Saturday 28 March 2009

Colonel Potter's love of westerns

As I'm starting to get into the mood to watch American 1970s sitcom M*A*S*H again, I've been reminded of Colonel Potter. This character, as played by veteran actor Harry Morgan, was the only main character in the series I didn't like. It's probably not his fault as I tended to find him annoying when he turned up in western films and shouted a lot for no good reason.

The main problem though was that he took over command of the M*A*S*H unit from Henry Blake, one of my favourite sitcom characters. For the first three seasons of the series Blake, who essentially wandered around in a clueless fog while avoiding making decisions, was the perfect comic creation. The actor's timing was astounding, especially when giving orders to Radar, a man who can predict exactly what Blake is going to say and do before being given the order.

Blake was less successful at pretending to be drunk or clumsy, which he had to do in every episode, but when he left the series and was written out by being killed off, he traumatised viewers, probably for all time. I know I've still not got over it!

So to replace Blake was an impossible task and in fairness they didn't try. This was one of the strengths of the series and it probably helps to explain why it ran for so long. The womanizing Trapper was replaced with the family-man BJ. The bumbling idiot Frank Burns was replaced with the skilled but pompous Winchester, and Hotlips in a bad move was replaced with Margaret Houlihan, but I digress.

So for the new commander of the unit in season four we got the opposite of the permanently bemused Blake in the form of army career officer and former cavalryman Potter. Sadly for continuity obsessives like me this ignored the fact that the actor had played a barking-mad general in an episode of season three.

Potter was a version of the Harry Morgan western role of the old cowboy who yells a lot and says Horse Hockey. I never found a single thing he did amusing or found his character particularly believable as such a stickler for discipline would never cope with the rest of the characters and their antics. But I did like it that he read westerns. In fact, unless anyone can tell me otherwise, I don’t think any other series character has ever been shown so often engrossed in a western novel nor so often been heard to say how much he loves reading a good western. For the record his favourite writer was Zane Grey.

Potter's finest western moment came in the episode Movie Tonight. For my money this is the best episode of M*A*S*H as it perfectly distilled everything the series was about. In it, the doctors and nurses are more depressed than is usual after a lull in the fighting leaves them sitting around getting on each others' nerves. So to cheer them up Potter hires his favourite western movie My Darling Clementine for the whole unit to see.

Nobody is particularly enthused and they attend the film in a bad mood. When the film keeps breaking down it only adds to everyone's annoyance. So to while away the time while Klinger rethreads the film they recreate the OK Corral shootout, Hotlips sings, Radar does some movie-star impressions, and generally all the actors and actresses do their little party pieces.

Despite everything, everyone ends up having a good time. This is the only youtube clip I could find of this episode, including the sublime punchline where Frank Burns, with impeccable timing and a complete disregard for the prevailing spirit, chips in with his own verse:

Hawkeye and B.J. think they're pretty smart. I'd like to take a scalpel and stab them in the heart.

So all together now : I don't want no more of Army life, gee, Ma, I want to go home.

Saturday 21 March 2009

Tucker from Citizen Smith

This is the first in a series of occasional articles celebrating a few less well-documented western moments. Some might be well-known, some less so, most perhaps ought to be forgotten, and all add absolutely nothing to the rich history of the western, but they have entertained me.

The first subject is the character of Tucker from British sitcom Citizen Smith, a cowboy so obscure I had to scan my dvd to get an image of the actor Tony Millan.
The British sitcom ran in the late 1970s and was the first work by popular tv writer John Sullivan, the man behind such standard British classics as the unfortunately never-off-the-tv Only Fools and Horses and the sadly never-on-the-tv Dear John. I think the appeal of his shows lies in that they usually feature 'ordinary' working people at the bottom of the pile, rather than the middle-class angst-ridden characters in most British sitcoms or the successful high-achievers of American sitcoms.

