Monday 30 July 2018

Nostalgic For My Childhood - The A-Team, at 35

The A-Team was created by Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo, from a pitch made to them by NBC president Brandon Tartikoff who called it a combination of “The Dirty Dozen, Mission Impossible, The Magnificent Seven, Mad Max and Hill Street Blues, with Mr. T driving the car.”  Although Cannell had high hopes for the show he told Debra Pickett of The Chicago Sun-Times it was George Peppard who said it would be a hit “before we ever turned on a camera.”  He was right.  The pilot, Mexican Slayride, aired on 23rd January 1983 and the first regular episode, which was broadcast after Super Bowl XVII on 30th January, reached 26.4% of the total US television audience.  It began showing in the UK on 29th July 1983 on ITV (Friday nights for the first series, Saturday tea-time for the remainder).
The A-Team (first series line-up)
clockwise from top left - Dwight Schultz, Melinda Culea, Dirk Benedict, George Peppard, Mr. T
"In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire... the A-Team.”
The opening voice-over (by producer John Ashley), which started “ten years ago” in the first series.

An explosion, timed to the lighting of Hannibal's cigar, from
the episode "Deadly Maneuvers"
The strength of the concept was its simplicity.  The A-Team, formed during the Vietnam War from members of the 5th Special Forces Group, were tasked by their commanding officer, Colonel Morrison, to rob the Bank of Hanoi, which would help bring the war to an end.  They succeeded but the base and Morrison were destroyed in a Viet Cong attack, meaning all proof they were acting under orders was gone.  Arrested and imprisoned at Fort Bragg, they escaped before standing trial with their captor, Colonel Lynch, becoming their nemesis.  The Vietnam War was a recurring theme, beyond the opening credits, with several episodes featuring old friends or enemies from their combat days and the team always stood up for the oppressed, on the side of good - even if each adventure featured a lot of gunplay, fighting and things exploding (often for little reason).

Naturally episodic, the only overall story arc was the characters desire to evade their pursuers and clear their names.  Sticking to a proven formula - somebody in trouble finds the team and hires them to resolve the problem - certain elements became very popular, such as their ability to create weapons and vehicles from whatever junk and old parts happened to be in the building they were trapped or imprisoned in.  While initially a boost to the series popularity, this formula also became the downfall and ratings dropped during the fourth series, leading to a format change for the fifth (in 1986-1987).  With the A-Team finally apprehended, they began working for the CIA and were involved with international intrigue rather than taking on local thugs but the change wasn’t a success and the show came to an end after almost five years and 98 episodes.

Another popular element was the highly distinctive - and eminently hummable - theme tune (instantly recognisable to most people of a certain age), composed by Mike Post & Pete Carpenter.  Oddly enough, re-watching the pilot episode, I was surprised to see it wasn’t more prominently used.

Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, played by George Peppard, was the leader of the group, whose plans were effective if unorthodox.  A master of disguise, he smoked cigars, wore black gloves, had a ready smile and a terrific catchphrase in “I love it when a plan comes together”.  He was also an actor, specialising at playing monsters (like the Aquamaniac) in low-budget horror movies.

Although written with James Coburn in mind, George Peppard auditioned for the role - urged on by his young son - and won it.  Once a big Hollywood star, a run of poor career choices - as well as his alcoholism (which he kicked in 1978) and notoriously difficult personality on set - had led him to television and a career slump.  “I thought the pilot was terrific,” he told The LA Times in early 1983.  “I realised the role would give me the chance to do the sort of thing I've never been allowed to do in movies. I mean, I get to disguise myself as a Chinese person, a Skid Row drunk, a gay hairdresser - [I’ve] wanted to change from leading man to character actor for years now but have never been given the chance before.”  Cannell, who’d been one of the writers of Peppards earlier series Banecek, understood his occasional mood swings and offered him a big salary and creative control in the series.  In 1990, Peppard said, “It's the first time I ever had money in the bank.  It was a giant boost to my career, and made me a viable actor for other roles.”  Perhaps now his best-known role, it wasn’t without its difficulties.  Believing himself to be the bigger star, he was reportedly annoyed at Mr. T upstaging him with his public image and at one point their relationship was so bad he refused to speak to his colleague, sending messages through intermediaries (including Dirk Benedict).  In a later interview, Benedict suggested Robert Vaughan was added to the cast in the fifth series because of his long-standing friendship with Peppard, in the hope it would ease worsening tensions between Peppard and Mr. T.

"The A-Team are...the worst shots in the world."
- George Peppard

Lieutenant Templeton “Faceman” Peck, played by Dirk Benedict in the series, was the team’s smooth-talking con-man, who could lay his hands on anything they needed.  Effectively the second-in-command (and the team accountant), he was raised in a Christian orphanage and liked the ladies, though feared commitment.  In later series, he drove a distinctive white Corvette with orange trim.

Faceman was written with Dirk Benedict - popular from playing Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica - in mind though NBC didn’t want him as they felt he was too old.  The role in the pilot was played by Tim Dunigan though he later said “I look even younger on camera than I am, so it was difficult to accept me as a veteran of the Vietnam War.”  After watching the pilot, the network executives gave Cannell & Lupo their way and Benedict was cast.  His previous role - and the fact the series was produced at Universal and often filmed on the backlot - gave rise to a wonderful little sequence that featured afterwards in the credits, where a Cylon strolls past a puzzled looking Benedict.

