Archive for category Film
One of the glorious by-products of the movements of peoples around the world, however grim the reasons, is the music. Music can cross any barriers, transcend any divisions, no translation required. People driven from their homes make take very little with them, but the songs they grew up with, the music they danced to or played, those weigh nothing. And they enrich the communities in which those people find new homes – music that moves our hearts, our hips, our feet, that comes from places we’ve never seen, with lyrics in languages we don’t speak. Music is vital.
That’s one of the reasons why watching Abderrahmane Sissako’s latest film, Timbuktu, is so intense and so harrowing. The ISIL/Taliban group who have taken over Timbuktu spend their evenings listening out for any sounds of music and silencing it. You could say that there are worse things – this regime does those too, stoning to death a couple accused of adultery. But killing music is a way of killing the soul.
The young musicians who make up Songhoy Blues fled their homes in the north of Mali and since then have been taking their desert blues around the world. They’re doing Glasto next week, but last July at Sheffield’s Tramlines festival I saw them play live and they 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.
Occasionally people seem surprised at my enthusiasm, my geeky love, for the world of Marvel on the big and small screen. I read Proust, I love enigmatic French arthouse movies where nothing happens, very stylishly, for hours on end. I have argued elsewhere that one can love Proust AND Stephen King, and I see no reason why one cannot also love Alain Resnais or Michael Hanecke’s Caché, AND Thor, or Captain America. Who would want to be limited to just one brow?
In any case, it’s an open secret that I’m a Buffy obsessive and a Whovian, so no one should really have to reach for the smelling salts when I get giddy about heading off to Cineworld to see Avengers Age of Ultron in 3D.
It seems to me that there’s a direct line from a lot of what I read during my bookworm childhood to these more recent passions. As soon as I could make the squiggles on the page into words in my head, I read everything I could reach. I read children’s classics (Nesbit, Lewis, Tolkien, Alcott, Burnett), grown-up classics (Dickens, Malory, Bronte, Shakespeare), newer children’s writers (Garner, Sutcliffe, Garfield, Treece). And in many of these I found ways into other worlds.
Tolkien and Garner both drew on Norse and Celtic mythology, one to create his own world, the other to imbue ours with magic. Lewis led his child protagonists through mundane portals into his alternative world where they became heroes and battled with evil. Malory, Sutcliffe and Garner gave me different takes on the ultimate British hero, the once and future King, a medieval knight or a celtic warlord, or a sleeper under Alderley Edge waiting for our hour of need to awake. And in Roger Lancelyn Green’s vivid retellings I got to know the tales of Greek heroes.
The notion that our everyday world can slip its mask and reveal another reality, darker or brighter, bigger and badder, invading and intervening as the gods of old always have done, is often terrifying, always compelling. That’s why my greatest fondness is for those narratives which start with the world we already know. Think of how a certain episode of Doctor Who has rendered statuary decidedly uncanny – the familiar become strange and scary. Think of how Buffy subverted the teen high school movie, so that being grounded really was potentially the end of the world. Think of how Stephen King’s It showed the adult world oblivious to the terrors that the children had to face unprotected.
Marvel movies are bigger and noisier than the above. They’re sillier, perhaps. But they’re tapping into those old, deep stories, and reinventing, representing them in bright and shiny ways, with (particularly where Joss Whedon has a hand in the script) wit and humour. They’re not scary, but they’re exciting, exhilarating. In the Avengers ensemble movies, in one glorious superhero binge, we have elements drawn from an eclectic range of sources – from myth and legend, from Robert Louis Stevenson and Mary Shelley, even an American King Arthur, woken from sleep to defend the world in its hour of need.
I’m not arguing for the Marvel movies as the most profound examinations of moral questions, or of the human psyche. But neither are they devoid of interest on those planes. They are never quite as simplistic as one might expect, with all the exploding and the fighting. The very daftness of the idea of these very disparate characters coming together is part of its charm. The humour, and sometimes poignancy too, often comes from their disparity, whether it is the cynicism of Iron Man playing against the moral uprightness of Captain America, or the straightforward warrior sensibility of Thor against the conflicted, tortured Banner/Hulk.
Thor: The gates of Hel are filled with the screams of his victims!
[Natasha glares at him while Bruce groans and puts his head in his hands]
Thor: But not the screams of the dead, of course. No, no… wounded screams… mainly whimpering, a great deal of complaining and tales of sprained deltoids and… gout.
