Showing posts with label TELEVISION. Show all posts
Showing posts with label TELEVISION. Show all posts

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sherlock, redux


Sherlock Holmes is about the idea that you can start with an absurd set of data and work backwards, through a series of logical steps, to a completely reasonable starting place. (Many people have spotted that Sigmund Freud had roughly the same idea at roughly the same time.) Neither Freudian nor Holmsian methods would work in real life: Sherlock admits as much, though Sigmund never does. The cases that Holmes solves (or at any rates the cases that Watson bothers to write up) are exclusively those cases which Holmes methodology happens to work for. Which generally means closed-systems with something weird — or as Holmes always says, singular — about them. Give him a guy whose been killed in a remote country house after swearing he saw the ghost of a hell hound, and Holmes has a fair chance of sorting things out. Pull John Doe’s body out of the Thames three months after it got there, and boring old forensics are a better bet. 

Deduction is where you start from a premise and work out what the conclusion will be. Starting from a conclusion and working back to the starting point is induction. You would have thought Holmes, or at any rate Watson, or at any rate Doyle, would have known that. 


Not all the stories work: but in the ones that do, there is a real joy in seeing Holmes impose order on chaos; in saying “Of course: the club which you can only join if you have a particular kind of hair; or the bedside drawer with the hair of two previous occupants in it now makes complete sense. Clever Sherlock.” There is a similar joy in reading Freud’s case histories. Who cares if he never actually cured anyone. 

Holmes is a remarkable chap, obviously; Watson calls him the best and wisest man he ever met, which is not insignificantly what Plato said about Socrates. But he isn’t a superhero. Part of the point of the stories is that his deductions are plausible; anyone could do it if they kept their wits about them. We are inclined to think that Watson is a bit of a twit for not keeping up. A detective story wouldn’t be worth reading if the detective were that good. Ideally, Gentle Reader should get to the conclusion just after Holmes and just before Watson.

Holmes often has information that we and Watson don’t have, which a classical Whodunnit writer would regard as cheating.


The Moffat / Gatiss  Sherlock TV series has always been a slightly odd confection. It uses the now-superhuman inductive skills of Holmes in much the same way that the now-infallible navigation of the TARDIS is used in Doctor Who: as a pretext for (on a good day) brilliant, non-linear narratives and (on a bad day) for just abandoning cause-and-effect storytelling as a lost cause. Cumberbatch plays a kind of parody or race-memory of Jeremy Brett’s Holmes, which was itself a parody of Holmes as he is in Study in Scarlet and hardly anywhere else: crazy, misanthropic and not yet humanized by the arrival of Robin the Boy Wonder. It correctly spots that the real fun in Sherlock was not the bobbies and the fog and the hansom cabs; or the funny pipe and the funny hat and the slippers. It was all about the logic and the mysteries. 


But convincing, Doylish mysteries — crazy end-points to which Holmes can provide convincing back-stories — are hard to write. Not impossible: the sub-plot about the dead son in the car in the Six Thatchers is the sort of thing I would like to have seen more of. But Moffat and Gatiss increasingly fall back on the lazy writers' worst cliche: the clever guy solving bizarre riddles which an even cleverer guy is consciously setting for him. 

Doyle’s Moriarty is a brilliant man turned into a brilliant criminal. Moffat's Moriarty is simply a lunatic. From Don Quixote to Hannibal Lecter, fictional lunatics can be the subjects of interesting stories. But they are a very lazy plot device. Why is he is doing this? Why is he going to all that trouble? How did he escape from the escape proof prison? He doesn’t have to have a reason. He’s a lunatic. Moffat’s Moriarty could very easily be imagined painting clown make up on his face and releasing poisoned balloons over Gotham City. 

The Final Problem (TV episode) produced newspaper headlines about “How the TV phenomenon became an annoying self parody” and “Missing persons inquiry launched as Sherlock vanishes up own arse”. But it seemed to me to have very much the same strengths and weaknesses as all the other episodes. It sets up a very interesting villain whose only function turns out to be to set up problems for and experiment on Sherlock Holmes. In a proper story, some believable chain of events would lead to a situation where Holmes has to choose between killing his brother Mycroft and killing his best friend Watson. Having a super-villain put them in a room and say “You must now choose between killing your brother Mycroft and killing your best friend Watson” is barely a story at all. It’s more like a Dungeons & Dragons puzzle. (The solution is straight out of the Hunger Games.) The deductive power of Holmes and Moriarty and Mycroft and the Mysterious and Unexpected Villain Who is Even Cleverer Than Any Of Them is not something that any normal person could keep up with.

