Books: The Crystal Bucket : Mutiny in the Furnace Room |
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Mutiny in the Furnace Room

‘Welcome, mighty potentate,’ said Vultan of Sky City to his Imperial Majesty Ming the Merciless of Mongo, Emperor of the Universe. ‘If we had been informed of your coming, a banquet would have been served!’

The high point of the Bicentennial celebrations on television, last weekend’s compilation of all the episodes from the forty-year-old Flash Gordon serial (BBC1), was full of such classic lines. ‘Mutiny in the Furnace Room!’ cried one of Vultan’s winged lieutenants as Flash, played with incomparable awkwardness by Buster Crabbe, battled his way out of durance vile, only to be recaptured and forced to combat the unspeakable Mighty Beast of Mongo for the chill hand of Dale Arden, while oddly continuing to reject the blandishments of Ming’s hotcha daughter, Princess Aura. Ming in his turn was keen on Dale. Sweating it out under the mangy fur, the actor inside the Mighty Beast costume was the legendary Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan. Flash, Crash, Mongo, Ming. It worries me that I possess this information.

But nothing defines an historical period like its vision of the future, and Flash Gordon, with its thick hero, mad villains, cheap props and clumsy innocence, remains a useful pointer to how simple the world must have seemed in 1936. Switch to Dr Who (BBC1) and you can’t tell the heroes from the heavies, it’s all so sophisticated. ‘You’ve reached the point where your tissues are so massively hybridised that the next metabolic change could be the final one,’ Dr Who tells his friend. Imagine getting Buster Crabbe to deliver a line like that. It would have taken a week.

Similarly the technology has made giant strides towards authenticity. When Flash’s pal Dr Zarkov talked nonsense, it sounded like nonsense. When Dr Who talks nonsense, it sounds like Science. ‘He’s been infected with anti-matter. His brain cells have been destroyed. He’ll descend to the level of a brute!’ Dr Zarkov wouldn’t have known anti-matter from his elbow: he just concentrated on running up a ‘new ray’ out of old torch batteries so that Flash could blast the Lion Men’s Gyro-ship out of the sky and rescue Dale.

11 July, 1976

[ The original, longer version of this piece can be found in our Observer TV column chapter ]