And once one has suspended one’s disbelief and accepted the premise, that humour and poignancy makes you care about the outcome, root for the good guys, not just for their victory but for their wellbeing. Their superhumanity comes from different sources – technology, programming, divinity – but there’s always humanity there too. And 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.
These stories, these new/old stories may not change the world. But stories are vital. Stories are the way we’ve always tried to make sense of the inexplicable and the unbearable, and to infuse the everyday with magical possibilities. Marvel’s gloriously epic and gloriously daft stories give us moments of startling beauty and poignancy (we are Groot), massive explosions and battles, deadpan humour and heroes we can root for. Pretty damn marvellous.
Grainy, blurry black and white footage, shot by soldiers newly equipped with cameras and told to record everything they see. Long, panning shots, taking in the corpses, barely recognisable as human, in the ditch, and the dignitaries on the bank, impassive. Negative footage from Dachau turning the unimaginable into something even further beyond our reach. All of this went into the documentary, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, made by Sidney Bernstein in the immediate aftermath of the liberation of the camps by Allied troops (and using some of the footage from Russian units at Majdanek and Auschwitz). The title tells us a great deal about why this film was made, its purpose to give us irrefutable evidence of what happened, anticipating both the denials of the German population, including the camps’ near neighbours, and the denials of subsequent generations.
Night will Fall is a film about this film. Sections of the original are interspersed with interviews with those who made it – Bernstein, Hitchcock, some of the soldiers – and with survivors who found their own faces amongst the images of the gaunt, desperate yet joyous throng. The survivors speak more easily than the soldiers of the scenes that were recorded there. Their experience of horror was complete, the moment of filming for them was a moment of almost unbelievable hope, of life when all that they had expected was death. As for the soldiers, their experience of war did not prepare them, not in the least. These men try to tell their story, but again and again, words fail. Sorry, sorry, they say, I just can’t…
The original film has languished in the archives since it was completed. The mood changed so quickly – if Bernstein had completed his work just a little earlier, then maybe it would have had the audiences it was intended for, and deserved. But by the time this huge task was done the need to confront the German people with the actions of their leaders, the need to tell the world what could happen when a civilised nation abandoned civilisation, were seen not only as less pressing, but as potentially counter-productive. Not only did we need the Germans as our allies against the strength of the Soviet Union, but we did not want public sympathy for the Jews to force our hand in terms of giving sanctuary to large numbers of refugees.
Bernstein and his collaborators wanted to take a stand against those who would deny or minimise the genocide. What they had recorded was almost impossible to comprehend, and so easy to disbelieve. There had been reports of the process of extermination of the Jews in occupied Europe, as early as 1942. Szmul Zygielbojm, Jan Karski and others risked so much to tell the Allies what was happening. But somehow, even when published in the Daily Telegraph (25 June 1942), people seemed not to grasp it.
Was this failure to respond down to prejudice, or simply that the facts were unbelievable and so people chose not to believe? To look away and hope that when they looked back, the nightmare vision would have vanished? At the end of the war, again, the news from the Russian troops who were liberating the extermination camps in the East was treated with scepticism, until the Allied troops entered the German concentration camps themselves and knew.
If it was only human to baulk at that reality, to not want to accept that other humans could do this, not just a handful of monsters but many, many people, the revisionists who came later were of a different stripe, and unperturbed by personal testimony, documentary footage or other evidence. Somehow they manage to say both that Hitler did not plan and order genocide of the Jews and that the Jews deserved their treatment, brought it, indeed, upon themselves. They both immerse themselves in technical details to ‘prove’ that what was described and shown could not have happened, and dismiss or treat as mendacious all evidence that it did. Bernstein’s film would probably not have changed the minds of any of those – nothing else has.
The documentary, a unique record not only of the scenes from hell that the liberating troops encountered, but of the efforts thereafter to help and to heal, will only ever be seen by small numbers. The Imperial War Museum believes that its images, without the contextual commentary and interviews provided by Night will Fall, are too stark in their portrayal of the dehumanised state not only of the dead but of the (barely) living. This baffles me, particularly because the film does also show the liberated prisoners talking animatedly to their saviours, being treated for disease, trying on clothes and shoes. It shows them, in other words, taking on their humanity again. As if it had never been stolen from them entirely, merely put to one side as hindrance rather than help in that brutal world. And of course, it is not as if we cannot see, if we choose, such images on YouTube or in other documentaries, often using this very footage.
