Tag Archives: career

DVD Review: Sliding Doors


What if? It’s a big question in all of our lives. What if I’d told her? What if we’d stayed together? What if I’d got that promotion? What if I’d worked harder in school? What if I had had just one more day with her and the chance to say goodbye? If we’re not careful we can get snowed in by “what ifs”.

 We have to keep our heads down to escape drowning in never-meant-to-bes or choking on could-have-beens. The possibilities that we spotted passing by out of reach haunt us as regrets. The second chances we never even noticed are too numerous to contemplate and tease us occasionally in our dreams. Let the “what ifs” talk too loudly and their chatter overpowers the everyday routine. Let them grow too tall and even the little things are given dark significance in their shadow.

Sliding Doors is a film about the little “what ifs” bunching together in mundane ordinary life until they have enormous individual consequences. When it was released in 1998 it was greeted by a mixed critical reception but it has since gone on to gain a dedicated following. It stars Gwyneth Paltrow as fashionable young Londoner Helen, complete with believable English accent, who is fired from her job at a PR company. She heads for home via the tube. The film follows two separate paths through her life; one in which she gets the train and one where she fractionally misses it, unable to squeeze through the sliding doors of the title.

The actor Peter Howitt wrote the script and directs a very grounded take on the idea of parallel universes and an alternate reality. The concept could have been lifted straight from sci-fi but Sliding Doors watches more like a meditation on the nature of fate, albeit with an uplifting rom-com tinge. One Helen, the one that gets the train, finds her boyfriend shagging his ex in her bed, only to fall for a handsome stranger. The other is delayed again and again until she arrives home late and unaware of the affair. She therefore carries on her life as normal, working flat out to support him as he “writes a novel”.

The plot is not all that clever, despite the engaging concept of two storylines running in tandem, and the dialogue is not especially witty or sharp. The real strength of Sliding Doors lies with the overlapping lives of rounded, likeable characters, well realised with accomplished performances. Paltrow is accessible rather than whiny in the lead role. John Hannah is convincingly charming and funny because of the way he says things, rather than what he says. John Lynch is a great actor, as he proves in the upcoming Ghosted, and he doesn’t come off badly here despite playing the cheating Gerry, who is often just left to look bumbling and British on the end of a full on feminine bollocking. Jeanne Tripplehorn plays mistress Lydia as a caricature but she serves a purpose and Gerry’s mate Russell (Douglas McFerran) down the pub is hilarious as the sensible one.

None of it is sublime, even the characterisation is simply above average for the genre. The acting is very good but not career defining. That said I really liked Sliding Doors. Its commonplace tone makes it all feel like it could happen to you. There are some slightly surprising twists in the climax and I was a little moved and amused in places. Its parting message is somehow both more resonant and bearable than most romantic comedies. Some things are inevitable. And there’s always hope.

Advertisements

On London/Birdsong at the Comedy Theatre


I have fallen in love again. How refreshing though that it’s not a woman that is the focus of my affection, but a city. Like a woman, this city is indifferent to me, but unlike with women this vast, inexpressible indifference merely adds to the irresistible charm of the place. I like feeling insignificant and anonymous within its boundaries, in fact I positively relish the sense of oblivion. The hustle and bustle, the noise, the possibilities; it all submerges every little, trivial concern I might have. I drown in the ocean of seemingly limitless fuel for my imagination and oh how good it feels. To feel simultaneously satisfied that I am gradually gaining a geography of the place, whilst barely scratching the surface of what is really there, of all that’s on offer. Gorgeous girls galore, lines and lines of landmarks, tearaway taxis, bulging buses, teeming theatres, pulsing pavements and many marvellous museums; it’s all there. If variety is the spice of life then London has a hot twang I am acquiring a ravenous taste for.

But now I am worried, I do not have my next trip lined up, pencilled in the diary. I am hungry for the city and fear the withdrawal symptoms. Having only recently discovered the joys of walking the capital I crave the stroll crammed with sights and sounds. How can anything else compare? Things simply happen in London. And on such a majestic scale that it still feels like the centre of a world empire, still feels like a great, churning engine of commerce that could achieve so much. There’s so much to discover. I’m not one for shopping, unless it’s an awe inspiring jaunt through the grandeur of Harrods, not buying anything but soaking up my surroundings. And yet this weekend the scale of the shops in London surprised my senses and seduced me. Why I don’t know, I’ve always known they were there, been there before. But this time I found myself thinking how wonderful it would be to able to pop out from home, my own base, to these places, perhaps with one item in mind, only to leave with others you forgot you wanted or didn’t know you did. I could have spent hours and hours trawling through books, it seemed impossible that they would not have what you wanted and even if they didn’t there was bound to be at least three or four alternatives you’d never have thought of. You’d feel nervous about the state of your bank balance and a little guilty, but in an exciting way; how could life ever be boring? And in some places things were cheaper anyway! What am I still doing out in the dead limbs of the countryside, when everything gathers there at the heart of everything?

