Monday: I’ve given up on the Game of Thrones prequel thing. Cancelled my Now TV subscription. It’s absolute gubbins. A boring, dark, slow turn off. Just like the royal funeral.
Tuesday: I’m sort of looking forward to The Peripheral, coming soon to Amazon, and based on William Gibson’s novel, which I have read. Another genre show! Most of them are poor, and yet we genre fans keep giving them more of a chance than they deserve.
Wednesday: I’ve cancelled Paramount+ too, because apart from Star Trek there’s nothing on. And in the absence of a current new Star Trek, I’m not paying. I have been rewatching the original series, which is still great (and, crucially, not too dark in terms of its visuals). I think my subscription will run out before I have time to rewatched the unloved third season. But both my daughter and I agree that Season 3 of ToS is actually brilliant, simply because the stories are completely bonkers. There needs to be more absolutely bonkers television.
Thursday: I resubscribed to Netflix after these cancellations, but there’s very little on. I burned through The Lincoln Lawyer (average), and then couldn’t bring myself to watch Stranger Things. I’d already lost interest in the second season. So I put on Lost in Space, which is a weird modern TV show because it keeps its language clean and doesn’t feature any sexy stuff. But I do actually quite enjoy it. There’s some father-daughter stuff (which pushes my buttons, natch), and the storyline isn’t bad at all.
Friday: I’m in a the mood to give up on the Lord of the Rings prequel thing, which (like House of the Dragon) is also boring and slow, but at least not dark. It’s lush to look at, and you can see stuff because the lighting is mostly high key. But, but, but, it is dreadfully slow, and almost nothing happens. The most recent episode was over an hour long, and (as the Guardian recap noted) ‘ruthlessly packed in’ 17 minutes of story. But it’s on Amazon Prime, which I’m paying for anyway. So I’ll watch it to the end, and Amazon will call it a success, but it’s not. It’s awful.
I was talking to a friend (hi, friend) and mentioned how many mediocre genre shows there are on Netflix. They’re all pretty much of a muchness. I’ve noted before, Netflix think they have a formula for making such shows, and they’re sticking to it, even though it means they all seem the same. There are (a very few) exceptions, like Travelers, but they are rare. It happens, but it’s rare, but it happens.
Saturday: The BBC have a formula, too, for the vaguely science fictiony techno thriller audio dramas in their Limelight strand. They’re all pretty similar, all have youthful casts, and they’re all a bit rubbish (even if they don’t all go down the anti-vax road). They have characters who start every sentence with, “So…” and they do that irritating thing of telling a series of linked individual character stories rather than making six episodes that tell one story. This is as bothersome to me as the doorstep fantasy novel with twelve p.o.v. characters. I’m just tired of it: it’s time to ring the changes on these things.
This is why I have hopes for the William Gibson thing. Amazon do seem to be picking up some interesting properties. I wish they’d look at some Tim Powers IP, or Robert Charles Wilson: I would be here for the TV series based on Spin. I also think Bezos made a massive mistake in buying the Lord of the Rings Except NotLord of the Rings rights. It’s a colossal waste of money, and their best move would be to cancel it now, rather than sink even more money into it. It’s just not good enough.
It’s fair to say that the fantasy genre is having a(nother) moment, with huge series based on established intellectual property in the works and on release and all over the press. What with all the Star Treks out there right now, fourteen-year-old me is in TV heaven. And what’s great about this particular cultural moment is that the casting directors have made a real effort to give us diversity. It is simply amazing to look back to Game of Thrones, just eleven years ago, and take note of how pale the cast was. For no reason. Peter Jackson’s terrible films were longer ago (but still in this century!), and were equally white – apart from the bad guys and their elephants – but also very short of women.
I wrote previously about Wheel of Time, which I had never read but quite enjoyed, especially for its prominent female characters. I like to go into something like that cold, as a non-fan, and let the storytelling win me over. And it did. And now we have House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power, which are like expansion packs for the originals, especially in terms of diversity casting.
The complication with all these IPs is the existing fan base. Whether readers of the books or viewers of the films, these people are going to have opinions. And what they never seem to understand is, whatever changes the producers of the “new” thing make are neither here nor there for newcomers. They don’t matter. Game of Thrones was a phenomenon because it was great TV. As a reader, the books did nothing for me. And the fans should really get their heads around the idea that Amazon/HBO are definitely not going to spend all that money for a show that will only be watched by hardcore fans who are steeped in the lore. Which is not to say that these things should be immune from criticism, but they need to be assessed on their own terms, as the thing that they are rather than the thing they are based on. So as far as I’m concerned, everything is fair game. Casting can be race and gender blind, whatever.
