Donald Trump, Doctor Who, and Tony Soprano.

1Many of my readers are American, and most, if not all, of those American readers are Democrat-voting liberals. In my Facebook feed too I get a fair number of anti-Trump, anti-Republican memes popping up. Fair enough. However, I recently read a piece in The Guardian* in which a reporter went to East Bangor PA to speak to Trump supporters. He found support still strong, and an irritation about the media focus on the Russia connection. Their attitude seemed to be to the effect: “Who cares if there was some cheating – it made sure that a bigger criminal didn’t get into the White House.” A direct quote from the article says that the Trump supporters feel this this:

2Congress and the justice department are wasting millions of dollars on a politically motivated witch hunt to destroy the president, they feel, after the same establishment gave a pass to the alleged crimes of Clinton and Obama.

Now, what I want to know from my American liberal friends is this. What are the “alleged crimes” of Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama? And please, don’t say “None – it’s all fake news made up by the other side!” The phrase “fake news” has now been totally devalued by its constant use by both sides in the USA. What I would like you to do, if you can spare me the effort, is firstly to look at reputable news sources in the US (and maybe outside it to, if you know any good ones) and tell me honestly (i.e. no matter whether you believe the allegations or not) what these allegations are. Secondly is there, in any of these questions, the 3possibility that there is a case to answer. I don’t want to know whether you believe the allegations, or consider them spurious or vexatious, I want to know if a case could be made, even if refuting the case would be fairly simple.

I know it would be difficult for you to feel that you were, in any way, tarnishing the name of Hilary Clinton or, especially, Barack Obama who was, after all, one of the best front guys the US has ever had for ‘world opinion’. What I wish is to be able to form a cogent and fair picture.

Thank you.

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Donald Trump may be making all the headlines over on Planet America**, but back here on earth the really important issue is that the 13th Doctor Who (actually the number itself is controversial, given the way the Whoniverse*** has been depicted over the years) will be female. Actor Jodie Whittaker will be the next regeneration of BBC Television’s most enduring sci-fi hero. The first twelve (does any Whovian*** remember that the Doctor was only supposed to have twelve regenerations?) were all played by men. Some of these men have given us Doctor Who as a larger-than-life character – Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker. Some of them have been plain damned charismatic – David Tennant, Peter Capaldi. Paul McGann even contrived to make him rather sexy.

4The selection of a female actor to play the character has been hailed as a brave move, a step forward, a welcome break with the phallocentric patriarchy, etc. etc. etc. It didn’t take long for my Twitter feed to fill up with tweets under #DoctorWho13 saying “I can’t wait to bathe in misogynistic tears…” and the like – the irony being that they seemed to outnumber complaints by about 40 to 1, and at least half the complaints were from women. So basically you could have only filled an eyebath with the ‘misogynistic tears’. I would like to make a couple of observations, to get this into proportion.

Firstly, there is no shortage of female protagonists in televison sci-fi, mainly in American imports. The trend began in 1995 with the casting of Kate Mulgrew as Captain Kathryn Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager. More recently we have seen series such as Orphan Black and Dark Matter, where there is a female protagonist. Meanwhile, in the UK, although we have not produced much in the way of female-led sci-fi – or sci-fi at all, for that matter – our police drama has featured female leads with increasing regularity. Doctor Who does not exist in a broadcast vacuum, therefore, and hailing the first female protagonist in this particular show strikes me (for all my feminist credentials) as being hyperbole.

