TV Eye: 30 Rock and Jonathan Meades on France

30 Rock

Jacob Knowles-Smith on homophobia in elitist liberal comedy and nationalism in polymath documentaries

After the inconvenience of creator Tina Fey’s pregnancy, the new season of 30 Rock (NBC) has finally aired. If there was one impact of her pregnancy on the show it was Fey’s slightly fuller face – which, I should say, was only noticeable when compared to Alec Baldwin’s now deflated head and less-substantial figure. At first I feared a slimmer model Jack Donaghy might lessen his comic presence, but, after watching the first episode twice and the second episode, I was too busy listening out for the rapid-fire dialogue which makes a second viewing a must when it comes to 30 Rock. One question, however, still remains, who now will spearhead the campaign for weightier, middle-aged men to be considered as sex symbols?

Gay fans of 30 Rock who haven’t already switched off because of Tracy Morgan’s homophobic comments last summer, might well be dissuaded by Jack – though he’s still very much a ‘daddy’ – no longer being so much of a ‘bear’. Furthermore, I’m not sure Tracy Morgan’s character, Tracy Jordan, having his own homophobic controversy will draw back the LGBT audience, but I’m sure he regrets his comments and it’s a pretty good stab at a public apology.

As ever, the show’s subplots remain inventive and anarchic – from hayseed zealot Kenneth’s disappointment over the Rapture failing to transpire, to Kelsey Grammer reprising his role as conman-extraordinaire. There’s also an ever-welcome slap in the face to Simon Cowell in the form of Jack’s new reality TV vehicle: America’s Kids Got Singing. I leave the only comment that needs to be said about such ‘talent contests’ to panel judge D’Fwan: “You need to remember reality television is formulaic.”

When the Republican candidates vituperate their inflamed rhetoric against the ‘elitist liberal media’, one can only assume that 30 Rock is high on their lists of targets. Of course, in reality (somewhere far from the primaries), those targets are a pretty narrow field – the vast majority of America media products – from TV to newspapers – do have an underlying message of the primacy of family values, patriotism and Christianity. 30 Rock, however, is heretical because it dares to suggest that all America is equally, well, American. There is no bucolic heartland that remains sheltered from tendrils of the east and west coasts, and New York and Los Angeles are not completely peopled by cosmopolitan hipsters and pro-choice heathens. But there is a reason the presidential hopefuls are required to expound on this cultural divide – to distract people from remembering that that the Gingriches and Romneys are also part of the elite.

Another oft-presumed elitist, Jonathan Meades, returned to BBC4 this week with Jonathan Meades on France. Not that you’d really know about it because, though his previous documentary series about Scotland, Off-Kilter, was widely reviewed and praised in the press, a wordy-overachiever talking about France is clearly a step too far. Susan Sontag described a polymath as someone who is interested in everything and nothing else. This might be a fair description of Meades, but, as Jonathan Miller once pointed out, ‘polymath’ is more usually a slur in Britain, as if being interested in more than one thing is catholic indulgence.

Nevertheless, BBC4 is the welcoming home of people who are interested in things – even multiple things – and Meades’s first-of-three films about France was as diverse in content as a week’s schedule for that channel. All the subjects were things beginning with V; Valise, Vedette, Voltaire; and if there was a loose thread running throughout – but not all of them – it was the OAS, the far-right nationalist terrorist group that tried to prevent Algerian independence in the 60s. Meades seems to have mixed-feelings about the group and, if not sympathy, understanding of their aims. He has, however, no understanding – certainly no sympathy – with nationalism, and this is a theme throughout many of his earlier films. Illustrated overtly in documentaries about Nazi and Stalinist architecture and more subtly in ones about British culture, the message Meades tries to convey, and rightly so, is that identifying too closely with where one comes from stymies progression of culture and diminishes us as individuals. Modernism, for example, has no ‘nationalist etiquette’ attached to it and was thusly despised by the far right; fascism allows its subjects no identity other than homogeneity. This might sound unpatriotic, but people (those Republican candidates especially) should consider whether they’d rather be defined by their background or by their talents and individuality.

On France has a much more personal perspective than Meades’s other documentaries; the country – where he now lives – became his, he says, in 1962, when the OAS declared their war. At that time, the architecture of France also inspired ‘wonder and delight’ in his fifteen-year old self – he didn’t make the connections then that he describes for us now, but he has tried to make a career out of making us wonder about things, and, for me at least, that is a constant delight.

TV Eye: The Story of Musicals and Timeshift: The Smoking Years

Jacob Knowles-Smith tries to make sense of this season’s viewing

With the Christmas schedule now safely out of the way, viewers can settle into shows designed to ward off the effects ‘the lull’ and winter blues that come without an enforced sense of Christmas cheer. This year Charles Dickens, the codifier of our Christmas traditions, was more prominent in our minds than ever. Several documentaries and a sleek adaptation of Great Expectations (BBC One) are all very well, but none of this can really compete with The Muppet Christmas Carol. All we can hope from any adaptation of Dickens’s work is that people deduce from what they are watching on the screen that this might actually be a good book worth reading – rather than just a Great Book, gathering dust on a shelf.

The festive line up wasn’t, by any stretch, all bad but the sound of sleigh bells in the background eventually takes a Pavlovian toll that renders one unable to resist shoving a fifth mince pie into a mouth already aching from over-use. The standout Christmas special for me was ITV’s annual adventure with Poirot: The Clocks had a slightly audacious plot, stuffed full of red herrings but it wouldn’t be Christmas without David Suchet with a waxed moustache.

As we passed into the New Year, thoughts of Poirot turned to another detective, Sherlock Holmes. BBC One’s modern adaptation, Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, doesn’t need more praise heaped on it than necessary here but I did find it interesting that the charge of sexism was levied against it. It was questioned whether – to say nothing of the nudity – the portrayal of the episode’s female antagonist was sexist because her plot was based on sexuality rather than intellect. We can reasonably assert that no woman should try to use her sexuality to get ahead in everyday life, but surely it’s perfectly natural for a villain to use any method to confound their adversary, especially as one would assume that in order to qualify as a villain at all they must have at least one variety of antisocial personality disorder. All sociopaths and narcissists use their sexuality as readily as any other attribute to achieve their goals, so this is really an effort to create needless controversy.

The Story of Musicals (BBC Four), innocuous as that title sounds, showed how sometimes controversy is very much necessary. This documentary series describes how British musicals took hold of global of the theatre industry. Putting aside for now the question of whether that was a good thing or not, it also portrayed how they challenged censorship, conventions and the establishment. Musicals seem to have supported the anti-war movement, through shows such Oh, What a Lovely War!, more than many of the rock and roll musicians who came to prominence subsequently. This latter group clearly influenced productions such as Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar – the first rock opera – but it was musicals that resulted in the Lord Chamberlain having his powers of censorship revoked and even predated The Beatles in leading the ‘British Invasion’ in the United States.

Leading the charge Stateside, and putting us at the mercy of Dickens’s once again, was Oliver!, Lionel Bart’s response to the sensational West Side Story. Oliver!, though, however much of a good knees-up it is, is a poor Dickens adaptation which strips all of the danger away from the real pivot of the story, Fagin. For commercial reasons, this is forgivable. Had they portrayed Fagin as the true bastard he is, the show would never have played well in New York and inevitable charges of anti-Semitism would have followed. (Indeed, Dickens himself fell short of describing all of the acts an actual Fagin character would’ve had his urchins engage in.)

When one does think of the musicals that started the British response; Oklahoma!, South Pacific, West Side Story, etc; and when one compares them to shows, which will presumably be discussed in the next episode, like Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, it seems that British musicals ultimately had a pernicious effect on the genre, sapping the vitality from Broadway and the West End until all we’re left with is Wicked. At the very least, it confirms that people like Tim Rice or Andrew Lloyd Webber are no Sondheim or Bernstein.

The Rattigan Enigma (BBC Four), another theatrical documentary, neatly bookended British theatre at the other side of the war years. Benedict Cumberbatch was on hand– in rather lacklustre style, it must be said – to take us through the life of playwright Terence Rattigan from his days at Harrow through his struggles with repressed homosexuality and becoming acknowledged as a serious artist. I struggled to figure out what the ‘enigma’ of the title actually was; Rattigan’s life as an artist never quite coming to terms with his sexuality is no unique tale, and I suspect that ‘enigma’ was employed specifically due to Cumberbatch’s presence as presenter. Rattigan, though, deserved his own documentary even if was only to hear lines like “I’m glad we never made the mistake of falling in love with each other.” Few writers came closer to capturing the cold relationships between endured by faded Bright Young Things in the post-20s world.

Those same Bright Young Things came to age in what was, according to Timeshift: The Smoking Years, the golden age of ‘the smoker’. If that was true, then we smokers – there’s no point in hiding bias here – must now be in a stone age. Harried out into the cold streets, smokers of my generation may still remember when old cinemas, though they had banned smoking years since, still had ashtrays fitted in the backs of seats – relicts of a once great smoking civilisation. I’m being glib here, and that’s not entirely intentional, I would never encourage anyone to smoke, but it’s something of a response against militant anti-smokers who suffer from being far too serious. There was a leading anti-smoking campaigner in the documentary, and she managed to summon fond and humorous memories of the years when she did smoke.

