After The Screaming Stops

People complaining that Bohemian Rhapsody is a sanitised, plodding account of stadium-level superstardom needn’t wait for an alternative trip to the cinema that has all of the guts and tension of the real thing: After The Screaming Stops is a no-holds-barred documentary following the fortune of late-80s chart toppers Bros. They may not seem the most obvious subject – the relatively brief period during which their star was in the ascendant has perhaps dimmed our collective memory of how brightly it shone. But directors Joe Pearlman and David Soutar have made a searingly brilliant film, a portrait of Matt and Luke Goss that manages to glance into the abyss of the music industry without losing its intimacy.

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Key to its success is the decision not to focus on the past, but the present. The brothers have independently led successful careers since making a financially ruinous fresh start in the early 90s – Matt has a residency at Las Vegas and Luke is a film actor and director in Los Angeles. The significance of their decision to leave the UK becomes more apparent throughout the film, which follows their journey back to their town of birth and a reunion to perform together for the first time in 28 years at the O2.

Also key to the film’s success is that it lets its subjects do the talking. Matt, a dapper figure with a penchant for bandanas and licking things, behaves in a way that leans towards self-parody, though we glimpse a far more fragile interior. Luke is the quieter of the two, thoughtful and deadpan, but again concealing a darker, brittler side to his personality. They make for an immensely entertaining double act, both intentionally and unintentionally funny, though to the film’s credit they are never treated as subjects for mockery. I predict that audiences will find them endearing company whether or not they had any previous interest in the brothers Goss. Mind you, the rapturous audiences at the 2018 BFI London Film Festival and the female hordes glimpsed in the film suggest that a fair number of people out there do have an interest – perhaps once a Brosette, you’re always a Brosette.

I wasn’t. (Were boys even allowed to be Brosettes?) I was a bit on the young side, and my loyalties were firmly committed to the church of Jason Donovan. But Bros represented something a little more grown-up than the manufactured pop of Stock, Aitken and Waterman; I was musically aware enough to recognise the virtuosity of Matt Goss’ vocals and to be impressed that they co-wrote their songs, and the subject matter seemed very adult (they sang about ‘issues’ – drugs! racism! materialism!), a stark contrast to the bouncy love songs of the Hit Factory.

The two worlds collided in a blissful Christmas 1989 when Jason Donovan and Matt Goss dueted for a second and a half in Band Aid II (more thrilling to my ears than a hundred Bonos), and by lucky chance the shift in my musical tastes had come after my brother and I had made Christmas lists, so he ended up with a Kylie album that no longer looked so appealing next to my copy of The Time. In arty black and white printed onto slightly silver card, Matt and Luke shirtless and staring moodily from the cover, it was by any measure the sexiest cassette on my shelf. (Come to think of it, it probably still is.)

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I only recently discovered that the album was perceived as something of a failure at the time, hitting only number 4 in the charts and going merely gold after the four times platinum achieved by its predecessor. Apparently the critics were a bit sniffy about it too, which surprises me even now, because objectively it’s a more interesting, ambitious piece of work, from the structural and harmonic complexity of ‘Madly in Love’ to the edgier guitar-driven funk grooves on side B and the poignant balladry of ‘Sister’. The first single ‘Too Much’ is arguably the best pop single they made.

But ‘Chocolate Box’ (‘their best song so far’, said my friend Stephen, the biggest Bros fan in my class) only reached number 9 in the charts, and After the Screaming Stops touches on the field day the media had over that. ‘A few years earlier I’d have given anything to get to number 9,’ Matt Goss says, still baffled by the relentlessly negative treatment they received. And although the point is not hammered home, one of the things you come away with is a sense of just deep the wounds inflicted by the media can be.

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The UK press hated Bros. Even at my tender age I was aware of some of the attempts to whip up scandal, the ‘Craig is gay’ rumours, and the tediously frequent ‘Bros split!’ headlines, as if newspapers thought that by printing it they could make it true. In a way, they succeeded. In an early 90s interview, Terry Wogan mentions that the press have been ‘trying to kill you stone dead for about a year and a half now,’ before gently adding ‘I don’t think they mean any harm to you, it makes headlines’. You can see in the brothers’ faces that they’re not convinced. And why would they be? The onslaught must have felt pretty personal to such young men and the relentless schedule and media circus had already taken its toll – although the film doesn’t touch on it, the band’s third member Craig Logan ended up in a wheelchair with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and in one heartbreaking sequence we see them wheeled onto television, broken smiles fixed on their faces, within a day of hearing that their sister had been killed in a car accident. Ultimately the pressure and the critical mauling would drive apart not only a band, but a family.

