Saturday, 23 February 2019

DOCTOR WHO: LOGOPOLIS at the BFI Southbank, 17 February 2019

Doctor Who's Season 18 is in better shape than ever on Blu-ray, and was celebrated with a launch event that included the customary special guests.

It’s early 2019 and we’re already at the third BFI Southbank event to launch a new Doctor Who season Blu-ray box set, in this case Tom Baker's swansong, Season 18. I remember it well from the time; for a lot of fans of my generation, Tom was the Doctor and had certainly, mostly for better and not worse, made an indelible stamp on the programme over seven years. To discover in 1980 that he was leaving, after the departures of Lalla Ward’s Romana and John Leeson’s K9, sent an ever increasing tidal wave of excitement through Doctor Who fandom, with the major question being asked – how would the reign of the seemingly indestructible Fourth Doctor conclude?

Unevenly, as it turned out. Tom’s finale ‘Logopolis’ is a strange story. For every amazing concept like the Logopolis planet of mathematicians who can model every space/time event in the universe through spoken calculations, and TARDISes replicated inside one another, there’s some noticeably amateurish elements. Clunky expository dialogue, Janet Fielding’s overacting as new companion, air hostess Tegan (not her fault, as she wasn’t allowed to see rushes) and glaringly illogical story development – the Doctor and Adric can’t go to Logopolis because the Master’s TARDIS is hiding in theirs, then they decide go to Logopolis with the Master’s TARDIS hiding in theirs, after incomprehensibly trying to “flush him out” by landing underwater in the Thames – tend to back up script editor and writer Chris Bidmead’s on-stage assertion that they were “making it up as they went along.”

What really makes ‘Logopolis’, of course, is Tom’s iconic central performance. The trademark feral grin and Wildean quips so beloved of this incarnation are almost completely absent, replaced by a gloomy, fatalistic seriousness entirely in keeping with the funereal atmosphere of the story. As has become customary with these Blu-ray releases, new effects have been created for stories where the originals were found particularly wanting, and considering the importance of ‘Logopolis’ there’s no more deserving recipient. There are new renders of the planet and city itself and the Doctor’s climactic fall – rather shockingly – can now be enjoyed for the first time (though perhaps “enjoyed” isn’t exactly the right word).

You can’t fault the BFI’s approach to these events as they go out of their way to find complementary guests for their Doctor Who screenings, with the emphasis always on the people involved in the making of the story. They came up trumps here, with Bidmead and production manager Margot Hayhoe, as well as actors Matthew Waterhouse (Adric) and Adrian Gibbs (the enigmatic Watcher).

Hayhoe and Gibbs were up first, between episodes one and two, in a discussion chaired by the BFI’s always amusing Dick Fiddy. Commenting on the debate between the pair about where the lay-by was that the TARDIS landed, Fiddy quipped “I love a good lay-by conversation.”

In contrast to the flagship status that Doctor Who is afforded by the BBC today, Hayhoe revealed that the show’s standing within the BBC at the time of ‘Logopolis’ was very different, as it was afforded a miniscule budget compared with the prestigious classic serials: “That was one of the big bug bears of the producers – here was Doctor Who, which was one of the biggest sellers of the Corporation, and it wasn’t getting the money it deserved.” Gibbs, meanwhile, found the whole experience of making ‘Logopolis’ “an adventure” that kept on giving, as he was still asked to sign autographs. Reflecting on their experience of Tom Baker, Hayhoe admitted to being “terrified, because he had a reputation for being a little difficult sometimes. But he was absolutely fine, and I think it helped because it was his last one”. Gibbs, meanwhile, remembered “going to the pub a few times” with his leading man, a memory which drew an appreciative ripple of laughter.

