MAY’S MINIATURES – S.01 E.01: Anton Chekhov – ‘A Naughty Boy’ (1883)

Now I’ve been nowhere near Barnard Castle, County Durham. Ouseburn Park, about 10 minutes legwork away, is the furthest I’ve been since the 11th of March! 

Now, welcome especially to this the very first episode of the first, surely only, series of… MAY’S MINIATURES! Basically, this is a daily weekly reading of a short story that I like, prefaced by a wry introduction a bit like that Anglo-Norwegian gadgie who presented ITV’s late 1970s and 1980s anthology series Tales of the Unexpected from some sort of ornate, drawing room type set… I have no fancy sets, and possibly a bit more chin-stroking earnestness in my arsenal.

Each of these episodes – to be broadcast for the next ten Tuesdays on YouTube – will be accompanied by a blog-post with the text of my introductions, the embedded episode and which gives my further thoughts about the story in question.

Now I don’t do Kindle too often, folks… You’d just have to look at my many double-stacked bookshelves to see why… But I do have a Kindle edition of old Anton Chekhov’s complete works, and in this no-doubt un-scholarly edition this one I have selected is chronologically his very first short story. I must admit I have read very little Chekhov. Studying Literature via the National Curriculum at school and College in Sunderland and the English Tripos at Cambridge uni doesn’t force you to read any literature by the greats of European, American, Asian or African literature… I admit to my reading insurality.

Chekhov was born in 1860 in Taganrog, a port city in South West Russia, today close to the border with Ukraine. Along with the Scandinavians Ibsen and Strindberg, he is credited as a major innovator in Modernist theatre. Difficult to imagine Beckett, Joyce and others writing in quite the same way without these various forerunners… This early Chekhovian story critiques traditional social mores, with a deft, light touch.

Broadcast here on YouTube, Tuesday 9 June 2020:

CRITIQUE (best to read this once you’ve watched the episode!):

Chekhov depicts Russian society very much in the grip of traditionally moralistic social values. This is all in the context of late spring and summertime. Chekhov’s opening, presumably set in late May, paints the setting as idyllic, “a lovely spot” with fish and daddy-long-legs traversing the water. There is a paradox in that the lovers Anna and Lapkin’s greatest bliss occurs in their vengeful unity against Anna’s malicious brother Kolya. Yet, right from the off, they are “armed” with fishing rods… Which implies the wider context of aggressive power games.

This story reflects something of the growth in secrecy and spying in European culture. In UK terms, what was a relatively disorganised, piecemeal system became the significantly enlarged ‘Secret State’ of Whitehall that Bernard Porter and Ian Cobain have detailed. I know less about Tsarist Russia, but am assuming that the secret state was more widely organised than in the Chekhov makes the point that children can act as self-interested agents; Kolya might be seen as “enterprising” by some.

Lapkin’s idolising of Anna is courtly work; his frilly, if seemingly heartfelt discourses to his lover are the corollary of what he describes as his “honourable, industrious life”. Once he is able to propose to Anna in late August, the power Kolya has over them dissipates and they, finally, gain the upper hand. An honourable, industrious life clearly depends on social conventions and finding the right words at the right time.

This is no fable with a clear moralistic message to be discerned; instead, it suggests the subjective and objective truth that some people are motivated by pecuniary gain and that power and secret “knowledge” can, in certain circumstances, be more of an aphrodisiac than idyllic summer and courtly words.

For anyone aspiring to “pull” in the lockdown, well, I’m sorry to say it, but lips won’t easily meet accidentally. I feel ever luckier to have been able to enjoy our wonderful marriage day with Rachel and our friends and family back at Tullie House in Carlisle on 6 July 2019.

Defend the BBC and democratise the BBC

I have just had a piece published here that makes the case for the BBC as a honest broker and guardian of pluralism, able to cut across binary divides of left/right, Leave/Remain, Labour/Tory and provide a public sphere for all. A subscription model – which is currently unfeasible, as it even its supporters admit – would destroy opportunities for intra-cultural communication and understanding in the UK.

Within the constraints of that piece, there was no space to include crucial additional arguments about the regions and nations of the UK and the reforms that the BBC is crying out for in terms of how it is governed. So, here they are, among other no doubt Utopian ramblings!

BBC PURPOSES #1: a political honest broker?

Firstly, what is the licence fee? Author of a Dictionary of Journalism, Tony Harcup (2014) defines it as the means ‘to fund the BBC as an independent entity’ and as a ‘mechanism to provide public funding for the main public service broadcaster without drawing on direct taxation or coming under the direct control of the government of the day.’

Much of the political left feels, erroneously, that it the BBC is directly controlled by the government of the day. However, its present animus is at least partly well-grounded: the BBC did little to challenge lies spread by the right-wing press, uncritically relaying untruths in how it reported the events of 9 December 2019 when Matt Hancock was reported as being “punched” by punched by a Labour protester who did not such thing. Tweets were deleted, but the memory remains, to paraphrase Metallica featuring Patti Smith… The BBC remains shackled by its own dependence on the government to renew the licence fee every ten years.

While it seems true that BBC may have not fully understood Brexit (1) and has displayed unconscious ‘Remain’ bias, claims that the BBC is biased towards the “liberal-left” do not bear close examination. For every Adam Curtis or Jonathan Meades documentary, there have been several David Starkey documentaries or cantankerous guest-spots and more than several hundred hours of John Humphrys… (2) The Moral Maze and Question Time panel composition repeatedly overemphasises right-wing commentators.

