More ‘Didn’t Quite Make it’ Cinema Stories

I did a post a while ago about actors who came close to the role of a lifetime but didn’t quite make it to the screen. Here are a few more and a film itself that also didn’t quite make it to the screen.

Lawrence of Arabia

Director David Lean made many classic films and Steven Spielberg famously said that it was Lean who caused him to become a film director. Lean’s most famous film was the story of TE Lawrence aka Lawrence of Arabia. That name, Lawrence of Arabia, was coined by Lowell Thomas, an American journalist who wrote about Lawrence’s role in the desert revolt in Arabia during the First World War.

Lean was fascinated by the subject and various scripts were produced, the final one by Robert Bolt, but who would play the enigmatic Lawrence? Lean chose a young actor called Albert Finney. Finney was not widely known at the time. He had starred in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and apparently two days of filming in the role of Lawrence were done before he was either sacked or departed. Other sources say that he filmed an extensive four-day screen test but would not sign a long-term contract with producer Sam Spiegel and so left the production. Not so long ago I watched an interview with Finney on BBC’s Talking Pictures series in which he said pretty much the same, that Spiegel wanted him to sign a seven year contract and he didn’t want to be tied to a producer in such a way.

According to Wikipedia, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift were considered for the part before Peter O’Toole was cast.

The film was a huge success and has since been acclaimed as one of the greatest films of all time. It won seven academy awards. Missing out on the role didn’t affect the career of Albert Finney. When he died in 2019 he left behind an impressive collection of film, TV and theatre performances. His last screen appearance was in the 2012 James Bond film Skyfall.

The Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz.

Buddy Ebson is a name you might remember from the TV comedy The Beverly Hillbillies. Buddy played the part of Jed Clampett, the head of a country family which discovered oil on their property, became rich and moved to Beverly Hills. Ebson started out as a dancer and appeared in many Broadway musicals. In 1935 he signed a two year contract with MGM after a successful screen test and made his film debut in Broadway Melody of 1936. In 1939 he won the part of the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz but swapped parts with Ray Bolger who wanted to play the Scarecrow rather than the Tin man. Ebson recorded all his songs and worked through the rehearsals but during filming became very ill. It was found he was having an allergic reaction to the make up used for the Tin Man and Buddy was unable to continue. Jack Haley took over the role and the make up was changed to something safer. According to Wikipedia, they didn’t bother to tell Buddy that the make up had caused his problem until much later.

Buddy Ebson went on to appear in the Beverly Hillbillies and Barnaby Jones and numerous other productions. He made a cameo appearance in the film version of the Beverly Hillbillies in 1993. He died in 2003 aged 95.

Clemenza from The Godfather.

Sometimes an actor plays a great part in a film and then when the time comes for a sequel, he tries to use a little leverage to get a better deal. In the Godfather, Richard S Castellano plays the part of Clemenza, one of Don Corleone’s Caporegimes. A Caporegime is a sort of captain in the mafia who heads a team of ‘soldiers’. He plays a pivotal part in the original film and it is clear by the film’s end he is one of new Godfather Michael’s most trusted lieutenants.

When it came to Godfather II, Castellano wanted more money as well as wanting to write his own dialogue. According to a post I found on whatculture.com Castellano was the highest paid actor on The Godfather. Brando was considered pretty much washed up before the Godfather and had to do a screen test to get the part. Al Pacino was a complete unknown and James Caan and Robert Duvall were not well known at the time whereas Castellano came straight to the project from an Academy Award nomination. For Godfather II, having an actor write his own dialogue was a complete no-no for director Francis Ford Coppola so the character was written out and a new character, Frank Pentangeli was brought in to take Clemenza’s place.

Richard S Castellano died in 1988 aged only 55.

All The Money in The World

Here is one final story concerning an actor. It is slightly different to the ones above as the actor concerned was hired for the role, he played the part, the film was completed and ready for its première and then they cut the actor out. They then recast the role and added the new actor. The actor concerned was Kevin Spacey and he appeared as J. Paul Getty in the 2017 film All the Money in the World. The film was directed by Ridley Scott and is about the kidnapping of Getty’s grandson and Getty’s refusal to pay the ransom.

After completion of the film various allegations of sexual misconduct appeared against Spacey, notably one by an actor called Anthony Rapp, who claimed Spacey had made sexual advances towards him when he was only 14. Spacey responding by apologising and saying if he had acted in that way his behaviour would have been deeply inappropriate. However more complaints against Spacey came forward and TV producers of the series House of Cards dropped Spacey from the show. It seems that the producers of All the Money in the World must have been getting nervous about their production and the possibility of Kevin Spacey spoiling their box office takings so director Ridley Scott engaged Christopher Plummer to play the part. A partial reshoot of Spacey’s scenes were done with Plummer, the film was re-edited and Spacey was out and Plummer was in.

Kevin Spacey has not worked since but I did notice an article in the news that he had been signed to play a detective in a film directed by Franco Nero.

David Lean and Nostromo

David Lean had been inactive as a director since the poor reception of his film Ryan’s Daughter. He was apparently so upset over the critics dislike of the film that he had not made another film until his adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India in 1984. That and the restoration of his classic Lawrence of Arabia, in which around 35 minutes of cuts had been edited back into the film had put him back on top of the film business.

He started pre-production on various projects in his final years. One was a version of Mutiny on the Bounty. Lean dropped out after his preferred screen writer Robert Bolt suffered from a stroke. Star Mel Gibson brought in Roger Donaldson as director and the film was finally released as the Bounty.

Lean also began work on Empire of the Sun which Steven Spielberg took over when Lean again dropped out.

David put together a stellar cast for Nostromo including Marlon Brando, Paul Schofield and Peter O’Toole. Spielberg wanted to work with his directorial hero and signed on as producer but Lean wasn’t amused when Spielberg criticised the screenplay.

Lean once again turned to Robert Bolt who had recovered somewhat from his stroke and rewrote the screenplay. Not long ago I finished Sarah Miles’ autobiography. Sarah was Bolt’s wife and she tells how Bolt and Lean began to work together again and the many meetings they had in Lean’s impressive London home. Lean had bought two warehouses in a street near to the Tower of London. He knocked one down to create a lovely garden and the other he and his wife transformed into a wonderful riverside home. There, the two worked on Nostromo. The novel was written in 1904 and is set in South America. A man called Nostromo helps hide the silver from a mine which is then used to prop up the government which the mine owner, Charles Gould, believes will bring stability to the region.

I’m not quite sure what attracted Lean to the project but he was extremely keen on the story and worked hard to complete the film. Numerous storyboards were made for the project which Lean wanted to shoot on 65mm film. The budget grew to $46 million.

David Lean sadly contracted throat cancer and became very ill just before the cameras were ready to turn. In her book Sarah tells of a phone call from set designer John Box talking about the sets that had been built at Pinewood Studios, ‘Those sets’ he said to Sarah, ‘my best work ever.’

The sets were never used. Lean passed away on 16th April 1991. He was 83 and without him, Nostromo collapsed.

There is an interesting documentary film to be found about the production of Nostromo, here is a clip I found on YouTube:


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Dreams and Dreamers

I’ve not had a particularly great week this week. The weather has been poor, I’m still off work because of my sore neck and shoulder and despite feeling better over the past month, these last two weeks have actually seen me going the other way, my neck and arm are starting to hurt more.

The other day I woke up far too early, it was 6 am when I stretched out and fumbled for my phone to check the time. It was a Friday and I didn’t have a completed blog post for my usual Saturday morning deadline, the deadline that for the past few years has kept me honest as a writer. I padded off wearily to the bathroom, had a glass of water and availed myself of the facilities and went back to bed. I don’t dream that much although a few years ago my dreaming seemed to increase, so much so that I started a dream journal, a notebook just by the bedside so that when I awoke I could jot down the details of my dream. Later when I came to review the notes I tended to find a whole lot of gibberish that not only made no sense but didn’t in any way nudge my memory and bring back those quickly forgotten dreams.

A long time ago I awoke after a crazy dream in which I was out with a friend I hadn’t seen for years, and somehow, don’t ask me how, I had lost all my clothes. We had been out drinking and were walking home then something happened and I woke up somewhere without any clothes. I woke up then but that wasn’t the end of it.

The next night I had a sort of follow on dream. I was wandering around with no clothes, although I had come across a blanket somehow and with me was Michael Portillo (yes, the ex-MP who hosts a show on BBC about railway journeys). Well we ended up in this hotel and I was starting to worry. Well, who wouldn’t? No clothes, no wallet, no mobile. Who could I call? Should I try and cancel my bank cards? What happened to my keys? Where am I and what has Michael Portillo got to do with it?

