The 1980s Anthology Show

So, here is a quiz for you. Put the following figures in order of promise, if they were associated with fantasy and horror television shows of the 1980s (and early 1990s): George Romero, Stephen Speilberg and Robert Zemeckis. Who is the most likely to produce the best and who would you expect to produce the worst?

Well, you would probably be wrong.

I am not saying that it is a work of genius but Tales from the Crypt (Zemeckis, 1989-1996) is was a fun show that tried to capture some of the trashy energy of the horror comics of the 1950s, much like the Stephen King collaboration with Romero on Creepshow. Amazing Stories (Speilberg, 1985-1987) is a polished (a little too polished, if you ask me) attempt to do a kind of updated Twilight Zone. It is fun but a little uneven, with several episodes descending into the syrupy nonsense that bedevils many Speilberg efforts – it was also (possibly because of its expensive production values) the shortest lived of the three series, and only ran for two seasons, while Tales from the Crypt ran for seven seasons and Romero’s contribution ran for four seasons.

Finally, Romero’s contribution was Tales from the Darkside (1983-1988), a rather odd effort. It’s not without its charm and it has some decent stories but it also has some stinkers. Many episodes, even though they are only half an hour long (or actually about 20 minutes without the adverts), seem hopelessly padded, the final twist being painfully obvious from the outset and the efforts at its deferment being strained beyond belief. Also, the visual style is beyond dull, with many episodes being stagey, wooden and making one yearn for the visual flair of an Aaron Spelling production.

If these shows confound expectations about their origins, they also demonstrate another interesting feature, which was a strong tendency within the 1980s. While there were numerous made-for-television horror films and mini-series during this period, the television shows that followed the series format were often obsessed with nostalgia. If Tales from the Crypt paid homage to the 1950s horror comics, both Tales from the Darkside and Amazing Stories are clearly attempts to recapture some of the glory of the anthology series of the 1950s and 1960s, shows such as The Twilight Zone. The Twilight Zone was even remade as series in the period (1985-1989); as was another classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1985-1989). The Outer Limits was also remade, although this was a decade latter (1995-2002).

So what is going on here? Well, one could related it back to debates over postmodern nostalgia, although this would seem to suggest that this nostalgia was less a ‘cultural condition of late capitalism’ than a more historically specific phenomenon. It could therefore be argued that it was simply an updating of the obsession with the popular culture of the 1950 and 1960s that one finds in the work that King, Romero, Speilberg and Zemeckis had produced back in the 1970s. Furthermore, these shows were produced in a period during which American television was going through rapid and dramatic transformations, and many of these shows were explicitly bound up with these changes. They can therefore be seen as examples of a classic strategy in which people look back to the past as a way of negotiating change.

Next Week: Tales from the Darkside: Wheat and Chaff.

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Journey to the Unknown (1968) – Part Four: When it Works

Of course, despite its problems, Journey to the Unknown can be real fun, and there are certainly episodes that are genuinely effective. The Madison Equation isn’t a work of genius, but it is an interesting detective/horror story. It concerns a brilliant female scientist whose husband, motivated by resentment at her success, plots to kill her. More importantly, he decides to use her brilliant creation, a super-computer, to perform the perfect crime.

However, the whole thing backfires when he, rather than his wife, becomes is the victim of the death that he had planned for her, and a detective is assigned to investigate his murder. As the detective gets to work, however, he finds that the pool of suspects rapidly decrease and eventually – SPOILER ALERT – the solution proves both fantastic, horrific: the murderer is the computer!

By using the computer to plan the murder, the husband has alerted the machine to his intentions, but the machine has acquire more than an independent intelligence – it has acquired emotions and has fallen in love with its creator.

It may not be the most stylistically inventive of the series, or the most scary (although the end does pack a nice punch), but it’s a really well executed story. In some episodes, brilliant short stories like Miss Belle or Girl of My Dreams are pretty much ruined by being over-extended beyond their neat little scenarios – the original stories for both episodes were much like jokes, in which the tale largely works to set up a brilliant twist in the tail, or moment of poetic justice, but by over-extending these set ups, both episodes blow the final denouement, which ends up feeling too slight (or obvious) given the long build up. The Madison Equation, on the other hand, balances its elements and the build up is proportional to the resolution.