As Jean Cayrol wrote, in the script used by Alain Resnais for his film Night and Fog:
There are those reluctant to believe
Or believing from time to time.
There are those who look at these ruins today
As though the monster were dead and buried beneath them.
Those who take hope again as the image fades
As though there were a cure for the scourge of these camps.
Those who pretend all this happened only once,
At a certain time and in a certain place.
Those who refuse to look around them,
Deaf to the endless cry.
Bernstein’s documentary ends with the words: “Unless the world learns the lessons these pictures teach, night will fall. But, by God’s grace, we who live will learn.” We haven’t. And night has fallen for so many. It’s to be hoped that the film will have the wider audience it deserved and still deserves today. The lesson still needs to be taught and we have to hope it’s not too late to learn.
Jean Cayrol, Nuit et brouillard (Mille et une nuit, 1997)
Some of the cultural highlights of my year – a year of working at home, long train journeys to long meetings which gave me more time to read, less time to go to the cinema or the theatre. However, I did manage a few outings…
- Twelfth Night at the Crucible – a real delight. I’d been disappointed that we weren’t getting a tragedy or one of the problem plays, rather than a comedy that I’d seen on stage before, but that feeling evaporated very quickly indeed. The performances were excellent, the staging imaginative and suggestive of darker undercurrents (the cast appearing at windows almost like the undead, the showers of rose petals – see also Poppeia).
- Brilliant opera at Leeds Grand – La Boheme, and The Coronation of Poppeia. And another Boheme, this time in Graves Gallery, from Opera on Location.
- Music in the Round – I’d pick out the Schubert octet, Tim Horton’s bravura performance of the Prokofiev Piano Sonata no. 7 (described by the Guardian as ‘ferocious’), Charlie Piper‘s WWI suite, The Dark Hour; works by Schulhoff & Haas, and consort of viols, Fretwork.
- Once again we celebrated Tim Richardson’s life and passion for learning and teaching with the 24 Hour Inspire – 24 hours of lectures on a host of topics, from WWI poets to insect sex, from biogeography to Mozart, from underground science to fairground history – ok, you get the picture. Once again a host of people stepped up to help, everything ran smoothly, and we were able to donate to Rotherham Hospice and Impact Young Heroes. We’ll be doing it again on 16-17 April 2015. Tim’s charity, Inspiration for Life, goes from strength to strength.
- I revisited the City Ground after far too many years, for the first home game of the season, and Stuart Pearce’s first game as manager. That was a great game. We’re in a slump at the moment, and that early euphoria has dissipated. If it was anyone but Psycho in charge I suspect the calls to sack the manager would be ringing out right now, but few Forest fans would want to deny him the chance to turn things around. I hope he can. I really, really, hope he can.
Top TV of 2014
No attempt at ranking. How could one decide on the relative merits of a gritty cop drama and a comic book fantasy? So, what do all of these shows have in common? First, excellent writing, and great performances. Essential to have both. So many big budget dramas skimp on the former and blow the budget on the latter, but even the best actors can only do so much with a script that clunks. Second, great female characters. All of these programmes basically kick the Bechdel test out of the park. It’s not just about having ‘strong’ women. Not all women are strong, and no women are strong all of the time. It’s about having 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 do indeed kick ass, but they don’t all have to. So, to Nazanin Boniadi, Alison Brie, Yvette Nicole Brown, Amelia Bullmore, Lauren Cohan, Clare Danes, Siobhan Finneran, Danai Gurira, Keeley Hawes, Elizabeth Henstridge, Gillian Jacobs, Suranne Jones, Nimrat Kaur, Sarah Lancashire, Melissa McBride, Vicky McClure, Tatiana Maslany, Lesley Sharp, Allison Tolmin, Ming-Na Wen and the rest – cheers, and thanks for giving us images of women that are as diverse and complicated as actual real live women are.
- Fargo – I was decidedly unconvinced beforehand, but it turned out to be funny, gruesome, and touching, with one of my favourite women cops in Allison Tolmin’s Molly (not just a re-run of Frances McDormand’s marvellous Marge from the film, but a character in her own right), Billy Bob Thornton as a grimly hilarious killer and Martin Freeman as a weaselly one, and a wealth of other characters, some of whom we came to care about so much that at tense moments there was much yelling at the screen as we thought they might be in danger.
