Archive | January, 2013

Stuff I Love – 4: Short Novels

30 Jan

Animal Farm

I’ve just finished reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch, having received it as a Christmas present in 2011 and started reading it in November of last year. I’m neither ashamed nor embarrassed to admit it’s been a slog. An eight-hundred-and-eighty-nine page slog. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great moments, and beautiful observations but fucking hell… Eliot doesn’t half fall in love with the sound of her own voice sometimes.

At one point the heroine, Dorothea Casaubon, is meeting Rosalind Lydgate, the doctor’s wife. They shake hands and size each other up, and this lasts a page and a half. No dialogue, no action (other than the handshake), and yet it drags on, and on. And it’s not the only time she does this. The whole novel is padded out with page-long paragraph after page-long paragraph of waffle in which characters stand around in rooms not doing anything.

"How much longer can this continue?" "For at least another three pages, I imagine."

“How much longer can this continue?”
“For at least another three pages, I imagine.”

Still, enduring reading Middlemarch made me realise how much I enjoy short novels and novellas. For one thing, by definition the writer has to practice restraint, selecting carefully what he or she chooses to put in. There’s no room in the novella for a handshake that lasts a page-and-a-fucking-half (caustic sideways glance in the direction of George Eliot). You have to cut to the chase.

Here, then, are five great short novels. They’re not necessarily my top 5 (I’ll probably think of another five the minute I’ve posted this) but they are all wonderful, and demonstrate just how much can be achieved in 30-40,000 words.

1) Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

This one needs little or no introduction, as it’s been adapted and riffed on so many times it’s become a kind of cultural shorthand for a certain kind of story, but it’s really worth revisiting the original novella. For one thing, of all the 19th Century gothic mysteries and romances that went on to become big screen horror movies, Jekyll and Hyde is without a doubt the best written; tighter and more atmospheric than Frankenstein, and infinitely more edgy than the occasionally leaden Dracula.

The descriptions of a mist-enshrouded London at night (inspired, most likely, more by Stevenson’s native Edinburgh than London itself) are second-to-none, rivalling even Our Mutual Friend era Dickens.

2) The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy (1886)

Ivan Ilyich

I read this a while back as a kind of taste test. Much of Tolstoy’s work (namely Anna Karenina and War and Peace) is so weighty, I didn’t want to embark on either novel without knowing if I’d actually like his style. As such, Ivan Ilyich is the perfect entry level text for anyone interested in reading him. All his major themes are here – bourgeois hypocrisy, the benefits of an ascetic life over one of money and possessions – but condensed down into this bitter little satire.

Tolstoy has a weakness for sadism with his characters at times, especially those he holds in contempt, and Ivan Ilyich is no exception. Though the title makes it sound morbid and depressing (and yes… it often is), there’s a vein of tar black humour running through it that makes it very readable and – if it’s the right word – entertaining.

3) The Spider’s Web by Joseph Roth (1923)

Hitler

Originally published as Das Spinnennetz, Roth’s short and terrifying novella was one of the first works of fiction to deal explicitly with the rise of Nazism in Germany, and the very first to mention Hitler by name. It tells the story of a young man’s rise to prominence within the Far Right, following Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I.

The Spider’s Web gives an intense, and often hallucinatory insight into the mind of a paranoid and antisemitic fascist. It’s an incredible work which unsettled me for days after I’d finished it. One of those works that is so prescient it feels like it must have been written years after the fact, with the benefit of hindsight.

4) Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945)

Animal Farm

Often viewed as a kind of little brother (some pun intended) to Orwell’s later masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Animal Farm is, I think, the more successful satire. Yes, his story of Winston Smith and Airstrip One is, perhaps, the more mature work (even if Orwell’s characters are still a little paper thin), but it’s big idea – that the political corruption of language is a dictatorship’s primary weapon – is often lost on contemporary audiences, who see it more as a piece about state voyeurism, or big government, or libertarianism, or the Nanny State, or whatever mast they want to nail it to.

It’s hard to mistake the message in Animal Farm, and okay so perhaps it’s a little on the nose, but that’s kind of the point. I first read it when I was about 12 or 13 and it was the first time I realised a book could make you think about things beyond the book itself, that even a story about a bunch of farmyard animals could make you look at the world a little differently.

The very fact that Nineteen Eighty-Four is now set in a past-that-didn’t-quite-happen hasn’t diminished it, exactly, but it has made it seem almost a period piece. Animal Farm, on the other hand, despite its allusions to Stalin and the mid-20th Century Soviet Union, is timeless, a parable to forever warn us against despots masquerading as freedom fighters.

5) On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (2007)

On Chesil Beach

I read this one not long after reading another short novel of McEwan’s, the Booker-Prize-winning Amsterdam, and I’m glad I did. Amsterdam is pretty bloody dreadful. Well written, yes, but with a predictable, screwball farce plot, weak and unconvincing characters, and an ending that made me groan. As a result, I approached On Chesil Beach with caution, but I was blown away.

It’s set in the early 1960s (or, as Philip Larkin put it, “between the end of the Chatterley ban / And The Beatles’ first LP”), and details the nail-biting build up to a young couples’ honeymoon, in the days when many couples still had little intimate knowledge of one another until they were married.

I can’t really say much, because anything I do say is likely to rob the book of some of its power, but it’s very moving, very short and very sweet, and restored my faith in McEwan completely.

_____

So there you have it. Even now, I can think of another five I could have written about (The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Mist, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Death In Venice, A Clockwork Orange etc) but I can almost guarantee you’ll enjoy any of the above.