So I’m not even going to pretend that it’s controversial to cast Lenny Henry as a Hobbit Harfoot. Suffice it to say that even Tolkien noted that they were “shorter and smaller than the other breeds, browner of skin…”
But what I think is an issue here is to base something on what are essentially footnotes. Both House of the Dragon and Rings of Power are really the products of exposing the iceberg. As I said above, I shouldn’t be judging these things on the source material, but, whatever you produce needs to stand up.
When I say exposing the iceberg, I suppose it’s not quite the same as Hemingway’s theory, but both GRRM and JRRT were filling out genealogy and history as part of the world building, so that when Aragorn contemplated the broken sword he was evoking long-past events as part of the elegiac tone of LotR. But both of these new series are taking the footnotes and fleshing them out with story and dialogue.
And it’s all a bit clunky, it has to be said. You can write this stuff, but you can’t say it.
While Rings of Power has clearly had an enormous amount spent on it, the money obviously didn’t go to the scriptwriters. (The writers, of course, are always the people being told that they can’t be paid much, but the exposure will be good for them.) Yes, there are creatures, and big glowing special effects, and elfin pinnaces, and huge sideburns glued to faces. But the dialogue is all a bit George Lucas, and the hair is all a bit Movie of the Week. Once you start seeing a character as a young Michael Heseltine, you can’t stop. And show me an actor with pointy eared prosthetics and unsuitable footwear climbing an ice cliff in a snow storm and all I’m seeing is a cartoon. The stakes couldn’t be lower.
House of the Dragon looks cheaper, and – a weird but inevitable effect – all of the actors look like Daytime TV versions of the original cast. It can’t be helped. Emilia Clarke may not be a natural blonde, but she definitely looked better as a fake blonde than literally every House of the Dragon Targaryen. None of them look like they belong in a blonde wig, or however the effect is achieved. Grey or black stubble with white blonde hair just sends you into the uncanny valley. And I’m afraid that Paddy Consdine (as Viserys) looks like a bit of a chinless wonder in a bad blonde wig, a charisma-free zone. Not buying Matt Smith in his role, either; he’s too much the lightweight.
Finally, the other challenge with filming the footnotes is also to do with stakes, and this is always the prequel problem. Because we know the future, the past can’t help being less interesting. Funnily enough, the producers of Strange New Worlds have absolutely met this challenge head-on, and they’re having fun with it. But I’m not feeling it with either of these fantasy series. I’ll probably keep watching though, because there’s nothing else on and I am a prolific watcher.
This retelling of the based-on-a-true-story 1992 film opens out the narrative to encompass more social background, more characters, and (ironically) less baseball. One half of the team behind this, Will Graham, was the producer of Mozart in the Jungle (also on Amazon). Mozart was one of those sui generis shows (impossible to categorise except as itself), which Amazon does seem to specialise in. I enjoyed the first season a lot, but lost interest after that. It happens. Other hard-to-categorise shows on Amazon include Patriot and Casual.
The other half of the ALoTO team is also one of the central characters in the show, played by Abbi Jacobson. I’m more or less unfamiliar with her previous work, apart from being the voice of Princess Bean in the underwhelming Disenchantment on the underwhelming Netflix. Needless to say, she’s a stalwart of that particular kind of American comedy, which isn’t very funny.
She’s not very funny in ALoTO, either, it has to be said, portraying Carson Shaw, a character whose self effacement becomes an irritant — the kind of person who would drive you mad if you were her friend. This is fine, because that is exactly who she is supposed to be in the show. It’s just that, for me, this type of cringe comedy never works. I get Vietnam flashbacks to the unwatchable Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em.
Filling out the main ensemble are Chanté Adams (as Max, a black woman who is excluded from the League); D’Arcy Carden (not a robot); Gbemisola Ikumelo (Max’s best friend, who joins her as a production worker in the local munitions factory), and a whole team of others. There are Latina characters, but no Asians. I guess you have to watch Season 2 of The Terror to find them.
The 1992 ALoTO was a weird moment for me; I have a vivid memory of going to see it in the middle of an awkward and confusing relationship with a woman I’d met at university. I haven’t seen it since, perhaps not wanting the flashbacks, but it was great, wasn’t it? The incredible Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Rosie O’Donnell, Lori Petty, some pop star. It told a vivid story with punched up colours and tightly edited baseball sequences.
For most of us outside America, the obsession with baseball is bewildering. A game as slow-paced and ridiculous as cricket, played over a perversely long season: no wonder it’s seen as a metaphor for life.
The counter argument is, why do we need a metaphor for life when we have, you know, life? But that question will never be answered.
