Tag Archives: exciting

The Shadow Line – Episode 7


And so we’ve followed The Shadow Line all the way to its vanishing point. But did all the pieces of Hugo Blick’s puzzle fit together into a satisfying big picture? Or was all the build up ultimately a disappointment?

Well depending on where you stand, the big reveal that the whole mess was about pensions might be a letdown. There are few less exciting words in the English language. If pensions were a colour they would be grey. They are grey pounds collected from grey post offices in dreary grey villages by grey haired foot soldiers of the drab and grey retirement brigade. All the talk of far reaching Cold War and government conspiracies on internet forums seems rather laughable now. But wouldn’t it have been more interesting and satisfying to find out that it was all more significant than a pension fund? Doesn’t all that killing seem rather OTT for a secure retirement?

A part of me was certainly a little underwhelmed by the explanation of it all, delivered by the retired Commander Penney on his yacht before he blew his own brains out. He explains to Gabriel, who refuses to let the case drop even after the really bad copper at the top has been found out and given the boot because Petra was hired by him to take out Gatehouse, that Counterpoint was official at first. But then after amassing £70 million through drug deals the authorities ordered it to stop, as its activities were entrapment and therefore useless to prosecutors in the courts. Counterpoint carried on, below the radar and unofficially. It laundered money through its deals in order to fund the pensions for the entire police force.

My initial reaction was; seriously? But by the end of the episode I liked the idea and I was sold on it as a good explanation. The way Blick ties things up again emphasises what this series was about; the lives of both sides of the line, cops and crims, and the overlap in between. Police corruption was vital to the entire series and it was fitting that the solution to most of the questions raised throughout was one of complete self interest on behalf of the boys in blue. More than anything though I liked the Britishness of the pensions answer, in keeping with earlier lines like “typical fucking British car chase”. Blick could have tried too hard for a grand an all important finale. But right until the end this series remained original despite emulating the production standards and story arcs of popular American shows.

So what about Gatehouse? Were the shadows around him illuminated with a little light? Yes, a little. We find out that he’s a MI5 agent and in charge of the operations of Counterpoint in the field. He set up Glickman and Harvey Wratten long ago, and by the end of this episode he’s found replacements for them in Jay Wratten and rent boy Rattalack.

Incidentally Jay, who was completely absent last week, has been cunningly manoeuvring behind the scenes. He put the cops onto his uncle in the first place. As Gatehouse says, he has “hidden depths”. Jay gets some of his best lines in a climactic scene with Babur; “It’s never nice to watch an old man refuse to leave a disco…someone had to bundle him off the dance floor”. For all his camp menace, I think most of us who followed The Shadow Line to the end came to love Jay as a character, slimy pantomime villainy and all.

For Gatehouse the whole thing was about control, as Glickman hinted in previous weeks. The head honchos of Counterpoint thought he might have gone rouge to pocket the money for himself, hence the UV tags, but he was only ever trying to restore the stability of the system. With replacements in place, by the end it’s like he’s hit the reset button on the whole series.

Our two principal characters on either side of The Shadow Line, Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph Bede and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Jonah Gabriel, are both extinguished. Bede is shot in a car in exactly the same way Harvey Wratten was and then officers examine the carnage as they did in the very first scene of the series. Bede knew he was going to his death, he’d been warned and had his own suspicions about Jay, but in a powerful piece of understated acting from Eccleston, he leaves his gun on the kitchen table. His plan to save his wife had failed; she attempted suicide twice and was put into care.

As for Gabriel, it seemed like he could do no more. He might just have to accept the promotion that his corrupt superior Patterson, but perhaps slightly less corrupt in that he only follows Counterpoint rather than pocketing the cash for himself, had given him. But then Gatehouse phoned him. They arrange a meet and Honey accompanies him, after repeatedly assuring him throughout the episode of her loyalty to him.

Yeah it was fairly obvious. Honey has her gun trained on Gatehouse but after some final tying off of loose ends and some chit chat about shadows, Gatehouse flicks his lighter and Honey shoots Gabriel dead. So Gatehouse always wins, Counterpoint is back to normal. Honey seems to feel a bit remorseful but Gatehouse assures her she’ll get over it, presumably in retirement with a nice fat pension.

At times The Shadow Line was atrociously bad, usually in a funny way. At times it tried far too hard to be stylish, with one example of this being a fetish during the last two episodes in particular for a close up of cigarette tips as they were lit. However overall it was ambitious and absorbing TV. I haven’t seen anything like this on the BBC or anywhere else. Hugo Blick should be applauded and I hope he gets the chance to make more things in the mould of The Shadow Line. I shall miss both watching and blogging about such twisty, exciting and quality television.

What were your thoughts on the answers, the pensions and the series as a whole? Did you want more? Would you welcome a second series or a spin-off for a particular character?

The Shadow Line – Episode 6


This penultimate episode started to bring things closer to the big reveal and end of series climax. However rather than my usual attempt to sort out the threads of the plot, I am driven by a minor detail to starting this week’s summary with a rant about realism and the suspension of disbelief.

Gatehouse, played with quiet menace by Stephen Rea, has been the most mysterious figure in a story arc stuffed full of secrets and deceit. In this episode he finally appeared to meet his match. Anthony Sher’s Glickman, who had that thrilling standoff with Gatehouse last week, uses Chiwetel Ejiofor’s confused Detective Jonah Gabriel, the one with the bullet in his brain, to set the perfect trap for Gatehouse. Both men lie in wait for Gatehouse in the home of Gabriel’s secret family.

After a tense conversation between Gatehouse and Gabriel, Glickman pounces from the little boy’s room (the son’s bedroom not the toilet). He fires several times with his silenced weapon, hitting Gatehouse decisively at least twice. The action slides into dramatic slow-mo as Gabriel’s son runs from his room, getting caught in the crossfire. Glickman shoots Gatehouse to make sure before stumbling from the horrific and tragic scene his trap has inadvertently created. Even in death Gatehouse finds and hurts the weak points of those in his way.

Except Gatehouse isn’t dead. He’ s taken to hospital and Gabriel says the doctors insist he has the heart rate of a twenty year old. I said last week that Glickman seemed to be far more human than Gatehouse despite his similar efficiency, and I was right. Distraught after accidentally killing an innocent boy, Glickman rings Petra, his jilted girlfriend. She meets him in an alleyway to console him. And then she stabs him several times, leaving him to die in a heap.

That was certainly a surprise I didn’t see coming. I had assumed Glickman’s abandoned love was simply to give his character weight and also give Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph Bede a forbidden love interest to spice up his inner battle with his wife’s dementia. But no, it turns out she’s an assassin. Who is she working for? With Gatehouse taken out, we assume he has powerful friends or subordinates seeking swift revenge.

