Monday 29 January 2018

Star Wars At 40 (a round-up)

40 years ago today, Star Wars went on general release in the UK.
It premiered on 27th December 1977 and opened at the Leicester Square Theatre and the Dominion, Tottenham Court Road.  During its first seven days at the two venues, it took a record-breaking £117,690, beating out the previous record (held by Jaws) of £90,655 from 1976.  Back in the 70s, it was accepted practise that films always opened in London first, rolling out across the country afterwards and Star Wars stayed in London for over four weeks.  On the 29th January 1978 it went to twelve major cities around the UK and a further sixteen in Greater London the following week.
photo by Klaus Hiltscher, printed under creative commons from his Flickr 
The BBC reported: "Thousands of people are flocking to cinemas in the UK to watch the long-awaited blockbuster, Star Wars - a movie which is already setting US box offices alight.  First released in America seven months ago, [the film] has taken audiences by storm and outstripped last year's blockbuster Jaws to gross $156m (£108m) at the box office.  Carrie Fisher, Sir Alec Guiness and little known Harrison Ford star in this fairytale set in space."

To help celebrate the 40th anniversary, I ran a thread on the blog last year looking at various aspects of the film and to mark today's momentous date, here's a recap of those entries.

Star Wars At 40

The Marvel Comics

The Millennium Falcon (pop-up 1)

The Topps Trading Cards

The First Public Screening
An Appreciation Of George Lucas (pop-up 2)

Production Design

The Toys

Helix & Letraset

A Brief History Of ILM
The Novelisation (pop-up 3)

Behind The Scenes
The UK TV Premiere (pop-up 4)

Poster Art

Music & Sound

May The Force Be With You!

Star Wars in the UK (from
1977: Star Wars Fever hits the UK (BBC)

2017 marked the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, which was released in the US on 25th May though it didn't hit the UK until 29th January 1978 (following a 27th December release in London).  I was lucky enough to see it in early 1978 and it remains my favourite film to this day.

To mark the anniversary, I ran a year-long blog thread about the film with new entries posted on the first Monday of each month.

May The Force Be With You!

Find all the entries in the thread here

Monday 22 January 2018

The Summer Of Impossible Things, by Rowan Coleman (a review)

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book I've read and loved, which I think adds to the genre (sci-fi, contemporary, romantic, coming of age, it's all in here) and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan.  This was actually my favourite read (tied with Sarah Pinborough's Behind Her Eyes) of last year but I realised this past weekend I hadn't blogged about it.  So here we go...
If you could change the past, would you?

Thirty years ago, something terrible happened to Luna’s mother. Something she’s only prepared to reveal after her death. 

Now Luna and her sister have a chance to go back to their mother’s birthplace and settle her affairs. But in Brooklyn they find more questions than answers, until something impossible – magical – happens to Luna, and she meets her mother as a young woman back in the summer of 1977. 

At first Luna’s thinks she’s going crazy, but if she can truly travel back in time, she can change things. But in doing anything – everything – to save her mother’s life, will she have to sacrifice her own?

Luna is a 29 year-old unlucky-in-love physicist, tormented by the recent suicide of her long-depressed mum Marissa, a Brooklyn native who left New York on the night of the 1977 black-out to move to England with Henry, a photographer who became her husband. After her death, Luna and her younger sister, the recovering addict Pia (affectionately known as Pea), discover some old films where Marissa confesses she was raped and that Henry isn’t Luna’s biological father. Understandably knocked for six by this news, Luna and Pea go to New York to settle Marissa’s affairs, namely the house she grew up in. Exploring it before putting it on sale, Luna discovers she can somehow slip from the present day (2007) back to 1977, where she meets her mother, then called Riss, as a fresh-faced 20 year old. Thinking she might be able to change the past - by preventing the terrible act on that night of the blackout, her mother might live a happier life - Luna spends more time in 1977, trying to track down her real father and prevent him attacking Marissa.

Luna is a superb character - strong and forceful, scared and angry and occasionally bewildered - and the novel is all the better for her presence. Although Pea and the other 2007 characters are also well described, it’s the young gang of friends Luna meets in 1977 - Riss, her sister Stephanie, friend Michelle and Michael, a boy who catches Luna’s eye and a bit more - that really burst into life. I don’t know what the Brooklyn of 1977 was like but it really feels like Coleman captures it here, the atmosphere and heat, the decay and laughter and love and New York envelops the novel, its streets and bakeries and discos becoming a strong and evocative backdrop.