The cleverness of Holmes has become another manifestation of our old friend The Plot. Anything that the writers want to happen can happen because Holmes can make it happen because he is so clever. Add a non-player character who is as clever as he is, and then another one, and then a third one, and what you are watching is no longer detective fiction; it's a competition to see who has the biggest Sonic Screwdriver.

"Annoying self-parody" isn't a bad description of the whole project actually: maybe I'd have gone for "clever, engaging but annoying self-parody."


Most of us now expect a TV series to have some sort of forward momentum. Gone are the days when the BBC could put all three seasons of Star Trek tapes in box, shuffle them up, pick one out at random, show it on a Monday night and no-one would notice the difference. We now expect characters to die and get married and have babies (not necessarily in that order), partly because soap opera has replaced the novel as the dominant genre, and partly because verisimilitude. If our hero doesn't have the scars from the end of last week's thrilling adventure at the beginning of this week's thrilling adventure we won't be able to suspend our disbelief.   

Sherlock Holmes had a brother. He had an arch-enemy and a landlady. These characters are so peripheral to the canon that we could very nearly say that they don’t exist. Moffat and Gatiss create entirely new characters with similar names, and present us with something that superficially feels a good deal like classic Holmes: Mycroft is clever and mysterious, Moriarty is evil, Watson misses the point and writes it up on his blog, and Mrs Hudson makes them all a cup of tea. But once you have shouted “go” and allowed events to start happening they stop being clever 21st century takes on 19th century ciphers and end up as the sum total of the last thirteen episodes. Which gets us very quickly to a Sherlock which has nothing much to do with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. You may or may not have a problem with that. 


A similar process killed off the Marvel Comics “Ultimates” line. Issue #1 of Ultimate Spider-Man re-imagines Peter Parker as a 15 year old computer nerd from 2001; and we all said “wow, you’ve come up with a precise 21st century analogy for what made Spider-Man so great in the 1960s”. By issue #75, New York has been destroyed, J. Jonah Jameson is a goodie and Spider-Man is member of the X-Men, dating Kitty Pryde, on the run from SHIELD and dead. You can barely recognize him as Spider-Man any more; and the comic is just as hard to "jump aboard" as the fatally compromised Marvel Universe version. But the alternative is a 1950s sit-com where nothing ever happens and no-one ever gets any older.

I suppose that Sherlock was always going to be the kind of series that some people would over-love, and, therefore, when it started to disappoint, the kind of series that some people would over-hate. I never loved it that much (apart from the Victorian special, which was genuinely clever) but I never hated it that much, either. It is clear that Stephen Moffat can only write one character: you could swap the Cumberbatch Sherlock with the equally interchangeable Smith and Capaldi Doctors and no-one would really notice. But that one character is a lot off fun. Matt Smith was my favorite non-canonical Doctor Who, after all. The clash of Cumberbatch’s over-the-top theatricality with Martin Freeman’s toned down naturalism (so underdone it’s practically not there at all) makes for consistently good scenes. The two of them would be riveting in any context: apart, obviously, from the Hobbit. 

Kudos to Gatiss and Moffat for realizing that Holmes could be taken out of Victorian London and still be Holmes. But how typical that when the smog and the urchins and the rats were cleared away, what was found to be left was not a man who cleverly worked backwards from the end of the story to its beginning; nor even a man eschewing emotion but guided by rationality. No: what Sherlock Holmes turned out to really be about was the friendship between Sherlock and John.

It’s like one of those trailers where some Hollywood luvvie has been persuaded to appear in a low budget docudrama about William Ramsay and the discovery of the nobel gasses.

“Oh,  but it’s not about chemistry” they always say “It’s really about love.”

There is a thing which Moffat and Gatiss do: and Sherlock Season 4 is Moffat and Gatiss continuing to do that thing. Disappointment, or even anger, seems curiously misplaced. It is what it is.











Saturday, December 24, 2016

Shooting In the Dark Too Long





People who believe what I believe sometimes get called Trotskyites. I used to say that I didn't really know what Trotskyite meant, but I think I have worked it out.

