Monday, December 19, 2016

In the fictional labyrinth of The OA (spoiler alert) the cure for death is doing the haka in the style of Pan's People

George Melly (centre) offers insights
 into mortality and munchie science in
krrrrazy Netflix drama, The OA

Bloody noses. What is it with the bloody noses? In every dystopian, faintly futuristic serial, it happens. The blankly beautiful person with the extra powers, the super senses, the wonky circuits, ejaculates but does not coagulate, so the red stuff runs down their pretty face like a sign of overstretched humanity, or effort, or weakness. It happens in The OA (Netflix), a gorgeous, overambitious attempt to take the stuff of teen alienation and dress it in the logic of semi-stoned psychedelic enquiry. You might wonder why it’s always the nose, when other brands of surprising teenage blood are available, but to think about that would be to embark on a more complicated investigation into adolescent weirdness than is currently permitted on the geeky side of Main Street. 
What is The OA about? Death, mostly. There is a girl, a beautiful, blank, blonde girl (series co-creator/writer Brit Marling), who can cheat mortality. The method - and you have to wait six hours to uncover this, so leave the planet now if you don’t want to know the result - is a form of interpretative dance. Yes, no, yes: not since The Kids From Fame sprayed their choreographed narcissism into the ozone layer have the creative arts been bestowed with such magical potential. Frankly, the dance is daft, and there is a moment, which happens to be the climactic scene of the whole series, in which the creators’ faith in the idea that fate can be altered by doing the haka in the style of Pan’s People seems optimistic. Or laughable. The only defence is one of Dada-ist absurdity, like the time George Melly fought off a mugger by reciting a poem comprised entirely of nonsense, delivered with gusto from behind a pinstriped jazz-belly. 
You want some plot, Jock? The OA is about a girl who goes missing, and comes back. She has stories to tell about where she has been. The yarns are about NDAs, or near-death experiences, some of which go further than near. The freaks and geeks of the town inhale these stories, because they play to their overdeveloped sense of preciousness, and the crazy kids are heavily seasoned with the logic of freshly-discovered mortality and munchie science, in which cheese dreams are hyped into night terrors and alienation is celebrated in a way that is absolutely inclusive, because, underneath it all, we’re all geeks, except the geeks, who are secretly great. “Weird is good,” says a doctor in episode three, though the doctor is not all that he seems. The title? (Again, if you don’t want to know, put on noise-cancelling headphones. Teleport to an alternate reality. Do not pass “Go”.) It’s a kind of sound thing, because the girl goes away. Her real name is Prairie. As in open. Because she is.
The first couple of minutes are very good. They are - or seem to be - iPhone footage of an attempted suicide. But after that, you have to ask, how much of this story is really true, because much of is delivered by Prairie, in the manner of a campfire ghost story with fairytale logic?  The soufflé sags in the middle, but mostly it’s generically sincere (“What’s Kubrick?” asks a stoner, after a particularly Big Brother-ish moment of enforced captivity). There’s a lot of self-helpy, therapeutic mumbo-jumbo, and (go back to a previous life if you don’t want to know) a shock. OK. One spoiler. You know that light at the end of the tunnel you see when you die? It’s not a tunnel. It’s a place. 
And now, the dance. 

Serial Box 
Episode two of This Is Us (All 4) was directed by Ken Olin. Ken has done many great things in his creative life, but he will always be Michael from thirtysomething, the soapy (and now unwatchable) drama about peeved middle-class Americans who had it all and were still antsy. In 25 years - possibly sooner - This is Us will be unwatchable, but it offers a reliable roadmap of how mainstream American telly approaches diversity. There are three kids. One is a just-gay-enough stupid white male actor (successful but unhappy). One is a black male commodities broker with a crack addict dad. The third is a female fatty in a culture of judgmental skinnies. There is also a TV network boss, whose thwarted ambition is to be “drifting on morphine”. 

Monday, December 12, 2016

Sex and violence, stupidity and artificial intelligence: the beautiful numbness of Westworld

Visitors to Westworld were
allowed to dress up as Abba
The geeks, we know, shall inherit the earth. When they do, it will surely look a lot like Westworld (Sky On Demand/Now TV). That’s not to say that dystopian science fiction is created to a formula, but if you mix sex and violence, stupidity and artificial intelligence, and pack a riddle inside a fortune cookie inside an enigma, you’d have a useful template. Westworld is big and bold and beautiful, and it succeeds in its most important challenge - creating its own reality, albeit a reality in which the true and the false are different modes of fancy dress. The show’s setting is a theme park in which the guests are allowed to act out their fantasies in order to liberate their suppressed urges. It is a place where, ultimately, the viewing audience is invited to identify with the robots who are attempting to unlock the compromises of consciousness; rather than the humans, who are, by and large, locked in an embrace with exploitation, conscious cruelty, and the cheap titillation of their basest instincts. You on the couch admiring Armistice, the naked snake tatooo girl (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal)! That means you too. 
Westworld is something else. It is a story about storytelling - a curiously popular trick in these post-modern times, where the only way to understand a plot is to arrange Post-its on your fridge, or to wallpaper your brain with photos of the characters and draw Sharpie lines between them, like a bipolar detective doodling on the walls of a serial killer’s subterranean nest. 
Westworld was designed to baffle, but - being a long-form serial with the potential to roll on for aeons - the whys and wherefores were never going to be entirely clear by the end of the first series. Still - no spoilers - the final episode delivered. There was, as there had to be, an explosive conclusion, choreographed by Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the park’s director of production line fantasies. The action unspooled like a shoot-em-up, the gratuitous violence made more palatable by arriving in disguise as that popular geek fantasy, feminist revenge, a practise which can also be understood as Hot Chicks With Big Guns. The actual puzzle, the maze that Ed Harris’s prune-faced cowboy was trying too solve, was revealed as a kind of gameboy’s Rosebud, and Bernard, that most human of androids, was programmed to deliver the big line: “Consciousness isn’t a journey upward, but a journey inward, on a pyramid.” Which made sense at the time, but doesn’t now. 
And that’s the problem, really. Westworld is so self-conscious about its self-consciousness, and so dedicated in its pursuit of sensation that it forgets to deliver the thing its characters seek. Empathy. Without that, what you have is loops and levels and cheap thrills, and a different calibre of existential question. Not ‘who feels?’ but ‘who cares?’
There are timeshifts and peculiar coincidences in the attractive US drama This Is Us (All 4) in which three people who share the same birthday are invited to explore the horror of being aged 36. Created by Dan Fogelman (who wrote Tangled and Crazy, Stupid, Love) the first episode is elaborately choreographed, and though it sometimes feels like a collage of emotional cliches, there is a satisfying plot twist, after which everything makes slightly more sense.  “It’s like a bad sitcom,” says one of the characters, comparing the action to the show in which another of the 36 year-olds reluctantly stars. It’s another story about a story, but an elegantly soapy one in which lessons about life, lemons and lemonade are painlessly juiced. 

