Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Monica Enid Dickens... The True Lady of Follyfoot

Monica Dickens.
Source: Desert Island Discs, BBC, 1951

Just who is Monica Dickens? Well, firstly, her surname gives us a clue as to who she is related to. Yes, none other than English writer Charles Dickens (1812-1870). But there is far more to this woman than just being the great-granddaughter of a literary genius. Though I have been a fan of Mr Dickens' work for decades, I was totally oblivious to his family tree. It is ironic, then, that I became an even greater fan of a series of books... and a television series based on one of those books: Follyfoot.

Monica was born in London on 10th May 1915, her parents were Henry Charles Dickens (1878–1966) and Fanny Dickens (née Runge). Sadly not much is known about Fanny except that she herself was born in Camberwell, London, in 1876; she was married to Henry in 1904 (Chelsea Registration District, London), sadly her death is unknown. Monica had a sister: Doris Elaine Mary Danby (née Dickens). The girls' upbringing was very middle class - Henry was a barrister - but Monica became disenchanted by the life around her. Not only was she expelled (she had attended St Paul's Girls' School, London) but Monica entered into domestic service. It is not what her father would have wished, I'm sure.

Her literature reflected the work she did, examples being the memoir One Pair Of Hands (1939) highlighting her experiences as a domestic servant and One Pair Of Feet (1942) in which she wrote about her time as a nurse. Her career at the Hertfordshire Express newspaper (published in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, England) led to the book My Turn to Make the Tea (1951).

Monica married U.S Navy officer Roy O. Stratton in 1951 and migrated to the United States where they later adopted two girls called Pamela and Prudence. Her writing never stopped, with most of her work still set in England. She was also a passionate humanitarian and helped establish the first U.S Samaritans in Massachusetts in 1974. She worked closely with the Samaritans, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. It is the latter that influenced her novel Cobbler's Dream (1963) which, in the 1970s, was adapted into a popular British television show called Follyfoot. Due to its success, Monica wrote follow-up titles Follyfoot (1971), Dora at Follyfoot (1972), The Horses of Follyfoot (1975), and Stranger at Follyfoot (1976). The year prior to Cobbler's Dream, the author had visited The Home of rest for Horses (renamed The Horse Trust in 2006) and had been so touched by their tireless work that it became the influence for the Farm in the 1963 publication.

Between 1939 and 1992 she wrote many books, inspired those who met her and lived an extraordinary life, memories and experiences that she could share through her literature. In 1978 she had published an autobiography titled An Open Book. After her husband's death, in 1985, Monica returned to the UK where her career as a writer continued until her own death on Christmas Day in 1992. She was 77 years old.

Her final book, One of the Family (1993), was published posthumously.

When I think of my passion for Follyfoot, it dawns on me just how alike one of the characters is to Monica: Dora is from a privileged family who chooses to work on a farm and care for horses, she doesn't mind the hard labour at all, actually embracing the freedom that her new position brings. Dora's mother is set against her continuing at Follyfoot but her uncle, who owns the farm, signs it over to her so that she becomes Lady of Follyfoot. In fact, first book Cobbler's Dream was a tale that raised brutal awareness of the cruelty inflicted on horses; it was far from being a light-hearted read.

Her work lives on, some titles have even been digitised for the eBook market. And thanks to Follyfoot and its accompanying Yorkshire Television series, which ran in the UK from 1971 to 1973, there is much gratitude for a woman who rebelled, found her own path and forged a remarkable writing career.

Pages of interest: follyfoot.co.uk

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

FilmLight - Whose Robot?

Silent Running. Image source: IMDb

On a much lighter subject than my previous article for FilmLight, this time I take a look at... robots! Whether they be service androids, or killing machines, there have been plenty to stir the imagination and entertain. But what are your favourites? "Whose Robot?" aims to check out some of the best, least known, or most dangerous... Though Star Wars legends R2-D2 and BB-8 are obvious, it is my mission to reveal some surprises or two (in no particular order), and take a look back at childhood memories. As an adult, I have equal respect for the following characters...

"It calls back a time when there were flowers all over the Earth... and there were valleys. And there were plains of tall green grass that you could lie down in - you could go to sleep in..."

My first choice is 1972 sci-fi drama "SILENT RUNNING", starring Bruce Dern as a resident botanist aboard space freighter Valley Forge, whose job it is to maintain the last remaining plant life from planet Earth, now protected in geodesic domes, one of which is attached to the freighter. Following orders to destroy the domes and return to Earth, Freeman Lowell (Dern) acts against orders, sacrificing the lives of his three colleagues in order to preserve at least one of the enclosed forests. Though it is ultimately Dern who makes the movie, my heart will always remain with one of the drones (service robots) designated to serve aboard the freighter: Dewey (Drone 1), whose very last scene had this viewer crying. Hard to believe, I know, but true. I was young at the time of watching, but the sentiment I feel is present during every viewing, enhanced by the beauty vocals of folk singer Joan Baez - if you have not yet heard the song "Rejoice in the Sun" then please try and listen at some point, it is simply divine!

