No Cowboys Needed

Dan Trachtenberg’s Prey (probably not showing at a cinema near you, but available to stream on Mouse+) is set in the early 18th century somewhere in continental North America. Naru (Amber Midthunder) is a young Comanche woman who burns to be taken seriously by the rest of her tribe – every day she goes off and practices with the tomahawk she inherited from her late father, and with which she has attained an alarming degree of proficiency, but there never seems to be much question of her being allowed to hunt with the young men of the tribe. This is particularly galling given that her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) has just been chosen as their war chief.

One day Naru is about her illicit practice when she is disturbed by an ominous rumbling from the sky: fire flashes there. Not long after, another young hunter is attacked by a lion and disappears. Taabe leads a party of young men to find the lost hunter and kill the beast, and Naru manages to persuade them to take her along. But something has scared the big cat off before it can finish off the wounded man. Taabe and the others see this as good news – only Naru pauses to wonder what could be responsible. Huge footprints and strangely-mutilated animal carcasses only add to her concerns.

Still no-one will listen to her, as she is only a young woman and not taken seriously by the men around her (there may possibly be a bit of a socio-political subtext here), and so she and her dog end up going off into the wilderness in pursuit of whatever this strange new beast may be. She is naturally more than a little surprised when it proves to be an horrific ogre which takes body parts as trophies from the men it hunts, has phosphorescent green blood, and can turn invisible at will…

The cockroach-like qualities of the Predator franchise are, of course, well-known – John McTiernan’s original movie is a no-debate-necessary classic of action sci-fi, but as far as all the sequels go… well, let’s just say that every time it seems like the bottom of the barrel has been reached and the series has finally expired, something new crawls into view. But the consistency of the downward trajectory, in terms of quality, is actually quite impressive – the only uptick, probably, being that 2010’s Predators was better than the second Alien Vs Predator movie (it would be difficult to be worse, or at least more revolting). I suppose we can credit the franchise’s refusal to do the decent thing and just expire to the sheer quality of the first film.

Now, however, I find myself obliged to do a complete rethink of my attitudes here, as Prey – which is, as you have probably figured out for yourself, technically Predator 7, a prequel to all the other films – is the first entry in the series which isn’t somehow a bit dispiriting in at least 30 years. I might even go so far as to say that it’s actually rather good.

Novelty goes a long way when it comes to revitalising these old franchises, of course. Doing a ‘historical’ Predator movie is, with hindsight, such a no-brainer that one wonders why it has taken so long for it to happen; if Prey does well then I would expect a slew of these things over the next few years. This film, set in the great American wilderness against a backdrop of conflict between Native Americans and French trappers, sometimes feels rather as though the Predator has crashed into the middle of The Revenant – an intriguing and rather exciting idea. (It got me thinking as to what other worthy historical movies could be thus improved by the insertion of hostile extraterrestrials. I’ll let you know what Julian Fellowes thinks of my pitch for Downton Abbey 3: Flayed Alive.)

The shift in setting has necessitated a slight rejig in the usual aesthetics of one of these films – there is still gore and dismemberment aplenty, but less heavy firepower: lances, arrows, axes, and so on, do most of the work. In a nice touch, the Predator’s own equipment is a bit less high-tech than in the present-day movies – the Yautja don’t seem to have invented that shoulder-mounted plasma cannon yet, but the (dare I say it) iconic invisibility screen is still present and correct. In many ways this is absolutely all the things you want to see from a Predator film, with none of the extraneous stuff that started to creep in from the first sequel onwards. (Well, now that I think on it, the classic Alan Silvestri theme isn’t there.)

The really neat thing about the premise of Prey is that not only does it shake up and revitalise a franchise which has felt moribund for over a decade, it also allows 20th Century Not-Fox to score some easy points for making a film which is built around a powerful message of feminine empowerment and also showcases performers of Native American heritage. (An alternate dub of the film where the Comanche characters speak their own language, rather than English, is also available. I gave that a miss, but I can see how it might work better than the ‘mainstream’ version.)

I would be lying if I said that Prey handles its feminist subtext with enormous grace and subtlety, but I’ve seen this sort of thing done much worse elsewhere, while the tribal background to the story only seems natural given the premise of the film. It’s a very different presentation of Native American life to most that I can think of – I watched the movie with the spousal co-unit and she was quite complementary about the careful depiction of just how the Comanche lived – and I almost regret the decision to advertise the film as a Predator movie in advance; getting the audience to watch what seemed to be a rather earnest drama about Native American society only to confront them with a ravening big-name monster would be tremendous coup de theatre.

As it is, it can still come across as worthy and perhaps sometimes just a little bit slow – the beautiful landscapes and Midthunder’s engaging performance go some way to making up for this, and the script is also quite cleverly constructed. The action sequences and visual effects are also well up to expectations. It’s a shame this film isn’t getting more of a cinema release, but nevertheless – I’m not sure it quite qualifies as an exciting new dawn for the Predator series, but it’s still the most interesting thing to have happened to it in decades.


My original review of Trial is to be found at the other end of this link.

Trial was the only episode of Blake’s 7 I’d written about prior to the start of this year, and that was basically because one of my few friends who actually read the blog requested it: Gareth Thomas had just died, after all, and it seemed very appropriate. Reading that review again now, there’s a fair deal I’d still stand by. In the wider context of the series, I wonder if I wasn’t just a bit harsh on some elements of it.

In a sense this is another villain-centric episode: though in this case the spotlight is very much on Travis rather than Servalan – an attempt to make him more than just the Supreme Commander’s frothing attack-dog. The sad thing here, I suppose, is that the Stephen Greif incarnation of Travis did somehow manage to be much more rounded than Brian Croucher’s interpretation of the part – so the task it attempts is one of restoration rather than innovation.

I’m still not sure it completely works, but it tries damned hard, and the backdrop to the story of Travis’ court martial for his crimes on Auros and/or Zircaster is an effective bit of Federation power politics – the reappearance of Rontane and Bercol, probably not something most viewers would pick up on, is an effective touch, allowing Boucher to comment on what’s really going on behind all the machinations in the court.

What’s interesting is that Blake himself seems to have tumbled down the list of the topics the Federation leadership is concerned about – rather than sending envoys to Servalan about the problem of Blake and his followers, the President is now more interested in using Servalan’s failure to catch Blake as a weapon against her – Servalan wants Travis executed so he can’t testify against her at the upcoming ‘Blake enquiry’ (which, regrettably, I don’t think the series really covers in any detail). The internal struggle between Servalan and the President seems to be much more of a live issue than Blake’s insurrection.

The Space Commander takes it easy in one of those open-plan courtrooms of the future.

