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20 years on

April 14, 2015 in Current affairs, Religion and politics

“I didn’t come into politics to change the Labour party, I came into politics to change the country.”

Tony Blair, 1995

“I didn’t come into politics to be some high-powered accountant and just balance the books.”

David Cameron, 2015

In case anyone else asks me if I’m going to write a musical about David Cameron, this is the reason why not.

Something to be proud of

March 17, 2015 in Arts and culture

In case it looks like I’m always down on Russell T. Davies (which I’m not), I would draw your attention to a little short film that is one of the many internetty added extras for the Cucumber/Banana/Tofu range and thus in danger of going unnoticed, even though I’d swap this fifteen minutes for the whole of Cucumber in a flash.

It may seem odd that such an uncompromising castigation of the porn industry should come from a source so obsessed with Freddie Fox’s teeny tiny pants, but whatever else Cucumber is I don’t think you could describe it as pornographic. In any case, that’s not the point – Cucumber is a post-watershed adult programme with an age-appropriate warning slapped all over it.

This is the point:

Nothing to be proud of

March 14, 2015 in Arts and culture

cucumber

I never liked Queer As Folk. Sharp dialogue, stylish direction, zeitgeisty atmosphere, all present and undeniably entertaining – but I found it troubling that a programme that was meant to be a watershed in the portrayal of gay characters on television dived headlong into a world of underage sex, drug taking and promiscuity, a world of people entirely defined by where they drink, where they dance, who they ‘cop off’ with. I’m not in a position to judge its accuracy as a portrayal of Canal Street, but through its glamorous, fantasy-like sheen it presented an intimidating impression of gay subculture, one that was discouraging for this teenager who thought that, you know, maybe being gay didn’t mean you had to behave completely differently to everyone else?

But Russell T. Davies has a very particular worldview. Having subsequently sexualised a family TV show and invented his own about time travelling bisexuals, horny aliens and sex offenders, this year he returned to (by now very) familiar themes. I’m talking about Cucumber, which gives fuller access to Mr T. Davies’ psyche then anything he has done previously. Ambitious, occasionally brilliant (because occasionally he is), well acted (though directed with all the subtlety of David Tennant’s regeneration), above all immensely frustrating.

This was a middle-aged fantasy masquerading as a drama about middle-aged fantasies, a world in which attractive young men walk around in their pants and straight teenagers suck each other off because teenagers are okay with all of that stuff in the liberated 21st century, where young gay men casually invite their housemates to join them for sex, where every attractive man turns out to be gay in the end anyway. Every trip to the supermarket is an erotic journey of adult stars in tight jeans pounding vegetables in their hands in exactly the way that NOBODY HAS EVER DONE IN REAL LIFE. Seriously, have you ever seen anybody in a supermarket testing a cucumber for firmness?

Beneath this fantasy is a nightmare, and of course that’s what it was really about: the (frequent) sex scenes were awkward and messy, the characters all utterly defined by their sexuality and filled with self-loathing, whether expressed in callousness, bitchy cynicism, angry ranting or the destruction of lives (their own and other people’s). At the heart of the narrative sat a forty-something called Henry, whose key problem, which the series and many of its characters obsessed over at length, is his reluctance to engage in anal sex (as if that’s the primary defining factor of a homosexual man). A solution, it is suggested in the final episode, is to imagine that you’re doing it with somebody else. That’s right: even in stable relationships, gay men have to at least pretend they’re shagging around.

That wisdom comes from a character called Freddie, played by an actor called Freddie (all part of the fantasy?1) who sits at the heart of the drama as the pinnacle of youth, desired by all, loved by all, discussed by all – talked of in such a way as to suggest he is the very definition of perfection, in spite of – no, because of his inability to settle. He is symbolic of complete sexual liberation (he even – wait for it – sleeps with girls!), though it turns out that he was abused by a teacher at school but we don’t dwell on that for very long and certainly not for long enough to consider that it goes some way to explaining why he is such a promiscuous, selfish, vain and ultimately lonely young man.

