Tag Archives: characters

Page and Screen: Are our favourite characters more alive in books or movies?


The idea of character is more complicated than we allow ourselves to realise. Of course put simply they are made up, fictional people in stories. But there are those who wish to challenge such a casual assumption. Some say they are merely bundles of words. Others question their independence, as we can never really know anything certainly about anyone besides ourselves. Therefore are characters simply versions of their creators? Are authors, screenwriters and actors getting it completely wrong when they try to imagine what it’s like to be someone who isn’t them? Should all characters be developed to a certain point? Some crop up as mere extras in a scene of a movie or a chapter of a novel but nevertheless leave an impression on us. Do they count as true characters even when we know next to nothing about them? Do we need to know anything about a character? Can we know a character at all?

Of course it’s sensible not to get bogged down in such questions. It’s pedantic, futile and stupid to waste energy debating whether any character can have true meaning beyond an author’s words. Often characters are simply a fact to be accepted, a vital part of the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy any genre of fiction. But it can also be healthy to think about the limitations of characterisation as well its possibilities. Characters are vehicles that carry us through any story, doors onto worlds of escapism. Writing believable and engaging characters is the most difficult part of creating novels or films. Anyone can have a half decent plot idea or conjure adequate passages of dialogue but very few can mould the perfect characters with which to tell their story.

On the page the biggest challenge is getting a character moving because, as I said, characters are vehicles. Uninteresting, average or amateur writing can start by telling us about motionless characters. Great writers can establish iconic figures with very little information, which is seamlessly part of the narrative. On the screen it can sometimes be easier to get a character “in”, as the motion comes from the medium itself and the viewer can be convinced by things like setting, costume or the glance of a talented actor.

Having said this it is often difficult to transform the subtleties of the written word when it comes to character depth. For example, fictional figures like Jay Gatsby and Jean Brodie make very brief appearances in novels named after them. However the books can still be predominantly about their distant personalities. The Great Gatsby is about the potential rather than the actual, with the central message that “a dream realised is a dream destroyed” according to Sarah Churchwell in The Guardian. She argues that Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming adaptation, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, is doomed to failure because by its nature the film will try to visually realise the dream of Gatsby and his grand home. DiCaprio will inevitably be more prominent than Gatsby was in the book.

Jean Brodie too is a similarly enigmatic character, observed only from the viewpoint of others. She has her image like Gatsby and she is only ever seen putting on her front. She is remembered for a bunch of catchphrases, such as “you are the crème de la crème” and “I am in my prime”. In Muriel Spark’s novel (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) the perspective jumps around between Brodie’s pupils but we never get to know her, just her influence on the lives of her protégés.

This doesn’t make her flat or two dimensional but it probably means she is not rounded either. This does not make her a bad example of characterisation. We are made to think about the people we know; do we really only know their public performances? And we imagine more than we are told or shown about Jean Brodie. Spark throws in glimpses of her pupils in the future, of their deaths and careers, prompting further questions about the novelist’s power and Brodie’s desire to manipulate. So we know aspects of her behaviour.

The narrative blends of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Great Gatsby are difficult to imagine on screen in quite the same way. Their stories would undoubtedly lose something or become narrowed on a particular aspect. There are narrative techniques that have no cinematic equivalent.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning The Remains of the Day was adapted for the screen by Merchant Ivory in 1993. It centres on one of the most fascinating characters of modern fiction, Stevens the butler, played by Anthony Hopkins in the film. It might be that the role of a butler is the perfect lens for a multi layered story about class, identity, personality, culture and repressed emotion. Or it might be the talents of Ishiguro and Hopkins. But on the page and the screen Stevens is incredibly lifelike.

Subtleties and methods employed in the novel cannot be replicated on screen. For example the parallel narratives are largely lost and most of all Stevens’ unreliable narration. He is looking back on his career with nostalgia and it doesn’t take long for you to realise in the book that Stevens is deceiving himself about the past, holding back things and regularly revising his retelling. But Ishiguro pulls of the style masterfully. The half truths Stevens tells and the things he claims to forget or confuse reveal greater truths about him to the reader.

On screen Hopkins has none of these advantages to introduce Stevens to us as something more than a servant. But he does have the benefit of the visual. He can communicate with an expression or look in his eye the sort of doubt, regret and reserve it took Ishiguro dozens of pages to build. And whilst Ishiguro’s execution was pitch perfect in The Remains of the Day his preference for the unreliable narrator took some considerable practice to get right. In a previous of novel of his, An Artist of the Floating World, passages like this appear so often at times, almost on every page, that they become extremely cumbersome and annoying:

“These, of course, may not have been the precise words I used that afternoon at the Tamagawa temple; for I have had cause to recount this particular scene many times before, and it is inevitable that with repeated retelling, such accounts begin to take on a life of their own.”

Here Ishiguro is trying so hard to create a complex character that he is constantly alerting us to his efforts, shattering the reader’s immersion in the story. He is basically overwriting. So screen adaptations can often ditch bad writing to bring out the best elements of a believable character for a good story. But then there are also bad actors.

Anthony Hopkins is undoubtedly a fine actor. With roles like Stevens and Hannibal Lecter, he has established himself as a respected and acclaimed “character actor”. This term usually refers only to eccentric or developed individuals in a story. Our favourite characters can be just as alive on the page or the screen; they are simply represented in different ways. But they also need not be eccentric, developed or rounded to be alive and touching. They can come in all shapes and sizes.

The Shadow Line – Episode 2


Last week I confessed my confusion as to what precisely constituted “event television”. The first episode of The Shadow Line offered up an answer full of lingering shots of shiny details and realistic, stylised dialogue. Opinion was split between the lovers and the haters. Some drooled over the glossy detail and ominous script, whilst others gagged over the pretentious direction and fakery of the lines. I fell somewhere between the two extremes. I welcomed a British show oozing quality and ambition, but I grimaced at some of the glaring blemishes when the script tried too hard.

All in all it was a mixed opener, which set up a myriad of competing plot lines to speculate about. Thankfully the second episode built on the strengths of the first, whilst ditching most of its failings. Last night it felt like The Shadow Line properly broke into its stride. Literally. The episode ended with a selection of the key characters running at full pelt across a park, and then through London streets.

It was a chase sequence that prompted Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character to shout “SHIT!” and “I am on foot. Typical fucking British car chase”. But it didn’t feel like a typical action sequence from British TV for the audience. And it certainly wasn’t shit. Perhaps I was finally beginning to understand this “event television” nonsense. The climax to the episode was brilliantly judged, with the chase sequence moving up through the gears of drama. It featured only one standout stunt, a relatively simple car crash, but it shunted characters from cars to parks to tube stations (Bethnal Green incidentally, one I am familiar with) with expert fluidity.