Of course I know this is naive and not everything about London is great. I felt pursued by Cafe Neros the whole weekend for example, to such an extent that my train even passed one of their out of town storage facilities. They seem to have an outpost on every street. It’s either them or Pret A Manger, or often both. And I know perhaps a prolonged stay might have me cursing the dirty grime and toil and danger of city life. But increasingly now, in what I would like to think of as my clearer moments, I am realising that “life is islands of ecstasy in an ocean of ennui”, as The Dice Man puts it, and London is the sort of place that the islands are more frequent. I mean for me at the moment simply a glimpse of the skyline is thrilling and I can’t imagine that thrill ever dying out completely. So I think I’ve decided as one of my life’s few certainties that I want to live in our glorious capital city, even if I must wait a few years: London is the goal.

Anyway onto the main event then, after the distracting diversion of my musings. I was in London yet again to see a stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ successful novel Birdsong. It seemed appropriate that I would see this acclaimed First World War story dramatised a day before Remembrance Sunday, but insensitively inappropriate, if only in a trivial way, that the home of the production was the Comedy Theatre on Panton Street, just around the corner from Trafalgar Square. Whilst there were moments of comedy in Birdsong this was hardly stand-up and the key overarching themes were mainly grim and immensely serious. Nevertheless I swallowed my grievances about the suitability of the theatre and purchased a programme.

Perusing it prior to the start of the play I was intrigued by the sensitive artwork and pleasantly surprised to recognise a number of the performers. I knew Ben Barnes, of Prince Caspian fame, was playing central character Stephen Wraysford but couldn’t really care less about his previous body of work. However Nicholas Farrell has an impressive stage, film and TV CV. I think it was predominantly Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet that I recognised him from, in which he played Horatio. But he’d also been in Torchwood and Spooks. Spooks is one of my favourite series, not least because of its endless vistas of a glamorous London, and I was delighted to find that Isabelle Azaire, the main female love interest of Stephen, would be played by Genevieve O’Reilly, who played a double crossing CIA agent in the last series, working for a shadowy secret organisation and seducing MI5 officers with sultry American tones. The other most recognisable face was that of Lee Ross, playing the role of vital sapper character Jack Firebrace, whose credits included Eastenders and The Catherine Tate Show.

I did have slight misgivings about the fact that Farrell would play both cruel, unloving French husband Rene Azaire in the early scenes and Captain Gray later on, just as Iain Mitchell would play both the insufferable French oath Berard and then the insufferable English oath Colonel Barclay. But both actors produced such accomplished performances that I was willing to overlook this choice of economy. In fact in my view Farrell’s experience clearly showed and he was the highlight of the play in terms of quality acting. I had wondered if the performers would adopt French accents for the French scenes but was relieved they did not, with Farrell differentiating between his two characters sufficiently with a well executed Scottish accent for Captain Gray. The fact that everyone was speaking English in France was dealt with as matter-of-factly and skilfully as in the novel, with one of the characters remarking at some point that Stephen’s French was excellent, for which he thanked them.

I had always liked the novel by Faulks. In fact at the time I had first read it I was enthralled by it. A friend of mine remarked the other day that it had felt too much like a novel and I know what she means. It feels terribly contrived at times and is riddled with cliché and the play does not get away with them so well. I really should have re-read the book in order to properly critique the play and also in order to recall whether or not it was truly as good as I remember. Perhaps I was simply seduced by the period as the war fascinates me, as well as the romance, I’m a hopeless romantic. But from memory I know that the narrative sucked you into Stephen’s predicament so you felt strong ties with him. What I liked was the way the powerful and passionate love scenes early on gave Stephen a back-story and purpose that differentiated him from the usual heroes of the trenches. The book is rich with incident and historical detail but is not overloaded with it; here I disagree with my friend. I have read historical fiction that makes a fetish of research, David Mitchell’s latest The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet did it for long periods, but Birdsong did not. In Birdsong the focus was the emotional and timeless themes of humanity.

