. His next choice is Russia, with Uno by Little Big.
Snowdrop started to waggle his hands over his head which can only mean one thing: his next choice is another of the favourites, Lithuania, with On Fire by The Roop.
The seventh of these 17 songs comes from Sweden, it’s Move by The Mamas.
And the last song from the “first half pot” of countries comes from Belarus – Da Vidna by VAL.
So, whilst Snowdrop has gone off for a massage, it’s time for me to head to the Green Room to see how the stars are coping with the pressure.
Montaigne, tell me, if I said that your whole career depended on this moment, how would you react?
Montaigne: DON’T BREAK ME!!
Oops, didn’t realise she was so tetchy. OK, Lesley Roy from Ireland, is this the first time that you’ve had a big disappointment like this, or is it…
Lesley Roy: STORY OF MY LIFE.
Ah I’m beginning to see a thread here. OK. So, Little Big, what was the first car you ever owned?
Little Big: Un –
Sorry, have to stop you there before you reply because Snowdrop is back from the massage parlour with a strange sort of self-satisfied smirk on his face…. Better get on.
Starting off the second half of this semi-final it’s Norway, with Ulrikke and Attention.
Snowdrop’s rubbing his temples again. I hope he’s washed his hands. He’s chosen next Malta, with Destiny and All of my Love.
Snowdrop’s now applying a moisturiser. He’s such a strange bear. Next is Israel, with Eden Alene and Feker Libi.
He’s now got cucumber poultices over his eyes whilst relaxing over a manicure. I’m not sure he’s taking this seriously. His next choice is Ukraine, with Go_A and Solovey.
Snowdrop has just knocked back a double vodka, from which I deduce the next song is Roxen’s Alcohol You for Romania.
He’s also demanded some Brussels paté, so I’m guessing it’s Belgium next, Hooverphonic with Release Me.
Snowdrop just said “Croatia” with a dismissive stare. I hate that bear sometimes. Just cos he’s got psychic powers he thinks he owns the place. Here’s Damir Kedzo with Divlji vjetre.
I’m going to demote Snowdrop from this important task for the next semi-final. He won’t see that coming. Here’s Efendi for Azerbaijan with Cleopatra.
Apparently his psychic powers are pretty good, because he did see that coming and has just stuck two fingers up at me and stomped off. That’s what comes of getting a rescue bear. No pedigree. Never again. Anyway, that leaves just one song to play – Running, by Sandro, for Cyprus.
So your task now is to whittle down these songs into a top ten and send me your decision. You know the score – 12 points to your favourite, 10 to your second, 8 to the third and so on. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org – or send me a DM on Facebook, if we’re pals. Or you can put your scores in a comment on this blog and I will redact your answers! Please DON’T openly write your scores down as an open comment on Facebook or Twitter for everyone to see because that would be SILLY. You’ve got until midnight (UK time) on Sunday April 5th to make your mind up. I’m off to settle Snowdrop’s psychoanalyst’s account. Pain in the arse, that bear.
In which we meet Frederick, whose father runs the new petrol station at Magpie Corner. One day a stranger enters their midst; who is he, and what is his interest in the station and in Frederick’s father? And why is his father always so surly to his devoted son? All will be revealed in this engrossing and heartfelt tale of contraband and family relationships.
Magpie Corner was first published in 1957 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Le Carrefour de la Pie, which translates literally as Magpie Crossroads, with illustrations by G. de Sainte-Croix. As Magpie Corner, it was first published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton in 1966, a full nine years after its original French edition. Unlike the previous Puffin editions, which were translated by John Buchanan-Brown, this book was translated by Helen Woodyatt and apart from the frontispiece and dust jacket, contains no other illustrations. My own copy of the book is the second hardback impression, printed in 1967, bearing the price 18/-. Helen Woodyatt’s only other translation in print, as far as I can see, is a 1964 translation of Marguerite Thiebold’s Pascal and the Tramp.
Leaving behind Gaby and his gang from the first two books, in their rundown suburb of Louvigny, we’re now in the peaceful village of La Rua, which actually exists in the eastern region of France, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, approximately 70 km north of the provincial capital, Besançon. The book begins with an account of how the children have to keep the cows from straying on to the busy main road nearby; that would be the D1, which links the communes of Vitrey-sur-Mance and Membrey. However, Berna also tells us that a by-pass connects La Rua with Rouvray, via the grasslands of Chamarande, in the direction of Mâcon, which places the story to the south of Paris. Furthermore, Berna points out that Madame Paulin no longer has to travel to Tournus or Pont de Vaux to trade, both of which are very close to Mâcon, further complicating the issue! I think this is one of the situations where Berna has chosen real places but has nevertheless created a mystery and fantasy about them.
The book centres on Frederick; and it’s a very powerful, moving portrait of a kind-hearted, resilient boy, who’s a bit of a loner. He’s ignored and unloved by his father, and, as a result, all-consumed by suspicion as his life lacks reassurance. In his other works we’ve seen so far, Berna excels at showing the strength that can be gained from being a member of a gang. Frederick is as far away from having a gang to be a member of as you can possibly get. He seems to be a fish out of water; friends with the two girls, but estranged from the company of other boys. At the age of fifteen, Frederick is much older than the average age of Gaby’s gang. Whilst they’re looking for escapades to pass their spare time, Frederick is much more focussed on what he’s trying to achieve. He’s like a Rottweiler on the track of a criminal, and he’s not going to let him escape. Gaby’s gang spend the whole time laughing; but there’s not much laughter in Frederick’s life. There’s no sense of early romance between him and either Colette or Fanny, unlike the charming developing relationship between the much younger Marion and Fernand.
Rather than playing, Frederick now turns to work for a release from his worries. Vehicles have become his friend: he can tell a six cylinder diesel from its thundery rumble, and Berna makes this association stronger by his sensuous description of petrol fumes; “the all-pervading smell of petrol obliterated the natural scent of the newly mown hay. But the children liked it.” He’s never more at home when tinkering with engines and watching a master at work; and the more he works on the petrol station, and the more exposure he has to the other drivers, the more his confidence grows. You sense it’s a very different boy who closes the book than the one who opens it.
This is an exciting, devious, complicated little tale, with double-crossing villains and double-crossing heroes. Today, it would probably not be acceptable to have a book, ostensibly written for children, where smoking featured so heavily. But this was France in 1957; Langlais doesn’t flinch an inch when his son starts smoking in front of him. There’s not one word of criticism or negativity connected with the cigarettes; no asides about health issues, it’s just a mundane, 100% acceptable, routine. In fact, when Frederick teases Morden towards the end of the book, sniffing at the cigarette smoke, he says “it smells good, doesn’t it?” As well as all that smoking, there are plenty of trips to the café to enjoy some of Uncle Armand’s rosé. Pushing bad habits on children? Perhaps that’s how we would see it from the 21st century. Little surprise, perhaps, that this book has been largely forgotten – which is a shame, because it’s a superb tale, beautifully written.
Like The Street Musician, Magpie Corner is a reflective, atmospheric book, with some superb writing and intense examination of the hero’s motives and emotions. Berna – through his translator – can sometimes come up with some beautiful lines. Towards the end of the book, when Jeremy and Frederick have set a trap of which Langlais is unaware, but will benefit from, he expresses the father’s anxiety: “Monsieur Langlais was the most vulnerable. He was rather like a tethered goat put out unawares to tempt the tiger, and ignorant of the body of men ready to help him.”
Unlike the previous books, this is a much more male-oriented story. All the significant players – Frederick, his father, Jeremy, the speed-cops, the postman, Morden, and the two people in the 4CV, are all men. Colette and Fanny play a lesser role in Frederick’s life as the book progresses. And Mme Paulin and Frederick’s mother barely feature at all. I feel this increases the book’s sense of maturity and seriousness; definitely a book written for fifteen-year-old boys.
I’ve noticed how Berna likes to give nicknames to some of his characters – not always affectionately. In A Hundred Million Francs, one of the henchmen gets called “Ugly”. In The Street Musician, the tramp is called Spare-A-Copper, the nutseller is Monkeynuts, and they call the accordionist, M. Anatole, “The Phantom”. In Magpie Corner, the nicknames are becoming a little more unkind; right from the start Frederick refers to Jeremy as “The Hunchback”, and Colette calls the two 4 CV men, “Duckbeak” and “Clownface”. Maybe it’s true that children, particularly in those days, gave uncomplimentary nicknames to adults they didn’t like, but looking back on it from our viewpoint, it feels not only childish, but rather unpleasant. I’ll keep a watch on Berna’s use of nicknames in future books.
In Berna’s other books so far, poverty had always played a tangible role in the stories and in the day to day lives of the gang. In Magpie Corner, there is no such poverty. The Petrol Station and the Café Restaurant are both doing extremely good business and there is no shortage of money to provide the characters a comfortable life. The poverty is of a different kind; the poor quality of the relationship between Frederick and his father, and the lack of communication and support that the father should provide. However, it’s also interesting the extent to which people will put themselves out for free cigarettes – thronging the roads with their cars on the look-out. Although today cigarettes are taxed so highly that they are a luxury item, back in 1957 I would have thought they would have been relatively cheap; so maybe there isn’t as much money in circulation in the wider society of this book.
As in Berna’s previous books, the memory of the Second World War still lingers on in the environment. When Jeremy asks Frederick about the abandoned quarry at Senozan, Frederick describes it as the “cemetery for scrap iron […] there are something like two thousand wrecks there. Vans, private cars, tractors, as well as all the German and American military machines from 1944, tanks and even armoured cars. It’s an enormous pile and the council can’t get rid of it.” The treasure of the Lost Legion goes on to play a significant role in the book.
A couple of the plot twists are written a little heavy-handedly. The book suffers from one awfully heavy moment of obvious exposition, when Frederick overhears the conversation of the men from the 4 CV; almost farcical in the way it gave telegraphed the plot. The big surprise that’s kept right to the very end should also, I feel, have been written with a little more sophistication, so that it emerged naturally from conversation. The big surprise is also, I can’t help but think, very far-fetched and unlikely; but it does allow the book to finish on a high.
Here’s my chapter by chapter synopsis of the book. If you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want to see any spoilers, here’s where you have to stop reading!
Chapter One introduces us to the Paulin family; Mme Paulin runs The Magpie Inn on Magpie Corner; a renovated barn which she turned into an eight-bedroomed café, restaurant and mini-hotel. Aunt Guitte is head chef, Uncle Armand runs the bar, and her two daughters, Colette and Fanny, do their best to keep an eye on the cows, as the family still ran a small farm too. On the other side of the road, a new SICA petrol station had been built, and the Langlais family moved in to run it. Fifteen-year-old Frederick Langlais quickly became friends with the Paulin girls: “he was very friendly and they liked him at once. He was different from the village boys of La Rua and Rouvray, who were mostly pretty rough and rowdy.”