Here the life metaphor of baseball is used as a vehicle for lots of ideas that, if they made it into the 1992 film, were barely there. So, yes, this show has thoughts about sexism – as in the original – but also misogyny, sexuality, racism, and gender identity. All of the hashtags! It’s a lot, a lot for one show to carry, but carry them it does, even if it does sometimes have to awkwardly juggle.
As such, it’s really representative of a cultural moment, and I do wonder how it will age. I’m a big fan of colourblind casting, and of including people of colour in historical narratives, even if some people think it would be “more authentic” to have all the cast white. The counter argument is always that there probably were more people of colour around in the past than film and television would have you believe. In the same way, there were a lot more women around in the past than Hollywood would have you believe: a subject Geena Davis herself has thoughts about. And as older readers will know, I am very much not a fan of “boys’ adventure” narratives that manage to exclude 50% of the population.
Realism and authenticity are very much overrated for some reason, and I’d have been fine with a version of this show that included Max (and other black players) as members of the team, notwithstanding the screams of the authenticity crowd. On the other hand, including black characters would be another way of whitewashing history, I suppose. My argument being, fuck history. If you always cleave to history, you run the risk of only ever allowing black actors to portray victims of discrimination and prejudice. Whereas in my fantasy version of not-history, they would get to be a ball player, and participate in plotlines about getting the yips. But instead we have the really quite upsetting story of Max, who is desperate to play, and whose struggles to be included – even if it is only on the local factory team – form half of the plotline. Because the racism here is not just about playing baseball: it pervades everything, from getting served in a shop to being allowed to apply for a job. I think the show does a really good job of holding up a mirror to American society. And to be fair to the writers, Max gets to double up as a woman who prefers women.
But it is a lot, because then you end up with one character representing three of the hashtag themes, as it were; and it’s an odd mix. Because on the one hand, there are white women breaking out of their constricted lives and being given a chance to do something they love and are good at – which is joy. But on the other there are black women suffering a thousand indignities every day of their lives.
Which is before we get to the themes of sexual and gender identity, with women taking huge risks to explore forbidden love, trying to find a safe space to just be themselves.
It is a lot, but the writers, on the whole, have handled it well, and have still made it a fun and enjoyable watch.
I was lukewarm on For All Mankind (TV+) a couple of years ago when I first dipped in. Since then, I ought to have said by now, it has quietly won me over. The soapy aspects of it, the interpersonal relationships, the slightly ridiculous accumulation of situations, don’t work well at all, but the plot-driven part of the show does. We’re in an alternate time-line, one in which Russia got a man on the moon first, and because of this the Apollo programme doesn’t get cancelled early, and personed space exploration continues into the 80s, 90s, and beyond.
By Season 3 (which has reached episode 8 at the time of writing), we have reached Mars, and there are three competing missions: the Russians (still a communist régime, cast as not as good as the Americans, but willing to spy, blackmail and steal); NASA; and a third party, private organisation that boldly repurposes a failed orbital space station/hotel into a ship.
The show skips over much of the research and development, so we don’t see the years of experiments and iteration, just the end results (and the end results of the Russians’ spying). That’s fine, and it keeps the budget within its limits. And the money spent on the show is clear in the excellent special effects: it’s all there on the screen. Where you can see they didn’t spend money is also there on the screen: in the badly aged faces of the cast, who by Season 3 are supposedly 20+ years into their careers as astronauts and ground crew. Also, for some reason, terrible hair: like the hair you might see in a 70s TV movie.
It’s a really odd mixture. On the one hand, really quite awful Rich Man, Poor Man style soap opera storytelling about the people and their travails, complete with hair and makeup from the Rich Man, Poor Man era. On the other hand, gripping space opera with plot beats that manage to leave every episode on a proper cliffhanger.
In terms of the soap opera, in case you don’t believe me, here are some plot points:
An astronaut goes blind!
An estranged married couple of astronauts save everyone by making spacesuits out of masking tape and die in each others’ arms!
An astronaut’s wife sleeps with another astronaut’s son!
The President is a former astronaut!
And a woman!
And a lesbian!
In the closet!
Married to a gay man!
Also in the closet!
Who has an affair with an aide!
It’s kinda ridiculous. But as I was watching the eight episode a penny dropped for me and I realised why I still like it, notwithstanding the ridiculousness.
When I was growing up, there were (to my mind) two giants of science fiction. One of them wrote far future, galaxy-spanning stories of galactic empires and FTL travel; the other wrote near-future, realistic, hard-science stories set in our solar system. One of them was Isaac Asimov; the other was Arthur C Clarke.
