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Thursday, February 09, 2006


Books that aren’t quite books…

Today I speak for some of the pimples on the behind of the Greek statue that is the world's literature. While we might like to come over all la-de-da and talk about how we admire the classics, and the latest Pullitzer prizers and what not, there is part of us which questions who it is that makes the decisions about what is classical, and exactly why. This is almost certainly the part of us which wants to justify reading works that some may deem to be trashy. Things that are actually popular and therefore, by some reckonings, utterly stupid.

And what could be more tacky and crass than the novelisation? The name itself tells us it is supposed as neither a novel nor film, but some unmentionable half-caste. There is no reason why these can't be afforded the status of classics - now and again. The writing is usually tight, having been through the original scripting process and then prepared for publication as a book; the humble novelisation has been filtered many, many times before it reaches you. Two firmly footed the 1970s that reached me recently, Upstairs Downstairs or The Secrets of an Edwardian Household by John Hawkesworth and Doctor Who: Verdigris by Paul Magrs. Both are based on BBC TV shows popular in their time. It was during a brief trip home, raking through the ten-cent bins in the second-hand book shop, when I found these gems.

Upstairs Downstairs is the story of a wealthy Edwardian Tory politician and cabinet wanna-be and his family who live in a huge house, and the enslaved working classes below them (downstairs, you see), who toil loyally and patriotically, and you might argue, a little stupidly. Their job is to scrub and cook and minister to the needs of their upstairs masters, and not to question their station in life too much. It is not as though they have much option, mind you, there is a depression on and its hard to find work at all for those downstairs. This story moves along quickly (judging by my internet research, ten television episodes, the first which was written by novelist Fay Weldon, have been condensed into 220 pages). It is a Victorian roller-coaster ride, mainly across all the usual soapy territory, including love and jealousy. The writing is clear and clean and very much a product of the seventies. Yet it speaks across the ages and across cultures about the power that some classes hold over others.

It is most interesting to be in Korea one hundred years after the book is set and see some frightening parallels not only between class structure, but in the political culture and how important it is to maintain one's breeding, and the even more scary attitudes of the wives of privilege who don't really get out a lot. Along the way there are many fascinating little pieces of authorial research which serve as insights into the way things were done which may have been missing if it actually was written in 1905. How the servants would spend their days cleaning their master's portraits with cucumbers dipped in vinegar, for instance.

And then there's the countless, and ultimately pointless, layers upon layers of clothing that the women in nobility had to struggle into and out of, several times a day. If this was published today with a decent cover and without any mention that it was a novelisation to people who are unaware that it was ever a TV series, it could find its way onto today's bestseller lists. You just never know.

Now, while I'm almost certain it is unknown in Korea, I also feel pretty confident that a golden age in U.K. television was roughly 1970-1985, in particular on the BBC. I know that 'cos that's what I watched, it makes up a big part of what was beamed into my home as I grew up in New Zealand. Whatever samples from this era you may come across, even those that do not hold up well by today's production standards, have some indefinable attraction to them. Frequently it is because the appalling badness in special effects is in turns breathtaking and absorbing.

The Goodies was a popular surreal Britcom in the seventies. The outrageously tacky special effects were part of the appeal. Anyone can tell you, let alone those who were there at the time, that the much more serious pioneering science fiction/horror/fantasy(etc) TV series Doctor Who had effects which were scarcely more convincing. However, the barriers to the imagination were few. And you did need good imagination to convince yourself that yes, that is an alien, not just some guy in a jumpsuit. And that zip is just some kind of...bodily organ that you need when you're an alien. The youngsters of today with their Matrix and other Hollywoodly fare just wouldn't understand.

Doctor Who, since its inception in 1963, was always exciting in principle, even when it got boring. It is still being made, and that really is not much of a surprise. It's not as though you could run out of ideas. You have the mysterious Doctor, a man who can neatly change his appearance to explain any change in actor, can also travel the universe in a time machine with a hundreds of rooms more on the inside than its tiny police box exterior would lead you to believe (a police box was a policeman's phone booth). You have one story set in the swinging seventies, replete with flares and afros and the requisite psychedelia, then next we are on some distant god-forsaken world, and in the next it is Conan Doyle's London, with its fog and its hansom cabs, and now we're in the distant future - the year 2000 - where the people are flicking switches and twiddling knobs on their hourly telepress sets.

Doctor Who continues publication today in book form, and there are now apparently over 400 novels in this series. Verdigris is technically neither a novelisation nor written in the 1970s, though it does seem like it. And it is nice to reaquaint oneself with that delicious brew of horror, humour and arrant weirdness. My favourite bit is where the policeman, just a simple and long-suffering copper, after a long day of countless incidents of horror at a haunted house, is reassured by the Doctor's young friend that no more weird stuff would happen. And then a double-decker bus, which is actually a time machine belonging to one of the Doctor's acquaintances, materialises out of thin air in front of them. "...But you promised!" wailed the distraught policeman. Ah yes, stuff that would put Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to shame, perhaps.

Surely it is only a matter of time before some bigwig in the industry will stumble across these two books in the ten-cent barrel and think what great film and television they would make.

J.D. Newman
this writing first appeared in Update no. 29 September 20, 2004


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