Archive for category Film
Normally, there’s quite a bit about cinema in this review of the year on screen. This year was, obviously, different, and whilst I could have watched more films on screen via DVD, for a host of reasons I found refuge in telly, in short bursts of drama rather than longer forms. My concentration was shot in the first part of the year, with the loss of my brother, and the onset of the pandemic.
I got used to the latter, to the extent that those of us who weren’t directly affected got used to it (finding new routines involving lots of local walks and evenings in, as we had the luxury of no work or financial pressures, plenty of space indoors and out, and no one close to us being ill).
As for the former, grieving isn’t a linear process, one can seem to be fine and then walk into a wall that wasn’t there before, one can seem to be fine and then be ambushed by a memory, an image, a word. So there are things we’ve avoided watching because, well, why deliberately provoke it? The exception to this was Little Women, of which more below, which we saw at the cinema very early in 2020, in full knowledge of how it would foreshadow the inevitable loss that we were facing.
The Small Screen
Please note: this reflects what we have watched in 2020, and thus includes old stuff that is circling eternally on ITV 3 and Drama, stuff from 2019 that was still sitting on our BT Vision Box as the year turned, as well as this year’s TV. This is the telly that has diverted, amused, intrigued, enlightened, moved and informed us during 2020. I’ve missed out the things that we started watching and then decided life was simply too short to waste time on, but, whilst I don’t normally spend much time talking about things I haven’t liked, there are a few dishonourable mentions here, mainly for things that I expected to like and in the end was very cross with. I’ve linked to some reviews, where they are not too spoilery, but as always, caveat lector.
You know you’ve watched too many episodes of Midsomer Murders when the ITV 3 intro causes eruptions of rage every single time it invites us to go to the ‘infamous village of Midsomer where only one thing’s for certain’. As any fule no, Midsomer is not a village but a county. I mean, that body count would be just too improbable in just one village, wouldn’t it? Another clue is when you overhear someone saying ‘Oh, hello, what are you doing here?’ and turn abruptly, expecting imminent violence with a pitchfork or perhaps a giant cheese. It’s very silly, and the writing is variable but at its best, it knows exactly what it’s doing, and there are lots of little in-jokes about the bloodthirsty nature of these picturesque villages (like the incoming DS from the Met who is shocked at the carnage). We’ve re-watched all the Nettles series, which allows us to marvel every episode at how Joyce manages to get involved in every single case, because she is a member of every single committee, book club, art class, choir, am dram group, and so forth in the entire county. I have my suspicions that she is actually the mastermind behind the whole murderous business.
There were lots more weighty contenders, of course. Foreign language offerings included Nordic crime from Twin, Before We Die, Wisting, and Below the Surface, and best of all The Bridge, whose first two series we had missed when they were first shown (I know! What were we thinking?) and enjoyed very much, whilst concluding that the plot, especially perhaps in Season 2, was a little too complex for its own good and if one was being picky one might mention a couple of possible holes. But one won’t, and one is now re-watching series 3 and 4. Saga is, of course, a most wonderful creation.
Wallander is obviously Nordic but Young Wallander is in English. It’s an oddity – if we hadn’t been alerted before watching we would have been most bemused by the contemporary setting. There are nods to ‘our’ Wallander (the father who paints the same scene over and over again, the girlfriend called Mona) but clearly this is not the equivalent of Endeavour. It was enjoyable, if not unmissable. Van der Valk is a remake of a 70s series which we never watched – again it’s in English but set in Amsterdam. The setting was, I fear, the best thing about it. The plots were ludicrously baroque, the motivation of the culprits unconvincing, the script clichéd – and if anyone wonders how I dare level such criticisms when I’ve just admitted to a fondness for Midsomer Murders, MM has a lightness, a touch of humour, that VdV lacked.
The latest series of Spiral had us shouting at the telly, primarily at Laure and Gilou. Excellent stuff – our deeply flawed heroes may be infuriating but they’re convincing and won our hearts a long while back, and the plot was gripping and tense. The other French offering was The Other Mother, based on Michel Bussi’s novel Maman a tort, which was also excellent – the plot was complex but just the right side of incomprehensible. The Team was a multinational European offering – it’s series 2 but with no characters in common from series 1, just the concept of a multinational team pulled together from different EU nations to solve a crime.
We also watched the movie Goldstone, which is linked to the Australian crime series Murder Road, whose new series is awaiting our attention, and the much lighter-weight but diverting Harrow, about an Aussie pathologist, the sort of pathologist who investigates crime, not the sort that gets called in when there’s a corpse and says ‘I’ll know more when I get him on the slab’ and then eats his sandwiches whilst foraging about in someone’s insides – see MM, Vera, et al. They know their place, unlike Harrow.
We visited the frozen landscapes of Canada for another dark and dour series of Cardinal, and back to the US for The Sinner (this was series 2, with only Bill Pullman in common with series 1). A much more unusual setting for Baghdad Central – an excellent, tautly plotted thriller with powerful performances by Waleed Zuaiter and Bertie Carvel. And we visited the past – Vienna in the 1900s -for Vienna Blood. The protagonists are an ‘unlikely duo’ of a brash young medical student and disciple of Freud, and a battered older cop, the production is very Sherlockian, and altogether it was slightly daft, but enjoyable, with a darker undercurrent running through it, of the endemic antisemitism of the time and the place, whose consequences we know too well.
Back in the UK, we enjoyed the Agatha Christie dramatization of The Pale Horse, with Rufus Sewell; Guilt, a blackly comic take on murder, with the always engaging Mark Bonnar; and McDonald & Dodds, with Jason Watkins, another lighter weight crime series, with good enough performances and writing to be worth catching when it returns. We watched Judge John Deed, which turned into a montage of 90s conspiracy theories about phone masts and the like, with improbable legal scenarios, and a protagonist whose compulsion to seduce every attractive woman he meets (key witness, fellow barrister, ex-wife, his therapist) becomes tiresome and frankly a bit creepy. Actually, all of the characters are intensely annoying, and one watched it mainly to be infuriated with it. Series 2 of Bancroft was just as ludicrous as the first.
The really good stuff:
Strike, Series 4 – charismatic leads, great plots, thoroughly enjoyable series, weaving the personal narratives of Strike and Robin in with the investigations very skilfully.
Hidden, Series 2 – Welsh noir – very, very noir – with an excellent female lead. As with the first series, the ending brings a very compromised and uncomfortable resolution.
Deadwater Fell – dark psychological drama, excellent cast, very unsettling.
Elizabeth is Missing – based on the book by Emma Healey. The lead character, Maud, has dementia, so when she insists that her friend Elizabeth is missing, no one takes her very seriously. Her recent memories keep getting mixed up with much older ones, of a much older disappearance. Glenda Jackson’s performance is absolutely mesmerisingly brilliant.
Dublin Murders – based on the first two books of the Tana French series. The plots are interwoven in a way that perhaps didn’t totally work, but the quality of the writing and the performances carried the day.
Endeavour – the penultimate series, apparently. The quality of the writing continues to be an absolute joy. The interplay between Morse, Strange, Thursday and Bright is so well played, often very emotionally powerful even though (or perhaps all the more because) none of them speak easily about their feelings.
Vera – Brenda Blethyn is a fine-looking woman, and so somewhat at odds with the descriptions in the novels, but she gets the character beautifully. The way in which the relationship with Joe’s replacement as DS is developed is convincing and touching (I particularly like the way he kneels to help her put on her crime scene shoe covers. As an older woman with dodgy knees I can so identify).
The Capture – about surveillance and deep fake images and whether or not we can trust what we see… A nicely paranoid atmosphere and a gradual blurring of the lines between right and wrong
Giri/Haji – my pick of the year, without a doubt. That it didn’t get commissioned for a second season speaks to a certain cowardice amongst the decision makers, but as the Independent’s reviewer says, it is pretty much faultless as it stands, so maybe it doesn’t need a sequel. This was stylish, often audacious, bloody, darkly humorous – really striking and memorable telly. Applause to all concerned.
Homeland returned for the last time. The final series was an encapsulation of everything that we’ve seen over its whole run, very consciously a drawing together of many of the threads from all the previous series, satisfying without being oversimplified. As a jazz fan I was delighted that Carrie’s love of jazz, rather forgotten about in recent series, was foregrounded in the final scenes, as the wonderful Kamasi Washington performed live on stage.
Deutschland 86 took us to the brink, everything in place for the collapse of the GDR and the destruction of the Wall. I hope we get one more series, to take these characters, and us, through those momentous events.
We would not normally have thought of watching The New Pope. The trailer, rather bafflingly, showed Jude Law in tiny (very tiny) Speedos walking along a beach, as women gazed, and fainted away, on either side. Hmmm. However, we knew that my brother had a moment on screen as one of the Cardinals gathered at a funeral, and we had to watch – and watch with full attention – to ensure we didn’t miss him. I’m glad we did – it was bonkers but beautiful. (So we got to see both of my brothers on screen this year, strangely enough, our Aidan in purple robes in The New Pope, and our Greg in an orange trackie at a football match over 40 years ago – see below.)
Philharmonia was bonkers too – the orchestral setting was unusual, and it was enjoyable, even if one didn’t ever believe a word of it.
The Accident was grim, and some of the plotting was a little bit careless, I thought – or maybe setting up for a second series where other things come to light? No idea. I just felt that – without giving too much away – a character was introduced who played a key role in events, but that role never seemed to be properly explored, and the images at the very end seemed, almost, to suggest that the truth was something other than the established official version. I may have imagined it! There were some powerful performances, from Sarah Lancashire and Joanna Scanlan in particular.
The Plot against America, adapted by David Simon (The Wire) from Philip Roth’s alt history, in which Charles Lindbergh, running on an America First ticket, wins the 1940 US election rather than FDR. It is, of course, incredibly topical (more so than the novel, which came out in 2004, when the events of 2016 could not have been imagined). It was powerful, incredibly tense, and subtle when it needed to be. Its final moments – and this is where it differed significantly from the book – with the central characters tensely awaiting the outcome of another election, hoping and fearing the outcome, kept coming back into my mind in November.
We’re saving up Small Axe. Looking forward so much to this.
Let’s draw a veil over the awful Batwoman. Wooden acting, clunky scripts, a plot that made no sense at all.
Devs – sci fi that’s about ideas, as much as it’s about tech. There was no predicting where this one was heading, or where it ended up. Whether it entirely made sense, I’m not sure, but it was, as the Guardian reviewer put it, a ‘deep, dark, wild ride’.
Dracula – yet another take on the Stoker original, this one was about as faithful as any of the others, but it really went for it, with conviction and style. As Lucy Mangan in the Guardian put it, ‘It’s a proper job […] And that means proper scares. No spoilers, but the one in the [redacted] when the [redacted] suddenly [redacted] had me clinging to the ceiling. I advise parental supervision at all times. My dad was annoyed at having to come over, but needs must when the devil calls and starts emanating from your screen.’
His Dark Materials – As always with a screen version of a book/series that I have loved with a real passion, I was anxious that the adaptation would mess it up. I needn’t have worried. The performances are grand, the visuals stunning, and it’s powerful stuff. We loved it, and are looking forward to Series 2.
Star Trek: Discovery – we’re through the wormhole now, and it’s Trek, Jim, but not as we know it. This allows for real character development, though if I were to be picky I’d ask them to rein in the reaction shots of awe and wonderment and so forth. No idea where we’re headed but we’re now liberated from the need to be consistent with the existing series, which is pretty exciting, if you’re a long-term Trekker.
Star Trek: Picard – it’s a good time to be into Trek! Not only Discovery, but Picard too. My love for Jean-Luc is undimmed and he carried this very effectively. Some lovely shout-backs to NG, but its not pure nostalgia for the fans.
The Walking Dead – The first part of the season ended prematurely due to the pandemic – we only got the finale in October and now have to wait till next year for the second half. The series has come back strongly from quite a long slump, and whilst some of the regular gripes (apocalyptic battles which end up with only one peripheral character being killed, regular characters behaving with untypical stupidity to bring about some new peril, that sort of thing) are ever present, it’s back to being essential after a period where it was a mere duty watch.
Doctor Who – This year’s series was controversial amongst some Whovians, for seeming to change some of what we thought we knew about the Doctor’s origins. But did it? After all, our main source was the Master, who, as we know, lies… We will see. The Doctor did make a few appearances later in the year from her Judoon cell, to give us hopeful and inspiring messages about coping with lockdown isolation, which, I have to admit, brought a tear to my eye. She’ll be back on 1 January 2021, and let’s hope that the Tardis is a harbinger of hope for a better year ahead.
Some films watched on TV: Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom was perfect New Year’s Day fare. And the general stress of lockdown drew us to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The first I rather enjoyed – the script was just clever enough, with some neat historical references buried in amongst the improbable action. The second, well, once we had chuckled at the Bennett girls practising martial arts and strapping lethal weapons to their stockinged legs, it was slightly thin stuff. Last but not least in this category, the only superhero movie we watched this year, very unusually, was Deadpool, which was, to say the least, different… Very funny, very rude.
We’re saving up Agents of Shield (the last ever series) and Series 2 of His Dark Materials – some things to look forward to early in 2021.
We caught up with Modern Family, which we’d abandoned at the end of series 4, for no good reason. I found myself laughing loud and often. The characters don’t develop, not really, but when the writing and the performances are this good, there’s plenty of comic mileage to be had. We discovered Friday Night Dinner (only series 1 so far) which also made us laugh a lot.
The Good Place managed to be both very, very funny and profound. It made full use of its fantasy license, regularly wrongfooting us in ways that made us shout out something along the lines of WTF, and its final couple of episodes reduced me to real sobs, not just ‘something in my eye’ but full-on weeping. And yet, right up to the end, it was very, very funny too. A fabulous achievement.
We enjoyed the ebullient and charismatic Stuart Copeland in a couple of docs, his own Adventures in Music series, and his episode of Guitar, Drums, Bass (Lenny Kaye and Tina Weymouth represented the other instruments). We enjoyed the Lennon at 80 radio programme hosted by Sean Lennon, and a documentary about John and Yoko, Above Us Only Sky. The film Matanga/Maya/MIA was fascinating, though it left me somewhat dubious about her, not so much musically as politically. K T Tunstall presented an absolutely charming documentary about Ivor Cutler. A number of classical documentaries featured members of the remarkable Kanneh-Mason family: an Imagine programme, This House is Full of Music, Young, Gifted and Classical, focusing on cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who cropped up too in the excellent Black Classical Music, fronted by Lenny Henry and Suzie Klein, which introduced us to a number of composers we had not heard of previously. This last programme tied in with Black History Month, as did Gospel According to Mica, in which the singer explored the history of the genre through six songs, taking us from slavery days through the civil rights struggle to our own time. Soul America charted some of the same history, though taking a much narrower slice of history, broadly from the transmutation of gospel into soul, through the socially conscious sounds of the late 60s, to the sexual healing of the ’70s. Music, Money & Madness was a fascinating look at the background to Rainbow Bridge, the incoherent mess of a film that features Hendrix’s excellent 1970 gig in Maui, Hawaii.
Afua Hirsch presented African Renaissance (on African art), and co-presented with Samuel L Jackson the outstanding and at times overwhelming Enslaved. David Olusoga’s Africa Turns a Page put the spotlight on African writers, some familiar, others less so (see my books blog for some contemporary African fiction).
I Am Not Your Negro is an extraordinary film. It’s a 2016 documentary directed by Raoul Peck, based on an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin. It explores the history of racism in the US through Baldwin’s reminiscences of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Baldwin was one of the African American writers who I discovered in my teens and who inspired and challenged me. The film left me feeling quite shaken, such is the power of the images and Baldwin’s words.
France 1939: One Last Summer – A poignant compilation of home movies from France, from the summer of 1939. Impossible to see even the most carefree moments without the foreshadowing of what was to happen.