Now. We’ve recently seen Asimov’s Foundation made for TV, and it was okay. I couldn’t read the books, which were terrible, so I finally got to see what it was all about. And if you read much science fiction, you know that these kind of far future galaxy spanning epics are very fashionable, thanks, probably, to the many various Stars, Trek and Wars. They run alongside the supremely fashionable fantasy genre, and are really closer to it than to the more realistic hard science stuff. But the latter is still out there. I suppose The Expanse owes more to Arthur C Clarke than Isaac Asimov, and the success of Andy Weir’s material shows that it’s still the basis of popular fiction.
But, aside from 2001 and its sequels, not much has been done with the Arthur C Clarke catalogue. Partly, that’s because he wasn’t very good at people, so his characters tend to be a bit one- or two-dimensional. Which brings us to For All Mankind, which is so much like classic Clarke that it can’t be a coincidence. For example, one of his early novels, A Fall of Moondust, is about a small transport that gets buried in a landslip (on the Moon, natch), and an against-the-clock rescue mission is required. Check: episode 8 of For All Mankind features a small transport buried in a landslip (but on Mars, okay) and an against-the-clock rescue mission is required.
The Episode is called, The Sands of Ares. Huh. Because another Clarke classic is called The Sands of Mars, and it features a spaceship called… Ares.
So, more than a nod to Clarke, then, which is not to mention the ring-shaped space station, which is straight out of his playbook. And look no further than Arthur C Clarke for the terrible soap opera character arcs. A protagonist befriends a younger man and tells him the story of his long lost love. The younger man turns out to be… his long lost son! And so on.
Anyway, it’s good, and it’s bad, but it’s good, so that’s okay.
And so to Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (SNW), the latest new series in what will surely come to be seen as a golden era for Trek on TV. While the most recent series of Picard and Disco were something of a disappointment, all Trek fans were looking forward to this, the one set on the Enterprise-before-Kirk, with Captain Pike in charge.
There was always a danger of this show being hamstrung by canon, so overburdened by Trek Lore that it would topple under the weight of it and let us all down. So far, however, so good. We’re up to episode 6 on Paramount+ in the UK, SNW has been far from a disappointment, and far from being squashed under the weight of all the storylines that come after, it’s having fun with them.
Along the way, several beloved characters are getting a new interpretation and a new lease of life. Christ knows, it’s a million times better than the recent rebooted films, which are unspeakable.
Central to this is Anson Mount as Captain Pike, a character previously seen in the original pilot episode (The Cage), which was subsequently re-edited as The Menagerie, the classic era episode that recycled old footage and placed the horribly burned Pike into a Davros-style dalek unit. So we know how Pike’s supposed to end up, and so does the current incarnation: part of his story is that he’s living with the knowledge of how he (thinks he) dies.
You can always spot the two original pilot episodes of Star Trek because everybody is wearing those odd kind of woolly polo neck uniforms. I hope that one day these will make an appearance as the last uniforms worn in SNW. The original actor playing Pike may have been a bit wooden, so the formica Shatner was brought in to replace.
Now, I don’t know Anson Mount from a hole in a ground, but he is so great as Pike, already one of the great Star Fleet captains. His sweep of hair, his wry humour, his human warmth, all make him believable as a leader of people. Yes, this is the man who would so inspire Spock that even he would risk everything to kidnap him and take him to the planet of the aliens with the giant brains. Pike is now surrounded by a crew who are so much the better for being cast in the era of Peak TV: decent actors who know they’re part of something that has stayed the course and lasted over 50 years.
Ethan Peck as Spock was excellent in Disco and continues to be so here. And this is a Spock who is not lost under a morass of muddled thinking about logic vs. emotion. And (thank Christ) without (so far) a McCoy screaming at him for not losing his shit. McCoy was always the worst character and it’s one of Star Trek’s tragedies that he became one of theSeven.
As a sidenote, watching episodes of ToS between releases of SNW, you’re struck by the sequence of randoms who filled various bridge and command roles before the producers settled on who was important. Janice Rand is the most hilarious of these: a pointless character put there for Kirk to flirt with, and then replaced with a series of walk-on beauties, presumably to provide Shatner with some variety and/or to allow various others to get their backs scratched. One other character who was fairly wooden and underused in ToS was Christine Chapel, problematically played by Majel Barrett (an actor who was given a few too many chances by her exec producer husband). In SNW she’s played by Jess Bush, and is finally the character she deserves to be: spunky, fun, resourceful, and not constantly mooning over some man.
As to the storylines, they generally shine. The format is episodic, meaning that we’re not chasing after some Big Bad, even though there is continuity of character. And SNW also takes a leaf out of ToS’s book by playing with classic science fiction story tropes: the submarine episode; the body swap episode; the first-contact episode; the unspeakable crimes done in the name of civilisation episode. And so on.
Fingers crossed, it’s good and will continue to be so. Comments that it is “woke” Star Trek come from people who have clearly never watched Star Trek, which was always one of the more woke shows on television. Watch and enjoy. Just don’t mention the Discovery.