Whilst watching the cars, Frederick, Colette and Fanny get talking to Claud and Poulard, a couple of speed cops (“we’re not cops, we’re guardians of the highway”), taking a break. Claud notices M. Langlais working at the petrol station and mutters to himself, “I’m sure I’ve seen that chap somewhere before,” which intrigues and slightly disturbs Frederick, the only person to hear him. Frederick is always concerned about his father’s wellbeing. “You’ve only got to look at him. He seems to be obsessed by some awful dread. And it’s only since we came here. I’ve got the impression that he’s expecting something terrible to happen.” Where the girls are curious about all the people that go by, Frederick just watches and worries about his father – “the man who had become a stranger to him”.
Policeman Claud asks Frederick about his father: “he used to be a long-distance lorry driver […] he had his left shoulder badly smashed in an accident. For six months he had to have some marvellous electric treatment which works miracles. His shoulder is quite all right now, but he can’t drive any more. So someone found him this job, which is far less tiring.” When Frederick goes back to the petrol station at the end of the afternoon, his father isn’t welcoming, but simply gives him jobs to do. “Monsieur Langlais avoided his son as much as possible. Frederick’s blind admiration and devotion embarrassed him. The child had an unusually sympathetic nature which he longed to show to his father, but he was too young to know how to express himself and only succeeded in irritating him.”
We learn that Frederick doesn’t believe that his father was away for six months in an American hospital. “Frederick’s vague suspicions were strengthened after his father came back. He suddenly appeared without any warning at the little villa they had taken in Choisy le Roi. He insisted on leaving again that very day. He pulled down their suitcases from the top of the wardrobe and told them to pack quickly and be ready to go as soon as darkness fell. He said he must go into the country to convalesce. The whole affair seemed suspiciously like a flight from something or someone.”
“One morning by chance he happened to see his father taking a shower. The ex-lorry driver had two perfectly good shoulder blades and no trace of a scar anywhere.” Not driving; but not injured; and away for six months… what could it be?
Chapter Two sees a ramshackled old Citroen lorry pull up for petrol just as Frederick and the girls are returning home from school. The lorry looks like a hearse, held together with wire. Its owner, whom Frederick christens “the hunchback” because of a swelling on his back, tells M. Langlais that he’s looking for a job; he’s a mechanic, and he could help Langlais provide a breakdown service. They go to the Magpie Inn to discuss it, whilst leaving the petrol pumps to Frederick. When they emerge, slightly worse for wear after the consumption of plenty of rosé, it’s agreed; M. Jeremy is to have the spare room and will give Langlais 40% of everything he makes.
Jeremy certainly brings Langlais out of his shell; there had never been so much laughter in the house, and between them they set up the new workshop in under an hour. “Frederick turned back clenching his fists. For the last six months he had been trying to be a friend and companion to his father. And now this wretched hunchback had stepped into his place with no difficulty at all. An hour later they all met for dinner; father, mother, son and the irrepressible visitor. Monsieur Jeremy was very polite and talkative; he told some funny stories and when he raised his glass to his lips he crooked his little finger in the grandest possible manner. Both Monsieur Langlais and his wife were much impressed by so much elegance […] but the boy kept his head down and concentrated on his food. He felt deeply suspicious and offended.”
The worst moment for Frederick is when Jeremy remarks to Langlais, “your boy doesn’t talk much” and Langlais replies “he’s fifteen years old, and children of that age are all more or less idiots.” Frederick is furious. But he’s also determined that Jeremy shouldn’t do anything to make his father’s life worse.
Chapter Three, and Jeremy is already making his first sale to an old farmer from Uchizy with a clapped-out old truck, whom he convinces to part with two hundred francs in exchange for a valve overhaul and a general check-over. Even Frederick, watching at a distance, admires his sales technique.
Frederick’s suspicions about Jeremy are raised again with the news that Colette saw him sitting outside and smoking at 2am. (You’re not allowed to smoke on petrol forecourts nowadays!) But, true enough, Jeremy does the repairs on the truck, and he and Langlais get on like a house on fire; although Frederick still regrets: “it won’t make any difference to me […] whatever he’s like with other people, he never seems to care for me.”
Just as Frederick is about to go sit by the river with the girls, his father tells him he wants him to help Jeremy with his work. Frederick sees it as an opportunity to find out what Jeremy is really like, so he changes into overalls , goes into the workshop, and receives his first lesson in vehicle mechanics. Against his better judgment, Frederick is impressed, and actually enjoys the work. Jeremy says he can come back any time for more jobs – and he’d get paid at the proper rate. But the mood sours when Jeremy asks Frederick more detailed questions about his father and the business; Frederick determines not to give anything away.
However, going back to the job in hand, Frederick feels more at ease: “Frederick had forgotten all about Colette and Fanny and the arrangements for a swim in the cool water of the Saône. His thoughts were concentrated on helping to put together the pieces of this jig-saw puzzle as he listened enthralled to the mechanic’s professional talk. He was able to be quite useful and he felt entirely happy and engrossed. No one had ever before talked to him in such a friendly way or allowed him to take part in such serious work. For the first time in his life he was experiencing the pleasure of working in harmony with a man of professional ability. His father had never given him that satisfaction.” A few hours later and Frederick and Jeremy are laughing away together. They take the repaired truck out of the workshop, and Langlais watches them. “Jeremy gave the thumbs-up sign and accelerated the engine. Monsieur Langlais came up to them to speak to the mechanic but did not pay the slightest attention to his son, whose beaming oil-covered face was leaning out of the door longing for some sign of recognition.”
Frederick feels he may come to terms with Jeremy’s presence “in a way no longer possible with his own father.” At dinner, Jeremy compliments Frederick on his work, but his father gives him no praise, only saying that he was to assist Jeremy for two hours every morning – which Frederick felt was going to eat into the fun of the holidays too much. When he tells Colette and Fanny, they’re disappointed. But Frederick has a thought about why Jeremy has suddenly turned up. “I wonder if he could have come here because of the cemetery […] the one at Senozan, the car scrapheap.” People had been visiting it recently, because of a newspaper article, “about the treasure of the Lost Legion. This had been a pathetic army formed by a rabble of Asiatics who had trailed pitifully after the routed Wehrmacht. In September 1944 one battalion of this comic opera army had vanished completely, apparently wiped out somewhere between Mâcon and Tournus”. Maybe Jeremy is hunting for this treasure?
Meanwhile, Langlais decides to stay open in the evenings, to see if the trade is worthwhile. Late at night, Frederick watches through his window to see his father working on the pumps, with Jeremy watching him in the shadows; “I’m watching over my father, who is letting himself be dominated by a horrible stranger.”
At 2am, the rumble of a lorry awakens Frederick. “The hunchback emerged suddenly into the light from the pumps. The driver leaned over again, and Frederick heard him say, “That’s good! You got the place all right? […] “Don’t talk here!” [Jeremy] said in a low voice. “The kid’s bedroom’s just there. Come over here! […] their low murmurs were unintelligible”. Jeremy filled the lorry with fifty litres of petrol and then it drove off. But Frederick is absolutely convinced that something is not right. All he knows is the name on the side of a lorry – SOBITO International Road Transport.
Chapter Four The next morning Frederick simply doesn’t know what to do. Fanny explains that SOBITO is a new company with four lorries working regular routes, and they are next due to drive past Magpie Corner on Monday night. Should they watch out for it? Maybe there’s enmity between SOBITO and other hauliers over the monopoly of routes.
Langlois notes with excitement how many litres of heavy were sold overnight from pump five. ““That SOBITO lorry alone took fifty litres,” said Frederick in a gently but very clear voice.” Frederick explains how he watched the transaction; Jeremy is obviously shocked. Whilst the two men enjoy a drink and a laugh at the Café opposite, Frederick beseeches his mother to tell the truth about what really happened to his father. “Your father killed someone with his lorry […] it wasn’t his fault, I’m certain, but he was sent to prison for six months for that one wretched stroke of bad luck, which cost the life of an unknown man. A thing like that leaves its mark on a man, and your father is very sensitive. Don’t mention it to him – ever!”
After this revelation, Frederick feels he understands his father better; no longer frightened of him, but sympathetic. But he can’t resist quickly telling his father not to trust Jeremy – and his father calls him out for his words: “I’m not going to take any advice from a child like you. You are far too young to criticise grown-up people!”
Later, chatting with Traffic Cop Claud, Frederick admits he’s concerned about the presence of Jeremy in their lives. He goes on to tell Claud about what he’s just discovered about his father’s accident, and Claud tells him of an accident involving a cyclist the previous year, where a lorry driver took the blame for the dead cyclist’s bad road behaviour. Was it the same accident?
Chapter Five Life is busy at Magpie Corner. Jeremy has lots of customers and appreciates it when Frederick lends a hand – and, despite himself, Frederick always enjoys working alongside an expert. But when pushed, he has a full-on argument with Jeremy, accusing him of wanting to know where the family money is kept. Frederick discovers that Jeremy has been told about his father’s accident. Jeremy says he wants to be friends with Frederick but the boy is having none of it. Jeremy flies into a rage: “””I dare you to repeat to your father everything you have said to me!” he shouted, stamping his foot. He hates the sight of you, you silly little ass, and well you know it!””
Meanwhile, two sinister men had left their 4CV for repair, and were returning back to the café. One asks Uncle Arnaud for “cheaper” cigarettes. “”I do occasionally have a chance of getting a few packets free of duty for my regular customers,” he said peaceably. “But I don’t manage to keep them long, I don’t ask where they come from.” Are they Customs officers? Whatever, they convince Mme Paulin to let them have a room for a couple of nights. Frederick’s suspicions are even further aroused. He sees them in an argument with Jeremy, but he’s not taken in – he thinks it’s a charade for his benefit.
On a whim, Frederick decides to go and hide at the quarry at Senozan, to keep a watch out for anything suspicious. And who does he spy? None other than the two men with the 4CV. Frederick overhears their conversation: “If the stuff really was here everyone would know about it. There are plenty of nosy parkers around. It’s not so easy to hide ten tons of cargo. Besides, no lorry could get along that track.” Then the other man: “Listen, Louis, do you know what I think? I think the boss is worried stiff. The must know he’ll never get his fifty million cigarettes back again.” Worst of all for Frederick, the men mention Langlais in respect of this crime. “Packets of Diamond and Princess have been in circulation the whole way along this main road. It’s pretty obvious, especially as Langlais is hiding himself so near here.”
