Saturday, 27 October 2012

TV PREVIEW: Horror Europa with Mark Gatiss, The American Road Trip: Obama's Story, Family Guys? What Sitcoms Say About America Now

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 27th October 2012.

Tuesday, BBC4, 9pm

Sunday, Channel 4, 7pm

Saturday, BBC2, 10pm

Paul Whitelaw

Halloween is almost upon us, which can only mean one thing: Mark Gatiss, on BBC4, looming from the shadows in the manner of a suave undertaker to tell us all about his favourite horror films.

A luxurious 90 minute special devoted to cult cinema classics, HORROR EUROPA WITH MARK GATISS follows in the wake of his well-received series from 2010, A History of Horror, in which he took a potted journey through the broadly familiar landmarks of the American and British branches of the genre. Bathed in clotted streams of crimson blood, his latest essay pays tribute to a “distinctive, diverse horror tradition” which both influenced and absorbed developments in cinema beyond continental Europe.

Encompassing every relevant 'ism' from German expressionism and Belgian surrealism, to sombre post-war realism and nightmare ruminations on fascism, it presents a sort of alternate history of horror cinema, or at least one that will doubtless prove unfamiliar to non-aficionados.

But therein lies the frustrating, albeit probably unavoidable, rub with Gatiss' horror documentaries: partly intended as an introductory overview, they do tend to spoil the twists and denouements of the very films he's encouraging us to seek out. His knowledge and enthusiasm are commendable, but this uneasy compromise between introduction and broad analysis does confuse the issue of who these programmes are aimed at exactly.

Nevertheless, it's still an enjoyable, witty and handsomely shot tribute to flamboyant horror titans such as Mario Bava and Dario Argento, and the expressionist pioneers of early German cinema. One of Gatiss' more interesting points is that the latter group were, in the wake of Germany's catastrophic defeat in World War One, intent on restoring their nation's pride by establishing cinema as a respectable art form. It's perhaps surprising that they chose to do so within a genre so often dismissed – at least by high-falutin' critics – as cheap and disposable.

Gatiss further explores the after-effects of war via the bitter, guilt-ridden pseudo-realism of French classics such as Les Diaboliques, and argues that the many grotesque characters played by the great silent actor Condrad Veidt essentially functioned as allegorical representations of German post-war trauma.

Not that European horror filmmakers were always ignited by such lofty aspirations. Gatiss is in his lip-smacking element when discussing the lurid exploitation flicks that emerged from the Italian horror boom of the '60s. These stylish, quasi-psychedelic fantasias resemble nothing so much as a contemporaneous Hammer chiller shot through the prism of a deranged mind. Your Lovefilm list may be heaving with this stuff by programme's end.

Arch of eyebrow and tailored of suit, Gatiss is an engaging guide to a rich, varied, eye-catching subject of which – lest there be any doubt – he's clearly hugely passionate about. Any programme that devotes time and respect to fantastically titled curios such as Who Can Kill a Child? and The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue is more than deserving of your rapt attention.

Four more years? That's the question at the heart of THE AMERICAN ROAD TRIP: OBAMA'S STORY, in which, ahead of next week's closely fought US election, Channel 4's Washington Correspondent Matt Frei travels through the swing states of the Midwest and the South to canvas the opinions of ordinary voters.

With many Americans feeling that their country is in terminal decline, Obama's chances of winning a second term are hardly set in stone. Frei meets middle-class (or what we would term working-class) people on the edge of destitution, who, despite Obama's promises of sweeping upward change, have come to realise that the American dream is a hopeless myth. “We were sold a line,” sighs one man, “and the line is a noose.”

And yet despite this widespread disappointment, it's fortunate for Obama that his Republican opponent, millionaire Mormon gaffe-trumpet Mitt Romney, currently looks about as electable as a rabid mongoose (he says, fingers crossed). No wonder the nutzoid Tea Party movement, who Frei drops in on, are so terrified and confused.

Unfortunately, despite the potentially interesting subject matter, Frei's report is superficial and unrevealing. He wastes time mocking a Mormon elder for the sacred underpants worn by those of faith, and, in one bizarrely irrelevant sequence, argues with his Sat-Nav while driving through Kentucky. I blame the heat.

Nevertheless, a portrait does emerge of America as a divided, messed up nation. But is that entirely accurate? In FAMILY GUYS? WHAT SITCOMS SAY ABOUT AMERICA NOW, historian Tim Stanley argues that TV comedies provide a more accurate illustration of American society than the ragingly polarised bickering of mainstream political debate.

Using as examples the likes of Modern Family, with its gay fathers and interracial marriage, and The Middle, about a recession-hit middle-class family, he shows how sitcoms throughout the ages have reflected and consolidated shifting attitudes. But even in these supposedly more tolerant times, subjects such as abortion and religion are still considered dangerously divisive.

Featuring insightful contributions from leading writers, directors, executives and critics, it's an interesting programme that proves, if any more proof were needed, that comedy remains one of the world's most valuable, risky and challenging art forms.  

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Book review: MICK JAGGER by Philip Norman

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 20th October 2012.