"I enjoyed it immensely. By nature I'm terribly serious, so as an actor I tend to want to be silly. It was a comedic show, almost like a cartoon. We just had to hang on to enough reality to make it possible for adults to watch it. The actors I worked with, especially Mr T and Dwight Schultz, were very funny people. It was pretty much four years of laughter."
- Dirk Benedict

Captain H. M. “Howling Mad” Murdock, played by Dwight Schultz, was an ex-US Army pilot who was either mentally unstable or very good at pretending to be.  Although he piloted the team on the Hanoi Bank raid, he was never officially a member and so wasn’t tried by the military but interned in a Veteran’s Hospital.  Regularly broken out - often by Face - he accompanied the team on their missions, flying all manner of aircraft and often falling foul of BA, who was as annoyed by Murdock as Murdock was frustrated by him.  His insanity was never proven, with his symptoms varying from episode to episode, though his imaginary dog Billy was mentioned a few times.  The H. M. initials were never explained.

Dwight Schultz was a successful stage actor (he won a Drama-Logue Award in 1980 for a revival of Crucifer Of Blood, starring alongside Glenn Close) who began working on television in bit parts.  Cast as Murdock, he was told the role would be written out quickly but the reaction of the preview audience to his character was so strong he was not only written back in but went on to become one of the break-out stars of the show.  His wife, actress Wendy Fulton, appeared in the series three episode Bounty, with her character falling in love with Murdock.

“Cannell and Lupo were both writers, and wrote great scripts, but later on, they weren't writing them, others were.  The first seasons were the best...”
- Dwight Schultz

Bosco Albert “B. A.” Baracus, played by Mr. T, was the team’s highly skilled mechanic and resident strongman, quick to anger and - according to the novelisation - got his nickname of “Bad Attitude” due to his penchant for hitting officers while serving in Vietnam.  He hated to fly, pretended to dislike Murdock (referring to him as a “crazy fool” though often showing great friendship towards him), got on well with kids and didn’t drink.  He regularly commented about Hannibal being “on the jazz” and one of his key phrases was “I ain’t getting’ on no plane!”  The fantastic A-Team van was his.

According to Cannell, the show was built around the Baracus character which was essentially the public persona of Mr. T.  After serving in the US Army (as an MP), Mr. T became a bouncer in the Chicago area (to stop banned customers going back inside the premises after being evicted, he took to wearing their jewellery so they could quickly reclaim it) and then a bodyguard, drawing the attention of Sylvester Stallone who cast him as Clubber Lang in Rocky III (1982).  It’s in that film where he says, “I pity the fool” - he never once says it as B. A.  His popularity with the public - and his standing with the producers - created a lot of tension with George Peppard over the years and during the fourth series, Mr. T quit and had himself airlifted off-set (they were filming on an ocean liner at the time), only to be talked back into the show later on.

“It takes a smart guy to play dumb.”
- Mr. T’s response at a press conference when asked if he was as stupid as B. A. Baracus (I assume the reporter left quickly afterwards)

For the first series (and half of the second), the team was assisted by Amy Amanda Allen, a reporter who worked for the LA Courier.  She was replaced for the remainder of the second series by fellow reporter Tawnia Baker.
Amy Allen, played by Melinda Culea, drove the plot of the pilot episode, hiring the team to find her colleague Al Massey.  Becoming an unofficial fifth member of the team after that, she was often involved on various jobs (sometimes using her newspaper connections) but had little impact on the dynamic.  Her later absence was explained away by an overseas assignment in Jakarta - she was occasionally mentioned but never seen again.

Melinda Culea was an actress and model who relished the chance to play a feisty reporter but became increasingly unhappy with the role, feeling she didn’t have enough to do.  Peppard apparently considered her character to be a “fifth wheel” but, according to other cast and crew members, he was never less than kind to her on set.  An article in People magazine from January 1984 indicates her complaining didn’t go down well with the executive producers or studio heads and she was fired midway during the second series, only realising when she read a script and found she wasn’t included in it.  Peppard told the magazine, “We just put up with [her discontent] and said nothing,” but when the producers found out about the tension, “they were furious…. They felt that she was harassing the team.”  According to People, Culea told the producers the part wasn’t worthy of her and said, “if you can’t write the role better, you don’t need me.”

Tawnia Baker, played by Marla Heasley, was a reporter who’d heard about The A-Team through Amy and first appeared in the episode The Battle Of Bel Air.  Never fully incorporated into the line-up, she was dropped after  the third episode of the third series, married off to an explorer.

Having grown up in the entertainment business (her father and uncle were professional ice skaters), Marla Heasley had planned to go into fashion merchandising but became a model instead and moved into commercials (she’d already appeared in The A-Team, as a co-ed briefly involved with Face in the series 2 episode Bad Time On The Border) and was brought in by the producers to try and stem the calls of sexism that surrounded the otherwise all-male cast.  During an interview on Bring Back The A-Team in 2006 she said that although she never experienced any difficulties on set with anyone, George Peppard told her, on her first day, “We don't want you on the show. None of the guys want you here. The only reason you're here is because the network and the producers want you. For some reason they think they need a girl.”  On her last day, Peppard took her aside again.  “I'm sorry that this is your last day,” he said.  “This has nothing to do with you, you were very professional, but there’s no reason to have a girl.”