Frederick decides it’s time for action. He searches all the tunnels and eventually finds a chamber which hides a second chamber – and at the end of it, he feels the wheel of a lorry…
Chapter Six sees Frederick speak directly to his father: “I know I’m only a kid, and probably not much good at anything. But I do want us to be friends again. Whatever it is that you have done doesn’t make any difference to me. After all, you are my father and I don’t want anyone to harm you, and they shan’t if I can stop them.” He can’t see his father’s reaction behind his dark glasses, but he hopes his message has hit home. Frederick also tells the girls about his adventure at the quarry – well, some of the details at least.
Later that night, Frederick comes down to talk to his father again. “Please listen! That hunchback is one of Monsieur Morden’s spies! […] We must go away at once Dad, We can find somewhere to go, it doesn’t matter where…” Langlais replies: “Yes, Frederick, I’ve known all along. I guessed it from the first moment when he was so keen to come and work here. But it was too late then to do anything about it. The moment they located me here I couldn’t move without involving us all, you, your mother and me, in a tragedy. So I tried to deceive him by playing his game. I let him spy into my private affairs so that he could see that I was only an ordinary sort of chap like thousands of others.”
At last Frederick and his father can talk freely between each other. Langlais understands and knows that his son is fully supportive of him, and Frederick is desperate to know more. Langlais doesn’t want to keep running and hiding for the rest of his life. He’s happy enough in their new position and wants to fight to keep it. But he confesses to his son that for years he drove Morden’s lorries knowing full well he was carrying contraband; but what could he do? His pregnant wife was delicate, his son was about to be born. He wanted to be able to provide for them as best he could. “As a matter of fact I never enjoyed one single moment of that ill-gotten comfort. It was poisoned by my sense of guilt, and my fear of being found out. When you were a little boy you used to ask innocent questions about my job – what sort of loads I carried, that sort of thing. And when I answered I found I was lying, lying to an innocent little boy. My life seemed to have become one big lie. I gradually became so ashamed that after a while I found myself avoiding you. It is natural for children to trust their parents and when you were about six you had a way of looking a me which made ashamed to think that I could deceive my wife and child so terribly.”
More revelations from Langlais. When he caused the death of the cyclist, he was accelerating away from rival smuggling gangs who would have stopped his lorry and taken control of his load. Langlais felt that if he accepted the blame and went to prison it would rid him of Morden and his illegal work for ever – but no. The contraband he was carrying at the time of the accident never came to light. Clearly, Jeremy and the 4CV men are working for Morden and trying to locate the stolen lorry and its goodies. So Langlais wants Frederick to keep an eye on Jeremy, and maybe take his mind off trying to find the contraband; Frederick suggests the girls will keep the 4 CV men out of harm’s way; which just leaves the SOBITO men.
So why, when Langlais finally goes to bed at 2am, is Frederick missing from his bedroom?
Chapter Seven Calas the postman arrives for a morning rosé at the Café and starts to brag about smoking both Diamond and Princess cigarettes – which just so happen to be the brands that were in Langlais’ lorry. He tells the 4CV men that they were just lying on the ground on the road from Chamarande that morning. Then two other men come in, also smoking the same brands. The 4CV men, whom Colette has nicknamed Duckbeak and Clownface, grow more unsettled and ask Uncle Armand for local countryside tips; Armand offers the services of the two girls to walk with the two men in the countryside (that wouldn’t happen today!!)
Frederick (who tells his father he just went for a walk the previous night) cheekily offers Jeremy a cigarette from his new packet of Diamonds. Jeremy is thunderstruck and is desperate to know where Frederick got them – and he tells the same story as the postman. Jeremy says: “I know people who would pay the earth to get their hands on a stock of these”, to which Frederick replies, “would they pay enough to let my father live in peace?”
Frederick asks Jeremy if he would like to live in the area for good. Jeremy concedes that it’s a good place, and that he was lucky to get on so well with his father. Later that day, Frederick spots Duckbeak and Clownface hiding in a taxi. Something’s going to happen soon, and, for once, it’s Jeremy who seems the most nervous.
Chapter Eight sees Frederick on a late-night rendezvous with Calas – down at the abandoned lorry in the quarry at Senozan. This is where Calas gets his endless supply of cigarettes, of course; and the only other person who knows about it is the driver, Young Charley, who won’t be happy until the whole stash has gone, and now never goes near the place. He unwittingly got involved in Morden’s contraband scam, and hadn’t a clue what to do with the lorry. It was Calas’ idea to hide it in Senozan.
Together they worked to fill two big sacks with cigarettes, but at this stage, what they did with them is a mystery. Frederick walks home at about 2am only to be discovered by his father. The two of them watch as a long-distance lorry accelerates towards the filling-station and knocks down all the pumps, and, without stopping, hurtles on to rejoin the main road and disappear. Langlais does his best to make the site safe, although Jeremy is reticent to help. When the police come, Frederick is able to give the number plate of the lorry – although he doesn’t mention it was the same lorry that called the previous week. Frederick also takes the opportunity to needle Jeremy once more, and he’s not happy about it.
Chapter Nine And we straightaway know what Frederick and Calas have done; as loads of people descend on the quarry to pick up hundreds of packets of cigarettes that are just lying on the ground. And, good news: SICA repaired the petrol pumps at 6am the next morning, so there was hardly any loss of trade. After some closer questioning by Frederick, he discovers that the lorry that is hidden in the quarry was not his father’s but another run by the same company – he confirms that the driver’s name was Charley.
Two men dressed in black check in to the Café for an overnight stay – and Uncle Armand is convinced they are customs officers. Over lunch Frederick realises that Jeremy has his own argument with the 4CV men – but he won’t say what it is. Perhaps, thinks Frederick, Jeremy can finally be trusted… However, Jeremy has devised a plan, and asks Frederick to provide him with one complete carton of cigarettes, containing five hundred packets of twenty. He won’t say why; but Frederick agrees. And then Jeremy drops a bombshell – Morden is coming to Magpie Corner tomorrow.
Another surprise – in conversation with traffic cop Claud, it emerges that they knew all along about the abandoned lorry and the plentiful supply of cigarettes, as Frederick watches him puffing away at a fresh pack of Diamonds. Claud invites Frederick to confess to the liberal scattering of packets a few days earlier – but he stays quiet. Nevertheless, Claud informs Frederick that he knows full well where the missing lorry is – safely parked out of harm’s way.
At night, Frederick has been true to his word and Jeremy divides up the cigarettes and stashes them all over the red 4CV; in the boot, behind the cushions, under the seats, in the door pockets. That done, Jeremy, Frederick and Calas drive around the village, dispensing cigarette packets everywhere.
Chapter Ten The by-pass is choked with motorists on the hunt for free cigarettes, some to smoke themselves, some to set up stalls to make a profit. Langlais is asked to see the police about a trivial matter, which leaves Frederick and Jeremy in charge of the big final scene. They were just serving some customers when a royal blue Jaguar pulls up at Pump Number One; Morden, his chauffeur and two other men. Morden wishes to see Langlais but Frederick explains he is with the police but will be back soon, maybe with some officers. Unimpressed with the sight of “his” cigarettes being shared out all over the place, they get out of the car and wait for Langlais to return, while Jeremy works on the Jaguar. Meanwhile the locals continue to smoke their hearts out.
Langlais tells Morden that he ought to leave whilst he can, but Morden is not in the mood to change his mind. Then Frederick bursts in and tells Morden it’s his Cherbourg lorry that is stuck locally and that, as no one came to claim it, for the last three days it’s been the property of Calas, the Postman. “”As for my father’s lorry,” went on Frederick, still perfectly calm, “I can’t say yet, because it’s in the hands of the traffic police and the Special Branch for suppression of smuggling.” Claud and Poulard arrive and confirm that the lorry Langlais was driving is currently being stored in Lille “in a shed behind the Customs Office!” Morden denies ownership of the vehicle; Claud confirms “for a cargo of that nature and tonnage […] counting the expenses, taxes, surcharges, compensation, damages and other indemnities claimed by the Customs, the Treasury and the State (all in algebraic progression, mind you), I should say our man would get a bill for about eight hundred million francs.”
On the road out to Rouvray, Morden and his men are stopped by Customs Officers – and five hundred cartons of Diamond cigarettes are found in the boot – the contraband that Jeremy had planted on them, when he was attending to the Jaguar.
Frederick confronts Jeremy with his suspicion that “it was you who planned that robbery of the two lorries in league with the drivers’ mates, wasn’t it? […] But it all went wrong because of my father and his accident. Klaus tried to rob you in his turn, and then young Charley lost his head. Monsieur Morden looked for his lorries all over France, and you were looking for them too on your own account. For a short while you hoped you could recover the Senozan one, but it was impossible for one man alone, and I got in your way.” Jeremy denies it, but we know Frederick is right.
One final revelation: the cyclist who died as a result of the accident, and the guilt for which Langlais has had to deal with for so long, had been dead six hours when the police arrived. So Langlais has been living with that guilt unnecessarily! It wasn’t him!
To sum up; Magpie Corner wasn’t translated until nine years after it was written, so, in the sequence of British publications of Berna’s works, it appears later and out of place, and I think has long been overlooked as a result. To my mind it’s a book of great atmosphere, considerable sadness; not a typical childhood funtime romp, but an examination of some of the darker sides of life. I really like it! If you’ve read the book – or are re-reading it now, I’d love to know what you think about it, so please add a comment below. Paul Berna’s next book was Le Kangourou Volant, which was never translated into English. So we’ll skip that one so that the next in the Paul Berna Challenge is The Knights of King Midas, and once more we’re in the world of gangs; not Gaby and his friends, but Charloun and his gang, so there’s a whole new bunch of French youngsters to meet. I can’t remember much about it, so I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.
Another Suitcase in Another Hall… no, this is no time for Evita. With theatres, cinemas and pubs closed, there’s not a lot for me to talk about in these stressful times. No plays, films, comedy, dance; the local University acting students’ FlashFringe Festival has been cancelled, and, looking ahead, can you really see the Edinburgh Fringe taking place as normal? Still, at least we’ve always got Eurovisi…. Ah, bollocks!
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. It’s vital that these events be shut down and that people do their best not to come into contact with others so that this terrible virus can be managed and its potency reduced. The quicker we hole up and hunker down, the quicker we can go out again. On a personal note, I’m happy to report that Mrs Chrisparkle and I, plus all our extended families and close friends, seem to be currently healthy and I pray to the God I don’t believe in that this will continue. Mrs C is permanently working from home but, luckily for us, we’re used to each other’s company, having worked together in the past, so we’re not yet calling in the divorce lawyers. In the absence of live theatre action, there’s always the written word, so I’ll be continuing with my Agatha Christie Challenge and my Paul Berna Challenge, and I’ll try to keep up with my James Bond Challenge too. My friend Lord Liverpool’s new book is out soon and I’m reading it so that I can grill him on these pages in a month or so’s time.
