Is this the end then for Pluto? Discovered in 1930 – and relegated out of the planet’s club in 2006. Our chief scientist Ben Finlay looks at the story of the little planet that caused a big fuss.
Five years ago there was a right hoodoo happening up there in the Milky Way because boffins were re-drawing the planets and the results of their work meant that what most of us had been taught- that there are 9 planets in our solar system- was now wrong. Without recourse to a fleet of spaceships or even a nifty destructor ray, scientists destroyed Pluto, at least as far as its planetary status is concerned. In August 2006, a new definition of a planet was approved by a seemingly self appointed clique of scientists with presumably nothing better to do. They also changed it’s name to the decidedly uninspiring 134340 (Pluto).
It all happened at the absurdly monikered General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (AIU) held in Prague. 424 astronomers (who knew there were even that many?) voted on the definition after the sort of horse trading often seen at the UN over more serious matters. An initial proposal by the AIU’s Planet Definition committee would have actually added three more planets to the roll call, perhaps assuming that Pluto’s position was unassailable. The suggestion was based on the fact that these bodies were the same size or larger than Pluto. One of them, the modestly named 2003 UN313 had been hailed as “the tenth planet” due to being slightly bigger whilst the other two new planets would have been the asteroids Ceres and Charon, in a promotion from being Pluto’s moons. This proposal caused a furore and after several days wrangling four alternative proposals were put forward.
Eventually the decision was taken that would relegate Pluto to the status of “dwarf planet”. This was based on several criteria notably that a planet “must have cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit” which reflects the fact that larger objects either aggregate or fling away material in their path; Pluto fails this as its orbit overlaps that of Neptune. Unsurprisingly this caused an outcry and led to accusations that the vote was rigged. It was claimed that only 10% of the astronomers attending the event were able to vote; “you can’t even claim concensus” fumed the US space agency’s Dr Alan Stern. Even the committe’s chairman Owen Gengerich was unable to vote as he had to return home and it was claimed that the vital vote had been scheduled deliberately at a time when people would already have left.
It had all started so well for Pluto, iscovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh of Lowell Univeristy in Arizona. Calculations which later turned out to be in error had predicted a planet beyond Neptune based on the motions of that planet and Uranus and unaware of the error, Tombaugh undertook a survey which pinpointed Pluto The name comes from Roman mythology were Pluto is the god of the underworld and was selected because it is so far from the Sun as to be in perpetual darkness.
OK, here’s the sciency bit -just imagine Professor Brian Cox ponsing about in Greenland accompanied by two orchestras and you’ll get it. Pluto's orbit is highly eccentric. At times it is closer to the Sun than Neptune and rotates in the opposite direction from most of the other planets. Pluto's orbital period is exactly 1.5 times longer than Neptune's and its orbital inclination is also much higher than the other planets'. Thus though it appears that Pluto's orbit crosses Neptune's, it really doesn't and they will never collide.
Pluto 5,913,520,000km from the Sun (ie a long way), has a diameter of 2274km and a surface temperature that varies between about -235 and -210 C (38 to 63 K). Not recommended for holidays then! It's composition is unknown, but its density indicates that it is probably a mixture of 70% rock and 30% water ice much like Triton. The bright areas of the surface seem to be covered with ices of nitrogen with smaller amounts of (solid) methane, ethane and carbon monoxide. The composition of the darker areas of Pluto's surface is also unknown but may be due to primordial organic material or photochemical reactions driven by cosmic rays. Or aliens painted it black.
Pluto's atmosphere is also, as you’ve probably guessed by now, a bit of a mystery, but probably consists primarily of nitrogen with some carbon monoxide and methane and is extremely tenuous, the surface pressure being only a few microbars. Pluto's atmosphere may exist as a gas only when Pluto is near its perihelion (the point at a planet’s orbit when its nearest to the Sun). For most of Pluto's long year, the atmospheric gases are frozen into ice and near perihelion, some of the atmosphere escapes to space perhaps even interacting with Charon. To try and gain more solid facts than all this supposition the first ever spacecraft to Pluto was launched in January 2006 with the intention of arriving in 2015 and presumably the recent change in status will not mean its called back! Some mapping of Pluto has been achieved thanks the satellite Charon discovered in 1978. In 2005, a team using the Hubble Space Telescope discovered two additional tiny moons called Nix and Hydra that are estimated to be between 60 and 200 kilometers in diameter.
The allure of Pluto as an exotic and mysterious place about which speculation can run riot has made it an understandable magnet for science fiction writers with many books and stories involving Pluto. Amongst the myriad of examples are Stephen Baxter’s 1997 story`Gossamer` in which stranded astronauts discover a life from on Pluto during perihelion. Larry Niven’s `Wait It Out` has its protagonist trapped on Pluto where he discovers a super fluid form of life. Robert Heinlen seemed to love the place; his 1958 novel `Have Space Suit, Will Travel` showed it as an alien base used for exploration of Earth while `Starship Troopers` included a research station on Pluto. He also included the place in a 1953 story called `Sky Lift`.
John De Chancie’s 1980s series of `Starrigger` books had Pluto as the location of a dimensional gate to an intersteller Skyway whilst Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1985 novel `Icehenge` centres around a mysterious structure found on the planet, oops dwarf planet. More recently `Vaccum Diagrams` written by Stephen Baxter had a portal in the orbit of Pluto and suggested a form of life there that is a bit like a snowflake. Some TV sci-fi has plundered Pluto too; Doctor Who got in on the act in 1977 with `The Sunamakers` which had the place covered in colonies lit by artificial suns that made it look remarkably like England while in Futurama the place was inhabited by penguins! Back in the 60’s Space Patrol had an episode in which there was a colony on Pluto where conditions were freezing which begs the question of why they settled there at all!
Music-wise of course there is the tale of `The Planets`, Gustav Holst’s well known classical smorgasboard composed a decade before Pluto was discovered. In the late 1990s, the Halle Orchestra took it upon themselves to commission Colin Matthews to add a Pluto movement, entitled `Pluto- The Renewer` which had its first performance in 2000 and which preumably won’t be getting many more airings.
Despite the controversial vote, Pluto does have its allies and after the AIU’s decision, some astronomers were fuming; Gengerich put the blame for the decision on dynamicists who are astronomers who are experts in the motion and gravitational effects of celestial objects. His definition was one favoured by planetary geologists and he reckoned it was all down to the dynamicists being insulted. “Its sloppy science” said Alan Stern, “its inconsistent”. He pulled holes in the definitions claiming for example that Earth, Jupiter, Mars and Neptune have also not fully cleared their orbital zones, Jupiter in fact is accompanied by 100,000 Trojan asteroids on its rounds. He added with a common sense that even non scientists can grasp; “If Neptune had cleared its path, Pluto wouldn’t be there”. Stern started a petition to try and get Pluto reinstated.
The arguments for the decision seemed rather weak willed by contrast; Professor Iwan Williams the IAU’s president of planetary science commented with childish smugness; “Pluto has lots and lots of friends, we’re not so keen to have Pluto and all his friends in the club because it gets crowded.” His main argument seemed to be against having too many planets; “By the end of the decade we would have had 100 planets!” he rather overstated.
The issue was debated again in 2008 when scientists concluded that actually they couldn’t agree on what the definition of a planet actually was at all! Result for Pluto you may think but the IAU instead decided to invent the word plutoid to describe Pluto and any other similar object which has an orbital axis greater than Neptune and enough mass to be of near spherical shape.
Whatever the pros and cons, it seems that the change is here to stay and no amount of blustery statements and grave pullover clad pronouncements are likely to change minds. By way of a postscript, that icy rock whose discovery started all the kerfuffle, our old friend 2003 UN313 was finally named by the IAU in September as Eris appropriately enough after a Greek goddess of chaos and strife. Amidst all the arguments it’s refreshing to see that there is still a sense of humour in the astronomical community.Back to top
Oliver Wake takes a look at the career of Don Taylor, who made some of the most striking television drama of the 1960s before falling out with Sydney Newman…
The BBC’s appointment of Sydney Newman as their Head of Drama in 1962 was the opening act of a perceived ‘Golden Age’ of British television drama, a period characterised by a new generation of ambitious writers and directors coming together to create original and sometimes controversial programmes. That is not to say, however, that this is how it appeared to everybody at the time, and the alienating effect of Newman’s ‘new broom’ must be remembered. Perhaps the greatest casualty of Newman’s arrival was Don Taylor, a highly successful producer/director who found himself stifled and allegedly blacklisted by Newman.
From humble working-class origins in east London, Taylor had won a scholarship to grammar school, and then to Oxford in 1955 where he studied literature and became involved with student theatre, both acting and directing. He secured the notable coup of directing the first production of John Osborne’s Epitaph for George Dillon. Graduating in 1958, he joined the Oxford Playhouse as assistant to the theatre’s director, Frank Hauser. Although he was effectively an errand boy, Taylor found the experience of the theatrical life invaluable. After six months, Hauser pushed Taylor out, telling him: “Sell your body if necessary, but find some way of your own to write and direct”. A spell as a supply teacher followed while he wrote self-aggrandising letters to theatres offering his services. Taylor and his family had been avid cinema-goers until 1951, when they bought their first television set and he would spend hours with his father watching the small screen, becoming a passionate devotee of the medium. As an Oxbridge graduate with a background in drama and an enthusiasm for television, it was inevitable that Taylor would find himself at the BBC. He interviewed in 1960 and was offered a position as a trainee director on a six-month contract.
Taylor’s first week was spent watching veteran directors Michael Elliott and Stuart Burge at work, rehearsing actors in church halls and cameras in studio, before joining the directors’ course. The six-week programme was a pragmatic guide to getting a show on air, and keeping it there come what may, at a time when live drama was still common and pre-recording crude. Taylor recalled the course as “severely practical, and bracingly un aesthetic”. Also on the training course, and Taylor’s contemporary from Oxford, was John McGrath, an exponent of a political drama that the more naïve Taylor was yet to embrace. The course culminated in a modestly resourced twenty-minute studio production for each trainee for which Taylor chose Tennessee Williams’ short play The Last of My Solid Gold Watches. Although imperfect, the play came off well and Taylor was satisfied with his achievement, later recalling Michael Barry, the BBC’s Head of Drama, calling the piece “the best of its kind he had ever seen”. Taylor was assigned to the team of producer David Rose and allocated two episodes of his new police series Scotland Yard to direct.
Scotland Yard made great use of film to stage action sequences and bridge live studio scenes, something Taylor was initially unenthusiastic about. He recalled later: “I didn’t have the slightest interest in film making as a profession, or as an art, and never had done. I had a passion for dramatic poetry, for writers who used language imaginatively, rather than grainy realists who imitated the incoherence of speech”. Whilst he would never be won over to realism, Taylor’s aversion to filming soon evaporated and after a week shooting night scenes and car chases, he felt ‘filming was absolutely tremendous’. His first episode went well, with Taylor enjoying the buzz of live transmission: “I found it an intensely thrilling process, with all the headiness and delight of drunkenness, but without any of its disadvantages”. He was called in to see Michael Barry, who informed him that the BBC was taking up the option in his contract to keep him on for a further two years as a fully fledged director. With the confidence of success, Taylor made his second episode of Scotland Yard a far more ambitious production than the first. Including sequences of expanded time, Taylor’s camera script so severely pushed the limits of what was possible in live transmission that some doubted he would pull it off but, thanks largely to the expertise of his studio crew, the episode went as planned, earning Taylor a round of applause at its conclusion.