Confronting Holocaust Denial with David Baddiel was thoughtful, intelligent and impassioned.
On a somewhat (much) lighter note, Rome Unpacked was a lovely corollary to our recent visit, reminding us of how much we had yet to see (looking forward to our next trip, in the after-times…). I also fell somewhat (quite a bit) in love with Giorgio Locatelli. One quibble however – they visited the Jewish Ghetto and talked about the history of medieval antisemitism, without mentioning that the Ghetto’s inhabitants were deported and murdered by the Nazis in 1943. It’s not that I wanted the programme to delve into that in any detail – it just needed a one sentence coda to that section of the programme, rather than leaving the impression that murderous anti-semitism was something from the distant past.
A documentary about Nottingham Forest’s 1970s European Cup successes turned out to be a much more emotional experience than I’d been anticipating, when I caught sight of my lovely kid brother, who died in February, on one of the clips. He’d been a ball-boy at the first-round match against Liverpool in our 1979 Euro cup campaign, and was caught on camera at the end, clapping the team off the pitch and then punching the air in celebration. I sobbed for quite some time after that.
The Big Screen
2020 cinema began shortly after New Year, with Little Women. I knew what was coming, of course, having known the books for most of my life, but it didn’t stop Beth’s death being devastating, as I knew how soon I would be losing my little brother. I have the DVD but will need to brace myself before rewatching, particularly the bits where… well, if you’ve seen it, or any of the previous versions or read the book, you won’t need me to spell out the parts of the film which will break me on the rewatch. In fact, I won’t even say any more now, just refer you to Rick Burin’s review. Hell, it broke him, and as he says, ‘I’m northern and into football and stuff, but I just kept crying’.
And then a two-film day in mid-March, watching Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood (second time round for me) with Liz at the Showroom, and then in the afternoon Sciamma’s newest film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, with Martyn. I loved both films, I found Girlhood just as powerful as I had the first time, with several moments that are firmly lodged in my mind, and Portrait definitely requires a re-watch. I wrote about both films for this year’s International Women’s Day blog but I’m going to send you to read Rick Burin again, as he reviews all of Sciamma’s films and much better than I can.
Note that the films I did see in 2020 totally kicked the Bechdel test‘s ass.
And that was it. No more cinema – they did reopen, of course, for a while, but as we have been super-cautious throughout the pandemic, we did not take advantage (I renewed my Showroom membership, as a gesture of support).
Can’t talk about cinema in 2020 without noting the tragically early death of Chadwick Boseman. I only knew him as Black Panther but that role alone was enough to imprint him on my consciousness – it was a performance of grace and power, as well as huge cultural significance. Will look out for chances to see Boseman’s other movies.
Previous years’ cultural highlights have included Opera North at Leeds Grand Theatre. Obviously, since March, the pandemic has put paid to that. In fact, I’d had to drop out before that – I could not attend the three productions in January/February as my brother’s condition worsened and I knew both that I needed to be available to see him whenever I could, and that I really couldn’t commit to producing a review in a reasonable timescale, or at all. I had no idea when I made that decision that my stint as an opera reviewer would have come to an end for the foreseeable future. I loved doing the reviews, and had a marvellous time seeing superb productions of works from Monteverdi to Britten and all points in between.
The move to on-line cultural activities, devastating as it was to the future of live performance, offered some delights. The Sheffield Classical Music Festival in May gave us access to some joyous and uplifting chamber music, as members of Ensemble 360 filmed performances in their gardens and living rooms. It was fabulous, even if it made us miss Music in the Round in the Crucible Studio even more.
Other online treats were Ian Dunt talking about being a liberal, David Olusoga talking about Black and British in Black History Month, Kit de Waal talking about My Name is Leon (all three talks part of Sheffield’s annual Off the Shelf festival), Sarah Churchwell and Bonnie Greer talking about the US election outcome (part of the national Being Human festival) – and two chances to hear and see someone who was an idol during my teenage years, the awesome and inspiring Angela Davis, first in her own South Bank lecture, and then in conversation with Jackie Kay (as part of Manchester Literary Festival). I might, theoretically, have got to the Off the Shelf events in normal circs. But I wouldn’t have made it to the South Bank, or the University of London, or even across the Pennines to Manchester.
But I long to get back to live chamber music and theatre at the Crucible, live opera at Leeds Grand Theatre, arty French movies at the Showroom and blockbusters at the IMAX… We’ll get there, thanks to the vaccine(s). And it will be so very lovely when we do. I may, just possibly, weep.
Screens, in general, have been our lifeline in the plague times. Not just the entertainment and enlightenment of what our television channels offer, but the Zoom/Messenger/Facetime link ups with the people we love, who we can’t be with. It’s not the same, obviously, and in the early days at least it made me feel, briefly, sadder once we’d waved goodbye and blown kisses to the small figures on our laptop screens. But our isolation has been less stark, less absolute, and at best those virtual encounters have made us feel hope, made us feel loved, given us the chance to support each other.
I’ve been trying to write this piece for weeks now. Hesitating because, after all, why would anyone need to read the thoughts of a white, middle-aged, middle-class English woman about something she has never experienced, and could never experience? But nonetheless this post has been buzzing around in my head for so long, and I know that the only way to stop that is to write.
And, this morning, I woke as so many did to the awful news that Chadwick Boseman, the actor best known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Black Panther, has died at only 43 years old. I remembered how I felt in the cinema watching that film, how exhilarating it was to see the large screen filled with powerful, beautiful black people, in control of their destinies, white people largely irrelevant. And how I thought of what that must have felt like to people of colour, those who’ve seen movie after movie where they are absent, or peripheral, or victimised, or expendable. And those who have been waiting, whether they knew it or not, for a super hero who resembled them.
Some disclaimers. I’m not trying to prove anything here, not trying to get approval or validation. I’m talking, primarily, to other white people, about how we can learn and listen, how we can recognise and take account of our privilege, and know when to speak and when to STFU. If I get something wrong feel free to tell me (but I’m not asking you to educate me, that’s my responsibility). I’m a work in progress, still, at 63. I expect and hope that I’ll still be learning, expanding my understanding, for the rest of my life, whilst my faculties are intact at least.
So, where am I from? No, where am I really from? My upbringing was very different to that of anyone I went to school with in Chatham or Mansfield in the late 60s/early to mid 70s, very different to that of my cousins and other wider family. It shaped my response to the racial politics of the UK in that era and beyond. It influenced what I read, and what I watched.
When I was three years old, we (my parents, myself and my two younger siblings) flew to a new life in Ghana, West Africa. Of course we were massively privileged in our lives there, in the immediate aftermath of independence, living on the University campus in Kumasi, where my father taught Physics and Maths. We were ‘expats’, not immigrants. No one expected us to integrate, to assimilate, to adopt Ghanaian dress or diet, or to learn the language. My school teachers were all British, my classmates included Ghanaian children, but also British, American, Canadian. (When we moved to Northern Nigeria, there were no African children in my class. Not one.)
That upbringing did not give me a means to understand what it is to be black in Britain. My white skin gave me privilege as a member of an ethnic minority in West Africa as it does here where it makes me part of the norm. But those childhood experiences did broaden my horizons, expand my consciousness and my sympathies, and gave me a wealth of experiences against which to measure the attitudes and assumptions I encountered back home.
I think first of all, of the Door of No Return. Cape Coast and Elmina Castles, two of the forts on the Ghanaian coast which were the point of departure for the slaves, the last place they saw before they were crammed into the holds of the ships for the Atlantic crossing. I don’t recall in detail what my parents told me about their history when we visited, but I still recall the place, and the association with horror, the chill, even in the humid heat of Ghana.
I remember the first time I heard a white person say something casually racist. I remember not so much shock or offence, but bafflement. It seemed to me so incomprehensibly stupid, to generalise in that way. It made no sense to me then, that first time, in Africa, any more than it did later, in Chatham or Mansfield. I never knew how to respond – where do you begin, with something so incomprehensibly stupid?
My memories of Ghana are vivid, warm, happy. I know I can lay no claim to Ghana as part of my heritage – I lived there for just five – albeit formative – years. When I use my Ashanti day name, Abena (girl born on a Tuesday) as part of my Facebook name, when I use an image of kente cloth as the background to my Twitter profile, am I, as I hope and intend, honouring a part of my life for which I am immensely and profoundly grateful, or am I appropriating something to which I have no right? But those things (and my support for the Ghana national football team, and my love of West African music) feel like part of me.
Our parents taught us well. At an early age (before we came home to England, so before I was ten years old) I knew that whilst other ‘expats’ were planning, in light of the rapidly deteriorating situation in Nigeria, to move to jobs in Rhodesia or South Africa, my parents never would. And they taught me why. (Their passionate opposition to those regimes would probably have made them persona non grata anyway.)
I knew that Martin Luther King was an important man, a good man, who represented the values that my parents were teaching us, and they had taught me well enough that I knew by the time I was ten years old that his murder was a terrible thing, a huge loss to the world.
As a teenager, I was drawn to the American civil rights struggles, and I read everything I could get hold of. I read MLK, Angela Davis, George Jackson, James Baldwin, Malcolm X.
But one of the most powerful books for me was by a white man. John Howard Griffin, a white journalist, disguised his skin with a combination of medication (anti-vitiligo treatment), tanning and cosmetics, and went South. He was motivated by the recognition that the only way to know what it was like to be black in the USA, was to become black in the USA. Of course it wasn’t the same – he had an exit strategy (although he was subjected to threats and a near-fatal attack when the book was published and his identity revealed), and he had experienced most of his life up to the point of his self-transformation as a white man with all the privileges that entails. But his account is viscerally compelling. What stayed with me from my first reading was the ‘hate stare’ – something I would never experience, almost certainly never witness.
Alex Haley’s Roots (whether it is fiction or history, or a blending of the two) gave me a black epic, a story that spanned centuries and continents, that took up the story of the people who had been herded through the Door of No Return, and did not flinch from the brutality of slavery and of the injustice that persisted for so long after.
I almost never talked about my interest in the politics of race, not to my schoolfriends. I feared discovering that their response would make friendship problematic, or impossible. And, to be honest, as a teenager desperate to fit in, I feared being regarded as nerdy or odd. We talked about pop music, telly and boys, not about politics. And the strange culture of the times meant that one tribe listened to virtually no black music (though they allowed a free pass to Hendrix), whilst another listened to mainly African-American and Caribbean music, whilst being associated with prejudice against people of South Asian origin, and with the nascent National Front. It was dangerous territory, even though in my grammar school there was, throughout my years there, just one non-white girl (from India, as I recall), and in the Mansfield area at the time, the largest immigrant community was Polish. I kept reading though, just didn’t talk about it.
I read a number of the Heinemann African Writers series from my parents’ bookshelves (Chinua Achebe, Buchi Emecheta, Bessie Head, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Camara Laye, Wole Soyinka). I read Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, and Trevor Hudleston’s Naught for your Comfort. I read E R Braithwaite’s Please Sir (a whole heck of a lot less soppy than the film) and Paid Servant.
And those books, and world events, led me on to Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela, to Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, to Kwame Anthony Appiah, David Dabydeen and more recently to Reni Eddo Lodge and David Olusoga.
Meantime, the sound of Ghana, the highlife music that had wafted over from the student residences to our home on campus, was part of me. I was prepped to respond to black American music, to Motown and Stax and Philly, and to ska and reggae. And then I heard Osibisa, and that started a journey of exploration of African music – music from all over that continent, but finding the sounds of Mali and Senegal took hold of me in a way that no other music did. I still feel that way.
For all this, I realised part way through this year, as I nerdily compiled my list of what I’d read, that it was disappointingly, dispiritingly, shamefully white. Somehow I’d kept on gravitating (during what, to be fair, has been a brutal year, full of loss and sadness) towards familiar voices, familiar histories, familiar settings. That this realisation coincided with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd is no coincidence at all.
However well I have been taught, however widely I have read and listened, my life can still be told (if one skips those few years in ‘darkest Africa’, as my grandfather always referred to it) without reference to my race. My journey through school and work, marriage and parenthood, has been untroubled by the colour of my skin. I have experienced prejudice, sure, as a woman in the workplace, and as a girl and woman in public spaces. I can extrapolate from those experiences, but it’s not enough, nowhere near.
So I need to read black writers, to hear those voices, those experiences and to let them expand my ideas, my sympathies, my knowledge. It’s powerful, and sometimes uncomfortable. But it’s a process that started when I was 5 or 6 years old, looking out of the Door of No Return.
Black lives matter. Of course they do. As the wonderful Dolly Parton put it, “…of course Black lives matter. Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter? No.” My words will make no real difference, I have few illusions on that front. But perhaps I will prompt someone to read more widely, to read more stuff by people who don’t look like they do, to risk being made uncomfortable, being challenged to rethink their assumptions, their bias, the language they use. Perhaps.
And would I take the knee? It’s a beautiful gesture, one of honour and respect. I wasn’t sure at first why it moved me so much, till I saw the photos of MLK and remembered. Yes, I’d take the knee, in a heartbeat. It might take a bit longer for me to get up again though…
My 2020 Reading List (so far):
- Chimamanda Adichie – Dear Ijeowole
- Arvind Adiga – The White Tiger
- Jeffrey Boakye – Black: Listed
- NoViolet Bulawayo – We Need New Names
- Angela Davis – Women, Race and Class
- Nicole Dennis Benn – Patsy
- Jason Diakite – A Drop of Midnight
- Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other
- Yaa Gyasi – Homegoing
- Mohsin Hamid – Exit West
- Afua Hirsch – Brit(ish)
- Meena Kandasamy – When I Hit You
- Andrea Levy – The Long Song
- Attica Locke – Pleasantville
- Kenan Malik – From Fatwa to Jihad
- Yvonne Adhimabo Owuor – Dust
- Laksmi Pamuntjiak – The Birdwoman’s Palate
- Johnny Pitts – Afropean
- Sunjeev Sahota – The Year of the Runaways
- Kamila Shamsie – Home Fire
- Margot Lee Shetterley – Hidden Figures
- Nikesh Shukla (ed.) – The Good Immigrant
- Ron Stallworth – Black Klansman
- Colson Whitehead – The Nickel Boys
An equal world is an enabled world. How will you help forge a gender equal world?
Celebrate women’s achievement. Raise awareness against bias. Take action for equality.
A number of things I’ve read or watched just recently have made me ponder the importance of choice in relation to equality. How women across the centuries have been deprived of real choices – and still are.
Re-reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies, in prep for the third volume of her Cromwell trilogy, I thought about the two queens, Katherine and Anne. Powerful women, women with influence, women with resources. And yet – their power, their influence, their resources were entirely dependent upon men: fathers, husbands and, in a different sense, sons. Their fortunes changed on the whim of a man, and there was nothing they could do about it: rejected, humiliated, and in Anne’s case, killed.
Fast forward to the late eighteenth century and the women portrayed in Celine Sciamma’s wonderful new film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Héloise is wealthy and privileged. But she has only two choices – the convent or a socially and economically useful marriage. Her elder sister had taken her own life rather than face the latter, and so Héloise must leave the convent and be marketed to potential suitors. There’s a lot to say about this film, about how it doesn’t just subvert the male gaze, it totally obliterates it. We see the women (and there are only a few men on screen, all briefly, all unnamed) through women’s eyes. Heloise seeing herself in the portraits that Marianne paints of her. Marianne’s self-portrait. Marianne surreptitiously glancing at Héloise as she must try to fix her features in mind, in order to paint her without asking her to pose. The two gazing at each other as they realise their mutual desire. Marianne turning, at Heloise’s request, for one last look as she must say goodbye. This is a film I will want to watch and re-watch. (And I was kind of chuffed to read that Sciamma is a huge fan of Wonder Woman – an actual auteur who doesn’t despise it as a superhero blockbuster but recognises its real power and importance.)