But yeah, Eurovision…. It was never going to be sensible or even possible, to get people from all around the world congregating in Rotterdam in mid-May. The EBU in their wisdom have declared that the songs that had been chosen for this year will not be eligible for the 2021 contest – and I can appreciate that in fourteen months’ time those songs could feel stale to the performers and some fresh excitement needs to be injected. However, that means there are 41 songs this year that have ended up in no man’s land; and some of them are pretty amazing.
So I thought I’d conduct my own Eurovision Song Contest 2020 through this blog; two semi-finals and a final consisting of the top twenty from the semis plus the Netherlands and the Big Five. It’ll take a week or so to set up I expect, so watch this space for the first semi-final coming soon and advice on how to vote.
In which James Bond is charged with infiltrating a diamond smuggling operation, which leads him to meet stylish criminal Tiffany Case – but she is only a small cog in a giant wheel turned by that Master of Malice, Blofeld (who hasn’t been killed in the opening scenes, as we all suspected.) Blofeld wants the diamonds to pay for the creation of a laser satellite that he will use to obliterate the weapons held by the superpowers and therefore in a position of supreme global power. Will James Bond let him get away with that? Of course not!
After George Lazenby refused to honour his contract to play James Bond again, the script that Richard Maibaum had almost finished for the next film had to be rewritten. For one thing, Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman weren’t particularly impressed with it, and secondly, it had been planned as a revenge film, with Bond avenging the death of his beloved Tracy; with a change of cast, that just wouldn’t have worked. As luck would have it, Broccoli had a dream where his friend Howard Hughes was replaced by an impostor; and that’s how the character of Willard Whyte was born. The producers recruited American screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz to amend Maibaum’s original script, which resulted in the two writers sharing the writing credits.
The producers also had to look further afield to find their new 007. After toying with the ideas of John Gavin (of Spartacus, Psycho and Thoroughly Modern Millie fame), Burt Reynolds, Adam West (the original Batman) and Michael (Dumbledore) Gambon, they realised they needed the box-office guarantee of enticing Sean Connery back to the role. Connery demanded $1.25 million, using the money to establish his Scottish International Education Trust. This was a huge increase on Lazenby’s $100,000 and even Connery’s previous fee of $800,000.
Although Production Designer Ken Adam had been replaced for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – primarily for reasons of finance – he was welcomed back for Diamonds are Forever. Nevertheless, special effects were toned down as a result of Connery’s increased salary. Ted Moore returned as Cinematographer for the first time since Thunderball, with Bert Bates and John Holmes as Editors. For the big job, Guy Hamilton was recruited as Director for what would be his second of four Bond films, and of course, the music was once again in the capable hands of John Barry.
Diamonds are Forever was published in 1956 and was the fourth book in Ian Fleming’s series of James Bond novels. It was inspired by a Sunday Times account of diamond smuggling in Sierra Leone. Using contacts, he met Sir Percy Sillitoe, the ex-head of MI5, who was working in security for De Beers, the famous diamond-trading company. The material he garnered not only provided the basis for Diamonds are Forever but also for a non-fiction book, The Diamond Smugglers, that he published the following year. Fleming wrote Diamonds are Forever at his Goldeneye estate in Jamaica, taking the title from an advertisement in Vogue Magazine, “A Diamond is Forever.”
I’m fairly sure that I saw this film with my schoolfriend John in a double bill with From Russia with Love at the Odeon in Aylesbury sometime in the mid-1970s. Chronologically, this was the last (i.e. the most recent) James Bond film that I saw either in the cinema or on TV until Skyfall – a gap of ignorance that made me want to do this James Bond Challenge in the first place.
Whilst the book and the film share many similar themes and plotlines, they also diverge in many areas. Like the film, the book deals with a diamond smuggler by name of Peter Franks, whom Bond impersonates to infiltrate the smuggling gang. He meets Tiffany Case, who is part of the smuggling chain; she leads Bond/Franks to the smugglers HQ; Shady Tree, another smuggler, also appears in both book and film. However, in the book, the mastermind behind the smuggling gang is the Spangled Mob, run by the ruthless brothers Jack and Seraffimo Spang. In the film, the Spangs have been replaced by Blofeld; whether he’s working independently of SPECTRE or not is uncertain. In the book, the Spangs’ henchmen Mr Wint and Mr Kidd carry out – or attempt to carry out – a few personal atrocities, whereas in the film, they perform most of the gangland murders even though they are never directly associated with Blofeld.
The book received largely – though not exclusively – good reviews. The Times Literary Supplement said it was Fleming’s “weakest book, a heavily padded story about diamond smuggling”, and the Sunday Times described it as: “about the nicest piece of book-making in this type of literature which I have seen for a long time”. The New York Times praised “Mr. Fleming’s handling of American and Americans”, although he felt that “the narrative is loose-jointed and weakly resolved”. The film also scored mixed reviews, with virtually all commentators approving the exciting car chase scenes, but with criticism of the performances of Jill St John (“one of the least effective Bond girls – beautiful, but shrill and helpless” according to Filmcritic.com) and Putter Smith and Bruce Glover (“looking and acting like a couple of pseudo-country bumpkins, [they] seem to have wandered by accident from the adjoining sound stage into the filming of this movie” according to Steve Rhodes.) Wint and Kidd, and Bambi and Thumper have been called the worst and second worst Bond villains of all time. The Guardian, however, described it as “oddly brilliant, the best of the bunch: the perfect bleary Bond film for an imperfect bleary western world”.
It’ll come as no surprise that the opening credits begin, with Maurice Binder’s iconic glimpse of Bond walking across the screen whilst being captured by the barrel of a gun, only for him to turn around, see us, and shoot; and then for the blood to start filling up the screen. Last time it was George Lazenby of course, and this time it’s back to Sean Connery – and the background white colour has now become blue. Fortunately, there’s a new arrangement for the James Bond Theme, using an electric guitar, and not that disappointingly easy listening version used in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
We start off with something of a world tour. We begin in Japan, where Bond threatens an unnamed henchman with some proper violence unless he tells him where Blofeld is – answer, Cairo; then we visit a casino in Cairo, where the same question is asked of a befezzed gambler – answer, ask Marie. For those first two scenes, you don’t see Bond’s face – so is it Connery or Lazenby? Then Connery appears, meeting a pretty girl (presumably Marie) on a beach somewhere else and makes to strangle her with her bra unless she spills the beans on Blofeld. Finally, Bond tracks down Blofeld in a laboratory where they are creating a second version of the evil mastermind. There’s a fight and a struggle and Blofeld gets swallowed up in a mudpool and left to drown. Or does he……?
Cut to Blofeld’s cat, looking most peeved at the apparent death of his master. Here’s an interesting fact you won’t find anywhere else. The lady who owned that cat – and indeed she was a worldwide cat expert who judged on major cat shows throughout the world over several decades – was admitted to the same dementia care home as my mother. You heard it here first.
Anyway, back to the film. And it’s the credits, and Shirley Bassey’s performance of Diamonds are Forever, wisely using the title of the film and book as the title of the film, something that wasn’t an option with OHMSS. Like Thunderball, the lyrics to Diamonds are Forever were written by Don Black. Binder’s title sequence calls for a view after view of dripping diamonds, which after a short while becomes slightly less than interesting. Luckily, there are a few shots of barely hidden bosoms to perk the credits up. But I would suggest this is possibly the least creative title sequence in the series so far.
And the locations? The first location of any interest is Amsterdam – with plenty of typical tourist views which reminded me of the opening sequences of Van der Valk. The scene then shifts to Nevada, and Las Vegas, primarily designed to appeal to the American audience. Many of the Las Vegas scenes take place in Circus Circus, a larger than life setting for a large than life character and story. There are also a few glimpses of Dover; Blofeld’s oil rig home was off the coast of California, and the attractive lift in which Bond and Franks fight as filmed at 107 Fleet Street, London, now a suite of serviced offices. And the garden scene where Bond gives Tiffany a thwack across the chops was filmed in the Palm Springs house belonging to the late Kirk Douglas.
Bond, James Bond. Once again, those are Bond’s first words in this film (well, almost: “My name is Bond, James Bond”) – spoken in the credits sequence. If it seems like James Bond looks considerably more mature in this film than the previous time we saw Connery in the role, remember it has been four years since You Only Live Twice. In that period Sean Connery had appeared in several other movies and had aged from 37 to 41 and I think it shows. Mind you, he did say he hardly got to sleep when they were filming in Las Vegas – he played golf every day, saw all the shows every evening and did all the filming during the wee small hours of the morning. That would be enough to tax the strength of Superman.
Boo-boos. One of the best boo-boos comes in one of the film’s most celebrated scenes – when the Ford Mustang rolls through the alleyway on two wheels. Unfortunately for continuity, the two wheels that it enters the alleyway on are not the same two wheels it’s using on its exit! Also, all the people standing outside the Golden Nugget Saloon whilst the car chase is proceeding are clearly just standing there and watching what’s going on rather than going about their daily lives – and a minute or two later, there’s hardly anyone on the streets. When Tiffany comes out of her flat to observe the fight between Bond and Franks, she comes a couple of feet forward to see what’s going on but in the next shot she’s back in the doorframe – without enough time to have got back there. When Bond approaches Tiffany in the Whyte House hotel room apparently naked, the camera just manages to catch the top of his flesh coloured undies.
The Bond Girl. At one stage, I thought Plenty O’Toole would turn out to be the Bond Girl in this movie. But no, she just appears for a couple of short scenes, where she shows herself to be completely eaten up by a lust for money which soon leads to her death. Maybe the fact that, during the filming, Sean Connery and Lana Wood, who plays Plenty, were having a relationship, adds to their brief, but distinct, on camera chemistry. Lana Wood, the sister of Natalie Wood, has been married six times, the longest being to Husband Number Five which lasted four years. She was already an established actress at the time of filming, with a long run in TV’s Peyton Place under her belt. TV and film work dried up in the mid-1980s, with just a few roles since then. Much of her life has been devoted to clearing up the circumstances surrounding her sister’s death.
But the title of Bond Girl for this film definitely goes to Tiffany Case, played by Jill St John, the first American to take this title. Tiffany is possibly the most actively criminal of the Bond Girls so far, but that doesn’t seem to stop either of them from getting it on. She’s elegant, reckless, daring; but also, when it comes to replacing the lethal cassette tape that makes or breaks Blofeld’s wicked schemes, a bit ham-fisted and stupid. Possibly because she was also dating Sean Connery, and also because later she married Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood’s widower, she has carried out a longstanding public feud with her co-Bond Girl, Lana Wood. Whilst Jill St John had a successful Hollywood career, she largely gave it all up in 1972 to concentrate on her homelife.