Some of the most affecting and accurate of these themes are difficult to express in words on a page, let alone dramatically on stage. There’s no doubt that a lot of what is good from the novel does not successfully transfer and the shame for the play is that Rachel Wagstaff tries to convey Stephen’s motivations and musings poorly. Neither Wagstaff’s writing nor Ben Barnes’ acting is up to the long passages in which Stephen is supposedly composing thoughts for his diary, alone at the front of the stage. Much of the first act, in which Stephen falls for the married Isabelle, is driven by his private reflections. Of course it was always going to be impossible to transform the explicit, erotic sex scenes of the novel to the stage without creating a very different type of production altogether, but for the entire first act you can sense Wagstaff wrestling with the dilemma of how to convey the intensity of Stephen’s love adequately, knowing how vital it is to the events that follow. Somehow in the novel you get caught up and follow Stephen along, not questioning whether this is just seedy, passionate lust or misguided youthful emotions. In the play though when Barnes says “I love you and I always will”, each time it sounds childish and clichéd and I would find myself agreeing with my friend more and more. Barnes just seemed far too smitten in a sickening sense, rather than a stirring, moving one.

In the programme I found that Wagstaff’s first play had been called The Soldier and was set in 1915. So she was on more familiar ground in act two when the action jumps forward to The Somme in 1916 and a wartime setting. It’s disappointing that someone could not have done a better job of act one though as I know how riveted and gripped by it I was in the book and genuinely despondent to find the action skip so far ahead. And caring about the love story becomes so crucial later on. Nevertheless I am making it sound worse than it was. Despite the clunky awkwardness of Barnes’ soliloquy like sections at times, the actual scenes were passable to good, if lacking the emotional  power (and erotic excitement) of the novel. And act two was a considerable improvement, despite the tedious diary format continuing, only this time with working class lad Jack Firebrace’s toned down, simpler reflections on things and letters back home. Generally though the camaraderie of the front Wagstaff captures well, with the humour of jolly idiot Berard in act one replaced by male banter and the idiocy of officers.

Another friend of mine, this one a fellow fan of Birdsong, was eager to hear how the tunnels were reproduced on stage. For this was another unique feature of Birdsong’s take on the war: action in the competing tunnels both sides dug out beneath no man’s land for various reasons. There were communication tunnels, fighting tunnels and explosive tunnels for blowing up the enemy from below. Birdsong has nearly been made into a film several times and I always thought that the claustrophobic, atmospheric scenes in tunnels, particularly the shoot-out, would make dramatic action set pieces. And so they did on stage too. Much of the effect of being underground was created through lighting, with blackness enveloping the stage besides gentle amber glows at the front. The rest was done by a low overhanging wall that came about half-way down the stage. The actors would then crawl beneath this, before emerging into the front of the stage, further along the tunnel where you could stand. Then for the fight with German soldiers, when two tunnels found each other, dust poured out along with sounds of an explosion. The Germans emerged stunned and surprised, brandishing pistols at the elevated rear of the stage, looking down on the Brit characters at the front. Shots that smash your ear drums were fired and an even louder, brighter grenade thrown. I had never seen such exciting scenes on stage.

But then I’m still a relative newcomer to theatre. I now have the inclination to discover more of it (particularly the charm and sophistication of Shakespeare) but it’s a world that was mostly cut off to me whilst growing up. Edging my way to my seat was still an act of deft, death defying balance as far I’m concerned. This is not me moaning though; I absolutely love the look and feel of the theatre. Just to know the building oozed history compared to the local multiplex was so interesting and fascinating to me. And even my balcony seat, when suitably armed with £1 binoculars, was the best of both worlds; broad overview of everything coupled with close-ups.

In the final act Birdsong came into its own. Even Barnes, who had struggled to convince me he had the required acting heft to play Wraysford, upped his game a gear. It was now that I remembered how this portion of the novel was the most moving and the play benefitted considerably from ditching the unnecessary modern day section of the novel, which seemed to be there simply to reflect Faulks’ own experiences in researching the book. Faulks and Wagstaff had both been heavily dependent on the diaries of soldiers in their writing process, but the difference was Faulks had interweaved his research in a different, rich style, whereas Wagstaff had actually simply used the diary device in her drama; it seemed unimaginative and unable to truly engage the audience. In this final chunk of the play the lonely speeches at the front of the stage were ditched almost completely and when they were used they worked much better. There was also more time on stage for both Jeanne and Stephen, who had a connection I did not recall from the novels but was intriguing. Jeanne was wonderfully played by Zoe Waites. She seemed strongly drawn to Stephen, desperate to share her sister’s secret with him to ease his gloomy woe but too loyal to break her promise.

