"Art is not a mirror with which to reflect the world; it is a hammer with which to shape it"

Friday, 29 February 2008

You Love A Design For An Indian Summer

The Manic Street Preachers are now officially ‘God-like Geniuses’. I know this to be true because NME tells me so. So, in their honour and, for your general delectation, it is with the greatest of pleasure that I present to you...

* * * STREET * * *

You Love Us, 1992. Directed by Wiz.

A Design For Life, 1996. Directed by Pedro Romhanyi.

Indian Summer, 2007. Directed by Patrick Jones.

* * * Standing apart since 1986 * * *

Sunday, 24 February 2008

About You Now

I recently clocked up 50 posts; more by luck than judgement I’d say, and it got me thinking back. After technical glitches and the lay-off over Christmas, when I came back to the blog thing, I realised I couldn’t recall what I’d been annoying you with: I wasn’t even sure why I’d got a blog in the first place. (As I said in the first post, I don’t have much to say and I’ve been saying it ever since- empty vessels and all that…!)

Faced with not remembering what people blogged about, I looked at the other blogs and was reminded how individual they all are: the veritable information-stations (take a bow Danny, Lucy and Robin); some that tell you what they’re doing or have done and some offering opinions and reviews. Some blog frequently, some less so; some spread the love, some vent the spleen… but behind them all is someone with a desire to share something.

However, I’m still not quite sure why I continue with this blog… it started by accident, I was considering what title and URL to have, putting it in blogger to see whether it looked good and pressed the wrong button. That I continued was at the prompting of Phill, The Arnopp and Sister Elinor. So I continue.

Yet, I cannot help but have the same sense of being the interloper that I had at the Screenwriter’s Festival last year; there I was, surrounded by people I assumed to have worked in the industry for years discussing fascinating aspects of craft and I couldn’t help thinking ‘how terribly presumptuous of me to be here; any minute now I’ll be found out’. And here, when I think too much, I sometimes find myself thinking the same: I don’t have special knowledge or insight- only opinions; I’m not particularly qualified; haven’t been published or filmed; I don’t even watch many films- maybe one every couple of days; and I’m aware there is a lot left to watch and a lot to know about pretty much everything. So, why do I blog? And what should I blog about? I only have opinions and questions.

In the end, I suspect I blog because:

• I’m curious about things; I have questions. I like to hear other opinions; I like debate and discussion- I’m particularly interested in media attitudes. (I like comments and to comment myself.)
• Rather selfishly, I hope it gives me a chance to ‘meet’ people before I actually meet people. I retreated from people several years ago when I realised that 95% of those I knew or had known were either after something and/or felt good about themselves solely by making others feel bad; 4.5% were likable people who also happened to be veritable scumbags and who I’ve rid myself of; leaving a tiny handful of decent people…
• …and arrogantly, I like to think I have some small contribution to make to this ‘Scribosphere’ thing…

The other thing that has haunted my blogging is, being an opinionated bastard, how far should I censor what I put here. There are some pretty good reasons for this concern:

• Several recent articles on TV and in the press have discussed how potential employers (especially in the media world) are habitually Googling potential employees and searching for them on Facebook, MySpace and the various blog sites- researching attitudes and personal life- if you’re bragging about turning up seriously hungover (i.e. still drunk) at work an employer may just be put off.
• Should I mention much about any ideas I’ve had? If I put them half-formed on public show and someone (less scrupulous than all you lovely people) half-recalls one of them and uses it to great success would I be able to get legal recourse or would it just be my own silly fault?
• Not so long ago, there was a case of a teacher, Sarah Green, the details of which you can catch here and here*. Basically, Green is a young woman teacher at a public school who was previously an aspiring actress. She has been suspended, pending inquiry, because an in-industry advert for a building-clothes company, in which she appears in a sex scene (variously described as steamy or soft-porn), appeared on YouTube and was enjoyed by her pupils. Parents have declared her unfit to teach and called for her to be sacked forthwith… although she hasn’t killed anyone, slept with a kid and has presumably passed the CRB check. All she did wrong was leave a record of her legal past activities for all to see and now it’s coming back to bite her on the ass**. Does this mean Greta Scacchi shouldn’t be allowed to teach kids? What about Kevin Spacey’s workshops for kids at the Old Vic- has he not done sex scenes? So, while some blogs enjoy anonymity and can vent to their heart’s content, should the rest of us monitor everything we say or write- in fact make sure our lives are entirely blameless in case we change career? And what of Chip’s persistent attempts at career suicide? (Sorry Chip! :)

So if you’re still reading this and, I haven’t sapped either your soul or your strength, maybe you could share some thoughts on the following…

• Why did you start blogging and why do you continue?
• How do you decide what to blog about?
• Do you write straight out or pre-plan what you’re going to write.
• Do you censor yourself?

…and that’s that. Thanks for reading! :)

*Try and ignore that it’s a really terrible and sexist advert.
**There is an entirely different discussion to be had about how and why an increasingly liberal society has become increasingly judgemental and prone to leap straight for the portable gallows!

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Just Experiment IV

This week saw the physical release of Mark Ronson’s not-too-shabby cover of Radiohead’s Just. An apt moment to refresh your memory to the chilling beauty of the promo for Radiohead’ original. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Radiohead but I can recognize some pretty damn fine songs when I hear them. I’ve currently banned myself from listening to the band: they make me want to retire to bed and never re-emerge… I can’t help thinking the promo’s premise reminds me of something; possibly something from 2000AD, possibly a Judge Dredd story… answer on a postcard (or the comments section) please!

Just, 1995. Directed by Jamie Thraves.

Strangely, the feel of the piece recalls the more extravagant (and impressively cast- that’s what happens when you get in with the Comic Strip team) Experiment IV from Kate Bush. Which in turn seems to nod towards Gilliam’s wonderful Brazil.