I have mixed feelings about most of his comedies, but I did enjoy the earlier work of Citizen Smith, a show that appears to have been largely forgotten, despite the fact that its subject matter is, as they say, as relevant today as it was then, perhaps even more so. In it Wolfie Smith is a low-life, a marxist revolutionary determined to smash the establishment and herald in a workers' paradise.
Not surprisingly the workers' champion doesn't actually work himself. And despite being in essence a terrorist he keeps our sympathy by the fact that he's a bumbling fool, whose plans always fail. In his attempts to bring in the Glorious Day, he's helped by his long-suffering girlfriend (or at least he was until their real-life marriage ended and she left the show), his Buddhist chum Ken, a Nazi thug Speed, and Tucker, the cowboy.

Tucker was the only character I particularly remember from when it was first shown 30 odd years ago, although having seen it again on dvd recently I'm not sure why. Throughout the whole run, Tucker wears cowboy clothes. I must have missed the explanation at the time as I'd often wondered why (well, not that often!). But in the first episode the explanation is that he works at a Wild West restaurant, serving John Wayne Steaks and Alamo Burgers. Why he dressed as a cowboy the rest of the time was explained in the final season as simply, he enjoyed it.

The joke, as such, was that for a character who dresses as a rough, tough Wild West cowpoke, he's completely the opposite. He's always the first to run away, always voting against any of Wolfie's schemes if they sound in the least bit dangerous, and he speaks every single line with either a dreary dull tone or a scared and shaking one. Oh and the other Tucker joke is his vast family of at least 9 children. Although in an early outing for that perennial favourite sitcom joke, we never get to see his wife, but we do get to hear a catalogue of bizarre things about her.

I'm not saying this is a classic series, but it did manage about 30 laughs during its 30 episodes, which is a high rate for British sitcoms. And it did include a rare cowboy character on a British-made tv series, even if the reason wasn't a particularly good one.

Anyhow, I struggled to find a youtube clip from the show (proving I guess that it is a forgotten show) but found this, which by Sod's Law has to be the only moment in the whole series where Tucker isn't wearing a cowboy hat, but then again the 'plot' does call for it. Here the lads are busy trying to bring down civilization as we know it by hijacking a lift.

Tuesday 17 March 2009

What's in a name?

A few days ago I was close to finishing the first draft of The Miracle of Santa Maria. But I started to have doubts and I couldn't identify why. There's still a climactic gunfight to write, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to write it.

I thought my reticence had to do with the fact that the Pike's Peak eclipse had yet to play a significant part in that climax, but some further pondering identified the main problem. There was no bad guy in the story. And in a western this is admittedly a bit of an oversight on my part!

Well, there was a bad guy but I'd accidentally killed him off in chapter 8, which I should have realized at the time was a bad idea. I thought of bringing him back from the dead (done that a few times!) but he was very dead and resurrecting him would have ruined a good scene. The answer therefore had to be to make him the not-quite-so-bad guy and add in a new main bad guy, but who and how and why?

No particular answer came to me until I remembered the interview author Ray Foster conducted on his author day (details in the Black Horse Express magazine). He related how he'd come about naming a character in his most recent western. A debate had been underway on the BHW discussion group about naming characters and I'd offered the view that a Felicity couldn't be a feisty heroine. To prove she could Ray cast his main female character in Lawman as a Felicity, and ensured she was very feisty indeed.

I couldn't remember the full debate we'd had at the time and I rooted around to see if I could find the original post where I offered that opinion. I didn't find it but I seem to remember that I also said that Thaddeus could never be a bad guy, or a hero for that matter.

So I reckoned if one author was up for the challenge so could I, and so yesterday Thaddeus T. Thackenbacker the Third was born. He's debonair, stylish, witty and all the things a Thaddeus should never be. And he's the new bad guy in the novel, even though nobody's told him that with a name like that he can’t be!

Friday 13 March 2009

Blurb for Riders of the Barren Plains

I received the galleys for Riders of the Barren Plains this morning (essentially the finished book without the cover), so I'll be reading it through this weekend. This is always a bit of a worrying time for me. It's usually about 9 months or so since the last time I thought about the book, and although it felt like a good enough story to send to the publisher at the time, it's by no means certain that it'll still feel such a good idea with the benefit of hindsight. Reading it through really will feel like the first time and I'll either end up enjoying the story or I'll be sitting there with my head in my hands wondering who wrote this rubbish!

