By John Ruberry

“It [the Thames River] had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time, from the Golden Hind returning with her round flanks full of treasure, to be visited by the Queen’s Highness and thus pass out of the gigantic tale, to the Erebus and Terror, bound on other conquests—and that never returned.”
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness.

Last Monday I completed watching AMC’s ten-episode masterful series, The Terror, a telling, with many needed embellishments to fill in the missing details, of John Franklin’s Lost Expedition of 1845-1848.

The voyage was a British Navy attempt to navigate an ice-free route through the Canadian Arctic, the Northwest Passage, an envisioned shortcut to China, that to this day, is a rarely navigable by large ships. The expedition was led by Sir John Franklin, who was also the captain of the Erebus. Francis Crozier captained the Terror. The ships were last seen between Greenland and Baffin Island in 1845. After wintering off of Beechey Island, where three crew members died, the ships became trapped in the following year, it’s believed they never sailed again. Franklin died in 1847, and the last communication from the expedition, a note left in a cairn on King William Island, reported that an astounding 24 men died before the ships were abandoned in 1848. The crew of the ship totaled 134 when it departed the Thames. Only a few bodies and some bones–some of which betray evidence of cannibalism–and a smattering artifacts were discovered after an exhaustive series of rescue missions. Over the following decades it was ascertained that the men may have been debilitated, both physically and mentally, by lead poisoning from shoddily soldered cans of food.

There were no survivors.

That’s the essence of what is known of the expedition.

The Terror series, based on a novel by Dan Simmons, imaginatively fills in the details of what might have happened to the crew.

Franklin (Ciarán Hinds) ignores the advice of Crozier (Jared Harris) and they get stuck, well you already know that part of the story. The ships are menaced by a mysterious creature, Tuunbaq, which appears to be a polar bear. An Eskimo woman (Nive Nielsen) becomes their only human connection to the Arctic, of which Crozier says, “This place wants us dead.”

True, very true.

About Tuunbaq: Is it real, or an elaborate exaggeration where Inuit legend melds with lead-poisoned induced dementia?

The most compelling character is a young petty officer, Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagaitis), who in a role reminiscent of George Segal’s in the Japanese prisoner of war movie, King Rat, uses the catastrophe to recreate himself as a leader. As so often happens, when order collapses cunning operators such as Hickey move in. Something bad becomes something worse.

Of course they don’t realize it right away, but the crew of the Franklin Expedition are imprisoned just as the inmates in King Rat were.

Crozier finally decides to abandon the ships–and the crew embarks on an 800-mile journey by foot to a remote mainland Canadian outpost–pulling many of their belongings, including unneeded books, in lifeboats refashioned as sleds.

The situation becomes dreadful for them as the series gets even better.

The Terror was filmed in Hungary, superbly done CGI replicates the ice-bound ships and the rocky terrain of Beechey and King William islands. If you perform a Google image search of these forlorn islands, you’ll swear the series was filmed on location.

Paul Ready’s portrayal of surgeon Harry Goodsir, who remains kindly even while he gently declines the request of a dying man that he not perform an autopsy on him, is also praiseworthy.

I enjoyed the series, although I have to call out an overdone flogging scene that devolved into sadomasochistic torture.

Then again, like Conrad’s steamboat in his novella, the Terror and the Erebus sailed “into the heart of an immense darkness.”

AMC is still showing The Terror and it’s available where I live on Xfinity On Demand.

This show is not for the squeamish.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

By John Ruberry

Synesthesia: “A sensation produced in one modality when a stimulus is applied to another modality, as when the hearing of a certain sound induces the visualization of a certain color,” so says Dictionary.com.

If there is a void in your musical life and you are a fan of the Kinks and the Beatles, or perhaps Oasis, then I suggest you explore the career of XTC, the most unappreciated band of its time.

