Archive | Television RSS feed for this section

So “So Bad, It’s Good” It’s Bad – ‘Sharknado 2’

2 Aug

Sharknado 2

If, in years to come, the 21st Century is remembered for one thing, it’ll be as the era that witnessed the death of irony and sarcasm. Social media have rendered subtleties in tone obsolete, so that comments intended with tongue firmly in cheek read as utterly sincere, and “parody” accounts and websites such as are regularly cited as genuine examples of fundamentalism. (See “Poe’s Law” for further details.)

The late 20th Century’s tsunami of postmodernism left Western culture awash with insincerity, so that almost everything these days is framed with irony. Whereas twenty years ago we might have watched films such as Plan 9 From Outer Space or Mommie Dearest because they set out for greatness but achieved only schlock, we are now making films with the intention that they will be “so bad they’re good”.

Pictured: Academy Award® winner Faye Dunaway

Pictured: Academy Award® winner Faye Dunaway

Which brings us to Sharknado 2. This TV movie, produced by the SyFy channel, is the sequel to 2013’s Sharknado. We know this, because its full title is Sharknado 2: The Second One, in case some of us fail to understand the concept of sequels. The first film centred around the unlikely premise in which Los Angeles is hit by a tornado that manages to suck all the sharks out of neighbouring waters, and then dump them on an army of unsuspecting Angelinos, including a surprisingly lifelike Tara Reid and John “the dad out of Home Alone” Heard.

Typically, for this sort of movie, it features scenes in which those milling about in the background fail to respond in any way whatsoever to the THOUSANDS OF FUCKING SHARKS falling from the sky, and – despite the dense black clouds overhead and the editor dimming everything in post-production – the streets of LA are brightly sunlit throughout. The sharks look like something from one of the earlier Tomb Raider games, the CGI floodwater looks like mercury, and a climactic scene has our hero, Fin Shepherd (Ian Ziering) fight his way through an unconvincing shark’s innards with a chainsaw.

As illustrated here by a 6-year-old using Photoshop. In 1995.

As illustrated here by a 6-year-old using Photoshop. In 1995.

Sharknado, in summary, is not a good movie, but even pointing this out feels redundant, because whereas those responsible for Batman & Robin or The Room or Battlefield Earth thought they were making good films, the makers of Sharknado knew it was rubbish. Even so, what they aim for isn’t self-conscious spoof, in the vein of Airplane! or Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks, but a strangely lacklustre compromise between the two: Too aware of its own shortcomings for them to be fun, and not funny enough to inspire belly laughs.

For its part, Sharknado 2 does, at least, aim for the latter, and at times it even comes close. There are some mostly unnecessary “star” cameos from the likes of Andy Dick, Billy Ray Cyrus and Kelly Osbourne, and this time round our “Oh my God… They’re in this?” turns are provided by Judd Hirsch (playing a taxi driver… Taxi… geddit?), A Serious Man’s Richard Kind and Kill Bill star Vivica Fox. Ian Zierling and Tara Reid return as our intrepid, chainsaw-wielding hero and a Ritalin-impaired marionette (at least, I think that’s who Reid plays), and the whole thing ends with a scene in which Zierling surfs a shark through a tornado before landing it on the Empire State Building’s spire. Of course.

Same thing happened when we were there last year. True story.

Same thing happened when we were there last year. True story.

But whereas a movie like Airplane! knowingly sends up the cliches and other weaknesses of disaster movies, Sharknado 2 blunders on, blissfully unaware of its own. New York’s subway system floods, and its tunnels become infested with sharks and – somehow – alligators, yet the streets of Midtown remain surprisingly calm and quiet, with shoppers and commuters visibly going about their business as usual. When three tornadoes (sorry… sharknadoes) converge on Manhattan, an aerial shot shows what appears to be a Sunday morning level of traffic passing through Times Square. That isn’t “ironic cheesiness”, that’s just terrible film-making.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh, and at times I laughed quite heartily at Sharknado 2, but when the credits rolled I was left with that same feeling of hollow dissatisfaction that I had after its predecessor, because in the absence of genuine wit (and that’s the one thing Sharknado 2 is utterly lacking), there has to be someone on the receiving end of those laughs. If you can’t laugh with someone or something, you have to feel that you are laughing at it, and with the Sharknado movies that just feels pointless.

