• 'The Peripheral'

    Thirty years ago I was exposed to the sub-genre-defining work of William Gibson, the writer who coined the term ‘cyberspace’ to define the then nascent digital realm in which information flows and – as he presciently saw it – societal change is effected. His multi-award-winning 1984 novel Neuromancer was the platform, bought in paperback from the original Forbidden Planet shop and read with astonishment. Its depiction of a mid-21st century America characterised by gritty street life seamlessly intertwined with glossy high technology was utterly winning, especially as this was allied to a lean yet rich writing style where every word counted and conveyed something of the milieu in which its protagonists moved. The pace was fast, the ideas fascinating and the world-building absorbing.

    Two further books – Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive – broadened and deepened these ideas and, along with the first, became known as the Sprawl trilogy. Two more trilogies followed, and I soon began to feel that as Gibson’s style matured his actual content became less and less innovative, not helped by his decision to set the third trilogy in the present day and to eliminate almost all of the technological strands that had made his work so distinctive. Abandoning the Blue Ant trilogy part way through, therefore, was disappointing but not difficult.

    This did, however, mean that I missed Gibson’s next book, 2013’s The Peripheral. Which – it turns out – was a mistake. Complex, densely-layered and detailed, it is a gripping page-turner that flips between two timelines and attempts to tell us a little about our recent past and possible future. Near-future America and further-forward London are both well realised, not least through one of Gibson’s other skills: the ability to write different characters in convincingly different voices. Coupled with an in media res opening this does require some dedication to initially, but once the reader’s eye (and brain) is in, the narrative skips along very briskly indeed though in fact this is Gibson’s longest book by far. And, uniquely for Gibson in my experience, it is a novel where the characters – and thus Gibson’s thoughts – are very explicitly political, in a context that immediately resonates.

    For long-term Gibson fans who yearn for his earlier works there are plenty of references to the that pioneering first novel. The description of Operation Northwind, a war-themed online game, more than echoes that of Screaming Fist, the failed mission that nevertheless kick-starts the world of Neuromancer; chameleon-like camouflage squidsuits have been encountered before as mimetic capes in that same book; the neurological weapon nicknamed Party Time parallels the similar Blue Nine, and opposing power blocs remember the two artificial intelligences who war around lead character Case. Elsewhere in The Peripheral there also ex-soldiers both regretting and missing their service, the atmospheric importance of softly-spoken foreign tongues and even an electric buggy at a crucial moment.

    Overarching all is the titular peripheral, an autonomous or inhabited humanoid complete with the telepresence and AI by which it gains motive power (and motivation) and sensory capacity. It is presented as a method of virtually experiencing space and time and events. This has concerned – even dominated – Gibson’s fiction for decades, from the Apparent Sensory Perception modules of his 1970s short stories to the SimStim of the Sprawl saga and the augmented reality of Virtual Light. Even media firm Blue Ant might be deemed another iteration, ‘agency’ having a double meaning in the context of those three books.

    With The Peripheral, however, the idea moves from McGuffin to central tenet. From the reader’s point of view it occasionally feels intrusive, more so than Freeside, the vast orbiting colony and the closest pure SF object equivalent in the Sprawl books, but even this is not the limit of Gibson’s imagination. Peripherals work in conjunction with the more audacious – some might say outrageous, for a Gibson story – era-bridging mechanism that connects both timelines and makes the entire book possible. Entirely unexplained beyond an absurd throwaway reference or two to “a Chinese server”, its presence at the heart of the narrative is though crucial as it permits a kind of retrospective benevolence whereby the inhabitants of what one reviewer called the novel’s second future (the one in London) are able to help those of the first (America) by transmitting technology and information back in (across?) time. Gibson’s far-future Londoners thus equate to the intervening aliens of Carl Sagan’s Contact or, perhaps more relevantly, Arthur C. Clarke’s bittersweet Childhood’s End.

    In truth this is handled so deftly that the lack of any actual explanation for how it’s done actually feels surprisingly unproblematic, and one anyway should remember Gibson’s well known opinion that he himself is something of a ‘techno innocent’. This may be disingenuous, but yet another far-out feature of the book – the absurdly powerful, nano-scaled ‘assemblers’ that can instantly dissolve or reform matter at scale – does give this view some weight.