The discovery that, after all their struggles, the crew barely registers as a genuine threat to the Federation might have been an interesting plot element – though in a rather existential and very un-Terry Nation-ish way. As it is, they have other stuff on their minds, primarily coming to terms with Gan’s recent death. (It must be said that almost at once the ship feels less crowded with Gan out of the way – everyone else has a chance to breathe as a character, with Vila for some reason the most obvious benefactor.) Blake in particular seems to be suffering, which Avon ascribes to a sense of guilt. ‘What would you know about that?’ asks Jenna, sourly. ‘Only what I’ve read,’ twinkles Avon, who barely seems bothered at all by the loss of a comrade. There is some customarily strong Boucher dialogue and character development throughout the episode.

Looking back I think I’ve been a bit harsh on the planet-based elements of the story: crammed into the episode as it is, effectively as the B-story, it never really has a chance to breathe – but this is another example of Chris Boucher trying to introduce genuine elements of idea-based SF into popular BBC drama. The challenge facing Blake isn’t just the environment but the communication barrier between him and Zil; he has to put himself into an entirely different philosophical headspace to succeed. I expect I’d draw ridicule (and possibly rightly) if I say this is almost a proto-Darmok (a celebrated TNG episode about the difficulties of alien communication), but there’s a definite resemblance nevertheless.

Likewise, Blake’s ordeal on the planet (the ‘trial’ of the episode title isn’t just Travis’ court martial, of course) does kind of tie in to his character development. There’s definitely a suggestion that he’s contemplating giving it all up, which as it involves marooning himself on an alien planet is essentially surrender, and almost tantamount to suicide. But, of course, when faced with a rising tide of malevolent spit, Blake realises he isn’t prepared to lie down and die: ‘I am not ready to surrender anything!’ he declares, although his actual survival is thanks to Avon’s ingenuity rather than his own resolve and determination. One element of the story which really doesn’t get enough development is the rest of the crew’s decision to stick with Blake – we’re told much more than we’re shown.

One of the things I’d stick by is that the final irony of the script – Blake ends up saving Travis’ life, inadvertently – doesn’t feel stressed enough by what happens. But it’s as good a script as any for Brian Croucher, and while I still don’t think he holds a candle to Stephen Greif, he does the best he can with it. In the end I’d say this was a decent mid-table episode of the series, which is of course no bad thing to be.

Mr (and Mrs) Lava Man

More prime counter-programming material comes along in the form of Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love, another example of just why many people keep going on about how we are currently living through the Golden Age of Feature Documentaries. This film was probably a particularly appealing project, as it’s made up almost exclusively of thirty-year-old archive footage, which just needed editing together (and perhaps having a few captions and animated sequences added).

We have the French scientist couple of Maurice and Katia Krafft to thank for all the film, by the way. The Kraffts were celebrities, sort of, in the world of vulcanology, and were never happier than when scrambling up the slopes of an erupting caldera or dodging lava bombs at close range. In addition to doing some genuinely valuable scientific research – the holy grail they ended up devoting their career to was trying to identify the ‘trigger point’ at which point a volcano became actively energetic and troublesome, information which would make evacuations and the saving of lives much easier – the couple managed to make a living filming and photographing volcanic events at extremely close range.

The film is up-front about the fact that their research led them to a fatal encounter with a pyroclastic flow on the slopes of Mount Unzen in June 1991, which you might expect would bring the mood down a bit. The general tone remains poetic, with a definite subtext of isn’t-nature-incredible?, although this is fighting for space a tiny bit with what-a-powerfully-romantic-story-this-is!

Frankly, despite some heavy lifting from the title and a breathy, slightly pretentious voice-over from Miranda July (no-one else does breathy and pretentious quite as well), the notion of the film as an account of the Kraffts’ love story never quite works. The material just isn’t there – there’s plenty of footage of Maurice cautiously making his way towards a crater, stopping only when his shoes spontaneously combust, but very little of the duo not being professional vulcanologists together. Even the script admits that no-one’s quite sure how the Kraffts first met each other, and suggests that – in any case – this was always a marriage with three participants: Maurice, Katia, and whichever deadly geological event they were up close and personal with at that particular moment.

They don’t appear to have been a particularly demonstrative couple, anyway – when they do talk about their relationship on camera, it’s in rather joshing terms. Katia says she is quite happy to follow Maurice up the side of a cone, mainly because he weighs twice as much and so anywhere that doesn’t collapse under his weight must be safe for her. Maurice comes back with a gag about how there are so few vulcanologists living together in the world. Why? They are constantly erupting at each other!

The jokes may not always sparkle but the footage shot by the Kraffts is truly breath-taking stuff, the natural world at its most terrifying and extreme. You only have to visit a place where the water boils on its way out of the ground to appreciate the almost mystical allure of this kind of site, but to build your life around visiting such immensely hazardous places is another matter entirely. At one point Maurice expresses a wish that he could eat rocks, which would mean that he never had to return to civilisation.

It seems like the Kraffts did their best to stay out in the wild anyway, funding their travels by selling photos and films of their work, as well as attempting serious scientific research. The film features a roll-call of all the volcanos they visited in the course of a two-decade career: Etna, Stromboli, Anak-Krakatau, Mount St Helens, and many more. The stunning images are probably the best reason for going to see this movie, although some of the most striking are not the work of the Kraffts – the pictures of the Mount St Helens eruption in 1980 are genuinely astonishing, but the couple were at home in France at the time. Not being there in person apparently left Maurice in the mood to commit a massacre, even though a close friend died in the eruption.

It may not have been Dosa’s intention, but rather than a moving account of the relationship of two people united by their love of geophysics and near-death experiences, Fire of Love more often seems to be about the rather peculiar psychopathology of people who do this sort of thing. The film does make clear that the Kraffts did important scientific research on their various trips, but there does seem to have been a certain amount of legend-building going on to. The documentary points out the various ways in which the Kraffts’ own films seem to have been rather artfully assembled, while Maurice seems to have enjoyed the idea of being a legendary daredevil at least as much as a respected scientist. The film sees him repeatedly talking about his plan to float down a river of lava in a metal canoe lined with asbestos blocks – this Quixotic, if not outright demented scheme never came to pass, though the film does include another almost-unbelievable exploit in which he and an assistant ended up adrift in a lake of sulphuric acid for three hours, with only a second-hand rubber dinghy between him and a fate probably best not contemplated (‘Of course it was a second-hand dinghy, we weren’t stupid,’ says Maurice on the soundtrack).