The case of Poor Butterfly is someone different. Its not the best story in the world, and its not actually frightening. However, it is a ghost story with a wonderfully melancholic tone, which it maintains with mesmerizing skill. At first, its hard to see where the whole thing is going, but give it time: the episode has a fragility and a sense of atmosphere that is quite engaging; and it provides a glimpse of the ways in which the series could have really made its mark. Several other episodes have a similar quality (Someone in the Crowd, Eve) but tend to distract the viewer with silly stories. Poor Butterfly isn’t the best story in the world but it doesn’t have Dennis Waterman falling in love with a mannikin, which is certainly creepy but for the wrong reason – well, at least for British viewers who are familiar with Dennis Waterman.

Atmosphere is also vital to the two best episodes in the series, Paper Dolls and Matakitas is Coming. The first is a creepy story about a group of identical young boys with the power of mind-control. It’s very similar to Village of the Damned in some ways, but it has a unique sense of atmosphere and suspense. It is also a story that that allows the series to define its own identity, being quite distinct from the kind of horror-thriller associated with Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but also from the explicitness with which Hammer was associated.

The same is also true of Matakitas is Coming, which (in addition) has the benefit of a tight, claustrophobic setting in which Vera Miles finds herself to be trapped overnight in a deserted library with a supernatural killer on the loose. It should also be noted that the build-up of tension is magnificent, largely due to the expert handling of director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, a classic figure of British television who would also become famous for his Beatles documentary, Let it Be. I won’t say too much about the story for fear of ruining things, but its strongly recommended.

And with that, I think its time to move on from Journey to the Unknown.

Next week: The Walking Dead

Journey to the Unknown (1968) – Part Three: Horror Writers, Television and Alternative Definitions of Genre

The presence of Harrison also demonstrates something else. The stories are not, like most Hammer films, references back to the classic Gothics stories of literature or to the Universal horror pictures. There is no Frankenstein, Dracula, Werewolf or Mummy here. Instead, the stories are based on writers such as Cornell Woolrich, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont and Donald Westlake. Robert Bloch also appears as a screenwriter, even if he is adapting other people’s rather than contributing stories of his own. In this way, the series relates to a version of horror that is often forgotten and includes both the nightmarish thrillers of Woolrich and the stories of Matheson and Beaumont, a version of horror that had been central to television horror until at the least the late 1960s and is probably exemplified by Joan Harrison’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Although often remembered today as a writer of crime thrillers, Woolrich was very much talked about as a horror writer in the 1940s, and he had written several scripts for silent horror films during his time in Hollywood. He is also remembered for his nightmarish tales of psychological breakdown. In fact, many of his protagonists are psychological victims who have lost their memory and find themselves in terrifying worlds that they cannot comprehend.

This is also the central premise of his story for Journey to the Unknown, except that in this case, the protagonist (Stephanie Powers) is not the victim of a knock on the head but a suicide, whose dead body is brought back to life by a scientist. However, although alive, the poor girl has lost her memory, and her previous life is a mystery to her. In many senses, then, it looks like a familiar Woolrich story except that its protagonist is one of the living dead.

Similarly, Matheson, Beaumont and Bloch had all written horror, science fiction and noirish thrillers, which they did not see these as separate categories. Elements that we might associate with one term or another were often blended within their stories, and they even described their stories in ways that we might find surprising today. In his autobiography, for example, Robert Bloch describes his time as part of the Lovecraft circle of writers, when he was writing in the style of Lovecraft; but he does not refer to this writing as horror (with which these kinds of stories are commonly associated today) but as science fiction. Given these stories are concerned with alien monsters that are trying to invade the world, one can see how he could have understood the type of fiction associated with Weird Tales as SF rather than horror.

Westlake is also interesting in this context. Although probably best known for his comic caper thrillers, often featuring the wonderful Dortmunder (God, I love these novels – if you haven’t read a Dortmunder novel, you are really missing something), he has also written a variety of other stuff. In the mid-1980s, he wrote the screenplay for a fantastic slasher film, The Stepfather, which is an absolute classic. He also wrote the famous Parker novels, under the pseudonym of Richard Stark. These are tough, vicious thrillers that were most brilliantly adapted for the screen with Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin and directed by John Boorman. I also recently read Memory, a posthumously published thriller that he wrote back in the 1960s, which is a really wonderful Woolrich-style horror-thriller that is absolutely brilliant. And heartrending.