Serial Box 
Things were never going to turn cheerful in Rillington Place (BBC iPlayer), but the quiet creepiness of Tim Roth’s murderous Reg came fully into view in an episode focused on his young lodgers. Actually, fully into view is an exaggeration. The lighting is never more than 40 watt, and the worst of the bad things happen in the shadows of rooms which are decorated in forty shades of brown. Is Reg charismatic enough to embroil others in his terrible plans? Possibly not. Roth relies on the character’s good manners, nice cups of tea, and his murmured curse, “Oh dear, dear, dear.” In Plain Sight (ITV Player) is set in 1955 and explores a true life murder in Uddingston. The cop is Douglas Henshall, a linear plod with red hair. 
(As published in the London Evening Standard, 9 December, 2016)

Rillington Place: Tim Roth plays Reg Christie as a cross between Alan Bennett and Mr Benn

Alan Bennett (left)
How do you like your serial killers? In Britain, while the crimes are being committed, or prosecuted, we like them with a dose of old testament horror, bordering on titillation. In retrospect, the sensations are numbed, and vile evil is portrayed, often, as a morbidly fascinating puzzle. Rillington Place (BBC iPlayer), is based on the real case of the notorious serial killer John “Reg” Christie, and was immortalised in a film starring Richard Attenborough in 1971. So what’s new? 
Mostly, the innovations are matters of mood and angle. This series presents the events from three different perspectives, starting with his long-suffering wife, Ethel, played as a fearful, passive spouse by Samantha Morton. It takes place in a grimly recognisable post-war London, a place where all the colours are shades of grey and blue, where tablecloths are waxed, and intimate conversations struggle to stretch beyond a dutiful murmur. “Still one sugar?” says Reg (Tim Roth, on returning home after a nine year absence. Reg and Ethel have moved into a miserable looking house, with ominous trains rattling the walls, and a grim garden. It “needs a bit of love and care,” Reg notes quietly. “Spot of elbow grease. We’ll do our own planting. If there’s enough light.” 
Roth’s Reg is a shadow of a man, his face shaded by his hat, his legs foreshortened by a raincoat, his expression masked by serious spectacles. Roth plays him as cross between Alan Bennett and Mr Benn, so everything is understated and polite and logical. At first, the restraint seems strange, as Roth is an actor known for easy violence. With time, the sense of menace builds. It’s a little bit League of Gentlemen. “Do you fancy the pictures?” he says in 1944. “Is that the door? Not expecting anyone?” He would, you think, be hard to love. But Morton portrays Ethel as a woman from a more dutiful age, her morals slowly melting as the horror unfolds. “Be nice to get things back to normal,” says Reg. “Ship shape. Nice cup of tea?” 
The second series of The Missing (BBC iPlayer) ended, as it had to, with a question, and a flash of psychological manipulation. This series has been as hard to love as it has been to understand, though most of the questions were answered in the end, with a suitably tense showdown in the woods in Switzerland. There was a shoot-out, a chase, a cliff-edge; every kind of jeopardy except the plausible sort. As a story, it was perhaps too rich. Mixing the horrors of the Iraq war with a cross-border tale of child abduction might seem like a good idea, but it doesn't leave a lot of room for emotional engagement. It works, when it works, because of the character of the detective Julien Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo), who is like Inspector Morse played as a limping Frenchman by Harvey Keitel. 
Similarly, as Westworld (Sky On Demand/Now TV) draws towards the end of its first season, a hierarchy of characters has been established, with the broader existential questions pushed aside in favour of ultraviolence; a carved midriff here, a bit of gunplay there, a surprising head-butt for Ed Harris, who’s had it coming. Still, there is some nagging intelligence at play. The most sympathetic character is Thandie Newton’s vengeful robo-madam, Maeve, while Anthony Hopkins’ Dr Ford is now established as a fully-blown Dr Frankenstein. But then, why did Bernard - newly revealed as a murderous lump of artificial intelligence - say to Ford, “Arnold built us, didn’t he?” He’s probably right. But who’s Arnold? 