    It is then refreshing to find The Peripheral confirming that the mid-level tech of the street is where Gibson seems the most comfortable, and here he makes a welcome return to the best aspects of those early forays. Brilliantly envisaged items, systems and products are scattered subtly yet convincingly through his text. By focusing on real-world advances, Gibson essays concepts ranging from the amusing to the terrifying, such as cardboard cars, chain store 3D printing, veritable swarms of drones and brutally effective orbital weapon systems. Invented consumer brands such as Hefty and Coffee Jones sit comfortably amongst actual names like eBay. The book was coloured by wider cultural happenings, of course.

    The cloaked cars that prowl future London must surely have been inspired by 2012’s Bond film Die Another Day, whilst the ranks of super-tall towers that puncture the skyline of the same city have their own contemporary inspiration (“they’re called shards” explains one character to another). Russian oligarchs (or ‘klepts’) living in the British capital tune in to another anxiety that remains live five years later, as does one such man’s massively extended townhouse and its seemingly endless basement garage where much of the action of the London-set chapters takes place. Here is to be found what is for me Gibson’s star invention at this more intimate level of tech: the Mercedes Gobiwagen (it is never clear whether this is its formal or nickname), a lorry-sized, ultra-luxurious “land yacht” built for comfortable cruising in the desert. With motorised furniture, a robot bar, bathroom and rooftop observation dome, this fabulous vehicle might seem futuristic but has an ancestor in the customised, leather-lined six-wheel-drive Range Rovers and the like that specialist British coachbuilder Tickford and other companies produced in the 1970s and 80s for Arab customers.

    Indeed it is Britain and especially London that appears to have particularly stimulated Gibson’s imagination this time around, generating plenty of neat extrapolations and perhaps predictions. Many are architectural or topographical twists on familiar places, including the central conceit of Oxford Street turned into a vast linear park, thickly wooded and grown out of the ruins of its current buildings. Perhaps inspired by the Blitz, and if so forming another link back to Mona Lisa Overdrive’s holographic commemoration of the Battle of Britain, this also suggests numerous post-apocalyptic domestic works. It also allows for Selfridges to become a domestic residence, a striking image. As with Mona Lisa Overdrive, though, characters inhabit a London seemingly altered as much by Gibson’s (mis)understanding of the real city as deliberate authorial decision. It therefore feels a little ‘off’ in places, with a meeting offered at one of the “guildhalls” (‘Livery Halls’ seems meant) and implied jurisdiction of the Metropolitan police over the City, this last particularly odd given the plot thread mentioned below. That oligarch’s house, though, sees Gibson returning to the Notting Hill that final Sprawl book and is thoroughly sound as a conception.

    There is little indication that Gibson has ever intended a satirical reading of his work, but it’s hard not to think that must be the case in certain passages of The Peripheral. In future London calls are taken on surgical implants – a send-up, surely, in and of itself, but also enabling a wonderful double meaning to the otherwise entirely organic line “he’s had to have his phone removed”. Having this London run by a menacing cabal comprising the police, the City of London’s Livery Companies and Big Business, headed by the sinister (and, again, real) Remembrancer, might also produce a wry smile from those familiar with the Square Mile’s peculiarly individualistic yet highly effective present-day power structure. And although almost all of this appears directed at the British end of the plot, the eponymous peripheral reducing or at least distancing social interaction to a virtual experience must be counted as social commentary, at the very least, on American society today.

    This is a terrific return to form from Gibson, even if the abrupt and unsatisfactory ending dissolves logic and tension as brutally as those assemblers attack walls. It would seem to confirm his fit with things to come, rather than things that are. And another trilogy appears to have begun.

    William Gibson’s new novel Agency, which continues to explore the world created in The Peripheral, is published later in 2018 by Berkley Books/Penguin

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  • ‘The Final Year’ (2017)

    We’ve all experienced that feeling of not having enough time left to get a series of jobs done, or hoping that we can complete something that we’ve started because we know it will make life better. But imagine how Barack Obama felt in 2016, as time ticked away until the end of his constitutionally-mandated second and final term as President. Curbing the nuclear ambitions of Iran, normalising relations between Cuba and the US, a super-power-backed war in Syria, the apparently endless bloodletting over domestic gun violence and the knotty problem of affordable healthcare at home all vied for attention in these last 12 months. His team, too, felt that pressure, and film-maker Greg Barker along with his own team were there to capture it in remarkable detail for this gripping and sobering documentary.

