Archives for December 2021

A Very British Scandal’, fancy soap, or that’s what an author is

Bet­tany and Foy in A Very British Scan­dal.

Any­one who’s done an arts degree will at some point have found them­selves cor­nered by a post-teen as they enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly exit their class on post-struc­tural­ism, to excit­ed­ly present you with your very own copy of Foucault’s, ahem, sem­i­nal essay, What is an author

Which, if you take the trou­ble to read, you’ll be qui­et­ly flum­moxed by, as you try to fig­ure out what all the fuss was about.

For­tu­nate­ly, we’ve all grown up and moved on from that. And sim­i­lar­ly, you rarely hear any­one these days refer­ring to the so-called auteur the­o­ry. Which is just as well, as it doesn’t exist – try order­ing a copy for yourself. 

A Very Eng­lish Scan­dal.

What there was was an essay by Fran­cois Truf­faut pub­lished in a 1954 edi­tion of the Cahiers du Cin­e­ma, titled A Cer­tain Ten­den­cy in French Cin­e­ma. There, he sim­ply said that, giv­en that, obvi­ous­ly, the author of a film is its direc­tor, the study of cin­e­ma ought to be organ­ised around a pan­theon of great direc­tors. And that the least suc­cess­ful film by a great direc­tor was always more inter­est­ing than the best film from a mediocre film maker. 

Today, the gen­er­al con­sen­sus is that cin­e­ma, again obvi­ous­ly, is a director’s medi­um. But that tele­vi­sion is a writer’s medi­um. Which brings us to A Very British Scan­dal

You’d be for­giv­en for imag­in­ing that this were a sequel to A Very Eng­lish Scan­dal, from 2018. As, clear­ly, this is exact­ly what the BBC and its pro­duc­ers want you to think. But it isn’t. 

A Very Eng­lish Scan­dal was writ­ten by Rus­sell T Davies, who’s one of, if not the most tal­ent­ed writer on these shores. He came to promi­nence with Queer as Folk, which he made for Chan­nel 4 between 1999–2000, and for then re-invig­o­rat­ing Dr. Who for the BBC, which he did as its showrun­ner between 2005-10.

But it was with A Very Eng­lish Scan­dal, for the BBC in 2018 (reviewed ear­li­er by me here), and It’s a Sin, for Chan­nel 4 in 2020, that Rus­sel got to demon­strate quite how gift­ed a writer he is. 

It’s a Sin.

And the prob­lem with A Very British Scan­dal is that Rus­sel had absolute­ly noth­ing to do with it. It was writ­ten instead by Sarah Phelps, who spent most of her career as a senior scriptwriter on Eas­t­En­ders

So if all you are look­ing for is the BBC’s answer to The Crown, this is the show for you. It’s plush and incred­i­bly fan­cy soap, where the sump­tu­ous bud­get has been spent on cos­tumes and loca­tions rather than on script or story. 

And in fair­ness, so impres­sive are the cen­tral per­for­mances from Claire Foy and Paul Bet­tany, who man­age mirac­u­lous­ly to make two extra­or­di­nar­i­ly unpleas­ant indi­vid­u­als appear almost sym­pa­thet­ic, that’s it’s easy to momen­tar­i­ly get lost in the frocks and state­ly homes. 

But it’s impos­si­ble not to com­pare the two series if you’ve seen them both. And where A Very Eng­lish Scan­dal is fleet of foot, drip­ping with irony and con­stant­ly sur­pris­ing, A Very British Scan­dal is lead­en, pedes­tri­an and entire­ly, indeed con­sis­tent­ly pre­dictable. That’s the dif­fer­ence a real writer makes. And that’s what an author is. 

Still, that dis­tinc­tion seems to have com­plete­ly elud­ed our friends from across the water, if the reviews in The Guardian and The Inde­pen­dent are any­thing to go by. So bul­ly for them. They got away with it. 

So if you want to escape the real world and wash it all away with beau­ti­ful­ly pack­aged and incred­i­bly expen­sive soap, by all means enjoy A Very British Scan­dal. But if instead you’re inclined to fire up those cere­bral synaps­es, get your­self a copy of A Very Eng­lish Scan­dal and wal­low in its deca­dent joie de vivre.

Here’s the trail­er to A Very Eng­lish Scan­dal:

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The Many Saints of Newark, damp squib of the year

The Many Saints of Newark.

Like so many oth­ers, David Chase only ever end­ed up in tele­vi­sion because he’d been unable to get any of his fea­ture films off the ground. So after the stratos­pher­ic suc­cess of The Sopra­nos, it was inevitable that his next move would be to make a feature. 

Which he duly did, with the blink and you’ll miss it Not Fade Away, from 2012. So for many peo­ple, this year’s Sopra­nos’ pre­quel feels like his real move from the small to the sil­ver screen.

So it’s iron­ic, if, again, inevitable, that The Many Saints of Newark should end up being so demon­stra­bly a work of television.

To begin with, it’s not even a David Chase film. He got Alan Tay­lor to direct it. Which is fine, Taylor’s a tal­ent­ed direc­tor, as his gen­uine­ly charm­ing fea­ture Palookav­ille (’95) demon­strates. But why, when you final­ly get to call the shots, would you let some­body else direct your baby?


Chase has clear­ly become so insti­tu­tion­alised after decades in tele­vi­sion, that that’s the only way he now knows how to work. So instead of direct­ing it, he’s its showrunner.

And tele­vi­sion is what he gives us. It’s basi­cal­ly a slight­ly bloat­ed, 2 hour, extend­ed pilot episode. And it needs all that time to intro­duce us to the many char­ac­ters we’re going to be meet­ing over the course of what are pre­sum­ably the next 10 or 11 episodes. 

But it does have what appears to be an all-impor­tant spine. The meat of the dra­ma cen­tres around the rival­ry between Dick­ie and Harold, over who gets to rule the turf. Which is fur­ther height­ened by the fact that the for­mer is white and the lat­ter black, and it all takes place in the midst of the race riots of 1967. 

And, for the first hour or so, that ten­sion threat­ens to build. But then it stalls. And then it’s left casu­al­ly hang­ing. To be resolved come the sea­son finale, in who knows how many future episodes’ time. 

The Sopra­nos.

The real prob­lem here is that this kind of incon­se­quen­tial, flab­by sec­ond hour would nev­er have been allowed sit at one of the sto­ry meet­ings, had this been put for­ward as an episode dur­ing the actu­al Sopra­nos

It’s only because it’s so con­fi­dent­ly direct­ed and slick­ly pack­aged, and because so many of us watched it through pairs of impres­sive­ly rose-tint­ed spec­ta­cles, that nobody’s plucked up the courage to call the film out on its almost com­plete lack of actu­al drama.

Nev­er mind. It looks fab­u­lous. And we’ll always have the tele­vi­sion series to fall back on.

You can see the trail­er for The Many Saints of Newark here

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion, right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed every month, on All the very Best and Worst in film, tele­vi­sion and music!