At the risk of taking SyFy’s monster movies way too seriously, it would be easy to dismiss Sharknado and its ilk as just “trash TV”, but I can’t help but feel these movies are part of a wider programme in which our cultural benchmarks are being  lowered intentionally. High production values cost more money, so why not make a virtue out of terrible direction, acting and special effects? Groom people into not only accepting rubbish as the norm, but demanding it, and you can get away with anything.

Too late.

Exhibit B.



So You Think You Might End Up On The Telly…

28 Jan

Within the last couple of days the BBC released pictures of Peter Capaldi in costume as the Doctor, our first glimpse of what his Doctor will look like. The reaction so far has been positive – it’s a classily nostalgic combo of Hartnell and Pertwee without the former’s funny little hat and the latter’s abundance of ruffs, cuffs and crushed velvet.

There may have been other influences.

There may have been other influences.

I imagine the reason they released the image is that this week the Doctor Who crew have taken to the streets of Cardiff to film outdoor scenes for the next series, so sooner or later some silly, walking cliche of a fan would have posted a blurry pic of Capaldi via Facebook or Twitter…

This is the one I took.

This is the one I took.

Yes. That’s right. I was there to see a bit of it. Or, more accurately, I was able to watch them film a scene between Capaldi and Jenna Coleman from the “comfort” of a cycling machine in my gym. Having this eagle’s eye view of the shoot was great. I hadn’t known they would be filming there this morning, so it was all a surprise, and seeing Capaldi step out of the TARDIS, in costume, gave me actual goosebumps, but as anyone who’s ever worked on a film or TV show will tell you, filming is a long, arduous and very boring experience, so as fun as it was, I didn’t really get to see much action.

Or, at least, I didn’t see much action that will end up in the show. What I did see, and what had my chuckling as I pedalled and sweated like the undignified and slightly overweight man I am, were bystanders, and not just bystanders, but that specific breed of people you see whenever anything’s being filmed: The ones who think they’ll end up on the telly. They fall roughly into the following three groups:

The Wavers and Face-Pullers

These are the ones, usually male, usually aged between 11 and 50, who whenever they see anything being filmed lean into shot and wave or pull a face. As with all People Who Think They’re Going to End Up On Telly, this only ever works during a live broadcast, and there are plenty of It’ll Be Alright On The Night clips dedicated to that particular genre.

Here's a recent example.

Here’s a recent example.

That doesn’t stop the Wavers and Face-Pullers from trying it on when they come across a movie or an episode of Casualty being filmed. They see a camera, then wave and/or gurn, because they don’t for one second think an observant director or AD or cameraman will spot them and say, “We have to go again. That c**t just gurned at the camera.”

The Saunterers

Craftier than the Waver, the Saunterer has every bit as much desire to end up on telly, but feigns nonchalance. They’re too clever to succumb to the Waver’s vanity, and they know not to look directly into the lens. Instead, once the camera has been spotted they slow right down so that they walk through the shot as slowly as possible… while glancing occasionally at the camera to make sure they’re in shot.

Like the motion picture equivalent of this guy.

Like the movie equivalent of this guy.

But that doesn’t matter, because surely if you only glance at the camera for a split second it doesn’t matter. Well, actually… yes it does. On the off chance that you make it into the background of a shot in a TV drama or film, and the director sees you looking into the camera, you’ll end up on the cutting room floor. Where you belong.

The Joggers

These are my absolute favourite, because unlike the Wavers & Face-pullers or Saunterers, they really don’t want to end up on telly. What’s more, they really don’t want to waste the director, cast and crews’ time by ruining their take. That’s just how considerate they are. That’s why, to prevent both themselves from ending up in shot and the cast and crew from wasting their time, they glance right into the camera like a startled hare, before breaking into a jog to get out of shot as quickly as possible. Because nothing says “naturalism” like a random person in the background stopping, staring right through the fourth wall, and then for no apparent reason breaking into a jog.

5 Predictions for 2014

23 Dec

And so 2013 comes to a close, ending much like one of those Sundays you have in your early 20s, when you hit the sack as others are sitting down for breakfast and crawl out of bed when it’s dark and almost time for you to crawl back in again. It’s gone quickly, is what I’m saying. Even so, I’ll now attempt to see into the future and tell you 5 things we have waiting for us in 2014.

