Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Parliamo Stanley: The Comedic Importance of Banana And Marmalade Sandwiches


Stanley Baxter has been doing funny voices all his life, or at least since his mother Bessie persuaded him to mimic Harry Lauder. Young Stanley had never seen the bandy-legged music hall legend, but stepped forward while his mother – he occasionally forgets himself and calls her maw – knocked out Roamin’ in the Gloamin’ on the piano. From there, it was but a short hop to Mae West, who Stanley understood to be a movie star. Soon enough, this wee boy was entertaining church hall audiences with his impersonation of the Hollywood siren.
Telling the story now, 75 years later, Baxter slips into the voice, but it is a precise impression. When he purrs “come up and see me sometime”, he isn’t taking off Mae West – he is remembering himself, aged seven, copying his mother, dreaming of Hollywood. “I reproduced that noise, and the audience thought, ‘oh, a boy of seven able to do that, how clever.’ Of course it was my mother’s tutoring that got me to do it.”
This sense of dislocation occurs quite frequently. As Baxter’s conversation warms up, his speech slips into various accents and voices. They’re not impressions, but little landslides in a personality that is never more than a few seconds away from caricature. He can’t resist pulling the rug from under himself. Even in our opening exchange, as he explains the benefits of his fitness regimen – three times to the gym every week, with a bit of treadmill, some rowing, and ten lengths of the pool – his features freeze, and his voice becomes possessed with the grim fatalism of a London cabbie: “It’s quite enough, mate,” he says, in antique cockney. Still, he is, he concedes, “remarkably well for an old one”.
For the generations that are old enough to remember television before alternative comedy, Baxter will need no introduction. His shows were great Broadway spectaculars full of singing, dancing, and funny voices, all of it informed by Stanley’s Glaswegian wit. His is a sense of humour that embraces grandiosity, while simultaneously bringing it back to earth; full of mockery, but devoid of cruelty. Search YouTube, and you’ll find him kissing off treble entendres in a send-up of Upstairs, Downstairs, or – less dated, and still brilliant – mocking the dialect of his hometown in Parliamo Glasgow.
With the shrinking of television budgets, and the fracturing of audiences, Baxter’s style fell from favour, but as the cruelties of alternative comedy drain into the mud, his genius is being appreciated anew. On Christmas Day, ITV is showing Stanley Baxter: Now and Then, a compendium of clips and tributes. The show includes a newly-recorded Christmas message from Baxter, as the Queen. The sketch is based on last year’s Christmas message. “She didn’t just sit on her sofie. She got out and about a wee bit more so I had to as well.”
Baxter is said to have been the first person to impersonate the Queen on television, and his name for the character, The Duchess of Brendagh, has since been adopted by Private Eye. He has met Her Majesty twice. “‘Met’ is an exaggeration. She didn’t invite me to tea at Buck House. The first time was in her line-up at the Scottish Royal Variety performance, at the Glasgow Alhambra. The second time was a little more, because I’d been having threats of being horsewhipped by colonels when I did her as the Duchess of Brendagh, although they knew f***in’ well who it was meant to be. And then the Queen agreed to meet in a line-up at the Odeon Leicester Square for a Barbra Streisand film called Funny Lady. After that, the complaints stopped. HM got me off the hook. Gawd bless you, ma’am!”
It’s instructive to remember that Baxter’s comedy was once deemed controversial.
“Oh, I was considered a wee bit risqué,” he recalls. “At one time Mary Whitehouse had a go at me about something: I cannae mind what it was. But my God, when you think what she complained of – what’d she be doing now with Jonathan Ross and these people? She’d be doing back flips.” Of Ross, Baxter diplomatically notes that he is “an enormously talented man” who “just went far too far. He pushed the boundaries of what you can get away with.
“Comedy does have to be anarchic, I think. It has to break boundaries. It’s what comedy’s about. But it mustn’t shatter everything.”
The roots of Baxter’s career as a performer are obvious enough. His mother, he says, “would have loved to have been theatrical. But my mother’s generation, it was the same as prostitution if you went into the theatre. Oh God, yes. You were a lost woman.
“My father was dragged to see me in church halls. He got pissed off with it. Of course it wasn’t just seeing his son, which he might have been proud of – he might not – but he’d to sit through a lot of fat ladies singing with tartan stuff on, and he got fed up of that: people that couldnae sing at all. One time he left a church hall and said ‘If I ever go back and see that boy perform, you can certify me insane.’
“I didn’t like school. I hated it. But when I went on at a church hall and people were on their feet applauding, I thought, ‘Well, now I’m getting approval. Maybe this is what I should be doing.’”
Young Stanley’s creativity was fuelled by the cinemas of his Glasgow childhood. “It was fourpence if you got in before 4.30 at Hillhead, fivepence at the Grosvenor. Or ‘Gruvner’ as we called it.
“I had to get back eventually for my tea, but my mother used to give me sandwiches in my satchel. Usually banana with marmalade on bread, and I would sit and munch that through Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
“It was in that very cinema, the Grosvenor, that my maw and I were trapped, all night during the first Clydeside Blitz. I said ‘Come on mother, we’re leaving,’ and the air raid warden shouted ‘Get back in there! Bombs falling!’ so we just went back and sat. After we came out, I thought snow had fallen. The street was all white. But it was the plate glass windows all up the Byres Road that had been blown out.
“When we got back to Wilton Street, the tenement at the very foot of Wilton Street on Queen Margaret Drive had been blown away by a landmine. And my father was just up the hill, at 150 Wilton Street. I said, ‘my father, my father.’ ‘Och,’ said my mother, ‘he’ll be all right’.” Baxter laughs at the memory. “She was much more interested in my career than my father’s problem…”
By the age of 14, Baxter was a regular on the radio, but it was his stint in the Combined Services Entertainment troupe, entertaining the troops throughout the Far East alongside Kenneth Williams, the playwright Peter Nichols, and the film director John Schlesinger, that sealed his professional fate. “I got a real taste for it then. So instead of going to Glasgow University to teach Senior English, as my father had hoped, I came back and said ‘I want to give it a go’. And the colour drained from father’s face. He was a fellow of the Faculty of Actuaries, and he looked up his actuarial tables, to see what hope I had of earning a living, and he went ‘Oh Christ’… Of course, my mother was delighted – it was what she had planned.”
Prior to his time with the CSE, Baxter endured a stint picking dirt from the coal on the conveyor belt at Shotts. “I remember still being asked to do stuff at the BBC, and I was trying to hide my cut fingers beneath the scripts.”
An ear problem meant Baxter’s fitness was downgraded to B1, making him unfit for the mines. While waiting for his posting, he joined the Unity Theatre. “I was very left wing at that time. I thought of myself as a young communist. I was rehearsing the part of a lifetime playing a boy that had been blinded in the war and come back to his girlfriend. I thought, ‘Oh God – this’ll really be a womb trembler!’” He slips into the role. “I was rehearsing: ‘Oh, is that you Jeannie? It’s me.’ I thought, ‘the tears’ll flow here.’ I was moving into drama! Except I was called up for the army in the middle of rehearsals. Russell Hunter got the part! I’ve never forgiven him!”
Oddly, more than 60 years later, Baxter’s frustration at his inability to move into straight acting seems like a fresh hurt. He recalls his attempts to join the Old Vic theatre school on finishing National Service – “I wanted to get rid of all that frivolity” – and his annoyance at being rejected because he was too experienced. His break came when an old actor friend got him an audition in the 1948 Edinburgh Festival production of The Three Estates, and from there he auditioned for the Citizens’ in Glasgow, and became a stalwart in the 1949 production, The Tintock Cup, which revolutionised Scottish pantomime.
Eventually, he decided to stretch himself by moving to London. He decided not to rely on being a Scots comic. “To begin with, I wanted all my sketches to be written in American, Irish, foreign, anything but Scots. That gave me a wider canvas.”
Audiences, he says, would have been unable to detect that he was Scottish. “Because eh can do posh, of course eh can! I’ve got a good ear. It was why I was able to speak French with a lovely accent, except when people replied, I didnae know what the f*** they were talking about!”
Still, the roots of Baxter’s act were planted in those church halls (the impressions), the army revues (the broad-brush humour), and the pantos (where he perfected the Kelvinside woman). “Apart from the fact that you had to wear padding and high heels, it didn’t matter whether I was playing a woman or a man. It was a character.
“I always started with the voice, and once I’d got the voice, everything else I could do. I even found I was quite happy in high heels, to my own surprise. Until this time – I found it a wee bit more awkward, getting back in the Queen’s shoes!”
He’s reluctant to agree that his humour is Glaswegian, saying he was more influenced by American movies. “It’s obvious in my work – all the musicals. It was an escape from the dreich winters in Glasgow before the clean air act: all that fog and ice in Belmont Street going to school, and then suddenly you’re going to this magical world of the Grosvenor and the Hillhead.”
He looks suddenly wistful. “I was just about to tell you my favourite actor – so favourite I cannae mind the name. Eh…. Spencer Tracy, the greatest movie actor that ever lived! Inherit The Wind – wonderful!”
When I ask him what he thinks of his TV specials, he seems oddly unmoved.
“Thank God I got away with it all! And very successfully. It was nice. And I’m glad I don’t have to do it all over again!”
I tell him I am surprised it doesn’t mean more to him. “I never watch my own stuff,” he says. “The only thing I might sit and watch is Very Important Person, my first film. I loved doing that, because I had been brought up with movies, and here I was actually making a movie. That was a big thrill.”
Baxter played two parts in the film, a POW camp comedy with James Robertson Justice. He was a German, and a Scots boy doing a bad impersonation of the same man. “They made me do the first three days as the German, and then they were going to look at the rushes and if it didn’t work, I’d only be playing the Scot. Well it worked. I was so proud of that, and I’m still proud of that.”

