Our Ladies: Movie Review.

Our Ladies review: Raucous and very funny take on Alan Warner's  Oban/Edinburgh novel The Sopranos | HeraldScotland
I’d love to have seen this in the hands of Lynne Ramsay, who adapted another of Alan Warner’s brilliant books for cinema. I am referring to Morvern Callar. A great, sympathetic rendering of a great book.

Michael Caton-Jones, by contrast, has made a ham fist of this.

The Sopranos, the source material, by Alan Warner is a spiffing book.

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, the stage play/musical, based on it, is one of the National Theatre of Scotland’s finest hours.

Our Ladies, also based on it, is supremely average. It’s just so….whatever.

It’s absolutely bang on 5/10.

Completely average. Completely unremarkable. Terribly disappointing.

The script, in part, destroys the source material, but there are some laugh out loud moments. I’ll give you that. But that’s because of Alan Warner.

The casting is more patchy than my lawn.

The acting more variable than a digital radio in the Highlands.

But my real ire is reserved for time continuity. Our Ladies start at their School in Fort William at, let’s say 8.45, but by 11 am they have driven to Edinburgh, rehearsed a choir competition, changed and hit the pubs before they are even open. Come on Michael (Caton-Jones).

And is the book not set in Oban?

The book is supremely feminist and lambasts its male characters but the movie simply caricaturises them. Every single man in this movie is poor (apart from the wee specky love interest of Orla).

It’s directed with a lack of sympathy and it’s poorly cast all round. I mean one of the girls was 27 when she played the part. Come on man.

I found it tolerable, but only just. I really could not be more ambivalent about this.

Sorry.

9/11: One Day In America. TV series review.

As we reach the 20th anniversary of 9/11 (or September the 11th if you can’t get your head round this confusing American dating approach) there’s been a slew of great documentaries hitting our screens. I’d argue this is the best. It’s hard to imagine better frankly.

For years my all time favourite documentary (if favourite is the right word) has been 102 Minutes That Changed America (it captured the attack on, and collapse of, the Twin Towers through a massive stitched together segue of found footage, in real time. I reviewed it here in 2009, back in the early days of my blog.

But this new series has raised the bar to a new level by tracking down a whole bunch of people who were there (essentially survivors), caught on mostly newsreel footage at the time that made people, the producers for sure, ask themselves. “I wonder what happened to that guy?” (It’s mainly men. Mainly from the uniformed services, and particularly the New York Fire Department.)

So they went out and found them and interviewed them around their footage – every bit as horrifying today as it was then.

You know, if you were to plan a terrorist atrocity you could not do it more effectively than Al Qaeda, under Osama Bin Laden’s leadership, planned this.

The interviews are essentially personal stories about how and why they got there, who they interacted with (saved, saw die at their sides, lost).

There are some truly extraordinary tales of heroism in all this. And that footage. Hours and hours of it.

Again and again we see the planes strike, the buildings crumble, the jumpers jump.

Is it appropriate to be so enthralled by this real life disaster, that destroyed the lives on nearly 3,000 as well as their multiple diasporae?

I mean, it’s been played out so many times that you wouldn’t think it could still grab you by the pit of the stomach, the pit of the colon actually, quite so viscerally.

But it’s engrossing. It’s so utterly spectacular.

It sort of shames me to be such a voyeur, and yet, it’s also like a modern day pilgrimage. An homage to the bravery and good or bad luck of these ordinary people.

One floor higher: death.

One room eastward: survival.

The sheer lottery of it all is what these stories bring to life. So movingly, so sympathetically teased out of these deeply respectful people.

In many ways it’s actually a tribute to Americans and the American dream because time and again this tells of the selflessness of people. It opens a window on New York’s cosmopolitanship because every ethnicity, every immigrant nation is represented.

Time and again I was in tears as these gripping stories unfolded with little or no blame. No why me’s? No hatred.

It’s a masterpiece on almost every level. Editing, direction, music, pace, drama.

You must see it.

The White Lotus: TV review

The White Lotus: Cast, plot, release date and how to watch the gripping new  drama in the UK | HELLO!

Another peach from Sky Atlantic. What a channel it is.

It’s a deeply black comedy with a character list of bastards. Maybe not Succession-level bastards, but not far short.

Set at an idyllic Hawaiian Island hotel resort, only reachable by boat, a bunch of blowhard white privileged twats arrive to be met by a bunch of deeply troubled staff that range from the recovering alcoholic/narcotic gay Hotel manager to a striving native American spa host and wellness instructor.

Each character is flawed in one way or another and what this does is light a touch paper to a week of increasing mayhem where their individual psychoses and prejudices build to a constant underscore of Hawaiian folk music that thrums and crescendoes as each of the six episodes unfolds.

It would be bad of me to spoil this by revealing the plot. Instead I’ll just say that each character is given sufficient airtime to reveal their true character as they impact on each others’ lives in a totally unpredictable way.

This is very fine writing and character acting, across the board.

Truly outstanding drama that is laugh out loud funny but deeply troubling. Proper black comedy at its finest.

Very highly recommended.

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler: Book review.

OctaviaEButler Kindred.jpg

The planets collided a little on this one. My friend Morvern Cunningham raved about Octavia E. Butler in her brilliant Unknown Pleasures post and then my book group also put it to the vote to read. So, read it I did.

At first, and on a very superficial level, this appears to be a sort of ‘Outlander on Slave Plantations’ which is to completely overlook its quality as a piece of work.

Yes, the device (time travelling between 1976 and 1815) is very similar but the depth of the novel is far greater than anything in Outlander.

The book engages with notions of slavery, female identity and male dominance, love and family, indeed humanity itself.

After a slow start, where it seems to me that Butler is struggling to find her voice for this complex novel, (and the dialogue initially suffers) she gradually gets into her stride and what emerges is a true masterpiece.

Is it, as described, sci fi? I think not, probably closer to fantasy but in reality it’s almost a historical polemic on how slavery is such an evil slight on humanity.

The central character, Dana, is a black Californian woman married to a white man, Kevin. This is, in itself, quite unusual for the 1970’s, but transport that back to 1815, and Maryland, and you have a scenario that is inconceivable.

Dana is the ‘protector’ of Rufus, the son of a plantation owner and linked to Dana’s birth line. He gets into a variety of ‘scrapes’ that means that Dana, his ‘guardian angel’, has to come from the future to extricate him.

This brings with it all sorts of challenges, first of all who is this weird woman wearing ‘pants’, secondly why is she so educated, thirdly why is her ‘master’ (her husband) so close to her?

Several leaps across time, of varying lengths of stay, immerse Dana and Kevin into the past and expose them to the hideous savagery of the slave life (despite Rufus’ plantation being at the fairer end of the scale).

What Butler achieves in this magnificent novel is a complete immersion into an alien culture that is entirely believable and a beautifully crafted series of relationships between Dana, Rufus, her husband Kevin and several of her ‘fellow slaves’.

It’s complex but it’s readable (even if it’s horrifying in parts) and the brilliance of the storytelling is totally immersive.

A strong recommendation from me.

It seems almost inconceivable that this has not been made into a movie yet but a scoot through IMDB suggests that in these #BlackLivesMatter times, where the novel is so pertinent, it has finally been recognised and a TV adaptation is in pre-production. That will be a must watch.

Under Milk Wood – Semi Skimmed by Guy Masterson: Edinburgh Fringe 2021

18 months since we last stepped into a theatre.

Our excitement is palpable.

It’s the first Tuesday of The Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Never the peak time for Edinburgh to be totally overwhelmed, but usually by now it’s heaving nonetheless. For maximum chaos one has to wait for the final weekend that usually coincides with an English Bank Holiday and the mass movement of Knightsbridge and Sloan Square to our hallowed streets.

We start with a quick drink in the venerable Summerhall’s Royal Dick Courtyard.

There’s people here, sure, but no shows. Not today anyway. You see, Summerhall only has the one venue this year and today, for some reason, all the performers need a day off. So soon?

So the atmosphere is pleasant but subdued.

Next stop, Assembly George Square, the city’s thriving epicentre of boozing, alongside the Pleasance Courtyard, in any other year. The Box Office ticket board displays very, very few shows available today, maybe 12. Again, only one venue, the Speigeltent, is operational, plus an outdoor music stage. Next door The Underbelly’s business is, well, not brisk.