However then she turns up, right at the end of the episode, at Gatehouse’s private hospital room. His only security is a nurse with a fondness for Dairy Milk and an unfortunate knack of dropping her precious snack to the floor as killers lurk outside looking to sneak past. Petra is clearly a cunning and formidable opponent to deceive so easily and completely someone as wary and careful as Glickman. Here she unzips her top to reveal an ample cleavage and a mass of wires clinging to her chest. She proceeds to hook herself up to the immobile Gatehouse, seemingly doing something complicated to swap heart beat readings. She has a lethal injection ready and waiting. As she says aloud “bleep bleep” to make sure she gets the timing of the switch right, Gatehouse rolls over, says “bleep” and kills her like he was just having a power nap.

And so, finally, to my big gripe. Gatehouse has not a single sign of being shot on his body. Blood could be seen spreading around his head and trademark black coat after Glickman fired. He must have been substantially wounded, taking bullets somewhere on the torso. I am quite willing to accept that Gatehouse turns out to be the unbeatable top dog, as he has been all along. I wouldn’t have minded Gatehouse summoning the strength to kill his would be killer, if there had simply been a bandage or stitch or something to indicate the earlier ordeal. We get that Gatehouse is stronger than normal men. But such inconsistency and laziness of detail when shooting a pivotal scene, severely limits the audience’s ability to inhabit the increasingly sensational story.

Most of you are probably thinking I’ve blown such a tiny detail out of proportion. I may have done. But for me things like that have always been important. It is often a trait of men to pick fault in the believability of a story. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the excitement of the scene and all that went before it. And it’s not that I wish everything to be so plausible that it becomes mundane.

Such mistakes leave me with a feeling of annoyance though. This is a huge shame because The Shadow Line has been largely consistent and quality in terms of such details. And all I really wanted to do was commend this episode. Of course, it might be revealed next week that Gatehouse knew Glickman was planning a trap and had taken precautions. In which case this was an even more pointless rant.

What about the rest of the episode then? Well finally we got some satisfying focus on Gabriel’s character. For most of the episode he was the narrative focal point, right up until Glickman’s trap was sprung, adding to the drama, emotion and awfulness of the death of his son. We start by watching him get a brain scan; it seems he’s getting his memory back. His wife nearly loses the baby but then things turn out to be fine. Glickman tells him to follow the money, not the drugs as he said last time. Would have helped if he hadn’t mucked us about wouldn’t it? He tells Gabriel to harass the retired police commander about Counterpoint, which will bring Gatehouse out of the shadows to hunt down his weak point. We learn that the journalist, otherwise known as M’s assistant in Casino Royale, met his maker because he pestered the commander too much.

The police corruption goes higher and deeper than anyone could have imagined. A senior civil servant seems to be pulling the strings as he issues instructions to our crooked inspector at a funeral. He orders the convincing suicide and murder of Gabriel and his family. Does this mean Gatehouse is working for people within the law and government (as he killed Andy Dixon in the same way)? Meanwhile Gabriel finds out he’s a good cop. He didn’t log the operation the night he was shot because he knew there were rotten elements on the police side. And the police were buying the drugs as well as selling them. Baffling.

Other asides: rent boy Rattalack is getting his money from Gatehouse to buy Bede’s drugs. But with Gatehouse almost dead, everyone gets panicky when the money doesn’t turn up. And Bede’s right hand man is going to sell details of the deal. We still don’t know what Counterpoint is or who Glickman’s ex was working for, seeking to tidy up the situation with some slick murders. Gabriel’s wife gets a lecture from his ex, the mother of his dead child, at the boy’s funeral. She basically tells her to get Gabriel out of the mess and that the truth isn’t always worth it. Will he be able to keep a family together even if all the mysteries are solved?

Next week, light will illuminate the shadows. Will everything fit together? Supposedly Hugo Blick plotted the whole series with massive interconnecting mind maps, so it should. And will Jay Wratten, absent this week, go out with a whimper or a bang?

A quick note on the WordPress “just write” feature


I used to write all my blog pieces in Word and simply copy them. I shall probably still end up doing this in future when writing about certain things. But lately, especially writing about personal or passionate topics, I’ve taken advantage of the newly improved full screen mode on WordPress or the “just write” feature.

I honestly didn’t realise how relaxing it would be. With nothing but your words on the screen it’s far easier to find a rhythm and concentrate on your flow of thought. It’s also easier to think about the quality of each individual sentence and how the whole thing will look when you’re done. Whilst your typing, no matter what theme you have, it will feel clean and professional.

I can’t believe that such a simple improvement in usability has spurred me on to write, about anything at all. It’s made the technicalities of the process more enjoyable and exciting again. And by getting rid of distractions you feel able to deliver your best more often.

I’ve been meaning to write about the doubts I’ve been having about my writing for some time. But with the novelty of this new feature, I shall just plough onwards and try to write through it.

Well done WordPress.

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 1: The Mannequin in Black Shorts


In the past month I submitted 3 scripts for plays and sketches to a theatre company that were looking to showcase new writers at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August. Against all of my expectations, one of my submissions, a sketch, was accepted and shall fingers crossed, be performed. My work will feature in the Laughing Horse, free fringe programme.

Nearer the time I shall probably shamelessly publicise the event all over Mrtsblog. If anyone reading this lives nearby or was planning to visit the excellent festival, as I was anyway, I would love it if you could check out my work! But as I say, details can wait. In the meantime I will look forward to all the brilliant acts and possibilities of the festival, from comedy to drama, and touring the city with itself, with its fascinating history. I am tremendously excited about the opportunity of having my own work realised on the best of stages and platforms. I have read about famous faces in comedy and culture, from Michael McIntyre to Stephen Fry, who learnt their craft dabbling in the cuthroat thrills of the Fringe. I cannot wait.

To further wet my own appetite, and hopefully tug a little at yours, I thought I would post the two submissions that weren’t successful here. The theme was Black Shorts and a short script with minimal props was required. My first submission, The Mannequin in Black Shorts, literally features a pair of Black Shorts, whereas the other two were merely dark and snappy in tone. Clearly, as they were unsuccesful submissions, these ideas are riddled with faults that I am the first to recognise. I am still learning, constructive criticism is welcomed.

Anyway here we are then. A taste of my play/script/sketch writing skills, that I hope to develop considerably in the future after such an honour and opportunity:

The Mannequin in Black Shorts

1

Two men sit across from each other on chairs. One (C) holds a pen and paper but rarely uses them. The other (Adam) occasionally sips from a glass of water and avoids eye contact now and then to fiddle with it. There is a prolonged silence before anyone says anything.