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Clarksdale, Mississippi: Where The Blues Had A Baby And Named It Rocket 88


Delta Karate
Originally uploaded by Herschell Hershey
It takes a while for the eyes to adjust from the blue brightness of a Mississippi afternoon to the gloom in the hallway of Clarksdale’s Riverside Hotel. But eventually the shadows lighten to reveal a sullen piano, and walls pasted with a jumble of flyers and posters for the blues. On the floor, lining the wall of the corridor, are packets of tiles, as if the place is in a state of constant refurbishment. Looking oddly out of place among this cheerful chaos is an arrangement of photographs recording the 1991 visit made to Riverside by the late John F Kennedy Jr, and, ominously – to the right, under the ceiling fan in the front office – a sign reading “Be Nice or Leave”.

The Riverside’s proprietor, Frank Ratliff, appears. He is a wiry man with a strong handshake and a quick smile. “Call me Rat,” he commands, gesturing into the darkness. “Sam Cooke’s room is gone,” he says, pointing towards the closed door of Room 7. Room 11 – named after Pops Staples - is also unavailable, though a glimpse inside reveals a glittering disco ball suspended from the ceiling. (It used to hang in the Subway Lounge, the club Rat ran in the basement). The door to Muddy Waters’ room remains stubbornly closed.

Rat pauses for a moment to survey the scene. He has met my travelling companion before, so she is ushered into Bessie’s room, Room 2 – an honour, and a mixed blessing, perhaps, as it’s the room in which the great Bessie Smith died, when the Riverside was the only black hospital in Clarksdale. I get the consolation prize of John Lee Hooker’s room; a compact space with tinfoil over the window, and a plastic sheet on the bed. The view isn’t much, and the communal wash room is some way along the hall, but then nobody comes to the Riverside expecting Egyptian cotton or the airlocked convenience of a Holiday Inn.

The sign at the front of the hotel tells part of the story, boasting that the Riverside is “the home of the delta blues”. The hotel’s historic importance has also been recognised by its inclusion on the Mississippi Blues Trail, which plots the important sites in the evolution of the blues, from the Dockery Plantation – the former residence of Charley Patton, between Ruleville and Cleveland, and often viewed as the birthplace of the delta blues – to the grave of Robert Johnson.

Actually, Johnson was buried in an unmarked grave at an uncertain location outside Greenwood, Mississippi, but such is the interest in his story that he now has three gravestones in three different places, though an unprepossessing site along Money Road at the Little Zion Church currently holds sway amongst musicologists. Still, even 70 years after his death, Johnson remains a controversial figure locally. The first blues marker at the Little Zion site had to be replaced after someone shot bullets through it. The next two markers were stolen.

There are also several opinions as to the location of the crossroads where Johnson sold his soul to the devil, an even less verifiable claim. Clarksdale has one, marked by crossed guitars hung over the junction between highways 49 and 61. The plausibility of this is in no way diminished by the fact that there was no crossroads at this point in Johnson’s day. Still, carnivores in search of authentic Robert Johnson experience could do worse than stopping to sample some of Abe’s barbecue or – a Mississippi speciality – tamales: ground meat rolled in cornmeal and boiled in the leaves from a shuck of corn. It’s conceivable that Johnson did the same. He died on 16 August 1938. Abe’s has been serving Bar-B-Q since 1924 (at this location since 1937), and the great bluesman thought enough about tamales to write a fruity song about them. The ragtime chorus, “Hot tamales, and they’re red hot,” is one of his more uplifting reveries, though he omits any mention of Abe’s famous Comeback Sauce.

On the porch outside the Riverside, looking down Sunflower Avenue, Rat gives me a history of the hotel. “I’m working on mother’s dream,” he says, proudly. It’s a complicated story, but the long and the short of it is that Rat was born on 8th Street in Clarksdale, and then his mother, ZL Hill, moved to a little shotgun house on 4th Street, at the site now occupied by the Church of God in Christ. During the war, ZL rented a funeral home, renting the rooms to soldiers, which gave her the idea of running a hotel. “During that time,” Rat says, “we had trains, buses, everything running here, taxi cabs. Clubs on every corner just about – we called ’em cafes. Grocery stores on every corner. And churches. So you could go both sides. You could work all week, party on weekends, and go to church on Sundays.”

Before the war, the building which is now the Riverside housed the GT Thomas Afro-American Hospital, which earned its moment of notoriety on the morning of 26 September, 1937, when Bessie Smith died after an automobile accident on Highway 61. Like many delta stories, the story of Smith’s death is available in several versions. The incident inspired a play by Edward Albee, The Death of Bessie Smith, which suggests that the singer died because she was refused treatment at a whites-only hospital. The accepted version now is that Smith wasn’t turned away from a white hospital, but died at the Afro-American hospital after having her arm amputated.

Clearly, guests in Room 2 of the Riverside may prefer to concentrate on less maudlin aspects of Smith’s career, but segregation is the reason for the hotel’s historical significance. “It was only in the ’70s that segregation went out here in the State,” Rat explains. “But all the old blues singers, that’s why they had to stay here, because they couldn’t stay in the white businesses and hotels. There wasn’t but a few hotels in this town. This was the only black hotel.”

The Riverside was opened on 11 August, 1944. “Ike Turner moved in here, Robert Nighthawk moved in here, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy (Williamson) and all them, they played different towns, and whenever they came through, this is where they stayed.”

In fact, quite apart from its importance as a dormitory for the blues, the Riverside made a more specific contribution to musical history. In the basement, early in 1951, Ike Turner wrote Rocket 88, a thunderous song in praise of the Oldsmobile 88, which has as good a claim as any to be the first rock’n’roll record. As well as cranking up the rhythm of jump blues, the song had a gloriously distorted guitar sound, possibly because rainwater leaked into the amplifier on the way to record it at Sam Phillips’ Sun studio in Memphis.

Rat was a boy when much of this musical history was unfurling, but he did meet many of the musicians. “At the age of six, seven, eight years old I began to know who a lot of them were. I didn’t know they were singers at that age, but they all played with me. I grew up with all the blues singers; that’s why I love the blues.”

As I am talking to Rat, two of his guests check out of the Riverside. They are twentysomethings from Barcelona. They speak little English, but have rock’n’roll haircuts. Rat tries for some time to ascertain whether they had a good night’s sleep, but the two men show no sign of understanding what he is saying. He changes tack as they load up their rental car. “Where now?” he asks. “Memphis,” says one of the Catalans. “Elvis,” says the other.

A large percentage of the guests at the Riverside are embarked on a similar journey, trying to inhale some of the blues air from the towns up and down Highway 61. Ironically, the economic blues never left Clarksdale, even if most of the juke joints have closed, and the music is harder to find. “The town is much quieter,” says Rat. “You’d walk out of one club, into the next one in the ’50s, the ’60s, up to the ’70s, in this town. Then the jobs started playing out. Clubs started dying out. People started moving out and going elsewhere. Just like the blues singers. They started in Mississippi, they went to Tennessee, St Louis, Chicago, then they went abroad. That’s what happened. The blues spread.”

Evidence of economic collapse isn’t hard to find. There are rows of empty shops, and the establishment of the blues as a tourist currency can’t quite disguise the sense of a town which is struggling to hang on to a sense of itself. The street now called Blues Alley lies in an area once occupied by the freight train depot, and houses the homely Delta Blues Museum and actor Morgan Freeman’s club Ground Zero, a kind of town hall for the blues. Ground Zero and the upmarket restaurant Madidi represent Freeman’s commitment to his home town, and it is possible, with very little effort, to have a great night without leaving the comfort of the club’s porch. It was there that my eligible friend Tom and I were propositioned with the irresistible line: “Do you guys want to hang out on a porch and smoke dope with some weird girls?” That long night of the weird girls extended from porch, to gas station for more supplies, and on, at an absurdly late hour, to Red’s (395 Sunflower Ave) – more of a living room than a lounge, where a left-handed guitarist was squeezing the lifeblood out of a right-handed Stratocaster.

The morning after the night before, I walked around the town centre, pausing at Cat Head (252 Delta Ave), a shop specialising in outsider art, and admiring the mural of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Bessie Smith on the wall of Frank’s Liquor Store on Sunflower Avenue. I was heading back towards the Delta Blues Museum to inspect the lifelike waxwork of Muddy Waters, when a pink car drew over to the kerb and the driver - a black man in a yellow shirt and a pork-pie hat, and gaps where his teeth used to be – threw open his door. “My name is Razor Blade,” he declaimed, “do you want to hear the real blues?”

The invitation carried a faint hint of danger, but this was no crossroads confrontation. It was the middle of the month, Razor Blade explained, and he was trying to hawk his live CD. I asked Mr Blade if I could take his photograph, and he agreed, with one condition. “Not in the car,” he said. “Cos then everybody’ll see that I drive a Toyota!”

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Baader Meinhof Complex - Euro-Terror Meets Bonnie And Clyde


The international success of The Lives of Others and Downfall may have encouraged those involved in the production of The Baader Meinhof Complex that the wider world is uncommonly interested in recent German history. Much has been made of the involvement of Downfall producer Bernd Eichinger, who writes the story, from the book by Stefan Aust. But it’s probably more instructive to see it in relation to his previous work with director Uli Edel – on that gritty tale of druggy Berlin, Christiane F, and Last Exit To Brooklyn. Edel also directed several episodes of that pre-Wire tale of Baltimore cops, Homicide: Life On The Street, and the Madonna clunker, Body of Evidence, but we’ll put the latter down to misplaced ambition.