But there’s a long and tedious queue to get into the Gardens, so maybe that augurs well?

Turns out, no. It’s populated, for sure, and nearly every table is taken, but no standing is allowed so it’s a one-in one-out policy that is being applied. So, no lolling about on the grass, no random collisions with people you know and love from the circuit.

The beer is, of course, overpriced as ever, but the ‘atmosphere’ we are usually paying a premium to enjoy is virtually non-existent.

The usual 3,800 or so shows has been slimmed down to maybe 400 live shows and a bunch more online. This does not a festival make. Maybe in a smaller town with no experience of the phenomenon that is the Edinburgh Festival(s) this would work, but here it’s not exactly Ghost Town, but it ain’t Glastonbury either.

We head to the aforementioned Speigeltent for the 8.30 production, a one hander (aren’t they all) production of Dylan Thomas’ magisterial Under Milk Wood.

Guy Masterson directed the brilliant “The Shark is Broken” in 2019 and this, his slightly edited version of Thomas’ masterpiece, is his self-directed and performed effort that he has been touring for 27 years.

It’s pretty good, with an impressive performance on this his 60th birthday.

What we don’t anticipate is a double stage invasion by a man clearly suffering terribly from some form of mental illness. He defies the stewards both times but on the second is escorted politely from the building, albeit not without some consternation on his part. It’s upsetting, but not seemingly for Masterson who battles stoically onwards.

The show is not as good as I thought it would be. It’s just too rushed is my main criticism, but it has merit and we can hardly feel cheated at under £20 for two tickets.

But the malaise of the streets transports inside the fairly cavernous tent with maybe 50 in an audience that could hold ten times that number, or more.

We leave, a little deflated, a little underwhelmed by our whole evening.

It feels like a failed experiment so far. Too few people making too little frisson of excitement.

It’s all a little sad.

Not quite a wake, but not much of a festival.

To next year and normality. (Although I will venture out again).

Unknown Pleasures #20: Felix McLaughlin

Felix comes from a long line of McLaughlin brothers. Four men so very different you’d be surprised they were even related. But each is a star in their own right. And their beloved Mum, Prue, well, she’s a one off.

Felix is the performer of the bunch. The natural showman. As you can see from the picture above, which I took about 12 years ago at the after show party for FCT’s Ya Beauty, he’s larger than life.

He’s enthusiastic, knowledgeable and great fun to be around. But his music quiz performance, in last year’s extended lockdown series, was only passable.

Felix and I know each other largely through the august body that is Forth Children’s Theatre where Felix made his name before going off to Wales to tread the boards there and meet his delightful wife, Louise.

But now he’s back to Scotland, living in Fife. I’m looking forward, very much, to meeting with Felix and his brothers at the annual Edinburgh Festival politics day, where they cram in as many left wing performances as is possible in one day.,

Thanks for your fantastic, not unsurprisingly eclectic selections Felix. Enjoy everyone.

My favourite author or book. 

Never been a big reader to be honest, particularly of fiction.  I have perhaps read more in the last 10 years or so, but I’ve always revelled in autobiographies – some favourites were Rikki Fulton, Danny Baker’s trilogy, Mo Mowlam and Peter Ustinov.  Not read Obama’s yet, so that is on the list.

How Barack Obama's Book Sales Stack Up Against Other Big Memoirs

The book I’m reading. 

A Kindle freebie called The Escape by CL Taylor – the kind of trash that sends me to sleep.

The book I wish I had written. 

Argos catalogue – the book of dreams.

Argos catalogue: After 48 years and 1bn copies, time's up for the  'laminated book of dreams' | UK News | Sky News

The book I couldn’t finish. 

Lovely Bones. Dull.

The book I’m ashamed I haven’t read. 

It’s a cliche, but all the classics – Dickens, Hardy etc.  Never been one for fantasy, so won’t ever attempt Harry Potter or Tolkein, my suspension of disbelief only goes so far!

My favourite film. 

Movies I could watch again and again include One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Sleuth (obviously the Olivier/Caine original), West Side Story and The Odd Couple. 

My favourite play. 

This has been mentioned before in this series, but I saw Ulster American with Mark G a couple of years back at the Traverse, which was amazing.  We spoke to one of the actors (Darrell D’Silva) outside afterwards and his wise-cracking American accent from the stage then morphed into thick Rotherham!  John Byrne’s The Slab Boys at The Lyceum circa 1988 made a huge impression on me.  I used to go to all the previews back then at Lyceum, great atmosphere in there.  Seen many great musicals – Green Day’s American Idiot once in Cardiff and once at the Playhouse in Edinburgh, Blood Brothers, special mention for B2’s production of Rent and FCT doing Jesus Christ Superstar in the Fringe a few years back (and being well oiled helped with my accompanying every word from the audience!). 

My favourite podcast.  

Adam Buxton is always good with a nice interviewing manner and interesting people.  His recent chat with McCartney was miles better than Idris Elba’s bum lick on BBC.  Richard Herring’s LHSTP is very silly, but still makes me smile.  The BBC Sounds series Tunnel 29 is an extraordinary tale of escaping under the Berlin Wall, gripping and well worth seeking out.

The box set I’m hooked on. 

Enjoyed Zerozerozero a lot – atmospheric, dark, crazy and great acting.  I was late to the party with Ben Elton’s Upstart Crow but binged right through, very clever.  I love Derry Girls on All4 and Detectorists has also been a lockdown binge. 

My favourite TV series. 

GBH with Michael Palin and Robert Lindsay at the top of their game, very much of its time but still relevant.  I always return to Have I Got News For You and anything with Alan Partridge.

My favourite piece of music. 

Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien.  My Dad had a cassette of Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic and he played it ad nauseam in the car when us four boys were younger.  For me it is hugely evocative, stirring, dramatic and beautifully performed.  My younger brother bought me a vinyl copy for Christmas a couple of years ago, which is exquisite.

My favourite dance performance. 

Not a medium I rush to go and watch, to my shame, as I know I should, however my cousin Lulu Johnston created and performed a one woman Fringe show in 1994, which was a double bill called “Beastie” and “Gemma & Mrs Kemper”.  It was on at St Cuthbert’s By The Castle and I always remember in the 2nd half, she got herself into a dolls house and danced with it on for over 20 minutes…amazing.

The Last film/music/book that made me cry.

12 Years a Slave.  Astonishing.

The lyric I wish I’d written. 

Well it’s a toss up between Newport’s finest Goldie Lookin Chain’s “Your mothers got a penis” with some memorable lines:

She walks around proud, with a short dress on
Which sometimes exposes the tip of her dong.
Often it’s dripping, sometimes it’s dry
No matter when I see her there’s a tear in my eye

or from Iggy’s Lust for Life – “Well, that’s like hypnotizing chickens”.  Love that line.

The song that saved me. 

To be used seamlessly in three different scenarios – loud in car on a long journey, background chill at home, or thumping out from a PA as the sun comes up, it has to be Primal Scream with Come Together. 

The instrument I play. 

When much younger, I learned trumpet, tenor horn, drums and piano.  Don’t play any of them now, sad to say.

The instrument I wish I’d learned.

Guitar, definitely.

If I could own one painting it would be. 

Dali’s Christ of St John of the Cross.  There was a small print copy on the wall in my granny’s house and I used to stare at it just to try and work it out, it fascinates me.  Even better, the original is housed in Scotland, so my ownership wouldn’t involve any Brexit red tape cos it’s in Kelvingrove Gallery in Glasgow!

Work in focus: 'Christ of Saint John of the Cross' by Salvador Dalí | Event  | Royal Academy of Arts

The music that cheers me up.

Elvis, no contest.

The place I feel happiest. 

6-9pm on a Friday, taking ages to make a curry in my kitchen, random hoppy ales in fridge, music loud, chatting rubbish with wifey.

My guiltiest cultural pleasure. 

YouTube.

I’m having a fantasy dinner party, I’ll invite these artists and authors.

Adolf Hitler, Elvis, Shakespeare, Bowie, Clare Grogan, Bjork, Joe Strummer, Daniel Day Lewis and Chic Murray. 

And I’ll put on this music.