Experiment IV, 1986. Directed by Kate Bush.

…and, as you probably need cheering up, here’s Ronson’s take on the Radiohead video.

Just, 2008. Directed by Jim Canty.

Ashes To Ashes

Sometimes I wish I was seven years old again, back then something was either brilliant or it was terrible; the best or the worst. Unfortunately, as I grew older I realised that most good things have flaws and most bad things have flashes. However, I still know people for whom there are only polar opposites… And so with due inevitability I finally get round to ‘the obligatory Ashes To Ashes post’. It probably won’t have been worth the wait! Of course, this is only my personal view and, let’s face it, oh my solitary reader, it doesn’t really amount to a whole hill of beans…

What is there to say about the programme? Do you look at it in terms of being a follow-up to Life On Mars or do you look at it as a show in its own right? It would be invidious to only consider it as a Life On Mars 2 but it is only inevitable and that’s how I’ve seen it. Thankfully, my own worst fears were not confirmed although there are still some irksome wrinkles. I did think it best to wait until a couple of episodes had aired, let the programme bed in, before putting anything down…

First off, Life On Mars had solid characters right from the start, immediately arresting (ha!), and these have been carried over. So, the Devil would be in any changes. Gene Hunt is still one helluva character, still has the best lines and now comes with a pre-established, near-iconic status the existence of which comes with its own problem: living up to it. This leads to instances where it seems this burden teeters the character on the brink of self-parody; thankfully, so far, this has not happened. Detectives Ray and Chris seemed to have been changed subtly and seem have been made to grow as characters; for me, this is a surprising and welcome development. (Commendably they haven’t changed the core characters to fill the hole of a character loss, as opposed to, for instance, Lewis or Taggart where Lewis and Jardine were both made more like their old bosses.) The notable omission is WPC Annie Cartwright, this is a significant loss as she represented an in situ and contemporaneous necessary balance to Hunt and his team. It could be that Shaz Granger will assimilate this role: I suspect not. So the project succeeds or fails on the strength of the big changes: the new period, the new clashes and the new lead character. Which leads to DI Alex Drake.

Keeley Hawes and her DI Drake always were going to have a tough job filling the gap left by John Simm’s Sam Tyler, whether this is being managed is open to debate- it could go either way. To their great credit the makers have not attempted a direct replacement. The problem is not the performance but that Drake seems to lack the strength, purpose and resolve of Tyler; this leaves Hunt without a strong enough foil, nemesis or counter-point and leaves him somewhat dominating the proceedings a little too much. This is partly a corollary of this character being a woman: when Tyler and Hunt disagreed there was always the very real threat of physical violence; if, as in episode 3, Tyler had punched Hunt the way Drake did, Tyler would have been punched back; however, it is considered as unacceptable to hit a woman in drama as it is in real life- while strangely it is perfectly acceptable in drama for men to hit men, women to hit men and women to hit women*. (The ‘Bolly-knickers’ epithet is already becoming wearing- and why do all the women wear stockings- were tights really widely abandoned in the 80s?) However, it is her special skill which, to my mind, is the stumbling block.

The key part of the original was the whole ‘fish out of water’ cultural clash: in that case 21st Century cop beset by 1970’s policing and societal attitudes. There were dislocations temporal, geographical, attitudinal, social and cultural. The most prominent and important of these was the character-specific difference between Tyler’s and Hunt’s styles of policing and the contrasting and shifting moral stances they maintained. Most people (i.e. the audience) can comprehend and sympathize with the rights and wrongs of whether planting evidence, police thumping those they consider guilty or beating confessions from suspects. There is a conflict for the audience, particularly in the light of 21st Century perceptions of crime, that while 70’s methods may be wrong they might be considered to have worked and that maybe the police are now so trammelled that the ‘bad guys’ are winning. (This could be debated ad nauseam but not by me!) However, for Ashes To Ashes this has been replaced by psychology and psychological profiling. This is a far more difficult prospect as vast swathes of the general public still have a wide-spread distrust or dismissal of psychologists (even some psychiatrists do) and, while it was accepted with Fitz in Cracker, recent disasters such as the Rachel Nickell case have left the subject popularly discredited even more**: the methodology clash has become theoretical rather than physical. Theoretical arguments tend to be less emotionally rewarding for the viewer than a clear visually and viscerally represented argument: effectively the visualized representation of a conceptual difference. This clash has also been hampered by Drake’s psychological approach being shown as pretty much wrong throughout the first two episodes- it would have been helpful if her methods had proved more successful from the beginning. After all, they get her shot in the first place!

The other issue these psychological aspects throw up is that the piece is at times a bit too knowing a bit too regularly and, while a line like ‘good morning imaginary constructs’ is amusing as a throw-away, repeatedly returning to and referencing the constructed nature of the world, not only extricates the viewer from the drama set in the 80’s, but also recalls that the whole thing (TV) is a construct: it breaks the spell. While his situation felt open to interpretation, Tyler was always clear that what was happening in the real world was a direct threat to him in the construct world and this sense of threat carried through to the audience- I remember vividly that gnawing sense of unease as all the lights started to turn off until Sam was left in virtual darkness as the threat was ratcheted up in the real world and he was left seemingly unable to counter; while Drake is too clear of her situation and not taking it seriously enough there is a lack of that threat and helplessness.

The geographical dislocation has also been removed: if Hunt and his team had only recently been brought to London there would have been an opportunity for more antipathy and yet he seems almost relaxed in this new setting (as relaxed as Hunt can ever be) and there is little disparagement of the place. (Isn’t setting a period piece in London courageous? London has been so vandalized recently by the likes of Norman Foster that it must be hard to shoot without including a recognizable too modern landmark- which could account for why so much of the programme is shot either in enclosed alleys with high walls down each side or with the camera angled down and framed quite close on the action.)