The episode finally got its hands dirty with some plot progression after all of last week’s posturing and half formed questions on beautiful lips. Essentially it was the story of the hunt for the driver. Young Andy Dixon certainly doesn’t look like your average murderer, but he witnessed the killing of drug lord Harvey Wratten and is the only clue to the puzzle either side, criminal or police, has thus far. Wratten’s nephew Jay, played by Rafe Spall, quizzes Dixon’s mother and pregnant girlfriend menacingly, whilst Ejiofor’s Gabriel interviews them for the police. A third side also emerges, in the form of a character that may or may not be called Gatehouse, played by Stephen Rea.

The characters of Jay and Gatehouse illustrate exactly why audiences are split over The Shadow Line. Both could either be interpreted as colourful villains wonderfully acted or caricatures being painfully over acted. I’m inclined to agree with a comment from “dwrmat” on The Guardian series blog with regards to Spall’s portrayal of Jay: “ Whenever he’s on-screen, I can’t make up my mind whether he’s very, very good or very, very bad, which is a little distracting.”

The same could be said of Rea’s performance, although I instinctively found his mysterious and enigmatic character intoxicating, despite some far from subtle dialogue (“What I’m about to tell you is the most important thing you’ll ever hear. Ever”). His technique of scaring the family and friends of the fugitive driver is subtle however, when compared to Jay’s. The mental nephew of the deceased half drowns a cat and threatens to kill an unborn child to extract promises of cooperation. Rea’s character intimidates via a shadowy knowingness to his words and muted manipulation of his interviewee’s fears.

The main mystery now is who is Gatehouse, and which side of the investigation does he fall under? But other strands of the plot rumble on. Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph Bede managed to appease another disgruntled drug lord who hadn’t been paid with some dazzling calculations and a promise of ten million back instead of one. He again insisted to other characters he was simply a front man, installed by recently murdered Harvey as innocent and legit cover. Last week though he seemed to be far more important than that and in charge of things, and this week he’s still making the big deals and having people report back now and then. Ejiofor’s Detective still has a bullet in his brain, his wife wants to try for babies again, and the bullet might yet kill him. Glickman, another vanished but presumably still alive drug lord, remains undiscovered. Could Gatehouse be Glickman? Or working for him? Or is he a corrupt cop or some other darker side of the law?

By focusing on developing these irresistible mysteries and zipping along at a gripping pace, the second episode of The Shadow Line upped its game and got me looking forward to next week.

Black Shorts for the Edinburgh Fringe – Play Submission 2: The Debate


The Debate

Two men sit across from one another at a small table. They both have coffees. A’s is untouched, B regularly sips from his.

A: How would you do it?
B: Pills probably.
A: Yeah?
B: Yeah.
A: I can definitely see the appeal of pills.
B: I mean in a way it could be awful…
A: (interrupting) But they’re always to hand.
B: Yeah exactly.
A: I know what you mean though don’t want it to go wrong.
B: No.
A: Looks really amateurish if it does.
B: Yeah you wouldn’t want all the questions, the officials, the procedures etc.
A: Absolute nightmare.
B: Yeah right, worse than things were already.
A: Mmm.
B: Actually like you say pills are a bit dodgy and low key. I always imagined I’d go out with a big bang, something spectacular like.
A: How do you mean?
B: Well I’ve often pictured it, you know sketched it in daydreams.
A: Go on.
B: There are these cliffs at the coast near where I live. You can drive right to the edge almost to park your car.
A: Yeah. Are we talking Beachy Head-esque?
B: Not really. Isn’t like I have a loved one to jump hand in hand with.
A: Nah me neither.
B: Yeah.
A: So?
B: So?
A: What would you do?
B: Well I’d still take a good load of pills. Then I’d tape the locks down inside my car, in case some survival instinct kicks in if I land up in the water.
A: Mmm.
B: Then depending on where I manage to park, either drive off the edge or just let the handbrake off. Ideally I should accelerate I suppose for added impact and in case some good natured passerby attempts to stop me. But then I’m not sure what the pills would have done to me by then…
A: It’s certainly dramatic.
B: Yeah and a reasonable fail safe.
A: What about people below?
B: Yeah there is that. I guess I could do it at a time of night when there’d be no one about, have a quick check first.
A: And definitely nothing could stop the car?
B: Nah. There’s a rope at the most between you and a rocky fall.
A: There’s still a chance you could end up trapped and awaiting rescue with horrific injuries and no escape.
B:  I don’t think anything’s full proof though.
A: No I guess not, certainly not 100%.
B: And the pills would hopefully take me beyond rescue.
A: Yeah.
B: And like you say, it’s dramatic. I don’t see the point unless it’s more thrilling than the monotony of life.
A: Of course there’s a point, escaping that day after day pain.
B: How would you rather do it?
A: I’d rather a gun. Classic roof of the mouth. But fat chance of getting hold of one.
B: I wouldn’t know how to go about that.
A: Yeah exactly.
B: I’d be scared of just mutilating my face too. Isn’t like I know how to use a weapon properly.
A: Oh it’s pretty easy I think.
B: You reckon?
A: From what I’ve researched I think I could do it. Over in a flash.
B: Oh right…
(A lengthy pause)
A: Do you think that we all discover the same truth? Or something similar?
B: Sorry?
A: I mean, do you think that no matter what the personal reasons, everyone that decides to do it uncovers some sort of universal fact? Like a kind of enlightenment. That it’s all pointless.
B: Umm…I guess it’s possible. Certainly they must all reach roughly the same conclusion about the world.
A: They?
(Another long pause)
A: Has something always defined your life?
B: That’s quite a vague question.
A: I don’t know how to express what I mean.
B: That’s alright. The most worthwhile things are difficult to articulate.
A: Yeah I agree.
B: So give it a try.
A: Well for me…well I guess that truth I was talking about is for me that everyone has a particular conflict that defines them. For me it’s always been a conflict between a desire to make a mark, make a difference, leave some sort of permanent bettering legacy behind and an overwhelming fear of being alone. I don’t think everyone’s conflict is the same, but I think everyone has one. And I think that those of us who decide to escape that conflict have seen the one truth there is.
B: Which is?
A: Life is an insurmountable challenge. You can’t reconcile that conflict, you must choose between one or the other.
B: Which did you choose?
A: What do you mean?
B: Did you choose to make a mark or to avoid loneliness?
A: I chose nothingness.
B: Because you couldn’t succeed in either?
A: I think so yeah. It’s better than the panic.
(A pause)
B: Don’t you have friends?
A: Of course, technically.
B: What do you mean “technically”?
A: Well they are acquaintances. I disagree with that old saying that you can choose your friends but not your family. I was always just lumped together with people; my “friends” were as determined as my relatives.
B: Well determinism is a whole different debate.
A: Is it? Most things are connected, probably underpinned by that.
B: To an extent. But I’ve had the illness I told you about all my life, and it didn’t stop me achieving certain things. I was limited but not beaten by it.
A: Mmm.  
(Another pause)
A: Thank you for agreeing to meet me.
B: It’s no problem, I find it interesting.
A: Interesting?
B: Yeah people won’t discuss this sort of thing openly, sometime it’s more difficult with people you know.
A: Yeah. Why do you think that is?
B: I’m not sure, too uncomfortable I suppose. People let their guard down online.
A: I know what you mean. But normally it’s…it’s just…
B: Sexual?
A: Yeah.
B: Yeah you delve through a lot of scum for something resembling conversation. It’s not really a good place to search for it.
A: But it’s the only place.
B: Exactly.
A: What about a date?
(B nearly chokes on his coffee)
B: What?
A: Would you rather do it at a particular time of year?
B: Oh! Well I don’t know…I guess it’s more about when you feel you’ve had enough.
A: Yeah.
B: Do you have a favourite date for it then?
A: The 6th of September.
B: That’s soon.
A: I know.
(Short pause)
B: How come?
A: What?
B: Why then?
A: It used to be the date we’d usually go back to school.
B: Were you unhappy at school?
A: Not especially.
B: Ok.
A: I don’t really know why. I don’t tend to get things done unless they have to be, by a certain date.
B: Yeah I get that. It’s impossible to motivate myself sometimes.
A: Yeah same.
B: And I completely understand what you mean about life being this whole, this unconquerable and insurmountable thing. There are so many things I want to do but the reality is I won’t even manage half of them. Even books I want to read, they just sit there on this imaginary checklist. It’s not just about time…
A: Yeah you want to do it but it’s like you don’t have the energy reserves.
B: Yeah or not even energy, just the will to do it sometimes.
A: Perhaps it’s because you understand the futility of it all underneath.
B: Maybe…maybe yeah…(checks his watch) Blimey I better be going I guess!
A: Oh right ok…Somewhere you need to be?
B: Yes meeting with a student.
A: Ah.
B: This was really interesting as I said. I talk about ideas in my work all the time but this sort of blunt; stripped down conversation…it’s intellectually refreshing!
A: Intellectually?
B: These things are usually off limits I suppose, for “civilized” conversation, but they’re facts of life like anything else.
A: Intellectual facts right?
B: I’d love to meet again. Are you free at the same time on the 10th? I have to say I’d never have thought a meeting with someone from online could be so rewarding. You tend to think it’s all just superficial, all fake on there.
A: That’s after the 6th.
(A pause)
B: Wait…you’re not…you’re not actually serious about…about all this?
A: (hesitates) Course not… (forced laugh) Course not, course not, God no!
B: You’re alright then?
A: I’m alright?
B: Ok for the 10th? Here again?
A: Yes, yeah why not.
B: (standing to leave. Puts some cash on the table) My shout!
A: Right.
B: (walking away to exit, calls back) Till the 10th then!
A: Yeah.