In the first series, the team’s nemesis Colonel Lynch was played by William Lucking.  He was replaced in the second, third and part of the fourth series by Colonel Decker, played by Lance LeGault and his aide, Captain Crane (Carl Franklin).  During the latter part of the fourth series, the team was hunted by General Fulbright, played by Jack Ging, who later hired the A-Team to find his daughter Tia (Tia Carrere).  Carrere was due to join the show as a permanent member but was already under contract to the soap General Hospital so couldn’t and was replaced by Frankie Santana, played by Eddie Velez.  In the last series, the A-Team worked with General Hunt Stockwell, played by Robert Vaughn, who was often assisted by Carla, played by Judith Ledford.
As well as sexism, the series also gathered criticism over its violent content, which was shown in a highly sanitised way - people rarely bled or bruised (though they occasionally limped or needed a sling) and the A-Team never killed anyone.  Indeed, there were only a few on-screen deaths - General Fullbright was killed in an explosion - and the programme was careful to show that people were seldom seriously hurt (a jeep crashing would cut away to something else, then back to the occupants climbing out and looking dazed).  According to Cannell, this element became a running joke for the writers who often tried to test the limits of realism on purpose.  At one point, it was estimated that an episode contained up to 46 violent acts to which Cannell responded with “they were determined to make a point, and we were too big a target to resist. Cartoon violence is a scapegoat issue.”  It did, however, prove too violent for Germany who bought the rights in 1989 but only chose to broadcast 26 of the 98 episodes available.

In keeping with a lot of TV shows of the era (see any other Cannell-created programme or The Fall Guy, which I wrote about here), the A-Team had an eye-catching vehicle, a 1983 black and metallic grey GMC Vandura can (with a red stripe and rooftop spoiler).  The van was kitted out to assist the team in their various adventures, with some items (like Hannibal’s disguise kit and the gun locker) appearing often, others only when they were needed (like a mini printing press and audio surveillance kit).
At the 1984 launch for the Galoob action figures
As befits such a popular show with children, there was plenty of merchandise available including action figures produced by Galoob, the A-Team van by ERTL and Hot Wheels, trading cards, toy guns and a View Master set based around the episode When You Comin’ Back, Range Rider?  Marvel Comics produced a three-issue A-Team series and a comic strip also appeared in Look-In magazine (which I wrote about here) that ran from 1984 to 1987.

The A-Team was also perfectly placed to be novelised (which happened a lot in the early 80s) and Dell in the US and W H Allen (through their Star and Target imprints) in the UK took up the challenge.  The first paperback, The A-Team, wasn’t numbered (perhaps the publishers wanted to wait and see if it was successful before launching a series) but adapted the pilot episode, Mexican Slayride.  I thoroughly enjoyed it back in the day and recently re-read it, chuffed to discover it was a lot of fun.

There were ten books in the series (the last four of which were only published in the UK), the first six of which were written by Charles Heath.

The A-Team (adapted from the pilot by Frank Lupo and Stephen J. Cannell)
Small But Deadly Wars (adapted from the episodes A Small and Deadly War written by Frank Lupo and Black Day at Bad Rock written by Patrick Hasburgh)
When You Comin' Back, Range Rider? (adapted from the eponymous episode written by Frank Lupo)
Old Scores to Settle (adapted from the episodes The Only Church in Town written by Babs Greyhosky and Recipe for Heavy Bread written by Stephen J. Cannell)
Ten Percent of Trouble (adapted from the episodes Steel written by Frank Lupo and The Maltese Cow written by Thomas Szollosi and Richard Christian Matheson)
Operation Desert Sun: The Untold Story (apparently original, though the title page credits the novelisation to Louis Chunovic)
Bullets, Bikinis and Bells by Ron Renauld (adapted from the episodes Bullets and Bikinis written by Mark Jones and The Bells of St. Mary's written by Stephen J. Cannell)
Backwoods Menace by Ron Renauld (adapted from the episodes Timber! written by Jeff Ray and Children of Jamestown written by Stephen J. Cannell)
The Bend in the River by David George Deutsch (adapted from the eponymous episode written by Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo)
Death Vows by Max Hart (adapted from the episode Till Death Us Do Part written by Babs Greyhosky)
cover scan of my copy
There were also two “plot it yourself” books (basically Choose Your Own Adventure titles, so beloved of kids in the 70s and 80s), both written by William Rotsler and published by Simon & Schuster (in the US) and W H Allen (in the UK).

A film version was released in 2010, featuring Dirk Benedict and Dwight Schultz in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos (only in the extended version on DVD, they were cut from the cinema release).  I thought, as a film, it was enjoyable nonsense but it could have been any group and didn’t feel like they’d captured anything of the old A-Team spirit.  Mr. T, interviewed at the time by WENN, agreed - "People die in the film and there’s plenty of sex but when we did it no one got hurt and it was all played for fun and family entertainment.  It was too graphic for me, it’s nothing like the show we turned out every week.”

Stephen J(oseph) Cannell was born on 5th February 1941 and created and produced several hit TV shows, as well as being an accomplished novelist.  He died on 30th September 2010 from complications of melanoma.

George Peppard (jnr) was born on 1st October 1928 .  He quit a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit after being diagnosed with lung cancer in 1992 and died on 8th May 1994, from pneumonia.

Dirk Benedict (Dirk Niewoehner) was born on 1st March 1945.  He continued to act after The A-Team and has also written several books.

(William) Dwight Schultz was born on 24th November 1947 and remains an in-demand voice artist.  He and Dirk Benedict have remained good friends and are often seen together guesting at conventions.

