Tag Archives: snappy

Page and Screen: The Big Sleep


Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel The Big Sleep, the first to star PI Philip Marlowe, was ready made for the big screen. It had a zippy, twisting and engrossing plot, propelled at pace by short, sharp chapters that feel like scenes from a movie. It is full of characters that are enigmatic, living in the shadowy underworld of Los Angeles, but they all jump out of the page at you because they are so flawed and real. Appropriately, the whole thing plays out in and around Hollywood. And perhaps best of all, Chandler’s dialogue is quick and witty, containing cool and sophisticated one liners that are easy to transplant straight from a book to a script.

The classic film version, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and directed by Howard Hawks, was released in 1946, just seven years after the original novel. Its place amongst other classics in a widely recognised Hollywood hall of fame is justified. It adds elements the novel was missing and brings screen legends like Bogart and Bacall together to successfully bring the charismatic Marlowe and feisty Vivian Rutledge to life. But it is also a largely faithful adaptation and owes its source material a huge debt.

What is the general story of The Big Sleep then? It is too complicated to properly explain briefly. Chandler’s original plot negotiated a weaving path between webs of blackmail, secrets and lies, fuelled by Hollywood excess. Essentially Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood who has two “wild” daughters, Carmen (Martha Vickers) and Vivien (Bacall), each with their own scandalous weaknesses. Carmen is being blackmailed by a dodgy bookseller doing something illegal on the side and Vivien’s estranged husband, who the General was fond of, has gone missing. Marlowe quickly unravels the blackmail but bigger problems continually turn up, leading him further and further into a tough investigation of gangsters, gambling and girls.

Elements of the original plot seem even more complicated on film because of the need to tone down Chandler’s frank portrayal of sex and drugs. For example Carmen is blackmailed because of naked pictures of herself but in the film she is wearing some kind of Oriental robe. Carmen’s attempts to seduce Marlowe, and therefore her dangerous nature, are also less overt in the film.

The best lines of dialogue are lifted completely unaltered from Chandler’s prose. There are far too many to quote. Almost all the dialogue in the book is slick and crucial to the irresistible noir style. The film’s script, by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, sticks as close as possible to the novel’s dialogue as well as its intricate plot and is consequently one of the best and most quotable in cinematic history, line for line.

The character of Marlowe comes to life because of his smooth talking street smarts. But this doesn’t mean that other characters are deprived of scene stealing lines. Even minor characters, such as a girl working in a fake bookshop called Agnes, get the odd gem. When Marlowe disarms her and asks “Did I hurt you much?” she shoots back “You and every other man in my life.”

Not all of the novel’s charisma could make it from the page to the screen. Despite an excellent performance from Bogart, accurately portraying Marlowe’s mannerisms and speech as the reader imagines them, it’s impossible to transfer the brilliance of his first person narration. Chandler gives Marlowe an incredibly strong voice and not all of the great lines in the book are spoken.

Marlowe’s nature as a detective means that he rapidly describes his surroundings vividly and unavoidably the film lacks the colour of these delicious chapter set ups, because it is in black and white. Marlowe also internally sums up other characters. We cannot see these first impressions on film. Despite the glamour of Bacall and the other actresses in the production, we’re denied such delicious and spot on imagery of the women as this; “she gave me one of those smiles the lips have forgotten before they reach the eyes”. No actress could express such subtlety. In the book we also learn a little more about Marlowe’s own state of mind and emotions, again through wonderful writing; “I was as empty of life as a scarecrow’s pockets”.

One of the changes the filmmakers did make was to intensify the relationship between Bogart’s Marlowe and Bacall’s Mrs Rutledge. The plot remains essentially the same, with some scenes tweaked and others, like a fairly pivotal one towards the end, omitted altogether and explained elsewhere. However Bacall’s character appears more often than she does in the book. The change in her character was probably for commercial as well as narrative reasons. Cinema audiences wanted to see a love story between their two big stars, not an unorthodox, cold and professional Detective teasing but ultimately knocking back a beautiful lady, as Marlowe does in the book.

Indeed the inclusion of the love story does fundamentally change Marlowe’s character in some ways. He is robbed of an ingredient of his allure as he is no longer a troubled but brilliant and determined loner when he admits that he loves Vivien. But it makes The Big Sleep work better as a standalone story and is considerably more satisfying than the end to the novel, which explains things but doesn’t exactly resolve them.

It is inevitable that the adaptation has its differences to the source material. And it is also essential that changes were made. I may miss Marlowe’s narration from the page and even the excitement of Chandler’s written action, compared to the film’s set pieces which are over in a flash. But the film gives me the unrivalled onscreen chemistry between Bogart and Bacall, which sheds light on and makes the most of the flirtatious relationship from the page.  It might even reveal new truths in Chandler’s story, whilst lacking others. Overall though it’s clear that both the novel and the movie are sublime; clever and gripping, sophisticated and cool. Entertainment at its best.