Why ‘Take Me Out’ is the most disturbing show on British TV

27 Jan

Take Me Out

There was a scene in the first episode of Channel 4’s excellent new drama series, Utopia, in which one of the main characters was tortured by having chili flakes, sand and bleach rubbed into his eyes, and then having one of his eyes popped out with a tea-spoon. It made for uncomfortable viewing, and yet I’d maintain it’s only the second most disturbing thing I’ve seen on British telly in the last fortnight.

Third, if we're including repeats of 'In The Night Garden'.

Third, if we’re including repeats of In The Night Garden.

What tops my list, I hear you ask? Take Me Out.

Take Me Out

For those of you with the dignity and self-respect not to watch this every single SaturdayTake Me Out is ITV’s 21st Century answer to Blind Date, the dating show in which young couples are hitched up and sent off on a date to a dream location. Except, actually, it’s less like Blind Date and more like a kind of bleak, post-apocalyptic breeding programme dressed up as light entertainment in the aftermath of a zombie epidemic or nuclear war in which 90% of men have died.

I've often wondered if it's a sequel to 'Threads'.

I’ve often wondered if it’s a sequel to Threads.

It’s hosted by Paddy McGuinness (who always comes across as the kind of man who would flirt outrageously with your girlfriend or wife, thump you in the back and say, “Only joshing!”, and then do it all over again, but more malevolently) and features a line-up of women aged between 18 and 30-ish who decide whether or not a single man is worthy of a date. If they like him, they leave their lights on, if they don’t they switch them off (“No likey, no lighty”). If, after several rounds of competing for their affections, the single man has any lights left on, he gets to choose who he takes on the date.

For the uninitiated, it’s pretty grisly, depressing stuff. The women fall into roughly four categories:

  • 40% young, white and blonde
  • 40% young, white and brunette
  • 15% young and black or Asian
  • 5% “kookie”

The men, in turn, fall into a similar four categories, with added sub-categories like “ridiculously buff”, “lower double figure IQ”, and “ironic hipster”.

Take Me Out

Needless to say, no-one comes out of this mess with their dignity intact. The man is invariably made to perform a ridiculous task (juggling, playing a musical instrument etc) or else look on in horror as they play a VT of his “friends” telling everyone how terrible he is with women, how smelly his feet are, or how many STDs he managed to pick up on a lads’ trip to Magaluf.

Most damning, for the women, is the “boo!” sound as they switch off their lights when it becomes clear the single man doesn’t earn much money, or isn’t the sort of gym-honed troglodyte who promises a life of brief excitement followed by serial infidelity, steroid-fuelled jealousy and possible domestic abuse.

“I go to the gym every day…”

(Lights stay on.)

“I’m a kick boxer…”

(Lights stay on.)

“I visit my gran every other day and twice on weekends…”

(Boo-boo-b’boo-boo-boo-b’boo…)

“And I work for a charity…”

(Boo-b’boo-boo-b’boo-boo-boo…)

“But the rest of the time I work for a large investment bank in the City of London. And I love driving my Lamborghini.”

(Lights stay on. Girls who turned their lights off look visibly annoyed with themselves.)

In between these rounds of self-abasement for both genders we see what happened to the couples from last week’s show. The running joke is that they’re sent to the “Isle of Fernando” – in reality some generic, vaguely upmarket Mediterranean holiday resort – but despite the sun, sea and sand it’s almost always the most depressing thing you’ve ever seen; like a 5 minute Ingmar Bergman pastiche, with piña coladas.

"I've nevvah played chess before. Have you?" "No, I nevvah." "I used to play Buckaroo and mousetrap when I was a kid but I nevvah played chess." "No. Me neevah."

“I’ve nevvah played chess before. Have you?” “No, I nevvah.” “I used to play Buckaroo and mousetrap when I was a kid but I nevvah played chess.” “No. Me neevah.”

Suddenly two people who were tossing out “witty”, innuendo-based one-liners with abandon a week ago are rendered mute or inarticulate. (Anyone would think they’d had a team of runners or line producers feeding them funny things to say back in the studio…)

A waxy-looking brunette from Braintree sits opposite a shaved gorilla from Eastbourne. Behind them, a turquoise swimming pool shimmers in the dusk, and as they sip champagne the sun melts, blood red, into the sea.

He looks at her across the table, flexes his oversized arms, and says, “I really like courgettes.”

She frowns, the fork paused near her lips. “What’s a courgette?”

He points to his plate. “That’s a courgette.”

Her eyes grow wide. She puts down her fork. “I thought that was a cucumber.”

And okay, so I’m not quoting from an actual date here, but that’s pretty much the level we’re talking. And usually, by the end of the date, Tasha from Braintree (who last week said she was fed up with “bad boys” and looking for a “nice guy”) has decided that Connor (who looks like a “bad boy” but who lives with his Nan) is a “bit too nice”, and that she prefers someone a little bit “rough around the edges”. Connor, meanwhile, hasn’t managed to process much more than the fact that Tasha has breasts, and thinks “romance may be on the cards”.

Back to the studio, where McGuinness compares the date to something terrible…

"That date were like the Hindenburg disaster. Full of hot air and screaming Nazis."

“That date were like the Hindenburg disaster: Full of hot air and screaming Nazis.”

Then it’s time to replenish his stock of crazy-eyed women, and another helpless chump comes dancing out onto the stage to the strains of Color Me Badd’s I Wanna Sex You Up. 

