Friday, 23 March 2012

Fictional dog of the week #11: The Hound of the Baskervilles

As any tabloid editor knows, there’s nothing like whipping up a frenzy about ‘devil dogs’ to capture readers’ imaginations. So, when Arthur Conan Doyle put his phenomenally popular detective Sherlock Holmes face-to-face with a hell-hound, the result was perhaps one of the most popular detective novels ever written.

The third of four Sherlock Holmes novels, The Hound of the Baskervilles was originally serialised in The Strand Magazine in 1901-1902. Conan Doyle had ‘killed off’ Holmes 1893, and though he was later to revive the character with a ‘faked his own death’ storyline, The Hound of the Baskervilles is set before his apparent death.

Aside from the popularity of Sherlock Holmes, the novel’s brilliance in capturing the reader’s imagination owes a lot to its relation to the numerous ‘black dog’ legends of British folklore. Both the novel’s readers and the characters within it ‘know’ these legends to be mere stories – and yet the legends are so old that they seem somehow ingrained in the psyche, allowing that delicious hint of doubt (or suspension of disbelief) to creep in.

Conan Doyle set his story in Dartmoor, Devon, where his fictional Baskerville family lives under an age-old curse involving a hellhound. A historical family record tells how the curse began two centuries before, when Hugo Baskerville kidnapped and imprisoned a yeoman’s daughter who he was infatuated with. The girl escaped and Baskerville, swearing to give his soul to the powers of evil if he could catch her, rode after her across the moor accompanied by his friends and hounds. Both the girl and Baskerville were later found dead. But while she had died from fright and exhaustion, a giant spectral hound stood over Baskerville’s body and tore out his throat before disappearing into the night.

Now, the curse seems to have reared its head again. Sir Charles Baskerville has apparently died of a heart attack, but his footprints reveal that he was running from something and his face is contorted in fear. Sir Charles had become afraid of the family curse before his death, and a giant paw print is found near his body. Fearing for the safety of his heir, Sir Henry Baskerville, family friend Dr James Mortimer heads to Baker Street to seek the help of Sherlock Holmes.

There follows a tale of murder, mystery, intrigue and late-night chases across the treacherous moors before the mystery of the hound is finally solved. I won’t spoil the story for those who haven’t read it, but I recommend that you do. Not only is it in my opinion Conan Doyle’s best work, it’s also a short novel that’s perfect for a quick read, and you can download it forfree!

Friday, 16 March 2012

Fictional dog of the week #10: Huckleberry Hound

Huckleberry Hound is an old favourite of mine from the Hanna-Barbera kennel of cartoon dogs.

A blue dog sporting a straw boater and red bow-tie, Huckleberry Hound had a sleepy, southern-American drawl and a kindly personality. Wherever he went, would whistle and try to sing ‘Oh my darling Clementine’, turning to speak to his audience every now and again.

Huckleberry tried different jobs in each episode, but he often ran up against ‘baddies’ such as Powerful Pierre, Dinky Dalton and Crazy Coyote. After a number of setbacks, he tended to win through in the end.

Huckleberry had his own show – The Huckleberry Hound Show – which began in 1958 and was the first animated series to be awarded an Emmy in 1961. It wasn’t all about the hound though. Each programme included three cartoon episodes: one starring Huckleberry Hound, one featuring Yogi Bear and Boo Boo, and a third one with the mice Pixie and Dixie and their arch enemy, Mr Jinks the cat. The series had long-lasting appeal, and I remember watching it on Saturday mornings in the 1970s.

In the end, Yogi Bear was more popular than Huckleberry and he was given his own show in 1961. Huckleberry appeared with Yogi in some subsequent cartoons, and Yogi was replaced by Hokey Wolf in The Huckleberry Hound Show. It was never the same after that, but the memory of Huck's glory days lives on.