Arnold Bennett’s Hilda Lessways is the subject of volume 2 of his Clayhanger trilogy, written in the early years of the twentieth century but set in the 1880s. What’s remarkable is the way in which we are, throughout the novel, in Hilda’s thoughts, seeing everything through her eyes, knowing only what she knows, as she rages against the restrictions of her life, struggles to understand her own emotions, to understand what choices she has, and to face the implications of the choices she has made. She is independent in spirit, she makes her own living for a while (the only female shorthand writer in the Five Towns), but she’s trapped nonetheless. It’s a vivid and moving portrait.
The young woman at the heart of Celine Sciamma’s 2015 film, Girlhood (Bande de filles) rages too. Marieme hasn’t got good enough grades to get to high school so the only option is college for vocational studies. That would mean leaving home though, which her controlling older brother would be unlikely to permit, and which would leave her younger sisters vulnerable. Her attempt to escape her brother’s control simply put her in the power of another man, and her boyfriend offers only a different kind of trap – marriage and babies.
The power in this film lies in its contrasts. We first meet Marieme as she plays American football, an Amazon, powerful in her armour. The girls head for home, all talking at once, laughing and loud and proud. But as they approach home, we see the young men waiting for them, sentinels, and the girls fall silent. We see Marieme taking on the maternal role with her younger sisters, we see her cowed by her brother’s bullying, we see her talking to a young man, all lowered eyes and fleeting glances. Girls together can be joyous (dancing to Rihanna, in shoplifted dresses, looking glamorous just for themselves rather than for a man, high on cheap booze and weed) or threatening (showdowns, mainly verbal but spilling into violence) with other groups of girls, extorting money with threats. These shifts are jarring, troubling. They show us what these young women could be (for good or ill), and what stops them from being what they could be.
So my 2020 heroes are Celine Scammia and Adele Haenel (for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and for protest at the Césars), Greta Gerwig for making a book that I’ve read dozens of times fresh and powerful.
Elizabeth Warren for persisting. The Doctor, Ada Lovelace, Noor Inayat Khan and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.
And those we’ve lost: Rosalind Walter (Rosie the Riveter), Heather Couper (probably the first female scientist of whom I was aware), Kathryn Cartwright (blogger, ambassador for the Anthony Nolan Trust), Katherine Johnson (NASA mathematician).
And two young women who could change the world, and who clearly terrify those who really don’t want it to change…
I honestly hadn’t thought about it being the end of a decade until I saw the first few ‘best of’ lists appearing.
On a personal level, it’s been quite momentous. We both retired, midway through the decade, a decision which we haven’t regretted for a nano-second. I finished my (second) undergrad degree before I left work, and then went straight on to study for a PhD, which I hope to complete early in the next decade. Each of our children graduated twice (four different Universities, three different cities) and found permanent, rewarding employment.
I lost a good friend and colleague to cancer and helped to set up and then chair a charity as his legacy, raising around £30k since 2013 for cancer charities, through a fabulous fundraising event, the 24 Hour Inspire, and other ventures.
I started this blog in January 2012, and whilst I’ve had periods of writer’s block this year it’s given me a way of being creative, having spent most of my life denying that I am or could be. I was also offered the chance to go to the opera for free with a friend, and write reviews of the productions, which has been an absolute delight.
We put lots of things on hold for a while as my mother in law’s dementia worsened, and her care needs became urgent. She died last Christmas. My brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2018 and the chemo he’s been on is no longer working. We go into the New Year with heavy hearts.
Politically it’s been a nightmarish decade. The Tories back in power, first in coalition, then in their own right, albeit for a while as a minority government. The EU Referendum and the government’s complete inability to approach the negotiations in good faith and with understanding and intelligence. Obama replaced in the White House by someone so utterly unfit for any kind of high office that I still wonder whether we slipped into some parallel universe at about the halfway point of the decade, after which nothing made any kind of sense.
Should have realised, when I woke one morning in early January 2016 to learn that Bowie had left us. Should have known it was a portent.
So since looking forward is a mug’s game at present, I’ll look back, to the books, films and TV programmes that have sustained me during the last ten years.
Books of the Decade
Some of these titles feature in my already published Books of the Year and Books of the Century lists, as one might expect. I’ll indicate those that do, or that are reviewed in my 60 Books challenge series, so as not to repeat myself too much (and have time to also do the full panoply of decade and year lists that I am somehow compelled to do).
Ben Aaronovitch – Moon over Soho (Books of the Century)
Ferdinand Addis – Rome: The Eternal City was a birthday gift from the Roman branch of our family, following a recent visit to the city, which had made me realise just how fragmented and unreliable my sense of its history was. A hotch-potch of Shakespeare, the New Testament, Robert Graves and Robert Harris, I really needed to get a grip on it all. Addis’s tome is just the thing. It’s very entertainingly written, it takes key events and explains how they came to pass and what followed, and it takes us from Romulus & Remus to Federico Fellini.
Chimamanda Adichie – Americanah. Her Half of a Yellow Sun is one of the top three books of the century (according to me). Adichie’s protagonist here goes off to University in the States, and we follow her struggles to acclimatise and to understand what race means in America, as well as her feelings for her lover back in Lagos. It’s often very funny, and always very sharp and perceptive. The Guardian said that ‘It is ostensibly a love story – the tale of childhood sweethearts at school in Nigeria whose lives take different paths when they seek their fortunes in America and England – but it is also a brilliant dissection of modern attitudes to race, spanning three continents and touching on issues of identity, loss and loneliness.’
Viv Albertine – Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys (Books of the Century)
Naomi Alderman – The Power (Books of the Century)
Lynne Alexander – The Sister illuminates a life lived in the shadows: Alice James was sister to the more famous Henry and William, prevented by ill health and the constraints of Victorian society from expressing her own creativity. Alexander doesn’t hammer this message home simplistically but brings Alice to sympathetic life. ‘A furious volcano of thoughts and desires trapped within a carapace of pain, Alice is a feminist cipher but, more movingly, a beautifully drawn and memorable individual, brave, vulnerable and fiercely intelligent.’ (The Guardian)
Darran Anderson – Imaginary Cities is an exuberant and wildly eclectic tour of cities in Western civilisation drawing on books, films, architecture, myth, visual arts. Totally my cup of tea. Described as ‘an exhaustive, engaging book’ which generates ‘sheer joy for the curious reader’. It certainly did for this curious reader.
Anne Applebaum – Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 is a fascinating study of Poland, the GDR and Hungary after the end of the Second World War. The Telegraph said that she takes ‘a dense and complex subject, replete with communist acronyms and impenetrable jargon, and make it not only informative but enjoyable – and even occasionally witty. In that respect alone, it is a true masterpiece’. (Books of the Year)
Kate Atkinson – Life after Life (Books of the Century)
Margaret Atwood – The Testaments is the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. It does take the action forward – we get to see some of what happened after that book’s final page, but perhaps more significantly, we see Gilead from perspectives other than that of June/Offred, and so we understand more about how Gilead works, and about, in particular the role of the Aunts. It’s completely compelling, and very disturbing. (Books of the Year)
Julian Barnes – The Levels of Life (Books of the Century)
Linda Buckley-Archer – The Many Lives of John Stone. Buckley-Archer began her literary career with the YA Timequake trilogy. This is beautifully written, interweaving a vivid historical narrative with the present day. There’s no time travel, or supernatural/paranormal elements – it just uses a hypothetical genetic characteristic as the basis for the plot. It’s engaging, gripping and ultimately very moving.
James Lee Burke – Robicheaux (Books of the Century)
Jane Casey – Cruel Acts (Books of the Year, and Century)
Jonathan Coe – Middle England. I picked The Rotter’s Club for my books of the century, and this is the third part of that trilogy. This made me laugh a lot. Made me weep a bit. Reminded me of music I love (Hatfield & the North, Vaughan Williams) and of lyrics that always move me: Billy Bragg’s ‘Between the Wars’. (Not mentioned in Coe’s book, but I kept on thinking of the line ‘Sweet moderation, heart of our nation’). It’s rueful and wistful and, I think, hopeful… (Books of the Year)
Suzanne Collins – Mockingjay is the final part of The Hunger Games trilogy. Another series aimed at a young adult readership, this one is pretty dark (not that YA reading should be sugar-coated or cosy, it should challenge and disrupt if it’s doing its job). Vivid and exciting, with a splendid hero in Katniss Everdene, and resists too neat an ending – after so much tragedy and trauma, that would have jarred horribly.
Stevie Davies – Awakening (Books of the Century)
Edmund de Waal – Hare with the Amber Eyes (Books of the Century)
Emma Donoghue – Room (Books of the Century)
Helen Dunmore – Birdcage Walk. Sadly the last novel from Dunmore, who died of cancer in 2018. I picked The Siege as one of my Books of the Century, and read The Betrayal as part of my 60 books challenge – her novels are very varied but always beautifully and powerfully written. The Guardian describes her writing as ‘hazardously human’. It’s particularly poignant to note that the fictional Julia Fawkes ‘lies buried with the inscription “Her words remain our inheritance.” Julia may have disappeared from the record, but Dunmore’s words remain.
Sue Eckstein – Interpreters (Books of the Century)
Reni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m no longer talking to White People about Race (Books of the Century)
Esi Edugyan – Half-Blood Blues (Books of the Century)
Elif Shafak – Three Daughters of Eve (60 Books)
Lara Feigel – The Bitter Taste of Victory (Books of the Century)
Will Ferguson – 419 (Books of the Century)
Gillian Flynn – Gone Girl (Books of the Century)
Karen Joy Fowler – We are all Completely Beside Ourselves is particularly difficult to write about without revealing a vital twist, so I will avoid any discussion of the plot. Read it anyway, just avoid the reviews (so no link to the Guardian, which called It an ‘achingly funny, deeply serious heart-breaker … a moral comedy to shout from the rooftops’.) (Books of the Year)
Tana French – Broken Harbour (Books of the Year and Century)
Esther Freud – Mr Mac and Me reminded me of Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness. A writer/artist (D H Lawrence for Dunmore, Charles Rennie Mackintosh for Freud) finds themselves in a rural community at the start of the First World War, and is regarded with suspicion by the locals due to their unconventional behaviour). Mackintosh is seen through the eyes of a fourteen year old boy, intoxicated by the glimpses of a wider world, of art and beauty, that Mackintosh brings.
Jo Furniss – All the Little Children (60 Books)
Robert Galbraith – The Cuckoo’s Calling (Books of the Century)
Patrick Gale – Notes from an Exhibition (Books of the Century)
Alan Garner – Boneland (Books of the Century)
Nicci Gerrard – What Dementia Teaches us about Love (Books of the Century)
Valentina Giambanco – The Gift of Darkness (Books of the Century)
Elizabeth Gilbert – The Signature of all Things. I wouldn’t have expected to enjoy Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing, having a deep-rooted suspicion of the whole Eat, Pray, Love thing. But I really did. Gilbert’s fictional protagonist, Alma Whittaker, is brilliant, lonely, not pretty. She’s a scientist, a naturalist, in the wrong era (she’s born in 1800) to have any chance of fulfilling her ambitions, or her desires. She’s remarkable, utterly believable, her openness and imagination endearing and fascinating. It’s an ambitious novel, that fully succeeds in its ambitions.
Robert Gildea – Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance. Gildea brings out of the shadows the Resistance that was marginalised for decades – women, Communists, foreigners. It’s much more complicated than the myth that de Gaulle propagated at the Liberation, and more interesting.
Lesley Glaister – The Squeeze (Books of the Century)
David Grann – Killers of the Flower Moon (Books of the Century)
Jarlath Gregory – The Organised Criminal (60 Books)
Elly Griffiths – The Stone Circle (Books of the Year and Century)
Thomas Harding – The House by the Lake (Books of the Year and Century)
Jane Harper – The Lost Man (Books of the Year and Century)
Robert Harris – An Officer and a Spy (Books of the Century)
John Harvey – Darkness, Darkness – the final part of the series of novels featuring Nottingham detective Charlie Resnick.
Noah Hawley – Before the Fall is an excellent thriller, about truth and lies, fame and reality, from the writer of the TV version of Fargo
Emma Healey – Elizabeth is Missing (Books of the Century)
Sarah Helm – If this is a Woman (Books of the Century)
Sarah Hilary – Never be Broken (Books of the Year and Century)
Susan Hill – The Comforts of Home is the most recent (that I’ve read) of the Simon Serrailler series. (Books of the Year. The Various Haunts of Men was one of my Books of the Century).
Christopher Hitchen – Mortality (Books of the Century)
Andrew Michael Hurley – The Loney (Books of the Century)
Jessica Frances Kane – The Report is absolutely fascinating. At the heart of the novel is a little known wartime tragedy, in which no bombs fell, but 173 civilians died. I had never heard about the Bethnal Green disaster when I came across this book, and it set off many trains of thought.
Philip Kerr – Prague Fatale. Kerr’s series of novels featuring Berlin detective Bernie Gunther blend crime fiction with World War II European history. They span from the immediate pre-war period to the long aftermath of the war, and Bernie has been part of it all. He’s a survivor, who’s done bad things and seen worse ones, but somehow retained his humanity, a dry humour, and at least some of his integrity.
Stephen King – The Institute. King’s latest references a number of his previous novels (Firestarter, The Shining, Carrie…) but does something a bit different with these themes. In a way, he’s setting two version of America against each other: the corporate world of the Institute, ‘the cogs and wheels of bureaucratic evil, run by ‘a bunch of middle-management automatons’, against small-town America (the good and the bad thereof). It’s proper cancel all other activities including meals and sleep till the last page King. (Books of the Year)
Otto Dov Kulka – Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death (Books of the Century)
John le Carre – Pigeon Tunnel (60 Books)
Harper Lee – Go Set a Watchman (Books of the Century)
Laura Lipmann – Sunburn (Books of the Year and Century)
Kenan Malik – Quest for a Moral Compass (Books of the Century)
Hilary Mantel – Bring up the Bodies. We’re still eagerly awaiting the third part of Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy. (Wolf Hall was one of my Books of the Century).
Helen Mathers – Patron Saint of Prostitutes is a fascinating biography of Josephine Butler, the remarkable Victorian campaigner who challenged all of the conventions about how a pious and respectable woman should behave by working with prostitutes, and challenging publicly the way in which they were brutalised and abused in the name of public morals.
Jon McGregor – Reservoir 13 (Books of the Century)
Dervla McTiernan – The Ruin (Books of the Century)
Livi Michael – Succession (Books of the Century)
Denise Mina – The Long Drop (Books of the Century)
Wendy Mitchell – Someone I Used to Know is an account by someone diagnosed with early onset dementia. She’s frank and fearless about explaining how the condition affects her as it progresses, but uses her energies to campaign for awareness and understanding, and for practical support. Her blog is funny, sad and enlightening, and it is so rare and refreshing to hear about dementia from someone who is actually experiencing it.
Caitlin Moran – How to be a Woman (Books of the Century)
Sarah Moss – Bodies of Light (Books of the Year and Century)
Thomas Mullen – Darktown (Books of the Century)
Tiffany Murray – Diamond Star Halo rocks. It’s set on a fictionalised version of the residential recording facility at Rockfield Farm, Murray’s childhood home, itself the locus of much rock music mythology. It’s gloriously funny, but has plenty of heart, and the music is part of every line of the text – I could hear the soundtrack in my head, even the music that was imagined and not real. And I often think of protagonist Halo’s night-time prayer, a litany of rock stars gone forever…
Maggie O’Farrell – The Hand that First Held Mine (Books of the Century)
Chinelo Okparanta – Under the Udala Trees movingly explores the Biafran war, sexuality and love across the ethnic and religious divides, class and status in Nigerian society.