The film tells the story of the German terrorist group – also known as the Red Army Faction – which grew out the radical politics of 1968, the anti-Vietnam movement, and the perceived authoritarianism of the West German state. The echoes of their brutal campaign live on in Germany, but here – such is our shallow understanding of recent European history – if the Baader Meinhof gang is remembered at all, it is as a vague symbol of rebellion. (Joe Strummer’s punk wardrobe included an RAF t-shirt.)

Eichinger favours a fragmented brand of storytelling rather than a rounded narrative, and Edel is happy to avoid the moral judgments that a Hollywood film on terrorism would be forced to make. That said, if the film isn’t exactly on the side of the RAF, it does a splendid job of making them sexy. This isn’t necessarily a fabrication – they were, in the main, young and good-looking and, in the spirit of the times, advocated sexual liberation. So it is that Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) is pictured naked on the roof of a Lebanese terrorist training camp, taunting her Palestinian hosts: “What’s the matter? Fucking and shooting; it’s the same thing!”

By contrast, the authorities are characterless figures, with the exception of their main adversary Horst Herold (the reliable Bruno Ganz), and though the futility and the brutality of the campaign eventually become clear, the filmmakers are at risk of being seen as too sympathetic to these beautiful terrorists. Eichenger’s back is covered slightly by a subplot about the power of martyrdom and myths, and the sense of period is beautifully captured. It sprawls messily towards the end, and the violence becomes banal, but the overall effect is explosive: a Molotov cocktail of sex, violence, and dangerous ideals.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

David Cameron's historic address to the Conservative Party Conference: A Tale Of Middle-Age Failures, Drug Addicts And Children Who Can't Spell

Mr David Cameron started his historic address to the massed ranks of the young, modern, multicultural, occasionally brown, and not in the least smug, Conservative Party conference by saying that he was pleased to be in symphony hall, with everyone playing the same tune. This is what passes for a joke in these serious times, which is almost enough to make one nostalgic for the Tory rallies of yore, where Kenny Everett would agitate for nuclear war.
But Mr Cameron was playing it straight. He wore a dark suit and a grim expression. His skin was moisturised. He was flanked by William Hague’s ears, an unambiguous symbol of wisdom and unity.
He made several promises. He promised: “We will not allow what happened in America to happen here,” without mentioning what it was that happened in America. Was it the Boston Tea Party? The OJ Simpson trial? Or the episode of Dallas where Bobby emerged from the shower and declared that the previous series had all been a dream?
He promised to be sober, responsible, measured, proportionate, and responsible (again), which marked him out from those politicians who stand drunk and irresponsible behind the dispatch box. He talked pessimistically about how he was an optimist, which may be why he felt that society was broken, and rife with senseless barbaric violence, and the angry harsh culture of incivility. (His bicycle was stolen recently but, oddly, he didn’t mention that).
This was not a triumphalist address. Serious times call for quiet talk. (Sadly, Mr Iain Duncan Smith, the original Quiet Man, was nowhere to be seen.) Cameron burbled like the under-manager of an aspiring telecoms company, selling widgets to the world. Let’s call him Dave.
“We are a nation at war,” Dave said, optimistically warning that “if we fail in out mission, the Taleban will come back… more terrorists, more bombs, more slaughter on our streets.” He was in favour of soldiers, heroes and Gurkhas. He liked health visitors, but not the nanny state. He wanted to strengthen the family, and to encourage women to work, so – in common with all who decry the nanny state - he was presumably in favour of nannies.
The optimism continued. “These are times of great anxiety,” he said. “The tap marked ‘borrowing’ was turned on and left running for too long,” he warned. “They thought the asset price bubble didn’t matter.”
Since most bankers don’t understand the rudiments of plumbing, the world economy was in a mess. The bankers were to blame, but this was not the time to blame them. Not while the tap was running. “There will be a day of reckoning,” Dave prophesied, using the same formulation as yesterday, “but today is not that day.”
There was some analysis in all this grim chatter. Gordon Brown had made two big mistakes. His worst decision was contained inside his best decision. “He changed the rules of the game. But he took the referee off the pitch.”
That was Mr Brown’s first mistake. His second was to behave like a spendaholic when the cupboard was bare. Mr Cameron would not be doing that. “You shouldn’t spend in the good times,” he said. He didn’t intend to spend in the bad times either.
Instead, he would destroy useless quangos and initiatives. His lack of experience would be no handicap. “Experience means you’re implicated,” he said, sounding increasingly like Miminus, the poetic pig in Animal Farm: “experience is bad…”
Instead, he offered “simple beliefs with profound implications.” These beliefs were various. He was not libertarian. He was in favour of marriage, and not in favour of the unmarried. They were cowardly weasels who deserved to horse-whipped. (This is a slight paraphrase). Michael Howard, he said, stretching credulity in a manner which would have impressed the most hardened of fantabulists, was a very kind man and a great leader of the party.
Cameron then talked about being a parent. All politicians must be parents these days. Unparents are dangerous loners of the type you might meet on a sink estate or in prison.
Dave is a parent, albeit one who boasts about going to bed with an entrepreneur. He talked movingly about watching children walk across the playground with the schoolbag in one hand and the lunch box in the other. Fortunately, this theme was left undeveloped, lest he start to sound like Kevin Bacon in The Woodsman.
But Dave did have some big ideas on education. He was declaring war on schools which say “’all must have prizes’, and the dreadful practice of dumbing down.”
He was in favour of no one getting prizes, and of dumbing up. He was in favour of spelling. “They let a child get marks or writing f--- off in an exam,” he warned darkly. (No wonder the exam results are always getting better).
He talked about patriotism. He was deeply patriotic. “Do you know what?” he asked optimistically. “I don’t want to be prime minister of England. I want to be prime minister of the United Kingdom.” If he is elected Prime Minister, he may get his wish for a short while, until somebody – most likely Mr Alex Salmond – points out that the Conservative mandate stops just after Carlisle.
He talked on like a motivational scoutmaster. Dab followed dib. “The right thing will always be right.” He was in favour of Margaret Thatcher. He would end the something-for-nothing culture. He was not confident about the benefit of benefits.
Then, a bombshell: “This is a country, not a television channel.” (A moment of clarity, this, from a man whose qualification for political office is his stint as a PR for a television channel). But his lack of experience would not be a disadvantage. Inexperience was the very thing for these strange days! “Experience is the excuse of the incumbent down the ages.”
If David Miliband can tear himself away from his banana aversion therapy, he may be flattered that he was deemed important enough to be caricatured for something he didn’t say. Whatever it was, Dave didn’t believe it. You can’t say, Dave said, that there is no such thing as society. The audience applauded, whilst thinking mistily about the blessed Margaret, and her lieutenant Squealer Joseph, whose idea this really was.
The ideas, by now, were tumbling out, amid a hailstorm of clunky metaphors. These were not high-falutin dreams, they were what used to be known as common sense, before the Common Market abolished it. Dave was not in favour of Health and Safety Human Rights Culture. He was not in favour of parents at schools being checked for criminal records. He was against plasma screen TVs on the taxpayer, and – big applause – would offer a Euro referendum.
He also wanted to let people die in dignity, which was nice. “Come with me to Wandsworth prison,” he declared jauntily, “and meet the inmates… the middle-aged failure… the drug addict…” Mr Hague and Mr George Osborne looked on with as much weary gravitas as they could muster, without ever looking moved or convinced. “I am a man with a plan,” Dave concluded, “not a miracle cure.”
He laid no stress on the second point, which was just as well, all things considered.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Heavy Metal, Iraq, And The Dangers Of Headbanging In A Wartorn Country