Adam: See I knew she was from London cos she rode on the right.
C: Sorry? What?
Adam: I knew she was from London because she stood on the right hand side.
C: So we’re on escalators now? Am I right? What’s your tenuous link to escalators Adam?
Adam: Do you have to call me that?
C: It is your name.
Adam: My emotions are up and down, escalators ferry people up and down. How’s that for a link?
C: What makes you so certain she was from London? Anyone could choose to stand on the right.
Adam: Anyone could choose to yeah. But she didn’t choose to, it was habit.
C: How do you know?
Adam: We went up like three or four of the things and every time she’s straight there on the right, gliding like a pro. And I know.
C: She could have been…
Adam: The way she dressed was very urban, no…metropolitan, too. She wasn’t from some rural backwater, she’s used to hustle, bustle, rushing and pushing and cruising on auto pilot through crowds and up and down incidental features of the landscape like escalators.
C: She could have been anyone.
Adam: She wasn’t.
C: Why?
Adam: Why what?
C: Why wasn’t she just anyone? Why does she have to be from London?
Adam: Because I know what I saw.
C: You have no evidence again. People from London could just as easily stand on the left couldn’t they? In fact if you were so used to standing on the right you might just stand on the left for no reason; just because you could. She could have been breaking a habit, couldn’t she? Admit that’s a possibility.
Adam: It would be a possibility if I was wrong.
C: Which you might be.
Adam: I’m not.
C: Well I do it.
Adam: Sorry? Are we here to discuss what you do?
C: I stand on the left just to mix things up. I get tired of standing on the right on the Tube.
Adam: You just proved my point.
C: Enlighten me.
Adam: You don’t live in London.
C: I don’t. But I don’t see why someone who goes there very regularly can’t have a strong habit or inclination to follow or break a routine.
Adam: If you lived there you’d just do it naturally. Like this girl. Without a second thought. BAM. “I’ll stand on the right”. No she doesn’t even think about it, it just happens.
C: Why is it so hard for you to accept that you might be wrong? Where do you get this unfounded certainty from?
Adam: I’m not wrong.
C: But can’t you at least admit that you could be?
Adam: You just don’t understand second nature.
C: mm…
Adam: See! You think too much.
C: Don’t you pay me to think?
Adam: I pay you to talk.
C: Does it matter what I say?
Adam: No.

2

Adam gets up and wanders out of sight, returning with a fresh glass of water. C makes a point of loudly tearing the paper he’s been using for notes, starting on a new piece.

C: (lets out a big sigh) I think we’ve strayed off the point somewhat. Why don’t you keep telling me about the dream?
Adam: What dream?
C: The recurring one.
Adam: I already told you.
C: Hardly. I think you’re avoiding the subject. What are you afraid of?
Adam: Why do you ask so many questions?
C: Why do you like answering mine with your own?
Adam: How about answering mine and I’ll consider answering yours?
C: How do you expect me to do my job if I don’t ask you things?
Adam: You have no job. And by only asking questions you don’t do any work, you’re just trying to get me to help myself. Classic shrink. If I could do that I wouldn’t be sitting here.
C: I don’t need to work if I don’t have a job. You’ve told me before I’m not your shrink.
Adam: You’re not.
C: So what exactly are we doing here Adam?
Adam: Don’t call me that!
C: I’ll call you what I like Adam, especially if you’re not my employer. If I’m not your therapist, your psychologist, your counsellor, what am I?
(a pause)
Adam: It’s a nightmare.
(a longer pause, Adam looks away and C reflects)
C: Ah, so are we willing to admit you were avoiding the subject now?
Adam: Shut up.
C: Fine. That won’t get us anywhere though.
Adam: You don’t need to “get anywhere”. It’s my dream.
(Adam is visibly angry. C adopts a comforting tone, as if addressing a child)
C: Quite right. It’s your dream Adam, your problem. But would you like me to help?
Adam: Of course I want your fucking help.
C: Then perhaps I best not shut up just yet.
Adam: (heavy with sarcasm) Perhaps not.

3

Adam downs his glass of water and stares into the empty glass. C watches and waits. There’s silence for a time.

C: Are you ready to talk about the dream again yet?
Adam: Nightmare.
C: So you say.
Adam: What’s that supposed to mean?
C: It didn’t sound so horrific.
Adam: Why do you have to be so fucking aggressive?
C: And you’re not? I’m not aggressive.
Adam: Cruel then, you’re cruel.
C: I’m not cruel Adam. This wouldn’t do you any good if I wasn’t frank. That’s all I’m trying to do; be honest with you. So. Can you tell me about the recurring dream again? How often does it happen?
Adam: I get the nightmare every night, sometimes more than once a night these days.
C: And what happens?
(Adam grunts and says nothing for some time)
C: What happens in the nightmare Adam?
Adam: I told you. I wake up in my bed and for some reason I go to the mirror. I look at myself and I’m looking at this waxwork model, like this shop dummy thing…
C: A mannequin.
Adam: … with no real face or anything original about it. I try to move away from the mirror but I can’t. I’m just this lifeless figurine.
C: Do you remember what the mannequin was wearing? Last time you wouldn’t say what it was wearing? Are you naked as the mannequin Adam?
(Adam laughs derisively with a snort)
Adam: No. You’d have liked that wouldn’t you?
C: Go on.
Adam: I’m wearing black shorts, like the type I’d wear to football practice when I was younger.
(A pause)
C: Do you have any memories of that football practice? Do you regret giving up football?
Adam: No the shorts were…They…
(His voice breaks and he seems unable to go on)
C: Yes?
Adam: The shorts were stained.
C: Stained?
Adam: You heard me.
C: Marked with mud? Stained from playing football maybe?
Adam: No not that sort of stain.
C: Then what sort of stain?
Adam: I…
C: Blood?
Adam: (quietly) No
C: Sorry?
Adam: I said no. Not blood.
C: Are you sure? There’s no need to lie Adam.
Adam: Not blood ok?
C: Do you know what sort of stain it was?
Adam: Of course I do! It was my dream.
C: Well you clearly don’t know everything about it.
Adam: Just…
C: Would you rather not say what sort of stain it was?
Adam: I think…
C: You think…?
Adam: I…
C: You…?
Adam: I think YOU SHOULD LET ME TALK! I don’t want to talk about it.
C: But you said…?
Adam: I don’t want to say what type of stain, ok?
C: That’s fine.
Adam: Would you like a biscuit?

4

Adam disappears for a while. C puts his pen and paper on the floor. He taps his hand against the side of the chair while he waits. Adam returns.