It takes chutzpah for the Cummingsite Tories to vandalise a BBC which has granted Brexit spokespeople significantly more airtime than the Green Party; a recent count gives Farage a total of nine more Question Time appearances than Greens’ Caroline Lucas MP, who has been repeatedly elected to the House of Commons since 2010. The BBC has done immeasurably more to popularise science than Cummings’s rambling blog missives. His boss Johnson should be grateful to the Corporation for how it popularised his performed “loveable buffoon” persona via no fewer than seven Have I Got News for You (BBC1) appearances. 

As the likes of Steven Barnett and Andrew Curry (1994) and Tom Mills (2016) have documented, the Director-Generals Michael Checkland and John Birt remodelled the previous pluralistic, ‘One Nation’ paternalism of the BBC into a more market-driven, business-fixated neoliberal institution. It had a populist obsession with programmes’ headline ratings in place of their impacts. However, it remains a public institution which contains within it the potential to be fairer to those of all political views in Britain, whether nationalist, internationalist, left-wing, right-wing or liberal. Or even green, heaven forbid we fail to listen to a global scientific consensus.

Should we see any merits in a putative subscription model? Well, to reconcile differing levels of public commitment to the BBC, we might consider a system of levy payments for ‘public media’ after the recent German model. To try to accommodate the pro-subscription perspectives, maybe an element of gradation in payment could be considered, in addition to some reductions and inceases depending on council tax banding. For instance, BBC “partisans” could pay £35 a month, to get all BBC output and access to more archival material, encompassing iPlayer, BritBox, BBC Sounds and the incredible Box of Broadcasts, only available currently to University card holders. Then, BBC “objectors” could opt to pay £3.50 a month to get the basic channels: BBC1 and BBC2. BBC “fence-sitters” could keep paying the current £12 monthly rate to maintain access to iPlayer, all radio and TV channels and the unwieldy BBC Sounds.

I will leave whether this would work out financially to the BBC’s (understandably many) accountants – but it seems to me that it might be the only model that could feasibly accommodate an element of ‘choice’ but which might financially enable the BBC to maintain its current level of services and role as the national broadcaster. Even this reform would be made impractical by the fact that most homes have Freeview, and this model would require the sort of consistent broadband access across the UK which does not exist and is unlikely to for a long time. Ironic, considering how Labour was planning free universal broadband!

Better, surely, to maintain a straightforward, universally accessible utility. While certain rabid BBC critics may often shout the loudest, they just expose themselves as aggressive, cultural wreckers. The more intelligent of them may call themselves “sovereign consumers” but in their cussed individuality they seem not to grasp the concept and reality of the ‘public’, and thus do not appreciate a national broadcaster which can cater to myriad audiences. The whole of the public should be the BBC’s masters, not Tony Hall or successor, and certainly not Boris Johnson.

BBC PURPOSES #2: Education and Programming

Furthermore, the BBC also has a vastly important role in the field of education. I propose wider public access to existing services like Learning on Screen. The BBC should have a greater role in the classroom from secondary level upwards; why not, when it has produced not just BBC Bitesize but programming as responsible and challenging as The Ascent of Man (BBC2, 1973), Muslims Like Us (BBC2, 2016), its Open University output since the early 1970s and BBC Bristol’s Natural History Unit’s programmes with David Attenborough?

The last decade has seen big-hitting dramas like Line of Duty (2012- ) and Call the Midwife (2012- ), comedies of the calibre of Peter Kay’s Car Share (2015-18), Detectorists (2014-17) and Mum (2016-19); as well as the masterly, currently under-publicised anthology series Inside No. 9 (2014- ). Outstanding documentaries have included Liza Williams’s probing, corrective-to-history The Yorkshire Ripper Files: A Very British Crime Story (2019), and one that Dominic Cummings might learn from: Eugenics: Science’s Greatest Scandal (2019).

But, it is critical to get away from my own preferences – to see things not just from in terms of “me”, but the wider “we“. Clearly, others deeply value programmes that aren’t my cup of tea like Mrs Brown’s Boys, The One Show or Countryfile. I don’t begrudge them their pleasures. I will however assert that it is time that EastEnders be replaced with a soap opera that tackles social issues like Julia Smith’s creation used to, but also inject some much-needed humour? What about basing it in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a place more culturally aligned with Glasgow than London? The great Tyneside writer Tom Hadaway had a similar idea of a soap set around Newcastle’s Central Station in the 1990s, but his idea was regrettably not realized, as James Leggott (2016) has detailed.

Yes, it is vital to protect the BBC in Joan Bakewell and Nicholas Garnham (1970)’s characterisation of it as a pluralist church. So far, so Peter Hitchens. It is just as important that it be licensed to be in a composite of a Weimar cabaret venue and a national theatre: in which any ideas can be vigorously and sometimes irreverently contested. Still further, not quite so Peter Hitchens!

We need to learn from Jonathan Coe and Chris Morris’s wise comments on the licensed fool nature of satire these days: it currently serves the right in politics for politicians as a whole to be denigrated. Satire that does not take into account fundamental truths about power is toothless and banal. Of course, all Chris Morrises and Peter Cooks need their Ken Dodds or Les Dawsons and, unfortunately, neither the BBC nor ITV has not done enough to sustain these national traditions of dissident satire and music hall.

All of us benefit when in drama and comedy all different ideologies are rigorously scrutinised and dramatised – an example from my PhD study would be Robin Chapman’s Play for Today – ‘Come the Revolution’ (broadcast 1 week before ‘Abigail’s Party’ in late October 1977). Play for Today has been lazily stereotyped by Dominic Sandbrook as constituting ‘left-wing propaganda’. Yet, Chapman’s play is a complex dissection of a small, left-wing company akin to Portable Theatre being infiltrated and taken over by a doctrinaire Workers’ Revolution Party-like hard left sect. To me, the play signifies that left-wing people should develop the legacy of Theatre Workshop and be cautionary about an agitprop theatre that is a means of power accumulation for sects. It is brilliantly written and has magnificent performances from Vivian Pickles and Kenneth Colley as a pair of smooth, culturally influential sectarians. I sense it is not the only PFT that, in the wake of the IMF and Winter of Discontent “crises”, anatomised the left…

BBC PURPOSES #3: SERVING A DIVERSITY OF NEEDS?

