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BITTEN: BREAKING BAD

 

1 LAUREL AND HARDY

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In the USA the expression ‘breaking bad’ is a southern slang alternative to ‘raising hell’.  Both phrases communicate a sense of entitlement and compare to the ambition of villainous cowboys who pledge to go ‘straight to hell’, men who will not be denied.  Vince Gilligan is the creator of Breaking Bad.  He was born and raised in Richmond Virginia but has spent too long in Southern California to be considered a Southern ‘good ol’ boy’.   Something of his Virginian background, though, remains.  He has a sense of entitlement, and this is confirmed by the audacious and demanding plot absurdities of Breaking Bad.  If audiences want to share the wild world of Walter White they are also obliged to accept the barely credible events of Breaking Bad.  Without looking the other way most viewers have settled for the deal.  Speak to a devotee of Breaking Bad and they will mention how they find it addictive.  The hit TV show has been described as both a black comedy and a dark drama.  Those elements are present in various episodes but the TV series indulges rather than challenges an audience.  There is nothing wrong with a writer having a desire to please but if his interest is in dark drama, he will need to add comedic elements.  Vince Gilligan and his writers understand their responsibilities.

Movie slapstick comedians have a greater sense of entitlement than most.  The witless idiots created by Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton wreck everything around them but somehow survive and claim their right to disappear down the street and into the next comic short.  Nothing demonstrates this naive self-belief better than the stunt where the gable end of a house falls on top of Keaton.  He survives because he is standing where the open doorway lands.  Harold Lloyd was possessed of so much self-belief and entitlement that he thought nothing of hanging on to the fingers of a clock attached to a skyscraper.  Stunts were not faked.  Keaton was calculating, Chaplin was sly and nimble, and Lloyd was a bespectacled daredevil.

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The Laurel and Hardy movie Way Out West was once a seasonal feature on British TV.  Now it has disappeared from the schedules although British cinemas have recently shown the film Stan & Ollie.  This gentle and sympathetic elegy was inspired by the stage tour the comic duo undertook in the UK.  By then the comics were old and suffering from deteriorating health.  Fame and the pressure to perform meant they were also battling with themselves.  Walter White and Jesse Pinkman are the two heroes of Breaking Bad.  Walter and Jesse are ill at ease amongst the violence of tough guys, the people who pressure them to make drugs or perform.   Like Stan and Ollie, they struggle.   For Stan, Ollie, Walt and Jess exceptional success has a sting in the tale.  While they age they will be measured against what they used to promise.  The film Stan & Ollie appears to be a labour of love.  The nostalgic producers of the movie will and should settle for a niche audience.  Laurel and Hardy had a famous catchphrase, ‘Well here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into’.  Invariably it is uttered by the pompous Ollie to the bewildered Stan.  Ollie is usually the man with the plan, and the confusion of Stan adds chaos although the misplaced ambition of Ollie is also important.  The plans of Ollie are not only never realised they produce results beyond the imagination of two ill matched partners.

‘Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into’ could be used to describe what happens to Walt and Jesse.  The two heroes stumble into the unpredictable.  Vince Gilligan has been  willing to share his ambitions for Breaking Bad.   He is proud of the neat use of the number 737.  Near the beginning of Season Two the objective of Walt is made clear.  At a point when Jesse has doubts about the future of their working relationship Walt tells Jesse that he needs to make $737,000.  This will pay for his medical bills and leave his family secure when he dies from his cancer.  By the end of Season Two the Ollie equivalent or Walt has become accomplished or at least demonstrated his value to his business partners.  His success, though, has repercussions.  The crash of a Boeing 737 and the deaths of 167 passengers is more than another nice mess.  It is, as Gilligan makes clear in an interview, an unintended consequence.  An almost charitable fund of $737,000 is the aim, and a wrecked Boeing 737 is the result.   Hardy and Walt always imagine they are doing the right thing.  It is other people who get them into the nice mess.  In the case of the Boeing air crash it is the air traffic controller who is grieving over the daughter that Walt decided to not rescue from dying.   Walt had his reasons.  The fear of Gilligan of unintended consequences means that the creator behind Breaking Bad has conservative instincts.   The  chaos in Breaking Bad exists as a warning.  In Breaking Bad the daredevils are chastised, and in Laurel and Hardy films it is the stupid.