Then there were the big climatic scenes: a reunion between Stephen and Isabelle and a claustrophobic collapse that imprisons Jack and Stephen in the tunnels. I wish I could remember the novel better, as I have a feeling there were changes, particularly as I remember a bird being used in the tunnel and Stephen’s phobia manifesting itself down there. Generally though this theme was dealt with well, with some nice dialogue between Stephen and Jeanne when she tries to lift him from depression and they debate the merits and evils of Birdsong. The scene in which Stephen sees Isabelle again was so moving, far more so than the joyous larking about of the early affair by the river and despite these scenes not completely convincing me. I was so affected by the speeches about love, even with some corny, cheesy lines, that I had to rush to the toilet when the play had finished and dispatch a rash text to the one I love in vain; my equivalent of a drunken splurge of affection, so intoxicated was I by the drama that I simply had to tell her I loved her, it was all that mattered. The effect this scene had on me somewhat overshadowed the final scenes with Jack in the tunnel and the rescue and the end of the war. But these were also well done. I was so relieved the play ended on a high and overall there’s no doubt that it was a quality production, if a little flawed at times. From my recollections of the novel though it was never going to surpass its brilliance, merely echo it and be good in different ways.

The Killer Inside Me


British director Michael Winterbottom’s latest project The Trip, a “semi-real” comedy starring Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan as loose versions of themselves, has been split into six half-hour episodes and the first has already shown on BBC2. Entitled “The Inn at Whitewell”, it consisted primarily of loving shots of the bleak northern countryside and comedic duels between the two, in which they debated the merits of their own Michael Caine impressions. I’ve seen Brydon live and one of the funniest elements of his act was his frequent return to amateur, but wonderfully accurate, impressions of various famous personalities. This was awkward comedy but essentially heart-warming, harmless stuff.

Winterbottom’s summer release, The Killer Inside Me, was far from harmless of course. It conjured column after column of controversy. And the sort of identity doubts Coogan suffers from in The Trip are sedate and ordinary compared to the internal divisions lurking beneath Casey Affleck’s cold features as Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford. In a southern, drawling voiceover at the beginning of the film Ford muses that growing up in a small town, the problem is that everybody thinks they know you. This small town and its Texan desert surroundings are as beautifully framed as the rolling hills and roads in The Trip, and evoke the period American details of diners and dunes perfectly when combined with the classic 50s tunes on the soundtrack. However these familiar hits playing in the prelude to shocking violence is one of the most sinister aspects of the film.

Of course the violence itself is graphic and hard to watch at times, and the unflinching portrayal of beatings sparked the flurries of protest on the film’s release. Opponents of the film will view the most brutal scenes as unnecessary and gratuitous. However whilst their intensity may take something away from the viewing experience by making it extremely uncomfortable at points, it would be foolhardy to label the violence as meaningless. For it is undoubtedly aiming at something deeper than simply a sick visual spectacle. The motives behind the violence and the victims’ reactions are more chilling than the blows and injuries themselves. The notion that we are all capable of such acts and that the human personality is multiple is alluded to in the title of the movie. This idea is frightening and made more so when we watch Ford convince himself of the need to kill his hooker lover, as part of a grand plan he must carry out, whilst another part of him is madly, compulsively in love with her. His internal justification of the murders is baffling, unsettling and terrifying.

 And both of the women Ford kills in the film genuinely believe him to be a good man. They are surprised by his outbursts of punches and in disbelief they do not turn against him. In fact with their dying breaths they wish to understand, to help him. As the viewer you wonder how they did not see the signs, the hints of violence beneath the seemingly kind law enforcer expressed in sado-masochistic beatings during sex. But then part of the terror is that from their perspective, trapped within the relationship and viewing things through a narrow lens, you could not see how far the domestic violence would go. It is the “domestic” peace of it all that also proves extremely discomforting. His female victims are unsuspecting and the murders take place in a quiet, quintessential 50s community. Life in such an environment might even seem boring and the expression of disinterested calm on Affleck’s face throughout most of the film, even during the killings at times, is tremendously unnerving. His performance as a particular type of calculated, unfeeling serial killer deserves praise.