    A zippy beginning complete with split-screen, colour-toned titles evoking movies made in another time of political optimism and early scenes showing some of the featured participants forgetting their phones or getting clumsily caught on bag straps might set a tone of comic observation, but it soon becomes apparent that theirs is a business that is deadly serious. We follow the final year through the endless corridors (and car interiors, and airport runways, and office lobbies) of power and the eyes of three principals: Secretary of State John Kerry, Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, with occasional contributions from the latter’s boss, Susan Rice. POTUS himself appears often but speaks to Barker’s camera only sparingly, a device both pragmatic and effective.

    The film could have been titled ‘war and peace’, since those are the concerns that most often drive events. The Syrian disaster prompts Power to describe her time addressing it as “pained and fraught”, and her face sometimes confirms this; in one of several powerful moments Rhodes terms the Russian government’s presumed airstrike on an aid convoy there coupled with its repeated attempts to deny this “fucking sick”. Kerry, responding in the UN, is visibly angry as he berates the Russian delegation and suggests that diplomatic judgements must be based on facts, not fiction. Immense symbolism arises when Kerry, famously both a veteran and critic of the Vietnam War back in that optimistic age, visits Hanoi and Saigon and when Obama meets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Hiroshima peace memorial. Security is ever-present, from bomb-sniffing dogs working the seats within the United Nations chamber to the half-a-foot-thick doors of armour-plated limousines.

    Frustration at actions that can’t be countered and attitudes that should have been loom large. A US military response in Syria is deemed impossible thanks to the black stain of Iraq, a lack of consensus and the sheer complexity of the situation, whilst Rhodes’ contention that Russian president Vladimir Putin acts only for himself and not (even) for his country acquires a horrible prescience when media coverage of the pending Republican convention decision to elect a candidate throws up a certain burly New York property developer.

    As hinted, Barker is good on the daily slog of representing the most powerful country on earth. When a brief sequence shows the same view out of the window of another official plane alternately in sun, gloom and at night, the endless hours at 30,000 feet are fully felt. Arguments, disagreements, mistakes and regrets all make an appearance. But this is balanced by a kind of weary joy when things go right, such as the historic Cuba and Iranian agreements. We are never allowed to forget the risks in such efforts, either, as with a desperately ironic incident where a seven-year-old boy – about the same age as Power’s son – is accidentally knocked over and killed by a car from her motorcade during a negotiating trip to Africa.

    This is a very young team for the most part, we are reminded (Power is 45, Rhodes not even 40 when the election takes place), and one with the same concerns in rare off-duty moments as the rest of us. Power plays with and talks to her children, Rhodes retreats to a grim semi-furnished basement under the West Wing to seek quiet and walks home wearing a rucksack and with his own son on his shoulders.

    Feelings of another kind are on display in the most emotional portion of the film. The rangy, flame-haired Power makes a speech to a group of newly-sworn US citizens that begins as you would expect and adds a few words of thanks to her Hispanic nanny who is one of them. But it then takes a different turn, revealing Power’s own status as an immigrant to the country after a childhood in the Republic of Ireland and leading to some crying from her and others.

    There are tears, too, from President Obama when announcing yet more gun-enabled massacres throughout the year. Obama will of course be the main draw for many. Off-duty, insofar as that status is possible, he is relaxed, natural, humane and generous, as when joining in with a joke at Rhodes’s expense over the latter not getting to Stanford; “Me neither”, the President immediately adds. In the footage of him meeting and greeting, in carefully-assembled montages of stills, and on hearing that voice, his ‘official’ qualities are as obvious as they are lacking in his replacement. Rhodes may write much of those speeches as part of his job description, but it is his Commander in Chief’s message and the enthusiasm, sincerity and articulacy when delivering them drives the point home. Throughout the entire film, the establishment of a legacy is the clear goal of Obama and his team; the locking in of a range of agreements, initiatives and laws that hey believe will make a genuine and positive difference to the people of the USA and of the world. By the end of the film the looming threat of that replacement and his likely response to such effort ceases to loom and instead seems to smirk in our cast’s faces. That the year that followed only confirmed Donald Trump acting “like an ill-tempered child kicking over a stack of wooden bricks”, as reviewer Philip Kemp despairingly noted in his own review of Barker’s film, only makes one more depressed.