The full-length documentary play The Road to Carey Street followed. Although he thought the script “turgid”, Taylor’s production was much admired within the BBC and its success marked the end of his period as an apprentice director. He was now in a much stronger position to pick and choose his scripts, and was able, however narrowly, to escape producing two that he particularly objected to. Having always held Socialist beliefs, inherited from his trade-unionist father and inspired by his class roots, Taylor found some of the scripts he was offered objectionable on political grounds. One Sunny Afternoon, a play about a wealthy industrialist and his privately educated daughter, dramatised the privilege he so despised. He wrote: “I couldn’t do plays about what, to me, was the enemy, putting forward views of life which I rejected to the bottom of my being”.
Soon Taylor found scripts that were more to his taste and with great enthusiasm set about two productions in as many months. Norman Crisp’s The Dark Man was tale of racial prejudice in a taxi firm. Taylor found it “simple and honest, and packing a considerable punch, particularly in those innocent pre-Enoch Powell days”. The play was broadcast in December 1960, having been recorded in advance. Meanwhile, David Turner’s The Train Set appealed due to being set amongst the working class of Birmingham and written in their thick dialect. The story was about a factory worker who wants to buy his railway enthusiast son a model train set for his birthday but lacks the money which Taylor found “funny, and intensely moving”. The live performance of The Train Set went off well in January 1961, and attracted positive notices. “There were very touching moments in this play,” wrote Mary Crozier in the Guardian, “which in its drabness and inarticulate blather was probably true to much real life, more’s the pity”. Peter Lewis wrote in the Daily Mail that the production “was encrusted with perceptive detail, the way the father ate his tea, the morose silences, the flutter of pigeons in the back yard… It was truly written and truly played … with a most convincing performance from Roy Holder.” Taylor had cast Holder, a thirteen-year-old Brummie who had never acted, for his cherubic qualities straight from his comprehensive school and it was the beginning of a distinguished acting career. Taylor was to direct another three Turner plays before the end of 1961, including Choirboys Unite, a light-hearted piece for Christmas about a Birmingham choir going on strike.
During the production of The Dark Man, Taylor was first introduced to the work of the working class Yorkshire playwright David Mercer. He was instantly impressed: “This writer clearly had a developed mind, a passionate interest in politics, and was prepared to write powerfully and thoughtfully about the lives and dilemmas of ordinary people”. He quickly got hold of a Mercer script about the political tension between a father and his two sons noting “its subject matter, being educated out of one’s class, and the future of socialism, could hardly have been more congenial to me”. Not only the subject, but the style of Mercer’s script, passionate and lyrical, inspired Taylor and the partnership between the two would become legendary.
The script became Where the Difference Begins. In production, Mercer took Taylor to visit the deprived areas of Yorkshire that had inspired his play and Taylor shot establishing film sequences there, inserting one, depicting an old engine yard, because it encapsulated the detail of northern working class life that was so alien to him and the majority of the play’s audience. “It had the rare vital three-dimensional quality that draws you in”, wrote The Observer’s Maurice Richardson, who thought it “the best new play of the year”. Although stagey by modern standards, Where the Difference Begins boasts some fine performances, notably from Barry Foster as the idealistic Richard, a character Mercer clearly based on himself, and Leslie Sands as the father of the divided family.
In September 1961 an event occurred which was to have a massive effect on Taylor’s career: Michael Barry suddenly resigned. With no replacement lined-up, Taylor recalled the BBC Drama Department surviving like a headless chicken: “for eighteen months it ran around, directionless, and uttering some of its loudest squawks”. Norman Rutherford, previously Assistant Head, became caretaker Head of drama, and Elwyn Jones, from Documentary Drama, became Assistant Head. In practice, it was Jones who dealt with the day-to-day running of the Department. Taylor began 1962 with The Alderman by Norman Crisp, a play about a retiring old Socialist town councillor. Although ultimately a success, the live transmission did not go to plan. Shortly before it was due to begin, a new camera mounting which allowed shots from a height of nine feet, which Taylor had planned to make great use of, irreparably broke down. Taylor’s only option was to go on air, five minutes late, managing the high shots as best as possible with his tallest cameraman using a substituted standard mounting. Viewers, unaware of the situation, apparently noticed nothing amiss, while The Times felt that “Don Taylor’s production kept an easy simplicity”.
In a break from new drama, Taylor sought permission to produce his favourite Shakespeare play, The Winter’s Tale. His suggestion was not well received by Elwyn Jones, but Jones offered a deal that was acceptable to them both. Taylor agreed to direct an episode of Jones’ pet series Z Cars in exchange for being allowed the Shakespeare play, however, an impasse resulted when Jones refused the play the lengthy transmission slot it required, and Taylor refused to cut the script to reduce the running time. Eventually, Taylor had his way and The Winter’s Tale, played fast, went out at a length of two hours and twenty minutes. Several months later, Taylor directed John Hopkins’ Unconditional Surrender, the concluding episode of Z Cars’ first series. He dismissed it somewhat arrogantly in his memoir as “left-hand work, merely an exercise of my skill and directorial flair”. Meanwhile, Mercer had delivered a follow-up to his first play. A Climate of Fear depicted a woman becoming estranged from her husband as she commits herself, as her student children had, to the CND cause. Although initially wary of such politically provocative material, Elwyn Jones was convinced by Taylor’s assertions that the play was not propaganda, but a drama of rounded characters and argument. To add verisimilitude to the concluding montage, Taylor degraded film of the play’s main character to match footage of the recent Trafalgar Square CND demonstration. While A Climate of Fear was still in production, Mercer had come up with a startlingly original new play. A Suitable Case for Treatment was the comic story of the angry, disillusioned and increasingly disturbed young Socialist Morgan Delt. Fired up with enthusiasm for the script, Taylor was dismayed that Elwyn Jones found it “silly, empty, not funny”. The two argued at length over several days with Jones eventually relenting, telling Taylor: “OK boy. You do it then. And it damn well better be good, or you’re for it!”. In his memoir, Taylor honoured Jones for being “big enough to change his mind, to say ‘I might be wrong, you might be right, go ahead and see.’” With the play over-running its allocated sixty minutes, it was Taylor’s turn to acquiesce and he removed ten minutes from the script. A Suitable Case was pre-recorded to videotape with numerous inventive film sequences, visual jokes, dream sequences, and a ‘surrealistic aural commentary’ of disparate music. The transmitted play was highly praised, and Mercer won the Screenwriter’s Guild award for the best play of the year. Alan Lovell wrote in Contrast the following year that “From the first shot of the gorilla’s face, one was aware of something new and exciting happening on the television screen”. Taylor himself concurred: “a new age of television drama began that evening, and the original play on television from that night forward was permanently changed”.
The Taylor/Mercer collaboration continued with The Birth of a Private Man, the final part of the loose trilogy that had begun with Where the Difference Begins and continued with A Climate of Fear. Mercer’s theme was expanded from the parochial ideological conflicts of the first two plays to encompass the whole of European Socialism. Taylor suggested to Elwyn Jones that he and Mercer make a BBC funded research trip to the real locations of the play in Eastern Europe and was astonished when he agreed. The process of arranging visas saw them interviewed at the Polish Embassy about their political convictions by a sinister character who they believed to be a secret policeman. In Warsaw the pair met with local artists and intellectuals, experienced the drink fuelled nightlife and befriended the Polish film star Zbigniew Cybulski. In East Berlin they wandered dangerously close to the new Berlin Wall, a grim symbol which was to feature at the play’s conclusion. The research trip had proved fruitful, but plans to return to shoot sequences of the play in Poland came to nothing when the crew’s visas were suddenly and inexplicably withdrawn. The play went ahead with the Warsaw scenes relocated to a railway carriage at Ealing studios. Filming was also done around the unmarked paupers’ graves in a snowy Wakefield cemetery and a mock-up of the Berlin wall in a Watford brewery, on which the lead character symbolically dies at the end of the play. “Mr Taylor’s production was full of excellent shots, visual contrasts, emphases on faces or movement, and moments of telling stillness”, wrote Mary Crozier in the Guardian after its transmission in March 1963.
In December 1962, the BBC finally appointed a new Head for the Drama Department. The Canadian Sydney Newman, previously occupying a similar post at ABC, was installed part way through the following year. Newman was to revamp the BBC’s drama output, increasing the emphasis on serials and steering plays along more populist lines. His values were the polar opposite of Taylor’s and the two were soon in conflict. Taylor particularly resented Newman’s implementation of a ‘producer system’, whereby directors were assigned scripts and had to work with separate script editors, rather than pursuing the work and writers they favoured, as Taylor was used to. Taylor’s first production to have a separate producer and script editor attached was For Tea on Sunday, another Mercer script, though they did not interfere with Taylor. The play was an allegorical tale dramatising the violent eruption of the tensions beneath the surface of 1960s Britain. It concluded with the disturbed character Nicholas destroying the contents of a bourgeois flat with an axe, a sequence that was not without its dangers. Taylor had three sets made of all the props to be destroyed to allow for a full run-through and two possible takes. Taylor recalled the thrill the scene elicited on the run-through: “A kind of horrified intensity gripped us all, particularly the actors, experiencing such violence so close to them for the first time. Their performances shot into another dimension of passion, clarity and intensity”. As a precaution, the run-through of the scene had been recorded and Taylor ultimately used sections of it for transmission. Aside from its unusual production For Tea on Sunday showcased a new form of writing. Mercer had always written eloquently and literately, but for this script he gave his characters long speeches of metaphor, images and similes. Taylor found it “utterly original, quite unlike anything any writer had done for television before”. Although opaque to some, the allegory behind the action seems to be a joyous prediction that decadent Capitalist society would smashed in sudden and shocking violence. The Times noted that “Mr Don Taylor’s production broke into startling visual symbols that made little effect because of their isolation, but it conveyed splendidly the impotence of the play’s sophisticates in the face of Nicholas’s madness”. Taylor called it “the first television poetic drama” and thought it “one of the brightest artistic highlights of my life”. Fifteen years later the BBC gave Taylor the opportunity to re-produce the play, for which he was able to reinstate some minor script cuts into what was otherwise a conscious attempt to replicate the original.
Newman was to make his presence felt on Taylor’s next production, a play by George Target about an industrial dispute. Newman decided that the original title, Workshop Limits, a wittily metaphorical title taken from the language of the workshop itself, had to be changed. He insisted that it became You Can’t Throw Your Mates… and when Taylor soundly refused, Newman issued his own orders to the production team to supersede Taylor’s. Although it was a minor issue Taylor felt this interference proved that “a new order had come to power”. Hugh Whitemore’s The Full Chatter followed. Taylor remembered it as “the funniest new play I had ever read… it was full of all kinds of original and imaginative techniques for making people laugh, voices over, dream sequences, moments of surrealism, all handled with the lightest of touches”. The play is a comic story about Frederick Instance, a television-hating teacher aspiring to the life of a writer. It proved a successful use of the techniques pioneered in A Suitable Case for Treatment, with The Times writing that Whitemore and Taylor had “achieved something which belongs purely to television. Nothing happens except through the hero’s eyes, and, for all his hatred of television, Instance’s imagination works in televisual terms, converting thought into “commercials”, announcements and commentaries’.