*

Andy Burnham’s essay in Saturday’s Guardian disturbed me. 

Let’s not put it any more strongly than that. I was disturbed by it. I found it disturbing.

Andy Burnham is a Labour Politician. He wanted to be leader of the Labour Party, but we Trotskyites stopped him. He is probably, understandably, still a bit cross with us over that.

Last June there was a Referendum. Every one in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland was allowed to vote, except the ones who weren’t. A third of us said that Britain should withdraw from Europe; a third of us said that it shouldn’t; and a third said they didn’t care either way. As a result of this overwhelming vote, we have decided to spend the next 10 years arguing about the definition of “withdraw”. 




During the referendum, the position of the Labour Party was that although the E.U is in some ways a flawed organization, Britain should remain a member and work to improve it. Since the referendum, the position of the Labour Party has been that since withdrawal is now inevitable we should concentrate on finding a definition of “withdraw” that doesn’t involve crashing the country’s economy. Free trade — access to the single market — is regarded as the Biggie.

Andy Burnham takes a different view. He thinks that the Biggie is not free trade, but Immigrants. The party leadership thinks that we should maintain free trade with Europe, even if that means continuing to allow other Europeans to live and work in the UK. Burnham thinks that we should abolish the right of other Europeans to live and work in the UK, even if that means that we can no longer have free trade. 

He has, of course, a perfect right to his opinion. What bothered me was the way in which he chose to make his case. 

I put it no stronger than that. It bothered me. Here are some of things which bothered me about it. 

1: “We need a plan to bring this divided country back together again.” 

I agree. The referendum really only told us what everyone already knew: the country is split down the middle over the question of Europe. (So, by coincidence, are the Conservative party and the Labour party.) We need a way of going forward that the 37% of secessionists and the 35% of anti-secessionists would be equally happy with or  as is usually the case with compromises  which the 37% and 35% would be equally annoyed by. The 28% will be equally indifferent whatever happens. 

2: “We can all debate what the referendum vote meant beyond the decision to leave the EU. Above all, I am clear it was a majority vote for an end to the current system of free movement.”

It is a strange world where you have a referendum, and wait until after the votes are counted to decide what the referendum means. Like going off to hunt a snark and realizing that you have no idea at all what a snark is. The Prime Minister (who campaigned for us to Stay but now wants us to Go) says that “Brexit means Brexit”, which I think means that the snark was a boojum all along. 

The ballot paper I ticked looked like this:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
  • Remain a member of the European Union
  • Leave the European Union

I think that most of the people who ticked the “leave” box assumed that they were voting to tear up all the agreements which have been made over the last 40 years and wind the clock back to where the country was before it joined the Common Market. In status quo res erant ante anno MCMLXXII as it were. I think this is what a Texan would assume he was doing if he ever found himself ticking a box which said “leave the United States”. But everyone agrees that whatever “leave” means, it definitely doesn’t mean that. So we are left in the charming position where politicians can pick any position they like and claim a massive (37/35) popular mandate for it.

Andy Burnham “is clear” that the vote to secede from Europe was, in fact, a vote against European immigration. I am happy that he is clear, although I don't know what constitutional status his clarity has. But I don't think that being clear and being right are necessarily the same. 

It is clear to me that some of those who voted to leave did so because they had been promised that the £350,000,000 a week we currently spend on EU membership would be spent on public health instead. This turned out to be a lie — the figure is nothing like £350,000,000 and there is no chance of it all being spent on the health service. But it is one of those lies that was so bold and so barefaced that one feels reticent about even mentioning it. “Oh, yes, I know we lied about the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction; isn’t it cute the way you funny little Trots keep going on about it.” 

It is clear to me that some of those who voted "leave" did so because they were sick of only being allowed to buy straight bananas and being forbidden from buying eggs in six packs. These were also lies, but they were lies on a level with the one told to the famous emperor about his famous cloak: the kind which becomes true if you believe it hard enough. Boris Johnson appeared to have some self-imposed cognitive dissonance that genuinely made him think that he hadn't seen any half-dozen boxes of eggs since 1972. It's very much the same kind of trick which allows a man to look at a huge Christmas tree in the town square and say "Of course, you and allowed to put up huge Christmas trees in the town square any more."  