Anyhow, Journey to the Unknown demonstrates the continuing survival of a 1940s version of horror, just around the time when the first studies of the horror film were coming out and were largely marginalizing or excluding this tradition from what would become the canonical definitions of horror throughout most of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

To be continued: next week – Journey to the Unknown – Part Four: When it Works

Journey to the Unknown (1968) – Part Two: Joan Harrison in the Hammer House of Horror

It’s not just the American stars in cheap boarding houses that are odd. Journey to the Unknown was one of Hammer’s attempts to break into television and it was produced by Anthony Hinds, but it also featured Joan Harrison as an executive producer. I am not sure how much involvement she really had, or whether she simply owned rights to some of the stories, but a collaboration between Hammer and Harrison is worthy of comment.

Harrison’s film and television career started when she was employed as a secretary to Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s but, by the 1940s, she had graduated to screenwriter and had credits in various key Hitchcock films of the late 1930s and 1940s, notably Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, Suspicion, Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur. By the mid 1940s, however, she had taken another step forward, and established herself as one of only three women producers in Hollywood, and one who was a specialist in the new horror-thrillers.

By 1944, she had not only written an interesting film, Dark Waters, in which Merle Oberon is menaced in the Southern Bayous, but was the producer of the highly influential, Phantom Lady, one of the films seen as establishing the noir style, and was a fantastic horror-thriller adapted from a Cornell Woolrich novel. She then followed this up with another horror-thriller, Uncle Harry. The latter film was also as being highly significant at the time and gave the wonderful George Sanders a really terrific role. She then moved on to a series of other noirish thrillers, Nocturne, They Won’t Believe Me, and Ride the Pink Horse although it was in television that she became a really major player when she became the producer (with Norman Lloyd) of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, a show in which she, and not Hitchcock, was the real creative force.

She would also be associated with Suspicion, which I have already written about, but it was Alfred Hitchcock Presents that was the hugely influential success and it ran from 1957-1962 before being converted into The Alfred Hitchcock Hour from 1962-1965.

Anyhow, Journey to the Unknown is an odd hybrid. It features the type of stories that were featured in Alfred Hitchcock Presents on the one hand, and the more seedy, sensationalism in which Hammer specialized on the other; and this was clear in the general aesthetic. The show was in color but, after the famous fun-fare credits, the color seemed an odd choice in the drab British locations – despite the color, things look VERY gray.

The shows also seemed to wrestle with the restrictions of television. Alfred Hitchcock Presents was very much about a sardonic tone and grim twists, but was also careful not to be graphic in its horror. Everything was about suggestion and atmosphere. But Journey to the Unknown wants to be graphic – it just can’t be! In short, the series seems to lack the sense of quality with which Harrison was associated, but also lacked the sensationalism for which Hammer was known.

For Harrison, its a sad end to an illustrious career.

To be continued: next week – Journey to the Unknown (1968) – Part Three: Horror Writers, Television and Alternative Definitions of Genre

Suspicion (1957-1958) – Short but Sweet

It has been one of those weeks. I had to do an entry for another blog, which was arguably on television horror – television weather reporting:

http://cstonline.tv/weather-or-not

Consequently, I haven’t had much time to write an entry for this week. However, I didn’t want to neglect my duties, so I thought I would make a few brief comments about Suspicion which I have been watching this week. It is a bit variable in quality. Some things are great but others, including an episode starting Audie Murphy, The Flight, are disappointing, or even a bit dull.

Part of the reason for the variable quality is that the talent seems to shift around a lot. Some episodes are produced by William Frye, who would make Boris Karloff’s Thriller and some are produced by Joan Harrison, who was also producing Alfred Hitchcock Presents at the time. In fact, Alfred Hitchcock was also associated with the series as an executive producer, and directed the first episode of the series, Four O’Clock.