Mr. T (Lawrence Tureaud) was born on 21st May 1952 and still appears on TV.

Melinda Culea was born on 5th May 1955 and now works as an artist and writer.

Marla Heasley was born on 4th September 1959 and hasn’t been seen on-screen since 1993.

Back in 1983, I was the perfect audience for The A-Team and loved it, though I drifted away during the third series.

Although you could argue that nostalgia was clouding my judgement, catching the show much later I still found a lot to enjoy;  yes it’s formulaic, yes it’s silly, but that first series especially has a certain something about it - the construction and writing, the interplay of the characters, the moments of humour - that still shines through.  The quality clearly drops in the second (let alone third) series (though both are very enjoyable) and I’ve still never seen the fourth or fifth series, nor do I particularly want to.  Having said that, I do like how they ended the last episode, Without Reservations, broadcast on 8th March, 1987.

Hannibal:  Chasing thugs through the's got a nice ring to it, doesn't it?
Face:  It has a terrible ring to it.
Murdock:  Just think, if we get a pardon, we may never have to eat a knuckle sandwich again.
B.A.:  I wouldn't bet on it, Crazy Man. Looks like Hannibal's on the jazz again.
Face:  What, what, wha-
Murdock:  No, you - you tell me right now, you tell me right to my face, you tell me that you don't have a plan.
Hannibal:  Well I - I was thinking, what are we gonna do when this thing's over? I mean, what are we really qualified to do?
Face:  Go after...thugs in the park?
Hannibal:  And...outlaw motorcycle gangs, organized crime figures...why, there's a world of slimeballs out there.
Murdock:  I knew it. I just knew you had a plan.
Hannibal:  Comforting, isn't it?
B.A.:  I'll get the van.

Happy 35th, The A-Team

NBC - About The Show
People magazine article The A-Team Draws Fire
LA Times obituary of George Peppard
A Team Resource

Monday 23 July 2018

Live & Let Die, at 45

Live And Let Die, the eighth James Bond film in the official EON series (and the first to feature Roger Moore in the lead role), opened in the UK on 6th July 1973 (following its premiere on 5th July).  It was directed by Guy Hamilton, produced by Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli & Harry Saltzman and written by Tom Mankiewicz.  Ted Moore was the director of photography, Syd Cain was the production designer, Derek Meddings supervised the visual effects and George Martin wrote the score (Paul McCartney & Wings supplied the theme song).  On a budget of $7m, the film has made almost $162m to date.

I wrote a retrospective of the film for it's 40th anniversary, which you can read here.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I was (and remain) a huge fan of the late, great Sir Roger Moore. I picked this book up in 2003 at a Toy Fair, read it then and loved it.  Last year, on hearing of his passing, I decided to read it again and what a treat it was.

This is Roger Moore’s diary of his time making Live And Let Die - we don’t get anything from before production began and we don’t get anything after production ended, but we get absolutely everything between those two points. Where now a lot of behind the scenes material (which I love to read) is either tactful or adheres to the company line, this takes no notice of that. Moore discusses race relations (both on set and with the locations), needles his producer for being cheap, gets on well with the crew and his fellow actors (most appeared to have worked with him in the past) and yet isn’t afraid to portray himself honestly - he loses his temper on occasion (sometimes at the production, more often at himself) and argues with his wife. Remarkably candid and told with the wit he showed in his autobiography and his live shows (two of which I was lucky enough to catch), this presents a man who enjoys what he does (and realises how lucky he is), wants the best for people (he’s often aghast at how Harry Saltzman treats people in restaurants), clearly loves his kids and takes great pride in his charity work for the Stars Organisation For Spastics (of which he was patron). Being a diary, we also get a glimpse into his social life as he entertains (or is entertained by) various famous people and even gets star-struck himself (such as meeting Deborah Kerr in a restaurant).

The book also features 8 pages of colour photographs, some of which are production stills, some of which are candid ones by Luisa Moore.

Funny, insightful, smart and informative, this is a fantastic read and if you can get hold of a copy, I’d very much recommend it.

Roger Moore, with Cubby Broccoli (centre) and Harry Saltzman, is announced to the world as James Bond in August 1972.
 In his autobiography, Moore writes about signing for the role:

A little later my phone rang, with a message for me from Broccoli’s co-producer, Harry Saltzman: "Cubby thinks you need to lose a little weight."

Well, I’d been filming the TV series The Persuaders with Tony Curtis, whose love of the good life had rubbed off on me. ‘OK,’ I said, and started a strict diet.

The phone rang again: "Cubby thinks you’re a little out of shape."

So I started a tough fitness regimen.

Again the phone rang, and this time it was Cubby: "Harry thinks your hair is a little too long."

"Why didn’t you just cast a thin, fit, bald fellow in the first place and avoid putting me through this hell?" I replied.