Adam: There weren’t any.
C: Don’t worry.
(A pause)
Adam: Do you think Doctor Who is for kids?
C: Adam…
Adam: Answer the question.
C: Yes. Yes I do.
Adam: Was that a loaded question?
C: I wouldn’t say so no.
Adam: What is a loaded question?
C: Adam…
Adam: Surely all questions are loaded? To an extent.
C: Perhaps they are. I think you have a point there.
Adam: Why is Doctor Who just for kids?
C: I didn’t say it was just for kids.
Adam: Just answer the question.
C: Cos you pay me to talk right?
(Adam says nothing. There’s a pause.)
C: I think we’re all kids. I like Doctor Who.
Adam: Why do you like it?
C: It can be anything. It’s original and creative escapism. And it’s about running from loneliness. Anyone can relate to that.
Adam: Can they? And who says it’s about that? Isn’t that a bit heavy for kids?
C: I say it’s about that. It isn’t about that for everyone. It’s my interpretation.
Adam: I think it’s childish.
C: Well not everything can be everyone’s cup of tea.
Adam: What does that even mean? You talk rubbish.
C: You chose this tangent. I’d rather talk about your dream.
Adam: Well I feel like ranting about the flaws of British television.
C: Adam stop this.
Adam: Stop what? Why don’t you sell me the merits of Doctor Who? You’re not even trying!
C: You should like him. He’s clever and he’s a bit like all the detectives you like.
Adam: I do not like detectives. I glean what I can for my own observational skills.
C: “Glean” is a very good word Adam.
Adam: Don’t patronise me.
C: You’re a walking dictionary.
Adam: Shut up.
(C leans forward exasperated)
C: Well listen to yourself! What are you even doing with your life? How old are you!?

5

The lights abruptly go down. When they slowly return Adam is no longer on stage. At the centre and towards the rear C stands next to a Mannequin in Black Shorts. At the front and to the left a security guard sits on a chair. At the front to the right a woman with a shopping bag hovers about as if browsing clothes on a rail. C’s appearance is the same as before but somehow scruffier and dishevelled.

C:  (pacing around in frustration) I said listen to yourself Adam!
(A pause)
C: I’m sorry Adam but it’s your name. For Christ’s sake grow a pair.
(Another, lengthier, pause)
C: No, no, Adam you listen! (C turns and walks up to the Mannequin. He takes some deep breaths to calm himself before seemingly addressing it directly) Tell me about the dream. No buts or excuses this time.
(There’s a substantial spell of silence. The security guard stifles a burp and then coughs. The shopper bends down as if to feel the quality of material or inspect a price tag. She gets a text message on her phone. C tries to make eye contact with the Mannequin, occasionally looking away and nodding or shaking his head now and then.)
C: Well…I’ve never heard such self-involved, deluded bullshit…
(A brief pause)
C: Ha! It might be just my interpretation, but I can assure you that yours is further from the truth. You are not some tortured or fallen genius Adam. That dream is either a meaningless fart of activity from your brain or a yelp from your sub-conscious.
(Pause)
C: It means that maybe you know somewhere inside that thick head of yours that your personality is a lifeless empty shell you’re constantly trying to fill. And none of this endless madness is doing you any good.
(Brief pause)
C: (with a raised voice) Oh please! (shouting now) Last week you were insisting you were the heir to Hercule bloody Poirot!
(The browsing shopper glances round in C’s direction. As does the security guard who groans and starts to make a call on his phone.)
C: Sorry Adam but someone has to be honest with you…I’m you’re what!?…Friends don’t have an hourly rate…
(Security guard is up and walking towards C)
Guard: (in a thick masculine accent) Not you again. C’mon pal away from here…
C: You may feel you’re someone else here Adam, but I’m not going to call you anything besides your name…Are you paying by cheque this week? As usual?
Guard: (laying a hand on C’s shoulder) Listen, shut it Sigmund. People are tryin’ to shop.
C: (straining to talk to Mannequin) If that’s how you feel we needn’t meet again…(screaming at top of his voice as Guard begins to pull him away. Shopper glances anxiously repeatedly towards C and hurries off stage.)… BUT YOU MUST PAY ACCORDING TO OUR ARRANGEMENT!
(The Guard slowly guides C off stage, grappling now and then to keep him from the Mannequin. C begins to make indecipherable, animalistic noises)
Guard: Oi! Put a sock in it will ya, ya bloody loony!

They exit the stage.

The Adjustment Bureau


Chance and fate are like twin sisters; biologically related but far from identical. They are concepts we all know and experience day after day. Yet their effects fluctuate so wildly that no human being can define, prove or explain what exactly they are, or indeed confirm their existence with any certainty. The best, most brilliant minds throughout history have focused their attention on these beguiling, fascinating, unknowable sisters at some point. Everybody, from genius to crack addict, ponders the cruelties of chance, the favours of fate.

Was it chance that brought the girl of your dreams out onto the street in front of you? Was it just bad luck that you were spitting out your gum at the time, so that she walked head on into a potent projectile of sugared saliva and masticated goo? Or were you doomed to failure? Manipulative Miss Fate may have singled you out as her joke of the day. Then again, perhaps she was just redressing the balance after she took out the lights in the bar that time. Your powers of attraction increased tenfold in near darkness, allowing you to raise your standards considerably. That girl, let’s say Linda, barely noticed the peculiar crook of your nose, for instance, or the irrepressible leering tint to your eyes. But then again maybe there’s no balance at all, no order. Maybe it’s just Miss Chance, a bored, daydreaming secretary at her desk, absentmindedly jabbing at her keyboard.

Often the only way we can begin to explore or talk about these sisters is through storytelling. And George Nolfi’s first feature film as a director, The Adjustment Bureau, is fairly explicitly about the human relationship between our free will, each and every choice that we make, and our fate, the possible destiny that may be already determined for us, laid out beyond our control. The Adjustment Bureau is also a film that can claim to be a “sci-fi romantic thriller”; a distinctive and intriguing description of any story.

Indeed ever since I saw the trailer for The Adjustment Bureau I have been anticipating a thoroughly different blockbuster. Several of Phillip K. Dick’s stories have been taken on and adapted by Hollywood, and several more such as The Man in the High Castle (an alternative history of the Cold War), would make excellent movies. Dick had a knack for capturing fascinating science based or philosophical questions, within a captivating narrative framework that really made you think about the issue. Apparently Nolfi has expanded considerably on Dick’s short story, Adjustment Team, for this project, and that may account for some of its failings.

Numerous reviews have pointed out the plot holes in The Adjustment Bureau and lamented its implausibility. For a film marketing itself as exciting, the lack of engaging thrills has also been highlighted. It’s certainly something that requires a greater than usual suspension of disbelief to really enjoy it. However, critics have also been quick and correct to heap praise upon the performances of the two leads.

