The Man in the Rubber Mask – Robert Llewellyn

Continuing my August theme of autobiographies by British sci-fi actors and writers and in complete contrast to last week’s Who on Earth is Tom Baker this book by Robert Llewellyn spends almost all its time talking about the making of Red Dwarf and also includes the update that was most missed in last weeks book. This, effectively second volume, added to the original from 1994 takes the total page count up to 341 rather than the 191 occupied by its first iteration and also the story from series five and the failed American pilot through to series ten and the return of Red Dwarf as a hopefully regular event. This updated edition was published by Unbound in 2013 so nineteen years after his original volume and because it concentrates on the subject implied by the cover is a considerably more interesting read for the sci-fi fan than Tom Baker’s book, although that was fun for different reasons.

For those not familiar with the series Red Dwarf is a very long running British comedy sci-fi programme set on a spaceship three million years in the future with a sole surviving human crew member along with a hologram of another of the crew created by the ships computer so that Lister doesn’t go mad. There is also The Cat, a humanoid descendent of a cat smuggled onto the ship by Lister three million years ago and the reason why he was placed into stasis as a punishment back then and why he survived the radiation leak which killed everyone else on the ship. Holly, the ship’s computer, decided not to end Lister’s stasis punishment until the radiation had fallen to a safe level, hence the millions of years leap in time.

Although the robot Kryten was introduced in series two of Red Dwarf it was supposedly a one episode appearance. however when the decision was made to bring him back in the next series as a regular character the original actor, David Ross, was no longer available and Robert Llewellyn was cast as his replacement so the book starts with series three when Llewellyn was involved. It is worth noting that at the end of almost every series it is clear from Llewellyn’s writing that there is no expectation by cast or writers that there will be another so the fact that in 2020 the feature length story ‘The Promised Land’ was first broadcast, thirty two years after series one and two and half years after the previous series twelve went out is a continuing surprise to everyone involved especially after the ten year gap between series eight and ‘Back to Earth’ which was retrospectively counted as series nine. Throughout the book Llewellyn provides considerable detail regarding the shooting of every episode which means he must have kept a diary as he is regularly bemoaning his lack of memory for his lines and refers to the rest of the cast as ‘proper actors’ who can actually remember what they are supposed to be doing. In fact he is particularly struck by Craig Charles’s apparent ability to remember a script after one or two basic read throughs. As the only member of the British cast to be involved in the disastrous, and never broadcast, American remake he also provides considerable insights as to how that went which actually seemed fine at the time once a usable script was produced.

There have been various lengthy gaps between series where Llewellyn has been up to various other writing, performing and filming opportunities including the eleven years of hosting Scrapheap Challenge on Channel 4 when it looked like Red Dwarf was finally over. These are covered including what the other cast members were up to during these breaks but the book is largely concerned with Red Dwarf so although it could be read and enjoyed by somebody who has never seen the show ideally you need to have seen some if not all of the seventy three episodes and one full length TV movie. Needles to say I have…

As a side note seeing that the page count has gone up by 150, albeit with some blank pages around the start of the new section there is considerably more than 43.17% more smeg (see caption bottom right on the cover) which is roughly the figure you get if you divide the new printed pages by the total printed pages but which clearly isn’t the correct calculation as there are 148 new pages beyond the 191 original so in reality 77.49% more smeg. If you don’t know what smeg is you aren’t a Red Dwarf fan, suffice to say it is the word used instead of swearing in the scripts. This obvious, and to mathematicians mildly annoying, error is about the only bad thing I can say about the book, it was an excellent read and highly informative about not only the practical making of the shows and Robert’s regular moaning about the rubber prosthetics he had to wear for the part (which he keeps apologising for doing) but also gives an insight into the genius of Rob Grant and Doug Naylor the creators, writers and producers of the show.

Longhand – Andy Hamilton

Andy Hamilton is best known as a comedy script writer and actor for TV and radio and his shows have been a constant favourite of mine since he started in the 1970’s especially the BBC Radio 4 long running series Old Harry’s Game which he writes and stars in as Satan. Not a particularly obvious subject for humour but as always with Hamilton he finds a new way of looking at the character and that is what imbues him with comedy. In this book, his second novel, he takes another mythological character and brings him to life in a surprising way telling his story and allowing him to debunk a lot of the myth around him.

We first meet our hero, for hero he is even if he doesn’t like it and for reasons that swiftly become clear he shuns publicity as much as he can, frantically writing a very long letter to the woman he loves because he has to leave her and for the first time in thousands of years feels that he has to tell her why. As you can see below the joy of the book is that we get the letter, the whole book, all 349 pages of it, is handwritten, with crossings out and edits just as Malcolm would have written it.