Eddy Moretti
Originally uploaded by Herschell Hershey
There is, says Eddy Moretti, a thing called “Iraq fatigue”. He was warned about it when he was hawking his documentary, Heavy Metal in Baghdad, at film festivals. He was told that the film wouldn’t sell, and if it did, the distributor would struggle to convince cinemas to book it.
It’s true that films about Iraq have been box office poison. Rendition, with Jake Gyllenhaal getting peevish about the torture of prisoners, bombed. In the Valley of Elah, with Paul Haggis forcing Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron to pout and emote, did little better. Stop-Loss, an MTV version of the troubles facing returning American soldiers, was not of interest to veterans or to viewers of MTV, while Lions For Lambs was a lecture from Dame Robert Redford in the self-righteous pomposity of Hollywood’s liberal conscience. That’s to say nothing of Brian De Palma’s Redacted, which is probably the kindest course of action. If you didn’t have Iraq fatigue before seeing it, you would afterwards.
Well, Heavy Metal in Baghdad is different. It is not a triumph of cinematography: there is much hand-held camerawork, and an introductory sequence in which the travails of the filmmakers are given equal weight to the problems of living in Iraq. But the quiet humanity of the story eventually takes hold. This is Iraq, as experienced by ordinary Iraqis, who just happen to be members of the country’s only heavy metal band, Acrassicauda.
Clearly, heavy metal in Baghdad is not the same as heavy metal in Dusseldorf. In Baghdad, wearing a Slipknot t-shirt is an act of bravery, or foolhardiness, depending on your perspective. Acrassicauda can’t grow their hair or cultivate a beard in the style of their hero, Ozzy sideman Zakk Wilde. Bass player Firas has a tentative goatee, but before the end the side-whiskers have grown in, so that he looks more Islamic.
“When we started following the story, people were looting,” Moretti says. “They were going into government buildings and stealing the toilet. Then it went from that to, oh, 150 people got blown up today. Oh, 30 corpses were found with their heads cut off. And as that happened our interest in the band grew, because it was like we had friends over there who were going through this. We thought: are they OK? What are they doing? What can they tell us? And, ultimately, can we visit them?”
By August 2006, when the filmmakers make their way to Baghdad, the city has settled into a state of permanent hell. Moretti and co-director Suroosh Alvi have to smuggle themselves into Iraq via Kurdistan, where they can buy visas and travel on to Baghdad, including a seven mile zigzag drive along the world’s most dangerous road. On arriving in Baghdad, they hire Iraqi security at $1500 a day, which buys a bulletproof SUV, a car without armour, two drivers, two men with guns, and one translator. (Later, when they venture out for some fresh air, the security detail is expanded to 12 shooters.)
There is, no doubt, an element of gonzo thrill in the reporting of these details, but they are the stuff of everyday life to the members of Acrassicauda. Firas has a succinct description of the horrors of post-war Iraq. “They took Ali Baba and left the 40 thieves.” He also says the idea that there is a Jihad fighting against the coalition forces is “bullshit”: “All the people who are dying are Muslims.”
In post-war Iraq, the band – and ordinary Iraqis – are stuck between the troops and the insurgents. But the film reaches back into the pre-war history of the band, to a time when the authorities were suspicious of headbanging because of its gestural similarity to Jewish prayer. “The headbanging itself could take you to jail forever,” Firas says.
Performing under these strictures required some compromises, and Acrassicauda placated the men from the Culture and Media Ministry by penning a loyal song for Saddam called The Youth of Iraq. The lyrics are: “Living in the dark, shining like a spark, living with pride, so we decide, to fight the evil forces/Yeah, we won’t accept it, you’re never gonna lose/Following our leader, Saddam Hussein/We’ll make them fall, we’ll drive them insane.” They justify this as “just a bunch of fucking lies”, citing an Arabic saying: “To stay away from the devil, sing for him.”
“We got this idea from our teacher,” Firas tells me. “He was in a heavy metal band in the ’90s. There was quite a scene in the mid-90s, up to maybe 1998, with bands like Scarecrew, Agony, and Passage.
“The players are still there, but the bands have vanished, because the atmosphere of that time couldn’t help these bands to stay together. The culture ministry was harder in the ’90s. We managed to stay low profile, and it worked. But another band in the ’90s got thrown into jail, just because they were singing heavy metal. The police couldn’t understand what they were singing because it was English, so they thought it was a devilish Satan-worshipping influence. So when the culture ministry requested that we translate all our lyrics, and they said ‘what have you got for Saddam?’ we told them, ‘OK, we got this song’. So we just managed to stay away from trouble.”
Though Accrasicauda claim to be apolitical, their big song, Massacre, mixes a grinding tune with bleak imagery about the slaughter of a generation: “They stole my kids, they stole my house, they stole my flesh, they stole my bones ... one step for victory, one step for death.”
“We sing in English because English is the international language,” Firas says. “If Chinese was the international language, we’d learn Chinese and speak it. We try to deliver this message, which is: we are just like you, no difference. We are just human beings. We have the same ideas. We can do the same things.
“Everything in the world separates people, even sports. But music gathers them together. I can sing in English and play heavy metal, and people who don’t even speak English can understand what I’m saying. That’s the main point. Heavy metal is an international language.”
At first, there is something comic about watching these four men who have learned English from American movies and listening to bootlegs of Slayer and Metallica, put their faith in a form of music with such a dubious reputation. Headbanging was probably not the American neocons’ definition of the kind of freedom they were hoping to export. But eventually the sincerity of Acrassicauda’s vision, and the tragedy of their plight, overcomes their reliance on Spinal Tap slang. When, shortly after saying that he is ready to die, Firas points to the cover of Iron Maiden’s Death on the Road and says “This is what life here looks like,” you can see his point. The cover image shows the grim reaper, riding away from a fiery horizon with a cart full of skulls.
“We chose heavy metal because it’s true,” Firas explains. “It talks about reality: no bullshit. Nothing about boobs or money or drugs or whatever. It’s the facts, the reality.
“This type of music worked as a kind of therapy for us. Playing this music gets your anger out, you can express yourself, tell people what you think, deliver your message.”
And it does take a degree of single-mindedness and obstinacy for them to even try to play. In July 2005, Acrassicauda stage a show in central Baghdad at a hotel ringed with tanks and barbed wire. Their equipment has to be inspected by coalition troops, and the show must end before 7pm, due to the curfew. The band has to persuade the American soldiers at the checkpoint to admit the crowd, and the soundcheck is interrupted by power failures and the sound of mortars exploding outside. “It’s nothing new,” Firas says flatly.
“There’s one guy in the film and he’s sitting in a chair when they lose electricity,” Moretti recalls. “He’s a little bit older than the rest of the fans there. I don’t know his name, or if he’s still alive, and he has that speech where he’s like: ‘I am of the heavy metal music. In the Iraq. I can’t even grow the long hair because they will think I am the bad guy. We need real freedom.’ That always grabs me – the sense of his frustration. It’s like a barometer of how bad this world is.”
It’s a delicate business, using heavy metal as a barometer of freedom, but Moretti just about pulls it off. But the film’s real strength is the way it documents the plight of Acrassicauda after they flee Iraq to become “heavy metal refugees” in Damascus, Syria. There, they play a show and record three songs, but the broader reality of their lives is bleak. As refugees, they are not allowed to work, and are forced to live in the windowless basements of a housing project, as part of a broader Iraqi exodus. The film may not be overtly political, but the statistics it cites are damning enough. In December 2006, there were 1.2m Iraqi refugees in Syria and 750,000 in Jordan. The US had admitted 466.
“I’ll tell you what Iraq fatigue really is,” Moretti says. “It’s a sublimated guilt complex. Or it’s guilt combined with frustration, like: ‘Yeah, I know we fucked up, but you know what, don’t even talk to me about it.’”
After Syria, Acrassicauda fled to Turkey, where they have been living for almost a year, awaiting resettlement, but unable to work, and unable to leave the country. Gibson sent them some guitars, but Firas says that they will now have to sell them just to get by.
“It’s pretty hard to live down here. The expense is like hell. If you can’t work, you can’t make money, so … imagine.”
They have thought about returning to Iraq but their families, who remain in the country, warn them not to. “Plus,” Firas says, “if we went back, now we are known, everybody would just point at us, and that’s enough to get us killed.”
Firas says he likes the film, but that when he watches it, he feels confused.
“It’s more pointing at the refugee question, than the heavy metal story. Sometimes you feel like you are retarded. And everybody just takes pity on you, which we hate. We like to be dealt with as professionals, as a heavy metal group.
“But I like the film. Every time I watch it it’s like closing your eyes and you get all the flashbacks from your memories. So it’s painful to watch it, but also it reminds you of who you are, what you came from, and what you have been through.”
I ask whether he would prefer that Saddam was in power and the war had never happened, and he says the band never cared about politics. “Not before, not now. If Saddam was in power, or somebody else, we would never care. But, in the sense of being able to perform, and having security, limits for everything: that was a good thing. If we wanted something back, it would be safety, and basic needs for the people.”
Talking to Firas, it seems as if he uses heavy metal as a metaphor for his broader aspirations, and as a release from the difficulties of everyday life. His wife and young son are with him in Turkey, which is some comfort. “We are in a safe place. But sometimes I hate that, because he’s grown up with no family, no friends, other than us. No kids to play with, a language he doesn’t understand. I hate when I think about the future and what I can guarantee for him, which is nothing. As a refugee you got no guarantees. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. It’s really painful. I can’t think about the future.”
He sounds more wistful than defiant when she signs off. “As long as we’re playing music we don’t care about anything else,” he says. “Let me play today. Kill me tomorrow.”

Monday, September 8, 2008

My Dreams, They Fade And Die (Confessions Of An Accidental West Ham fan)


Forever
Originally uploaded by Herschell Hershey
I lost my innocence three years ago, at an evening game between West Ham and Crewe Alexandria. Oddly, for such a prime fixture, my good friend Denis had a spare ticket. But there was an ominous gleam in his eye when he handed me the Season Card in a corner of the Green Street Café. Sipping a milky tea, he fixed my gaze and said: “Welcome to a lifetime of pain.”
At the time, I thought he was joking. Now, after two full seasons of purgatory in the Dr Martens’ Stand, I’m not so sure. All the signs were there on that dank March evening. The football was woeful – Marlon Harewood was having one of his barn door games - until Teddy Sheringham opened the scoring in the 76th minute with a free kick into the top left corner. Game over? Of course not. Several more chances were spurned before Crewe equalised with minutes to go.
Even so, I loved every minute, because some of my earliest football memories were the stories my dad told me of visiting Upton Park in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and singing Bubbles, and being so close to the action that you could reach out and touch the players whenever there was a corner. More than that: although everything about me was Scottish, I was an Essex boy, born in my mother’s bed in Harold Wood, on a Saturday as the football results were being declaimed. How could I not support West Ham?
My family moved back to Scotland before I had any memories of Harold Wood, but I always had a pride in my birthplace, even when I was being threatened with violence for supporting England (a result of my fondness for Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst rather than anything genetic). And, when my primary seven class came on a school trip to London, visiting the zoo, the Tower of London, and standing inside the gates at Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guard, the most exciting moment for me was the knowledge that the hostel we were staying in – which had table tennis, girls, and Hot Butter on the radio – was in Chigwell, not far from the home of the sainted Sir Bobby.
A few years ago, I made a pilgrimage back to Harold Wood, to the house where I was born. My mum drew me a map, and I found the place soon enough: turn right out of the station, up past the library and the parade of shops where my Doric-speaking grandmother had baffled the butcher by asking for hough, a meaty Scottish delicacy which has yet to make it to the East End. And there it was. I loitered outside the door, and looked for the place where the neighbours’ chicken coops would have been, but I felt nothing. I had no recollection of the place.
But all that changed, just before kick off, that March evening at Upton Park. The teams came out, the chorus of Bubbles swelled, and I thought about my dad all those years before, singing that sad song about impossible dreams. I felt a sudden surge of emotion. It felt like I had come home, like the players were close enough to touch, and everything was as it should be. And then Crewe Alexandria equalised.

