Tag Archives: comedian

Mock the Week Reborn


 Certain programmes on television are compulsive viewing. Over the years the number of these programmes has decreased considerably, for me at least. With the advent of BBC iPlayer and other catch-up services (although I only really make regular use of iPlayer, with the exception of the occasional trip to 4OD) I rarely submit to the schedules for something I like to watch. But the odd show, live or not, will tempt me to watch at the scheduled time like an obedient puppy.

One of these programmes, as “regular readers” may know, is Doctor Who. I get ridiculously excited as that time comes round every Saturday and then I’m practically clapping my hands with glee as the theme music plays. I employ nurses to mop the saliva from the sofa as I sit there drooling. I hire security staff to hold me down should someone make a noise akin to a whisper, as I am liable to absentmindedly throw sharp objects at the offender or simply laser their soul with killer evils.

Mock the Week used to sit atop the comedy pile on my shelf of sacred TV treasures. Literally nothing could beat it for a good rib tickling chortle. It was easily king of the panel shows. Consider its rivals. QI is quite interesting, quite funny at times but it hardly goes for the comedy jugular. Have I Got News For You is hilarious but largely dependent on the guest host doing alright or being a good enough target for Merton and Hislop. Never Mind the Buzzcocks has lost its two best assets; Simon Amstell and Bill Bailey and was always about music, which somehow just ain’t as funny as everything else in the news.

I could keep listing inferior panel shows but essentially Mock the Week was the best. And why was it the best? Because it grouped together the best surgeons of hilarity in the land (commonly called comedians) and simply let them compete for comedy points by cracking gags about the news. The fact that it was topical was funny, the rivalry and chemistry was funny but it basically boiled down to sticking good comedians in one place.

The best of the comedians became regulars on the show, with Frankie Boyle, Russell Howard, Hugh Dennis and Andy Parsons joining jolly accented Irish host Dara O’Briain, every single week. I was glued no matter what was going on in my insignificant life. When balaclava wearing burglars stole all my worldly possessions, petrol tankers exploded outside my bedroom window and piss accidentally seeped out, I was oblivious. So hungry was I for the feast of LOLs.

Then something strange happened. The magic began to fade. I found myself watching on iPlayer, then only the occasional episode on iPlayer. I wondered whether this was just another phase of my viewing habits, passing by like Postman Pat, Loose Women and the others. How was it possible that I wasn’t dying in pain from my spasm-ing muscles when Frankie Boyle made a joke?

The rivalry was killing the show. The fierce competition for jokes that made it into the half hour final cut of the programme was spilling over to such a degree that it was noticeable, in a detrimental way, after the edit. Frankie’s superpower, the ability to creatively and imaginatively shock the laughs from you, became obsolete. His unpredictability became predictable. He dominated and stifled the talents of the others.

And so he left. But this didn’t tempt me back to watch every week. As much as I loved Russell Howard, I wasn’t a big Andy Parsons fan. Dara was limited by hosting duties and the guests could be good but were often disappointing.

Then, whilst at a recording of Russell Howard’s Good News by the Thames earlier this year, he answered an audience question with a bombshell. He wouldn’t be doing anymore Mock the Week. And he has moved on I suppose, with a successful BBC3 show that really suited him. He had a far more enduring quality than Frankie Boyle; genuine humanity. Boyle’s act was just that, a put on sham of offensiveness. His Channel 4 sketch show caused a brief stir and passed into the shadows. I don’t remember what it was called, just that he crossed a line of decency at some point. And I didn’t watch it.

So with perhaps my favourite comedian left on Mock the Week leaving it, you’d think I would have given up on the show for good. But I decided to give the first episode of this series a watch on iPlayer. I thought that maybe some new blood would be good. And I was right.

Chris Addison is turning into something of a new regular but he’s not set in stone; he doesn’t have his own seat. He is very funny mostly, despite his tendency to wear loose shirts that show off his thin chest and glimpses of hair. Seann Walsh, who I’ve seen live at Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow in Bristol, sat between Greg Davies from The Inbetweeners and Andy Parsons. Walsh was terrific, really confident what I think is his first appearance, or at least he hasn’t had many. An impression of Michael McIntyre during “Scenes we’d like to See” had me in stitches. Davies is not afraid to be silly to get laughs.