With another year left in his contract, Taylor’s found himself in 1963 with no productions on the horizon. Newman took this opportunity to take him away from the production of single plays, which had been his lifeblood and sole artistic interest, allocating him instead, to his horror, to series. Taylor refused producership of Newman’s brainchild children’s series Dr Who, instead concocting with Elwyn Jones an ambitious series more to his taste. It was to be set around a new university and allow a different play each week. Taylor was enthusiastic for the project: “I would have a regular cast of both students and academic characters, and within that format I could deal with just about every serious issue likely to arise in the political, social, artistic, or any other kind of world. It could be a true microcosm, with characters of every class and every range of intelligence and sophistication, and it could tell every kind of story.” He commissioned scripts from the likes of Alan Plater, Malcolm Bradbury and Hugh Whitemore, and wrote two himself. Ultimately, after almost a year’s work, it did not get the final go-ahead from Newman. Taylor wrote: “There was, at bottom, an unbridgeable gulf of taste between us. He was not prepared to do what I wanted to do, and I couldn’t give him what he wanted, not with any kind of integrity… I wouldn’t, or couldn’t, fit in with his new world, and he was not prepared to tolerate mine. We had reached an impasse.” Taylor felt he had been allowed the project merely as a diversion.
There was however to be one more production for Taylor before his contract expired, thanks to Whitemore and producer James McTaggart. Whitemore’s Dan Dan the Charity Man was a ‘mildly satirical’ comedy about advertising which was told with unusual dramatic devices, such as speeded up film sequences, silent film style captions and characters pausing the action to address the viewer. The drama was well received, ending Taylor’s four years as a BBC staff director on a positive note. But Taylor was not to escape the BBC. After a brief stint in regional theatre, he returned in 1965 as a freelancer at the invitation of McTaggart, to direct Mercer’s And Did Those Feet?. Taylor found Mercer’s non-naturalistic script, in which the writer’s lyrical, satirical style bordered close to fey fantasy and farce, “extraordinarily, daringly, suicidally original”. It was an elaborate production, including two weeks of night-time filming in a candle-lit swimming pool, complete with rubber animals and camera-man’s raft. With finances under Newman’s system now in the hands of the producer, Taylor found himself having to request greater resources from McTaggart than he had initially been allocated. Taylor later recalled that he ‘raised a quiet inner eyebrow, but didn’t argue’ when McTaggart proved amenable. This over-spending would come back to haunt him later. Taylor felt the finished play had some of the dream-like quality that had characterised the surreal shoot, although he didn’t consider it an unqualified success. He felt he had misjudged the pacing, partly due to the mix of filming and studio recording, and failed to realised the climax ‘with the right degree of baroque style’. The Daily Herald called it “a masterpiece”, though The Times was less impressed: “Taylor’s direction created some delightful pictures … but could not impose pace and a sense of direction upon the scenes which Mr. Mercer allowed to stagnate.” There is some truth in all these comments, with the play beginning in rapid visual jokes but becoming bogged down in obscure symbolism by its conclusion. Even so, it has moments of real beauty, most notably the pool sequences and, in particular, one of Willoughby Goddard’s poetic monologues. Shortly afterwards, Taylor visited McTaggart in his BBC office to talk of future productions. Taylor wrote later that McTaggart, apparently ‘all smiles’, told him “you’ll never work for this organization again, not while I’m here”. The later, official explanation was that the Drama Department could not afford Taylor’s chronic overspending. Taylor felt that whilst it may be fanciful to suggest he had been ‘set up’ by McTaggart over And Did Those Feet?, “the overspend on that huge production became a useful stick to beat me with after the event”. Taylor became only too aware that he had become persona non grata within the Drama Department. In his memoir Taylor cites anecdotal evidence given by television insiders that he was ‘blacklisted’ by Newman, such as the latter being the sole voice to rubbish one of his later Arts programmes in a Drama Department meeting. Taylor’s allegation was made public in a Times feature in 1982, to which Newman replied that it was “arrant nonsense. The notion the article put forward that a blacklist existed at the BBC when I was its Head of Television Drama Group, and that Don Taylor suffered because of it, is contemptible and not true”.
Taylor would not work for the Drama Department again for another seven years. Fortunately, Stephen Hearst of the BBC Arts Features Department recognised Taylor’s potential and took him in, saving his career. For that department he directed instalments of the arts magazine Look of the Week and film essays about the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Sean O’Casey, including dramatised sections. Between his television work during this period, Taylor was able to spend more time in the theatre, both directing and writing. He had struggled with his own play writing since leaving Oxford, and had finally had his first play, Grounds for Marriage, performed in 1967. Many more followed. The Roses of Eyam is perhaps his best known play, having remained popular since its first production in 1970. Including a study of religious idealism, it dramatises the true story of a village struck by the Black Death in 1665. Taylor’s work for Arts Features also gave him the opportunity to write and he scripted many of his own dramatic productions, often for the illustrious Omnibus strand. Actor, I said was a film about the lives of struggling thespians that The Times found “ingenious, moving, beautiful and sometimes quite absurd”. Paradise Restored, his 1972 biographical film about John Milton, was simply made and lavishly praised. The Times, once again, wrote that “Mr Taylor gave us a searing study of the giant in chains… The thing was splendidly written and movingly performed.” The Observer found it ‘acutely pertinent’ and ‘haunting’, and the Guardian called it ‘a triumph for imagination’. Similar pieces about Wordsworth, Eliot and the like followed. One of Taylor’s most interesting television scripts was Prisoners, which he directed as an Arts Feature in 1971. It was an intelligent duologue about repression and the place of the artist in society, subjects that were clearly close to Taylor’s heart. By 1972 Newman was long gone from the BBC Drama Department and it was no longer so forbidding to Taylor. He made his return with a studio version of his own play The Exorcism, which can only be described as a Socialist ghost story and had already proved popular on the stage. Although never as prolific within the system as previously, Taylor would continue directing occasional productions for the drama department throughout the rest of his career. Taylor’s seven-year sojourn in Arts Features had not only allowed him to remain a creative force in television but had proved a valuable learning ground. He wrote: “I can never fully express the debt of gratitude I owe to Stephen Hearst. He saved my career, and also gave me the opportunity to develop as a television writer and film maker which I would probably never have had in Drama Department.”
Despite a deep personal aversion to commercial television, Taylor directed several plays for ATV in the mid-1970s. He began in 1974 with Visitors and The Person Responsible, both by his playwright wife Ellen Dryden. Two years later he helmed two instalments of the Nigel Kneale anthology Beasts. Back at the BBC he produced another film, Find Me, from a script by David Mercer, and a studio drama about DH Lawrence by Fay Weldon, which could not ultimately be transmitted due to rights issues. In 1980 Taylor produced In Hiding, which he described as “the first single camera video film”, before returning to the more familiar studio method. He was able to produce studio versions of some of his own plays and also classics such as Sheridan’s The Critic and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard, both in 1982. In 1986 Taylor produced Sophocles’s trilogy of Theban plays, in his own new translations, with another Greek tragedy following in 1990, along with a version of Edward Bond’s modern masterpiece Bingo. Through this time he was also working in the theatre, touring productions of King Lear and Gogol’s The Government Inspector.
In 1990 Taylor took his final leave of television when his project to produce new versions of three Euripides plays was cancelled. He continued to work in theatre and radio and published his memoir. With his wife, Taylor ran the Chiswick Youth Theatre and also First Writes, their own production company, specialising in radio. His radio plays and serials had been produced by the BBC since the early-1970s, including versions of his own stage works and dozens of new plays written for the medium, often concerning the subjects that captivated him: poetry, art, drama and music. Taylor’s ideological concerns showed through in much of his radio work, as it had in his television. For example, the Merceresque Rudkin’s Dream (1973) told a story of a businessman who dreams he is held in a 1930s Soviet prison, whilst God’s Revolution (1988) dramatised the radical Seventeenth Century political ‘Levellers’ movement over the course of a twelve-hour serial. Taylor’s radio career included documentaries about poetry, adaptations of classics (such as Bulgakov’s Flight, a play about White Russians previously banned by Stalin) and his own directorial work, which included a radio version of A Suitable Case for Treatment in 1992. His originality is obvious in plays such as 1992’s When the Barbarians Came, in which the Romans watch the Goths enter the city on television. One of Taylor’s best radio plays was 1994’s Underworld, which, with its masterly use of sound, blended politics, poetry and comedy to present a surreal and satirical tour of Hades. 1998’s Where Three Roads Meet told the story of a vicar who loses his faith overnight but doesn’t think that he needs stop preaching. Amongst Taylor’s later plays were the surreal and disturbing Kill the Cameraman First (2002), Flee As a Bird to the Mountain (2003), which reflected Taylor’s love of New Orleans’ jazz, and the dreamlike On this Shaven Green (2003). Taylor’s last play, broadcast posthumously in 2004, was A Nice Little Trip to Spain, which featured his actor son in a lead role. It is a passionate, polemical piece about a father and son who journey to Spain when the body of ‘Uncle Jack’, who had been killed fighting with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, is exhumed. After opening old wounds in Spain, the play ends with a drink to Jack’s idealism: “The seeds of it may sprout in the future”, says the father. “There aren’t any, they’re all dead”, replies the cynical, intellectual son. “Wait and see”, says the father, hinting at an older generation’s – and Taylor’s own – optimism that society will one day again turn to the ideals of Socialism.