Michael was standing nearby and using his influence as a famous former MP. Someone brought him a phone and he started chatting into it. Clothes were brought for him and I could hear him speaking to his bank. It actually brought to mind that sequence at the beginning of one of the Bond films where Pierce Brosnan has been in a Chinese prison, escapes and finds himself in Hong Kong. He walks into this posh hotel, his hair long and unkempt, his clothes in rags and the guy at reception says “Will you be wanting your usual suite Mr Bond?”.

Some people just have that manner about them don’t they? Me, I’d have been unceremonially kicked out of that hotel, assuming I’d even made it past the front door! I can just imagine the scene:
Your usual suite Mr Higgins? Just a moment please?”
The manager beckons to a large man looking similar to Oddjob from the Bond movie Goldfinger. The next moment Mr Higgins hurtles through the front door. As he is propelled into the street he murmurs, “that’s a ‘no’ then is it?”

I often wonder where dreams actually come from. What is it in the deep recesses of the mind that produce these spurious dramas? When I was younger I don’t really recall ever dreaming that much. As I grew older I seemed to dream more but tended to forget most of my dreams very quickly. These days I do dream quite a lot and I dream pretty sensible things too. The ending of ‘Floating In Space’ was something I dreamed one night and I typed it up and replaced the original finale which, although inspired by real events, was a little unbelievable. Also, I have an entire story which I’ve partly written into a screenplay which I dreamed one night and which played out in front of me as vividly as if I was sitting at the front row of a picture house. It is about a man who appears one night wearing a white suit and who gets involved in some strange circumstances. So strange that those around him begin to believe the man is a kind of Saviour; a sort of new Jesus figure, and his companions become disciples in the way of those who followed Jesus himself. I still have my notes from that dream and the story is on my ‘to do’ list to finish.

Dreaming a story and making it into a novel or a screenplay isn’t quite as strange as it seems. In 1898 an American writer, Morgan Robertson wrote a story about an unsinkable ship called the Titan which sailed from England to the USA, hit an iceberg and sank. The story was published fourteen years before the Titanic disaster. I remember reading the story of this writer years ago, even that the writer saw the story played out in front of him like a movie but all the research I did on the internet for this blog seems to imply that the author was a man who knew his business where ships were concerned, felt that ships were getting bigger and bigger and that a disaster like that of the Titanic was inevitable.

That particular morning I fell back asleep and when I finally awoke, the sun was streaming through the windows and I felt refreshed and ready for a steaming hot cup of tea. In the kitchen I flipped on the kettle and while I waited for it to boil, I scrolled through my iPad. I was particularly interested in my YouTube stats because I had recently entered two of my short videos into film festivals and I was hoping that even if the videos didn’t get anywhere in competition, they would at least bring in some views and increase my media profile.

The stats for my videos were tremendous and I remember feeling a little buzz of excitement. My mobile phone rang just then. I didn’t recognise the number but I took the call anyway. It was a fellow who identified himself as one of the producers of the new James Bond film. They weren’t happy about the film; it hadn’t been released yet due to the Covid pandemic but they reckoned after seeing my film festival entries that perhaps I could take a look at their final edit and suggest some improvements. There was only one possible answer of course: I said yes straight away. It turned out there was an edit suite ready for me somewhere in London and I could expect a call back as soon as arrangements were made for the helicopter to pick me up.

Breakfast then was a quick bacon and egg butty which Liz expertly sorted out while I had a quick shower and a shave. I was just finishing off eating when I heard sirens and could see flashing lights in the street. A small posse of police cars had stopped all the traffic so the helicopter could land. It felt slightly surreal giving Liz a goodbye hug and kiss and then ducking down and running towards the aircraft. Moments later, St Annes was dropping away beneath me as we made our way towards Blackpool airport where we transferred to a jet specially chartered by MGM.

The aircraft lifted easily up into the clouds and headed south and almost as soon as the seat belt light went out the stewardess appeared and served me with a nice pot of tea. She did try to serve me coffee until I mentioned I’d rather drink a cup of mud. Funnily enough, in one of the Bond books, coffee drinker 007 describes tea in exactly the same way.  Scrambled eggs came shortly afterwards served with toast. I didn’t have to heart to tell her I’d already eaten.

The stewardess was soon back with a telephone call for me. It was Sky TV and they wanted to know that as I was on the way south would I have time for an interview? I scanned through my schedule for the day and I could see that we could maybe just fit that in as long as the Bond thing went smoothly enough. They must want to talk about the Bond film I assumed but apparently, sales of Floating in Space had just recently taken off and they wanted to ask about that.

It was a pretty busy day in the 007 editing suite although as I absolutely love editing, it was highly enjoyable. No more working on my cheap laptop. The edit suite was state of the art and I engineered a few minor but subtle changes. Apparently, the cast was standing by at Pinewood studios in case there was anything I wanted to reshoot but I didn’t think it was necessary. Not only that, Melvin Bragg was waiting down at the Sky television studios.

On the way down there having said goodbye to the lovely James Bond people, I settled down in my limo and had a quick check on my bank account. Whoa, there was a hell of a lot of money in there, money I wasn’t expecting to see. Checking through my emails, there was one from Amazon advising that Floating in Space was now the best-selling work of fiction in the UK. Straight away I started thinking about the villa in the Loire Valley that I had been looking at a few weeks ago on the internet. Wonder if I could fly down there and take a look at the property? If I liked it, if it was really as good as it looked on the website, could I really afford it? Looking at my bank account again, I reckon I could.

It wasn’t long until we arrived at the studios. Melvyn Bragg looked a little older than I remembered him although I had only ever seen him on TV and that was quite a while ago. I went into makeup and he and I had a quick chat about what we were going to talk about. In the green room I happened to mention I was a little thirsty and in a jiffy there was someone there with just what I wanted, a Pepsi Max with ice and lemon. The assistant mentioned that the other guest was about to come through and I was just about to ask who it was when Olivia Newton John entered. The same Olivia Newton John whose poster used to adorn the wall in my teenage bedroom so many years ago back in Manchester. We had a chat, far too brief a chat and then I had to go for my interview.

How did I come to write Floating in Space? Would there be a sequel? Would the book be taken up by a traditional publisher? What about the film version?

Later on some of the TV executives took me into London for an early evening meal. I was pretty hungry by then. I could have murdered a donner kebab but we ended up in the west end somewhere eating one of those meals that look like a piece of artwork on a plate but actually can be eaten in a few mouthfuls.

They offered me a room at some swanky London hotel but I was still hungry and if I remembered correctly I think Liz had planned something special for Friday night so I declined the room and asked to be taken back home. When I was settled in on the aircraft once again I gave Liz a quick call and she mentioned that she had already decanted some red wine. The stewardess served me a gin and tonic in one of those large glasses with plenty of ice and lemon. To be honest I actually fancied a pint of lager but anyway, as I reached forward to take the drink, I slipped and went head over heels towards the floor.

I lifted my hand up to check my fall but I was back in bed. I looked over and Liz was scrolling down her mobile phone. ‘Bloody hell!’ she said, ‘that snoring was going right through me. Where’s my cup of tea?’


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The Big 65

Birthdays are not something I look forward to these days. Years ago, when I was a school boy I did look forward to them, at least I think I did. Now I come to think of it, I’m not sure I was that bothered about them even back them.  I do remember as a schoolboy being very impressed with the film 2001 A Space Odyssey and I started working out if I stood a chance of being alive in the then distant year of 2001. I was 45 in 2001 which to a young schoolboy must have seemed pretty ancient. Add on another 20 years and that same schoolboy would surely have imagined himself as a decrepit old guy barely alive in 2021. The thing is, despite being 65 I don’t really feel that old, at least, not inside.

Back in 2016 when I was a young whippersnapper of only 60 I wrote a little tongue in cheek piece about my birthday:

2016

At a press conference this past Monday morning at Wetherspoons in Southport Mr Higgins, reputedly now 60 years of age, was asked numerous questions about his advancing years. He was heard to ask “Pint of lager, please mate,” numerous times but did not seem willing to discuss his birthday further.

Although Mr Higgins seemed somewhat reluctant to engage with people, he responded to a question about television in the early years of the second half of the twentieth century.
He confirmed there were, in the 1960’s when he was a child, only two TV channels. There were further gasps from people when he mentioned, almost nonchalantly that he and his family were at one time forced to watch programmes in black and white!