- Line of Duty – I wasn’t convinced about this one either, mainly because the first series had been superb, and I wondered if they could match it. They did, and it was Keeley Hawes’ performance that clinched it. Whilst I’d watch Vicky McClure in anything, Keeley wasn’t in that category for me, despite Ashes to Ashes. But in this she was riveting, absolutely mesmerising. The rest of the cast was superb too.
- Happy Valley was perhaps the most ironically titled programme of the year. This valley was pretty damned grim. But Sarah Lancashire as cop Catherine Cawood was wonderful, and the story was compelling and moving.
- Scott & Bailey maintained its form in series 4. The three central women (count them! three central women!) are all convincingly real, sometimes infuriatingly so.
- The Walking Dead opened series 5 with an episode so gripping that I really could neither breathe normally nor speak for quite some time. It’s maintained that tension (more or less) whilst varying the format, to focus on different subsets of the characters, and different locations. Carol has been central to this season’s episodes so far, and her character is one of those that has been allowed to develop and deepen throughout. There’s no shortage of other interesting characters, and the plot allows for philosophical, political and ethical speculation as well as for gory shocks and suspense.
- Agents of Shield got past a slightly wobbly first series and got its pace and tone just right. It fits right into the Marvelverse, but stands alone perfectly well. And it features girl-geek Simmons, a Sheffield lass, and there’s just a hint of South Yorkshire in her accent from time to time.
- Community made me laugh more than anything else this year. Just when you think it is as bonkers as it could be, it ups its game, to be even more meta, and even more daft.
- Doctor Who I have spoken of elsewhere. I have a deep love for this programme, and whilst this regeneration has been unsettling at times, uncertain in tone perhaps, I have great hopes for Capaldi and Coleman in series 9 next year.
- Homeland redeemed itself. Gripping stuff, with Clare Danes acting her socks off and getting us deeper into what makes Carrie tick.
- Orphan Black is one of the most criminally underrated programmes of this (and last) year. Tatiana Maslany inhabits each of the characters she plays so well that I forget – disbelieve almost – that there is just the one actress involved. And when she’s playing one of them pretending to be one of the others…. Cracking plot too.
Films of the year – I leave the in-depth cinematic reviews to Arthur Annabel who promises an extensive blog on this topic soon. I simply note these as films which have delighted and/or moved me, in no particular order. Worth noting that whilst the programmes on my TV list get A* on the Bechdel test, the films are considerably weaker on that front. Nonetheless, some fine performances, and Nicole Perlman was the first woman with a writing credit on a Marvel movie (Guardians of the Galaxy).
Women of the year:
Jack Monroe – for enlivening my repertoire of meals to feed the family, and campaigning about food poverty
Professor Monica Grady – for being emotionally, exuberantly passionate about science
Laura Bates – her Everyday Sexism project helped to give women a voice, to tell their stories, to shout back.
In 2014 I’ve blogged about refugees, genocide, football, W G Sebald and Michel Butor, Kazuo Ishiguro, everyday sexism, Tramlines, Josephine Butler and Doctor Who. I got a bit personal on the subject of depression, and was inspired by Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl to present my manifesto – a plea to just be kind. And my blog about reading the last of the Resnick series of detective stories won the approval of the author, John Harvey, who linked to it on his own blog, and republished my jazz playlist!
Amongst the blogs I’ve followed, or at least tried to keep up with, I would particularly note Searching for Albion. This is the record of Dan Taylor’s four month cycling trip across the British Isles, talking to people he meets, by plan or by chance. A fascinating project, beautifully documented.
To all of those who’ve shared some of the above events, obsessions and enthusiasms with me, who’ve given me support when I’ve needed it, who I’ve learned from and with, thank you. I don’t know what to expect from 2015 – but see you there!
It has been a funny old year. Funny peculiar, though not without the odd moment of mirth and merriment along the way.
I came back from one secondment to my regular job in January, and went off on the next secondment in December. This new one is a major change – working for HEFCE, based at home when not attending meetings in various exotic parts of the UK (oh, OK then, Croydon, Birmingham, Manchester, Dorking…). It’s a fantastic opportunity, and challenges the way I organise my life as well as requiring me to acquire new knowledge and new skills.
I graduated, again. Did the whole gown and mortar board thing which I hadn’t been fussed about when I was 21 and graduating for the first time. And then, with barely a pause, on to the doctorate. Studying part-time, it’s going to be a long haul, with who knows what possibilities at the end of it, but I’m loving it.