"If there's any justice at all, the black hole will be your grave!"

My second choice is for the 1979 Disney classic "THE BLACK HOLE". Forget friendly robot V.I.N.CENT (which stands for "Vital Information Necessary CENTralized"), my choice here is Maximilian, one of the most frightening killing machines in cinematic history. Styled as a galactic red Samurai, the creation of Dr. Hans Reinhardt has a will of its own, clearly disobeying orders when necessary. If I was to compare it in any way then I would perhaps say there was a deep malevolence similar to that of 1977 movie feature "The Car", a faceless menace whose motives are unclear and monstrous. Following the film's release, a number of action figures were launched - I can just imagine owning one in my childhood, of Maximilian, the nights spent wondering whether the toy box would open of its own accord, a glowing red eye staring back at me from the end of my bed...

"The quickest way to end a miracle, is to ask it why it is and want it wants."

My third choice for this FilmLight special is the beautifully-filmed "BATTERIES NOT INCLUDED", released in 1987 and starring then real-life married couple Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy as an ageing couple whose apartment and business (a cafe) are under attack from a property developer whose plans for construction are hindered by their refusal to sell up. The origins of the "The Fix-Its" is uncertain, and perhaps they are not even strictly regarded as "robots", but they are too adorable to miss out from this list. They are living "machines", alien life-forms who have a desire to repair everything in sight. Director Matthew Robbins is good friends with the magic circle of film makers including George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and the warmth that is associated with many of their own movies shines throughout this emotionally-touching masterpiece.

The future? Image source: Robocop

"I am now authorized to use physical force!"

Though clumsy and unreliable, my fourth choice comes in the form of ED-209, the armed Enforcement Droid seen in 1987'S "ROBOCOP" (and subsequent sequels). It will forever stand out in my memory simply because of that one scene in which, malfunctioning, it kills a company board executive during a demonstration of its abilities. There is something deeply unnerving about constructing these type of machines as "officers" of the law, and the thought of seeing one in any city is nothing less than a nightmare scenario, "You have 20 seconds to comply." You can see its potential in warfare, but as a peacekeeping droid it is both unpredictable and far too terrifying to approach for the average citizen. Could you even ask it for directions? Not everyone will have satellite navigation...

"Number 5 is alive."

Coming fifth is the wonderfully charming 1986 comedy "SHORT CIRCUIT", the story of a prototype military robot ("Number 5") that becomes self-aware after a freak accident and escapes the top secret project installation. The now-sentient robot eventually befriends Stephanie Speck (played by the fabulous Ally Sheedy) and a fun-packed movie unfolds. To my joy, a sequel followed, in 1988, both being written by Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson (also involved in previously mentioned "Batteries Not Included") - the casting of actress Cynthia Gibb in the follow-up is a welcome change, though a cameo from Sheedy would have been the icing on the cake! Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler said, "We need a Hero" (listen to the song "Holding Out for a Hero"), and Johnny 5 (as the robot became known) is the most heart-warming of them all!

"I wish you would talk! You know you can; why won't you talk?"

In sixth place I had to go with another killer machine that, in my opinion, is just as memorable as "The Black Hole"'s Maximilian: 1980's "SATURN 3". Starring a cast of three (Farrah Fawcett, Kirk Douglas and Harvey Keitel), the setting is Titan, Saturn's third moon, where colleagues and lovers Adam (Douglas) and Alex (Fawcett) work in a research station. Their peace is soon disturbed by the arrival of Captain Benson (Keitel). The newcomer's mission is to build a robot that will, it is believed, replace one of the scientists. This is where everything changes... The captain isn't who he claims to be, and the robot, now named "Hector", turns deadly! Though the movie didn't match up to other great sci-fi of its time, there is something intriguing about its simplistic style and pace.

This list could go on and on, with so many wonderful robots out there in cinema. So, for now, I will leave you to consider your own favourites. And perhaps, this subject will return again with "Whose Robot 2?"

Monday, November 26, 2018

The Coming of the Martians - Audio Review

Adapting a classic isn't an easy job when looking to maintain the original heart and commentary, and especially when creating a 5.1 Surround Sound experience. Alwyn Ash takes a look at an audio adaptation of the 1897 tale reflecting a war of two worlds, a horrifying story of invasion and survival...

