Archive for the ‘cult tv’ Category

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My childhood took place during the 1970s and 1980s, which gives you a rough idea how old I am. As a child I had no smartphone, no laptop. There was no internet, or at least no internet as we understand it and certainly not one an ordinary person could access, and I can still recall such milestones as us getting our first telephone, our first colour TV and our first VCR.

But it wasn’t all bad, I had something the kids of today can only dream of, because I lived under the shadow of global nuclear war.

Result!

The Cold War had been chilling for decades, and the West and the Soviet Union had enough nuclear weapons pointed at each other to destroy the planet multiple times over. Growing up in such an environment is it any wonder I became a little obsessed with the end of the world?

At the time there was a plethora of apocalyptic fiction; books, comics, TV shows, films…and whilst some of these were harsh, utterly realistic portrayals of the potential for atomic Armageddon (see the BBC’s Threads and America’s The Day After for further detail) many of them were, shall we say, slightly more action packed.

They shared many elements however, the hero would be a rugged type, usually an ex-soldier, and he’d know how to handle himself in a fight; with his bare hands, with a knife or, most usually, with a large arrange of firearms. There’d be bad guys aplenty, and they usually rode motorcycles, as if a huge army of evil Hell’s Angels had just been waiting for the end of the world so they could take over.

There’d be women, and they’d be tough too, but also sexy of course. And, despite huge amounts of radiation in the atmosphere, the hero would suffer no major health problems.

Of course it wasn’t all about nuclear war. On the BBC John Duttine unwrapped the bandages from his eyes to discovered a comet had made most people blind, and man eating planets ruled in an adaptation of Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids. Luckily Duttine’s Bill could still see, despite the blinding yellow jumpsuit worn by co-star Emma Relph. A comet was similarly to blame for wiping out most of humanity (and turning large numbers of the survivors into zombies) in the superbly schlocky Night of the Comet.

Meanwhile Charlton Heston had to fight albino psychos as the result of biological warfare in The Omega Man, a film that had a huge impact on me, and a favourite film of me and my dad while I was growing up (and I still love it today.)

I still recall borrowing the Waste World novels from the library, and over the years I’ve acquired three of them (still missing number 2 which is a shame as I remember that one being quite good). These novels featured Matt Chance (these guys are never called Nigel or Tarquin) who was tagged as ‘the ultimate survivor’ although he had nothing on John Rourke, the titular hero of The Survivalist novels that I religiously collected during my teens and early twenties. He really was the ultimate survivor, hell he even had his own secret bunker hidden inside a mountain! I still own my collection of Survivalist novels, though I only got up to the mid-twenties, I believe they carried on but the later ones never showed up in the UK. It’s probably just as well, by book 10 Rourke and his family had been catapulted centuries into the future and by the later books he was battling the denizens of an underwater city, as well as future Nazis and Commies!

Sure they were a touch on the NRA side of things, but they were somewhat less right wing than a lot of similar books out there, and a touch more character driven, even going so far as to feature a post-apocalyptic love triangle between Rourke, his estranged wife and a Russian spy who probably should have been in a Bond film. In fact book 9 is effectively a Bond film, and as I recall an action packed cracker—plus it featured a Doctor Who joke which was somewhat surreal!

Of course I eventually graduated onto more substantial literary fare, and another book that had a big impact on me was James Herbert’s Domain, the third book in his Rats trilogy (technically I suppose there’s a fourth but it’s a graphic novel) which saw WW3 take place, London get levelled, and a group of survivors playing tag with man-eating rats inside underground bunkers. It’s Herbert at his grim and gory best.

It’s perhaps not surprising that some of my first forays into writing involved similar fare. One of the first things I recall getting down on paper was a story that bore so many similarities to The Omega Man that it was essentially just a rip off! I only wrote a couple of pages of that one, but my next effort was much longer, and probably a tad more original, but it was just a British take on Waste World/The Survivalist, featuring a rugged teenage hero with a penchant for automatic weapons and a pretty girlfriend and, yeah, I know: Can you say Mary Sue?

