Saturday, 21 August 2010

Clegg: Dear me how...

Hopi Sen deserves credit for making more widely known this cringe-inducing report by the excellent Paraic O'Brien of BBC London News, wherein the so-called Deputy Prime Minister finds himself hoist by his own New Politics petard:

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Hitchens unbowed, never being boring

The other night I watched an interview posted online at the Charlie Rose talk-show website, wherein the masterful conversationalist Rose (we have no-one quite like him in this country, strangely) talks to Christopher Hitchens partly about his recent memoir but mainly about his recently diagnosed cancer of the oesophagus, for which he’s receiving chemotherapy, looking as drained by the ordeal as one would expect, but remaining as thoughtful, articulate and incisive as ever was. He's reading the letters of Saul Bellow, who once wrote that awareness of death is the dark backing a mirror needs in order that it truly reflect.
The interview is full of good meat, but I think many will find special interest, given Hitchens’ history of invective against phoney, cowardly, sinister and corrupt politicians, in his response to the question of which political figures, if any, he has admired. I daresay if Rosa Luxemburg had ever attained democratically-elected office he’d have talked about her, but in any case his pick was Tony Blair. The moment comes at 37:14 in the link above.
I remember once hearing Blair as PM, circa 2006, getting one of those famous ‘grillings’ from John Humphrys on the Today programme, and thinking to myself, ‘Christ, you need to pack this in...’ But Mr Humphrys is still in that job, and indeed several others, giving out in the amusedly irritable manner for which, clearly, he’s loved by many. It seems that Humphrys also writes a weekly-or-so column for YouGov on a big issue of the moment, and the other day it was Tony Blair’s donation to the British Legion. Weirdly Humphrys seems as keen as others in the BBC to quote in seriousness the risible views of those clapped-out old SWPers who believed that public opposition to the ousting of Saddam Hussein was the mass-radical 'anti-imperial' moment they'd waited all their lives for. The trope of these columns, which YouGov presumably asked for, is to conclude with a long list of opinion-poll style questions. These are those asked in respect of Blair:
“Do you think Mr Blair’s gesture is a genuinely selfless gift or do you think it is self-serving? Do you think the reputation he has gained since leaving office for being too interested in money is fair or not? Do you think he should feel guilty or not about the money he has made? Should he feel guilty or not about his decision to invade Iraq? Did he deceive the country or not? Do you think he has a criminal charge to answer or not? What do you make of the ‘blood money’ charge? Should the case of David Kelly’s death be reopened? And will you be buying Tony Blair’s memoirs?”
For what it’s worth, my answers are: Nothing in life is selfless, but it is a huge gift, likely given for complex motives, the merits of it obvious; He’s as interested in making money as the rest of us; As before; No feeling human escapes remorse over any part in the loss of innocent life; Blair clearly believed, like David Kelly, that some WMD capacity remained; No, can't see it; Bereaved parents of servicemen and women are, very obviously and profoundly, more than entitled to this opinion, though some hold it more impressively than others; No, still looks like suicide to me; and Yes, unless it's bought for me.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Channel 4 'Coming Up' 2010: Now Showing

This year’s Channel 4 series of 30-minute 'Coming Up' films started its broadcast run as of last Thursday, and Eclipse, from a script of mine originally entitled Jennifer, shows next week in a double-bill with Dip, written by the fine novelist and travel writer Simon Lewis.
Back in April I saw all seven films in the current series projected together in a London cinema. The same crew worked all seven four-day shoots back to back, a truly staunch achievement. Myself, I feel lucky to have been involved in what is one of the precious few windows for new starts in television, and to have rubbed shoulders with such a talented group of young people, not least since I’m long in the tooth myself to be part of any kind of New Voices scheme...
At that London screening Michael Lennox, who directed Eclipse, mentioned that it wasn’t the sort of script he would ordinarily do. Nor was it the sort of script I’d normally write. I think both of us in our own ways have tended thus far to ‘do’ realism, whereas Jennifer/Eclipse was intended unabashedly as a fable based on an outright impossibility.
The project was a highly novel challenge-opportunity, really, in that Michael and I were paired for work before a script was in place. The scenario I initially submitted, entitled The Home Secretary (probably self-explanatory...), ended up looking too dramatically and logistically cumbersome for the half-hour slot. So I quickly wrote up three alternative scenarios, and Jennifer, as it was then, was the one Michael plumped for. The other two were more down-at-heel/'real' in milieu and subject, but then it seemed a solid choice to try out something about sexuality, attraction, physical allurement, albeit rather dark in tone and outcome.
I saw only a little of the shoot, but when I did briefly meet members of cast and crew they all seemed to think the script was ‘autobiographical.’ Perhaps that’s what they’d been told – or else they reckon that’s mostly what writers do. In truth, I’ve never written anything autobiographical: my life’s been too uneventful, I’d get embarrassed. What I tend to do is write around things I’ve observed or researched, sometimes under the influence of an existing dramatic structure or genre or leitmotiv that I’ve admired. And in that built scenario, from inside other people’s skins, I’m free to imagine how that might feel.
Jennifer was drawn from a few things I’ve noticed - one being a trait in certain people who do very taxing and specialist jobs to sometimes remove themselves from the sphere of romantic relationships, and to set the bar for admission to same rather distantly high. Another was a memory I had of sitting in a social situation with a mixed group of friends, and watching one young woman decide to liven up proceedings by doing do a sort of mock lap-dance in the face of one of the guys. It was a lark, the girl was lampooning the crassness, the tackiness of that sexploitation, she was ‘being ironic’ – except she wasn’t, since she was also making a display of her own physical self-assurance. And it seemed to me the real irony was that her whole performance felt about as attractive as a runny nose. Of course, different strokes for different folks... That’s why the film model I decided to refer to in Jennifer, with maximum lack of originality, is Hitchcock’s legendary and endlessly-referenced Vertigo.
The critic Danny Peary once wrote of that movie: ‘Hitchcock states that, given a choice of women, men are so weak they’ll always pick the helpless over the independent, the attractive over the plain, the frigid over the accessible, and the illusionary over the real...’ There’s an odd one out in that sequence, of course – only Hitchcock would actively pick 'frigidity'. And whatever their preferences, people are shown by psychology to generally pair off at 'appropriate' mutual levels of sexual attractiveness/plainness. But if we accept that much, with Jennifer I wanted to take the Vertigo doppelganger schema but reverse the usual polarity – the acme of feminine appeal then being dark, reticent, ‘independent’, intelligent - rather than blonde, extrovert, grasping, shallow.
The finished film is, I sensed, a little more ambiguous. There was a lot of discussion and work on the script, under the aegis of the experienced producer Elinor Day (who actually came up with the revised title Eclipse.) Michael Lennox definitely brought his own interpretation to the piece by way of certain directorial nuances. That’s film for you: a collaboration, a fusing of sensibilities. On the subjects of love, sex, attraction, we surely do all of us have a set of opinions that are internal and personal. You do, too, right? Anyhow, if you tune into Eclipse next week then I hope you find something worth a look, or a gaze, as the 'theorists' used to say...