But of course Lou Ford claims not to be “unfeeling”. He professes love for the sultry Jessica Alba and clearly has affectionate at least for his long term love Amy Stanton, played by Kate Hudson. Both actresses do an admirable job of trying to convincingly portray characters that are for the most part enthralled, rather than repulsed by, the violence. Despite his feelings though the twisted plan inside his head requires him to kill and in the aftermath he rides out the suspicions of others cool as a cucumber. The pace and tone of The Killer Inside Me reflect this mellow attitude and adds to its disturbing effects. However whilst obviously a high quality piece of film making, Winterbottom’s controversial creation could be more engaging, even after an explosive finale. It is neither a gripping thriller nor truly horrific chiller, but it is undoubtedly well made and thought provoking.

Fergie Finally Forced to Roo Missed Opportunities


As a Manchester United fan I refused to believe the tabloid talk of a widening rift between Wayne Rooney and Sir Alex Ferguson. It was the usual overexcited babble, trotted out simply to fill column inches. The sports pages have always brimmed with such gossip and rumour when the decorated, dour Scott decided to take a no nonsense approach to one of his big players. Rarely did such an approach lead to outright irreparable confrontation, and when it did the players had always past their prime or become replaceable. No one was seriously considering Wayne Rooney as a player who has already peaked, a player who could easily be slotted out of the side. When Ferguson had had enough of a player’s ego in the past he ushered them out the door and reinvented his side. Stam was eventually replaced by Ferdinand, Beckham by Ronaldo. When Van Nistelrooy departed Fergie changed the team’s playing style and adapted for the better. This time there was no question of Rooney departing and that being the catalyst for a wave of positive renewal, because Rooney was the one remaining talisman, the fulcrum around which any new generation would grow. Besides just months ago the England striker had pledged his entire playing life to a club he loved, respected and was grateful to. It is impossible to imagine where he would go.

I put all the excited chatter down to his recent personal and footballing woes. Rooney was the type of character who was bound to get agitated when in a bad run of form. He was also, or so I thought, a football puritan who just wanted to play as much as humanly possible. That’s why he was furious with Ferguson for being left out of the side a few times recently after news of his personal life rocked the airwaves. He wanted to play his way out of trouble, smash the doubters and the critics with his genius and endeavour on the pitch. Sir Alex, experienced with such media storms, clearly felt that Rooney would be better off shielded from the harsh glare of scrutiny whenever possible and unleashed to prove his doubters wrong only when fully, 100% fit. The manager was doubtless aware how he has allowed his squad to deteriorate in quality, to the point where Rooney carried United’s title challenge almost single handed last season, and he would be needed again at his best if United were to win back the crown. Sadly Rooney too could feel that burden on his shoulders and was no longer relishing it but allowing it to undermine his brilliance on the pitch.

Nevertheless even as the evidence mounted I would not believe that Rooney wanted to leave until Ferguson confirmed it in a press conference and Rooney followed this with a statement of his own. If there is to be a media battle as to who is blamed more, manager or talisman, it would seem Fergie has already masterfully laid the seeds of manipulation in his favour. Or perhaps the veteran manager was simply being honest and there was nothing calculated at all about his approach to the news. He seemed solemn at the press conference, powerless. The fingerprints of the modern game’s big money, agent culture were all over Rooney’s statement. The fans could make up their own minds.

Having said this Rooney does have some weight behind his argument. There is no doubt that Ferguson has let his team become over reliant on Rooney’s presence. I have been arguing for the last couple of years, and indeed have mentioned in previous pieces, the need for Fergie to invest in the future, a new generation of Red Devils and thus avoid the need for a massive, unrealistic replacement of faded stars like Giggs, Scholes and Ferdinand in one go with high quality, expensive replacements. There are still gaps in the team left by the departure of Ronaldo and even Roy Keane. At times United’s trophy charge last season was a limp and a wheezing carcass was dragged reluctantly towards the finish line by Rooney’s goals. When his form dried up so did the team’s trophy hopes. This summer it seemed inevitable that Fergie would finally reinvest some of Ronaldo’s gargantuan transfer fee. But he let more time pass without acquiring replacements and dumbfounded supporters by missing the chance to sign a bargain like Ozil, who ended up at Madrid. There was no excuse for such a failure. The manager has always insisted that he would not be held to ransom by the market, but here was a proven, emerging young talent at a sensible price. Instead an impulsive £7 million went on Bebe, an untested, youthful player from a low level of football, who judging by his start to life at Old Trafford looks set to go the way of Djemba-Djemba and other Fergie transfer flops.  