In February, a beloved friend and colleague died, and we – his family, friends, colleagues, students – grieved but also worked together to put on an amazing event in his honour, the 24 Hour Inspire. We raised money for local cancer charities, and have raised more since, through an art exhibition, plant and cake sales and various 10k runs/marathon bike rides, etc. And we’re now planning the 24 Hour Inspire 2014, and the publication of Tim’s diary. He will continue to inspire.
Culturally, my high points in 2013 have been:
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the Showroom, talking about Americanah, and Half of a Yellow Sun
- Peter Hill premiering newly discovered/completed Messiaen at the Upper Chapel (and playing Bach, Berg and Schoenberg too)
- Arnie Somogyi’s Scenes in the City, playing Mingus at Sheffield Jazz
- Tramlines – the Enid in the City Hall, Soukous Revelation in the Peace Gardens, Jim Jones Revue and Selecter at Devonshire Green. (And more, but those were the absolute top bits).
- The 24 Hour Inspire – 24 hours of lectures on life, the universe and everything, including Ed Daw’s blues piano, Rachel Falconer on poetry and birds, Jenny Saul on implicit bias, Claire McGourlay on the Innocence Project, and personal narratives from Brendan Stone and Elena Rodriguez-Falcon. Plus John Cockburn’s rendition of (What’s so Funny ’bout) Peace Love and Understanding, and my favourite Beatles B-side, Things we Said Today, and more busking from Mike Weir, Graham McElearney and Eugenia Chung. And more, lots more.
- Fabulous Beethoven quartets/quintet from the Elias at the Upper Chapel
- A magical Winter’s Tale at the Crucible
- Two awesome Britten operas (Peter Grimes and Death in Venice) from Opera North at Leeds Grand
- New (to me) authors enjoyed this year: Maggie O’Farrell, Louise Doughty, Lucy Caldwell, C J Sansom, Alison Moore, Edward St Aubyn, Rebecca Solnit, Wilkie Collins, Jonathan Franzen
- Wonderful new books from authors I’ve enjoyed before: Stephen King’s Dr Sleep and Joyland, Lynn Shepherd’s A Treacherous Likeness, Jon McGregor‘s This isn’t the Sort of Thing…., Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy
- Finally finished Proust’s Sodome et Gomorrhe. Allons-y, to La Prisonniere!
- I’ve learned to love Marvel superheroes (Avengers Assemble! Thor! Iron Man! Agents of Shield!), and have thrilled to The Walking Dead, Orphan Black (virtuoso performance(s) from Tatiana Maslany), Utopia and, of course, Dr Who.
- Speaking of which, not only an absolutely stonking 50th anniversary episode, but also a fascinating and very touching drama about the show’s early days, with David Bradley as William Hartnell, the sweet and funny The Five-ish Doctors, with Peter Davison, Sylvester McCoy and Colin Baker sending themselves and everyone else up with great affection, and Matthew Sweet’s Culture Show special. And the Christmas episode…
- Other cracking telly – Broadchurch, Homeland, Misfits, The Fall, Southcliffe, The Guilty, The Americans… And from across the Channel, not only another masterclass in French profanity from Spiral, but the wonderful The Returned
- And other top films – Joss Whedon’s Much Ado, Lore, The Hobbit Pts 1 & 2, Lincoln, and Patience (after Sebald).
About the blog itself. It’s been less focused on my areas of research recently, and that will continue to be the case, as I’m working on the PhD. The odd digression will find its place here – as Tim used to say, tangents are there to be gone off on, and the blog is a good way of nailing those (to mix my metaphors somewhat) and stopping them from distracting me for too long. I shall be continuing to go on about all sorts of other things that pique my interest. In particular the blog will continue to be a place where refugee stories are foregrounded, as a riposte to the mean and dishonest coverage which those stories tend to receive.
Over the last year, my posting has been somewhat erratic. I note that I didn’t write anything between March and June (I made up for it in June, however, with a Refugee Week blog-blitz, as well as a piece about Last Year at Marienbad which I still intend to follow up. That hiatus may have had something to do with being in the final stages of my degree – finishing off my dissertation, and a last batch of essays and presentations.
There are so many fantastic bloggers out there, too many to do justice to. We lost one this year, as the great Norman Geras passed away. But I’ll continue to enjoy, and to share/reblog That’s How the Light Gets In, Nowt Much to Say, and Futile Democracy, amongst others. For my research interests, I will no doubt continue to find lots to think about and follow up in blogs from Decayetude and Vertigo.