Talking of daft the final guest, another one turning into a new regular, was Milton Jones. Wearing a loud shirt he produced his usual volley of surreal one liners but each time I see him on Mock the Week his weird, snappy humour seems to make more and more use of topical material.

I will be watching the episodes of this series, whether it be via iPlayer or more old fashioned methods. The show seems to have re-found its mojo by finding the best comedy performers and stand-ups around. Its lost much of its bitter competition, with all the competitors regularly laughing at Milton’s odd jokes. The key to success seems to be avoiding absolute regulars and bringing back a mixture of different talent of week. Keep the guests fresh, like the topical material.

I laughed. A lot. Watch it.

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The Shadow Line – Episode 3


I am beginning to simply enjoy The Shadow Line. I couldn’t care less about what sort of television it is anymore or overanalysing the drama, I am just well and truly hooked. Episode 2 was all about that frenetic chase getting things moving, with Episode 3 following it up with a series of shocks and twists. And an impressive fight scene for a TV show.

First off Gatehouse’s mysterious passivity burst into deadly action at the beginning of the episode. After initially revealing that he and Andy Dixon appeared to be in cahoots (insofar as Andy knew Wratten would get shot), raising questions as to why Dixon didn’t go to him quicker, he kills not only Dixon in his living room, but his pregnant girlfriend and mother too. Cleverly he got Dixon to walk round with the gun, saying he’d need it for protection in a meeting with Jay Wratten, thus leaving oil marks on the young driver’s trousers. All the evidence pointed to suicide after a double murder for the cops, apart from the lack of motive. Gabriel, as usual, had his doubts. But then he can’t trust his own memories so no one takes him seriously.

The big cliff hanger ending was once again Gabriel’s, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. His partner Honey on the one hand said she believed he was a good cop but on the other started doing some digging into his “double dipping” past. She followed him, rather inexpertly I thought, at the end of the episode, to discover he has a secret family; a woman that is not his wife and a baby. Given his wife’s emotional frustration at not being able to get pregnant, and a scene in this episode where Gabriel appears to share her heartbreak and love her dearly, this is one big secret and apparent proof of his tendency to keep secrets and live a dual life.

Honey had a fair bit to do in this instalment, after getting herself into a close quarters fight in a warehouse full of red dresses, again due to her rather rubbish tailing abilities, this time on foot. This was a needed injection of action for this episode and a surprisingly well executed, hard hitting bit of fisticuffs from the BBC. Her opponent had just attended Wratten’s funeral and was apparently responsible for sending both Jay and Harvey to prison. He adds another dimension to the gangster side of things.

The fight culminated, after some scrambling for guns and an inventive use of a light bulb from Honey, with a tense standoff versus a gun and a coat hanger. And some of that divisive dialogue that some will think brilliant and others think forced and artificial. I personally quite liked this exchange: “Kill a cop and you won’t see the light of day”/”Where’d you learn that? On a course in Hendon? You’re not on a crash mat now love”: (quotes are from memory, apologies for errors).

Away from Honey’s strangely attractive and smouldering delivery of lines (just me?) Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph Bede is having an increasingly tough time of it. Despite just about pulling together a deal to sell a lot of drugs for a lot of money, which may or may not involve Wratten’s killer Bob Harris (Dixon named Harris but it seems likely Gatehouse or those behind him want Harris framed), Bede is feeling the pressure of leading. Yet again he claims he doesn’t want the power but yet again I wasn’t quite convinced.

He has got a lot on his plate at home though, like Gabriel across the line. Bede must cope with the worsening severity of his wife’s Alzheimer’s, as she bawls at him and hits him and forgets the memories of their honeymoon and marriage. As the Guardian points out, the waves washing away a timeline on the beach wasn’t the most subtle of metaphors for her fading memory.

