Three is a Magic Number

In Martin Amis’ autobiography Experience, Dad Kingsley (for it is he) memorably describes Terminator 2 as a “flawless masterpiece.” With accolades like that from one of the last century’s great writers of inoffensive fiction and curmudgeonly poetry, this summer’s third and final part has a lot to live up to. And Terminator isn’t the only big-name trilogy to shudder to a climax this year. Two more installments of The Matrix, the Wachowski Brother’s moron and geek-friendly primer on the Western metaphysical canon (with big beat and big guns), are expected in the Autumn, and the final part of the Lord Of The Rings is due in time for Christmas (and next year’s Best Picture Oscar). But is Part Three all its cracked up to be? Schoolhouse Rock, a children’s program broadcast in the US in the 1970s told us “three is a magic number” – a meme later promulgated by De La Soul and BBC Three, and Jack White, lead singer of The White Stripes seems to agree. In spite of having two members, Jack thinks of the band as a three-piece: vocals, drums and guitar. When asked about the possibility of adding a bass player in a recent interview he was bewildered. “That would break up the thing of vocals, guitar and drums. Somebody else would bring this fourth component. If you’re going to have four components, you might as well have twenty, y’know.” It seems the symmetry of the trilogy appeals to saviours of Rock and Roll and film directors alike. But does a third installment or component necessarily guarantee success? In an attempt to answer this question – and work out whether Terminator 3 will be any good – I examined some of pop culture’s many Part Threes. Naturally my first thought was to consider past track listings of the venerable “Now! That’s What I Call Music” compilations. After a telephone conversation with a bemused assistant at the British Library failed to establish who appeared on the early Now! records, I struck upon a copy of volume 3 in gramophone format on eBay. Released in 1984, the compilation is mainly forgettable songs from best-forgotten artists: Nik Kershaw, Howard Jones, Alison Moyet, OMD, and many more. The odd song almost makes it £2 well spent (The Thompson Twins, The Style Council and Special AKA), but the mere presence of Phil Collins left me in a dumb rage. Album three is often tricky for bands. For every OK Computer there’s a Be Here Now. If the first two albums were successful there can be opportunity to experiment, but also a pressure to continue a winning formula. And fatally, there can be a lack of ideas. “Your first couple of records are based on your twenty-odd years of experience. The third record is all the experience you’ve had in between record one and record two. But that experience is basically just touring,” explains David Byrne of Talking Heads in his recent book about the band. It is received wisdom that the Godfather, Rocky and Police Academy series went rapidly downhill after their second installments, which must count against threes. Even more worrying for the trilogy are the Star Wars films. The portentous original plan was to make three trilogies and so far we’ve been subjected to all three of the middle trilogy (1977 – 1983) and, more recently, two of the first. The middle trilogy is watchable enough rot, but the recent films are joyless, plotless screeds on macroeconomics and industrial relations. Quitting while ahead obviously never crossed George Lucas’ mind. In the cinema at least, trilogies seem to provoke appalling directorial hubris that writers of fiction are more able to resist. Perhaps the prospect of a lucrative DVD box set offered by filming any old shit for part three is too much to resist. The Lord of the Rings films turns this on its head; they are tightly scripted, zippy reinterpretations of a bloated, forensic epic. But audience reaction to the final installment could be similar to CS Lewis’s apocryphal response to a Tolkien reading in the Eagle and Child: “not more fucking elves!” Monty Python’s comedy was often an echo of Tolkien’s strategy of bludgeoning his readers into caring about a fictional world through sheer length. In an attempt to justify their more interminable sketches, they were wont to insist that jokes were funny the first and third times you told them. I attempted to prove this by telling my brother a Tommy Cooper joke three times (I slept like a log last night. I woke up in a fireplace!), but he insisted it got less funny. Stick that, Cleese! Outside music and cinema, there are plenty of triumvirates and trilogies to add to the cases for the prosecution and defence of Part Three. For example, Prince Harry, third in line to the throne, is great fun. He’s like Robbie Williams in that he deserves to be clumsily kneecapped, but life is made infinitely more enjoyable by reading about him in articles in the Daily Mail about the collapse of society brought on by the permissive 1960s. Meanwhile, Charles and William are just regular idiots. The royal three wins. So, sometimes Part Three is a good omen, but usually it’s bad. By all means be first in line for Terminator 3, but don’t get your hopes up.
ARCHIVE: 2nd Week TT 2003