The David and Goliath in classic literature.

Nothing had come close to reflecting the true terror and nightmarish experience of alien machines burning people and buildings, taking apart the very structure of Human society...

Over the years there have been many interpretations of H.G. Wells' vision of a Martian invasion of Earth including the BBC Radio 4 full-cast dramatisation starring Blake Ritson and directed by Marc Beeby; and my favourite: Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds. Hollywood has also produced cinematic takes on the tale, though Byron Haskin's 1953 'The War of the Worlds' remains my absolute favourite. Who can forget Al Nozaki's manta ray Martian war machine design?

It is a fact, however, that nothing had come close to reflecting the true terror and nightmarish experience of alien machines burning people and buildings, taking apart the very structure of Human society and devastating the landscape. Even Holywood legend Steven Spielberg failed to deliver a worthy instalment, instead choosing to set his apocalyptic movie in twenty-first century America. Though grand in scale, and clearly visually effective in the killing and carnage inflicted by the aliens, it still lacked a true homage to H.G. Wells. There isn't much difference between Spielberg's War of the Worlds and any other modern-day invasion of Earth tale such as Independence Day (1996), in my opinion.

Sherwood manages to ingrain such subtlety into the composition that every sound benefits the experience

So, what can I say about The Coming of the Martians, a brand new audio drama from Sherwood Sound, other than mind-blowing? Well, this was a project crafted with love, as it says on the official website: "Our adaptation retains the dark horrific tone of the original story, the original time period and details of the martian invasion. It is the first time, in our opinion, that there has been a truly faithful, straight adaptation."

Having had a listen, I can say that it does indeed send a shiver as the Martian machines go on the rampage through England, burning everything in sight and gathering humans for their own horrific ends. It takes the original source material and touches it with pure audio magic, inserting a breathtaking sound design that not only compliments but becomes the story. You are literally right in the midst of it all, experiencing the tale as it was meant to be heard, an eye witness (in your mind's eye) of events that unfold. Another production company might have overlooked the simplest of additions, yet Sherwood manages to ingrain such subtlety into the composition that every sound benefits the experience without the listener always realising it is there; even after a third listen I'm finding new things to enjoy.

The cast is nothing short of amazing, headed by award-winning actor Colin Morgan (Merlin) as George. Other fine performances include Dan Starkey (Doctor Who) as Ogilvy, the astronomer; Nigel Lindsay (Rome, Victoria) as The Artilleryman; and Ronald Pickup (The Crown) as The Curate.

'The Coming of the Martians' does something to be applauded: it rejects unnecessary narration in favour of pure sound, avoiding the overwhelming loudness that some audio companies rely upon, adding engaging layers that give a quality very rare in audio drama. You can sense distance as a war machine calls out to fellow Martians, and feel the dread as it approaches and passes, its feet crashing down with no care as to what might lie below. Oh, that will be us, and George!

The company explains, "The aim with our productions is to provide realism and immersive drama... If you're going to adapt a story that has been done many times, why not create something truly special, something that's more faithful than anything that has ever gone before".

"There are people in the pit, they have brought people here"

The Martian call might be terrifying enough, but the scene that stands out is when George and The Curate are trapped, listening to people screaming. Though a short moment, one cannot help but feel revulsion and sadness at what we know is happening to those poor wretches. The building tension between the two men is splendidly realised, and George's revelation that those prisoners - men, women and children - are simply food for the Martians sends a chill.

Why 'The Coming of the Martians'?

The reason Sherwood had to change the name was simply due to copyright issues. As they stated on their Facebook page: "We've wanted to produce this for years but the rights for media derivatives of the 1897 story had been held by Jeff Wayne, who capitalised on it for 40 years and initially refused us a licence unless it was based on his musical. I think we deserve a fresh and faithful take on the story".

The title might have been altered but the company's intentions remained resolute. And its hard work has paid off thanks to the cast, production crew, and a script adapted from the original source material by Nick Scovell.

It's a haunting vision that encapsulates perfectly the scale of loss and horror

Director Lisa Bowerman has enjoyed a career on stage, in television and radio, and has played the character of Bernice Summerfield for Big Finish Productions since 1998. Her connection with Doctor Who goes all the way back to 1989 when she was cast as Karra in 'Survival' opposite the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and companion Ace (Sophie Aldred). For Big Finish, work has included supporting roles and directing. 'The Coming of the Martians' has greatly benefited from experience and is without doubt up there with her best work. It's a haunting vision that encapsulates perfectly the scale of loss and horror that is witnessed throughout, the howling monstrosity that stalks the landscape as every last bit of hope is snuffed out by a death ray.

This is an audio drama that has always been in safe hands.