And yet, despite all this, I find myself watching it every week. I think a part of me watches because it feels like the kind of show we should be watching in 2013 – all flashing lights, bright colours and enormous video screens, laced with a subtext of bleak, sexual desperation; The Year of the Sex Olympics for the Magaluf Weekender generation. I watch waiting for something to go catastrophically wrong, for the moment when a young couple, bloodied and clad in rags, come staggering out onto the stage, followed by a closing ring of armed security officers in black uniforms.

“It’s all a lie!” Screams the young couple. “There is no Isle of Fernando! They’re all dead! THEY’RE ALL DEAD!”

We hear a rattle of gunfire, and our screens jump to the test card. Minutes later, we’re back on McGuinness while the cameras try and film around the cleaners mopping the stage.

“And remember… No likey, no lighty… Single man! Reveal yourself!”

Author

David Llewellyn is the author of six novels, most recently Ibrahim & Reenie, which you can buy here.

My Jalapeno Hummus Recipe

26 Jan

In a break from normal programming, I thought I’d share a recipe with you. Don’t worry… This isn’t about to turn into a cookery blog. For one thing, I can only cook about 3 different dishes, and for another thing, this recipe doesn’t actually involve any cooking.

Neither does this recipe.

Neither does this recipe.

My partner and I were given one of those hand blender things for Christmas by my in-laws, and one of the first things I wanted to try my hand at was hummus (or houmous, or however the fuck you spell it.) I found one recipe online which said that the tahini (a weird, icky paste made from sesame seeds) was optional, and that all you really need is a tin of chickpeas, 2 cloves of garlic, some olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon juice and that’s it.

Bull. Shit.

Bullshit Cat

Try making hummus without tahini and you’ll end up with intensely garlic-flavoured cement, no matter how much lemon juice and salt you add in a desperate attempt to make it edible.

Pictured: Caterers in Bahrain attempt to make a bumper batch of hummus without tahini.

Pictured: Caterers in Bahrain attempt to make a bumper batch of hummus without tahini.

After much experimenting I’ve finally nailed hummus, and what’s more I’ve added jalapenos to give it a bit of a kick. So here’s my recipe for Ultimate Jalapeno Hummus. Seriously… You can make this in about 5 minutes. The only appliance you’ll need is a food processor of some sort. I used one like this:

Using the little fella on the far right.

Using the little fella on the far right.

Ingredients:

  • 1 x tin of chickpeas
  • 1/2 a big clove of garlic, or 1 small clove
  • lemon juice (bottled is fine)
  • 2 teaspoons of tahini
  • 1 x glug of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 x splash of water
  • 4 or 5 slices of jalapeno pepper
  • salt and pepper to season

Instructions:

  1. Crush or chop the garlic glove up into little pieces and add to the blender.
  2. Drain and rinse the chickpeas, put aside 7 or 8 for later, and add the rest to the blender.
  3. Add the lemon juice.
  4. Add the tahini.
  5. Add the olive oil (just a little glug)
  6. Add the water (don’t overdo it, just a splash – you can add more later if needed.)
  7. Add the jalapeno slices.
  8. Add the salt and pepper.
  9. Blitz the living fuck out of it until it’s the consistency of hummus.
  10. Serve with the unblitzed chickpeas and, if you like, a sprinkling of paprika (smoked paprika is particularly nice.)

And that’s literally it. Jalapeno Hummus. Great with celery or a great big fucking bag of crisps.

Not pictured: A great big fucking bag of crisps.

Not pictured: A great big fucking bag of crisps.

The Why of Spencer Pratt

22 Jan

Spencer fucking Pratt

There’s no reason I should know who Spencer Pratt is. I’ve never sat down to watch one of his TV shows; indeed, until a few weeks ago the shows in which he appears weren’t even produced in the UK. He hasn’t written anything I will ever read, performed a piece of music I will ever listen to, or said anything to which I might conceivably pay attention if I was to live until the heat death of the universe.

Heat Death

Same goes for Pratt’s wife, Heidi Montag. For years her name has been an occasional blip in television’s white noise. I knew there was a Heidi Montag, but to be honest I got her mixed up with Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss and at least two actresses who were once on Baywatch.

So why do I know who they are?

Perhaps it’s because even when I have the democratic power to change channel and, in theory, ignore them, TV still finds a way of shoving them into my eyes and ears like white hot knitting needles of pointlessness.

I’ll give you an example.

Until a few months ago I worked part time at the head office of a large finance company, and in our building we had a gym. When I first joined that gym, back in 2003, the music channels still broadcast mostly music videos, no matter what time of day it was, but over the years a strange thing started to happen. Some time around 6 or 7pm, no matter which channel they had on in the gym, the music videos would stop and the reality shows would start.

Suddenly I’d find myself on the cross-trainer, climbing an imaginary hill while, on four separate televisions, some vile, overindulged 16-year-old bawled her eyes out because her parents hired Usher to perform live at her birthday party, and not Akon, like she wanted. Or maybe I’d be trying to do 30 minutes on a running machine while, in the background, some Kardashians (whatever the fuck they’re meant to be) bickered about jewellery.

I think their Dad was OJ's attorney, or something.

I think their Dad was OJ’s attorney, or something.

Into this horrible, twilight world of television-that-has-no-relationship-whatsoever-with-music came trailers for The Hills. This would have been some time around 2007, maybe 2008. At first, I wasn’t even sure what the programme was. The way they filmed it made it look like a drama, but if it was then the acting was surprisingly naturalistic. At the same time, if it was a drama, nothing ever seemed to happen except a lot of vapid-looking women and douchy-looking men arguing with each other on the slightest and most vacuous pretext.

