Wednesday, 30 April 2008


To coincide with the release of Mike Leigh's latest film, Faber have finally included him in their ongoing series where film directors talk about their own work, and 'Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh' doesn't disappoint. Nor does Pathé's DVD boxset which contains all but this most recent of his cinematic features, many of which have never made it to DVD before. If only the same could be done with his TV work.

Nearly all Leigh's early work was in the theatre or at the BBC; those were happier times and the BBC still had a strong commitment to supporting the arts. 'Abigail's Party' (a 'Play for Today' adapted from his earlier stage version) is probably his best known TV piece , with Alison Steadman doing an unforgettable turn as the monstrous Bev. My personal favourite from that period would have to be 'Nuts in May', the one where a couple of naïve back-to-nature types take a camping holiday. There were consistent features that marked his work - the characters were grotesques, their character flaws exaggerated beyond belief. Mainly people with poor social skills, struggling to find their way through life, or those achieving a little upward mobility driven by their innate snobbery. Men tended to be obsessive and wimpish. Women are always the cornerstone of the largely dysfunctional relationships, either because they dominate the men, or because they are willing to forbear their inadequacies. Estuary accents lend working-class 'authenticity' at every turn.

When the BBC lost interest in arts filming, Leigh and his compatriots migrated to cinema; over the subsequent years Leigh’s work noticeably changed. Characterisation became less caricature, more rounded, and what many had seen as his sneering attitude to the working classes, where characters were there to be laughed at rather than with, faded . By the time he made ‘Secrets and Lies’, possibly his greatest film, he had achieved a perfect balance between ‘realism’ and the working out of his own obsessions. Brenda Blethyn stole the show as a single mother whose adoptive daughter seeks her out. But it was a great ensemble piece, sympathetic to all the characters, although Phyllis Logan does give the obligatory tour of her home. Three toilets! Leigh loves to mark characters level of social aspiration; their house, the décor and furnishings, especially the number of toilets they have. Secrets and Lies was one of those films that had everyone buzzing and happy as they left the cinema; it was the film that finally let Leigh make the leap from arthouse to multiplex.

He followed it with 'Career Girls', a film that felt relatively lightweight on first viewing. Two girls, who had shared a house several years before when they were at University, meet up for a weekend in London. It intercuts between how they are now and how they were as this pair of painfully awful grungy students, and therein lies the film’s very enjoyable humour. As the film goes on, coincidence piles on coincidence (even Thomas Hardy would have complained at the plot contrivance) and it becomes apparent that we are watching an allegory on the excesses of late Thatcherism.

Then there was 'Topsy-Turvy', a surprising change of direction with a bio-pic about Gilbert and Sullivan and the writing of the Mikado. Flawless and irresistible, if it had a problem it was that it appealed to the Merchant-Ivory crowd. They of course turned out in their droves for the film that followed, 'All or Nothing' but are unlikely to have enjoyed it; it demanded very different sensibilities of its audience. A microscopic study of a family at breaking point, it was 127 minutes of utter misery, then maybe 30 seconds of happy ending for those who sat it out. It was Leigh at his best, and probably the film to which 'Happy-Go-Lucky' is intended as a riposte. Finally 'Vera Drake', a commercial success but Leigh’s poorest film in a long while.

Leigh’s history is important because his new film not only harks back to earlier work, but is a significant piece in what has become a fairly large jigsaw. It must in part be a response to those who have complained over the years that he only ever has miserable characters in his films. Even those who recognise the absurdity of that perception would have thought any suggestion of a Leigh film loaded to the brim with happiness pretty implausible. Until now, that is. Because 'Happy-Go-Lucky' offers nearly two hours of unrestrained cheerfulness from Poppy, a single 30 year old primary school teacher. She’s not just happy, she’s happy with an unbearable manic intensity. She’s Leigh’s most grotesque screen character yet, and that is saying something if you are familiar with his earlier creations.

The first surprise comes as the film starts. It’s in full ‘scope, and it’s Leigh’s first use of the longer widescreen format. There’s a slight tease for cineastes as he plays with split-screen while the credits role before the picture finally spreads across the entire screen. Leigh’s regular cinematographer Dick Pope gets the best out of the format, and the picture, filmed to Fuji celluloid rather than any sort of digital media is nothing short of spectacular.