One wonders what, now that smokers are banned from polite society, these people who must interfere in other’s lives are actually against. Instead of imposing moral superiority against the individual smoker, surely the bigger targets are the tobacco companies themselves, of course, but also the television and film companies. Where do you draw the line between realism and responsibility? An adolescent watching Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy or Mad Men is bound to find these depictions of smoking more attractive than the crumpled office workers, huddling against the wind, in their local city centre. I don’t mind smoking outside and I don’t think it’s an invasion of civil liberties but everyone minds being harangued because of their peccadilloes – where are the warnings against people who provide dull lectures?

TV Eye: BBC Fours’s All American season

BBC Four American

Jacob Knowles-Smith sits down for a TV dinner with Tom Wolfe

Thankfully BBC Four hasn’t been demolished just yet. If it had been, we wouldn’t have had chance to enjoy its recent ‘All American’ season. They say that BBC 2 would absorb the channel’s role, but doubtless this would come with – if not dumbing-down – half as many documentaries as they currently produce. And, indeed, they’ve produced a near-dazzling array of films for this latest season focusing on US culture – but this is no paean to American hegemony, and the more I tried to absorb the schedule, the more I wondered if perhaps Tom Wolfe hadn’t been given some role at the Beeb. The subjects covered over the last couple of weeks have been like a cross-section of that writer’s brain; there’s been high culture, low culture, kitsch culture, surf culture, diners, journalism, nomads, hookers and civil rights. Any fan of Wolfe will no doubt be able to pluck a volume up and thumb through almost all of those subjects in one of his collections, but then I began to wonder, how would Tom Wolfe write a TV review? Well, for starters he probably wouldn’t title it anything nearly as banal as the above, but he might call it something along the lines of…

The Electric Blu-Ray Acid Mind-Bath: America is Over There!

‘Why’s all this paint here?’ You can see Andrew’s mind ticking over and his puppy-dog eyes begin to twinkle with his excitement – Yes! Pollock painted here! And they’ve preserved it, an encrusted monument to that great man’s drips. Great man? You can make up your own mind. Andrew Graham-Dixon has made his up in the Art of America and, as the BBC’s finest regular documentary maker – now that Attenborough stays out of frame, we can cut him a little slack. He deftly traces – with his infectious enthusiasm and never-patronising dulcets – the history of American art from pilgrims to present. All American art is here: Rockwell, Hopper, Warhol, The Simpsons?… and all of it, it seems, is about the loneliness of being one among many in a great big country full of people. After all, can’t Manhattan at rush hour be the loneliest place in the world?

Hopper’s popping up all over the place, and his most famous work – ‘Nighthawks’ – gives us a lead into the next show and the lonely fat-clogged heart of America in Stephen Smith’s America on a Plate: The Story of the Diner. This is where we sit down at that democratic counter and look across into America’s short-order soul… French fries pancakes sausages coffee doughnuts shakes steaks turkey clubs plastic seats – top you off? – cheeseburgers blueberries coffee onion rings eggs over easy – warm you up? – French toast roast beef meatloaf coffee gum chewing waitresses truck stop bacon coffee. What more can you say? What more can anyone ask for!?

Now this cat’s crazy, he’s touched the hem of death after all – or, at least, skirted around the edges – and who wouldn’t be a little spooky kooky cuckoo? James Ellroy’s Feast of Death (BBC 2) – with some strong language! – delves into the murder-centric mind of the author and we meet the embodiment of obsession. Kim Bassinger? She’s alright. But forget the movies – what the fuck good are we to him? Who are we to ask anything of this guy? This modern Beethoven! (Just ask him… why listen to anyone else?) Did the bitch overcook the steak again, James? Nah – It’s sexual power. That’s murder. Right there. If you don’t believe him, then why else do we care about serial killers? Men think about sex more than women, so they kill more. Ellroy is clearly obsessed by his mother’s murder; perhaps he sees himself as a failure – a not-quite-Beethoven – because he couldn’t protect her, but, if that’s not it, then he still has every right to be obsessed because, he says it, closure is bullshit. What’s a dyke bounty?

Now we’re with shutterbug Rankin in America in Pictures: The Story of Life Magazine. He’s indulging himself in a bit of hero worship – mutual snapshotting of these wily old coots that chronicled America. And, sure, maybe these guys aren’t exactly the man – but they were working for a Luce publication! Think Fortune, think Time. Think middlebrow America. But that’s, perhaps, not entirely fair, Life was, as Rankin’s film describes, a great unifier of the people – all of America could ooooooohhh and aaaaaaahhh at the pretty violent shocking beautiful celebrities/dead soldiers/famine victims but – look over here, America! – you could be looking at those photos next to this fridge, in this new kitchen or on this new lawnmower (in your fourth floor apartment) and, boy, now here’s Rita Hayworth. Call me an elitist or a cynical bum, but Life always seemed pretty cheap.

So, that’s all American, and, if that’s not enough for you, some of the most delightful chocolate chips to be found in this rich cookie came in Old Jews Telling Jokes. It’s pointless to tell the one about the rabbi or the gentile here, but these rascals have their own website and you have a few minutes to spare.

Future Media: edited by Rick Wilber

Reviewed by Jacob Knowles-Smith

Future Media

Norman Mailer hated television. He distrusted email. He even hated plastic. Marshall McLuhan was probably right, to some extent, to suggest that Mailer had a Victorian attitude towards technology. Other critics, past and present, will probably find sympathy with Mailer’s assertion that man’s relationship with technology is some kind of Faustian pact. You can watch them arguing about it all – two minds running on autopilot, having two different conversations – online after reading this article, on a web-based magazine, of a book I read as a PDF. Chances are, Mailer would hate all of this too, and we can probably guess his reaction to his books being available on Kindle. But chance, guesses and that repeated ‘probably’ are the key to the (e-)book under review; as Future Media is a collection of sci-fi fiction and non-fiction all concerned with the effects of media on its users and its ultimate potentialities – and is, thus, a collection more in the school of future, rather than media, studies.

There are several problems with this; predicting the future might be ‘fun’ but those predictions are very often wrong. Think of Herman Kahn and nuclear disasters or think, more pertinently, of McLuhan’s theory that technology would ultimately cause man to – somehow – revert back into a form of tribalism. As a lay reader of media studies, it’s hard to see how this relates to his other famous theory of the ‘Global Village’. Future Media is book-ended, appropriately enough given his lasting influence on media studies, by McLuhan’s work, but this is not enough to give a clear picture of what McLuhan was actually getting at. Often misunderstood even when read at length, in such small doses as this his work simply leaves you wondering whether either you’re to dumb to grasp the ideas or if he was a mere peddler of jargon.

This raises a question about Future Media itself: who is the book for? There’s no general audience for a collection of, on the one hand, science fiction – Huxley and Bradbury are here – and, on the other, non-fiction about media. However, if it’s for media studies students, and I have no idea how those departments are run, are they permitted to quote sci-fi stories in essays?

A collection like Future Media is the book equivalent of a search engine: chapters culled from their original body to prove/illustrate a point instead of immersing yourself in the original work – much like looking for information online. Information overload and the disposability of this information are just two consequences of the pact with technology – as Norman Mailer (again) said, “if you want to learn something, get thee to a book”. Yet the benefits of technology are so apparent that need not be mentioned here. Mailer’s point, however, is discussed in Future Media by Nicolas Carr in ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ This is one of the standout (non-fiction) pieces and describes the “chipping away [of] my capacity for concentration and contemplation” – something which most people will surely be able to relate to. Who isn’t a wizard when it comes to collecting snippets of information on anything from here and there and piecing them all together to suit our purpose, rather than spending valuable time reading a book? Carr informs us that this is known as “power browsing” and is fast becoming the dominant way in which users access information. He also highlights that due to this rapid information gathering – which includes text messages, emails, etc. – we are all probably reading more than ever before in history.

This is, of course, a different type of reading. The Kindle was mentioned earlier and indeed it, and any other ‘reading device’, is a more superficial form of reading. It may be convenient to have hundreds of books on one device but once you’ve got your free complete Shakespeare downloaded next to your other holiday-reads, will you ever look at them? Harold Bloom, the great literary critic, called digital books the “death of education” and in an age when reading is more and more superseded by television, video games and the internet, digitalisation will make books even more disposable – just as the MP3 killed the album.

Future Media has a lot of interesting work in it but probably – dare I say? – nothing you couldn’t find with a search engine, if you were interested. The ultimate trouble with futurology, besides the low success-rate, is that most of the things predicted are never as wondrous, elegant, or, even, horrific as the ultimate product. Consider the future idylls conjured up by the sixties; jet packs, flying cars, homicidal robots, computers bigger than the underwater houses they serve? You can keep them. I’ll stick with my iPhone.

—–

Marshall McLuhan and Norman Mailer take on the future

TV Eye: Bored to Death and Desperate Housewives

Gender agenda: Jacob Knowles-Smith on men without women, dysfunctional families, and killer whales

Bored to Death

After many years of not watching Friends on any of the Channel 4 family of stations, since they flogged it to Comedy Central, I’ve suddenly been spending entire Saturday afternoons watching episode after episode. Now that the show is no longer the running gag of Channel 4’s schedule, it would seem that it’s actually the funniest thing, along with Frasier, on Comedy Central. The performances, the gags, the timing: all of these should make the writers of contemporary sitcoms flinch with shame. Mike & Molly and Two and a Half Men are such new comedies and are, presumably, meant to be big draws for Comedy Central. The problem, of course, is that they aren’t funny. Mike & Molly consists mainly of – and one can glean this from simply watching the promos relentlessly book-ending segments of Friends – racial stereotypes and homophobic slurs combined with a celebration of America’s obesity problem. And whilst there may always be a certain slapstick laugh to be gained from a fat man falling down, you can’t base an entire series around it. Two and a Half Men, however, gets most of its laughs from misogyny – this was never terribly funny with Charlie Sheen at the helm and now, with Ashton Kutcher, it’s just embarrassing.