Don Taylor died of cancer in 2003, aged 67, leaving his wife, a son and a daughter. He had been working up until the end, writing and translating, having forsaken morphine pain-relief until the last two weeks in case it restricted his talents. Shortly afterwards Radio 4 broadcast a trilogy of his plays in tribute to him, but none of his television work was seen again. The only subsequent exception to this was BBC4’s discrete repeat of The Exorcism in December 2007, which delighted some but seemed to frustrate those viewers expecting a more simplistic, traditional Christmas ghost story. Taylor did not write simplistic or traditional drama. One suspects that BBC4 is the only channel now that would risk broadcasting television plays so clearly partisan as Taylor’s. Taylor was an outspoken advocate of the power of television drama. In his 1990 memoir, he wrote passionately and eloquently of the unique qualities of studio drama – as opposed to the film-style production which was then taking over – as a medium for creative expression, free from the conventions of naturalism imposed by other methods of production. Taylor subscribed to the most Socialistic view of Public Service Broadcasting, believing in television as a great force for the advancement of ‘high culture’, and stubbornly refused to change his views – to some high-minded or snobbish – to fit changing media trends. He detested the affect of commercial principles on television and was dismayed to see television being wasted on quiz shows and American imports, despising the process of cultural erosion which is now known as ‘dumbing down’. When looking back at the history of television drama, Taylor is a figure easily overlooked; overshadowed by the reputation of Mercer, sidelined through much of the perceived ‘Golden Age’, and dismissed by some academics as a ‘snob’. He developed a literate, poetic drama while guttural realism was coming of age, but it was the latter school which ultimately proved to have the greater influence. Yet to forget Taylor is to lose from television history an accomplished director, one half of an impressive partnership, and, perhaps more importantly, a loud voice of dissent amid what is now fondly regarded as a period of happy creativity. With alienation and rebellion the themes of many of Taylor’s greatest productions, it is perhaps appropriate that his legacy may be to represent the cry of protest against the shifting values of a radically evolving broadcasting age. Taylor concluded his memoir, appropriately titled Days of Vision, with a plea that was sadly rhetorical: “Television does not have to be cheap, depressing and second-rate. It is a beautiful, beautiful medium, capable of anything and everything the human imagination can conceive. It can be whatever we want it to be. Why are we throwing it away?”Back to top
Jules Verne’s Journey To The Centre of the Earth
Words: Andrew Darlington
‘…a story which even those people who pride themselves on being astonished at nothing will refuse to believe…’(Jules Verne)
Did Jules Verne invent science fiction? Perhaps. There are other contenders, as far back as Mary Shelley but what Verne did do was seize upon the era’s taste for mechanical miracles, social progress and limitless optimism, opening up the world, and the places beyond the world, as playgrounds for predictive adventure. Of course, there had been lost island tales, hidden valleys and inaccessible plateaus where strange tribes carried out lives isolated from the societal mainstream before and there would be again. There were also voyages across unknown seas and journeys of exploration into new continents. Jules Gabriel Verne was a provincial Frenchman born in Nantes in 1928, he grew up in the beautiful Loire valley from where he launched his own imaginative ‘Les Voyages Extraordinaires’ based around his childhood reading with The Swiss Family Robinson a particular favourite. And while he lived there were still voyages to be made across unknown seas, and continents still awaiting exploration. He first began by writing regular travellers’ tales for Musée Des Famille magazine, and the reception they received suggested to him the popular and commercial potential that existed for imaginative travel fiction. From that point he merely nudged it all a little further. His characters would enter not just a cave-system, but a subterranean realm extending very nearly to the planet’s very core. They would go not just ocean adventuring, but on submarine sea-treks to the ocean’s deepest depths, even to Atlantis. And by anticipating the next technological barrier, they would go into the air – in a flying ‘Propeller Island’ city, through mechanised aerial warfare, and beyond – fired from the Baltimore Gun Club’s huge space-cannon embedded in the Florida earth, as far as circumnavigating the moon. At one prescient point in ‘Journey To The Centre Of The World’ young Axel experiences a nightmare in which ‘I was shot into interplanetary space in the shape of an eruptive rock…’ While his dream of prehistoric Earth dissolving back into nebula almost suggests Olaf Stapledon’s cosmic breadth of vision (page 180). At the time Verne was writing, the mass-market novel itself was still a ‘novelty’, with his prophetic far-sightedness equally adept at seizing its potential for sensation as few others had dared. His audience would only expand, his exploits continuing through the new medium of pulp magazines in the early twentieth century. Hugo Gernsback selected Verne for the honoured ‘Father of Science Fiction’ position for the world’s first SF magazine – ‘Amazing Stories’, with an image of ‘Jules Verne’s tombstone at Amiens portraying his immortality’ on the masthead. From the April 1926 launch issue – with cover-story “Off On A Comet, Or Hector Servadac”, and no.2 running a serialised “A Trip To The Centre Of The Earth”, he astutely recycled Verne’s ‘scientific romances’ alongside those of HG Wells – who raised the speculative game as a finer and more visionary writer, and Edgar Rice Burroughs – who took fantasy adventure to its most ludicrously enjoyable extremes. All three were also translated into endless variants through the moving films Verne didn’t live to see. Lionel Barrymore starred in the first celluloid Verne adaptation – ‘Mysterious Island’ in 1929. And the comic-strip adaptations he might not have wanted to live to see.
Jules Verne’s second novel, ‘Voyage Au Centre De La Terra’, opens at precisely 13:30 on Sunday, 24th May 1863, within no.19 Königstrasse, one of the oldest streets in the old quarter of Hamburg. Axel relates how his irascible uncle Professor Otto Lidenbrock was ‘rummaging about in that Jew Hevelius’s bookshop’, when he happened upon the runic manuscript of ‘Hans Kringla’ by Shorro Turleson. Enclosed within its pages he finds a 5”x3” parchment, a cryptogram hidden there by the sixteenth-century Icelandic alchemist, savant and executed heretic Arne Saknussemm. Despite his uncle’s long and methodical attempts, it is Axel who discovers the key to the code quite by accident, and knowing what divulging its secret will entail, is loath to reveal it to the Professor. For Otto Lidenbrock is the archetype of all eccentric obsessive scientists to come, in novels, movies, TV and comic-strips. It’s been suggested that Verne is more interested in technology that he is with people – and certainly such later novels as The Purchase Of The North Pole are virtually devoid of recognisably human characters. But with Journey To The Centre Of The Earth he’s still careful to get the balance correct. With a gentle wit and sly humour, usually at the expense of Axel’s sceptical reluctance to follow his fearless uncle’s unwavering lead, until finally, with some trepidation, Axel bids farewell to the lovely Gräuben (although in the 1959 film version there is female companionship on their extraordinary travels), and the two of them set off together to investigate Saknussemm’s claims. The slow progress into wonder is deliberately exploited as a means of establishing the initial reality of the undertaking, the sheer mundane progress of taking the railway from Hamburg and steam-ship to Copenhagen via Zealand, and only then on the sail-schooner ‘The Valkyrie’ to Iceland to meet the specified June 31st dateline. Here, there’s a curious time-capsule record of undeveloped Icelandic society, one totally unrecognisable as the sophisticated Reykjavik familiar to modern travellers. Yet, despite this vividly detailed account, Verne had merely taken pains to research his locations well, primarily referring to an 1857 account of Iceland by writer Charles Edmond, and talking to geographer Charles Sainte-Claire Deville who had some experience of volcanoes, and specifically Stromboli, where the adventure would climax. It is not until page 104 that the chapter seventeen heading finally informs us that ‘Our Real Journey Begins’; slow pacing to modern readers more used to abrupt immersion into action from the start, to whom the expectation of weirdness is a given. That was not so in 1864 yet, despite the passage of time, the narrative remains enjoyably and powerfully readable.
Is it SF, or fantasy? The existence of the interior world they discover must surely be regarded as fantasy – despite the continuity of Fortean-style conjecture to support such a notion. The crackpot geology of John Cleves Symmes first proposed the theory of polar openings leading to a succession of inner worlds in 1818, and Edgar Allan Poe seized on the idea for his remarkable 1837 tale The Narrative of A Gordon Pym. Although he didn’t take the idea as far as Verne, the latter knew Poe’s work – through Baudelaire’s French translations, and Verne would later supply his own completion to the story in Le Sphinx Des Glaces in 1897. By then, in 1870 Cyrus Reed Teed had shoved the concept still further, not only is the Earth hollow, but we actually reside on its inner shell! Into the next century Richard Shaver perpetrated a series of ‘Shaver Mysteries’ through the pages of ‘Amazing Stories’ in the 1940’s, about a series of technologically-advanced subterranean civilisations. Yet Verne’s approach to the question remains scientific, rather than mystical or supernatural. He firmly rejected the term ‘fantasy’, while deliberately straining against the limits of fact. There’s a chapter devoted to dialogue between Axel and his uncle in which they construct and dismiss theories concerning the nature of the world’s interior, encouraged by Humphrey Davy’s theories of the thermal properties of the core, leading to the rational analytical conclusion that ‘science is eminently perfectible, and each new theory is soon disproved by a newer one’. Fantastical it may be, but it is one that has been methodically thought through. And it is the rigorous methodology of this approach that makes him ‘science fiction’.
At 13:13 on 28th June 1863 the descent begins. With Axel, his uncle, and tall auburn-haired Hans Bjelke, their Icelandic eider-hunter guide, entering the crater of Sneffells Yokul ‘where the shadow of Scartaris touches the crater of Sneffells’. The journey down through the various strata is an excuse for learned discourse on each phase of the planet’s evolution – with a prescient warning that ‘the industrial nations will exhaust (resources of coal) within three centuries unless they limit their consumption’. Guided by periodic clues from Arne Saknussemm, by Sunday 9th August, they are eighty-eight miles beneath the surface. Then, after a terrifying period when Axel wanders lost and alone in total subterranean darkness, they discover the vast ‘Lidenbrock Sea’ illuminated by electrical activity in its 12,000ft ‘sky’. ‘I felt as if I were on some distant planet. Uranus or Neptune’ he comments – again, a highly contemporary reference, as Neptune had only recently been visually identified, in 1846 by J Galle and H D’Arrest in Berlin, following mathematical calculations made by Briton John Crouch Adams and French Urbain Le Verrier. With its shore-side forests of giant mushrooms and blind fossil-fish, the inner world they have discovered already looks forward to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ‘Pellucidar’. Now the pacing accelerates, building plausible expectation while incrementally preparing the reader for the eventual sight of living ichthyosaurus, plesiosaurus, mastodons, and finally a teasing glimpse of a giant humanoid in the lost prehistoric realm – or, as Verne terms it, the Tertiary and Quaternary periods. All of this was, after all, recent data, and still fiercely contested. So soon after the appearance of Charles Darwin’s Origin Of Species: By Means Of Natural Selection (1859), geology and palaeontology were viewed as radical, even dangerous sciences, with their fossil-evidence providing blasphemous symbols of change, challenging established belief-systems. Verne was a progressive, a technophile, fastidiously keeping abreast of new scientific developments and conflicting currents of thought. And his explorers experience wonder upon wonder, even if they don’t quite reach Atlantis - as they do in the 1959 movie, or in its picture-strip adaptation serialised in the weekly ‘Film Fun’ comic from 5th March 1960. Nevertheless, their confrontation with prehistoric reptiles must be considered the first such encounters ever to occur in fiction (the May 1957 ‘Classics Illustrated’ graphic-novel adaptation – no.138, by artist Andrew Nash, stays truer to the source material.)
Finally the adventurers emerge from erupting Stromboli in Sicily – thirteen weeks later and more than three-thousand miles from Sneffels and their return ‘created a tremendous sensation all over the world’. In this, at least, Jules Verne’s prediction was vindicated, for his manuscript was indeed ‘translated into every other language, and the leading newspapers competed with one another in order to publish the most interesting passages, which were commented on, discussed, attacked, and defended with equal conviction on the part of believers and sceptics’. Five Weeks In A Balloon published the previous year, had brought his name into public awareness, but with this novel his future as an extraordinary literary sensation was assured. Later, other such fictional enclaves would be discovered in other hidden locations. John Wyndham would locate his The Secret People in cave-complexes beneath the Sahara, Conan Doyle’s ‘Lost World’ on its South American plateau (replicated by Steven Spielberg through a DNA sleight of hand into Jurassic Park), Edgar Rice Burroughs on his South Pacific island of Caspak, even the island domain of ‘King Kong’. Yet Verne’s adventure stands at the theme’s point of primal detonation, easily fulfilling his stated intention ‘to carry incredulity to its uttermost limits’. The best known realisation of the book was the 1959 film version shot in the New Mexico Carlsbad Caverns National Parks, James Mason’s anglicised Oliver Lindenbrook becomes an Edinburgh Professor, nephew Axel becomes student Alec – no relation, played by pop singer Pat Boone, once marketed as the respectably-clean alternative to Elvis. They are joined by Carla, widow of a murdered geologist who was mounting a rival expedition, and Hans’ pet goose! They are also pursued by the villainous descendent of the original Saknussem. Despite taking such liberties with the plot, the low-budget (but Oscar-nominated) effects, and its attempts at a semi-comic content, this film can be occasionally visually impressive. Other movie versions of the novel include the French Voyage Au Centre De La Terra (1909), and an Australian animated TV-movie (1976), a Spanish Viaje Al Centro De La Tierra (1977), and Journey To The Center Of The Earth (1988) from Golan-Globus.