[A version of this was published in the West Ham United programme].

Friday, August 15, 2008

Robert Johnson, RIP: In Heaven Or In Hell, Your Spirit Lives On In The Mississippi Delta

In Me And The Devil Blues, Robert Johnson gave the instructions for his own funeral. The song begins with Satan knocking at the singer’s door, and ends in a mood of fatalistic defiance, as Johnson’s explains that he doesn’t care where his body is buried.
“You may bury my body, ooh, down by the highway side/So my old evil spirit, can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.”
Seventy years ago, on 16 August, 1938, Johnson got his wish, and if his evil spirit didn’t catch a Greyhound, its influence echoed down the generations, forming a cornerstone of the rebellious myth of rock’n’roll, and shaping the music of Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and just about every rock band whose music was coloured by the blues. The latest devotee is Bob Dylan, whose forthcoming album Tell Tale Signs includes a version of Johnson’s 32-20 Blues.
Johnson died on the same date as Elvis Presley, but while Graceland becomes a place of pilgrimage in mid-August, blues fans have a tougher job. Johnson might as well have been buried by the roadside, because there is no certainty about his final resting place. He has three gravestones outside Greenwood, Mississippi, where he died, allegedly after being poisoned by a jealous husband. The first, a modest marker erected in 1991 by the rock group The Tombstones, is located out through the cotton fields at the Payne Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. The second, an ugly obelisk at the Little Zion MB Church in Morgan City, was paid for by Sony/Columbia, after the success of their Grammy-winning compilation of Johnson’s music in 1990. The third, and currently most reputable grave site, is located out on Money Road at the Little Zion MB church, after blues historian Steven LaVere location coaxed a testimony from an eyewitness, Rose Estridge, who claimed her husband, “Peter Rabbit” dug Johnson’s grave by an old pecan tree in the graveyard.
The veracity of this site was underlined in May 2007, when the Mississippi Blues Commission erected a “blues marker” at the site, celebrating it as a place of cultural importance. The sign was promptly shot at, then stolen.
Johnson’s reputation thrives on the absence of detail about his life, and the posthumous myth that he learned to play the guitar after doing a deal with the devil at a crossroads. This is an irresistible story, but it obscured Johnson’s musical versatility. He may, as the myth suggests, have been a genius, but he was never a primitive, and the stuff about the devil – if he ever said it – was most likely a joke.
“Anyone who sold their soul to the devil, died after drinking poisoned whisky, and has three grave sites is going to attract attention,” says Luther Brown, director of the Delta Centre for Culture and Learning. “And the fact that he wrote music that has been covered in basically every genre from rock to jazz to mountain dulcimer just adds to the story.
“As far as I can tell, Johnson never actually said he’d sold his soul to the devil, although he apparently didn’t deny it either, and the story was part of his persona even during his own lifetime.”
The crossroads, says Brown, is a common folk tale in the Delta. “There is no ‘true crossroads’, despite the desire of tourists to see the place where ‘it really happened’. But crossroads are places of decision, and often of danger, and are associated with choice and risk in many cultures.
“Historians have made a big deal about it, sometimes claiming that the devil isn’t the Christian one, but the Yoruba trickster god Eshu, re-placed in American Voodoo as Papa Legba, the keeper of the ‘crossroads’ between the physical and spirit worlds. Others think the whole story is a metaphor for Johnson’s decision to follow ‘the devil’s music’ instead of the church, and I’m sure there was tension between the preacher and the bluesman since they both relied on their own congregations for support. Crossroads Blues has lyrics that sound simply like someone going to the crossroads to flag a ride, not sell their soul, but it’s clear from Johnson’s songs that he was committed to the devil’s music and the lifestyle that required.”
A proper appreciation of Johnson has been hampered by the habit of comparing him to the musicians he influenced. Even sympathetic listeners hear him as the “real” version of the music which informed the Rolling Stones. “One of the big appeals of black music has been this dangerous primitive ‘other’,” says Elijah Wald, author of Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. “But one of the most striking things is that, compared to the performers in his world, his voice and enunciation are very clear. He sounds less removed from white people and the modern world than someone like Charley Patton, who’s virtually incomprehensible. Or even Leadbelly. There is a clear knowledge of what was happening in the urban blues world: his diction is good and he has a lot of the smoothness of the more commercial urban singers. So it’s funny that he’s been saddled with this myth of the delta primitive.”
Wald is a blues revisionist, arguing both that Johnson’s contribution to the culture is overrated – “It’s as if Eric Clapton were the only musician of British rock in the 1960s, and everything that had been done in that period was thought of as essentially Eric Clapton” – and misunderstood, because his music is considered in relation to its gift to rock.
“The jazz people had been putting him forward as an example of the roots of jazz as early as John Hammond’s Carnegie Hall Spirituals to Swing concert in 1938. Johnson was not even dead six months and they were playing his records on the stage of Carnegie Hall! But he was being played as ‘that deep sound from before jazz’, when in fact it was barely a year old.”
Steven LaVere, who runs the Blues Heritage Museum in Greenwood – and who discovered the two known photographs of Johnson – takes a more traditional view, saying Johnson was a “watershed artist”: who absorbed what had gone before, notably Charley Patton, Leroy Carr, Son House and Skip James, and defined what came after.
“Nobody knew who those people were. Then in the 1950s, many of Johnson’s songs were reborn as Chicago blues classics. Kind Hearted Woman, Rollin’ and Tumblin’, Walking Blues, Sweet Home Chicago, and Dust My Broom; my God, Elmore James made a career out of that guitar lick. And it all came from Robert Johnson. The post-war blues Diaspora was dotted with his music.”
Wald, whose next book is called How The Beatles Destroyed Rock’n’Roll concedes that Johnson was a great talent, while stressing that he wasn’t alone.
“If you had to pick one artist from that period, he’s a good choice. But you don’t. Every single pre-war blues record is available on CD. It’s the best-documented period on the planet. The whole style would be better served if Robert Johnson was seen as a way into this world, rather than as the one person people listen to.”
On a Greyhound bus somewhere in the Mississippi Delta, Robert Johnson is laughing.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Elvis, Memphis, and the Ghosts of Libertyland