So, thanks to the aforementioned bloggers, to the various people with whom I’ve shared the cultural delights enumerated above, to friends and family who’ve supported me in my ventures and refrained (mostly) from telling me I’m mad to try to do so many things.
Thing is, I have a history of depression. I know that the best way for me to fight that, to avoid sliding back into that dark pit, is to do lots of stuff I care about. So, not just the job – which I care about, passionately – and my wonderful family, but research, writing, ensuring that we do Tim proud via the charity, and so on. I am very aware that there’s a tipping point, that if I do too much stuff I care about, given that I also have to do stuff that I have to do, just because I have to do it, the anxiety of having so much going on can itself lead to sleepless nights, which make me less able to cope, thus leading to more worrying and so on and on… It’s all about balance, and about having support when I need it. So, to all of you who, whether you know it or not, provide that support, and help me to keep that balance, a heartfelt thanks.
In particular, over this last year, I’d like to thank:
For unstinting support and encouragement through the part-time degree and especially as I reached the final stages – tutors Sophie Belot and Annie Rouxeville, and classmate Liz Perry. And a special thanks to Chris Turgoose for ensuring that my graduation gown stayed put via an ingenious arrangement of string and safety pins.
For support and encouragement to go on to the PhD – the aforementioned Sophie, Annie, and Liz, plus Rachel Falconer, Helen Finch, and my supervisors Amanda Crawley Jackson and Richard Steadman-Jones
For their contributions to the work of Inspiration for Life, and the 24 Hour Inspire, and their support in commemorating and celebrating Tim – Tracy Hilton, Ruth Arnold, Vanessa Toulmin, Chris Sexton, John Cockburn, Lee Thompson, Matt Mears and David Mowbray
My family, of course, without whom…
And, finally, Tim. I’d have loved to share this year’s triumphs and tribulations with him.
Have a wonderful 2014 all of you.
Once there was a planet much like any other. And unimportant. This planet sent the universe a message. A bell, tolling among the stars, ringing out to all the dark corners of creation. And everybody came to see. Although no one understood the message, everyone who heard it found themselves afraid. Except one man. The man who stayed for Christmas. (Doctor Who Christmas Special 2013, The Time of the Doctor)
So, this is the story of a man who got stuck somewhere. ‘Everyone gets stuck somewhere eventually, Clara. Everything ends.’ He could have left, but no one else could have protected that small town as he did, from the forces that were besieging it, and from the war that could have burned it and all around it.
A town called Christmas, blanketed in snow. A town where truth prevails, and people greet each other warmly, and take care of each other, but constantly under threat, with enemies ready to take advantage of any weakness, and the citizens are all potential collateral damage.
If Stephen Moffat wasn’t consciously evoking Bedford Falls in those snowy scenes, I’ll eat my fez. Bedford Falls – the town where another good man got stuck, protecting his family and his community. Where he grew older, his own life on hold whilst he saved other people. Where he kept his promises, and watched his chances slipping away. The enemy from whom he protected people was rampant capitalistic greed, rather than alien races bent on world domination, of course, but it nearly drove him to his death, nonetheless.
George Bailey was a man who dreamed of lassoing the moon, of travelling the world, and who ended up stuck in a small town. The Doctor of course had done more than dream. He had travelled the universe, and time itself, but to quote a contributor to the Doctor Who Forum, Matt Smith’s valedictory episode saw him ‘trying to do something small … spend the remainder of his life protecting the people of one town.’
With every victory, the town celebrated. In time, the Doctor seemed to forget he lived any other life. And the people of the town came to love the man who stayed for Christmas.
But the man who stayed did not do so without argument, without at least an internal struggle. We see George Bailey’s anger and frustration at so many moments in the narrative, even as he does what he knows is right, he rages against what it’s costing him. The Doctor too has that fight between the promise he must keep and the life he wants to live.
Clara: What about your life? Just for once, after all of this time, have you not earned the right to think about that? Sorry. Wrong thing to say. We shouldn’t be having an argument.
The Doctor: Clara, I’ve been having that argument for the last three hundred years. All by myself.
Clara: But you didn’t have your TARDIS.
The Doctor: Ah, yes, well that made it easier to stay. True.