All of this is merely a prelude to the sigh of relief that must surely have escaped from comedy fans’ lungs when it was announced that a new season of Arrested Development (Fox) would be arriving ahead of a final (?) big screen farewell to the Bluth family. Shunted (as it was in Britain) to the doldrums of late night BBC 2, Arrested Development was not only a classic comedy in its own right, it also paved the way for other ‘higher comedies’, if you will, such as 30 Rock (NBC) and HBO’s Bored to Death. Both shows are undervalued by the wider audience (and more on 30 Rock next year) but Bored to Death with its short-running seasons of eight episodes is almost too easy to miss.

Centring around a novelist who blunders his way into becoming a private detective, the show is a fine blend, full of witty little literary and crime fiction references, casual drug use and a bromance like no other between the three principal characters. Jonathan Ames, our writer/PI, played by Jason Schwartzman and a fictional version of the show’s creator of the same name, Ray (Zach Galifianakis), a pot smoking comic book artist, and George Christopher, a hodgepodge of American journo-grandees (fore- and surname taken from Plimpton and Hitchens, respectively) played exquisitely by Ted Danson. Innocents all, they manage to navigate an imagined New York City on acid – fine, just New York – with the insouciance of Laurel and Hardy dusting themselves down after the building collapses on them yet again. They rebound pretensions and glib assertions off one another at such a pace that one has to resist the temptation to go back and catch the lines again. If they were simply horrible people, they wouldn’t be able to pull it off but we can forgive them for their self-involvement and living like a “demented god” because the friendship and acceptance between the trio is one that we – men, at least – would all like to have. Who among us doesn’t yearn to smoke pot and spoon with two close friends?

Just as no one seems to be particularly bored in Bored to Death, the women of Wisteria Lane never seem too desperately in need of anything. Indeed, the lives of the characters in Desperate Housewives (ABC) – perhaps, at a guess, the ultimate ideal of female friendship – only seem to be disrupted when the new killer or other bad element moves in to disrupt suburbia – and who’s killing whom this season? Perhaps the series has run too long, but this is the last season and they seem to be giving it a better shot than the last and, more importantly, it’s still entertaining and can easily raise a laugh. Desperate Housewives has always been the highest of guilty pleasures and may ultimately be missed when it’s gone. The show’s main skill is switching with unbelievable pace between the tragic and the comic. This is chiefly achieved through the music: just when the violin strings start tugging the heart strings in the direction of divorce or cancer – cue a jaunty variation of the theme music to herald a bon mot. Despite touching on nearly every subject from class to women’s rights and alcoholism to gay rights, Desperate Housewives has never been a ‘challenging’ drama. It is something more in between farce and black comedy but I’d much rather have it than another episode of the obdurately ‘challenging’ Treme.

A couple of years ago, the BBC ran a set of aggrandising and slightly smug promotions that all carried the slogan “This is what we do” – i.e. so pay your bloody license fee. However, David Attenborough is demonstrating, as usual, exactly what the BBC does and what it does better than any other broadcaster in the world: nature. In his latest documentary series, Frozen Planet, Attenborough shows us that we should be far less worried about James Murdoch being part of the mafia than if the killer whales decided to start taking care of things. Their hunting methods are so calculated and chilling – strike pun – that one is inclined to think that rational thought is at work, rather than a magnificent killer instinct gifted by nature. If the BBC starts hiring them to collect license fees, call me Ishmael.

TV Eye: True Stories: Kissinger and House

You wait all season for a misanthropic, sociopathic doctor, then two come along at once. Jacob Knowles-Smith reviews

House

Around the turn of the last century, events both natural and unnatural conspired to shed the giants of the 19th century, such as Queen Victoria and William McKinley. In our new century, however, assassinations being less frequent (in the West) and healthcare being more advanced, we don’t seem to be able to escape the extant dinosaurs lumbering across the contemporary landscape. Neil Kinnock’s soundbites are unavoidable whenever the Labour party does anything newsworthy (or otherwise) and Norman Major was even dragged up during the recent plight of poor Dave and Dr Fox. Granted, the ‘90s weren’t so long ago but More4’s recent documentary True Stories: Kissinger was a grotesque display of pandering to a mandarin who’s had his time.

An obvious point to make is that a documentary series entitled True Stories and Henry Kissinger could be considered something of a misnomer. His lines have been so rehearsed since the ‘60s that he is now the personification of a foreign policy statement. Furthermore, this is pretty cheap TV, as surely these are just Niall Ferguson’s research interviews on tape, whether filmed with a good camera and spliced with archive footage or not. The time to delve deeper into the Kissinger legend will be when Ferguson’s (two-volume) biography is published and, on that point, Ferguson is a good historian but it’s possible he has been commissioned for the project simply because he is the most sympathetic candidate Kissinger has come across since his displeasure at Walter Isaacson’s admirable book published in 1992. (Alistair Horne was allowed to do a snapshot history focusing on a mere year when the doctor was at the height of his power.)

Kissinger proudly boasts, either here or in another interview, that he has had more direct involvement with American foreign policy and/or met more Chinese leaders than anyone else. This is quite true and thus, by natural progression, it is therefore no surprise that wherever there is a human rights issue in the world, China, and indeed Russia, have their boot firmly inserted in the backdoor. However, the main problem with the documentary is that Kissinger isn’t terribly interesting. Whatever charm – it can’t simply be power, can it? – that allowed him to spend so much time with beautiful women has long since vanished. He is not without a twinkle in some of the early archive footage. Nixon will always be a more complex puzzle of a man. Perhaps this gives truth to Hannah Arendt’s thesis that evil is banal.

The film reminded me of a documentary about another old warmonger, Robert McNamara, who (in The Fog of War) displays genuine, tearful regret for the decisions and actions of himself and the Kennedy Administration over Vietnam. Kissinger stands by and attempts to justify his every action and shows no outward signs of any regret. I thought of the words of Traudl Junge, one of Hitler’s secretaries, from interview footage that appears in the movie Downfall and says – to paraphrase – that ignorance was no excuse. They could’ve found out what was going on under the Third Reich if they had wanted to. This is not to say that many people did not know, and especially not to make a comparison between Kissinger and McNamara with Hitler but these former two did know what was going on, what they were doing, and they don’t get to have our sympathy.

Meanwhile, in the eighth season of Fox’s drama, another doctor, Gregory House, is where many people would like to see Kissinger – in gaol. Luckily – for the sake of the show’s format – only for the first episode, which really served only to introduce a replacement for Cameron (girl-doctor) in the form of prison doctor, Jessica Adams. When House (Hugh Laurie) is inevitably released at the start of the second episode, everyone was no doubt surprised to see that Foreman (Omar Epps, as ethnic-doctor) has taken over the top role at PPTH. Not that most people with Twitter would be surprised to know that Lisa Edelstein had departed from her role as Cuddy but anyone with half a brain might wonder how a doctor who with so little management experience could become Dean. All shows need conflict, of course, and House, like Frasier after Niles and Daphne came together, lost much of its energy when the tensions between Cuddy and House were relieved, as it were. Furthermore, Foreman, as the character always most in danger of turning into House, could prove to be a more stubborn and capable opponent than Cuddy.

No doubt Chase (boy-doctor) and Taub (everyman-doctor) will be back as well as Foreman, but by the third episode House has assembled a motley firm consisting of the aforementioned Adams (new-girl-doctor), Thirteen (Olivia Wilde, briefly, it would seem, reprising her role of bad-girl-doctor) and a very annoying character called Chen (ethnic-girl-doctor). With the introduction of this latter character, it’s hard to understand what the point of med-student Martha Masters (no, no more designations) was in the last season, other than yet another fresh person for House to test his skills of manipulation on. Clearly we just like programmes about misanthropes and sociopaths. But the banter seems, so far, crisper in this season and, when that ankle-tag comes off House, I look forward to seeing what tortures he can inflict on the new management in the name of medicine.

Christopher Hitchens: Arguably (Atlantic Books)

Reviewed by Jacob Knowles-Smith

HitchensThe critic, wrote H.L. Mencken in his Prejudices, “makes the work of art live for the spectator; he makes the spectator live for the work of art”. If we take this as a fair and desirable definition of a critic; which, Mencken continues, results in “understanding, appreciation, [and] intelligent enjoyment”; then in Arguably, his latest collection of essays, Christopher Hitchens measures up to the requirements and succeeds in producing those reactions through his limpid and erudite body of work. Mencken didn’t mention fulminous disagreement or wholehearted approbation – surprisingly, given his record – but one is almost certain encounter these reactions whenever Hitchens comes up in conversation, be it across the press or amongst interested friends. Suspicion should probably be meted equally to those whom describe Hitchens as the world’s greatest author and, conversely, try to dismiss him as a glib pseudo-intellectual. That being said, he simply is, even solely on the basis of Arguably, one of our greatest prose stylists, and is, maddeningly for some, capable of dismissing entire schools of thought and opinion, authors and politicians with a pen stroke of that prose.

