Latest Entries

Libraries, and why I think they matter

When you’re a child let loose in the world, there are only so many places to go. Shops, you quickly learn, harbour a cruel and unfair prejudice against customers whose pecuniary resources extend only to fourteen copper pence in a Winnie the Pooh purse. However expertly an eleven year old face plays out the internal dilemma of whether to buy this or that travel hairdryer, somehow the woman in Boots always knows.

The same goes for cafe owners and their supernatural intuition that a lone child drinking a glass of tap water isn’t about to be joined by a table of high rollers who’ll order their weight in bacon butties no matter how convincingly she implies their imminent arrival by theatrically tutting and checking her fictional watch.

Parks are out by dint of the milling older kids whose capital-lettered activities you’ve learnt about in school videos. You could catch Shop-Lifting. Smoking. Peer Pressure. Drinking or Drugs just by looking at them. Ditto the bus station, even if it is the hallowed site of that vending machine a boy in year eight says once spontaneously released its entire crop of Drifter bars and Lucozade tablets like a late autumn apple tree hit by a strong gust.

But there is a place. Somewhere that, like home, when you go there they have to let you in. As long as it’s not before 9am, after 5pm or a Sunday. Continue reading…

Peep Show: cynical, honest, brilliant

There’s a speech in Peep Show’s series nine opener that sums up the show’s comedic focus: the gap between the face we present to the world and our inner feelings. Talking to Mark, Jeremy confronts his friend’s essential hypocrisy. “I know you, Mark,” he says, “I know you like to pretend that you’re this stuffed shirt who reads incredibly boring books about dead people killing each other with bayonets and typhoid, but I know the truth.”

That truth, gleaned from years of friendship weaponised for this coup, is that Mark Corrigan isn’t, as he pretends to be, a rarefied type fascinated by nineteenth century arts movements, but instead “a pathetic human who likes Twirls and Downton and Bond and burgers.”

Mark Corrigan isn’t kind; he revels in the schadenfreude of Grand Designs eco-builds going tits-up. He isn’t an academic or aesthete; he enjoys Storage Hunters, Candy Crush and Octopussy. We know it, Jeremy knows it, and Mark knows it.

Jez may as well have been talking directly to us. In fact, thanks to Peep Show’s point-of-view narration, he was. That’s what pin-sharp comedy Peep Show’s been doing for over a decade; making viewers laugh while confronting us with unflattering truths about ourselves.

Continue reading…

Celebrating Shane Meadows’ This Is England

Try a bit of mental calculation: how many punches in total would you say you’ve seen thrown on screen? Bloodied faces? Kicks to the head? Unless you’ve kept your TV and film intake to a strict diet of family animation (and even then…), that total is likely to be swirling around the thousands.

Now, think of the number of times an on-screen attack has stopped your breath in your chest. When each kick has landed with nauseating weight and filled you not with ringside exhilaration but with dread. In short, how often have you been made to really care about an act of on-screen violence?

That was Shane Meadows’ aim in This Is England, the 2006 feature film that introduced the world to Shaun, Woody, Lol, Combo, Milky and the rest of the Midlands gang that’s since lived on in two, soon to be three, TV dramas.

“I remember watching Romper Stomper and within the first ten minutes forty people had been beaten up. I couldn’t give a shit about any single one of them. The same with American History X.” Meadows told Film 4 in this interview. “I think what people like about my films is a kind of simplistic human depth, and the ambition with This Is England was to make people care about one beating.”

Ambition met, and then some. Meadows’ film is the fulfilment of critic Roger Ebert’s unimprovable line about the movies being “like a machine that generates empathy”. This Is England and its television spin-offs co-written by Jack Thorne generate empathy like the sun generates heat. Continue reading…

In praise of UK TV quiz shows

Quiz shows are a TV comfort blanket for trivia nerds. That instant sliding-into-a-warm-bath relaxation other people experience when they hear the first bars of a beloved soap theme is what the opening ‘dum’ of the University Challenge music does to us. You’re home now, says that music. Wherever you are, whatever’s going on in your life, this is your place, come on in.

Now, quickly, before you take your coat off: what’s the atomic number of lithium and who wrote Meditations In An Emergency?

TV quizzes celebrate what other reality shows disparage and mock. They reward peculiarity and obsession, not popularity and toned abs. While other programmes teach that it’s not cool to care, or to try, or to happen to know the first on-screen words of each Doctor by heart, TV quiz shows applaud you for it.