In interviews Emily Blunt and Matt Damon have talked of how they “dicked around” on set and tried to transfer some of this interaction, this genuine banter, to the screen. It’s a technique that worked tremendously well. Much of Nolfi’s dialogue in this film is good, but inevitably when trying to encompass such grand themes and deal with an issue like love at first sight, the odd passage is clunky, cliché and cheesy. These bad moments have the potential to seriously deflate the quality of a film. But Damon and Blunt’s brilliance ensures that these dances with disaster become strengths. Whenever an emotional speech is about to over step the mark, one of the characters, usually Blunt’s, makes a jokey remark to both lighten the tone and preserve the intensity of what went before. With such sensational plot components Blunt and Damon’s incredible, immense believability and appeal makes the romantic element of the story feel constantly real and affecting.

Damon in particular is excellent as the focus of the tale and adds another impressive notch to his CV. He appears to have truly arrived as a top Hollywood leading man. Here he plays up and coming senator David Norris, who concedes a mammoth lead in the polls thanks to some revelations about his wild shenanigans in the past. It was a step too far for voters, who had been willing to back the fresh faced, young and local candidate. Damon is completely convincing as a politician passionate for change but disillusioned with the system he must embrace to achieve it.

Underneath it all, Norris just wants company and affection, and this Damon portrays well too. In the Gents after his election defeat, he bumps into Elise, a contemporary ballet dancer. After an odd (but believable!) first meeting, Norris is as infected with the chemistry between them as the audience is. He abandons his conservative losing speech in favour of a frank, electrifying exposure of behind the scenes campaigning and the nature of politics as a whole. His popularity sky rockets (one of the film’s multitude of interesting ideas and points is how the public wants honesty in politics but good men are continually stifled from being themselves).

However when Norris tries to pursue his instant infatuation with Elise, he’s warned off by mysterious looking types in 1950s style period suits, wearing silly hats. This is The Adjustment Bureau; the people that make things happen according to plan. They are not all powerful, as they appear to be governed by their own set of rules and frequently require greater levels of “authorisation”, but they can flit about New York City by teleporting through doors and predict the choices you make. John Slattery, Anthony Mackie and Terrence Stamp, all give decent performances as agents of this supernatural organisation.

The dated look of the agents has come in for considerable criticism; but I rather liked it. Whilst the film could be more thrilling, it’s refreshing to watch a blockbuster that’s still exciting and engaging without being stunt heavy. The focus is not on the action but on the plot and the romance between Elise and David. As for the plot holes, especially increasingly silly ones towards the end, these are probably due to the fact that The Adjustment Bureau is ideas heavy. Sure some of these musings on such debated subjects as the limitations of free will, determinism, God, chance and love are far from subtle. But to me that doesn’t matter, especially given the convincing chemistry at the heart of the film driving it forward as the narrative focus. It’s extremely admirable, valid and bold to make a mainstream film about any of these ideas at all. The Adjustment Bureau will get you thinking and talking about them, and hopefully exploring these fascinating areas further.

Besides, in my opinion, not all of the film’s ideas are as flat and basic as some reviews would have you think. The corporation like structure of The Adjustment Bureau for example (with God referred to as The Chairman), made an extremely relevant point about the limitations of our free will today, in supposedly completely liberated western societies. We no longer realistically worry ourselves with tyrants and dictators, but money, class and big business can substantially shape our paths through life and the hold the powerful keys to turning points in our destiny.

I applaud the abundance of ideas in The Adjustment Bureau then, even if it could have been a better film. Because of all the talking points and its compelling romance, it is still a good and worthwhile watch. Perhaps the most resonant, but also cliché, point that it makes though, and chooses to conclude with, is that love is worth fighting for. Whatever uncontrollable obstacles life throws in the way, be it distance/geography, illness/injury or rivals/opponents, love can be enough and worth holding on to. No matter what.

Oh god. Did I actually just type that? Shoot me now. Yes their performances really are that good.

Ironclad – A Soho screening


My review of Ironclad can be found here – http://flickeringmyth.blogspot.com/2011/03/movie-review-ironclad-2011.html – over at the always fabulous Flickering Myth. I’ll also post it here for my archives. Along with some photos I took in Soho, where I went to De Lane Lea studios, for the screening. It was incredibly exciting and inspiring to be sitting in their waiting room, with signed photographs from most famous actors you can think to name. That’s cliche, and I’m not bitten by the fame bug like some. But you just felt like you were somewhere talented people gathered to make things happen, for the world to see. As a Bond fan, it was exciting to see Quantum of Solace posters and know the sound for the film was mixed there. Waiting for the time of the screening allowed me to discover that Soho itself was fascinating. It’s the hub of London’s film industry, with studio HQs everywhere. Also a wide range of Bloomsbury publishers inhabited the smarter buildings, near various TV production companies, such as Tiger Aspect, which I found in a corner of Soho Square, opposite a house the black, celebrated nurse of the Crimea, Mary Seacole, used to live in. All of this upmarket, swanky, creative establishment stuff, nestled side by side with posh restaurants and seedier strip joints. A diverse place for sure.  A mini London – a place I could easily love to see everyday.

A party raged at The Soho Theatre (see above) to Rihanna music on a trendy London balcony. My camera struggled with the light to capture a shot down Dean Street of Post Office Tower.

Anyway here’s my review of Ironclad in full, it’s worth seeing:

The King’s Speech ruled at the Oscars and did so because of and despite of, three core ingredients. It’s a film that’s independently financed, based closely on historical events and proudly British. It proved that independent films could be both critically acclaimed and box office smashes. It brought to life even stuffy costumed history in a dramatic and engaging way. And it highlighted the world’s appetite for thoroughly English storytelling.

Director Jonathan English is aptly named then in the film industry at this precise moment. His latest project, Ironclad, is out on the 4th March. It shares many of The King’s Speech’s potential handicaps. It took eighteen hard months to raise the money for its ambitious scale and according to the earnest production notes, is a tale “torn from the pages” of English Medieval history. All those involved with the Ironclad team will be hoping that their film also shares some of the success enjoyed by this year’s big Academy Award winner. Producer Andrew Curtis certainly believes that like Tom Hooper’s Royal epic, English’s gritty medieval battle drama will prove that Britain is more than “this little village of filmmakers”.

It’s very hard to find anymore comparisons between Ironclad and The King’s Speech. Yes there’s a Royal involved, but Paul Giamatti’s megalomaniac King John in 1215 is poles apart from Colin Firth’s stuttering Bertie. He’s just been forced to sign the Magna Carta, a vital document that would go on to form the foundations of common law in England. This much is well known history, but the film claims the untold story is what John did next; hire an army of Scandinavian mercenaries to kill those behind the drafting of Magna Carta. It’s a piece of paper that concedes too many of John’s powers over his citizens, a humiliation, that he’s pretty damn pissed about. In a rage John sets out to retake his kingdom, only to be blocked by a handful of opponents at strategically important Rochester castle. From the very start Giamatti plays John, a historical villain we’re all very familiar with, as a man having an endless strop with catastrophic consequences. Revealingly Giamatti comments in the production notes that “I play Hitler, basically”. 

