Thursday, 26 February 2009

Margaret: Only a Grocer's Daughter?

I've just been watching BBC2's Margaret: 110 minutes of prime-time drama, and what one imagines (and the BBC presumably hopes) is still considered to be 'talk-about' television. Certainly they're talking about it on Newsnight as I write - √Čtonnant, non? - but the minute I saw the rogue's gallery of a panel they'd invited (Hattersley! David Steel! Jonathan Aitken!) I couldn't find the off-button fast enough, albeit sadly not before they led off with Hattersley, spluttering his usual sanctimonious rheumy-eyed rubbish.
I felt that Margaret was well-written, boldly structured, very well cast and played across the board, and directed with plentiful verve and imagination, if also a few inevitably ponderous strokes. Still, something's bugging me - perhaps on the back of Tony Saint's also very smart and amusing film of last year about Thatcher's early rise, The Long Walk to Finchley, from the same production company as Margaret.
Simply put, in treating politics contemporary dramatists seem unable to look past the gleeful backstage elements of the Rise to Power & the Fall from Grace: in Thatcher's case they have Alan Clark's celebrated Diaries to give them most of the aces on the latter score, and they seem to feel her gender then provides all the novelty required to make these old planks solid underfoot. Sure, Margaret was very good at evoking the bitterness of Thatcher's unseating of Heath; the clearly insecure stridency of her first term of office that could even have been her last had it not been for Galtieri; and a sort of clammy revenge of the emasculated among her last cabinet circa November 1990. I think R.W. Johnson summarised it best in the London Review of Books while reviewing Major's and Lamont's memoirs:
"[N]either account gives us the rich cheesiness of the truth... By 1987, when the Leaderene had won her third straight election, the Cabinet was stacked with rabbits, nerds and characters with sufficiently low testosterone levels to endure repeated handbagging. Crucially, when Thatcher announced that she was going to take advantage of her victory to bring in the poll tax – which no one else much believed in or liked – they simply nodded it through... the full lunacy of the thing was clear to all save Thatcher. A major recession had begun, unemployment was rising sharply, inflation was 8 per cent and going up, and the bank rate had been raised to 15 per cent in a desperate attempt to shore up the pound, which had fallen badly as the huge payments deficits caused by Lawson’s boom reached unsustainable levels. When the boom collapsed, producing a house price implosion and the misery of negative equity, the nemesis of Thatcherite economic policy was evident to one and all. The result was political catastrophe... Most remarkable of all, the electorate, which in January 1990 had said by a margin of 50 to 36 that they expected the Tories to win the next election, had by April swung to a 56-23 majority prophesying a Labour victory... Thatcher was on the ropes and it was entirely her own fault."
How did it come to that? What was the driving force that carried three general elections, only to fall to pieces so completely? Why was Thatcher such a divisive figure, to the degree that if you revisit the 'good' British drama made during her time in office you find a blinding torrent of furious polemics against her, and nothing in her favour other than by the proxy of 'mainstream entertainment'? Maybe the novelty has waned since we who witnessed Thatcher's ousting have since seen another three-time pollwinner PM ditched by their own Party.
In focusing on Thatcher's private neurosis and the psychodrama of that cabinet, the frenzied air of betrayal, the sniping personal relations, the antagonism of the sexes and the hidden injuries of sexism... I felt Margaret was a fine effort that also took the road of least resistance. No single drama can cover all the bases, not least of a life such as Thatcher's. But I wonder still - with all this revisionist stuff afoot, and so much Proustian/Freudian revisiting of the political flashpoints of the period - is there not room for a dramatic study of what Thatcher actually did with power, or the true ramifications of same that we live with today? Rich pickings there, no question.

A Fool and a Knave

I believe we have the Financial Times to thank for the image to my left, forwarded me by a friend earlier today. Of course - as more than one cornered and humiliated weasel of a banker has bleated before a Commons Select Committee of late - no single individual could and should bear the entire blame for the blazing catastrophe we're all currently living through. Sadly, more of us have helped to stoke the fires in our own meagre fashion than we'd like to think - so-called good men doing nothing.
But, to be fair, generally, we had our own jobs and businesses to attend to; and I reckon if we'd had 250-year-old banks to run, then I think most of us would have managed not to run them into ruination, spending and loaning money that wasn't ours, pursuing vainglorious visions of endless growth built on imaginary foundations.
Moreover: the public has need of an embodiment of the third-rate evil besetting us - a pig's head on a stick, to pelt with calumny. And sometimes there is an individual at hand who happens to fit the bill handsomely - a fat pig of really gruesome proportions.
One has to observe that the ostensibly non-porcine qualities for which Fred Goodwin was (briefly) admired, and possibly even liked - coldness, self-assurance, contempt for those beneath him - were on display for all to see in today's letter to Lord Myners (and the blogger Guido Fawkes appears to have a vicarious admiration for selfsame traits.) In the face of such a performance, on some level one has to say 'Bravo.' But I don't think this show is over yet.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Hercules Bellville 1939-2009