The critic in The Times (I won’t dignify them with a name) complained that there were “too many Wings and solo songs”, which just about sums up the grudging four-star reviews you’ll find in the likes of that news outlet and The Guardian, an organ at which I’m convinced they’ll only let you work if you’re the kind of dork who claims not to like The Beatles.
Immersed in Beatles Twitter as I am, it can be a shock to the system to see that there are still people out there in the comments sections ready to dismiss McCartney, either because he’s not Bob Dylan or Neil Young, or because he’s not John Lennon. You want to take these people aside and whisper, you don’t have to choose, but it’s certainly not worth entering the arena.
The lesson, as always, is don’t read the comments.
I’ve become so fragile when it comes to Macca that I only have to think about “Hey Jude” and I start welling up, so it was slightly odd, watching the BBC’s time-delayed Glastonbury coverage last night, to find myself feeling every bit of the 125 miles of road between there and here. I’ll stick on a YouTube video (a recent example: Paul’s appearance at Roger Daltrey’s cancer charity concert) and watch through a veil of tears. But last night: not a wet eye in the house.
The problem is not Macca but Glastonbury itself, the very thought of which fills me with an eldritch horror. Everything I hate about crowds, big gigs, extroverts, and camping is there. Bodies pressed together: check. Crowdsurfing: check. People blocking the view of those behind by being on someone’s shoulders: check. Fucking flags, bleeding banners: check. Staying up past bedtime: check. People enjoying themselves late into the night: yuck. I read something in the Guardian earlier today in an article about couples who have dragged young children to the festival. One of the blokes, talking about his kid, quipped, “She was made here.” To which the only sane response is, ew.
There’s something so soulless about music at festivals, the visible paraphernalia of scaffolds and truckloads of gear, the tackiness of glittery pianos, purple microphones, the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd. I get double vision: I see trampled grass and trash cleanup crews at the same time as the 100,000 crowd and the sun setting behind the Tor.
Also: I cannot rid myself of the image of the bloke at the back of the stage apparently aiming his iPhone camera up the short skirt of the 19-year-old pop singer.
So Glasto leaves me cold and keeps leaving me cold, and I couldn’t help noticing things like the poor sound mix and the patchy lighting, but Macca’s set was very special. Those journalists who complained that there was too much non-Beatles material really need to have a word. He played “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five”! He played “Let ‘Em In”! He played “Junior’s Farm”! “Maybe I’m Amazed!” And he played “Love Me Do”, “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window”, and (a bit of) “You Never Give Me Your Money”. All this plus Dave Grohl and Bruce. It was odd, though, wasn’t it? The lighting on the stage wasn’t very good, especially when Springsteen was there. You could barely detect his presence when he emerged for “The End”. And (I guess because of the fucking flags and the bleeding banners) the television cameras kind of missed a lot of things, like Abe the drummer dancing. You just couldn’t really see him back there in the dark, and you barely saw Rusty and Brian who are such an important presence.
As to the voice: it was fine. With a little lift from his bandmates, it was all right. Better than Dylan’s vocal has been for the last thirty years or so. It compares well to Springsteen’s similarly shot voice. It’s not insignificant that McCartney is still playing the songs in their original keys, and his musicianship remains undiminished. I did wonder how his little chats to the crowd worked at the venue itself, but that was just me being distant: 125 miles away.
Having now watched the fourth episode (of six?) of Sherwood, I return to say that it becomes less impressive as each hour passes. The fourth was particularly poor, I thought, and showed all the signs of that dreaded mid-season dip that besets so many otherwise good shows, from Star Trek Discovery to Game of Thrones.
In the case of Sherwood the dip manifests itself as a kind of treadmill of unexpected new characters and unlikely scenes, viz:
Half a million Met officers arrive (sleeping like refugees on campbeds in some vast hangar?) to sweep the forest, but there is precious little evidence of them in the actual forest.
Meanwhile, two campers (?) walkers (?) seem to lack all awareness there’s a murderer in the woods. Even if we accept they are there in the first place, why would they walk off leaving food in the skillet and a mobile phone in an (open) tent?
At least two previously unheard of characters appear in order to deliver convenient (and clumsily executed) speeches.
Matriarch of crime family with no school-age children is a school governor.
So it goes. As I said: a treadmill. Because although there are many convenient arrivals, coincidences, and expositionary speeches, the plot doesn’t really move forward. It’s the illusion of things happening. The whole nursing home scene, for example, gets us nowhere that the “restricted” records search hadn’t already reached. And I’m reminded that Sherwood is on in June, not October. The BBC must be cock-a-hoop that a show with so many flaws got such glowing reviews.