With each time-travel experience, Luna notices little changes in 2007 which make her realise she can actually make a difference, though the resulting moral dilemma - if she makes enough of a change she will erase herself from existence - is won over by her love for her mother. These elements are well crafted, without too much explanation and treated as matter-of-fact, which I think is the best way to do it. The links between the years are explored cleverly (I loved what happened to a copy of The Shining Luna carries at one point), as are the relationships between the characters, particularly the burgeoning one between Luna and Michael, which I loved.

A wonderful novel, full of love and friendship and vitality, this doesn’t shy away from the darker elements of life though there is always hope and it’s told with an assured style that drags the reader through at breakneck pace. There are plenty of clever pop culture references and funny lines (Michael referring to his Farrah Fawcett Majors poster springs to mind), the anguish and grief is handled sensitively and, as the novel progresses and the outcome becomes clearer (though Coleman has a surprise or two up her sleeve), it becomes very moving, especially in the relationships between Riss and Luna and Luna and Michael.

Beautifully constructed, fantastic in every aspect, I loved this and highly recommend it. 

Rowan Coleman can be found online here

Monday 15 January 2018

The Art of Robert McGinnis

I have long been a fan of 'sleazy' paperback art (which helped inspire my anthology Anatomy Of Death) and one of the key proponents of it was the wonderful Robert McGinnis.  Since I haven't posted much of his work on the blog before I thought it was about time I showcased some.

1959 (won the 1959 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Mystery Novel)
The full artwork for the "Frenzy" cover (I wrote about the film here)
Robert McGinnis was born on 3rd February 1926 in Cincinnati, Ohio and after apprenticing at Walt Disney Studios, he studied fine art at Ohio State University.  Following wartime service in the Merchant Marine, he went into advertising and, in 1958, was introduced to Dell Publishing where he began drawing a variety of paperback covers for writers like Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark), Erle Stanley Gardner and the Mike Shayne and Carter Brown series.  He painted over 1,400 paperback covers and his artwork has also appeared in such diverse publications as Good Housekeeping, TIME, Playboy, The Saturday Evening Post, Argosy and the Ladies Home Journal.

In 1961, he was commissioned to produce the poster art for Blake Edwards’ Breakfast At Tiffany’s and has gone on to create artwork for 40 films.  Along the way, he created the iconic James Bond pose - arms crossed, holding the gun, draped with assorted female arms.  Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) features a series of pulp novels (and was apparently based on Bodies Are Where You Find Them, a Mike Shayne mystery written by Brett Halliday) and to add an air of authenticity, director Shane Black commissioned McGinnis to paint the cover art for the fake Jonny Gossamer books.

In 1985, he was awarded “Romantic Artist Of The Year” by Romantic Times magazine in honour of his many romance novel covers.  Since 2004, he has created cover art for the Hard Case Crime paperback series, including Stephen King’s Joyland.

McGinnis still paints and is a member of the Society Of Illustrators Hall Of Fame.
The Kiss Kiss Bang Bang connection
left - the 1959 paperback - right - one of the fake covers created by McGinnis for the film


1979 (this is the US poster, it was called "North Sea Hijack" over here)
McGinnis & Bond
I don't know, it might be my age but I much preferred when movie posters were a selling tool, full of great artwork capturing exciting scenes from the films in question.  Looking at these Bond posters, it makes me think that EON is missing a trick - every poster from the Daniel Craig-era has just been a still image of him, why not give McGinnis another commission?

1973 (I wrote about the film here)

Monday 8 January 2018

The Secret Of Terror Castle, by Robert Arthur

2014 marked the fiftieth anniversary of The Three Investigators being published and, to celebrate, I re-read and compiled my all-time Top 10 (safe in the knowledge that it would be subject to change in years to come, of course).  I posted my list here, having previously read all 30 of the original series from 2008 to 2010 (a reading and reviewing odyssey that I blogged here).