Roger Moore with Gloria Hendry (left) and Jane Seymour
“As Bond," he writes in the diary, "I make love to Rosie Carver, played by beautiful black actress, Gloria Hendry, and Luisa [Moore’s then-wife] has learned from certain Louisiana ladies that if there is a scene like that they won’t go to see the picture.  I personally don’t give a damn and it makes me all the more determined to play the scene.”
The cast, while filming at Lake Front Airport near New Orleans - Yaphet Kotto had just joined the production and was there to meet his fellow actors.  Moore was suffering badly at the time with kidney stones.
from left - Moore, Tommy Lane, Seymour, Arnold Williams, Kotto
From left: Julius Harris (as Tee Hee), Jane Seymour (as Solitaire), Geoffrey Holder (as Baron Samedi - he also choreographed the film and the fight between Kananga & Bond), Roger Moore, Yaphet Kotto (as Kananga/Mr. Big) and Earl Jolly Brown (as Whisper)
Moore outside Ross Kananga's farm - the sign wasn't created for the production and spotting it led an intrigued Guy Hamilton to find out what was there.
Moore with old friend Madeline Smith, who plays Miss Caruso, the Italian agent in the opening sequence.
Moore writes; “It may seem like money for jam pressed close to the beautiful Madeline Smith and taking her clothes off into the bargain, but on the twentieth take your arm is aching, you've got cramp in your left foot and your right knee is going to sleep. When I got home the children asked me what I did today and I wasn't quite sure what to tell them.”
Posing on the Pinewood set of Kananga's lair
Moore with Ross Kananga at the crocodile farm (it's Ross who performs the stunt where he runs across their backs).  Tom Mankiewicz was so taken with the name, he used it for the villain.
Production began in New Orleans on Friday 13th October 1972.  Two days before, rehearsing in a speedboat on the Irish Bayou, the engine cut out on Moore as he went around a corner and he crashed, fracturing a front tooth and bashing his leg badly.
Moore writes; "I wound up in a heap on the floor, clutching my mouth, my knee throbbing, my shoulder numb and what felt like fifty-four thousand teeth in my mouth all at once being slowly mangled up into little bits of gravel.  The only thing flashing before my eyes was that here I was just about to start playing Bond with no teeth.  How on earth did I get myself into this situation?"
Taking it steadier on the Bayou
The now iconic photo op, suggested by unit publicist Dan Slater, taken at the Slidell Boatyard in Louisiana.  Nobody told Moore how much explosive was going to be used and his chair was set up 300 yards away.
Moore writes; "I agreed but an hour later saw that the film camera crew had built a hide to protect themselves from the blast and flying debris.

'Why are you hiding behind there, fellows?' I asked foolishly.

'Well Rarge,' said one of the American crew, 'they say there's gonna be a little blast.'

I sat there, through the countdown, clutching a glass of chilled white port with the photographers on my right and all hell to be let loose on my left.

The bang came and I don't know if it blew me or I jumped four feet in the air, somehow without spilling one drop of wine.  As a cool-in-a-crisis Bond shot it could have been a disaster, but most of the photographers leapt a bit higher than I did."
The children arrive tomorrow and I wonder if Geoffrey will realise that I am Bond when he sees me in action.  Just before we left England he asked:

"Can you beat anybody, including a robber?"

"Oh yes," I replied, confidently.

"Supposing James Bond came in," he persisted.

"Daddy is going to play James Bond," I explained.

"I know that," he sighed, impatiently.  "I mean the real James Bond, Sean Connery."

The book has been re-released (after being 'out of print for over forty years') by The History Press as The 007 Diaries: Filming Live and Let Die with a new introduction by David Hedison (Moore's friend who plays Felix Leiter in the film).

Monday 16 July 2018

Edge-Lit 7, Derby, 14th July 2018

After the Sat-Nav seemed to find me yet another route into Derby (I swear, every time I go to Edge-Lit, the journey is subtly different each time), I pulled into the Assembly Rooms car park and thought it was shut.  Turns out they have a new entrance system that looks, at first glance, like the place has been boarded up - I was happy to discover as the day went on I wasn't the only one who'd been confused.
At the Crusty table - from left, Ross Warren, Steve Harris, John Travis, me, Blaize Harris (seated), Peter Mark May, Lisa Childs, Terry Grimwood, Dale Winton-Polak
Into the Quad, I joined the queue to sign in and immediately saw Phil Sloman and Ben Jones, caught up with them, got my goodie bag and lanyard, then bumped into John Travis.  Phil and Ben went to a panel, John & I got a drink then headed outside where The Crusty Exterior had secured a table overlooking the square.  Tony Cowin was sitting at the next table by himself, worrying about the launch of In Dog We Trust so we did what all true friends would do and just wound him up further, saying he’d have to do a speech and we couldn’t be guaranteed not to heckle - I’m not sure we helped.  On our table, I worked my way around saying hello to Ross Warren, Steve & Blaize Harris, Peter Mark May, Lisa Childs (with extra congratulations on her becoming a (very young, we thought) grandmother), Terry Grimwood and Dion Winton-Polak - we caught up, chatted and checked the programme, planning our day.
With Andrew David Barker (centre) and Kevin Redfern
People came and went, Andrew Freudenberg and Duncan Bradshaw joined the table, different conversations struck up.  Pixie joined the smokers section of Ben and Lisa and I finally got my Pixie hug, a mainstay of Edge-Lit.  As we'd decided to eat at the Quad rather than go out I went through to the bar and discovered they didn’t have their wonderful club sandwich on the menu, so opted for the Cob Burger option instead.  I met Paul Kane in the queue and James Everington came through, having just finished on his panel and introduced me to Dan Howarth.  CC Adams was at a table so I said hello to him and caught up with Kevin White, a redshirt on the front desk who I’d struck up an email conversation with after Sledge-Lit, Tracy Fahey breezed by with a quick hello and a nice hug and I didn’t see her again for the rest of day, Georgina Bruce and I got to catch up quickly and I complimented her on her fantastic hair, Andrew Hook walked by for a quick handshake - lots of great people all over the place.  As I headed back to our table, I saw Kevin Redfern and since we never seem to get to chat, I stopped for just that.  Within moments, Andrew David Barker turned up and we fell into a conversation about writing, films and filming that was hugely enjoyable.  My lunch turned up so I followed the waitress back to our table to claim it - the bucket of fries was lovely, the burger was very bland.