What Bond Girls Are Like. Apart from the Japanese heritage that sets You Only Live Twice’s Kissy apart from the rest of the Girls, our currently agreed list of attributes common to the Bond Girls is: sexy, exotic, unpredictable, as equally likely to attack Bond as to support him, strong and self-reliant up to a point, sometimes tragic, professional, scary, vengeful and bossy. How well does Tiffany conform to the role? Fairly well on the whole, although perhaps she’s a little more human than most, as she is prone to getting things wrong from time to time, and seems genuinely alarmed when Bond and Franks fight in the lift.
The Villain. Once again Blofeld is back, this time seemingly without the backing of SPECTRE, but no less lethal as a result. In fact, there are several Blofelds as part of the plot was to create lookalike Blofelds to make it even more difficult to assassinate the real one – and at least two of the false Blofelds die in this film. He’s played by Charles Gray, who, interestingly, had played Dikko Henderson in You Only Live Twice – changing sides from the goodies to the baddies. Gray had enjoyed a long and successful film career from the late 1950s up to his death in 2000. Writer Tom Mankiewicz described his performance as a much more “fussy” Blofeld than the other actors to perform the role – and it’s a very interesting characterisation. Blofeld actually only appears in three of the Fleming novels – Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice; and, apart from in the pre-credits for For Your Eyes Only, this would be his last appearance in a James Bond movie.
Other memorable characters? By far the most intriguing among the rest of the cast is the weird and wilful double act of Mr Wint and Mr Kidd, played by Bruce Glover and Putter Smith. Hinting at a homosexual relationship between the two, they’re always together as each other’s right-hand man, so to speak. If someone needs bumping off, or if something needs stealing, they’re the men for the job, One assumes that they’re working for Blofeld, but it’s never made absolutely clear; maybe that’s because, as far as the plot is concerned, they are remnants of the Spangled Mob plotline, which was removed for the purposes of the film. As a result, their position in the crime family tree of this film is always undefined. Whilst some critics (see earlier) didn’t rate their performances, personally I find them very unsettlingly creepy. Mankiewicz described them as “vicious, but funny vicious”.
Bruce Glover also had a very long and successful career as a movie actor over five decades; now aged 87, he has carried on working right up to the last few years. Putter Smith was better known as a jazz musician; in fact, he was playing with Thelonious Monk at a club in Los Angeles when he was spotted by Guy Hamilton and approached to play the role. He’s worked with all the Greats; and in the pop world, he’s been a session musician with The Beach Boys, The Righteous Brothers and Sonny and Cher. He’s still going strong at the age of 79. There is a story that Sean Connery believed both actors were gay, as per their roles, and they did nothing to disabuse him of this assumption, until one day Connery met Glover on a flight and observed Glover chatting up all the air hostesses – that’s when he realised he’d been had.
Friendly CIA Agent Felix Leiter makes a return to the world of Bond, this time acted by Norman Burton, who had a long film career working from the 50s to the 90s. As the name suggests, this version of Leiter feels a little lighter than other incarnations, providing a few humorous moments (“I’ve got 30 agents down there, a mouse with sneakers couldn’t get through”) whilst supporting Bond’s work. Norman Burton died in 2003.
Other interesting characters include the tetchy Dr Metz, a top scientist working for Blofeld, played by Joseph Furst, an Austrian who emigrated to Australia in the 1970s and ended up acting in soap operas there; Morton Slumber, the slimy undertaker who’s part of the smuggling gang, played by David Bauer, an American who emigrated to Britain because of McCarthyism and who died rather young in 1973; and Shady Tree, the stand-up comedian working in Whyte’s Las Vegas club who’s also part of the smuggling gang, played by Leonard Barr, who was indeed a stand-up comic as well as an actor and who was Dean Martin’s uncle. Not mentioned in the credits is a young David Healy, as the rocket launch director, whose accomplishments ranged from voicing Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, through comedy appearances with Dick Emery and Kenny Everett, to a show-stopping performance as Nicely Nicely Johnson in the National Theatre’s award-winning 1980s revival of Guys and Dolls. And, of course, there’s Bambi and Thumper, two Bond-girl wannabes who just end up trying to kill our hero. They were played by Lola Larson and Trina Parks. Whilst Lola Larson hasn’t done much acting since, Trina Parks, primarily a dancer, has been in a number of movies, and holds the accolade of being the first African-American female in a Bond film.
As usual, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell and Desmond Llewelyn reprise their roles as M, Moneypenny and Q. Moneypenny only appears in one, brief, scene at Dover Customs; apparently Lois Maxwell had dyed her hair for another role, hence she wears a cap to disguise it. Initially she wasn’t written into the film at all, as she was asking for more money and the producers weren’t keen – but in the end that was resolved. M gives Bond his task for this film – but then, unusually, we never go back to him. Normally, at some point in a Bond film, 007 would report back to him, or we would hear that M is either satisfied or dissatisfied with Bond’s performance – but not this time. Instead, we meet Q a few times, out in the field, including a very funny scene where he empties all the one-arm bandits in the casino due to an amazing gadget. What a clever chap he is.
And what about the music? As always, the film starts with the main James Bond Theme, in a nice, crisp guitar arrangement, written by Monty Norman; after that, it’s mainly all John Barry, apart from a brass version of the Norman theme when the Hovercraft leaves Dover, and when we see Bond and Tiffany relaxing on the liner at the end, when the Norman theme returns. In addition to the iconic performance by Shirley Bassey of the title track, there’s a luscious loungey arrangement of the tune when Bond first encounters Tiffany in her flat – entitled Diamonds are Forever (Source Instrumental) on the soundtrack album. There’s also a very cutesy arrangement of Monty Norman’s theme for the scene where Bond encounters Bambi and Thumper. All in all, it’s not a bad soundtrack, although you probably wouldn’t spend an evening unwinding to it.
Shirley Bassey’s recording of Diamonds are Forever reached 38 in the UK chart in 1972, although she was never really a singles recording artist. According to Wikipedia, so it must be true, John Barry told her to imagine that she was singing about a penis when she recorded the song. Make of that what you will.
Car chases. You have to wait a while before the film enters car chase mode, but once there it doesn’t let up until you’re thoroughly entertained. Basically there are two scenes – one, where a green security car, plus security officers on quad bikes, chase around what appears to be the surface of the moon – at the Tectonics research laboratory; and one where cops chase Bond and Tiffany around the centre of Las Vegas and the Mint Hotel parking lot – which includes the famous two-wheeled alleyway roll. The producers entered into an arrangement with Ford to use their cars as so many would get destroyed during the making of the film. Their only stipulation was that Sean Connery was to drive the iconic Ford Mustang that in the film belonged to Tiffany. The reason? It had just entered the market and there could be no greater advertising endorsement than that of James Bond!
Cocktails and Casinos. Part of the opening credits includes a quick casino scene in Cairo, where a man in a fez is attacked by Bond looking for Blofeld; then there are two more Las Vegas casino scenes, the first where Bond goes to see Shady Tree’s show, and one situated inside Circus Circus, where Tiffany goes hunting for diamonds. No cocktails are poured in this film; although Bond does appreciate the sherry with Sir Magnus based on an 1851 vintage. It’s a Chateau Mouton Rothschild that contributes to the death of Mr Kidd at the end of the movie.
Gadgets. Q’s on good form in this film. He’s already furnished Bond with a kind of mousetrap contraption that fits inside his jacket pocket and punishes anyone looking in there for something; and he’s provided Bond with a Franks’ fingerprints on a sticky piece of film that goes over his own fingerprints. He really does think of everything. Then there’s the gun that shoots cable – invaluable for scaling the outside of buildings, the speech gadget that makes Bond sound like Saxby (after all, Blofeld has a gadget – made by those nice people at Tectronics – that makes him sound like Whyte) and a cunning corkscrew. And, of course, Q’s favourite invention, an electromagnetic RPM controller – the widget that allows him to make a fortune on the fruit machines in the casino.
In Memoriam. Time for a quick countback. Dr No had a death count of approximately 11 as well as all those who go up in smoke in his lair at the end; From Russia with Love notched up at least 40 stiffs; Goldfinger came in at a more modest 23-ish, plus everyone who died at Fort Knox; Thunderball hit a peak of around 50 people; You Only Live Twice was going really well until a mass murder spree towards the end took about 40 lives, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service took out about 20 people only, including the longest wait until someone dies. But what about Diamonds are Forever’s death count? Let’s briefly remember those who gave their lives so that Bond and Tiffany can enjoy the last days of their leisure cruise:
Henchman in the grass outside Blofeld’s claying laboratory (presumably killed by Bond so that he could gain entrance)
Clayed person in the vat
Henchman, killed by Bond throwing knives at him
Someone pretending to be Blofeld
Dentist, killed by a scorpion down the neck
Helicopter pilot given a bomb to take on board by Wint and Kidd
A guard (in absentia) killed by Peter Franks so that he could escape
Peter Franks, whopped over the head by a fire extinguisher so he toppled over a balustrade to his death (covered in fire extinguisher foam)
Plenty O’Toole, drowned in the swimming pool
Another person pretending to be Blofeld, shot by Bond when he identifies the “wrong pussy”.
An untold number of people at the missile area in North Dakota
An untold number of people on the submarine
Lots of Chinese people
2 of Blofeld’s henchmen
Four people in another helicopter
2 more of the henchmen
And the crew of another helicopter
Four on a bridge
Everyone on the platform
Blofeld (one presumes)
Wint and Kidd, flambéd, bombed and drowned.
That’s probably in the region of 70-100 people? That could be the highest toll in a Bond movie so far. Plenty of work for Mr Slumber’s funeral parlour if he’s looking for business.
Humour to offset the death count. In previous films, Bond’s classic asides are normally delivered whenever someone dies. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service started the trend towards funny lines in other circumstances too, and this continues in Diamonds are Forever. In fact, the funny lines in this film mainly involve sexual encounters. Here are some of his best bon mots:
To Marie, in the opening credits, where he whips off her bra: “there’s something I’d like you to get off your chest”.
To Leiter, explaining where the diamonds are stored in Franks’s body: “Alimentary, my dear Leiter”.
Tiffany, eyeing up the naked Bond: “there’s a lot more to you than I expected”.
Later when the naked Bond rolls over on top of the naked Tiffany, he quips, “relax, darling, I’m on top of the situation”. And when Tiffany assures Leiter that she is “co-operating”, Bond confirms, “I can vouch for that.”