Bidmead and Waterhouse were full of good natured bonhomie, the former particularly so. “I just want to say that this is a quite extraordinary event for me,” he said, marvelling at the almost sell-out audience. “38 years ago, we did something that we thought we’d bung out there, there’d be one repeat, and life would go on. And here we are 38 years later, and there are people in this audience who weren’t even born then… So, thank you, very much!” His endearing enthusiasm was rewarded with a round of applause.

Discussion between the two ranged over bringing a new scientific rigour to the programme under the executive producership of 1970-74 producer Barry Letts – rather ironic at the screening of a story in which mathematical magicians intone what are basically spells – and the observation in ‘Logopolis’ that Tom “rarely addressed his fellow actors.” “A stage tradition?” inquired joint host Justin Johnson. “Not really,” Waterhouse replied, to another outburst of laughter. “A Tom tradition.”

A more serious point Bidmead made was that the job of script editor on Doctor Who was almost unique within the BBC at that time. “Nobody knew what the job was – this was the point,” he observed. “There were lots of script editors around the BBC, of course, but everyone had a completely different idea of what a script editor should be. For some people it was just a matter of putting a few commas into the script, for others it wasn’t even that – you’d just be good at taking writers out to lunch… The pressure was so great, that we would have writers in, we’d have a brainstorming session, and they go away and come back with scripts two weeks later. And the scripts would not reflect what we’d talked about during the brainstorming session.” Such a situation inevitably resulted in Chris having to “ring up the caretaker and be let out of the building, because I was sitting there so late re-writing.”

The event could have gone on longer – always a sign that a screening has been well paced – and Chris regretted that he couldn’t stay to meet the fans, as he was professionally whisked away by his “entourage”.

The overall impression was of being left wanting more,
a criticism that certainly can’t be made of the forthcoming Season 18 box set, teasers from which were shown throughout the afternoon. As last words go, it looks like being the very definition of definitive.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

STAN AND OLLIE (2018) review

Steve Coogan makes an impressive Stan Laurel in this gentle biopic, but the acting honours go to John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy.

You’ve just enjoyed one valedictory biopic, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), when another one comes along to mythologise a much-loved entertainment act. This time, it’s the bowler-hatted monochrome comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. They pretty much monopolised cinema comedy in the 1930s, courtesy of Hal Roach studios, with a blueprint that still looks modern today: the innocent, daft one (Laurel, thin) and the one who isn’t as clever as he thinks he is (Hardy, fat), has been the subsequent model for everyone from Abbot and Costello – as the film bitterly notes – through Morecambe and Wise to Reeves and Mortimer.

Stan and Ollie and Bohemian Rhapsody are also similar in that they’re flexible with the facts when it comes to the story the writers want to tell. Jeff Pope’s screenplay suggests that Hardy’s failure to negotiate his way out of his contract with Hal Roach (Danny Huston, entertainingly odious) and sign a new one with Laurel at 20th Century Fox, caused a simmering fault-line between the pair that blows up into a major fight in the final reel (if they still have film reels these days). The truth is slightly different and apparently less dramaticLaurel eventually signed a new contract with Roach, delivering two more outings for the duo in A Chump at Oxford and Saps at Sea (both 1939), and the pair did go on to make films for Fox.

Another thing Stan and Ollie and Bohemian Rhapsody have in common is that they’re finely crafted, valedictory fairy tales. In Pope’s script, there’s much talk that “the show must go on” Queen wrote a song of the same name expressing exactly the same sentiments, funnily enoughand, at the expense of Ollie’s failing health, their final theatre tour of the United Kingdom in 1953 fulfils that showbiz cliché, making sure the Laurel and Hardy legend goes out on a high. (In another curious parallel, Bohemian Rhapsody does exactly the same thing with Queen’s triumph at Live Aid, shortly after Freddie’s announces to the band that he has AIDS). Delightfully, the film starts and finishes with perhaps their most famous routine, the dance from Way Out West (1937), firstly when it was committed to celluloid in the Hal Roach studios, the second time sixteen years later at the triumphant end of a show in Ireland. (It’s perhaps worth noting that Bohemian Rhapsody is also similarly bookended by Live Aid).