Phil Sloman (left) and me, some of the sexiest legs in horror whatever
Jim Mcleod might have to say...
As we ate and chatted, Simon Kurt Unsworth and Rosie Seymour wandered by in search of food and it was nice to see them again.  All too soon it was time for a still-worried-looking Tony to head up to the Black Shuck Books launch and I followed him.  Steve J. Shaw was launching four titles - More Monsters by Paul Kane, The Martledge Variations by Simon, Madame Morte edited by the wonderful Pixie and In Dog We Trust (which features my story Chihuahua, as I wrote about here) from Tony.  I sat on the front row - as that was the writers line - next to Phil and we compared our ‘best legs in horror fiction’, said hello to Ray Cluley & Jess Jordan before a late-coming Kit Power arrived and sat next to me (he’s not in any of the titles, but didn’t realise so we adopted him).  Tony had to do a speech and talked about fearsome dogs in fiction - for some reason, he name-checked Scrappy Doo so Phil & I got to heckle, which was good fun.  The launch over, I signed some books (Ray was doing a dog doodle as part of his signature, I doodled in one book Snoopy lying on top of his kennel) and then, with Ross, had a chat with Simon Bestwick & Cate Gardner that covered a whole range of subjects.  Priya Sharma appeared for hugs and promises to catch up later and I compared agency submission notes with Penny Jones (and her newly blue-tinged hair).  Ross went back to the bar and I called into the dealer’s room, bumped into Danie Ware on the way, had a quick chat and she gave me a sticker for her new book, which was being launched later.  Said hello to Adele Wearing who was manning the Fox Spirit stall and finally bought Tracy’s The Girl In The Fort, then found the Black Shuck stall which Yvonne Davies and her daughter Megan were looking after.  Chatted with them, bought Phil’s collection Broken On The Inside then Charlotte Bond came over for a chat and gave me a gingerbread mouse, which was lovely.  I ate it while I was in James’ 2pm panel, 'Creating Suspense and fear in your fiction', which included Paul Tremblay among its great line-up.  Also in the audience were my fine friends from Writers, Neil & Donna Bond and Kathy Boulton was sitting with them, so I got to say hello to her too (still didn't get a picture though).
At the Black Shuck launch with Phil Sloman, Jess Jordan and James Everington.  Jess had just recruited us willingly into the Stephen Bacon fan club...
Back to the bar and the Crusty table.  I chatted plays and acting with Terry, Andrew came over with Dan, Jay arrived - Selina had unfortunately already left, so I didn’t get to see her - as did Donna.  Hayley Orgill and Kevin joined us then Simon Clark, always good company, did and we chatted with Peter, talking as the sun warmed up our area of the patio until the 5pm Guest Of Honour interview, which Marie O’Regan conducted with Paul Tremblay.  I went with Andrew, Peter, Jay and Donna and there weren’t anywhere near as many people as I’d expected which was a shame because Paul is a great speaker and the hour whizzed by.  It whizzed by quicker for Peter, Jay and Donna, who all seemed to nod off at different times (to be fair, it was warm and they were very comfortable seats).
With Peter and Simon Clark
Joined by Ross and Lisa, we stayed on for the raffle, which is often enjoyable but the presenting duo tried to emulate Sarah Pinborough’s irreverence and fell somewhat short - and I didn't win anything (though, in a shocking turn-up for the books, neither did Ross).  As that finished, it marked the end of the Con for us and Andrew said goodbye and headed off.  Peter, Ross, Lisa & I made our way downstairs to find Tim Major already there waiting for us.  I shook his hand and caught up, Priya came over for a chat, we said goodbye to Pixie, grabbed John and Simon and made our way over to Ask Italian (James was with some people from Titan so came over later).  At the restaurant, the lady took in our “table for 8” request without blinking and put us downstairs where there was space for twice as many.  James turned up just after we’d ordered, with Ray & Jess in tow and we had a fine old time, chatting, eating and laughing, the perfect end to the day.  Peter left first, to catch his train, then Simon took off so we chatted for a while longer, got the bill then said our goodbyes outside, as Jess, Ray and John went back to the Quad, the rest of us to the car park.
In Ask Italian - from left, me, Ross, Jess, Ray Cluley, James, Tim Major, John, Simon, Peter (Lisa was out on a smoke break)
Another great Con (superb work by Alex Davis, Pixie and the whole redshirt team), another great day spent in the company of fine friends and writers and another burst of wonderful creative energy, soaking up the buzz.  Roll on FCon!

Monday 9 July 2018


I'm pleased to announce that In Dog We Trust  edited by Anthony Cowin (to raise money for Birmingham Dogs Home) will be published by Black Shuck Books and launched at Edge-Lit 7 on Saturday 14th July.  It contains my short story Chihuahua, a nasty little tale about a dog attack on an out-of-the-way petrol station in the West Country.