Advertisements

Doctor Who: Series 6: Episode 4 – The Doctor’s Wife


Am I getting overexcited if I say that this episode had everything? The Guardian series blog says that at its heart this was just a story of love between a man and his car, “perfectly pitched”. But I think that’s a simplification of the abundance of ideas in The Doctor’s Wife and a misunderstanding of the bond between Doctor and machine. If the TARDIS is a car it’s the fastest and most exclusive vehicle on the roads. And the machine is so deeply rooted in Time Lord culture, carrying such a magical image with divine possibilities, that its equivalent as a car would have to be the very latest model opening up the world for travel in a time of horse and carts. The Doctor, after all, is more than just a poser in a Porsche; he’s an adventurer, explorer and conquering genius. And the TARDIS is his home, the one constant in his lonely existence.

There is too much to talk about after such a spot on execution of a tantalising premise. I had not heard of Neil Gaiman before this week but he brings a distinctive and fresh feel to this episode, with its industrial junk and grimy Victoriana costume. Yes we’re clearly in the classic setting of a quarry, but it isn’t samey; the set is wonderfully lit and decorated to create a unique rubbish dump environment.

 His glittering CV in sci-fi and fantasy is evident everywhere but Gaiman also grasps the history of Who and mines it for inspiration. More than any other incoming writer he creates a fan fest for die hard followers. The focus on a personification of the TARDIS and distress calls from Time Lords such as the Corsair, provides the pudding for lifelong Whovians, whilst the running around corridors is a classic treat many newer fans will have missed from the RTD era.

But it’s not just running around corridors. With the jaw dropping concept of the soul of the Doctor’s beloved blue box transplanted into a woman, it would be easy to gloss over the scenes with Amy and Rory. There’s no doubt that the Suranne Jones and Matt Smith double act steals the show. However the scenes with our married couple continue running themes of Moffat’s reign, raising further questions about the story arc.

What is it with constantly killing Rory? Mysterious and powerful entity House, brilliantly voiced by Michael Sheen, twice kills him with his hallucinogenic tricks. He also turns him against Amy, which is something many are saying might happen for real later on. There are chilling psychological scares with “Kill Amy” daubed all over the walls and some classic Whovian prosthetic frights with the tentacle strewn beard of the Ood.

What next? How about the marvellously creepy and eccentric Auntie and Uncle, both “patchwork people” continually “repaired” by the sadistic House? They add a delightfully quirky touch with touches of humour as well as menace. And Auntie, with what many might have missed as a throwaway line, hints at the story arc of Amy’s pregnancy. She grabs her and says “House loves you” and given that House feeds off of Time Lords or at least their TARDISes, are we meant to take that as a hint that the regenerating child at the end of The Day of the Moon is Amy’s? How on earth do the Doctor and Amy have a child? Is this just an elaborate red herring?

Enough speculation and back to the genius of this episode. House is a great idea for an adversary for the Doctor, an intelligent “entity” and one that simply wants to feed off of Time Lord energy, whilst also having fun with his food. The lovely sci-fi idea of a “bubble on the outside of a soap bubble” of the universe was also introduced through fantastically playful dialogue. Suranne Jones, effectively playing the TARDIS, did an absorbing and varied job of realising the rest of Gaiman’s excellent lines.

Indeed Gaiman’s script was perfectly structured as the TARDIS adjusted to human form, moving the character from nonsense, by degrees, to harmonious cooperation with the Doctor. This is an episode that really rewards a second viewing, as all the seemingly mad ramblings from Idris/TARDIS at the beginning, turn out to be quotes from later in the script or confused foresights from the time machine of what’s to come. For once the accompanying episode of Doctor Who Confidential was a total joy, as Gaiman read extracts from his screenplay that sounded more like intoxicating poetry and far better in many ways than the action brought to life in the episode itself.

Other odds and ends then: Matt Smith was excellent, getting the chance to be emotional, crazy and angry and determined. If we didn’t get many answers relating to this year’s story arc, we did get some partial ones to age old questions about the TARDIS and the Doctor’s past. For one thing we finally ventured beyond a control room. Ok the budget didn’t stretch to that swimming pool, but there was a lovely cameo from Tennant’s old control room. The TARDIS, given a voice, was at pains to say it was she that chose the Doctor to see the universe, not the other way around. And a satisfying explanation for all the random thrills and battles with evil: “You didn’t always take me where I wanted to go,” /”But I always took you where you needed to”.

After last week’s enjoyable run around, The Doctor’s Wife was a romp, romance and refreshing ideas episode rolled into one. Hopefully Gaiman will be persuaded to return and deliver the kind of one off story Moffat used to do so well. Next week The Rebel Flesh looks set to bring back some sort of Cassandra like creature. But things still look dark, dingy and dangerous.

P.S Are all humans like this? Bigger on the inside?

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 NHS “reforms” break an implicit election promise – and do not go nearly far enough


Cast your minds back to the days of the last election. All the talk was of cuts and the campaign was curiously short on optimism. Nick Clegg rocketed to popularity because of his outsider status and a rare ability to sound slightly hopeful about the odd issue. Cameron and Brown battled over grim details, tainted by all that had gone before. One of the few rays of hilarity to shine out of the darkness was the very British ridicule of one of our current Prime Minister’s key policies and publicity stunts.