In the end Maurice comes across as an engaging and charismatic fellow, though probably not someone you’d want to get stuck in a lift with. Katia is quieter, indulgent towards her husband, more aware of the ramifications of their work, perhaps. But the fact that Maurice at least was engaged in creating a public persona, and that the film is almost exclusively made up of their own material, means that any glimpses of who they really were as people are fleeting and slightly suspect. I had a much stronger emotional response to the footage of eruptions and the power of nature than I did to the human story – the film doesn’t fit comfortably on the peg where the title and voice-over are trying to hang it. But the Kraffts’ work speaks for itself, given half a chance.

Chad’s Valley

Dwindling budgets and fragmenting audiences mean that terrestrial UK TV channels play it very safe when it comes to commissioning drama nowadays – prestige costume dramas aside (these are usually co-productions anyway) you’ll struggle to find anything which isn’t a thriller, a cop show, or some sort of relationship-based melodrama. (The BBC soldiers on with Dr Who, though one gets the impression this is more out of a reluctance to let a massive cash cow slip into dormancy than any definite sense of knowing what to do with it as a piece of fantasy drama.)

It was not ever thus, and in the outer reaches of the high-numbered TV channels you occasionally come across a reminder of this. Until it recently vanished from Freeview, Forces TV usually served up a diet of nearly-forgotten ITV and BBC sitcoms, together with marathon showings of CHiPs and Spenser: For Hire, but now and then something more interesting popped up – selected repeats from the original run of Dr Who, Blake’s 7 (honestly, who’s still watching that these days…?), and some genuinely off-the-wall ITV dramas from when the network wasn’t quite so risk averse: they showed the mystical yuppie psycho-fantasy The One Game, and (at least three times) Chimera (directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, perhaps best known for his work on the BBC’s long-running Ghost Story for Christmas strand).

This is a serial I took a particular interest in – possibly you’d call me an early adopter, not a phrase people usually send my way – after seeing the writer, Stephen Gallagher, at a local SF group meeting while the show was still in production (I also interviewed him for a fanzine shortly afterwards, but we’re absolutely not going to go into that in any detail). Due to this the whole family sat down to watch it when it was eventually broadcast in the summer of 1991, leading to a degree of trauma for those less desensitised to such things.

Gallagher is a writer whose career comfortably straddles numerous genres and media – he’s written both novels and TV scripts, ranging from police procedurals to horror and SF (he was involved in the development of what eventually became Farscape), with the occasional genre mash-up. This probably qualifies as one of the latter. It opens with a piece of moderately deft narrative sleight-of-hand, as we meet young nurse Tracy Pickford (Emer Gillespie), who trades in a hectic career in a London A&E department for what seems like a cushier number, working at the Jenner Clinic, a private facility in the Yorkshire Dales doing fertility treatments. This means leaving behind her sometime boyfriend Peter Carson (John Lynch), a fairly feckless individual who spends all his time writing about old movies (yes, I know).

The first episode has a leisurely pace, as we get to see Tracy packing up her life, moving up to Yorkshire, and getting to know her new colleagues. This turns out to be a slow burn, as slowly it becomes apparent that something’s going on at the clinic which Tracy is not privy to. One wing is full of chimps and other lab animals (an odd feature for a fertility clinic). There’s a crisis one night, which concludes with someone or something being dragged back to the clinic in the rear of a minibus and then hit with a cattle-prod; Jenner himself (David Calder, doing another of his smoothly ambiguous establishment figures) alludes to letting Tracy know what the real business of the place is.

And then what’s been a fairly mild mystery, with perhaps a touch of romantic melodrama to it, takes a sharp left turn: the clinic’s chimp keeper is ambushed by the former occupant of one of his cages, his throat slit on camera; the clinic is soon ablaze, Jenner, his staff, and a residential patient ruthlessly hacked down, and Tracy… well, Emer Gillespie discovers she’s not playing Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween but Janet Leigh in Psycho (something about Gillespie clearly made people want to cast her in this kind of role: she meets an equally tragic and arguably even nastier fate in an episode of Ultraviolet from 1998).

When ITV repeated Chimera a year or two later, they carved it down from four 60 minute episodes to a rather briefer duration (one source indicates this was a two-hour TV movie, I seem to remember it being slightly longer and being split across more than one episode). Either way, what’s notable about the repeat is that virtually all of the first episode was cut: it opens with the police and other authorities moving in to deal with the aftermath of the disaster at the clinic, and Carson’s attempts to discover what happened to Tracy and the others.

The slasher movie vibe that concluded episode one continues, modulated into more of a creature-feature feeling – it’s gradually made apparent that the killer is not entirely human, as a local farmer and his wife come across something nasty in their barn and pay a grisly price for the discovery. Mixed in with this is more of a police-procedural, as the cops try to make sense of what’s happened, and the beginnings of a conspiracy thriller: overseeing the authorities’ response is a shadowy figure named Hennessey (Kenneth Cranham), who is one of those sinister, all-powerful civil servants you often find in stories like this one. D-notices are in effect, the police have been taken off the case, and government special forces are monitoring the area, armed to the teeth. (I should say that Chimera isn’t quite the succession of genre-hops I’m probably making it sound like: tonally, everything melds together very agreeably.)

Carson, at least, has learned enough to commence his own investigation into whatever Jenner was up to, and – dodging the cops and more shadowy government operatives along the way – finds the trail leads to Liawski, a retired former scientist who was a victim of Jenner’s own ruthless ambition. Jenner was out to push back the boundaries of scientific knowledge, but not out of any reverence for knowledge – he just wanted to become vastly rich off the patents he could register. His objective was the creation of a transgenic hybrid primate, a mixture of human being and ape – the chimera of the title. (When the series was shown in the US, it was inelegantly retitled Monkey Boy.) A flashback shows Jenner casually referring to this as a product, suitable for mass-production; another character comments on how such a creature could be experimented on without there being ethical concerns – they could easily be put to work as an expendable work-force.

Watching the second half of the series again now, it very much feels like something in the shadow of Edge of Darkness – a paranoid conspiracy thriller, albeit with a much more explicit SF-horror edge to it. The investigation into Jenner and his work is very engaging, and it’s a shame this element wasn’t expanded a bit more – one thing about this series, which no doubt explains the decision to cut down the repeat showing, is that it does contain quite a bit of extraneous material.

In the best traditions of miserabilist British SF, everything resolves in a tragic, downbeat climax, followed by a suitably ominous epilogue (suffice to say that the mass-production of ape-men has quietly begun). It’s not so much a cautionary tale, really, as another riff on Frankenstein (complete with a partly-sympathetic ‘monster’), mixed up with some uncompromising criticism of the moral bankruptcy of governments and commercial scientific concerns (Gallagher returned to this theme in his novel Oktober, which he also adapted for TV in the 1990s).