You need look no further than first section, of six, of the book to appreciate this; of John Updike’s prose in his book Terrorist: “Could anything be more hip and up-to-the-minute?” or “This is a fair attempt to push all the clichés about Irish-Americans into one brief statement”. Examples such as these demonstrate that, though their friendship may have dissolved entirely, Hitchens’s writing still flirts with the influence of Gore Vidal, who was – is? – also capable of this type of constructive literary bitchiness (and also doesn’t escape criticism in this volume).

Arguably is a stout volume crammed with over one hundred pieces for greedy readers in the main taken from The Atlantic, Slate and Vanity Fair. Just under half the pieces are book reviews, mainly from The Atlantic, and these are the essays which elevate Hitchens from a social commentator or pundit – though usually incorporating these two aspects at the same time – to a critic. Indeed, if it had not been for 9/11 he might, as stated in a 2006 profile in the New Yorker, have left politics behind – excepting that his book reviews are of an holistic nature and go far deeper than the text under discussion; see the review of a book about the Founding Fathers and faith which he uses as a shield against the ‘theocratic fascism’ that threatens America today – and not meaning just the Islamic variety.

Obviously matters of religion are central to Hitchens’s body of work but it may be of interest to some, perhaps those wounded Christians who sent him congratulatory letters when he was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer, that there are no outright critiques of religion in this collection. However, there are those that appear in more subtle forms in keen reportages from Iran, Iraqi Kurdistan and Afghanistan, among others, that describe both the oppression of those countries’ people by such outfits as the Taliban and heartening – not patronising – accounts of their desire for change, as we have seen in recent months. (We are also reminded that Saddam Hussein did at least one positive thing during his reign: “By subjecting the Kurds to genocide he gave them a solidarity they had not known before” and thus gave them the impetus to create one of the most liberal societies in the Middle East.) In an essay on Benjamin Franklin Hitchens also gets to employ another of his favourite themes, the deism of the Founding Fathers, and a favourite – for good reason – line, of Franklin’s, about religion: “Created sick, and then commanded to be well”. This is not to say that Hitchens’s writing is repetitive but that when he thinks a point is worth pressing he isn’t afraid to do so. In this case he is especially right to, when considering, as he highlights, that even the great Mark Twain couldn’t see the satire in Franklin’s maxims.

All of the things that have come to be associated with Hitchens are present in this book from Marx and Orwell to Larkin and alcohol, but the most ‘controversial’ piece in the book is entitled, almost as if it has a label reading ‘Inflammable’ attached, ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’. It is amazing that this little feuilleton written for Vanity Fair attracted so much attention because Hitchens explicitly states that he doesn’t mean that there are no great women comedians but that women do not have the same need as men to be funny in the first place and, secondly, if you don’t think there’s even a hint of irony in it or you can’t shrug it off – then you aren’t funny (darling).

Articles of this nature, though, could give some readers pause to question why Hitchens writes fairly diversionary pieces like this one for Vanity Fair, to which one could add that surely no one should be serious all the time. But why Vanity Fair? A fine publication in many respects but, if you were to look at their website or a random issue, it seems jarring that Hitchens writes for a magazine still so eager to support the Kennedy dynasty and the myth of Camelot – especially considering that, of their legacy, he has this to say: “The reputation of the Kennedy racket is now dependent on a sobbing effort of will: an applauding chorus demanding that the flickering Tinkerbell not be allowed to expire”.

The result of this trade-off, however, is that he is able to write essays that might not otherwise reach such large audiences, such as most of the ‘Postcard’ pieces mentioned above and a tour de force essay in praise of the King James’s Bible and its influence on the vernacular – but only as a stepping stone and liberating force along the progress of mankind towards permanently throwing off the shadow of Rome, and that its abandonment by the Church of England goes to show that religion is a man-made construct “with inky human fingerprints” smeared over its divine body.

The essays in this collection are meant to enrage those who disagree with Hitchens and delight those who find his arguments convincing; but he never asks blind fealty of us – the title of the book gives it all away – and, as he remarks of a Lincoln scholar, he treats us like grownups, with minds of our own. Decades will pass before the permanence of the Hitch’s (if you’ll forgive one use of the overtly familiar colloquialism) work is decided, but if this is his last book, as he fondly quotes of Benjamin Franklin, “litera script manet”. The written word shall remain.

TV Eye: Boardwalk Empire

This week, Jacob Knowles-Smith ponders whether its us or them to blame for the muted response to HBO’s lavish series

Boardwalk Empire

Wikipedia is a killer. A plot killer, that is. Before its advent, the history of a period drama like HBO’s Boardwalk Empire would be known only by those with an interest in prohibition-era American history. A wider audience might reasonably be expected to know a little about Al Capone but he’s hardly at the centre of the show; which is a good thing too because an ‘origin drama’ focusing around Capone wouldn’t hold any of the subtleties that Boardwalk Empire does – it would be painted as the traditional saga of a man driven by poverty to exploit and crush everything around him until he destroys his very soul – and we’ve had that in The Sopranos. As it is, we have Nucky Thompson, a fairly obscure player in the history of American gangsterism but at least we know he’s a man for whom salvation isn’t an option or even much of a concern, and, thanks to Wikipedia, now any viewer – with but a few keystrokes – can find out about his entire history, something which they might not have been inclined to research a decade (or less) ago. My point (thanks for staying) is that surprise and invention can’t play a large part in such an authentic programme and because Nucky, and Steve Buscemi’s portrayal of the character, are the very large and imposing focus of Boardwalk Empire the writers don’t have much room to manoeuvre.

This may be part of the reason why the show is yet to achieve the popularity it covets, and surely, to some extent, deserves. This is not the popularity of critical acclaim and awards but the ‘water cooler’ factor, the public have not fallen in love with the show. The two shows of which it is surely the heir to, The Sopranos and The Wire, both had central characters that obviously loomed large over the entire series. Tony Soprano was a central character people lived to watch – and vice versa, I’m sure – for over a decade but we were equally captivated by the stories of the supporting cast, plots which often had no direct connection to Tony. The Wire, on the other hand, was careful never to have a too obvious face, characters at the forefront of one season could be ruthlessly butchered by the next and even McNulty was a minor presence in the fourth season, but Baltimore itself was the central character in that series and was no less a presence than Stringer Bell or Omar Little.

Nucky Thompson, however, is the only character, so far, presented with any depth in Boardwalk Empire. Jimmy and Margaret perhaps, but they are mere Pips to Buscemi’s Gladys Knight. Even the scenes that don’t feature Nucky, which are few, are usually full of people plotting against him or wondering when he’ll be back for dinner. (It should be noted, of course, that every scene is gorgeous – and often gorgeously violent, so watching just for aesthetics is encouraged.) In the first episode of the second season we have sulky Jimmy, proud Commodore and jealous Eli preparing to take down the man who has been, respectively, father, son and brother to each of them – only literally in the third case, of course, but it remains to be seen whether or not it will be the actual blood tie that saves Nucky. Then again, if the previous season is anything to go, he will probably mastermind his own solution and single-handedly defeat each of his many adversaries, or will it be the dulcet council of Margaret Schroeder that proves his salvation? Behind every great man and all that…

In the end, Boardwalk Empire is stuck in a difficult position: it’s easy to criticise such a fatted-calf of a show and easy for critics to overpraise it. When people say it’s the best thing on television, or some bore in a wine bar utters those chilling words “it’s the new Wire”, they’re clearly not paying enough attention to Breaking Bad, Justified or even Mad Men – a show which one would wonder how people could pay more attention to and, yet, people even criticise that for not being engaging enough. Could it be we’ve all been spoilt? In Boardwalk Empire, we have a show with quality direction, performances, dialogue and enough precious ‘themes’ – social, political, etc. – to keep even the most post-modern Marxist-feminist blogger happy, and so should we all be.

But it could be funnier.

For those whom have access to the Universal Channel (UK), and want to wile away an evening with the best kind of good-bad TV, it would be remiss not to direct you toward Law & Order: Los Angeles (Thursdays, 9:00PM). This is a clever enough procedural/legal drama, produced with all the slickness and snappiness (the cliché threat level is on its lowest setting) you’d expect from Dick Wolf (producer of Miami Vice and the Law & Order franchise) with the added bonus of having the great Alfred Molina filling its maverick role. I only came to the show about two thirds of the way through, but, when a UK DVD release is announced, I can already feel my cursor drifting toward ‘Pre-order this item today’ . Yes, we all have our vices.

TV Eye: Downton Abbey and The Story of Film: An Odyssey

This week, Jacob Knowles-Smith takes on the 20th century as seen through the cinema lens and the eyes of Julian Fellowes

DowntonIt is curious that since the first series of Downton Abbey (ITV 1) the BBC has also made an effort to create period dramas set in the 20th, rather than 18th or 19th, century. Have they lost their faith in bonnets? After all, the autumn television is the season for getting people hooked on such comfortable dramas so they can ward off the effects of the waning year. Whatever the reasoning, the 9pm choice on Sunday was between the death, or finale, if you prefer, of Spooks (BBC 1) and the start of the new series of Downton Abbey, I went for the latter, never having watched either before.