Secondly, what is actually brave about the decision is that it ditches a successful formula. Over the years we have seen the male Doctor’s companion develop from the original doctor’s teenage-angst-ridden granddaughter, Susan Foreman, through a handful of young women who did a good line in going “Eek!” whenever an ugly alien appeared, through a knife-wielding primitive (Leela), through an investigative journalist (Sarah Jane Smith) who ended up with her own spin-off series, through a Doc-Marten-wearing teenager who liked to blow things up (Ace), to a whole series of companions whose roles were dynamic and often served as a kind of bolt-on human conscience to the alien Doctor. With the introduction of a female doctor, the whole formula has to be re-thought. As a matter of fact, I am looking forward to seeing the result, to seeing whether a new formula can be found that isn’t simply a flipping of the male/female template. Doctor Who has worked very well when the format has been disrupted, as in the episode Blink, in which the Doctor and his companion hardly featured, and the bulk of the drama was left in the hands of two characters who only appeared in that single episode.

So bring it on.

Oh, by the way, mixed in with all those tweets was a fair proportion saying “Now for 007”. No. Please. Let’s just close the whole James Bond franchise. Some people say that Doctor Who is worn out. By comparison, the Bond franchise is totally threadbare. Enough!

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Meanwhile I’ve been having a retrospective binge with a box-set of The Sopranos.

5I know it’s a bit old hat now, as the series finished in the early 2000s, but if you haven’t caught this series, then I beg you to indulge yourselves. It is magnificent television.

It has, of course, attracted a fair share of criticism. It is very violent, beatings and murder being routine. It is predicated on a male-dominated culture – paradoxically that gives a chance for the female characters to shine, and whilst none of them break the male stranglehold, nor do they try to, the strength of the roles is such that the dynamism and tension never lets up. The characters in general are based very firmly on Italian-American stereotypes. All the gestures are there, Neapolitan oaths and expressions are thrown into modern American-English conversations, the sharp suits and the criminality of course are there.

However, the stereotypes in The Sopranos work as a dramatic device. The settings and the family relationships (ah, family! – yet another Italian-American stereotype) are exactly the same as those that make soap operas and domestic sitcoms work. And indeed the presence of such notable elements of soap and sitcom make the series compulsive watching. Unattractive though the characters are – deceitful, dishonest, mendacious, 8sybaritic, promiscuous, gluttonous, violent to the point of psychopathy – the viewer is made to care about them. Christopher, Tony Soprano’s inept but ambitious ‘nephew’, battles with heroin addiction, and we actually want him to pull through.

Some of the characters are engaging, if only for their awfulness. The psychopathic Paulie brings the show to life whenever he walks on. Tony’s self-pitying, ageing mother, to whom absolutely everything that happens or is said is a direct attack on her; Bobby, the quiet, almost gentle ‘minder’ for Uncle Junior; Doctor Jennifer Melfi, the show’s law-7abiding liberal conscience; Anthony Jr. – where did they find an actor who could develop from a child to a young man without shifting his sullen, deadpan expression?

Not only does the show borrow tropes from the sitcom, it is actually funny from time to time. Sometimes the comedy is decidedly black. In rehab, Christopher finds a ‘buddy’ and they help each other through to sobriety. Back out in the world, the relationship continues, but when the buddy becomes addicted to gambling, joins a ‘family’ poker game, and ends up owing thousands of dollars to them, Christopher has him beaten up, and takes his sports car as part compensation – it’s just the way things are done in mob culture – but that doesn’t stop him driving the buddy to meet his sponsor, in the acquired sports car, and dropping 9him off with comradely words and hopes for his recovery. The funniest episode is where Christopher and Paulie get lost in a snow-filled wood for a long, cold night. To give you some idea of how funny, you could have written the same scene for Del Boy and Rodney from Only Fools and Horses.

The stereotypes are used in a self-referential way. The characters, whilst playing them up, complain about the public attitude to Italian-Americans. there is a scene where Tony Soprano, whilst on a golf course with a group of WASPs, gets frustrated at the constant questioning about how true to life The Godfather or Goodfellas were.

If you didn’t catch The Sopranos while it was being shown, make a point of seeing it now. Tony Soprano is the key to the whole show, and James Gandolfini played him with constant brilliance. The late actor is greatly missed. And he has a tenuous link to Doctor Who. Check out this encounter between ‘Malcolm Tucker’ and ‘General Flintstone’ in In The Loop.