Macho Antidotes to the Royal Wedding – Part 3: Bargain DVDs – Trainspotting and The Wrestler


The big day is upon us. The masculine apocalypse is now. The horsemen will round the corner towards Westminster Abbey any moment, dragging their cargo of the merry middle class and nostalgic Eton boy politicians, right into our living rooms. Oh my god it’s not long until we get to see Kate’s dress!

Shoot me now. I am apprehensive, a little scared even, because I may have been advocating alternatives to the big day but I know I’m fighting an entity so vast that it will inevitably stray into my line of sight at some point. I won’t be able to flee the hordes living and breathing the ceremony like it was their own. It wouldn’t even do any good to flee abroad, if anything they’re more marriage mad than the most devout British Royalist. So I definitely cannot outrun this and in addition I have another problem. I can’t hide from it either, because I’ve already consumed the alternatives in order to point them out to all of you. Blokes, guys and lads everywhere, I hope you appreciate my sacrifice.

We’ve reached the final alternative step and its one I like to think of as the emergency measure. Thor at the cinema requires venturing out and United on iPlayer requires dangerous proximity to internet coverage, but these two films on DVD, available on the bargain shelves of any local high street, merely need a TV. I know, believe me I know, the wedding is on all the channels.  But if you have an even more serious aversion to confetti and vows than me, just pull the aerial out and stick these two very manly films in to play, one after another.

Firstly then a film I’ve been meaning to see for a long while, the Scottish breakthrough piece for Danny Boyle, Trainspotting. Despite all the hype, from critics and friends alike, I really didn’t know what to expect from this exactly. I knew there was drug taking, in all likelihood sex, and an awful lot of accented foul language. I knew it starred an emaciated Ewan McGregor. I knew it would have both fun and filth. I knew Boyle’s playful style would scrawl a signature in every scene. I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so hilarious and true to life as it was.

Much of the humour comes from the characters of McGregor’s Mark Renton’s “so called mates”. Johnny Lee Miller, now starring fifteen years on in Boyle’s critically acclaimed Frankenstein opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in the theatre, plays a Sean Connery obsessed, seemingly streetwise fellow crack addict. His assessments of Connery’s performances as James Bond and his astonishing grasp of box office data, were particularly surreal for a fellow Bond fan like me, as he helped friends to inject heroin. He turns out to be far less clued up than he pretends to be though. Then there’s Spud, a guy who is very plainly clueless from the start, who lands up throwing his shit all over his girlfriend’s family at breakfast. Don’t ask how. Slapstick perhaps, but I laughed for several minutes.

There’s also Tommy, a guy McGregor’s surprisingly appealing narration informs us has the fault of being honest and not addicted to any banned substance. I assume the visceral poetry of Renton’s narration is so attractive because it is transplanted largely untouched from Irvine Walsh’s novel, which is infamous for its use of Scottish dialect. A scene where Tommy and Spud discuss the pitfalls of their respective women at a club, and the girlfriends do likewise about the boys in the toilets, presumably also has its roots in the book. But it’s wonderfully adapted by Boyle, with subtitles not quite necessary because of the noise and very capable comic acting depicting the darkly funny give and take realities of relationships.

Finally there’s a young Kelly Macdonald, who has since appeared in No Country For Old Men, in her first film. Renton catches sight of her in a club as she’s leaving, with his sex drive rapidly returning as he attempts to give up his habit. He follows her outside, as his narration tells us he’s fallen in love, and tries it on with her. She confidently shoots him down, only to snog his face off in the taxi and subsequently shag him rampantly in her room. In the morning Renton discovers she’s a schoolgirl, and the people he presumes to be flatmates are her parents. It’s the sort of cheeky scene present throughout the film but it centres on deeper, more disturbing truths about youths trapped in a certain limited form of existence.

Renton is undoubtedly trapped by his addiction and his school girl lover is trapped by her age, a desire to break free and be independent. We all know what it’s like to feel trapped; it’s a very human feeling, despite our supposed freedom. Whether you’re a nurse at a crowded hospital running a gauntlet of noses going off like shotguns of snot, a doctor watching patients with crash dummy heads and vacant eyes or one of thousands of the unemployed youths in this country retreading the same old paths, the same old trenches of memory through the earth, with no concept of a future. We can all get that feeling, and recognise it in others.

Ay na donne get all political pal? Keep it light! Ay?

Ah yes I forgot a character. Robert Carlyle plays Begbie, a moustachioed Scott whose job description reads thus: “playing pool and drinking at the bar, until a minor action by another customer causes him to lose his rag and beat everyone shitless”. Begbie’s probably trapped too, but to be honest his character never seemed much more than smashing entertainment. Literally.