Ironclad’s impressive cast is undoubtedly an asset for the film and most of the actors are likeably convincing in their roles. But just as there is a vast gulf between the characters of King John and King George, there is a chasm separating the performances of Firth and Giamatti. In the trailer my expectations for the film were drastically lowered by the sight of Giamatti’s unavoidably ridiculous face barking angry orders; adorned with a silly beard clogged by drool and drizzle. To my pleasant surprise he was better as John than the trailer makes him appear. This however does not change the fact that the American’s accent regularly has the odd wobble and that his scenes are generally the least enjoyable in Ironclad. There’s something about his portrayal of the King that just failed to convince me. Admittedly I do think a lot of this doubt was down to my unease at his weak, unintentionally comedic appearance, obvious from the very beginning and before he had opened his mouth.

I was astonished to read a quote from Rick Benattar, one of the film’s producers who had worked with Giamatti before on Shoot ‘Em Up, that said: “We got him (Giamatti) signed up to play King John and cast the movie around him. That’s how it really started.” Now as I’ve said, Ironclad’s cast is genuinely impressive. British heavyweights like Brian Cox, Derek Jacobi and Charles Dance, star alongside established actors Mackenzie Crook, Jason Flemyng and Jamie Foreman. One of Giamatti’s better scenes in the film is so good because he’s trading insults and witty jibes with the formidable Brian Cox, manning the ramparts of Rochester Castle with his soldiers. There’s also impressive young talent on show in the form of Kate Mara as the central love interest and Aneurin Barnard as a youthful, idealistic and inexperienced squire. I found the concept of a Medieval Magnificent Seven intriguing and those actors within the castle walls pull it off. But Giamatti’s John is Ironclad’s single biggest flaw and I find it incomprehensible that he was the starting point for such a diverse, quality cast of Brits. More than anything else, he just doesn’t look right as King John.

Enough negatives then, let’s start talking about the good Ironclad has to offer. Perhaps the main reason I was so surprised by how integral Giamatti was to the creation of the project, was that James Purefoy seemed to have the far more pivotal (and praiseworthy) role. He plays an initially mute Templar knight called Marshall, which is an interesting background for the hero of any movie to have. Marshall’s characterisation in the script may not all be remarkably subtle but it is for the most part original and Purefoy’s performance captivating. He more than capably handles the physical side to Ironclad’s action and apparently enjoyed wielding an authentic 5ft sword.

As producer Benattar says, Purefoy made his name as a “spectacular leader and lover” in HBO TV series Rome. Whilst he again plays the man that rallies those around him and falls for a woman in Ironclad, his restrained Templar knight battling a crisis of faith, is very different to arrogant, swaggering Mark Anthony and demonstrates Purefoy’s range of ability. Looking back at his career it’s a real shame that Purefoy hasn’t had more opportunities to completely inhabit a central figure in the narrative as he does here. Before Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, Purefoy was talked of as 007, and he certainly would have looked the part and had the acting chops coupled with a distinctive style. He is the heart of Ironclad and that’s saying something given the rest of the cast.

Aside from assembling such a well known, talented cast, director English was keen to make Ironclad stand out with visceral, realistic and gritty action. From the point of view of historical accuracy, Ironclad feels authentic, whatever liberties it probably took with actual events. The variety of weapons and the set all tend to convince, with the exception to the realistic feel being some dodgy CGI of the castle and surrounding area during otherwise good action set pieces. At times the desire to be hard hitting and true to the reality of Middle Ages gore also went too far, with some blatant green screen shots of limbs being cleaved off or bodies hacked in two. But again generally the filmmakers’ attempts to show “what it’s really like to kill someone with an axe” translate into gripping action.

What picking such fine actors allowed English to do was really ramp up the violence, action and drama and then count on his performers to lighten the sombre mood now and again. An interesting side plot of love between Derek Jacobi’s character’s young wife, played by Kate Mara, and Templar Marshall, is slightly different and a touch more interesting than your conventional diversionary romance, due to the knight’s vow of celibacy. There are also flashes of genuinely amusing, and very British humour, I wasn’t expecting from such a dreary looking film shot in rain battered Wales.

Vibrantly realised characters deliver one liners, which could be terribly bad, with attractive style. Asked whether the French will really come to the rescue, Charles Dance’s kindly Bishop of Canterbury, wryly quips “God knows”, glancing to the heavens. And Cox’s Baron D’Albany warns his companion as he makes him hold his sword, that “We may need protection” as they enter a brothel. Only such screen legends could deliver these lines in a way that doesn’t deflate the drama but enriches it with humanity and sprigs of light.

I cannot help but applaud Ironclad for what it proves; that British cinema can compete with the world and produce well acted, exciting action movies. It feels real and very English and director Jonathan can be proud; he deserves his film to succeed. But I can’t help but have reservations. Apart from the occasionally disappointing visual effect, Ironclad’s Achilles heel is Paul Giamatti. He is not terrible but feels out of place with the tone of the rest of the story. It’s a shame the producers felt the need to recruit an American star as an integral part of a very British project. For me his casting undermines the aim of a successful, British and independent film somewhat. That uneasy feeling I regularly got during his moments in the limelight was the only real disappointment of Ironclad; otherwise I found it a good and engaging film.

The i: Media revolution or pointless newspaper flop?


At Waterloo station the other day I finally succumbed to curiosity. I found myself staring blankly at a WH Smiths emblazoned with a small red letter “i”. In just one moment, demoralised and waiting for a train, all the hype and advertising culminated for me. It was only 20p, let’s see what all the fuss is about. I lugged my stuff over to the store, handed over my solitary coin and headed for a drink to dissect the nation’s latest news phenomenon.

Or is such a big deal? I sit here with two copies, having purchased a second for the purposes of writing this piece. And from the outside it doesn’t look so extraordinary. Sure I’m familiar with the concept, the image they’re trying to sell. It’s a concise compilation of news and opinion, an intelligent but manageable information snack to be devoured by your busy city type. It ought not to appeal so greatly here in my rural setting, and yet the first two local shops I tried were sold out yesterday. Not just a paper for commuters rushing through London terminals and underground stations then? Perhaps it does have some foundations of longevity; having said that, it could simply be the novelty buy of the moment.