In this story, E.G. Marshall thinks his wife is cheating on him and plants a bomb in his cellar to kill her and her lover. Unfortunately, small time crooks break in; and bind and gag him in the cellar along with the bomb. He is then forced to wait helplessly until four o’clock when he has set the bomb to go off. I won’t reveal the ending but the story basically follows his hopes and fears as he tries to attract attention to himself and to his predicament. It is therefore an incredibly simple exercise but one that is all the more impressive for its simplicity. Also, given that Marshall is mostly bound and gagged during the episode, his thought processes have to be conveyed through voice over in a manner that is very familiar from radio horror shows – whether Four O’Clock had previously been given a treatment in radio horror, I have not been able to find out yet. If anyone knows about this, I would be eager to hear.

Other episodes that I have really enjoyed include The Other Side of the Curtain in which Donna Reed keeps having a bad dream about something that lies on the other side of a curtain, but she can’t quite remember what; and is then accused of murdering her husband’s previous wife. Okay, so people act in ridiculous ways in the story, but frankly I don’t really care. Its a really neat little thriller and there is something genuinely eerie about her dreams and the tantalizing mystery beyond the curtain….

Heartbeat is also great and features David Wayne as a meek middle aged man who has suffered from a weak heart from childhood. However, when he is (mistakenly) told by a heart specialist that there is nothing wrong with his heart, he spends the day in search of excitement; while the doctor who has given him the wrong diagnosis enlists the police in a search for the thrill seeker so that they can warn him that any excitement might kill him. Again, I won’t spoil the ending but its a wonderfully bitter-sweet story packed with mounting suspense and some terrific documentary-style film-making in various locations, particularly Coney Island.

There is also a great little story, Rainy Day, featuring George Cole.

At its best, episodes of Suspicion are like hour long episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. At its worst … well, I haven’t finished them all yet, but so far the worst has been watchable, if uninspired. However, when its good, its great, so it was a real find for me: I accidentally purchased it while trying to track down Suspense (1949-1954).

Algernon Blackwood (1936) – a host of fears

As my dear friend, Derek Johnston, is fond of reminding me, the first night of scheduled television in the UK ended with a couple of ghost stories told by Algernon Blackwood. Also, as Derek usually adds, this choice by the BBC drew on formats familiar in their radio service. Like Lights Out, then, this event illustrates the ways in which, in its early years, television horror initially drew on models from radio, rather than cinema. Nor was this transmission a one-off event, and Blackwood appeared on television for a number of years afterward, where his recital of horror stories became a regular feature of the schedules. So much so, that the BBC continued the format in later years, when Lord Dunsany followed Blackwood as a horror narrator.

However, there are also other aspects of these shows that are worth commenting upon. The format draws on the tradition of oral storytelling, a tradition that is used in a range of different types of television programming (Jackanory, the News, etc.) but seems to have acquired a particular significance in relation to horror. Television horror has used the figure of the narrator as a frame for its horror tales in a way that is very rare in cinematic horror. The use of John Houseman at the start of John Carpenter’s The Fog is one of only a handful of cinematic examples, but given Houseman’s was a close collaborator with Orson Welles, the fact that he is telling a ghost story to a group of children huddled around a campfire, and that the film’s central character runs a radio station, which she uses to hold a community together in the face of vast supernatural forces, this opening may be highly suggestive in ways that should become clear later.

First, while this technique is rare in cinematic horror, radio horror was fond of this convention, as can be seen in the case of ‘the Man in Black’ from Appointment with Fear and later The Man in Black, but also in a range of other examples (see Richard Hand’s Terror on the Air!). Similarly, it is a major feature in television horror: Alfred Hitchcock Presents used the great director as a host, who book-ended the stories with his macabre wit; Thriller employed the figure of Boris Karloff in a similar way; The Twilight Zone featured Rod Serling; Great Mysteries had Orson Welles; The Night Stalker and The Norliss Tapes both had fictional characters narrate their stories (the former was told by Carl Kolchak while the latter were supposed to be the taped files of David Norliss, although it never developed into the series that it appears to have been designed to become); Night Gallery was (again) hosted by Rod Serling; Tales of the Unexpected was, at least initially, introduced by Roald Dahl; Tales from the Darkside had an unnamed narrator; and Tales from the Crypt had the crypt-keeper. Even the screenings of horror films on television have a long history of being introduced by horror hosts, a practice that dates back to 1957 when ‘Shock Theater’ showed a series of Universal horror films on television that were often hosted by figures such as ‘Zackerley’ and ‘Vampira’.