And what a time it was. XTC was part of the Class of 1977, rock and roll’s last great year in my opinon, when the Clash, Blondie, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello and many more burst onto the musical scene. By 1999, after a seven year strike against its British label, when they released their penultimate album, Apple Venus Volume 1, only Costello and XTC remained as active acts.

Like the Beatles, XTC evolved musically into a much different group when it was all over.

Late last year in Great Britain and early this year in the United States, the documentary, yes, rockumentarty, XTC: This Is Pop was released. It’s available where I live on Showtime and Xfinity OnDemand.

What became XTC began in the southwestern English city of Swindon, the onetime home of the Swindon Works of the Great Western Railway, with a band started by its de facto leader, Andy Partridge. Bassist Colin Moulding and drummer Terry Chambers rounded out the nucleus of the group. London keyboardist Barry Andrews, the only XTCer who is not interviewed for This Is Pop, later joined; he appears on the band’s first two albums, White Music and GO2, which comprise the band’s punk period. After Andrews’ departure he was replaced by another Swindonian, guitarist Dave Gregory.

“I actually think we started pretty damn good and then got a lot better. And there’s not too many bands can say that’s their arc,” Partridge immodestly but correctly boasts about XTC.

Yet there is some humor in This Is Pop that offsets the braggadocio.

“Don’t you dare have-into this documentary,” Partridge waves off “that lugubrious keyboard player from that prog-rock group,” Rick Wakeman of Yes, who makes a hilarious cameo.

Partridge says of his troubled childhood, “I never thought I was good at anything until I got more and more into drawing and painting.”

Imagine if legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, who early in his life aspired to be a painter, formed a rock group instead. It just might have sounded like XTC.

The band’s breakthrough in 1979 came not from a Partridge-penned tune but one by Moulding, “We’re Only Making Plans For Nigel” from their third album, Drums and Wires, which Little Marathon Pundit said of the other day, “That’s one song I like.” If its sonorous drum patterns seem familiar, that’s because engineer Hugh Padham discovered that effect while recoding “Nigel” before bringing the technique to Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight.” Many other 1980s acts swiped that sound.

The next two albums, Black Sea and English Settlement, brought more–albeit modest–success and momentum to XTC as it rounded out its New Wave period. But as the Kinks often bungled their career, XTC’ sabotaged things too, although not intentionally as I’ve always suspected the Kinks did. The effects of Partridge’s Valium addiction, which went back to when he was 12, and the withdrawal effects, led to a nervous breakdown during a Paris concert–which is shown in This Is Pop. The lads from Swindon still traveled to the United States for their first tour as a headliner. But what should have been an American victory lap lasted just one show. Outside of a smattering of radio and television appearances, they never performed live again.

XTC’s pastoral era brought three albums, Mummer, The Big Express, and Skylarking. But within that period XTC’s psychedelic alter ego, the Dukes of Stratosphear, released two collections that outsold those last two in the UK.

Before recording Skylarking, Partridge tells us, their record label issued an ultimatum: You need to grow your American audience and hire an American producer. Presented with a list of unfamiliar names, Partridge chose the only one he had heard of: Todd Rundgren. The result was the band’s masterpiece, Skylarking. On it you find the conceptual orchestral greatness of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But because Partridge and “Runt” butted heads–they probably had too much in common–the studio atmosphere mirrored the angst of the Beatles’ White Album recording sessions. XTC came close to blowing this moment too as the original pressings of Skylarking omitted the best song from the Rundgren sessions, the controversial atheist anthem “Dear God.” It was the B-side of the “Grass” single. American deejays elevated “Dear God” to prominence. Their record company was right, XTC needed a jump start from America.

Earlier I mentioned synesthesia. “How I write a lot of the songs, I will find a chord or a chord change on a guitar or on a keyboard,” Partridge describes his songwriting technique, “and I’m playing those but not I’m not hearing music–I’m seeing pictures. That’s how I write songs, it comes usually from the synesthesic level.”

And I wager you thought I was overreaching with the Akira Kurosawa comparison.