So the wheels of the plot are well and truly turning. There wasn’t a lot of Rafe Spall’s Jay this week, which might be just as well. Perhaps after a breather from his full on performance I will appreciate its impact more again next time. This week it seems we found out that Gatehouse killed Wratten. But next week questions remain as to just who he is; and why he did it. I am now properly glued.

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.

Four Lions


If you were trying to compile a list of the most inappropriate, unworkable topics for a comedy, suicide bombers and their attempts to carry out an attack, would probably rank somewhere near the top. How can you laugh at such a gravely serious and fresh threat to our national security, to our everyday lives? Somehow Four Lions manages to be absolutely hilarious.

It’s difficult to write this review without mimicking the spot-on description on the Rotten Tomatoes website, so I’m going to go ahead and copy it:

“Its premise suggests brazenly tasteless humor, but Four Lions is actually a smart, pitch-black comedy that carries the unmistakable ring of truth.”

When my friend suggested watching Four Lions the premise did strike me as tasteless, but simultaneously I thought if it is any good it must be excellent to overcome the connotations of the issue. What ultimately elevates the comedy and makes Four Lions more thought provoking than most genuinely funny films, is that “unmistakable ring of truth” though.

There are in fact five lions to begin with, (all will become clear in one of the film’s funniest scenes), and four of them are clueless idiots. Only one of them, unofficial leader Omar, can be said to have any common sense at all. His overzealous attitude to terrorist training in Pakistan, results in him blowing up his own men with a rocket launcher. This particular scene verges on the slapstick and there are several of them in Four Lions, yet they marry seamlessly with more intelligent, black humor.

There’s no doubting then that whilst Omar and his family are disturbingly normal, the rest of his oddball crew are incapable and confused imbeciles. They’re basically the sort of halfwits likely to be taken in by extremist ideology. But even Omar is inept and out of his depth, as proved by his mishap in Pakistan. He’s basically seeking to deal a blow to injustice and Four Lions gets you to root for him. It’s a film that exposes some realities about extremism and bombers in the UK. Most of them are probably fools and failures, some are confused but convinced what they’re doing is right. They’re also homegrown and so assimilated with Western culture that their disillusionment is inexplicably and painfully funny for its hypocrisy and baffling motives.

Waj is the most idiotic character of the lot and is played wonderfully by Kayvan Novak of Fonejacker fame. He’s constantly getting confused and doubting the motivation and righteousness of his actions. Often it’s Omar that talks him back to the cause. In one scene Omar uses the capitalist, Western delights of a theme park to explain the concept of the afterlife and a martyr’s death to Waj. Blowing himself up will allow Waj to skip the queues straight to the “Rubber dinghy rapids!”

Also brilliant is Nigel Lindsay as white British convert to Islam, Barry. His political and religious views are horrifically twisted and ignorant. His prejudices have no backing with evidence and he seems to basically crave confrontation. He’s denied the trip to the training camp in Pakistan because he can’t speak the language and would stand out, and this clearly bruises Barry. He’s an outsider and in many ways, despite his stupidity, his adopted views are more radical and dangerous than any of the others’. He demonstrates ruthlessness on several occasions.

Four Lions is funny throughout and I was worried whatever laughs the climax could conjure would disappoint in comparison to all that went for. But somehow the story steps up another gear and so does the comedy. There’s a brilliant argument between police snipers about the difference between a Wookie and a bear, and a hilarious cameo from Benedict “Sherlock” Cumberbatch as a virgin hostage negotiator.

This film simultaneously highlights the seriousness and truth behind a relevant, topical issue, as well making light of the funny side of it. It’s intelligent and funny and modern. It feels incredibly British. It’s basically modern British comedy, British filmmaking and British storytelling, at its best.