Discarded taglines included, "What has two assholes and ten augmented breasts?"

Discarded taglines included, “What has two assholes and ten augmented breasts?”

Sure enough, I was witnessing the birth of soapumentaries (or whatever their bullshit name is) such as Jersey Shore and, closer to home, The Only Way Is Essexand prince of all the douchy-looking men in those trailers for The Hills was Spencer motherfucking Pratt.

Now, I know shows like this are edited to turn certain people into heroes and others into villains, but just 10 seconds of his body language and voice was enough to convince me that this man quite literally has no soul.

Spencer fucking Pratt

Okay, I hear you say, but the soul is something debatable. Surely only the religious and the spiritual among us believe we have a soul in the first place. Fine… I’ll give you that. Say there’s no such thing as a soul, and all we have are brain cells and neurons and a series of complex pathways of consciousness and subconsciousness that, mixed together, produce what we would call a personality… He still doesn’t have it.

In researching this piece (yeah… I do research… kind of) I watched this clip of Pratt being interviewed on Letterman, and there is simply nothing there. His eyes are dead. His smile is the rictus grin of someone being electrocuted to death. His face is like an over-sized wax sculpture of a baby from the stock cupboards of an 18th Century physician.

It's okay. You'll be able to sleep again in about 3 or 4 months.

It’s okay. You’ll be able to sleep again in about 3 or 4 months.

And behind it all, nothing.

As he explains in the clip, his existence revolves around turning up to nightclubs for $100,000. Because we apparently live in an age where existing is seen as an achievement in itself.

Okay, so I get that he’s decided his role, in his numerous reality shows, is the agent provocateur, but even then it’s a part he plays with no enthusiasm. It’s as if the Numskulls in his head are just mindlessly hitting the “Dickwad” button over and over again, waiting for the sweet liberty of release when someone finally does the decent thing and shoots him or pushes him off a cliff.

"Hey, guys... Maybe we should make him take up smack."

“Hey, guys… We should totally make him do heroin.”

Lately, TV has been forcing this grinning turd back into my world via Celebrity Big Brother. I actually stopped watching the show about half way through the opening night, when it became clear the baying mob outside the studio were booing every single woman for the apparent crime of having a vagina, but every so often there’ll be something on 5 at 10pm I want to watch, or I’ll catch 15 seconds of it while skipping through channels, and there he is again.

Spencer “Face Like A Garbage Pail Kid” Pratt.

Spencer fucking Pratt

And he’s still acting like a massive douche, this time spending what seems like his every waking hour lying in bed with his blow-up-doll of a wife, whispering nasty things about other people, because… hey… that’s what he does

And I know that even writing this fucking thing generates even more stuff about him, and that I should just let it go, but I can’t, and I’ll tell you why.

Last night I watched University Challenge, and they asked which polar explorer died in South Georgia in January 1922.

“Er…” I said, my mouth opening and closing. “Er… It’s… Thing. His name… It’s whatsisname…”

"Wait... I've got it... KENNETH BRANAGH!"

“Wait… I’ve got it… Kenneth Branagh!”

“Ernest Shackleton,” said one of the students.

“Correct,” said Jeremy Paxman.

“Shackleton!” I said. “Fucking Shackleton! How could I have forgotten Shackleton?”

You see, I should have known Shackleton, should have answered it straight away. A few years ago I went through a phase of being mildly obsessed with polar exploration, reading Scott’s diaries, watching the Shackleton miniseries, listening to the Vaughan Williams symphony. There’s no way I should have forgotten Shackleton.

Unless, of course, it’s as Sherlock Holmes says, and the brain is like an enormous filing system. Every time a new piece of information is stored away, another is lost. So here’s my theory: In knowing who Spencer Pratt is, what he looks like, what his nasty little voice sounds like, I forgot the name of Ernest Shackleton. Heroic, record-breaking Ernest Shackleton.

In exchange for Spencer motherfucking Pratt.

Pictured: Jeff Goldblum in conversation with Spencer Pratt.

Pictured: Jeff Goldblum in conversation with Spencer Pratt.

Thankfully, I’m now the member of a gym that doesn’t show MTV (or, as it should more accurately be known, TV), and this series of Celebrity Big Brother will be over in 3 days time, but how can I guarantee this wretched piece of shit won’t come barging into my conscious again?

A few days ago a friend mentioned, on Twitter, that they now have announcements before repeats of Star Trek: The Next Generation warning viewers that the show contains “adult emotions”. One of the reasons for this, I guess, is that the proliferation of shows like The Hills and TOWIE mean most viewers are used only to the emotions of overgrown toddlers, but is it too much to ask that TV stations give warning that “The following programme may contain people you couldn’t give a fuck about and would rather remain unaware of?”

The War on Humour

19 Jan

Pop quiz, people!

What was the number one deciding factor in Britain’s victory over Germany in World War II?

Apart from these guys, of course.

Apart from these guys, of course.

If you answered the RAF, the bravery of our troops, our superior firepower, Winston Churchill, or God you are wrong!

The correct answer is: Our sense of humour.

Seriously. Our grandparents were only in it for the giggles.

Seriously. Our grandparents were only in it for the giggles.

That’s right. It wasn’t bullets, bombs and Spitfires that defeated Hitler, it was Arthur Askey. The Germans, you see, have no sense of humour whatsoever, whereas we Brits are global comedy titans, chortling our way through whatever mishap comes our way.