The absence of the Tardis may have made it easier, but we can be pretty sure that he would have found a way to leave, if he’d made the decision to do so. I was reminded here not only of IAWL, but of Albert Camus’ doctor, Rieux, in plague-ridden Oran (referencing Nazi-occupied Paris), knowing he must stay even when he is offered a chance to leave, because he has to save lives:
“I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.” (The Plague)
Or as the Doctor said, ‘Every life I save is a victory. Every single one’.
Doctor Who is not ‘a kid’s show’ in any sense that reduces its value, its quality or its depth. But it is a fantasy, and one that is aimed at family audiences, in this case, gathered around a Christmas tree, replete with turkey and pud, and possibly still wearing, slightly askew, their paper hats. So we don’t expect the kind of ending that Camus was prepared to give us. We know that the Doctor will not be destroyed. The end that he speaks of is the end of THIS Doctor, not of THE Doctor – though he may not know this as he says it.
Emma: What’s wrong?
Clara: I just saw something I wish I hadn’t.
Emma: What did you see?
Clara: That everything ends.
Emma: No, not everything. Not love. Not always. (from ‘Hide’)
We’ve often been invited to contemplate what the world would be like without the Doctor. But that’s too terrible to do more than glance at and then look away. A world without the sound of the Tardis bringing hope, without the Doctor to bring protection and healing? No thanks. None of us would sleep at night if that was what we were confronted with, on a Saturday afternoon, let alone on Christmas Day.
But we are increasingly, in the more recent series of Dr Who, asked to deal with some much more grown-up themes. Maybe this reflects the changing audience. When Who launched, it was clearly aimed at children, and adults watched with their offspring, to remind them afterwards that it was only a story (only a story? As if there could be anything more important than stories) and that they could sleep safe in their beds. As those children grew up they stayed with the Doctor, and watched with their own children. Some of those parents too, I suspect, stayed with it long after their children needed them there for reassurance, and so we now have several generations for whom it is precious and important.
Someone said to me the other day, who hadn’t seen Who since they were a kid (we reminisced about the terrifying Autons and the Cybermen and the Yeti…) that whilst they could remember being scared, they couldn’t imagine being moved to tears by it. And yet these days more often than not, I am moved to tears. This is not just because my tear ducts are on a hair-trigger now – it’s because in Who since the reboot we’ve faced grief and loss, loneliness, ageing, choices made and chances missed, the possibility and threat of change. The recurring theme of memory has a poignancy now that it would not have had years ago, now that there’s so much more to remember, and the fear that those memories will start to be engulfed in fog. It gets harder to ‘remember all the people that you used to be’, whether you’re a Time Lord or not. The young me would not have been as devastated by ‘The Girl Who Waited’ as the middle-aged me was, nor as haunted by the question ‘Are you my mummy?’. And the young me would not have felt George Bailey’s despair, or the Doctor’s, as keenly. If you’re old enough to have lost people, to have had to make hard choices, to have got some of them wrong, and to have missed chances that will not come round again – then you can feel for George Bailey, and you can feel for the Doctor too.
Who and IAWL also share a humanistic perspective. IAWL of course starts with prayers, ‘ringing out to all the dark corners of creation’, and an angel. George prays too, though he’s not a praying man, and Clarence (AS2) is the answer. But all that Clarence does is to give George a glimpse of how, and how much, he matters. The miracle is wrought by human action, by people moved to generosity to help the man who’s been so generous to them. Remember ‘The Wedding of River Song’?
The sky is full of a million million voices saying, “Yes, of course we’ll help.” You’ve touched so many lives, saved so many people, did you think when your time came you’d really have to do more than just ask? You’ve decided that the universe is better off without you. But the universe doesn’t agree.
It’s people, for good and bad, who make Bedford Falls, or Pottersville. In Who too, whilst our hero is more than human he is no superhero, nor yet a god. His judgement is often flawed, his personality too. He’s prone to grumpiness, to vanity, to arrogance. He does the right thing but often is prompted or inspired by his own guardian angel, the companion/associate who shows him a truth he’s not able to see, or who intervenes for him when he cannot or will not plead for himself.
As Liam Whitton recently wrote in Humanist Life:
It’s one of the most humanist television shows of all time. In fact, at practically every turn up to now it has presented the philosophy of its title character, the Doctor, as an emphatically humanist one. If there’s one thing the Doctor values, it’s human life, and if there’s one thing he consistently stands in awe of, it’s human potential. He abhors superstition; he scorns pointless prejudices; he believes fervently in reason; he is sympathetic to the beliefs of others, but will not kowtow to them when a fundamental liberty is under threat.