The thing about Renton is that he thinks he’s beaten the rest of us buggers trapped in the game of life, chasing after fat televisions and fancy cars. He thinks that by choosing drugs he’s chosen nothingness and some sort of purer, pleasure filled existence. But like every revolutionary he comes to realise he is as trapped by the system as those embracing it. He needs money for his hits, friends for his sanity. Or maybe not friends, as you’ll see if you watch the film.

Trainspotting is a damn good ride through the monotony of modern existence, with eccentric but hilarious and extremely likeable tour guides. It’s more than your average tourist experience because at times it really gets you to think. And as an exploration of drug culture, Boyle’s direction is suitably dirty, bizarre and haunting, but also responsible and not over the top. You’ll flinch at some of the filth, the needles and most of all McGregor screaming his lungs out at a hallucination of a baby. Trainspotting is not simply a mash-up of visual clichés about getting high though, perhaps because it has such a strong grounding in character.

And so we come to The Wrestler, directed by Darren Aronofsky. Now Darren, as I like to call him, is someone I have a love/hate relationship with. First came the love, as I fell head over heels for the sensuality of Black Swan (https://mrtsblog.wordpress.com/2011/01/24/black-swan/) and then came the hate, when I followed this up with his earlier much praised work, Requiem for a Dream (https://mrtsblog.wordpress.com/2011/02/06/an-open-letter-to-darren-aronofsky/).

One of the reasons I found Trainspotting so refreshing was that whilst it dealt with drugs and it had its strange and psychedelic scenes of intoxication; it did not become the pretentious exercise in filmmaking that was Requiem for a Dream. I will probably be slated for saying it, and it may merely have been the context in which I first saw it (see link), but I really didn’t like that film. I did not see the point to it. Trainspotting seemed to say something far truer about addiction, despite its tongue often being firmly in cheek.

I only bring this up because it all meant that I didn’t know what I was going to get from The Wrestler; dazzling Darren or dopey Darren. The critical buzz around Mickey Rourke’s resurrected corpse meant not a jot, because some of them hated Black Swan and some of them loved Requiem.

I would not go as far as the five star quotes plastered over the cover. I would not call it the “ultimate man film” as FHM did. But it’s undoubtedly a film about a man and ageing, whereas Trainspotting, with hindsight, was a film for boys. Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson is someone trapped by his past, the legacy of his prime, and the mistakes he made during that ripe period of life.

Perhaps Rourke put in such a praiseworthy performance because he could really inhabit his character. He has been there, more or less. Rather than playing a caricature or a gun toting gangster, Rourke is simply a person here; a human being in decline, or as he says in one moving speech “a broken down piece of meat”. At first I didn’t see what all the fuss about his performance was, but then after a few emotional scenes with a potential lover and ageing stripper (Marisa Tomei) and particularly some heartbreaking confrontations with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), Rourke brings Randy to life.

There’s always the danger of melodramatic sentimentality, but the film manages to avoid it, primarily because of the masculine restraint of Rourke’s portrayal. Aside from some brutal wrestling scenes and one careless fuck, this is rather pedestrian territory for Darren after the frenzied, frenetic highs of Requiem and the disorientating dash for beautiful perfection in Black Swan. The Wrestler certainly didn’t grab me and it didn’t inspire the extremes of emotion that Darren’s two other efforts did. It has sporting parallels with Black Swan but lacks the wow factor of that film.

I don’t think there’s necessarily anything that wrong with The Wrestler. In some ways it is refreshing to see a film that shows so many sides of a man’s ordinary life, making his escape from that routine via his passion all the more meaningful. There’s no doubt that performing as a wrestler requires a certain level of very manly commitment to the drama. This film will offset any feminine activities like dusting icing sugar on cupcakes or fashioning paper chains with ease. But it’s so realistic, so dreary and so grim, that this antidote might lead to a dangerous and depressing overdose.

If you watch these back to back, watch Trainspotting last. It’s fun as well as not for the faint hearted. Either film is preferable to pointless precessions though, I’m sure you’ll agree. Never mind God Save the Queen, God save male souls everywhere and best of luck!

Macho Antidotes to the Royal Wedding – Part 2: United on BBC iplayer


My second suggestion of anti-Royal Wedding medication for the ordinary man, following the sensational spectacle of Thor, is a single strong dose of BBC drama United, shown on Sunday and now available on iplayer. If Thor was grounded in fun fantasy then United is rooted firmly in poignant and period storytelling, of the sort the Beeb does so well. In fact with budget cuts beginning to bite, our national broadcaster has made it clear that quality dramas like United and The Crimson Petal and the White are the future of BBC2 in particular. If future projects are as good as these then it’s a wise as well as an economical decision.

United is the story of the tragic Munich air crash that killed most of Manchester United football club’s first team, as well as reporters and staff, after a successful European cup match in Belgrade. The squad’s flight was stopping over in a snowy Munich to refuel and the players and coaching staff were keen to return in time for their league game that weekend, and thus avoid a points deduction. For most football fans the catastrophe that cruelly cut short the life of so many of “Busby’s Babes” is the stuff of familiar legend. I have been a Manchester United fan since the age of 6 and was raised on the fairytales of pure footballers from both before the disaster and after it. The men directly touched by such devastating events forged the foundations for Manchester United to become the world famous and successful club it is today.

Rest assured though, United is a good drama and an absorbing watch, pure and simple. For those without the background in football heritage or even those that can’t tolerate the game, this is a captivating human story of careers, celebrity and comebacks. Most importantly this is an extremely British tale and the perfect anaesthetic for ears bleeding profusely because of the hypocritical and imbecilic and meaningless whining of Americans pleasuring themselves over the blandest, most lifeless 24 hour coverage of the exterior of Bucking-HAM palace.

Despite the subject matter United is not all doom and gloom. For over half an hour from the start we are welcomed into the heart of a football club going from strength to strength. But it’s not about the football; it’s about the characters at the club. We are treated to finely honed BBC costume drama detail, from the 1950s fashions, to the dressing room, to Old Trafford, the Theatre of Dreams itself, rendered lifelike with impressively unnoticeable CGI. Most pleasing of all is the delicious double act formed between David Tennant’s Welsh coach Jimmy Murphy and Dougray Scott’s understated but charismatic portrayal of United’s most celebrated manager, Matt Busby.

Most of the time, Tennant steals the show, as he does in almost everything he’s in. It is by no means one of the more important judges of an actor, but Tennant continually succeeds at accent after accent, this time believably carrying off the musical Welsh tongue. This role also allows him to show off other more vital aspects of his talent too though. He has tremendous fun motivating the players as a coach with vision and then more than copes with the emotional side to the story when the drama hits. The majority of Doctor Who fans may now be fully warming to Matt Smith but Tennant remains a class act and it’s actually refreshing to see him embracing parts as diverse and interesting as this one.