Following this, I decided to re-visit some of the books I'd missed on that second read-through, without any intention of posting reviews of them but, as if often the way, it didn't quite work out like that.  Happily, this is on-going and so here's an additional review...
Collins Hardback First Edition (printed between 1967 and 1970), cover art by Roger Hall

This is the Three Investigators' business card - and their first assignment is to investigate a haunted house for that Master Of Mystery, Alfred Hitchcock.  But Terror Castle, looming through the mists of Black Canyon, turns out to have more than its fair share of spooks...

Illustration from the Collins/Armada
editions, by Roger Hall
When Jupiter Jones wins the use “of a Rolls-Royce sedan for thirty days of twenty-four hours each", he and his friends Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews decide to set up the investigation agency they’ve been discussing.  Jupiter even has their first case - finding a genuine haunted house for Alfred Hitchcock.  After tricking their way into his bungalow on the studio lot, Hitchcock agrees to introducing the case (“the promise was extorted from me by nothing less than sheer skulduggery”) and the boys begin to investigate Terror Castle, once the home of famed silent movie star Stephen Terrill.  Located in the narrow Black Canyon, above Hollywood, the boys soon discover that something definitely haunts Terror Castle and they must experience the Blue Phantom, the fog of fear and feelings of extreme terror to find out what it is.

This is the first Three Investigators book, created and written by Robert Arthur and does a fantastic job of setting the template that the rest of the books in the series would adhere to so successfully.  Hitchcock calls Jupiter Jones “insufferable” in the introduction and some of the rougher edges to his character would be smoothed down over the next couple of books but the repartee between him, Pete and Bob is pitch perfect.  Their conversation is smart and often humorous, the action scenes are well handled and only Bob comes out of it slightly short-changed, since he’s away working in the library for a lot of the time (though he & Pete explore the castle during daylight in a wonderfully tense sequence).

Terror Castle is a well-used and described location, spooky and gloomy and well captured in the boys various explorations of it and the natural formation of Black Canyon plays an important part in the plot.  Characterisation is brisk and thorough - Worthington is excellent - and Aunt Mathilda and Uncle Titus feature quite strongly at the start (Titus helps inform Jupiter of a clue) while Headquarters is lovingly described, though Rocky Beach barely earns a mention.  Stephen Terrill is a great creation - Lon Chaney must have been the inspiration for at least part of him - though, ironically, he’s maybe the only thing that particularly dates the book, since he was a silent movie star (the book was published in 1964, so the talkies were only 37 years old then which, to me as I write this, would be 1981).  His manager, Jonathan Rex - also known as ‘The Whisperer’ - is also a smart creation, menacing and helpful by turns while Skinny Norris makes his first appearance (though not for long) and Jupiter's thoughts about him are cleverly woven into the plot.

Whilst the series hinges on the relationship between the boys, their link to Hitchcock is also key.  Robert Arthur was the editor of the Alfred Hitchcock mystery anthologies and it’s clear he was having fun here, spoofing his friends demeanour - Hitchcock has a troublesome relationship with the investigators, which smoothes itself out as the book goes on and his presence adds gravitas to the story.

With some great set pieces, nicely spooky sequences and a few plot twists along the way, this is an excellent read and I highly recommend it.
left - Collins Hardback Second Edition (printed between 1972 and 1979), cover art by Roger Hall, scan of my copy
right - Armada format a paperback (printed between 1970 and 1979), cover art by Peter Archer

back cover of the Armada format a paperback, showing Peter Archer's wonderful artwork
(cover scan of my copy)
Armada format b paperback (printed between 1980 and 1982), cover art by Peter Archer
(cover scan of my copy)

The internal illustrations for the UK edition were drawn by Roger Hall.

Thanks to Ian Regan for the artwork (you can see more at his excellent Cover Art database here)

Tuesday 2 January 2018

Joining The Vinyl Revival

Since Alison & I generally have what we want (in terms of books, music and clothes), buying for Christmas and birthdays is sometimes an issue.  This year, we made the decision to get our own presents then hand the gift over to the other - to that end, I ’bought’ her a Fitbit, she ‘bought’ me a Funko Hannibal Smith figure.  However, she also got me a surprise present - she saw it, decided I’d love it and bought it.  And she was absolutely right, I did love it.
Hannibal Smith looks on, putting together a plan of where I can put my new records in bookshelves that are already overflowing...
 I’ve been a fan of music for a long time but, aside from my parents choices, my first real memories come from 1977/78 (when I’d have been 8 or 9) and falling in love with songs that still sound as vibrant and exciting today.  The first cassette album I bought (I only had a tape recorder) was The Best Of Blondie (you won’t be surprised to learn I still have it, just no means of playing it) while my first vinyl LP came in 1980 when my lovely parents not only bought me my first record player (I can’t find a picture of it anywhere but I’m convinced it would have been a Bush unit) and my first album - Eat To The Beat by Blondie.