Meanwhile, I’ve been bingeing the fourth season of The Rookie on Now, and this throwback to network cop shows of the past is such a pleasure. As I think I’ve said before, it’s a show with its heart in the right place that really tries to address questions of justice rather than just crime.
I also dipped into The Lazarus Project (Now), which is okay. The premise is there’s a top secret group that uses a time resetting mechanism to undo catastrophic global events. It’s not awful, but it isn’t Travelers (Netflix), in which a group of time travelers attempt to undo a catastrophic future. If you’re going to watch one time bending catastrophe avoiding thriller, make it Travelers, which like The Rookie is a show with a good heart.
I was reading the headlines last week about the so-called ‘cost of living crisis’ and in particular the cost of filling a car with petrol or diesel. And it struck me that newspapers like The Guardian, who were punching the government about not doing enough to help, were wrongheaded in their approach to this issue. Because the fact is that this government’s freeze on the fuel tax accumulator over the past 10 years has kept prices artificially low. And if we want to encourage people (including the people writing these words) out of their cars and onto bicycles and public transport, then the cost of running a car needs to get higher, not lower. And then yesterday, when the remaining electric car purchase subsidy was lifted (finally!), we should be cheering from the rooftops because private car ownership is not the answer. Doesn’t matter whether we’re driving electric or diesel or petrol: we need to be consuming less. Of everything.
And this has been the problem really, since the privatisation of the utility companies in the 1980s. A for-profit privatised electricity generator and distributor has no incentive to encourage consumer economy, fuel parsimony. Since 1986, nobody has been telling us to switch off lights, have showers instead of baths, turn the heating down a notch or rely less on electrical gadgets. (The logo above comes from a UK government energy saving campaign in the early 1970s.)
Which brings us to Sherwood (BBC iPlayer)
As time has passed, the stand-off between the British government and the coalminers in 1984-5 looms larger and larger in our national psyche. The more remote these stakes are from the lives of subsequent generations, the greater its significance in legend. At the time, it seemed both like a fight to save a way of life and a form of brutal, petty vengeance that had been a long time coming. How long? *cracks knuckles*
In 1910, Winston Churchill (then Home Secretary), sent troops to break a 10-month long strike in Wales by charging striking miners with fixed bayonets. The consequence of this was eventually a national strike in 1912 (referenced by J B Priestley in An Inspector Calls, natch), with over a million coalminers flexing their industrial muscles. The government of 1914-18 then tried to use the excuse of war to attack miners’ pay and conditions (a classic play they repeated in 1939-45), and the fractious relationship between the government, the mine owners, and the miners led to the General Strike of 1926. While the national version of this strike was short-lived, the miners were out for seven months.
The disputes and confrontations continued into the hungry 1930s, with miners’ pay and conditions continually under attack. In Nottinghamshire, where a breakaway (‘Spencer’) union had formed, pay was the lowest in the country (because that’s what you get when you undermine solidarity). Miners loyal to the main national trade union (then called the MFGB) were victimised. Sound familiar?
After the Second World War, the government nationalised the coal mines, and the new National Union of Mineworkers was formed. This powerhouse union had the ability to bring the country to a standstill: and did. But not straight away. This country was, frankly, a socialist paradise between 1945 and 1966, so it wasn’t until 1972 that the first strike of the modern era happened. It only lasted a month or so, and the miners achieved an improved pay offer from the Heath-led Conservative government. That’s what strikes are for.
Following the 1973 oil shock, there was another miners’ strike in 1974, after an overtime ban had reduced coal stocks. In response to the coal shortage, the Heath government introduced the three-day working week (yes please!) and anyone old enough to remember those days will recall the heady thrill of nightly power cuts: candles at the ready! ITV and BBC took it in turns to stop broadcasting at 10:30 pm. Bed time, everyone! Oh, and SAVE IT.
With the miners now voting to strike, Heath went to the country, asking the electorate to choose who was running the country. Voters (narrowly) chose Harold Wilson’s Labour party (and then again in the October 1974 election).
Humiliated, the Conservatives brooded like trolls until they were back in power. Thatcher’s 1979 government was perhaps not secure enough to take on the miners, so she waited until after the 1983 election to have the showdown her party had been waiting nearly 10 years to have. And it was brutal.
Nominally, this was a dispute over the future of the industry. Nowadays, I have mixed feelings. I didn’t want communities all over the country, from Kent to Wales and Nottingham to Yorkshire and Scotland, to die. But nowadays I know that we really should have stopped digging coal out of the ground a long time ago. All those Tomorrow’s World etc. segments about wind and wave power, from the 1950s onwards, should have been taken more seriously. But Thatcher’s project of closing down the coal industry wasn’t about the environment and climate change. She wanted to put the mines down so she could put the miners down. Revenge was her dish, and she had been prepared so long that it was indeed served cold.