    Fortunately for this slice of reality at least Obama has the last word, and Barker frames it masterfully. Obama’s round of global diplomacy ends where the film does, in Greece. This is the literal home of democracy, and Obama demonstrates his clear understanding of the concept’s roots by stating that the most important office within that system is not the leader but the citizen. It is what one or many citizens can do with their lives, working within a wider community, that has always been his passion. Over a selection of images showing him at the Parthenon and at other historic locations round the world, including Petra, Jerusalem and Nepal, Obama talks of those places and the civilisations that made them as a chain of history. Each age has its own responsibility, he says, to ensure we leave something for the next. In other words, “we do our best,” Obama explains, “with the link in that chain that is handed to us.”

    The Final Year, A Dogwoof release with Passion Pictures and Motto Pictures for Home Box Office and directed by Greg Barker is on current release and is also available through a variety of platforms

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  • ‘The Twilight Zone’ at the Almeida

    Between light and shadow, science and superstition, fear and knowledge is a dimension of imagination. An area we call the Twilight Zone.

    - Almeida publicity, based on the television script

    Decades after the last episode was transmitted, the original run of the popular American television series created by Rod Serling and first aired in 1959 on CBS remains a touchstone for short, sharp doses of (un)reality. Combining original scripts with adaptations of literary works, these explorations of the rum and uncanny from the Cold War era can still chime closely with the concerns of the present. How closely can be judged (to an extent, at least) by the Almeida’s theatre’s new presentation.

    As what unfolds – inside a simple, forced-perspective black box spattered with white stars – quickly suggests, multiple episodes were sourced for this energetic production. Stranded in an all-American diner complete with chrome-edged counter, juke box and cap-wearing barman a bus driver and seven of his passengers wait out a storm – but an investigating state trooper notes that only six people actually boarded and, what’s more, something odd has crashed nearby. Outside her apartment door a woman with deeply-buried troubles finds a strange young girl who seems to know a surprising amount about her neighbour. A different girl, who has vanished, is the focus of another woman, as she and her husband become increasingly distressed by their daughter’s empty bedroom and some echoing cries. An astronaut is sent on a fifty-year trip to a newly-discovered galaxy with the benefit of suspended animation to keep him young – as launch time nears, though, he finds he has fallen in love with someone here on earth. Elsewhere acclaim greets three astronauts returning from their own pioneering flight – or are there only two of them? Or one? And a patient and his psychiatrist explore what it means to be too terrified to fall asleep…

    Though not a complete summary – and in truth even this restricted list suggests a slate that is rather too ambitious – it is clear all have a science fiction sensibility. The appearance of three-eyed and –armed aliens confirms that genre in very obvious terms, but for me it was the tales that ground themselves in suggestion, temptation and loss that proved the most attractive. Sam Swainsbury and Franc Ashman underplay convincingly the literally star-crossed lovers doomed never to meet again, helping to bring genuine pathos to the story of the half-century traveller, whilst the perfectly in-period looks, speech patterns and style of John Marquez, a ringer for Henry Goodman or John Slattery, build considerable empathy for the terrified, tired patient scared of dreaming. And there are other subtleties beyond this. Some carefully-observed gestures in the initial diner scene rewarded those happening to look in the right place, and the text include some tight, smart lines where Marquez once again dominates. Thus "I've lost my marbles" he worries; "Marbles can be found", reassures the doctor. "It's a dream", he exclaims when meeting in his mind the Burlesquely sexy Cat Woman: "I know I'm a dream" she replies, knowingly. In the penultimate set piece, in which panicked residents fight over space in a Bomb shelter, one desperate home owner bemoans the lack of a basement in his flashy new pad: it has "every wonder of modern science taken into account...except the one heading right for us."

    There are plenty of incidental pleasures, such as an alien with a heart as big as his head and a bandaged woman who becomes The Ugliest in the World. You won’t look at a cigarette in the same way again, either. Best of all, there is that feline femme fatale. As played - actually, inhabited - by Lizzy Connolly she stunned my audience with a fabulous, Ken Russell-meets-Inception song and dance number that I will for lack of its actual title call Never Be Afraid to Dream.