Late 60s early 70s easy listening (Bacharach, Tony Christie, Dionne Warwick) interspersed with Chic greatest hits cos we’ll need to dance between courses, then lots of shouty Simple Minds, Big Country or Proclaimers when everyone is lashed up.

If you like this here’s some more…

Duncan McKay

Claire Wood.

Morvern Cunningham

Helen Howden

Mino Russo

Rebecca Shannon

Phil Adams

Wendy West

Will Atkinson

Jon Stevenson

Ricky Bentley

Jeana Gorman

Lisl MacDonald

Murray Calder

David Reid

David Greig

Gus Harrower

Stephen Dunn

Mark Gorman

Looking back at how racism has changed. To Kill a Mockingbird: Book Review.

Cover of the book showing title in white letters against a black background in a banner above a painting of a portion of a tree against a red background

Like me, you possibly read this book at school. In my case over 40 years ago.

I recently joined a book club at work and we specifically read books either by Black writers or books about racial prejudice. This clearly falls into the latter camp and the choice to read it came from a a left-field suggestion by my wife that we revisit the past.

So we did.

It’s much lauded, selling over 30million copies and winning the Pulitzer Prize.

A morality tale for the times (1960 but set in 1936). It tells the story of black oppression and racial discrimination completely through white eyes, worse, children’s white eyes.

Not one single page features a contribution from the central (struck mute) protagonist Tom Robinson – frankly even the character’s name is redolent of hokey deep southern central casting – but, hey, maybe that was the idea.

It paints the picture of an Alabaman township where a strange resident (Boo Radley) lives holed up in his house next door to brother and sister young Scout and wise Jem Finch. Boo scares the bejesus out of them (is that why he’s called Boo?) by simply being reclusive.

He’s the first harmless Mockingbird of the title.

The second is an uneducated Black farmer (Tom Robinson) enticed into a trailer trash home by a seductive young hick who, having been stumbled upon by her paw, screams the house down accusing him (completely falsely) of rape.

He’s taken to the local kangaroo court, tried for the fake rape and is defended by Scout and Jem’s dad (oddly known to them by his given name, Atticus).

Atticus, Jem and Scout seem to be the only open-minded folks in the town which quickly earns him the reputation as a “nigger lover”.

The use of this word is liberal and the polite version (negroe) was clearly the acceptable version of the time, but its repetitive use is also quite startling.

It’s a very odd read indeed, terribly trapped in time with much outdated language and a dreadful naiveté. Maybe that’s deliberate, I suppose, because Harper Lee chooses to make the young Scout the author in a bid to open the eyes of the reader to the illogical nature of the inherent prejudice of the town.

But it also serves to make the book uninsightful and frankly, quite boring.

The structure is clumsy with the two mockingbird stories only loosely related and with no real link other than as a storytelling device.

But it’s the lack of a Black voice that most troubled me in this. Tom Robinson is cast as stupid (stoopid and ign’rn’t) and has no way of repositioning himself. The only Black voice is of another lovable central casting character, the cook and housemaid, Calpurnia who looks after the motherless Scout and Jem as her own.

Sure, it’s a coming of age novel with a purpose, but I found it banal and patronising.

The characters are wholly unrounded and the entire conceit naive and unsubtle.

It wasn’t a good experience.

I think it’s long had its time. Avoid.

Molly Drake: I remember.

Molly Drake (album) - Wikipedia

Molly Drake was Nick Drake’s mum.

I wasn’t aware of Molly Drake until this morning, when Samantha Morton chose this song as the final of her excellent Desert Island Discs.

As I walked along the beach at Dalmeny I played it five or six times, drawn deeper and deeper into its intoxicating lyrics and haunting story.

This song may seem, at first, to be a little naive with such a simple melody, no arrangement and a homespun nostalgic whimsy about it, but wait for the last verse.

The cutting, no scything, away of that whimsy, in an understated nuclear bomb of a conclusion, is devastating.

It’s magnificent.

And here is The Unthanks doing it, not as well as Molly though. Surprisingly.

Number 11 by Jonathan Coe: Book Review.

If you’re a fan of Coe there is plenty in this novel to pique your interest. It’s a scabrous as ever about the state of the nation (as was the case in 2015 when he wrote this Osbornian nightmare).

It takes austerity as its backdrop and as usual Coe spares the Tory government nothing in terms of its unfairness and divisive policy, one that has proven to be pointless and did nothing but deepen the divide between Britain’s haves and have nots.

It’s loosely a follow up to his earlier Winshaw critique “What a Carve up” but not in so direct away as his Trotter trilogy.

It’s also nothing like his best. The number 11 theme that runs through it is a bit clunky and the story, whilst cleverly plotted, lacks some of the cohesion of his earlier, and later work. Nevertheless it’s Coe, and that’s enough for me to romp through it to a highly unexpected ending that takes us into sci-fi, fantasy, horror territory, albeit briefly.

I dunno, his language in this book feels a little laboured (no pun intended) and maybe rushed because it has a formality that doesn’t seem quite so evident in his other work. It’s a use of language, especially the descriptive prose, that isn’t as rip-roaring or light on its feet as he usually is.

But that’s not to say you shouldn’t enjoy his distinctive annihilation of centre right (increasingly moving away from the centre towards populism) politics.

It’s interesting that the main characters are female and maybe that’s what’s slightly mis-stepping him. I mean he is a real English bloke, right?

I enjoyed it for what it’s worth, but in Coe terms no more than a 6/10.

Gomorrah: TV Series review

Sodom and Gomorrah afire by Jacob de Wet II, 1680

Sodom and Gomorah were two Jordanian cities in the book of Genesis.

From Wikipedia “The Lord reveals to Abraham that he would confirm what he had heard against Sodom and Gomorrah, “and because their sin is very grievous.”

The sins of the wholly Catholic characters of Gomorrah fall fairly squarely into the camp of “grievous”. Indeed, not one of them can be in any way excused. And yet, we love them. Tony soprano, and his mates, by contrast, appear almost saintlike.

For Gommorahns are bad bad people. Not bad in a tut tut sort of way, bad in a callous, pointless, hollow and frankly evil way.

The level of violent revenge, the principal driver of Gomorrah, is breathtaking in its brutality and its unforgivable ness.

And yet, we grow close to some of them, notably Ciro and Patrizia.

The story, over 48 episodes with 12 more to come in Serie 5, centres around the Camorra wars of Napoli, a city I have been fortunate enough to visit twice, and love dearly (probably my favourite Italian city).

The city is carved into gang ‘owned’ neighbourhoods focussing primarily on Secondigliano, a Northern slum of the city, famous for its four sail shaped Brutalist tower blocks – rabbit warrens of hidden streets that house the wealthy drug dealers that rule the community.

Genarro Savastano, son of Don Pietro Savastano, is the central character (the Tony Soprano figure). his presence underpins the whole series although he by no means dominates the action. We see him rise from a fat wimpy kid into a ruthless killer who tries hard, at times, to leave his life of crime and rebuild his reputation as a more philanthropic business tycoon. But family honour and preservation of his reputation keep sucking him back into his ways.

He’s a dick.

He’s also, like several of the characters, probably saved from his extraordinarily narrow acting range by the fact that the entire show is performed in Italian and the beauty of the language masks a nagging feeling that he cannot really act.

His facial expressions, dominated by a biting of his bottom lip as he stares off camera, are limited in the extreme. Patrizia (his rags to bitches sidekick) played by Cristiana Dell’Ana fares little better, her range runs from resting bitch face to surly pout.

Either this is method acting par excellence or it’s not. Decide for yourself.

Either way, it doesn’t really matter because its gripping and compelling from start to finish.

The endless wars (and endless car journeys) are more repetitive than a week with Phillip Glass, again it doesn’t matter because what the series does evoke a unique mood, driven by a complex and exhausting narrative that’s utterly spellbinding.

The directors favour a tableaux composition of gang members that are certainly biblical and always beautifully realised; in car parks, warehouses, underpasses, doorways and alleyways and the spectacular graveyards that are commonly visited.

The music, whilst overly directional in its use of receptive themes, is magnificent and underscores the action to perfection.

The shadow of the Catholic church is impossible to escape. Many a killing is precursed by its perpetrator blessing him or herself with a sign of the cross. Many of the drug dens and meeting places of the gangs are in churches. Many of the killings (and there are literally hundreds) happen in places of worship. It reminds us of the inglorious history and commercial greed of the Vatican.