So of course it was logical that my first novel, City of Caves, would be a post-apocalyptic story, and my latest, Darker Times, also deals with the end of the world.

But what is it that I, and so many others, find so fascinating about the apocalypse? Well as with any genre I think there are myriad reasons. Firstly there’s a certain cantharis to dealing with the end of the world in fiction. In the 70s and 80s nuclear war was a real possibility, and nowadays there’s still the fear of terrorism, pandemics, asteroid collision, climate change etc. etc. Post-apocalyptic fiction allows us to face these terrors, knowing they won’t really happen (we hope) but that if they did the indomitable human spirit would survive. Stories like The Day of the Triffids, John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, ITV miniseries The Last Train and a plethora of others don’t feature rugged action heroes, they feature everyday people in extraordinary circumstances, and just as in horror, seeing people survive, or at least go down valiantly fighting, against extranormal odds makes our own trials seem less onerous.

There’s also a very clear libertarian angle at play, the end of civilisation doesn’t have to mean the end of civilisation, it can be more clearly seen as a wiping of the slate, ready for a new kind of world to emerge. Suddenly it doesn’t matter that you’ve got a dead end job, that your relationship are, to quote The Rembrandts, “DOA”, that you’ve never followed your dreams…in the aftermath of Armageddon anyone can be a hero (or a villain), all you need is a fast car and a big gun (though frankly in the event of the end of days, tempting though it will be to nab a Porsche, I’ll probably go for something that gets more miles to the gallon) and you can ride around like it’s the Wild West and you’re some kind of bastard love child of Mad Max and Wyatt Earp.

And after Doomsday there’ll be no taxes, no debts, no worries (apart from, you know, starvation, thirst, infectious diseases, rapists, cannibals, rapist cannibals and the ever present worry about what happens if your appendix bursts when there’s no longer an A&E—in your face suckers I had mine out decades ago) and whether your idea of a new world is a grungy motorcycle gang, a medieval fortress, or something much more middle class and John Wyndham’esqe that involves rational conversations about how many babies we’ll need to have, your dreams can come true.

Of course these days nobody’s scared of nuclear war anymore, it’s all about the zombie apocalypse, but at least you no longer need to worry about the guy who looks like a Hell’s Angel ‘cos he’s probably one of the good guys!

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Growing up in the seventies and eighties there was no such thing as iPlayer, no DVD boxsets or Netflix, so unless you videoed something off the telly at the time, or it got a VHS release, oft times you’d see something when it aired, and that would be that.

Coming back to things later in life can be a dangerous thing, for every TV show that I’ve found I love just as much—maybe even more— now (exhibit 1 m’lud: Blakes 7) there’s one that, in hindsight, is a touch embarrassing (exhibit 2 m’lud: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.)

When The One Game aired in the summer of 1988 I was seventeen, and over the course of four weeks it held me spellbound. TV shows came and TV shows went, and there are probably miniseries that I watched that you could show me footage of me watching and I still wouldn’t remember them, but The One Game stuck in my mind, The One Game was something I never forgot, and even though I wouldn’t see it again until the 21st Century every so often something would spark in my mind and I’d be reminded of the quirky thriller I’d loved. Most pertinently this happened when I watched David Fincher’s 1997 film The Game, which parallels The One Game so much (even down to the ‘it was all for your own good’ ending) that I couldn’t help wondering if anyone got sued!

When The One Game was finally released on DVD I eagerly purchased it, but would it be Blakes 7 or Buck Rogers? Well clearly since I’m still eager to talk about it a decade after buying the DVD it’s probably pretty obvious that it is something I love just as much today, probably more, than I did back in the day.