The series has stood the test of time pretty well: perhaps it doesn’t look quite as lavish as it once did (the title sequence resembles someone shining a laser down a plughole, probably because this is what they filmed), but Gallagher’s knack for convincing, drolly humorous dialogue is still in evidence and even the make-up job on Chad the chimera still looks quite impressive (Dougie Mann gives quite an affecting performance as the man-beast). There’s a bit of an issue with one of the lead characters, Alison Wells (Christine Kavanagh) – a member of Jenner’s team, it’s unclear exactly how sympathetic or morally culpable she’s supposed to be – but on the whole the characters in this story are well-written and effectively played.

It also scores quite highly on the ‘hang on, is that…?’ front, for there are various familiar faces popping up in minor roles throughout the show. George Costigan, mainly remembered for sitcoms these days, plays a Yorkshire cop trying to make sense of what’s going on, David Neilson (a Corrie lifer for the last 27 years) plays a farmer who ends up as one of Chad’s victims, Sebastian Shaw (the original face of Anakin Skywalker) plays Liawski, Liza Tarbuck has a small role as a garrulous woman who helps Carson out, and – perhaps most startlingly – Paul O’Grady (credited as Paul Savage) appears as a sign-language interpreter called in to help interrogate the lab chimps.

It’s a well-told tale, about something, and it’s genuinely fascinating to be reminded of a time when mainstream TV drama was permitted to include elements of horror – even slasher movies and creature-features. Watching it again, I was honestly expecting to find myself a bit embarrassed by my original enthusiasm for it, but it still hangs together and looks pretty good doing it. Worth checking out if it crosses your path and mainstream horror is your thing.

The Illusion of Control

I’ve said some fairly unkind things about Terry Nation’s scriptwriting over the last couple of months, but I would stand by them: he has little real feeling for genuine science fiction, his plotting can be laborious, and subtlety is hardly his strongpoint, either. But if you want a rock-solid action-adventure plot with some solid characterisation, then on his day there is no-one to beat Nation. When the story suits his strengths and he’s on form, he rocks.

After being absent for three weeks since the opening episode of season two, Nation makes his comeback with Pressure Point, which is a surprisingly modern-feeling piece of TV, in some ways at least: I was about to suggest it resembles an episode of Babylon 5, which I now realise is not most people’s idea of modern TV (the last episodes were broadcast in the 1990s). Nevertheless, virtually all modern TV owes a deep and inarguable debt to Babylon 5, so I stand by the point. Babylon 5 was a mixture of ‘status quo’ episodes and instalments where something would happen that profoundly changed the substance and direction of the series – a major character would undergo significant changes, a war would begin or end, that sort of thing. Pressure Point feels very much like one of these game-changers. (I feel it is pertinent that J Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5, always acknowledged the influence of Blake’s 7 upon it, and during a visit to one UK convention received an award for his work presented by Gareth Thomas himself, in full costume and make-up as Blake.)

The episode opens in duly ominous style with a couple of Earth-based resistance fighters carrying out a quick recce of the notorious Forbidden Zone (which we haven’t actually heard of before, but never mind). Suffice to say they quickly fall foul of the defence systems and are spectacularly despatched. Yes, no wonder the name of the Forbidden Zone is synonymous with dread and despair – or, to put it another way, Abingdon, where the location filming for this story took place.

(Full disclosure: we moved to Abingdon about seven months ago, and it’s actually a really nice place to live, not nearly as boring as Jerome K Jerome suggested in Three Men in a Boat. I had no idea of the pivotal role it played in the history of Blake’s 7 until a couple of weeks ago when my co-spousal unit noticed a Blake’s 7 convention was taking place just down the road and a number of the attendees were detouring to our neck of the woods to visit the filming locations. It is, as they say, a small world.)

It comes as no surprise when we learn that Travis is lurking in the vicinity, very characteristically lying in wait for his quarry. Servalan is also on the scene, this week wearing a spectacularly chic hat. Needless to say they are anticipating the arrival of Blake, who is in touch with the Earth-based resistance and their leader Kasabi (Jane Sherwin, then-spouse of writer, actor and producer Derrick Sherwin). If you can think of a weak pun linking Kasabi and her fighters to a long-established Leicester-based indie-rock band, please let me know in the comments.

The Liberator is indeed on approach to Earth, supposedly to get detector readings of the perimeter defences, but Blake has other things in mind: things he has neglected to inform the rest of the crew about. With admirable deftness Nation plants the seed: Blake doesn’t seem to be acting completely objectively or even rationally, letting his desire to strike at the heart of the Federation overrule his common sense. Rather than a surveillance pass, Blake is planning to launch a strike against the most vital part of the Federation’s computer network, Control, which is located behind impenetrable defences in the Forbidden Zone (aka Abingdon).

The others have profound reservations about this plan, but agree to go along with it: even Avon, although he has his own reasons. If Blake can destroy Control, the Federation will be thrown into chaos and someone will be needed to co-ordinate the different resistance factions during the ensuing uprising. With Blake thus occupied on Earth, the Liberator will, by default, fall into Avon’s possession.

Meanwhile, back in Abingdon, Servalan and some mutoids have captured Kasabi (the rest of the Kasabian group have had their tour permanently cancelled). Nation finds time for a telling little bit of back-story: Kasabi used to be a senior political officer in Space Command, until she made the mistake of reporting Cadet Servalan as being unfit to command – ‘spoilt, vicious, and idle’. By this point, Servalan’s transition from a convenient face of the oppressive Federation to a genuinely malevolent and rounded villain in her own right is complete; Travis increasingly seems very two-dimensional next to her.

Having interrogated the necessary code signal out of Kasabi, Servalan and Travis are able to lure Blake down to the surface, even though there is every sign that things are going wrong – signs which he seems determined to ignore. Gan follows him down almost at once, presumably to maximise his presence in the episode. The duo meet up with Kasabi’s daughter in a ruined church, where Gan does Cally’s usual job of first-aiding while Avon and Vila teleport down to investigate Abingdon’s automated defences. ‘I’m going to be a big handicap,’ warns a craven Vila. ‘I’m used to that,’ says Avon, reassuringly.

No sooner have they all met up than Kasabi’s daughter turns out to have been flipped by the opposition: she gasses the four of them, steals their bracelets, and locks them in the church. It really does seem like Blake’s recklessness is going to get them all killed – even when they manage to escape (Gan breaks the door down bare-handed), Blake is determined to go ahead with the raid on Control.

The supposedly-impenetrable defences of Control are actually penetrated rather easily, but the episode is barrelling along with such confidence and such a sense of imminent doom that you barely notice it. The fact that the whole of the Control complex is basically just the same two corridors, lit in different colours (an idea I suspect they pinched from The Andromeda Strain), is a bit more noticeable, but just about scrapes a pass on the grounds of inventiveness under pressure.