Final thoughts

Beyond the original copyright problems and delays due to editing, The Coming of the Martians is first-rate and an outstanding accomplishment.

Tell me more about Sherwood Sound...

Martin Johnson has supplied audio editing, music, and sound design for various clients in the UK since 2007. He set up Everybodyelse Productions in 2013, developing its first in-house audio drama 'Osiris: Pilot', also directed by Lisa Bowerman. The company was re-branded as Sherwood Sound Studios in 2016.

You can read more about The Coming of the Martians at sherwoodsoundstudios.com.

Running time: 96 minutes

Director:Lisa Bowerman
Producer(s): Martin Johnson
Written by H. G. Wells
adapted by Nick Scovell
Release date: July 30, 2018

Monday, October 8, 2018

Doctor Who: Series 11.1 - The Woman Who Fell to Earth

Alwyn Ash reviews the debut of new Doctor Jodie Whittaker. Was it all hype and no substance, or has the Doctor Who team managed to produce a gem?

Though early days, Jodie's take on this new Doctor was a perfect blend of past Doctors

On Sunday 7th October 2018 a mysterious woman fell to Earth in spectacular fashion, crashing through the roof of a train and facing a sinister alien probe. Just another day at the office, then.

From the moment Peter Capaldi left the TARDIS in the 2017 Christmas special "Twice Upon a Time", it was inevitable his replacement would have big shoes to fill - the Scottish actor delivered award-winning performances during his stay from 2013-2017. The appointment of Jodie was a surprise to many, some fans even refusing to accept the casting. Thankfully the majority didn't feel this way, embracing the news and looking forward to a full season with this Thirteenth Doctor. So how did the first episode play out? I'm glad to say it was a success, in my opinion at least. A debut story isn't always the easiest to write for, especially as for the most part the newly-regenerated Doctor spends time adapting to a physical transformation. There was no shortage of humour throughout, thanks to writer and showrunner Chris Chibnall, and superb direction from Jamie Childs. The gender swap had no real significance beyond an acknowledgement that the Doctor had previously been a "white-haired Scotsman". Instead, the plot threw everyone straight into the action, well, following a short period of exposition, as two separate incidents occur in the South Yorkshire city of Sheffield. The Doctor quickly makes herself at home, making friends with total strangers and leading them on an investigation.

Though early days, Jodie's take on this new Doctor was a perfect blend of past Doctors: Number Three's love of gadgetry; Number Two, Eight and Ten's excitable childlike quality, and Seven's scheming. It is a wonderful mix of excitement, curiosity and the desire to do good, just as any previous incarnation would have done. There is no doubt, Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor!

The Stenza makes for an intriguing new enemy and it will be interesting to see if they return in future stories. Tzim-Sha's arrival was a simple one: to locate and collect a trophy, in this case a Human male. Success in this act would result in claiming leadership of the Stenza. The Doctor's intentional calling of him as "Tim Shaw" was brilliant, I'd likely mispronounce an alien's name by accident. Many have called him a Predator, referring to the creature in John McTiernan's 1987 movie. I can certainly see the resemblance until Tzim-Sha removes his faceplate to reveal a look that is all teeth-and-no-curls (see what I did there?)


I applaud the production team for highlighting Dyspraxia, fully known as Developmental co-ordination disorder (DCD). We see this through the eyes of character Ryan (played by Tosin Cole). During the launch of this new series in Sheffield, Chibnall had said, "We did a lot of research into that, we worked with the Dyspraxia Foundation… it was important, because people live with these things. It’s a relatively common thing among kids, so I think it’s important to see that heroes come in all shapes and sizes. That’s the most important thing about Doctor Who and you will see that happen a lot across this year".

Final Thoughts

The threat was very minimal - one life in jeopardy instead of a whole planet - but the pace kept things interesting. Jodie clearly has comedy chops and presents a mad woman in a blue box very well; the lack of a TARDIS doesn't mean it won't appear: we have all seen those images of the new TARDIS interior - if you haven't, then you're in for a real treat, I think. There were solid performances from Bradley Walsh and Sharon D. Clarke as Graham and Grace O’Brien, it had that Ian-and-Barbara edge that could have really developed through the series. However, the way things ended, we clearly get a sense that the message is: there are always consequences...

...unless something timey wimey happens to change all of that?

Tosin (Ryan Sinclair) and Mandip Gill (Yasmin Khan) are well cast in their roles, and I look forward to seeing how they develop over the course of their stay with the show. And with Bradley making up the third, it feels just right, as it did back in the old days of the Doctor, granddaughter Susan, Ian and and Barbara. A time traveller and three companions.

Doctor Who is well and truly back!