    The staging eschews the cinematic, multimedia integration common in today’s plays for a hands-on, low-tech approach in which stage hands costumed to match the walls shift props (sometimes still carrying actors) in full view and ‘animate’ scene transition cards. The playing is broad in parts, occasionally directed to the audience, and the tone often sits somewhere between David Lynch and student union camp. For me these wide, not to say wild, variations limited my enjoyment. Those writers of the 1950s and 60s were clearly in touch with the human condition, their prescience aside, but it might have been better to take a more serious view of the material and across fewer threads. Yet it is perhaps the most thoughtful comment of the entire piece that also encapsulates the true intention of adapter and director: imagination, a character observes, is welcomed in children but discouraged in adults.

    Hundreds of years ago Englishman Robert Herrick’s poem Dreams came to a similar conclusion, confirming the power of the unconscious and the freedom that it can produce:

    Here we are all, by day; by night we`re hurled

    By dreams, each one, into a several world.

    -----------------

    The Twilight Zone, based on stories by Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, adapted by Anne Washburn and directed by Richard Jones, continues at the Almeida Theatre, London N1 until 27 January

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  • Bricks & Words #12: ‘Secrets of the Walls’

    Stockholm town hall perches dramatically on a rocky outcrop jutting into Riddarfjärden bay. A tall bell tower topped with the national symbol of three golden crowns forms a fitting landmark for a maritime country. Closer-to, arched Gothic windows, delicate pinnacles and gilded statues recollect styles of old, whilst bricked-up doorways and extensions in different brick speak of centuries of incremental development. And yet all of this is a carefully crafted architectural fiction, because the entire building – ‘old’ and ‘new’ parts, changes in materials, pseudo-mediaeval touches and all – was built between 1911 and 1923 to a single, unified design. The result is one of the most compelling and beguiling civic structures in Europe.

    Architecturally, Scandinavia in general and Sweden in particular led the world between the wars. Libraries, hospitals and other public buildings combined rational, Modernist layouts and geometric shapes with minimalist but carefully-designed details, these often demonstrating traditional craft skills. The results were widely admired and published extensively and globally. This led to them becoming inspirations for others, most famously, London transport’s director Frank Pick and head architect Charles Holden. They modeled the latter’s new stations for the Underground’s new lines on what they found in Sweden, the Netherlands and elsewhere, using the same concept of simple platonic volumes and restricted detail.

    It is, then, something of a surprise to find Ragnar Östberg creating a richly textured, ready-made history for his new town hall, with layer upon layer of convincing yet utterly manufactured accretions built into his design from the start. The explanation lies in the perceived need to gift his homeland with a prefabricated mythology, which in turn gave rise to the architectural style dubbed National Romantic. To that end, Östberg incorporated authentic-seeming historic touches into the fabric of his brand new building, each calculated to convey a sense of heritage and time. This begins with the very earth on which the building stands, since the naturalistic rock terrace is entirely man-made. On it, a four-posted freestanding cenotaph commemorates national founder Birger Jarl, King Arthur watching over the city – and by extension the nation’s – inhabitants. The arcade facing the water is derived from the Doge’s Palace in Venice, once a great sea-faring power itself. Within the courtyards, those clever touches of simulated age include fake repairs, walls that half-obscure ‘previous’ features and pavements laid over pavements… at the same time, add an extra level of verisimilitude – at least, as seen by the desinger.

    Both the building and Rikard Larsson’s superb book tells the story of, and is unmissable for anyone with an interest in what architecture can do and can mean.

    ‘Secrets of the Walls: A Guide to Stockholm City Hall’ by Rikard Larsson (Bokförlaget Langenskiöld, 2011)

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  • Bricks & Words #11: 'Hollow Land'

    When you hear the term ‘occupied territories’ on the news, what do you think that means? I don’t mean politically, but spatially – how does one nation control another’s territory whilst stopping short of actual war? Israeli-born architect Eyal Weizman’s astonishing book provides some of the answers.

    This is a forensic (and I use the word advisedly, since the techniques Weizman employs here have subsequently been brought to bear on war crimes investigations) dissection of the methods and technologies deployed by the Israeli government and armed forces to ensure nothing moves into, out of or to a large extent around Palestinian lands without good reason. Weizman explores every physical and electronic dimension of the situation, including but by no means limited to its architecture – though this last includes a fascinating exploration of how cladding material and style is used on new settlements to create symbolic links to a culture that is actually elsewhere. Transport, utilities, planning, security, surveillance, actual war fighting where this has happened and – it’s important to note – solutions (that expand, deliriously, into the three dimensional) to the thorny two-state problem are all looked at. This is one of the best books about the built environments people create you’ll ever read.