I can say with certainty that no TV series has ever taken me in to this extent (not the aforementioned Sopranos, not the West Wing, the Wire, Breaking Bad, nothing) so for that reason I have to proclaim it the greatest TV series ever made.

Bravo.

Unknown Pleasures #7: Lisl MacDonald

You might have been beginning to think that my Unknown Pleasures series was simply an old boys club of dusty memories. But you’d be wrong. It’s just that the female contributors I’ve invited to this have been, shall we just say, tardy, in their responses.

But I’m delighted to bring you the first of these, that of Lisl MacDonald.

Lisl’s quite a new pal actually. We came together through the Marketing Society and she was my choice to replace me as Chair of The Nods when I had to step down due to a conflict of interest when I joined Whitespace.

Our friendship has grown through marketing and music, but I’ve also been very aware of her vast appetite for everything cultural and I feel we are in for the long haul as we both near our later years. That’s if she stays in Scotland, because she has many interests in Asia and is more often than not found there.

Lisl has impeccable musical taste but her many performances in my lockdown music quiz ranged from inept to innocuous. But her humour and acerbic wit made her a welcome competitor. (I use the word competitor in the loosest possible term, I mean Brora Rangers are “competitors” in the Scottish Cup but they’ll never actually win any matches.)

Anyway, here’s the views of the lass fae Rothesay. I have to say, it is exquisitely composed (although she couldn’t spell cornet).

My favourite author or book

If I can redefine this as “books I have read more than twice”, then Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, and Lanark by Alasdair Gray. These three books impart really important lessons about life, love, sex, war, racism, inequality, creativity, courage, and many more things besides. As they are so well written, you enjoy them first as a great read then realise afterwards that they were instructive.

The book I’m reading

I’ve just started Kitchenly 434, the new Alan Warner. Only on page 10 but looking very good so far!

The book I wish I had written

Candide, by Voltaire. Smart, tragic, hilarious, genius.

Candide eBook: Voltaire, by, Fleming, William: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store

The book I couldn’t finish

Never managed to get far with Ulysses, James Joyce. I’ve tried three or four times then stopped, put the book down and gone and done something interesting instead.

The book I’m ashamed I haven’t read

The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith. Read bits of it. 

My favourite film

Pi

It was Aronofsky’s debut in 1998 when he had no budget and loads of ideas. Firstly, it has one of the best soundtracks you’ve never heard and includes  Aphex Twin, Autechre, Roni Size, and  Clint Mansell. So it sounds great. Secondly, it is filmed on high-contrast black and white reversal film. So it looks great. Finally, it’s about a mad number theorist trying to find connection and order in the world through mathematics. So it’s a crazy but satisfying journey. It feels even more relevant today and I would love to see it on the stage. 

Pi: 15th Anniversary | Alternative Poster | Movie posters design, Pi art,  Art contest

My favourite play

Is it a cliché to say King Lear? We studied it at school and I’ve seen it staged in so many places, so many ways. It’s a credit to the creativity of all the artists involved in theatre around the world that you can take one old text and keep bring it to life in new ways which keep it relevant and feel fresh.

My favourite podcast

I have two. Trashy Divorces, which combines social history with trashy gossip of the highest order. And Backlisted, which has brilliant hosts, fabulous guests, and always costs me a fortune as I buy the books they discuss and refer to. It’s a real book lovers thrill.

The box set I’m hooked on

Currently the French spy series The Bureau. It’s making me suspicious of everyone’s motives…why are you asking me these questions Mark?

My favourite TV series

I’ve been all about RuPauls Drag Race for quite a long time now. The camp, bitchy, positive, supportive, colourful JOY of it.

RuPaul's Drag Race' reveals season 12's new queens

My favourite piece of music

John Tavener’s, The Lamb. Unaccompanied voices. Written as a lullaby for his nephew and inspired by William Blake. Exquisite.

My favourite dance performance

The Rite of Spring, a Pina Bausch work. Can’t remember where we saw it but my husband and I still talk about it. Closely followed by whatever Benjamin Millepied is doing, we’ve seen his work a couple of times in Paris and its always engrossing.

The Last film/music/book that made me cry

It was a few nights ago. I have chronic insomnia and often listen to music while I should be sleeping. A relaxing mix was on random play, and Max Richter’s Maria The Poet (1913) came on. The tears flowed. 

Music truly is a drug. Beware of the set and setting in which it is consumed! This composition usually makes me feel hopeful. At 3am, with the rain pattering the window, and after a day of hearing news of corrupt Westminster politicians, attacks on women being normalised , genocide, climate disaster…well, I crumbled. 

It was cathartic though.

The lyric I wish I’d written

They were written by T Rapp but made famous by This Mortal Coil. They contain all the wisdom of the ages:

The jeweller has a shop on the corner of the boulevard.

In the night, in small spectacles, he polishes old coins.

He uses spit and cloths and ashes.

He makes them shine with ashes.

The coins are often very old by the time they reach the jeweller.

With his hand and ashes he will do the best he can.

He knows that he can only shine them, cannot repair the scratches.

He knows that even new coins have scars so he just smiles.

In the darkest of the night. Both his hands will blister badly.

They will often open painfully and the blood flows from his hands.

He works to take from black coin faces, the thumb prints from so many ages.

He wishes he could cure the scars.

When he forgets he sometimes cries. 

He knows the use of ashes. 

He worships God with ashes.

The song that saved me

Slippery People, Talking Heads. It whispered to a young lassie on the Isle of Bute that it was OK to be a bit crazy. Preferable, even. Its my hymn, my anthem, my rallying cry.

The instrument I play

I’ve always read music as my family are all musical. So it went: recorder, violin, oboe, cornet. I violated the violin with scratching bows, obliterated the oboe with shrill reeds, but really enjoyed playing cornet in a swing band. Haven’t picked one up for decades though. 

The instrument I wish I’d learned

Piano. It’s on the list to learn.

If I could own one painting it would be

Woman With a Book, Picasso. It’s a reasonable likeness! I love that it is both vivid and still. It shows me that reading is an act of quiet solitude which can also be subversive, erotic and exciting. Mostly, I just like looking at it and it never bores me. And isn’t that the real criteria for putting something constantly in your line of sight?

Woman With Book 1932 By Pablo Picasso Art Reproduction from Wanford

The music that cheers me up

Honestly,? Music that takes me back to a happy time works. So Gil Scott Heron, Prince, The Pixies,and some old scool house, techno and hip hop gets me up off my chair, and feeling that same vibe from back in the day. If only my body felt the same…

The place I feel happiest

Anywhere I am by or on the sea. I grew up on the Isle of Bute, scuba dive and am a qualified yacht skipper. Sailing connects us as humans with all those communities of old who found ways to build boats, navigate, and handle the sea in all its moods. And its environmentally friendly. 

My guiltiest cultural pleasure

The podcast Dear Joan and Jericha. Outrageous. 

Dear Joan & Jericha: a VERY revealing conversation about their podcasting  journey | by Acast: For The Stories. | Acast | Medium
I mean, this should be banned it’s so subversive Ed. (I love it)

I’m having a fantasy dinner party, I’ll invite these artists and authors

David Byrne (my muse), Voltaire, Robert Burns, Maya Angelou, Kim Gordon, Ian Dury,  Alan Cumming, Michele Obama. 

And I’ll put on this music

Ron Carter, Stockholm Volume 1.

Ron Carter Foursight Stockholm Vol. 1 [CD] - IN+OUT Records GmbH

If you enjoyed that there are a bunch more to read. Try these:

Murray Calder

David Reid

David Greig

Gus Harrower

Stephen Dunn

Mark Gorman

Children of the Stones: Podcast Review

Milbury, a fictitious town in England, is the home of a bunch of ancient stones that encircle the community and have strange intoxicating powers that render the townsfolk strangely happy and a bit out of it.

Moving there in the wake of the death of the family matriarch, father and daughter Adam and Mia are both involved in their study. Dad as a professional Archeometrist, daughter as a grumpy teenage podcaster.

Mia, in the central role is played by Worzel Gummidge actress India Brown and she rules the roost with a fine performance.