The setup is thus:

Nicholas Thorne (Stephen Dillane) is the very epitome of a yuppie, young and arrogant he’s also wealthy courtesy of his company Sorcerer, which makes games. During the course of one bank holiday weekend however he’ll potentially lose everything. First someone steals over two million pounds from the company accounts, bypassing supposedly fool proof passwords, and then Nick watches has is ex-wife Jenny (Philippa “Pippa” Haywood) is kidnapped.

The man behind this is Magnus (Patrick Malahide) Nick’s former business partner who Nick forced out of the company (and indirectly into an asylum). Magnus entices Nick into playing The One Game, a reality game that will see Nick battle skinheads, knights in armour, mysterious gunmen and even find him having to joust on a motorbike, but when you’re playing a reality game, where everyone you meet might be playing as well, can you trust anyone, or anything that you see?

Clearly this was a reworking of the Arthurian myth, and writer John Brown described it thusly: “What if Arthur said to Merlin after he’d helped set up the Kingdom, ‘Get lost. I don’t need you anymore.'”. Arthurian imagery is scattered throughout. A knife tossed into a canal, a woman’s beseeching hand rising up from a lake, knights in armour, sword fights and jousts, and with Nick playing Arthur and Magnus clearly Merlin. (I have seen it suggested that Magnus is Arthur and Nick Lancelot, and I can see where they’re coming from given Magnus’ clear affection for Jenny/Guinevere, however I don’t buy it, the story makes a lot more sense if Magnus is Merlin so that’s the interpretation I’m going with.)

This isn’t just a tale of revenge with an Arthurian twist however, because it becomes clear as the story progresses that Magnus’ intentions are not wholly vindictive towards his dear Nicholas, and in the end, after seemingly taking everything away from Nick, Magnus turns the tables and places himself solely in Nick’s hands in order to provide Nick with an opportunity for redemption.

The show has a wonderfully surreal tone, which was a refreshing call-back to the past in a decade not known for subtlety, but despite its fantastical elements it’s mostly grounded in reality.

In tone the show feels like The Avengers (as in John Steed not Iron Man!) and this vibe is never more obvious than when Nick finds himself being shot at in an abandoned village, a scene which riffs off ‘Target’, an episode of the New Avengers. The paranoia that pervades the story (who can I trust, who is playing the game?) also harkens back to The Prisoner, although Nick is far removed from McGoohan’s everyman Number 6.

Aside from a few magic tricks there isn’t anything that’s wholly impossible, but we still get some wonderfully surreal moments. From motorcycle jousting (yes I know George Romero did it first), to Magnus’ business meetings in an abandoned warehouse (complete with modern furniture and three piece suits) to the curious hobbies of Lord Maine (played with contemptible glee by former Quatermass Andrew Keir). When we first meet him he’s dressed as a cavalier about to refight Naseby and the next time he’s letting off some steam doing kendo! He isn’t in it much, but Keir’s enthusiasm and these playful asides elevate what could have been just stock evil 80s businessman into something more interesting.

There’s a definite contrast between the old and the new throughout the show, in the characters and the settings and you get a feeling of a Britain stuck somewhere between the industrial past and the technological future, with Magnus representing the old guard and Nick the future, although neither is portrayed as being an ideal, and if anything you get the impression each man was at his best when they were working together.

The 80s industrial decline is represented by decay, lots of industrial estates and abandoned warehouses where outsiders like the biker gang reside. This is juxtaposed with the luxury yuppie riverside flats and the increasing reliance on computers. And compare Sorcerer’s gleaming offices with the original shop the two men started the business in.

Although never more than oblique there’s a criticism of Thatcherism (and Nick is clearly a child of Thatcher, a self-made man interested solely in himself) inherent in the story. Nick is successful but not happy, and for all that Sorcerer is a success, it’s built on hollow foundations. Ephemeral numbers on a screen and, as Tom Darke, Sorcerer’s finance director, says, leased office space and rented furniture, the firm has no real assets beyond ideas; it’s almost prescient of the dotcom bubble bursting.