Some on the political right want to destroy broadcasting for all minority interests other than their own. What would they have to say if the political left aimed to end The Last Night of the Proms, Antiques Roadshow, Songs of Praise, Royal family coverage and Test Match Special? I am only enamoured of the last of these, but can see that other people deeply value the others and they share the same country (, so I respect their traditional pleasures. More intelligent and emotionally sensitive Conservatives realise they should permit programmes and stations that younger or more left-wing people value. Football fans, regardless of their team allegiance, can surely agree that 5Live provides immeasurably richer coverage than Talk Sport?

Rather than the government – ironically led by an unelected bureaucrat – taking an axe to a century of accumulated wisdom, triumphs and failures, what about taking away the government’s power to renew or abolish the Royal Charter every ten years? What about placing the BBC on a permanent footing so that it is truly – and not quasi – autonomous from political interference? In addition, we should enact the Media Reform Coalition’s recent proposals that the BBC Board of Governors be comprised of 50% from those elected by staff and 50% from those elected by licence fee payers. It is surely better to democratise the BBC BOG rather than having most of them appointed directly by politicians in government or their appointees. It is about time that the Corporation’s Governors became a corpus reflective of the country at large, and not in the debt of government. It is encouraging that Rebecca Long-Bailey has endorsed these proposals: I await with interest what the other Labour leadership candidates have to say…

When the UK frays, the BBC gets caught in the crossfire; as with the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 when it came under heavy fire from the ‘Yes’ campaign for its perceived pro-Unionist coverage; a coverage inevitable given the ‘British’ third of the BBC’s name. The BBC is incredibly vulnerable now to claims that it just represents the two main national ‘capitals’: London and environs and the Unionist but ‘Remain’ voting stronghold of Edinburgh. It needs to show it cares just as much about the people of Belfast and Basingstoke, Glasgow and Liverpool.

OUR BBC’S FUTURE: SOME MODEST PROPOSALS

As Tom Hazeldine rightly argued in the New Left Review in 2017, much of the northern and midlands Brexit vote was down to resentment that investment and economic resources have been concentrated around London and the South East. Most northern and midlands towns and cities have proportionately lost out due to the Cameron-May governments’ economic policies of austerity. There is also much-documented English resentment at Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales having a degree of devolved autonomy and at the Barnett Formula. Now, the drive is rightly on for the BBC to broadcast more from and in the voices of the regions. We need to consign the sort of attacks that Steph McGovern received from those inside and outside the BBC who objected to her fine Teesside accent firmly in the past.

2027 is when the real battle over the Licence Fee will be won and lost; surely, democratic political parties must advocate a reformed, democratised BBC to consign Dominic Cummings’s elitist idea of a neutered, subscription-only BBC to the dustbin of history.

(1) Who has, though?! It could be argued that the government has a questionable grasp of the economic aspects of a No Deal Brexit, just as FBPE-rs have a doubtful grasp of the plurality of Brexiters’ positions: there are indeed thousands of personal private Brexits living in people’s minds across the country… The Yaxley-Lennon minority will be entirely unsavoury, but most will just be a quiet patriotism that does not necessarily want to Other minority groups. I want to hear from British Asian Leavers in Luton, Bradford or Slough, just like I’d want to hear from Remainers in the Brexit central of Lincolnshire… The media has had a role in creating prevalent visions of what ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ are like, based on partial readings of electoral geography; this is regrettable and yet another reason for improved public service broadcasting.

(2) In The Conversation blog piece, I link to John Humphrys without highlighting how he is now being paid to purvey his right-wing, traditionalist views within the pages of the Daily Mail.

(3) Some might say, like Guy Shrubsole, that they don’t share enough…

Tribute: Peter Hutchings

Last Wednesday, I attended a special event to commemorate the life of film and television academic Peter Hutchings at Newcastle upon Tyne’s Tyneside Cinema, alongside many of his former colleagues and students. This was a lovely gathering; it was great to learn more about Peter’s life, beyond my own relatively brief experience of being taught by him for one academic year when I did my MA in Film Studies in 2004/05.

Part of the event was the unveiling of the results of his Northumbria University colleagues’ apt idea of inscribing a whole row of seats in the Tyneside Cinema’s largest Classic screen, with his name and quotations from some of his favourite films, e.g. Chinatown (1974) and Horror Express (1972). Peter Cushing – so neglected for so long – was clearly Peter’s favourite actor, as his characters such as Dr Wells were well represented, quotation wise…


Inspector Mirov: The two of you together. That’s fine. But what if one of you is the monster?
Dr Wells: Monster? We’re British, you know.

Horror Express

The speakers, who included Northumbria’s Johnny Walker and Russ Hunter, were often emotional in paying tribute to a man who had helped shape their academic careers. As RH detailed, he could be unpredictable in class when teaching and his musical taste was varied and included the strange likes of Tiny Tim. Recently, he had taken to attending the horror film festival Abertoir, held annually in November at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre in Ceredigion, and has now had a festival cocktail named after him: the “Hutch”!