It’s a tight, short two and a half hour yarn that brings a mix of sci-fi and semi-religious mumbo jumbo into play.

It feels a bit young adult in nature but is well put together and an entertaining romp.

Reece Shearsmith plays a crazed scientist who wants to take over the world and adds his usual stamp of maniacal over the topness.

It was a 1977 TV series apparently, although I missed it at the time, and is brought deftly up to date by the accomplished dialogue of scriptwriting team of AK Benedict and Guy Adams.

Presented by BBC Radio 4 and BaffleGab it’s well worthy of your time.

Good drama well presented.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett: Book Review

The Vanishing Half: Longlisted for the Women's Prize 2021: Amazon.co.uk:  Bennett, Brit: 9780349701462: Books

This article in The Atlantic sets out some context here. Its by Theodore R. Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

According to the Implicit Association Test, I have a “strong automatic preference for European Americans compared to African Americans.” That’s a sterile way of saying that I’m biased against black people. For most people, such a designation would probably be unsettling. After all, the United States is a nation that ostensibly aspires not to judge others “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” But for me, it caused a mini-existential crisis.”

Why? Because I’m black.

That’s a bold and brave admission and central to the tenet of this novel.

I read the book because Bernardine Evaristo recommended it.

I’m glad she did because it’s an engrossing read, albeit a game of two halves.

Ironic, as it’s about the lives of twins who take different paths.

But much more than this, it’s a highly original tale about racism.

Desiree and Stella are Black twins that look White.

In fact, they are born in a small town called Mallard in Louisiana that has an all-Black citizenship that hates being Black – they are all fair skinned, the melanin somehow bred out of the local populace. Worse, they hate Black people, they especially hate Black people that present as Black.

The sully the town.

So, when Desiree and Stella jump town at 16 and move to New Orleans, Desiree spites them all by marrying an ink-Black man. Blue Black. And has a Blue Black baby, Jude.

Returning to Mallard after her husband abuses and beats her, with Jude in tow, she finds her daughter ostracised.

Meanwhile Stella goes all White.

She bluffs her way into a job in the local department store where Blacks are shunned and meets her soon to be wealthy husband who, as her boss, is unaware of her racial background and soon they give birth to a blue eyed blonde ‘princess’ who embarks on a career as a second rate theatre and then soap actress.

It’s menacing.

The first half of the book sets up this story beautifully and elegantly.

Stella’s racism grows out of control as she first shuns, then guiltily embraces, a rich Black female neighbour that taints her staunchly White suburb, threatening a mass exodus and outcries at the town hall meetings.

So far, so brilliant.

Act two loses some of its sparkle, although the story develops strongly as the twins and their daughters’ lives gradually overlap.

The secrets and lies gradually threaten to overwhelm Stella’s life, and the action turns into a part detective story, part revenge thriller.

For me, it started to lose its power as the, admittedly good, story fails to build as strongly as I had hoped on the central premise of the novel.

But overall it’s a page-turning, deeply shocking exploration of racism that can’t but help draw you into thinking about both Meghan Markle and Michael Jackson.

Racism isn’t about race. Racism is about attitude.

It’s a stark reminder that we all need to look ourselves in the mirror.

Unknown Pleasures #2: Stephen Dunn

Contact — Stephen Wilson Dunn

I’ve known Stephen for the best part of a decade now. He’s a phenomenon. A proper philanthropist who has, in his retirement from the energy industry where he made an impact at the very highest level, continued that impact, particularly in theatre and at Hibernian FC where he is a hands-on and much loved board director.

He’s a photographer, and an exceptionally good one at that, having undertaken study at degree level. But he’s intuitively great.

It’s in theatre that I know him best and his recent creation of the Stephen Dunn Theatre Fund is helping in many ways, most recently with the fabulous new podcast series presented by Nicola Roy called The Cultural Coven. You’ll find it on Spotify and Apple.

Here’s his beautifully curated and eclectic Unknown Pleasures.

My favourite author or book

I love a laugh, so it must be Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler, My Part in His Downfall.  It is a book I can read again, and again, and always laugh out loud.  I loved Milligan and his viewpoint on all life.  His letters, particularly to HMRC, met in-kind by a very funny tax inspector, brighten up any day and are a template on how to deal with officialdom and jobsworths.  However, it his beautifully observed, and no doubt greatly exaggerated, commentary on army life, the war and particularly the characters he encountered is a book I would take to that desert island if I were ever asked.  

Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall (film) - Alchetron, the free social  encyclopedia

The book I’m reading

Svetlana Boym’s The Future of Nostalgia is my current read, primarily for my Masters in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography.  It is a book worth reading in its own right however as it looks at nostalgia, from its historic position as a disease, cured in some armies by shooting, to the reasons we feel a longing for times and places from the past.  Being of Russian birth there is a brilliant analysis of their psyche and approach to life, and of their former citizens! 

The book I wish I had written

“From the Earth to the Moon” Jules Verne.  Foresight or what!

The book I couldn’t finish

Loads of those.  Mostly science fiction literature. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick is one I gave up on in the early 1970s, only to love Blade Runner the film.  Who knew!

The book I’m ashamed I haven’t read

The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides.  My English teacher at school was a great inspiration and she gave us the option to read either the Thucydides or An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley.  I chose the latter and that started my love of theatre. Miss Merson wanted the former as she felt I would become a more rounded person.  I was ashamed to let her down.

My favourite film

An impossible question. Depends on mood, genre and what is happening in the world.  Recently I watched and loved Apollo 11, more a documentary but great, nevertheless.  A bit of film noir such as Double Indemnity and of course a bit of To Catch a Thief, just to see the South of France!

My favourite play

Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller at the Young Vic was probably the best I have seen in recent years although Angels in America, Tony Kushner at The National Theatre was also up there.

Theater: 'Angels in America' Punches Through the Roof Again

My favourite podcast

15 Minutes to the Moon. Theme here!

The box set I’m hooked on

Don’t do box sets.  Although have recently found Netflix but tried to avoid binges.

My favourite TV series

The Sweeney, followed by The Avengers followed by Rising Damp.

My favourite piece of music

Alone Again Naturally, Gilbert O’Sullivan.  Loved it when it first came out and love it today.

Alone Again (Naturally) by Gilbert O'Sullivan on Amazon Music - Amazon.co.uk

My favourite dance performance

No great on dance. Went to a ballet once and thought it was noisy!

The Last film/music/book that made me cry

Fences. August Wilson play turned into a film directed and starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.

The lyric I wish I’d written

Colors changing hue
Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain
Are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand

Don McLean, Vincent

The song that saved me

Not needed so far.  However, Stay With Me, The Faces would feature!

The instrument I play

A Leica MP film camera.

Leica MP // Leica M-System // Photography - Leica Camera AG

The instrument I wish I’d learned

A triangle.

If I could own one painting it would be

Ophelia, Sir John Everett Millais.  Pre Electricity Council meetings at Millbank I would sit and stare at it! Was offended when they loaned it to Russia and complained to one of the curators.  It was mine you see!

Ophelia', Sir John Everett Millais, Bt, 1851–2 | Tate

The music that cheers me up

The Faces.

The place I feel happiest

In a theatre, preferably the Lyceum, although The National in London is a space I love and of course Easter Road.

My guiltiest cultural pleasure

Being able to go to the smoke at the drop of the hat to “do” theatre.  

I’m having a fantasy dinner party, I’ll invite these artists and authors

Spike Milligan, Jack Lemmon, Billie Holliday, W. Eugene Smith, Bing Crosby and Stephen Fry.   

And I’ll put on this music

So What, Miles Davis

Unknown Pleasures #1: Mark Gorman

I love the, always insightful and thoughtful, celebrity column each Saturday in the Times called ‘My Culture Fix’ and realise I will never be asked to write it (because I’m not a celebrity), so I thought I’d do it myself and then invite some friends to do their own.

So, this is #1 in an occasional series.

Here’s my starter.  It took me ages.  

(If you’d like to contribute please let me know and I’ll send you the form.)

My favourite author or book

Few authors have fault-free cannons of work.  Favourites like Ian McEwan, John Irving and Margaret Atwood all suffer from weak spots, Donna Tartt, less so. But I’ll go for the two books that punched me in the chest most vividly in recent year, The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Both deal with aspects of systemic racism in America that makes you wonder why, in 2020, there should have still been a need for #BlackLivesMatter.  But it seems racism is not just systemic but endemic too. Maybe books this brilliant can make a dent.

