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:

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!

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. 


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:

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!

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.

You can sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right, and I shall keep you post­ed every month on All the very Best and Worst in film, tele­vi­sion and music

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:

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!

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.

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!