One function of these horror hosts is that they were able to create a sense of consistency across different stories. Without Alfred Hitchcock’s introductions, Alfred Hitchcock Presents would not have been a show but simply a series of individual plays. In this way, these hosts also work as a kind of guarentor or brand that can encourages trust and a sense that people know what to expect.

On another level, they operate to set the tone, to generate a sense of anticipation by hinting at the horrors to come, or a sense of light-heartedness that encourages viewers not to take things to seriously or even overtly ridicule what they are about to watch- horror hosts such as ‘Zackerley’ and ‘Vampira’ established an overtly camp relationship to the films that they introduced; and both Hitchcock and Karloff established a sense that the macabre stories that they introduced were meant to establish a playful relationship with their audience and did not simply pander to unhealthy tastes.

To some extent, then, the figure of the narrator in television horror works to illegitimate the horror story and another way in which it seeks to do so is by relating the horror tale to a tradition of oral storytelling. Rather than simply gruesome stories, the shows are aligned with more comfortable notions of the traditional bedtime story: Blackwood’s stories were read just before the end of transmission as a way of signalling the close-down and sending everyone off to bed. But they were also reminiscent of the fireside story and particularly the horror stories traditionally told to children around camp fires on dark nights – which is explicitly what Houseman is doing at the opening of Carpenter’s The Fog.

These associations are interesting in other ways. First, they relate the narration not simply with oral traditions but traditions associated with childhood; and, second, they associate such acts of storytelling narration with special events that occurs outside of normal, everyday life. The bedtime story is a transitional tale that takes the child from the world of everyday life to the world of sleep and dreams; and while the fireside story takes place within the domestic interior, the campfire story takes place at a time outside normal everyday schedules (normally a holiday period) when the child can stay up late and when the child is often away at camp. Sleepovers are also commonly associated with the oral telling of frightening tales, and again it is often seen as special occasions when do not have to return to their respective homes at the end of the day, as would normally be the case, but when they can stay together and stay up late,

But the horror host does more than simply associate these stories with oral storytelling. The common description of them as hosts is also significant. Television horror is often seen as inappropriate to the home, and the uncanny literally means unfamiliar and its Freudian use is drawn from Freud’s ‘unheimliche’ or unhomely. But there are questions about why anyone would let the uncanny into our homes (television commonly being seen as a primarily domestic medium). One answer may be in the term ‘host’, a host being someone who often welcomes you into their home. In other words, the host may work to mediate between the world of domestic security and the world of unsettling horror. Rather than audiences welcoming horror into the domestic, the host takes them out of their domestic existences and welcomes them into the world of horror.

Much has been written about the television as a technology that mediates between the home and the world beyond it, either enabling people to stay inside while remaining aware of the world outside, or enabling people to travel without leaving the comfort of their living rooms. The horror host captures something of this quality, acting as a conduit between the domestic interior and the world outside. But such a conduit does not simply keep things separate but always puts them in play with one another. Sometimes this is felt as pleasurable escape from routines of domestic life, sometime a threatening blurring of the line between the two worlds, and sometimes as calling the distinctions between the two into question: as Alfred Hitchcock is famously quoted as saying,’One of television’s great contributions is that it brought murder back into the home, where it belongs.’

Welcome

In the mid 1980s, Gregory Waller claimed that ‘made-for-television horror would seem to be by definition impossible’. Nor is this position rare in commentary upon horror and even Stephen King in his study of the genre, Danse Macabre, argues that television is ‘dedicated to the pervasion of the status quo and the concept of the LOP – Least Objectionable Programming’, a situation that places it in tension with the horror genre, the ‘bedrock’ of which ‘is simply this: you gotta scare the audience’.

Nor have these assumption about television horror changed much since the 1980s; and, as Matt Hills points out, when looking ‘at more recent academic surveys of television and genre, one could still be forgiven for assuming that “Horror TV” … does not meaningfully exist as a category’ in so far as it does not even appear in volumes such as Creeber’s The Television Genre Book (2001) and many of the ‘possible candidates’ for a discussion of television horror (such as Twin Peaks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The X-Files) are ‘generically nominated in ways that render horror relatively invisible’.