There are occasional minor things that niggle at the back of the mind: did ‘yuppies’ exist as such in 1981; did that sort of affluence and conspicuous decadence kick-in that early… I was under the impression that around this time the UK was still in a state of near-terminal decline and that that whole yuppie thing didn’t really start until the mid-eighties… certainly until post-Falklands; did Thatcherism kick in that early and would Hunt have understood the word when Drake uses it; did the Docklands redevelopment start that early; why did the bombing issues of the second episode seem ever so slightly out-of-place; would a high-ranking officer (or caring responsible mother) like Drake ever race to a ‘shout’ with her daughter in the car? Do they perhaps spend a little too much time drinking? Did anybody else think of Closely Observed Trains when the bum-stamping issue came up? Did anybody else think Carry On Screaming (‘Big Feet Smell Something Terrible’) when she spelled out her clues on the white-board and saw the letters columned behind her? Of course, all these sort of things can be written off as ‘it’s just a fantasy’. But I’m not sure the creators would like us to think that: I think they actually respect their creation too much for that sort of silliness and that’s to their credit as well.

The single thing that niggles most is the feeling that it’s a touch forced. Life On Mars had years to simmer and when it emerged it was as an entirely integrated and organically flowing whole; Ashes To Ashes has not had that long gestation (for which the creative team must be infinitely grateful) and feels at times to have been made slightly more ‘to pattern’. The layered dream-world flashes seem to have been templated from Life On Mars; instead of one children’s character (created for the original) there is now a different children’s television character (the Rainbow team); the powerful Granada becomes the powerful Quattro; test card girl has become Bowie’s Pierrot guy; red-splodged memory has become red-splodged memory; Tyler’s quest for the real world has become Drake’s quest for the real world and (slightly more manipulatively) her daughter. As patterns go it’s a good one so why complain too loudly. And I wonder is the real problem simply that Life On Mars seemed so brilliant and so entirely original that logic dictates anything patterned on it just won’t have that shock of the new. Would the first episode of Life On Mars even live up to its subsequent status?

Maybe the stories are not quite so strong; maybe the situations seem a little familiar; maybe the new characters and situations need more time to adjust to; maybe the tone’s changed and maybe its become a bit too knowing; maybe its just different but fair play to Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharaoh, they had a big task, they tried hard and they haven’t failed they just haven’t achieved perfection that everybody forced on them.

It would be terribly easy to slate Ashes To Ashes for not being Life On Mars and equally easy to shower it with superlatives for being pretty similar but the truth lies somewhere in between. Is it Life On Mars? No… Should it have tried to be? Of course not. Should it be judged on what it is rather than what it isn’t? Certainly. Is it still better than most else that’s on television? Quite possibly.

***Hope that seemed reasonably fair***

*I’d like to make it abundantly clear that I do NOT advocate or condone hitting women or indeed anyone but I do find it peculiar how this form of violence makes people particularly squeamish while most other violence is frequently left uncommented on to the point of acceptability.
**it is also very difficult to write genuine psychological profiling: it needs to be reduced to pat generalizations for the benefits of television and even in real-life the reality can be rather bland. For example, the Suffolk Strangler case: when it was realised they were after a serial killer I automatically told the policeman on the TV that they were looking for a white, middle-aged male; bit of a loner, relationship problems, probably in a more physical sort of job, living either in or near the stalking ground. Why? Because it invariably is: Sutcliffe, Nielsen, Brady, West. And when we get the arrest it’s the self-same individual. This isn’t Silence Of The Lambs: urbane serial killers are few and far between!

Channel Zero #6

Life still moderately dull… dull is still far better than attacked by giant killer kangaroos- exciting it may be but high on the to do list… I don’t think so!

I have finally decided to stop tinkering messing about with Untitled Conspiracy Thriller’s story and finally made the decision to actually get some opinion on it. I’m not entirely happy with the way it’s ended up. But it may just be paranoia. Untitled Revenge Thriller now starts to take the foreground in the frontal lobes which strangely is one of the places that domestic appliances will take the foreground in Untitled Revenge Thriller. Spooky!

Misheard quote of the week: While Friends burbled in the background I heard Joey quote, ‘badgers, we don’t need no steenking badgers’. Presumably this was from the previously unknown Treasure Of Chipping Sodbury… a tale of greed, madness and one farmers fight for possession of his land.

I’m still kicking myself for missing the Derek Jarman documentary: I may not like the guy’s films but I would have liked to have found out some more about the man himself. Presumably in this multi-channel hell it will be repeated before too long… On the other hand I was unexpectedly surprised by Freezing… even if it was only three episodes. Swings and roundabouts!

The new Sunday night drama, The Last Enemy, was pretty much as I feared: the sparks of interest and ideas that it touched tended to be crushes by the sheer length of the piece: to put this in perspective by the end of the first episode we knew someone was dead, there was a bad computer system, a disease and a possible conspiracy… this took an hour and a half… a half hour after the end of the programme the same channel showed Runaway Jury, which managed to present all facts, characters, deaths, conspiracy, etc. and wrap the whole thing up in less than two hours. While the one is the opener of a TV serial and the other a mainstream film it did serve to highlight the former’s big flaw. Again this was another programme featuring ‘top’ people: the top mathematician, the top doctors, the top government girlfriend, the top scientist… nobody I (or many) could remotely relate to. There were also two very obvious plot twists which I predicted about 10 and 25 minutes in- and I’m remarkably dense! However, it was that sheer length that was killing it- why is it that if a programme is important it slows right down and everything is imbued with meaning? However, despite these misgivings, something tells me though, a feeling, that it may well pick up greatly in episode two, especially when they bring Robert Carlyle into play. So, I’m suspecting perseverance may pay dividends.