I’m referring, of course, to Cameron’s notorious airbrushed poster campaign. The abnormally clean image of the old Etonian presented on billboards everywhere to the entire nation, took the Tory drive for renewal to the laughable extreme. Dave was not wealthy and out of touch, merely handsome and approachable. As funny as the image and tactics themselves were however, it’s the snappy quoted message alongside his shiny face coming back to haunt the Prime Minister now.

I certainly do not pretend to even partially comprehend the reforms to the NHS this Conservative led government is proposing. Indeed the lack of understanding from its own ministers seems to be a large part of the problem. And it’s no secret the Conservatives have long planned a shake-up, fuelled by the steadfast belief of their long serving top dog on health, Andrew Lansley. However whilst the faults and flaws of the plans that are becoming clear are extremely important, in terms of political capital and strategy for Number 10, they are in many ways besides the point when it comes to that infamous election promise.

“I’ll cut the deficit-not the NHS” translated for voters to “This is a new kind of Tory party that treasures the NHS above all else. We will not mess with it anyway.” Cameron will argue his promise did not say he wouldn’t change the NHS and that it needs modernisation for the better. But he knew the implication of his promise and the votes it would win him. His protestations about the benefits of his reforms will therefore mean little to those his promise swayed.

It’s also especially hollow given that the Prime Minister has since watered down and diluted that concrete pledge, which formed the symbolic heart of his campaign, again and again and again. First it became merely a safeguard for frontline services and then promised improvements, like an increase in the number of midwives, were scaled back and ultimately scrapped altogether, with even plans to maintain current numbers reversed. Fears about privatisation which the reasonable man might have attributed to overzealous, sensational leftist press, are now emerging to have hard evidence behind them. 50,000 jobs are set to be cut. How exactly is this not cutting the NHS?

If the workers within the system themselves were in favour Cameron would have a much stronger argument. But countless GPs have written to newspapers, as well as other types of professional, warning against the changes as unnecessary and damaging. The Prime Minister continually insists that locals have the right to opt in our out, but what are those that oppose and don’t sign up to the scheme meant to do? Even in my quiet rural area GPs feel overworked and many local people distrust the vested interests of certain doctors. Is handing over the biggest budget in the country to them really a good idea and what people want? It’s doubtful if the new system will even be able to produce what the public need.

Another argument constantly wheeled out by the Tories is the pressing need for modernisation and reform, which make it necessary. There is nothing necessary about these plans though. Whilst the health service has its flaws, the current system leads to a mostly positive service. There are undoubted challenges in health care such as an ageing population and emerging drugs, which often seem insurmountable. Government proposals do not do enough to ease the burden and according to many that know, they actually complicate the fight. For a leadership so keen on cutting the deficit, you would think that such costly, ideological plans could wait for better times.

 It would also do more good in the long run, and reduce the deficit substantially, to work out some realistic spending priorities centrally. Vital areas and treatments need to be protected nationally and things the NHS can’t afford to provide should be phased out. The private sector does have a role but it should grow independently of the NHS and take up the slack for treatments it shouldn’t be wasting resources on. Taxes and other initiatives should encourage healthier living. Devolving decisions to GPs is no magic pill, no silver bullet and it doesn’t even equip the NHS for the critical, worsening challenges it will face in the future. It would be a far more sensible decision for the government to begin a nationwide debate about what we expect, want and need from our NHS now. It would fit with the “new politics” of plural cooperation and potentially produce actual solutions.

Perhaps the main reason the government looks less likely to bow to pressure from the public on this issue is the Prime Minister’s ego and pride. He’s been happy to recognise the weaknesses of coalition and concede on issues like the forests and sport in schools. But the NHS plans are too inextricably linked to Cameron’s personal brainchild; the Big Society. Its philosophy of localism and choice in the community over centralised solutions marries nicely with Lansley’s ideas for health. The health reforms open the way for the sort of community cohesion and interaction, fuelled by voluntary, charity involvement, that Cameron wants to see. He genuinely believes it’s the path to a social recovery for Britain that’s sustainable and empowers government to do what it does best, as well as liberating people from the state. He’ll continue to be blind to all the irreversible wounds the “reforms” will inflict on the NHS itself and his popularity with the people as long as it remains tied to his vision. His recent attempt to re-launch the initiative demonstrates his huge commitment; it cannot afford to fail.

The real shame for the country and even the Conservative party, is that Cameron’s election pledge could have been a clever way of dumping a responsibility and challenge for maximum political gain. His implicit promise of not touching the NHS meant it could have been left as it was, a gargantuan issue for a future administration to tackle, ticking over just fine for the time being. There are after all, enough problems for the coalition to face. If this government had done mostly nothing on health, the public would have thanked them for it, the Conservatives especially. But Cameron is so determined to be radical and appear to be so, that he will press on, regardless of the consequences. It may prove to be the well meaning project that took his remodelling of the state too far.

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.