Against the opening credits, Poppy, cycles across Blackfriars Bridge. If we didn’t know that there was a camera car alongside her, we would fear for her safety; she looks everywhere but ahead of her (as do we, hence the split-screen) as she pedals furiously, apparently oblivious of the traffic around her. But there’s worse to come, because once she’s in the bookshop she starts talking, trying to start a conversation of sorts with the man behind the till, and immediately we’re embarrassed by the way she seems so oblivious to the obvious annoyance her laughing and joking causes. I say conversation, but that is one of the things that marks Poppy out; her conversations are one-way affairs, and she rarely engages with anyone sufficiently to see things from their side, as her continuous and intrusive chatter just continues long past the point of rudeness.

Your heart sinks when Poppy announces to her flatmate that she’s booked herself in for driving lessons (unless by now you’re thinking that a serious accident would be no bad thing) since she lacks sufficient concentration span to buckle a seatbelt, let alone get behind the wheel. But it is the driving lessons, and her interaction with her driving instructor Scott that is the core of the film. Tattooed across Scott’s forehead in six inch high letters it says ‘BORDERLINE PSYCHOTIC, DON’T WIND ME UP’. No it doesn’t, but it might as well do. As his inner demons and repressed rage threaten to erupt at any moment, the only person who fails to spot it is Poppy. The audience is almost as stressed as Scott as her constant joking cranks him up right from the off; if he wasn’t so utterly dysfunctional, loaded with tics and neuroses, and racist to boot we’d be sympathising with him. As it is we look on in horror, knowing that one way or another his fuse will blow before the film is out.

At one point Poppy goes to visit a sister who is married, living close to the sea, and in a singularly unrealistic state of pregnancy (her maternity dress bears an astonishing similarity to Bev’s outfit from 'Abigail'). As soon as Poppy arrives along with a sulky younger sister and her flatmate we find ourselves on familiar territory. He's hen-pecked, she’s the snobbish social climber. The one essential, the guided tour of their house is judged to perfection here, stripped away to almost nothing; the downstairs toilet, the patio, and the new table – ‘We only got it this week. Flat pack’. Enough said.

Poppy is apparently a primary school teacher; we even get to see her prepare for, and then take a class. But we don’t believe it. At one point she tells Scott that she’s 30 years old. We don’t believe that either. And that’s the point really, because Poppy isn’t an adult at all. The class we see her take involves the children painting a bird’s face on a paper bag, then all putting them over their heads and flapping their wings. Poppy joins in, and once she puts the bag on she’s indistinguishable from her pupils. She’s a young child, living in her own small world, constantly demanding to be the centre of attention. She has little perception of adult emotions, let alone the misery and danger that exists in the 'real' world.

Funniest moment in the film? There’s a lot to choose from, but I think I’d pick the flamenco dance classes Poppy and her friend go to. The instructor (played by Karina Fernandez) is a somewhat volatile Spanish woman who demands passion from her pupils. At one point, by way of example, she works herself up into a frenzy of overwrought emotion; that is until Poppy’s uncomprehending solicitude suddenly punctures the balloon.

This film is a tour-de-force, a sustained and brutal assault on the audience, almost unwatchable from the off. The cringe factor is so high it leaves you battered and bruised, utterly drained. Those who were drawn to this film through 'Vera Drake' will probably conclude that while the earlier film made some sort of case for legalised abortion, this one makes a far stronger case for strangulation at birth. Those foolish enough to demand ‘realism’ from drama will be utterly mystified. Those who asked Leigh to 'make a happy film for once' have had their bluff quite spectacularly called; I doubt they'll be asking again.

This is not the first time Leigh has made a film that is a difficult viewing experience, with a singularly bleak take on life. 'Happy-Go-Lucky' has serious things to say about the human condition, about the foolishness of our belief in the possibility of happiness. No-one’s happy in this film, although it takes a while to work that out.

A cinematic masterpiece. Recommended.

You may have made it through the film. You’ve certainly made it through my review. So I’m having a draw for an earlier Mike Leigh film on DVD. It’s Region 2, and I’ll cover postage to anywhere within that region’s map. The winner will get a choice; 'All or Nothing' or 'Topsy-Turvy'. To enter the draw just leave a comment here by the end of May, saying which film you’d prefer.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

The Archers podcast

It's not just Wisden and Rupert that have changed in recent years, the Archers has been the subject of tinkering and tampering as long as I can remember. Well, nearly as long as I can remember, I can certainly remember where I was the night Grace Archer burnt to death, and that was tampering on a grand scale.