It’s fitting that United is mostly told from the perspective of a young Bobby Charlton. He’s now a Sir and a national treasure, but then he was just a lad that wanted to play football. And he ended up living through a harrowing and traumatic experience. Yet he came out the other side of it and was lucky enough to have been part of the great team before the crash, and the even greater side built from the ashes. Jack O’Connell, who plays the young Charlton here, does a really good job whether he’s stumbling through the plane’s ripped ruins and grimacing at explosions, practicing on the pitch or gazing up in awe at the stadium.

As a production United really does ooze quality. The acting is top notch, the music is touching and the directing beautiful, particularly at the snowy crash site itself and in the dressing rooms. It also deals sensitively with an immensely emotive issue. The question of blame is delicately raised and wisely the film does not nail its opinion to any specific interpretation. Some will blame those who were desperate to play abroad and then make it back home in time for the league match, and indeed Busby blamed himself. Some will blame the league officials who refused to grant a postponement to the fixture after United’s European trip. Some will insist the officials at the airport and the mechanics and the pilots should have taken more care. But the sensible will just accept the terrible tragedy of it all. The enormous grief.

Of course the overwhelming and important cost of the crash was the human one, with so many young men dead. Their families and girlfriends and mates were robbed of their lives prematurely. As a drama United undoubtedly tells that tale. It often seems callous, stupid and emotionally ignorant to talk of the cost to the game of football. I call myself a football fan but much of the time the game leaves me unmoved. I do not live and breathe the game, I no longer care greatly as I used to as a child when one of my favoured teams does poorly. It takes a great occasion or an unusually interesting story, or an exciting match with beautiful passages of play, to truly ignite my interest these days. But there certainly was a significant cost to the game of football after the Munich crash, and it was a cost that mattered almost as much as the loss of their lives. United tells that story too.

It mattered that such a great and talented team was almost completely wiped out, because it mattered to them. It would have mattered to those that died and it mattered to those left behind. It mattered to the fans that mourned them and even the people that knew them. It’s too easy to talk with nostalgia of how football used to be, with starting elevens as opposed to giant squads and meagre salaries and basic training pitches; the modern game is too often ignorantly slated as excessive junk. Watching United though you can see the appeal of that nostalgia, of an old school approach brimming with romance, you can understand those who knew it firsthand ranting and raving at the money making machine that’s replaced it.

Nowadays you wouldn’t get Tennant’s character, a first team coach, ringing round top flight clubs begging for players in the aftermath of a disaster so that the locals could see a game and to maintain the winning philosophy of a club. It just wouldn’t be possible. Or necessary. You wouldn’t get a fairytale quite as magical as the one that swept a ramshackle team, comprised of youngsters and amateur unknowns, to the F.A. Cup Final at Wembley just months after the crash.

I’m not ashamed to admit I cried watching United. I might have been predisposed to an outpouring of emotion because United stirred up a long since cooled love in me for the beautiful game. But I defy anyone not to be moved by such excellent acting, such accurate portrayals of grief and commitment and passion. I have been reminded by United that anything, be it art, table tennis or cartoons, that takes you out of yourself and absorbs you, helping you to forget pain and grief completely just for a moment, is a worthwhile and admirable activity. Something worth fighting for.

The Royal Wedding is more likely to make me vomit than get teary but I know it would be more acceptable to sob down the pub over the achievements of football greats than the nuptials of a posh Prince. So when the women are welling up at the sight of a dress or a bouquet, tell them you’re not dead inside you’d just rather save your sympathy and admiration for real royalty.

GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra – yes you read that correctly


I’ll start with a revelation; I paid actual money to own this on DVD. It was cheap, it was on offer, but nevertheless I handed over real currency. Why not just burn a wad of cash instead? The answer is that these days I am so enjoying wearing my critic’s hat that I actively sought out a film on the shelves of HMV that would prove the perfect target for a volley of vitriol on a day of frustration. Yes bad films can be painful to endure, but take a tip from me; write derisively about them afterwards and the whole experience is transformed into the best kind of therapy.

I also thought that given the hordes of superhero blockbusters soon set for release, a great many of which based on cinematically underused characters, it would be interesting to examine a film trying to establish a franchise. And more than likely point out all the areas it fails in, thus advising the big cheeses at Marvel and DC and the like, who all hang on my every word.

Having said this despite day after day of dismalness since I purchased GI Joe, days in which I could have done with a cleansing rant, I could not bring myself to sit down to watch it, knowing that watching the film itself would probably shovel manure onto my already foul smelling mood.

Now though the deed is done. All of GI Joe’s 113 minutes rammed down my eyeballs and willingly into the vaults of memory. My verdict will be far from surprising. As usual it’s simultaneously comforting and disheartening to have my own views almost precisely tally with the summary on Rotten Tomatoes:

While fans of the Hasbro toy franchise may revel in a bit of nostalgia, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is largely a cartoonish, over-the-top action fest propelled by silly writing, inconsistent visual effects, and merely passable performances”

Yes I might be getting it right, but what’s the point in me if I don’t say anything new?

With this in mind then, here are some things that were surprising about GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra:

1)      It’s got a really impressive cast! People pop up from all over the world of film and TV, for even the slightest of roles, and in particular from places kids will love. There’s a Doctor Who being bad (a suitably evil and decent performance from Christopher Eccleston), the Mummy from The Mummy, the villain from Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies as the President, the guy who stops the Mummy in The Mummy, that cool street dance kid, her from Stardust, the serious one from Inception (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who’s soon to be in Batman too!) and that shouty scientist who saves the world from the inevitability of global warming in The Day After Tomorrow. I can only assume that all the American stars in this loved the toys and all the Brits were paid treasure chests full of booty for their unavoidably sinister accents.

2)      Talking of booty GI Joe has an awful lot of it for a family friendly action story. Dennis Quaid struts around as a General with a stunning beautiful assistant always to hand. Sienna Miller’s cleavage deserved its own recognition on the billboards. Red headed, blonde and brunette beauties are showcased in everything from skin tight “accelerator” suits, to tiny jogging tops or outfits made from 100% leather. Obviously to enjoy GI Joe at all you leave plausibility and realism at home. But there’s something disturbing about all this flesh for a potential franchise based on toys and a film with a 12 rating. It’s like the Playboy bunnies broke into Toys R Us and are teasing you before an orgy.

3)      I enjoyed (some of) it. Maybe it was just Sienna’s constant pouting. But the extended action set piece in Paris was quite creative at times; over the top and overflowing with visual effects for sure, but enjoyable compared to the other numerous grandstand battles.

The most annoying thing about GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra was its endless focus on the back-story of various characters. This is saying something. Most of its irritating faults are obvious; the wooden and unwatchable Channing Tatum, the relentless pointless noise, the other mechanical actors playing cartoon cut outs, the fact that the whole thing is a lifeless mess. Perhaps what was really annoying about the continual flashbacks and diversions to show how the characters all had past grudges against each other, was that it made GI Joe have ambitions that went beyond making noise. Almost as if they thought they were telling a narrative that could be called “engaging” or kick-starting a franchise that could be “successful”.