So, even though I still don’t know whether this is of any use to man or beast, possible telebox heaven in the outer reaches of digital hell…

BBC2: 12.35 am: Felicia’s Journey: a wonderful creepy low-key film from Atom Egoyan; disquieting and, for me, ultimately moving. Superbly judged performances from Bob Hoskins and Elaine Cassidy (so good in the unjustly maligned and highly enjoyable Ghost Squad) to a finely crafted script from Egoyan. Rarely has loneliness, lost love and isolation been so well captured.

BBC1: 9.00 pm: The Last Enemy: the person in the Radio Times says appositely “I suspect it’s something Spooks would dispense with in a third of the time and with a lot more style”. Mind, they also say it’s “knotty” and that they “have no idea what’s going on”… Why? It’s hardly been difficult so far.

BBC2: 10.50 pm: Storyville: Dance With A Serial Killer

BBC1: 9.00 pm: Life In Cold Blood: Of course…

BBC4: 9.00 pm: Portillo On Thatcher: The Lady’s Not For Spurning: Portillo reportedly bashes Thatcher…

BBC2: 11.20 pm: A Satellite’s Tale: the story of satellite technology that may just remind me how geostationary satellites actually ‘do their thing’.

C4: 1.10 pm: Seven Days To Noon: a super little British thriller from the Boulting Brothers; the British take on the absurdity of the Cold War and M.A.D. Being old and worse, in black and white, it’s being shown in the middle of the day so that next to no-one can watch it.

BBC4: 9.00 pm: Storyville: Tito’s Ghost: Timely.

BBC1: 10.35 pm: Imagine: Richard Rogers, Inside Out: a profile of the architect behind the Pompidou Centre and Millennium Dome: whatever you think of the profligacy and waste the actual design and engineering of the place was nigh on unique.

BBC4: 9.00 pm: The Worlds Of Fantasy: The first documentary (of three) on the art of fantasy of writing with contributions from apparently anybody who is anybody: first part on child heroes and heroines and their enduring appeal. But why aren’t programmes like this on mainstream channels like BBC2?

ITV1: 10.35 pm: Dexter: Terrestrial showing of the highly regarded US show.

BBC1: 9.00 pm: Ashes To Ashes: …and why not?

BBC2: 9.00 pm: Spartacus: drama-documentary on the rebel slave: no matter how entertaining and informative it may prove, I suspect Kubrick’s legacy may remain unchallenged.

BBC4: 9.00 pm: Rob Brydon’s Identity Crisis

BBC2: 2.05 am: Thirst: cracking Aussie vampire film to which I gave an honourable mention here.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Bullet the Blue Sky

Bullet The Blue Sky (Live In Sydney), 1994. Produced by Ned O’Hanlan, Rocky Oldham.

Miss Sarajevo

Miss Sarajevo, 1995. Directed by Maurice Linnane.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

War! What Is It Good For?

From Slovenian group Laibach’s concert film, as part of their response to the ongoing Balkan Wars ravaging their country, shot on the 26th October 1995 in Ljubljana in the month before the signing of the Dayton Protocol…

“If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.”

“Fuck Dayton, Laibach has a concert.”

-Graffiti in Sarajevo, 21 November 1995, the day the peace agreement in Dayton was signed.

(Quotes taken from the band's own sleeve-note.)

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Channel Zero #5

This week has been, er, less dull than the last one… my estimates tell me that at this rate the first week of July will be ‘moderately exciting’ which is a good thing and probably means I should steel myself and go to that there Screenwriter’s Festival malarkey.

UCT is proving vexatious: I have become uncertain about the whole premise of the story. Is anybody really interested in a film about ordinary people? Is it original enough? Does it have a single interesting twist in it? Should I kill some characters? I’ve heard it said that most spec-monkeys are scuppered by their sheer arrogance; their ‘I know everything’ attitude… I wish I had that luxury…

So, as UCT hoves ever closer to the inevitable moment when I must finally stop tinkering with the storyline and actually get people to assess where it needs changing, I find myself increasingly thinking of a new story… and, lo, a film shall come unto me and it shall be called ‘Untitled Revenge Thriller’ or URT to its friends. (I’m looking forward to the day I think up ‘Untitled Horror Thriller’- it may feature cows. Think about it people!) URT has a theme and initial premise (although a nifty new kink came to me the other day). It has a couple of characters. It even has a couple of desirable scenes. It may well be a bit violent.

Something I forgot to mention: I heard a programme about new foods on the radio a couple of weeks ago. They were talking to someone from a company in the West Country that has created something along the lines of a marmite biscuit or cracker. The creator of the biscuit gets a royalty on every biscuit sold. It worked out better than being a screenwriter. I never once imagined that there were royalties for food creator-monkeys. Strange thing, life!

Misheard lyric of the week
‘…and it hurts with every cup-cake’ by Robyn. For why?

Music of the week…

A & E, the first single from Goldfrapp’s new album, came along this week. It pretty much throws out the last couple of electro-clash/ electronica/ sleaze albums and finds a new sound for the (sort of) West Country band. To my mind it’s what would come of a mating between Portishead and All About Eve. Maybe. Parts of the vocal line and some of the bass refrain seem quite similar to U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, although with a different rhythm. It all bodes well for the forthcoming LP. It’s a disarmingly sweet song and is possibly the first time that a Goldfrapp song has had genuine warmth and emotion to it. It most calls to mind the feel of another U2 song, Ultraviolet from the Achtung Baby album. Both of them have that 4.30, summer morning feel to them… that moment of cool stillness, in a night when you haven’t wanted to sleep after a sweltering day when you haven’t wanted to do anything, when you’re just sitting and watching the sun start to tint the sky at the edge of your world.