Of course, there is now a huge amount of work on specific contemporary examples of television horror, with articles, books and even whole journals dedicated to Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, But most of this work concentrates on the period from the 1990s onwards, and often explicitly associates the emergence of such shows with changes in television, and the emergence of what is sometimes referred to as ‘TVII’. In this account, there is little challenge to the accounts of television presented by Waller, except that these accounts are restricted to a specific period of television history (‘TVI’). In other words, his position goes unchallenged in relation to earlier periods, but it is claimed that institutional and aesthetic changes in the 1980s not only made television horror a possibility but also well suited to the new era.

It would seem that, in the past, horror television was still ‘by definition impossible.

However, horror television certainly did exist in the past, and both Waller and King not only acknowledge its long history of horror television, a history that goes back to the very earliest days of the medium, but  also celebrate certain supposedly exceptional texts as classics. However, despite being anomalous or exceptional, it would seem that horror television is actually associated with many key moments in television history. For example, The Quatermass Experiment is often cited, whether rightly or wrongly, as one of the defining moments in the history of British television that is second only to the televised Coronation of Queen Elizabeth the Second. In other words, as Charles Barr has argued, it was ‘a landmark … in intensity of audience response’, accounts of which have become legendary, and probably exaggerated, but the sense is that this series, like the Coronation were ‘must see’ events that made television essential viewing at a time when the medium was attempt to build its audiences.

The show was therefore pivotal both in the development of audiences and in its significance for the industry and it was developed as the BBC’s answer to the campaigns for a commercial competitor, a campaign that resulted in introduction of Independent Television in 1955. As a result, Lez Cooke argues that the series ‘may be seen to mark the moment at which television drama in Britain finally broke free from the shadows of cinema, radio and theatre to offer its first truly original production.’

Even when they were not pivotal to key historical moments of television, horror television is hardly rare and the landscape of television history is littered with classic examples, a brief survey of which would include, Lights Out, Nigel Kneale’s adaptation of 1984, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Boris Karloff’s Thriller, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Out of the Unknown, Night Gallery, Dr Who, Dark Shadows, the BBC Christmas Ghost Stories, Mystery and Imagination, Brian Clemens’ Thriller, The Stone Tape, The Night Stalker, and Duel.

Indeed, in the early years of television in the UK, horror was seen well suited to the new medium and even before The Quatermass Experiment the BBC had been drawn to horror materials and, after World War 11 and the resumption of television broadcasting in the late 1940s, the BBC quickly turned to horror as the basis for many of its single plays. Two plays that are often cited as key examples of what the BBC referred to as ‘horror plays’ were Rope (January 1947) and The Two Mrs Carrolls (February 1947), although these were adaptations of theatrical hits, that would also be the subject of cinematic adaptations at around the same time, Jason Jacobs has demonstrated that the BBC used these horror materials in the hope that they would help the Corporation to establish a ‘new aesthetic’ for television drama that would both create a distinctive feel and exploit features seen as specific to the medium of television. As a result, Jacobs quotes a memo from Robert MacDermot, Head of BBC Television Drama, to Cecil McGiven, Head of Television, in which he suggests that ghost stories might be well suited to television, and could be used to ‘create a very effective eerie atmosphere’. Rather than a situation in which ‘made-for-television horror would seem to be by definition impossible’, the BBC seemed to both hope and fear that the ‘intimate’ quality of television would make it particularly effective as a horror medium.

Of course, this begs the question: if at one time horror was seen as well-suited to television, what changed? Also, can anyone name other examples of the horror plays?

In this blog, I want to start by discussing some of my favourite horror television shows, and some of my pet peeves. These may include some of the titles listed above but they will also include a range of other example: Beasts; Doomwatch; and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. However, while I plan to focus on television, I decided not to limit myself too much, which is why I have included film in the title of this blog. Also, given that not all horror television programming is exclusively or even predominantly identified as horror, I have gone for the slightly more open notion of ‘the fantastic’.

I hope people will get something out of what follows, or at least enjoy it. Oh, and please feel to suggest examples.