Wild Bill's
Originally uploaded by Herschell Hershey
By the time we got to the Zippin’ Pippin it was midnight. My guide, Mike McCarthy, had taken me on a ghost tour of Beale Street – a thoroughfare routinely described as the birthplace of the blues - which ended at the knock-kneed statue of the young Elvis Presley. Then, the real tour began. We drove through midtown in the dark, pausing at the site of the world’s first supermarket, Piggly Wiggly, and again beneath the busted neon of the derelict Lamar Theater, a cinema which gained notoriety during the Deep Throat obscenity trial and had a starring role in Jim Jarmusch’s Memphis film, Mystery Train. Then we rode on to the abandoned state fairgrounds, where the Pippin, the second oldest wooden rollercoaster in the world, was rotting behind a fence.
Why were we there? Because the Pippin has become a kind of accidental symbol of Memphis, Tennessee. It used to sit at the centre of Libertyland, and was Elvis Presley’s favourite rollercoaster. He rented it from 1am to 7am in the week before his death, and rode it endlessly through the night. But Libertyland and Elvis are gone, and what remains is real estate, and an argument about the value of ghosts.
The campaign to save the Zippin’ Pippin is both simple and complicated. The simple bit is that Save Libertyland, a group of campaigners which includes McCarthy, want to revive the magic of their childhood memories on this site. The city of Memphis would like to develop the site. A complicated legal process has arrived at a stalemate: the city owns the land, but the ownership of the coaster – which has now been added to the register of historic landmarks – is disputed. The city claims to own it, but so does Save Libertyland. And nobody has any money to do anything about it.
It is a very Memphis story, and its appeal to someone like Mike McCarthy is obvious. When he wasn’t directing exploitation movies such as Sore Losers (“They Wanted Meat So They Ate The Flower Children”) and Teenage Tupelo (which speculates about what might have happened if Elvis’s stillborn twin had lived) the Tupelo-born artist had a job on a different ghost tour, showing tourists round Sun Studio, the soundproofed room on Union Avenue which gave birth to rock’n’roll.
Memphis is defined by Elvis. But at Sun, McCarthy would explain the history to them, noting quietly that Presley didn’t write Blue Suede Shoes: that was Carl Perkins, who had a car crash and had to watch from a hospital bed while Elvis performed the song on television.
And, McCarthy argues, as much as the flamboyance of Presley, it’s the spirit of Perkins - “the loser’s quality” - which defines Memphis. “People go to Nashville to get famous or make money or lose their artistic integrity. Elvis did. But nothing compares to the art he created at Sun.”
The same goes for Johnny Cash, McCarthy says, and for countless black artists whose contribution to the culture has been overlooked. And it stretches into the visual arts, where the Memphian eccentric William Eggleston redefined colour photography without ever shaking off his status as an outsider.
McCarthy has a few theories about this, some of them coherent, some of them fantastic. His broad contention is that the golden age of American pop culture was encapsulated within Elvis’s 42 years on the planet. “Everything happened within that time frame, everything that’s worthwhile, that becomes retro in retrospect, from Bride of Frankenstein to Star Wars and punk rock.”
Needless to say, this is not a perspective you get at Graceland, the most obvious tourist attraction in Memphis, and a salutary reminder of what happens when you give a truck driver the means to satisfy his every lusty whim. But it remains to be seen whether the shagpile charm of the place will survive the reinvention planned by Robert F.X. Sillerman, who bought Elvis’s name and image from Lisa Marie Presley in 2005.
Sillerman’s plans centre on the development of a Graceland “campus”. The fact that Sillerman’s company CKX is the subject of a buy-out bid by another of his companies, 19X, – a partnership with Simon “Pop Idol” Fuller – may be a portent of what is to come. And it will not be a celebration of the loser aesthetic.
Oddly, it’s Johnny Cash, not Elvis, who has been at the centre of a more interesting renaissance in Memphis. Following the success of Walk The Line, great efforts have been made to emphasise the city’s suitability as a movie location, a plan made more plausible by the decision of local filmmaker Craig Brewer to locate his office on Main Street.
Brewer broke through with a no-budget film called The Poor and Hungry, set in the P and H, an atmospheric café in midtown, and consolidated his reputation with the rap movie Hustle and Flow. His first studio picture, Blake Snake Moan, confused critics who weren’t sure how to respond to an almost-naked Christina Ricci being kept in chains by Samuel L Jackson: this anxiety about the imagery of slavery was, surely, the point, but the film was an honest attempt to capture the sin and guilt which infected the delta blues. When I visited Brewer’s downtown office, he was in a Hollywood edit-suite, but his assistant raised him on the phone, and he explained that he remained dedicated to making films based on a love of Memphis, inspired by childhood trips to the home of the blues, Beale Street, “before Beale Street became Disneyland.”
“There was something very depressing and rather tragic about downtown at that time. Now it’s booming and everybody’s downtown, but back then there were still bluesmen playing out on the street, with a hat.
“So from a very early age I couldn’t help but view Memphis, even in its dilapidation – as a very beautiful city. But even more important was that it had its own soundtrack. I’ll give you it exactly. I remember I was driving over Madison Avenue; if you’re driving westbound on Madison, and you’re just passing Sam Phillips’ recording service [Sun] on your right, and there’s an overpass; when you go over it, there’s a unique skyline view, and the sun was going down, when on the radio, Al Green’s song Jesus is Waiting was playing. It was a wonderful moment. I’d listened to a lot of Al Green, and I’d heard that song before, but I hadn’t been able to cruise in Memphis, when the sun was going down behind the buildings, and listen to that music. And I thought, I don’t think that this music or this city could have existed, separate from each other.”
Brewer has just started work on $5 Cover, a collaboration involving local musicians in a 15-episode series of short films which will help promote Memphis culture to the world. This is the culture beyond Elvis – the garagebands, the b-movies, the denizens of the trash aesthetic.
The feeling you get in Memphis is similar to that which pertains in Austin, Texas, of a city awash with creativity almost despite its surroundings. “I have not been criticised by my city officials,” Brewer says. “They’ve always been very encouraging. I think, the reason is that there’s a history in our city of people pushing the envelope and being criticised, and then later having to name streets after them. [They complained about ] that gyrating pompadoured bolero-wearing guy named Elvis Presley… now people from all over the world come to see his house.”
I asked Brewer to provide a routemap to the Memphis he loved, and he started with Graceland (“You can’t go through life and not see the Jungle Room”), and ended at Wild Bill’s, a vibrant club on Vollintine Avenue run, until his death last year, by Willie ‘Wild Bill’ Storey, who sat on the door with a fistful of dollars.
“There’s also a real set community there,” Brewer said. “They’re dressed up: it’s men taking their ladies out, and they’re gonna dance, damnit. It doesn’t matter how old you are, how skinny or fat you are. If the evening is right, you’ll be bumping into the drummer, right there on the floor.”
I took Brewer’s advice and hitched a ride in the 1955 pink Cadillac driven by Tad Pierson of American Dream Safari tours. Tad makes his living ferrying visitors around the Memphis of their imaginations, and Wild Bill’s is a popular destination, though it sits in a neighbourhood which might ordinarily make a white European nervous. Inside, it was wonderland; a narrow, dark room with red walls and fairy lights, and the band – the Memphis Soul Survivors – playing in the corner.
This was not pub rock. The Soul Survivors are veterans of the Memphis music scene – the keyboard player, Archie “Hubbie” Turner is the stepson of the Hi Records producer Willie Mitchell (best known for his work with Al Green). They were playing Soul Serenade, a fine tune on record, but in this context it sounded far dirtier.
I sat next to James Thompson, an ageless gentleman in a homburg. I asked where he bought his yellow checked suit. “Hollywood,” he replied. There was a pause of 30 seconds before his face cracked. (Hollywood is a district in North Memphis.)
The music in Wild Bill’s is soul in the old sense of the word, meaning the driving dance music which came out of Willie Mitchell’s Royal studio, and Stax (now reborn as a museum). But one of the most influential studios is also one of the least celebrated: Ardent, founded in 1966 by John Fry, who modelled himself on George Martin, and made his studio the Abbey Road of Memphis.
Ardent started out with Sam and Dave and Booker T and the MGs, but soon branched into rock, mixing Led Zeppelin III, recording ZZ Top’s Afterburner, and acting as a home-from-home for Memphis legends Big Star (whose drummer Jody Stephen now manages the studio.) Jack White used Ardent to mix albums by The White Stripes and The Raconteurs.
It’s hard, at first, to see what ZZ Top might have in common with Sam and Dave, but this lack of homogeneity is really the essence of Memphis music. Elvis fused country and rhythm’n’blues, while his later Memphis recordings were great monuments of Southern Soul. Fry compared Memphis to a crossroads where styles overlap: “There’s so much history and tradition. It’s an intangible quality, but it works – if somebody feels like they’re in a place where something special happened, if that puts them in a more creative mood, then it really does change something. It’s not just ju-ju.”
In Mystery Train, Jim Jarmusch makes this quality overt: Elvis’s phantom appears in a hotel room and sings Blue Moon. Back at the Zippin’ Pippin, Mike McCarthy had tried to define the essence of this city of ghosts.
“You’re only 19 miles from Mississippi,” McCarthy said. “The blues was created there. Rock’n’roll seeped into Memphis from that mentality – white people trying sound black, white people who were just as poor as black people, and were just as good as indentured servants.”
He embarked again on his riff about Memphis being a city of losers. This, clearly, was a blessing. “It’s a spiritual thing,” he said, adjusting his quiff. “Jesus was a loser.”

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Cass: Frodo Baggins, Margaret Thatcher And The Exploitation Of Violence, West Ham-style

Last August, I was contacted by a man called Dan Taylor who was working as the production designer on a film called Cass. Dan had seen photographs I had taken before and after West Ham games, and said that they symbolised the style he was looking for in the film.
I was flattered by this, but also slightly concerned about the film, which was an adaptation of the life story of Cass Pennant, who used to run the ICF (Inter-City Firm), the gang of football hooligans which followed West Ham in the 1980s. The odd thing about Cass as a leader of a group of football hooligans is that, aside from being a giant of a man, he is black. In the past, West Ham fans haven't had the best reputation for racial tolerance, and the thuggish elements were not shy about aligning themselves with the National Front. Which makes Cass's leadership of the ICF remarkable, if not admirable.
Dan explained to me that while the film of Cass's life would contain violence, it wouldn't glamorise it, Instead, it would attempt to "make the audience understand the root and cause of it and how it is attractive to that social class during its most prolific years."
Well, I was intrigued, but not quite convinced. I'd seen Cass outside Upton Park on match days, selling his books, and while he's now a man of peace, he's still an intimidating figure. But a film about West Ham hooligans which didn't exploit the violence would be a novelty. The most recent of this regrettable genre was Rise of the Footsoldier, which was based on Muscle, the autobiography of East End criminal Carlton Leach, who also merited a chapter in Hard Bastards, a book by Kate (wife of Ronnie) Kray.
Leach did his apprenticeship as a “general” in the ICF, graduating to tough-guy jobs bouncing for Essex nightclubs, and moving through the rave scene to various levels of drug-dealing, violence and general act of menace. His criminal career ended when three of his associates were murdered by rivals in their Range Rover in Rettendon in 1995. My memories of that film are not positive, but I believe the character of Cass had a walk-on role. Whatever else it was, Footsoldier wasn't sociology. It was an exercise in the pornography of violence, enlivened momentarily by the scene where the toupee-wearing criminal Tony Tucker (Terry Stone) ordered "a pint of your finest Champagne!"
Before Footsoldier there was Green Street, a very silly film named after the road which runs through Upton Park, in which Elijah Wood plays a Harvard journalism student who accidentally becomes involved with a gang of East End football thugs - as you do. Perhaps there is something fantastic about West Ham's terrace anthem, I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles, but that doesn't make Frodo Baggins a plausible hard-case.
I've now seen Cass, and while it isn't nearly as execrable as Footsoldier or Green Street, it doesn't quite succeed. The production design is good - the scenes from the '60s and '70s have a washed-out documentary feel which does a decent job of recreating the poverty of the East End in pre-Thatcher Britain. The violence - as is the fashion these days - is done with hand-held cameras, and has a nasty visceral quality. And the performances are good, particularly Nonso Anozie in the lead role, and Tamer Hassan as his criminal mate. (Nathalie Press does a very effective audition for a role in EastEnders).
But still there are doubts. Cass is a film in which the violence is the only drama. The poignancy of Pennant's life - a Barnardo's boy adopted by a middle-aged white woman - is glimpsed, but not in any depth. His family life is pitched somewhere between Alf Garnett and the Dursleys in Harry Potter. He loves his adoptive mum, but still he breaks heads.
Presumably, he had his reasons, but the film doesn't explain the brutality except to suggest that it seemed like a good idea at the time. Yes, there is some stuff about the need to belong, and the fact that Thatcher had her own "firm" bashing up the miners. But that wasn't a justification then, and it isn't one now.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Postcard from Mr Ivor Cutler

A postcard sent on 21 February, 1992, by the absurdist poet, lapsed teacher, anti-noise campaigner, cyclist, oddball genius Ivor Cutler. It concerns the Scottish poet John Burnside.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Mike Leigh Watches Gavin And Stacey, Is Reminded Of His Younger Self, And Tries To Imagine What It Would Be Like To Be Happy