David Olusoga – Black and British (Books of the Century)
Philip Pullman – La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, Book 1). I won’t say too much about this as I don’t want to risk giving any spoilers. But it is sheer delight to be back in this world and to re-experience the sheer power, the subtlety, the glorious imagination of Pullman’s writing.
Ian Rankin – In a House of Lies, the most recent Rebus. He’s retired now, and battling with COPD and the lifestyle changes that has forced on him. Does any of that stop him getting involved in the solving of a crime, and getting under the feet of the cops? Have you met Rebus? (Books of the Year)
Danny Rhodes – Fan is about football and football culture, about supporting Nottingham Forest, and, inexorably, about Hillsborough. It’s powerful and harrowing.
Sally Rooney – Normal People (Books of the Year and Century)
Liz Rosenberg – Indigo Hill (Books of the Year and Century)
Donal Ryan – From a Low and Quiet Sea (Books of the Year and Century)
Philippe Sands – East-West Street (Books of the Century)
Noo Saro-wiwa – Looking for Transwonderland (Books of the Century)
Phil Scraton – Hillsborough: The Truth. When Scraton published this 2016 edition of his authoritative, rigorous, and personal account of the disaster, he would not have imagined the news that broke in December 2019, that Duckenfield had been found not guilty. Again, the families who have endured so much – lies, betrayal, vilification, dismissal – for so long, are in pain, and again, it seems no one will be held accountable for 96 entirely avoidable deaths.
Anne Sebba – Les Parisiennes (Books of the Century)
Taiye Selasi – Ghana Must Go (Books of the Century)
Lynn Shepherd – Tom All-Alone’s (Books of the Century)
Anita Shreve – The Stars are Fire was Shreve’s last book. Her protagonist, Grace, has a life that is limited by societal convention and tight family budgets but she thinks it’s fine, mostly, until she loses almost everything, in the terrible fires that swept Maine in 1947. The disaster is described with visceral power and horror, but Shreve is just as interested in its aftermath, as Grace tries to find a way to start again.
Rebecca Skloot – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Books of the Century)
Patti Smith – M Train. I picked Just Kids for my Books of the Century, but could just as well have chosen this. With the humour, self-deprecation and warmth that characterised her earlier memoir, she talks about her marriage to Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, of the series of terrible losses that she experienced, of her music. And, unexpectedly, of her obsession with Midsomer Murders.
Timothy Snyder – Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. I’ve spent a lot of time studying the Occupation of France, and I’m well versed in its horrors. I know better than to minimise the brutality – but the majority of the murders of French citizens and those who were in France during the Occupation took place not on French soil but in what Snyder calls the Bloodlands. ‘Both tyrants identified this luckless strip of Europe as the place where, above all, they must impose their will or see their gigantic visions falter… The figures are so huge and so awful that grief could grow numb. But Snyder, who is a noble writer as well as a great researcher, knows that. He asks us not to think in those round numbers. … The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers. “It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people.”
Rebecca Solnit – Hope in the Dark (Books of the Century)
Cath Staincliffe – The Girl in the Green Dress. I was torn when I did the list of books of the century, and chose The Silence between Breaths. So I’m making recompense now. What Staincliffe does so well is to focus not just on the crime (though there is a strong police procedural element to this one, unlike some of her stand-alone novels) but on the ripples created by the crime, on the families of victim and perpetrators, on the police officers themselves. This one will break your heart.
Susie Steiner – Missing, Presumed (Books of the Century)
Adrian Tempany – And the Sun Shines Now (Books of the Century)
Rose Tremain – The Gustav Sonata (Books of the Century)
Elizabeth Wein – Code Name Verity is a brilliant and moving YA novel about young women undercover in Occupied France in WWII. It’s so very cleverly structured – things that don’t seem to quite make sense suddenly become clear in the second half, when the narrator changes. The plot is utterly gripping and the ending made me weep. A lot.
Louise Welsh – A Lovely Way to Burn. This is part 1 of the Plague Times trilogy, a dystopian future where plague wipes out large swathes of the population. We’ve been here, or hereabouts, before of course – Day of the Triffids, The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, The Stand… Welsh makes it work though, she gives weight to the moral issues as well as giving us suspense, action, horror, and everything we’d expect from the post-apocalypse.
Colson Whitehead – Underground Railroad (Books of the Century)
Jeanette Winterson – Why be Happy when you could be Normal? (Books of the Century)
Farewell to those writers listed above who we lost during the decade: Helen Dunmore, Sue Eckstein, Philip Kerr, Harper Lee and Anita Shreve. Thank you all.
Films of the Decade
I’ve highlighted in bold my favourite films in each of these categories. Many of them I’ve written about already elsewhere, so again I’m not attempting to review or even comment on each one.
Scifi and Superheroes: A brilliant decade both for the superhero genre and – IMHO – Marvel specifically, and for other sci-fi franchises: Star Trek had Beyond, and Star Wars fielded The Last Jedi and Rogue One. My pick from the MCU: Avengers Assemble, Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, Guardians of the Galaxy I, Thor: Ragnarok. And outside this particular arc, from the X Men, the elegiac Logan. And though I don’t generally do DC, I have to have Wonder Woman.
Best of the bunch: Not dissing Endgame, but Assemble is when I fell in love with Marvel (and with Captain America, TBH). And Black Panther had a significance beyond its place in the Avengers story, and was exhilarating not just for people of colour in the audience, but for anyone who cares about seeing the rich diversity of humanity on screen, as heroes and as villains.
We had Inception and Interstellar, Her and Ex Machina, Looper and Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian and Gravity, Monsters and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, A Quiet Place and Source Code.
And the two best SF films of the decade: Annihilation, and Arrival. Visually stunning, intelligent sci-fi. Of the two, Arrival, with its emotionally devastating twist, and its fascinating exploration of language, edges it.
Thrills, Crimes & Heists: Baby Driver and Drive, Bad Times at the El Royale, Skyfall, Gone Girl and Widows. I’m torn on which to pick. With caveats, to do with the film’s failure to meet the low bar of the Bechdel test, I’d pick Baby Driver, which was beautifully described by Empire as: ‘not a film just set to music. But a film meticulously, ambitiously laid over the bones of carefully chosen tracks. It’s as close to a car-chase opera as you’ll ever see on screen.’ Even if the narrative arc (young man in debt to gangster does ‘one last job’ and finds out there’s no such thing) is traditional enough, the choreography, the seamless blend between diegetic and exegetic music, make it entirely original and massively enjoyable.
War: Anthropoid (the assassination of Heydrich), Childhood of a Leader (a more allegorical account of the birth of fascism), Lore (a German teenager in the aftermath of the war). And the best one: Dunkirk – I was overwhelmed, by that intense focus, by the score which built and built the tension until it was almost unbearable (and the use of the Elgar Nimrod as the first of the little ships appeared reduced me, predictably enough, to sobs), and by the non-linear structure which forced one to concentrate, to hold those strands together even as the direction teased them apart.
French films: Michael Haneke’s Amour, Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite (a French take on the Florence Foster Jenkins story), Olivier Assayas’s Double Vies (Non-Fiction), Mia Hansen-Løve’s L’Avenir (Things to Come), Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies. Varda by Agnes and Bertrand Tavernier’s Journey through French Cinema. My favourites: Celine Sciamma’s Bande de Filles (so much in this movie, but just watch that opening sequence, with the young women leaving hockey match and returning to their homes in the banlieues, and a gorgeous sequence as they dance in shoplifted dresses to Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’) , Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu (a stunning Malian film, beautiful and shattering, but with unexpected moments of humour too).
History/Biography: First Man and Hidden Figures, Lincoln, Selma and BlackKKlansman. Love and Mercy (biopic of Brian Wilson).
Comedy: Booksmart and Lady Bird. Death of Stalin and Four Lions. Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Moonrise Kingdom. Sorry to Bother You. World’s End and Submarine. The Muppets, and Paddington.
Animation: Inside Out, Tangled, Toy Story 3.
Adaptations: Macbeth (Fassbender and Cotillard) and Joss Whedon’s Much Ado about Nothing.
Drama: Captain Fantastic and Leave No Trace. Dallas Buyers Club and Pride. Grand Budapest Hotel and The Great Beauty. The Farewell and Short-term 12. Twentieth-century Women and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Winter’s Bone and Room. We Need to Talk about Kevin and If Beale Street Could Talk. Life, above all and Cold War.
Music: La la Land
Farewell and thank you to Marvel man Stan Lee, to Emmanuelle Riva (star of Haneke’s Amour, and long before that, of Hiroshima mon amour), to Agnes Varda, and to Michael Bond, creator of Paddington.
TV of the Decade
Subtitled Crime/Thrillers: Dicte, Follow the Money, Greyzone, Rough Justice, Spiral, The Team, Trapped, Wallander, Witnesses, Beck, Before we Die, Blue Eyes, The Bridge, Deutschland 83/86. Plus the bilingual English/Welsh productions, Hidden and Hinterland. Best of the bunch – Spiral (a master-class in French profanity, and a compelling if infuriating bunch of characters, dealing with grim and gritty crime on the streets of Paris.
Brit Crime/Thrillers: Endeavour, The Fall, Foyle’s War, Happy Valley, , Informer, Killing Eve, Kiri, Lewis, Line of Duty, Little Drummer Girl, London Spy, The Lost Honour of Christopher Jenkins, Midsomer Murders, The Missing, No Offence, River, Scott and Bailey, Sherlock, Shetland, Southcliffe, Strike, Suspects, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Unforgotten, Vera, Wallander, Bodyguard, Broadchurch, DCI Banks, Black Earth Rising, Ashes to Ashes. Best of the bunch – Endeavour for beautiful, subtle writing for all the lead characters; Killing Eve for deranged, delicious wickedness, Line of Duty for twisty turny plotting, and stunning, forget-to-breathe set pieces in the interview room, Unforgotten for the warmth and humanity of the two leads, the clever subtlety of the writing, and the emotional complexity of cold case investigation.
Other Crime/Thrillers: Fargo, Homeland, Mystery Road, Southland, The Americans. Best of the bunch – Fargo. Bonkers, funny and very very dark.
Sci-fi/Fantasy: Agent Carter, Agents of Shield, The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, The Fades, Utopia, The Handmaid’s Tale, Humans, Misfits, Orphan Black, The Returned, Star Trek: Discovery, True Blood, Being Human. Best of the bunch – Agents of Shield for daring plotting and terrific writing. Doctor Who for bringing us not only Doctors 11, 12 and 13, but the War Doctor and the reappearance of the very first Doctor, River Song and a whole raft of new companions, new and old foes… And Who, as always, through this decade, has given us a hero who thinks, who cares, who values kindness above all things, who isn’t human but somehow reflects back to us the best of humanity. Orphan Black for Tatiana Maslany’s virtuoso performance as most of the key characters. The Returned for a spooky, troubling, atmospheric take on the notion of the revenant.
Comedy: Big Bang Theory, Community, Derry Girls, Doc Martin, Fleabag, The Good Place, How I Met Your Mother, Modern Family, Raised by Wolves, The Thick of It, W1A, Young Sheldon. Best of the bunch – Derry Girls
History/Biography: A Very English Scandal, Brexit: An Uncivil War, Cilla, Gentleman Jack, Mo, Poldark, Resistance, To Walk Invisible, Wolf Hall, Summer of Rockets, World on Fire, War and Peace. A Very English Scandal was a startlingly funny and somehow touching take on a scandal that I recall from my early teenage years (the newspaper coverage at the time was highly educational!). I wrote about Gentleman Jack in my review of the year. And Resistance was a powerful – and historically sound, whilst using the device of a fictional central character who could link to all of the key resistance groups and events – account of Occupied Paris, a subject that I find endlessly fascinating.
Drama: The Casual Vacancy, Desperate Housewives, Doctor Foster, Spin, This is England, Treme, Years and Years. This is England (the TV series) was so powerful that I haven’t rewatched it. It broke me – particularly TiE88. Treme was a joy – it drew its characters with so much love and understanding, that we ended up loving them too. The cast was brilliant, as was the music (it’s the only drama of the decade that has led us to seek out a whole raft of CDs). And Years and Years was timely, moving and let us hope not overly prescient…
This was the decade that I really got into opera. Having the chance to see (and latterly to review) Opera North productions at Leeds Grand Theatre and Town Hall has been not only a delight but an education. I’ve seen productions from across the centuries, and not only has the singing been glorious, but the stagings have been wonderfully inventive. You can find my reviews of the titles in bold elsewhere on this site.
- Cole Porter’s Kiss me Kate
- Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas
- Poulenc’s La Voix humaine
- Puccini’s La Boheme, Gianni Schicchi, Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Turandot
- Britten’s Death in Venice and Peter Grimes
- Ravel’s L’Enfant et ses sortileges
- Verdi’s Aida and Un ballo in Maschero
- Falla’s La Vida Breva
- Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury
- Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti
- Giordano’s Andrea Chenier
- Kevin Puts’s Silent Night
- Handel’s Giulio Cesare
- Martinu’s The Greek Passion
- Strauss’s Salome
- Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman
- Lehar’s The Merry Widow
- Janacek’s Jenufa, Osud and Katya Kabanaova
- Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppeia
- Mozart’s Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute
- Rimsky Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden
- Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci
- Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana
As always, we have listened to a LOT of music. And over the course of the decade, more and more of it has been jazz. That’s partly thanks to Radio 3, with Jazz Record Requests and J to Z bringing us artists we weren’t familiar with along with lots of stuff from long-term favourites (Monk, Miles, Mingus et al). We’ve seen some live jazz too, from the Kofi-Barnes Aggregation, Arnie Somogyi’s Scenes from the City, and the Stan Tracey Octet.
For several years of this decade, Tramlines was where we went, one weekend a year, for live music. Music in pubs and clubs, in parks, in the art gallery, the Cathedral… It’s changed now, and it’s more a conventional music festival, which doesn’t suit us as well (though it’s a great success and a huge achievement for the city) – what we loved was just wandering around the city centre, from one venue to another, catching bands we’d never heard of as well as a few big names. It was bloody brilliant. And it was where we first saw Songhoy Blues, one of my bands of the decade. These young Malian musicians made me dance, made me smile like an idiot, made me cry a little, when Aliou Toure spoke about his country, his continent, and what the music stood for – peace, love, unity.
We’re privileged in Sheffield too to have Music in the Round – chamber music in the Crucible Studio from the house band, Ensemble 360, and a host of guest musicians. As the name suggests, the audience sits around the performers, so you’re guaranteed a good view, and it gives an intimate feel to the event. I could not begin to list the concerts we’ve attended there. Not just classical either – some of the jazz concerts referred to above were in the Crucible Studio, as was a wonderful gig from the Unthanks.
There have been other venues too – a remarkable performance of Terry Riley’s In C, in the Arts Tower paternoster lifts, and a programme of Reich, Adams, Zorn and others at the Leadmill, from the Ligeti Quartet.
So, another decade bites the dust. These have been some of the best bits. Love and thanks to all of the people who’ve shared these cultural delights with me, to all of the people who’ve created and performed these cultural delights for me, and to all of those who’ve passed on their own enthusiasms to me over the years.
Onwards. Whatever the next decade brings, let’s ensure it’s full of wonderful books, films, TV and music. Let’s hang on to the hope that things can and will get better…
As always, a couple of caveats. When I say ‘the best’, I mean the stuff I really really liked. So I’m quite comfortable with you disagreeing – if you didn’t like something I did, then probably the reverse is true, and that’s totally fine. Secondly, whilst I’ve tried to avoid spoilers in what follows, read on at your own peril if you haven’t seen the programme/film concerned.