On first viewing, the dialogue, both down- and upstairs, seems authentic enough and mercifully light of cliché with wit peppered throughout, particularly in the case of Maggie Smith’s character who is plainly one the main reasons to watch. Together with Hugh Bonneville’s performance at the heart of the show, who unfortunately he had little screen time in this first episode, except a glimmer of greatness whilst having a professional break up with a servant. It’s difficult to know whether there’s enough here to keep one coming back in the week after week – if you don’t really like love stories, there’s little to engage with. Certainly the issue of class struggle hardly plays into it; last year it was decided by the media that people would enjoy seeing the sumptuous sets and how the other ‘half’ live during a recession, but will a second helping prove too much to stomach? After all, “thick and rich” said Samuel Beckett of the cream of society.

Staying with ITV 1 for a moment, the adverts during the new Jonathan Ross Show are, of course, book-ended by sponsor messages – however, one ‘skit’ has the line ‘not funny at all’ in it, which is a potentially dangerous case of word association for Ross’s new venture.

What can be said about More4? Noble attempt – gesture? – to recapture Channel 4’s long-lost association with the higher end of middlebrow and cultural significance? Or graveyard for repeats of the less sensational documentaries made by its parent channel and those dramas they no longer care about (later episodes of The West Wing, for example)?

Probably both; but if Channel 4 doesn’t have the money to produce or buy programmes other than those that have the asses-in-seats potential of Seven Dwarves (if you don’t know, don’t look it up) or The Inbetweeners, then that’s the cycle of ad-revenue power they’re stuck in. Occasionally, however, they do move out from under the shade of the cat house and bring to our attention something significant like Mark Cousins’s 15-part documentary, based upon his book of the same title, The Story of Film: An Odyssey. The first thing to say is that people – critics, mainly – will argue about the merits of Cousins’s delivery ad infinitum and his rising, languid tone can, at times, be distracting but not, surely, enough to deprive him his seat in whatever Valhalla is reserved for documentary makers.

With that safely to one side, something about the series itself: three episodes have aired so far, taking us from the birth of film, to Hollywood in the 20s and the activities of film makers around the world in that, and the proceeding, decade. Cousins guides us through the work of various directors, paints their themes and dreams, and interspaces shots from their pictures with, where possible, images of what the streets and buildings look like today. Is this technique an attempt to demonstrate the timelessness of film or, as in shots of Shanghai, to show that where film starts, capitalist excess follows? Or, perhaps, does it give him time to say what isn’t going on in preceding movie scenes, but rather what the directors were attempting? Either way, he does sometimes have a tendency to spend a little too much time describing what we can plainly see for ourselves. However, this is, arguably, a necessity for the viewer whom hasn’t seen many of the films from around the world. Though, one supposes, many contemporary audiences wouldn’t be very familiar with the work of Chaplin or Keaton. Cousins also shows us scenes from later directors that are inspired by his current period’s film makers but, all too often, these shots are so brief that we have to take his word for it.

But these are minor ‘flaws’ (the bigger problem is that, by virtue of being on More4, the film simply won’t be seen by enough people) and, taken as a whole, The Story of Film is hypnotic and magnificent. With a further 12 weeks of episodes to come, moving next to the birth of sound, as far as this column goes: you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.

Jill McGivering: Far from my Father’s House

Jill McGivering is a BBC foreign correspondent and has reported from all over the world, including some of its poorest and most conflict scarred countries. In Far from my Father’s House, her second novel, she employs her wealth of experience in the field to tell tale of Layla, a young Muslim woman, and the destruction of her family life by the Taliban. The author answered a few questions about her life and career as a writer.

Jill McGivering

As a foreign news correspondent for the BBC you’ve travelled all over the world and must’ve seen horrifying and extraordinary things: can you give us examples of humanity at its best and at its worst?

I have witnessed first hand many instances of the horrific treatment of vulnerable people in my work as a correspondent: young girls being enslaved to work as prostitutes, babies being bought and sold, the mental ill being kept in chains and villagers murdering fellow families because they’re from a different caste or religion. And that is not counting the suffering and violence associated with armed conflict and, in a different way, with natural disasters.

It would be easy to have a cynical view of human nature. But what heartens me is the knowledge that I am not the only person who finds such stories distressing. In all these environments, I have come across many examples of people who are brave enough to take a stand against injustice and fight for other people’s rights and safety, often at great personal risk. I’ve also seen great acts of kindness – for example, families who are desperately poor themselves but who willingly take in a family of strangers and feed and shelter them, just because they are in need – or, during murderous riots, people who risked their own lives by intervening to try to defend those under attack. In a less direct way, it is also humbling when I have broadcast a report and afterwards “ordinary” people, who live thousands of miles away in a different culture, get in touch with me to ask how they can help or how they can send money to the people in need.

You’re currently based in London: do you prefer to be at home and travel on assignments, or do you prefer long-term postings abroad, such as those in Delhi and Washington, DC? Would you like to leave the UK again and, for that matter, do you consider the UK your home?

I definitely consider the UK to be home. I was born and brought up here and my family lives here – and has done for as far back as we can trace the family tree. I loved living overseas for almost all of my 20s and 30s. It was exciting and I learned so much about other cultures, about people, about news and, of course, about myself. But now I am very happy to have the best of both worlds: living in London but having the chance to travel often for work and pleasure.

To what extent are the characters, locations and situations described in your novels based on your experiences as a journalist?

I try to draw on elements of my own experiences to give my novels credibility and authenticity. My real life experiences help me, for example, to give a strong sense of place and describe what a particular environment feels, smells and looks like. It also feeds the books in terms of developing key themes and ideas.

My first novel, The Last Kestrel, is set in Helmand Province during the current conflict and it would have been really hard to describe a village in Helmand, give a sense of the local culture and reflect an experience of a journalist who is embedded with the British military if I hadn’t experienced these things for myself.

But it’s also extremely important that the actual events, the plot lines and characters are all fictional. It’s almost a case of knowing a place to start with – then taking a big step away from the real world, going into the imagination and only then starting to write. Also plot is very different from real life and needs to come to reasonably satisfying resolutions and conclusions.

Far from my Father’s House is a case in point. I’ve spent time in relief camps in North West Pakistan, interviewing people who have escaped from communities which had been taken over by the Taliban and some of the stories I heard and the women I met made me inspired, some time later, to sit down and imagine a set of fictional characters and the journeys they might take.

Do you write your fiction with an agenda? That is to say, are you trying to create a work of art or raise social issues? ‘Both’, of course, is an entirely reasonable answer.

I don’t want to pursue an agenda. That would imply for a start that I thought I had the answers – and a theme in the novels is that no-one really does. Agendas are too simple. The moral landscapes in all my novels are very grey. There are no good or bad characters. The characters are all people who are doing the best they can to survive and to pursue their dreams in very difficult situations and while they are coming under immense internal and external pressure. I’d like readers to have a sense of the humanity of these characters – with all the complexities and struggles that humanity involves. So they’re not intended to deliver simple social messages – that would be unrealistic and too convenient.

Who are the writers that you admire and enjoy?

I used to love Virginia Woolf when I was a teenager – especially To The Lighthouse. Her use of language was so lyrical and groundbreaking. More recently I’ve really enjoyed the novels of Sarah Waters – probably Fingersmith is my favourite – for their clever plotting and very clean but evocative use of language.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road blew me away when I first read it. It’s harrowing but also a very moving examination of a man’s love for his child.

One of my favourite recent books was Wolf Hall – a very worthy winner of the Booker Prize. She has such a gift for narrative and for character. I felt bereft when I finished it – and can’t wait for the sequel to come out.

Do you feel that any of them influence your style?

I suspect that all these years as a working journalist have influenced my style more than other writers. My writing used to be more lyrical when I was younger and I was interested in language for its own sake. Now I see language as a means to an end, not an end in itself. The narrative and the characters matter and the words only serve them. Journalism also taught me the discipline of sitting down and getting on with it.

Finally, as a journalist, do you think the recent phone hacking saga will make the public wary of the media as a whole, or reinforce trusted organisations like the BBC?

There’ve always been good and bad journalists, some who are very ethical and some who are less so. I think the public has the sense to realise that good journalism is valuable, in fact essential, and needs to be safeguarded. The current scandals are a terrible shock for the profession but hopefully it will lead to wider debate about what’s acceptable and what isn’t, what’s genuinely in the public interest and what is not.


Far From My Father's House

As McGivering says, all her characters are fictions pulled together from strands of reality and this is most evident in the central character of Layla who is presented to us through the first person. The author gives Layla a very convincing voice which makes the relationship between the girl and her family so engaging, and equally evocative are the descriptions of Pakistan itself. Layla is educated as the son her father never had and sometimes wishes that she indeed been a boy so she could work and travel as the men of her people do. Gender inequalities are a central theme of the book but McGivering is able to avoid ever sounding like a preaching churl of Western values who thinks Muslims have everything wrong.

Layla’s father attempts to resist the Taliban but, despite his courage, his school is crushed by the oppressive agents of that glorified crime ring. There are more attacks on education later in the novel, highlighting that under all totalitarian regimes freedom of thought and expression must be crushed in order to protect the thugs who would seek to control every aspect of their supporters’ lives.

Ellen, a British journalist, and Jamelia, Layla’s father’s first wife, are the other two voices in the book – this time in third person. Sometimes it can be a distraction switching between first and third perspectives but one must ask oneself would anything be lost if it were written in one or the other? In this novel the answer is yes, if the novel were written all in third person then we would lose the keen insight into Layla’s thoughts and feelings; conversely, if it were written in first person from Ellen’s perspective this would be too easy for McGivering.