1) TV

Blog Pic

The biggest show on TV in 2014 will be Gogglebox+, a spin-off from the popular Channel4 show, in which the viewer is given the choice to watch one of up to 100,000 different families watching Gogglebox, including their own. The show will begin as a red button option, before being commissioned as its own interactive web series. Things will reach a postmodern event horizon when, via a multi-screen option, those participating in Gogglebox+ can watch the regular characters from Gogglebox watching them watching Gogglebox+.

2) Pop Music

Pop Music

2014 will be the year when, in a bold, empowering move that demonstrates her maturity and bravery as an artist, a teenage female pop star whose songs are written and produced by men in their 30s will participate in a live donkey show at the VMAs. The ensuing opprobrium will be aimed entirely at the pop star and not at the men who organised and choreographed the routine.

Meanwhile, French producer and songwriter David Guetta will be arrested, in November, accused of taking out a contract on the life of Pharrell Williams. Lawyers for the prosecution claim that Guetta wanted to end “for once and for all” Williams’s tireless campaign to “wrestle RnB back from the clutches of very boring, unimaginative white men”. In December, officers involved in the investigation begin questioning Calvin Harris for his role in the alleged plot.

3) Movies

Blog Pic

Following the announcements that both Batman and Wonder Woman will appear in the sequel to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, Warner Bros announce that the following characters are also to feature in the movie: The Flash, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Batgirl, Bizarro, Nightwing, Plastic Man, Swamp Thing and John Constantine. Incredibly, despite the project’s prestige, the producers struggle to find a writer willing or able to cram all these characters into a coherent story write the screenplay for this as-yet-untitled film.

4) Celebrities

Jamie Box

Following his appearance on next year’s hit TV show, The Know-Nothings (a documentary following a group of people who quite literally know nothing), next year’s biggest and best-paid celebrity will be fitness instructor Jamie Box from Chester. Box, 22, thinks that the capitol of France is Germany, and that whenever he goes to the cinema the actors in the film he’s watching are performing the film live. In September 2014 he garners his 14,000,000th follower on Twitter and publishes volume 3 of his autobiography before being named as Claudia Winkleman’s replacement on Film 2014.

5) Politics

Russell Brand

Voter apathy increases, after Russell Brand reveals – at a press junket to publicize his slapstick remake of Gandhi – how the previous change in government had little-to-no impact on his 8-figure bank balance. This shock revelation, coupled with the fact that Brand has enjoyed continuous employment for the last 10 years, leads those earning almost 1,000 times less than him and still struggling to find or hold on to a job, to believe voting makes no difference whatsoever. As a result, the only people intending to vote in 2015 will be those who fall outside his fan demographic, i.e. anyone roughly the same age or older than Andrew Sachs. Gearing up for the 2015 election, all of the major parties will announce harsher penalties on the young (loss of housing benefit for the under 40s, a pension age of 97 for anyone born after 1990) and a holiday in the Bahamas and endless repeats of Lovejoy on GOLD for the over 65s.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage will appear on the BBC no fewer than 946 times, including – thanks to the wonder of computerized visual effects – two separate appearances on a single episode of Question Time.

Nigel Farage, Ukip

The Burqa Question Resolved In Under 200 Words

8 Nov

Blog Pic

I made the mistake of watching Question Time last night. I say mistake, because it always is. For one thing, every time I bother to watch it, they’ve got Nigel Farage on, blathering away like the treasurer of some regional cricket club whose had one too many nutty brown ales in the clubhouse. This, despite the fact that his party still doesn’t have a single seat in parliament.

Nigel Farage, Ukip

Last night they were talking about burqas. I can only assume this was thanks to the news that a terror suspect escaped police surveillance by donning a burqa. For some reason, the headlines were all “TERROR SUSPECT DODGED POLICE IN BURQA”, rather than “CROSS-DRESSING TERRORIST DODGES COPPERS”. But I guess that’s because the tabloids want us to take this one seriously.