"Ha ha ha! A plane crash, you say? Oh, my word, that's tickled me silly, that has."

“Ha ha ha! A plane crash, you say? Oh, my word, that’s tickled me silly, that has.”

Of course, this is mostly rubbish. Germans do have a sense of humour, and we wouldn’t have got very far if we’d simply parachuted George Formby and Joyce Grenfell behind enemy lines. That said, there is a grain of truth to the idea that a sense of humour kept us buoyant during the six terrible years when we were at war. Certainly, as well as the physical damage the war inflicted upon them, the German people suffered greatly from being ruled by people who saw laughter as a regrettable by-product of the human experience, rather than one of its essential ingredients.

"What do you mean, you've never seen 'Blazing Saddles'?"

“What do you mean, you’ve never seen ‘Blazing Saddles’?”

Lately, however, I’ve noticed that our most resilient – if intangible – national asset has been suffering. Not in terms of quality. We’re still more than capable of producing funny comedy, and anyone wondering why this era doesn’t have its Monty Python, Not the 9 O’Clock News or Fast Show has forgotten that there were ten year gaps between each of those shows.

No, when I say our sense of humour is suffering, I mean it’s under attack, and from all sides. Indeed, it’s been under attack for at least 30 years, but for much of that time the onslaught was one-sided.

And very badly dressed.

And very badly dressed.

Alternative Comedy

It began in the early ’80s, with the arrival of the so-called Alternative Comedians. These were the broadly left-wing comics, including Ben Elton, Keith Allen, Alexei Sayle and Jo Brand, who emerged through London’s Comedy Store and TV shows such as The Young Ones, Not The 9 O’Clock News and The Comic Strip to dominate British TV comedy for the best part of 20 years.

In doing so, they replaced the likes of The Two Ronnies, Morecambe and Wise and Les Dawson, not to mention more “old fashioned” comics like Bernard Manning and Freddie Starr.

Old fashioned meaning racist. And fat. But mostly racist.

Old fashioned meaning racist. And fat. But mostly racist.

Nothing unusual about this, of course. The nation’s sense of humour isn’t something fixed. Okay, so there may be recurring motifs (mainly fart gags and blokes dressed up as women), but comedians have always had a shelf life. What marked the Alternative Comedians out as different was the aggression with which they bumped the previous generation off the stage. Of course, there were veterans they looked up to (or didn’t dare attack) like Peter Cook and – to a lesser extent – the Pythons, but the Alternative Comedians made it clear from the offset that they weren’t there to simply take over the reins, they had come to obliterate the legacy of their forebears joke by joke.

Time, it must be said, hasn’t been kind to that generation. There are some gems that still hold up, in particular all four series of Blackadder, much of French & Saunders and Harry Enfield’s ’90s shows, but a lot of it has dated horribly. Take nostalgia out of the picture, and The Young Ones is occasionally funny but mostly unwatchable, particularly to an audience which didn’t catch it the first time around. Compare it to, say, Fawlty Towers or Dad’s Army, both of which are still very entertaining, and you’ll see what I mean.

Face it. This is the only episode you remember.

Face it. This is the only episode you remember.

Soon enough the UK’s right wing press began labelling the Left’s assault on “old fashioned” comedy “political correctness” and, if they were feeling particularly bilious, “political correctness gone mad”. What was wrong with the Black and White Minstrel Show, they argued? What was wrong with Bernard Manning’s jokes about black people and Pakistanis, or Jim Davidson’s “Chalky” character? They were only having a laugh…

Conservative Political Correctness

What newspapers such as The Sun and The Daily Mail failed to realise was that they too were prone to launching their own PC campaigns. What they didn’t realise, and what they still haven’t grasped, is that “political correctness” was never the Left’s exclusive domain.

Next week: "Does political correctness give homeowners cancer?"

Next week: “Does political correctness give homeowners cancer?”

Take The Life of Brian. Here, in Monty Python’s Biblical spoof, we have a prime example of what happens when the Right, and in particular the Christian Right, launches its own campaign of curtain-twitching political correctness. Some (including that champion of conservative political correctness, Mary Whitehouse) took offence at perceived sleights against the Christian church, and campaigned – successfully in some areas – to have it banned.

Twenty years later they were at it again, when Channel 4 aired the so-called “Paedophile Special” of Chris Morris’s news spoof, Brass Eye, with the Daily Mail leading the charge.

Daily Mail Brass Eye

Now, while they may have argued they were doing this in the name of taste and decency, so too would those who called for comics like Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson to get booted off the air. Their humour, they said, was racist. Racism is tasteless and indecent. The only difference between the Left’s political correctness and that of the Right is worldview – they’re both attempts – often conceived in haste – to sculpt the cultural landscape through censorship.

All of the examples I’ve mentioned so far happened in those sepia-tinted days before the internet, or at least before the internet became so dominant in popular culture. Can you imagine what would happen if the Brass Eye special was aired now, in a world with Twitter? First would come the tidal wave of people thinking it was real (despite the listings, despite the jokes), next the chorus of those calling it sick, depraved and monstrous. By the following morning any newspaper with an axe to grind against Channel 4 (take your pick, their readers would still confuse Channel 4 with the BBC) would have scoured Twitter for the most frothing-at-the-mouth reactions and printed them as if they were representative of the national psyche.

Just so we're clear, in this instance the BBC received 32 complaints from 6.8million viewers.