When Bond kicks Blofeld’s cat and it leaps into the arms of its owner, Bond sees that as the definition of the correct Blofeld to kill. But no. “Right idea, Mr Bond”. “But wrong pussy”.
When Bond tucks the C90 cassette into Tiffany’s bikini panties: “Your problems are all behind you now”.
When Bond ties the bomb to the back of Mr Wint’s trousers: “He certainly left with his tail between his legs”.
Any less frothy elements? So once again it’s time to consider if there are any outstanding themes or elements that don’t sit well with today’s audience. And to be fair, there’s nothing like the usual amount of sexism. Perhaps that’s because Bond doesn’t take advantage of the female characters as much as in other films – and in many respects, they take advantage of him. It’s quite interesting to watch the battle of the sexes more evened up than usual.
Bizarre other stuff that occurred to me and a few observations.
Bond on the Moon? In 1971 the US (and indeed the world) was still rocket-crazy with Apollo missions happening left right and centre, so Bond driving a Moon Buggy very much tapped into the Zeitgeist. Those people who thought the moon landings were staged thought that the site where this was filmed was the site where the landings were faked. So you could say that the whole buggy scene is something of a satirical nod to that conspiracy theory.
How lovely to see a hovercraft in action again! In 1971 they were (literally) a hot ticket and a very popular method of travel from the UK to mainland Europe. Such a shame that they are no longer commercially used. Such a great invention. I wonder if they’ll ever come back. It would be great if we were to discover that they’re more environmentally friendly.
As in OHMSS, it’s hilarious to see the future of the world relying on a C90 cassette.
Apparently, Sammy Davis Jr filmed a cameo role in a casino but the scene was deleted. Shame!
The man who plays the mad scientist who coverts the girl into a gorilla was in fact the owner of Circus Circus – he told the producers they could use his venue provided he was in the movie!
Jimmy Dean, who played Willard Whyte, was a Country and Western singer who had a major international hit in 1961 with Big Bad John.
Awards: Sound engineers Gordon K. McCallum, John W. Mitchell and Alfred J. Overton were nominated for Best Sound at the Academy Awards – they lost to Fiddler on the Roof.
To sum up: A thoroughly enjoyable James Bond film, filled with interesting characters, a good solid story, some terrific car chases, a top theme title and lots of fun. What’s not to like? This would be the last time Sean Connery played Bond for Broccoli and Saltzman, and he would return only once more, in Never Say Never Again, but for a different production company. Diamonds are Forever was the last Bond movie I saw until Skyfall – so I’m looking forward to catching the next film, Live and Let Die, so I can finally discover what Roger Moore was like in the role!
My rating: 5 Sparkles
All photos from the film of course belong to their various copyright holders.
If someone mentions Charlie Chaplin then you get an instant image in your head – a grainy black and white picture of a little guy in an ill-fitting suit, bandy-legged, twirling a cane. Similarly, if you think of Stan Laurel, you imagine a tall weedy-looking chap, intellectually challenged, scratching his hair perplexedly, and almost certainly in the company of the tubby and smug Oliver Hardy. Apart from the era in which they did their best work, you wouldn’t necessarily put the two together. But that’s the basis of this production from Told by an Idiot, co-produced by the Royal and Derngate amongst others.
Who knew that Chaplin and Laurel were on the same ship that sailed to America to join slapstick impresario Fred Karno’s successful troupe of comic performers, a journey that would change their lives for ever and would shape the direction of film comedy for decades? (Everyone put your hands down, that was meant to be rhetorical.) The show is set on their high seas journey to America, interspersed with re-enacted scenes from both the star performers’ lives. Chaplin’s poverty-stricken early days, Laurel’s initial meeting with Hardy (that comedy golf routine was probably the highlight of the show for me), their later-in-life reunion, and so on, are all acted out in little vignettes. There’s no sense of chronological narration to these scenes – they (presumably deliberately) follow each other in a haphazard order, some with great significance to their lives and careers, others less so.
The production is co-commissioned by the London International Mime Festival, and it’s fascinating to see an entire piece (90 minutes, no interval) performed almost entirely without speech (Chaplin’s drunken dad gets to sing a couple of songs), although the words on the projected screen – cleverly recalling how they got around the issue in the days of the silent screen – provide something of a communication get-out clause. Of course, Tape-Face (or whatever he is called at the moment) can do it – including getting members of the audience up on to the stage without uttering a syllable. The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel also has a couple of entertaining audience participation moments, so do beware if you sit at the front.
The performances are all strong; Amalia Vitale gives a tremendous performance as Chaplin, every inch (despite their being not many of them) the clown, impersonating his gait and silently eloquent facial expressions down to a tee. Jerone Marsh-Reid, on the other hand, whilst delightfully suggesting Laurel’s imbecilic charm, doesn’t look remotely like him, which creates a strange sense of imbalance. This is also emphasised by Nick Haverson’s excellent visual impression of Hardy (amongst other roles), but of course that’s not Mr Marsh-Reid’s fault at all. Sara Alexander is the fourth member of the company, spending most of her time keeping pace with the action on her plinky-plonky piano, which works very well.
If you’re sensing a slight lack of enthusiasm on my part, gentle reader, there’s a reason for that. Whilst I could appreciate the skill, the creativity, the charm, and the cleverness of this production and its performers, it didn’t move me in the slightest. Perhaps I was expecting something different – maybe something along the lines of the simple storytelling of The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk. There were moments in some of the scenes in The Strange Tale (not that it’s remotely strange, btw) where I didn’t fully understand the storytelling. Nor did the chatty people behind us, as we occasionally overheard. I’m also not convinced that the ship setting – nicely realised though it was – helped the show much; I felt it constrained it more than liberated it. The random nature of the acted-out scenes slightly irritated me too; although it was all done in the most charming way, to me it generally lacked focus.
I must tell you that although she stayed awake – a good sign – Mrs Chrisparkle was bored throughout. I wasn’t, but I confess I did keep looking at my watch. I hoped for more laughs, more emotion, more je ne sais quoi. But then I never did care for Chaplin much; Keaton was much funnier. The audience reaction at the end was more respectful than ecstatic, which strikes me as spot-on; I absolutely respect the skills and artistry of the performers, but, for the most part, was a little disappointed in what this show asked them to do.
Everybody’s been Talking About Jamie since it hit (and I mean hit) the Sheffield Crucible back in 2017. I’d heard great things about it but couldn’t fit it in to our busy schedules. However, we did see it in London in December 2017 and absolutely loved it. Since then it’s gone from strength to strength and is currently touring the UK until August whilst continuing to pack them in at the Apollo Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue. Touring, whilst retaining its West End presence, is something that normally only the big boys of musical theatre can achieve, which means that Jamie is now officially a Big Boy of Musical Theatre.
You’ll know the story of course, but in brief: Sheffield-based Jamie New (based on the real-life Jamie Campbell) is coming up to his 16th birthday. He knows – and everyone knows – that he’s gay; what they don’t know is his secret ambition to become a drag queen. Fortunately, his mum Margaret, and her best friend Ray support him completely in his quest to be The Real Jamie. However, there are drawbacks. His dad simply can’t accept his son’s sexuality, let alone his ostentatious appearance. His school arch-enemy, the bully Dean, does everything he can to scupper Jamie’s lifestyle. Even careers adviser, Miss Hedge, wants him to be a fork-lift truck driver – I think it’s fair to say she doesn’t entirely have the measure of him. The school prom is looming; will Jamie manage to realise his dream of attending the prom in a dress (and not just any old dress), or will the powers that be oppress him back into a gender-stereotypical conservative outfit that won’t offend the other school parents?
The loving heart of this show is its message of acceptance and encouragement to be yourself – don’t give in to bullies and don’t be persuaded that you can’t realise your dream. None of these big ideas are forced or heavily delivered; it all flows lightly and naturally from the very believable characters. There’s nothing didactic or preachy about Everybody’s Talking about Jamie; it’s just school life (which we all recognise or remember), parent- and teacher-management which is an art we all (hopefully) develop, confronting down your bullies, and emerging shining at the end. And if you want to do it in a fabulous dress then no one’s gonna stop you.
There are so many positives about the show, and this current touring production. Dan Gillespie Sells’ and Tom MacRae’s songs are still fresh, funny, telling and memorable; the book is witty, emotional in all the right places, and is populated with some great characters. Benjamin Holder’s band whack out the numbers with showbizzy panache, and Kate Prince’s choreography is lively, fun, and calls for some great set piece routines that knock your socks off.
And then there are the performances. When I saw John McCrea play Jamie in London, I couldn’t imagine how it could be bettered; but this tour stars Layton Williams as Jamie and so I have to think again. I first saw Mr Williams in the New Adventures’ Lord of the Flies six years ago when you could already see he was a star in the making. He was superb in the ensemble of Hairspray the following year, and then he was a brilliant Paul in Kiss Me Kate at Sheffield – his Too Darn Hot dance had to be seen to be believed. No surprise that he absolutely owns both the stage and the role as Jamie; it’s a perfect opportunity for his dance, acting and comedic skills to come to the fore. Supremely confident and skilful; it’s a great performance.
I also loved Shane Richie as Hugo, the tired, disillusioned ex-performer who brings his drag creation Loco Chanelle out of retirement in order to encourage Jamie into doing what he wants. I had no idea he could sing and dance so impressively! There’s terrific support from Lara Denning as Miss Hedge, and Shobna Gulati as Ray, and George Sampson makes an excellent villain in the form of Dean, exuding nastiness from every pore. Garry Lee, JP McCue and Rhys Taylor form a great triumvirate of drag queens, a mixture of faded glamour and gruff mateyness. Sharan Phull is superb in the fascinating and assertive role of Jamie’s bestie Pritti, and the ensemble of school students gives us some stunning song and dance routines – a true joy to watch. But Amy Ellen Richardson as Margaret brings the house down with her moving and powerful rendition of He’s My Boy, which stops us all in our tracks and can coax a tear out of the most hard-hearted audience member.
Everybody’s Talking about Jamie – and he and his show will be the talk of the town for the rest of the week. A brilliant portrayal of the power of the individual, this one’s never going to go away. A must-see!
P. S. I (briefly) met the real Jamie at last year’s West End Eurovision. He was wearing a headdress that almost touched the ceiling. I think he’s overcoming his shyness.
P. P. S. Writer Tom MacRae, who comes from Northampton, was in the Press Night audience – and Layton Williams invited him on to the stage to give a charming but empowering short speech about realising your dreams. Good man yourself, Mr MacRae!