Even though the miners were on strike for a year, there were no power cuts; there was no three-day week. Coal had been stockpiled, a lot of power stations had converted to gas, and the government was importing coal from the continent. The miners were fucked.
This didn’t stop the Nottinghamshire miners, who had a history of this kind of thing, from forming a breakaway union and continuing to work (they were not alone, actually: the strike was never solid). It didn’t save them: they betrayed their comrades for nothing.
As a young union organiser at the time, in the tax office union, I did my bit to support the strike. Organised raffles, raised money to pay striking miners. Because of this activity, I was definitely blacklisted by the government, and my own working career blighted (I’ve written about this before).
The miners were defeated, the unions and the trades union movement broken, and (as such), we were all damaged. The hedge fund managers, the Tory spivs, moved in, the Labour movement was enfeebled, heavy industry was hollowed out, and debt took over as the means people use to make ends meet. The average credit card debt per household in March this year was £2,173. It now takes 26 years, at average savings rates, to put aside enough money for a deposit on a house. Average debt per UK adult is now 108% of earnings (source).
Many communities have never recovered. For our Oxford and Cambridge educated political and media elites, the wild country North of Watford Gap is a blasted wasteland of hoodies and deprivation. People up there put cheese on their chips.
This is all background to Sherwood, the BBC’s new drama about a murder in a former coal mining community (a former community is the best way to put it) in Nottinghamshire.
A friend asked me if I thought it was realistic that someone would (nearly 40 years later) be called a scab, as one character was in the first episode. I replied, I would.
I’ve often said on here how I look out of the window and seethe with dislike towards my Tory neighbours. The flag wavers across the road, the white-haired, red-trousered old men I see around the neighbourhood and in the local supermarkets. I’ve also said on here that Thatcher was my Vietnam. The fact is, my anger and resentment towards the people who live around here (and who have consistently returned a Conservative MP to Parliament at every single election) does date back forty years. And, yes, I’ll still mutter fascist under my breath when I see that union jack draped outside the house opposite. It’s not as if these are the people benefitting when London is turned into the world’s money laundering capital. But they’re the ones who keep voting for it. Nothing worse, as I often say, than a working class Tory.
So Sherwood does seem quite authentic, as far as the social background goes. The Guardian awarded five stars and was fulsome in its praise. The Times, true to form (as the newspaper of the spivs), offered a more grudging four stars.
Me? I think it’s all right, but nothing like this will ever wholly win me over. Too many clichés of the form. The opening aerial drone shot of the forest (see every Scandi noir, and any other rural-set thriller); the local cop who grew up in the community and is now semi-detached from it because s/he’s one of the few with a steady job; the lock-up full of surprising evidence; the raft of familiar faces, from that woman who always plays the slightly less well off sister to the guy who always plays the hard-headed class warrior, and the other guy who always plays the haunted-looking geezer you wouldn’t want to encounter in the dark. I can never really get past the small pool of talent that British TV producers draw from. But even the “working class community fallen on hard times and divided against itself” theme is a hoary old trope. The same critics were surely gushing about the same idea in Mare of Easttown just last year.
Anyway, it’s watchable, it’s on the iPlayer, and it’s another reminder that our country and its assets was stolen from us. If you need me, I’m over here: the human face being stamped on by a boot—forever.
I sat through Pistol and quite enjoyed it — far more than I ever did the actual music the actual first time around. Of course, this based-on-a-true-story television drama suffers from the same problems of all rock biopics, which is that it tries to compress (into episodes, or the length of a feature film) events which inevitably took place at different times, in different places, with different personnel, expressing themselves differently, so that there are moments of pure cheese and exposition. As David Hepworth said on The Word podcast, sooner or later there’s a scene in which someone says, “Oh, look, it’s Chrissie Hynde,” or “Ugh, it’s Nick Kent, the NME journalist who fancies himself as Keith Richards.”
Which of course it does. But ignore all that, and you’ve got a story that does have some kind of shape, neater than many other rock biopics, because it is in itself a very compressed story with at least one ending that might have been written for the screen.
But, oh, what if. What if the director and writers had been brave enough to have nobody say, “Oh look, it’s Chrissie Hynde,” and leave it up to the audience to either know (because they know) or realise at that sweet moment when Steve Jones hides around the corner as she rehearses with the Pretenders that that’s who she was all along?
But then this series would have been more explicitly about what it does seem to want to be about, which is to say that its purpose seems to be to elevate Chrissie Hynde as the real talent of the King’s Road Sex shop scene and London Punk/New Wave era. And she probably was.