Just so we’re clear, in this instance the BBC received 32 complaints from 6.8million viewers.

Online complaints forms mean that by the following night Channel 4 would have received tens of thousands of complaints – mostly from those who hadn’t watched the show but thought it sounded simply awful – and this would generate, on Day 3 of the “scandal”, another dozen column inches about the “public reaction”.

Case in point: The Big Fat Quiz of the Year, screened on New Years Eve by Channel 4. Now, I didn’t watch it (I was busy drinking gin), so can’t comment on how offensive or funny it was, but the Daily Mail and their brethren would have you believe it was some sort of televisual Sodom and Gomorrah. With James Corden. They told rude jokes about the Queen, apparently, and that simply isn’t on. (It was okay, of course, back in the ’70s to tell jokes about women, gays, the disabled, and blacks, but that was different.) They told even ruder jokes about people’s naughty bits. And, of course, in its role as a national newspaper, the Mail felt obliged to reprint many of these jokes so that we could see just how abhorrent they were.

Without a shred of irony.

Without a shred of irony.

As if right wing political correctness wasn’t annoying enough, the Left has kept its end up by losing its sense of humour altogether, or at least by forgetting the purpose of comedy, which is pretty much the same thing. Hardly a day goes by without some pundit on Twitter bemoaning a comedy series because it failed to represent any and all minorities in an exclusively positive light, as if this is comedy’s job.

The Big Bang Theory

For instance, according to columnist Laurie Penny the US series The Big Bang Theory is offensive to geeks, because it portrays them as socially inept, and offensive to women because the only attractive woman in it doesn’t understand science. In fact, it isn’t just offensive, it’s “massively offensive”, which makes me wonder where she would put, say, Human Centipede 2. But this also ignores the fact that the character of Dr. Bernadette Rostenkowski is very pretty, and a scientist, and that there are no doubt plenty of men and women who would find the other female characters (and not just the pretty, blonde neighbour) attractive. 

This, for instance, is Mayim Bialik without her glasses and cardigan. What a minger*. (*Sarcasm.)

This, for instance, is Mayim Bialik without her glasses and cardigan. What a minger*. (*Sarcasm.)

More than this, however, critics who go hunting for offense in innocuous, pre-watershed sitcoms, are missing the most important point of all.

It’s a FUCKING COMEDY SHOW. Its job isn’t, and never has been, to offer positive portrayals of any character. If a character in a comedy is given any positive trait, it’s to win our sympathy before their next big fuck up or pratfall.

There’s a difference, of course, between situation comedy portraying fictional characters and the routine of a stand-up comedian. My personal view is that stand-ups are like the court jesters of the modern world; they’re the people licensed to fire spitballs at the King; so it’s unfortunate when some – like Frankie Boyle – use that position to mock a glamour model’s disabled son or the physical appearance of an Olympic swimmer rather than, say, our woefully incompetent government, but hey… It’s still comedy. If people don’t want to hear him make that joke, they can change channels or not watch his show. If they don’t watch his show, it won’t get recommissioned. It’s as simple as that. But the idea that a whole group should be offended because a comedian or comedy show made a generic, one-size-fits-all joke about them is laughable.

Jimmy Carr

Jimmy Carr has, on numerous occasions, made jokes about gays, and almost every time my Twitter and Facebook feed becomes aflame with online outrage. But do you know what I say? So fucking what? Chance are, it being Jimmy Carr, it wasn’t a particularly clever joke and relied on a stereotype that was old hat in 1977, but I don’t care. His joke didn’t protest a funeral with a sign saying “GOD HATES FAGS”. His joke isn’t about to corner me outside a pub and give me a black eye. His joke will never pass legislation to prevent me from marrying. And no, his joke doesn’t “feed into that culture”, because I don’t believe for one second that the Westboro Baptist church, or some unelected Tory peer voting against same sex marriage, or a queer-bashing bigot feel they were licensed to behave the way they did because Jimmy Carr once said, “Hello sailor.”

Pictured: Jimmy Carr in 2011, making a joke about gay priests in using a trope from 1997. No... seriously.

Pictured: Jimmy Carr in 2011, making a joke about gay priests using a trope from 1997. No… seriously.

As if to make matters worse, with Left and Right tussling over what kind of jokes we plebs should be granted access to, social networks such as Twitter have given rise to a new enemy of humour…

The Laughter Police

You know who these people are. Chances are you’re one of them yourself. Chances are I’ve been a member in the past. You think I’m wrong? Then ask yourself this. Have you ever, on Facebook, Twitter, or even in a private conversation, announced that a comedian, TV show or film “Just isn’t funny”. Not that you don’t find it funny yourself, but that it absolutely isn’t funny, and that anyone who finds it funny must be a fucking idiot? Come on. Don’t lie. You know you have.

Pictured: Me being a massive hypocrite, a couple of paragraphs ago.

Pictured: Me being a massive hypocrite, a couple of paragraphs ago.

For me, it’s Mrs Brown’s Boys and Adam Sandler movies. I’ve tried, God knows I’ve tried, and both just leave me cold. But I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not them, it’s me, because while don’t find Mrs Brown’s Boys or Adam Sandler funny there are literally millions of people who do. So when I say, “Mrs Brown’s Boys simply isn’t funny”, in a world in which millions of people are laughing like drains, what am I basing it on? The fact that didn’t laugh? What kind of arrogant prick does it make me if I think my definition of “funny” is the bottom line?

For one thing, I laughed like a hyena through all four of these.

For one thing, I laughed like a hyena through all four of these.