Josie Long? Isn’t she the one in Whose Line is it Anyway, asked my friend the Crown Prince of Bedford. Errr…no. That’s Josie Lawrence. It’s very easy to get your Josies mixed up. But, when pushed, I couldn’t elucidate further as to who Josie Long really is either. But now I know. Josie Long won the BBC New Comedy Awards at the age of 17, has a degree in English from Oxford University (me too!) and has done loads of stuff at the Edinburgh fringe ever since. However, recently her comedy career has taken a side-swipe, as she and her partner have had a little girl. From a simple pregnancy, much comedy lies ahead…
Tender is all about her discovery, in her mid-30s, of the joys of motherhood. I use the word joys inadvisedly, because the poor woman is absolutely knackered, frustrated, jealous of other people’s freedom – but she also wouldn’t have it any other way. Motherhood also cannot mask the real Josie Long who’s bubbling just under the surface – the left-wing activist who hasn’t lost her political affiliations and reasonings – and it’s a delight when, every so often, she cannot control flashing out an anti-governmental diatribe. Maybe pregnancy and politics do mix after all.
Ms Long is a comedy dream because she has such an engaging personality, a wonderfully confiding nature, and, you sense, a genuine interest in the wellbeing of her audience and a desire that we all have a good time. And she very much succeeds at this, with a show sculpted from a seemingly endless account of all the things that are wrong with motherhood, the country, the world, and especially fighting Climate Change, which is the other thing that keeps her going.
Meticulously scripted (the clip from the show that was part of the promotional material on the theatre website was absolutely word-for-word identical to the same sequence on Sunday night’s performance) although it doesn’t feel it, keeping up a lovely rapport with the audience, and with genuinely funny material throughout, this show is pure gold. Her UK tour continues into June and I couldn’t recommend her more strongly!
We saw Stewart Lee seven years ago with his Much a-Stew About Nothing tour, and I really admired (and found hysterical) his unique style of deconstructing a show and turning it in on itself. I also noted his no-holds-barred stance of calling out any audience member who dares to check their phone… more of which later. So when I saw he was touring again it was a no-brainer to book.
Snowflake and Tornado are (allegedly) two one hour shows that have been put together for the purposes of this tour, but they dovetail together so completely that they do indeed create one night of content. Tornado comes first – originating from a misdescription of his Netflix show that stayed online for two years; the description given was actually for the comic-schlock horror movie Sharknado, which gives Mr Lee lots of scope for imagining how the two could be combined, and it’s very clever stuff. Somehow into this madness he manages to involve Alan Bennett, in a brilliant scene where he re-imagines a Sharknado attack in a suburban Bennett semi, populated by typical Bennett pensioners. It’s a terrific flight of fancy, and, with Mr Lee’s disturbingly accurate impersonation of the Yorkshire National Treasure himself, was the absolute highlight of the evening.
Snowflake centres on Mr Lee’s doubt as to where he now fits in the comedy scene, given the country’s shift towards the right, which he perceives has made popular comedy shallower and much more of a sham commodity. Again, there is loads of excellent and cunning material, including an Enid Blyton parody and stabs at figures such as Tony Parsons and Ricky Gervais.
However, this gig went seriously wrong for me. From the start I sensed that Mr Lee was much more aggressive than I remembered him. To be fair, the show started unfortunately, as there was obviously a mix-up with tickets held by some audience members that an usher was trying to sort out when Mr Lee walked on stage. He ignored their kerfuffle, but then when another lot of people came in late, he targeted them with total vitriol. It’s a well-worn trick with comedians over the decades to pick on latecomers, but I’ve never seen it done so nastily as by Mr Lee. I understand that is part of his stage persona, but you can go too far.
As the show developed, he called out another audience member for using their phone. “I was just checking that it was turned off” was his explanation; I’ve no way of knowing whether that was true. Then a few minutes later Mr Lee shouted again “TURN THAT PHONE OFF!!!” and I realised he was looking at me. I hadn’t touched my phone, so I looked blankly. “YOU! WITH THE GLASSES!” It was like that moment at school when you were picked on by the vicious teacher for something one of your classmates had done. Mrs Chrisparkle quietly muttered that it might have been my Apple Watch that had turned itself into life. “IS IT YOUR WATCH? DON’T MOVE IT THEN!!” he roared. “SORRY!” I replied, in a not sorry way, more in a Pardon Me for Breathing sort of way. Fortunately, he dropped the conversation then, because if he’d said anything more, I could feel the sarcasm rising within my breath. It wouldn’t have ended well. I would have been ridiculed, felt ashamed, and probably walked out. It would have been an ugly and very non-comedic moment.
But from then on, he lost me. Not only was I concerned about keeping my arm and hand absolutely still lest I offended His Majesty again, but I was also fed up with his whole approach. Look, I am experienced at seeing comedy shows. I get the idea of ridiculing the audience – a bit. But he took it to the nth degree. It reminded me of how James Acaster changed his style to become mean to the audience – and it simply alienates me. You don’t pay good money to be insulted. Moreover, on a few occasions he either lost his way in his act or pretended that he had lost his way, and then heaped all the blame on the audience for putting him off. And the more I sat there, not exactly fuming but with my critical facilities prickling, my main reaction was that I don’t need this kind of stuff in my life.
Something else that completely spoils this show is his constant dissing of other performers. Yes, I understand that he ridicules the society that laps up Ricky Gervais’ style, and sees Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the ultimate innovator, as if no one had ever broken the fourth wall before. But when he lays it on with a trowel, it’s just too much. It’s rancorous, bitter and also feels a bit jealous. There’s an intensely tedious moment where Mr Lee ridicules the concept that Ricky Gervais “says the unsayable” by taking it literally. If he said the unsayable, the noise would come out like “ehh…eeee….cchchchchch…” etc. Point taken. Five minutes later, and he’s still making those childish noises? Most people around me were looking bored as hell. Mrs C had long nodded off – that’s her reaction to stage aggression. Mr Lee takes an idea and then batters it to death. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
But by concentrating so heavily on ridiculing other comics, their audiences and his own audience, the evening was just swimming in negative energy, and, frankly, I couldn’t wait for it to end. It’s a shame – Mr Lee is so creative and talented, is a master of the callback and the shaggy dog story, and makes relevant and insightful points to prick pomposity and hypocrisy. But, on the whole, that was an awful night at the theatre. Perhaps I just didn’t get it; perhaps I did and it was a lousy performance. As it’s Stewart Lee, I couldn’t possibly give him one star, there’s too much good content for that. Thank heavens for the Alan Bennett sequence.
In which Superintendent Spence is not satisfied that James Bentley is guilty of the murder of charwoman Mrs McGinty, and asks that owner of magnificent moustaches, Hercule Poirot, to delve into the case to see if he can discover the real culprit. Poirot accepts the challenge, and, enduring a stay at a grotty B&B all in the pursuit of justice, unearths the real murderer and saves Bentley from the gallows. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal whodunit!
The book is dedicated “To Peter Saunders, in gratitude for his kindness to authors”. Peter Saunders was the theatre impresario who produced The Mousetrap, amongst other successes. Mrs McGinty’s Dead was first published in the US in thirteen instalments in the Chicago Tribune Sunday editions from October to December 1951, under the title Blood Will Tell. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in February 1952 and in the UK by Collins Crime Club, on 3rd March 1952, almost exactly a year after the publication of They Came from Baghdad.
This was one of the last books by Christie that I read first time around, primarily because I had seen the Miss Marple/Margaret Rutherford film Murder Most Foul, which is (allegedly) an adaptation of Mrs McGinty’s Dead, and thought that, as I now knew whodunit, there wasn’t a lot of point reading it. How wrong I was! Whilst it is a tremendously fun film, Murder Most Foul bears as much similarity to Mrs McGinty’s Dead as does the Book of Common Prayer. So, if you find yourself in the same situation, don’t lose any sleep over it!
Whether it’s because it is so unlike that film, I’m not sure, but I always have difficulty recalling the plot, characters and identity of the murder whenever I read this book. As a result, personally, it’s an entertaining read, as it’s as though I’m coming to it new. However, I do also find this book rather ploddy at times, particularly in those early, expositional chapters. It did take me some time to complete it. There are also a quite a large number of characters, and therefore possible suspects, and it’s one of those books where you have to stop and think exactly who we’re reading about in this chapter and what association they have to the rest of the book.
Nevertheless, it’s entertainingly written, with plenty of humorous episodes, enjoyable characterisations and a few tongue-in-cheek references to the ardours of writing detective fiction. Yes, Mrs Oliver is back, Christie’s thinly veiled self-creation, obsessed with apples, struggling with storylines, exasperated that she made her detective a Finn, a vegetarian and too old – exactly the same problems that Christie had created for herself with Poirot. There are some very funny moments in the scenes between Mrs Oliver and Robin Upward, the very theatrical playwright who is adapting one of her books for the stage; his vision of her characters and plot is so very different from hers, and one can indeed imagine that this could be a real source of anguish for any author whose works are highly adaptable.
There’s an intriguing conversation between Mrs Oliver and Robin when he gets the idea that she should write a book where her detective Sven Hjerson is murdered. “No fear,” she replies, “what about the money? Any money to be made out of murders I want now”. But of course, by this time, Christie had already written and squirrelled away Curtain and Sleeping Murder, the books which end the careers of Poirot and Miss Marple, to be published after her death. And from my memory, what Robin suggests should happen to Sven happens to one of her detectives… we’ll just leave that idea hanging there.
Mrs McGinty’s Dead is our first meet-up with Poirot for four years – we last encountered him in Taken at the Flood. Given Mrs Oliver’s petulance about Sven Hjerson, I guess we can conclude that Christie had temporarily had enough of our Belgian hero and wanted to write some different characters – hence the interim books Crooked House and They Came to Baghdad featured neither Poirot nor Marple. She re-establishes the character in the opening paragraphs of the book, fondling his moustaches, creating an art form out of eating, drinking revoltingly luminescent sweet liqueurs, missing his old pal Hastings – even though his vanity only permits him to consider him as a stooge – and not regretting giving up the cultivation of vegetable marrows, a hobby which he gamely embarked on in The Mysterious Affair at Styles but it never caught on.
We also meet Superintendent Spence again, having also become acquainted with him in Taken at the Flood. He’s a bit more of a rounded character in this book; considered, intelligent, honourable and tenacious. Christie allows Poirot to point out the major difference between her two detectives, when Poirot gets frustrated at not making quicker progress: “I get nowhere – nowhere […] There is nothing – no little gleam. I can well understand the despair of Superintendent Spence. But it should be different for me. Superintendent Spence, he is a very good and painstaking police officer, but me, I am Hercule Poirot. For me, there should be illumination!”