As Mr Higgins moved onto his next pint he enlarged upon his theme. “Yes, in those days there was no colour TV, no internet and no mobile phones.”
“How did people send messages?” one journalist asked.
“Well,” said Mr Higgins. “The only way was to get some paper and a pen or pencil and laboriously write out a message. Afterwards it had to be sealed in an envelope and posted after of course, adding a stamp.”
“What, you mean it wasn’t free?”
“Of course not!” snapped Mr Higgins, rather testily. “Not only that, you had to take it round to the post box and mail it yourself.”
“How long would the process take?” asked another.
“Well, it could be anything from a couple of days to almost a week”

A young lady reporter fainted and was revived by splashing cold water on her face. As she came round, she looked up at Mr Higgins and asked, “How did you carry on, how did you survive?”

“Well,” answered Mr Higgins. “I suppose we were a tough generation. It was hard then. You lot have things so easy!” Returning to the bar, Mr Higgins waved over to the bar staff and commented. “This lager is a bit naff. Have you got any dark beers? What about a pint of mild?”

Picture courtesy perfectpint.com

Picture courtesy perfectpint.co.uk

“Mild?” replied the barmaid, a young Romanian girl of about nineteen. “What iz zat?”
Mr Higgins looked a little frustrated until the bar manager came over and revealed that Theakston’s mild was one of the guest beers that day. Mr Higgins immediately perked up and called for a pint.
“Lovely jubbly.” he commented, “Cracking pint! Now, what else do you lot need to know? I’ve got some serious drinking to do.”
“What about films?” someone asked. “Surely it was just like today; I suppose you could download a movie onto your tablet and watch at your convenience?”
Mr Higgins, now onto his fourth pint seemed to jump on the word tablet and exclaim “Tablet? In my day that was something you took for a headache! If you wanted to see a film, you had to go down to the picture house, pay your money and go in and get your seat and watch the film.”
Someone asked if the term ‘picture house’ could be explained.
“The picture house! Cinema! A big place with a huge screen where they projected the picture!”
“Do you mean you had to sit with other people?”
“Of course you pillock!” replied Mr Higgins. He turned back to the bar just as his all day breakfast arrived. “Right, that’s it now. If you want to learn about the old days, like the seventies, just get yourselves a copy of my book, ‘Floating in Space!’”

Yes that was the 1970’s; no internet, no mobile phones and a pint of bitter was only 25 pence.

2021

As it was my birthday I had arranged a pre birthday date for lunch and drinks with my brother. I was staying at my mother’s house and I fancied a look around Manchester. I had not been to the city centre since 2019, before the pandemic and every time I look at Instagram or the photography page I follow on Facebook, I keep seeing photos of new space age hi rise buildings and I wanted to take a look myself.

I planned on going early into Manchester so I gave my brother a quick call so as to arrange where we could meet. My brother however told me he wasn’t feeling well and was staying in bed. Well, I wasn’t happy but no amount of cajoling could get him to change his mind. As I sat on the tram travelling into town I started to think about making a video. I had my camera with me so I decided to leave the tram at Deansgate where I knew that some new skyscrapers had been built and then just follow wherever my camera or my nose took me.

At the end of Deansgate on the far edge of the city the builders had created a whole new complex of hi-rise buildings called Deansgate Square. There was an interesting mural there with a short history of Manchester from the first Roman fort in AD79 to the industrial age and right through to the present. After shooting a lot of video I wandered back towards the station and decided to drop down to the canal. The canal runs right through the middle of the city centre largely unseen, hidden by the large buildings and in some places disappearing into tunnels. I came across a canal barge navigating one of the locks and got chatting to the occupants. The barge was a hire boat and came from Middlewich but the crew were surprisingly from Washington in the USA. They showed me how to navigate through the canal lock, opening and closing the lock gates and opening the water valves to raise the boat up to the next level.

Later I walked down Oxford Road and found myself drawn to the old Refuge Assurance building. When I started my working life at the tender age of 16 my first job was as a clerk in the Estates department of the Refuge. Construction on the building began in 1891 with a final extension completed in 1932. It’s a grade 2 listed building finished in red brick which today is known as the Kimpton Clocktower Hotel. I entered through the side entrance, the one I last used in 1977 and walked through the tiled entrance hall into what used to be the main office. It was still pretty quiet and various people were sat in the luxurious lounge eating and drinking. I ordered a pint of lager and found myself a comfy seat where I sat and drank and let my mind wander back to 1973 when I first started there.

1973

In the Estates department my job was to collect the rents we were owed for numerous properties in the city centre, enter them in a ledger and bank the money. Another job was to allocate a proportion of the fire insurance to our tenants, based on the floor size they rented. One incident that sprang to mind was something I’ve written about before but is worth telling again. I came into work one day to find that there was the hum of excitement in the office and my colleagues and I were advised of the imminent arrival of a million pound cheque.  As I was only a mere teenage accounts clerk,  I was running low on the pecking order to see this cheque, although it was actually my job to process it as I did with all the other cheques that came into the department. In due course, one of the very senior managers came down with the cheque and with great reverence it was handed to my boss Mr Ross. Mr Ross perused the cheque for a while along with a small clique of other managers and then conveyed it to the senior clerk, Mr Elliott. After marvelling at this great artefact for a few moments, he then passed the cheque to me. Numerous staff members from our and neighbouring departments also came to take a peek at this financial wonder which I believe, was the result of the company either selling off our sister company, Federated Assurance, or doing some fabulous property deal.

Anyway I did my job and duly entered the cheque into the ledger then put it in the safe ready to go down to banking prior to 3pm, as in those days, banks closed at 3pm. ‘Good heavens!’ declared one of my managers, ‘we can’t just leave the cheque there, think about the interest!’ So I was despatched on a special journey to the bank for this very special cheque. Actually that suited me quite well. After paying the cheque into the local bank I sauntered round the corner to the sandwich shop, ordered sausage on toast and made my way quietly back to work. Just as I arrived back in the office I realised that the senior management staff were still there, waiting for news. Were there any problems? What had happened? They seemed rather disappointed when I told them that no cataclysm had occurred, the bank had not come to a standstill but the million pound cheque had been routinely deposited. Thinking back, I’m not sure I liked the way they were looking at me, perhaps they knew all along I’d been to the sarnie shop!

2021

I finished my drink and walked back up towards St Peter’s Square. Back in the late seventies I used to spend my dinner break there on warm summer lunchtimes, eating my sandwiches and reading whatever book I was hooked on at the time. Things have changed in the square too, the seating area has gone and most of the area has been taken over by the trams.

The trams run every few minutes and I saw one approaching and so I ran up the steps and jumped aboard. I had shot quite a lot of video that day and already I was thinking of how I could put it all together and so I spent the next day glued to my laptop doing one of the things I love the most, editing video. I normally write a narration for my videos but this time I thought I’d put together one off the cuff. That is I made some notes and then switched on the microphone and started talking. The result was a verbatim commentary rather than a pre written narration. It’s not quite as fluid as I would have liked but it seems to work.

When the actual day of my birthday dawned I was feeling a little miserable. Perhaps it was the sudden onset of the cold wet weather or it might have been one of the symptoms of getting old. Anyway, I cheered up after opening my cards and presents and later Liz treated me to a meal at a lovely Italian restaurant. Yes, some garlic bread, pasta and red wine can go a long way towards cheering up an old codger like me and let me leave you with what I thought was a particularly interesting way of looking at the big 65 . .


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My Arm Hurts

Yes, it does hurt, in fact it hurts a lot. Sorry for the moaning but my arm is really killing me. So, how did this happen? Let’s just go back a few weeks and review the whole thing.

My neck and arm started hurting several weeks ago. At first it was a dull ache but then it got worse. It was so painful I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t sit up straight at my desk and I had no strength in my right hand, so much so I couldn’t even fire the deodorant spray under my arm, I had to grip the spray so as to use my thumb to press the button. Well, it was either that or go around with one sweaty armpit.

I had a few days off work and it wasn’t getting better so it was off to see the doc. I phoned in to get an appointment but was told I had to call in the next morning after 8am. It wasn’t a life and death thing so why not just book me in? It’s no use arguing with the Doctor’s receptionist, we all know that so OK, I set my alarm, woke up, took my phone into the lounge and dialled the surgery. At 8:45 I got through only to be told all the appointments were taken.

The next day Liz called up at 8. After forty minutes she got through and finally got me an appointment with the doc. Now we were finally getting somewhere. I went into the doc at the appointed time. Due to Covid 19 he decided not to approach me, in fact he directed me to a chair on the opposite side of the room and asked me about my symptoms. ‘Ah yes’, he said confidently, ‘I’ll prescribe some painkillers and you will be fine this time next week’.