Philip Norman

HarperCollins, £20

Paul Whitelaw

When Michael Philip Jagger, corporate head of the Rolling Stones empire, was asked to deliver his autobiography in the early '80s, the ghost-written results were deemed so irredeemably dull that the publishers were forced to cancel the £1 million advance and scrap the entire project. His exasperated editor quipped that it should've been titled The Diary of a Nobody.

Contrast that with the colourful – if not always reliable – content of fellow Stone Keith Richards' best selling memoir, Life, from 2010, which, in between hair-raising anecdotes and scholarly ruminations on open-G tuning, functioned as a kind of frustrated public letter to his estranged old friend. The Stones are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, with another mega-tour rumoured to follow in 2013, but Richards claims he hasn't set foot in Jagger's dressing room in over 20 years.

So what happened? How is it possible that a legendary figure such as Jagger, who's lived a life liberally festooned with dramatic incident, could think of nothing interesting to say about himself? And how did it get to the stage where he barely communicates with the man with whom he wrote some of the world's greatest rock songs?

Philip Norman's hefty, even-handed biography seeks to dig behind the studied public fa├žade and bore into the heavily guarded heart of this paradoxical icon. That he succeeds in presenting a rounded portrait of such a slippery character is doubly remarkable given Jagger's predictable refusal to have anything to do with the book.

And yet, despite this glaring Jagger-shaped hole, Norman may well have written the only biography of a living entertainer to actually benefit from the absence of its subject. After all, the author argues, when have you ever read a remotely revealing interview with Mick Jagger? From the moment he strutted onto the world's stage in the mid-'60s, his public pronouncements have always been couched in feigned indifference and, in later years, a maddening insistence that he's forgotten the finer details of his past.

A highly intelligent, shrewd professional, this is clearly a convenient avoidance technique honed over the years to reveal as little of himself as possible. Famously, Jagger is a song-writer who, despite penning countless lyrics, has provided barely a hint of autobiography in his work.

This diplomatic narcissist obviously cares deeply about how he's perceived, but his unwavering commitment – to borrow ex-paramour Marianne Faithfull's choice phrase – to The Tyranny of Cool prohibits him from ever suggesting otherwise in public.

Norman repeatedly returns to the Tyranny of Cool motif throughout the story, as a persuasive way of deciphering Jagger's often self-defeating and callous behaviour. Despite pushing 70, this still limber force of nature is arguably the most vainglorious exponent of the perpetual adolescence enjoyed by pampered rock stars.

Although Norman rightly celebrates Jagger's immense talent and historical impact, a portrait emerges of a selfish, charming, controlling man who's had his every whim, whether fiscal or carnal, indulged almost without question throughout his long career. And yet despite his keen sense of self-awareness, Jagger doesn't seem to realise that his endless series of affairs with women less than half his age has transformed a one-time cultural powerhouse into an increasingly pathetic parody of himself. That, I suppose, is what happens when the word you've heard least in your life is “no”.

Norman has assembled an addictive narrative mired in sex and, to a lesser extent, drugs (Jagger was always too sensible to overindulge), but thankfully he isn't interested in salacious gossip.

An esteemed biographer of, among others, The Beatles, John Lennon, and the Stones themselves (an updated edition of his exhaustive 1984 biography is published this month), his reputation for thorough research is compounded on virtually every page. Norman is the sort of detail-hungry biographer who'll delightedly note that an Abbott and Costello comedy prophetically titled Money For Jam was playing at the local cinema in Dartford when the notoriously stingy Jagger was born.

Having gone back over interviews conducted for his previous Stones tome, he's also gathered fresh, record-straightening yet dignified contributions from the likes of Jagger's former lovers Chrissie Shrimpton and Marsha Hunt (who gave birth to his first child, which he briefly tried to disown), and Maggie Abbot, his one-time film agent, who grants fascinating insight into the numerous film offers that came his way during his thwarted bid for Hollywood stardom. It's tantalising to imagine what directors such as Hal Ashby, Steven Spielberg, John Boorman and Franco Zeffirelli could've done with Jagger's unique charisma.

Despite his penchant for detail, Norman could never be accused of being a dry, academic biographer. Adopting a wry tone befitting his habitually self-mocking subject, he rarely passes up an opportunity for an ironic aside. Indeed, at times he'd be best advised to avoid a tempting pun or gag, as they often irritate rather than amuse. Perverting the title of the Stones' first US album to Europe's Newest Shitmakers? Describing ageing groupies as “gurgling matrons”? Really, Philip? And he does tend to repeat himself as the book goes on. Oh for the hand of a stricter editor.

Nevertheless, having breathed new life into familiar material, he's written what must surely be regarded as the definitive account of Jagger's remarkable life. Its very existence will, of course, vex and embarrass Sir Mick himself, who would clearly prefer it if people only wrote about him in the manner of a glowing press release. But you can be sure that, whenever the subject inevitably arises during future interviews, he'll casually dismiss it as an irrelevance. The Tyranny of Cool will never be vanquished.