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Ollie and Laurel are opposites.  Ollie is overweight, and Laurel is slim.  Ollie acts as if he is the expert and the source of knowledge.  Laurel is timid and slow thinking.  The physical difference between Walt and Jesse is defined by their difference in age.   Walt is 50 years old.  Jesse used to be a pupil at the school where Walt teaches chemistry.   Walt is not big and round like Ollie but his body has a middle-aged slump.  The actor Bryan Cranston put on a stone for the part.  Jesse is short and slim.  He has the build of an adolescent.  Walt remembers Jesse as one of his dimmer pupils.   It is Walt who has the knowledge that will enable the production of superior crystal meth.   The expertise of Walt and the stupidity of Jesse lead to comic mishaps and misunderstandings.   When faced with difficulties Walt becomes curious and applies his academic intellect to not just analysis but the acquisition of authority.  Jesse, like Stan Laurel, meanwhile looks baffled and utters the occasional protest.

Most comedy duos consist of a figure of fun, the comic, and a straight man that attempts to explain and contribute sense.  Ollie and Hardy were different.  Neither Hardy nor Laurel is sensible and more important they were both comics.  They were a success in the movies because the camera could cut from one comic facial expression to the other.  Both men made a comic contribution.  This happens in Breaking Bad.  Both Walt and Jesse have their comic moments, often when they are astonished by naivety and ignorance in the other but sometimes when one of them overestimates his capability.  Hardy was good at registering disgust at the incompetence of Laurel.  Bryan Cranston is a capable actor and has the same ability.  He coughs, splutters and raises his eyebrows high enough to wrinkle an already crinkled forehead.   Amongst the main characters of Breaking Bad there is a straight man but this time it is a female.  Skyler White is the wife of Walt.  Like most straight men, Skyler is bewildered by others.  She plays the straight man role in scenes with her weird husband, her daft sister and even when she is surrounded by what constitutes her whole confused family, her husband, son, sister and brother-in-law.

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Neither Ollie nor Hardy has the figure for performance as an entertainer.  Ollie looks like his breath will be inadequate, and Stan is so slight he looks anonymous.  Before panchromatic film was developed the blue eyes of Laurel were that pale they looked white on the cinema screen.   They do not look like men who will create chaos and wreckage.  The appearance of Walt and Jesse also misleads.  Even with a hat that he wears as a stage prop Walt does not look like a man capable of murder.  His manner is too anxious to suggest someone that will outwit criminal gang leaders and hard headed policeman.  Jesse is prone to simper and he looks like someone who could be pushed over by the index finger of one of the chest beating villains.

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Laurel and Hardy were masters of what is known as the tit for tat fight.  This consists of an accident between two people and subsequent retaliation that escalates to apocalyptic destruction.  The surprise and bewilderment at each escalation mustered by Hardy and Laurel cranks up the comedy.  There is tit for tat between Walt and Jesse although much of it is verbal.  The comedic effect is achieved by the difference in the arguments of Walt and Jesse.  They do not communicate as equals and most of the time they will exaggerate the slight or offence.