Serial Box 
Oh, look, a sexy French cop. In The Passenger (All 4), the latest European import in Channel 4’s Walter Presents strand, the lovely Raphaëlle Agogué plays Bordeaux policier, Captain Anais Chatelet, whose misfortune it is to be in charge of a murder investigation in which the victim is discovered naked in a pit with a bull’s head on his shoulders. Chatelet, as well as being tough and lovely and flawed - she has scars on her arms - is clever, and quite capable of Googling “minotaur”. There is a suspect, and a lot of evidence, but an annoying doctor gets in the way with his diagnosis of “trouble de la personnalité” and other maladies mentales. All is stylish and generic and forgivable, because Agogué has French hair and walks like a cowgirl. 
(As published in London Evening Standard, 2 December, 2016) 

Monday, November 14, 2016

Planet Earth Is Blue, And There's Something We Can Do: Root For The Baby Iguana As It Is Chased By A Racing Snake

Godlike genius: David Attenborough (far left)
David Attenborough has forgotten more about television than most people will ever know, so presumably he knows that he is playing God in Planet Earth II (BBC iPlayer). 
It wasn’t always like this. In his younger days, Attenborough was more of an explorer than a celestial spectre. But the great communicator no longer gets down with the apes. He is primarily a voiceover artist these days, lending honeyed reason to the extraordinary work of the BBC Natural History unit, yet he appears at the start of the first episode of this new series, two miles above the earth’s surface, with grey-hair and sky-blue puffa jacket, looking down. What does he see? He sees “the sheer grandeur and splendour and power of the natural world.” He promises that we will get closer to the animals than ever before. And he cautions, almost imperceptibly, that the planet has changed.
Attenborough is a benign deity, so the warning is largely implicit. The earth he observes is identifiably our own, but the way in which it is viewed is literally wonderful, a rare and appealing thing in these cynical times. In natural history terms, Attenborough is a warm-blooded Reithian. He educates, informs and entertains, and understands that doing the third of these things properly makes achieving the first two much easier. Pick it apart, and you’ll find some traces of Animal Magic in the script. Unlike Johnny Morris, Attenborough doesn’t talk to the animals, and neither do the animals talk to him, but there are flecks of anthropomorphism in his approach. The serrated teeth of the Komodo dragon are, he notes, “as sharp as steak knives”. That crab snacking on the dead skin of an iguana’s back is providing “a welcome exfoliation service”. The chin-strap penguins riding a deadly Antarctic swell at the edge of an active volcano are embarking on a “formidable commute”.
But Attenborough is just the figurehead. Primarily, Planet Earth II is a triumph of photography, and the filming really does exist at the fringes of what is technically possible. How do they do that stuff? Some of it must be down to drones, but the bulk of it is achieved through skill and endurance, and the results are extraordinary. Obviously we can all identify with the pygmy three-toed sloth (pronounced, apparently, to emphasise the “slow” in sloth). But have you ever seen one swim? Lemurs, we know, are cute, but how about those tiny bamboo lemurs? Or the marine iguana grazing on the sea floor? Or the racer snakes chasing the iguana hatchlings? You have to feel for the baby iguanas, especially with the soundtrack emphasising the Hitchcock-like dread of the moment, but the sprinting snakes are incredible. Look at the marching crabs on Christmas Island, 50 million of them, crabbing along, until they’re ambushed by crazy ants, squirting acid in their eyes. The whole thing is amazing, fantastic, beautiful; beyond Disney. Planet Earth II really is television operating at the peak of its powers. 
Stephen Poliakoff's Close To The Enemy (BBC iPlayer) is set in the bombed-out London of 1946, where Cal (Jim Sturgess) plays an intelligence officer charged with turning a German “jetplane man” (August Diehl). A war comic mood prevails, as the action unfurls in a hotel - “a funny old mausoleum" - with cheery prostitutes in the corridors and a jazz band in the basement. There is much ado about stale sponge and toffee apples. Everything is hush hush, until Angela Bassett starts handing out oranges. Alfred Molina arches an eyebrow. You could cut the tension with a plate of cabbage.

Catch-Up TV 
People are asking: is Westworld (Sky On Demand/Now TV) any good? It is clever, flamboyantly so, but watching it is like playing roulette with a pack of cards. This week, the mazy plot moved beyond gunplay and into the zone where those android narratives are created. Thandie Newton’s brothel-keeping android Maeve got to develop her consciousness, but had to appear naked for most of the episode, so it was swings and roundabouts. Here's the (odd) thing. Westworld is about the nature of humanity, but it is also about the dulling of the senses. The ultra-violence and the raping is fine, because it’s a game and the victims are robots in a cowboy fantasy. But does it amount to more than a labyrinthine exploration of guilty thrills? 


Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Crown Is A Slightly Subversive Tapestry About The Royal Family With A CGI Elephant And Enough Coughing To Startle The Fast Show's Bob Fleming