I found him personally very helpful; one of those lecturers who was sharp and expert, yet who you also sensed was thoroughly on the side of students trying to formulate their own thoughts on film and television. He steered me down interesting paths, and helped me refine my voice when writing about film and television; as Mark Jancovich has commented:

‘He wasn’t a Gothic villain who attempted to remake the world in his image. he had no interest in churning out replicas of himself or extensions of his will. Instead, he helped people to achieve their potential, to recognize their intellectual insights and have confidence in the value of their contribution to the world.’

Mark Jancovich (2018) ‘Remembering Peter Hutchings’, Horror Studies 9.1, 4

When getting down to work on my MA dissertation on British cinema of the 1970s – then, in 2005, a very neglected area – he strongly recommended I watch a few episodes of LWT’s 1969-74 sitcom On the Buses, to get a flavour of the era and what was popular with British audiences, and was thus especially significant. I learned from him that the first film adaptation was Hammer’s highest grossing film of 1971, exceeding any of the studio’s horror films of that year. It was clear that he felt this was a matter for some cultural sorrow, though he didn’t explicitly say so. I loaned a single VHS tape from Northumbria’s now sadly defunct “slide library” and proceeded to watch 3 or 4 episodes of the sitcom, which conveyed strangely, horribly virulent gender stereotyping and casual sexism, as well as notable class representations.

Johnny Walker (2018: 454) has argued that Hutchings was ‘not merely a scholar of popular British cinema, but its champion’, who, in addition to his work on horror, explored thrillers, disaster movies, science fiction as well as penning outlying essays on film and TV representations of the culturally marginal region of north-east England. Similarly, a major thing I learned from him was the importance of analysing and taking seriously both popular culture and areas within it that get neglected or marginalised by certain cultural gatekeepers – whether horror cinema or ITV comedies of the 1970s. He was also good at recommending excellent books in this area: Leon Hunt’s British Low Culture: From Safari Suits to Sexploitation (1998) being perhaps the most memorable and useful during my MA dissertation.

Prompted by Walker’s tribute which mentions PH’s first published writing in Charles Barr’s ‘pivotal’ edited volume All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema (1986), I have read and enjoyed this very piece today. Hutchings’s short essay on Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972) closes a book which ambitiously explores institutions, ideology, overlaps between film and television and what Julian Petley defines as ‘the Lost Continent’ of British cinema. Hutchings locates Hitchcock’s film as being around the close of the period of generous US funding of British films, and 9 years before the ‘renaissance’ of Chariots of Fire (1981): a rebirth he regards as questionable as it has excluded ‘broad comedy, horror, melodrama, and ‘bad taste’ in general’. He further argues that ‘a regeneration of British cinema must remain incomplete’ until not just critical attention is paid to neglected popular films but until more such films are made. (Barr, 1986: 374)

He notes that there was derogatory criticism of the Covent Garden-set Frenzy for its Dixon of Dock Green dialogue, highlighting critics’ long-standing snobbery towards television. He conducts sophisticated textual analysis of the film, drawing fascinating links to features as varied as A Canterbury Tale (1944), Passport to Pimlico (1949), The Blue Lamp (1949), The Dambusters (1955), Every Day Except Christmas (1957), Look Back in Anger (1959), Peeping Tom (1960), Hands of the Ripper (1970), Carry On Loving (1970) and Murder by Decree (1978).

Hutchings describes Hitchcock’s first British-based film in over 30 years as a ‘democratic […] compendium’ of post-WW2 British cinematic genres which freely mingle and aren’t part of a ‘static, hierarchical order’. (ibid, 373) The modes of sex comedy, war film, social realism, melodrama and the new X-rated horror are all ripe to be richly exploited by Hitchcock, who saw cinema as artifice and didn’t accept what Hutchings defines as a binary critical paradigm of ‘realist/Good Taste’ (Ealing, British New Wave, Free Cinema) and ‘non-realist/Bad Taste’ (Gainsborough, Hammer, the Carry On series). (ibid, 369) He notes how realism has been critically privileged, with cultural gatekeepers like the Observer film critic George Melly attacking Frenzy for its anachronism. Interestingly, he links Powell and Pressburger with this non-realist tendency, highlighting their critical and commercial decline in fortunes in the 1950s. He places the mass of British war films as somewhere in between the binaries.

In a particularly rich section of textual analysis, Hutchings identifies the film’s exploration of ‘uncontrolled and violent male sexuality’, linking it with the cultural history of Jack the Ripper and Victorian London:

‘It is significant in this light that the first necktie murder in Hitchcock’s film is greeted with the comment that ‘It’s another necktie murder’, a line repeated in newspaper headlines several times throughout the film. One can link this with the reaction to the Glueman in Powell and Pressburger’s 1944 film A Canterbury Tale, the news of whose nocturnal activities – pouring glue into young girls’ hair during the blackout – is greeted with the remark ‘The Glueman’s out again‘. Again and another: two signifiers of indefinite repetition, in a situation where repeated acts of psychopathic violence have become an integral part of the British way of life’

Peter Hutchings (in Barr, 1986: 370)

This suggests so much: not just in its situation of Frenzy within the context of the increasingly ‘violence’ preoccupied 1970s, but also about our own times. Any budding film or television scholar should read this piece (and, indeed, its parent book) and aspire to emulate Hutchings’s incisive range of references and strength of argument.