Throughout the book the author builds tension well and the opening chapters are an immediate hook for the reading – Layla’s fear of being seen by Taliban supporters, even on the first few pages, is especially well rendered. The events surrounding Ellen are narrated equally vividly, however, certain plot twists were somewhat too loudly signalled: the use of the character Adnan by the Taliban and the involvement of the sinister aid huckster Quentin Khan, for example. However, Jamelia was another credible character who lent her strength and wisdom to the men of her family and struggles to overwhelm their inertia in the face of the Taliban.

If there was an off-putting branch of the narrative it was the relationship between Ellen and Frank; this felt superfluous to the overall plot and was not required to keep the reader engaged. One might say that this novel was aimed towards a female audience but the lives of the women themselves are remarkable enough to stand without a love angle.

Perhaps the book could have probed further into issues such as equality for women and education for girls but, as she says above, McGivering does not write with an agenda and literature is not an engine for social change. It is enough to have written a satisfying book that encompasses mystery, adventure and suspense whilst making you think – and all set in a country which every Westerner thinks they know, but which might yet yield some surprises.

TV Eye: Bill Hicks, The Field of Blood and Page Eight

Jacob Knowles-Smith settles down for an original American comic and some not so original British drama

It might be a cliché for fans of Bill Hicks to reminisce about the man and wonder what he might have to say about the present day, but it isn’t much of a stretch of the imagination: he wouldn’t have to change much more than the names in his routines and, perhaps, amp up the bile. In American: The Bill Hicks Story (BBC 4) fans old and new were treated to an in depth account of the life of the comedian; from footage of his first gigs at the all-too-precious age of fifteen right up to the famous performances that most viewers will probably have known by heart, and find all the more hilarious for this.

The most interesting aspect of the film was the insight into how Hicks’ most well-known jokes – set pieces? – evolved into their final form; particularly so when noting that the anger first emerged as a result of seeing how much alcohol he could consume when first on stage and later honed this feature into a fine art when sober. A whiff of hagiography has been associated with the documentary but his unpleasantness as a drunk is noted and what would there be to gain by scrutinising his ‘dark side’ other than a cautionary tale that would be anathema to Hicks himself?

Visually, the film is an innovative and smooth blend of animations put together through family photographs and video footage of his live performances that give an extra aesthetically pleasing element to a fine film made by the people who loved the man most, and should stand as a primer for many years to come for all those who will fall in love with Hicks and his message of individualism and not giving those in charge an easy ride.

Less than a week since the final episode of The Hour the BBC seems to have known they were onto something and split the still-warm corpse of the programme down the middle, creating a period drama set in a newsroom and a spy thriller. Sadly, neither can be modified with tags such as ‘high octane’ or even, for that matter, ‘thriller’. The former was the adaptation of the novel The Field of Blood (BBC 1), the story of a jobbing young reporter trying to get to that ever elusive truth, and the latter was Page Eight (BBC 2), a tale of MI5 high jinks and skulduggery.

In The Field of Blood Jayd Johnson, who admirably carries the show on her young shoulders, plays plucky young copyboy-come-investigative journalist Paddy Meehan, embroiled in a murder implicating a family member. Whilst she seeks the real story, she subsists on a diet of hardboiled eggs and there are plenty of hardboiled reporters in the world of a 1980’s Glasgow-based newspaper to help – mostly hinder – her quest. However, even in this most unglamorous of settings the influence of Mad Men prevails – within the first five or so minutes there is gratuitous shot of some grizzled hack taking a nip from a flask – realism is one thing, but this felt like an all too knowing nod to Madison Avenue.

The dialogue rolls fairly well and amusingly along; though one look at McVie – another hack – and you could see the words “You’ll make a journalist yet” tumbling out of his mouth a few scenes later, which seems all too easy if one of the themes they’re trying to portray is the struggle of a young woman making it in a boy’s club.

This is forgivable though, when confronted with the clunky and often glib script of Page Eight: “Wake up, Johnny – 21st century” or, when musing on who has true power, “The bankers did, and look what happened to them.” Well, what exactly did? Such leaden lines were fortunate to have Bill Nighy, as Johnny Worricker of MI5, around to carry them even if he does curiously swing sociopathically from flat monotone speeches to sudden bursts of rage. And he walks a lot. Walks from this scene, walks to that scene. Is this to show his isolation, that he’s a man out of time? Or a clumsy attempt at pointless establishing shots?

The characters Worricker meets, between stumbling upon ‘too much information’, are equally random and bizarre: shoved together from clichés that are, one supposes, meant to be so blunt they trick us into assuming they’re some fresh take. There’s a predatory homosexual Financial Times journalist, a very wised-up Muslim secretary, and Johnny’s attention-starved artist daughter whom he just doesn’t ‘get’ but – dash it all – he never could refuse. And, not to forget, Michael Gambon keeps popping up, until he dies, before Nighy goes for another walk. I wonder if the BBC thought we should be grateful for this as our Bank Holiday treat – given that it undermines the goodwill of The Hour – flawed, but charming – and proves the sameness of both programmes to everything else on TV at the same time.

TV Eye: The Hour and The Culture Show

The Hour

In his second episode of television reviews, Jacob Knowles-Smith looks at the BBC’s Suez-and-spies drama The Hour and The Culture Show on holiday in Edinburgh

Just when you think that the BBC have peaked with a smash hit like Dr Who and abandoned the idea of a making programme that comes without limitless potential for merchandising, they slap The Hour (BBC 2) onto our screens and you thank heaven that an hour-long show is always an actual hour on the BBC, rather than the dissected alternatives higher up the channel list. All of the comparisons with Mad Men have already been made and, in most cases, found wanting. The one thing they undoubtedly (and, again, thankfully) share is a look so easy on the eye that it leaves no room for the spirit of British amateurishness and occasional chumminess that haunts many shows. However, it is still easy enough to imagine the command filtering down through the BBC that it might not be a bad idea if someone got together a series, if not similar to, then in the same vein as Mad Men, especially since BBC 4 will no longer be premiering that show on this side of the Atlantic.

Because The Hour is limited to the standard BBC run of six episodes, it has a somewhat quicker pace than an American drama which will typically have double the episodes to play around with. Thus we can see certain twists and trysts coming along and waving their arms in the background but the show is driven and kept engaging by it’s three leads: Ben Whishaw (Freddie Lyon), Dominic West (Hector Madden) and Romola Garai (Bel Rowley). Whishaw plays a brash young journalist with shades of brilliance who seems to have come up with the whole idea of a serious weekly news show (it’s not clear) and is pipped to the role of host by Dominic West’s Standard English pretty boy, a man whose chief purpose in life seems to be the charming into bed of their female producer – and who can blame him? Romola Garai combines sassiness with a certain quiet resignation towards the insecurity and authenticity of her position as a female producer in those times, not to mention the wider inequalities imposed upon her by society – though who would really want to join those men for brandy?

It’s fortunate that these three performers are so credible, because there is something lacking in the script – hire an American? – and, looking at the descriptions above, those could all be stock characters plucked from a novel written by someone like Lyon’s beloved Ian Fleming – which brings us to the cloak and dagger element of the plot. Without risking any spoilers, one has to wonder if this series wouldn’t be more interesting if it were a drama concerned more with the struggle to launch a new television format without having to have so much subterfuge involved? (As an aside, it seems that Dominic West got the better of the BBC offers after the success of The Wire compared to Idris Elba’s struggles in the mind-boggling Luther – I never doubted either of their accents on the streets of Baltimore, but I’m not entirely convinced by Elba’s English one.)

If you weren’t already kicking yourself for not being among all the champagne swigging, Primark wearing, tattoo stamping, frappé quaffing fauxhème booboisie wandering around the streets of Edinburgh over August then BBC 2’s The Culture Show special may, or may not, leave you with sore limbs. Sometimes the main impression derived from the Edinburgh Festivals is that of the atmosphere of the Cambridge Folk Festival and the knowingness of a Radio 4 panel game being thrust upon the arts in all their gloriously bizarre and beautiful forms – fortunately The Culture Show spared us from hearing the opinions of the punters.

It failed, however, to spare us from hearing the opinions of Julian Sands and John Malkovich whilst they were getting excited over Harold Pinter’s poetry. It’s not particularly exciting to read in the first place and one got the feeling that Simon Armitage didn’t see what they were getting at either. We also learned that Rauschenberg’s later constructions were about greed, but that he lost his edge – terrible fate for metal sculptor – and that humanity is obsessed with its own inevitable demise. That sting couldn’t come soon enough when one presenter, an Edinburgh Festival virgin, toured us around the shows require varying degrees of audience participation: when required to dance in one performance piece he warns us “I’m not much of a dancer”. Where was the warning “I’m not much of a presenter”? Doing a piece to camera takes skill, but mild proficiency is surely the least an audience at home can expect from a man who is otherwise talking to the bottom of their screens.

Thankfully the whole show was rescued by the women, A.S. Byatt and Ruby Wax in particular. Byatt deployed her dulcet tones to describe her new book Ragnarok: The End of the Gods and spoke brilliantly about the superior relevance of the Norse mythology to the world and our lives. The Book of Revelations, for example, sounds like Sunday lunch compared with the story of Ragnarok. And Ruby Wax was her usual enchanting self – enchanting in the way that all Jewish comedians seem to be able to enchant this reviewer – though she was somewhat subdued compared to her previous self, and no surprise after her mental breakdown which she explores in her new show Losing It. Finally, Sue Perkins proved herself to be a better hand at presenting The Culture Show than any of the regulars, perhaps it’s because she was as serious as a fairly lightweight overview of arts and culture actually needs to be.