“Synesthesia is where you get stuff mixed up,” Partridge expands on his thoughts, “someone will say a number and you’ll hear a noise, or someone will show you a color and you’ll think of a number, or you’ll hear a peace of music or a chord and to me it makes a picture.”

And that is why XTC’s music is different.

The follow-up to Skylarking was 1989’s Oranges and Lemons, another success as XTC entered its proto-Britpop era.

Chambers left during the pastoral period and Gregory departed shortly after XTC’s recording strike ended. Their band’s final album, Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2), was released in 2000.

An eclectic group of commentators contribute context to This Is Pop, including Stewart Copeland of the Police, Blondie’s Clem Burke, and a veteran mockumentary performer, Harry Shearer, who, unlike Wakeman, plays it straight here.

Woven into This Is Pop is the countryside of southwestern England and a model train set winding through an intricately-reconstructed Swindon, because it doesn’t seem possible to separate XTC from their hometown.

XTC: This Is Pop is an essential film about an essential band, a group that belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The documentary can be streamed on Amazon.

John Ruberry, who has been an XTC fan since 1979 after hearing “We’re Only Making Plans for Nigel” on WXRT-FM in Chicago, regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

By John Ruberry

Season four of the post First World War-set British gangster drama Peaky Blinders returned to Netflix ten days ago. It aired last month on the BBC.

Read my review of the first three seasons here.

For the uninitiated, the show is about, yes, the Peaky Blinders; who are named for the razor blades sewn into their flat caps which they use to attack their foes, that is when they are not shooting them. They are a Gypsy organized crime family headed by Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy). In 1919 Shelby Family Limited is a nothing more than a bookmaking operation based in the grimy Small Heath neighborhood of Birmingham. When season four begins at Christmas in 1925 the Peaky Blinders operation has expanded into London and it has extensive legitimate business holdings.

Hyman Roth told Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part Two, “We’re bigger than U.S. Steel.” Tommy has no such line Peaky Blinders, but it would be credible if he did.

The next paragraph is worthy of a spoiler alert if you haven’t watched the first three seasons.

Season three was a mixed bag for me as the Russian caper that dominated it was a road to storyline-nowhere. That season ended with a bang as Tommy rats out the rest of the Shelby family–and season four picks up from there. And that’s not the only season three hangover. New York mafioso Luca Changretta (Adrien Brody) is seeking vengeance for the murder by the Peaky Blinders of his father and brother. Brody’s performance ranks among his best work. As Changretta, there are traces of Robert De Niro as Vito Corleone accented with the psychoses of Joe Pescsi in Goodfellas.

The 1920s weren’t roaring in Great Britain–the economy struggled and communism gained a foothold within the political sphere. An attractive young communist woman. Jessie Eden (Charlie Murphy), is stirring up trouble in the Shelby factories. Hmm, I wonder where that is heading? Tommy clearly hasn’t forgotten his gambling business roots–he hedges his bets in the struggle by also scheming with the 1st Baron Stamfordham, the king’s private secretary.

To fight Changretta Tommy hires another Gypsy, Aberama Gold (Aidan Gillen), whose reputation for evil even unsettles the other Peaky Blinders. Yes, Gillen is Littlefinger from Game of Thrones.  Gold and Tommy hatch a boxing match caper involving Jewish mobster Alfie Solomons (Tom Hardy).

There is much bloodshed much betrayal. But Tommy perseveres and like a snake slithering up a flagpole, he keeps climbing despite the odds against him in class-obsessed Great Britain.

Will Tommy fall? If he does, we’ll have to wait until at least until season five to find out.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.


By John Ruberry

Most of the main characters in Hell on Wheels, my last Netflix binge-watching adventure, were shaped, and scarred, by the American Civil War.

In this BBC 2 television show, Peaky Blinders, set in Birmingham, England beginning in 1919, World War I casts its shadow over the lead characters.