As you’ll probably have noticed by now I have neglected to post the ‘Obligatory Ashes To Ashes Post’. This is because I am a mendacious old sod who doesn’t deliver. Or do I? I am mendacious. Or am I? Is this a lie? Who cares? Personally, I’m still feeling pulled in different directions over the programme.

The Baftas were the usual strange concoction of national pride and embarrassment; it’s as if we want an awards show but feel uncomfortable with notion that we might actually award something to ourselves and have to admit we’re actually quite good at something. I don’t mind that we don’t put on as slick a show as the Americans… it’s the mistakes that give character to a thing. But I wish it was just that bit better such as maybe a better script; a few more genuinely funny jokes. Thankfully Britain won a decent number… What did strike me, from the memorial list, was the number of genuinely talented Cinematographers who died in the last year: Alex Thomson (Branagh’s Hamlet, Alien 3, Excalibur); László Kovács (Easy Rider, Copycat); and last, but by no means, least the immensely talented Freddie Francis (The Innocents, The Elephant Man, The Straight Story). Inevitably, Juno took home the Original Screenplay mask. The strange thing about Juno, a film I’ve not seen yet, is that from all the clips which I have seen I’m not quite sure what the fuss is about. A lot has been made of the authenticity of the teenage dialogue (which may well date the film quite quickly- think The Wild One or Rebel Without A Cause) yet all this praise has come from critics who seem to be in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s. I don’t know whether the dialogue is authentic… it sounds a touch forced to me but that could be because the clips are out of context and not within the flow. And anyway, I presume I’m not really the target audience… British male nearing their dotage, not sure it’s aimed at me… I’m just too square Daddio.

Had to give up on The Art Of Spain which is a shame as it was shaping up to be a good series. BBC4 is now breaking up so badly it might as well not exist… Worryingly, the digital freeview versions of Channel 5 and BBC News 24 are starting to break up as well. Just remember what they told us when they foisted this useless system on us: the picture is superior to analogue and would break down far less.

Television, television, television… to watch or not to watch…

BBC2: 9.30 pm: The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada: I have it on good authority that this is a fine film…

BBC4: 10.00 pm: I Vitelloni: Fellini classic which I won’t be able to watch as it’s on BBC4…

C4: 3.45 am: The Cicerones: a short film from The League Of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson… sort of supernatural-type thing…

ITV1: 11.00 am: Columbo: Ashes To Ashes: While I love Columbo, I wouldn’t normally include it… but this amused me. Gene Hunt meets Columbo perhaps. “Don’t you come ‘ere with that ‘there’s just one more thing’, you American ponce.” I demand Columbo’s Life On Mars…

BBC1: 9.00 pm: The Last Enemy Pt. 1: New conspiracy thriller thing… this is pretty much the big TV of the week. ‘They’ are making comparisons with BBC’s State Of Play: not a good thing because, as a viewer, I found State Of Play pretty poor (as did most of the rest of the viewing public- I believe by the end of this prime-time Sunday night series it was pulling a mere 1.5 million viewers- though the critics raved which may have had more to do with the writer’s name). Another thing that The Last Enemy shares with State Of Play is sheer length: at five 85 minute episodes it is very, very long. That’s seven and a half hours. State Of Play had six hour-long episodes with precious little substance before limping to its vapid and meaningless anti-climax. Can The Last Enemy do any better? Strangely, the BBC’s (again!) The State Within was a damn fine piece of conspiratorial murk and yet was disliked by critics and viewers… although not hated by as many viewers as State Of Play. I was The State Within’s viewer. By the way, I do wonder if the makers know where their title comes from…

“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death”
-I Corinthians Ch. 15, V. 26.

BBC2: 1.10 am: Limbo: John Sayles drama. I find Sayles somewhat patchy but he’s often interesting at least and that’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharpened stick. It’s also nice to be able to mention an American film-maker who stands by his beliefs and works without Hollywood’s golden city walls.

BBC1: 9.00 pm: Life In Cold Blood: “I was sitting there and the TV started chucking out lizards… what’s your name?” “Mr. Lizard.”

C4: 9.00 pm: The Day Of The Kamikaze: Intriguing sounding documentary…

BBC2: 9.00 pm: Horizon: How To Live To 101: terribly unambitious target when you think about it… given how long people live now, by the time I reach old age I will be expecting no less than 130! If you plot increasing average Western life expectancy on a graph (which I did a couple of years ago when I found the figures) then extrapolate onwards I reckon I should be able live to about 135… see you in the solar-powered jet cars!

More4: 10.00 pm: True Stories: Derek: feature length documentary about Derek Jarman: interesting person, useless film-maker, brilliant garden designer.

BBC1: 9.00 pm: Ashes To Ashes: Funk or funky? Discuss.

BBC2: 9.00 pm: That Mitchell And Webb Look: Can they finally make Thursday’s funny? I expect so.

BBC1: 12.25 am: Revelation: a sort of supernatural thriller… one of those minor films that just has something about it that makes it a touch interesting: possibly the sheer wilful, throw-anything-at-it, eccentric chutzpah of the whole enterprise. This 2001 film from Stuart Urban features an ancient artefact which contains the blood of Christ; genetic cloning; the bloodline of Christ; the eternal feminine and witchy sex rites; and a conspiracy passed down throughout the ages to destroy/ protect the Merovingian line by some of the greatest minds of Western culture including Isaac Newton… sound vaguely familiar?

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Channel Zero #4

My last week seems to have been marked by a combination of listless apathy and insomnia… I suspect the two might just be related. There really hasn’t been much of any of import or excitement this week. What a wonderfully dull life I live!