At the heart of the story are two great performances from Dillane and Malahide, and I make no apologies for the puntastic title of this posting given both men have recently been in Game of Thrones, Malahide with a relatively minor role as Balon Greyjoy (father of Theon Greyjoy, the unluckiest man in Westeros!) and Dillane with the much meatier role as Stannis Baratheon. Interestingly it’s not the first time the two men have worked together since The One Game as they were also both in the relatively disappointing Melissa George headed series Hunted a couple of years ago. Although I don’t believe they’ve shared scenes in either show.

Dillane was the less well known when The One Game was made, although around the same time he was in the excellent Christabel, but he plays Nick exceedingly well, balancing the arrogance and sneering disdain with a man haunted by past demons, and a man who, in his heart, is quite heroic. Yes his choice to play the game is born out of arrogance, his desire to beat Magnus, but he also genuinely wants to rescue Jenny. By contrast Malahide was very well known at the time, most famously as bumbling Detective Sergeant Chisolm in Minder, constantly being outwitted by George Cole and Dennis Waterman, so seeing him as Magnus was quite shock. He’s almost unrecognisable as the urbane, mystical and ever so slightly unhinged Magnus and for a man best known for playing incompetent coppers or vicious gangsters it shows what actors can do when given the chance.

The rest of the cast is mostly very good, although the least said about the guy playing the yuppie hacker in episode one the better. Kate McKenzie is perhaps the weakest of the main cast as Nick’s girlfriend Fay, but then she also has a bit of a thankless task because it is pretty obvious from very early on that Fay is more than she seems (even if you don’t make the connection between Fay and Morgan Le Fay, i.e. Morgana). It’s interesting watching in hindsight because Fay solves half the puzzles for Nick (in fairness Nick says early on that he’s terrible at games and puzzles).

David Mallinson fares better as Tom Darke, and his, on the surface, bland accountant manages to have quite a character arc, ending with, if not redemption, then at least a modicum of decency.

Magnus’ associates are played with gleeful nastiness by actors who are required to switch between personas at a moment’s thought, and do so very well, and finally Pippa Haywood is great as Jenny. Though terrified her character never gives up fighting, and even though she may have fallen out of love with Nick she clearly still has feelings for him, and even though she respects Magnus she isn’t afraid to tell him to his face that he’s a maniac, even when still his prisoner. It’s interesting to note as well that though we the audience know from the get go that Jenny is innocent, Nick has no such luxury, and so for a time her role in the One Game is uncertain from his perceptive.

In the end Magnus’ motives remain oblique. Is it about revenge tempered with a modicum of redemption for Nick, or does Magnus truly believe that Nick was a better man before money and guilt corrupted him? Is he trying to return a man he clearly loved like a brother to an earlier, simpler iteration of himself by stripping him of all the trappings of wealth and giving him the opportunity to right a terrible wrong that quite clearly was still haunting Nick, even before The One Game began? Just see Nick’s reaction upon seeing a lake when he and Fay go to dinner in the first episode, before he’s even aware any money is missing, let alone that Magnus has returned.

The One Game ends with some mysteries still unsolved, and with the final appearance of the Conjurer, the Beggar and the Comedian the inference that the Game isn’t over, and maybe never will be…

Yes it might look a little dated now, yes some of the puzzles are fairly simplistic, and some of the games seem a trifle tame (but then maybe that was the point) even though there are fatalities, but this is still a wonderful little show that remains intriguing and eminently watchable, a perfect blend of the gritty and the mystical, with a lilting and evocative Celtic soundtrack that makes even the most drab of locations appear magical.

Centred around two great performances perhaps the final thing I should say about how much The One Game means to me is that, as a writer, I’m still trying to come up with an idea just as original. If you can track it down please do so, just try and look beyond Tom Darkes’s giant glasses and computers that look like they might struggle to add two and two together and enjoy a story that’s one of a kind.