A few years ago, during an interview about his film Vera Drake, Mike Leigh told me how much he disliked driving sequences. He couldn’t see the point of scenes inside cars; when he watched them, he wished the characters would get where they were going and get on with the action. It’s possible, of course, that Leigh was joking. In the same interview, he mentioned that he had tried to persuade another interviewer that his forthcoming play at the National Theatre would feature a cast of talking dogs.
The dog play never happened, but it remains a surprise to note that much of Happy-Go-Lucky is set inside a vehicle, as Poppy (Sally Hawkins) takes driving lessons from Scott (Eddie Marsan), an instructor whose frustrations are on the verge of boiling over into something quite unpleasant.
After Vera Drake and the much-underrated All Or Nothing, Happy-Go-Lucky marks a significant change of mood. It’s not entirely joyful; apart from Scott’s urban rage, there is a hint of hysteria behind the cheerfulness of his breathless heroine, and a sense that while the director admires the unrelenting optimism of his character, he doesn’t quite accept that it’s a rational response to her circumstances. But after the institutional bleakness of Vera Drake and the bruised humanism of All Or Nothing, even misplaced levity is something of a relief.
As always with Leigh, this is an ensemble film, but it is dominated by Hawkins. When we see her first, she is cycling round London, spraying good cheer behind her. When her bicycle is stolen, she sees it as a matter of sadness – “we didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye” – but not regret. Her driving instructor is a sullen sod, but she shrugs off his negativity, and soon there are signs that Scott’s frustration is a mask for his growing attraction towards Poppy.
The drama is domestic in scale, and while some critics have detected a similarity to the free-spirited French comedies of Eric Rohmer, it is a peculiarly London picture, capturing the dislocations of urban living, and the messy energy of the architecture around Finsbury Park. Compare Happy-Go-Lucky to Woody Allen’s forthcoming London misfire, Cassandra’s Dream – in which Hawkins gives a similar performance – and you’ll get a sense of Leigh’s precision. The look of the film is also very British; the scenes in a Tesco Extra petrol station have the rude beauty of a Martin Parr photograph, and there remains a sense of ambivalence in the way he allows his lower-middle class characters to mock themselves.
Oddly, the cheery tone is reminiscent of Gavin and Stacey, a TV comedy which operates almost as a tribute to Leigh (featuring Alison Steadman – whose turn in Abigail’s Party made Leigh’s reputation – and James “Smithy” Corden, who played the maladjusted chubber in All Or Nothing). Happy-Go-Lucky is Leigh repaying the compliment, though it contains enough darkness to suggest that his journey to the sunny side of the street may not be permanent.

Monday, April 14, 2008

One Nation Under CCTV


One Nation Under CCTV
Originally uploaded by Herschell Hershey
A new work by Banksy has appeared over the weekend, in the car park of the Post Office sorting office in Newman Street, off Oxford St, London. The work shows a security guard taking a photograph of a young graffiti artist, and the site is (ironically) overseen by a CCTV camera, and a Post Office security guard. For more pictures, see my flickr stream.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Sinew and Duracell: Martin Scorsese and the Frightening Endurance of the Rolling Stones


Near the start of Shine A Light, which documents a Rolling Stones concert at the Beacon Theatre, New York in 2006, there is a clip of the young Mick Jagger being interviewed by Michael Parkinson. Parkie, offscreen, asks a question about the long-term prospects of this rock’n’roll band, who have been together for two eventful years. But Jagger, looking impossibly young and pert, is unfazed. “I think we’re pretty well set up for at least another year,” he replies.
Ten million years later, Jagger’s insouciance is played for comic effect. The Rolling Stones – who used to stand for devil-worship, drugs, and the breaking of butterflies on wheels – are now the Duracell bunnies of rock’n’roll. They are about endurance. They keep on keeping on, gathering no Moss.
Martin Scorsese’s film isn’t really a documentary. There are a few fly-on-the-wall moments in a funny, and slightly phoney, introductory piece about the filmmaker’s urgent need to acquire a set-list, and Jagger’s reluctance to provide with one. It’s good comedy, and provides Scorsese with his best onscreen cameo since he hitched a ride in the back of Travis Bickle’s cab in Taxi Driver, but it also suggests a level of cinematic intervention which the film fails to deliver. This isn’t Cocksucker Blues. Unlike Robert Frank’s 1972 documentary, there’s nothing here that would offend the Stones’ images of themselves. Instead, Scorsese reprises the cartoon versions of the band’s personalities. So, Jagger is vain, controlling, and financially astute; Keith Richards is an incorrigible old pirate and, most probably, undead; Charlie Watts is bored; and Ronnie Wood can’t quite believe his luck. These stereotypes have the advantage of being more or less true, at least in the sense that the Stones have been playing the roles for so long that they couldn’t do it any other way. But if they are masks, the film makes no attempt to look behind them. Perhaps that’s what those opening scenes allude too. Scorsese may be the director, but Jagger is the boss.
Instead, you get the live spectacle, and it’s here that Scorsese surpasses himself. Rock music is notoriously hard to film, and most directors try to compensate for their inability to capture the visceral power of the concert experience by going for fast cuts and spectacular sweeps with the camera, cutting to a crowd shot whenever things threaten to get interesting. Scorsese has cameras in all the right places, and gets so close to the action that, on occasion, it’s scary. I saw the film at an IMAX cinema and, friends, it wasn’t pretty. Yes, Keith Richards may advertise Louis Vuitton suitcases in a subconscious nod to the leathery durability of his skin, but an invasion of woolly mammoths would have been less disconcerting than the image of his Jurassic visage blown up to fill a fifty-foot screen. This effect is multiplied when the guitarist sings: off-licenses on sink estates could repel loitering hoodies by playing his warbling attack on You Got The Silver.
If Keith resembles a happy monkfish, Jagger is an even more extraordinary creature. At the first rush of the Stones’ 1960s success, he wore a jumper and shook an imaginary tambourine. Now, in his bus pass years, he is a snakehipped rent-boy cheerleader; a jitterbugging fool dancing in a manner that goes far beyond camp. The fact that this gay imp is singing songs of heterosexual braggadocio is one of the curiosities of the Rolling Stones’ appeal. But then, this is circus.
Musically, they aren’t quite on top form: listen to the soundtrack album without the pictures, and you’ll soon be yearning for the crisp economy of the original recorded versions. (Faraway Eyes has some nice steel guitar from Wood, but is taken beyond parody by Jagger’s vocal; Tumbling Dice doesn’t quite get in the groove; Some Girls goes off into a nasty place as Jagger sings: “Some girls give you children, And I only made love to her once.”) But in the context of the concert experience, it’s interesting to hear how the Stones tug at the rhythms of the tunes, and particularly to appreciate the peculiarities of Richards’ guitar. He’s a sporadic player, drifting in and out of focus. The sound design of the film – which amplifies the contribution of whichever musician is onscreen - is immaculate.
There are guests. Jack White does a decent Jagger impersonation on Loving Cup; Christina Aguilera volunteers to be molested from behind by Jagger on Live With Me; and Buddy Guy brings a welcome reminder of what the Stones used to be about on Champagne And Reefer. And Bill Clinton pops up to bask in reflected glory, and to reassure the audience at this benefit concert that you’re only as old as the Rolling Stone you feel.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Art


Art
Originally uploaded by Herschell Hershey
Mark Wallinger won the Turner Prize in 2007 for dressing up as a bear and re-creating Brian Haw's Parliament Square peace protest. The protest, which was seized by the police, included this painting by Banksy, though nobody at the Tate could tell me whether the version in Wallinger's re-created version was by Banksy, or Wallinger. Whatever: I got reprimanded for taking a photo of it, which illustrates how art changes into something precious and remote as soon as it goes into a gallery. Not that Wallinger's piece was art - it was an impersonation of politics

Monday, March 17, 2008

Have You Ever Tasted Moon Pie?

Last Friday, the day that President Bush Jr did his walkabout on an aircraft carrier, I was in Tupelo, Mississippi, visiting the birthplace of Elvis Presley.
Elvis, you may recall from myth, was born in a shotgun shack in East Tupelo. This type of housing takes its name from the fact that the buildings are so small that it is possible to fire a shotgun through the front door and have the blast fly right out the back wall. The name also implies something about the social situations in which such houses were found. They had guns, and they weren’t afraid to use them. Shotgun logic.
So, I was in the shack, trying hard to feel something about Elvis. There was me, the sweet old lady who runs tours of the property, and a middle-aged couple from England. We were in the second of the two rooms. When Elvis was born, the lady explained, there would have been no electricity or running water. To recreate the atmosphere, the kitchen had been decorated with period items, though these had never been owned by the Presley family. There was an old iron hob, and a few milk bottles. "We still get milk in bottles," the English woman declared. "And," said the English man, "my father used to make hobs like this. He worked in an iron foundry."
We stood there for a moment, thinking about this. The sweet lady who runs the tours spoke again. "In Europe, are the homes still like this?"
I drove downtown and walked around Tupelo, looking for Elvis. There wasn’t much to see. In the window of Tupelo Hardware, where Elvis bought his first guitar (because his mother wouldn’t let him have a toy gun) there was a cardboard cut-out of the King. In the window of the local diner, which was closed, hung a sign: "We serve Elvis fans all year round." There were political posters. A man called Presley was standing for Sheriff. I drove my Japanese rental car a few blocks from Main Street and came across a shop called Modern Barbers. The interior was anything but modern. There were two barbers’ chairs, turned to face the door, with a man in one and a woman in the other. The man introduced himself as Lewis, the woman as Violet, and invited me to choose between them. After much polite negotiation, I chose Violet, and Lewis moved himself around to another chair, below a decomposing stag’s head, so we could talk. Lewis said he had been at school with Elvis, a couple of years below him. In the early 1950s, he had travelled to Memphis to see Presley perform, and concluded that he wouldn’t amount to anything.
We talked on for a while, and then Lewis fixed me with a smile. "I want to thank you," he said, "for helping us out in Iraq."
Immediately, I felt the delicacy of the situation. Violet was buzzing my neck with a strimmer. I was a stranger in a strange land, being shown great hospitality by strangers. "Well," I heard myself say, "somebody had to do it, and it wasn’t going to be the French." Hearing these words was a surprise to me, because they did not reflect my view of the war, but I knew them to be the right words for the time and place.
"Mr Blair is a good-looking man," Violet said.
Lewis agreed. "Him and President Bush look good together. Mr Blair is more, uh, diplomatic."
Yes, I said, President Bush is a little more, well, blunt.
"That’s it," Lewis said. "The President is blunt and Mr Blair is diplomatic. They make a good team."
I thought about my situation. I was sitting in a semi-prone position, having my head sprayed with perfumed water, in a barber shop with decomposing stags’ heads on the wall, and a noticeboard which advertised a meeting of the National Rifle Association. The kindness of the people was making me say things that I didn’t really mean.
Suddenly Lewis stood up and declared that he was going out to buy moon pies. "I bet you never had a moon pie," he said, rushing out into the heat of the afternoon.
I sat in the chair, feeling perfectly at home. We talked about Elvis Presley, Violet and I, as we waited in vain for the moon pies to arrive.