Bizarre incident of the week: all of a sudden the village my Dad was born and brought up in appeared in both television and print news because they are reintroducing donkeys to take shopping up the steep hill. The house he lived in used to have three family dwellings but has since been knocked through into just one large, very expensive house… it’s good to know we have such an abundance of housing that this is possible. He has expressed interest in the past of moving back to the area but its long since been annexed by the fabulously wealthy urban weekend set… not least the air-thief Damien Hirst.

Music of the week: two great discs courtesy of those lovely folk on eBay. Firstly, a disc of assorted 20th Century Eastern European orchestral works. I bought this primarily for the recording of Gorecki’s Piano Concerto with the conductor’s daughter as soloist. Henryk Górecki, if you haven’t heard of him, is primarily famous in the West for one work, his Third Symphony ‘Symphony Of Sorrowful Songs’ which is not as bleak as the title suggests (although each movement is marked ‘lento’). While this symphony is an epic magisterial piece it is not entirely representative of the composer’s fifty-plus year career and has led to the misconception that he is of the Minimalist tendency along with Arvo Pärt. Of course, the lack of a large body of Minimalist works has made it a little difficult for the record labels to package and so the bulk of his works have rather languished in obscurity with more than half his works left unrecorded. The two works on this disc, the Piano Concerto and the Thee Pieces In Olden Style come from opposite ends of his career but both are rooted in native regional folk tunes. The Piano Concerto itself is a transcription of the Harpsichord Concerto; both have their relative merits and the harpsichord’s timbre brings a sharpness and clarity which the piano cannot deliver but the piano brings dynamics that the other instrument cannot. There is devilish swirling fury and energy to the piece and it barely seems to fit the perceived definition of a concerto. The solo line is so resolutely embedded within the whole that it seems less like a dialogue and more and wild ride to some strange oblivion. The only real glitch to this performance is a recording preference as I feel that the piano is a little too prominent with the accompaniment recessed and at times overpowered by the soloist. However, the use of the piano (a transcription I’d not heard before) did allow the revelation of textures and sonorities, particularly some first movement dissonances that had previously remained unheard by me. Now, if you’re still bothering to read I’ll point you in the direction of some other damn fine pieces by this unjustly over-looked composer: the brutal then sublime and muscular Second Symphony coupled with the similar Beatus Vir; the Third Symphony; the folk inflected String Quartets.

…and the other great thing about this CD is that being a compilation of the other 4 composers represented there are two that I don’t know the music of: Bacewicz and Kilar, the man who composed the excellent Bram Stoker's Dracula score.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: the other disc to arrive this week was the American Sisters Of Mercy CD Promo ‘Tour Thing’. This is pure indulgent completism (of which profligacy I am thoroughly ashamed) and I’ve waited a very long time for a cheap copy to turn up and now it has. And I’ve snaffled it. I believe this was produced to promote the abortive Sisters Of Mercy-Public Enemy US tour which went… a bit wrong. In other words, various towns became worried of Black-versus-White violence and the tour was ultimately cancelled.

So, what television did we get last week… some good, some bad and I should do the ‘Ashes to Ashes post’… so I probably will. Just don’t hold your breath! With the highlight of the week being Attenborough’s Life In Cold Blood. So, now there’s 4 series I’m watching a week.

Mystery televisual artefacts that might be worth your attention (which hopefully I’ll have a chance to catch) include but are not confined to…

BBC2: 3.25 am: Eloge de l’Amour: one of Goddard’s most recent films… for insomniacs as an aid to sleep!

C4: 7.00 pm: Inside Hamas: a documentary about Hamas’ running of Gaza.

BBC1: 11.20 pm: Last Orders: a brilliant moving film drama (from a novel I haven’t read by Graham Swift) about a group of old men on a journey to scatter their friend’s ashes at Margate during which they remember their shared past. Brilliant. Also has a simply marvellous cast boasting the talents of Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins, Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings, Ray Winstone and Helen Mirren… deftly and discreetly directed by Fred Schepisi. By the way, did I mention it was brilliant?

BBC1: 9.00 pm: Life In Cold Blood: watch it or the lizards will get you… he’s got them trained, you know.

BBC2: 11.20 pm: Watching The Russians: Stella Rimmington presented documentary on the way Britain has viewed and interacted with Russia.

BBC2: 11.00 am: My Favorite Brunette: fun Bob Hope film noir spy spoof, sequel to My Favorite Blonde…

BBC2: 9.00 pm: Horizon: How To Make Better Decisions: a documentary telling us what prompts us to make the decisions we do and presumably will tell us how not to be too easily influenced… but will it tell me whether to kill the annoying sidekick?

BBC1: 9.00 pm: Attila The Hun: drama documentary inexplicably scheduled against Torchwood. Tricky things drama-documentaries: so hard to go right, so easy to go wrong.

C4: 1.15 pm: Paths Of Glory: Kubrick’s first important movie and damned good.

BBC1: 9.00 pm: Ashes To Ashes.

BBC2: 11.00 am: Son Of Paleface: another amusing Bob Hope sequel (this time to The Paleface) but why didn’t someone think to show the progenitors in the same week?

When You Don’t See Me

I think it’s time for a little rant, quite possibly an ill-informed rant and the facts do seem to be constantly shifting, so if you’ll indulge me with a little leeway…

Recently, a story has emerged about the bugging of a Member of Parliament, Sadiq Khan, while he was visiting a constituent in Woodhill Prison; the constituent is detained for extradition to the US pending the results of proceedings on various charges related to the support of terrorism via various websites he ran. As if this couldn’t look more unedifying it turns out that this bugging started before Khan became an MP… when he was a human rights lawyer. It should be mentioned that the actual details of this earlier instant are open to interpretation as Khan is also a childhood friend of the suspect and it is unclear whether he ever attended in his capacity as a lawyer.