The punchline of the episode comes when they finally make their way into the heart of the Complex and find… ‘There’s nothing here,’ says Avon. Control is a trick, a trap, a lure. Blake seems to be almost in shock as it sinks home – the real computer control nexus was relocated decades ago, to the most secret location in the Federation. The risk has been for nothing – perhaps worse than nothing, as Travis and the mutoids turn up to apprehend them.

It’s been such a strong episode so far, and Nation has done a sterling job of letting Blake’s obsession get the better of him – if the story has a weak link, it arises from the need for the characters to survive into the next episode. The reversal that Nation pulls to facilitate this is one that stretches credibility – but he still doesn’t let them get away scot free.

It is fairly well-known that, when the decision was made to kill off one of the crew midway through the season, Terry Nation’s first choice was for it to be Vila (apparently he didn’t like Michael Keating’s performance). Vila was spared solely due to his popularity with the audience, and the axe came down on Gan instead. (I must confess to being a little surprised – Gan is just the kind of marginal, stoic, somewhat underdeveloped character who often becomes a cult favourite amongst a certain type of hardcore fan – see also Sergeant Benton in Dr Who and Ianto Jones in Torchwood.) To be honest it would have had more impact if Gan had actually got to do more, but so it goes. The efforts to foreground him in this episode are a little clumsy, but whether you subscribe to the ‘Gan is a simple, decent, straightforward man’ school of thought or the ‘Gan is a violent psychopath with an artificial personality maintained by his limiter’ viewpoint, there are still enough glimmers of potential in other episodes for his death to feel like a shame: there was a lot of untapped material in Gan.

But his death feels entirely appropriate for the episode (not surprisingly given that it’s one of Pressure Point‘s two objectives, the other being to establish the mystery of where Control has gone). The result is one of the strongest episodes of the series, not quite as witty as Boucher at his best, but with an unusually effective atmosphere and tension to it. Abingdon has seldom looked like such an exciting place.

There I was, relaxing in the beer garden of a popular local hostelry with the blog’s Anglo-Iranian Affairs correspondent, one of my wisest advisors. After the usual raking over of old work-related grievances, our attention turned to an imminent cinema trip.

‘This will be the first film we’ve actually seen in Persian,’ said Anglo-Iranian Affairs.

‘Yes. Well, except for that one about two people sitting in a car, which you said didn’t have a story.’

‘Oh, yeah. That one.’

‘Funnily enough,’ I said brightly, ‘the new film we’re going to see is directed by the son of the guy who made that one.’

‘Oh. That doesn’t really inspire much confidence,’ said Anglo-Iranian Affairs, looking a bit wary.

‘Well, the trailer was funny.’

‘What was in the trailer?’

‘Er… mainly just four people sitting in a car. So it should be at least twice as good as the film his dad made.’

Strangely enough, not long after we actually went to see Panah Panahi’s Hit the Road, I came across a piece which cogently argued that the People Sitting in a Car film is a distinctly and innately Iranian cinematic genre, in the same way that the Western is quintessentially American and the Bergfilm is inherently German. It’s quite distinct from the American road movie, which to some extent is all about revelling in the expansiveness and beauty of the wide open spaces of the continental landscape. Rather than being about space, Iranian Sitting in a Car films are all about the possibilities of enclosure – mainly the possibility of being able to make a film in the first place, without the government’s cultural watchdogs knowing what you’re up to. (Any history of modern Iranian cinema would not be complete without various hair-raising accounts of people being obliged to secretly make films in their own front rooms, or smuggle the finished movies out of the country on USB sticks hidden inside cakes, and so on.)

Hit the Road begins innocuously enough, seemingly without any elements that could frighten the horses (or indeed the cultural watchdogs). A family are on a road-trip together in a borrowed car: the father (Hassan Madjooni) has broken his leg and is confined to the back seat, along with his slightly hyper eight-year-old son (Rayan Sarlak). The mother (Pantea Panahiha) is in the passenger seat, constantly fretting, which does not help the mood of their elder son (Amin Simiar), who is doing the driving.

The characters, their relationships, and indeed the situation they are in all emerge gradually and naturally as the film continues. Father seems laid-back enough, though a bit irritated (as are the others) by his precocious younger child; the elder son is quiet and withdrawn; Mother gets more and more stressed about something. She nearly panics when it looks like the car is being followed, and is furious when it turns out her youngest has defied instructions and brought a mobile phone along for the trip. Clearly, whatever the purpose of their trip is, they have reason to be nervous about it. It isn’t until relatively late into the film that the truth finally becomes clear, by which point the film’s implacable shift from comedy into poignant drama and maybe even tragedy is almost complete. At the same time, it’s easy to understand why the Iranian state censors might get a bit prickly about this particular story.

It’s hard to say more without spoiling the film – people talk very casually about spoilers these days, usually referring to particular plot points or other discrete moments. ‘Patrick Stewart has a cameo’ is an example of that sort of spoiler. The thing about a film like Hit the Road is that it is fundamentally about the gradual excavation of layers of family trauma and the relationships that have been impacted by this. The slow and oblique (and, it must be said, far from complete) revelation of what’s actually going on is essential to the conception of the film, and so to casually reveal just where the family is going and why would be to fundamentally change the experience of watching Hit the Road.

I mean, it turns out that Hit the Road is a very politically conscious film, making a powerful (if oblique) criticism of the Iranian regime, but the fact that this element is largely left for the audience to work out for themselves really gives the film much of its power: it’s also a very effective and engaging family drama – the antics of the nameless child serving to lighten what could have been a fairly heavy experience and also provide a contrast which makes the more affecting elements of the story even more powerful.

The child acting is exceptionally good, but then so is all the acting, especially from the parents. (There’s also some impressive lip-synching in the various musical numbers which unexpectedly pop up now and then in the course of the film.) Perhaps there’s some truth to the suggestion that it’s always easier to be impressed by an actor who’s completely unknown to you, but the performances here are utterly persuasive – these do seem like real people, completely plausible and rather endearing.

It does feel like a film made with one eye on an audience outside Iran – the mixture of comedy, drama, and political commentary seems intended to produce a film that will appeal beyond the usual subtitled ghetto (Anglo-Iranian Affairs commented on how many people were at the screening we attended; we ended up in the very front row as all the good seats were gone). References to films by Christopher Nolan and Stanley Kubrick are just the most overt sign that the director has been influenced by popular western cinema.