Doctor Who, left, and Her Majesty The Queen
in the Netflix/Lockets drama, The Crown
The Crown (Netflix), like the royal family, is a faith-based endeavour. Dramatically, it poses a challenge, because the story is known, so the appeal of the enterprise becomes a matter of style and costume. Beyond that, it is about impersonation, and the willingness of the cast to test the old actors’ cliche/excuse, about finding the truth of the character rather than doing an impersonation. But what is the truth of the Queen, of the Queen Mother, of Winston Churchill? And how can that be made vital? 
Let’s start with the style, because it is obvious. The Crown is a beautifully constructed edifice. It is a past fashioned from the daydreams of Cecil Beaton. The lighting is subtle, the colours rich. The world looks looks fantastic, rather than real, and everything is in its proper place. The mist that envelopes London in 1952 is, as the wireless announces, a veritable peasouper. The flashbulbs of the nascent paparazzi are pure Weegee. The royal tricycles are a nostalgic delight. The pens are fountain, the dogs are corgis, except when they are the Duke of Windsor’s pugs, when they are dismissed in glassy RP by the Queen (Claire Foy) as being “awfully gassy”. The false notes are few, though the scene where Prince Philip (Matt Smith) hypnotises a stampeding elephant in Nairobi has a jerky quality to it which suggests that a computer, rather than a stunt pachyderm, did the tricks.
But aside from being a brochure for an upmarket Butlins in which the chalets are palaces and the everyday dramas are matters of constitutional importance, what is left? Well, there is a lot of coughing. “Spot of blood in my spittle,” says King George VI to his wrinkled retainer early in the first episode, and from that hack on, he scarcely appears without the drumroll of a phlegmy ejaculation. At one point, the outgoing monarch seems to be toking on medical marijuana, though it’s possible he just enjoyed a mangy gasper. The bloody spew is significant, of course, because it heralds the elevation of Elizabeth to the throne, where - like Victoria in ITV’s Victoria - she will graduate from being a girl overwhelmed, to a soft-feminist cipher in a world of scheming, idiot men.
How is it? Well, if we assume that being the Queen is a bit like being the drummer of the Rolling Stones, with 20 years of hanging around for every five years of activity, it’s true to life. The plot moves at a glacial pace, with half-defrosted royals bumbling carelessly through matters of historical significance while polite, undynamic onlookers mumble rhubarb. The early episodes are dominated by John Lithgow’s rambunctious turn as the failing Winston Churchill, who symbolises changing times from the comfort of his bath at Number 10, where he drinks and smokes and sleeps as London chokes in the smog. The Labour leader, Clement Attlee, is played as a less-decisive version of Captain Mainwearing. Foy, as Her Majesty, is just perky enough, and - though they’re disguised by the logic-defying rituals of the ruling class - there are enough seditious moments to make this velvety National Heritage wall-hanging feel quietly subversive. “They’re all married to Nazis,” says Churchill. “What a bunch of ice-lipped monsters my family are,” sneers the permafrosty Duke of Windsor. 
Like the monarchy, it shouldn’t work, but it does. 
Meanwhile, in the migrant labour robo-satire Humans (All4) the androids are revolting with greater confidence than they did in the first series. 
“As I understand it,” says one, “I feel.” 
“I am also oddly attracted to the word ‘radiator’,” says another. 

Serial Box 

Presumably, in The Missing (BBC iPlayer), there will be a moment when the plot knits together to reveal - rough guess - an army cover-up of a paedophile abuse ring, and - another guess - a case of fake dementia from a suspected abuser. Till then, we’re left with David Morrissey’s pained murmur and the endless mysteries of Keeley Hawes’ face. More annoyingly, the limping French detective Julien Baptiste (Tcheky Karyo) has been tested to the point of destruction. Baptiste is the only fully-developed character, everyone else being emotional responses to half-disguised tabloid horrors. He could have been the new Morse, but surviving this cryptic apocalypse, in which he bumbles to the front line in the fight against Isis while dying of cancer, may be a case too far. 

Monday, October 31, 2016

Despite The Venom Of His Inner Numskulls, Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror Is Tales Of The Unexpected With iPhones

Kelly Macdonald (right) is a sweary Scottish cop
It’s an odd place, the inside of Charlie Brooker’s head. Reading his journalism, or watching Screenwipe, you’d expect his inner Numskulls to be venomous, splenetic creatures, firing bile through his nostrils and sputum through his eyes. But his television series, Black Mirror (Netflix), is oddly traditional in its approach. Though the six films traverse genres, they share a point-of-view, being somewhat futuristic, and concerned with the malign influence of technology. The soldiers have a chip in their heads that make then see the enemy as horror zombies. The beautiful people rate each other on social media, so they never have to interact with the scum. The kid who fears being shamed on the internet is blackmailed, by text, into doing something unspeakable. Someone invents a system in which the most unpopular people on Twitter are killed by robot bees. (No honey from that hive mind).
The aim, as Brooker has attested, was to create something akin to The Twilight Zone, a fantasy anthology in which each episode was free to wander within the parameters of a certain worldview. Judging by the reaction on (irony alert) social media, Brooker has satisfied his audience. It’s true that Black Mirror shares with Rod Serling’s fantasy series a habit of exploiting wrinkles in normality. But the science is only a slight exaggeration of what currently exists, and the fiction in these computer game narratives seems retro, and conservative in its instincts. It is, more or less, Tales of the Unexpected, with iPhones.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Is it binge-able? Possibly, though watching a lot of this stuff can be a headnip. The final film, Hated in the Nation, in which Kelly Macdonald is a cop on the trail of the evil genius who employs those drone drones to enact Twitter revenge, is the most straightforward, and also contains the line which comes closest to summing up Brooker’s point of view. It’s not entirely publishable, and depends for its impact on the colour of Macdonald’s language. It can be found around 30 minutes from the end. “OK, OK,” Macdonald says, “the government’s a cauliflower. What are we gonna do about it?” Except she doesn’t say cauliflower. 
Anyway, the best film is Nosedive, the social media satire directed by Joe Wright and starring Bryce Dallas Howard, though it’s run close by Shut Up And Dance, a malign Challenge Anneka in  which Alex Lawther is humiliated by the webcam of his computer. Men Against Fire, which adds a technological angle to the socialisation of soldiers, is also quite effective, though it is typical of Brooker’s oeuvre; hiding its craft beneath an arc of ire which is adolescent in its purity. 
In Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope (Sky On Demand/Now TV) Jude Law plays the pontiff as an irritable, vindictive bully who may not believe in God. The show has already won large audiences in Italy, and its sacrilegious elements are (slightly) diluted by the drama’s ability to wrap its absurdity in a cloak of black comedy. Law certainly has fun portraying the pope as a Cherry Coke-drinking rock star whose troubled dreams are only marginally more disturbing than his untroubled waking hours in which he challenges the culture inside the Vatican. He also refuses to be visible, suggesting the greatest artists of recent times - Salinger, Kubrick, Banksy and Daft Punk - were invisible. So he is, you know, fallible. Things perk up in episode 2, where the mafia-like struggle gets underway, and Diane Keaton - the nun who raised the dope Pope - appears wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a joke about her virginity. 