It takes five seasons or 62 episodes for the partnership between Walt and Jesse to develop to its fullest extent but, unlike the relationship between Stan and Ollie, it changes.  In both instances, though, two men bewilder each other until the very end.  In the films of Laurel and Hardy and the episodes of Breaking Bad we meet two couples that for the benefit of everyone including themselves should never have met.   More people in Breaking Bad would have stayed alive without the partnership of Walt and Jesse, and in the films of Laurel and Hardy there would have been fewer nice messes.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

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JACK THE RIPPER ‘THE DEMENTED GENIUS’ HIS DEEDS AND TIMES

41 THE MAYBRICKS OF LIVERPOOL

 

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There is a myth amongst some on Merseyside that Liverpool is unique in having two cathedrals. It is not. Manchester has three cathedrals, and Glasgow has four. Neither is Liverpool the only city in the UK that has supplied more than one Ripper suspect. It must be, though, the only place that has two Ripper suspects in the same family. When suspect James Maybrick died, his wife was convicted for causing his death through poisoning.   Today most people believe that the wife Florence Maybrick was innocent.   What happened between the members of the Maybrick family was complicated.

James Maybrick was born in 1838 and he died in 1889. He was a successful cotton merchant. Maybrick and Company was based in Liverpool but also had a branch office in Virginia. Florence was born in Mobile, Alabama. Florence and James met while travelling across the Atlantic.   At her trial Florence was convicted of adding arsenic to the diet of her husband James and sentenced to hang. There was widespread doubt about the conviction. James was addicted to arsenic and, after years of dependency, fast becoming a wreck before he died. It may have been the attempts of James to kick the arsenic habit that killed him.  Author Paul Begg suggests this in Jack the Ripper The Facts.   Only a small amount of arsenic was found in the corpse of James Maybrick but the judge had little interest in the anomaly.  Florence was sentenced to hang but, because of the doubts about the conviction and what happened in the trial, her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.  She served fifteen years in an English prison before returning to south of the Mason Dixon line and home.

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Almost akin to the six stages of separation, Liverpool scrap dealer Mike Barrett claimed in 1992 that he had a connection to the Maybrick family.  Barrett had in his possession an elegant black and gilt calf bound Victorian book designed to record notes and to hold postcards and photographs. At this point Mike Barrett felt the need of an alter ego. Using the name Michael Williams, he contacted Doreen Montgomery a literary agent and revealed that inside his Victorian book there was a confession of 63 pages written by James Maybrick. The confession concluded with an extended signature. ‘I give my name that all know of me, so history do tell, what love can do to a gentle man born. Yours truly, Jack the Ripper. Dated this third day of May 1889.’

The first 64 pages of the book had been removed, and the final seventeen pages were blank. Barrett explained to Doreen Montgomery that he used to visit his 67 years old friend Tony Devereux in hospital.  During one of these visits Devereux handed Barrett a parcel wrapped in brown paper. Something similar happened to Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon.  In 1991 Devereux died in Walton Hospital.  Down in London the confession, which was now being described as a diary, was referred for scientific tests by the people at the literary agency. The tests were inconclusive. The book itself was regarded as a genuine article. The concerns, though, were about the ink, the missing pages, some discrepancies in the account of the murders, and the handwriting of the author. Proving the age of ink is difficult. The difference in ink used by the Victorians and that used at the end of the last century is slight. It is also relatively simple to age ink prematurely.   Although probably sinister the missing pages may have been the result of nothing more than a change of ownership between members of the Maybrick family. The discrepancies that existed in the detail could be attributed to the normal limitations of human memory. The handwriting, though, was a poor match for what existed on the will and marriage certificate of James Maybrick.

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Meanwhile both Mike Barrett and his alter ego Michael Williams were having problems.   His marriage collapsed, and his heavy drinking increased.  Assuming that the diary was perhaps responsible for the change in his fortune, or so Barrett said, he decided to abandon his interest in the diary.  In 1994 Barrett contacted Liverpool journalist, Harold Brough, and confessed that he had written the diary.  Brough was unconvinced because Barrett was unable to explain how he bought the book and ink. Later, Barrett contacted Brough again.   He now remembered that he had bought the book in an auction held by Outhwaite and Litherland and the ink from an art dealer in the Bluecoat Chambers. A director of Outhwaite and Litherland stated that there was no record of the sale and neither would they sell such an item in the way Barrett described. Believing that ducking and diving were key components in survival,  Barrett retracted his confession. This process of confession and subsequent retraction was repeated in the years that followed.  Alternative storylines appeared. The identity of the forger alternated between being Barrett, his wife Ann, Barrett and others, and his wife and others.