To me the Archers is still meant to be on at a quarter-to-seven, have a contrived cliffhanger ending each night, and the Sunday omnibus edition should be introduced by Tom Forrest. John Tregorran and Carol Grey should still be teasing us with their romance, Lilian should be a horse-mad teenage tomboy, and farming advice should be heavy-handedly scripted in at every opportunity. But that's just nostalgia.

Nevertheless, the Archers does go through good and bad periods, and I find that I have to take a break from time to time. The great Ambridge mail van robbery was a classic example where the scriptwriters were low on ideas and the editor was in hot pursuit of ratings, and I just get weary for a while and find something else to fill those fifteen minutes. The last golden age for the Archers was when Liz Rigbey was the editor, for she knew how to balance the elements that make up the programme and most of all how to allow a story to run, such as Brian's affair with Caroline.

It was a tough time not that long ago; the Emma-Eddie-Will triangle did nothing for me at all. Victoria Wood did a very affectionate parody that ran for a week with the original cast and that was so much better I wished it could have continued. Now of course the Archers has moved firmly into the 21st Century with a daily podcast. I'm surprised but pleased to say I actually enjoy this. The most useful thing is the one line summary it shows each day, it tells you just enough to keep in touch without actually listening, and demands just enough imagination and plot cliché familiarity to fill in the gaps. Great fun, but sooner or later I'll be back at the wireless, I'm sure.

Just click on the image and check out the 'Description' column:

Friday, 25 April 2008

Rupert Bear

Over on the excellent Fora, the Political Umpire is currently finding himself fully occupied with this year's edition of Wisden, the cricket almanac so beloved of enthusiasts for the great game, as engrossing as an evenly balanced test match. The pleasure is not quite what it was though, as the publishers and the new editor conspire to improve on perfection; there's an urge to 'innovate', a hint of 'dumbing down', probably an unspoken agenda dictated by a fear that otherwise they will miss out on those whose only idea of cricket is a 20/20 match (and that's not cricket at all). So little by little they chip away at a venerable institution until it's venerable no more, and not too far beyond that it ceases to be an institution. They've shown signs over the last several years now that the distinctive yellow dust-jacket is past it's sell-by date (it's already badly disfigured) and sooner or later no doubt it will be given 'out', replaced by a glossy photograph of a well-proportioned young man waving a cricket bat in the air whilst wearing a luridly coloured shell suit.

My own particular pleasure is Rupert; it's appearance as Christmas approaches (so slightly earlier each time I fear) is one of the markers of my year. As soon as I see it on sale I have to buy it, create enough time and space to read it undisturbed end to end and fully absorb it. It takes me back to my childhood, where it would be in my Christmas stocking each year, and reading it on the top of my bed marked the beginning of that particular day. I no longer celebrate Christmas (certainly not to the point of giving myself a stocking!) but Rupert acts as a reassuring reminder that not everything in the world has changed. Indeed Rupert actually seems locked in some curious time warp in the early 1950s where children respected their parents, dressed sensibly, went to bed on time, and had few toys, but happily played outside with their friends without moaning about being 'bored'. If I had come to Rupert as an adult I would have been amused by the surreal element to it all, not so much the stories as the curious mingling of humans and animals, with the humans not nonplussed in the slightest by the fact that their doctor is a lion or that the policeman is a dog, they scarcely seem to notice. But I didn't discover Rupert as an adult, and I read Rupert now exactly as I did when I was young, no more noticing the absurdities than the characters do.