Letting Ronaldo go may have been inevitable and a good deal for United, but since his departure the manager has not moved to build a new great side or plug glaring gaps. In the aftermath of Ronaldo’s departure United’s weakness was the lack of a strong midfield spine, which cost them a second consecutive Champions League against Barca in the final. However rather than acquire that solid spine and build a new team for a renewed push for that third European Cup Fergie has allowed his squad to age. Now there is the need to replace Van Der Sar soon, find a new partner for Vidic given Rio’s continued fitness problems and secure long term creators and goal getters going forward. Acquiring all that quality in a hurry will be expensive and impossible given United’s financial constraints these days. Perhaps I am being unfair and in reality Ferguson, like any manager, was keen to go out and get players but was hampered by cautious voices behind the scenes, filtering down from the boardroom and from the Glazers. But in my view United’s diminished financial clout made it all the more important to gradually and sustainably acquire the parts of the next great side. Leaving things so late heaps so much pressure on players who simply don’t have it in them and risks a Liverpool style fall from grace from which the club might not recover.

Ok things might not be THAT drastic. Manchester United remains a massive club, with or without Wayne Rooney. Top, top managers hungry for glory and a place in history and capable of putting their own stamp of success on a team, would be desperate to step in should this crisis prove the beating of Sir Alex. If Rooney were to leave he would bring in a fee similar to that of Ronaldo, if not more. He is certainly worth more to the team, if not in the same dazzling, world beating form that the Portuguese was in. With no Ronaldo or Tevez at the club now only Dimitar Berbatov stands out as a world class potential talisman, and his form is sporadic. Therefore Rooney’s departure would surely demand serious investment in like for like replacements to keep United at the forefront of the game. There is already talk of Torres, Kaka, Benzema, Bale. As with Ronaldo though Rooney’s unique qualities make him effectively irreplaceable and a number of players, coupled with a change in style, would be needed to cover his absence.

Whilst Sir Alex has clearly missed opportunities in recent transfer windows that may have made the effects of this crisis even worse, there is a reason why Rooney is emerging as the villain of the piece; he is. Sir Alex Ferguson is a wise, successful manager, hindered by a difficult boardroom situation and impossibly high expectations. Wayne Rooney is a good player, but at 24 owes everything to his manager and his club. His statement talked of ambition and the club’s apparent lack of it, but for all the failings I have mentioned Manchester United remain one of the best clubs in Europe and are rivalled seriously only by Chelsea in the Premiership. Rooney has been privileged enough to have been elevated to effectively the leader of United’s trophy pushes, the carrier of supporters’ hopes and dreams. As Mark Lawrenson remarked in the build up to United’s stale win over Bursapor last night, Rooney has clearly forgotten where he has come from. He is a Champions League and Premier League winner and it is within his own power to ensure continued success for his club. Has he no sense of responsibility, respect or greatness? Where exactly would he like to go? Manchester City or Chelsea? Madrid or Barca? The choices are limited and none would suit him like United. Those who abandon Fergie’s projects rarely go on to better things, even if their already sizeable pay packets swell that little bit more. Rooney’s departure could permanently scupper United, but it will more than likely simply herald the beginning of the end for his own career and hero status.

New Balls please…Does Ed’s reinvention answer Labour’s call for a genuine alternative?


Prior to and during this year’s historic General Election my opinion of the then Schools Secretary Ed Balls was pretty low. In countless TV appearances his arrogant, aggressive demeanour failed to endear him to me, the general public or the voters in his constituency, which he nearly lost. One appearance on a Daily Politics education debate stands out in my mind. Balls had a strong argument backed with evidence, but his bullying behaviour of the unlikeable Tory Michael Gove alienated capable Lib Dem David Laws and I suspect the viewers at home. His intense, wide eyed robotic stare gave the impression of an obsessive madman, with whom it was pointless to try and reason. I always felt afraid for the children accosted to play with him for the cameras and prayed they would escape the education minister’s clutches, unscarred by those unblinking, shining orbs. Behind the insane eyes I suspected that Gordon Brown had long ago replaced Balls’ human brain with a Tory termination calculator, more suited to Labour’s attack dog.   