(Observant readers will have noticed that the picture up top shows women wearing niqabs, rather than burqas. I’ve included it, because most of the time, when people are talking about burqas, they mean burqas and niqabs. Burqas are the full face covering, with a kind of lacy veil over the eyes; niqabs cover everything from the eyes down. Like Batman in reverse. For the purposes of clarity, whenever I say “burqas”, read it as “…and niqabs”.)

Now, whenever the burqa question comes up, there are four reactions. There are those on the right, who want them banned, because “something something Muslims something something refusing to integrate”. Then there are those on the left, who think the burqa is fine because “something something multiculturalism something something racism”, and besides which… it pisses off those on the right. Then there are those somewhere in between who think the burqa is bad because it denigrates women, and their (perfectly valid) argument often gets co-opted by those on the Right, because it sounds more palatable than “We hate people who are DIFFERENT to us”, while the Left’s “anyone who hates the burqa is racist” argument is often exploited by swivel-eyed hardliners who think women should be both unseen and unheard.

Pictured: Those whose opinion on burqas is very really asked for.

Pictured: Those whose opinion on burqas is very really asked for.

With all this hot-air being expelled into the atmosphere it’s easy to lose sight of just how simple the “Burqa Question” is. So here, in under 200 words, is how you resolve it:

  • You don’t ban it because it’s a divisive religious garment. Banning items of clothing is both ridiculous and a little bit draconian. Besides, how do you define a burqa or niqab? Would you have to ban all face coverings? Would that include those who – like me – cover their lower face with a scarf during a cold spell? If not, what’s to stop some Muslim women from just covering their face with a scarf? Legislating against “face coverings” would get absurd.
  • You don’t even ban it because it denigrates women. Yes, there’s something deeply unpleasant about a male-dominated culture dictating what women wear. I fail to see how the resolution for this is another male-dominated culture dictating what women wear.
  • You allow employers, banks, post offices and shops the discretion to demand that face coverings are removed by staff and customers. This seems to be the main sticking point when it comes to burqas. Customers entering banks or post offices are asked to remove any garment that covers the face, and few shop assistants would get away with wearing a balaclava to work, but when it comes to the burqa, we get all sheepish. We shouldn’t.

And that’s it. You don’t need to pass any new laws, we only have to agree that showing one’s face is, in certain contexts, the “done thing”, both for security and out of good manners. Yes, it’s a cultural thing, but then so is the burqa.

Join me next week, when I’ll have worked out how we tackle voter apathy and reinvigorate our democratic process*.

*I won’t really.

A Few Thoughts on the 12th Doctor (or ‘Why I’m Wrong About Everything’)

5 Aug

New Doctor

I am one of life’s worriers. Sometimes I think it’s genetic. I come from Welsh stock, and we’re a nation renowned for its dourness. I heard one friend refer to us as “Italians in the rain”. Darker, swarthier and more phlegmatic than our neighbours “over the bridge”, but tinged with pessimism.

So… I am a worrier, and as I get older I find I don’t just worry about things; I panic about them. I get mini anxiety attacks over the silliest of things. Take last night’s Doctor Who Live, for example. This was the very showbizzy way in which the BBC announced who has been cast in the role of the 12th Doctor. I spent the days building up to this show (which was only announced a few days ago) in a state of mild disinterest.

“Oh, I’m not really that bothered,” I thought, fooling myself. “As long as it’s somebody good, I really don’t mind.”

Then, about an hour before the show, I started to panic. There was mention, on Twitter, of fresh-faced 26-year-old Welsh actor Aneurin Barnard, currently appearing in The White Queen, and who played David Bailey – opposite Karen Gillan’s Jean Shrimpton – in a BBC4 drama that screened last year. Reading too much into the space between this mention and a tweet written by a friend who might potentially know who had been cast, I decided that it was definitely going to be Aneurin Barnard, and my heart sank.

Still. It could have been worse.

Still. It could have been worse.

Not because I don’t rate him (Barnard, I mean, not Pasquale) as an actor. He’s been very good in everything I’ve seen him in. No… My heart sank because the worrying hemisphere of my brain (and yes… my brain has a whole hemisphere dedicated to worry), had created the following scenario:


Steven Moffat is on the phone to one of the HEAD HONCHOS at BBC America (because, in my head, this is the kind of thing he has to do all the time). We cut back and fore between Moffat’s office (with a view of grey skies and rain through its window), and the office of the HEAD HONCHO, which has a view of the Hollywood sign. The HEAD HONCHO is tanned, and has very white teeth.