Because that’s not the point: his freedom, his isolation, is almost fetishized in itself. At the heart of this series is a misty eyed nostalgia for the gay counterculture that has somehow been lost by 21st century ‘normalisation’ of homosexuality. Henry refuses an offer of marriage from his partner of nine years in episode one because he never grew up with it as an option and can’t adjust to the possibility, whilst every other gay character shies away from any form of normality. They refuse to settle, refuse to fit in, all the time proclaiming in their actions the words spoken out loud in one episode, a line written by an actual real life gay man:

‘Gay men can never be happy.’

There you have it. Queer As Folk, with its anarchic, youthful arrogance, showed us that gay men could be happy, if they lived fast and loose lives without too much thought for anyone else. Fifteen years on, Cucumber admits that they were only ever living that way because – I’ll repeat it – gay men can never be happy.

Net result is the same, of course: said gay men are all shallow, self-centred and obsessed with sex – they just look a little more haggard and have iPhones now.

I don’t believe gay writers are obliged to portray gay people in a positive light. Russell T. Davies can (and does) write whatever he likes, and let’s be fair, he’s never anything but entertaining. It’s just rather an odd message to be putting out a year after homosexuals were given the right to marry in this country. You get the idea that he desperately misses the glamour and danger of being gay when it had to be hidden away, as if those were the Good Old Days and weren’t defined by violent homophobia, an AIDS epidemic and a government who openly talked about homosexuals as perverts.

Homosexuals had every reason to be screwed up back then (and even so, plenty of them weren’t), but seeing such a dysfunctional group of gay characters on television now is baffling. In a typical scene we saw a father feeding his baby at the same time as talking dirty to a former pupil he has had an illicit gay relationship with – in this drama, virtually a standard encounter, not shocking, just sad, representative of the grim view of humanity living in every frame of this depressing series. Perhaps the saddest thing of all is that Russell T. Davies’ imagination still doesn’t run to portraying a single gay character as happy, stable, and defined by who they are rather than who they shag.

But even as I wrote that I started to wonder how many gay characters on TV have fit that description full stop, and I find myself wondering whether Queer As Folk really was any kind of watershed at all.

1 We are talking about a writer who cast Russell Tovey in the role of a fictional character he had already developed a crush on – a fictional character he had taken to drawing in his underpants – because he also had a crush on Russell Tovey, and presumably liked the idea of seeing him in his underpants as well. Not that Russell Tovey was required to act in his underpants. Freddie Fox, on the other hand, was very much in his underpants a great deal of the time. Or, once or twice, out of them. It’s all a bit Dennis Potter, and I don’t mean in a writerly sense.

Contempt is not enough

January 12, 2015 in Religion and politics

I suppose it was inevitable that the Charlie Hebdo killings would result in an(other) unpleasant swathe of Islamophobia (even though blaming Muslims for terrorism is as logical as blaming everyone in the disc jockey profession for child abuse). I usually read about it second hand, given my general avoidance of comments on the Daily Mail website (not to mention the Daily Mail) and I wasn’t expecting to be confronted by it in Stephen Fry’s blog.

He probably doesn’t see it as Islamophobia, though his phrase ‘reasonable people’s dislike of the faith’ suggests as much. The word he chooses is contempt: whether it is a Christian or Islamic nutter in the news, he tells us, the result is that his contempt for religion increases. Since contempt is what Charlie Hebdo stands for, he sees now as an appropriate time to reiterate his own. (It rather sidelines the issue of freedom of speech, something it is possible to stand up for without either agreeing with or reiterating the thing that was said in the first place.)

I find contempt troubling. Contempt can only exist in the absence of respect or empathy. It is the primary instinct of bullies (and indeed terrorists). I also don’t think it is useful in defining satire, which surely seeks to hold a mirror up to the world and make us confront it: satire doesn’t just mock, it exposes the truth, it asks questions. The enduring quality of The Life of Brian is that it is no mere piss-take but a discourse on faith, and the saddest thing about Malcolm Muggeridge’s smug dismissal of the film was his failure to engage with it, even as John Cleese sat telling him ‘the important thing is that people should be open to the various possibilities and that they should take a critical attitude to them’.