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Why did the press hate them so much? It’s not clear. Perhaps as Wogan says, ‘it seems to be a very British thing that as soon as somebody really succeeds everybody attempts to kick the ground from under them and destroy them’. Or maybe the press felt like the neighbour looking out of the window at the endless rows of young girls hanging around outside the Goss’ London house desperate to catch a glimpse of their idols (‘They’re just sitting there like dummies!’) – and don’t the media hate feeling left out? Just out of curiosity, I glanced through a review of the sold out O2 reunion, and there it is again: the snark. The mockingly parroted tagline ‘the biggest reunion in pop history’. The sarcastic acknowledgement that Luke can ‘hit the right parts of his drum kit in the right order’. Perhaps some critics are simply intimidated by genuine charisma – because whatever you make of Matt and Luke Goss, there is plenty of that, onstage and off. Either way, when they talk about the press as if still processing a trauma, you begin to get a sense of what was casually inflicted all those years ago.

It becomes abundantly clear in After The Screaming Stops that these are just some of the wounds that have never had a chance to heal, and we are treated to some spectacular scenes of sparks flying in rehearsals. Some reviews have made shorthand references to Spinal Tap or the Gallagher brothers, but both comparisons do the film a disservice; having so carefully invited us into the respective worlds of Matt and Luke, the undeniably entertaining arguments turn on a knife edge; there is a point in the film when it becomes unclear whether you’re watching a bittersweet comedy or a slow motion car crash. It is a moving, even haunting journey, and by the time it finishes, it may surprise you just how much you’re invested in an 80s pop sensation making a successful comeback.

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After The Screaming Stops is in cinemas from today and on DVD and digital release on 12th November. You can check out the screenings here and you absolutely ought to get to one if you possibly can. You’ll thank me, I promise.

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Worth Rescuing: Never Let Me Down

In 2008, David Bowie released a new mix of ‘Time Will Crawl’ from his much-derided 1987 album Never Let Me Down. As much a rerecord as a remix, this version stripped the song of its 80s excesses, jettisoning the heavy reverb and electro-kit of the original and inserting an everso tasteful (and everso noughties) string quartet and a new drum track. ‘Oh, to redo the rest of that album,’ said Bowie. Problem is, the ‘MM remix’ not only fails to improve on the original, it sort of neuters it. Its original power is gone, along with some of its surprisingly artful changes of texture – I’ll swap the meandering string quartet for the original’s prominent piano and the third verse textural build-up any day, echoey drums and all.

Nevertheless, the album’s original producer Mario McNulty has taken Bowie at his word and a new version of the album is what we’re going to get. The appetisers dropped onto the internet so far have done little to alter my feeling that the project is destined to be no more than a worthy curio; on the new version of ‘Zeroes’ the light-entry-add-drums-later build is almost identical to the ‘Time Will Crawl’ remix and similarly diminishes the sense of grandeur. Bowie’s voice doesn’t just sound 30 years behind the rhythm section, but about twenty metres behind them as well, and ironically (since it is an attempt to rescue the song from overproduction) this layering of old and new elements eventually becomes incoherent. This is even more the case on Beat Of Your Drum, Bowie’s lonely vocal trapped behind a wall of arty strings that neither sits happily with the chugging middle aged rock texture reached at the chorus nor with the spirit of the song itself. And whatever the artistic merits of the new contributions, it doesn’t half sound contrived. Most tellingly, on the revamped ‘Zeroes’ Bowie sounds as if he is singing sharp throughout; there are technological reasons that would explain tuning discrepancies if tapes from 1987 haven’t been properly matched to 21st century machinery, but knowing that Bowie tended to lay down his vocal last and that he had a masterful knack for pitching his performance (in a literal sense) to match the context, my suspicion is that he sang on the sharp side to match the energy and pomposity of the late-80s production. Stuck against (or behind) a more restrained backing track, it sounds wrong.

This retrofitted Never Let Me Down is guilty of doing both too much and too little. For all of its anachronistic tinkering it leaves the track listing intact, as if production is the beginning and end of the album’s problems (it’s not) and as if every song on it is worth rescuing (I refuse to believe that even the presence of the great Laurie Anderson can make the execrable ‘Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)’ bearable). There are a whole load of issues to be addressed to reveal this album’s hidden qualities, and I hold the uncommon view that production isn’t really one of them – take it or leave it, the overblown quality of Never Let Me Down is the sound of 1987, and if we’re going to start meddling with that then why not also rerecord the rhythm section on Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust, both of which could do with beefing up a bit? In any case, the overproduction is less egregious than people remember, the content just needs presenting in a more flattering way.