Serial Box 
In Westworld (Sky On Demand/Now TV) the sense of hyper-reality has grown so familiar that it seems fitting when the splatter from a shooting dusts up the lens of the camera. If it’s about anything - and it may be a very elaborate parable contemplating nothingness - Westworld is a kind of existential paintball about storytelling itself. It includes the useful, western-derived phrase “to go blackhat” (play with your worst urges). The Frankenstein figure, played by Anthony Hopkins, lives in a grand house with cyborg servants, but he also like obeisance from his fleshy colleagues. The enlightened cyborgs are the most sympathetic characters, while Ed Harris’s grim desperado inhabits an ambiguous space. “This whole world is a story,” he growls. “I’ve read every page except the last one.” 


Monday, October 24, 2016

In Allan Cubitt's The Fall, Gillian Anderson's Stella Is A Sexy Ventriloquist With Laryngitis And The Killer Is An Oddly Charming Hunk With A Scar On His Six-Pack

We need to talk about Stella. Again. As the conclusion of series three of The Fall (BBC iPlayer) looms, the audience, though bloodied and battered, is almost in a position to take a position on the merits of Allan Cubitt’s inverted murder drama. Curiously, for a thriller which gave away the killer’s identity right at the start, series three has been all about suspense. It has been unbelievable,  but tense. At all times, it has been perverse. Tense, as in: you have the man known as the Belfast Strangler in custody and you don’t restrain him. You send in a gullible nurse to fall in love with him, after a wee chat about his faulty memory, because women can’t help falling for the psycho’s lost lamb eyes. Perverse, as in: you fetishise the killer in a slo-mo shower scene, the better to appraise his ripped, scarred abdominals. And your heroine, starry-eyed Stella with the phone sex whisper, operates as a premium rate fantasist, indulging and encouraging the thing she fears most, almost as if she really wants it. 
And what is “it”? Well, Stella’s fascination with Spector is quite strange, because on one level - actually, on most levels - she seems to be pining for the soft-spoken brute, to the point where it’s not clear whether she wants to be murdered, or just have sex and then sling the man in jail, having first made a meal of getting him measured for furry handcuffs. Stella, we know, is damaged, but brilliant, like all television coppers, but broken in a way that makes her seem like the product of freak-friendly fan fiction, a moralistic sub-section of murder porn in which participants get to have their cake and then be eaten by it.
Can we sum up? Stella’s colleagues are trying to. Stella, one says, “didn’t really use any standard interview techniques. She didn’t offer psychological excuses or minimise the seriousness of Spector’s crimes. She didn’t praise or flatter, She even used leading questions that elicited one-word answers. Almost not like a police interview at all. More like an intimate conversation.” 
Let’s look at Stella’s face. A ventriloquist’s features are more animated. She’s sleeping, perchance to dream of a time when her laryngitis will clear up and this dark, twisted fantasy will end. It will soon, possibly with a bang and a whimper.
Paula Milne’s Him (ITV Player) is Carrie, reinvented as an English boy. That’s odd, because it removes the layer of horror in which paranormal powers are related somehow to the monstrous puberty of an adolescent girl. And, since no one really needs reminding of the crusty contours of male pubescence, this boy, Him (Ffion Whitehead) is a 17 year-old who can make things levitate and do damage just by applying his mind to it, which he does, quite frequently. So far, he seems inspired to acts of supernatural destruction by his disdain for his divorced parents, particularly his merchant banker of a dad, and his evil stepmother who is pregnant with twins. If the horror stays rooted in domestic disgust it may get somewhere. But things look a bit more ominous than that. 
In the Sunday night drama Tutankhamun (ITV Player), the colonial baloney is stifling, but the “undomesticated” explorer, Carter (Irons) has a moustache and a hunch. Will it be enough? Will he develop social skills, and notice that the nice American lady from the museum is in love with him? Or will he wander into the desert to hang with the naked man who lives in a hell hole with diarrhetic bats? 

Serial Box 
Meanwhile, in The Missing (BBC iPlayer) the broken jigsaw plot is beginning to fall into place, though the true nature of the nastiness has not yet been revealed. There is, it seems, a dodgy brigadier, who knows more about the disappearance (and true identity) of the blank-eyed girl. David Morrissey’s soldier, who may be guilty of something, continues to act shiftily. And dear old Julien Baptiste, the dying detective, has decided to cross from his bucket list the bit where he wanders aimlessly into an ISIS stronghold. Not as much fun as he’d hoped, actually. The bits, surely, will fit together. So far, the drama coheres largely by virtue of the charisma of the cast. There is much birdsong on the soundtrack, and a parable involving a flying turtle. 
First published in the London Evening Standard on 21 October, 2016 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Sharon Horgan's Divorce: Sex Goes Upstate, or Husbands and Wives Sideways