After this, I became an avid listener and through the early 80s I bought plenty of singles and the occasional album too.  Back then, certainly locally, the market wasn’t cornered by the chain stores so I had plenty of choice for shops - Revolver Records in Kettering (as well as Our Price, a fair while before it was swallowed up by Virgin), Spinadisc in Northampton and Discovery Records in Corby and Market Harborough.  In the mid-80s, my friend Craig introduced me to Boogaloo Records in Leicester, a fantastic second-hand place from where I picked up no end of great late 70s/early 80s albums I couldn’t find anywhere else (most of my Donna Summer collection came from there).
Andy's Records (there was a Kettering shop, replaced in time by Our Price, itself replaced by HMV), Discovery Records, an Our Price sticker and Spinadisc
Bags of fun - Our Price and Woolies are long gone, while W H Smith and Boots don't sell records any more
By then, I’d upgraded my stereo to that must-have 80s item, the midi hi-fi system where I could tape albums to play on my Walkman, listen to the radio and fiddle about with the graphic equaliser, without properly understanding what it did.  CDs were already making inroads then but I resisted them for as long as possible - I had a big record collection and wasn’t keen on replacing it - but finally caved in the early 90s when the units were so ridiculously cheap (X, by INXS, was the first album I owned on both vinyl and disc).  I remained a huge fan of the LP but as the years went by and vinyl was phased out, I didn’t have a great deal of choice.  When we upgraded in the 00's, Alison & I bought a system that didn't have a turntable and, in a move I now despair of my mid-thirtysomething self doing, I gave away a lot of that vinyl.

What an idiot, is the first thing that springs to mind, as I look at my new record player.

As luck would have it, since Dude was born (and even though I had no way to play them), I’ve been picking up the odd album or single over the years (my original collection is buried in the understairs cupboard somewhere, untouched for over a decade and we’ll need to mount an expedition to find it)  so I had stuff to play on Christmas Day.  Most of it came from charity shops, albums I’d wanted back in the day but couldn’t find, stuff that caught my eye in the moment or, even, things I picked up because I’m a compulsive completist - “Yay, an INXS album!”.  I also discovered (on a post-Christmas trip to Leicester to spend our gift vouchers) that HMV now has a huge vinyl selection - I also discovered brand new vinyl has a huge price tag too but that's okay, I’m a collector and I don’t have a problem with second-hand.

The vinyl revival?  Oh yes, I’m definitely in - and here's part of the charm for those who've never experienced it...

Even better, while flicking around on ebay, I discovered these existed - I always knew soundtrack albums were a thing, obviously, but singles?  Did these theme tunes, from some of my favourite TV shows, really plan to mount a number one bid on the pop charts of the day?
Composed by Brian Dee & Irving Martin, this was produced by Martin and Funko was the b side track.  It was released by Pye Records on 22nd September 1978 and I really wish I'd known it existed, I love this theme tune.

And for those who don't remember, this is what it sounded like...

Broadcast during 1976 and 1977, I have very hazy memories of this (I was only seven when it started) but I do remember liking Purdey and thinking Mike Gambit was very cool.  I thought he was less cool when Gareth Hunt began advertising coffee on TV though.  The theme tune was composed and conducted by Laurie Johnson and released in 1976 on the Unicorn-Kanchana label.

I loved this show which, bearing in mind it's 9pm timeslot, wasn't particularly aimed at kids though Corgi did a nice line of toy cars of Bodie's Capri and Grandreams published 7 annuals.  The (excellent) theme tune was once again composed and conducted by Laurie Johnson and released in 1980 on the Unicorn-Kanchana label.

Happy listening, whatever your preferred medium...

British Record Shop Archive
Discogs - Return of The Saint single release information
Discogs - The New Avengers single release information
Discogs - The Professionals single release information