The very opening scene, with absolutely atrocious French and Scottish accents in the 17th century, tried far too hard to give the characters meaning and seemed redundant in reality. Studio chiefs take note: don’t fuck with history or flit through the past lives of your characters. Even if you’re trying to sell the toys they’re based on.

A note on Faulks on Fiction


I used to be a massive fan of Sebastian Faulks. And I’m still a fan. But as with most things greater wisdom comes with age. Faulks is far from a faultless writer, despite the eagerness with which I devoured his works and the undoubted merits many of them have. With Engleby, a disturbing first person narrative, he proved he is capable of versatility. But many would accuse him of churning out almost identical historical tales. Birdsong was the perfect fusion of history and literature, but other novels have been weighed down by excessive research. Balancing storytelling and a fascination for history is a problem I sympathise with greatly, but nevertheless a damaging weakness.  However he seems to take to presenting rather naturally.

Last night the first episode of a new series entitled Faulks on Fiction aired on BBC2. Overall I found it immensely enjoyable and refreshing to see such a marrying of literature and history given pride of place in the television schedules. It focused on enduring, iconic characters of fiction. Faulks and those he interviewed made various insightful and valid points. But the programme was also often necessarily simplistic. On the whole this didn’t matter because it allowed an engaging chronological sweep; history through the lens of characterisation. What did matter was the weakness of the entire premise behind the series.

Faulks argues that characters can be divided into heroes, villains, lovers and snobs. This first episode was on heroes. And you can’t help thinking Faulks himself doubts the strength of his point. The programme works best when it’s simply exploring great characters, not when crudely grouping them together; categorising and labelling in a forced, basic manner. Some of the staggering generalisations really undermine the more thoughtful, original points Faulks makes.

 In interviews Faulks has piqued the interest of many by classing the character of James Bond as a “snob”. In many ways this seemed like a publicity stunt to hook viewers. But if Faulks genuinely believes this it might explain the disappointment of his tribute Bond book, Devil May Care, when he was supposedly “writing as Ian Fleming”. Faulks cites Bond’s love of brands as the reason for his snobbery instead of heroism and would no doubt, if pressed, point out Bond’s sexist attitudes too.

The fascination with brands and even the outdated prejudices are products of the time and the author, not the character of Bond. Fleming peppers his narratives with luxurious products to stimulate the rationed masses of 1950s Britain, not purely for Bond’s love of them. The moments of prejudice are also clearly when Fleming’s own voice shines through, over and above that of his adored creation. Having watched this episode, Bond would undoubtedly have slotted in alongside countless other flawed heroes.

My views on the programme pale into amateurish bias when set against those of a fellow blogger however. Last night an interesting, thought provoking, funny and spot-on live blog analysed Faulks on Fiction as it happened. The start of the post suggests doubts in this particular reviewer’s mind; doubts I believe to be absurd given the depth, accuracy and skill behind previous entries. Read and support this valued writer:

http://tomcatintheredroom.wordpress.com/2011/02/05/faulks-on-fiction-an-on-the-fly-review/

Unconventional style: Inglorious Basterds, Juno and The Ghost


(some spoilers)

The most stylish person in a room looks different to everyone else. Often the first step to style, the boldest move towards quality, is doing something different and distinctive. A lot of the time these risky moves will end in tears but some people just have the knack for it.

Three such people are directors Quentin Tarantino, Jason Reitman and Roman Polanski. Recently I’ve watched some of the best known, latest works of all of these men and it’s clear they’re endowed with the lucky gift of success when embracing the unconventional.

Firstly Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds is such a fascinating, intriguing picture. Events within the plot and elements of the execution bear Tarantino’s sensational touch – leading Nazis weren’t slaughtered in reality in a cinema in Paris – but that does not mean there aren’t serious elements to this film too. On the surface it’s a simplified, warped version of history, with a non-existent band of American Jews exacting revenge for the Holocaust, which wasn’t widely known about until the discovery of death camps at the end of the conflict. But at the very least it’s a sumptuous exercise in the best of filmmaking and with its faithful use of various languages, does say something factual rather than fictionalised about the misunderstandings and deceptions of war. It’s also, somehow, hilarious.

As the film’s star Brad Pitt says in one of the interviews on the Blu-Ray disc, this film plays out more like a novel. It’s broken into chapters, the first handful of which establish the characters and the rest bring them together for an explosive, visually stunning finale. Only a few of these characters are typical and expected for the wartime context; the French farmer in the marvellous opening scene for example. But the rest are Tarantino creations. They’re extremely vivid and engaging but also wild, sometimes implausible extremes, almost as if plucked from the pages of a striking graphic novel. Somehow the director/writer makes them wonderfully believable and then gives them bags of room to play in his chapters, which often consist of one, long and extended scene.

The opening scene establishes the marvellous character of the “Jew hunter” played by Christoph Waltz. There are some splendid, picturesque shots of the French countryside, followed by a wonderfully tense dialogue scene indoors. The interrogative German is sinister through his politeness, only to reveal the true nature of his visit. Other scenes in the film get similar space to breathe and come to life, in particular another edge of the seat, tense encounter in a tavern. This is the film’s longest scene and is incredibly realistic and satisfying as the spies, including the wonderful Michael Fassbender, attempt not to blow their cover. Language again plays an important role, and does so throughout, becoming almost another character. Often Inglorious Basterds feels more like a play, only for some explosive action to remind you that only a film could deliver such thrills, laughs and intrigue. Ultimately the spot-on dialogue, lengthy scenes, exploration of language and sensational characters and events, is not only stylish but says something worthwhile about the war.

All of these films say something worthwhile. Juno chips in with messages about taking people at face value and what really makes relationships work, as well as challenging views of young people. And The Ghost, whilst being primarily an impressive exercise in storytelling rather than a substantive study of politics, does have some underlying messages about identity and ethics.

If you had one word to describe Juno, chances are it would be “quirky”. Anywhere you look online you’ll find this label plastered to the film’s witty face. Personally it seems an unfair, limiting term for such an intelligent, funny, well-acted production. But I guess it is undoubtedly true. Juno isn’t your average teenager. She’s witty, quick and cynical. She wasn’t used by some sex mad male but got knocked up by banging the best friend who’s crazy about her out of boredom. She sets about helping a deserving couple, rather than unthinkingly obliterating the fledgling life inside her.

The couple she decides to “donate” her child to are almost as important to the story as Juno. Played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, they are the grown-up heart of the film, the crucial counterpoint to Juno’s usually happy exuberance. All the cast deal superbly with fast, funny dialogue, including Juno herself, Ellen Page, as well as her Dad and Step-Mom, J.K. Simmons and Alison Janney. And of course the love that suddenly blossoms at the end with Michael Cera, is wonderfully touching and encompassed by the duet which ends the film.

Of all these films it’s The Ghost with the most stylistic flourishes, perhaps ironic given the everyman Brit accent adopted by Ewan McGregor. There are no jaw-dropping stunts in this film; all the drama comes from the story and suffocating, tense locations. When crucial, potentially stunning events occur in the plot, Polanski deals with them with the utmost style. The film starts by simply showing an abandoned car to heighten the mystery surrounding the death of the previous Ghost Writer, rather than showing a spectacular murder scene. At the climax of the film McGregor’s character is abruptly hit by a car out of shot; we only see papers scatter and swirl in the traffic, littering the street.