The book I’m reading

Barack Obama’s fine memoir, A Promised Land.  Big and beautiful.  (Like him).  And the latest of my book club’s choices (it’s my work’s diversity and inclusion group so we only read books by authors of colour).  The current read is a brilliant page-turner.  The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett.

HBO Brit Bennett The Vanishing Half 7-Figure Deal; 17 Bidders – Deadline

The book I wish I had written

“How I won a million dollars” by Mark A Gorman.

The book I couldn’t finish

There’s plenty.  I’m not too squeamish about that.  But Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is some pile of drudging poopery.

The book I’m ashamed I haven’t read

I’ve never really taken to ‘the classics’.  My reading starts mid 1930’s (Lawrence, FSF, Camus, Kafka, Huxley) so I’m fairly ashamed that, when I describe writing as Dickensian, my experience of his work is from TV, the stage or through the eyes of writers like Michel Faber.

My favourite film

That changes.  I recently re-watched what I thought was my favourite, Magnolia by PT Anderson, and the edge was off it.  The Shining and Apocalypse Now often sit front of mind for this question, when asked, but actually I’m going to stick with Paul Thomas Anderson and say ‘his body of work’.

My favourite play

The Royal Lyceum Theatre’s production of Berthold Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle 

My favourite podcast

For about two years now podcasts have become my biggest indulgence in my own time, not all are cultural of course.  In fact, they’re mainly political, news and history.  But a few cultural gems have slipped in there.  It’s hard to do well.  But Homecoming (both series) is fantastic theatre of the mind, as is Passenger List but the most gruesome and funniest (even if unintentionally) is a New York take on Sweeney Todd called the Horrors of Dolores Roach.  Delicious.

The box set I’m hooked on

Gomorrah is ridiculously callous in its brutality but gloriously so.  The fact it’s in Italian masks what I’m pretty sure are at least two central performances of dubious merit.  My wife and I were feeling decidedly guilty that we feel invested in the character Ciro, despite the fact that he’s a cold-blooded murdering bastard. 

Gomorra: La serie (TV Series 2014– ) - IMDb

My favourite TV series

You can’t beat getting your scoresheet out with University Challenge on the screen.  Jools, when he doesn’t talk, has been a staple for many years, but the programme that got me hook, line and sinker during lockdown was Junior Bake Off with the wonderful Harry Hill presenting.

My favourite piece of music

Well, I definitely want Into My Arms by Nick Cave played at my funeral but the two records that I simply never tire of are Reproduction and Travelogue by The Human League.  It’s pretty incredible to think how they knocked this up at the time they did.  Extraordinary technique, tunes and oddly brilliant lyrics.  The real deal.

The Human League – Reproduction (Vinyl) - Discogs

My favourite dance performance

I was blown away by Peacock (choreographed by Yang Liping) in the 2019 Edinburgh Festival.  But every time I see NDT I have a similar WTF reaction.  Done really well, with great music, contemporary dance is my favourite artform. We are blessed in Edinburgh to see this sort of stuff for under £20 every year.  Nowhere else on earth would you get that sort of value.

The Last film/music/book that made me cry

Gus Harrower recorded a version of Secret Love by Doris Day, my Mum’s favourite song, for her funeral recently and it was electrifying and hugely emotional for me.  And then, just last night, we watched an Australian movie about a terminally ill teenager called Babyteeth.  That hit the spot too.

The lyric I wish I’d written

From Grinderman (Nick Cave) from Palaces of Montezuma… The spinal cord of JFK
Wrapped in Marilyn Monroe’s negligee I give to you.”

The song that saved me

I’m glad to say that I don’t feel I’ve ever needed ‘saved’ but should I find myself in that situation it’s not hard to imagine that it would be Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World.

The instrument I play

Haha.  Play? The ukulele and the drums, but over my life I have become able to get tunes out of the larynx, oboes, clarinets, synthesisers and guitars.  None with distinction. 

A Guide to Ukulele Strings: How to Choose Ukulele Strings - 2021 -  MasterClass

The instrument I wish I’d learned

Unquestionably, the piano.

If I could own one painting it would be

Three Oncologists, by Ken Currie, that hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.  It terrifies me but absorbs me.  I never tire of it.

Three Oncologists by Ken Currie art print

The music that cheers me up

I’d have to say, in general terms, soul music.  From the early 70’s when the real masters were at their peak: Curtis, Stevie, Isaac, Marvin, Bobby Womack, Bill Withers, Aretha, Nina.  For these legends, first names suffice.

The place I feel happiest

It’s a straight toss up between opening night at The Lyceum in Edinburgh, with my wife, and Glastonbury.  But for the sheer awesomeness of it the big G gets my vote.

My guiltiest cultural pleasure

Reading on the bog.  I have James Robertson’s 365 Stories on the go upstairs and a wonderful book about famous letters downstairs.

I’m having a fantasy dinner party, I’ll invite these artists and authors

Billy Connolly, Salvador Dali, David Byrne, Viv Albertine, Grace Jones (for the clothes and the fighting) and Donna Tartt.  

And I’ll put on this music

Oh, Jazz.  Things like GoGo Penguin, Moses Boyd, Kamasi Washington and some AfroBeat, led by Fela Kuti.

Babyteeth: Movie Review.

Babyteeth (2019) - IMDb

This had been on my watchlist for a while but I was prompted to watch it when its director Shannon Murphy was BAFTA nominated as best director. It’s based on play by its writer Rita Kalnejais but it’s no play transformed to film. It’s a breathtaking film in its own right, in no small part due to its bold direction.

It’s about a terminally ill 15 year old girl, played beautifully and unmawkishly by Eliza Scanlen, a true star in the making who you may remember as the dying sister Beth March in 2019’s exquisite Little Women.

The plot revolves around Scanlen’s Milla who lives with her dysfunctional parents. Her dad, Ben Mendelsohn, is a psychiatrist, her mum, Essie Davis, is a retired concert pianist. Milla too plays violin rather well and attends an all girls music school where, despite her illness, is unembraced and something of an outsider.

One day on her way to school she almost ends up under a train thanks to the intervention of a 23 year old junkie, Moses (another fine performance by Toby Wallace) and so begins an unlikely romance/symbiotic relationship wherein Moses is invited into the family home, despite his thieving of the heavily sedated mother’s drugs, as her dad fuels his drug-taking habit via prescriptions he can write for him.

It’s largely hilarious, but gradually switches gear into poignancy without ever going all “Marley and Me” on us.

The central performance by the radiantly beautiful Scanlen is truly great as she navigates the relationship awkwardly, but entirely believably, with both her illness and her reluctant ‘boyfriend’; her first.

But it’s Murphy’s direction that draws the most admiration as a subject that could be car crash moviemaking as it negotiates all the usual tropes with a deftness of touch and a searingly brilliant soundtrack (including two scenes, one as she dances to Sudan Archive’s glorious violin infused Come Meh Way and another at a party where it all goes a bit hallucinogenic).

The real craft in this beautiful and ultimately moving movie is in the weaving together of episodes with quirky titling that captures the dying girl’s last year or so of her life without flinching and throwing in moment after moment of humour that’s genuinely laugh out loud, even if we, the viewers, think “Come on , this is no laughing matter.”

It’s no pity-porn, far from it, and that’s why it’s so affecting.

It’s a triumphant film deserving of even more recognition than it is already garnering.

A must see.

Passenger List: Podcast review

Passenger List — Radiotopia

For fans of Homecoming this might be the drama you’ve been waiting for.

It follows a similar dramatic technique involving many phone calls and scene shifts without plodding narrative to take you from place to place and is produced and edited with such dexterity that it cracks along at a multo rapido pace.

The story concerns the disappearance of Atlantic Flight 702 somewhere between London and New York and the introduction of this (and all eight) episodes uses a mix of real and recorded newsreader outputs, underscored by a quite superb music theme, to set up the episode that follows.

At first we think the reason for the flight’s failure is down to a bird strike. But our central character, Kaitlin Le a Vietnamese-American college student, who has lost her brother on the flight is suspicious of the official reports, so she gradually falls into a private investigation that sets out to discover the truth.