The reader finds out almost immediately that Malcolm is actually Heracles and has lived for thousands of years always having to move on as firstly he never ages so starts to look odd to people who know him for a long time but secondly, and as it turns out more importantly, Zeus is determined he will never be happy and has tormented him throughout the millennia. The letter he writes to his darling Bess over a period of three days is funny yet also tragic; it is without doubt a love letter but also a confession and Hamilton handles the emotional roller coaster perfectly. I found myself reading late into the night as I simply didn’t want to stop finding out more about Malcolm and Bess and the ways that he tries to disguise his enormous strength and immortality from all those around them.

I have read many versions of the Greek myths so knew Heracles’s story but it isn’t necessary to know any of that before reading this book, Hamilton takes us right through the tales mainly so Malcolm can explain why they are so wrong and what really happened. It’s a brilliant idea and, to me at least, a completely original approach to mythological story telling, Malcolm is so ordinary because he has to be but his back story is one of wanton destruction and tragedy, he so despises that aspect of his early life and just wants to be ‘normal’. With Bess he has found that normality he craves but as the letter explains he is being forced to abandon the happiness he now has and at a truly awful point in time.

By the end of the book you are totally invested in the tragic love story of Malcolm and Bess, a tale that fit right in with the classical Greek mythology that Hamilton has mined for his characters’ source. We never hear from Bess in the whole book, other characters are reported verbatim but Bess is always heard through the medium of Malcolm’s letter as he explains what had just happened in the hope that she will forgive him. Fortunately we know right from the beginning that she does and that she still loves him as there is one other letter included right at the front and that is typewritten ostensibly from a firm of solicitors to the publisher. I read this first as that is where it is placed but rereading it after finishing Malcolm’s letter you understand it better.

The book is published by Unbound, a crowd funded publishing house, and I subscribed to it before Andy Hamilton even started to write, based partly on the pitch that he made on the site but also as a fan of his work over many decades I knew that he would produce something well worth reading and he has certainly delivered. As a subscriber I received a signed copy on publication and my name is in the list of around five hundred people who supported the work through to publication.

The Plagiarist in the Kitchen – Jonathan Meades

I first came across Jonathan Meades through his highly idiosyncratic TV documentaries where he was always dressed as shown on the cover of this volume, all in black with black sunglasses. He would talk direct to the camera whilst totally ignoring something going on behind him or alternatively somebody else would be talking to the camera and he would appear in the background apparently having little connection to what was being said. The films looked spontaneous precisely because they weren’t, everything was tightly scripted and performed with an artifice unique to Meades. The person on screen was not Meades as he really was it was Meades acting a character of himself and presenting the sort of intelligent TV that rarely gets made today. I later found out that The Times newspaper had employed him as a restaurant critic for fifteen years so seeing that in 2017 he had written a cookbook made searching that out imperative. How would the Jonathan Meades I knew and loved from his many programmes approach cooking. The answer, it turned out, was uniquely and also filled with his dry wit, in short exactly as I hoped.

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Meades explains the title by stating that all recipes are theft, they all come from somebody, even if you add to or alter them in some way, there is really only so many ways to cook something and they have all been done. This is more than a cookbook it is a cookery philosophy and also assumes that the reader has an understanding of cooking in that a lot of the recipes don’t actually have quantities to the ingredients. The only times that quantities are given is when it is essential to get the balance right such as avoiding a sloppy batter, or getting the right balance of flavours such as with gayettes (French style faggots). Other than that there may be hints, such as don’t use too much celery or carrot in a mirepoix because both can dominate. Some of the recipes can barely be called such.

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Simplicity is everything. But when he needs a more complex approach it can also be found here, cassoulet for instance takes four pages, most of which is actually involved with cooking the dish.  What you definitely do get is a healthy dose of advice, such as his instructions for making risotto.

What you do with the rice is more important than where it comes from
What you do is keep patient
What you do is stay put whilst it’s cooking
What you don’t do is slip outside for a gasper with the other snoutcasts
What you don’t do is include wine. It adds nothing

Do not get carried away stirring, cooking is not therapy

One of the joys of the book are Meades epigrams, which can be pearls of wisdom or just plain funny. Just a few from the section on oils will give a flavour of what to expect

  • Extra-virgin might be a desirable quality in nuns … but applied to olive oil it is close to meaningless
  • Various degrees of chastity have spread to other oils
  • Duck fat – Much cheaper than goose fat and virtually indistinguishable.
  • Toasted sesame – Asian dishes are for consuming, not for preparing. It is futile to steal what you can’t understand
  • Beef dripping – Delicious on toast … Good for chips and Yorkshire pudding and anything else that comes from north of the Trent

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The recipes are definitely practical and I will certainly be cooking a few with the exception of the fig and ham tart which ends

Leave to cool
Taste
Chuck in bin

This was Meades attempt a creating a dish and as he says the reasoning behind it appeared sound at the start but…

Only the doltishly insentient, the immemoriously recidivist, the sociopathic and the smug regret nothing. I no doubt belong, in this instance, to one of those unhappy categories by not regretting having invented this dish. I do not regret it because it was a warning. Never create when you can steal. Never enter a restaurant that advertises its ‘cuisine d’auteur’ or ‘creative cooking’.

But definitely do read this book.