In The Loop


Imagine a world in which Tesco invaded Denmark. That’s right the supermarket, grabbing itself a piece of prime Scandinavian real estate. Imagine television listings brightened by the presence of celebrity game show, Rape An Ape, complete with catchy theme tune. Imagine a political landscape in which David Cameron was a forgotten has-been like the Conservative leaders that preceded him and Tony Blair roams the streets of Baghdad, bearded, greying and haunted by his contorted legacy. These mad and brilliant ideas are all generated by the brain of Armando Iannucci for his hilarious and unique BBC series Time Trumpet. Loving this as much as I did I had no hesitation in snapping up In The Loop from amongst the many varied seasonal offers at HMV.

Released in 2009, In The Loop is of course a feature length, larger scale version of The Thick of It, an enormously successful political satire first launched on BBC4 that has since acquired a cult following. The popularity of the show is not just down to witty and intelligent scripts, but perhaps largely due to the superb and vibrant character that is Malcolm Tucker, political spin doctor. Played magnificently by Peter Capaldi, Tucker is Number 10’s attack dog, unleashed to deal with media storms reflecting badly on government. He spits out line after line of venomous insults, dripping with graphic and vulgar imagery. He hovers around in a frenzy, fretting about the incompetence of others. His swearing is so loud and non-stop that in one scene a passing American accosts him; “Enough with the curse words pal”. Tucker simply replies with a volley of typical vitriol.

In London Tucker is the big cheese, charging about confidently, marching into ministerial offices like he owns the place and intimidating cabinet members. Tom Hollander is an impressive addition to the cast as a bumbling everyman figure, essentially well meaning but conscious of his infant career. He tries valiantly to talk sense to Tucker, only to be bulldozed aside and dominated like the rest. A few too many slightly opinionated responses to interview questions about the developing situation in the Middle East and a “will they/won’t they” war (no prizes for guessing the recent crisis used for inspiration), and Hollander’s International Development minister is dispatched to Washington to quell fears about his resignation and bribe him back on side. Hilariously and accurately he is repeatedly told to stick to the government line, without being told clearly what this is, in fact he is simply baffled by the repeated blasts of explanation from Tucker.

In The Loop is impressive because once things shift to Washington the writers do a wonderful job of creating believable and amusing Yank career vultures too. Across the pond their own inter-departmental war is raging, between those for and against conflict, and no one will overtly announce what they’re rushing around and bickering about. A funny speech from Hollander’s character back home, trying to be ambiguous about the UK’s stance with typical MP speak, has been adapted and taken on by the pro-war Americans, with the cliché phrase “climb the mountain of conflict” isolated.

Tucker tags along for the ride, keen to ensure his mistake prone minister doesn’t balls up again. Hollander is accompanied by his geeky and clumsy new aide, played by Chris Addison, who gives a warm and funny performance. He is surprisingly well connected and becomes crucial to the plot, whilst remaining inept. Drawing his Washington trip he beds an old American university colleague and when this is found out by his British Foreign Office girlfriend on his return, he comically and awkwardly attempts to claim he did it to try and stop the war. Things zip along with laughs in every scene, the stateside action broken up with a constituency visit and an irate Steve Coogan, until the climax of a vote at the UN for or against military action.

Prior to the vote Malcolm Tucker is slapped down by his American superiors. In Washington he is a castrated beast, a joke to the hot shot Yanks. Push aside his vulgarity and the obvious point of the film and the series, to get us to look at the ridiculous and distorted nature of modern political spin, truly engineered and evolved by Blair with Alastair Campbell, and Tucker is irresistibly likeable as a character. He is weirdly brilliant at what he does. And bewilderingly you root for him as he rises from the ashes, despite the immorality and twisted motivation. You don’t mind so much as Hollander’s eventual moral stand is crushed by his masterful scheming. You laugh along and rejoice in his charisma and sheer balls, as he and fellow Scott sidekick Paul Higgins, playing Senior Press Officer Jamie McDonald back in Britain, smash their way to their objectives. In The Loop is an intelligent and endlessly funny Christmas present, but however much Tucker’s insults have you splitting your sides, you wouldn’t want him around the family turkey dinner table.

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.