Steven Spielberg once said that ‘ It’s a Wonderful Life shows that every human being on this Earth matters – and that’s a very powerful message.” It’s also a message reiterated over and over again by Who. Capra offers us hope based in human nature. ‘Goodness, simplicity, dis-interestedness: these in his hands become fighting qualities’ (Graham Greene, reviewing Mr Deeds Goes to Town, The Spectator, August 28 1936).
If you believe that humanity is all there is, that makes it so much more vital that we care for each other, because we’re all we’ve got, and these years we have on the planet is all we’ve got. I believe in Doctor Who. I believe in George Bailey. Call me idealistic, naive, if you like, but bear in mind that my academic research interests find me often mired in the history of the most appalling acts that humanity is capable of. So I do know that we don’t all live in a town called Christmas, or Bedford Falls, and that very often no one comes to save and to heal. But that humanistic vision is vitally important to me. Joss Whedon said it well, as he so often does, in Angel:
If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if … nothing we do matters … then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. … All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do, because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.
But it’s only right and proper that I leave the last words to the Doctor:
Letting it get to you. You know what that’s called? Being alive. Best thing there is. (The Doctor’s Wife)
It’s a Wonderful Life. Often described as ‘heartwarming’, which I usually interpret as a warning, a euphemism for cloying and sentimental. It’s a family Christmas film, yes, but so much more. It breaks my heart each time I watch it, and at the same time it heals me. It speaks to the disappointments, the failures, the wrong choices, that are part of everyone who’s been around for a while. It speaks to the idealism, the sense of values that aren’t monetary, that are part of everyone who gives a damn, whether it’s their turn or not.
It earns that ending, that wonderful, ridiculous ending. Because we feel George’s despair, and we feel his frustration and anger at the irreconcilable conflict between what he wants his life to be and what it has to be. He does the right thing, because he can’t not do the right thing, but we see what it costs him. On an individual human level, we identify with George because he really isn’t OK with the failure of his plans and dreams, he’s not at peace. And we admire him because nonetheless he will always do what is right. (Indeed, if it seems frivolous to link him to Mandela and Picquart, the heroes of my last two blogs, so be it.)
But the film is not just about an individual, it’s also about a community. George’s choices made Bedford Falls what it is. But this wasn’t because he did it all himself. He inspired other people, gave them the courage to do the right thing, to be as generous as he was. The direct impact – the lives he saved through direct intervention – are only part of it. People who in Pottersville were mean and fearful weren’t born that way, they learned to be mean and fearful because their lives had taught them that other people couldn’t be trusted, that everyone was out for themselves, that mistakes and misfortunes would be punished. In Bedford Falls, they saw generosity and kindness, and mistakes and misfortunes met with sympathy and support, and they learned to be generous and kind themselves.
It’s so easy to despair, when we see so many examples of meanness, prejudice, callousness to others’ misery. We’re encouraged to be xenophobic and suspicious. Watch out! In January we will literally be unable to move for Romanians and Bulgarians every single one of whom will be coming here to take our livelihoods. Watch out! That neighbour who you haven’t seen leaving for work recently is probably spending all day on the sofa in a onesie watching Jeremy Kyle and scrounging huge amounts in benefits.
We can choose instead to live in Bedford Falls. Why would we do otherwise? The Potters of our world will continue to spin their scurvy little webs, but we don’t have to acquiesce. So, for 2014, my mantra will be ‘You are now in Bedford Falls’, and whenever I encounter stories that show how communities can work together, support each other, reach out to those who need help, across the boundaries that might be expected to divide us, I’ll share them, with that hashtag. There are a couple below, for starters.
I don’t believe that humanity is a lost cause. I do believe that humanity is all there is, and that makes it so much more vital that we care for each other, because we’re all we’ve got, and these years we have on the planet is all we’ve got. Joss Whedon said it well, in Angel:
If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if … nothing we do matters … then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. … All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do, because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.
This year, in particular, these words from It’s a Wonderful Life have greater poignancy and resonance than ever:
Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?
Because we got to find out what an awful hole was left when Tim Richardson died, in February. The memorial blog we set up for him tells so many stories of how his life touched those of others, and how much he is missed. And in his honour, we held the 24 Hour Inspire event, a community coming together to celebrate his life, his influence and his inspiration. It was a joyous occasion. And it was a glimpse of life in Bedford Falls.