    ‘Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation’ by Eyal Weizman (Verso, 2007)

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  • Spies like us: 'Callan at 50', 'Sixties Spies and Beyond'

    The secret agent has been a fixture in popular fiction since the novels of Conrad, Childers and Le Queux, and the genre eagerly embraced film and television as each of those media arrived. The 1960s, especially, saw an explosion (sorry) of espionage on the small screen, and the BFI Southbank caught the mood of those times at the weekend. A late episode of Callan starring Edward Woodward was followed by a panel discussion, a super-compilation of clips from a dozen different programmes of the period both reminded and introduced the audience to a wide range of interpretations,and the thoughts of veteran critic Kim Newman and equally long-serving BFI programmer Dick Fiddy prompted debate. Open Channel D please…

    The centrepiece of the weekend – itself part of the ‘Who can You Trust?’ season of British thrillers at the BFI – was ‘Suddenly - At Home’, first screened in 1970 and thus one of the more mature Callan stories. It was written by the series’ creator, James Mitchell, and saw the eponymous agent of Section tasked with dissuading a widow from taking part in a documentary about her late husband’s governmental work. A simple mission turns complex, however, when Callan falls for Lady Lewis and clashes with his colleague Cross (a well-named character if ever there was one). The true intentions of film-maker Joinville are also suspect, whilst Callan and Cross’s boss, Hunter may have motives of his own when tasking his men.

    Having never seen an example of the programme before, this was for me a perfect introduction. Mitchell’s script was tight, convincing and involving, and contained with some sharp digs at the circumstances – assumed and actual – of the main participants. The repetition of a single word of dialogue (“Promise?”) evidenced its poignancy and power – the episode’s title, a then-common phrase in obituary columns, hints at the reason. Michaell’s son Peter, present on the panel that followed the screening, noted how his father’s anti-establishment leanings were given voice in the series and, in response to a question about another writer in the field, pointed out that “Le Carre didn’t write characters like Callan, he wrotecharacters like Hunter!” The two bursts of violence in the programme were surprisingly powerful even in the context of today’s far more permissiveenvironment, a measure of the skills of writer and director.

    This last was Piers Haggard, who also joined the panel and who has directed films and television productions as varied as Pennies from Heaven, the final Quatermass production and cult horror Blood on Satan’s Claw. With this Callan episode, Haggard’s desire to “make it feel like a movie” as he put it was immediately apparent in an opening shot that tracked through the set, involved several actors in speaking roles and paused to view the action through the glass prisms of a merit award before moving on, all accomplished in one shot lasting around half a minute; ambitious indeed in a studio-bound drama of the time. Shooting through glass actually introduced another of Haggard’s self-confessed favourite devices, and mirrors were used several times in the episode to advance the action. Haggard described how shooting into reflective surfaces keeps two actors conveniently facing the camera, but this is disingenuous since it was notable how he deployed this as subtly and selectively as any other camera effect – elsewhere in the episode the opening of one mirrored bathroom cabinet door actually isolated the remaining figure as a reflection in the closed half. “The other thing about mirrors,” he added, “is that a thing becomes something else, becomes something else, becomes something else… it’s a way of progressing[the action] without changing [the shot]. Elaborating after the screening, Haggard said to me that in this way “you only use the cut when you want to.” Equally impressive was Haggard’s careful placement of actors within the depth of the frame in certain interior shots to create spatial interest, selective focus being used in one instance to add even more texture. Usually encountered only in widescreen cinematography, this was again a mature and visually adept approach for such an intimate (a 4:3 aspect ratio applied) and domestic (most interiors were offices or flats) setting.Haggard also told me of how he would work with the set designer for each production, ensuring for example the presence of “camera traps” to enable these difficult shots to be obtained. That all of this was achieved in a production schedule of just two days is astonishing.