I tried to explain that this issue had occurred before, about 16 years ago and that I was pretty sure the problem was a trapped nerve in the neck, referring pain to the arm. Of course, he, a doctor of many year’s training knew much more than me and so I was quickly dispatched to the exit with a prescription for painkillers in my pocket. A week later the pain was worse so I called back to the doctor asking if I could be referred to a physiotherapist, not a particularly incredible request under the circumstances I would have thought. Later I had a call back from the surgery; the doctor wanted to speak with me again, this time over the phone so another appointment was made for the following week for a telephone consultation.

The doc called at the appointed time and despite me explaining again about the previous time I had incurred exactly the same symptoms and how my neck and arm were now killing me in exactly the same way, the doc still hesitated about the physio. ‘I’m going to send you for an X-ray’ he said. An X-ray, wow I thought, we are finally getting somewhere. The next week I went in for the X-ray. I wasn’t kept waiting long and the snapshots of my neck were taken quickly and efficiently. ‘Your doctor will have the results in two weeks,’ said the X-ray guy. Two weeks! Two weeks in this twenty first century digital email internet Microsoft age! Yes, two weeks.

Fast forward two weeks and I a letter arrived from the doc saying I had finally been referred to the physio. Great, they didn’t mention anything about the X-ray but it must have shown something up for them to send me to the physio. Oh well. A few days afterwards I had a letter from the Musculo-Skeletal unit inviting me to a telephone appointment, on October the 20th! The NHS has been dealing with a pandemic so of course that has slowed things down a lot but even so, I didn’t reckon on a nearly two month wait.

Earlier on this year Saga, with whom I once insured my car until their prices went right up, sent me a flyer asking me to join their private healthcare scheme. I was tempted and I was about to buy in when I decided to call the helpline provided by the Order of Northern Tightwads, an organisation in which I have risen to the noble order of Tightwad, Third Grade, only two below the most senior level.

At the Order of Tightwads, we don’t just let anyone join. First you must pass certain ancient tests, undergo many varied ancient rituals and then and only then if you are found worthy, you may be asked to join.

What is the philosophy of tightwadism? Well one of our founding members, the late Penny Pincher, put it this way. Tightwadism, she said, is the art of being in the toilet when it is your round. To put it another way, it is simply this, never to pay when you can get away with not paying, never to pay a large amount if you can get away with a lower one. Always ask for a discount and most of all, never ever open your wallet unless under the most extreme provocation and even then only the tiniest, tiniest amount.

The helpline was manned 24 hours a day and there at the end of the line was a dedicated fellow tightwad who repeated our philosophy above in the most eloquent manner. I told him quickly about my sore neck and arm. Boo hoo he replied, oh dear how sad, what a shame. Did I want to disgrace the order? No. Did I want to reject our philosophy, handed down from generations of tightwads? Of course not. That helpline guy really knew his stuff. The way was clear to me, reject this overt attack on my personal funds from Saga and make sure my wallet and credit cards were once again kept safe.

Pity really because I ended up having to shell out for a private physiotherapist. The Order of Tightwads weren’t happy. My disciplinary meeting is next week.


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https://youtu.be/ycJ4krvmDI8

From Blog Post to Video

I’ve had my YouTube channel for quite a while now but unlike this, my WordPress blogging page, I’ve always found it rather hard to create regular video output. Don’t get me wrong, I like making videos, I really do although the best part of making a video, at least for me, is the editing. With virtually every one of my videos there are multiple versions to be found in the video folder on my laptop. Yes, videos are just something I cannot leave alone. Every time I rewatch one I start to think didn’t I have a better clip for that scene? Why have I put that scene before this one? Wouldn’t it work better if I swapped them round? Why did I say that in the narration? I should have said this! And so that’s when I start tinkering and re-editing.

A few years ago I thought about making my whole blog into a YouTube Vlog. Of course, that would involve shooting and editing and then adding in the music and perhaps sound effects. For someone like me who has taken laziness to new heights, I’m not sure that would be possible, at least not for a weekly Vlog.

When I’m stuck for video content I usually find myself looking back at my older blog posts and wondering what would work as a video. One regular blog I’ve managed to convert to video are my Book Bag blogs. It’s pretty easy to make them into a video. I sit myself in front of the camera, glance through my notes and then wax lyrical for the camera about the various books I’ve been reading.

The first Book Bag Vlog was difficult though. I made it on holiday in Lanzarote. I hadn’t brought my tripod along but I picked up an adjustable clamp in the market place, actually a gadget for taking selfies that worked pretty well once I had got things lined up. Back then I was using a small Panasonic video camera which looked a little bit like a mobile phone. Today I have a Canon GX7 with a viewing screen that can be flipped over so if I’m shooting myself I can easily frame the shot. With the Panasonic, it wasn’t so easy. The filming for that first Book Bag Vlog went something like this:

Take 1. OK, went pretty well, I blathered on a bit and forgot the author of one book so time for take 2.

Take 2. OK but I’m holding the books slightly out of camera shot.

Take 3. I lift the books higher but gradually as the take goes on the books are getting lower and dropping out of shot. Cut, I shout, getting my director’s hat on.

Take 4. I’ve reframed and lowered the camera a little. I’ve actually cropped off the top of my head but the books are centre stage. I fluffed one of my lines calling Noel Coward an historical figure instead of a theatrical one but recovered that one OK with a little laugh at myself. I also say the Germans were ‘disappointed’ with Hitler at the end of World War Two when discussing a book about Albert Speer, one of Hitler’s ministers. Bit of a understatement there, I meant to say shocked or devastated, anyway, time for take 5.

Take 5. Start to stumble a little here, perhaps I need cue cards. Dorothy Parker wrote what for New York Magazines? Check the blurb on the back of her book again and time for take 6.

Take 6. Looked pretty good. Wait a minute, did I really say ‘my holiday blook blag‘? Time for take 7.

Take 7. Radical re think needed here I think so I’ve smartened myself up a little, put on my favourite holiday shirt and re positioned the camera and my clamp gadget. Wish I’d brought my tripod along! Anyway here we go. Action: ‘Hi I’m Steve Higgins and I’m here in . . er . . ‘ CUT! It’s Lanzarote!

Take 8. Slight camera adjustment as take 7 wasn’t particularly well framed. Forgot to mention who Albert Speer actually was. Will people know who he was? Well, if they are interested in history and World War Two yes, otherwise no . .

Take 9. ‘Bleak House by David Copperfield’? What is this guy talking about? Cut!

Take 10. Not too bad, faltered a few times over some words, mumbled a little perhaps but generally not bad. Sure I can do better though; still a little slow. Needs more pace.

Take 11: Whoa, slow down boy! I said pace not rabbit on and on without taking a breath!

Take 12: Not happening! Time for a swim!

The book bag posts are pretty easy to make, it’s just me in front of a camera chatting away. As long as I manage to chat without mumbling, getting words wrong, forgetting the name of the book author and so on, I usually end up with a reasonable result. I somehow don’t think I have a career as a TV presenter coming anytime soon. Here’s a video I made with a whole lot of out takes, How not to Not to Make a Promo Video.

As I said earlier, I’ve always found it hard to leave a video alone. After all, no work of art is ever finished, only abandoned, as someone once said. A few years ago I made a video about the Graves and Cemeteries of Two World Wars.  It was shot in Northern France and for the narration I used in part, the text from one of my blogs. I talked about time and how time seems to have slowed at those sacred places where once so many people fought and died and how it must have seemed, in the past, in the heat of the battle, that time flowed so quickly.

The big problem with that video, and I only seemed to realise it much later, when the video had accrued a sizeable number of viewings was that the opening sequence was not really in keeping with the tone of the film as a whole. I had started out with an idea that came to me while shooting at a French municipal aire, a quiet motorhome stopping place. I’d started off a sequence with a really impressive motorhome and then panned over to our, much smaller vehicle implying initially, that the first vehicle was ours, before showing the smaller one. It might probably have worked for a general motorhoming video but the humour was out of place for something about the sad subject of war.

For the re-edit, I removed that sequence, tidied up various fades and added some stock photos from the war years. To promote it I added it to various video festivals and at one, the Think Shorts festival, they decided to publish my video on their platform. I even got a special badge which I proudly added to the video icon.

I think I mentioned a few weeks ago about the challenges of making an audio recording into a video, which I did for a radio interview in which I had to participate by phone because of Covid 19. I started by thinking, foolishly, that I could mime to the audio recordings to create a fully lip synced video. That didn’t work out at all so I made a video with still photos and screen grabs with a few shots of me talking into a phone although making sure my mouth wasn’t visible when I spoke. I think I got away with it.