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*The Guardian is a liberal, centre-left newspaper in the UK with a reputation for reporting news fairly. My right-of-centre friends may say that statement is an oxymoron, but I would say that although the paper’s opinion columns may have a liberal bias, they have a reputation for fairness in their factual news items. I am not in a position, however, to comment on the editorial selection of news items – what is given priority, what is included, what is dropped or ignored. All news, from whatever source no matter what its supposed or real political or cultural bias, is narrated rather than reported.

** His latest coup de théatre being to suggest he could pardon himself if impeached. No. He should read Article 2, Section 2, Clause 1 of the Constitution of the United States, and that would set him straight.

*** Whoniverse and Whovian. Do I really have to explain?

Review: ‘Charles III’

Charles III by Mike Bartlett, BBC2, 10th May 2017. Dir. Rupert Goold, Drama Republic Ltd. for the BBC.

1
Tim Pigott-Smith

In 2014 Mike Bartlett finished his play Charles III, and it was premiered at London’s Almeida Theatre. From there it went to the West End and Broadway, with further tours of the UK and on to Sydney, Australia. In 2015 it was adapted as a radio drama for BBC Radio 3 with the original cast, and aired twice. Last night a TV adaptation was shown on BBC2 with Tim Pigott-Smith in the title role.

The play imagines that in a very few years’ time, on the death of Queen Elizabeth II, her son, the present Prince of Wales, becomes king. Almost immediately on his succession, however, he is expected to give Royal Assent to a bill before Parliament that would restrict the freedom of the press. His refusal to do so sparks a constitutional crisis. Mike Bartlett wrote the play largely in blank verse – iambic pentameter – as Shakespeare might have done, and takes the plot on a very Shakespearean journey. There are political manoeuvrings, treacheries, and a ghost who gives the same prediction of greatness to Charles and his son William. There are no pitched battles – Charles has no opportunity to offer his kingdom for a horse – but there is metaphorical blood.

Hearing the play on radio gives it intimacy. Characters can talk quietly in an imagined corner, or even whisper in your ear, and the full value of the language can be appreciated. The iambic pentameter, though subtle, is more obvious, and it draws the listener into its rhythm until it feels prefectly natural. Though there are Shakespearean constructions in word choice – a royal person might address another as a ‘good’ or ‘gentle’ prince, for example – the play’s language is not larded with archaisms. This is not a Shakespearean spoof, and modern usage fits into the blank verse as though made for it.

On television it loses something. The TV adaptation does not have the intimacy of the radio version, and because it uses real or realistic settings and footage of Buckingham Palace etc., we are no longer within the ‘wooden O’ of the stage for which it was originally written. The production is obliged to be more visual. Tanks rolling through the gates of the Palace have to be shown rather than spoken about. Lines are lost and the importance of the pentameter is downplayed, to the extent that when a scene does end with a rhymed couplet it hits the viewer with a bang.

4
Priyanga Burford

But by no means is all the play’s power lost. For a start, it is impossible to praise too highly the acting of the cast. It would be too easy to say, for example, that Richard Goulding does not look much like the real-life Prince Harry, but this is a play not a mimicry. Tim Pigott-Smith is one of the country’s finest actors, and is brilliant as Charles. There are good parts for women. Margot Leicester as Camilla is in the role of a supportive wife to Charles, a character that is perhaps the nearest the play has to a female cipher. Tamara Lawrance’s Jess – Harry’s black, working-class, republican girlfriend – is assertive, almost to the point of being the conscience of the play. Charlotte Riley’s Kate is the motive force behind Prince William, and Priyanga Burford plays Mrs Stevens, Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons and the real agent provocateur of the crisis, with great subtlety.