Foreword, by Emma Green

Introduction, by Anthony Cowin

Painted Wolves, by Ray Cluley

Man’s Best Friend, by Gary Fry

I Love you Mary-Grace, by Amelia Mangan

Leader of the Pack, by Willie Meikle

Hikikomori, by Adam Millard

Good Girl, by Steven Chapman

Queen Bitch, by Lily Childs

Chihuahua, by Mark West

Burger Van, by Michael Bray

Mulligan Street, by David T Griffith

A Dog Is for Death, by Phil Sloman

and will be available from Amazon after the launch

I was approached by Anthony in January 2015 and agreed to get involved, though I didn't have the first idea of what to write.  In April, the original publisher Theresa Derwin emailed and copied in the guidelines - reading them again, one line sparked something for me; "And maybe there are pet shops, dog pounds and family homes all on the brink of bloody horror."  What if, I mused, there were people in a building, trapped by the start of the dog problem.  What if they were in a petrol station?  And that was it.  It's taken a while to get here but I'm confident - Steve Shaw is a great publisher and it's a cracking line-up of writers too.

The story has a very small cast.  Ben is travelling to Plymouth from Bristol and long periods in traffic jams mean he needs to refuel.  He pulls over at a run-down independent petrol station next to the town of Trenton (fans of Cujo might like that), where he meets Freddy (the kid behind the counter) and Trisha (who keeps having her card refused by the machine).  When an old couple drive onto the forecourt and a Chihuahua walks across to them, things quickly turn bad.  Very bad indeed.

Although the houses were less than a couple of hundred yards away, [Ben] couldn’t hear anything other than some dogs barking.  At this point in the evening he’d expect to hear lawn mowers or kids playing, perhaps music or the chatter of friends at a barbecue, but there was nothing.  He looked at the shop, which had a row of dumpbins in front of it - firewood, charcoal briquettes, screenwash - and a stand holding two fire extinguishers.  The station seemed to have been lifted whole from the middle of the eighties.  When the pump clicked, he replaced the nozzle and fuel cap, peeled off his gloves and locked the car.
     As he walked to the shop he could hear a steady growling from behind it, like a very pissed-off dog was defending his territory.  The growling got louder the closer to the door he got and he was glad to push through it into the air-conditioned interior.
     A young woman, in low-cut jeans, a skinny t-shirt and bright pink flip-flops was standing at the counter.  She had long blonde hair that fell to the middle of her back, secured just above her shoulders in a scrunchy.  The kid behind the counter looked even younger, tall and gangly with a shock of curly brown hair and a rash of pimples across his forehead.  He wore an Iron Maiden t-shirt under his ‘Trenton Services’ hoodie.
     The shop needed a refit.  The shelving on the central island was old and battered, the items on it priced with little stickers.  The shelves on the wall to his right were filled with maps, newspapers and magazines and no attempt had been made to cover the covers of the top-ones.  Three sun-bleached fridges stood along the back wall, advertising Coke and Pepsi.  Two were filled with drinks, another with milk, sausage rolls and cold cuts of meat.  Ben took out a bottle of water, checked to make sure it was in date and walked to the counter.  The girl seemed to be having trouble with her credit card.
     “I swear that’s the pin number.”
     "Hey,” said the kid behind the counter, “no problem.”
    “There is Freddy, because if this doesn’t work I haven’t got any cash on me.”
    “Trish, relax, we can sort it out.”
     Ben smiled and wondered how long Freddy had had his crush on Trish and whether she knew.  Trish then favoured Freddy with such a bright, winning smile that Ben knew she was very much aware of it.
     Freddy glanced at him.  “Be with you in a minute, mate.”
    Trish turned her head and gave him her dazzling smile.  “Sorry, the machine won’t take my card.”
    "Don’t worry,” said Ben with a smile.  He leaned against the counter and, in the quiet, thought he could hear the dog barking again.  He wondered if Freddy had it in the back as a security measure.
     Movement caught his eye and he looked towards the road as a Volvo pulled onto the forecourt, parking on the other side of the pump that Trish’s KA was parked at.
     “If it doesn’t take it this time, I’ll go and get my Dad,” said Freddy, “he might be able to sort it.  He was only nipping out the back to get some fuel oil, I’m supposed to be heading into town.”

Monday 2 July 2018

Happy birthday, Debbie Harry (an appreciation)

As this year marks the 40th anniversary of Blondie’s commercial breakthrough album Parallel Lines, I thought it’d be a good time to write an appreciation to celebrate Debbie Harry’s 73rd birthday.
Outside CBGB's, 1975
Debbie in Wind In The Willows
Deborah Ann Harry was born Angela Tremble on 1st July 1945 in Miami, Florida and adopted at three months old by Richard Smith and Catherine Harry, who ran a gift shop in Hawthorne, New Jersey.  As a child, she daydreamed that Marilyn Monroe was her real mother and began dying her hair at twelve, experimenting with violet before settling on blonde.  She was, she told a reporter, “making a statement.  I was extraordinary looking, but a lot of people thought I was in a different world than I was.  My inside world was a lot different from my outside world.”  She attended Hawthorne High School and graduated from Centenary College in Hackettstown, New Jersey, with an Associate of Arts degree in 1965.  Moving to New York, she sang with the band Wind In The Willows and worked as a Playboy Bunny, before waitressing at Max’s Kansas City, a popular club that was part of the downtown art and music scene.