On Wednesday, it was palpable how highly he was thought of and how he positively influenced and helped shape so many lives. As another colleague said, “He was a gentle man”, and there was a sense of loss as the many people gathered processed upstairs to the cafe bar to further toast his life, to the strains of Tiny Tim’s ukulele-led hit ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ (1968). But there was also a sense of celebration, as his was a life that had made a tangible difference.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Hutchings, P. (1986) ‘Frenzy: A Return to Britain’, in: Barr, C. (ed.) All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema. London: British Film Institute, 368-74
  • Jancovich, M. (2018) ‘Remembering Peter Hutchings’, Horror Studies, 9.1, 4 January, 3-6
  • Walker, J. (2018) ‘Hammer and Beyond: Peter Hutchings’s Contribution to the Study of Popular British Cinema and Television’, Journal of British Cinema and Television, 15.3, July, 453-9

Brexit Britain: Day #1052: Calling generals… But not forgetting drivers

So, thought you could forget all about it…? Think again. While many of us Britishers enjoyed a sublime Easter weekend – even in the usually rainy north-west towns of Kendal and Brampton – we have again been brought face to face with the intractable lose-lose game and soap opera without episodes that is… Brexit.

Two Thursdays back, we had local elections and, curiously, the mood music from both Conservative and Labour parties is that their incoherent pro-Brexit stances have been vindicated by results which actually showed the Greens and Liberal Democrats significantly up, UKIP and Labour down and the Tories massively down.

At least some of our household voted Green in the local elections and my vote for Jamie Driscoll as Mayor of the North of Tyne was due to his seemingly genuine engagement with green issues. A municipal socialist Copenhagen upon Tyne is going to be rather likelier than Venezuela, I reckon and hope… While Tory rival candidate Charlie Hoult carried Northumberland by a margin of almost 14% in the second-round, Driscoll won by over 19% in North Tyneside and gained nearly tw0-thirds of the vote in Newcastle upon Tyne itself.

What else has happened? Man-child military fetishist Gavin Williamson lost his job, due to a purported leak about a sensitive international policy, in a strange after-echo of the 1986 Westland affair, but with added random petulance. If this is true, shouldn’t this dwarf even the leak in significance? Also, why is he accompanied by a famous, back-from-the-dead light entertainer?

With sincere apologies to the Swindonian band, XTC

If we are to believe one bizarre old buffer on Question Time (02/05/2019) who thought Williamson had been an army General, is this time to be “Calling Generals… and Brucies…!”?

Following the previous week’s Question Time madness which centred on the actor-pundit John Rhys-Davies, who had played a Guardian bully-boy in LWT’s neglected 1971 dystopian drama series The Guardians, an old man in the Warrington audience provided a generous, if unintended, helping of the absurd:

Like Toby Young, 42 year-old Williamson is another man from a Labour family who has thoroughly undermined his parents’ values. Instead of having been in the army, a myth he would no doubt like to foster, he has been managing director of a Staffordshire pottery firm, worked for an architectural design firm alongside being a career politician since the late 1990s.

Stormzy provides the real mood music with his ‘Vossi Bop’, current number #1 UK single which reached the top during the weekend and contains a bluntly political attack on the government and our favourite “loveable buffoon” and transmitter of racist tropes like “piccaninnies”, “watermelon smiles” and “letter boxes”:

“Fuck the government and fuck Boris!”

Meanwhile Tim Crouch and Toby Jones’s brilliant Don’t Forget the Driver depicts a fraught Britain in which the broadly good people hang in there amid banal sourness and madness. This Bognor Regis-set sitcom is much better than the seemingly flippant, insubstantial Ghosts, which just seems a needless update on The Ghosts of Motley Hall – at least from episode #1. Yet, this latter has more than double the audience of the former, which says something about British audience tastes: settling for meagre gruel when they could have a delicately constructed repast. DFTD is a cinematic take on Britain via Bognor – which Crouch hails from. It carefully balances the mundane, beautiful, bleak and heartwarming and transcends comedy. Watch it, if you haven’t already: it’s great.

Erin Kellyman, one of many brilliant players in the DON’T FORGET THE DRIVER cast

On Tuesday 7 May, to paraphrase Paddy McAloon, “I got two things through my door, you’re no longer one of them:

On Wednesday 8 May, I didn’t rip it up – satisfying but impact-less. Instead, I posted it back to ensure these charlatans pay the postage.

Also this week, on Monday 6 May, I had a letter published in the Guardian, highlighting the historical amnesia of Coronation Street producers and media pundits in claiming the Baileys are to be the ‘first black family’ to appear in the soap opera.

INFORMER: “God didn’t save the Queen — Charlie did!”

INFORMER

TX: BBC1, Tuesdays, 9pm, 16/10/2018 – 20/11/2018 (six episodes)
w: Rory Haines & Sohrab Noshirvani, d: Jonny Campbell, p: Julian Stevens, m: Ilan Eshkeri (Neal Street Productions)

Informer is local, national and specific. It is the alternative to some of the more transnational tendencies – common, for better and worse – in recent TV dramas. In their tough script, Haines & Noshirvani address the thorny issue of national identity; they are also singularly successful in rooting their drama in the atmosphere of 2018 Britain: a place fraught, boisterous and unstable in a way a 30-something like me has never really previously experienced (though this situation has gradually revealed itself ever since the onset of austerity in 2011).

Yes, Informer is mostly London-centric, but it at least feels genuinely of a London which the drama defines in contrast to the bleak “Other” of the more fleetingly depicted North. The setting is manifestly East London, around Brick Lane and Whitechapel. Central to this geographical dichotomy are revelations of policeman Gabriel Waters (Paddy Considine)’s previous double-life: in contrast to his suburban family life in the South, his undercover work is as the self-styled “Charlie”, infiltrating far-right circles in the North. Considine – channelling some of the disturbing force he conveyed as the avenging ex-soldier Richard in Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) – is adept in the role of Gabe, trying and often failing to separate his two lives. Edgy performances rooted in social realism are Considine’s stock-in-trade and he is given fascinating material here and is well balanced by the perceptive, acerbic Bel Powley as Holly Morten.