When Sharon Horgan was interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme, she was asked whether it was possible to make divorce funny. Horgan’s reply, like her writing, was a masterpiece of vague certainty and unbending doubt. She cited a remark made by Gwyneth Paltrow - the actress who coined the phrase “conscious uncoupling” to describe her own emotional trainwreck. Paltrow reportedly asked her father Bruce how he managed to stay married for 33 years, and he replied. “Well, we never wanted to get divorced at the same time.” 
SJP and THC: Lacking in TLC
Horgan’s Divorce (Sky On Demand/Now TV) is funny, but the humour is tempered by an undertow of sadness and an emotional complexity. Also, it stars Sarah Jessica Parker, an actor whose reputation rests on her turn as the sexy, insecure singleton in Sex and the City; the show which turned feminism into a gay fantasy of shagging shoe-fetishists, while falling back always on the comforting notion that everything could be fixed with a cuddle from Mr Big. Chris Noth, aka Mr Big, subsequently became the semi-corrupt ham that Julianna Margulies had to stand by in The Good Wife, so Parker’s progress is overdue, but there are signs that she knows what she’s is escaping from. Her character, Frances, isn’t Carrie, though there is a joke about her laptop being thrown through a window. Meanwhile, upstate, she’s older and sadder, and marooned in parenthood, still bewildered, and incapable of holding onto a thought for more than 10 minutes. That’s where the tragicomedy lies. The fact that Parker’s character is married to, and in the business of uncoupling from, Thomas Haden Church (the dude from Sideways) is equally appropriate, because Church - as Robert - now represents dull dependability and flattened fury, where once he was a charmingly straightforward fool. 
Is it really funny? It is, though the bittersweet notes are dialled up. “I want to save my life,” says Frances, “while I still care about it.” So, yes, everyone is self-involved, and blind to their own failings, hankering for romance in the snowdrifts of midlife. For Frances, this includes a miscalculation about a long-term affair in which she says “I love you, I think”, and he orders an 18 inch thin-crust Hawaiian. Is it possible to laugh about divorce? It is, and it’s also the only sane way to approach it. For Horgan, it represents a more mature approach to comedy, though the script is still speckled with explosive indiscretions. Watch out for the tongue darts. 
The first series of The Missing (BBC iPlayer) started with a fictional parallel to the disappearance of Madeleine McCann and developed into a fraught drama about parental fear. Dramatically, it went awry, though it was a good vehicle for James Nesbitt as the dad who Took Things Too Far. Happily, the reboot sees the retired French detective Julien Baptiste (Tcheky Karyo) returning, eased out a retirement in which he smashes up his beehives while shouting “I cannot bring us honey, I can at least bring us firewood.” This time, he’s investigating a decade-old double disappearance, which includes the return from the dead of a girl who claims to have been kept in a dungeon. 
It’s not a simple case, and it’s made no easier by the fact that the action flits between time periods and locations. Happily Baptiste shaves his head as he goes gallivanting in Iraq. (‘You’re looking at a dying man,” he says, which may explain his obsessive risk taking). Keeley Hawes and David Morrissey are the distraught parents. Hawes has a mother’s steely determination. Morrissey has plastic surgery and a shifty look. 

Serial Box 
Well, National Treasure (All 4) ended as it had to, with a verdict in the case against the despicable comedian Paul Finchley (Robbie Coltrane). No spoilers, but he was obviously guilty of being a duplicitous rat, though those were not the charges on which he was facing trial. There was fine writing in Jack Thorne’s Yewtree drama, particularly the speech from Paul’s long-suffering wife Marie (Julie Walters) about the three layers of Finchley’s character (“there’s this third layer, and on that, you’re capable of anything”). The acting was terrific, with Coltrane’s slow-dissolve encouraged by Walters’ acidic gaze, and the cinematic direction was notable, with cameras peering unwanted though doors. The scene of Coltrane observing himself in a mirror through bloodshot eyes while shaving was extraordinary. 
Publishedin the London Evening Standard on 14 October, 2016

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The new Westworld is an entertainment about entertainment, a shoot-’em-up about shoot-’em-ups, an artificial intelligence about Artificial Intelligence

Ooh er: Thandie Newton
You might think that the first episode the handsome android theme park drama Westworld (Sky On Demand/Now TV) would be about the scenery, or the sex, or the stylised violence. Or perhaps you’re more into logic, the intelligence rather than the artifice, so you’d care to venture beyond the saloon, over the gorgeous horizons of Moab, and into the stuff about existence, and consciousness, and narratives, to a place where it’s possible to appreciate that when the computerised humanoids start to have odd thoughts, and one of them says, “These violent delights have violent ends,” it’s a nod to Romeo and Juliet, and not a pull-quote from the cover of a video nasty. 
All of these vistas are on view, and all are enticing in their way. But in the end, after the scalping and the stabbing and the hanging and the rutting and the boozing and the endless cycle of pianola tunes soundtracking the witless paintball hedonism of the rich and idiotic in some near-future dystopia, the point of Westworld can be located in the death of a fly. To be fair, the fly makes several entrances, so it’s not exactly a shock when it makes an exit, particularly when it looks so out of place in such a manicured environment. (Michael Crichton, the creator of Westworld, wasn’t keen on people messing with nature). And then at the end, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), a pretty robot who is starting to develop glitches in her software, swats and kills it. And Dolores, like the rest of the “hosts” in Westworld, is meant to be incapable of causing harm. The violent end signals the deepening of the violent delight.
As well as being a story about stories, an entertainment about entertainment, a shoot-’em-up about shoot-’em-ups, Westworld is an upgrade of Crichton’s 1973 film, in which Yul Brynner, with a black hat on his billiard-bald head and Alka-Seltzer fizzing on his beautiful hard face, went a bit funny. The reboot, by (Christopher’s screenwriting brother) Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, tilts its sympathies more towards the androids, known as “hosts”, who have the benefit of misunderstood machines. The humans, known as “Guests”, are merely spoilt thrill-seekers. And between these two groups there is a third category - the theme park workers, who get to set the narratives and play God. Any similarity to filmmakers is entirely deliberate, and forgivably indulgent, though it is noticeable that the show is at its most entertaining when it is trading in crude fantasy, and at its most artificial when it tries to evinced the intrigue of futuristic office politics. Anthony Hopkins is a fine Dr Frankenstein, and Ed Harris is the psycho in the black hat whose stylised brutality takes things to another level. Harris is a fabulous monster, but the design of the show places audience sympathies on Thandie Newton’s robot tart, who seems intent on acquiring a heart. 
Fans of 24 will be alarmed to discover that Keifer Sutherland has been reinvented as a fading politician with an interest in affordable homes. Happily, in the admirably schlocky Designated Survivor (Netflix), the President is wiped out in a terrorist attack, so Keifer has to evolve from a busy dad who cooks bad eggs and makes weary parent eyes at Natascha McElhone, into the leader of the free world. The transformation is easier than you might think. First he takes off his hoody and borrows a suit. Then he stares down the camera. But something’s wrong. “Mr President,” says a flunkey, “your glasses. They’re not very presidential.” 

