The BBC’s ‘The Coming Storm’: QAnon and how to start a conspiracy theory

The BBC podcast The Coming Storm.

The Coming Storm, the latest podcast from the BBC, is a riveting exploration of the phenomenon that is QAnon

QAnon is in many ways the ultimate expression of the culture wars that rage today between the over-educated and anti-educated. In that it states, in a matter of fact manner, that the America they are living in is not the one described by the liberal intelligentsia, but one that is in fact run from within the depths of the deep state by a coven of paedophile cannibals. 

Incredibly, indeed incomprehensibly, some 23% of Republican voters in the US subscribe to this quote reality unquote.

How it all began. He came, he saw, he left a polite note.

Written and presented by Gabriel Gatehouse, international editor on BBC 2’s Newsnight, it is, for almost all of its 8 episodes, a genuinely sceptical enquiry. Giving equally short shrift both to its central claims, and to anyone who airily insists that only dim-witted Americans would be sufficiently cretinous to give credence to that sort of guff. 

On the contrary, as he goes on to calmly explore, people everywhere have always believed that sort of nonsense.

This particular manifestation seems to go back to that twin phenomenon of the 1990s. The ruthless ambition and corruption of the Clintons and the resentment that that generated, combined with the vast blank and unregulated canvass that the Internet suddenly presented us with.

The Coming Storm is an extensively researched, deep dive into how all of that got started, and Gatehouse is commanding, genial and measured. Except that is for a couple of brief minutes, towards the end of episode 2, when he goes off script. 

It’s then that he introduces us to Juanita Broaddrick, who alleges that Bill Clinton raped her in 1978. An accusation Clinton flatly and resolutely denies. 

Broaddrick only made the accusation during Clinton’s impeachment trial, some 20 years later. And that was after she’d previously denied it, only months earlier. 

Where it all began, the Comet ping pong pizzeria.

Nevertheless, her detailed recollection of those events is all too credible and it’s impossible not to conclude she’s telling the truth. And Gatehouse is demonstrably of the same opinion. It’s what he does next that is, to use one of Alice’s words, curious. Because he concludes the re-telling of her story with:

The media knew about her allegations but they sat on it. It was too explosive. The stakes were too high.”

No it wasn’t, no they weren’t and no they didn’t.

The mainstream media hounded Clinton during those weeks, months and years. Especially over anything that had the whiff of sex. But they decided that whatever had happened had taken place 20 years ago, and that all any of them had to go on now was her word versus his.

More to the point, by this stage the American public was bored to tears with tales of Bill’s sexual peccadillos, which were doing little more than further deepening the abyss that divided and divides the states there into red and blue ones.


What Gatehouse does in this telling is to present us with one of those classic examples of an Aristotelian syllogism that fails to function. One of those How-not-to syllogisms. All buses are green, that vehicle is green, therefore it’s a bus. 

Sent from below.

Assuming that her version of events is true, what we have here are two, independent, un-connected events. Event one, she was raped. And Event two, the mainstream media decides against giving her story the kind of extensive coverage that some might have liked. 

There’s no causally connecting because here, but Gatehouse magics one into existence. Which is exactly how you construct a conspiracy theory, before sending it out and on its merry way, into the universe and the digital aether beyond. 

You describe two, separate and unconnected events as if they were obviously linked. Indeed, as if that connection were so obvious, it’s surprising to you that anyone should call that so say connection into doubt. 

In other words, and clearly inadvertently, Gatehouse has erected the scaffolding and is using the architecture needed to construct the very phenomenon he was supposed to have been merely reporting on. 

Curiouser and curiouser. 

Still, it’s a cracking podcast. And that minor blip aside, Gatehouse is thoughtful and measured and is a wonderfully engaging host.

You can listen to it here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001324r

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New albums from Circuit des Yeux and Bonobo

Circuit Des Yeux, Io

Io is the sixth album from Haley Fohr in her guise as Circuit Des Yeux. And it succeeds somehow in marrying and merging her twin terrains of grunge folk and experimental rock, and in a way that manages miraculously to evade any hint of pretentiousness. 

The result is an album that sounds like extracts from an imaginary rock opera. But instead of arousing the usual dread and embarrassment that those two words traditionally evoke, it moves and impresses in equal measure. 