As to punk rock, I never bought any of it, myself, and I still don’t buy the hype that the Pistols revolutionised anything, or were anything other than a simulacrum of significance. Like all youth movements, there were a bunch of people wearing fancy clothes and an awful lot more people on the periphery looking pretty much the same as they ever did. And their music: that one album was so slickly produced, with its layers of compressed guitars, but it did not match the chaos and ineptitude of the stage act. It always smelled a bit Milli Vanilli to me.
And a lot of the fandom was simulacrum. People went to punk gigs looking for a fight: that was the whole point. It was just football hooliganism relocated. And there may have been a couple of people wearing safety pins through their cheeks in that London, but the people I knew would carefully position the safety pin so it looked as if it was breaking the skin, shortly after they’d applied the Vaseline to their hair after leaving their mum and dad’s house. And they’d take it all off again before stepping through their parents’ front door.
When Rotten/Lydon finished their final gig with the words, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”, my response – even back then in ’78 – was not really, because I never believed it in the first place. I always saw Malcolm McLaren as a Tesco Value Warhol, and the Kings Road/Sex scene a Tesco Value Warhol Factory, with the Sex Pistols playing an even more volatile version of The Velvet Underground.
As I said, though, this is a tale for an accelerated culture, with everything building up and falling apart in a far more compressed amount of time than even The Velvet Underground. As such, it’s a fairly entertaining watch, although it could have lost the length of an episode. There’s less than two years between Glen Matlock leaving the band and the deaths of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. In terms of the band, that particular line-up lasted less than a year. I have a vivid memory of walking through the Priory Church grounds in Dunstable with a few people from school. I remember one of them having a transistor radio and getting excited by “Pretty Vacant” being on, and then mentioning Glen Matlock being kicked out of the band for liking the Beatles. We would have been no more than 13, going on 14. I didn’t feel part of this at all, and although it was a myth put about by McLaren, I secretly sympathised with Matlock because I too liked The Beatles.
And the point about Chrissie Hynde is: as soon as that single, “Stop Your Sobbing”, was released in January 1979, we were back to normal. The revolution hadn’t happened. I don’t know what you’re hearing on the original studio recording, but I’m hearing a cover version of a 60s heritage act, complete with jangly guitars, which is always rock’s default position. Left to its own devices: jangly guitars, here she comes.
Although all science fiction tends to be about the context of its creation, the classics can transcend their eras and their malleable meanings can speak to different generations. Invasion of the Body Snatchers might have been a straightforward reds-under-the-bed political allegory in the 1950s, but by the 70s it reflects the political cynicism of the post-Watergate era; even later, it reflects (post)modern fears about personal identity and authenticity. “I feel like a pod person,” as one of Douglas Coupland’s characters says in Generation X.
From pod people to brood people: the brood parasites of The Midwich Cuckoos. John Wyndham’s 1957 novel was a British take on the “enemy within” genre — with a patriarchal slant — as civil servants and dutiful military officers take charge of a small English village when all the women of childbearing age become pregnant with alien babies.
Sky Max’s television version immediately reflects the times we live in. The quaint village of the original has become the “historic market town” of 2022: complete with new-build cul-de-sacs and far weaker community bonds. The well-meaning officials of 1957 become the slippery technocrats and compromised law enforcement officers of 2022. The white people who all have blonde haired children in 1957 become the ethnically diverse melting pot de nos jours. And so it goes. At least the wigs remain reassuringly, distractingly bad.
The reviewer in the Guardian wasn’t keen, awarding two stars and complaining that this new version was a missed opportunity, post #metoo, to talk about women’s reproductive rights and the rest. A classic case of reviewing the show it isn’t rather than the show it is. As it stands, this is a fairly faithful adaptation (although I haven’t seen it to the end) that allows Wyndham’s allegory to work its magic. Of course, there is a reproductive rights angle, but these telepathic babies put a stop to any such terminations from inside the womb, and there’s not much more you can say. They’re a telepathic hive mind: a new kind of human, or something else altogether.
So what does it all mean, in 2022? My mind couldn’t help drifting to thoughts about Generation Z and snowflakes, and Twitter pile-ons, and the lack of tolerance for any kind of offence or discomfort. I was thinking of it today when a colleague was surrounded by aggrieved teenage girls in a classroom when she attempted to introduce a new seating plan. You get this vibe from the Midwich children: how dare you make us feel bad?
More straightforwardly, Midwich in 2022 is about how you can’t trust the government, or the police, or your kids, or your spouse. But the wigs are perhaps the most disturbing element; and that baby cuckoo’s mouth in the title sequence looks like a vulva.
[Insert joke about blonde-haired, blue-eyed parasite in Downing Street here.]