I had a go at fixing it myself a while back and the result completely transformed my experience; to my surprise (because like most people I never came close to loving this album), it has been on my metaphorical turntable regularly. So, whilst it’s never going to convert anyone for whom echoey programmed drums and 80s bombast are anathema, here’s a proposal for revisiting Never Let Me Down without it sounding as though it were recorded in two different centuries…

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The Problem

Arsalan Mohammad’s excellent Album to Album podcast recently discussed the problematic ‘toploading’ of Let’s Dance, all Side A hits and Side B dross. That’s the 80s for you – stick the singles at the beginning, then filler all the way. Never Let Me Down certainly has the big hitters on Side A, while Side B begins with the half-baked ‘Glass Spider’ closely followed by the utterly crapulent ‘Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)’, but if you make it as far as the rest of the album it’s not all bad – the problem is that the three tracks that follow are pretty much exchangeable in tempo and tone, with near-identical intros and a relentless 120bpm beat (plus a weird tonic-dominant-tonic relationship which makes them feel even more part of the same breath). What Side B is desperately crying out for is variation.

So pacing and structure are all wrong, but the problem goes deeper than that. The album’s grappling with prostitution, war, the environment, war and, erm, girls, is often lazily assumed to be disparate and a bit laughable (there’s nothing more embarrassing than a middle aged rocker doing ‘issues’), but in fact the underlying themes of isolation and anxiety, under the inevitable shadow of nuclear oblivion, suggest something approaching a Concept (capital C). The spoken prologue to ‘Glass Spider’ is the giveaway: this is middle aged Bowie’s answer to Diamond Dogs, with the former’s dystopian future replaced by a dystopian present. Bowie’s 80s decline is rightly characterised as the moment he started following trends rather than leading them, but in Never Let Me Down we perhaps see an attempt to cut a slightly different path. A concept album could hardly have been less fashionable in 1987, and like Diamond Dogs it was designed with a grandiose, theatrical tour in mind (conceived as an arty, experimental venture, even if it was received as pretentious folly).

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Any such ambitions were watered down by the millstone of EMI, for whom Bowie was supposed to be making lots of money, and who put the kibosh on his original plan to record short, uncompromising songs in a style that Iggy Pop was making his own. The era’s penchant for slow fade-outs kills any sense of continuity, and the conventional tracklisting puts the final nail into the coffin of any creative intentions.

Why Is It Worth Rescuing?

All of the above. Flawed ambition is better than no ambition, and after Bowie’s complete disengagement from Tonight and even his let-Nile-Rodgers-do-all-the-heavy-lifting approach to Let’s Dance, at last we have Bowie committing to a project. Rather than just turning up to sing, Bowie worked long, disciplined days during Never Let Me Down‘s three month recording period, writing and experimenting during the sessions as he had in his most fertile periods, and for the first time since Scary Monsters playing on some tracks as well. Yes, the lyrics leave a lot to be desired, veering from completely-on-the-nose to insipid (though just occasionally striking gold on the way). But for all that it’s not his greatest period of songwriting, the material was pouring out of him again – his previous album had been a couple of new songs padded out with covers and rehashed Iggy Pop, and almost half of Let’s Dance reworks existing material (with some pretty uninspired stuff in the remainder), but this time he ended up with material to spare.

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You can hear it in his singing. It’s not clear at what point Bowie realised that the album had fallen short of his ideals (he certainly promoted it as if he believed in it, at least initially), but he belts the songs with full-throated brilliance, giving the kind of vocal tour de force that we hear on ‘Heroes’ and Lodger, whether it’s the wild falsetto in ‘Day-In Day-Out’, his cod-Lennon ‘Never Let Me Down’ or his biggest, Basseyest croon on ‘Beat Of Your Drum’. Miraculously, the nuance and energy of his performance manages to cut through the excesses of the production – for this alone, the album deserves a second chance.

Replacement Tracks

Quite why Bowie was so enthusiastic about ‘Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)’, apparently one of the first tracks he insisted should be a definite, is hard to tell – perhaps it has something to do with his brief infatuation with Mickey Rourke. Whatever the reason, I’ll be happy if I never hear it again, and it will have no place on any version I’m putting together.

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Thankfully, Bowie’s newly regained enthusiasm for recording left plenty of bonus material with which to give more shape and variation to the album as a whole. I’ve cheated slightly and included ‘When The Wind Blows’, which may not come from the same sessions but was probably recorded while the Never Let Me Down demos were being laid down, and it certainly fits thematically (he was recording it when he heard about the Chernobyl disaster, which inspired ‘Time Will Crawl’). The presence of Erdal Kizilcay and the heavy guitar lick in the introduction mean that it happily slips into the Never Let Me Down sound world, and one his best melodies from the period, coupled with a vocal that moves from tender to icy in a single sweep, adds some much-needed lyricism.