I did make a video called A Letter to my Younger Self, the text of which came straight from a similarly titled blog post. The blog post was pretty good, at least I thought so. The video lacked something in the voiceover department as my monologue seemed a little less than dynamic. Another post derived straight from a blog post was 4 Simple Secrets of Self-Publishing which is not a bad little film which reminds the self published author that if anything needs doing in regards to his or her book; promotion, press releases, advertising and so on, the author is on his or her own. Being a self published author is a one person operation.

Over at the busy end of my YouTube page there is a video called Trucking: 1980’s Style. It was shot on my old VHS compact camera and I followed my old friend Brian for a weekend in the late 80’s delivering goods in his wagon. It was a tough old job, lugging great trolleys and boxes of Sharwood’s curry sauces about the country. Stopping in Truckstops, sleeping in the cab and finding his way about with the help of his CB radio. It is currently my most watched video with over 140,000 views at the time of writing. Lots of trucking enthusiasts follow me on YouTube expecting more of the same and what they think when they find a new poetry video in their notifications, I don’t know. I did think of making a follow up video with Brian, something on the lines of Trucking; 40 Years Later. Brian was still a truck driver until a few months ago but unfortunately for me and the YouTube world, he has just retired.

Last year Liz and I drove our motorhome up to Scotland for a few days visiting the Isle of Skye and various other places. I should perhaps have asked proofreader Liz to check the resulting video film because right at the end I announced that the music in the film was called Soul Grove instead of Soul Groove. I rectified that and some other blemishes which I won’t go into in a re-edit which I uploaded to Vimeo. Vimeo has some great little advantages over YouTube, the main one for me is that if you choose to edit a video you can just replace the new version with your old one, without losing any of your viewer count. One disadvantage though is with a free Vimeo account, there are restrictions on how much content you can upload per week, which is why I had to make the resulting video into two separate parts.

Here are two final videos, both inspired by blog posts. The first is yet another re-edit. Manchester 1977-2017 is a visit to my home town of Manchester where I look at the city as it was then in 2017 and how it was in 1977, the year in which Floating in Space, my self published book is set. A lot of the narration is taken from a blog post about the city, Manchester 41 Years On. I talk about the pubs I used to visit, the square where I used to eat my sandwiches on sunny weekday lunchtimes and how the city centre has changed.

I have quite a few poetry videos both on YouTube and Vimeo. Most of the ones on Vimeo are re-edits where I’ve tried to improve on the original, either with the visual content or my usual weak point, my narration. In one blog post The Secret of Writing Poetry, I tried to impart my ideas on writing to the reader showcasing a few example poems on the way. That in turn inspired the video version which is pretty much the same, me talking to camera and delving into the background of three particular poems. I did it all one one or two takes and perhaps I might have been better going for take three but at least I think I have managed to get my general idea over.

Which of your blog posts would you make into a video?


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Enjoying The Fruits of Our Labours

A while back I wrote a post about Liz’s garden and all the things that were growing there. Now we’re in September it might be a good time to look again and see how things are.

The tomatoes have done well. There are not too many to show you because we both love tomatoes and between us we’ve scoffed a great deal. We’ve had some fried with bacon, sausage and eggs and some in my favourite salad; tomato and onion with plenty of olive oil.

We didn’t get many peas or broad beans but I’m guessing if we did Liz and daughter Zoë would have soon eaten those too. They like to eat them raw, nibbling on them as they pass by.

The cauliflower are not looking great as they have been the victim of some serious nibbling by the garden’s indigenous insect population. The insects can’t have been that keen on the celeriac as even though they were planted right next door to the cauliflower they are looking well.

We had a good crop of strawberries this year but they too have been harvested and eaten. We like them served with raspberries and some Greek yoghurt.

The padron peppers are looking good. I’ve seen padron peppers on the tapas menu in Lanzarote in the past but I’ve never tried them. This year we’ve had plenty of peppers on the barbecue and I have to say, I’ve got to really like them.

I grew some chilli pepper plants from seeds. Most have not done too well except for one which has resided on the kitchen window sill throughout the summer. That plant has a few chillies just waiting to be added to either a good chilli con carne or any one of a number of spicy dishes served in our household like Liz’s hot goats’ cheese with spinach and chilli. Another chilli plant, one that came direct from the garden centre sale is doing really well, that’s it in the picture above.

There is some garlic too, over on the far side of the garden which comes in pretty handy for curries and all sorts of spicy dishes. We sometimes add some to our tomato and onion salads too.

I’ve got two olive trees and both seem to have fruit on them, whether they will become fully rounded olives is another story. Some nice black olives would come in pretty handy as they are really nice when added to the tomato and onion salad I mentioned earlier.

It’s been nice to see that the apple pips I planted earlier this year have sprouted into two small plants about six inches high. Might be a few years before I see any apples though. that’s one of the apple plants in the collage below, bottom right.

Some years ago, I grew some lemon plants from pips. I really do love growing things from pips. It’s like having a close up of nature renewing itself. My lemon trees are probably about three years old now and according to the internet, they have to be three to five years old to produce fruit. That’s if they will produce fruit. The thing is if they did produce fruit, if they did actually produce a lemon for me that would be so wonderful, I’d be over the moon.

I’d probably cut a big slice of my lemon -my future lemon- and drop it into a gin and tonic with a whole lot of ice or maybe even a Bacardi and Pepsi Max. Then I’d savour it and quietly thank my tree for giving me a lemon. Once, Liz and I rented a villa in Spain and in the gardens were a whole bunch of lemon trees so we could pick one whenever we wanted.

I do have another lemon tree, a shop bought lemon tree. It’s only small but is obviously grafted and came with a few lemons already growing on it. After a few days my two small lemons dropped off and that was that. I’ve had it for about a year but I’ve watered it regularly, letting it dry out just like they say in those how to do it YouTube videos and blogs that I’ve been researching. I’ve fed it too with the correct fertilizers and nutrients. The other day I noticed something on one of the branches, something that at first glance seemed like a small bit of fluff or something that had been blown in on the breeze but it wasn’t. It was a flower and the beginning of a small lemon!

September has never been one of my favourite months. The days are getting shorter and cooler but last week here in the north west UK we had something of a mini heatwave so rather than go out to a restaurant or eat inside, it was time to crank up our very handy mini gas barbeque. As usual we started off with a tomato and onion salad. Slice your home grown tomatoes and place them in a dish, sprinkle with finely chopped red onions, pour over a glug of good olive oil and season well and if you fancy, throw in a few black olives and even some garlic; lovely.

Another addition is a tomato, chive and rice salad and some homemade slaw. We usually add a bag of salad leaves and we’ll nibble on all that while Liz slaps on our first course, small kebabs made from beef lorne sausages seasoned with cumin and some salt and pepper.

Next up on the little barbeque are some padron peppers, home grown of course, just simply seasoned and rubbed with olive oil.

A couple of homemade burgers go on the grill and I like them served up in a toasted bun with some of my tomatoes and onions and a nice portion of either mustard or tomato sauce. Final course, a small steak served medium for me and medium rare for Liz. Glass of wine? Don’t mind if I do!


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Good Decision/Bad Decision

Decisions can change your life. That’s why it’s important to make the correct one but it’s always seemed to me that I tend to make the wrong one.

I wrote about my spectacles a few weeks back. You might think that in the general scheme of things specs don’t really amount to much but for someone like me who has worn glasses pretty much all his life they are a really big thing.

Just recently, being the tightwad I am I have trolled through the internet in search of cheap specs and as a result I have a pretty tasty pair of rimless distance specs, some handy readers, a slightly dud pair of varifocals which after I complained, the vendor replaced with another slightly less dodgy pair of varifocals and a pretty good pair of varifocals.

One day recently I got it into my head that for some reason I needed yet another pair. I thought that I could use the frames from my old and now defunct previous pair of specs and have new lenses added. So off I go to my opticians to sort it out. The old frames were actually pretty stylish and in good condition so all I needed was a set of new lenses however, that’s not quite how the optician saw it. New lenses meant having my old frames ‘reglazed’. This apparently entails a reglazing cost so actually it would be cheaper to buy some new frames. Ok I thought, how much are new frames? Well the optician directed me to a range that started at a mere £40 so I chose a pretty conventional pair of metal frames. Yes, said the optician, those frames look really good on you. Really? I said, giving myself a quick preen in the mirror. Ok she went on, let’s do a quick calculation. I myself had already done a calculation £40 plus lenses, still a little more than I intended paying so how much are we talking?

Of course, we had to factor in the anti glare coating and I had asked for what I always call Reactolite lenses, lenses that go dark when it gets sunny, apparently now called ‘Transition’ lenses. Yes, I can do you a great price said the optician, £245!