And it is very clear to me that some of the people who voted “leave” did so because of a deep, religious belief in something called “sovereignty”. They didn’t necessarily have any problem with any specific “European” law, but they objected on spiritual grounds to people in Belgium having a say about what happens in England. Since June some of these people have been entertaining fantasies about abolishing metric measurements, restoring pre-decimal currency, playing God Save the Queen on the wireless and getting the Queen a smart new boat to play with.

(Some people have told me that the people who voted "leave" did so because they were jolly cross about everything in the world and nothing in particular and thought that a leave vote would jolly give politicians a kick up the backside, so it's my fault for not listening. I am not very clear about that one at all.)

It seems that the dirty campaign fought by some of the secessionists is deemed to affect the result retrospectively. It is true that fascist politicians stuck up posters depicting scary brown-skinned people flooding across our borders; this makes it clear to center left politicians that a vote to leave the EU was really a vote against scary brown people.

But even if it were clear that the 37% voted against immigration, wouldn’t it be equally clear that the 35% voted in favour of it? And wouldn’t it follow that if your objective were “to bring the divided country back together” you would be looking for a compromise position which the 37% who are nativists and the 35% who are multiculturalists would be equally happy with (or equally irritated by)?

3:  “For at least a decade, Labour activists have been hearing concerns on doorsteps about free movement and immigration.”

British parliamentary constituencies are sufficiently small that MPs get to meet a significant number of the people who voted for them face to face. This the only argument in favour of our voting system: it forces MPs to campaign at a local level, which gives voters a direct line to the center of government. If Mrs Miggins tells her MP that she is concerned about the state of paving stones on Stapleton Road, there is a chance that her MP might pass her concerns on to the Prime Minister — or, at any rate, the Minister With Responsibility for Paving Stones. 

I am sure that some of the people who MPs meet do have "concerns" about immigration; and I am sure that some of those concerns are sensible. "When I am not standing on the doorstep talking to you, I am a school teacher," a concerned person might say "and I am concerned that we have had 37 children from immigrant families join our school this year. I am concerned because some of them do not speak English and none of their parents do. I am also concerned because some of them have been brought up to think that it is dirty to get changed for P.E and have no idea what Christmas is." And the MP might go away and talk to the Minister for Education, and come up a solution — a specialist ESOL teacher in the school, interpreters for parents evenings, a trained mediator to deal with cultural differences about decency and modesty and religious festivals. And that would pretty much deal with all the sensible concerns. Hooray for democracy!

But I do hope that my MP would only pay attention to sensible concerns. If I am concerned about foxes in the dustbins, I hope my MP might do something about it. If I am concerned about alligators in the sewers, not so much. If I am concerned about old people tripping over paving stones, my MP should probably pay attention to me. If I am concerned about immigrants coming out at the dead of night and tripping up old ladies, he probably shouldn't.

4: “There will be those who argue that any changes [to immigration] we make must be minimal so as to maximize access to the single market. They may well be right, and it could be that this is where the national interest lies. But the test will be whether the changes to free movement meet public concerns.”

Pause, for a moment, and take that in. 

Some people think that we should allow, or mostly allow, European immigration to continue in return for us being allowed to continue to trade with Europe. Some people think it is worth losing our free trade agreements with Europe in order to stop European immigrants coming here. 

Andy Burnham thinks that it doesn’t matter who is right and who is wrong. What matters is meeting public concerns whether or not those concerns are sensible.

Extremists tend to think that there is right and there is wrong; there is a black, and there is white; and there is nothing — nothing — in between,

[Insert Diagram]

Moderates, on the other hand, think that there is black and there is white but there are also at least fifty shades of grey ranging from “slightly less right” to “almost completely wrong”. There’s also a pretty big “we don’t know” space in the middle. 

[Insert diagram]

Extremists can’t compromise (even in the face of Armageddon) but moderates compromise all the time. If I agree to do something which I think is a bit wrong, and you agree to do something which you think is a bit wrong, then we’ll be doing something that we both think is at least a bit right, which is better than doing nothing at all. (Probably.)

Andy Burnham proposes a new model. 

[Insert diagram]

On one side is “right” and “wrong” (with gradations and don’t knows and the need for compromise taken for granted.) But on the other side is “public concerns” and “what the people on the doorstep say”. The latter always overrides the former. What matters is not what is right but what the man on the doorstep thinks is right. Vox populum super limen vox deus if I might put it like that.