Nevertheless, this isn’t quite the case of someone making a film in a foreign idiom simply to attract attention from the global critical establishment – there’s something serious and authentic about this film which it shares with the other Iranian films I’ve seen in recent years. And it does feel like a genuine film rather than a piece of agitprop: the story is essentially about Iran today, but it’s still a story for all of that, with well-drawn characters and a definite structure. We were both rather impressed by it. It didn’t turn out to be quite the film we were expecting, but as noted, finding out what kind of film Hit the Road is is part of the pleasure of watching it. Suffice to say it is a quietly very impressive one.

One of the life lessons I came though the late unpleasantness having learned was that it really isn’t necessary to go and see films you’re likely to violently dislike just because they look intriguingly awful, or out of a strange sense of masochistic duty: hence the fact that I have spared myself from seeing Peter Rabbit 2 and you have been spared reading my howls of outrage and despair about it. And yet, just recently I found myself invited to go and see Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin’s Minions: The Rise of Gru and accepting said invitation with nary a pause. Then again, it was my old friend (and frequent presence on the blog) Olinka doing the inviting.

I don’t think the circumstances in which I ended up seeing the first Minions in 2015 have ever properly been recounted here on the blog. The conversation ran along the lines of ‘Let’s go to the pictures!’/’What’s on?’/’Terminator 5!’/’What else is on?’/’Err… Minions? But I want to see Terminator 5.’/’I don’t want to see Terminator 5. Let’s watch Minions.’/’I don’t want to watch Minions.’/’Well, let’s compromise then.’/ (some time later) ’Two tickets for Minions, please.’ However, I did have the last laugh as my then-partner agreed with me that Minions was mostly a load of old tat. Nevertheless, it made a billion dollars, which naturally spells one thing and one thing only: sequel! But how does it score on the whole load of old tat front?

Well. This time around we find ourselves in a rather peculiar version of the middle 1970s, in a world where supervillains are apparently ubiquitous but there seem to be no actual superheroes. Pre-pubescent miscreant Gru (Steve Carell, bravely hoiking his voice into a higher register) is seeking to establish himself as potential supervillain material, although whether the fact he is the master of the minions – a vast tribe of seemingly-indestructible little yellow morons – is a help or a hindrance to this end seems to be rather in the balance.

Nevertheless, he finds himself on the interview shortlist when leading villain team the Vicious Six have an internal squabble and a vacancy opens up. They have recently taken possession of an important plot-device amulet which they can potentially use to get up to all sorts of shenanigans. However, the important plot-device amulet gets stolen and misplaced several more times, becoming an object of desire for pretty much every major character, and putting Gru and the minions on course for a confrontation with their older, larger, and much more competent rivals…

I have to report that of our quartet who attended the movie (me, my co-spousal unit, Olinka, and her progenate Danya), I was the one who laughed least, by quite some way. But it is still a relief to be able to say that this is most likely a rather better movie than the first one; I may not have laughed a great deal, but it’s diverting and rather curious in places, and the 87 minutes or so I invested in it shimmied by mostly painlessly.

Should we address the whole I-didn’t-laugh-much issue? I expect so. Well, you know, what I can say; it’s not like I sat in stony-faced silence all the way through, I just found a lot of the jokes to be quite predictable, and the kind of slapstick which the movie frequently defaults to isn’t quite my thing. To be honest, I found some of the casting decisions to be much wittier and more impudent than anything in the script: there’s a French-accented supervillain called Jean-Clawed who’s played by Jean-Claude Van Damme, and a roller-blading Scandi villain named Svengeance who’s voiced by Dolph Lundgren. (The film’s inventiveness when it comes to ridiculous parody supervillains is admittedly very impressive – Lucy Lawless pops up as a habit-wearing, chain-stick wielding dominatrix calling herself Nun-Chuck.)

Actually, as an animated superhero movie, comedy spoof or not, this is technically extremely well done – as well as the designs of the various characters, the chases and fights are handled with real verve and inventiveness; they are entertaining in their own right and often quite exciting.

However, for me the most striking thing about the film was the element that wasn’t pitched at a very young audience. It’s customary in many of these films to include an element of some kind that will probably go sailing over the heads of the juvenile audience but nevertheless amuse and entertain the adult audience specifically: they’re the ones who are buying the tickets, after all.

The thing about how Minions 2 handles this is that most of the cultural references and parodies that it throws in for the adults are ones that the kids hopefully won’t get anyway: it’s the mid 1970s, so of course the characters go and see Jaws on the big screen. There are also allusions to blaxploitation movies, classic James Bond films, and martial arts films (the minions adopt Bruce Lee-style yellow jumpsuits for one sequence). As well as being a frantic, silly comedy, the film works on a whole other and entirely separate level as well, which is a rather curious achievement. (I should say that in an unexpected and most likely coincidental development, it also has a few points of connection with Everything Everywhere All At Once, most obviously a character played by Michelle Yeoh.)

I was trying to figure out just what Minions: Rise of Gru reminded me of when it came to me: this is like an animated version of an Austin Powers movie, only not as funny or inventive and with all the gross-out stuff and filthy jokes edited out. Whether that sounds appealing or not probably depends on your view of the Austin Powers franchise; personally I wouldn’t say I really missed it, but the first two films certainly had some very funny moments in them.

What this particular film lacks in consistency it certainly makes up for in sheer energy and work-rate; the pace never slackens and it never shows signs of running out of ideas. Most of it still occurs in the same register of manic stupidity, but it’s generally good-hearted. Rather to my surprise, I found it rather hard to dislike. Don’t necessarily put my name down for the next instalment yet, but don’t automatically write me off either.

With Horizon (written by Allan Prior, who co-created Z-Cars and Howard’s Way and was the father of Madelyn Prior, who I believe was one of the X-Men for a while), we enter a run of Blake’s 7 episodes I’ve mostly only seen once, and a while ago at that. My memory of it was that it wasn’t much cop, but obviously one can’t go around skipping episodes no matter what the excuse. So – how did it match my recollection?

Well, it starts with a slightly odd, needlessly arty opening shot, with headshots of Vila and Jenna being superimposed over a starfield, along with a model shot of what long-time viewers will immediately recognise as the London from the start of season one. Here the model is (perfectly acceptably) reused as a standard Federation freighter which the Liberator happens across.

This is a surprise, as the ship has apparently travelled out to the fringes of human space, mainly because the entire crew is knackered (given all most of them did last week was sit around on the flight deck, one wonders what has been going on off-screen). Nevertheless, Blake is curious as to what the Federation is doing out there (there’s also a throwaway reference to the fact that Blake is looking for a base for his resistance efforts), and trails the freighter to the remote planet of Horizon, so-named precisely because it is on the edge of the Federation (apparently the original name was Silmareno – a factoid you can thank someone who’s done transcripts of every episode for).  Whether the locals are indigenous or human colonists is a bit unclear; thematically it would make much more sense if the former was true, as we shall see.