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Dr Jekyll Rises Again

Ian Rankin, a celebrated and most perspicacious admirer of R.L. Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, has now written a foreword to a re-issue of the text, extracted in the Guardian. Jekyll/Hyde enthusiasts will find much to celebrate in Rankin's piece - in particular, perhaps, his stress on the story's 'complex narrative', which is much more tricksy than the umpteen film versions that doggedly take Jekyll's point of view from inside his laboratory as he struggles to perfect his 'transcendental medicine'. Whereas in Stevenson, as Rankin points out, "Jekyll himself figures only as a friend of the other characters and narrators – right up until the revelation provided by his "confession". We start the book in the company of two gentlemen called Utterson and Enfield..."
Can readers who encountered the films before the original take the same pleasure, the proper pleasure, in the story's unfolding? "Sadly," Rankin writes, "we'll never know the thrill experienced by this explosive book's original audience. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a work of suspense, but we all know the twist these days, don't we?" All I can say is that while still a schoolboy I'd seen about a zillion adaptations of Jekyll without having savoured the ur-text, but only once I had Stevenson did everything become clear, gloriously so. The best film of Stevenson is actually the Stephen Frears/Christopher Hampton version of Valerie Martin's hommage/rewrite Mary Reilly, but it was a picture that thrill-seeking audiences didn't warm up to. It looks better every year, but - like its inspiration.

Colm Toibin: Among the Flutterers

Colm Toibin writes splendidly about the sexual problems of the Catholic Church in the current London Review of Books. With a wry, wise touch he addresses the Church's sorry efforts to assert its own 'victimhood', notes its (much needed) loss of authority in Eire ("The bishops, priests and nuns are sinking, but have every intention of putting up a struggle before they drown"), and is interestingly sceptical about conservative Catholics who believe their Church was only corrupted quite recently by a kind of homosexual entry-ism.

On a personal level (at 16 Toibin too thought he had 'felt the call') he writes with the expected candour and precision: "Becoming a priest solved not only the outward problem of forbidden and unmentionable sexual urges, but, perhaps more important, offered a solution to the problem of having a shameful identity that lurked in the deepest recesses of the self." (The solution Toibin has in mind, by the way, is a quiet life of compassion, "doing good and being good", not seizing the chance to live in an all-male cloister and prey sexually on the innocent and powerless.)

There is humour too, as he mentions a writer friend who visited an Irish seminary in the 1980s, and looked on as a fair few "young candidates for the priesthood, boys from rural Ireland, attempted Wildean witticisms; he noticed them wearing specially tailored soutanes, moving around each other, excitedly, like a flock of girls..." This is Father Ted territory. Toibin also has some sport with the suspicions that seem to attend Pope Ratzinger's desire to carry on like an elderly fashion victim and keep a handsome valet at his side. But I wouldn't know anything about that... Nor do I understand what Toibin's trying to admire, like so many before him, in the enigmatic fence-sitting John Paul II.

By the end, though, Toibin has put the Church's sex problem back into succinct and troubling form: "The problem is that, after all that has been revealed, many of us who were brought up in the Church now know that we once listened to sermons about how to conduct our lives from men who were child molesters. And that senior members of the Church hierarchy protected these men, believing that the reputation of the Church was more important than the safety of children, and that Church law was superior to civil law. When they were found out, their sorrow was not fully credible."