Steve, Steve, Steve… Listen to me. You’ve gotta cast someone young. Dave Tennant was younger than… uh… whatsisname… guy out of Gone in 60 Seconds. Bernie Ecclestone.




Whatever. Neil Tennant was younger that him. Matt’s younger than Neil. It stands to reason that the new kid…


It doesn’t have to be a kid.


It stands to reason that the new kid should be younger than Matt. Now, listen, I’ve been making a couple of calls, talking to a few contacts. Turns out they’ve finished filming the Twilight movies. Which means… now, don’t get too excited… but this means that Taylor Lautner is available from October.


Taylor who? I don’t even know who… Isn’t she a girl?


You’re thinking of Taylor Swift. But now you mention it… New companion?


We’re not having Taylor Swift as the new companion.

His face like this, throughout.

His face like this, throughout.

In my head, the Powers That Be would get bullied by accountants into picking someone young and pretty, and the show would paint itself into a corner for the rest of its days, casting ever-younger actors in the role of the Doctor until, by the 75th Anniversary, we would end up watching a 6-year-old in a three-piece suit, turban and flip-flops run around, pointing his sonic screwdriver at things and saying, “Pew pew! Pew pew!”

And I was wrong.

I don’t think I’ve ever been more relieved than when, in the seconds before Zoe Ball said his name, they showed a close-up of the Doctor-to-be’s hand, and it was a hand that’s lived. Not some puppy-fattish collection of digits which has never seen a hard day’s work, never held a cigarette, never had to put up shelves, or done its fair share of washing up. This was a dad’s hand.

“The 12th Doctor,” said Zoe Ball. “A hero for a new generation. It’s…Peter Capaldi!” (There was a nervous pause as if she was terrified she might say, “Keeter Pacaldi!”)

The audience cheered. I cheered. I think everyone cheered. Except, possibly, the guys and gals at Den of Geek.

It's almost like they wanted to write the 1D piece.

It’s almost like they wanted to write about One Direction.

But everyone else cheered.

Obviously, it’s early days, too early to speculate about “what kind of Doctor” Capaldi will be (though this won’t, I fear, stop a great many fans from doing just that). And, obviously, his tenure in the TARDIS will depend entirely on the quality of stories he’s given. But, in short, I am over the moon about his being cast, and if this incident has proven anything, it’s that I should worry a lot less, and that when I worry, I am invariably wrong about everything.

In fact, if this post has any point at all, it’s that to be a fan of a long-running show like Doctor Who is to exist in a state of permanent and wrong-headed worry. Despite the fact that this will be the 11th time the lead actor has changed, Doctor Who fans still worry about it. We worry when there’s a change of show runner. We worry about the ratings. We worry that the show is no longer as popular as it once was, and we worry that it’s getting too popular. (I once read a fan comment wishing the show could get cancelled so that conventions would feel “more intimate” again.)

A friend once shared a convention anecdote in which two fans dressed as the 6th Doctor had noisy sex in a neighbouring hotel room. That's just too intimate.

A friend once shared a convention anecdote in which two fans dressed as the 6th Doctor had noisy sex in a neighbouring hotel room. That’s just too intimate.

Worry, in the case of fandom, leads to pointless speculation, because there is – in the mind of the fan – nothing worse than not knowing. Except, perhaps, admitting that you don’t know. You can guarantee that before he’s even set foot in the TARDIS, Capaldi’s first episode will have been critiqued, at length, based on what very little information is made available. Some fans will have made up their mind about the next series, from start to finish, months before it airs. But not me.

This coming Friday I’m appearing at Nine Worlds Geekfest, in Heathrow, taking part in a round table about Doctor Who’s gay fanbase, and I’m fairly sure I’ll be asked, at some point, “what kind of Doctor” I think Capaldi will be. And do you know what? I have no idea. I don’t know what personality he’ll have, what other Doctor he’ll most resemble, what costume he’ll choose, or what kind of stories he will appear in. Sadly… That isn’t the kind of answer that goes down well, so I should probably quit writing this, and start working on something clever, preferably incorporating “Schrodinger’s Cat”, and a minimum of passive aggression.