Perhaps the most compelling part of the adaptation is the peripeteia, the scene in a darkened room, with most of the principals present, where Charles agrees to abdicate in favour of his son. This will have viewers enthralled. The feeling of a dramatic space – a ‘stage’ if you wish – returns to the production, and the rhythm of the language brings out the tension of the scene.

What can I knock a star off for? Well I have already pointed out the compromises that have to be made when a stage play is adapted for television. I have to say I found Harry’s eventual rejection of Jess to be less convincing than it was in the radio version. He appeared regretful and rather shamefaced, whilst on the radio it was a cynical dumping because loyalty to the ‘family firm’ of the House of Windsor had won him round.

The programme is still available on BBC iPlayer at the time of writing, and I dare say it will be repeated by the BBC and on PBS. Don’t miss it.

A footnote: a Tory MP objected to the presence of the ghost of Diana, the late Princess of Wales. Get a life, pal.

four-stars

2

‘T2 Trainspotting’ reviewed

“Let’s bunk off work and go and see T2 Trainspotting,” said my friend to me.

“Good idea!” I said. “After all, this is Scotland, and it’s compulsory. We’ll go now, before they send the squad round to frog-march us to the cinema.”

rentonT2 Trainspotting is a sentimental money-spinner with none of the freshness of the 1996 original. It is based – so goes the claim – on Irvine Welsh’s books Porno and, well, yes, Trainspotting, but in attempting to make some kind of twenty-years-on movie script out of a mere couple of plot elements from what is a good stand-alone novel, albeit one that does feature most of the same characters as appeared in the novel Trainspotting, and flashbacks to the first film, what emerges is something rather thin.

The whole tension of the film is made to revolve around resentment for Renton’s having walked off with everybody’s money. As the film moves forward, we are presented with geographical ‘fixers’ – shots of Edinburgh’s trams, a sprint up Salisbury Crags – but we still make a game out of trying to spot which scenes were actually shot in Glasgow. Yes, just like the first movie, they pull that stunt too. in case we get bored with that game, and with counting the number of times that there’s a cut to a scene from the first film, the savvy amongst us can simply spot references to that film. The Worst Toilet in Scotland? Yep, it’s in line for ‘Best Supporting Actor’.

begbieBegbie having escaped from prison, goes home. The Police never knock at his door. Maybe they can’t be arsed, but really? Author Irvine Welsh makes a cameo appearance – he’s easy to spot, as he’s the one who cannae act! “Let’s find some way of putting Diane in the film,” said someone, no doubt, in a script conference. “I know,” said someone else, “let’s have her as a posh lawyer the guys have to consult when things go tits-up!” So that’s her scene in the film sorted. Begbie does very little except chase round Edinburgh trying to lay his hands on Renton for the sole purpose of killing him, and thus the unpredictable psychopathy of the younger Begbie is translated into something like a constant state of rage, which is rather a waste of Robert Carlyle’s acting talent.

spudThere is violence and drug abuse and such, but you know that because this is a black comedy there is a line of grossness that will not be crossed, so it’s okay to keep watching, okay to fall for the moments where you can’t help laughing. Everybody tries to cheat everybody else, and they all end up cheated, by Veronika, Sick Boy’s Bulgarian girlfriend. Spud has been writing his memoirs on pieces of yellow notepaper – they become a novel-sized sheaf, and when he shows them to his estranged wife Gail she says “I know what you can call this.” Yeah, let’s call the film How ‘Trainspotting’ Came To Be Written!

I called the film sentimental. Bits of that work – you’ll want to take Spud home and cuddle him. Bits of it don’t – like the journey to the Highlands to commemorate Tommy. The scene where Renton and Sick Boy are trapped into improvising a song about the Battle of the Boyne in a Protestant pub is bloody hilarious. There are plenty of other laughs throughout the film, and there are resolutions at the end. But I took very little away from it, whereas the image of the young, stick-thin Renton sprawled on the bonnet of a car, panting and grinning, will never leave my mind’s eye. This is not 1996. Maybe the film is about not recapturing that…

Look, I have to knock two stars off this one for the flaws I have driven a Stagecoach bus through. Nevertheless, if I could give one back for the simple reason that it is actually highly enjoyable, I would. So do go and see it. Oh, and the soundtrack is utterly mental!