The first thing that needs to be mentioned is that the media reports have all used non-committal terms like ‘may have been’ bugged. There doesn’t seem to have been any confirmation of this. What is known is that the visitor tables were set up with the capacity to carry listening devices. And ‘may have been’ is probably the closest to an answer that we’ll get since the surveillance matters are involved.

There has been the inevitable polarization of viewpoints on the issue based either in knee-jerk reactions or cold intellectualism. It seems another complex (theoretical) issue has fallen victim to reductivism.

On one hand, this bugging seems like a terrible abuse and on the other it seems like a reasonable precaution. There has been a lot of waffle about the ‘Wilson Doctrine’, the unwritten rule from 1966 that the security services would not tap the phones of MPs and Peers. Except this is no more than a ‘gentleman’s agreement’; it has never been passed into British law and only relates to phone tapping. Tony Benn related on the BBC News 24 that he knew he was being bugged during the Seventies and while the Cabinet Office wouldn’t admit to it, they wouldn’t categorically deny it. This would seem to tally with final episode of Yes Prime Minister back in 1988 And the show is well-known to have been based primarily on genuine incidents as related by various well-placed political sources including Wilson’s political secretary Marcia Williams (now Baroness Falkender) and Bernard Donoughue, senior policy adviser to Prime Ministers Wilson and Callaghan.

The notion that it’s reasonable to surveille MPs is not lacking in logic. Is there anything especially magic about becoming a Member of Parliament that means you cease to be capable of breaking the law? (Some would say recent investigations actually prove this!) Can we assume they don’t fiddle their expenses or claim they’re employing children as researchers when they’re actually at University? Obviously MPs aren’t beyond breaking the law. And I have no doubt that Sinn Fein and Unionist MPs have been bugged in the past and for, all I know, still might be. The clarified ‘Wilson Doctrine’ allows for the bugging of MPs when there is clear suspicion of serious illegality; so clearly even MPs don’t have absolute faith in their colleagues. It seems reasonable to assert that there could be MPs who might support extremists of all or any creeds.

On the other hand, there is the feeling that the state (or the police independently) have abused and over-stepped their authority and made a clear invasion of the constituent’s privacy… I’m sure that quite a few admissions of illegality do pass in confidence between constituent and MP but there are shades of illegality: this could range from someone admitting something illegal which is in a grey area or an issue of law that they wish to be changed/ challenged or a person who is escaping an abusive partner and has taken their child with them in what could be alleged as abduction; alternatively they may be confessing a small criminality in the process of exposing greater and more significant wrong-doing, as might be the case with a whistleblower. Should the State have the right to listen in at will to anything and any body at any time?

It’s since been confirmed by the bugging-policeman that he was pressurized by his superiors to do this against his better judgment* and that he bugged other people who shouldn’t have been. It’s also emerged that none of this was ‘signed off’ by a Minister (which it needs to be at a certain level of surveillance). On top of this a lawyer has come forward to say he was bugged in conversation with his client while they were discussing his appeal strategy. Now, it’s revealed that hundreds of Legal meetings in prison have been listened in on. Because of an intelligence sharing agreement with the US, it’s been pointed out that the information gleaned from this MP’s meetings (and therefore anyone’s) can/ will go straight across the pond to the US intelligence community… and presumably could be used to implicate or undermine the man and any subsequent trial.

In the end, I personally feel deeply uneasy about these developments: firstly, that some sections of the police would appear to have become a law unto themselves; considering themselves no longer answerable to Parliament; secondly, how can a person have a fair trial if the prosecution may already be primed with the defence. Most concerning, I think, is the precedent being set; if it’s alright to bug a confidential meeting between an MP and a constituent for the reason that something might be mentioned, you could ask is it equally acceptable to listen in on lawyers with clients in their offices or the police interview room; or to doctors with patients; or at the Citizen’s Advice Bureau; or in the Confessional? Aren’t these all situations whose very function is predicated on the notion of trust and confidentiality? Surely once a society has lost all sense of trust in others and the State, and where all the places a person might freely and confidentially air problems have been removed- isn’t this just a hair’s breadth from a Police State. And won’t it be the most desperate and vulnerable who will be left with nowhere to turn?

I think we can clearly see where this journey starts and the reasons but I’m not sure we can see where it will all end.

But it’s a difficult issue, there’s no denying that. With my head, and in the pit of my stomach, I rail against yet more invasions into the privacy of the individual subject; but with my heart I can’t help asking, if a terrorist bomb slipped through due to lack of surveillance, which of my family would I be prepared to lose…

*Of course, he may be being ‘economical with the truth’... nothing is known for certain on any of this. This policeman is currently under investigation for other unrelated matters.

The Deep Blue

***contains links to images some may find disturbing***

It may come as no surprise to anyone who’s read some of previous witterings on this, that and t’other thing that I have no great liking for whaling…* what with (some) being endangered, one of the smartest of the world’s creatures and generally being majestic and all…** And anybody who saw the unedifying spectacle of the mother and calf Minke whales being hauled from the sea may also be left with some pretty reasonable questions… (see here and here.)

So, whenever we have this annual controversy about the on-going Japanese scientific whaling programme I always find myself asking the self-same questions

Firstly, based on the masses of data that they can only gather from dead whales what conclusions have the Japanese reaches and subsequently published or are about to publish in serious scientific journals?*** Secondly, would they have any particular objections to neutral scientific observers travelling with on the ships, perhaps with a remit to peer review their scientific methodology? Lastly, would they mind if the whale carcases were taken away and used by other scientists for other scientific research purposes? After all, as we’re told these days, ‘if you’ve nothing to hide you’ve nothing to fear’.

Of course, it could be suggested that the international community might like to know more about the whalers themselves… maybe they could indulge in a little ‘scientific research’…

See! I can do short…

*With the clear exception of ‘Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling’.
**In short we must only eat ugly stupid animals!
***Maybe that whales don’t particularly like being killed!