Katie Hopkins, and other fictional characters

5 Jul

Katie Hopkins

Do you remember, when Disney released its live action remake of 101 Dalmatians in 1996, how everyone said, “You’ll never believe what that Cruella de Vil’s done now… She only tried to make a coat out of dalmatian puppy fur, that cruel bitch”?

No? You don’t remember that?

Okay. Well, how about when Francis Ford Coppola released Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992, and scores of people said, “Blimey… That Dracula’s a bit of a bastard, isn’t he?”

"Do that shitty English accent one more time, and I swear to God I'll cut your throat."

“Do that shitty English accent one more time, and I swear to God I’ll cut your throat.”

Don’t remember that either? Oh, yeah. That’s right. Because it didn’t happen. And do you know why that is? Because Cruella de Vil and Dracula are fictional characters. They don’t exist. They were created by other people (Dodie Smith and Bram Stoker, respectively) to titillate and entertain.

And so, to Katie Hopkins.

Katie Hopkins

Hopkins rose to prominence on the 2007 series of The Apprentice (the UK version) and has since carved herself a career as a caricature of the kind of go-getting, career-minded woman she imagines impresses those who are genuinely successful in business. She pops up with nauseating regularity on everything from Question Time to 10 O’Clock Live and – most recently – This Morning, and no matter what the topic of conversation can be relied on to adopt the most posturingly heartless stance, because hey… It’s a dog eat dog world out there, you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs, and PLEASE GOD FUCKING KILL ME NOW.

On her This Morning appearance Hopkins revealed that she judges her children’s prospective friends based not on their individual personalities but on the names their parents gave them. So Tyler and Chantelle, for example, are out. Simon appears to be more neutral, and if she learned that one of her children had befriended a Simon her next question would be, “Where does Simon live?” I imagine that if said Simon lived somewhere borderline gentrified (e.g. Brixton) her next question after that would be, “And what does his Mummy do for a living?”

"Well, Mummy, for one thing, she wouldn't eat a kangaroo's arsehole on national television because Ant and Dec told her to."

“Well, Mummy, for one thing, she wouldn’t eat a kangaroo’s arsehole on national television because Ant and Dec told her to.”

Her comments have provoked a Twitch Hunt, and not without justification, because the Katie Hopkins who appears on television is an awful human being with very few – if any – redeeming features. She’s what would happen if you took Lowri Turner and turned her mindless, ill-informed bigotry and selfishness up to 11. In fact, I can only imagine that Lowri resents Hopkins in the same way that Josh Hartnett must kind of resent Channing Tatum, but that’s for another blog post.

Pictured: The fickle finger of fame.

Pictured: The fickle finger of fame.

All that Hopkins has done is join a growing list of people who make a living out of being publicly obnoxious. It’s a list that includes Jeremy Clarkson, Toby Young, the Telegraph’s James Delingpole, and the Daily Mail’s Liz Jones and Melanie Phillips. These are writers and “personalities” who adopt a predictable, reactionary stance on just about any issue; gruff, armchair generals, posing as the enemies of an imagined liberal orthodoxy and the forces of “political correctness gone mad”.

Don’t get me wrong… There are left-wing and liberal writers who are objectionable and wrong-headed, but they don’t appear to draw pleasure from winding up and antagonising at least 50% of their readers, and neither do they then pose as free speech martyrs in the same way their conservative counterparts do… endlessly… while enjoying unlimited free speech.

For one thing, it seems that while liberal and left-wing readers will go out of their way to read things that offend them, most right-wing readers couldn’t give a toss what the likes of Polly Toynbee and George Monbiot think about anything, so posing as the winder-upper of knee-jerk conservatives in a column for the Guardian or Independent would be pointless.

"I love nothing more than listening to Ladysmith Black Mambazo while driving my Prius. In your face, petrol heads."

“I love nothing more than listening to Ladysmith Black Mambazo while driving my Prius. In your face, petrol heads.”

What’s important to remember is that each of these writers and “personalities” is a fictional character. The only difference between James Delingpole and Uriah Heep or Katie Hopkins and the aforementioned Cruella de Vil is that Heep and de Vil were created by third parties, whereas Delingpole and Hopkins created themselves. They identified a niche (climate change skepticism and faux-libertarianism in Delingpole’s case, full-blown villainy in Hopkins’s) and exploited it. It’s how they make money.