If we treat comedy as something that must be codified, licensed and means tested against a whole catalogue of political and sociological targets, we’ve killed it.

The comedy that comes approved by everyone and offensive to no-one will be about as funny as World War II.

If you were German.

Life of Pi: “Zebras, and tigers, and boats! Oh my!”

16 Jan

Life of Pi

January is traditionally the month when we here in the UK get all the Oscar-bait, all the movies crowding in “for your consideration” before the awards season. Even though I stopped giving much of a fuck about the Oscars as an indicator of cinematic artistry some time around the year of Titanic/LA Confidential, I still like to see everything that’s up for a gong before the awards themselves come around.

Apparently this didn't even get a mention. Weird.

Apparently this didn’t even get a mention. Weird.

This year, I’ve been a little tardy. I missed AmourBeasts of the Southern Wild and Silver Linings Playbook, all of which look amazing, and have yet to watch Django Unchained, Lincoln, Les Miserables and Zero Dark Thirty. In fact, until 2 days ago the only movie nominated for Best Film that I’d seen was Argo, which I loved.

Now I can at least pit Ben Affleck’s taut and classy little thriller against Ang Lee’s epic adaptation of Life of Pi, the bestselling novel by Yann Martel.

Life of Pi

I must say, my expectations for this weren’t particularly high. Cultish, literary novels don’t always translate well to the big screen (witness last year’s ponderous, chin-strokey adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis), and the trailer features one of Coldplay’s more annoying efforts. What’s more, the movie is in 3D, and there’s still a ridiculous little snob inside me who thinks 3D movies are desperate and a little bit trashy.

For every 'Hugo' there's 1000 of these.

For every Hugo there’s 1000 of these.

Luckily, I was wrong on all fronts. Firstly, that Coldplay song isn’t even in the movie (HUZZAH!). And okay, so I haven’t read the novel and can’t exactly comment on how successfully it’s been adapted, but on film Life of Pi is a great big adorable shaggy dog of a story. Its hero, Piscine Molitor Patel (aka “Pi”) is a young Indian lad named after a French swimming pool, whose father runs a zoo in Pondicherry. When his family emigrates to Canada, they decide to take the animals with them, aboard a Japanese cargo vessel, but tragedy strikes when the boat hits a storm and sinks, and Pi is left shipwrecked in a lifeboat with only a tiger named Richard Parker, a frantic zebra, a grieving orangutan, and a vicious hyena for company.

I won’t spoil any more of it for you, suffice to say that despite being set, almost in its entirety, on a single lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Life of Pi is an epic film, packed with suspense, humour, and eye-wateringly beautiful images.

Life of Pi

As well as worrying, before seeing the film, about Coldplay and tacky 3D, I’d been concerned about the CGI which, in the trailer, looked a little plastic. This is a problem typical with trailers, which tend to get hammered together before the boffins behind the special effects have properly finished working on them, but the end results here are genuinely spectacular. The only reason I know the tiger must be CGI is that it seems unlikely a major studio would put its 19-year-old lead actor in a lifeboat with a dangerous animal. Otherwise, it looks entirely lifelike and convincing. When the CGI backdrops are at their most artificial, it’s more in the style of The Wizard of Oz’s stunning matte paintings – lyrical, picturesque and dreamlike – than the dodgy “blue screen” of an old Bond movie.

You're fooling no-one, Roger.

You’re fooling no-one, Roger.

As for the 3D, its use here is nothing less than jaw-dropping. I’ve never quite felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up as I did when Pi first realises he’s sharing his boat with a giant, man-eating tiger; the way the snarling beast lunges out of the screen is just about the most thrilling thing I’ve ever seen in a 3D movie.

This was also pretty special.

This was also pretty special.

Considering he has to carry much of the film on his own newcomer Suraj Sharma does a splendid job as Pi; awkward, endearing, and often heartbreaking. The rest of the cast, which includes Hindi stars Tabu and Adil Hussain, and Brit actor Rafe Spall, are similarly strong, holding their own against Ang Lee’s luscious visuals. I was a little uncertain about what seemed the novelty casting of Gerard Depardieu (easily the most recognisable face on screen – at least to a Western audience) as the ship’s cook, but by the final reel this makes a kind of sense.

Some may find the film’s denouement a little contrived, or clumsy, and skeptical viewers may find themselves scoffing through their popcorn, but in a world in which much of what passes for movie entertainment is coldly cynical and based on a 1980s range of toys by Hasbro, surely there’s room for something that aims to be transcendental and maybe a little bit airy fairy.

Life of Pi

Okay, so by the end credits Pi’s story may not have made me believe in God (as Spall’s character is told it will), but it had at least put forward a persuasive argument for why people choose to believe in Him. To have that even as an idea, as a point of discussion, in a mainstream movie that’s wall-to-wall CGI, and 3D, and cost a gazillion dollars (actually $120million, but still), and has netted over $400million at the box office, in a year that threatens us with Transformers 4… That’s nothing short of a miracle, surely?

Lastly, for parents who want to take their kids to something with a little bit of substance but don’t want to sit through all 104 hours of The Hobbit and can’t wait for the next Pixar film, I can’t recommend Life of Pi enough. While the subject matter may sound a little weighty, it is at heart an adventure story, and a very exciting one at that. Why it’s not been marketed more as a family movie, I’ll never know, but I’m certain I would have loved this film as much when I was 9 as I did aged 34.