The estranged wife of Barrett reverted to what her name had been before marriage, Ann Graham.  Determined to create a plot almost as complicated as that in The Maltese Falcon, Graham claimed that the diary had been left to her father by her grandfather. Graham said she had given the diary to her husband because he aspired to be a writer. She hoped it would help him to write and find an alternative to heavy drinking.   If only someone had told this Liverpool woman about the alcohol problems of Faulkner, Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald. The father of Ann Graham insisted that she was telling the truth.  Not much, though, made sense. Interest in both the diary and Mike Barrett faded.

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But, instead of a line being drawn under the affair, something odd happened on the other side of the River Mersey.  Albert Johnson lived in Birkenhead. He decided to buy a gold antique watch as an investment. In 1993 he reported that the watch had markings on the inside case. These markings consisted of the initials of the canonical five Ripper victims, the signature of James Maybrick and the words, ‘I am Jack’.   The watch was referred for expert analysis of the etchings on the inside case. The experts were not in agreement but at least two credible analysts thought that the markings could have been made around 1889. There is agreement, though, about the integrity of owner Albert Johnson.  He paid for the watch to be tested and never sought to use the watch to make money.  The existence of the watch and admittedly dubious diary constitute a mystery.

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For most this would be mystery enough but in 1997 author Paul H Feldman in Jack The Ripper The Final Chapter affirmed the Ripper belonged to the Maybrick family but added that the assassin was not James but his brother Michael.  Since then Feldman has not been a lone voice. Two more books have identified Michael Maybrick as the Ripper.   These are The Diary Of Jack The Ripper Another Chapter by James Stettler and They All Love Jack by Bruce Robinson.   All three assume that the diary of James Maybrick has Victorian authenticity but the three authors argue that it was drafted by brother Michael. Yet the diary did not appear until well after both brothers had died and it achieved little for brother Michael. It is possible that Michael found recalling his crimes in print cathartic but thought it prudent to sign a name other than his own.   Few, though, will be convinced by this assumption, especially as doubts already exist about whether the diary is genuine.

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Like the plays of Shakespeare, letters are important to the Ripper plot described by Bruce Robinson in They All Love Jack.  Matthew Packer claimed that he sold grapes to a man and Liz Stride on the night that Stride was murdered by Jack the Ripper.   Robinson not only regards Packer as an honest witness he believes that Packer received a threatening letter from Jack the Ripper. Robinson notes the similarity of the handwriting in the letter sent to Packer to that in the ‘Dear Boss’ letter sent to the Central News Agency.  Once Robinson thinks he has a discernable letter writer he links some of the letters to the travels of Michael Maybrick, who was a popular singer and songwriter.   Two letters were sent from locations where Maybrick was appearing on the stage. These were Glasgow and Manchester. A small child in Bradford was murdered in a ritualistic fashion after Maybrick had arrived there to perform on stage.

210 letters were sent to the police and newspapers by people claiming to be Jack the Ripper. The theory of Robinson requires a belief in an ability to identify which of those letters were genuine and which shared the same hand.   Robinson also argues that the Ripper had the ability to disguise his handwriting. This means that the identification depends on recognising the disguises. A casual attitude to the possibility of coincidence in the timing of events is also beneficial.   They All Love Jack may be an entertaining and essential read but its achievement consists of an unforgiving exposure of Victorian hypocrisy and the ability of the author to raise doubts about what others regarded as fact. The identity of Jack the Ripper remains elusive, and needs something more than a scrapbook handed in by a Liverpool scrap dealer struggling with an alcohol problem.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.