The situation on Horizon is a little bit awkward, for both the characters and (these days, probably) the viewer: it’s a weirdly claustrophobic place, where – ironically enough – the horizon is never visible. It’s all tropical plants and high cliffs and mines outdoors, while indoors everything seems to have been carved from stone. There isn’t really a consistent set of visual cues built into the design to let the viewer know what’s actually going on.

What seems to be going on is an allegory about the British Empire, which I suppose was a semi-live topic back in 1979 when Horizon was originally broadcast – the UK was still hanging on to a few foreign possessions, even if the bulk of the Empire had evaporated by then. Running the place is Ro (Darien Angadi), a native of the planet who has been educated elsewhere (the Central Education Complex, no less) so he can administer the place for his Federation ‘allies’. Assisting him in this are the Assistant Kommissar (Brian Miller) and the Kommissar himself (William Squire). Why the slightly odd spelling? I don’t know; it’s not apparent until the closing credits roll, so if the effect is to put us in mind of Soviet-era political officers it’s a bit of a non-starter. Needless to say there’s a lot of slightly stagey dialogue – ‘I’ve been stuck in this pesthole for two years,’ etc – but the authorial intent. This is not just a pulpy space adventure, it is a seriously-intentioned drama about the realities of empire.

It’s broadly speaking anti-imperial, of course, which is not to say there aren’t a few wince-worthy moments as the story unfolds. Blake and the crew beam down a few at a time to investigate this mysterious world, and are all promptly nabbed by Federation guards working with local auxiliaries – which is great, apart from the fact that the locals are using blowpipes and poisoned darts. I’m afraid some of the extras are blacked up, too, although they try to obscure this by also issuing dreadlocked wigs (it gets more and more awkward).

If nothing else, this sets up another engagingly stagey sequence on the Liberator, which Avon finds himself in sole possession of (earlier, when the question of his joining one of the search parties comes up, his reply is ‘I’m not expendable, I’m not stupid, and I’m not going’). Allan Prior was clearly watching Cygnus Alpha and the issue of Avon’s desire to steal the ship is referenced here several times – earlier on, Blake makes Jenna beam down with him, partly because he thinks Avon is less likely to take the Liberator without a trained pilot to assist him. Now we get a rather histrionic sequence in which Avon contemplates abandoning his crewmates. With anyone other than Paul Darrow this would probably be unwatchably corny, and even Darrow discovers whole new flavours of flamboyant ham. But at least it puts this particular plot thread to bed for a while.

Meanwhile, down on the planet, Blake is single-handedly talking Ro into rebelling against the Federation after years, probably decades, of servility. It’s a big ask and not helped much by the fact it hinges around the idea that a dissident from Horizon was on the London and filled Blake in about the planet’s situation: something which happened entirely off-screen and has never been referenced before. At least the dialogue is decent and Prior works hard to make it as credible as he can. The performances are not bad, either.

The episode resolves with Avon overcoming his existential crisis, beaming down, zapping all the security cameras and killing about four Federation guards in less time than it’s taken me to type this sentence. Having been rescued, Blake pops back to the palace to stop the Kommissars from liquidating the increasingly troublesome Ro; there’s a sort of Royal Hunt of the Sun vibe to his eventual rebellion – he’s wielding another blowpipe and wearing a hat which makes it look like a peacock is squatting on his head – which just adds to the theatricality of the whole episode.

There’s an inconsistency about the whole episode which stops it from being entirely satisfactory, but most of the regulars get something decent to do and the fact it’s clearly meant to be About Something does elevate it a tiny bit. The whole allegorical political angle, clumsily executed though it frequently is, keeps this from being just a filler episode rolled out to fill the gap before the season’s big storyline finally gets underway. It doesn’t exactly sparkle, but it’s usually interesting. Still no idea why the most prominent Blake’s 7 fan club was named after it, though…

Artificial Incredulity

Counterprogramming can take some very odd shapes, and none odder than Brian and Charles (directed by Jim Archer), which has somehow managed to weave a way through a crowded field (resurrected dinosaurs, the king of rock and roll, progressive Norse gods, etc) and find its way onto a few UK screens (apparently it had some sort of US release earlier in the summer).

Moving spirit behind this project, one suspects, is co-writer and star David Earl, who I must confess I wasn’t really aware of prior to seeing the trailer for this film. Nevertheless, he has been knocking about the middle-tiers of UK comedy for a while, from the look of his Wikipedia page, often in the vicinity of Ricky Gervais. Even if you hadn’t bothered to do the research, you might well have been able to work this out for yourself, given that Brian and Charles is framed as a fly-on-the-wall mockumentary with Earl playing its awkwardly self-conscious participant.

However, rather than The Office, this is more like The Cowshed: Earl plays Brian, apparently a variation on a long-established character of his. Brian lives in a farmhouse in a remote part of Wales, where – after a personal crisis of some sort – he has decided to reinvent himself as an inventor. Not an inventor of anything that you might actually want to own, of course – amongst the products of his fertile, or possible furtive, imagination are such things as the egg belt (a belt just for carrying eggs in) and the pine cone bag (it’s a bag with pine cones glued to it). There is pathos in abundance here, and that awkward sense of uncertainty as to whether we really want to be laughing and someone as clearly fragile as Brian.

However, one day things change: Brian hits upon the idea of building a robot to help out  around the house. So he retires to his inventing workshop (in the cowshed, of course), and emerges some time later having incorporated such available ephemera as a washing machine and a mannequin head into his latest masterpiece. When Brian eventually figures out how to switch it on, the robot (played by co-writer Chris Hayward) initially proves skittish, but eventually calms down, learns to make sense of the world around it (by reading the dictionary), and takes the name of Charles Petrescu.

Brian is bright enough to realise his eccentric and rather excitable creation will cause a stir should he take it down the village, where he is already having problems with a local bully (Jamie Michie), but making Charles understand that is hardly straightforward. On the other hand, Charles does sterling work in impelling Brian towards actually doing something about the not-quite-a-relationship he has with another local (Louise Brealey). But what will happen when someone learns that Charles exists?

As I suggested, this is really a very odd film – not necessarily in a bad way, because it has considerable charm and is strangely endearing, and there are some very funny moments in it. But it is composed of a very odd mixture of ingredients, that one really wouldn’t expect to work together. The fact that the film is as effective (and indeed as functional) as it is must therefore be some kind of achievement.