In this respect it gets a little far-fetched in that Kaitlin Le gains access to so many high powered Govt, educational and security contacts (including Homeland Security and the FBI) that it stretches credibility a tad. But if you can put that down to storytelling licence you’ll be in for a treat.

The initial tragedy becomes a conspiracy on many levels, many of which overlap – but maybe none, or all, of them are true.

It’s really great work by Radiotopia and Kelly Marie Tran who, in the lead role, is an accomplished actor that overcomes the preposterous premise of her sleuthing skills (and budget it has to be said) to drive the story forward with real energy.

I’ll not spoil it for you by revealing where the narrative takes us, but suffice to say it’s a gripping yarn, brilliantly written and researched that will keep you guessing right to the end.

Bravo Radiotopia.

Sleaford Mods: Mork n Mindy (feat: Billy Nomates)

Frankly I don’t know how they keep managing to produce absolute bangers like this one, the latest, with Billy Nomates.

I mean, you’d think the formula would have run out long ago but, no, along comes another awesome addition to their canon of work.

I’ve seen them live twice.

Once at La Belle Angel in Edinburgh and once at PrimaveraSound in Barcelona.

On both occasions a stationery, disinterested dork and a wildly affected lunatic barely moved an inch between them but had hundreds of (mostly men) driven to moshpit mayhem and complete adulation.

They inspire me.

Hamish Hawk: Caterpillar.

I thoroughly approve of my pal, Hamish Hawk’s remarkable change in direction.

Recorded in Leith by one of the Idlewilders it’s a quite unexpected change in direction from the witty slice of life storytelling dramas that represented the earlier work in his career.

In this, he has reinvented himself so completely that you really can’t tell this is the same artist. He seems to draw inspiration from early Simple Minds (Empires and Dance, Sons and Fascination era) which is no bad thing with jaggy, edgy guitars and synth driving a post punk dance beat and crisp vocals reminiscent of John Foxx in his Metamatic years.

I absolutely love it and it’s no surprise to see it feature on the Radio 6 Music B playlist which should draw much more attention to the forthcoming album. More of the same please Hamish.

(The video’s great too, edited by another pal of mine, Hamish Allison)

Zero Zero Zero: Review

This blew me away from the first bar of Mogwai’s omnipresent, brooding, lurking, evil, insidious, dangerous, murky, scary score.

In fact Mogwai is one of the reasons this programme scored a perfect 10 for me.

It’s electrifying. The violence is brutal but necessary and the story, although often complex, is worth disentangling.

It’s the best use of multi POV I’ve seen in a long time. Very long scenes that start with an innocuous framing device; a door, a forklift truck load of jalapeños, for example, become the jumping off point for two, occasionally three, ‘takes’ on a plot-critical scene. It’s genius.

The acting is obscenely great and as it develops it’s the Hodgkinson-suffering drug dealmaker’s son, played by Dane DeHaan, that eventually sits atop a masterful pile of gritty, entirely believable characters. Outstanding.

It’s a three level story about cocaine smuggling by the mafia from the Mexican Narcos via a New York shipping family (Andrea Risbourgh, DeHann and Gabriel Byrne) who broker a $60m transaction and oversee its calamity-ridden transfer from A to B via most of Africa (the bad bits).

And being Catholic takes a right good kicking by the way.

It’s white knuckle from start to finish (thank you Mogwai) and thrillingly filmed. At one point I said to my wife “I wish I could see this in cinema”.

I expect this to clear up in awards season. Bravo!

Firefly Lane: Review

Image result for firefly lane

This TV show on Netflix is an abomination. An insult to the human race. The lowest level of TV incompetence to have graced our TV screens since Crossroads. In fact it makes Crossroads look a like Martin Scorsese production.

Where does one start in describing this slaughterhouse of televisual ineptitude?

Firstly, it’s a traffic collision of monumental proportions. A black ice F1 race.

The acting is of such a level of blandness as to make tapioca deliriously delicious.

It’s tapioca without the tap, or the oca. Only the i is left, lower case at that.

Acted by crash test dummies.

Scripted by monkeys.

Filmed by the Blind Boys of Alabama.

Soundtracked by Coldplay. Actually, if it WAS soundtracked by Coldplay it would have some merit. It doesn’t even have that.

It time-switches so often in single scenes that Tom Baker would be reaching out for extreme therapy.

It doesn’t even have the saving grace of hotties to get you by.

I’d rather have internal organs removed without anaesthetic than sit through another minute of this gormless guff.

It reeks so much of pish and ham that our house is now an exclusion zone.

You have been warned.

I’m not a monster: Podcast review.

Another cracker from the BBC (and Frontline PBS) narrated superbly by brave and intrepid journalist Josh Baker who surely puts himself at risk as he ventures in and out of Syria for both this Syria and his journalistic day job.

It tells the story of a perhaps radicalised hometown queen American Samantha Sally by her Islamic husband, Moussa Elhassani.

I say perhaps because it’s not clear from the off whether Samantha’s coercion by her husband into the depth of Daesh territory, indeed into the Caliphate is willing or otherwise.

Her two children, especially son Matthew, become poster kids for ISIS as they are forced to make anti-American propaganda films.

The story is complicated and the layers of truths, half truths and lies are difficult to disentangle but this is what makes for such compelling listening.

It’s brilliantly told by Baker and is terrifying in what it reveals, true or otherwise because whether Samantha Sally’s story is true or not, others’ like her surely are.

Gripping and superbly produced this one is well worth the long listen.

Under Milk Wood: Podcast review.

Image result for under milk wood

It’s not really a podcast. I listened to it on Spotify.

The recording is of the 1954 BBC Radio drama starring Richard Burton as the narrator.

You’d think Milk Wood would be the name of the location, I did, but it’s actually a Welsh village called Llareggub (Bugger All backwards) and my take is that Milk Wood is a Metaphor for some kind of heaven.

Is it a poem? Sort of.

Is it a play? Sort of.

What it most surely is, is a masterpiece of thrilling fiction, recorded a bit shakily it has to be said, but this only adds to its charm.

Burton’s opening, rollicking introduction is pure poetry as he sets the scene for a village that surely inspired The League of Gentlemen, populated as it is by a bunch of misfits, gossips, fornicators, hussies, murderous plotters and quite mad, offbeat characters like Morgan Organ the obsessive church organist and a would-be poisoner of his henpecking wife.

The character names are wonderful: Nogood Boyo, Polly Garter, Lily Smalls, Dai Bread (the baker), Sinbad Sailor, Willy Nilly Postman (the, errr, postman), Mae Rose Cottage, Lord Cut Glass and Bessie Bighead (amongst others).

It tells the story of a long, but ordinary, day in the life of the village where everyone knows everyone else’s business, or think they do, and dreams meld into reality.

It’s thrilling, beautifully rendered and at times hilarious.

Although nearly 70 years old it’s as fresh as a daisy and with Burton in his pomp this is surely the seminal rendition of a classic that I urge you to tune into.

Simply wonderful.

The Dig

Another Netflix Original, they’re fair firing them out just now!

Featuring splendid central performances by Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan I’m afraid they are rather better than the script they have to work with, which has holes as big as my underpants in places.

It’s a nice idea though. A 1938 period piece about the discovery of a treasure trove in a place called Sutton Hoo in a race against time to find the treasure before war robs the dig of its manpower.

And it has a similar back story to Mank, in that Feinnes’ character does not get the archeological credit he deserves by The British Museum for his work in unearthing the discovery.

It’s beautifully shot and evokes a strong sense of time and place, but some of the subplots are poorly executed; especially the love triangle that centres on Lily James and Ben Chaplin as a young married couple who aren’t actually in love (because Chaplin is gay).

That’s all a tad clumsy and the whole thing, although spiffing in parts, doesn’t quite make the cut.

Fodder, but palatable fodder.

Sputnik: Movie Review

Image result for Sputnik movie poster

Alien meets Arrival. (With subtitles.)

A Russian horror story set in Khazakstan in which a returning Cosmonaut has been infected, John Hurt-like by an Alien. But rather than bursting terrifyingly out to terrorise its surroundings this particular organ mate uses its host as a hotel room, in fact, more than that, a symbiotic relationship has begun between the two that perhaps only steely ice maiden Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) can resolve.