As such, their public personas are  no less fake, no less theatrical than the “hero” and “villain” wrestlers you’ll find in WWE. Granted, some wrestlers may, after years in the job, begin to suffer from personality crises (Exhibit A: Hulk Hogan’s appearance in his own divorce case), but no-one believes the Undertaker (real name: Mark Callaway) goes home from an afternoon of Smackdown Raw to work at the Co-Op Funeral Home.

"Was your mother fond of lilies?"

“Was your mother fond of lilies?”

If you want evidence of this, look at the career of Melanie Phillips. Now, while it’s certainly true that many people who start off as left wing become increasingly conservative in middle and old age, Phillips’s journey from socialist to ultra-conservative seems to have coincided exactly with her move to whichever newspaper was willing to pay her the most.

Whenever Twitter bursts into flames over the latest offering from Phillips, or Clarkson, or Rod “Fucking” Liddle, or Katie Hopkins, it’s music to their ears. Tweets, trends, column inches, airtime and, yes, blog posts like this one keep them in work. After her bonkers little rant on the This Morning sofa the other day, you can guarantee some fucker on Question Time was straight on the blower to her agent, finding out if she’s available any time after the series comes back in September.

Because this is the face of somebody whose opinion on the situation in Syria I simply have to know.

Because this is the face of somebody whose opinion on the situation in Syria I simply have to know.

Treating these obnoxious people like fictional characters, talking about their latest antics in the same tone that we would discuss the behaviour of anti-heroes in shows like Breaking Bad, The Sopranos or The Wire may seem counter-intuitive – after all, you wouldn’t want people to think you approve of what they’re saying – but in the long run it will be agony for the armies of obnoxiousness. As well as cold hard cash, they thrive on genuine disapproval. They love nothing more than pissing off “libtards”, “lefties, and “feminazis”.

How upset would they be to hear those people laughing at everything they said, as they might laugh at Alf Garnett, Basil Fawlty or Papa Lazarou? Spittle-flecked anger and indignation lends their work a validity it doesn’t deserve. Laughing at it neutralises it altogether.


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

“I couldn’t possibly comment…” ‘House of Cards’ goes Stateside

27 Feb

House of Cards



This month saw the online movie and TV streaming site Netflix take a step into the unknown. They commissioned, and on a single day in February released every episode of a 13-part drama, House of Cards, based upon the BBC’s 1990 series of the same name, itself adapted by Andrew Davies from Michael Dobbs’s novel.

Like its British namesake, Netflix’s House of Cards is a kind of quasi-Shakespearean political drama (including Fourth-Wall-Breaking asides to the audience), with the action transplanted from Westminster to Washington D.C. Our protagonist – and sort-of narrator – is Frances Underwood (Urquhart in the original), a scheming congressman and chief whip for the Democratic Party. Underwood (played in scenery-chewing mode by Kevin Spacey) is a master manipulator, a Machiavellian genius using everyone around him, from rookie congressmen to the US President himself, as his puppets and pawns.

In his schemes, he’s aided and abetted by wife Claire (Robin Wright), amoral Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) and an ambitious young reporter for the Washington Herald, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara).

House of Cards

The series’ chief writer is Beau Willimon, who penned George Clooney’s 2011 political drama The Ides of March, and it’s produced – and it’s opening episode directed by – David Fincher.

The original series was an instant classic, and Francis Urquhart (played so brilliantly by Ian Richardson) is one of the most – if not the most – memorable TV villains of the last 25 years, so it’s inevitable that here in the UK comparisons, often unfavourable, will be made between the two.

That said, most of those comparisons will be pointless. Many of the changes made in the transatlantic crossing were absolutely necessary. Washington D.C. does not look like Westminster; the rooms in which dodgy deals are made won’t be as claustrophobic or as gloomy as their UK counterparts, so of course the US version will look “more slick”. Also, there’s a kind of baroque camp in the UK House of Cards that – besides Spacey’s performance – is largely missing from the US version, but only because that sensibility doesn’t often translate well to US drama.