Mick Jagger by Philip Norman is published 4th October (HarperCollins, £20)

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Scotsman TV preview: Getting On, BBC4 Big Science, Hebburn

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on Saturday 13th October 2012.

Wednesday, BBC4, 10pm

BBC4, days and times vary

Thursday, BBC2, 10pm

Paul Whitelaw

Dismantled by a government possessed of all the selflessness and empathy of a Cyberman attending an annual “Let's Kill the Humans” convention, the NHS currently finds itself in the most parlous position of its lifetime. And while no conceivable trace of good could ever arise from this dismal situation, it does add an extra layer of depth to careworn sitcom GETTING ON. So that's something. I suppose.

Now in its third series, this unvarnished gem – written by and starring Vicki Pepperdine, Joanna Scanlan, and former psychiatric nurse Jo Brand – has always presented a humane and despairing portrait of the beleaguered NHS. But now more than ever it feels like a helpless eulogy for an institution trudging towards its final days.

If that all sounds like unreasonably depressing fodder for a comedy, it should be explained – for those who haven't already succumbed to its charms – that Getting On never goes in search of broad, easy laughs. Instead its subtle humour arises naturally from realistic situations and well-rounded characters. It's funny in a desperate, often painful way.

Set in an understaffed geriatric ward, it lives up to its double-edged title by showing ordinary, flawed human beings muddling through under trying circumstances (i.e. life). Overshadowed by the ever-present spectre of death – laugh it up, folks! - it pays heartfelt yet crucially unsentimental tribute to the thankless lot of NHS nurses.

Jo Brand as knackered nurse Kim is the heart of Getting On. Although shrouded in lingering traces of Brand's cynical comic persona, Kim is kinder and more cognisant of the needs of her elderly patients than any other character in the show. She's that rare thing: someone from a modern British sitcom that you'd actually like to know in real life.

The same can't be said for Pepperdine as effortlessly condescending consultant Dr Moore, who's more concerned with ticking boxes and boosting her profile. Permanently teetering on a frayed tightrope of passive-aggression and stunning obliviousness, she's a weirdly vulnerable monster, and Pepperdine plays her impeccably.

Scanlan, who's already asserted her deft comic touch as Terri in The Thick Of It, also impresses as capable but lazy ward sister Den, who tends to form a shaky united front with Kim. In the latest episode she receives unwelcome news from her ex-partner and male matron, Hilary – a beautifully understated performance from hulking comic Ricky Grover – while struggling with a hypochondriac patient.

I'd describe Getting On as bittersweet, if that word hadn't been hijacked to describe bland ITV comedy-dramas starring Martin Clunes as a lonely divorcee. Instead I'll describe it as a raw, honest study of institutional and mortal decay, but funny.

Directed by, among others, Scanlan's The Thick Of It co-star Peter Capaldi, it's deliberately grey and unflatteringly lit, all the better to underscore its harsh, satirical message. In the unlikely event of Jeremy Hunt sitting down to watch it, I doubt that he'd care about that message at all. This, ultimately, is all you need to know.

Swapping its nurses uniform for a lab coat, BBC4 launches its BIG SCIENCE season this week, featuring a host of classy documentaries devoted to, well, you can probably guess.

It begins with Order and Disorder (Tuesday, 9pm), in which Professor Jim Al-Khalili explains how the human race came to harness and manipulate energy. In The Final Frontier? A Horizon Guide to the Universe (Wednesday, 9pm), Dallas Campbell raids the Horizon archive to chart the scientific breakthroughs that have transformed our understanding of the universe. Meanwhile, in Tails You Win – The Science of Chance (Thursday, 9pm), David Spiegelhalter, the – implausible yet impressive job title alert – Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University, examines factors of risk and probability to argue that, instead of avoiding chance, we should embrace it.

Finally, HEBBURN is a fairly warm-hearted new sitcom written by stand-up comic Jason Cook. Set in the unremarkable town of Hebburn, South Tyneside, where Cook grew up, it revolves around a close-knit working-class family headed by Vic Reeves (here billed under his real name, Jim Moir) and Gina McKee. He's affable and blokey, she's overbearingly well-meaning in the way that sitcom mums almost always are.

Rounding out the brood are comedian Chris Ramsey – who looks like Stan Laurel moonlighting as a member of One Direction – as the prodigal son awkwardly introducing his girlfriend (Fresh Meat's Kimberley Nixon) to the family for the first time. But unbeknownst to them, the pair secretly got married in Vegas. Oh no! Apparently.

There's also a daffy gran prone to inappropriate outbursts, and a tart-with-a-heart sister. So no, it won't win any awards for originality (if indeed such awards existed). And that's Hebburn's problem: although it's packed with gags, they're mostly rather obvious and unremarkable. Cook – who also appears in a supporting role – can't resist all the usual cheap tracksuits and fake-tan jibes, and even throws a cheesy pub singer in for good measure. Tinged with pathos and black comedy, it's amiable enough, and nicely performed – especially by McKee, reminding us that she's capable of delivering much more than the frosty types she's usually cast as. But it isn't remotely distinctive or original.