In contrast to Bodyguard, Haines & Noshrivani present a whole Muslim family, in depth and warts and all: no idealisation or demonisation here. Heading an impressive ensemble cast is Nabhaan Rizwan as Raza Shar, a second-generation British Pakistani hairdresser who is mercurial, street-smart and basically decent but roped into deeply questionable activities as part of his new role as police informer. His family life is troubled and all members are presented as flawed human beings – not as driven ideologues or dupes for Islamist ideas as so many other dramas present Muslims. As I previously argued, Bodyguard does the Muslim community a grave disservice in its simplistic fictional representations of them.

This drama is keener to display how individual foibles can lead to a tragic, inexorable sequence of events and also sets up the intriguing subplot of Gabe’s double-life as “Charlie”, keeping open until the last episode the sadly all too realistic possibility of far-right terrorism in Brexit-afflicted Britain. The characters in this northern world, like Sharon Collins (Rachel Tucker), are not ogres, but nor are they shown to “have a point” in their core views. Sharon is distinguished from the rest in seeming less passionate in her politics, but nor does she seem to countenance leaving the group: she is of their world.

The world these particular Northerners exist in is clearly shown to be limiting and limited – indeed, they celebrate the legend of Charlie as the socially-mobile one who “escaped” – genuinely neglected by the metropole but also self-defeating in their closed attitudes. “Charlie”, when he encounters Nigel “Nige” Briggs (Richard Glover) who lays bare the geopolitical divides when Charlie asks him “What are you doing down here? I thought you’d never set foot in London”: “I still stay out the PC swamp as far as I can. But, you know, when duty calls.” As Gabe explains to Holly, “He [Charlie] was a hero to those people – the one that got away”. But, in his fiction, he didn’t escape to London but to the dreamland of Florida.

In a taut, frightening scene in episode 5, “Charlie” has returned in character to a working men’s club type venue where friends of Nigel Briggs (Richard Glover), implicitly of the far-right, gather to celebrate Nigel’s life following his death, which, in a dramatic irony unknown to them, was linked to his encountering Charlie again. Gabe as “Charlie” shows himself to be an expert rabble rousing MC, and is announced as “the master of disaster himself”. His rhetoric is inch-perfect in its rough sentimentality and incitement: “I know that Nige is up there, watching us. And he’d want us to have a fucking riot!”

“Charlie” is a performative, masculine Nazi, not with swastikas but a Burberry-style Mod jacket and who has the pogoing audience as putty in his hands, sharing in a love of their retrograde Oi brand of punk music. And then, there is the more disturbing turn when a pizza delivery man of Asian ethnicity appears to deliver food and “Charlie” apparently loses control of his persona and appears to side with what is an overtly racist mob against him. This scene, while clarified in episode 6, is not robbed of any of its stark power. It is violence and bigotry distilled; as Dennis Potter said of David Edgar’s ‘Destiny’ in 1978, this is ‘malignancy charted’, the malignancy of 2018 that has been gestating for a long time.

In Gabe’s assuming of this alter-ego ‘mask’, nothing is dressed up: he is shown to have a conflicted love and shame for being “Charlie”. Being “Charlie” seems to give him some greater adrenaline, ego boost and sense of belonging to this dangerous world, which holds greater excitement for him than his family life with Emily (Jessica Raine) and children. You get a sense that he might actually want to, as he says, “glory-days it” with Nige. This drama exposes the real and actual corruption of undercover police work, while also not necessarily denying its necessity.

Roger Jean Nsengiyumva is brilliant as Dadir Hussain, a roguish drug dealer who is nevertheless far from a stereotypical Black Briton; family life is more important to him. There is a brilliant scene where social worlds collide when Raza and Dadir encounter middle-class students in a local art college; this conveys something of East London’s distinctive and diverse social milieu. Raza also has a great, taut scene in episode 1, where he meets some middle-class London hipsters and rebukes them for their patronising, hackneyed attitudes and demonstrates he possesses cultural capital they don’t expect: knowledgeably mentioning photographer Robert Capa.

This is a defiantly uncomfortable drama of Britain in 2018, which centres on the mundane realities of multicultural London. It also conveys a tellingly nightmarish vision of the North, seen as if in passing via the cult of “Charlie” that hoodwinks the downtrodden, self-excluding group who put their faith in flags more than people. Best of all, it gives voice to a range of men and women and race is only centred on by the racists, whose stories are rightly given less time.

Brexit Britain: Day #1040 – Mass-Observation and Dream Diaries

From the 25-27 April, I attended the seventh annual conference British Association for Television and Screen Studies; the first I had attended and at which I spoke.

On Friday 26th, during my panel, the preceding speaker talked eloquently about a long lost BBC TV series EAST END, broadcast in 1939. This was an anthropological insight into the subject of Jewish and Cockney life in the East End of London, presented by Tom Harrisson, one of the founders of the Mass-Observation movement. More than a decade ago, David Attenborough presented a documentary on Harrisson, entitled Tom Harrisson: the Barefoot Anthropologist (BBC4, 18/01/2007). After our panel, the speaker JJ told me how easy it was to get sidetracked in the M-O archives: for example, getting engrossed in the dream diaries participants were asked to complete in the early years of the Second World War.

On Saturday afternoon, I made my way back from the conference on the Cross Country train to Newcastle. While there was excellent free WiFi access for the whole journey, and I spent much of the time typing up my handwritten notes from a fascinating documentary on Italian genre cinema of the 1970s, I couldn’t help observing some of what was going on around. The woman next to me was older middle-aged, serious but fairly cheery when she struggled to locate the right ticket. At Leeds, the train emptied. At York, it filled up again. A hen party, and nearer to where I was sat, a group of young women – very Geordie and working class. The sort of people Rod Liddle might patronise or, even worse, claim to speak for. The announcer on the PA system chummily advertised alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages on sale. 