In 1974, she joined The Stilettos, with Elda Gentile and Amanda Jones, her future collaborator Chris Stein joined shortly afterwards.  Around this time, she claims she was lured into a car being driven by serial killer Ted Bundy but managed to get away before he could drive off.  Debbie and Stein left The Stilettos, briefly formed Angel and the Snake and then, romantically involved, started the band that would eventually become known as Blondie.
The original Blondie line-up in 1976 (from left) - Gary Valentine, Clem Burke, Debbie, Chris Stein
Blondie, named for what men often called Debbie, began playing clubs in downtown New York, becoming regulars at CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City.  Their debut album, Blondie, was released by Private Stock Records in December 1976, becoming a minor hit in Australia.  Their second album, Plastic Letters, was released in February 1978 and promoted heavily in Europe, peaking at number 10 the UK, with the lead single Denis, reaching number 2 on the UK charts.  A successful UK tour in 1978 saw them gain popularity which led into their third album, Parallel Lines, released in September by Chrysalis Records.  Produced by Mike Chapman, it was a number 1 hit in the UK, number 2 in Australia and number 6 in the US and the fourth single, Heart Of Glass, broke them worldwide, becoming one of the biggest singles of 1979.  Their fourth album, Eat To The Beat, was released that October and was a UK number 1 but not as successful, though a video was made for each song, making it the first ever video album.  In 1980, they released the single Call Me, which was a number 1 hit in the UK, US and Canada.  Their fifth album, Autoamerican, was released in November 1980 and included Rapture, the first song featuring rapping to reach number 1 in the US (the band were friends with hip hop and graffiti artist Fab Five Freddy).

Debbie in the studio with Nile Rodgers
Blondie took a year-long hitatus in 1981, during which Debbie released her first solo album (Koo Koo, produced by Nile Rodgers), before regrouping and releasing their sixth album The Hunter in 1982.  It wasn’t as successful as the others and a planned world tour was cut short due to low ticket sales, two major factors - along with internal struggles - that caused the band to split.

In 1983, Chris Stein was diagnosed with pemphigus vulgaris, a rare autoimmune disease that affects the skin and mucous membranes and Debbie took several years off to care for him.  Their relationship broke up in the late 80s but they continued to work together.
Chris Stein and Debbie Harry, 1982
She released a second solo album, Rockbird (which is fantastic - I love the title track but the biggest hit, reaching number 8 in the UK charts, was French Kissing In The USA) in 1986 and her third, Def, Dumb & Blonde in 1989.  As a solo act, she toured extensively from 1989 to 1991 with Chris Stein and I managed to see her supporting INXS at Wembley Stadium in July (which I wrote about here).  Her fourth album, Debravation, was released in 1993 - it marked the end of her relationship with Chrysalis Records - and Necessary Evil, the fifth, was released in 2007.
She joined The Jazz Passengers as lead vocalist for their 1997 album Individually Twisted and, in the same year, reunited with her Blondie colleagues for a European tour.  Their first album in 15 years, No Exit, was released in 1999 and the single Maria was a number 1 hit in 14 different countries, including the UK.  The band, as well as releasing a further three albums, have continued to tour and in 2014 played Glastonbury.  They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.
Punk survivors - Debbie and Iggy Pop, photographed as part of the 2015 Paco Rabanne campaign
Alongside her work with Blondie, Debbie also appeared in films such as Union City (1980) and the excellent Videodrome (1983 - which I wrote about here), as well as Forever Lulu (1987), Hairspray (1988), Heavy (1995) and Copland (1997).
With James Woods in the excellent Videodrome (1983)
VH1 voted her 12th in their 100 Greatest Women of Rock & Roll poll in 1999 and named her 18th in the 100 Sexiest Artists Of All Time in 2002.  A strong advocate for gay rights and same-sex marriage, she is also a fundraiser for charities concerned with fighting cancer and endometriosis.
On the loft roof, 1977
“I was hugely influenced by Debbie Harry when I started out as a singer and songwriter. I thought she was the coolest chick in the universe.”
 - Madonna

Shirley Manson, of Garbage, told Pop Matters, "I have the most immense respect for and love for [her] - for so many different reasons, but most of all because she’s an incredible person and an amazing woman. She’s incredibly generous to all other young artist who have followed in her wake, and there have been so many of us. She has never treated anyone with jealousy or with any kind of superiority. She’s just a gorgeous creature, who deserves to be remembered.”
The Queens of punk and new wave, Hyde Park Hotel 1980 (photo by Chris Stein)
Debbie, Viv Albertine, Siouxsie Sioux, Chrissie Hynde, Poly Styrene, Pauline Black
"The idea was to be desirable, feminine, and vulnerable, but a resilient, tenacious wit...rather than a poor female, sapped of her strength by [some] hearthrob..."
- Debbie Harry, interviewed by Victor Bokris for Making Tracks

“Iconic? I guess so. But the word 'iconic' is used too frequently–an icon is a statue carved in wood. It was shocking at first, when I got that reference. It was a responsibility, and it's impossible to live up to - you're supposed to be dead, for one thing.”
 - Debbie Harry
Part of the Parallel Lines promotional materials, I had this poster on my bedroom wall for years as I was growing up
Debbie Harry was, in my impressionable youth, one of my earliest crushes and I fell in love with both her and her music.  I wasn't old enough - or lucky enough - to catch Blondie live in their heyday but I’ve now seen her three times in concert and each one was a real treat.  In the 70s, with her hair, high cheekbones and effortless cool (along with that wonderful air of studied indifference), she was a star and, as far as I’m concerned, she absolutely remains one.

Happy birthday Debbie!