    Prompted by the clip package, the second discussion explored the range of interpretations the genre received across the decade in question. Comparing and contrasting and noting the crossovers with westerns, war films and so on was fascinating. The roots of ‘Spy Fi’ were found by some in the gadgets of the period (which themselves derive from the escape aids Allied air crews were furnished with during the last war), but overlooked was surely the impact of the Space Age. That almost all of Gerry Anderson’s puppet series engaged the genre in some way was noted; indeed, one of the more enjoyable adventures of Thunderbirds, 'The Cham-Cham', sees Lady Penelope and Tin-Tin decamp to a ski resort in the Alps to investigate military sabotage. A useful difference was established between the tenor and tone of episodic spy stories in the US versus the UK, the one being predominantly the caper and the other tending toward the mole – reflecting, one assumes, the national character traits. The success or otherwise of big screen adaptations was covered at some length, albeit with few solid

    conclusions being drawn. And, lengthy thought the clips montage was, all acknowledged that still more programmes had been omitted. The likes of C.A.T.S. Eyes, The Americans, Now & Again and Alias, the last two of which are perhaps the most obvious inheritors of the Sixties vibe, would have also fulfilled the ‘beyond’ of the session title and filled the gap before Spooks (which was mentioned) and its ilk arrived.

    As it is, the enduring obsession we viewers have with those who work in the shadows is likely to continue.

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  • Bricks & Words #10: ‘Skidmore, Owings & Merrell’

    For many Modernist architects, as well as fans of Modern architecture, SOM were THE practice of the post-war era. Synonymous with the purpose-built homes of America’s corporate giants from the 1940s, 50s and 60s, the firm’s cutting-edge designs set new standards and epitomised a peacetime economy given a boost by the disciplines of war, including organisational research, new technology and European minds. This handsome books is the perfect summary of those Mad Men years.

    Adams captures – in solid prose and superb archive images – the many icons that emerged from the pens of Gordon Bunshaft, Bruce Graham and the rest. The startlingly open jewel box of a bank for Manufacturers Trust on 43rd Street and Fifth Avenue in New York amazes even today, with its great circular vault door hovering behind a sheet-glass façade as if inviting customers to have a go. Soaring into the rarefied air of Colorado Springs, the wing-like chapel for the US Air Force seems ready to fly alongside its worshipers’ aircraft. Stone was made to glow with translucency at the Beinicke Library for Yale. The and Hajj Terminal at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdul Aziz International Airport merges Western with Eastern to astonishing effect. A reminder of a time when architecture really did seem to have all the answers.

    Skidmore, Owings & Merrell: SOM since 1936 (alt. title pictured) by Nicholas Adams (Electa architecture, 2006)

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  • Bricks & Words #9: ‘Le Corbusier’

    Arguably the world’s most famous post-war architect, Chales Edouard Jeanneret-Gris adopted a persona, name - ‘Crow-like one’ - and profile that aided this tremendously, even without his genuinely iconic architecture. His ideas informed more than one generation of practitioners and continue to have relevance today.

    This compact book by legendary architect, critic and lecturer Kenneth Frampton remains one of the best short guides to this man available. It outlines the important works, his life and the impact of both and is tied together beautifully with Frampton’s accessible but intelligent text.

    ‘Le Corbusier’ by Kenneth Frampton (Thames & Hudson, 2001)

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  • Bricks & Words #8: ‘The City of London - A record of destruction and survival ‘

    With the Square Mile devastated after the Blitz, economic and societal recovery was paramount. Charles Holden and William Holford’s partnership saw architect and planner working to create a new vision of a new City of London, cognizant of tradition but eager to embrace the future. Their joint plan was introduced to the wider public through this book, a landmark in public engagement.

    Written in what we would now call an accessible tone, it is split into sections. One is a concise history of the Thames and the City and its particular situation and practices, with emphasis on the specialised nature of its business and the buildings needed to contain it. The plan itself sets out – again, in a readable manner – the technical detail of the complex new calculations of size, volume and floor space that would be allowed under rebuilding. This and the formal report to the Corporation (also included) hint at the building types that might, as they saw it, emerge from the rational, Modernist thinking that then prevailed.

    Best of all, though, is an extraordinary chapter envisaging a walk through the City in perhaps 20 years’ time, illustrated by Gordon Cullen’s exquisite colour plates of the architecture and landscaping envisaged. Broad avenues, elevated roads with parking below, sunken pedestrianised concourses lined with shops and services, maritime-themed observation points from which to watch the river traffic – still very much industrialised – and small courtyards and spaces made from ruins and historic buildings all feature. Exceptional and indispensable.