This group was loud, on a generally noisy carriage. At a few points they had current popular “tunes” on, as I heard a passerby say. They went out of their way to be polite. One of them needed a tissue or something and a fellow passenger gave one and was thanked profusely: “You see, I’ve got manners, me!” It could have been an encounter in Lynsey Hanley’s book Respectable: The Experience of Class (2016).

This was far from the threatening raucousness you can sometimes get on a Saturday train from tanked-up average geezers. Their dialect was interesting – the Geordie usage of “grief” as a verb. Moreover, they did not just speak about their own lives but about the varied (and none too promising) job prospects in areas like nursing. One of them in particular had strongly held views, critical of people in their own generation who seemed to want to earn their money via Instagram, in some way… They were critical of people being “obsessed” with social media and discussed what they saw as the bad pay and conditions of being a nurse today.

After mentioning the difficulties the Health Service is having in providing care for certain conditions, one said: “I don’t think there’ll be an NHS in ten years’ time.”

These aren’t the sort of people, in age, class or geography, whose voices we hear much, except if they are ghettoised in reality TV or entertainment or mediated by journalists of left, neoliberal or right wing persuasions. (Most commonly, the latter two) It made me think of the folly of scrapping BBC3. It also made me think: why on earth doesn’t the BBC make a current affairs equivalent of Gogglebox, based in the likes of trains, bus queues and shopping centres? Unmediated by voice-over.

I had a dream, yesterday morning. The Prime Minister was holding a press conference. This was seemingly being broadcast to the nation. Yet instead of the usual sort of media set up she was sat on the floor. Beside her was a pile of books. After making a very cursory introduction, she picked up one of the books and began reading. The contents were baffling: nothing seemed to make sense.

It seemed she was somehow trying to be “authentic”. Yet, she was completely failing to connect and seemed utterly oblivious to how it was all coming across.

She abruptly abandoned the first book and starting reading from another, which again made little sense. The gathered journalists were scratching their heads and began muttering, uncomfortable at the non sequiturs. The PM’s delivery was as prim and Sunday school teacher patronising as usual, but it seemed she hadn’t learned the content beforehand. It seemed to me that these were books that had meant something to her in the distant past, or to someone else…

I was in the midst of the group and, somehow, a book appeared in my hands. I turned the pages, it was an old book, its contents were obscure. Its texture as a physical object particularly struck me as I turned its dusty pages; whole chapters were marked with soot. Yet, I was able to detect amid its antiquity that its subject was English culture and in particular English seaside resorts.

I suddenly felt that a sense of epiphany, as if it was being provided by a film voice-over: that I was aware, at least in part, of what she was getting at. Yet, I kept my silence and the broadcast continued. 

Brexit Britain: Day #1023 – Basil Fawlty to EU: “Give us a No Deal or you’ll be CRUSHED!”

So, the Brexit soap opera – series 4 is it, or 41? – has drawn to a close. Pleasingly, there has been much compelling television which engages with not just metropolitan London (the engrossing, zeitgeist-chasing Fleabag on BBC1) but also: down-at-heel Bognor Regis (the aptly discomfiting, sour Don’t Forget the Driver on BBC2), 1990s Northern Ireland (the magnificently refreshing Derry Girls, on Channel 4), 1970s-80s Yorkshire (Liza Williams’s astute, damning record of a society’s grim misogyny The Yorkshire Ripper Files: A Very British Crime Story on BBC4; why not BBC1?) and our very own Newcastle upon Tyne (David Olusoga’s A House Through Time, on BBC2, tracing a representative our-story of class, power, knowledge and culture).

It has also been a week when the Radio Times has proclaimed Connie Booth and John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers (BBC, 1975-79) as the UK’s favourite sitcom, which has also been interpreted as a warning about the isolated Little England mindset. One that wasn’t heeded. Somehow, many people have clearly overlooked Booth & Cleese’s encoding: laid-back liberalism and open-mindedness about women, the working class, the Irish, the Germans, black GPs and other professionals (not of the Bodie-Doyle kind!). Instead, they have aberrantly decoded Fawlty Towers as meaning that a besieged island mentality, angry paranoia and obsession with class status are desirable ends.

Speaking of Fawlty’s influence, what about that long-time MAY’S BRITAIN… favourite Mark Francois? This abuser of Tennyson and the English language (Europe will be “facing perfidious Albion on speed”, apparently), has not been tipped for the knacker’s yard of clapped-out Gammonry but for the Tory leadership…! By Telegraph columnist Charlotte Gill, who seems to have a latent desire for Tory oblivion, which would be just about the only positive by-product of an actual No Deal scenario. “A No Deal”, planning for which has been finally halted this week, is manifestly not the most popular option for the public, whatever IDS and Boris Johnson have claimed this week.

Gill’s unhinged punditry arrives amid inconveniently cautionary voices about the whole “Brexit” enterprise; not from usual suspects but from the Daily Mail‘s Peter Oborne on Open Democracy and James Kirkup in Brexiter-haven The Spectator. Oborne stresses the threat to the UK and regrets his lack of consideration for Northern Ireland back in 2016; Kirkup assiduously dismantles the myth that we would have ‘control’ or ‘freedom’ if we “go WTO”. Both reflect on actual scenarios we face now, not on the illusory fantasy Brexits that were hatched in many bonces in June 2016.