Meanwhile, questions remain. Was the subterranean realm they’d discovered destroyed in the ensuing volcanisms? Did the entire Lidenbrock Sea and its prehistoric denizens drain into the abyss following their explosive detonation? Was there to be a return, better equipped to catalogue and document the flora and fauna of the cavern? No, Verne didn’t deal in sequels. At least, not this time.Back to top
After the hype and controversy of the first season how did Skins cope with a second series? John Connors finds out.
Skins became one of 2007’s television talking points, surrounded by controversy, some manufactured, most of it based on inaccurate assumptions but it became a series television heads had an opinion about. The arguments ran roughly thus: it was a groundbreaking show that showed teen life today as it really is or it was pretentious, patronising and anyway teens didn’t watch, they preferred Hollydale. The truth probably lay somewhere in the middle - Skins’s first season, for all the fuss, was actually quite traditionally morally grounded and extremely well made with exactly the same care you’d expect from a period drama which in a way it is! Just that the period is this decade. Anecdotally teens do watch it in as much as teens watch any telly at all. The idea that it showed urban life as it is today is of course nonsense; no television programme ever could, but it could be said to show what life is like for a mixed bunch of Bristol based teens at least. And compared to the one note teen characters soap operas seem to offer, it is at least an attempt to identify to some extent with what is going on, particularly as most of the writers of the series are only in their 20s. Anyway, the problem with being a talking point is that expectations are ramped up for what comes next – look how Ashes To Ashes fumbled that ball – and this can affect the programme makers themselves. In other words, it’s the Difficult Second Series Syndrome. How do you top what’s made you a talking point in the first place?
Opening with a stained glass window, booming church organ fanfare and two minute long dance sequence featuring a visibly toned up Maxxie, season 2 begins as theatre. Anyone can do wobbly camera shot profanity but this is something quite unexpected and provides a visual motif that the first episode maintains. We constantly see Maxxie dancing, jumping, running, even having sex whereas Tony is doing none of these things. It’s as if the programme is contrasting the freedom Tony no longer has with what he could have. The two characters are pretty dominant during this episode and its hard not to be reminded of the first series opening which revolved around Tony’s cocksure, busy social whirl. Now, after his collision with a bus at the end of season 1, he has memory troubles, shuffles like a zombie and can’t even write his name. He even forgets where he lives though there are moments where actor Nicholas Hoult gives a little grin as Tony does recall something. Clearly the season will show his return to some sort of normality and this probably explains why Nicholas Hoult, the only experienced actor of the main cast, was given this role. It’s never overplayed but it elicits our sympathy even if we remember the heartless self interested prick he was before. Hoult’s dead eyed stare and disinterested demeanour is played off by Maxxie’s energetic plot. Mitch Hewer wasn’t given a lot to do in series 1 beyond being everybody’s chirpy best mate and while his acting is best described as fresh and he appears to have turned orange, his dancing is brilliant and the character gets some work to do as well, on the receiving end of both homophobia and lust as well as some clashes with his father. The latter aspect was rendered slightly unbelievable due to the casting of Bill Bailey as his Dad and some clumsy writing. Or, perhaps the inarticulacy is deliberate? We see snippets of the others and know that Sid is still pining for Cassie, Michelle is living a hedonistic lifestyle and Anwar is as silly as ever- his introduction is a classic moment. There are twinges of second series syndrome but its interesting that when the action cuts to another rave- all dervish cameras and colours- it feels forced and out of place amongst the rest of the plot and that is a sign of moving on.
That said, every series is entitled to an occasional mis-fire and episode 2 certainly fulfils that criteria. It’s hard to know what’s less believable- the actions of the scary girl stalking Maxxie or the school musical around which the action circles. Either scenario could have been funny but somehow neither works. The girl Sketch is, unusually for the series, a caricature and not especially well acted either and the idea that she could get up to all she does is absurd. In trying to present her obsession as a means of escape from the drudgery of a life in a small flat looking after her invalid mother, writer Jack Thorne never leaves first base; it’s all been done before, actually it was done far better on Grange Hill in the 90s. As for the musical `Osama`, well perhaps the intention is to spoof the well meaning school drama production and maybe poke a bit of fun at American ideals along the way but it’s too thin to be satire and ends up as the worst compromise for anything artistic- just a bit boring. Plus, you have to conclude that while Mitch Hewer is a good looking and charismatic individual his actual acting ability doesn’t really reach as far as it needs to here and they’re probably best off leaving him as one of the crowd rather than focussing solely on his story.
On the other hand, the reason for watching any series is the expectation of golden moments and episode 3 is a shining gem, reminding you that at its best Skins is the best programme on at this moment. It’s about Sid’s family, whom could easily be labelled dysfunctional yet they seem an extreme version of a lot of families, riven with hopes, disappointments and no real communication. Sid’s tough Scots grandfather Alex – all sharp powder blue pinstripes – and clan arrive and they are all sitting round the table when he asks Sid’s Dad “How’s the job?” to which the latter replies “Interesting.” There’s a moment’s silence and Alex asks “What is it you do?” This disconnect is the driver for a claustrophobic cohabitation that highlights how awkward family gatherings can be, how the wrong things are said and how people just try to show off like it’s a competition. The ensemble are note perfect; from Maurice Roeve’s Alex gruff boiler house bullying to Josie Laurence as Sid’s mother who is so practical in life except when it comes to romantic entanglements. Yet it’s Peter Capaldi’s episode – few actors swear as wonderfully as him- as he rants at the hoover, tries to persuade his estranged wife to stay and, finally, in a moment of triumph asserts himself to the good, dispensing advice and throwing the assembled throng out! We then see him with a whisky in one hand, a cigarette in the other humming to himself, happy for once. The next day Sid finds him dead in the same chair.
Mike Bailey’s Sid has consistently been the most likeable of the main cast, his everyman status and the fact that he seems to have even less control over his life than most people make you root for him. He’s always at everyone’s beck and call, underlined early on in this episode when Anwar persuades him to let him and new girlfriend Sketch to use Sid’s room because “sex hasn’t been invented in my house”. Bailey’s brilliant here; his demeanour long suffering yet always willing to accept things and move on. After his father’s death Sid goes to college because he can’t think of anything else to do and eventually there’s a cathartic reunion with Tony in the middle of a noisy Crystal Castles gig. This scene is astonishing television, turning over the usual middle distance stares and violins and matching the music with rough, raw emotions. You’ll remember it. Sid ends up acting on his father’s last piece of advice and heads for Scotland to re-claim Cassie with whom he has had the biggest, though in some ways understandable, webcam misunderstanding. We see two trains passing and – of course- Cassie is one on her way to see him. It sums up Sid’s life completely.
Part 4 focuses on Michelle, a character whose self absorption has hitherto lacked the charm or sympathetic qualities of some of the others. Her every motive in series one seemed to be selfish so she’s suffering now because she can’t come to terms with what’s happened to Tony. Not withstanding the call he was making when he collided with the bus, she seems to take his changed demeanour personally and this is what finally makes us understand her more. Not only that but she has now acquired a stepfather whose a prize wally and a prissy sister called Scarlett who ingratiates herself with the others largely thanks to her two prize assets. The scene where Anwar, Sid and especially Chris see her for the first time is virtually Carry On! So, she gets to go to the beach with them for an impromptu camping holiday, supposedly for Michelle’s birthday but which Scarlett hijacks. For virtually the whole episode we’re encouraged to dislike her yet near the end Michelle comes to the conclusion she’s “not really a bitch” which she appears to arrive at spontaneously in the only weakly written moment in an otherwise economical script. This is the episode where Michelle and Sid get together, unexpectedly and with equally un-predictable results. Both are suffering emotionally, though Sid’s predicament is much more understandable than Michelle’s yet their passion remains high the following day when a lot of dramas would plump for the standard `oh my God, what did I do last night` tack. The beach action is shot by director Simon Massey utilising all the clichés you might expect; wistful sand dunes, strong sunsets, but the action is far more ordinary and messy than the setting and the two juxtapose superbly. There’s plenty of humour too thanks to the high tech house with its voice command operations that fail to work properly at a most inopportune moment. Best of all, the kids park up and erect a tent on the beach and none of them seem to realise the location hence lots of panicking when the sound of water sets off the car alarm! The action finishes with Sid and Michelle back at his place kissing in front of an unseen Cassie; you see whatever happens it’s never ultimately good news for Sid!
If Sid is often the victim of misfortune and bad timing despite his best efforts, then Chris is more complicit in his own woes though episode 5 offers some insight into his life. This time, he and Jal have a pact in which he promises to try and sort himself out and she agrees to say Yes more often. Pretty soon Chris ends up with a flat, a job selling houses and she becomes his girlfriend. Directed by Harry Enfield, under whose camera eye Bristol has never looked so appealing, the episode is packed with comic incident playing to Joe Dempsie’s strengths as a physical performer with a very expressive face almost like one of those silent movie stars. The sequence where he explores his tiny awkwardly shaped flat is particularly funny and there’s a brilliant montage of his hapless explanations for lost jobs that’s worthy of a full on comedy show. At one point, to avoid the returning Angie spotting him at work he simply plonks his head in a salad! Yet he can do serious stuff equally well; his heartfelt pleas to Jal, illustrated by a simple drawing of his dissolving family, is quite touching. They make good foils for each other; Larissa Wilson’s Jal’s straight laced approach to life is almost the total opposite of Chris’ and the two have a definite on screen chemistry. While it may appear Chris is finding contentment by conforming, Ben Schiffer’s script refuses to settle on such a straightforward assumption. Chris achieves success in the job by using his own personality, however oddball, to sell houses and it is an honest un honed approach. The script also offers up different angles on the issue of conformity; there’s the red braced salesman in the office whose success has turned him into a prat and there’s a scene where a group of identically dressed emo kids sit around talking about individuality. Chris’s situation is quite aspirational suggesting that you can succeed in the adult world without losing everything about you that make you unique. There’s a sub plot concerning Cassie, now brooding and quite frighteningly bitchy after discovering Sid and Michelle’s new relationship. Hannah Murray plays this rather like a horror movie character and at the half way point of the season she is a loose cannon waiting to explode. At the end of the episode we discover Jal is pregnant, though Chris doesn’t know, and it should be interesting to see how the series handles this most common teenage storyline.
The question about episode 6 is whether it was partly or mostly a dream or even if it was shown in the right order as Tony’s open day visit to a university is packed with surreal moments and jumps. Plus the same character turns up both as a disfigured soldier who nicks his sandwiches on the train and a self opinionated lecturer. Is this all Tony’s impression of the day as opposed to what actually happened? Or did it happen? Certainly the other students we meet are arched caricatures, presumably deliberately so, and the mysterious girl Tony frequently encounters is there one minute and gone the next. There’s no real sense of time and yet some of the impressions are quite accurate particularly the banality of university `life` where there are just as many rituals as school and college. Jamie Brittain’s script takes pot shots at this as well as the behaviour of university staff and potential students. It’s amusing enough though seems couched more in hearsay than experience which again leads back to whether or not we are seeing reality. Tony and the girl appear to sleep together but then again he ends up with the tattoo we see her getting so did it happen? Perhaps what we’re seeing is Tony’s first tentative steps into the wider world as he regains confidence and his sense of self. Nicholas Hoult’s middle distance stare suits the tone of this episode well though doesn’t really help the viewer and its almost a relief to find the bits that clearly are set in reality when he tells Michelle he still loves her. More questions than answers then comprise an episode that may only make full sense later in the series.