'That's a hell of a name. You got to live up to it, boy...'
Yes, Tough Guys Don't Dance again, but the usefulness and all-round sapience of that text is proven to me once more when I think about the sad passing of the superb (and superbly named) Hercules Bellville, who died last week. One might describe him as an International Man of Mystery, though this would be to miss his humour, and his candour, and the fact that when he was around he was so very present. But if you look for him on Google you won't find much to pin on his name, other than a list of glorious movie titles. I would like to have a picture of him here by this screed, looking like a Roman senator, but instead we must make do with something related to a picture he once made with his friend Roman...
I received the news of Hercules' death from a friend on the weekend, and was so able to enjoy Chris Auty's obituary in the Guardian as what I assume will be the first of many rich and splendid tributes to this marvellous man - rather than being stunned and upset by it as 'news'. In fact, I was able to be of some small service to Auty's writing inasmuch as I still have by my desk the weathered paperback of Roman By Polanski that I purchased back in 1985, and so was able to source Polanski's recorded remembrance of first meeting "a thin, gangling young man in a brown velvet jacket and bright pink tie ... very keen to break into filmmaking." This was Hercules, on the eve of the shooting of Repulsion, and his 'long, bony, elegant fingers' would be immortalised, uncredited, in one of the film's creepiest moments.
Perhaps because Hercules was Hercules, I had this info about him logged in my mental computer when I eventually had the good luck to make his acquaintance, at some point earlier this decade. My immediate impression was much the same as everybody else's - that here was a man of highly refined qualities, who knew an inordinate number of things, yet wouldn't be making a fuss about it. In terms of the intricacy of his vital relationships with some of the great filmmakers of our time, where to start unpicking the threads?
I can't say I knew Hercules well at all and yet he showed me the most extraordinary acts of kindness while I was at work on my book with Sean Penn, giving me bona fides and 'letters of introduction' that led to my sitting down in Los Angeles with Jack Nicholson (in his Mulholland Drive eyrie) and (separately...) with Anjelica Huston. I've no doubt that the consideration shown to me by both Nicholson and Huston on those occasions was on account of their doing a favour for their friend; and indeed, as an aside or prelude to the main business, both were very keen to share with me a few fond tales of Brave Hercules...
On the Penn project Hercules also, without fuss, put me together with Bob Rafelson and James Foley, meetings that meant a great deal to me. When subsequently I tried to thank 'Herky' (as I never presumed to call him), his response was a gruff, instinctively gracious, 'Oh, not at all, we all have to help each other out...' And so I assume someone must have helped him too, way back when - or else, he just had these gifts of good fellowship installed in his character from birth.
The last time I saw him was maybe late 2007, in a meeting at Recorded Picture Company, ostensibly about a screenplay of mine that had been doing the rounds, though I soon realised Hercules had really come to sit in with his 'development' colleague primarily in order to rag me about what he reckoned to be a highly unsuitable cover that Faber and Faber had stuck on a book I had edited, authored by another of Hercules' many good friends. His taste was so impeccable that I couldn't quarrel - it was just much more endearing that he felt the point of principle ought to be made, in the spirit of friendship, and of aesthetics. Those gifts of his again... which he clearly exercised daily, and which a great many people will be sorely missing as of now and henceforth. I trust there will be a tremendous party thrown in his honour sometime soon, and I imagine the list of attendees will be luminous.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Newcastle 0 Everton 0: Tin Hats Time

If I were an Everton fan tonight I could still be feeling a bit warm 'n' fuzzy about the world and my team's place in it - this in spite of what I might think were two points dropped at Newcastle, plus worrying injuries picked up by the squad's best player Arteta as well as the lad Anichebe.
But where, you ask, would a Hypothetical Toffee like me find such solace? Why, by sitting down to watch BBC2's Match of the Day 2, and picking up on the tender vibes of consensual concern emanating off the sofa from The Host and His Guest Pundits - a rueful concern for my team's general misfortune on the day, but also a more hopeful consideration of the young lads in the first XI who are coming through and showing promise nonetheless... Yep, I would definitely feel that Someone Cared.
And as for that shower of risible scum up in Newcastle, who were vaguely involved on the cusp of today's contest as the Opposition? Well, that radgy thug of theirs who fettled Anichebe got his wholly deserved censure both from the ref and the MOTD2 sofa, and then... well, that must have been the only thing of note the hapless/witless Geordie muppets did for 90-odd minutes, because nothing else was deemed worthy of comment during the post-highlights guff by either the two aged ex-Arsenal defenders or that talent-free '100% Baggies' fan who looks like a pork pie - though in his particular case the less said is always much the better.
Still, I think I glimpsed Steve Harper make a good save, and Ryan Taylor looked lively, plus there was nice work by Martins late on to give Jonas a chance, and Duff, Nolan and Lovenkrands combined well to make the best chance of the day...
Hard to quarrel with a point, might have taken that before proceedings got under way. They were well on top for a good long while. But then they ran out of ideas, and if Kevin Nolan hadn't then covered himself in shame we might have given it a fair crack of a whip. Instead it was all tin hats for 45 minutes. Might as well keep them on for the run of games ahead...