This is what post-truth politics looks like. It doesn’t look like Donald Trump denying climate change and inventing millions of fraudulent votes. It doesn’t even look like the Sun doctoring an image to make it look like the leader of the opposition was dancing a jig on the cenotaphIt looks like a sensible, liberal politician saying “they may well be right…but…” 

The person on the doorstep is not stupid. But he is ignorant. So am I. So are you. So is everybody. 

I, for example, am almost entirely ignorant about Science. I don’t have a head for figures or logic or the patience to do something over and over again and make detailed notes of tiny changes. I have some general sense that Schrodinger had a cat that was in two states at once, and that this illustrates that there is something in Quantum Physics (some kind of particle, I suppose)  which can be in two states at once, and that this has something to do with why my I-Phone works, but that's honestly the best I can do. I could read a book, if I wanted to, but I can’t really be bothered. On the other hand, I can be bothered to work my way through text books that tell me, for example, roughly what page historians are on with regard to The Historical Jesus and laugh (ha!) when biologists say that everyone now agrees he’s a myth. Because that stuff does interest me. And it goes without saying that I have to send for a plumber to fix the simplest dripping tap or leaky washing machine. 

Why on earth would you ask me about physics or football or plumbling when there are people out there who know about this stuff? 

Experts, if you will.

O.K: knowledge isn't everything. Facts aren't everything. Evidence isn't everything. Many of our strongest beliefs come down to sentiment and aesthetics. It is often a good idea (and a powerful rhetorical tool) to admit this. It’s not a great idea to claim that history proves that tyrants are never defeated by armies if the real reason you don't like war is that your Uncle Ben was killed in the Falklands. I myself am very reluctant to allow evidence to intrude into any argument about capital punishment. Actually I think the evidence is mostly on my side, but that's a fortunate coincidence;  I'd be on the same side even if the evidence were mostly against me. There is no point in talking about whether your state has a higher murder rate than my state and how many innocent people your country executed last year and whether "deterrent" even means anything. The only reason I am against the death penalty is because I am emotionally and aesthetically against ritually asphyxiating helpless prisoners (irrespective of what they have probably done). To argue otherwise is to argue fraudulently

I imagine that many of the people on the doorstep know as little about economics as I do about Schrodinger’s cat, or washing machines, or, come to that, economics. I imagine many of them are concerned about immigration at an emotional, gut level. I imagine they aesthetically and sentimentally dislike hearing languages that they do not understand in the doctor’s waiting room. I imagine they sentimentally and aesthetically dislike shops selling food they don’t recognize on the high street. I imagine they sentimentally and aesthetically dislike it when people with a different word for God start saying their prayers in what used to be a cinema. I imagine they have a sentimental and aesthetic hankering for the days when nearly everyone they met looked the same as him and there were hardly any black or brown people in his part of town. 

Call this racism or nativism or perfectly understandable old-fogeyism. You don’t have to be old to be an old fogey. Call it alt-right or call it "genuine concerns". It's a faith position, a gut feeling, an intuition. Don't mistake it for an argument. 

As has been noted, Tony Blair thought that a state of mind he called “sincerity” (“just happening to believe”) was sufficient basis to start a war. David Cameron thought that a fairly technical question about voting reform depended on ineffable emotional feelings that could not be put into words. Michael Gove say that he doesn’t care about the opinions of experts — or, rather more subtly, that he doesn’t think that the populum super limen do. And Jacob Rees-Mogg has said, literally and in so many words that great political and economic questions could as well be settled by consulting horoscopes or the entrails of chickens as by consulting people who know about politics and economics. 

Not that Jacob Rees-Mogg actually consults the entrails of chickens to decide on economic questions. At least, I assume he doesn't. Presumably he just follows his gut instinct; does the first thing which comes into his head. Or at least, the first thing which comes into the head of the person on the doorstep.

I suppose most of us voted in the referendum according to our hearts, rather than according to our heads. But the starting point of this discussion is that while the heads are more or less unanimous — leaving the European single market would be an act of reckless insanity — the hearts are deeply divided. 37% of our hearts hankered for mono-racial, mono-cultural, olde fashionede Englande; 34% of our hearts had an idealistic belief that there is only one race, the human race, and that countries made up of different kinds of people were nicer and more interesting places to live than countries where every one was the same. 37% of us want a land with a wall around it and 34% of us have a faith in our fellow man, as the bard said.