The seventh episode is essentially Effy’s art course on a lifesize canvas as her last scene before inevitable expulsion from her posh college suggests. It’s quite an achievement – she engineers a reunion between Sid and Cassie, as well as Tony and Michelle which eventually works and even ends up providing gauche new friend Pandora with a serviceable project. A droll deadpan Kaya Scodelario makes Effy’s every move with a deft sense of purpose and the understanding between brother and sister sometimes makes Effy and Tony look more like aliens who’ve inhabited human bodies but it works somehow. There’s a similar stillness to the episode as director Simon Massey shoots lots of awkward, monosyllabic encounters – the best of which is between Tony and Sid – and portrays the reunions not as triumphant Hollywooodesque moments but as small and painful in their own way. The scene where Michelle finally answers one of Tony’s calls is gorgeous because it’s so matter of fact. In a surreal turn of events to match the previous episode’s dreamy University trip, Tony also encounters a bouncer who only lets him into the club after he provides a critical preparation of his in progress novel. Probably worth checking that out again to see if it mirrors the structure of the episode- is this the writers commenting on their own critics? The episode plays like a finale, drawing together various plot strands and sorting out a lot of issues and makes you wonder- what have they got lined up for the last trio?
Onto episode 8 where Jal’s attempts to sometimes hide and sometimes tell her secret, to maintain her dignity despite everything and to cope with impending musical and academic exams is portrayed with guts and determination by an actress who sometimes seems to be on another level to those around her. At times, Larissa Wilson’s performance is truly something else, full of subtle mood shifts, impassioned delivery and awkward, stressed body language. Yet it is a composed display so that the character is never overwhelmed by that performance and you realise what a talent she is. There are some delightful moments and links between the strands that show how sharp the episode is- two important conversations take place in Spanish as if to emphasise the way communication lets these people down and there are several near misses as Jal starts but fails to say what she wants to say. In the best scene she explains to her Spanish language teacher – in Spanish, subtitles luckily for us – how being an adult is “When you have to decide one way or the other”. It’s a great line because it underscores the hitherto creeping onset of maturity that has haunted the season and which emerges fully blown this week. Equally strong are the separate scenes when Jal deals with each of her parents; again the dialogue focuses in on the way neither side understands themselves or the other party. It is such a shame then, that just when new heights are being reached, the script pulls one of those hackneyed sudden collapses out of the hat and we finish with Chris at death’s door. Quite apart from anything else it would appear to rob us of seeing just how – or indeed whether- Chris really would settle down. For a series that can sky scrape so frequently this is a disappointing addition to what is otherwise a satisfying, thought provoking episode.
Chris lingers a little longer into episode 9 which highlights one of the problems in interpreting this series; does everything symbolise teenage issues or are we supposed to take matters on face value? This season’s is obsessed with dramatic medical situations; the ramifications of Tony’s accident, Sid’s father’s sudden death, Jal’s mysterious pregnancy and Cassie’s struggles yet each has been weaved into the narrative with skill. Chris’ scenario though just seems too much of the same thing and makes this episode the series’ most conventional yet. It has the tenor of one of those lengthy US shows were teens grapple with one issue after another, each seeming disconnected from any kind of overall message. Skins has largely avoided this but here when proceedings lurch into a New York sojourn you can see it is flirting with the sort of programme the producers would definitely not want to be associated with. Cassie suddenly seems less odd and simply troubled as she encounters remarkable charity and you realise you have seen this a million times before and that this is an idealised movie Manhattan. This move also appears to show the writers are less sure footed outside their Bristol bolt hole and it robs Chris’ death of any context, it seems an uneccessary development and perhaps a slide into soap, a genre dominated by ridiculous collapses, secrets and shocks. That said, Hannah Murray’s performance is strong; for the first time this season Cassie’s craziness and refusal to face reality on anything but her terms is tempered by her need to engage both with looming exams and looking after Chris. Her skittish waywardness surfaces earlier on – and there’s a lovely scene where she and two teachers end up dancing in an exam room.
While having to tie up various plot strands, the final episode nonetheless manages to be more than a series of goodbyes. There’s even time for a reminder of the sort of prank more redolent of season 1 when Tony and Sid nick Chris’s coffin after the latter’s father bars them from the funeral. The resulting car chase and subsequent return of the stolen body is inventively realised. This is atypical though of the episode’s overall tenor of moving on and pondering the future. Chris’s funeral (handled with just the right amount of dramatic licence) and exam results are the backdrop while Jal tries to come to terms with what’s happened. Having been underused this season Anwar finally gets a turn in the spotlight as the character realises that unlike the others he has no plans and when his results are awful has no idea what he’ll do. Dev Patel handles this with some of his best acting and it’s a measure of that skill that the episode’s most emotional moment is when he accepts Maxxie and James’ offer to go and live with them in London. It’s an unexpectedly strong plotline. Tony and Sid’s fractious friendship is mended but on a new plane; suddenly there is a maturity in the way they deal with each other notwithstanding the earlier theft. Tony still has the same outlook- that he sort things out- but you feel he’s doing it now out of genuine friendship then because he wants to control events. Thus Sid ends up in New York though this fizzles out somewhat and he and Cassie never meet on camera again. The direction and soundtrack are a perfect match and the script does suggest that finishing with these characters now will preserve them forever in their iconic state rather than dragging them out over three, four, five seasons till they become soap grotesques.
Like a lot of fans of the first two series, I suspect it will be hard to embrace the new cast for season 3 and that’s how it should be. Like electronic games, football stars and music, each generation should have their own Skins cast and this is our bunch. If you’ve missed the show till now, why not watch it next season and see if you find your perfect Skins…Back to top
They’ve been around for nearly 25 years and lived through a period of intense success and emerged the other side still making worthwhile music. Martin Pollard assesses R.E.M’s albums.
For the majority of the British public, R.E.M. were essentially famous in the early 1990s – a passing fancy that rose out of obscurity and has steadily been dropping back into it after a couple of years of fame. The albums that sealed their popular legacy, Out of Time and Automatic for the People, did so because they showcased a rare talent for writing songs that speak to the heart and brain in equal measures, and which caught the zeitgeist of a public weary of cock rock and the equally shallow pop music prevalent at the time. That line of thinking does a huge disservice to the band. R.E.M. have survived so long precisely because they have never really fitted into the zeitgeist (even the grungey Monster – see below – sounded like a natural progression from their own previous work), and because they have always ploughed their own path, generally with success. To dismiss their 80s output without hearing much of it would be to ignore a wealth of understatedly beautiful musical hooks; to assume that post-Automatic they never really ‘had it’ again means missing out on two of their best albums.
They’ve had their rough patches, of course. But then so have all artists: have a listen to With The Beatles or Radiohead’s Amnesiac. What matters is that they somehow define popular music in the same way that Dylan, Bowie, U2, the Sex Pistols, Nirvana or the Velvet Underground do. They’re band defined mainly by their own boundaries, and as such they’re bound to take a dip every so often. But in general they’re interesting and unusual and uplifting, and they inspire people like me to say: “Now that’s what music is all about”.
There are a few things that make me wish I’d been born in 1963. I would have got into punk at precisely the right period of scowling teenagehood; I’d be able to gauge my birthdays against the arrival of Doctor Who and the Beatles. And right now I’m thinking how great it would have been to discover R.E.M. (vocals: Michael Stipe; bass: Mike Mills; drums: Bill Berry; guitar: Peter Buck) in April 1983: a second-year university student on the search for something new and exciting, something no-one else knew about and ten years later, to look back on those heady cult days and nod sagely at those discovering Automatic for the People: I was there from the start.
R.E.M.’s first album is extraordinary; it sounds like nothing else I’ve heard from the period, and it sounds like no other R.E.M. album. It completely belies the notion of a band of shouty harmonies and fast-paced country rock that one might get from listening to an early R.E.M. compilation. It’s quiet and deliberately underwhelming; the perfect melodies do all the work, announcing a band with something to say that goes beyond elaborate instrumentation. ‘Laughing’ is a case in point: it’s as if Michael Stipe’s in your living room singing; the production is sparse but intimate, the feather-light guitars hardly progressing chords-wise but somehow ending up being extraordinarily moving.
On ‘Talk About the Passion’ and ‘Shaking Through’ there are memorable riffs and choruses, but they’re subtle, and the former is held aloft by Stipe’s first classic lyric: “not everyone can carry the weight of the world”. Murmur may sound like no other R.E.M. album, but on repeated listening it contains the key (or part of it?) to their whole body of work. It addresses the vagaries any mysteries of life, and imbues them with just the right amount of emotional gravity. Stipe is often accused of being lyrically obscure, but in fact he’s a poet in the mould of Lennon or Bowie: expressionist and exciting, as well as occasionally infuriating. Murmur is encapsulated in ‘Perfect Circle’, one of the band’s greatest ever songs. It doesn’t really go anywhere lyrically or musically, but in the going nowhere we’ve somehow been on an astonishing journey; the tale it tells us isn’t linear but gets its impact from pauses and repeated phrases. Has there ever been a debut album this unbelievably confident, this much a statement of intent?
The opening beats of “Harbourcoat” appear to presage a louder, harder R.E.M. sound. But – although the emphasis on bass remains – what transpires is a folk-rock number with the same kind of deceptively simple structure as parts of Murmur. Where it does go further is by providing some intriguingly complex vocal harmonies. It’s a pleasingly executed but not earth-shattering start. Unfortunately, that for me sums up Reckoning: full of interesting ideas and snatches of nagging genius, but without the fully-realised brilliance of its predecessor. “Seven Chinese Brothers” and “So. Central Rain” boast excellent minor-key riffs and choruses which are dreamy and restrained respectively; and “Time After Time” has the pleasing feel of an epic played in a village hall. But somehow it just doesn’t feel quite enough. “Second Guess” sounds almost as if they’re a little embarrassed of doing anything too catchy or striking; along with “Letter Never Sent”, I can never really remember its melody from listen to listen.
All this leaves plenty of space for two truly classic moments, however. “Pretty Persuasion” boasts funky bass from Michael Mills and juxtaposes an almost flat vocal melody with a genuine singalong chorus. And “Don’t Go Back to Rockville” is a charming bit of alt-country, with the great chorus pay off “…and waste another year”. Overall, there are just a few too many songs which use a mid-to-fast tempo, and Stipe’s voices sounds a couple of tones lower and more weary than on their debut. Reckoning sounds like a band growing up too quickly.
Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)
Like New Adventures in Hi-Fi after it, Fables of the Reconstruction is somewhat divisive among R.E.M. fans. Many believe it to be a sombre masterpiece; for others, liking it just requires too much effort. It certainly has few instant ‘tunes’, opting instead for rather murky melodies and a mix which moves Michael Stipe’s voice even further into the background. As a whole, I find it intriguing rather than special. But it is, nonetheless, the first R.E.M. album I reach for when I think there’s something left for me to discover in their work. Because of its defiantly non-hummable nature, parts of the album (notably ‘Feeling Gravitys Pull’, ‘Life and How to Live It’ and ‘Good Advices’) sound like an amalgam of their earlier work and American alt-rock in the vein of Sonic Youth. This lends it the feel of foreshadowing the Lemonheads or Pavement, both of whom coupled quirky lyrics and production with folk- and country- tinged melodies that only revealed themselves fully on repeated listening.