Serial Box 
The emotional manipulation continues in the post-Savile celebrity abuser drama National Treasure (All 4). It’s clear now, that Paul (Robbie Coltrane) is guilty of many things, though not necessarily the thing he is accused of. His wife, Marie (Julie Walters) - whose marital status comes with the prefix “long-suffering” permanently attached - has started to remember uncomfortable things, and Paul is certainly guilty of emotionally abusing his addict daughter Dee (Andrea Riseborough), regaling her with a tale of his own childhood abuse in order to win her sympathies. It’s self-serving, but that doesn’t mean it’s untrue. And what of Paul’s comic sidekick Karl (Tim McInnerny) who keeps flirting with Marie, while hinting of the things he could have told the police? He looks a punchline in search of a joke. 
(Published in London Evening Standard, Friday 7 October, 2016)

Friday, January 22, 2016

Interviewing Sydney Devine: A Morality Tale Involving Squirrels, Drownings and Nescafe

This is a story about Sydney Devine. Except that it isn’t. It’s a story in which Sydney Devine plays a starring role, but is incidental. It is a story about journalism, and interviewing. 
There’s a truism about interviews. Just as fiction writers are said to be writing about themselves, interviewers are asking questions about themselves. Or - and this is where it gets complicated - they are asking questions about their imagined reader. The most successful newspapers have a very clear idea of who their imagined reader is. A former editor of The Scotsman with a background at the Daily Mail once explained this to me. “Dennis Waterman,” she said, “never gets old.” 
So it was 1994. I did interviews for Scotland on Sunday. I had a lot of freedom, which was good and bad. If things worked, it was me. If things went wrong, the same deal. 
I decided to interview Sydney Devine. These days, Sydney needs a bit of explanation. Perhaps he did in 1994, too. Sydney was, and is, a Scottish country’n’western singer. He was extraordinarily popular. How this came to be is hard to explain, but essentially he was the Woolworth’s Hank Williams, an entertainer who cut his teeth in the working men’s clubs having first come to notice as a talented mimic of bird calls. In his early teens, he appeared on BBC Radio Scotland performing with Ronnie Ronald on the song 'If I Were A Blackbird'. Sydney was the blackbird. At 13, he represented Scotland in a four-nations talent contest called All Your Own, performing live on television at a time when most people didn’t have televisions. He came second to Alex Harvey in a contest to find Scotland’s Tommy Steele.
And so it goes on. Sydney doesn’t earn much, but he keeps performing. In Dundee, he is paid a wage of two packets of chewing gum for a show. He traverses the Central Belt, playing the circuit of old folks’ homes. All of this while he is still at school. Then, at the age of 15, he gets a part in Wild Grows The Heather in London’s West End. It is 1955. £28 a week is a lot. Sydney’s voice breaks halfway through the run. He becomes a light tenor, or, as Sydney likes to say “maybe a fiver”. 
The Sydney story really starts around 1969-70, when he tours South Africa with Andy Stewart. (That sentence poses a few questions of its own, but let’s ignore them). Sydney is given some studio time, and records around 20 songs. That’s the moment when the teenage warbler who performed in American Army bases as The Tartan Rocker becomes the Rhinestone Ploughboy, a country entertainer whose arrival in a white spangled jumpsuit ($700 from The Alamo, Nashville) is heralded by a blast of 'Also Sprach Zarathustra', just like Elvis. 
Apparently, it happened quite naturally. In the myth, which must be true, a woman (also called Devine, but unrelated) in the Glasgow branch of Woolworth’s takes a liking to Sydney’s album and starts playing it. He becomes a local phenomenon, a big star in a wee picture. “There was Harry Lauder,” Sydney would tell me. “After Harry Lauder came Robert Wilson. After Wilson came [Kenneth] McKellar. After McKellar came Andy Stewart. After Andy Stewart came me.” 
So here I am, outside Sydney’s house in Ayr, with a duffel bag full of prejudices. Sydney is, in 1994, a bit of a joke, albeit a joke in which he is complicit. As often as not, he will provide the punchline, though you might - with a bit of sensitivity - detect a note of insecurity in his responses. His appeal, he would tell me, was based on the fact that he was ordinary. Well, “bordering on ordinary”. But consider also that he played guitar on Andy Stewart’s novelty hit 'Donald Where’s Your Troosers?' and you get a sense of the unholy mess of cringes and genuflections that are involved in appreciating the divine Sydney, never mind being him.
It’s true. I’ve come to his suburban home in Ayr to laugh. If Sydney wants to play along, all the better. If he doesn’t, well, we’ll see. That’s the game.
Before I get into the house. I notice something strange. There is a squirrel on Sydney Devine’s driveway. It is dead, an ex-rodent, squirrel mortis. I make a mental note. (A symbol of what happened to Sydney’s career after the advent of Daniel O’Donnell, perhaps?) Better use it with care, though. Sydney had retired to run his hotel in 1991 after a heart attack, and un-retired after bypass surgery. When I ask how he is, he replies quickly: “Why? Have you heard something?”
We go into Sydney’s house. It is a nice house, modern and clean. No one else is home, so Sydney repairs to the kitchen to make the coffee. I scan the room for evidence, noting the unending luxury of the deep shagpile carpet. When he returns with the coffee, I clock that it is Nescafe. There is a plate of biscuits. There is something funny about the biscuits, too. I take it all in. 
We talk, awkwardly, as if Sydney is aware that he is being set up and is determined to knock himself over first. We talk about singing, and whether Sydney can. “I could sing ‘One Fine Day’ from Madame Butterfly if I thought it would pay the wages,” he says. 
“Don’t you sometimes miss the notes?” I suggest, gingerly.
“Miss them?” he retorts. “Intentionally.”
“I maybe just felt like it. The perfect record has never been made.” 
He tells me an extraordinary story about the time he went swimming in a river with Jimmy Shand’s son Erksine, who took cramp. “I can swim,” he said, “but I’m not that strong. I’m not a lifeguard.”  Erskine swam ahead, so Sydney could help if he got into further difficulties. Halfway across, the cramp struck again, and he slid under the water, pulling Sydney down with him. They were about four feet from the bank. “And for a second, my whole life was there, my mother, all my brothers and sisters, it was incredible.
“It was the most unnerving thing in my whole life. I went under, but how long I was under for I don’t know. How long I was dead for, I don’t know. My whole life, just snap. I could see my family, my wife, my kids, everything there. As if somebody had just gone shhhhh with a paintbrush.” 
So here’s the thing about interviews. They are not ordinary conversations. Michael Parkinson says something about them being an exchange between two consenting adults, and that is true to extent, but works better for television, where the to and fro of the conversation is there for all to see. In print, you need to get something. You need material to mould. If you have a nice chat, a nice chat is all you’ll have. If the person is famous, you’ll feel good that you got on, but when you transcribe it, there will be nothing there. So interviewing is a process. You may have a checklist. Have I got an intro, an ending, a revelation? (When I stopped working for Scottish newspapers and did some interviewing for London titles, an editor boiled the purpose of an interview down to one question: “What is your guilty secret?”)
So here I am, with Sydney, and I have questioned his singing ability, and he has responded by mentioning the 3.5 million sales of his Crying Time album. His version of the Buck Owens' title song was, he says, “very ordinary. In fact there’s probably nine or ten punters up at Annfield could sing it better, but nobody buys their record.”
And then it happens. Sydney asks me whether I would like to hear his new album. There is no way to say no, so we move from the drawing room into a narrow annexe, which is decorated with gold discs, a silver salver for breaking the box office record at the Glasgow Pavilion, and a framed portrait of Sydney, the child performer. He has a C90 of his record, and spools through it, trying to find his version of a Neil Sedaka song. And I stand there awkwardly, in very close proximity to Sydney, and I notice something terrible. He smells like shit. It is really bad, and really very awkward. There is nowhere to go in that annexe, so we stand next to each other, saying nothing, breathing in the foul air, as Sydney winds and rewinds the cassette, frantically trying to find the song he likes. The musical bit is awkward enough. How will Sydney cope with a Sedaka number? But the smell is something else. 
I’m relieved when Sydney can’t find the song - the quick bursts of ‘Crazy’ are more than enough - and we get out of the confines of the annexe, back into the drawing room, where I spot a framed motto on the wall: “Today is the day you dreamed about yesterday,” it reads, “and all is well.” (Mental note - a good ending). We shake hands and I make my escape down the driveway, past the mortified squirrel, away to the train home. 
Interviews are exhilarating, occasionally nauseating, and this encounter has been no exception. So I take a deep breath, and start to think about putting the conversation in some sort of order. I have an ending. Do I have an intro? What did I get? What really happened? 
It’s at this point that I cross my legs to rest my notebook on my knee, and the awful smell hits me again. I look down. My shoe is covered in dogshit. Well, not entirely covered. Much of it has come off on the deep shag of Sydney Devine’s drawing room carpet, and Sydney, dear old Steak’n’Kidney, has endured, inhaled, and will now have to Hoover away the filth that I have tread through his otherwise spotless house. 
I’m sorry Sydney. I really am. 