The Song of Lunch/ The Fry Chronicles/The Road/South of the Border, West of the Sun


Trawling through various cultural mediums is for me not just a search for entertainment and means of passing the time but a hunt for reassuring truths, universal truths of life that we all share and when found elsewhere as better formed, well expressed versions of your own troubles offer satisfying comfort. I am no poetry connoisseur but when I do read poems the ones I enjoy speak to me for saying something true, often in the simplest of ways.

Take The Song of Lunch, a BBC adaptation of Christopher Reid’s narrative poem, recommended to me by a friend. Through the artificial constructs of art it says something true and genuine about life, rising above the reality of existence. Of course lunches with old friends are not the profound verbal duels shown here, they are not always feasts of slow-mo exquisite detail. But at times the language, the imagery of the poem is spot on and the sentiments exact. That feeling of so much change and yet so little. Those regrets impossible to accurately voice. The simultaneous significance and insignificance of everyday gripes like the noise of the next table, the disappointing wine. On the whole the dramatisation of the poem works well too and certainly the first half an hour or so is immersive and engaging. Alan Rickman’s lazy, lingering, drooling tones suit such a piece perfectly. You rejoice with his ageing character as his planned escape from the office comes off, via the “yawn” of the lift and enjoy his observations of the London crowds. The direction matches the poem well, vividly evoking stand out lines and images. The arrival of the old lover and the disbelief and resurgence of old feeling is also dealt with well, but as Rickman’s character loses himself amongst his thoughts the adaptation struggles to convey the essence of the words, resorting to overlong focuses on Rickman’s vacant, ogling face. During these moments the drama loses its urgency and coherence and even Rickman’s loving recital of the language, full of irresistible rhythm and emphasis, cannot avert awkwardness for the audience. Despite this and the sense that the adaptation worked best at the beginning, only to trail away, The Song of Lunch was a beautiful, meaningful and enjoyable watch.

Emma Thompson, the old flame and muse of Rickman’s character in The Song of Lunch, also features prominently at times in Stephen Fry’s latest and second autobiographical work, The Fry Chronicles. This book focuses on Fry’s Cambridge years and the formative years of his career, mainly in comedy. However the book joyfully flits about all over the place, touching upon all manner of topics. Forgive me for what is a very Stephen Fry-espque tangent, but the cover of The Fry Chronicles, by which I mean the covering of the book itself, is extremely attractive and I cannot understand the unrealistic snobbery of people who continue to adhere strictly to the old mantra “never judge a book by its cover”.  It is surely impossible today not in some, even wholly unconscious way, to judge or dismiss books based upon their colourful jackets. A writer can slave away at the world’s next great novel only for it fall flat on its face, or be devoured by entirely the wrong sort of audience, because of a wrong decision in the marketing department. Fry’s book is carefully kept simple, with a mostly pure white background and a tasteful picture of himself accompanied by the title in bold blue. The quotes selected for the cover go some way to conveying the essence of what is in inside. I have also bought and shall soon read C by Tom McCarthy, the expected winner of this year’s Booker prize. His publishers too have done a fine job of creating an enticing, attractive cover, reflective of the book’s content (a whirl of lines reflect the theme of communication) and informative (positive criticism expectedly prevails), without excluding anyone by opting for a garish pink. A nice touch to The Fry Chronicles’ cover is that the inside cover has a coloured stripe pattern that matches that of the socks Stephen sports on the cover and generally such colours would seem to represent his personality too.

Cover rant over, is The Fry Chronicles actually any good, jostling for position as it does with whopping political memoirs from not just Blair himself but his advisers and fellow New Labour architects and other assorted celebrities with bright, bubbling, amusing lives to share? The answer is yes and I have not even quite finished the thematic, slightly chronological trip through Fry’s memories as yet. Of course like any autobiographical work has its faults but Fry does his best to acknowledge them. It is also surely more entertainingly, amusingly and playfully written than a host of other similar works set to come out in the endless run-up to Christmas gift season. Fry’s book will ride high on the bestselling lists right up to the turkey dinner and beyond, and deserves to. Not only is it stuffed full of interesting content and fascinating anecdotal tales, but offers an enormous amount of wit, humour and personal, emotional insight; of the truth I search for on my cultural wanderings.