Here are some links to a couple of Huckleberry Hound cartoons: Sheriff Huckleberry and Sheep-Shape-Sheepherder. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Fictional dog of the week #9: Sebastian the Incredible Drawing Dog

Kids love art, right? And they love stories. And a lot of them love dogs. So what could be better than a children’s BBC TV programme in which an artistic dog draws pictures to accompany the stories read out by the bloke who shares his studio? Enter Sebastian, the Incredible Drawing Dog and his friend, a youthful Michael Barrymore.

Sebastian was a puppet, a brown dog of no specific breed who I remember wandering around in a dressing gown a lot of the time, although any existing pictures seem to show him in a cravat and blazer. Maybe it was Micheal who wore the dressing gown. Anyway, in each episode, Michael would read a story from a big book after some comedy business that would see him and Sebastian chatting and bickering about a relevant subject.

The series was devised and written by cartoonist DavidMyers, who must have drawn the pictures. In my experience, barely anyone remembers this TV series. It was aired in 1986 or thereabouts (I’ve seen 1987 mentioned somewhere) and I was in my late teens at the time, during that period when you watch programmes that are aimed at much younger people, probably because you don’t want to grow up yet.

I can’t find a single picture of Sebastian and Michael Barrymore together, and Barrymore’s IMDB biography doesn’t even mention the series. The series would have been aired just as Barrymore hit the big time as one of the UK’s most popular TV presenters, so perhaps he simply moved on to bigger and better things. Whatever the reason, Sebastian the Incredible Drawing Dog generally seems to have faded into the mists of time, which is a shame because it was one of those programmes that combined art, storytelling and comedy, and I think it’s worth remembering.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Brilliant books: The 'Bones' books by Suzette A. Hill

It’s World Book Day today, so it seems a good time to recommend the series of books I’m reading at the moment: the ‘Bones’ books (or the 'Francis Oughterard' series) by Suzette A. Hill.

I’m currently part-way through Bones in the Belfry, the second book in the series which follows the Reverend Francis Oughterard (also known as F.O.), his dog Bouncer and his cat Maurice and their adventures in 1950s Surrey. All the Rev wants is some peace and quiet, but life – and crime – keeps getting in the way and it’s often up to his animals to help sort it out. Sounds a bit twee doesn’t it? It isn’t.

I’ve only read almost two of the books so far, and I wouldn’t give away the story anyway, but I can tell you that the first book begins with the discovery of a body in the woods in the quiet village of Molesworth in Surrey. One way or another, Bouncer and Maurice both lose their owners and decide to move into the vicarage, adopting F.O. as their new guardian – which means they’ll do anything to make sure they don’t lose their new-found security.

I must admit that when I started reading the first book in the series, A Load of Old Bones, I had reservations. The first chapter was narrated by Maurice the cat, and I thought it would take a great deal of skill to pull that type of thing off without it getting annoying. Well, it didn’t get annoying. In fact, it was expertly done. F.O. narrates most of the chapters, with occasional interspersions from Bouncer and Maurice, so the books strike the perfect balance of human-canine-feline narrative perspectives.

The characterisation is brilliant: Maurice is undeniably a cat, and Bouncer a dog – but not ‘just’ a cat and a dog. Their accounts subtly build a strong and detailed picture of their individual characters, so I have a clear image of each of them in my mind’s eye as I read. There’s also a cast of supporting animal characters – from flighty Pomeranian to up-for-anything Irish Setter – which are delightfully described through the eyes of Bouncer and Maurice, who don’t always see eye-to-eye on these things. In fact, the voice of each narrator becomes so distinctive that you'll find yourself waiting for their varous accounts like the return of an old friend.

F.O. himself is just as entertaining. He's blissfully unaware of his animals' views and machinations, but he has his own animal sensibilities – he refers to a thin, suspicious policeman 'the Whippet', for example. And while all he wants is peace and quiet with a malt whisky, a cigarette and a crossword, he's not quite the walkover other people take him for.

The front cover of my edition proudly displays praise from the wonderful Dame Beryl Bainbridge, who in my opinion was one of the greatest ever writers of darkly humorous novels. It's high praise indeed, but these books deserve it. They’re funny, clever and warm-hearted with a good dollop of farce and, after reading just over one-and-a-half of them, I’m definitely hooked.