[From The Scotsman, May 2003]

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

I'm An Ape Man, I'm An Ape-Ape Man: Another Disaster From Roland Emmerich


Roland Emmerich most popular films have been disasters in every sense of the word. In Independence Day, the United States battled an alien invasion with nuclear weapons, computer viruses and Randy Quaid, to devastating effect. If that was meant to be reassuring, it wasn’t. The Day After Tomorrow was even more depressing. This was Emmerich’s green movie, in which the end of the Earth began with the destruction of Scotland, half-observed by some scientists who were also watching a Champions League match in which Celtic were beating Manchester United 3-1: he gives, and then he takes away.
In both those films, Emmerich hitched himself to special effects with such abandon that it seemed churlish to resist. His stories were not over-endowed with subtlety. In fact, they were almost defiantly stupid. But they were big in every other way.
How refreshing to report that Emmerich has excelled himself with 10,000 BC. It is more ambitious than anything he has done before. Happily, it is also stupider.
The action takes place amid the mountains of pre-history, where the Yagahl, a tribe of decent savages, find themselves locked in a dreadful battle for survival. They are a tough people, with dreadlocks and neat goatee beards, who rely on the arrival of giant mammoths for their continued existence. Sometimes the mammoths come, sometimes they don’t. Lately, the narrator (Omar Sharif) notes, they have been coming later and later, “and there were times when they did not come at all”.
The Yagahl may be unsophisticated, but they understand a bad portent when they see one, not least when their mystical leader, Old Mother (Mona Hammond) – Mo from EastEnders with a Ouija board and a suit made of animal bones – issues a grave warning about “four-legged demons who will put an end to our world”. The only hope rests in “the child with blue eyes”.
Moving along several years, the mammoths arrive, and the warriors of the Yagahl rush out to try and snare one, which is tricky, as these are not your standard issue mammoths, they are gigantic beasts with jaggy tusks and a habit of galloping menacingly towards men in loin-cloths. However, they are easily scared. When the great warrior Tic’Tic (Cliff Curtis) shouts “arrrrrrrr!”, the herd turns and runs in the opposite direction. The bull mammoth is killed by D’Leh (Steven Strait) a boy who has been shunned by the tribe, because his father abandoned them in heroic circumstances which they have never understood. His prize is the White Spear, and the hand of the blue-eyed girl Evolet (Camilla Belle), who is a refugee from another tribe who have been massacred by the four-legged demons. “Ya!” the tribespeople shout. “Ya!”
But D’Leh and Evolet are destined to be pre-history’s version of Romeo and Juliet, because D’Leh feels unworthy of his prize. (The mammoth ran onto his spear, and he would have run away if his hand hadn’t been caught in the net). So he gives up the girl and the spear, and then the white rain comes and – as Omar notes – “with the white rain came the four-legged demons”. The white rain is snow, and the four-legged demons are Hell’s Angels on horseback. “I like your spirit,” the nastiest one says to Evolet, “but I will have to break it.” (Despite Old Mother’s pre-eminence, feminism has yet to make inroads amongst these primitives). So the four-legged demons kidnap the girl and scarper, leaving the menfolk of the Yagahl, and especially D’Leh, feeling mighty peeved.
It wouldn’t be fair to reveal too much of what happens after that, but it does involve a long and dangerous trek across inhospitable terrain, a fight in the long grass with a flock of carnivorous wolf-dodos, and a perilous negotiation in a flooded pit with a sabre-tooth tiger. D’Leh – whose naivety is his charm – notes that the tiger is about to drown, and tells the cat “do not eat me when I set you free”. Oddly, the tiger obeys, and when he encounters it later – in the midst of a scrap with some African-style natives – D’Leh does a bit of special pleading which earns him the respect of the warriors with the bones through their chins. “You speak to the spear-tooth,” they say, and serve him a hot dinner fit for a king. An alliance is forged, and they set off to look for the home of the Almighty, who has been building pyramids on an industrial scale in the Mountains of the Gods.
It’s all nonsense of course, but it’s nonsense full of stampeding mammoths and bleak landscapes and burning temples and mumbo-jumbo about the power of myth. It’s not about pre-history at all: Emmerich is stuck on re-creating the boyish wonder and the naïve charm of the matinee serial. And – Ya!- he succeeds.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Other Boleyn Girl: The Filmstar Girlfriends Of King Henry the Hulk


Peter Morgan is a script writer who behaves like a car dealer. He deals in reputations, subtracting mileage from the clock, Tippexing the log book, and generally telling his customers the truth as they would like it to be. The strength of his own reputation (a shelf full of awards for The Queen) is testimony to the popularity of this approach.
Morgan’s standing was cemented by his script for The Deal, which fictionalised the popular myth about the relationship between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, showing Blair to be a vacuous spiv and Brown to be a saturnine grumbler with a grudge. It wasn’t exactly true, but nor was it exactly untrue. Its success was based on it being a plausible impersonation of the actuality, with added spite and a twist of tabloid narrative. The same can be said about Longford (detailing the relationship between the doddery old Lord and the murderer, Myra Hindley) and The Queen, which charmed audiences by presenting the British royal family in crisis, with sprayed-on emotions. Viewed logically, that Oscar-winning performance by Helen Mirren was nothing like the Queen: Her Majesty would do well to impersonate the Dame. And Morgan’s play (soon to be a film) Frost/Nixon makes a drama out of an interview, being a turbo-charged retelling of the WWF bout between David Frost and the disgraced President.
The Other Boleyn Girl is slightly different - being an adaptation of a novel by Philippa Gregory - but substantially the same, in that it takes history, adds wishful thinking, and spins a yarn designed to appeal to contemporary attitudes. Gregory’s suggestion is that Henry VIII had an affair with Ann Boleyn’s prettier younger sister, Mary, fathering the son he always wanted, but was distracted by the scheming of the jealous Ann, who betrayed her sister in order to enhance her own prospects. Ann won the crown, but lost her head. (Parallels to Mr Blair and Mr Brown are not encouraged, but nor can they be entirely discounted).
Morgan has been over this ground before. His television film Henry VIII starred Ray Winstone as the tubby monarch and Helena Bonham Carter as Ann Boleyn. That film was pitched as a love story in which Henry proved his devotion to the insecure Ann by marrying her, ditching the Catholic Church in the process.
A measure of Morgan’s progress – and that of the director, Justin Chadwick (fresh from Bleak House) – can be seen from the cast. Henry is played by Eric Bana, an actor of fearsome, if diminishing reputation, whose main qualification for the role seems to be the torso which expanded to cartoonish dimensions in Ang Lee’s less than incredible Hulk. Nor are the sisters conventional English roses. Ann is played by Natalie Portman, and Mary is Scarlet Johansson. These pretty girls are blessed with a beautiful mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and a scheming uncle, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey) who employs their wiles to ensure the advancement of the family. He’s a pompous pimp, which is slightly confusing, as Morrissey plays Norfolk in roughly the same way as he essayed Gordon Brown, though it’s hard to imagine the Prime Minister telling his nieces: “To be mistress of the King of England is in no way to diminish status.” The Boleyns’ mother is more Fife-like in her outlook: “When was it that people stopped thinking of ambition as a sin and started thinking of it as a virtue?” A very Peter Morgan line, as the answer is probably 1979.
Anyway, Ann accepts the challenge, and is quickly shown to be no respecter of royal protocols. She rides her own horse, which confuses our ’enry. “With no man to hold onto, how do you propose to stay on the horse?” he demands. The bold Ann, channelling Mae West, replies: “As you do, your grace. With my thighs.” Unfortunately, Ann’s proto-feminist approach to equestrianism leads Henry into a deep ravine and he falls off his horse, into the arms of Mary, an amoebic beauty with lovely hair. Mary’s face, he says, “is as the sun: one shouldn’t gaze too long.”
That’s his big mistake, because the opportunity to gaze at Johansson’s face is the best thing about The Other Boleyn Girl. The history is hokey, and the ending is never in doubt, so the story’s intrigue rests on the Machiavellian machinations of Morrissey, who is so one-dimensional that he would be improved considerably by the addition of a charcoal moustache. Ann, meanwhile, has the spunk of a Spice Girl and the manners of Alexis Colby, which is fine in Dynasty, but oddly wearing in Tudor England.
Ann is tried for “incest, high treason and offences against God.” If that had happened, the film might have been more exciting.