If you’re reading this and saying to yourself “what on earth is i?” I am frankly astounded. I don’t believe you can have avoided the marketing blitz accompanying its release. It adorns the side of London buses, plasters newspaper stands and rules the ad breaks at times. The strap-line at the top of the front page reads: “As seen on TV: Britain’s concise quality paper”.  They’re fully aware of the exposure i is getting and I’m guessing the idea is to hook regular readers early. The dirt cheap price will be crucial to the appeal, as will the two key selling points; concise and quality. It’s broadsheet meat in tasty tabloid nuggets.

Essentially it’s a bite-size version of The Independent. The fact that it’s The Independent launching the i does bode well in many respects; The Independent is the newest established national paper in this country. Launched in the eighties it knew how to exploit gaps in the market with price, design, image and politics. Nicknamed the Indy, it used the slogan “It is. Are you?” at its birth in 1986. Such lines show that even back then this was a paper that knew how to bag itself a target market of aspiring intelligent types looking to distinguish themselves from The Guardian or The Times. It would be simultaneously liberal and opinionated, and respected and trusted. In 2003 it took on a tabloid format, which begs the question, why the need for the i?

The clue is in the name. The i is unashamedly jumping onto the Apple bandwagon. We arrive in a new decade, the teenies or whatever follows the noughties, grappling with the coming of the iPad. The iPad seems to herald a new media age in a lot of ways. Countless commentators and reviews argue over its purpose, with many concluding it does not have a particularly functional one. In technology the iPad is halfway between a laptop or netbook and a smartphone or iPod. It fails to do certain things these old staples do so well, whilst also doing some new things no one is quite sure whether we want yet. Most reviews also conclude that the iPad is so much fun, it scarcely matters what it’s for. It’s an inexplicable indulgence, until the content starts to catch up.

 But unavoidably the ethos around the iPad is the direction of travel, the way things are going. People want everything they do, everything they consume, to be aesthetically dazzling and finely crafted. They want to look cool when they read the news and they want to feel cool. They want it to be easy but still be well informed afterwards. They want colour and images. The i is the newspaper equivalent of the iPad; it’s well designed and bright and fun, but it hovers in a new uncertain territory between purposes. Is it broadsheet or tabloid? Paper or magazine? Light or heavy news?

At first I was reading the i trying to work out whether it lived up to its brief of “concise quality” sufficiently, and even if it did, whether it was good enough to warrant such a category of publication. I mean can’t even the busiest person simply selectively scan their favourite paper? I was judging each article to decide whether it had the depth of broadsheet and snappy digestibility of tabloid. The selection of topics for articles is certainly suitably intelligent, with nothing too light or smutty about cheap celebrities creeping in. On the snappy front the opening double page has a “news matrix” with summaries of the day’s top stories, so the reader has at least an overview of everything. This does seem surprisingly handy.

In fairness to most of the articles about serious stories, they do an admirable job of cutting right to the point without being patronising or watering the issue down. But unavoidably there is an unsatisfying lack of depth. Everyday there is a fairly substantial opinion piece however, which can’t be accused of cutting corners. Indeed the opinion section of the paper is a good example of successful fusion between manageable and satisfying content. An “opinion matrix” summarises views from other publications, a bold and genuinely informative move in keeping with The Independent tradition, adjacent to an article from one of their writers. I really like that it quotes other papers, and I imagine the average commuter without the time to buy and read a range, does too. There is only the one opinion piece per day though.

This week the content of the i has been somewhat heavy on anti-Murdoch sentiment, what with the ongoing hacking story and the takeover of Sky forever raging, which I found tiresome. It’s of course admirable to expose such stories, under reported in other papers, but it compromises the potential for other news and comment in such a small paper, and also The Independent tradition of staying above the fray (despite an undoubtedly left-wing reputation).

The television schedule is well designed, split as it is into categories with key programmes, and a smaller list with the all junk underneath. Ideal for those that work all day. There’s also a section called “iq” which seems to be dedicated to the likes of style and recipes and again has a good balance between brevity and depth. The arts area of the paper seems somewhat recycled each day, with film and theatre listings and descriptions; no reviews. Not being a businessman I wouldn’t know if the business section was adequate, but it has its own “news matrix” which seems a good, broad introduction to all the main action of the day. The sports pages are really quite short but do touch on all the main issues; football transfer gossip, Six Nations, Andy Murray.

After all this analysis though I remembered how crucial the comparison with the iPad is to understanding the i. Frequently I toy with it in those cavernous Apple stores, knowing full well I haven’t the funds for such an extravagance or even if I would use it at all, should I win the lottery or rob a bank. But every time I go in for a discrete fondle of the touch screen, that indescribable feeling Apple manufactures so well washes over me. That feeling of being at the forefront; the vanguard of technological advancement. As if I’m in an incredibly cool sci-fi film, not my mundane life. That feeling of childish play, somehow fused with the realisation you’ve arrived as an adult with the James Bond gadget to prove your maturity and success. Look at the tech they let me unleash! Behold the luxuries that make up my exciting everyday existence!

Like the iPad, the i is a symbol of a life style choice, a lot more than just a paper. Now it might be the case that your choice of paper has always been a significant indicator of outlook and ambition, but the i is a heightened version, harnessing the 21st century Apple fever. It popularises that choice and makes it available to the masses as a statement of intent. “Look at me, I am intelligent but too busy to stop, I’ve arrived!”

Even if you don’t consciously think this, the colourful design and appeal of the i put it on that similarly luxurious plain to the iPad. It really is well designed, easy to read and pretty to look at on some pages. And why shouldn’t intelligent news be a pleasure to look at? Why does it have to be bunched in dense text and an excruciating eyesore? Especially when you’re jammed in like sardines on the tube. The colour coded pages help you swiftly find what you’re looking for and the multitude of colour photographs let you feel the news, experience the world, rather than simply read about it. Like the touch screen of the iPad, the i feels interactive at times and immersive despite its concision.

One thing that really baffles me is the continually shabby state of The Independent website following the launch of the i. To truly capitalise on the stylish Apple-like aesthetic they’re cultivating with the i, they would lure people to their equally swish website. But for ages The Independent’s website has been the drabbest online newspaper around. Some would simply call it functional, with its white background and lack of trimmings. But a hideous mustardy brown colour is used across the top and the font is squat and awkward to read. It’s a real shame, because it’s so bad it often puts me off delving into the regularly insightful, impressive content, which has real depth that goes beyond the snippets in the prettier i.

I would do well not to push the comparison with the iPad too far. The i lacks the level of interactivity and excitement cutting edge technology like the iPad can provide. It is, at the end of the day, a slimmed down newspaper. But its design and marketing reflect a cultural trend. There’s nothing wrong with what the i is trying to achieve, and it’s admirable in fact to see something try and keep print publications fresh and competitive. The threats of the iPad and the internet could jeopardise journalism and courageous solutions are needed. The i does the right thing by embracing the challenge of our new aesthetically obsessed, Apple stuffed world, rather than denying it. With its colour, cool and seamless advertising spaces and refreshingly un-patronising news, the i has the potential to be more than an early 2011 fad. Crucially, at 20p, you may as well give this stylish “essential daily briefing” a whirl, before properly digesting your preferred daily in the evening.