TV Eye: HBO’s Entourage

In the first instalment of a new column on TV programmes, Jacob Knowles-Smith reviews Entourage

Entourage logo

As anyone who has ever read Casanova’s memoirs knows, even the Great Seducer was knocked back once or twice. But it took seven seasons of Entourage and a drug problem for Vincent Chase, arguably a modern-day equivalent, to get himself turned down by a woman. The comparison falters a bit when remembering that Vince (Adrian Grenier) is, of course, fiction and Casanova wasn’t; though it could just be that reality isn’t what it once was and in that in the 21st century and the culture of mutual usage a man of Casanova’s ability let loose in LA could indeed make up those notches on his bedposts. This doesn’t say much for feminism but then neither did Sex and the City.

When one thinks of the great HBO dramas, Entourage doesn’t immediately come to mind and, even keeping in mind that it’s billed as a comedy-drama, perhaps this is because it took all those seasons to ever offer much more than a hint of the underbelly of Hollywood. This is not to say that all television drama must necessarily be dark, but Hollywood is a gift horse – and it has rotten teeth. Only now are we seeing the binges taking their toll, actions and words having not just consequences but ending in legal trouble and rehab; the latter of which Vince emerges at the start of the eighth (and final) season seemingly free of previous troubles. Troubles that might cause the hardened nose candy veteran of Hollywood to slightly disturb the mountain of coke before them with a snicker before they planted their face into it for breakfast. It remains to be seen if Vince can stick at the clean living – but enough talk about him. Lovely as he is, he’s always been least interesting character. The clue, after all, is in the title.

Whilst Vince is busy pitching a clanger of a film for himself, perhaps to ward off feeling sorry for himself, the rest of the crew have problems of their own. Eric, Turtle and Ari are all having difficulties with girls and the incomparable Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon) is on the cusp of animated glory. Without going into too much detail, the girl trouble is much the same in Hollywood as it is the world over: how to keep the women in their lives happy whilst dealing with the ass that is the spokesman for every man’s ego and, again almost universally, the solution seems to lie in getting drunk and getting angry. Such foibles make an otherwise despicable character like Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven) the kind of person you’d like to go for a drink with, or at least have as your agent. On the other hand, Drama’s ego allows him to be so self-satisfied with his status as a lady killer that he is free to pursue his professional activities (though he wouldn’t even have them if he hadn’t, for once, shown some contrition at the end of the last season). The biggest threat to the success of Drama’s new ape-themed cartoon comedy seems to be the complications that may be provided by his co-star – the ghastly ‘Diceman’ whom some may still remember from his comedy-free comedy in the late-eighties/early-nineties. Entourage has always kept up the fine tradition started by The Larry Sander’s Show of celebrities appearing as loathsome caricatures of themselves. Perhaps not always caricatures – Seth Green might be a prick. Either way, ‘Diceman’ is just one less vowel away from having a more appropriate title.

This is, as mentioned, the final season of Entourage and the small screen will certainly suffer for the loss of the show’s piquant camaraderie that bestows the greatest gift of all on the viewer: feeling like one of the boys. Whether or not the big screen – a movie is planned to crown the series – will allow the show to be as clever as it is in its present incarnation, is a matter for internet forum debaters to tackle for the subsequent decades. As for the rest of the diehards, we’ll keep the show alive in box set heaven until our own difficult other-halves suggest better uses for the space taken up by our DVDs.

If fast cars and rehab isn’t your scene, you may’ve caught My Life as a Turkey on BBC2. This Natural World special was the charming and curious tale of biologist Joe Hutto and his family of wild turkeys. The premise is surreal enough to have been a subplot in Northern Exposure but, guided by Hutto’s dulcets, we move through the story of how one man became mother to a whole clutch of turkeys and become fascinated by his dedication to both the birds themselves and the pursuit of science. Only the greatest philistines and cynics of the age could fail to experience joy at the sight of the birds being driven to utter distraction by a turtle, or even a pang of regret imagining how much understanding of our own world we’ve lost compared to so unworldly-looking bird as a turkey.

Read Jacob Knowles-Smith’s reviews of Lead Balloon and Curb Your Enthusiasm here and on Damages and Breaking Bad here

On Curling Up In A Ball: Ronald Dworkin: Justice For Hedgehogs

Ronald Dworkin’s latest book attempts to engage with moral truths and the pursuit of a meaningful life. Jacob Knowles-Smith reviews

No mention of Professor Dworkin’s latest work, Justice for Hedgehogs, can pass by without the following:

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”.

So goes the old fable. The hedgehog, or cat, in some versions, knows his one defence but the fox, even with all his tricks, is torn apart by dogs. Dworkin’s foxes are Sceptics and Nihilists; his hedgehogs, however, are people who believe in one big thing: that the good life and living well, justice and morality should be viewed through a holistic perspective.

Justice for Hedgehogs explores all of these elements and more; how do we come to moral truths? How we know these to be truths? What responsibilities do we have? Any book of philosophy worth reading provokes questions, and after reading this book one could go on asking questions like these of ourselves, with guidance from Dworkin, until we have blown the examined life out of all narcissistic proportion.

Indulge me in a hypothetical argument: It is a moral truth that more people should read books authored by philosophers like Ronald Dworkin than those by people like Alain de Botton (or Alain de Bum-Bum as Will Self has rendered me unable to otherwise call him) because the latter add nothing to the pursuit of living well and reflecting on the good life in a meaningful way and, furthermore, that they are the philosophical equivalent of the novels of Martine McCutcheon and Katie Price. How would one, hypothetically of course, come to such an argument? It would depend on one’s education, personality, tastes and background; moreover, it would rely on a wider conviction that philosophy and art come from a deep wellspring and are integral to the good life.

Clearly the example above is slightly facetious – even if the argument behind it is an important one. It does, however, raise another point: could a layperson – of the “ordinary view”, as Dworkin puts it – tackle Justice for Hedgehogs? Well, yes. The book is, as would be expected, full of philosophical terminology but Dworkin has an extraordinary gift of inserting either direct or more discreet explanations throughout the chapters, which, at the start of each, are themselves summarised. It is also worth remembering Dworkin’s early assertion that, despite the necessity to discuss other philosophers, the book is not a book of what others think but rather what he thinks.

Naturally many people will always say that the good life should be lived not pondered about; but living well is not having everything you want and the good life is not one exclusively of pleasures material and flesh, nor is it an Aristotelian one spent in full-time contemplation. Living well is living with dignity and with a respect for other people’s lives; striving for a good life, more than any attainment, is what should count. If a scientist never produces any hard evidence for his theories, has he still lived well through their pursuance?

Of course there are those that take comfort in religion and have no examined life and live well only to the extent permitted by whatever celestial power they bow their heads before – but they, as Dworkin says, have not lived well if they have not at least considered the motives behind their religious instincts. They are no better than those who, like our foxes, default to scepticism or believe that nothing matters at all – but such people often forget to consider their own conclusions with the same degree of examination with which they came to them. These lives, Dworkin proposes, lack dignity because they lack self-respect, i.e., there is no self-respect in living for the dangled carrot and blind assumption of an afterlife – where any validation is, by definition, after the fact.

Professor Dworkin’s book is a vast fusillade of erudition that bears re-reading, and re-reading, and re-reading to fully grasp the breadth of the arguments contained. Not to mention the inevitability of seeking out other works to balance against it. Perhaps consideration of the following will encourage you to do so:

“I assume… that you suppose that it is important how your life goes. You want your life to be successful because you think its success is important, not the other way around. Is my assumption correct? Can you plausibly interpret they way you live as reflecting the rival assumption that it is only subjectively important how you live – important that you live well only because you want to live well? Please take some care over that important question”.

Answers on a postcard.

Repackaged Misogyny: Natasha Walter: Living Dolls

Jacob Knowles-Smith considers whether gender politics have lost their direction and clout through the prism of two recent books

Anyone who has even the briefest acquaintance with nightclubs in recent years will have seen girls dressed as Playboy bunnies in almost just their underwear, replete with stockings and suspenders, quite as frequently as one will see girls who are, indeed, dressed only in their underwear or a bikini. Perhaps less often, one will see girls on dance floors kissing each other in order to garner male attention. The latter scenario usually creates quite a scrum of groping limbs where not an eyelash is batted by either side – though some may be fluttered.

Of course, it could be that this reviewer consorts with the seamier side of society but, more probably, it illustrates that the subjects of Natasha Walter’s book, Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, are commonplace in modern life. The same also goes for pornography, strip clubs and, probably less common, but not much more taboo, prostitution. In her chapter about pornography Walter gives statistics from a 2007 Canadian report showing that 90 per cent of boys aged 13-14 and 70 per cent of girls the same age had viewed pornography, so it’s no great stretch to imagine that most people have seen porn at some time (take a look at Spike’s most popular articles). No stag night, or business lunch, for that matter, seems to be complete without a visit to a strip club – but if that doesn’t do it for you, then why not take a plane to Amsterdam to really see the groom off with a bang, so to speak.