Unfortunately Rupert finds himself suffering the same fate as Wisden, indeed he has been suffering somewhat longer. The Daily Express inevitably found themselves in a difficult position when the elderly Alfred Bestall called it a day early in the 1970s (going off in something of a huff because Max Aitken had changed his artwork for the cover) but they weathered that storm and eventually found an artist who was comfortable with Rupert and his traditions. But by 1980 the desire to tinker had become overwhelming and they marked their first revamp with a change in the size of the book; swamped with complaints the Daily Express took the opportunity to blame the EU, who were supposedly insisting on standard metric book sizes. There was a distinct shift in the appearance of the cover, with simpler, bolder pictures in softer colours. The balance between story and activity within shifted, origami was nowhere to be found, and it simply didn't offer the pure unalloyed pleasure of old. Why, Mr Bear has abandoned his pipe and his predilection for plus-fours; is nothing sacred? There have been further changes in book size since then, but the Express have long since ceased to apologise, let alone blame Europe. There's part of me that dreads the book's arrival now, since each initial browse starts with a nervous check to see what remaining essential element had been lost, with the ensuing inevitable annoyance as my fears are confirmed once again.

You might say that Rupert is intended for children rather than adults wishing to return to their own childhood, and you'd be right. But the Express has taken to publishing a facsimile of a Bestall era Rupert each year, aimed entirely at adult collectors. The children I give Rupert to each Christmas get both, and they consistently prefer the earlier volume. So Rupert has changed, but not for the better.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Mother Country

On the basis of only two novels, 'Housekeeping' and 'Gilead', there are serious critics who have suggested Marilynne Robinson may be our greatest living female novelist. Both are very powerful books that demand to be read. But she is also an essayist, and in 1989 published 'Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution', in which she explores the moralities surrounding the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant.

Following the success of 'Housekeeping' at the start of the 1980s, Ms. Robinson took a sabbatical at Canterbury; it was while there that she first became aware of the existence of Sellafield. She was amazed that the world's largest source of radioactive pollution (as well as weapons-grade plutonium) was little known outside Britain, and that the British were by and large so willing to accept it's existence without protest. This essay is driven by the anger of that discovery, and offers an analysis not only of the global politics that tolerate Sellafield (because it solves the immediate problems of nuclear waste disposal for the rest of the world), but more particularly the passivity of the population here, which she regards as (unknowingly) oppressed by our welfare state, a continuation as she sees it of the Poor Law. She castigates our government for their willingness to risk human survival itself for no more than short-term economic gain.

It took a time to adjust to the fact that in the 'us and them' aspect to the presentation of her arguments, I am part of the 'them'. It is not spelt out exactly when she was over here, but I imagine from the image of Britain that she offers that it was around 1983-84; Thatcher's bare-faced incitement of personal greed has not yet replaced her destruction of so much of our established industry. And much has changed in the world (and in Britain) in the nineteen years since this book was published. Her suggestion that US military support of Europe is a one-sided bargain, with the US entirely the loser, is (sadly) ironically redundant; her failure to anticipate the changed realities of a global economy lessen some of her arguments. But that is no reason to ignore this book.

Although much has changed in the last twenty years, there's much that hasn't. Britain remains the world's dustbin for toxic waste of all descriptions, and politicians who in other regards are keen to declare their environmental credentials are united in silence. There has been more research into the link between radioactivity and childhood leukaemia in that period, and increasing sophistry from scientists seeking to deny the link between Sellafield and the leukaemia hotspot that surrounds it - one child in sixty is a victim in the nearest village. The British remain collectively tolerant, if anything more so than twenty years ago. Abroad, there is little or no collective awareness, and no will to interfere.

If you have read either of Ms Robinson's novels, you will surely have responded to the measured grace with which she approaches humanity; here in contrast she exposes harder emotions and invites the reader to share her anger. She does though write with the same precision and care, and regardless of which side of the argument you support, this book deserves to sit alongside her novels on your bookshelf.

** By way of a postscript, perhaps I should summarise the current and no doubt well researched scientific thinking on the causes of childhood leukaemia. It runs like this: The construction of nuclear facilities are the largest construction projects by far in the areas they are sited. As a result, very substantial numbers of construction workers spend time in the vicinity of those projects. Since astonishing increases in leukaemia rates soon follow, it must mean that childhood leukaemia is apparently some form of (little understood) infectious disorder, carried into the area by the construction workers. This self-serving logic conveniently means that exposure to radioactivity, although acknowledged as a major cause of childhood leukaemia, plays no part whatever when it comes to the hotspots around nuclear facilities. I'm tempted to say that you couldn't make it up, but scientists somewhere obviously have.

'Mother Country' is no longer in print. It is still possible to get paperback copies from the US at sensible prices via Amazon UK.