We’ve watched crime dramas from around the world – Cardinal (Canada), Crimson Rivers, No Second Chance and Les Dames (France), Darkness (Those who Kill) and Follow the Money (Denmark), Greyzone (Denmark/Sweden), The River (Norway), Night and Day (Spain), Trapped (Iceland), The Team (Denmark/Netherlands/Germany/France), Harrow (Australia), Perception and The Sinner (USA). These are a mixed bag – not all these series are ones we will follow up if we get a chance – and you may note a significant omission. Spiral is currently airing but at the time of writing we haven’t yet watched it – it’s accumulating on the BT box and we’re saving it up as a treat once it’s complete. Those are the rules, sorry. We’re also part way through Deutschland 86 which is excellent, and so extraordinary to contemplate how the world and the mindset of the GDR were due to disintegrate so completely only three years later.
Obviously, there’s plenty of home-grown crime too. Again, they’re a mixed bag – we weren’t entirely persuaded by Cheat, The Bay, Trust Me or The Widow, although they were entertaining enough. Baptiste, Innocent and Informer all had strong plots and strong casts, and emotional heft as well. The Le Carré adaptation, The Little Drummer Girl, was excellent too.
But in their own league were:
Endeavour – this keeps on getting better. The final episode was superb, and very moving. But for my money, the writing and acting in a brief scene between Bright (Anton Lesser) and Thursday (Roger Allam) was television at its finest. They were talking about the women they loved and feared (or knew) they were losing, how they had met them – and as each of them reminisced, it was as if they were each in their own world of memory, their words interweaving in a way that was somehow operatic (whilst being very understated, as befits the two characters).
Killing Eve season 2 was widely reckoned to be not up to the first. I can see some of that. But it was still quite deranged, deliciously wicked, and wickedly delicious. Whether a third season is a good idea, I don’t know, but will give it a go – I can’t think of any other series that has delivered the utterly unexpected quite so frequently. And Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh totally deserve all of the praise they’ve received for their performances.
Line of Duty was as nail-bitingly tense as ever. The elements are familiar now but the twists and turns of the plot are still gripping, and the performances excellent. I think before the next season, whenever that lands, we will have to re-watch the whole thing from the beginning, because it’s clearly all interconnected and I’m sure all the clues as to who is H (if indeed there is an H) are there somewhere… (and no, of course it isn’t Ted. Don’t be silly).
After all that murder, we do need the occasional laugh. I’m super-critical of comedy. I’ll give a new programme a try, but if it makes me wince more than it makes me laugh it doesn’t get a second chance. These passed the test.
This year saw the last Big Bang Theory – there was a point when I thought it had exhausted the comedic possibilities of the sitch and the central (male) characters, but bringing the women into the foreground gave it a new lease of life, and the final season was funny and often touching. Young Sheldon turned out to be excellent, the Cooper family drawn and performed with real affection and warmth.
We got to Fleabag rather late in the day but it was brilliant and funny. I was starting to find the glances to camera slightly irritating, when she changed the rules again in Season 2, with the hot priest noticing and asking her about it. Weirdly, Gentleman Jack also used the same trick (no idea who was copying who).
Derry Girls was fabulous, and silly, but never let one quite forget the context. The events around the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and Bill Clinton’s visit to Derry may have been mere background as far as the teenagers were concerned, but were heavy with meaning, at a time when the GFA seemed under threat from a no-deal Brexit. (It may still be – only a fool would attempt to make predictions at present.)
And The Good Place took us into unexpected realms of moral philosophy whilst being very funny along the way. (We’ve just finished season 2.)
Of these, I’m going to pick Derry Girls as my fave. I love those girls (and boy). And Sister Michael, obvs.
Having welcomed the Thirteenth Doctor in 2018, we had just the one episode of Who to sustain us through 2019, a New Year’s Day special. But the trailer’s out now for the new series, ‘coming soon in 2020’ so will just have to be patient till then…
Agents of Shield continued to be complex and compelling drama. The latest season ended with another unexpected swerve. My only quibble – and it applies to the next programme too – is the tendency to appear to kill off a key and beloved character and then renege on death. It’s something that happens a lot in fantasy/sci fi, given that there are myriad ways in which death can be cheated or reversed, but just because you can, doesn’t mean you should… Cumulatively, it can mean that the next death doesn’t move you because you kind of know they’ll be back.
Star Trek Discovery is still excellent, even without Jason Isaacs. And the arrival of Captain Pike was most intriguing, given the tie in to original Trek as well as to the reboot movies. There are some great characters (I’m especially fond of Ensign Tilly). Too much death-reversing (see above). But thoroughly enjoyable, exciting, unexpected.
Walking Dead has come back from a real creative slump. The war with the Saviours just went on too long, and was over-reliant on our supposed fascination with Negan. But with a jump forward in time, we’ve now (in Series 10) got a really creepy and interesting new threat, which also weaponises the zombie hordes, who had come to seem almost irrelevant during the Saviour wars. The mid-season finale (or should that be semi-finale?) was a classic example of key character doing something utterly stupid that endangers nearly every other key character – but it did it well, and the other plot strands that were left as cliff-hangers were powerful too. I’m glad I didn’t give up on it.
Hard to pick one – but I’ll go with Shield.
Years and Years almost qualifies as sci-fi. This Russell T Davies near future dystopia deals extensively with tech and how it affects every detail of people’s lives. But its main focus is the rise of a cynical, populist politician, who through a mixture of public support and chicanery gains power and uses it to horrific effect. It being RTD, this is emotionally intense, often funny, always scary.
Gentleman Jack stars the wonderful Suranne Jones as the early nineteenth-century lesbian diarist Anne Lister. She’s a fascinating character, particularly when one sees her through a contemporary lens – her sexuality and determination to follow her own path in that regard, despite all of the obstacles that society places in her way on the one hand, her belief in the class system and the interests of the landowning aristocracy on the other. It’s a hugely entertaining account, which reminds us that it’s based on Anne’s encrypted diaries with her asides to camera (as noted above, very Fleabag, even to the extent of having Anne’s lover notice at one point and comment on it).
More conventional costume drama in Poldark which reached its final season, so no more lingering shots of Ross riding along the Cornish clifftops or Demelza gazing out to sea. There are more books in the Winston Graham series than have been televised, but I think they focus on the next generation, so who knows, there might be a Poldark 2 at some stage, but without Ross, Demelza, Dwight, Drake, evil George… Of course, it would still have the staggeringly beautiful north Cornish coast, and a fascinating and turbulent period in terms of national and social history to explore.
World on Fire takes two families, one working-class, one wealthy, in late 1930s Manchester, and through the various family members and an American journalist explores the build-up to and the first couple of years of the war. That it relies on coincidence to connect these individuals with so many key events of the period (the fall of Poland, Dunkirk, the sinking of the Graf Spee, the Nazi euthaniasia programme, the occupation of Paris…) is absolutely fine. It’s a dramatic device, but it works. However. I’m happy to suspend disbelief at the aforementioned coincidences, but I cannot for the life of me see how Grzegorz gets from Gdansk to Warsaw to the Soviet occupied area of Poland and then within a period of less than nine months, without false papers, crosses most of Nazi Europe to turn up at Dunkirk and blag a place on a boat. It feels like there’s a whole story there to be told, if we’re to accept it at all, but instead we just jump from Soviet Poland to the beaches at Dunkirk. I would be less hard on this if I didn’t like the series so much in every other respect, but I shouted at the telly a couple of times over this strand of the narrative and no further explanation was forthcoming. Hmmm.
Stephen Poliakoff’s Summer of Rockets explores Cold War Britain, through the family of a Russian Jewish inventor recruited by MI5. It’s a fascinating portrayal of the world into which I was born (it’s set in 1958) but which I don’t recognise at all. Keeley Hawes is as splendid as ever, amongst a strong cast. Beautifully written and filmed, it’s thoroughly intriguing and quirky.
Best of these – another hard choice but I’ll go with Years and Years.
This year the children of 7 Up turned 63. We’ve been following them for decades now – they’re our contemporaries, and have been part of our lives for so long that we feel they’re almost like distant relations, who we only see every few years, but still kind of care about. I wonder how many of them will continue with the series (some of them said that their continued participation depends on Michael Apted, who’s now 71). Not only that, but whilst we have so far weathered divorces, the loss of parents, serious illness, and the death of one of the cohort, it can only get tougher from here on in. But for as long as they continue, we will continue to check in with them. Whatever the flaws in the original conception it’s been the most extraordinarily fascinating series.
One more doc, The Yorkshire Ripper Files. The last thing I watched about the Ripper, the drama-doc, This is Personal, gave me horrific nightmares. It ostensibly focused on the investigation but dramatized at least one attempted murder, and it took me right back to the fear that we lived with in Yorkshire whilst he was out there, killing women. I used to come back from work, always hoping that Karen from next door would be on my bus, and that we would scurry back from the bus stop to our road, feeling marginally safer for being together, but not feeling fully safe until we were home and the door shut and chained. And every night, those nightmares. The Yorkshire Ripper Files focused on how the investigation was derailed not just by the hoax tape but by the conventional attitudes of the time, fixating on the fact that some early victims were sex workers, and thus discounting attacks on women who were not, even when one of those women provided a chillingly accurate description of Sutcliffe. There was much I didn’t know, despite having followed the case so closely at the time, and it was a powerful reminder of how far, in many ways, we’ve come since the 70s, even if much still needs to change.
The Big Screen (even if seen on DVD on the small screen…)
It’s been a Marvellous year in the cinema. We had the arrival of the most powerful Avenger, and then the culmination of the Avengers saga with the mighty Endgame. I can’t be doing with the auteur-led dismissal of the superhero genre – my cinematic world is broad enough to encompass enigmatic French art films where nothing happens at considerable length AND epic battles between good and evil, packed with action (also at considerable length) but also with wit and heart. I’m contemplating a lengthier defence of the genre for this blog at some stage but for now, Scorsese, et al, leave it out. As well as the two major films, there were hugely enjoyable outings for Ant Man and the Wasp, and for Spiderman (both in the form of Tom Holland and in the animated Into the Spiderverse).
Leave No Trace was a beautiful, subtle piece of film-making, full of warmth and compassion, and faith in people. So many situations where one feared the worst but where people turned out to be decent, to be doing their best, to be kind. It hurt my heart, but it soothed it too. I know not everyone is ok, but perhaps sometimes we need to be reminded that most people are.
Bad Times at the El Royale was fairly bonkers, a lot of fun, with fantastic performances from Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo in particular. The body count was pretty spectacular, but again, there were instances where people turned out to be better than one might have feared, rather than worse.
Erivo turned up again in Widows, one of a number of excellent films we saw this year with predominantly black casts. A heist movie wasn’t what I would have expected from Steve McQueen after Twelve Years a Slave, but as the Empire reviewer put it, ‘with the help of a staggering ensemble cast, Steve McQueen has made an intelligent, emotional thriller that contemplates contemporary American politics as confidently as it does blowing shit up.’
Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman got some stick for preaching to the choir, for making the contemporary parallels too obvious, and for making the KKK too stupid to be scary. I’m not sure that I agree. The final scene in which the lead players chuckle at their victory would be far too complacent and cheesy were it not for the news footage that follows, of Charlottesville and the contemporary equivalents of those bigots, still here, still spouting their hate. Lee’s film is often very funny and yes, a lot of the laughs come at the expense of the Klan. But there’s plenty here – even without the bookending of the 1950s racist PSA and the Charlottesville fascist demos – to shock and disturb. Denzel’s son, John David Washington, and Adam Driver, are great in the leads.
We only saw Jordan Peele’s Get Out this year, but had managed to avoid having much idea of what happened, beyond the initial premise of a young black guy visiting his white girlfriend’s family for the first time. It builds brilliantly – initially things are just that bit awkward, a bit clumsy, but we could be in for social comedy at this stage. We see Chris (brilliantly played by Daniel Kaluuya) initially smiling along – his whole life he’s been encountering the many and varied forms of white racism, and he knows there’s no point in calling it out, not at first. But then it gets weirder, and wronger, and every time you think you know where we’re heading, you’re wrongfooted…
Peele’s most recent film, Us, is ‘a superb doppelganger satire of the American dream’, which, like Get Out, builds its terrors gradually and relentlessly, and pulls surprise after surprise. Its mythology is more opaque than that of Get Out, but it resonates very powerfully nonetheless, and the chills and shocks stay with you. Lupita Nyong’o is absolutely mesmerising.
Sorry to Bother You is madly satirical sci-fi. It may sound mundane: a young black telemarketer who adopts a white accent to succeed at his job. Swept into a corporate conspiracy, he must choose between profit and joining his activist friends to organise labour. But whilst there’s an absolutely dizzying swerve part way through that no one could possibly have predicted, there are elements right from the start that mark it out as not social realism.
If Beale Street could Talk is an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel, and it’s so very beautiful. It’s even quietly optimistic and hopeful about humanity, despite everything that happens to the protagonists, because it portrays real and lasting romantic love, and real and powerful family love. The Guardian said: ‘Here is a film almost woozy with its own beauty and dignity, a film going transcendently high in the face of a racist world going low. It is a tribute of quiet passion extended to those lives fractured by injustice, and seems to serenely offer up their hard-won heroism to ward off bigotry’s corrosive evil’.
There have been fewer opportunities to watch French art-house movies of late, but we did see Agnes Varda’s final film, which gives us the delight of spending two hours in her very engaging company, through interviews and clips from her movies. Varda by Agnes should take one immediately to seeing all of her films. We also caught Non-Fiction, which is about as archetypal a French film as one could find – populated by writers, publishers, actors and their ilk, all of whom are sleeping with each other, when they’re not having intense debates about the future of literature in a digital age. It’s clever and funny and very enjoyable.
The Farewell was great too – very touching and funny, about families and about cultural differences. As it opens we see Billi, the protagonist, in New York, juggling cultures adeptly as she talks on her phone to her grandmother in China and telling her what she wants to hear. But the grandmother is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the family follow tradition in not telling the patient of her prognosis, all gathering in China for a slightly rushed wedding in order to say their farewells without actually saying farewell…
Booksmart was a ridiculously funny and smart coming-of-age film, starring Beanie Feldstein (the best friend in Lady Bird) and Kathryn Dever. They carry the film completely – parents and potential boy or girlfriends are in a way peripheral. The Guardian review said: ‘there are sequences that will feel familiar to anyone well-versed in high school comedies, but Wilde manages to grace her film with a distinctive aura all of its own. For one, romance and sex are relatively low down on the list for the girls while friendship, feminism and the pursuit of fun are of more importance, turning them from archetypes into fully fleshed, and flawed, young women.’
If I have to pick from these, my top three films would be Avengers: Endgame, If Beale Street could Talk, and Us.
Allons-y to 2020!
These are my picks for films of 2018. As usual, I’m resisting the urge to rank these, because they’re so diverse, but there is a top 3 which I will reveal shortly.
2018 had two huge additions to the Marvel cinematic universe. Black Panther has a significance that goes way beyond its contribution to the Avengers’ narrative arc. It gives us, all of us, a cast that is overwhelmingly made up of people of colour. Good guys and bad guys and somewhere in between. And not just guys – a whole lot of magnificent, clever women too. The film had, as one might have expected, a huge impact on black audiences. It’s not that they hadn’t ever seen people who look like them on screen, or even in superhero movies, but up front and centre? All over the damn screen? But it had an impact on all of us, I think. It didn’t make a big deal of what it was doing, it just got on with it, as this review in The Daily Telegraph, of all places, points out:
The film walks into the multiplex like it’s insane that it hasn’t been allowed in there all along. And it is. For one thing, an entire subset of younger cinema-goers are only just about to experience the dizzy uplift of watching a title character in a superhero movie who looks like them under the costume. … Black Panther seems to overcome the genre’s long-standing neuroses around creating rounded, exciting roles for women by just getting on with it.
It worked on every level – there was much fighting, and things exploded, and there was moral ambiguity, and there was witty dialogue. And it was visually stunning – our first view of Wakanda was breathtaking.