Renton – Ewan McGregor
Simon (‘Sick Boy) – Johnny Lee Miller
Spud – Ewen Bremner
Begbie – Robert Carlyle
Veronika – Anjela Nedyalkova
Mikey Forrester – Irvine Welsh
veronikaGail – Shirley Henderson
Diane – Kelly Macdonald

T2 Trainspotting, Danny Boyle, 2017

PS. Veronika is a crucial character, has almost as many lines as the male stars, and yet there is hardly a single promotional picture of her out there. Begbie, Spud, Renton, and Simon are all over the place. Ask why.

3-stars

The truth about Christmas

Well, some of it anyway.

I’m looking out on Christmas here in the UK. Most people celebrate it in some way or other, most people don’t work on the 25th, though some folk do – hospital staff, the emergency services, people serving Happy Meals at McDonalds in motorway service areas. A good friend of mine, when he was young enough, used to refuse to celebrate it on principle, but instead he walked an hour and a half to the far side of the neighbouring town (there being no buses running on Christmas Day), to the drop-in centre for the homeless, where he would wait table and wash dishes before walking home. Despite his not wishing to make a day special for himself that was not special for others, he always found that his father had patiently kept a plate of turkey-with-the-trimmings and a bowl of pudding warm for him, which he ate ungrudgingly, aware of the simple generosity of a charity that began at home.

Increasingly, and every year during advent, social media is bombarded with memes pagansplaining* how Christmas was stolen from paganism in a shocking attempt at cultural cleansing and appropriation. This, I’m afraid, is one of those factoids which is repeated and repeated in the expectation that people will eventually accept it as fact. But as I see it, it’s a view that does not survive close examination. Allow me to advance some reasons why I don’t buy this particular memeaganda**.

For many generations the Christian Church didn’t celebrate Jesus’s birthday. Why should they? What was really important to them was the final acts of his mortal ministry and the beginning of his spiritual ministry – his death on the cross, his resurrection, and the sealing of the New Covenant by the visitation of the Holy Spirit upon the Church. To early Christians, and to those in the 21c who have Christianity as a living experience rather than a doctrine, that was something that didn’t and doesn’t need a day set aside to celebrate, but is celebrated every day. Gradually, however, an ecclesiastical calendar was devised within institutional Christianity, including a principle celebration of the crucifixion and resurrection. Its main aim was as a teaching aid, so that there was a systematic way of delivering the story, bite-sized, to a largely illiterate congregation. That’s not all there was to it, of course; to be sure, as Christianity developed, its cultural fabric became more complex and less easy to apply simple analysis to. Into that ecclesiastical calendar the nativity story had to be fitted, had to be given a day or a season to itself. When should that be?

This is the point at which the pagansplanation*** would have you believe that the wicked Christians got together and, rubbing their hands gleefully in their evil synod, said, “Ah, let’s steal the winter solstice from the pagans! That’ll settle their hash!” That, it has to be said, is highly unlikely. More likely is that, in considering the narrative of Christ – which was of course their focus and concern – with some sort of chronology in mind, it was decided that the logical date to celebrate the birth of Jesus would be nine months after the Annunciation, the visitation of the Holy Spirit to Mary and the conception of Jesus, a date which had been fixed in the ecclesiastical calendar at the 25th of March. In fact this is a theory that has some acceptance amongst historians of Christianity; to me it has a touch of Occam’s razor about it, and I’m prepared to give it a place, or at the very least to advance it as being as likely a scenario as the ‘straight theft’ theory.

So, ‘Christmas’ – a day for a special mass in celebration of Christ’s birth – was fixed at some eighteen days after the winter solstice.