Life_of_Brian

It is equally sad to see a man as erudite as Stephen Fry dismissing Christian and Islamic texts (and presumably all other religious texts by association) as ‘dumb, semi-literate, ill-founded, unreasoned drivel’. It’s as disingenuous a non-argument as Muggeridge’s – moreso, if you consider the wealth of narrative, poetry and history he is dismissing, not to mention that it has inspired. If Anders Behring Breivik and Said and Charif Kouachi increase Fry’s contempt, does he feel it diminish when he hears Bach’s B Minor Mass or sees the roof of the Sistene Chapel? Or is his view of religion informed only by this most selective cross section of Malcolm Muggeridge and the aforementioned deluded pricks?

Because there are plenty of others running food banks or visiting sick and vulnerable people or offering support to those in crippling debt or showing love and bravery in the face of hatred. I know faith is not a prerequisite for any of those activities, but for large numbers of people it is what inspires them. Yes, the same people ought to be able to weather contempt – actually, plenty of us do, though since Fry asks why people are ‘so fucking sensitive about their knowledge’, I would suggest that he of all people should understand how fragile human beings can be when something they care about is laid into (who can forget the haunting sight of Michael Palin on the verge of tears as The Life of Brian is unthinkingly sneered at?).

Life-of-Brian-Palin

Which is why contempt is not good enough. Even, dare I say it, when terrorism is involved, because if we make no attempt to understand the human failing that drives ordinary people to such extremes, if all we can offer is contempt, then it will only breed more contempt. Certainly if we don’t show the Muslim community respect, empathy and understanding, it will feed into an isolation that extremists will exploit in recruiting people to their cause, however deluded.

If that’s what comes out of the attacks in Paris, perhaps Said and Charif Kouachi were not so bowel-shatteringly dumb after all.

Joyeux Noël!

December 25, 2014 in Arts and culture

Death Sentence premiere

November 27, 2014 in Arts and culture, Production diary

We’re delighted to announce that Death Sentence is getting its first screening at the 2nd Film Noir Festival in Paris this week. It will be shown as part of the official selection at the 3pm short film screening on Friday 28th November.

As well as the fact that subtitles make it look ten times artier than it did before, one of the many thrills of this opportunity has been to give the film and altogether more evocative French title: PLUME FATALE. Credit where it’s due, that was the clever idea of our subtitler, Stephen Wilkinson.

(Plume = feather, hence quill, therefore an abstract reference to a writer’s pen or writer/wordsmith. But in the masculine it is also is a bed/bunk, therefore an abstract reference to a marital bed.)

(Fatale needs no explanation.)

Check out some of the sexy new subtitles here:

Christmas is for sharing

November 13, 2014 in Uncategorized

Thank goodness Sainsbury’s is around to remind us that the First World War wasn’t all THAT bad. Those frost covered trenches were quite beautiful really, and our humble Tommies, watched by gentle officers, sang in different regional accents in time with the distant strains of German carolling which echoed through the snow each night. A simpler time, but on the whole a happier one.

Oh, and did I mention, there was FOOTBALL! (It was one of our Tommies what instigated it, of course. Jerry started the war but WE DAMN WELL STARTED THE FOOTBALL.) That’s why Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke mostly wrote poems about football, though of course their work has been hijacked by the loony left who just want to focus on the mud and blood and suffering and the fact that Boxing Day was a bit of a downer because instead of footballs it was, well, bullets and grenades, but what would they know, they weren’t there, whereas this Sainsbury’s advert has been METICULOUSLY RESEARCHED you know and clearly demonstrates that the real message we ought to be taking in the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War is:

BUY SAINSBURY’S.

Because Christmas is for sharing, you see? And sharing is the thing for which corporate giant Sainsbury’s is best known, ask any British farmer or small trader. It’s hard to think of a more appropriate partner for the Royal British Legion, except perhaps for arms traders Lockheed Martin and BAE who fortunately have both sponsored Royal British Legion events this year, because it’s important that we don’t forget the vital role the arms trade played in ensuring that all sides in the First World War were able to keep it going for four years. Because if the war had just fizzled out then THERE WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN ANY FOOTBALL AT CHRISTMAS.