They’re a sanctuary for swots, somewhere arcane knowledge and unconventional interests make you part of the gang and not an outsider. You don’t even have to navigate your way into an educational elite to join in; the barriers to entry are only unpredictable scheduling (BBC Four’s The Book Quiz, we hardly knew you) and a button on your remote control. Continue reading…

Raised By Wolves – witty, hugely likeable sitcom

On the long list of things to like about Raised By Wolves—witty writing, new indelible comic archetypes, frank outlook and the nerdiest stream of Game Of Thrones references this side of our comments section—how much The Daily Mail dislikes it has to be somewhere near the top. You know you’re onto a good thing when your pilot episode gets a sneering one-star review from that quarter.

It’s little wonder the Mail failed to see the funny side of this Channel 4 sitcom. Raised By Wolves’ candid perspective is working class, female and mouthy, a combination loathsome to some but that sings hallelujah to the rest of us.

It’s not political tub-thumping that makes Raised By Wolves such reliable fun though. (As self-contained Aretha is the show’s main voice of social conscience, it doesn’t so much thump a tub as sigh inwardly and quote George Orwell. At a tub.) It’s the way with words.

Continue reading…

Why now is the perfect time for An Inspector Calls

When the march of world events falls accidently into step with TV drama, the result can be tasteless, or illuminating. If, say, a fictional shooting or bombing too closely mirrors a real and recent tragedy, the response is usually to pluck it from the schedules in respect for those suffering. Nobody facing the real thing wants to be confronted with it re-enacted in play.

Then there are the more serendipitous collisions between real world and fiction. Happenstance meetings that can spark a fire inside a drama, turning it into a beacon. The BBC’s An Inspector Calls airing in a week where front pages are dominated by people fleeing war in desperate need of help, and the political conversation is about who should be responsible for these strangers, was just that.

J.B. Priestley’s 1945 story about the corrosive nature of class privilege was always a call for compassion. Arriving on BBC One after recent headlines, its message felt white-hot. Continue reading…

Fresh Meat: bleak truths and knob gags

Fresh Meat’s characters have been doomed from day one. It’s right there in the title. Ushering in his new seminar group in the first episode, the studiously irreverent Professor Shales calls, “Send in the fresh meat for the grinder”.

It might be the line of a try-hard iconoclast (Shales’ next move is the classic shock-Doc act of binning their essays. Take that, convention), but the words tell a truth never far from Fresh Meat’s cringe comedy. That, as the hapless products of an industrial process that leaves them indebted and scrabbling for ever-distant opportunity, today’s graduates are being shafted.

“There’s compassion for students in the writing,” says Joe Thomas, who plays indie kid undergrad Kingsley. “Particularly in this series, there’s a sense that they were saying ‘This is genuinely very difficult. This is now something that is both expensive and useless.’”

Continue reading…

Comparing Humans to the Swedish original

Humans: A dot of white light blinks on and shrinks away into a black recess. The shot pulls back through electronic camera shutters to reveal an unnaturally green eye framed by dark lashes. A trolley wheel squeaks along a reflective, sterile white floor, past rows of still upright bodies—male and female, all races, dressed only in underwear. The trolley-pusher disregards the ranks of people behind him as if they’re part of the furniture. He switches off the lights and the rows remain, unmoving in the dark. One, just one, raises her head to look up through a skylight at the full moon.

Äkta Människor: A middle-aged man drives down a quiet country road at night and takes a phone call from his wife. Momentarily distracted, his car hits a pedestrian, a young woman who bounces off the bonnet and rolls onto the ground, headlights in the darkness illuminating her unmoving body. The camera notes an aged, peeling “Real Humans” sticker on his windscreen before the driver gets out to inspect the woman, who is emitting a digital bleeping sound. The driver sees a group of people silhouetted on the horizon and drives away panicked, running over the corpse a second time. Once home, he loads a rifle and prepares for a siege attack. They’re coming.

While the opening moments of Humans cleave to the sci-fi tradition, the first scenes of its Swedish ancestor are classic horror. Äkta Människor or Real Humans establishes the threat to human life represented by its ‘wild Hubots’ from the word go. When we first meet them, the android gang aren’t presented as fugitives, but as aggressors. Aside from overly made-up faces, there’s initially little to distinguish them from any threatening pack of home invaders. They could equally be a gang of burglars, murderers, vampires, or a Swedish S Club 7 gone rogue. Continue reading…

Louise O’Neill interview: YA sci-fi, Only Ever Yours

If you’ve ever suspected that celebrity fashion magazines should come with cigarette packet-style health warnings (Self-objectification is highly addictive: don’t start / Can cause a slow and painful erosion of self-esteem / Protect children: don’t make them breathe your unending consumer-driven quest for physical improvement) then Only Ever Yours’ brutal skewering of the beauty myth will likely speak to you.