This is apparently an expanded version of a short film made by the same creators a few years ago – I haven’t seen it, but I feel I have a very good idea of exactly what it’s like: presumably it’s exactly the same as the feature film, but with all the elements of a (relatively) more dramatic plotline missing. I would imagine that as a result it’s a lot less tonally uneven – the full-length Brian and Charles often plays rather like a mash-up between the sitcom Metal Mickey and a heavyweight thriller like Dead Man’s Shoes (or maybe even a folk-horror movie).

Brian and Charles is silly. Lots of films these days are, of course, but Brian and Charles is silly in the same specific way as a lot of children’s TV is – it doesn’t even pretend to engage with the real world. It’s fantastical and illogical like that kind of juvenile story is – a man who is, on the face of it, really not very bright or skilled, manages to build a functioning, sentient robot in his shed. It’s a ludicrous idea, but one that the film never questions or even acknowledges the implausibility of. There are lots of other bits of silliness scattered throughout – Brian’s fixation on cabbages, for instance – and a general detachment from reality (no-one even suggests involving the police as the thriller storyline escalates).

And yet, as I say, there is also a genuine vein of darkness running through the film – not just in the plotline about Brian being menaced by the local hard-case, though of course there is tension and disquiet there. Even before this becomes prominent, there is a real sense of quiet desperation threaded through the film: lonely people living lives which were not the ones they would have chosen for themselves, scrabbling to make the best of what they have. It’s a strange, bittersweet atmosphere for a film about an absurd, unbelievable robot and its creator.

Brian and Charles has managed to land a PG certificate in the UK, which is pretty rare these days – virtually anything that isn’t a kids’ film or something very gentle indeed usually winds up with a 12. It just reinforces my impression that this film plays like something you could take your children to see with a fairly clear conscience. The story is simple and the only metaphor the co-spousal unit and I could find in it was a fairly obvious one about the perils and challenges of raising a child and then accepting when he or she eventually needs to be independent. Kids will probably enjoy the ridiculousness of Charles the robot and his domestic situation, and may even be gripped by the storyline – but the film’s mixture of darkness and mawkish whimsy is a very odd choice for a piece of family entertainment. Nevertheless, Brian and Charles doesn’t really make sense as anything else.

About ten years ago, I found myself unexpectedly required to accompany a fairly large contigent of teenagers from, shall we say, a Mediterranean nation, on an excursion around some of the more popular tourist sites in and near Salisbury. I was required to occasionally put a sort of pedagogical gloss on proceedings for contractual reasons. And so I found myself in the car park of a major neolithic monument, preparing to extemporise an educational lecture on what all the ragazzi – oops – were about to see. What to say? Well, it was obvious.

‘In ancient times, hundreds of years before the dawn of history, lived a strange race of people, the Druids. No one knows who they were, or what they were doing, but their legacy remains – hewn into the living rock of Stonehenge.’

It went down rather well, actually, although this – and the fact no-one complained about me more than normal – is probably due to the fact that cult American comedy films of the 1980s have made little penetration into the cultural landscape of southern-European schoolteachers. For myself, I can only put my ability to recite at length from Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap – for this is what we’re talking about – down to the fact that it has lodged itself deeply in pop culture, that I have a brain condition, and that it is simply so damn quotable.

‘You can’t really dust for vomit.’ ‘These go up to eleven.’ ‘There’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.’ ‘I do not, for one, think that the problem was that the band was down. I think that the problem may have been, that there was a Stonehenge monument on the stage that was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf.’ And it goes on and on.

Despite all that, I’d barely heard of Reiner’s film before its British TV premiere on New Year’s Eve 1991, but it seems to have become something of a fixture since then: it was only a few months later that the Tap somehow landed a slot at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert at Wembley. ‘We would like to cut our set short tonight by about thirty-five songs… Freddie would have wanted it this way.’

For anyone still wondering, This is Spinal Tap purports to be a documentary film recording a not-untroubled American tour by the veteran British heavy metal band Spinal Tap. In addition to extensive footage of the band in concert, performing such immortal hits as ‘Big Bottom,’ ‘Sex Farm’, and ‘Hell Hole’, we are granted real insights into the relationships and creative process of band members such as David St Hubbins (Michael McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer). As the new album fails to sell and the record label (‘Polymer Records’, which of course is entirely different to Polydor Records, who actually distributed the film’s soundtrack) appears to lose confidence in the band, creative tensions within the group build up to a climax. Is a split on the cards, or can they keep things in perspective? (Probably too much perspective.)

Response to the film from people actually within the music industry seems to have fallen into two camps – some metal musicians not quite understanding what’s funny about the film, given how closely it tallies with their own experiences (research in the early 90s suggested that if the Tap are based on any particular real-life band, it’s the Barnsley rockers Saxon) – and others suggesting that it is, in fact, an uncannily accurate depiction of life on the road, and indeed the only rockumentary worth watching.

Saying that the actual accuracy or otherwise of the film is immaterial, and that it’s the fact it’s so consistently funny whch is important, is to rather miss the point – the film is so funny largely because it is so plausible and detailed. So much information is provided about the history of the band – their origins as a London skiffle group in the mid 1960s, a brief flirtation with psychedelia at the end of that decade, their changing line-up down the years (in terms just of keyboardists, we hear of Jan van der Kvelk, Dicky Laine, and Ross MacLochness, even though they don’t really appear in the film, while the group’s lengthy roll-call of deceased drummers has acquired an almost shorthand or folkloric quality) – that it’s not surprising that Spinal Tap seems to have taken on a life of its own. Despite starting off as a spoof, the Tap have released their own albums and played live shows. The band were so close to reality to begin with that it’s not surprising the line between fact and fiction ended up blurred.

The conceit is helped by the fact that the film doesn’t really feature any famous faces – when I saw it, probably the most familiar performer to me was Patrick Macnee, who briefly appears as the head of Polymer Records) – and while McKean in particular has gone on to have a fairly prominent career as an actor (a recurring role in The X Files, as well as being a regular on Better Call Saul), the lead actors are still weirdly not-recognisable in character even today.

Many of the jokes are indeed silly, and even bordering on the stupid: there’s something almost Pythonesque about the film’s willingness to mix the clever and the dumb. But somehow it never quite kicks you out of the story – the performances are that well-pitched. We should also bear in mind that, while the script is credited to Reiner and the three main band members, the whole thing was in fact improvised, and edited together out of dozens of hours of footage.

What puts the final gloss on the film is the way that a storyline ultimately emerges that is genuinely quite moving, in its own way – David and Nigel fall out as the film progresses, with Nigel temporarily leaving the band. Their eventual rapproachement – the realisation that, despite everything, playing music together is what they want to do – is a really touching moment, and ends the film on an emotional as well as comedic high. It’s things like this that make This is Spinal Tap a great film as well as a great comedy.