Turns out there’s more to meet the eye in this sub Siberian outpost.

Secretive Russian military operatives can see the value of this symbiosis in creating a fearsome weapon of war and gradually Klimova is drawn into a moral dilemma as her relationship with both the Alien’s host, Konstantin Veshnyakov, and the Alien itself grows.

To be honest you could probably bail on this after an hour or so, its done its best work by then, but what work, and resorts to Hollywood silliness to resolve itself as the writers realise they’ve created too complex a narrative to easily escape. It would actually benefit from being a TV outing with more space to build and resolve its multi-layered contexts.

So, for its opening hour, I highly recommend it. But take the ending with a pinch, a large pinch, of salt.

The White Tiger: Movie Review.

Taken from the bestselling novel of the same name (I’ve not read it but I’m betting it’s great), this Indian movie production by Netflix is tremendous.

It features a terrific central performance by Ardash Gourav and stand out photography by Paolo Carnera that makes the most of its rural and Delhi based setting.

Why it woks so well is that operates on multiple levels; the value of deities, corruption, comedy/tragedy and a central theme around class and privilege.

India’s caste system is put into a shameful spotlight that we don’t often see in contemporary stories (something that tends to be pushed back into The Empire days).

Here, the movie looks at the 90’s and India’s emerging tech industry as it follows the fortunes of a country servant boy (the spectacularly brilliant Ardash Gourav as Balram) as he inveigles his way into the life of his village’s tyrannical landlords (call that owners in truth).

The family has sent the youngest son to ‘America’ to be educated and he comes home with a head full of dreams, shock at the caste system and a trophy ‘westernised’ Indian bride who won’t stand for the endemic sexism. Balram becomes his driver as he sets out on corruption trips to Delhi. Staying in gauche hotels Balram sleeps with the other servants in the basement carpark, another underworld of its own caste hierarchy.

The movie mixes up humour (rapier like) with a real moral compass that has you ultimately searching your conscience on whether Balram’s means of escape from poverty and subjection is justified (not a spoiler, he narrates the movie on-screen, from the off, from a position of wealth and power).

To my mind. a far better depiction of contemporary Indian life (outside of Bollywood) than its stupendously successful comparator, Slumdog Millionaire.

Saint Frances: Movie Review.

A great way to kick of 2021 was to watch one of Mark Kermode’s top 10 of 2020 on Netflix

This lovely American Indie movie, Saint Frances, written by and starring Kelly O’Sullivan. Nope, me neither.

It’s the story of a 30 something ‘girl’ who’s pretty much failed in life so far, who simultaneously gets a new boyfriend who gets her pregnant but is happy with her undertaking a quick abortion (and go halfers on the fee), and lands a summer job as a nanny for a six year old kid who has mixed race lesbian parents.

The kid’s a brat and is running through nannies.

So you know how this all gonna pan out right?

Well, not really. What we embark on is a fairly, but not overly, emotional study in female empowerment (and actually entitlement because one of the moms is a pretty high achieving ball buster), loneliness, self-worth and social value.

The one guy in the movie isn’t cast asunder as unimportant but he plays a side role. He’s a good guy actually.

The four-way Mom, mom, nanny, kid (and a new baby which makes suppressed Mom, depressed Mom) dynamic is complicated and rarely sees the main protagonist played by O’Sullivan in a position of strength. Meanwhile her abortion has some fairly gross out complications although none that derail the narrative.

It’s actually a bit of a comedy but it’s a lot more than that. It’s certainly bittersweet, but sweet enough.

Hugely thought provoking with several powerful central performances, a strong exploration of issues that face women today (one critic said it was too woke for its own good but I disagree) and a few really good laughs along the way.

What’s not to love?

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld: Book Review.

Book review: Curtis Sittenfeld's Rodham imagines Hillary not marrying Bill  Clinton, Arts News & Top Stories - The Straits Times

“One might say that the publication of a novel takes a village” says Curtis Sittenfeld in the acknowledgements of her sixth novel, Rodham. But in the case of Rodham one could easily expand this acknowledgement way beyond a village, to a nation and perhaps more accurately; a gender.

Because this is a book that every American woman should read and feel that, whether persecuted or empowered, this novel was written for them.

And then every American man should be made to read it as punishment. As a warning that what we have taken for granted (first dibs at opportunity) might not , should not, last forever.

In a year where Black Rights have dominated the non-Covid news this is a book about women’s rights and it seems appropriate that this, and Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys were, by a long chalk, the most compelling ones I’ve read.

This novel doesn’t just ooze restrained moral authority, it takes those that flaunt sexual democracy by the bollocks and kicks shit out of them.

This is the feminist book that makes feminism real, for all.

It’s an unbelievable achievement in writing.

And yet it’s so, so damn prosaic. It’s so, so kind of uneventful.

Despite its monumental subject matter and the giddy heights to which it aspires, and attains, the fact it’s written as a kind of diary, where the author never tires of listing the most banal aspects of a setting, again and again, without ever boring the reader, makes it firstly seem real and secondly incontrovertible. Hillary Clinton would never tell us about the time her aide wiped a snotter from her nose before she went on stage for a speech unless it was real/true. Right?

In roller coaster terms it reaches the zenith but then never drops, suspending you above reality in a construct so simply but brilliantly inconceivable that it seems it must be true.

It’s difficult to explain, without telling you the story, how brilliant Sittenfeld is at taking a fantasy, making it a reality and then laughing to herself as you try to unravel the one from the other.

Time and again I found myself stopping to marvel that this was, you know, all made up.

But let’s pause in this gushorama.

Let’s start from the beginning.

The pitch is this. “Rodham. What happened after Hillary didn’t marry Bill Clinton.”

And that’s it.

Except it’s not. Sittenfeld could have gone loopy on us, could have stretched her political imagination beyond any horizons we have to adhere to in reality.

Instead she writes Hillary Rodham’s autobiography, in the first tense, including, you know, that time she had Bill bring her off on a freeway, while he was driving. That time he… (I’ll save it for you to find out the other often quite sordid, eyebrow raising details).

So far, so titillating. But, titter ye not.

This a work of absolute seriousness. The autobiography (except it’s not) of the famous wife of a famous philanderer, but the most popular, and let’s face it, most handsome philander on the planet. A philanderer she married and stood by through thick and thin.

Except, not here. Because she didn’t marry him. Not here.

Why not?

I ain’t tellin’.

One third of the novel takes us up through her girlhood up to the point of her not marrying Bill Clinton. The next two thirds follow the consequences.

Would either go on to political success?

Would they remain in contact?

Would their parting of the ways influence American politics?

Would Donald Trump rise to the heights that he did (the one spoiler I will give you is that Trump makes several cameo appearances to great humorous effect)?

Would there, in fact, even BE any consequences? After all, in this history it was simply an imagined (but real) relationship between two law students. One extremely handsome. One extremely clever.

Even though the entire novel is a fiction it is teasingly stitched together with truths. Real things that did happen but, in the words of Eric Morecambe, “just not necessarily all in the right order”.

It really is a breathtaking literary achievement with deft touches like (How Marvellous!) – a diary entry of an impressionable teen – but it’s not a diary entry, (how disappointing!) it’s the autobiography of one of the most famous women in the world. But it’s not.

Twice Sittenfeld evokes the vision of a cerulean sky. In a novel of plain speaking it is a word that stood out to me, that sent me scurrying to Google dictionary. It’s use was allowable.

It’s also prescient. She was published in early 2020, but there’s an important reference in it to Kamala Harris, Kamala was only appointed Biden’s Vice Presidential candidate in August 2020. There were 5 or 6 women in the running for that role, most notably Katherine Warren, But Sittenfeld doesn’t write her in. She writes in Harris. And Harris wasn’t even the only black woman in the running. So it’s not sleight of hand. I repeat, it’s prescience.

You’ll need some basic knowledge of American politics to get the most out of this. I have a little more than average for a non-American and that helped me, but I’m pretty sure you’ll get the point if your knowledge only stretches to the big names we all know.

I don’t know Sittenfeld. I don’t know her work. But I’ll certainly be looking out her back catalogue after this.

Absolutely 10 out of 10 and thank you Helen Howden for spotting this and lending me it to read.

A gift from above.