Rich in detail, in The Ghost we learn surprisingly little about anything ever. Polanski somehow captures the Dan Brown like, page-turning twists of the novel and distils them on film, whilst also adding a layer of intelligence to the swerves of the plot. You are gripped, determined to keep watching for the big reveal. A reveal cunningly disguised throughout and then stylishly unveiled with an anticipation building close-up of a gradually passed note. The Ghost is immensely enjoyable and stylish; I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

So filmmakers do something different, unpredictable and restrained if you want to make it big and be lavished with praise.

In Brief Praise of Bryson and Brooker


I’ve been meaning to sing the praises of two particular writers for some time. However perhaps I have found their work so enjoyable and admirable that I’ve been deterred from writing and attempting to sum up their brilliance, as it’s certain I’ll fall flat on my face in a puddle of failure. Perhaps broadcasting my enjoyment will in some way diminish it. Perhaps I’m embarrassed of elevating these men to the status of idols and role models when I neither write funnily enough to be considered in the same humorous bracket as them, or seriously enough to be amused by their ramblings from afar, occasionally distracted from the rigours of my precise, academic dissections of culture and politics by their simple gags.

I don’t think the craft of these two men is simple or easy though, although embracing the merits of simplicity can often be an important part of their success. It’s a far from facile task to be simultaneously intelligent and laugh out loud funny. Of course one can write cleverly and with wit, but that sort of writing rarely plucks an audible chortle from the depths of the reader’s throat. These two writers share three qualities that I admire and often strive for in my own work: 1) they’re hilarious, 2) they have a knack of describing things in a spot-on, accurate, unique and truthful way and 3) an undertone of self-depreciation flows through their work that makes what they say accessible and allows a degree of more outrageous opinion and conviction.

These men then are travel writer Bill Bryson and critic Charlie Brooker. I’ve recently read Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island and Brooker’s Dawn of the Dumb, a selection of his Screen Burn and opinion pieces from The Guardian. Obviously in subject matter alone these writers are poles apart, but I’ve already pointed out some of their crucial similarities to me. They also have appealing differences. In Bryson’s book he showcases a subtle humour through the description of characters as well as more rib cage rattling stuff. He also brilliantly evokes a sense of place and has encouraged me to consider strongly exploring a number of locations anew and afresh in our glorious land, such as distant Edinburgh and the closer South Coast. In Brooker’s book he consistently demonstrates a commanding handling of contemporary culture and an ability to scathingly insult and pick apart any target he sets his sights on. He also has a wonderful understanding and sense of pessimism about the media age we live in and has mastered the art of the interesting review. His reviews often relate to his own life or a version of it and do not feel like reviews until some way into the article. They surprise and baffle, whilst always capturing something essential about the essence of the show, programme or film.

Indeed both men refreshingly offer up a lot of themselves into their work which gives it an engaging, “real” quality. They basically have a recognisable and distinctive style and voice which most writers, myself included, struggle to emulate, especially as they remain versatile and able to cover a spectrum of subjects at the same time. Often the qualities I have described so far blend in particular phrases and images. For example early on in Bryson’s book he demonstrates his knack for perfect description, “The world was bathed in that milky pre-dawn light that seems to come from nowhere” and later in the same paragraph does the same thing whilst being humorous and self-depreciating at the same time with this gem of a line: “I sat there for some time, a young man with more on his mind than it”.

That sense of experience pervades Bryson’s writing and he talks hilariously of times when he was still acquiring his nous, and of times when despite his age events still get the better of him. As an outsider Bryson also has a wonderful way of describing the faults and habits of the British, such as a hilarious passage in which he accurately describes the way we discuss traffic and routes on the road with terrible serious and deliberation. He also appears to have picked up a sense of British reserve, for when he insults someone he often qualifies the statement or does so gently but hilariously. Occasionally his musings and rants on architecture become tiresome, but he instantly acknowledges this fact and it is worth it for the injection of identity into the writing.

If Bryson harnesses experience then Brooker channels a youthful fury into his writing and displays consistently the art of the preposterous, rude and yet eerily accurate insult. There are too many to list but a particularly memorable image deployed during a rant against posing Mac owners, Brooker dubs the Apple computers as “glorified Fisher-Price activity centres for adults”.  I always enjoy his articles, in the book and continually on The Guardian website.

In summary if I end up writing in a similar way or doing a similar job to these men later in life I shall be one happy bunny.

Thoughts on … Never Let Me Go/The Canal/The Dice Man


I have recently enjoyed three excellent and thoroughly engaging novels. Each had me gripped in very different ways, but each shares the key ingredient of successful storytelling; a strong narrative voice. The extremely distinctive first person narrators of each of these novels draws you in and captivates you. A narrative voice that feels real and engaging is the element I most struggle with when trying to write my own creative works. I certainly therefore don’t feel qualified to dissect the successful and unsuccessful subtleties of the writing in these books in review form, but feel compelled to record what made them so readable for me as “thoughts”, for that is all they are, and to recommend them to others nonetheless. I may inadvertently let slip the odd slight spoiler, for which I apologise but place a warning here.

First up then is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which I admit I was only inspired to read due to the hype surrounding a forthcoming film adaptation and the allure and beauty of the trailer for it. What’s noticeable and striking even in that brief snippet of film is the overwhelming Britishness of the story and it’s a very British novel too. That sense of place comes not just from the boarding school setting, the childhood themes, the nostalgic reminisces and stunning countryside, but from the voice of the novel, Kathy H. Whilst it appears she is candidly telling her life story, with little reason or desire to embellish and hold back, you soon notice her strong focus on others, on those immediately close to her. If she criticises a friend she will qualify what she means and spend pages delving into another random memory of them to share their alternative, better side. In many ways this is a novel of memories, about the ones that slip away and the ones you never let go of. Given that she focuses on those most important to her, it’s enlightening, revealing and intriguing that she never actually says in the novel, as far as I can see or recall, that she loves the man events make clear to be her soul mate. Indeed Kathy does not spell things out about herself often and retells everything, overpowering emotions and all, with a simplicity and undertone of British restraint. It’s this restraint and modesty that is the most chokingly moving at times too.  It’s clearly to Ishiguro’s immense credit that he simultaneously creates a strong, rounded character in Kathy, whilst also letting events, and things Kathy omits, paint a picture of their own. Kathy has confidence that, from what she has retold to us, she need not say explicitly “I loved him”.