Importantly, the show’s producers have kept what were perhaps the two most successful ingredients in the original – its sociopath anti-hero, and his asides – and made them work afresh. There are points, about two thirds of the way through, when either the writers or directors seem to forget this device, and that’s when, regrettably, it feels most like something we’ve seen before, a kind of misanthropic re-imagining of The West Wing.

"Release the hounds..."

“Release the hounds…”

It’s to Aaron Sorkin’s long-running, much-loved liberal fairy tale (let’s face it, we needed Jed Bartlet during the dark days of Bush) that any remaining comparisons will be made, particularly given that producer Fincher worked with Sorkin on The Social Network. Sadly, the writing in House of Cards isn’t quite at that level. Willimon, despite a background in theatre, doesn’t have Sorkin’s rapid-fire wit, and neither he nor his team of writers ever really engages with the actual politics – the conflicting belief systems – that fuel so much of what happens on The Hill.

We’re told that the Democrats are in power, but really… they could just as easily be Republicans. And okay, perhaps this is just a cynical way of saying, “What’s the difference?” And perhaps the main focus of the show isn’t political ideology but political machinations, but there were similar problems with The Ides of March. I get that Willimon is more interested in the machinations than ideology, I even get that there are many working in D.C. who feel the same way; I just don’t quite buy that politicians would sit around talking about politics so much without any real questions of ideology surfacing along the way. The end result is a series of scripts that don’t always ring true and – when they do tackle anything with political heft – feel a little trite.

Though, granted, nowhere near as trite as 24's President R. Kelly.

Though, granted, nowhere near as trite as 24’s President R. Kelly.

All this makes it sound as if I didn’t actually enjoy the series, but nothing could be further from the truth. The joy of watching a show like this on Netflix is that you can just lose yourself in it. The recent 6 part conspiracy drama Utopia was broadcast over 6 weeks by Channel 4, and I must admit that as gripping as it was, I struggled to keep up. Though we were given “previously on…” recaps at the beginning of each episode, there were simply too many characters and subplots for me to keep track of, given that seven days of watching and reading other things had fallen between each episode. Perhaps, I thought, it would have been better had Channel 4 broadcast the series over six consecutive nights.

I experienced no such difficulties with House of Cards. I started watching it last Saturday afternoon, and saw the final episode on Monday. While the dialogue may need tightening up a little, if there’s to be a second series, the story itself – much of it borrowed from the original – is gripping, and brilliantly layered. There is a kind of mid-series sag, particularly noticeable if you’re watching it in a marathon session, and I wondered why, given the freedom of a single-day release, Netflix chose to model it on the traditional US TV format of 13 episodes.

Still, this too is a minor complaint. The main reason for watching House of Cards, the one thing bound to keep people talking about it for some time yet, is its cast. Yes, Spacey is, as you may expect, excellent. The decision to make Underwood a Southerner struck me as curious, and Spacey’s accent wobbles a little in places, but he can steal any scene he’s in with a single glance.

House of Cards

Something that struck me, rewatching some of the 1990 series, was how much a tent pole Ian Richardson’s performance is. Oh, sure, the other actors are okay, but Richardson is the main attraction, and he runs away with not only any scene he’s in, but the whole bloody series. If the US version exceeds its forebear in anything, it’s in the quality of performances from its whole cast, in particular Robin Wright as Claire Underwood, and Corey Stoll, playing hapless, recovering alcoholic Peter Russo. The latter is an idealist US Representative who goes from Champion of the Common Man to semi-willing pawn faster than he can hoover up a line of coke, and Stoll (who played Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris) makes for a sympathetic tortured soul, just about the only one in a world full of liars, cheats and scoundrels!

Wright plays the Lady Macbeth to Underwood’s Thane of Cawdor, but there are so many subtle layers to the characterisation and Wright’s performance, I could happily have watched a whole series centred around her. The Underwoods’ is one of the most fascinating onscreen depictions of marriage I’ve seen in a very long time, and the one area where the writing is at its strongest.

Fans of the UK series may find the conclusion of episode 13 an anticlimax, lacking the original’s macabre punch, and I felt the writers could have crafted something with more impact or a bigger cliffhanger, but it certainly left me hungry for more. Let’s hope Netflix commissions another series and – if the standard here is anything to go by – some wholly original drama too!