Three seasons have been released so far. The action–and the violence–is centered upon the Anglo-Gypsy Shelby family, led by Thomas “Tommy” Shelby (Cillian Murphy), a decorated Great War tunneller who returns home a new man–and a better suited one to run the family business, Shelby Brothers, Ltd, a bookmaking operation set in the grimy and noisy Small Heath section of Birmingham. But the gang is generally called the Peaky Blinders by members and their enemies. His oldest brother, Arthur (Paul Anderson) is clearly more psychologically damaged from the war than Tommy, but he’s better suited to serve as the enforcer for the family. “I think, Arthur. That’s what I do,” Tommy explains to him. “I think. So that you don’t have to.” Third son John (Joe Cole), another World War I veteran, is also employed in the muscle side of the operation, while Finn, the youngest Shelby, is only 11-years-old when the series begins.

Tommy has a sister, Ada Thorne (Sophie Rundle), who is married to communist agitator. But she’s still loyal to the family.

While the Shelby men were fighting in France–the family business was run by Elizabeth “Aunt Polly” Gray (Helen McCrory), a kind of a Rosie the Riveter of the underworld. Tommy quickly takes over from Polly, who serves as his senior advisor. Like Edward G. Robinson’s legendary Rico character in Little Caesar, Tommy becomes a small-time-hood-makes-good-by-being-bad by playing one gang faction against the other, first in Birmingham then in London, while largely ignoring Aunt Polly’s warnings.

When the Peaky Blinders stumble upon a large machine gun shipment in an otherwise routine heist, that gets the attention of Secretary of State for War Winston Churchill (Andy Nyman in the first season, Richard McCabe in the second), who dispatches Inspector Chester Campbell (Sam Neill) from Belfast to find the machine guns. Those guns give Tommy power and respect–and enemies. Not only do Churchill and Campbell want those weapons, but so does the Irish Republican Army.

Campbell sends in an Irish domestic spy, Grace Burgess (Annabelle Wallis), to work at the neighborhood pub owned by Arthur, appropriately named The Garrison. She quickly becomes its de facto manager.

In season three, which is set in 1924, Tommy, at Churchill’s request, gets involved in another armaments caper, this time with members of the Whites faction who haven’t ascertained that the Communists have won the Russian Civil War. Arthur warns Tommy to stay out of “this Russian business.” It’s too bad the script writers didn’t take their own creation’s advice. As was the case with season four of Sherlock, what follows is a collection of tangled and confusing plot lines. Possibly realizing their mistake, the writers include quite a bit of gratuitous nudity to accompany the Russian adventure, including a bizarre orgy scene which does nothing to advance the storyline.

On the other hand, the Russian diversion is loosely based on a 1924 scandal that brought down Great Britain’s first socialist-led government.

At least two more seasons are coming.

The cinematography of Peaky Blinders is masterful. Imagine Tim Burton creating a remake of The Untouchables television show and setting it in 1920s Birmingham. And this is an ugly Birmingham. J.R.R Tolkien lived in the city before the Great War and his reaction against it was his creation of Mordor for The Lord of the Rings. Just as the Eye of Sauron looked upon that evil realm–the sparks and the ashes of the foundries oversee the Midlands metropolis here. And the industrial roar is always there too.

Blogger in his flat cap

Without getting into spoilers it’s a challenge to bring a description of Jewish gangster Alfie Solomons into this review, but his portrayal by Tom Hardy is too good to overlook.

Oh, the name. Peaky Blinders? There was a Birmingham gang by the same name who gained that moniker because its members supposedly sewed razor blades into the peaks of their flat caps. And in fights the hoodlums went for the eyes.

And finally, the music deserves special mention too. Anachronistic goth rock dominates, the unofficial theme song is Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “Red Right Hand.” You’ll find selections from PJ Harvey, Tom Waits, and the White Stripes too.

And Johnny Cash sings “Danny Boy.”

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.


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