I told this story at a journalists’ awards ceremony once. Afterwards, I was accused of making a metaphorical attack on the ethical code of my editor. Perhaps that was my intention. Oh, all right. It was. But mostly I just wanted to say, in the homespun manner of the Ayrshire Hank Williams, be careful of the stones that you throw. 
So, the moral, journalism tip #57: when you smell shit - check your own shoes.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Academy Awards Are Like Buses, Leonardo DiCaprio Is An Apprentice Brian Blessed; Quentin Tarantino, What Happened?

The Oscars are marketing, so to comment on the nominations is like comparing Flash to Daz. But, since my exposure to contemporary cinema is roughly confined to reading the sides of buses, I do feel qualified to offer an opinion or two. So, obviously Leo DiCaprio will win in the Best Male Actor Who Got Fat and Looked A Bit Wild Like Brian Blessed category. Eddie Redmayne will not, even though he's on the side of every 271 (Highgate Village) bus. I would like Jennifer Lawrence to win in the Pretty Lady With Pluck category, because I saw her phone her dad in the Edinburgh Filmhouse to tell him where she was, and she looked quite thrilled about it. And Cate Blanchett is very nice and supersmart. But apparently Brie Larson is going to win, and not just because she is named after a versatile and inoffensive cheese.
But mostly, what I want to say is, Quentin Tarantino, what happened? The Hateful Eight has been on the side of every 43 bus for ages, and it's only nominated for hiring Ennio Morricone to do the music (and he will win, because everyone loves the spaghetti westerns, even if they considered them to be trash at the time) and cinematography, which is like saying, yeah, you made your film in an obsolete format so nobody could screen it, but that shows you have taste. But nothing for the crackpot video store jive talk dialogue or the actors dancing with their mirror images and being offensive in a postmodern way, forcing you, the director, to be defensively offensive or say nothing, which is roughly the same thing. And this is your masterpiece, which must now be known as your overlooked masterpiece. Surely, QT, this ain't how it was meant to be?
On another note, I was in 99p Stores today, looking for marshmallows and wooden kebab skewers, and I noticed they sell preloved DVDs. They had The Road. I was going to buy it, but then I thought, is it worth 99p? I mean, I loved the book, but do I need to spend almost a pound to feel desolate, when I could just leave the shop and walk down Holloway Road, watching buses in the rain?