And then there’s Avengers: Infinity War. Now normally I walk out of the cinema after a Marvel movie with a big daft smile on my face. Not this time. I was braced for deaths – I thought I knew what was coming and did a bit of advance grieving for my most-loved Avenger (Captain, oh, my Captain). What we got was much more confusing than that. We lost so many, but not the ones we expected to lose – in fact, many of those who we saw turn to dust were the ones we know absolutely can’t be gone. It’s fine that in fantasy death is not always the end – why bother creating a fantasy world if it has to obey all of the same rules as the real one? – but the risk is always that death loses its sting if we too often can just nod sagely to each other and say, ‘they’ll be back’. So, which of these deaths are going to stick, and which will be reversed? We have to wait until April 2019 to find out.
The Last Jedi features
a scene … that’s both revolutionary and dead simple: a circle of women, soldiers and warriors all, … handily discussing how they’re going to tackle their latest military offensive. While Star Wars has always featured strong women … Johnson’s film integrates them into all aspects of the story.
As I’ve said previously, Star Wars isn’t my thing, although I’ve very much enjoyed The Force Awakens, Rogue One and this one. But I don’t feel quite the exhilaration that the true fans feel at the resurgence of the series, nor can I understand the sense of betrayal from fans who believe that the recent films get it wrong.
Annihilation was released on Netflix so we saw it on the small screen. It’s a shame – it’s visually stunning and would have really benefited from being shown in the full cinema setting. However, it’s a superb sci-fi film, which has the courage to leave plenty of ambiguity, right to the end. And, refreshingly, the crack team that’s sent in to try to investigate the mysterious ‘Shimmer’ is made up of women – scientists and a paramedic. That’s one of the areas of ambiguity – were they chosen solely because of their specialist expertise, regardless of gender, or is their gender a factor in their selection, that the failure of successive teams of military men to emerge from the Zone is actually to do with gender?
A Quiet Place was one of the tensest ninety minutes I can recall (and I endured Forest’s last ditch Championship survival on goal difference a couple of seasons ago). It was initially a hard sell – you watch this film, you have to sign up to the discipline of no coughing, no rustling of crisp packets or sweet wrappers, no sotto voce asides to your neighbour. Silence is survival in this world, and we rapidly become part of it, as we see how this family has adapted every detail of their life to enable them to function in silence. It’s made very clear early on that the peril is real, and it gets realler. We watched this on the small screen but there was never any question of hitting pause to fetch a cuppa or go to the toilet. We sat so very still that my Fitbit thought I’d had a 90 minute sleep…
First Man was 60s science fiction become reality, portraying the build-up to the 1969 moon landing, focusing on Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on another world. Armstrong (as portrayed here by Ryan Gosling) was in many ways a hard man to root for, his emotional distance shown vividly in the final scene, where after his return to earth and still in quarantine, his reunion with his wife is through the barrier of a pane of glass.
A rather odd (and atypical) review in The New Yorker complained that:
there’s no sense of what Neil’s perspective might be on the Twist, the Beatles, or anything else going on in the turbulent sixties.
I can’t say I was particularly troubled by that – it is actually refreshing to reflect that probably most people in the sixties were not caught up in that cultural maelstrom. The reviewer goes on to claim that:
Chazelle openly mocks people who thought that the moon money was spent foolishly—those pesky intellectuals, blacks, and Hispanics who go on TV or into the street demanding “gimme” while the likes of Neil and his exclusively white, male colleagues uncomplainingly put their lives on the line to accomplish historic things in the interest of “mankind.”
This seems to me an extraordinary claim. Nothing in the movie suggested to me either that Armstrong’s emotional closedness was being lauded (indeed, the damage to himself and to his family was very clearly shown), or that Chazelle was pushing some kind of MAGA patriotic agenda. A much more perceptive – but not uncritical – review appeared in The Culture Vulture .
One of the most striking things about the film was the sensation of the physical reality both of the machines that transported these men into space, and of the claustrophobia of being strapped into those machines – the sheer noise, the jolting and juddering, the shots of sheets of metal held together by nuts and bolts. We’re used to space craft as bright white shiny machines, not as something that might have been built in someone’s garage. I watched that first landing on TV, having been allowed a special dispensation to stay up after normal bedtime. Back then it might as well have been sci-fi – in First Man it’s science, it’s engineering, it’s mechanics and it’s fragile human bodies making it all work.
Three Billboards featured the redoubtable Frances McDormand, who was as magnificent as one might have expected. McDormand’s Mildred wasn’t readily likeable, even when she was being admirable, and she got it horribly wrong in many ways, but she was a powerful presence.
The heart of the film was Woody Harrelson’s police chief, trying to find the best in everyone. And the moment that touched me most was when as they confront each other he is racked by a cough that spatters blood over both of them, and she says, ‘oh, baby’, as she realises how very ill he is. It’s often a brutal film, and often brutally funny.
Cold War is a musical history of postwar Europe, shot in luminous black and white, a story of doomed lovers who find and lose and find and lose and find each other, always searching, never settling. The film’s last line is “Let’s go to the other side. The view is better from there”.
The lovers’ story is told through music, from the raw rural folk that Wiktor and Irena are attempting to record, to the ‘Stalinisation’ of that tradition, the Parisian jazz and chanson that they immerse themselves in after their defection and back to the bastardised pop of Zula’s final performance. The chill referred to in the title is political and personal. Irena stands up during the first full-on Stalinised performance and walks out, never to be seen, or spoken of again. Zula admits in passing to having informed on Wiktor. Those were the realities, but they’re not underlined or over-explained. It’s beautiful and devastating.
My final pick for 2018 is Lady Bird. Saoirse Ronan is wonderful, as is Laurie Metcalf (always one of the best things about Roseanne). As a former teenage girl, and more recently as the mother of a teenage girl, I identified with both the eponymous Lady Bird (aka Christine) and with her mother Marion. This was real, and touching, and often very funny. There were scenes that I could swear were ripped from my own life:
Do you really need to use two towels?
Ah… No, I guess no.
If you need two towels you just have to say so because this affects my whole day. Because I have to do laundry before work, and I need to know if there are more towels that I need to wash.
Family life, summed up in one short exchange. And then there’s the sequence where mother and daughter attempt to choose a prom dress. I laughed and winced.
OK, so I kind of committed myself to a top 3. Black Panther, A Quiet Place, Three Billboards. Such very different films, which is why I’m not willing to rank them within that top 3. I hope the comments above explain why I’ve chosen them.
Honourable mentions to: Death of Stalin (Jason Isaacs!), the Showroom’s Bergman season of which I managed to see only Persona and Smiles of a Summer Night, and their Varda season of which I saw only Jacquot de Nantes. Both seasons whetted my appetite for more from those directors. I particularly loved the humour and warmth of Agnes Varda’s love letter to her husband, Jacques Demy. Also the first part of the new adaptation of Stephen King’s It, which was infinitely better than the previous version, and the second part of which I await eagerly.
It’s also important to recognise the old movies that I enjoyed this year. A bit of a Powell & Pressburger retrospective with Blimp, A Matter of Life & Death, and I Know Where I’m Going. Lord, those guys were brilliant. And a couple of Billy Wilders – the familiar (Some Like it Hot) and the new to me The Apartment (I’d seen the Bacharach musical based on the story but not the movie). Rewatched West Side Story as a birthday treat, and had my annual sobfest watching It’s a Wonderful Life just before Xmas.
Small screen will have to be a separate blog. Given current family pressures, it may be more of a list than a blog, but hey-ho, that’s how it goes. I also hope to look at how the Bechdel test stands up in terms of contemporary films, where it still has validity and importance and where it falls down.
Thanks to those who’ve shared these cinematic pleasures with me (Arthur, Viv, Martyn, Liz).
Women in Hollywood. Women wearing black to the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, wearing Time’s Up badges, white flowers at the Grammys, standing up at the Oscars, women saying #MeToo.
Much has been said about the way in which the voices of women, silenced for a long time by fear of retaliation or of lawsuits, of humiliation and denigration, of career suicide, are now being raised, and amplified, and the way in which this has given courage to women in other professions and environments, to speak up not only for themselves but for women who have even more to lose.
I’m not going to be directly addressing these events. But I am talking about the culture of Hollywood – a culture in which women are marginalised and isolated on screen as they are off-screen. And it’s all connected.
I’m going to look at ways in which we can assess the movies we watch, and analyse their portrayal of women, and think about what change might look like on the screen. I will touch on other aspects of diversity but I can’t do justice to it all!
The Bechdel Test has been around since 1985. But the essential idea actually goes back a lot further than that:
All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. … And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. … They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that … (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1929)
There are actually only three requirements for passing the test:
(Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For)
It’s been developed slightly since then, and the usual formulation now is that the film must:
- feature at least two named women
- who talk to each other
- about something other than a man.
The first thing to say about these criteria is that they set the bar pretty damn low. (Just think for a moment about how many films would fail if you reversed the genders here. Er, no, me neither). Indeed, Alison Bechdel never intended the test to do anything other than to draw attention ‘to the severity of the problem by showing how low you could set the bar and still watch Hollywood executives trip over it’. Because an awful lot of films still fail, and a surprising number only scrape through with a bit of special pleading.
Does this matter? Well, yes it really does. When we – girls and women – go to the cinema, do we see ourselves on screen? Do we see the kind of women we are, and that we work and live with, that we encounter in all aspects of our lives – women who make decisions and have opinions, women who act and change things in their lives and in the world around them? If we don’t, that doesn’t stop us being that kind of woman, but it makes it harder, given that it’s already hard, to keep on keeping on in the face of everyday sexism.
Given the howls of horror from some men when a rare film does feature lots of women doing stuff, or when the Ghostbusters or Doctor Who are reimagined as women, it’s clear that the status quo is comforting to those men who would much rather we didn’t make decisions and have opinions, that we didn’t act and change things in our lives and the world around us. And it is very relevant to note that when we get one – ONE – superhero movie with an overwhelmingly black cast, there are trolls on Twitter ready to call it racist. Dear lord, one could so easily despair. But one won’t.
If I ever doubted that it’s powerful to see ourselves on screen, I had two reminders last year. Firstly, I went to see Wonder Woman.
It passes the test. It’s a while before we see a bloke at all, and when we do, he needs rescuing. By a woman. I’d underestimated how intensely exhilarating and moving it would be to see those scenes of the Amazonian women on Themyscira, and to see Diana Prince sorting out all the blokes who tried to tell her to ‘just wait there’. I wanted to weep and punch the air.
And then, not long after, we heard that the Doctor would be a woman, and at Christmas I watched as he regenerated into she, and she said, oh, brilliant. And it was.
But back to the test. It’s important to recognise that passing the test doesn’t make a film a good film, or a feminist film. Elle passes the test, as does Fifty Shades of Grey, apparently, but both are intensely problematic in their sexual politics. And Dunkirk unequivocally fails but is a brilliant film that would not have been enhanced in any way by shoehorning in some Bechdel-conforming female characters to supplement the unnamed WRENs and nurses.
It’s also important to remember that – once you’ve achieved the ‘two named women’ criterion – it’s not primarily about how many women there are on screen. If there are only one or two significant female characters, then the female characters may have to carry the burden of representing their whole gender, something male characters are rarely required to do. But the most important thing is not the number of women but, as Neda Ulaby put it, ‘the depth of their stories, and the range of their concerns’, women as characters rather than as cliches. If there are loads of women on screen but they say very little (an analysis of Oscar winning films shows that men have the vast majority of words, even in films that pass the Bechdel test) then we cannot really see and hear them as rounded characters. And if the women that are there on screen, however well-written they are individually, are disconnected from one another, connected only to the men, we’re still not getting what we need.
I had a look at the films that I’ve seen over the last year or so, to see how they measure up.
FAIL – Baby Driver, Thor: Ragnarok, War for the Planet of the Apes, Dunkirk
Maybe just about scrape a pass if you’re very indulgent – Spiderman: Homecoming, Logan, Rogue One, It. (NB my inclusion of Rogue One in this category is disputed…)
PASS – Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Wonder Woman, Twentieth-Century Women, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Elle, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Black Panther, Lady Bird, Annihilation
Now, obviously my movie list is a personal one and reflects my particular preferences. Nonetheless, the balance isn’t so far out of kilter with wider ranging surveys. A recent analysis showed that one-third of 50 movies from 2016 failed. Between a quarter and a half of my list fail.
However, of those that pass, several pass gloriously.
I’ve already spoken about Wonder Woman. And The Last Jedi features
a scene … that’s both revolutionary and dead simple: a circle of women, soldiers and warriors all, … handily discussing how they’re going to tackle their latest military offensive. While Star Wars has always featured strong women … Johnson’s film integrates them into all aspects of the story.
Twentieth Century Women lives up to its title, with women front and centre in the movie and on the poster. Hidden Figures similarly features three women at the forefront – and those women are black.
Hidden Figures is a reminder that the Bechdel test addresses only one aspect of diversity. Which is one of the reasons that a variety of alternative or supplementary tests have been proposed.
Some of these look behind the camera to the involvement of women (currently around 18%) and/or people of colour in the writing, direction, production of the film. Clearly this is crucial. When the vast, overwhelming majority of films are written and directed by white men, this will skew the presentation of women. Not necessarily through conscious sexism, but because a male writer will inevitably identify more with the characters on screen who are most like him (the I-guys, as Stephen King calls them), and will then think of the other characters in relation to the I guy. They may well not even notice that the women are under-represented, under-developed, under-used.
There are tests that directly address ethnicity AND gender. If white women find it difficult to see themselves on screen, it’s so much more the case for women of colour. One test asks that a film features a black women who’s in a position of power and is in a healthy relationship. Another that there is a non-white, female-identifying person in the film who speaks in five or more scenes and speaks English. Against the first of these, most films fail. The second does better. We could apply the same kind of methodology to the portrayal of gay characters, transgender characters, disabled characters. But I suspect we know what the outcome would be (and we’d have to address the issue of straight actors playing gay, cis actors playing trans, actors without disabilities playing disabled).
A more qualitative approach is to focus on how women are portrayed on screen. Do films show
women as characters who have needs and desires and who take actions stemming from those desires over the course of the film. (You know, they act like real people.) A surprising number of films fail to do even that much basic character development work with women. Often, women are reduced to stereotypes or tropes as soon as they’re introduced and then don’t get developed any further. And female characters frequently serve little purpose beyond causing plot problems for male protagonists, or having a baby with a male protagonist, or dying to raise the stakes for a male protagonist.
Some of these tests are quite subjective. Whether we can identify and empathise with a character on screen may vary according to our own experiences, our age, ethnicity, sexuality, etc etc. But whilst these more complex tests may not be as easy to apply, they reflect what we’re actually responding to. That niggling dissatisfaction we feel may well be because the women we are watching don’t have needs and desires that they pursue through dramatic action, because we see them as stereotypes, because what they do matters only in relation to the male protagonists.
Another way of looking at it is the proportion of women in supporting roles or even in crowd scenes. What if half of all one-scene roles go to women, if the first crowd scene features at least 50 per cent women (currently it averages 17%), and/or the supporting cast is 50 per cent women?
You’ll note that none of the tests involve counting the number of ‘strong women’ on screen. Not all women are strong, and no women are strong all of the time. As Helen Lewis put it, ‘nowadays the princesses all know kung fu, and yet they’re still the same princesses’. You can’t solve the problems of the representation of women just by inserting a strong woman into the plot and thinking, there, job done. We want women characters who are rounded human beings, fallible and flawed, but not dependent on men to make decisions or to solve problems. Some of these women may indeed kick ass, but they don’t all have to. We want a variety of women characters – not all beautiful, not all clever, not all strong, but, well, like real people. Just imagine!