“Whoa, hold on!” I hear you cry. “Eighteen days after? Eighteen days after? Eighteen days after? What’s that all about?”

Well, the Julian Calendar was in use, and that is some fifteen days off-set from the Gregorian Calendar, which had a staggered adoption in the world from the late 16c onwards. December 25th in the Julian Calendar was the equivalent of January 7th in the Gregorian. In fact the more traditional Eastern Orthodox observation still celebrates Christmas in early January. The Western Church (Roman Catholic and post-Reformation bodies) celebrate it three days after the winter solstice. Add to that the Christian bodies who do not celebrate Christmas at all, and the accusation of wholesale cultural theft of the solstice by ‘Christianity’ begins to leak.

5
Bringing in the Yule Log.

It is far more plausible to credit the strength of pagan customs, whether from the classical world or elsewhere, with having survived, with having attached themselves to the Christian calendar, with still being there in the culture of folk today, most of whom follow them – kissing under the mistletoe, decorating a tree, making wreaths of the undefeated holly, getting happily blootered – without even bothering with the Christian celebration. One can only wonder what is the agenda of all this paganplaining**** when they should be dancing in the streets!

You may wonder why I preach up Christianity. These days there have been so many harmful accretions to Christian culture. Yet, to my mind, at its heart there is something that can only contribute greatly to the psychic health of humankind. The evangelist John says this (and here I use the ringing poetry of the King James Bible, one of the cornerstones of English literacy):

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John [‘The Baptist’]. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.
(John 1:1-9)

This is the kernel of faith as expressed by an early Christian. It is that in all of us there is something inextinguishable. Though in us it is not of us, but is of the founding force and principle of existence – and you don’t have to call that force ‘God’ if you don’t want to, or equate it with the earthly Jesus as John does and as Christians do, you might easily pass it off as ‘reason’, or give it no name at all and consider it something inexplicable and random – and if it is heeded, looked towards, and nurtured, then it can’t fail to enlighten us. It may be buried deep and difficult to see in a misogynistic and racist politician or a religious terrorist, but it is there anyway, and it gives us hope.

Many of you will ask why we ‘need’ this transcendent principle, why we can’t be content simply to rely on our human self. Maybe we don’t need it. Maybe what John is talking about is just so much hooey. I can’t help feeling, however, that this is something of value, and that it can’t but come to the aid of our appalling ignorance, our folly, and our imperfection. A very simple phrase from another early Christian stays with me:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; (1 Corinthians 13:12)

The apostle Paul says that we see things as though they were a puzzle viewed in a mirror. I wonder if that makes Paul the world’s first phenomenologist. What we see is not reality, it is phenomena. It may have some relation to reality, but it is nonetheless only a fleeting image, filtered through human perception. Even the rules of science are not rules because that’s how things are, but because we are who we are and that’s how we happen to see things. Reality is something out there. And yet there is something undeniably real in us. In the world of 2016, so full of foul strokes and fuckups and fool-yous, it is hard to believe in meliorism of any kind. Yet the principle that John knew and celebrated in his gospel drives what is pure and true in Christianity, in the very teeth of what is fucked-up. It drives my revolutionary anarcho-communist zeal, in the very teeth of the world’s slide into numb-brained right-wingery. It drives someone to give up Christmas dinner to go and wash the feet of someone less fortunate. And it seems to defy common sense, to go on, to smile in the face of all this who-stole-what-from-whom bickering, which, when you stop and think about it, ain’t worth a hill of beans.

From our teepee in the Sidlaws, Consuela (my Tejana maid) and I wish you all – and I mean all – the best and truest of celebrations. Find something to celebrate. You know you want to!

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*This is yet another word I thought I had invented, but apparently it was coined by someone called Rose Corcoran. Nice one, Rose!

**Damn – there’s another one somebody got to before me!

***I’ll have that one, thank you very much!

****And that one!