We also find a more delicate sound in his version of ‘Girls’, a song written for Tina Turner but which works rather better in his hands – hardly surprising, given the Jacques Brel pastiche it clearly is. Bowie half-croons, half-croaks the song before growing to full Scott Walker intensity at the chorus – it’s hardly ‘My Death’, but there is some real magic in the first verse, subtly scored with piano to the fore (Philippe Saisse almost channelling Mike Garson in his chromatic embellishments). It kind of loses its way after that, the sombre chanson vibe giving way to guitar and dirty sax, but the single edit it doesn’t outstay its welcome and again we have a distinct new colour to break up the album.

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Then there’s ‘Julie’, a song that begins with an understated, countryish verse, then breaks into a heartfelt and rather gorgeous chorus. Perhaps its slightly sixties vibe is what saw it relegated to the B-side of ‘Day-In Day-Out’, but by leaving it off the album Bowie denied us arguably the most beautiful thing to come out of the sessions. Definitely worthy of a place.

Finally, and surprisingly, I’m including ‘Too Dizzy’, though it’s a difficult one to get hold of. ‘I never want to hear that fucking song again as long as I live!’ said Bowie, and he did a pretty good job of erasing it from history, deleting it from every reissue of the album. For years I wondered what horrors the track might conceal, imagining it sitting a couple of songs after ‘Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)’ and being the one that Bowie was embarrassed about! What a surprise, then, to finally hear it and find it guilty only of enjoying itself a little too much. Is the lyric misogynistic? A little, but it’s got nothing to rival ‘China Girl’ for jaw-dropping awkwardness (both lyrically and musically, that is, as well as in the video and Bowie’s live performance toe-curling Chinese accent). I hear the argument that the track is a camp mess, and I’m ignoring it, because if there’s one thing this album badly needs it’s a sense of humour.

Track Listing

There’s no question as to how this album ought to open: ‘Glass Spider’ is barely a song in its own right (it’s little more than a repeated refrain), but with its dramatic monologue it makes sense as a prelude. It’s a shame the twinkly synthesiser that kicks it off (or fails to) is so insipid – it needs something like the saxophone shriek that heralds in Diamond Dogs – and for want of anything better, I’ve given it a bit more ceremony by splicing in the cello hits from the beginning of the instrumental version of ‘When The Wind Blows’, along with some of the electronic screams from the opening of ‘Zeroes’ (another callback to Diamond Dogs). It’s not brilliant, but I think it’s better – and it creates a deeper sense of continuity with what follows.

Spacing out the stand-out tracks (which, to my mind, are ‘Time Will Crawl’, ‘Beat Of Your Drum’, ‘Zeroes’ and my additions of ‘When The Wind Blows’ and ‘Julie’) and giving the order of the tracks a little more light and shade, this is what I ended up with:

  1. Glass Spider
  2. Beat Of Your Drum
  3. Day-In Day-Out
  4. Time Will Crawl
  5. Girls
  6. ’87 and Cry
  1. When The Wind Blows
  2. Zeroes
  3. Never Let Me Down
  4. Too Dizzy
  5. Julie
  6. New York’s In Love
  7. Bang Bang

There’s a hypothetical Side A and Side B there, though neither would fit on an LP because, as you’ll see, I’ve added much more than I’ve taken out. That’s partly a lack of discipline (I am a bit of a completist and tend to feel that more is more) – a neater version would leave out ‘’87 and Cry’, ‘Too Dizzy’ and ‘New York’s In Love’ – but hearing them in this context I didn’t feel them to be either superfluous or objectionable, and repeated listenings haven’t changed my view.

Cover Art

One thing we can all agree on is that the cover design for Never Let Me Down is an absolute car crash, horribly of its time and a headache to even glance at. Coincidentally, when I searched for alternatives to grace my iTunes catalogue I plumped for a very similar image to the one the Parlophone’s new version is using, one of Greg Gorman’s outtakes from the same photo session. But where the official version has really fouled up is in keeping the shoddy and frankly ghastly cut-and-paste ‘David Bowie’ logo – given the extent to which they’re trying to erase the 80s from the music itself, you’d have thought they’d find a different font. I settled for the logo Paul Belford contributed to the V&A Changing Faces Of Bowie print; the simplicity of the design and vaudevillian style of the photograph have a kind of timeless feel which, if it doesn’t match the sound of the album, at least doesn’t contradict it.

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The Result

My copy of the EMI reissue of Never Let Me Down has sat virtually as new in my CD collection for years, mainly fulfilling its role of ensuring there’s no gap in the chronology of the spines. Whereas my ‘special edition’, as I said, continues to enjoy repeated listenings.

I’m not saying it’ll work for everyone, but I didn’t make it for everyone, did I?

Something to be proud of

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

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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.

Death Sentence premiere

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:

Attack of the Clones

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…).

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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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