Actually we don’t have to just imagine because if you watch TV these days things are very different. It’s fairly unusual to see a crime drama without a woman in a lead role (e.g. Spiral, Scott & Bailey, The Bridge, No Offence, Unforgotten, Marcella, Line of Duty, Broadchurch, Witnesses, Fargo, Vera). And in the realm of fantasy, just think of Orphan Black, Agents of Shield, Star Trek: Discovery, The Walking Dead and, of course, Doctor Who. These shows smash the Bechdel test, and many of the alternative tests noted above, without apparent effort.
TV’s not perfect, obviously, but writers for that medium don’t seem to have been getting the message that aspiring screenwriters in Hollywood were not very long ago.
I had to understand that the audience only wanted white, straight, male leads. …“The audience doesn’t want to listen to a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about.” … According to Hollywood, if two women came on screen and started talking, the target male audience’s brain would glaze over and assume the women were talking about nail polish or shoes or something that didn’t pertain to the story. Only if they heard the name of a man in the story would they tune back in. By having women talk to each other about something other than men, I was “losing the audience.
- Oscar-nominated films with a woman in the starring role are more profitable than their male-led counterparts.
- Female-led films (defined as films where the female actor had the first starring name on Internet Movie Database) earn higher box office returns – despite usually lower production budgets, according to BBC analysis.
- On average, every dollar invested in a female-led film earns back $2.12 (£1.53). For male-led films this figure is $1.59 (£1.15).
- Just 28% of films nominated for an Oscar since 2013 have had an actress taking top billing.
The film walks into the multiplex like it’s insane that it hasn’t been allowed in there all along. And it is. For one thing, an entire subset of younger cinema-goers are only just about to experience the dizzy uplift of watching a title character in a superhero movie who looks like them under the costume.
I should say, not all films have to be about women, or even to include women. It would be entirely unreasonable to demand that every film carry the burden of representing the diversity of the human race. For example, there is no reason on earth why a film should not be set in an environment where, for given reasons of historical accuracy or realism there are no, or almost no women present (I refer you again to Dunkirk). It’s just that when no such reasons apply, we should expect to see ourselves on screen, in the crowd scenes, in supporting roles, AND in key speaking roles that play a part in the action and that relate to each other as well as to men.
It is particularly disappointing when realism is ditched in favour of a science fiction/fantasy universe, but things don’t change as much as they could have done. Why be constrained by gender and racial stereotypes when you could tear the whole thing up and start again? I suspect that one reason is that this genre is traditionally assumed to be the white boys’ province. You create whole new universes, and want to run them all? Well, I don’t think much to that.
Things are changing. We’ve got Wonder Woman and Black Widow and Scarlet Witch and Captain Marvel and Valkyrie and Gamora and Nebula and the Doctor. And in Black Panther alone we’ve got Shuri and Okoye and Nakia and, as The Daily Telegraph (yes, really, again), says:
Black Panther seems to overcome the genre’s long-standing neuroses around creating rounded, exciting roles for women by just getting on with it.
And Frances McDormand (my hero!) had two words for us at the Oscars. Inclusion rider
This refers to a proposal by Stacy Smith, director of USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative:
“What if A-list actors amended every contract with an equity rider? The clause would state that tertiary speaking characters should match the gender distribution of the setting for the film, as long as it’s sensible for the plot,” Smith wrote. “If notable actors working across 25 top films in 2013 had made this change to their contracts, the proportion of balanced films (about half-female) would have jumped from 16 percent to 41 percent. Imagine the possibilities if a few actors exercised their power contractually on behalf of women and girls. It wouldn’t necessarily mean more lead roles for females, but it would create a diverse onscreen demography reflecting a population comprised of 50 percent women and girls. In other words, reality.”
I may be being naive, but it seems to me this could be huge. Already, Brie Larson, Michael B Jordan and John Boyega, among others, have said they’ll use this as a way to bring about change, on and off screen. Let’s hope.
We’re half the human race. We’re all races and religions, all shapes and sizes, all political persuasions. We have disabilities and we have none, we are healthy and we suffer pain and indignity, we are independent and we need help to get by. We have money to burn and we have nothing at all. We are mothers and we are daughters and sisters, we are friends and wives and lovers. We are beautiful and we are ordinary. We are gay, straight, bi, cis, trans, and every variant or combination of the above. We are feminists, and we are ‘I’m not a feminist but…’ and we are most decidedly not feminists. We believe in our right to choose, and we believe that women’s fertility should be controlled by the state, by the church, by men. We wear pussy hats, and ‘Make America Great Again’ hats.
That should provide the screenwriters of Hollywood plenty of scope.
And just to make the point, that I don’t, I really don’t, want to see nothing but white middle-aged middle-class short bespectacled women when I go to the movies, I had the same emotional response to Black Panther as I did to Wonder Woman. I wanted to weep, and to punch the air.
Because ultimately, it’s not Me me I want to see there. It’s all of us. The human race in all its wild and ridiculous and glorious diversity. And if some straight white guys have to hutch up a bit to make room, well, Time’s Up, dudes.
It was a good year for superheroes. Most specially because of Wonder Woman, not because it was the best of its genre this year necessarily but because for the first time with a superhero movie I didn’t have scroll through hundreds of images to find one where a woman was centre screen, in charge. I wrote about the film, how it made me feel, the exhilaration of seeing all the tropes I love about superhero movies but with a woman, a glorious, magnificent woman, where usually there is a man, or mainly men (quite possibly glorious and magnificent in their own right, but still).
I loved Guardians of the Galaxy 2, warming to it despite a phase when I wearied of some of the schoolboy humour, until I realised what that was telling us about these lost children, and how they were forming a strange, new family. There was plenty of daft humour too in Thor: Ragnarok, as one would expect given that Taika Waititi was directing (responsible for last year’s delightful Hunt for the Wilderpeople and for What we do in the Shadows). And it was perhaps a sign of changing times (and not a moment too soon) that Valkyrie is played as a cynical, world-weary, boozy mess who comes through when she is needed, such a male archetype. As well as obviously kicking ass in a most splendid way. Spiderman: Homecoming was charming, funny and really used the notion that Spidey is an adolescent boy, cleverly and with heart. Logan, though, of all the films that belong broadly in that genre, was the one to break your heart. With gripping valedictory performances from Jackman and Stewart, and a mesmerising and terrifying one from Dafne Keen.
Star Wars is not so much my thing. I did enjoy the first trilogy, albeit critically, but I never felt them to be mine, and I have never even seen the prequels (nor do I intend to). But I loved The Force Awakens, and I loved Rogue One, and I look forward to seeing The Last Jedi before long.
War for the Planet of the Apes was brilliant – referencing Biblical epics, Westerns, Apocalypse Now, Schindler’s List and probably other genres and specific films as well, whilst maintaining the power and emotional heft of its predecessors.
My efforts to find an image for each film in which a woman is prominent were doomed in the case of Dunkirk. That’s fair enough, given the premise, I didn’t expect women to feature other than in traditional roles – as nurses, or serving tea and jam sandwiches. There has been a more serious issue raised, that of the absence of non-white faces. I don’t honestly believe this was a deliberate whitewashing, nor do I accept that just because Farage liked the film it was a pro-Brexit parable. But it would have taken very little to ensure that there were visible representatives of the Royal Indian Army Services Corp companies, or the lascar crewmen on British merchant vessels that took part in the evacuation. They were there, and this could have been conveyed without changing the basic structure of the film and its deliberately narrow focus on a few of the rescued and rescuers. But having said that, whilst watching the film such considerations never crossed my mind. I was overwhelmed, by that intense focus, by the score which built and built the tension until it was almost unbearable (and the use of the Elgar Nimrod as the first of the little ships appeared reduced me, predictably enough, to sobs), and by the non-linear structure which forced one to concentrate, to hold those strands together even as the direction teased them apart.
The opposite for the next two movies – three women foregrounded in each of them. I wrote about Twentieth-century Women for International Women’s Day,
and Hidden Figures we missed at the cinema but caught on DVD – uplifting and inspiring even if, oddly enough, the sexism and racism they encountered was actually ramped up for the benefit of the story. Who would have thought that could ever be necessary?
Baby Driver was beautifully described by Empire as:
not a film just set to music. But a film meticulously, ambitiously laid over the bones of carefully chosen tracks. It’s as close to a car-chase opera as you’ll ever see on screen.
Even if the narrative arc (young man in debt to gangster does ‘one last job’ and finds out there’s no such thing) is traditional enough, the choreography, the seamless blend between diegetic and exegetic music, make it entirely original and massively enjoyable.
La La Land inspired me to write about musicals. It was gorgeous and delightful and poignant and much more that I wanted to say was expressed so well in a piece on the marvellous That’s How the Light Gets In blog.
And one more cinema outing, a rather lengthy but entirely captivating one, for Bertrand Tavernier’s Journey through French Cinema. It is what it says, a journey and a personal one at that, through French film from Tavernier’s first childhood moment of enchantment, on through the decades as he goes from a kid in the audience to a film maker himself. I believe there’s a follow-up in the making, bringing his journey more up to date, to which I will happily commit as many hours as it takes, as soon as it’s out.
Mind you, speaking of French cinema, I should really note that we did go to see Elle. However, my feelings about that film are so predominantly negative, that despite my overwhelming admiration for Huppert, and despite moments of brilliantly black comedy, I shall pass over it without substantial comment.
On to the smaller screen.
As always a good deal of crime fiction. The dramas noted below are not an inclusive list of what we watched. There were others that were workaday, or that strained credulity with plot craters and characters who behaved with a stupidity that was at the same time predictable and utterly inconsistent with what we already knew of them. I’m not going to name the guilty parties, just those that we were gripped by and that managed to avoid the worst clichés and pitfalls of the genre.
Sherlock: The Final Problem certainly didn’t give us genre cliché. What it all meant, and indeed, whether it meant anything at all or was just a clever game, is uncertain. The Guardian‘s reviewer was a bit cross about it, but identified two main strands in the narrative:
One was a subtle, beautifully crafted backstory about Sherlock’s childhood. The other was a fun if unfulfilling gameshow of wild hypotheticals, where everything was at stake yet it often felt as though very little was.
It was frustrating and baffling but it didn’t make me cross, I was perfectly willing to believe both that it did mean something and that it was just a fascinating puzzle that I would probably have no chance of unravelling.
Line of Duty series 4 was just superb. Thandie Newton’s Roz Huntley was absolutely compelling, and the plot twisted and turned as we were made to question everyone’s motives and integrity, at least briefly. It had the classic LoD set pieces in the interview room, plus shoot outs and chases, and a plot that at least started to weave together strands from series 1-3, whilst leaving plenty to look forward to in series 5, which cannot come around too soon for me.
The Missing had only one character in common with series 1, the grizzled detective (Tchéky Karyo) who I was very glad to spend another few hours with. Keeley Hawes and David Morrissey were both excellent, as always. The narrative begins, in a sense, at the point that one might expect it to end, with the return of their missing daughter. Of course, it’s not that simple, it’s complex and agonising, and unexpected.
Broadchurch 3 was much better than 2 (which I quite enjoyed at the time but actually struggle to recall what it was all about, really, apart from Joe’s not guilty plea). The handling of the rape case was generally excellent even if the resolution left a few dangling plot threads that didn’t quite make sense. Julie Hesmondhalgh was wonderful, as were, obviously, Tennant, Colman and Whittaker.
Strike was an excellent adaptation of the first two of Robert Galbraith (aka J K Rowling)’s Cormoran Strike novels. Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger were perfect in the lead roles, and I look forward immensely to the adaptation of the third and any future novels in the series.
I Know Who you Are was a fairly bonkers Spanish series in which most characters were pretty despicable, and one of the two genuinely sympathetic people didn’t make it out alive. The only morality that prevailed was Family and within that there was a hierarchy of loyalty – to attempt to murder one’s sister in order to protect one’s son was seen by most characters (including the intended victim) as pretty reasonable. It was all thoroughly enjoyable.
Unforgotten 2 was profoundly different, as Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar unpicked another cold case. They are both deeply sympathetic characters and the whole thing is imbued with a kind of compassion and empathy that draws in the damaged people whose lives have been twisted in various ways by the past crime.
Rellik very cleverly subverted the way in which the detective story must follow a retrograde narrative path, starting with the crime and working backwards, by starting with the crime’s (apparent) resolution and working backwards and backwards, until in its final episode it leapt back to the beginning/end and a shocking dénoument. The structure took a bit of getting used to and never quite stopped being unsettling, but we thoroughly enjoyed the ride. It was produced by Harry and Jack Williams (The Missing) and featured, amongst other excellent performances, the wonderful Rosalind Eleazar as an early suspect.
Witnesses was the second series of the French crime drama starring Marie Dompnier. This one also stars Audrey Fleurot, who we know from Spiral, and whose return in that series we look forward to impatiently. Witnesses was compelling and baffling and ended most enigmatically (none the worse for that – I’d rather have honest to goodness open endings than ostensibly tidy endings that actually leave loose threads all over the place).
Fargo 3 brought us not one but two wonderful female cops. Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) and Winnie Lopez (Olivia Sandoval). And not one but two Ewan McGregors, as he plays twin brothers. One David Thewlis was more than enough, however – his villain was quite the most revolting, viscerally unpleasant character I’ve seen on screen for some time. That’s a compliment (I think) to the writing and the acting. Lord knows where this one is going next but we’ll be more than happy to go along. Fargo also introduced the wonderful phrase, ‘unfathomable pinhead-ery’ into our vocab, for which we are truly thankful.
Telly sci-fi had an altogether brilliant year.
Agents of Shield had an outstanding season with a multi-layered narrative that messed with our heads and our hearts. Beautifully played and written, and quite breathtaking.
Orphan Black reached its fifth and final season, having maintained its form throughout the four years that it has been running. The weight of the series is carried – seemingly effortlessly – by the awesome Tatiana Maslany, who plays not only various clone ‘sestras’ but at various times plays one of them masquerading as one of the others. It’s dazzlingly done. It also stars the rather wonderful Maria Doyle Kennedy as Mrs S.
We’re not far through Star Trek: Discovery yet, but from episode 3 on were hooked. Yes, OK, that coincides with the arrival of Jason Isaacs, but it’s not just because Jason Isaacs. Sonequa Martin-Green is excellent, as is Anthony Rapp, and Mary Wiseman as cadet Tilly. It’s visually brilliant, and the plot is loaded with moral ambiguity from which it does not flinch. It promises much and we look forward to it developing further.
I remain loyal to The Walking Dead even though no one could claim that it’s unproblematic. The tone and pace are extremely uneven and it depends far too often on (a) plot armour, (b) magically inexhaustible ammo and (c) people who we know are capable of good judgement behaving with unfathomable pinheadery. Nonetheless, I cannot envisage giving up on it. I have to see how this plays out – and there are episodes which grip and compel and convince.
Possibly the only one of my top TV shows which features in the critics’ lists is The Handmaid’s Tale. I also read the book for the first time, as part of my 60 books in 60 days challenge. So much has been said about the series that I don’t feel I can add anything especially insightful – it was horrifying and terrifying and brilliantly done.
And of course there’s Doctor Who. I wrote about the (to me, brilliant) news that the next Doctor will be a woman. Nonetheless, much as I look forward to seeing what Jodie Whittaker brings to the role I will need to grieve first for Peter Capaldi’s doctor, who I have loved – and for Pearl Mackie who has been a wonderful companion. PC’s final series was excellent, and the finale was heart-stopping and moving.
“I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind! It’s just that… Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there’s no point to any of this at all. But it’s the best I can do. So I’m going to do it. And I’m going to stand here doing it until it kills me. And you’re going to die too! Some day… And how will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand is where I fall.” — The Doctor
Three docs worth mentioning. Suzie Klein’s Tunes for Tyrants explored 20th century music in the context of Nazi and Stalinist oppression. She’s an excellent presenter and the material – and the music – was fascinating and powerful.