Ed Miliband can learn from Obama the salesman


President Obama’s State of Union address was a politically shrewd and inspirational sales pitch. At times it felt like a return to the stirring rhetoric of his election campaign which so captured the hearts of not only Americans, but citizens across the globe. He was playing his back-up card, his own magnetic charisma and charm, in an attempt to recover the legacy of his first term. It was a bold speech but it wasn’t flawless; occasionally Obama uncharacteristically tripped over his words and the key policy goals won’t win over everyone. But often his tone and message seemed perfectly tailored to the mindset of his nation. Despite the patriotic focus on America however there are numerous lessons leaders of left-wing political parties around the world, especially Labour’s Ed Miliband, can learn from the tactics, execution and content of the President’s speech.

There was a somewhat forced emphasis on pluralism and cooperation across the political spectrum. Ed Miliband has already started to learn this lesson himself. He began his tenure as leader aggressively pursuing the Lib Dem vote and he has now softened his approach to encourage teamwork against the worst of the cuts, and leave the way clear for a Lib-Lab coalition. In particular he’s gone to considerable lengths to retract comments he made about Nick Clegg, in the heat of the moment swept up by the public venom for the man, to appease the Lib Dem leader in the event of a close parliament once again at the next election. President Obama repeatedly praised the new Republican leader of Congress and even incorporated the story of his humble background into the appealing sense of patriotism and history coursing through the blood of his words.

This search for common ground with Republicans was of course necessary. The Mid-Term results left Obama in a desperate legislative position and in dire need of supporters for his landmark policies on both sides of American politics. Health Care has bogged down Obama’s Presidency thus far and in this speech he sought to draw a line under it. In the spirit of national cooperation, which Obama highlighted so much during his election campaign and then unwisely forgot during his first years in power, he asked anyone with improvements to the Health Care Bill to come forward and work with him. He also quipped that he had heard some people still had problems with it, laughing off the gaping ideological divide. Instead he set his sights firmly on a new ambitious primary objective and set about selling it in a way that would appeal to both hesitant Republicans and indifferent voters.

At the core of this address was a striking commitment to green-tech and clean energy. You could see the firm imprint of the devastating Gulf of Mexico oil leak on the President’s words as he announced wave after wave of intention to develop green programmes. I urged David Cameron on this blog to utilise the platform presented by the oil leak for green growth and it seems Obama is finally seizing the opportunity to push through his Climate Change objectives under a different guise. And that’s the vital point about this speech; the way in which Obama sold the solutions to Climate Change and the environmental challenge.

Nowhere do the words “climate” or “global warming” appear in the text of the address. At no point does he bellow any frightening warnings about the excess of the American way of life, but the implications are there. He uses the guilt, anger and worry people feel about the oil leak to smuggle in leftist policies like the removal of subsidies for oil companies, who are “doing just fine on their own”, and tax breaks for millionaires. He cites the deficit, the Republican’s Holy Grail (much like the Conservatives here) as his main reason for such money saving measures, not punishing success, an obstacle so often to the removal of unfair, outdated tax relief for the wealthiest in the States. He reinforces his deficit argument still further by promising a prolonged spending freeze which he backs up with figures that claim to eat away at the debt at unprecedented levels. Could some Republicans be warming to the President’s policies?

You’d think not if he was emphasising investment for green energy and massive cuts to emissions. But Obama’s presentation of the measures was key. He talked about “winning the future” and set up the race for clean energy between America and China, drawing comparisons with the Communist struggle and the space race. He set about inspiring his countrymen, and patriotic Republican opponents, by fusing the need for a green revolution with a sense of historic nationalism and pride in America’s achievements.

“The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation. …

We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology — an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.

Already, we are seeing the promise of renewable energy. Robert and Gary Allen are brothers who run a small Michigan roofing company. After September 11th, they volunteered their best roofers to help repair the Pentagon. But half of their factory went unused, and the recession hit them hard.

Today, with the help of a government loan, that empty space is being used to manufacture solar shingles that are being sold all across the country. In Robert’s words, “We reinvented ourselves.”

That’s what Americans have done for over two hundred years: reinvented ourselves. And to spur on more success stories like the Allen Brothers, we’ve begun to reinvent our energy policy. We’re not just handing out money. We’re issuing a challenge. We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo Projects of our time.”

When Obama was elected, even I in rural England, felt a part of real history for the first time in many years. It’s easy in our modern world to feel like it’s all been done and there are no discoveries left, no bold new challenges to conquer or visions to forge and realize. But with Obama’s reference to the “Apollo projects of our time” he excites people and presents Climate Change and its problems as an opportunity to reinvent in fairer, bigger and better ways. He pledged to aim for 80% of American energy to be green by 2035 and for 80% of Americans to have access to the enormous potential of high-speed rail within 25 years.  When these figures are all about doom and gloom Climate Change, which some people still doubt, they leave voters cold. But simplify the message to security, better environment and more jobs and a stronger economy, and they’re interested. 

I’ve thought for a long time that Climate Change is the challenge of our generation, one we cannot afford to ignore, but that it is also an opportunity for a reinvention of society with the potential to banish unfairness and find sustainable solutions to poverty. Green politicians are constantly going at the issue in the wrong way, an alienating way. Ed Miliband and his new Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls need a plan for growth. This plan needs to not only be credible and obviously a better route to deficit reduction than Coalition cuts, but inspirational and worthy of votes. Miliband needs his own “Big Society” idea and sell green growth, like Obama in his State of Union address, and he has it; a popular economic policy with a vision that can define his new party. Britons too have a strong sense of history, when it’s properly stimulated, and Miliband could make the case for Britain becoming a world leader on green growth. In fact follow Obama’s example and major policy areas suddenly entwine and give much needed direction; the economy and the deficit, security and Britain’s foreign policy role, our partnership with America and Climate Change.

Of course Obama might not succeed and it certainly seems unlikely he’ll achieve everything he aimed for in his speech. But he has set out a direction for the end of his term. One that could potentially change his country and the world for the better. Ed Miliband can’t afford to dither much longer about the direction of his party. The longer he waits the harder it will be to achieve genuine policy goals he has long committed to, like a banking bonus tax, a solution to tuition fees and investment instead of cuts. Sell it all under the right sort of green banner and he has a refreshing, substantive alternative to Cameron’s bruising cuts and hollow “Big Society”.

On London/Birdsong at the Comedy Theatre


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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