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Channel Zero #3

Sorry for not being more exciting recently; I’ve been having to do much human stuff and it saps the time. Rest assured I have not lost any level of grouchiness; I just haven’t gotten round to angrily scratching it down yet! The year’s still young; bile will arrive.

This week presented one of those mildly irritating problems that come from being a servant to cats. The eldest of the creatures required a teeth-clean which involved an anaesthetic and therefore no food for the previous 18 hours… it’s a bit hard to keep one cat unfed while the others demand not to be; post-procedure the groggy moggy couldn’t be let out which provided a second problem- how to keep one cat in when the others are used to free access and one of them point blank refuses to comprehend the concept of a litter tray.

The latter part of the week was marked by a retreat from the internet as it eats time and prevents things being done: the interweb’s as bad as a dictionary or encyclopædia for stealing time, except not nearly so informative; you look up what you want to look up then think that’s interesting and so on and so forth. This hibernation was ended briefly this morning by a local Record Fair; the first of the year. It’s was… disappointing.

As was the last week’s television, the saviour was Monty Don’s Around The World In 80 Gardens while both programmes I was most looking forward to were vandalized for different reasons. Horizon: What On Earth Is Wrong With Gravity? was a fascinating programme ruined by modish, extravagant and ultimately utterly pointless directorial tricks and editorial decisions. It looked rather like a 15-year old Media Studies group were let loose on it. However, I now know some interesting new facts such as that time is not a constant and light doesn’t always travel in straight lines as it is affected by dense gravitational fields… which I presume may mean that light has some sort of quantifiable mass… Andrew Graham-Dixon’s The Art Of Spain was vandalized for completely non-artistic reasons. It was broadcast on BBC4 and, sadly, Digital Freeview is rubbish. The picture broke up on a regular basis until the point where it gave up bothering to come back at all. Analogue never had this much of a problem. So, why are we being saddled with this inadequate system which is so clearly not of broadcast quality? Is it because Blair had a meeting with a media mogul just before his ascent to the Palace of Westminster? Is it because a substandard free system will force people to buy subscription television in order to have trouble-free viewing? You might think that, I couldn’t possibly comment!

Possibly interesting stuff on the telebox for the coming week may include, but not necessarily exclusively, some, none or all of the following… ;-)

BBC2: 11.10 pm: Factory: Manchester From Joy Division To Happy Mondays: documentary on Tony Wilson and Factory Records.

BBC2: 12.40am: Dawn Of The Dead: Romero’s classic zombie sequel (if you ignore the stupid custard pie fight); judging by the scheduled length it’s the so-called Director’s Cut.

C4: 9.15 pm: Million Dollar Baby: if you haven’t seen it, you really did ought- and ignore all the people who whined about the third act!

C4: 1.35 am: Focus: all I know is it’s based on a novel by Arthur Miller and as he was responsible for Death Of A Salesman it cannot be without some merit or interest.

ITV4: 12.20 am: Sam Peckinpah’s West: Legacy Of A Hollywood Renegade.

BBC1: 9.00 pm: Life In Cold Blood: Attenborough’s Ninth and Final series. It's David Attenborough, what more need be said?

BBC2: 9.00 pm: Horizon: Is Alcohol Worse Than Ecstasy?

BBC4: 10.30 pm: Storyville: The Polish Ambulance Murders: would appear to be about Polish Paramedics turned latter-day Burke and Hare.

BBC1: 9.00 pm: Ashes To Ashes: the week’s big new series.

There’s no getting away from the fact that I’m looking to this with a mix of trepidation and excitement. Life On Mars was brilliant… one of the best television dramas I’d seen in many a year. Then it ended. Before it got stale; before it got annoying and before I wanted to throw the television from the highest turret. So, a new piece from ostensibly the same team following pretty much the same formula should certainly be something worth seeing…

However, there are so many possible pitfalls that it seems a very tricky proposition; a courageous decision to quote Sir Humphrey. The first pitfall, as it is with all sequels, is purely having to live up to the quality, consistency and imagination of the original. Problem two: John Simm’s performance and character were a perfect contrast to Philip Glenister’s Gene Hunt: can Keeley Hawes’ DI Alex Drake match this? The clips shown so far have presumably been unrepresentative and out of context: high drama always looks bizarre and melodramatic taken as clips even if it works well within the programme itself. The next problem as far as I can see is that DI Drake knows the situation and what was the twist of Life On Mars and so does the audience. This seems to remove both a level of intrigue and more importantly a level of jeopardy. We, the audience, know that it’s definitely not real as does Drake; could this cause issues with the suspension of disbelief? As Drake herself understands the situation this could bring in the very real possibility of creating a situation where it becomes overly self-referential, too knowing and bordering on self-parody. There is also an issue of back-story: what does Drake know of Hunt as opposed to that which Hunt knows of himself. Does Hunt have a life outside of the imaginings of Drake or Tyler? As Gene Hunt was such a larger than life character in the original has the temptation to make him either too cuddly or too boorish been resisted? And as he’s now a known creation of Drake does this mean that she will project her own prejudices against his style of policing onto him or will he remain at the same level as for Tyler? There seem endless possibilities for getting tangled in knots over the whole notion of somebody else having the sequel to a different character’s dream sequence! I’m also more than a little curious as to how the whole of Hunt’s team can be shifted to London with adequate explanation excluding recourse to “it’s fantasy” or “it’s in her head so anything can happen”. I really want this to succeed. We’ll see!

On the other hand it’s got ‘that scary clown’ and an Audi Quattro in it, which was my dream car when I was younger, so can’t be all bad. Bizarrely (and somewhat disappointingly) I now find, with help from Top Gear, that the Quattro chucked out less horses than the (rather normal) car I’ve got sitting outside!