And, lest we forget, that is what war, and Christmas, is all about.

An update

November 3, 2014 in Production diary

Foresight

October 8, 2014 in Current affairs, Religion and politics

Leslie Boosey (of Boosey & Hawkes), to Benjamin Britten in 1940:

‘I think the more one is in the United States, the more one becomes impressed with that feeling of limitless opportunity which has been so lacking over here. If only there were a United States of Europe, instead of 20 squabbling countries, what a marvellous place it would be. Who knows, perhaps this is the good that may come out of the present evil…’

How quickly people forget what had to happen to push us towards a more united Europe, and our limitations without it.

Attack of the Clones

September 21, 2014 in Arts and culture, Doctor Who

Here’s a problem which came to a head when I spent half of last night’s (very enjoyable) episode of Doctor Who thinking that Keeley Hawes’ character was the same as the recurring ‘Missy’ we have been introduced to, who is actually played by Michelle Gomez, a completely different person.

A silly mistake? I know Doctor Who isn’t mine any more, but it’s fair to say I still take more than a casual interest, so I refuse to believe I was the only person who had this problem. Okay, I was tired, and it has been a few weeks since we saw Missy – but I don’t merely put my confusion down to the fact that they have been given a sort of similar physical resemblance (power-dressed in black, power hairstyles piled and pinned, power make-up heavily applied, power cheekbones – go on, I dare you to deny that they’re more than passingly similar…).

DrWhoVillains1

No, what cemented my confusion was the fact that they have both been written with the same character. You know the one: everso sophisticated, polite yet snarky restraint, schoolmarmish and very emancipated. In fact, in describing this villainess-by-numbers, I realise that we’ve seen it in previous episodes of Doctor Who: I’m thinking of Miss Foster, Miss Kislet and Madame Kovarian.

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It is becoming pretty obvious what kind of woman Doctor Who writers are terrified by.

All of them fine actresses delivering fine performances, by the way – just delivering fine performances of the same character. The only substantial female villain in recent years who doesn’t fit the template is Diana Rigg’s magnificent Mrs Gillyflower, but that episode, The Crimson Horror, was atypical in virtually every way, a darkly comic Victorian runaround that had as much in common with The League of Gentleman (hardly coincidentally, also Mark Gatiss’ finest script for the show). Rigg’s tour de force breathed life into a caricature that might have been played by Gatiss himself in a different context: surely Doctor Who doesn’t need to be doing madcap steampunk absurdism to earn an interesting villainess?

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There isn’t the slightest possibility that the rich tapestry of male villains on Doctor Who could ever be confused. But for whatever reason, the series seems to be stuck with a very singular approach to women. Maybe it’s Freudian.

Why aren’t the female writers doing a better job writing female villains, you ask? Ha. Only one woman has written for the series since its return. One. Count ‘em. (Count ‘er, I mean.) One. She was already working on Who as a script editor, so she already had a way in for her two stories. It may be irrelevant, but they were both stinkers anyway.

For a really good episode of Doctor Who written by a woman, you need to go back to the supposed last gasps of the ‘classic’ series. You’ll discover that the final story before cancellation was written by Rona Munro (whose trilogy of historical plays just finished a run at the National Theatre, no less). You’ll also discover that she anticipated the Russell T Davies’ council estatey social realism by 14 years, laced her episodes with heavily submerged sexual metaphor and managed to slip the word ‘tosser’ in before the watershed. (Oh, she also wrote beautifully for Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor, reinvented a classic villain, understood the potential for the series to bridge two worlds and got the balance of exciting and frightening just right – in case you’re in any doubt that it’s a really good story.)

That’s the kind of brilliant female writing talent the production team should be actively seeking – specifically female, because a) the series plays an aspirational role in the lives of young boys and girls, and b) because it is clearly lacking a dimension which female writers would undoubtedly bring with them. Before we have another silly debate about whether the next Doctor should be played by a woman, there are far more pressing gender issues the programme needs to address.

Oh, and late 80s Doctor Who, on just four stories a season, had brilliant female villains.

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