Louise O’Neill’s debut YA novel didn’t so much speak to me as run at me screaming. Consumed in a single sitting, I found its storytelling as magnetic as it was troubling. Most disarming though, was its ability to mind-read. It amplified inner voices that I’d tamped down to dormancy over years of reprogramming, replaying them with alarming clarity. Continue reading…

Ursula Le Guin interview: sci-fi and fantasy snobbery & trouble-making

A Wizard Of Earthsea. The Left Hand Of Darkness. The Lathe Of Heaven. The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. The Dispossessed. Ursula Le Guin may not thank me for listing them (“Everybody wants to go back to the older stuff, come on now! I’ve written some really good stuff recently! I don’t want to get stuck in reminiscing”) but the novels and short stories she published in the sixties and seventies are undeniable sci-fi and fantasy modern classics.

Le Guin has nourished imaginative literature for decades with fine, precise prose and political exploration. She’s also spent years clear-headedly defending sci-fi and fantasy against the kind of people who turn up their noses up at books with dragons on their covers and maps in their title pages. She’ll put anyone straight on the myopic assumption that “the silliest realist was better than Tolkien”.

Just as she will those who treat books as commodities. See her rail against the profit motive in literature in this speech given to a roomful of publishers and booksellers at the 2014 National Book Awards. They gave her a medal. She gave ‘em hell. Continue reading…

Derek Landy interview: Skulduggery Pleasant, Demon Road

Derek Landy is excited. Next week, he’s going to see two of his favourite 80s films on the big screen for the first time. His publisher Harper Collins is hosting screenings of Joe Dante’s Gremlins and Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street at London’s Picturehouse Central for Landy’s legion fans as part of the publicity circuit for book two of his Demon Road trilogy, Desolation.

Landy made his name in Young Adult fantasy with the nine-book Skulduggery Pleasant series about a skeleton detective and his teenage girl accomplice. The huge success of the first Skulduggery novel was a tornado that lifted him Dorothy-like straight out of his family’s farm in Ireland and plonked him down in Hollywood where he was wooed by major studios searching for the next Harry Potter movie franchise.

That yellow brick road hasn’t yet led to a Skulduggery movie, though he says there are still adaptation plans afoot. The project initially stalled at Warner Bros. after Landy’s draft screenplay was butchered into “the worst thing [he’d] ever read” but the film rights are shortly due to revert back to the author, so watch this space…

I chatted to Landy about the status of the movie, horror influences, turning down a Doctor Who book series, Feminism in Demon Road and why we all need to be Buffy the Vampire Slayer…

Continue reading…

When cinema projection mistakes work out

The first ten minutes or so played out as planned. The handful of us in a modestly attended weekend screening relaxed into our plush seats as the film set up its world and characters. There were jokes, so we laughed. There was popcorn, so we ate it. Everybody seemed to be having a jolly time.

And then – silence. Continue reading…

Richard III review

The world loves a bastard. Will it, though, love one whose legendary wickedness is played for laughs and not venom? Martin Freeman’s taut performance as Richard III in a new Trafalgar Studios production wrings cruel humour from the play’s every pun and pause. Freeman jerks his head, and the audience laughs. He raises his eyebrows, and we laugh. He commits murder, shrugs it off, and we laugh. Who knew fifteenth century crown politics could be such a riot?

Jamie Lloyd’s play sets Shakespeare’s lurid account of Richard III’s rapid ascent to “the supreme seat” against the backdrop of the 1979 English winter of discontent. The idea, apt pun aside, is to evoke political instability and bring to mind the behind-the-scenes machinations that unseat power.

Continue reading…

Mad Men season 7 episode 7 review: Waterloo

“What is happiness? The moment before you need more happiness.” That season five line typifies the cynicism that, previous to Waterloo, I’d taken to be Mad Men’s essential perspective.