Now I’m not sure whether I was just a sucker for some smooth sales talk or perhaps had paid too much attention to the comment about the glasses looking ‘really good’ on me but instead of legging it straight for the door as per the instructions on my emergency tightwad help card I heard myself saying ‘OK’. Shortly afterwards I found myself drawn towards the card machine and paying money for another pair of expensive specs that actually I don’t really need. Good decision? Bad Decision!

Here’s another example. Quite a few years back I embarked on a career with GM Buses, the main bus operator in Manchester. It was always intended to be something to pay the rent while I found a proper job but somehow, I never found that proper job I was always looking for. After a few years I started to realise that, so I started trying for promotion. One day I put in for an inspector’s job. It was much more money, it was a supervisory role and best of all it was based in the depot so I didn’t have to deal with the great unwashed public. There were two vacancies, one in the Ardwick depot, about ten minutes from the city centre and another in Rochdale. I wasn’t interested in the Rochdale one as it was much too far away and I didn’t have any transport at the time. Ardwick though was pretty easy to get to, a quick bus into Manchester from Didsbury where I lived and then there were lots of buses heading south from the city centre through Ardwick.

The interview seemed to be going pretty well. There were three interviewers all coming at me with various questions and, because I had just read a book about how to have a great job interview, I had a shed load of answers as well as a host of questions to throw back at them. Anyway, after a while they asked me to step out of the room. When I was called back they asked me what would I do if they offered me the Rochdale job. Rochdale? That’s miles away I thought, so I said no thanks. No thanks? Good decision? Bad decision!

Okay, one last story. Years ago when I first lived in Didsbury I shared a flat with my friend Declan. (As usual names have been changed to protect the innocent.) Declan, or Dec as I called him worked at a garage and he was doing a day release training course. One particular day he was due to be on this course but he wanted to get away early to go out with his mates. He asked me to call in to his work and claim some kind of accident had happened and he had to leave. As it happened I wasn’t able to get to a phone that day so he asked one of our neighbours who was a chap who I had always thought wasn’t quite all there. In fact, he was what I’d probably call in no uncertain non pc terms, a nutter. Anyway, Dec was working happily away on his college course when he was called into the office. The principal was there looking pretty concerned and his secretary placed a glass of water in Dec’s hand.

‘How was your dad when you last saw him Declan?’ asked the principal. Dec wasn’t quite sure where this was going but he was eager to get off and get changed and to join his mates in the pub. ‘He seemed ok’ answered Dec and then took a long drink of his water.

‘Only he died this morning’ said the principal just before Declan sprayed the water all over him. I did tell Declan not to ask that guy to make a bogus call for him but he wouldn’t listen. Bad decision? Very bad decision!

Just now I’m on the verge of a very serious decision. I’m semi retired as I may have mentioned in previous posts and I’m thinking of just retiring now and spending more time on my writing, maybe even taking another step towards finishing the sequel to Floating in Space. I’ve tried to think of a film clip that’s appropriate and here’s one from one of my favourite films.

Robert Zemeckis directed the Back to the Future films as well as Forrest Gump and of course Castaway. At first I wasn’t sure about that ending, in fact I wasn’t even sure I liked the film itself but now I’ve come to think of it as something special. Tom’s character has to make a decision too, whether to go jetting off in a storm or staying with the girl he loved. He goes off in the plane, crash lands into the sea and spends four years on a desert island. When he is finally rescued he finds that the girl he loved has married someone else. After all, she thought he was dead.

Then comes the scene above, right at the end of the film. Which way does he go? Does he go back and follow the girl, after all it’s probably her place he has just visited with the fed ex parcel he has kept with him all these years so he can complete his job, that of delivering it. I like to think he goes back to see the girl and if you watch the clip on YouTube and read the comments, you’ll see that a lot of people thought the same.

Perhaps there are no good decisions or bad decisions. Just decisions.


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4 Book Series

This week I’d like to take a look at four popular book series. Many authors create a particular character or set of characters and write about their different adventures in a new edition. Sherlock Holmes is one example. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the first Holmes book A Study in Scarlet in 1887 and various books and short stories followed detailing the various adventures and investigations Holmes was engaged upon. Here are four more.

The Chronicles of Narnia.

The Chronicles consist of seven novels published in the 1950’s. They were written by author CS Lewis. The first in the series, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe is set during the second world war and was inspired by a group of children who were evacuated to Lewis’ home just outside of Oxford. Lewis was also inspired by a picture of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. The image stayed in Lewis’ head from when he was aged 16 to when he was in his 40’s and he felt it was time to write a story about the picture.

I must have been at junior school when I first encountered the original book in the series. In my first year at junior school our teacher, Miss Ollier, would read us pages from the book as we all sat around her towards the end of our school day. I remember being completely mesmerised by the story especially the moment when one of the children goes through the wardrobe and pushes past the coats hanging there to finally stumble out into the cold of Narnia.

In the book, a group of children are evacuated from London in World War II to a country house. During a game of hide and seek, one of the children, Lucy, hides in a wardrobe. The wardrobe seems to be never ending and as the child pushes towards the back of the wardrobe, she ends up in the magical world of Narnia. Later, the other children follow and they all meet Mr Tumnus the faun, the White Queen and Aslan the lion amongst others. They help Aslan overthrow the Witch and release Narnia from the perpetual winter which the White Witch has imposed on the kingdom. Six more books followed finishing with The Last Battle published in 1956.

The James Bond Books by Ian Fleming.

I started reading the Bond books when I was a schoolboy and unfortunately the very first one I read was the only one they had in our local library: ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’, one of writer Ian Fleming’s worst Bond books. Fleming used to write his initial drafts of the novels and then write a second one, adding in all the details which make the Bond books so interesting. Details of Bond’s clothes, his food, his cars, his cigarettes (the special handmade ones with the triple gold band) and all that sort of stuff. ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ was published after Fleming had died and sadly he had not revised his original draft. I persevered though, did some research, found the proper order of the books and began to read ‘Casino Royale’, the first in the series. I have loved the books and the films ever since.

Casino Royale is quite an original story. It concerns a man known as Le Chiffre who is a kind of paymaster for Soviet agents in Europe. He however has been a very bad fellow indeed, he has been using some of the funds for his own personal pleasure and decides to recoup the funds by gambling at the Casino at Royale Les Eaux. The secret service however think it might be a good idea to have their best card player beat him at cards and so sentence him to death at the hands of his very own paymasters, the Russians.

Fleming drew heavily on his military background where he was a personal assistant to Rear Admiral John Godfrey, the head of Naval Intelligence in World War II. Godfrey served as a model for M, the head of the secret service in the Bond books. Many people have claimed to be the model for Bond himself and although Fleming admitted the character was based on various agents he knew during the war, the character of Bond is really an alter ego of Fleming himself.

Fleming was a Commander in Naval Intelligence during the war, just like 007, and it was Fleming who drank the vodka martinis that James Bond liked so much. It was Fleming who wore the Sea Island cotton shirts that appear in the novels and it was Fleming who favoured scrambled eggs for breakfast, just like his creation, James Bond.

When Fleming was trying to think of a name for his new character he came across a book called ‘Birds Of The West Indies’ by ornithologist James Bond. In 1964 Fleming gave Bond a first edition copy of ‘You Only Live Twice’ inscribed by Fleming ‘to the real James Bond from the thief of his identity.’ When the book was auctioned in 2008 it fetched £56,000.

There are fourteen books in the 007 series although the last one, Octopussy and the Living Daylights was a collection of short stories. Goldfinger was one of my favourites which I picked up and read again not long ago. Now I’m probably going to have to start at Casino Royale and read them all again.

The Hamish Macbeth series by MC Beaton

I seem to have written about Hamish Macbeth quite a few times recently but here we go again. I have always been a fan of the TV series but recently picked up one of MC Beaton’s books so I thought I’d give them a try. The TV series is slightly different to the books although the style is fundamentally the same. Hamish is the village bobby in the Highland village of Lochdubh. Macbeth is a laid-back relaxed character. He is not averse to poaching the odd salmon and he likes to apply the rule of law in his own way. He avoids promotion as all he wants is to remain in his beloved village. Most of the characters in the series are the invention of the TV writers and not M.C. Beaton who wrote the books. I’m not sure how happy I would be if someone made a TV show out my book and then proceeded to change all the characters, still I did enjoy Hamish Macbeth as a TV show. It was an oddball quirky little drama which ran for only three seasons.