    ‘The City of London - A record of destruction and survival’ by C.H. Holden and W.G. Holford (Architectural Press, 1951)

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  • Bridge of size

    Last night’s edition of BBC television’s Countryfile contained a fascinating item on the abandoned suite of rooms hidden within the Grand Bridge at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire. Designed by the architect of that great early 18th century house to carry the main approach road over the Glyme river and up to the front door, it featured the same Neoclassical styling as the Palace. Inside, it contained an ingenious variety of spaces intended for summer entertaining but if you visit the house today, you’ll find the bridge half-submerged in water.

    Blenheim Palace was built as a gift to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, on the instructions of Queen Anne following his victorious command of Allied forces at the Battle of Blindheim (Anglicized to Blenheim) on 13 August 1704. Fought as part of the War of the Spanish Succession, which ended ten years later, the battle saw a key defeat of French and Bavarian forces and helped secure Spanish territory for the Grand Alliance against the claims of Louis XIV.

    The monarch’s grant of a manor and funds for a new house must surely rate as one of the most generous in history. Marlborough was already 54, and quickly engaged the soldier, playwright and architect John Vanbrugh to build the vast, severely masculine Baroque house that exists today. It did, though, emerge from a campaign of construction marked by almost as much effort, reversal and blood as the fight on the continent; Sarah, the Duchess, frequently and famously clashed with Vanbrugh over the cost and details of the works and all three – client, wife and architect – ultimately fell out with the Queen as a result. That the house and its surroundings stand today as one of the most perfect ensembles of British architecture is thus something of a miracle.

    The Grand Bridge seems to have reflected this sometimes painful path in miniature, although that isn’t the word to describe its actual size. Over 400’ long and with a main arch 100’ wide, it was to have been 80’ high until Sarah vetoed both the balustrade and towers that topped the main span in Vanbrugh’s plan. Some panels of ‘frostwork’ or rustication were omitted from the external decorative scheme, but the remaining corbels, quoins and keystones were executed as planned. Internally the Duchess counted – somewhat sniffily, it seems – thirty three rooms, which included some with fireplaces and chimneys. It seems that the large room reached by boat in last night’s programme must be the ‘windowless chamber [… plastered and fitted with an elliptical arch as though for a theatre’ referred to in some descriptions.

    The bridge’s lofty rooms were to be entered quite easily in those days, from the banks of what was originally a modest body of water passing under it. The bridge was also not fully integrated with the land at either end for some time. Rubble and earth from the levelling of a small hill with the estate’s original ruined manor house on it – which dated to Henry I’s time and into which Vanbrugh had moved, much to Sarah’s annoyance) was eventually used to properly landscape the ends of the bridge into he sides of the existing river valley.

    Marlborough and Vanbrugh died within a few years of each other. It was Sarah who briefed another gardener on what Vanbrugh had intended, which led to a kind of interim stage for the gardens before Capability Brown came on the scene. A small lake to the east of the Grand Bridge fed formal canals under it, and a steam engine in one of the rooms pumped water up to the big cistern that sits over the east gate of the house. Only when Brown arrived and doubled the lake by damming the Glyme was the lower level of the bridge submerged. Its walls were re-cased to withstand the water, but its rooms, spiral staircases and corridors – all of which I was fascinated to hear of yesterday, though I was actually aware of the rooms’ basic story – were lost.

    It seems that stabilisation and restoration is the aim of the scanning project that yielded the absorbing wire-frame digital models seen in the item; no public access is intended. As such the bridge will

    remain as it has for the last three centuries, an architectural folly in the landscape of Brown’s Blenheim park. This is something of an irony given its past, but I suspect it must have pleased Brown. He employed tremendous slight-of-hand in enacting his desire to ‘recreate elements of idealized classical landscapes (especially as represented in the paintings of Claude and Poussin) in an English context, and in an English idiom’, as one academic has written. This ranged from planting trees to disguise the fact that a single ‘lake’ was actually two or three entirely separate bodies of water to using more greenery as a theatrical curtain of sorts, to be dramatically drawn aside by the progress of a carriage along a carefully-planned path to reveal the main house. Being able to appropriate an existing bridge with nothing more than the gentle rise of water must have seemed like Queen Anne’s gift had found another recipient.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays make up this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item is presented as a concise text that can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own full-colour collage-style spread. Now available, 30-Second Paris is a must for any lover of the world's most visited city.

The Ivy Press, 2018

Hardback, 160 pages | ISBN 9781782405443

£14.99

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