Over six and a half seasons, Matthew Weiner’s show has been a circus of disenchantment and unfulfillment. Against a backdrop of social discontent and ad-land lies, we’ve seen Don’s death wish, Joan’s compromises, Pete’s frustrations, Peggy’s loneliness, Kinsey’s failed ‘enlightenment’, Lane’s fate and more. “What is wrong with you people?” Megan once asked Peggy. They’re Mad Men characters is the short answer; unhappy people whose job it is to create more unhappiness.

Then came this year’s midseason finale. Continue reading…

Why modern kids films have ditched the chosen one

2013 saw the release of a film that sold a message antithetical to the upbeat ‘you can do it if you really try!’ cheerleading prevalent in kids’ movies. ‘Sometimes you can’t do it’, said this film, ‘even if you really, really, really try’.

It’s not as bleak a caution as it might seem. An imaginative scenario in which the hero fails but adapts teaches a useful lesson about flexibility (a skill parents might agree can be a tricky one for kids to take on). Wishing upon a star, working your socks off, thinking you can… in real life none of that guarantees a result. Isn’t it about time kids’ movies became comfortable with that idea? Continue reading…

With In The Flesh, BBC3 gave us huggable zombies

In the Flesh arrived on BBC3 heavy with promise. Here was a drama set to push the zombie genre into uncharted territory and turn the tables on our preconceptions. Pushing genres and turning tables is just what it did, too, or rather, would have done if its appealingly wispy lead Kieren (Luke Newberry) had the upper body strength. Continue reading…

Joss Whedon interview: Much Ado About Nothing, Buffy (Feb 2013)

For a small yet significant number of people, Joss Whedon isn’t just a writer, director and sometime performer of the Dance of Joy, he’s – what was it Quentin Travers said about Glory in the Checkpoint cliff-hanger? – “a god”.

As such, staring directly into his face was problematic. For fifteen minutes in a room in Soho this February, the struggle between my desire to appear professional, worldly and urbane, and urge to leap into Whedon’s lap sobbing ‘You made the horror of being a teenage girl okay’ was fierce. Angel’s battle between good and evil? A picnic compared to having to compose myself, sit nicely, and ask Joss Whedon sensible, grown-up questions about Shakespeare.

Professional and urbane then. Did I manage it? Er, no. But I did achieve something ultimately more rewarding.

Reader, I hugged him… Continue reading…

Where are the women in the BBC autumn drama trailer?

“What a sausage fest”. That was the opinion of one commenter underneath yesterday’s BBC autumn drama trailer. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, it notes that the ninety-second ad for nine of the BBC’s new original dramas (The Musketeers, Quirke, The Great Train Robbery, Ripper Street, The Escape Artist, Good Cop, Quirke, What Remains, By Any Means, and Sherlock) was heavy on men and distinctly lacking in women.

We can’t see what the problem is. After going through each of the ninety seconds armed with the pause button, we found plenty of women featured in the trailer. Sixteen in fact. That’s a lot of women by anyone’s standards. Too many, if anything. Continue reading…

Downton Abbey, rape and responsibility

As Lady Cora reminded us this week, “A house party can fall so flat if there’s no special moment”. So – presumably went Julian Fellowes’ train of thought – can series four of a glossy TV drama. What’s needed is a show-stopper, something to stick a rocket up Twitter and overspill the margins of next weekend’s op ed pages. Shock deaths are blasé now. A rape should be just the ticket. It’s gritty. It’s shocking. It’s real.

Never mind that the tonal shift between Carson trumping about pre-war teaspoon arrangement and Anna being dragged down a corridor and raped was akin to finding a child molester between the pages of a Janet and John book. (See the pervert. John runs away from the pervert. Run, John, run!) Pshaw to all that. Mr Gillingham’s rape was good drama and good publicity, the logic must have gone. If you want proof of that, well, we’re all talking about it aren’t we? Continue reading…

Mad Men season 6 episode 5 review: The Flood

Bobby Draper’s misaligned wallpaper. No, not the name of a prog rock band (yet, anyway) but the cause of one kid’s angst, and the catalyst for an examination of Don Draper not as a gigolo, ad genius, or cypher for post-WWII ennui; but as a father. Okay, and maybe that last one a little bit too.

Who among us couldn’t compile a list of overblown potential readings for Bobby’s irksome pattern mismatch? It signified the sixties generational schism, a sign that the world is off-kilter and time is out of joint, proof that baby boomers are preoccupied with shallow materialism (hell, when Dick Whitman was growing up, they didn’t even have wallpaper)… This is what Mad Men does. It builds its stories around metaphor and symbol, and in so doing, makes high school poetry students of us all. Continue reading…

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