At times the book feels almost like a travelogue, with our hero Poirot moving from residence to residence, interrogating the occupants, trying to get to the bottom of what happened. As a result, there are a multitude of characters, most of whom play a minor role, but the consequence of that is we get a surfeit of suspects. This tends to confuse and frustrate rather than make it more exciting or difficult to crack. But the book redeems itself with its comic scenes (Poirot trying to make himself at home in the Summerhayes household is very funny) and the portrayal of Robin and all his theatrical chums is cheeky and entertaining.
As usual, there are a few references to check out, starting with the locations. The main activity of the book takes place in Broadhinny, and the neighbouring towns and villages of Kilchester, Cullenquay, Parminster, Cullavon, and Drymouth all play a part. Of course, these are all fictional; Parminster might be based on Warminster – one tends to think of Christie-land as being the West Country – although perhaps Kilchester is based on Colchester. The book starts with Poirot emerging from the Vieille Grand’mère restaurant into Soho; there are many Vieille Grand’mère’s all around the world but I can’t identify one in Soho.
The title Mrs McGinty’s Dead refers to a children’s playground game. “Question and answer all down the line,” says Spence. “Mrs McGinty’s Dead! How did she die? Down on one knee just like I! – and then the next question […] Holding her hand out just like I”. I have to say I don’t recall that game from my childhood. Do any of my gentle readers? When Mrs Oliver and Poirot meet, they recall their shared experience regarding a Mr Shaitana. He was the victim in that excellent book Cards on the Table.
“Beautiful Evelyn Hope is dead”, quotes Poirot in conversation with Spence. Evelyn Hope, as far as this story is concerned, was Eva Kane’s assumed name once she’d fled after being suspected in the Craig case. But the quote is from Robert Browning’s poem, Evelyn Hope. This is not the first time that Christie has named a character after someone in a poem; Enoch Arden, who is frequently referred to in Taken at the Flood, is the name of a poem by Browning’s contemporary, Tennyson.
“If we hanged Edith Thompson, we certainly ought to have hanged Janice Courtland”, avers Superintendent Spence. But who was Edith Thompson? She, together with her lover Frederick Bywaters, was found guilty of the murder of her husband in 1922 – even today, the guilty verdict against her seems very harsh, based on a series of love letters but no hard evidence. “Do you know, cher ami, what is a secret de Polichinelle?” asks Poirot of Spence. He answers his own question. It “is a secret that everyone can know.” It comes from a 1903 play of the same name by French dramatist Pierre Wolff.
Regular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. The cash amounts mentioned in this book aren’t particularly expensive, but they’re interesting, nonetheless. Bentley is accused of having stolen £30 from Mrs McGinty. That’s about £600 today – quite a lot to steal from an older lady. All Mrs McGinty had in the bank was £200, to be bequeathed to her niece – that’s the equivalent of about £4000 today. Bentley’s board and lodgings cost him £3 a week – that’s £60 a week today, which is very good value for what he got. Mrs McGinty used to charge 1s 10d per hour for her cleaning services – about £1.80 today, way below the minimum wage. One other interesting fact; stamps to send a letter cost one penny. That’s just 10p today. Someone in the Royal Mail is obviously raking it in at the moment, I’ll say no more than that!
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Mrs McGinty’s Dead:
Publication Details: 1952. My copy is a Fontana paperback, seventh impression, dated August 1974, with a price of 35p on the back cover. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a massive fly hovering over a tea table, in an old-fashioned parlour. And is that a shoe attached to a foot attached to a leg at the bottom of the picture?
How many pages until the first death: The first death takes place before the book starts, and is referred to on the third page. However, there’s quite a long wait before the second death – 126 pages in all.
Funny lines out of context: sadly, none spring to mind.
Quite a lot to enjoy here. There’s the hopeless but likeable Maureen Summerhayes with her wayward children, awful cooking skills and “comfortable” guest house that’s more like an assault course. There’s the gutsy Maude Williams, willing to risk her own safety in a bid to help trap the guilty party, in the best tradition of Christie gutsy young women. There’s the haughty Mrs Carpenter, who can’t believe that her word doesn’t carry more weight in law than a mere servant’s. But most fun of all is the flouncy Robin Upward with his coterie of actors, ostentatiously referring to his mother as Madre, fussing and preening wherever he goes.
Christie the Poison expert:
Again, no real references to death by poisoning in this book. All the murders are much more violent and brutal.
Class/social issues of the time:
The early 1950s were known for being a time of dismal austerity. “The war has complicated things,” laments Superintendent Spence, although he is thinking specifically of the opportunity for the unscrupulous to change wartime records, identity cards, and so on, for their own dubious gains. The only hopeful new aspect to everyday life was the National Health service – but even there, people were cynical. In the words of Mrs Sweetiman, “nowadays even if you’ve got a chilblain you run to the doctor with it so as to get your money’s worth out of the National Health. Too much of this health business we’ve got. Never did you any good thinking how bad you feel.” Come to think of it, who gets chilblains nowadays? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone having them.
Most of the class/social references in the book are spiteful little comments about foreigners, the homeless and – thinking primarily about Robin Upward – the use of the word “pansy” to describe a man who’s not particularly into women. Mrs Sweetiman refers to “nasty tramps” in their area who might have broken into Mrs McGinty’s house. Deirdre Henderson is of the same mind, referring in a later conversation with Mrs Oliver that there are “horrid tramps” in the area.
Elsewhere, as has happened in the past, Poirot is considered to be a “funny little foreigner” (again by Deirdre Henderson); Mrs Sweetiman’s assistant Edna needs to inform the police of a development but feels she can’t approach Poirot – “not a foreigner, I couldn’t.” Poirot contacts Mrs Wetherby ostensibly to suggest a replacement for their cook, Frieda, and she is relieved that Maude is “no, not foreign – English, thank goodness.”
You might expect the class system to be at its most pompous in an English village, where the lowly born serve the high and mighty. Mrs McGinty had few admirers, even though many relied on her work to keep their houses clean. Even though she had worked for her, and she was now dead, Mrs Carpenter still can’t bring herself to think of Mrs McGinty as more than just “some old charwoman”. But then again, neither Mrs Carpenter nor her husband are Nice People.
Classic denouement: Yes! And the first since Towards Zero, eight years earlier. It’s one of those occasions where Poirot gathers everyone into a room, he lays a trap to make it seem like one person is responsible for the killings when all along it is someone else in the room, who at first tries to brave it out but then snaps. The best kind of end to a Christie book.
Happy ending? In a sense yes, although it’s very low-key and under-emphasised. There is a supposition that a relationship might blossom at the end of the book, but it’s not the one you might have expected and even then it’s only in the suspicious minds of the detectives. All a bit dark and gloomy, to be honest.
Did the story ring true? Nothing is so bizarre that you read it and think, oh Mrs Christie how could you possibly think we’d believe that – and given the fact that so many of the world’s problems today come from the unscrupulous and biased news media, for me it rings very true that the crime and solution came from a newspaper cutting.
Overall satisfaction rating: A little chewy occasionally, but with a very exciting second half and a banger of a denouement. 8/10.
Thanks for reading my blog of Mrs McGinty’s Dead and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is They do it with Mirrors, and the chance to reacquaint ourselves with Miss Marple. This is another book I find it hard to remember, so it will be a journey of discovery re-reading the book. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!
It’s not often that a Work in Progress show fills the massive Derngate auditorium, but then again, it’s not often that the great John Bishop comes to town. Actually, to my knowledge, it’s at least the second time he’s come to town. The first time we saw him, he was so late, he offered to buy the entire audience a drink. Even though that was in the smaller Royal theatre, it still must have cost him a bob or two. Forewarned is forearmed this time.
But first, a support act. Remembering that Mr Bishop didn’t have a support act when we last saw him, I was surprised that there was one this time. But indeed there was, in the jovial form of Barry Dodds, a Geordie from Gateshead (I thought Geordies could only come from north of the Tyne? Controversial!) full of appropriate apologies for not being John Bishop, but with a ton of fun material of his own. He has a great story about how he fooled a flatmate who liked to dabble with wacky baccy (and worse) – and it’s a good trick: put a bar of Palmolive soap in the microwave and watch it expand. It plays with the most balanced of brains, but when you’ve been on the illegal substances it can fair blow your mind.
I also really enjoyed his account of why he and his wife split up, and his rather gruesome but extremely funny story of what trainee doctors can get up to in the mortuary. Mr Dodds is a naturally funny guy with great timing and a comfortable confidence, and his short set was, truly, all too short. We’d love to see him do a longer set sometime.
After the interval, Mr Bishop wandered on, cup of Yorkshire Tea in hand, apologising for the fact that as this show was indeed work in progress, some of it might be a bit shit. And, really odd for a WIP show, it’s not going to be leading on to a big arena show later in the year – he had intended to do that, but then the plans got altered and the arena show has been postponed. But the WIP shows had already gone on sale, so Mr B felt obliged to give us some WIP comedy, even without a big show in the offing. You couldn’t make it up.
He is the absolute master of relaxed, slow storytelling, every routine always having a killer punch at the end. He is so engaging, and confiding, that you feel like you are the only person he’s sharing these brilliant observations with, maybe over a convivial pint somewhere. He talks about things that we can all recognise, such as the compromises in relationships or how your attitudes change as you get older. One of his assertions, absolutely correct, is that men never change from the age when they meet each other. Whereas women develop and grow their friendships over the years, men always remain essentially kids; if they met when they were at school, then they’re still schoolkids when meet decades later.
Another absolutely spot-on observation is how a middle-aged man suddenly gets transported into a world of sexual and/or romantic fantasy if a woman talks to him nicely. You can just be on a flight and offered a drink by an air hostess and a world of possibilities opens up to you. I also loved his material about being the only Scouser on the ski slopes, his experiences of acting a sex scene (or not) with Sheridan Smith, and a brilliant sequence speculating about sex between the over 70s. He had us all in cascades of laughter.
He says he has one joke; and it’s the same joke he told last time he was here – but, to be fair, it is awfully funny. It’s the one about the accidental penectomy and the replacement surgery. If you know it, you know it. If you don’t, well I’m not going to tell you. During the course of the evening, he chatted with a couple of audience members who had earlier piped up for whatever reason; and, as with his last appearance here, he ended the show with a brief Q&A session. I mention that because the last question he was asked included a callback to an earlier piece of material, and Mr B’s answer included a callback to something another audience member had said – and it was a masterstroke. No wonder he called the show to halt at that point – it could never get better.
A great night of comedy and an absolute privilege to see a master of the art at work. His tour continues throughout the rest of the year, but many venues are already sold out. This comes as no surprise at all. Just brilliant.