In the books Hamish is pretty much the same character as he appears on TV. He is happy living in the village but is anxious not to do too well as he wants to avoid promotion and live happily in Lochdubh. Despite solving many a murder, he therefore contrives to let Inspector Blair take the credit so he can be left in peace. His love interest in many of the books is Priscilla, daughter of Colonel Harbuton-Smythe who has dismissed Hamish as a lazy malingerer, unworthy of his daughter and the on/off relationship continues throughout the books.

My current read is Death of a Perfect Wife. As usual it’s another murder mystery. It’s not a classic of literature but it’s a hugely pleasant and entertaining book, perfect for a quiet summer afternoon read in the garden. There are 36 books in the series. I’m currently on number 4.

The Kay Scarpetta Series by Patricia Cornwell

This is another crime series but not nearly so light hearted as the one above. Kay Scarpetta is the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia in the USA. Author Patricia Cornwell first introduced Scarpetta in the book Postmortem originally published in 1990. The character is an American of Italian descent. She is a perfectionist and workaholic and lives in a custom built home where she cooks many Italian meals while she ponders her cases. She also, and perhaps this is me looking at the character from a UK perspective, seems to be overly obsessed with guns although on one occasion, having a gun under her pillow in the bedroom saves her life. In the first book Scarpetta has to deal with a series of murders and works with Benton Wesley from the FBI to create a profile of the murderer. The book also introduces DNA testing as a new technique and later Scarpetta hatches a plot to flush out the murderer. The murderer however, targets Scarpetta herself but is shot dead by policeman Pete Marino.

The books are fascinating reads and have been said to have influenced TV shows like CSI and other shows that use modern scientific techniques of detection and forensics. The first few editions are excellent reads but the later ones tend to stray into a bit of a fantasy area. Scarpetta has an affair with Benton Wesley who is murdered. In a later book he reappears, it seems he was not killed after all but was placed in a witness protection scheme for some reason. That seemed to me to be a little out of the ordinary but later things get really odd. Scarpetta’s niece Lucy appears in the first book as a ten year old but in later editions when she grows up she becomes a computer wizard, and then joins the FBI where she has difficulties because she is gay. Later she develops an internet search engine and becomes a millionaire and creates her own super secret investigation company called the Last Precinct. It’s all a little bit fantastic.

The first books were written in the first person then the later ones shift to the third person and then beginning with Port Mortuary, the last Scarpetta book that I have read, they shift back to the first person. For years I’ve heard in the media about the books being made into films but for whatever reason, that has not yet happened. I reviewed Port Mortuary a few years back and apart from being a little complicated, it was a pretty good read.


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Old Age, Editing and a Touch of Variety

Week after week, I knock out a new blog post all in the mostly vain hope that my readers will watch the promotional video down at the bottom of this page and either buy my novel, Floating in Space or my poetry anthology A Warrior of Words. If one of those videos should perchance ‘go viral’ as they say and get some huge viewing figures then those viewers might even be suitably impressed enough to go out in great numbers and buy my books. Then I’d make a huge load of money and quite possibly depart for the South of France with the intention of trying some new wines and new cheeses at pretty frequent intervals.

You might think that once I had those royalties in the bank I might not bother about this lowly WordPress blog anymore. Nothing of course could be further from the truth. This blog and my one deadline of Saturday morning at 10am is the fuel that gets me writing. So far, nothing has stopped me putting out a post, apart from the odd occasion when I have forgotten to press the schedule button or pressed the publish button instead by mistake. The other thing that has sometimes curtailed these blogs is that moment that must come to all writers, the moment when a blank page stares back at you and you have nothing to fill it with.

Now it just so happens that I have been a little stuck for a blog post this week so what I’m going to do is combine this post with a half written post about favourite comedy sketches. Now of course you might be wondering how this is going to work so I suggest you think of this post like you might think of an old variety show, you know, those old Saturday night TV variety shows with a mix of singing, dancing and comedy.

Here’s the first clip from The Two Ronnies, one of my favourite sketches, seriously well written:

 

Last week I wrote about my latest radio interview which was only for a local community station but even so, it was an interesting experience. I am still off work and still suffering with pain in my right shoulder and arm and it’s not so easy to type but I’ve found that by getting into a semi prone position on the couch (some would say that would be my default position anyway) I am actually reasonably comfortable.

Due to Covid 19 it was not possible to go into the studio for the interview so we had to do it by telephone. I had written up a few notes to help me and make me sound reasonably intelligent, a difficult task as you can imagine. What made it more difficult was that the previous night I had slept really badly due to my sore arm and had finally nodded off round about the time I should have been getting up. Anyway, I did get up, got ready for my call and waited and waited for my trusty laptop to fire up. Fire up it did and then displayed a message saying ‘do not turn off your computer while Windows is updating’, not that it fires up particularly quickly anyway. Yes I always seem to get either that or something similar whenever I need my laptop in a hurry. In fact, come to think of it, scrap the South of France idea I mentioned above, I think I’ll spend a huge amount of money on an all singing all dancing new laptop before I venture off to France.

Time for some more humour. This clip is from the Monty Python team and I must add a quick personal story first. Years ago I used to work in the GM Buses control room. I was employed in the enquiry office taking calls from the public and we had the far corner of the control room to ourselves. Opposite me was Jed, a guy who hated the job and sat scowling at his desk waiting for his next call. Two young girls sat in the corner chatting and across from me was Mr Nasty, so called because of the various arguments he used to get into with the public. A young lad called Andy sat in the other corner.

Jed took a call quickly and efficiently, giving out bus times to the customer then quickly finishing the call. Next was Mr Nasty but his call clearly wasn’t going well. This was my first week in the job and I remember wondering whether or not I had made a good career move. The enquiry opposite me began to escalate into an argument and just then my phone rang. I picked it up and said ‘Hello, GM Buses’. A voice then asked me ‘Is this the right room for an argument?’

What? I looked around and my eye caught Andy quietly giggling to himself. I answered ‘I’ve told you once!’ just like John Cleese in the original Monty Python sketch. I had found another Python fan.

 

Okay, where was I? Of course, the root problem is age. If I wasn’t so old and knackered I wouldn’t have had the shoulder problem, I would have got up on time and started my laptop off good and early. The big problem is the inconvenience of getting old.

Yes, seriously inconvenient. Old age comes along just when you don’t want it. You have a few years on the clock, you’ve gained some experience of life, a lot of experience of life in fact. Some wisdom, some money in the bank. Retirement beckons and if you have been smart and invested in a private pension plan, retirement might even come earlier and sooner than it comes for most people. Of course, maybe the mortgage has been paid off and you may be sitting on a prime piece of property. You could sell it, downsize, buy a place in Spain or the south of France, maybe even in the USA, after all, over there they mostly speak the same language.

But what happens? Your back hurts. Your neck hurts. Maybe you need a hip replacement. You might be experiencing a little deafness or poor vision. Yep, old age can be really inconvenient. What has the government done about it? Yes, they have increased the retirement age rather than lowered it. What were they thinking? Lower it and straight away a whole raft of jobs becomes available to all those out of work people hoping for a job and as for us older people, we can jet off to somewhere warm and relax before our aches and pains get the better of us.

You might be thinking this might be a good spot to add another comedy video. I thought that too but in my draft post, 10 Classic Comedy Sketches, I had only got as far as number 3 and when it comes down to it, I’m not sure that number 3 was actually good enough to get into the top 10. Anyway, so as to continue the variety theme, here’s a little music from another unfinished draft; 10 Great Beatles Cover Versions;

Getting back to my interview, it seemed to go off reasonably well and like the seasoned blogger that I am I started sharing links to the interview over on Facebook and Twitter. What else could I do though? How else could I promote the interview and me at the same time? What about making it into a video? Difficult I know! If I had been really on the ball I could have set myself up at the table in front of my camera and videoed things from my perspective. I hadn’t, so how could I make it into a video? Well, I could easily add the soundtrack to a still picture of me or my website logo but that would be a bit boring. No, what I could do was to pretend to be doing the interview on camera and lip sync to my recorded answers. Genius!

How hard could it be to lip sync? Back in the sixties many films, especially European ones were made with only a guide soundtrack and all the dialogue was dubbed later. A prime example would be the spaghetti westerns like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Dubbing was pretty much the norm in European films, as many times they would be dubbed not only in their native language but in other languages too so as to facilitate sales in other countries.

Another interesting example is the James Bond films which surprisingly contain some excellent audio dubbing. Gert Frobe who played Auric Goldfinger was German and did not speak English well. His voice was dubbed in the film by another actor. I think I mentioned in a previous Bond blog post that Ursula Andress who played the first ever Bond girl Honeychile Ryder in Doctor No was dubbed in the film by Nikki Van der Zyl who did voice overs for many Bond girls. Apparently, Ursula Andress was felt by the producers to have had too strong a German accent.