Three songs are particularly interesting: ‘Maps and Legends’, which boasts enticingly multi-layered vocals and a dreamy, narcotic texture; ‘Auctioneer (Another Engine)’, with its unsettlingly off-key chorus; and ‘Old Man Kensey’, whose eponymous character “wants to be a sign painter / First he’s got to learn to read / He’s gonna be a clown on TV / Flexes his elbow taut and free”. All three songs tell enticingly ambiguous stories about characters, drawn, apparently, from the band’s interest in the mythology of the American South. Ultimately, Fables is an album which is hard to fall in love with, but easy to be fascinated by.
Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)
The fourth of R.E.M.’s five IRS albums is the best, and not just because it’s a feast of gorgeous melodies and great vocals. It’s also their first really diverse LP, one which blends rock, folk, country and even a Latin feel (on the slightly wacky ‘Flowers of Guatemala’) with confidence and very appealing results. And Michael Stipe’s vocals are finally allowed the space they deserve; accordingly he sounds excited, energetic, ready for anything. Here, the seeds are in place for the band’s transformation into stadium-filling rock band within 5 years. ‘Begin the Begin’ opens with fast-paced, multi-tracked guitars and accompanying feedback; in its last verse Michael Stipe comes dangerously close to hard-edged rock vocals. ‘These Days’ doesn’t let up the pace: its speedy and brilliantly realised chorus provide the perfect backdrop for a typically self-contradictory Stipe: “We are young despite the years / We are concerned / We are old despite the times”. ‘Fall On Me’ and ‘Cuyahoga’ counterpoint gorgeous melodies with serious political considerations, the latter providing advance notice of the downbeat, picked guitars and soft-loud dynamics of the more soulful side of grunge.
Almost every song here is a joy, and the album as a whole demonstrates an admirable balance of pace, textures and moods. Upbeat points ‘Hyena’ (“the only thing to fear is fearlessness”), ‘Flowers of Guatemala’ and the lovely ‘I Believe’ delve into entirely different musical palates, the latter even kicking off with some down-home banjo twanging. Later, ‘Swan Swan H.’ is one of those darkly layered pieces, with rootsy acoustic guitar at the forefront of the mix, that would come to define R.E.M.’s early 90s albums in the form of ‘Drive’ and ‘Losing My Religion’. Best of all, ‘What If We Give It Away’ showcases all of the band’s great qualities in one song: pretty guitar melodies, eerily affecting lyrics (“you’re mistaken, no-one’s standing there / for the record, no-one tried”), vocals which soar into a chorus that disappears as suddenly as it arrives. It’s an amazing song. Forget Out Of Time: if you don’t own Lifes Rich Pageant, you can’t call yourself an R.E.M. fan!
Document is a very substantial recording, and one that announces its intentions straight away. There are few more strident and stadium-friendly R.E.M. songs than the knowingly titled ‘Finest Worksong’, with its cavernous drums, multi-tracked guitars and show-off rock vocals. Lesser bands would follow such a massive opening track by trying to conjure up an even bigger statement. Instead, we’re given ‘Welcome to the Occupation’, a thoughtful slice of political angst which is more Murmur than shout. This is R.E.M.’s last small-label album, and it feels like a band only just realising that they had constraints, and making a conscious effort to break them. That means we don’t just get superb riffing on ‘Welcome to the Heron House’ and piano tinkles on ‘Strange’, but also the frankly wacky ‘Exhuming McCarthy’ (“walking on coals / to improve your business acumen”), which they rather astonishingly played on their 2005 world tour. If Document has a fault, it’s that the expensive production and joyous boundary-pushing makes it sounds invariably upbeat despite serious subject matter. This is slightly jarring for R.E.M., although they appear to recognise it by the time we get to track 6, where they slot in the beautifully and desperately cynical ‘The One I Love’ (“a simple prop to occupy my time…”). Michael Stipe sounds more self-confident than on any other album, happily playing around with different vocal techniques and committing to every single song (though fans may question whether this is necessarily a good thing). But the album is arguably slightly weaker for losing the unassuming brilliance of some of their earlier work and going all out for knowing brilliance. The guitars are especially meaty, notably on the scary-sounding ‘Oddfellows Local 151’.
I’m not so keen on ‘Fireplace’, which sounds a little bit R.E.M.-by-numbers (and I’m aware that this contradicts what I say elsewhere about there being no such thing) with a pasted-on saxophone. But there’s no arguing with the world-beating ‘It’s the End of the World As We Know It’, a slice of energetic lyrical genius which is universal enough to be both an anthem and a clever inclusion in the movie soundtrack to Independence Day.
If Document album sounded like R.E.M.’s first rumblings as a world-beating band, Green is their demonstration of how to show off more subtly: less of an all-out rocker, with more thoughtful shades of light and dark. Although we kick off with ‘Pop Song 89’ (whose lyrics sound unusually self-referential: “Should we talk about the weather? / Should we talk about the government?”), and proceed with the equally playful ‘Get Up’, the rest of the album seems like an almost calculated attempt at eclecticism. Some of its best moments, in fact, open up territory in which R.E.M. have rarely, if ever, dabbled: the diving grunge guitar and hard-soft dynamics of ‘I Remember California’; Peter Buck’s folky mandolin on ‘You Are the Everything’ and ‘Hairshirt’.
Green’s best known song, ‘Orange Crush’, is the moment when the confidence spills over into something else: a masterpiece in which all of the band’s powers combine to produce perfect rock. Stipe’s vocals are superbly earthy, his lyrics a typically oblique reference to the Vietnam War; Bill Berry provides superbly controlled drums; Buck sounds in his element providing licks and even, God forbid, a brief solo. The next track, ‘Turn You Inside Out’, delivers mid-paced stadium rock, driven almost entirely by Stipe’s uniquely wobbly delivery of the chorus.
Green doesn’t try quite as hard as Document to be likeable, but it is nonetheless a very affective and exciting work. ‘World Leader Pretend’ typifies its approach of confidence in unusual melodies, oddly-matched instruments (piano and slide guitar) and persistently vague downbeat lyrics. I wouldn’t quite say that the album gives me a warm glow, but its accomplishments are frequently enough to make me sit up straight and really listen.
Out of Time (1991)
Out of Time is, for many of my generation, the album that you bought once you’d fallen in love with Automatic for the People. The really in-touch folks also dabbled with Green, but no-one really bothered with anything before that. This is unsurprising but also unfair: Out of Time deserves consideration as a good album, but not a great one, and certainly not one of R.E.M.’s best. It would be churlish not to mention first what are some obvious high points. ‘Losing My Religion’ is an absolute stunner and deserves its reputation as the band’s signature song. Combining a classic 1st/2nd person Stipe lyric about emotional alienation with a nippily paced and highly hummable melody, it is surely the best four-and-a-half minute potted introduction to the band. There’s also ‘Country Feedback’ (their greatest ever song? Stipe himself thinks so, apparently), which does exactly what it says on the tin: provides a bridge between R.E.M.’s folk roots and alt-rock aspirations, and creates a thing of extraordinary beauty in the process. There’s the joyous ‘Near Wild Heaven’, the pleasantly melodic ‘Me In Honey’, and the darker-than-thou ‘Low’, which manages to be theatrical and low key at the same time.
In retrospect, the album provides an argument that musical experimentation can go too far. Do we really need ‘Radio Song’, with its frankly embarrassing rap (a feat which, extraordinarily, they would repeat with even less aplomb 13 years later, on ‘The Outsider’)? And very few would claim that the cheerily pointless ‘Shiny Happy People’ is the band’s finest hour; its hit status and relatively common airing on daytime radio must be a source of aggravation even now for the band, who care so little for it that they left it out of their Best Of compilation and lampooned it on Sesame Street as ‘Furry Happy Monsters’. Meanwhile, ‘Belong’ and ‘Endgame’ seem content to plough a path of introspective instrumentation without really adding up to anything substantial. And ‘Half a World Away’ and ‘Texarkana’, while perfectly listenable, come across as ideas which the band couldn’t quite be bothered to finish.
Automatic for the People (1992)
Most bands of R.E.M.’s stature and longevity have an Automatic for the People. It’s the one work which everyone agrees on, and which brings together all sorts of different music lovers in common appreciation of something good. And I’m not going to be the one who sets the cat amongst the pigeons. There are many great things about Automatic, but perhaps the greatest is this: it manages to be a highly mature, reflective adult rock album without ever coming over as unoriginal or uninspired. It’s a collection of songs which are truly timeless, in the sense that they seem to exist outside of any preconceived notions of what music can or should sound like. So, even though it’s only my second favourite R.E.M. album, it undoubtedly constitutes their most important legacy.
R.E.M. albums usually start with something upbeat or decisive sounding. This one starts with the dreamily downbeat ‘Drive’, whose Generation X lyrics lend it the air of some kind of quiet reworking of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Just those opening, solitary acoustic guitar notes are enough to transport me back to afternoons nodding along appreciatively with friends in the sixth form centre. Then comes the gorgeous ‘Try Not to Breathe’, continuing the album’s clean, folky sound with one of the band’s prettiest choruses. ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’ joyously steps up the pace once again, so it’s up to the fourth track to wind things back down again; and sure enough, it’s ‘Everybody Hurts’, a track so evocative and plaintively beautiful that I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like it. Some dismiss ‘New Orleans Instrumental No. 1’ as pointless, but I rather like the bridging effect that it provides between the first four classic melodies and the extraordinary ‘Sweetness Follows’. With its bed of deep strings, ethereal vocals and glistening organ, this tells a story which seems at once intangible and heartbreakingly poignant. So weirdly beautiful is it that the following two tracks, ‘Monty Got a Raw Deal’ and ‘Ignoreland’, seem rather ordinary by the high standards of this record.
Lesser bands might be tempted to frontload albums with their most accomplished songs but, astonishingly, Automatic for the People leaves its richest offerings until the end. An EP of just three of the foursome that completes it – the softly menacing ‘Star Me Kitten’ (“This love is tired / I’ve changed the locks”), the epic piano ballad ‘Nightswimming’ and the pastoral ‘Find Me River’ – would constitute a great tribute to any band. But also included is probably my favourite ever R.E.M. song, ‘Man on the Moon’: a track so perfect and so significant in my life that I’ll resist even beginning to analyse it.
Many were flabbergasted when R.E.M. called time on folk-melodic rock and decided to release a grunge album. Closer observers, though, may not have been so surprised. The roots of grunge – the American punk scene which started out at as an emphatic statement against the conventional – shared R.E.M.’s talent for the unpredictable, making exciting music in forms which, though superficially simple, challenged the mainstream status quo. More specifically, R.E.M. had already experimented with distorted guitar – that staple of 80s underground rock and 90s grunge – on tracks like ‘I Remember California’ and ‘Country Feedback’; and it’s worth noting that Michael Stipe and Kurt Cobain were friends, as well as an influence on each other’s music. Monster even features a track written about Cobain, ‘Let Me In’. Although it crops up right at the end, it’s as good a starting point as any, as it seems to sum up the album’s spirit. It features no drums or bass, just a huge wall of dirty guitar noise against which, with characteristic contrariness, Stipe sings in a soft and melancholic voice: “I had a mind to try to stop you”. It’s musically reminiscent of the Jesus and Mary Chain, a nugget of melody hidden in a sea of noise. It’s an absolutely vital R.E.M. track, for all the reasons that the band matters: personal but distant, evocative but strange, taking cues from a genre but not following its rules.