The Conservatives had rightly singled him out as their Michael Portillo of 1997; an unpopular Labour big gun to be toppled to highlight the scale of the reversal, the sheer triumph of Cameron’s new blues. As it happened Balls clung to his seat and not enough red dominoes fell in the wake of the blue tide to give Cameron a majority. The fall of Balls did not materialise as the symbolic story of a Conservative return and was replaced by the drama of coalition negotiations. And with the resignation of his long term mentor Gordon Brown, Balls felt free to step out from his shadow (after a deal with his able, intelligent wife) and run for the party leadership.

Since this decision Balls has quietly transformed himself into the country’s most able Opposition politician. It’s now pretty much the generally accepted consensus that he has run the best campaign of all the Labour leadership contenders, one that focuses on the fatal flaws of the coalition and proposes serious counter policies, as opposed to sifting through the wreckage of New Labour and whining on about the party’s identity. When Brown took over from Blair the expectations were that Balls, Brown’s protégé, would eventually clash with Blair’s heir David Miliband. Due to the fact that Brown had just acquired the top job and Balls was expected to be made Chancellor, and the storm of the financial crisis was yet to break disastrously over Brown’s popularity, Balls was once favourite to become the next leader. If he retains any of the arrogant self confidence that was evident during the election campaign, he will no doubt be finding it hard to take that even the most gushing articles about him do not give him a hope in hell of success. His carefully targeted, policy driven push for the leadership has been undermined by the Miliband family feud and an image of a bullying suck-up that he can’t quite shake off.

Frankly it’s a damn shame Balls didn’t conduct himself with a little less brash brutality and a little more civility in his formative political years. If it were not for the lingering impression of a ruthless career politician, who shamelessly and tribally attached himself to one of New Labour’s rising stars, it would be far more difficult for Balls to be pinned down as a leftist candidate, with no credible chance of success. Of course it might be said that Balls would not have got where he is today by behaving differently, and that a degree of forcefulness is necessary for success in politics but his track record has nevertheless made it difficult for the party or the country to imagine him as leader. It also must be asked whether or not Balls’ transformation is genuine, as he cannot surely have shed all his unattractive qualities overnight, but the facts of his policy decisions seem to mark him out as Labour’s best hope for an alternative vision to the coalition right now.

Rightly Balls places himself in the progressive camp by backing AV and a graduate tax. He disagrees with the coalition’s package for AV, because of its various measures to redraw constituency boundaries but says he would back it in a modified form. He has called for higher taxes on the wealthy and set out a sensible argument for reducing the deficit through fair tax rises like a NI rise, that only hits those in employment, rather than the coalition’s planned VAT increase. He has been the only shadow minister to effectively challenge the new government in his area, successfully landing blows against new Schools Secretary Michael Gove, not just for his building programme cuts but on the wisdom of the free schools project. Crucially as well as setting out his own fresh, progressive policies, Balls has shown the leadership qualities and level-headedness to stick to positions Labour adopted whilst in government he still believes to be right, despite media hype swinging the other way. On the economy Balls insists that new stimulus packages are still needed to ensure jobs, housing and growth and that the pressing need for drastic deficit reduction is an ideological myth created by the Tories. Whilst the truth probably lies between the extremes of the coalition’s cuts and Balls delay and extra spending, it is refreshing to have a Labour leadership candidate point out the lunacy of the culture of fear surrounding the deficit. Balls also has the weight of past policy judgements he called right behind him, such as his opposition to the euro and creation of an independent Bank of England, but his reluctance to draw attention to his aggressive past has meant he cannot point these out in the leadership contest as enthusiastically as he would like. There is an undoubted logic and sense to Balls’ arguments, as economic growth has always been the best way to reduce the deficit through higher tax receipts.

Whilst Balls looks unlikely to become the next leader of the Labour party there are already rumours of a deal between him and David Miliband. Such a deal would probably see Balls finally have the long coveted Treasury in his sights. Before this leadership election I would have been sceptical about Balls as Chancellor and much preferred the steady hand of Alistair Darling in control of the nation’s finances. However Balls has refreshed his image sufficiently, or at least cleverly concealed his flaws, to present himself as a competent and radical member of a new look, progressive Labour front bench that could offer the country a genuine choice and avoid the gloom of prolonged Opposition.