What happened to seeking a unity between those two positions? 

“The people on the doorstep” doesn’t just mean “people”, does it? Any more than “the real America” just means “Americans”? It means the people on the doorstep as opposed to the people anywhere else — in cafes or universities or at political meanings? And I am not on the doorstep. There I times when I sincerely doubt that I am person. I am one of the 35%. I am a metropolitian elite, an expert, a luvvie, a moaner, a Trot, a Guardianista. I am also a member of a trade union, and we learned this week that the Prime Minister does not regard members of trade unions as people. 

My shaky knowledge of science isn’t written into my genes. I picked it up somewhere; very possibly from Star Trek. The opinions of the people on the doorstep didn’t drop out of the sky, either. They picked them up from somewhere. Very possibly from a newspaper. And I sometimes suspect that some of the newspapers have a political agenda. I sometimes think that they are deliberately trying to create the impression that there are floods and hoards of terrifying immigrants who want to steal your job, take down your Union Jack, ban your Christmas tree and force you eat straight bananas and 5-packs of eggs. I sometimes think that this reflects what their editor sincerely believes in his heart, or more likely, what would be in the owner's economic interests. 

If we are going to make it a general rule that the opinions of the people on the doorstep are automatically right, then you might just as will cut out the middle-man and ask the two or three zillionaires who own the press directly. Which is what you might expect a Tory to believe; but rather a surprising position for a Labour man.

Vox populi super limen vox domini de ephemerides if you absolutely insist. 


*

I know, of course, what my Labour friends will say about this. They will say “It is the person on the doorstep (right or wrong) who votes in elections; if you want to win an election you have to meet their concerns (right or wrong); there is no point in a political party existing if it can’t win elections.”

So I think that is what Trotskyite must mean. The opposite of that. 









Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Important Note For the BBC

A policy of appeasement towards the Daily Mail will not work. The Daily Mail is not objecting to one particularly ill-judged radio broadcast: they will use anything as a pretext to attack what they still think of the Bolshevik Broadcasting Company. The colour of a newsreaders' tie; an insufficiently groveling news item about the royal family; soap opera story lines which are too depressing; every occurrence of the word "fuck", in any context - nothing is too trivial to be used as ammunition in their war against public service broadcasting.

Why, incidentally, does the
Today programme continue to say things like "he used the F-word"? Whose sensibilities are they trying to protect? Those of the kind of Daily Mail reader who would be traumatized by seeing the word "masturbation" in plain print? When Today ran an item about how some black people have reclaimed the N-word, they were quite happy to actually pronounce it.

The
Daily Mail thinks that in attacking the BBC, it is striking a blow against the liberal, intellectual, metropolitan elite. I have no stomach for a class-war: but if it comes to a fight between the liberal, intellectual, metropolitan elite and the reactionary, ignorant, provincial riff-raff then I know which side I intend to fight on.

I have very little interest in the role-call of minor pop singers and spoiled Hollywood
luvvettes who parade across Jonathan Ross's chat show: but surely any fool can see that he is a consummate master of the medium of live television? He seems to have the capacity to, on the one hand, totally forget, and to make his victims forget, that they are in front of a camera; while at the same time using the camera as a licence to say the kinds of things that you simply wouldn't say in real life. In an era when TV is bigger than Jesus, the man who can do that will naturally command an astronomical salary. I am not especially entertained by a grown man saying "Bum" to an actress that I have never heard of: but I think that "In Search of Steve Ditko" was the single best documentary about comic-books ever made. Ross is the only person who has ever successfully challenged Stan Lee's version of events; only someone with his outrageous interviewing style could have done so. Obviously, someone who is paid for having this persona is going to overstep the mark from time to time.

When the
Daily Mail is looking for an excuse to hang you, it is most unwise to give them any rope. But the idea that sacking a couple of "shock jocks" will silence the Hooray For the Blackshirts brigade is naive in the extreme. Nothing short of the abolition of the licence fee, which they regard as a thievery on a level with droit du seigneur will satisfy them. Do you really think that allowing them to scent blood is going to calm them down? Surely it is a matter of basic human decency to stick up for your naughty kids in public, even if you give them a clip round the ear when you get them home?