Bowie’s departure from this dimension was – for me amongst others – the greatest loss of 2016, a year of losses. Bowie – the Last Five Years brought us the final phase of that extraordinary story, as he worked on his last two albums, and the stage musical Lazarus. We were reminded, as if we could forget, not only of his talent, but of his humour and intelligence, his warmth and wit. And that last body of work is not only a worthy finale to his career but imbued with a sense of mortality and the fragility of life.
Neil Brand is one of my favourite music-explainers. Charles Hazlewood and Tom Service have got that nailed in terms of classical music but for the music of stage and screen, for the popular song, Neil is your man, and The Sound of Musicals was a delight.
We loved Poldark, and not just for the scenery.
The Replacement was a bit bonkers but both Vicky McClure (see also Line of Duty) and Morven Christie (also in The A Word, series 2 of which isn’t covered here only because it’s yet to be watched) were excellent.
And another favourite of mine, Suranne Jones, was magnificent in series 2 of Doctor Foster.
We got to see Jodie Whittaker pretending to be a doctor in Trust Me. Plot holes a-plenty (unless they’re just an indication of a second series coming up?) but well done, and well played by JW – looking forward to her being a real Doctor shortly.
Homeland was on excellent form, with the dynamics between Carrie and the new female PotUS adding a new dimension to the plot.
And Spin took us back into the shadowy world of French political manouevering.
It wasn’t all screen based culture. I made several visits to Leeds Grand Theatre for Opera North productions, some of which I reviewed for The Culture Vulture (see the Reviews page of this site, which also features my review of the Sheffield Crucible’s production of Julius Caesar). I also saw at Leeds Grand a magical production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden, at the Crucible, an intense Desire Under the Elms, and in the Crucible Studio various splendid Music in the Round chamber music concerts.
So, thanks to all who’ve shared these delights with me. Liz, Viv, Arthur, Ruth, Aid, Dad, and of course him that I’ve been watching telly and going to the pictures and going to gigs and plays with for >40 years…
MASTER: Is the future going to be all girl?
DOCTOR: We can only hope.
Steve: “This war is a great big mess, and there’s not a whole lot you and I can do about that. I mean, we can get back to London and try to get to the men who can.”
Diana: “I am the man who can.”
NB What follows contains some spoilers… Caveat lector.
It mattered a great deal that Wonder Woman was, well, wonderful. I can cope with Batman v Superman being a bit meh, or the odd entry in the Avengers cycle being less than stellar. But she needed to kick it out of the damn park.
And she did.
It’s not that she’s the first or the only. She herself has been around since 1941, and there have, of course, been other women superheroes (and supervillains) in the comics and on TV and in the movies. But it’s very rare for the one who carries the whole movie, the centre and focus, the one on whom everything depends, to be a woman.
And as much as I love the current Marvel series, a lot of the time they are really quite blokey. The blokes are great – funny and noble (mostly) and gorgeous, so I’m not complaining, not really. But there’s not enough of Black Widow and Scarlet Witch to balance things out. There’s a fine tradition of women heroes – think Ripley, Sarah Connor, Katniss Everdene – human, but with outstanding courage and strength. And there’s always and forever Buffy.
Wonder Woman is different. First off, she’s a half-god. Not an alien, or an inhuman, not technically enhanced, but a straight-up, bona fide, god-almighty daughter of a god. Second, her upbringing on Themyscira sets her in a context where women are powerful, strong, brave, not exceptionally but as a norm.
The opening sequences of Amazonian women training, and then fighting on the beach made me want to weep and cheer at the same time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a bit of a pacifist on the whole, but the simple fact that this small army was comprised of glorious women was somehow very moving.
Of course all these women are beautiful. But they’re beautiful athletes, not beautiful models. They’re magnificent in the way that Serena and Venus Williams are magnificent. Their bodies are toned and lean and powerful and they are in control of them.
Gal Gadot herself is mesmerisingly gorgeous. That Chris Pine spends much of the movie just gazing at her in awe is perfectly understandable – when she is on screen one would need a damn good reason to look elsewhere. (Of course, the men in the movie also spend a lot of time saying variants of ‘just wait here’, ‘leave it to us’ and so on, and Diana doesn’t bother to argue, she just gives them a bit of a look and then does what she has to do. The phrase ‘nevertheless she persisted‘ came inevitably to mind.)
She’s presented, in some ways, as naive. That’s justified by what we know of her origins – what she’s been told, and not told, about the world beyond Themyscira. That doesn’t diminish her – she is rocked by the realisation that things are not as straightforwardly binary as she’d believed, but she recovers from that, regroups her forces and fights on.
“I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring peace to mankind. But then, I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. And I learned that inside every one of them, there will always be both. A choice each must make for themselves. Something no hero will ever defeat. And now I know, that only love can truly save the world. So I stay, I fight, and I give, for the world I know can be.”
I wrote a while ago about the Marvel universe and why I love it so:
It’s the flawed and fragile beauty of humanity that the Avengers fight for:
“Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings. … A thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It is a privilege to be among them.”
Echoes of the Doctor there, I think. Amongst all of the forces that see the weakness of human beings and want to destroy, some stand with us. The Doctor said that in 900 years of space and time he’d never met anyone who wasn’t important. He tells us again and again that we are in our very ordinariness extraordinary, in our bloody-minded going where angels fear to tread, our curiosity and our moments of courage.
Diana Prince, like the Doctor, like Captain America and all the other heroes, does what’s right because it’s right.
without hope, without reward, without witness
What we see in the movie is her first encounter with the world beyond Themyscira. It baffles her (to comic effect as she struggles to comprehend why a woman should tolerate clothing that hobbles and constrains her), and it troubles her as she begins to realise that the people she encounters cannot be divided simply into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. She is not yet weary as Buffy is, so often, saving the world yet again. She has not yet lost battles, has not got centuries, aeons, of attempting to protect humanity from the forces that would destroy it. But nonetheless she would understand the Doctor.
Winning? Is that what you think it’s about? I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, or because I hate someone, or because, because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun and God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works, because it hardly ever does. I do what I do, because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind. It’s just that. Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there’s no point in any of this at all, but it’s the best I can do, so I’m going to do it. And I will stand here doing it till it kills me. You’re going to die too, some day. How will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand, is where I fall. Stand with me. These people are terrified. Maybe we can help, a little. Why not, just at the end, just be kind?
I was surprised at first at the choice to set Diana’s first encounter with the messy, murky world of humans in the first, rather than the second World War. But I think actually that’s right. The second is too simply a confrontation with evil, with the absolute worst that human beings could be. The first portrays more effectively the messiness and murkiness of it all – the moral questions about who started it and why, who joined in when and why are complex and still generate heated debate today (as was seen in the recent centenaries of the start of that war and of the Battle of the Somme). So the great evil that Diana confronts is not the Kaiser’s forces but war itself. Steve refers to ‘the war to end all wars’ but that description acquires layers of ambiguity, as it becomes clear that it is potentially also the war that never ends.
Interestingly, whilst the humans who represent that evil – chemical weapons scientist Isabel Maru (aka Doctor Poison), and General Ludendorff – are on the German side, the God of War himself is introduced to us as Sir Patrick Morgan, a British politician who is, it appears, attempting to negotiate an armistice. Murky, messy, or what…
We need Diana’s fierce kindness, her innocent clarity, to cut through all of this. We can’t aspire to her physical perfection, her power and strength. But we can be inspired by her moral strength. That kind of integrity is easy to dismiss as naive or po-faced – Captain America is its embodiment in the Avengers, and of course he is mocked by Iron Man, who himself embodies a more complex and troubled morality (Rick Blaine to Cap’s Victor Laszlo?).
But the simple fact that it is a woman who represents all of this – physical power, moral integrity, compassion – takes us to different places. That those men looking both for direction and guidance and for the power to follow through look to a woman still rocks our world a little bit. We’ve come a long way, baby, but not far enough, not so far that we can see the Amazons fighting on Themyscira, and Diana taking on the patriarchy and the God of War without a thrill, a shiver down the spine, a lump in the throat.
And whilst we cannot aspire to Amazonian strength, we can still draw strength from the Amazons. From Diana, Buffy, Katniss, Ripley, and all of the women who stand up when it’s right to stand up.
From now on, every girl in the world who might be a slayer will be a slayer. Every girl who could have the power will have the power … can stand up, will stand up. … Are you ready to be strong?
A while ago I was chatting to a friend about theatre and I said ‘Well, I’m not really into musicals’. As soon as those words had left my mouth, I was reminded of how not true that is.
I don’t like ALL musicals, any more than I like all opera, all detective novels, all Motown songs, all superhero movies. But to not like musicals one would have to have a problem with that central feature, the moment where everyone suddenly bursts out singing. And those moments make me laugh with delight, well up a bit, want to dance and applaud.
Obviously there are variations on the genre. To oversimplify things horrifically, in opera, all of the story is conveyed in music and song. In some musicals that is the case, but more often, there is spoken dialogue interspersed with songs. In some, the songs are diegetic (my son did A level Film Studies), i.e. the characters in the film are required by the plot to perform the songs at that moment, and all of the music is provided by the people we see on screen (no invisible orchestra). In others there’s no particular reason why this person or this street full of people should suddenly be singing and dancing, but hey, we’re in a musical so they do.
So, in complete and humble retraction of my idiotic statement, I hereby offer some of my favourite musicals and moments in musicals.
Busby Berkeley’s musicals blew me away when I first encountered them, in my early teens, I think. The visuals are stunning (though one has to acknowledge that in terms of objectification of women’s bodies, they are a tad problematic). But the dancing, the tunes – and unexpectedly in Golddiggers of 1933, social commentary, about the Depression, the men who returned from service in the First World War to find only unemployment and poverty.
From the same era, Fred and Ginger. The plots are daft. Who can even remember the plot of Top Hat, or Swing Time? But if you’ve ever seen them dancing cheek to cheek, that you won’t forget. The songs are sublime – well, of course they are, given that they were written by Gershwin, Porter, Berlin and their ilk – and the dancing is if possible sublimer. He was elegance and subtelty personified, she did everything he did in heels and backwards.
There’s ‘Cheek to Cheek’ (heaven, I’m in heaven), and there’s also this, Never Gonna Dance, from Swing Time. Beautiful.
There’s a bit of a gap in my musical repertoire, till South Pacific. 1949 for the original stage show, 1958 for the film.
You’ve got to be taughtTo hate and fear,You’ve got to be taughtFrom year to year,It’s got to be drummedIn your dear little earYou’ve got to be carefully taught.You’ve got to be taught to be afraidOf people whose eyes are oddly made,And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,You’ve got to be carefully taught.You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,Before you are six or seven or eight,To hate all the people your relatives hate,You’ve got to be carefully taught!
The theme of interracial relationships isn’t handled as it would be now, of course. But it’s handled. And back then, Rodgers and Hammerstein took an enormous risk in including a track which seemed to present a challenge to ‘the American way of life’. There was huge pressure to take the song out when the musical was staged, especially in the southern states. James Michener, upon whose stories South Pacific was based, recalled, “The authors replied stubbornly that this number represented why they had wanted to do this play, and that even if it meant the failure of the production, it was going to stay in.” And that song, those words, are powerful still.
And then there’s West Side Story .
Not going to mess with you, this is the best musical ever. Everything is right – Bernstein’s music, Sondheim’s lyrics, Robert Wise’s direction. The tunes, the moves, the words.
DIESEL: (As Judge) Right!
Officer Krupke, you’re really a square;
This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!
It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.
He’s psychologic’ly disturbed!
We’re disturbed, we’re disturbed,
We’re the most disturbed,
Like we’re psychologic’ly disturbed.
DIESEL: (Spoken, as Judge) In the opinion of this court, this child is depraved on account he ain’t had a normal home.
ACTION: (Spoken) Hey, I’m depraved on account I’m deprived.
If I try to pick my favourite moments from WSS, I end up with so many, it’s practically the whole damn film.
An oddity in the annals of the musical is a single episode from season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. An episode where a demon compels the inhabitants of Sunnydale to burst into song, and in so doing to express thoughts and feelings which they might have been trying to hide. It moves the series arc along in important ways, but it’s a glorious watch on its own, referencing more musical tropes than even the nerdiest nerd could spot. Rather than the trained singers who supplied the vocals for almost all of Natalie Wood’s songs, all of Richard Beymer’s and at least some even of Rita Moreno’s, the singing is by the regular Buffy cast members. This has been the more recent trend (see the film of Les Miz, and La La Land), and there is a vulnerability in the voices which, arguably, adds to the charm and immediacy of the music.
And so to La La Land.
The influence of Jacques Demy (especially Les Demoiselles de Rochefort) has been noted, particularly in the colour palette for the film. But the movie is, again, dense with intertextual references to films (Mia points out a window that was used in Casablanca, they visit the Griffith Observatory that was used as a location in Rebel Without a Cause, the film they try to see at the – long-closed – Rialto cinema, and which Seb quotes to Mia, and those are only the most overt references). The director has said that he wants to “to make a movie that would embrace the magic of musicals but root it in the rhythms and texture of real life”
The opening number invites us into the movie musical world:
A world where everyone dances and sings, and where a traffic jam is transformed, briefly, into a technicolour marvel until the car horns stop being part of the orchestration and become again just car horns.
Stone and Gosling dance and sing like actors who dance and sing, rather than like pros, and that works. Their story is simple and poignant and human, even when they float towards the stars.
Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish, as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that ache
Here’s to the mess we make
(Audition – The Fools Who Dream)
What is it that is so joyous, so life-affirming about these shows? I think there is something magical about singing and dancing, something that every society has discovered and built in to its rituals and rites of passage. Even when we can’t join in, we feel that sense of exhilaration and exaltation as the protagonists whirl and tap and their voices soar and harmonise and weave into one anothers’. The flash mobs which we’ve all seen on social media, where in a shopping precinct or a town square or a railway station one person starts to sing or play and then more, and more – if you look at the faces of the audience what you see is delight.
The unreality, the fragility of what we are seeing and hearing in the movie musical is part of its power. We know the plots are paper-thin, we know we can’t really tap dance and sing our way out of the cinema and into the taxi, we know real life ain’t like this, we know it’s darker and meaner than this. Which is why we need it.
A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos. Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment. There is always sonority in Ariadne’s thread. Or the song of Orpheus. … One launches forth, hazards an improvisation. But to improvise is to join with the World, or meld with it. One ventures from home on the thread of a tune.
(Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari – A Thousand Plateaus)
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.
– Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939
The musicals I have selected above aren’t quite singing about the dark times. But some of them are singing as shadows gather – 1933, 1936 – shadows of which the mainly Jewish songwriters and composers must have been very conscious. There’s darkness in South Pacific despite the sunshine, there’s darkness in West Side Story as the swagger of adolescent tribalism turns to violence and rape.
We should not ask these lovely confections to carry a weight of political meaning and portent that they were never constructed to bear. That isn’t what they are for, even if they can turn aside for a moment and remind us of the forgotten man, the indoctrinated child, the humiliated woman. What they are for is to lift our hearts and our spirits, to inspire our imaginations. If we can imagine this technicolour world, where everyone sings, we can imagine other worlds too. That’s what we do, as humans, we sing and dance, and whilst we have that much in common with the non-human inhabitants of this planet, unlike them we can choose our own songs and our own steps, and we can choose to sing and dance together.
It’s not enough, but it’s vital. Whatever we face in the next few years, we won’t be any weaker or less able to face it for finding that sheer delight in a fragile love story told in song and dance, and sharing that delight with each other.
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;And I was filled with such delightAs prisoned birds must find in freedom,Winging wildly across the whiteOrchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;And beauty came like the setting sun:My heart was shaken with tears; and horrorDrifted away … O, but EveryoneWas a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.(‘Everyone Sang’,by Siegfried Sassoon)