Like the Queen biopic, the story really isn’t the main reason to see Stan and Ollie. The joy of it is in the performances. Everyone will talk about Steve Coogan (Stan) and John C. Reilly (Ollie), but elsewhere in the cast there are some terrific characterisations. As the film’s publicity notes, the duo’s wives make a “formidable double act” of their own: Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) is diminutive and feisty, always looking out for her “Babe” (Ollie’s ironic nickname); Ida Kitaeva Laurel (Nina Arianda) is amusingly blunt and wary of the organiser of the tour, Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones), to the point where she comically always refuses to sit next to him. 

Jones’s Delfont is a real highlight, the archetypal, smooth managerial hypocrite with a bounder’s moustache. He can barely wait to be out of Stan an Ollie’s company when the tour starts, but as soon as audiences pick upafter he’s manipulated them into doing public appearances for no extra money, naturally – he’s overflowing with compliments. When Ollie is taken ill, Delfont is quick to suggest that Stan carries on with another partner, sharply reminding him as they have breakfast at the Savoy hotel that “those sausages won’t pay for themselves.”

Steve Coogan is very good as Stan, mastering the peculiar tone of voice, the bemused expressions and the famous slapstick routines, but, no matter how good he is, you can’t help feeling you’re watching Steve Coogan in a pair of prosthetic ears.

Reilly is another matter. He’s exceptional. He inhabits the part of Ollie to the point where you’re unaware you’re watching an actor in a fat suit. Reilly simply is Oliver Hardy. He’s the beating heart of the film: an innocent, big, soft-natured man who, the film indicates, only became famous because of Laurel’s dedication to writing and (uncredited) directing, and who had a – fatal – weakness for gambling and the expensive high life. There’s a very moving moment when Lucille and Ollie are cuddling in bed, his tiny wife dwarfed by the bear-like Hardy. “What do you see in a fat old man like me?” Ollie grumbles. “That’s my husband you’re talking about,” Lucille gently admonishes him (and Henderson’s American accent is faultless).

You can’t have Hardy without Laurel,” Stan states emphatically and he remains true to his word, at the eleventh hour walking out on a performance with Nobby Cook (John Henshaw) as a substitute Ollie. That’s commendable, not to say heroic, but here’s a darkness to the film hovering just out of shot, with Pope’s suggestion that Laurel and Hardy were so trapped by their reputations that they couldn’t help but give their audiences what they wanted. Just two examples: as they arrive at a rundown hotel in Newcastle and, later, at the much flasher Savoy, the duo go into crowd-pleasing comedy routines, their private and public personas fused together.

No matter. Stan and Ollie is a beautifully made, affectionatethough perhaps too sedate – appraisal of two exceptionally funny entertainers in their (unforgiving) twilight years.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

BREXIT: THE UNCIVIL WAR, Channel 4, 7 January 2018


An underplaying Benedict Cumberbatch (below) was on fine form in an
incisive dissection of the story behind the 2016 Brexit referendum.

George Orwell was a genius. His dystopian masterpiece, the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, was written just over 70 years ago, but in it he managed to pinpoint the most worrying malaise of modern culture. To summarise the book: under a totalitarian state, information is controlled to such an extent that facts and the past can literally be rewritten. Because of this, the book’s anti-hero, Winston Smith, can never be sure of events that happened – the ‘true’ history only exists in his memory – or even what year it actually is. As one of the slogans of the controlling Party has it, “Who controls the past controls the future.”

For all his brilliance, Orwell didn’t anticipate the internet. Compared to the online anarchy of information we now have, the Party’s singular control of documents, newspapers, books, magazines, films and television looks distinctly old fashioned. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, everyone believed in the Party because the Party controlled everything; here and now in 2019, no one knows what to believe because you can’t be sure of the provenance of anything any more.

