‘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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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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Waldemar Januszczak and the curse of the Sistine Chapel

Waldamar Januszczak.

The finest writers on art, at least in the English language, are Peter Schjeldahl and Waldemar Januszczak. And they straddle the Atlantic like two colossal light houses, the former from somewhere in Williamsburg where he files his celestial copy for the New Yorker, the latter from his muse in Chelsea where he writes a weekly column for the Culture section of the Sunday Times.

If you haven’t seen this already, treat yourself.

Januszczak has gone on to forge an almost flawless career as a documentary film and series maker where he focuses principally on late 19th century Paris. But he’s equally adept and comfortable on the Renaissance and everything in between. All of those movements that led from there to the birth of Modernism as it burst forth from Paris at the turn of the 20th century.

He is both deeply knowledgeable and consistently illuminating on everything from Picasso – on whom he teamed up with the peerless john Richardson – Gauguin, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, to the Baroque, sculpture and the birth of Impressionism, reviewed by me earlier here. But that ‘flawless’ is stained by that ‘almost’ courtesy of an albeit understandable fixation with the Sistine Chapel.

In 2011, he made his one and only dud, The Michelangelo Code: Secrets of the Sistine Chapel, which was recently screened again on the excellent Sky Arts. All of its parts are as engaging and enlightening as you’d have hoped and expected. All of that research into the Medici popes, the Franciscans and his meticulous reading of the bible and the scriptures was well worth the considerable effort it obviously cost him.

But none of it adds up to anything. There’s no there, there. He plainly sees some sort of connection between the Branch Davidians and that madness at Waco, Texas, and the chapel’s ceiling. But if anyone can tell me after watching it what that connection is, I’ll send you on a bar of chocolate and a can of fizzy pop.

He’s wonderful company and a glorious guide, and I am more than happy to have sat through the thing for the second time. But for the life of me, I’ve still no idea what any of it was actually about.

If you’re unfamiliar with Januszczak, then you should search out some of his articles, any of them. His criticism is absolutely bullet proof. And if you can, watch any of his documentaries. But you should probably treat The Michelangelo Code as something of a bonus track, a deleted scene. Strictly for aficionados only.

You can see the tailer for the Michelangelo Code here.

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The Farthest, one more gem from BBC 4’s Storyville

The Farthest.

When the accomplished film editor Emer Reynolds first moved up to Dublin from Tipperary it was to study science at Trinity College. But she was soon distracted by and diverted to the world of film. 

So she was the perfect candidate to tackle what is one of the most extraordinary stories of the 20th century. Combining as she does a passion for science and a wealth of knowledge about the craft of storytelling. The resulting film, The Farthest, is a joy and a wonder to behold.

Saturn, from Voyager 1.

One of the conundrums posed by space travel is; the further you go, the more fuel you need to take on board. The more fuel you take, the bigger the space craft needed. And the bigger the vehicle, the more fuel you need. And so on.

But in the late 60s, the boffins at Nasa realised that, once you’d mastered the fiendishly complex maths, you could send a space craft to a planet on exactly the right trajectory so that it ends up going into orbit around it.

And you could then use that orbit to ‘sling-shot’ the space craft on to wherever it was that you wanted it to then go. Once you got it into that initial orbit, there wouldn’t be any need for any additional fuel.

Jupiter, from Voyager 1.

And that furthermore, for the one and only time in around 176 years, the four main gas giants of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune would be in alignment between 1975 and 77.

So they set about designing and building what would become Voyager 1 and 2, which were both launched in the late summer of 1977. And what had previously been seen as but four blurry dots were suddenly transformed into glorious, detailed technicolour.

The Farthest has three components. First and foremost, it’s the nuts and bolts story of the building and launching of the two space craft, as recounted by the individuals involved, a remarkably large number of whom spoke to Reynolds and her crew. 

The extraordinary photo of the solar system that Carl Sagan got Voyager 1 to take before moving off for the edge of the solar system. That less then 1 pixel dot is us.

Then, it’s the story of the fabled golden record that Carl Sagan oversaw the creation of, and which each vehicle carries a copy of. This was and is an audio-visual record of life here on Earth, should any intelligent life come into contact with them at any point in the future.

And finally, it’s a gentle musing on the nature of humanity. Because, apart from anything else, when we are all dead and buried and all signs of what was once life here on this planet have long since disappeared, the only remnant of our existence will be carried on those two golden discs.

The Farthest is everything you’d want in a documentary. Thrilling, uplifting and utterly compelling, you can see the trailer for The Farthest here:

And the full doc (which 90 minutes despite this recording clocking at 120) is available here:

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I May Destroy You, the new HBO/BBC series

I May Destroy You

In the MacTaggart lecture she gave at the 2018 Edinburgh TV Festival, Michaela Coel, the star of Channel 4’s sunny sitcom Chewing Gum, told a stunned audience that she’d been sexually assaulted. She’d been out on the tear trying to avoid a writing deadline, and the following morning she began getting sinister flachbacks. It’s just such a night that her dazzlingly impressive 12 part dramedy series I May Destroy You circles around.

Coel plays Arabella, a thirty something doyenne of the Twitterati who is expected to build upon the success of her surprise best seller Chronicles of a Fed-up Millennial by delivering its sequel to her agent and publisher. 

And, faced with a 9am deadline she does what any respectable writer would, and heads out on the town. The following morning, as the haze of the night before begins to slowly clear, she starts to get flashbacks of being raped.

Over the rest of the series, she and her closest two friends, aspirant actress, Terry and their gay partner in crime, Kwame, slowly piece together the events of the night. 

But the ‘event’ of that night is as much the backdrop as it is the focus for the stories that the series follows. As the characters experiment with drugs and sex, work and play in search of what they assume will be revealed as their true identities in a world where identities, certainties and all manner of lines have been seen to disappear ‘neath perpetually shifting sands.

What’s so exhilarating about the series is the way in which Coel steers, and frequently veers between comedy, pathos, ironic detachment, genuine pain and back again. And often, all in the course of the same, single scene.

We flashback to Arabella’s Italian boyfriend, and the trip she and Terry make to Ostia, on the outskirts of Rome. To her childhood, and her estranged and idealised father. And to an event at school that is looked back upon in a very differnt light. And all the while, everything is slowly but surely helping to create a picture of exactly what it was that happened that night.

The writing is flawless, both structurally and dialogue-wise, it’s impeccably put together and all the performances are note perfect. Most impressively, not to say unusually of all, Coel manages to deliver on the season’s finale, which I’ll obviously not spoil by saying anything about here.

I May Destroy you is that rare thing. A series that comfortably lives up to and delivers on all of the entirely justifiable hype.

You can see the trailer to I May Destroy You here.

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