Not all the tracks on Monster are as successful. Lead single ‘What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?’ just isn’t distinctive enough to sell the new R.E.M.; along with ‘I Took Your Name’, it’s a competent but hardly inspiring slice of alt rock. Sebadoh would have given the latter track more character, one feels. The general feel is of a band not constrained by working within a fashionable genre, but freeing yet more of its members’ creative energy. ‘I Don’t Sleep, I Dream’, for instance, is a song that could only come from this album. It’s not a typical R.E.M. song (if such a thing exists) masquerading behind feedback; the detuned picking and falsetto vocals have an observed detachment all their own, and the cynical lyrics suit them perfectly: “I’ll settle for a cup of coffee / But you know what I really need”. ‘You’, with its extraordinary ascending chorus and sense of lurking menace, is even more fascinating.
In fact, only ‘Strange Currencies’ and ‘Star 69’ sound like songs that the ‘old’ R.E.M. could have written: the former because it comes over as a distortion-heavy reworking of ‘Everybody Hurts’ (and for my money, just as good), and the latter because it shares the frenetic pace and vocal harmonies of the band’s 80s work.
New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)
Recorded on the road during their Monster tour, some have criticised New Adventures in Hi-Fi for its supposedly ‘thin’ sound and lack of quality control. I happen to think it contains one of their most sustained runs of excellent songs: a fact particularly remarkable because, at 65 minutes, this is R.E.M.’s longest album by far. Rather than junking the grungy leanings of its predecessor, New Adventures embraces that feel even more, with a predominance of ‘live’ sounding distorted guitars and downbeat lyrics (‘E-Bow the Letter’ is surely the most unlikely and most depressing top 5 single of all time). However, in the end it’s a superior work because it manages at the same time to be R.E.M.’s biggest all-out rocker since Document. Loud and unashamed rock songs like ‘The Wake-Up Bomb’, ‘So Fast, So Numb’ and ‘Undertow’ work because they match stadium sensibilities with superb melodies and an energy which is perhaps surprising for a band ten albums into its career.
There’s also a fair share of the kind of folky mood pieces that R.E.M. have made their trademark. Much of it seems to speak directly from the tour bus. ‘New Test Leper’ is an exquisite and (from this band) unusual reflection on fame: “When I tried to tell my story / They cut me off to take a break / I sat silent 5 commercials / I had nothing left to say”. The great piano-led ‘Electrolite’, which Michael Stipe described as a “farewell song to the 20th century”, concludes “I’m not scared / I’m outta here”. What these songs share is a real sense of movement – not just pace – which doesn’t just come from the road, but makes for great road music in its own right (try it!). A third of the way through comes the Bill Berry-conceived ‘Leave’: their longest ever song, and a short-list candidate for best ever R.E.M. song. It begins with an acoustic guitar riff, then turns electric (and then some) after about a minute, with a wailing loop of guitar noise; but beyond that the song beggars description. I love it because it’s so unexpected, and so breathtaking. It also sounds like the ultimate expression of the band’s tangled understanding of folk, rock and grunge.
In 1996, drummer Bill Berry collapsed on stage with a brain aneurysm; a year later, he left the band to retire on his farm. Many predicted that the next R.E.M. album must lack some part of the band’s artistic drive. But the reverse is true: Up is the band’s unmitigated masterpiece, full of incredible creativity for a band now entering its 19th year of existence. And of all the R.E.M. albums about which you could say “it sounds like no other R.E.M. album”, the statement most applies to this one.
The album is packed with eerie, touching lyrics, some of which, in true R.E.M. style, may or may not be about the recently departed Berry. ‘Why Not Smile’ – “the concrete broke your fall/to hear you speak of it/I'd have done anything” – is an especially teary beauty, while ‘The Apologist’ and ‘Sad Professor’ provide aching images of self-destruction. It’s not all about the words: musically, the band is at its most inventive and diverse ever. ‘Lotus’ and ‘Walk Unafraid’ are two of their best rock songs; ‘Daysleeper’ is a gorgeous pop song and an obvious lead single; and Stipe’s vocals on ‘You’re In The Air’ reach an all-time high (in quality, not pitch), an apotheosis of strength mixed with pain and fragility. There’s even something for those who say that R.E.M. just don’t do uplifting any more: ‘At My Most Beautiful’ is a lovely slice of Beach Boys piano-and-harmony which stands as one of their best love songs. Up isn’t as immediately accessible as some of their early 90s material, which explains why it’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as Out of Time or Automatic. But give it some time, let the ethereal tunes grow on you, and you won’t be able to last a week without a listen.
R.E.M. have arguably not had a very easy time moving into the 21st century (and well into their forties). There is an extraordinary contrast between the plaintive minimalism of Up and the slickly-produced Reveal. That isn’t to say that it’s no good; just that is definitely showcases a very different side of the band. Some critics sung its praises very highly at the time; I like to think that it’s a work of a great deal of effort but not such a great amount of musical imagination. The opening track, ‘The Lifting’, pretty much sums up the album. Starting with a tub-thumping piano and some spacey electronic processing, it sounds very expensive but it’s hard to convince yourself that the underwhelming melody was worth the effort. ‘I’ve Been High’ comes next and starts prettily – Stipe, an organ and an electronic beat work incredibly well, for some reason – but doesn’t really resolve itself very interestingly. And the first two singles, ‘Imitation of Life’ and ‘All the Way to Reno’, are catchy enough, but just don’t sound distinctive enough to be R.E.M.. They are – whisper it – really quite mainstream. Much of the rest conjures up that same description. There are, nonetheless, a couple of tracks which suggest that the band hasn’t left behind its unique touch. ‘I’ll Take the Rain’ is a classic piece of lovelorn rock, sounding like an out-take from the sessions that produced Out of Time or Automatic for the People. ‘Saturn Return’, meanwhile, uses an extraordinary combination of minimal piano and electronic clicks and hisses against a backdrop of some of Michael Stipe’s most inscrutable lyrics. Ultimately, though, it sounds like it belongs more on Up than on Reveal, and makes one yearn for the emotional depth of that album.
Around the Sun (2005)
It’s tempting to begin this review with the words “So it’s come to this…”. But it would be a bit harsh and somewhat inaccurate since, to be fair, no-one could have predicted quite how far R.E.M.’s musical fortunes would sink in the eight years since Up. They didn’t even give due warning themselves, choosing to release ‘Leaving New York’ as the preview single. The album’s only indispensable song, it’s a lovely slice of grown-up, melodic rock with lyrics that, like Bruce Springsteen’s ‘My City of Ruins’, weren’t written for 9/11 but could just as well have been: “You might have succeeded in changing me / I might have been turned around / Leaving New York, never easy / I saw the light fading out”.
The main difficulty with Around the Sun is its unwavering commitment to a safe mid tempo. Its next fault is its over-glossy production. And I haven’t even got round to considering its general lack of interesting melodies; or the lyrics, which at times are exceptionally poor. On tracks like ‘Make It All Okay’ and ‘Aftermath’, the band at least sounds like it’s cruising around looking for an idea. The more committed songs are worse. ‘The Outsiders’ commits the cardinal sin of seriously outstaying its welcome when, after two and a half minutes of reasonable melody comes to a natural close, the beat comes back more strongly to introduce…a rap! And not even the type of semi-humorous rap seen on ‘Radio Song’, but a full-on attempt to instil urban cool with the help of A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip. It’s embarrassing, execrable.
It’s not the worst that Around the Sun has to offer. That honour is shared by two songs: ‘Final Straw’, whose sixth-form anti-Bush polemicising (“If the world were filled with the likes of you / Then I'm putting up a fight”) is hard to believe in light of R.E.M.’s former prowess with political themes; and ‘Wanderlust’, a song so ill-advisedly bouncy that it makes ‘Shiny Happy People’ sound like Wagner.
The are-things-suddenly-starting-to-get-interesting feedback which punctuates ‘High Speed Train’ – which actually never goes anywhere, and definitely doesn’t sound like a high-speed train – almost sounds like Peter Buck apologising for the rest of the album.
R.E.M. are among my favourite artists, so I didn’t particularly really want to end this article on a low note. So after the 13 ‘official’ studio albums, I’ve left to the end those other bits produced by any band of their longevity – the b-sides and the best ofs.
Chronic Town (1982)
Although clearly made on the cheap, the band’s first release contains five interesting tracks which are instantly recognisable as the R.E.M. of Murmur. ‘Wolves, Lower’ demonstrates their jangly guitar and vocal harmonies; ‘Gardening at Night’ has particularly obscure lyrics (and an interesting falsetto delivery from Michael Stipe); ‘Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)’ – for my money the best of the five – has a trademark early call-and-answer chorus; and ‘1,000,000’ and ‘Stumble’ are great showcases for the skills of Bill Berry and Peter Buck respectively.
Dead Letter Office (1987)
But don’t worry: you won’t need to go searching through the second-hand record stores, as the whole EP is included on this collection of rarities. R.E.M. clearly had a lot of fun with the b-sides and outtakes that form the rest of it, as some of the tracks included here are quite deliberately unusual. Alongside three Velvet Underground songs (including a surprisingly faithful ‘Femme Fatale’), how about a slice of R.E.M. heavy metal in ‘Burning Hell’? Or sample an alternative take on ‘Seven Chinese Brothers’ (‘Voice of Harold’), an Aerosmith cover (‘Toys in the Attic’) and some 50s surf pop (‘White Tornado’). There are several serious originals as well, the best of the bunch being ‘Crazy’, a bona fide classic with one of R.E.M.’s great early choruses.
Their first greatest hits album, covering the IRS years. It includes one original (‘Romance’) and some alternate mixes.
The Best of R.E.M. (1991)
A UK-only release which provides a much more complete picture of the IRS releases, with non-single classics like ‘Cuyahoga’ and ‘Perfect Circle’.
R.E.M.: Singles Collected (1994)
“How many more compilations can we get out of this band?” muse the bosses of IRS. It’s not an official release, but it does include some live and non-tracks, plus single edits.
R.E.M.: In the Attic (1997)
Another unauthorised IRS release, with a variety of live and alternative recordings.
Man on the Moon soundtrack (1999)
In addition to the titular track and the fantastic new song ‘The Great Beyond’, this includes a variety of R.E.M. penned orchestral instrumentals.
In Time: The Best Of R.E.M. 1988-2003 (2003)
Ah, another ‘proper’ Best Of at last. This one makes most of the right moves, but criminally leaves out ‘Leave’ and includes only two songs from Up. It does include the superb ‘The Great Beyond’ and ‘Bad Day’.
And I Feel Fine... The Best of the I.R.S. Years 1982-1987 (2006)
Surely we’ve been here before? But at least there are more rare treats, in demo versions of ‘Bad Day’ and ‘All the Right Friends’.
If you only listen to 10 R.E.M. songs, listen to these:
‘Man on the Moon’ (from Automatic for the People)
‘Country Feedback’ (from Out Of Time)
‘Leave’ (from New Adventures In Hi-Fi)
‘Fall On Me’ (from Lifes Rich Pageant)
‘Sweetness Follows’ (from Automatic for the People)
‘Perfect Circle’ (from Murmur)
‘You’re In The Air’ (from Up)
‘Cuyahoga’ (from Life's Rich Pageant)
‘The One I Love’ (from Document)
‘You’ (from Monster)