The man who’s done a lot to accelerate the rise of this climate is political strategist Dominic Cummings; it’s also a pretty safe bet that he’s read Nineteen Eighty-Four. The central figure of James Graham’s film drama Brexit: The Uncivil War, Cummings was the architect of the Vote Leave campaign, which swung the result of the UK’s 2016 referendum on membership of the European Union in favour of withdrawing. Compellingly played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Cummings certainly knew how to manipulate information, which he did with the aid of the Canadian analytical consultancy AggregateIQ, whose sinister mission statement was “integrating, obtaining and normalising data from disparate sources.”

Cummings had a messianic zeal the digital age, insisting to his campaign team that “We are going to be making decisions based on science and data… no advertisers, no snake oil salesmen, or fucking Saatchis. We’re gonna follow algorithmic, statistical analysis.” Thanks to AggregateIQ he did, although the whole process was unethical. The company targeted three million disenfranchised voters who could swing the referendum in Leave’s favour through accessing information on social media sites, together with competitions and adverts that had nothing to do with the referendum but, worded correctly, could build a data profile of the people interacting with them. Cummings clearly knew AggreateIQ’s methods were immoral, as he kept the real reason for the young Canadians’ presence in the Vote Leave HQ hidden from his staff.

Despite Cummings’ belief in a new political discourse – his aloof disdain for what he saw as political dinosaurs, i.e. MPs, were some of the drama’s highlights – his tactics came down to sound bites, inflammatory slogans and unsubstantiated claims. Most famous, or rather infamous, were Take Back Control’ and the claim that, having left the EU, the £350 million the UK apparently paid the EU every week would be spent on the NHS. Look at the slogan again; it doesn’t say that the money – which its been subsequently proved never existed anyway – would or will be spent on the NHS, it just suggests it. That this was the main selling point on the campaign bus (above) shows how far Cummings’ independent campaign was able to flout electoral regulation, something that exasperated Craig Oliver (a quietly simmering Rory Kinnear), in charge of the Remain camp.

Kinnear featured in an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror anthology series, which warns of how technical and scientific advances can get dangerously out of hand. Famously, Kinnear played the prime minister in ‘The National Anthem(2011), in which, to save the life of a royal princess, he had to fuck a pig live across all media platforms. This time, in a drama that played out very much like a Black Mirror story in it's combination of black farce and tragedy, it was the whole country being shafted.

Farce: Cummings’ electoral “edge” resulting in a war of words over a threatened, non existent tidal wave of immigrants from Turkey, who wasn’t even an EU member. Tragedy: the murder of Remainer MP Jo Cox, the first British politician to be assassinated for decades. In the only scene that Iooked like artistic licence, Cummings and Oliver met shortly after Jo’s murder, the latter sullenly warning his opposite number that, in knowingly provoking racism, bigotry and violence, Cummings had no control over what he’d let loose. Equally as bad, Oliver accused him of developing a culture in which no one believed anything and just yelled at each other.

Fast forward to this week in 2019 and there’s been a lot of yelling at the media village outside parliament. During a TV interview, Remainer Tory MP Ann Sourby MP was branded “scum” and a “Nazi” by nationalists, then was harassed by the same mob in the street on the way to the House of Commons. She commented “This is what’s wrong with our country”, a wrongness Brexit: The Uncivil War squarely laid at Cummings’ door.

Forty years ago, Graham’s film would have been a Play for Today; fifty years ago it would have been an Armchair Theatre. In both cases, it would have been essential viewing on one of only three terrestrial channels. Today, Brexit: The Uncivil War was lost in the general, eternal babble of 24/7 media culture. Some of our more right wing newspapers even gloated that more people watched the football. 

Reflecting on events long after the campaign, a disillusioned Cummings concluded “It’s all fucked.” Even though his intellectual arrogance contributed to that situation, it’s hard not to agree with him. I’m sure George Orwell would have.