Anyhow, I got to see the finished blurb, which didn't look much different to what I suggested:

Jeff Steed rode into Carmon looking for work, but when he got caught up in a bank raid he found himself running from both Sheriff Cassidy Yates and the bank raider Blake Kelly. To escape from the net that was inexorably closing in on him he assumed the identity of a dead man. But as that man was the leader of a supply convoy, he had to undertake a hazardous journey across the Barren Plains to the silver miners at Bleak Point.

With the convoy being escorted by the lawman who had been trying to catch him and the bandit he double-crossed hiding out in the Barren plains, can Jeff ever hope to survive?

Sunday 8 March 2009

Critical Mass

The Miracle of Santa Anna has dragged itself over the 100 page mark (about 20,000 words). This landmark is always an exciting moment for me. When I write I use a page size and font type that approximately matches the size the text will be if it gets published. Hence my completed manuscript will aim to run for 160 pages, the standard length of the westerns I write. With that in mind getting to a hundred pages always feels like a big moment. Up until then I'm doodling away, thinking out ideas, seeing where the story might go, but after a 100 pages it's time to take stock of the nonsense I've been churning out.

At that stage things ought to be coming together. I should start to have an idea where the story will end up. The bit to write is less than the bit written and it should be just a matter of filling in some rapidly diminishing white space… So for the first time I properly read what I've put down and ask myself whether I think it's working. It's no big hardship if it hasn't, but it's the right time to think that through.

The things I look for are the basics. Does the story have a main hero? Does he want to achieve something? Is that achievement interesting? Are there plenty of obstacles in his path? Has he resolved some of those obstacles and are there more to come? And perhaps the biggest but hardest to define - as a reader would I want to read on?

If I get a lot of no answers to those questions and I can’t see why, I put the ms aside and leave it for a few months to get a fresh perspective. If I can see why it's not working then I start redrafting to rectify the problems. And if I get more yes answers than no answers I carry on.

Luckily Santa Maria feels like it's going somewhere as Fergal O'Brien wants to achieve something worthwhile (which is a first for him! Usually he's either aiming to make a fortune or save his own skin, but this time he's trying to help someone). He's resolved many of the obstacles in his way. Or so he thought as all his plans are just about to fail so badly I can't see myself how he'll get out the mess he's in, although I know it'll have something to do with the eclipse. So I want to read on to find out what happens, which means I'll have to write it.

I'm still worried about the nun with the gun though as she's not yet felt an urge to pick up a weapon. And she's getting romantically involved with Fergal's sidekick Randolph, which feels very un-nunlike, but I'll carry on and see where it leads me during the home stretch.

Wednesday 4 March 2009

Western apathy?

My contribution to fellow BHW writer Gary Dobbs' initiative this week of Wild West Monday (a promotional endeavour to raise awareness of westerns) was to set up the Black Horse Express blog. But I thought I'd also have a little dabble testing the water by mentioning westerns on a few entertainment forums, just to see what happened. I guess the answer was nothing.

The nearest to a bite came in a popular British entertainment chatroom where I asked whether anyone had read a western recently and if not, why not? (And bear in mind this is a place where if you post on a matter of major cultural concern such as: Grace from British reality tv show Big Brother was wrong to look at Nikki a little oddly on Day 23 of the show three years ago, then the result is that within minutes you'll be embroiled in a bitter argument with several dozen people). So what was the response?

I got three answers, all polite and well-written and without smilie faces. One person had read one and wasn't moved to read another. One person used to liked JT Edson, but hadn't read one for years. And another used to read a lot but hadn't for a long time. So there it is: all problems are an opportunity, and there's plenty of opportunity there. And on the plus side over a hundred people read the thread and nobody wrote in to say they hated westerns or to say they'd be better if they featured characters from Big Brother. Maybe next Wild West Monday I'll try to find a western / BB link!

Monday 2 March 2009

New Blog

The Black Horse Express now has a blog. As I say in its mission statement the intention is to try to keep abreast of all new information on Black Horse Westerns as it becomes available on the Net.

Blog here