Indeed so commonplace are these elements discussed in Walter’s book that to object to them is viewed as the highest prudery. Therefore, it is testament to Walter’s skill that she is able to maintain a non-judgemental perspective throughout the book and repeats that there is obviously nothing wrong with the desire to appear attractive and that, with something like pornography, it is the individual’s choice whether to enjoy it. And it would seem that the promoters of lad’s mags and pornography alike are keen to emphasise that the whole thing is a matter of choice.

It is this idea of ‘choice’ that Walter opposes: the choice to be ‘empowered’; the choice not to be stuck in a dead-end job if you can use your body your make more money; the choice to divorce emotion from sex (both professionally, if you are, say, a pole dancer, and in your personal life); but it all seems to boil down to the choice to accept the notion that, in order to be a liberated modern woman, you need to be hyper-sexualised and turn yourself into a parody of a glamour model or even an R&B performer – this misogyny repackaged as feminism. As one burlesque performer interviewed in Living Dolls puts it, “serving up misogyny with a tasteful package of feathers”. Whilst more literal in the burlesque dancer’s case, it nicely illustrates how this has become part of the status quo, right down to the marketing of the provocative Bratz dolls to little girls.

The two most prominent arguments about working in the sex industry seem to be of the ‘it’s just a bit of fun, and everyone wins’ kind or the ‘it’s unfortunate that they have to do it, but they do get paid’ kind. If we discount the idea that women get into it because they like sex as risible (though that could be one reason for initially entering the business), money is obviously the chief preoccupation and is an understandable concern. But, as Noam Chomsky points out, arguing that it’s a good thing because they get paid is like arguing in favour of sweatshops because those workers (usually women) are paid and consented; and that we need to eliminate the conditions where women cannot get good jobs. There is, of course, the caveat to that argument that not everyone can be a doctor or a lawyer and, taking our society as we find it, some people have to perform minimum wage jobs – so what are they to do? Not counting exceptions such as Jenna Jameson, who produces her own pornography films, for every performer whom we might think of as well paid, imagine how much money the owners of production companies make. Even the most autonomous female performer, director or producer is still fuelling the needs of an industry that, in the vast majority, caters to the male desire. As Chomsky flatly states, women in pornography are “degraded as vulgar sex objects” and this is echoed by Ellie, a lap dancer interviewed in Living Dolls, “If you say it’s really degrading, and you did that, it says so much about you, or it feels as if it does. But it is degrading.”

In 1971 a debate about feminism (filmed as Town Bloody Hall – see link below) was held at the Town Hall on West 43rd Street in Manhattan. Speaking were prominent proponents of feminism and women’s rights Jackie Ceballos, Jill Johnston, Diana Trilling and, the biggest draw, Germaine Greer. Chaired by Norman Mailer (described by Greer as an embodiment of “the most powerful figure… in male elitist society, namely, the masculine artist”) on his best form, the atmosphere captured in the film almost crackles with passion, there’s something of the rock concert about the whole event and I struggle to imagine a packed hall with such intensity of feeling, banter and heckling flying between Mailer and the audience, happening today. In 1970 Clive James, in a review of The Female Eunuch for The Observer, airs his concerns that the real message of Greer’s work will be obscured by the deluge of publicity surrounding the author. Is there any room in the modern media for feminism between Katie Price busting out of the gossip column and ‘boys will be boys’ stories about the sexual practices of footballers?

So has feminism stalled?

One might be led to think so by Martin Amis’s last novel The Pregnant Widow, which suggests that the sexual revolution somehow lost its way, and by the somewhat shrugging acceptance of the empowerment theory by people like pornography director, Anna Span: “Women are exploring their bodies more”. However, one of the most affecting voices in the book, a teenage girl called Carly, rebuffs this idea. For Carly the pressure placed on young women to conform to a certain type of image of womanhood is “just like you don’t have any choice”. Thus, the only ‘choice’ women really have is to conform.

Another girl points out that she didn’t have the voice to speak out against her friends, boys and girls, that she didn’t know there was anything wrong with the pressure put upon her, like Carly, to look a certain a certain way and become sexually active. This seems to be the crux of the matter, girls need to be equipped with enough knowledge to speak out when they feel objectified and not just about the biology of sex. As Walter says, there is nothing intrinsically with wrong with strip clubs, porn, etc. but, while they can be fun, “in the current context, in which women’s value is so relentlessly bound up with how successfully they are seen as sexually alluring, we can see that certain choices are celebrated, while others are marginalised, and this clearly has a major effect on the behaviour of many men and women”. As for men, obviously one could never, nor would want to, stop them desiring sex, but if, as Walter suggests throughout, women are truly empowered at an early age, given the full range of real life choices available to them and taught that they don’t need to be, or idolise, so-called sex symbols, then perhaps that way there can be a complimentary, gradual effect on the male psyche.

The point is, however, that feminism cannot be rushed and is, and always has been, a continual struggle. Walter points out that those who criticize the status quo suffer opprobrium and are branded with that most disdainful tag of ‘elitist’, hopefully it will be clear from this article that this author is not afraid of such things.

Further Resources:

Eric Hobsbawm: How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism

Reviewed by Jacob Knowles-Smith

In the week after Michael Foot, socialist and former-Labour Party leader, died I encountered a veteran taxi-driver early one morning in Liverpool. What started as mere headshaking and tutting at the fellow revellers eventually became a discourse on the political traditions of Liverpool and the state of Britain as a whole. (All of this was nicely juxtaposed outside the ‘Golden Arches’ of a crammed McDonald’s.) It was thrilling to hear someone who was clearly once so passionate about his beliefs; however, he had never thought much of Foot and it was clear that his interest in politics generally had gone the same way. He summed up his apathy with this closing statement: “You go to work, you do your best, but nothing ever changes.”

Eric Hobsbawm’s recent collection of essays under the somewhat misleading title of How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism would probably not be much help to him, but is, nonetheless, a valuable resource for anyone interested in Marxism or even wider political theory – at least for those already interested. For this collection is not Marxist-Soup for the Soul or A Very Long Introduction to Marx; despite containing sixteen separate essays covering everything from the Utopian Socialists and their influences on Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to Antonio Gramsci and the role of Marxism over the post-Second World War 20th century, several chapters may be too obscure for the casual reader and throughout the whole book Hobsbawm makes references that require prior knowledge or further research.

On the one hand, any book that inspires further reading and thought should be praised (and indeed this reader went scrabbling around bookshelves for a tattered copy of The Communist Manifesto) and yet on the other, surely Hobsbawm thwarts his aim of encouraging people to think about Marx seriously again with a fairly inaccessible text. This is an especially important consideration when one considers that ‘Marxist’ is still, even in this time of recession, greed and bankers, a dirty word; you’ll never meet one – save the token poseurs on university campuses everywhere with their Che Guevara t-shirts and/or berets. Some criticise Hobsbawm himself for what they see as his failure to properly repudiate the Soviet Union – and, sure enough, early on in the book there is a mild, passing mention that “Russia was too backward to produce anything other than a caricature of a socialist society”. However, such critics are wrong to dismiss his work out of hand and his desire to change the way Capitalist society thinks – which is, after all, admirable.

Another concern follows this; Hobsbawm confidently asserts that “the end of the official Marxism of the USSR liberated Marx from the public identification with Leninism in theory and with the Leninist regimes in practice.” How can he be sure of this? None of the notes in the back of the book give further clarification. But it seems rather more likely that, for the foreseeable future, Marx will be as firmly connected, in the public imagination, to the horrors and failures of the USSR as Nietzsche is, more spuriously, connected to the Nazis.

Hobsbawm’s upbeat views about Marx and his philosophies’ make How to Change the World a book you truly can judge by its cover: lots of red (a given); on the front cover a flag-wielding worker (perhaps a Cossack) striding over a Russian cityscape with a sea of people running through it; beneath that the iconic black and white image of Guevara (to pull in those aforementioned enthusiasts?); and on the back cover a Soviet parade replete with guns, tanks and two giant Lenin busts. Such images are damaging to the essence of the book – thinking afresh – because they attempt to create an almost bucolic vision of Communism which would be laughable even to early critics of Communism such as Orwell and Koestler.

Overall, the first section of the book, which deals with Marx and Engels, is more enjoyable than the second, dealing with Marxism itself. The latter contains the chapters that would lose the vast majority of readers –two about Antonio Gramsci, though obviously important to the macrocosmic perspective of Marxism, seemed somehow out of place and served to remind me that this collection was made up of pieces written by Hobsbawm at various times for different projects. The first section, however, is a great examination of the early influences on Marx and Engels such as Fourier and Saint-Simon (whom Marx expanded upon for some of his most memorable phrases, such as: “The exploitation of man by man”), their early politics and the writing of their major works. Anyone intrigued by these chapters, who hadn’t already done so, would be well advised to read Marx’s widely available works and also Francis Wheen’s splendid biography of Marx which adds further depth to him as a philosopher and as a man.

Returning to the cabbie from Liverpool, the real problem with changing the world is not rescuing Marx from history but engaging the working population of the present. Obviously the mass of Western people do not actively think of themselves as Capitalists, though this may be slightly more prevalent in the USA, indeed they don’t think of themselves as anything, they are apathetic – but they are not nihilists, which, of course, requires a particular kind of belief in futility – which is why, in the end, it’s disappointing Hobsbawm doesn’t engage more thoroughly with the problem of engaging the working-classes in political movements or underscore the need for new thinking rather than new interpretations of old ideas.