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Cowboy Jess

Reviewed by Philip Reeve

I have to declare an interest here: Cowboy Jess is dedicated to my son Sam, and Geraldine McCaughrean is one of my all-time favourite authors (I doubt that I would have ever got around to writing my own novels at all if I hadn't read Fire's Astonishment and Vainglory).

She is best known for her magnificent children's novels, which include The White Darkness, A Little Lower Than The Angels, Plundering paradise, Stop The Train and, most recently, Pull Out All The Stops, and she also finds time to operate a secondary career as a re-teller of myths, legends and literary classics.

Cowboy Jess and its sequel, Cowboy Jess Saddles Up, fit neatly between these two strands.  Short books, aimed at a slightly younger age-group than the full length novels, and packed with what the children's book world calls 'boy appeal', they revisit the American west of Stop The Train in stories of almost mythic simplicity.  The Wild West backdrop is sketched in convincingly, and the landscapes are wonderful, but historical accuracy isn't an issue here: this is the legendary West of John Ford movies and schoolyard games of cowboys and injuns: Cowboy Jess himself might as well be Theseus, or King Arthur.  He is discovered on page one as a baby, curled up asleep in a coonskin hat between the wheel tracks where a wagon train has passed.  His upbringing by the kindly folks of a newly-founded frontier town is dealt with briskly in the first few pages, and pretty soon he's old enough  to sign on as a cowboy at the local ranch.  The problems which face him are quickly overcome by bravery, good nature and quick thinking, and in the course of the first book he captures a horse thief, saves the stage-coach from bandits and befriends a Lakota girl, Sweet Rain.

He also acquires a magnificent black horse named Destiny, who reminded me slightly of the old Champion, the Wonder Horse TV shows, which were still being repeated on Saturday mornings when I was Sam's age.  I can't remember much about them now except for the theme tune ("Champierrrnnnnnnnnn, the Wonder Horse...") and the fact that the excitement promised by the title sequence (all indians, stage-coaches and galloping horses) was never really delivered by the show itself.  The Cowboy Jess books avoid this pitfall with carefree ease; they are all indians, stagecoaches and galloping horses.   For older readers they may not have the same depth or scope of Geraldine McCaughrean's longer books, (and clearly aren't meant to) but they are still well worth reading, if only so that we can marvel at her nimble storytelling and the brilliance of her language (at one point, when dawn breaks after a night on the range, she describes a band of light appearing along the horizon 'as if the sky was lifting its hat to a lady').  For boys and girls who love adventure they are just about perfect.  Order them now and encourage a bit of half term/summer holiday reading.

Cowboy Jess and Cowboy Jess saddles Up are both published by Orion, RRP £4.99

Big Daddy vs Giant Haystacks

Review by Philip Reeve.

Last year I reviewed Those Magnificent Men, Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon's brilliant little play about Alcock and Brown, which used the story of those pioneer aviators to explore history, the nature of fame, and the recent trend for using real-life figures as the basis for plays which explore history and the nature of fame.  Their latest work, Big Daddy vs Giant Haystacks, which premiered on Wednesday night as part of the Brighton Festival, takes a similar approach.  With two small chairs and two large actors, it recreates the period from 1972 to 1988 when British Saturday afternoon TV schedules were dominated by scenes like this...

In some ways Big Daddy... is even more ambitious that its predecessor.  Actors Ross Gurney-Randall and David Mounfield don't just portray Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks, but an immense supporting cast of lesser wrestlers, managers, and TV executives; there are even walk-on parts for Paul McCartney, Frank Sinatra and Princess Margaret.  This constant switching from one role to another, one accent to the next, must be hard work for the actors, and would be hard work for the audience too if the writing were not so accomplished.  As it is, the characters are always careful to remind us who they are, to keep up to speed on what they're doing and what's happening in the wider world of wrestling at each particular moment.  It's all as funny as we've come to expect from Mitchell and Nixon, but it's never just funny: they have a deep sympathy for the people they write about.  Ross Gurney Randall's Big Daddy is particularly impressive; reluctant at first, then half believing his own publicity; his unease at having to visit the bedsides of dying children as part of his brother's publicity schemes, and his grief and guilt about the death of an opponent, are exceptionally well-drawn; he's almost a tragic figure (albeit a 26 stone tragic figure in a spangly leotard).

Our narrator for much of the evening, and the ring-master who holds all the disparate strands together, is Max Crabtree, Big Daddy's brother and manager.  He's played winningly by David Mounfield as a cheapskate north-country Machiavelli who dreams of "owning the whole of wrestling".  "I'll be your Virgil in this Dante's Inferno," he tells us as the show begins, and goes on to set the tone for much of what follows; "That's not the kind of reference I'd make in real life, but this is a play and I'm a sort of semi-fictional character, so I think we can get away with it..."

Stingy, scheming and manipulative, Crabtree could be easily be the play's villain, but he's too well-drawn, too fully rounded to be just a heel.  That role is reserved for Greg Dyke, best known nowadays as a dodgy Director General of the BBC, but who cut his teeth on London Weekend Television's World of Sport programme, and was responsible for taking wrestling off TV.  Portrayed by Ross Gurney-Randall as a venomous cockney psychopath, he embodies one of the show's themes; the shift of power from the north in the 1970s to the London 'barrow boys' who dominated the 1980s.  The tussles between Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks are the visual and comic highlights of the piece, but the real battle comes in the scene where Dyke and Max Crabtree confront one another; a high-stakes bout with the future of wrestling as the prize.

We know who won in the end, of course.  The London elite who run British TV didn't like wrestling and didn't want to show it, and without TV it withered.  It's not something you hear much about these days. Nostalgic TV shows and newspaper articles are forever exhuming the pop-culture detritus of the 1970s, but they tend to focus on things which middle-class North Londoners approve of, not these embarrassing pantomime gladiators whose fanbase was always in the provinces.  As well as giving us a laugh, this well-researched play is drawing attention to an odd little corner of our culture that has been not so much forgotten as deliberately suppressed.

That said, the eagerness with which the Brighton Festival audience joined in Big Daddy's signature chant of, "Easy!  Easy!" suggests that fond memories of wrestling survive even among hip urban types in the south east.  When it tours the north, Giant Haystack's final soliloquy, in which he predicts that 'Wrestling will be back!" is going to bring the house down.

A tour of Big Daddy versus Giant Haystacks is planned for later in the year, and I shall post details both here and on my own blog when the dates are confirmed.