Or am I just too inclined to assume that anyone who named one of their children "Kirby" can't be all-bad?

Friday, October 27, 2006

Longford


Some television programmes are not by Russell T Davies.
Channel 4 decided that it would be a good idea to promote Peter Morgan's drama about the life of Lord Longford by taking out full-page adverts in the broadsheets depicting Myra Hindley as a saint. Possibly even as the Virgin Mary. It makes one want to experiment with using the words "prophet", "Denmark" and "cartoons" in various combinations.
The advertisement carries the strapline "What did he see in her?" which makes me think that Channel 4 got cold feet before transmitting the film. The halo'd face in the montage is that of Hindley herself, not actress Samantha Morton. It's the police mugshut, of course: assume I'd written a sentence including the words "peroxide" and "iconic" in this space. In the film, Lord Longford doesn't recognise Myra when he first visits her in prison, because she no longer looks like that picture. (Her hair turned red while she was on remand, which some people said indicated that she had no remorse. "I wasn't aware of any correlation between hair colouring and contrition" says Longford.) There seems to be no connection between the ordinary, rather pleasant woman who Longford gets to known and the woman in the picture. The film spends an intelligent and un-sensational couple of hours speculating about what the connection might have been. But there are some powerful people who think that even attempting to understand Myra Hindley is the equivalent of condoning what she did. To avoid being accused of supportiing child murder, the publicity material turns the film on its head, and pretends that it is Lord Longford, not Myra Hindley, who requires "explanation". No sane person could have visited such a monster, let alone called for her parole. So he must have had some ulterior motive. Perhaps he believed that she was a saint. Perhaps he "saw something in her."
The film itself only flirts with this explanation, briefly, and puts it into the mouth of Ian Brady, who says directly that Longford is sexually attracted to the murderess. This seemed to be a slightly heavy-handed intervention from the dramatist, pointing up a possible symmetry. If Longford fancied Myra, then we would have a woman who was only ever loved by two people: one of whom embodied most of what we understand by "evil", and the other was about as close to "good" as anyone you are ever likely to meet. (Who was it who, when asked how they imagined the Christian God, said they thought he must be something like Lord Longford?) But what comes through in the rest of the film is that Longford doesn't really need to be "explained". He was a Christian, possibly a slightly naive one. He thought that loving outcasts and visiting prisoners was part of his Christian duty. He didn't, in that sense, see anything in her -- he aoffers to help the psychotic Brady as well, but Brady won't let him.

Isn't agape by definition love for the un-lovable?
The remarkable thing about the film–apart from Jim Broadbent's astonishingly convincing impersonation of Lord Longford himself–is the way that it presents a complex argument, but nevertheless comes out feeling like drama, not editorial.