 I’m glad I read the original story as a novel before the release of the film in January. Despite the promise that attracted me in the trailer, Carey Mulligan will do well to play Kathy H as quite as compellingly as Ishiguro writes her. The film is also set to cut large chunks of Kathy’s childhood memories of Hailsham, in favour of the adolescent portion of the story. I hope this omission does not detract from events later on and make them less meaningful. The one fault I found with the book, and one the film will also struggle to overcome, is the sense that there is never a satisfying big conspiracy revealed, as is hinted at. The one that does emerge seemed fairly clear early on and whilst Ishiguro seems to hint that there is more to it (I had visions of some sort of apocalyptic Britain or a more interesting and dramatic disintegration of ethics) there really isn’t. Mostly though Never Let Me go is a terribly moving story because of the way it feels so real. Kathy’s language is simple but beautiful at times, like many of her memories. Her friendships and loves are not obsessively described with clichés and extravagant imagery, and are consequently all the more like our own. The way things turn out is so tragic because you can place yourself in her shoes.

I have also recently read Lee Rourke’s debut novel, The Canal, joint winner of the Guardian’s alternative award Not The Booker Prize. As the review on the Guardian website points out, this is a debut crammed with ideas. This might have been a problem if the ideas weren’t original or didn’t resonate with me, but I found most of them to be insightful and well expressed musings on a realistic truth. The novel begins as an engaging meditation on the nature of boredom and how it is a fundamental part of existence to be embraced, rather than feared and avoided. It eventually evolves into a touching love story, which becomes an obsession and climaxes with an eventful ending. Most of the novel aims accurately for realism; its ideas, its dialogue, its images. Only at the end do feelings and events become sensational.

The title of the book makes it clear that it will have a strong sense of setting and the surroundings of The Canal are ever present throughout the narrative, the backdrop to almost all the action. Its features are described with some wonderful imagery and symbolism. Even the book itself, the physical design of the novel, is pleasing to look at and hold. If I were Rourke I’d be delighted with the tasteful design of my first fictional foray. He ought to be proud too of the dialogue in his work, which really stands out as exceptionally believable and realistic, becoming almost a script at times before reverting back to the narrator’s thoughts. The dialogue is rightly praised on the back of the book.

Like Never Let Me Go, much of The Canal’s success comes down to the convincing narrative voice. However if Kathy H was restrained, the nameless narrator of The Canal is mysterious. The woman he meets on The Canal is also mysterious, until he slowly uncovers her secrets. She is for the most part a rounded character and their relationship believable, but at times it succumbs to cliché. There are other clichés too such as the stereotypical gang of youths and the unstoppable march of building work that eventually swallows his patch of The Canal. These unimaginative elements let down the originality and realism of the rest of the book, but The Canal was an engaging, un-put-down-able read.

If The Canal mused about boredom then The Dice Man is a full on exploration of its depths and connections to the meaning of existence. The main reason I was reluctant to be bold enough to call these thoughts of mine a review was that The Dice Man is simply too mammoth, sprawling and impressive a work for me to digest, let alone analyse adequately. It’s jam packed with ideas and full of such variety that it touches on more areas in one chapter than most novels. It has spawned a cult and resembles a bible in weight and heft. It’s immensely controversial, challenging long established truths in religion and philosophy, outraging those with a strong moral compass. It contains scenes that are graphically violent and sexual. It is regularly and consistently funny. However as with The Canal, it is the quality of composition and writing that truly impresses me with The Dice Man.

From the very first page The Dice Man makes it clear it will not follow the conventions of an ordinary novel, but mimic several at once. It flits from the brilliantly cynical and scathing first person voice of Dr Lucius Rhinehart, to describing events in his life in the third person. It also chucks in various articles about events in the Dr’s life, along with other methods of storytelling such as transcripts of interviews and television shows. With all the talk of ideas, philosophy and sex surrounding The Dice Man, it can be forgotten that it is an exemplary exercise in creative writing, full of tremendous variety. The dialogue is always funny and realistic and the characters well realised, albeit obviously through the lens of Dr Rhinehart’s own entertaining, intelligent opinions. There are narrative twists and turns, violent thrills and sexual ones. The careful craft and exciting breadth of this novel ensures that a novel of over 500 pages remains gripping throughout. It consumed me for a whole week.

Then of course there are the ideas themselves, the philosophy behind The Dice Man. The reason this book has become so notorious and actually converted readers to the “religion” detailed within its pages, is that many of the ideas make sense, that and the alluring mystery to it all. The mystery blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality. Luke Rhinehart is of course a pseudonym, but a quick Wikipedia search on The Dice Man and you discover the real author, George Cockroft, also genuinely experimented with the “dicelife”. So there is some truth to the claims that this a factual account and that may account for its vivid detail. However it is also undoubtedly a sensational work of fiction, at times taking swipes at the profession of psychology and the state of society in general. I have already said that as a novel it should be praised and not revered simply for its bold ideas, but it is true that the seductiveness of the ideas help sweep you along in the story.

The basic principle of The Dice Man is to abandon free will, at least to a great extent. Every decision in your life you are unsure about should be decided by the throw of a dice, and in fact later on, even those you do feel sure of. You may create options for the various numbers of the dice or die, but whichever they choose you must blindly follow. The options must try to embrace all aspects of your multiple existence, so for example if you have idly fantasised about masturbating over your pot plant, even for a second, this ought to be considered and given to the die to decide. The aforementioned variety and randomness of the novel thus mimics the theory at its heart, with one section actually printed twice immediately after you have read it, presumably at the will of the die.

The philosophical implications of handing over control of a human life to chance are vast and fascinating and I shall not even scratch the surface of their interest here. But Rhinehart comes to believe in the novel that by following the dice and developing his theory he can become a kind of superman, the ultimate human that abandons the misery imposed on us by clinging to a sense of “self”. We often feel completely contradictory desires each day, none more true than the other.  What is truly haunting and bewildering about The Dice Man is that by listening to Rhinehart’s distinctive, cynical, hilarious voice, we come to see the sense to his arguments and then when he commits an unspeakable sin at the will of the dice, we feel implicated too. Does a truly liberated human existence require immorality?  Rhinehart becomes obsessed by the potential of his simple idea to elevate him intellectually, to truly free him from boredom and obligation. He says that he resembles Clark Kent and by pursuing “dice theory” Rhinehart aims for a permanent transformation into Superman, The Dice Man, on another level to the ordinary human drone.

I’m not saying The Dice Man is the perfect novel, do not misunderstand my awe and praise. At times it left me baffled in completely the wrong way, and despite its championing of the random and new experiences, it can become repetitive, particularly the frequent bouts of sex. And whilst it is sometimes credibly intellectual and inspiring, such as the scene when Rhinehart defends his new theory to a panel of his influential peers, at others it does appear to be simply sick and shocking for shocking’s sake. The thing is that The Dice Man knows it is not the perfect novel, in fact its cynicism screams and mocks the idea of a perfect novel being possible. Even the repetitive sex scenes are always evocatively described or hilariously painted and the idea that a man striving for complete liberty is constantly tied down by sexual desire is ironic and mocking in itself. The Dice Man really is often laugh out loud funny. It is also scandalous, entertaining and everything else it has been described as. Most of all it is an original creation, a unique fusion of cultural influences, which perfectly encapsulates the America of its time and remains powerfully relevant today.

These three novels perhaps demonstrate the importance of two ingredients in particular amongst the many needed for a success: interesting ideas and an individual narrative voice.