Shirley Eaton played Jill Masterton in Goldfinger and it was she who was famously covered in gold paint. Jill’s voice was dubbed by Nikki in order to give her a softer voice. French actress Claudine Auger who played Domino in Thunderball was also dubbed by Nikki.

Not long ago on one of my promotional videos, I decided to lip sync myself when some unexpected wind noise ruined one of my recordings. I have to admit, the result was only partially successful even after hours of work. Actually it would have easier just to reshoot on a less windy day. Anyway, all that experience would pay off now and I could lip sync my new interview. Sadly after a few hours of lip syncing and coming close to smashing my beloved video camera and laptop to pieces I decided on another tack. I filmed myself talking but with the phone covering my mouth so my lips couldn’t be seen on the finished film. What a directorial film making genius. Why Hollywood has never signed me up I’ll never know?


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Prisons and Prisoners in TV, Books and Film

As usual on this blog I’ll be talking about books, films and TV and what started me off on this theme of prisons and prisoners was watching my box set of the 60’s TV series the Prisoner. Anyway, I’ll get to that shortly but first let me start with a book. It’s one I reviewed earlier in the year

Papillon by Henri Charrière

Papillon is a book by Frenchman Henri Charrière. It is an autobiographical novel about Charrière’s imprisonment in the French penal colony of French Guiana and covers a period of about fifteen years. The original novel was written on a series of exercise books and is presented in just that way. Charrière describes his experience of imprisonment as a terrible one. He escaped and was recaptured many times and ended up in solitary imprisonment twice. The first time was for two years and he was kept in solitary for 24 hours a day. In his second bout of solitary a new officer takes over the running of the area and prisoners are let out for exercise every day. At one point in his escape Charrière encounters a tribe of Indians and joins them for many months, even marrying one of the Indian girls but despite finding this apparent paradise, he leaves and is imprisoned again. He eventually escapes from Devil’s Island by jumping into the sea aboard a sack filled with coconuts. The book is an incredible read and I found it one I just couldn’t put down. It is filled with action and adventure but also with thoughtful observations about the human condition and there are many moments when simple acts of kindness stand out to the author against a background of cruelty and inhumanity.

The book was an instant hit when it was published in France in 1969 and the author, Henri Charrière, nicknamed Papillon because of a tattoo of a butterfly on his chest, became a French celebrity. He died in 1973 but always maintained the book was true and based on his own recollections despite claims to the contrary. Whatever its origins the book is a true classic adventure story.

Papillon was made into a film in 1973 and on paper this should have been a brilliant film; Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman star, there was a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo and the author acted as an advisor. Actually it’s pretty poor, I’m not sure why but McQueen was not suited for the role and the writers tried to cram in all the events of a pretty hefty book into a film when there really wasn’t room. Forget the film, read the book.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

It’s a long time since I read this book and I couldn’t seem to dig my copy out so I don’t think I can be too critical. According to Wikipedia it was first published in a Soviet magazine and was only later published in book form. It’s the story of a single day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet labour camp seen through the eyes of a man called Ivan. It’s a pretty bleak book as I remember and unlike the book by Henri Charrière, it’s not a hopeful book and there is no feeling that Ivan will ever escape or would even try to escape. It is a book about survival rather than escape. The book was first published during the Khrushchev years when the new Premier Nikita Khrushchev attempted a degree of openness after the repressive years of Stalin’s rule. Author Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1970.

The Prisoner TV Series.

Actor Patrick McGoohan was the man behind this exceptional TV series made at the end of the 1960’s. McGoohan had become a TV star with a series called Danger Man about a secret agent called John Drake and the actor had become fascinated with what would happen to a spy or agent when they decided to retire. Would their spymasters be happy to let someone with highly classified secret information emigrate for instance? On Danger Man, McGoohan met writer George Markstein and the two discussed McGoohan’s ideas. Markstein hinted that he might have had connections to the secret service in the past and told McGoohan about a top secret establishment called Inverlair Lodge in Inverness, Scotland where during the Second World War ‘recalcitrant agents were housed.’ McGoohan and producer David Tomblin, also from the Danger Man series, started their own production company, later called Everyman Films to produce a new TV series based on these ideas. McGoohan asked Tomblin and Markstein to write the script for the first episode into which he later incorporated some of his own ideas.

The basic idea was that a secret agent resigns and he is kidnapped and taken to an unknown place known only as the village. The agent was possibly John Drake from the Danger Man series but this could never be said publicly because of copyright reasons. In the village there are no names, only numbers. McGoohan plays Number Six and the chairman of the village is Number Two, played by a different actor every week. Will Number Six reveal why he has resigned? Who is running the village? Is it our side or the enemy?

McGoohan, then a hugely popular TV star went to Lew Grade, the head of the ITV network and told him he wasn’t keen on a new Danger Man series but had an idea called the Prisoner. Grade apparently said ‘you know it’s so crazy, it just might work’, and production went ahead.

In the first episode we see McGoohan driving into London in his Lotus 7 and slapping down his resignation letter on the desk of some unknown person. The man at the desk was in fact George Markstein who became the story editor of the series. McGoohan returns home to pack but then his house fills with gas rendering him unconscious. When he awakes, he is not at home but in the village.

Confused and disorientated he attempts to find out where he is and soon meets Number Two. Number Two explains that he wants to know why McGoohan resigned and that there is no escape from the village. The exteriors of the village were filmed in the Welsh village of Portmerion but the interiors, especially Number Two’s office, had a very futuristic, hi-tech feel.

Lew Grade had expected various seasons of The Prisoner but Patrick realised early on that the format was not something that could be sustained for multiple seasons so eventually he and Lew Grade agreed on making 17 episodes in order to realise a product that could be marketed to other countries, particularly the USA.

The 17 episodes all had either a mystery, sci-fi, espionage appeal or leaned towards McGoogan’s vision of an avant-garde allegory about the individual and freedom. In the first episode, Arrival, the prisoner who we come to know only as Number Six wakes up in the mysterious village. What is it all about? Why is here?

Number Two comes straight to the point, ‘why did you resign?’ he asks.

Number Six looks down at his file and observes the time of his birth is missing.

‘Let’s bring it up to date’ replies Number Two.

‘4:30 am, 19th March, 1928’ answers Six. ‘I’ve nothing more to say’ he adds slapping the file shut.

4:30am, 19th March 1928 just happens to be Patrick McGoohan’s date and time of birth so we can see just how personal The Prisoner was to him. The file photo of number Six used throughout the series was McGoohan’s own actual publicity picture.

The final episode where viewers expected everything to be explained and for Number Six to escape and find out who was Number One was a controversial episode and many viewers jammed the network in the UK complaining about the crazy ending in which a mock trial descends into a psychedelic montage of 1960’s music and imagery.

McGoohan defended himself by describing The Prisoner as an allegory when the viewers were still expecting something similar to The Saint or Man in a Suitcase, the action/ adventure and espionage series that were being filmed at the time. Today over 50 years later the Prisoner is a TV show with cult status.

The Truman Show

The Truman show is a film starring Jim Carrey. Carrey plays Truman who lives in a small town but does not realise that he is in fact the star of a reality TV show. Secret cameras film everything he does and all those around him, including his mother, his wife and best friend who are all actors in on the secret. The TV show is the brainchild of Christof, a producer/director played by Ed Harris. As the film unfolds we gradually realise that Truman is becoming aware of things that are not right; a spotlight that falls from the sky, people who approach him and want to talk but are hustled away by strange people, an office building where no one is working and his wife who seems to announce the benefits of various products as if she is in a TV advert.

The film is based on an episode of the Twilight Zone. A man getting ready for work finds a camera in his bathroom and realises he is being secretly filmed. It turns out that unknown to him, he is the star of a reality TV show. The producers take him aside and explain what a hit the show is and how much money he could be making. Why not carry on as if he never found out the truth they ask. Keep the show running. No one would ever know.

The man decides to just carry on with his life and allow the filming and the money to continue. In some ways I think that might even be a better storyline than the Truman show. Either way, this film is a really interesting look at the current reality TV genre and flips the whole concept on its head. Carrey is great in what is really his first dramatic role too. The most telling moment comes at the end when the whole world has been glued to the last episode. When it has finished one of the enthralled TV viewers asks ‘what’s on now?’

So, are we all prisoners then, prisoners trying to break free from either the bars of our cell or from the restrictions imposed on us by modern living, the media or society itself?

As they say in The Prisoner, ‘be seeing you!’


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