Listening to Fohr’s imperial baritone channelling Diamanda Galás, scaling who knows how many octaves, as the strings reference mid 70s ELO, you imagine a David Byrne production, but at an off Broadway venue in a yet-to-be gentrified seedy side of town.

An album born in melancholia, the resulting music soars. 

Bonobo, Fragments

Fragments is the first album in five years from the LA based British DJ slash producer Si Green, who releases albums under the moniker Bonobo. And almost everyone agrees that it’s a wonder to behold and as joyous a way to usher in the new year as could possibly be wished for. 

NPR’s All Songs Considered, the Guardian, the Independent, UK and Irish, NME et al. Only those perennial scrooges at Pitchfork held out, giving it a curmudgeonly 5.4 out of 10, here.

St Germain’s Tourist

The album starts out promisingly enough, and sure enough, tracks 2, 3 and 4 do indeed seem to promise that much needed and proverbial tonic. T3, Rosewood, even hints at the kind of hoped-for ubiquity that Rose Rouge, the opening track on Saint Germain’s Tourist achieved when it was released in 2000, and which it seemed to maintain well into the following year and beyond.

But after those first few tracks, Fragments sinks into mid- and increasingly slower tempo fare. And very quickly, you quietly drift off. 

If you find yourself at a club where Green is spinning his discs, you’ll enjoy his use of those first few tracks as part of his set (and perhaps track 8…). But there’s absolutely no need to sit down and listen to the rest of the album. I’m afraid the boys from Pitchfork get that one right.

You can see the video for the opening track on Circuit Des Yeux’s Io, the Vanishing, below:

And here, if you need it, is a reminder of what St Germain’s Rose Rouge sounds like:

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‘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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Squid Game, another shaggy dog story from S. Korea

Squid Game

There is a famous Hollywood adage which states that the audience only ever remembers the final reel. In other words, it’s all down to the ending. And the dizzy hysteria that Netflix‘s Squid Game was first greeted by on its arrival has now been tempered by a general sense of disappointment with its ending. 

And, without in any way spoiling it for anyone who’s yet to sample its delights, here’s what the problem is.

Squid Game, as pretty much everybody knows by now, is about two things. On the one hand it’s a quest, as hundreds of individuals set off on a journey to win it. And of the hundreds who set off, only one can eventually emerge triumphant. The catch being, once you’re eliminated, you are literally killed. 

So on the other, it’s about the sort of society that produces the kind of desperation that its citizens are prepared to go in pursuit of a prize knowing they’re almost certainly going to get killed in the attempt. It is then a critique of the kind of capitalist society that South Korea exemplifies. 

Oldboy

And the it, the prize they’re all questing after? A big bag of money. Which then poses a conundrum. Given that the series so clearly looks down on capital, what are we to make of the person who eventually wins it? The one we’ve presumably been rooting for, when all he or she has been doing it for is money? 

Clearly, it’s a story that demands a revelation explaining why it was that they were all put through all that. It needs, in other words, some sort of genuinely surprising and meaningful twist. And, in a word, Squid Game comes up short. 

Anyone familiar with Korean cinema will not be terribly surprised at this. We’ve been here before, most notably with Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy. Which is what used to be called a shaggy dog story. Which is a joke that goes on and on before finally failing to deliver a punchline. The joke being at the expense of the listener for having wasted their time waiting for one – for the ultimate shaggy dog story, see my review of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige here.

The problem being, neither Oldboy nor Squid Game, or for that matter The Prestige, are intended as shaggy dog stories. Rather, they just get blindly intoxicated at the prospect of forever increasing the tension by continually raising the stakes. 

They know the reaction that this will produce in the audience, and it thrills them. And they refuse to acknowledge that at some point, that audience is going to demand some answers to all the questions that that tension has so impressively generated. 

The Prestige. Seriously?

Surely, they reason, if you’ve just watched all nine hours of a 9 episode television drama, and 8 ½ hours of it has been that engrossing, you’re not going to mind if that last half hour leaves a bit to be desired?

Alas no. Because, as with all clichés, this one too is true. It really is only ever the last reel that the audience ever remembers. And that’s what we’ll all remember about Squid Game. That, and the inexplicable hoopla that its arrival was first greeted with. But that as they say is another story. 

You can see the trailer to Squid Game here:

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