Gangster Squad: Trilbies, Tommy Guns and Tall Tales

11 Jan

Gangster Squad 1

(Warning: Some spoilers ahead)

Some crime films based on true stories aim for historical accuracy, basing their plots and dialogue on police interviews, court transcripts, and the accounts of those involved, while exploring moral ambiguity, the many shades of grey between good and bad.

Gangster Squad is not that kind of movie.

It’s clear, however, from the offset that Gangster Squad doesn’t really care much for history, subtlety or moral ambiguity. First of all there’s that title, which is like something a twelve-year-old would have come up with.

That said, so is this.

That said, so is this.

Within the first few minutes Los Angeles cop John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is punching, shooting and headbutting his way through a brothel owned by Chicago-born mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) to rescue a young damsel in distress. After this, he’s called upon by LA police chief Bill Parker (Tom Waits wearing a Nick Nolte mask) to form a top secret unit to go after Cohen and his business interests. In other words, a Gangster Squad!

He assembles a team of maverick cops, including Ryan Gosling as a man hellbent on stealing every straight man and lesbian in the audience’s girlfriend, two vaguely anachronistic minorities (The Hurt Locker’s Anthony Mackie and World Trade Center’s Michael Peña), a techno-boffin (Giovanni Ribisi… of course) and a man who’s basically Wyatt Earp (Robert Patrick). So far, so reasonably believable – stranger things have happened – but if you know anything about the real-life Mickey Cohen, you’ll know that much of this film is about as historically accurate as the last reel of Inglourious Basterds. Or The Matrix.

In its cavalier attitude toward history and real-life characters and its more or less black and white take on who are the goodies and who are the baddies, Gangster Squad reminded me of Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables. Actually, scratch that.

Gangster Squad is practically a beat-for-beat remake of The Untouchables.

City living in fear of a hot-headed gangster, played by a veteran actor known for his ability to transform himself for each and every role?

Check.

Check.

Idealistic cop with pregnant wife called upon to form an elite task force to take down the mob?

Check.

Check.

Grizzled veteran lawmaker who can show the young pups how it’s done?

Check.

Check.

Inexperienced Latino rookie who the grizzled veteran lawmaker takes under his wing?

Check.

Check.

Geeky boffin who is a little out of place surrounded by all this square-jawed, cleft-chinned testosterone in trilbies, but who saves the day with his superior know-how?

Check.

Check.

I could quite literally go on. And on. As such, it’s impossible to write or even think about Gangster Squad without referring to The Untouchables, and of course Gangster Squad comes up short.

For one thing, it isn’t directed by DePalma. Now, I’m not one to slavishly bow down to the genius of Brian DePalma – the man hasn’t made a good movie in almost 20 years – but with The Untouchables he was on fire. The Battleship Potemkin inspired shootout at the station is a masterclass in action and suspense, and the death of Sean Connery’s Malone is a real fist-in-mouth heart-breaker of a scene.

Seriously... Some kids bawled over 'Watership Down'. For me, it was this. Every. Single. Time.

Seriously… Some kids bawled over ‘Watership Down’. For me, it was this. Every. Single. Time.

More than that, Gangster Squad’s script isn’t by David Mamet. Mamet was The Untouchables‘ real coup, taking what could have been a lame rehash of a half-forgotten 1960s TV show and gracing it with brash and ballsy dialogue to die for. For instance, in Gangster Squad we have Penn’s Mickey Cohen demanding that his enemies be killed with, “I want them dead! I want their wives dead! I want their kids dead! And their dogs, and cats, and all their pets!” Meanwhile, over in The Untouchables, De Niro’s Al Capone bellows, “I want him dead! I want his family dead! I want his house burnt to the ground! I wanna go there in the middle of the night and piss on his ashes!” Nobody has ever scaled the poetic heights of trash talk like Mamet, and Gangster Squad could really have done with some of that.

I was about 10 years old when I first saw The Untouchables, and instantly it became one of my favourite all-time movies. Gangster Squad’s writer and director, Ruben Fleischer and Will Beall, are – I believe – around the same age as me, perhaps a little older, so I’m guessing The Untouchables meant a lot to them too. Perhaps if they had been a little less indebted to that inspiration and tried a little harder to steer the movie away from such out-and-out “homage” these comparisons wouldn’t have been so inevitable, and Gangster Squad could have stood a little better on its own two feet.

Having said all that, it’s still a whole lot of fun. A car-chase-cum-gunfight-cum-dynamite-flinging-contest is real edge-of-your-seat stuff, and the cast is great, from stoic, Eastern-Island-statue-with-a-pistol Josh Brolin to a scenery-chewing and battle-scarred Sean Penn. It’s a real shame some of the supporting characters, especially Mackie and Peña, aren’t given more screen time, as this makes their characters seem all the more like token gestures to a modern audience.

"Sergeants Wong and Patel have been assigned to another case."

“Sergeants Wong and Patel have been assigned to another case.”

Still, all these are actually minor quibbles. Complaining that Gangster Squad is like The Untouchables feels a little like complaining that the Jaguar XKR looks like an Aston Martin, as if this was a bad thing. And I don’t know about you, but sometimes I like knowing that the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad, and that by the end of the movie the good guys will have vanquished the bad guys. Don’t get me wrong, I love moral complexity as much as the next man, but far too many films and TV shows these days mistake moral complexity for a warped and mealy-mouthed relativism, so it’s refreshing to have a film that trades, for once, in moral certainties.

Plus, Ryan Gosling is pretty hot.

My score for this movie? 7.5/10

Gangster Squad is in cinemas now.