If anything the book starts slowly with a brief focus on Fry’s adolescent addiction to sugar, which if I am honest I found irritating and hard to relate to, but never boring as the sheer energy and wit of Fry’s prose carried me through this section. Once he reached the start of Cambridge however I could identify far more and I whizzed through this portion of the book. Every now and then Fry will interrupt the recounting of actual events to bemoan his lack of confidence and express his own doubts. He fears that he has become a jack of all trades, master of none and that he has squandered natural talents. It is comforting to hear a man of such talent and intelligence admit to such fears about topics as wide ranging as ambition, fame and relationships. He even hopes that his trials and tribulations are merely facts of the human condition, shared by all, and in so doing says something true. At times his refusal to analyse the failings of others as he examines himself is frustrating, with most name-drops also accompanied by gushing praise, but this is all tolerable as he repeatedly acknowledges he is too kind to be a critic, can be seen as arrogant and would not want to judge anyone but himself, in what is after all, an excellent autobiography first and foremost, as well as a snapshot of the entertainment world of the eighties (which Fry makes accessible to those not familiar with the era, as well as the ardent fan).

If Fry’s book is for the most part a light hearted, jovial glance at what it means to be human, set amongst manicured university grounds and the artificial, rich entertainment world, then director John Hillcoat’s 2009 cinematic imagining of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road is a bleak and brutal, stripped back stare at the core of existence. Unlike Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps which I reviewed last week, concluding that it had little purpose or idea of what it was, this movie has a strong narrative and never fails to engage, doing so on a number of levels. Early on we are struck simply by the aesthetics of a barren, apocalyptic landscape, the moving soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and the emptiness of father and son walking, emaciated and dirty. Then there are moments of genuine tension, excitement and action when the gangs, cannibal or not, emerge and threaten to discover our protagonists and then no doubt exploit or kill them. The scene where a gang member discovers the crouched Viggo Mortensen whilst taking a piss, clutching a gun with just two bullets left, bullets meant for his son and himself should they be necessary, is incredibly tense. It emerges that to be a father in such an environment means being just steps from being a killer. The film grapples with some big ethical questions around suicide, parenting and violence by placing them in a fictional, extreme context. Even without thinking about these deeply it’s impossible not to be moved by the bonds between Viggo Mortensen’s father and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s son, who both give excellent performances, or not to be gripped by the hard hitting action or grim scenery.

For me the most moving parts of the film were the flashbacks that revealed the boy’s mother choosing to leave the father and son, effectively choosing to die rather than go on living in a dangerous, frightening, fallen world. Viggo Mortensen’s character must deal with the fact she chose to die rather than be with them throughout the film as he clings desperately to life for his son. Again here I found that elusive truth that could resonate in my own life; people can do irreparable damage to each other, unimaginable hurt, just by living or in this case by choosing not to, but for her things were clearly so bad for it to be the only choice, the only path forward. This passive process, this capacity to senselessly destroy the meaning of the lives of others, is also recognised by Haruki Murakami in his novella South of the Border, West of the Sun.

I read this in its entirety during a series of train journeys this weekend and found it compulsive reading, for want of a better less clichéd phrase. This is the second Murakami I have read following Norwegian Wood and he seems to have an ability to articulate romantic feeling that I find fascinating, given the differences that perhaps ought to exist between Japanese and Western culture. He seems to capture some sort of universal feeling, especially when writing about the ambitions and frustrations of adolescence. His style is simple and elegant and full of spot on imagery, whilst always retaining a sense of urgency and passion. I could empathise with the narrator of South of the Border, West of the Sun despite our vast differences; he a wealthy, Japanese bar owner, facing a mid-life crisis and the return of a childhood sweetheart, me an ordinary student in Britain. I could share the agony of his conflicting desires and that sense that incompleteness will always prevail. In fact the novella seemed to conclude that such incompleteness was the only certain destiny of the human condition and that life will always be a meandering search for truth in vain.