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?

Palookaville.

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

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