These were fantasies ludicrously indulged by the Prime Minister, as this January 2017 rhetoric captured on the front-page of The Times attests:

Somehow, the innate glory of Britain as a country put us in the driving seat, in a negotiation ‘against’ 27 other nation-states working in tandem and supporting each other… Somehow, for Brexiters, EU claims about not doing a trade deal without the backstop are bluff, yet a self-harming No Deal is not a bluff, but a desirable end!

As the second “Brexit Day” passed with barely a whimper; instead of mass public discontent, I sense rather tired annoyance and indifference. There was a whimper, an “off-grid”, “blackout” protest of maybe 3,000 (at best) social media diehards. Do they actually believe their propaganda that staying off work and sitting in the house with the TV off for one day could “bring the country to its knees”?

They exclaim: “No cars, no shopping, no TV, no phones!” Until we get our way and we get No free roaming on holiday, No EU food imports, No jobs from companies who have settled here over our 46 years of membership! No United Kingdom!

Well, I’m sitting in the house now, writing this and listening to house. Through the TV is playing ACID: MYSTERONS INVADE THE JACKIN’ ZONE, a compilation of Chicago Acid & Experimental House from 1986-93. A CD I bought in London two Saturdays ago. After having listened to Jens Lekman & Annika Norlin’s epistolary album Correspondence via the internet. I have played Mr Fingers’ ace ‘Washing Machine’ and also used a washing machine. Beat that! While they are free to listen to their Arthur Askey and Strawbs records on gramophone or vinyl and re-read Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech for the thousandth time without so much showing a leg… I think my activities will have as much effect on the world as theirs.

I seriously hope that this is my last Brexit post for a while, and the “Francois for PM” and “Blackout” incidents constitute an appropriately hapless, desperate damp squib with which to end this series of the Brexit soap opera. Sadly, I fear “Brexit” is going to be with us for at least the medium term. A nation has grown used to shouting at itself for three years, and, bizarrely, it likes it! Or, many do: especially those Leavers who like saying “get over it” and claiming to speak for “the 17.4 million”, but also that curious niche of Remainers who are desperate to rewind the clock to Cameron-Osborne’s neoliberal political programme of 2015/16.

As we enter a “Brexit Lull”, desired by all but those true believers in traitors and betrayals, there are other issues we might consider important. Greta Thunberg’s Friday climate change protests continue; David Attenborough is to broadcast on the subject on BBC1 next week. We might focus our minds on what happened one hundred years ago today in Amritsar, India, and while welcoming the fact that the Prime Minister raised the issue in Parliament, we should all urge her to apologise on behalf of the UK for what we did.

In writing about the 1978 Play for Today ‘Destiny’, I noted that the scene from David Edgar’s earlier stage play mentioning the killing at Amritsar of 400 unarmed Indian protesters by British troops ordered by Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer was excised from the television version. This showed a certain historical timidity in the BBC, which, while backing the play’s complex and even-handed dramatisation of many political voices, and showing the poignant death of Major Rolfe’s son in Northern Ireland, excised the historical facts concerning many more deaths in India in 1919.

We must remember, we must apologise. We must see ourselves as others see us, whether we want to do free-trade deals with India or Europe, or both or neither. I believe in the choice of a new generation and insist that we can leave Powell and Francois behind and heed the lessons of Fawlty Towers.

RIP, Scott Walker: the Outsider’s Champion

RIP, Scott Walker (1943-2019).

He was a transformational voice and exploratory musical modernist; no one has gone further into the ugly and beautiful. No other musical oeuvre has spanned ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’ to the 22 minute-opus of oddity ‘SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)’. Only Bowie (and maybe Hollis) is remotely comparable, in making “the journey of a life” in music so fascinating. In the 1960s, he popularised Brel and chanson and produced some of the best music to listen to for heartbreak; I’ve lived through it with Scott 3 (1969), believe me…! Later, he detonated the ‘song’, culminating in the wondrous masterpiece Tilt (1995). His music is immersed in history and humanity, in its horror, ribaldry, melancholy and humour.

In addition to Bowie and Hollis, he stands beside Leonard Cohen, Robert Wyatt, Peter Hammill, Sun Ra, Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush as a musical force that will endure.

‘Bouncer See Bouncer’ is at the summit of where music can go. It will resound in 200 years’ time. ‘Cossacks Are’ is the avant-pop cut-up of our dreams, Burroughs in the age of the Iraq War:

“A rare outcry makes you lead a larger life”
“You could easily picture this in the CURRENT TOP TEN”
“Medieval savagery, calculated cruelty”
It’s hard to pick the worst moment, it’s hard to pick the worst moment

Here’s a current top ten, nah twenty, of my favourites by Scott Walker. Bit pointless as you really need to listen to it all…

  1. ‘Jackie’ (1968)
  2. ‘Cossacks Are’ (2006)
  3. ‘The War is Over (Epilogue)’ (1970)
  4. ‘It’s Raining Today’ (1969)
  5. ‘The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime)’ (1969)
  6. ‘The Electrician’ (1978)
  7. ‘Butterfly’ (1969)
  8. ‘Montague Terrace (In Blue)’ (1967)
  9. ‘Plastic Palace People’ (1968)
  10. ‘Boy Child’ (1969)
  11. ‘Farmer in the City’ (1995)
  12. ‘If You Go Away’ (1969)
  13. ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’ (1966)
  14. ‘Epizootics’ (2012)
  15. ‘I Don’t Want to Hear it Anymore’ (1965)
  16. ‘The Seventh Seal’ (1969)
  17. ‘Tilt’ (1995)
  18. ‘Blanket Roll Blues’ (1984)
  19. ‘Lullaby’ (2014) (w/ Sunn O))))
  20. ‘Bouncer See Bouncer’ (1995)