The drama follows two trajectories: on the one hand, the relationship between Lord Longford and his wife. She initially opposes his Hindley campaign and persuades him to give it up and concentrate on pornography instead. But having studied the case, she suddenly comes over to his side and recites, over Christmas dinner, a whole series of arguments in favour of Hindley's release which hadn't previously occurred to her husband. ("How much do you know about sado-masochistic relationships?") But this doesn't feel like a speech in a debating society: it feels like an old married couple who have quarrelled having a genuinely touching reconciliation scene. Similarly, a delicately balanced debate about porn–the Lord thinks it is very dangerous, the Lady that it's essentially harmless–comes across as a masterpiece of understated comedy because it takes the form of two old posh people in bed together surrounded by copies of Fiesta and Playboy.
The other strand of the story is, obviously, Longford's relationship with Hindley. The film's thesis is that Hindley deceived him. She finally scuppers her only chance of parole by admitting to two further murders. This means that she not only lied to Lord Longford but that, presumably, she didn't make a full confession to her priest and therefore her return to the Catholic Church is suspect at best. But the film also argues that Longford wilfully allowed himself to be deceived. Early in the story, an anonymous benefactor sends him a cassette tape labelled "The bitch should rot in hell", which he puts in a drawer and doesn't listen to. We all know what "tape" means in the context of a story about the Moors murders. I assume that this is a dramatic device, but the point is a valid one: Longford could have gained access to those terrible recordings but he chose not to; he was therefore able to continue to believe that Hindley was only an accessory to the crime–guilty of murder in they eyes of the law, but not evil in the way that Brady was.
I was rather concerned that we were going to be asked to draw the conclusion that "forgiveness" implies minimizing or condoning sin: that Longford forgave Myra because he didn't think that she was as bad as everyone said she was, and that he gave up on her when he discovered that in fact she was even worse. But the film actually draws a much more interesting and challenging conclusion. Because Myra has ruined Longford's good name by allowing him to campaign for her release on false premises, he finds that he has to forgive her for something that she has done to him--not merely an abstract crime against strangers.
The film concludes with another rather writerly scene in which the aging Longford and the terminally ill Myra meet for the last time in an open prison. He thinks that he has grown spiritually by being forced to learn to love and forgive this sinner; she still remembers her terrible crimes and claims that evil can be a spiritual experience as well.
The film doesn't ultimately "explain" Myra Hindley. We are allowed to consider the possibilities that she is a sinner who repenteth; and a sinner who is unable completely to repenteth or that she is a weak woman temporarily turned into a monster under the influence of a psychopath. Perhaps the most convincing theory is the one put into Brady's mouth: Hindley is literally an "hysteric", one who takes on the attributes that she thinks the person she is with wants her to have: a butch lesbian for her prison guard; a good catholic for Lord Longford; a sadist for her psychotic boyfriend. The one possibility that is not considered is that she is simply an evil figure with an evil haircut who a naive philanthropist mistook for a saint.
For me, the film was summed up by an unintentional irony in the casting department. When Hindley's accomplice first walks onto the set, we see, not the iconic face of Ian Brady, but the familiar, staring, but un-augmented features of Andy Serkis. Longford could have been mistaken for an old wizard, come to that.
Deserve to die? I dare say he does....

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Reader, I Adapted Him

'What are we going to do this season that will convince the punters that the licence fee is good value for money?'

'You mean apart from the hippos?'

'I was thinking maybe one of those costume dramas with ladies in bonnets and wild, uncontrollable men with wild, uncontrollable hair.'

'Good call. They go down well with broadsheets and foreigners.'

'I thought maybe Jane Eyre?'

'OK, I'll nip down to Smiths and pick up a 99p classic. What did she write?'

.....

'Er, guys, I think we have a problem. I was expecting chick lit. Wild eyed hunks on the moor singing it's me, I'm cathee, I've come home.'

'I think that's a different one.'

'But it's all about religion, and growing up, and education, and psychology, and scenery.'

'Well, cut it.'

'All of it?'

'Well, the religion and the psychology. It worked for Peter Jackson. But leave in the scenery We need an excuse for a location shoot or the punters won't believe it was expensive. But drop the education and cut straight to the bonking.'

'There isn't any bonking.'

'I thought you said it was a costume drama?'

'I thought you said it was a prestige literary adaptation.'

'Well invent some. You are a writer after all.'

'Sex? In Jane Eyre? Is it okay if they keep their clothes on?'

'Only if it's artistically necessary. Are there any bonnets?'

'Oh yes. Lot's and lots of bonnets.'

'Bonnets are good. I suppose there is no way you can work in a hippo?'


First person narratives aren't easy things to turn into dramas. Jane Eyre is all about Jane's mind and how it develops; it's full of thoughts, subjective impressions, and enormously long sentences. ('And then my mind made its first earnest effort to comprehend what had been infused into it concerning heaven and hell; and for the the first time it recoiled baffled; and for the the first time glancing behind, on each side, and before it, it saw all round an unfathomed gulf: it felt the one point where it stood -- the present; all the rest was formless cloud and vacant depth; and it shuddered at the thought of tottering, plunging amid that chaos.') It is a mark of how much Ruth Wilson will deserve her BAFTA that she manages to suggest the existence of these kinds of inner depths in a script which, of necessity, limits her to spending most of the first two episodes not saying much more than 'Yes Sir,' and 'No Sir'. Toby Stevens is neither sexy enough nor enough of a bastard to really succeed in being the sexiest bastard in literature, but he had a damn good try. The film starts to sparkle whenever the two of them have an extended scene together. And although it is never tricksy, there are some nice visual touches: I particularly liked the way in which we see Jane and Rochester's faces in profile, her's superimposed over his, the first time he announces that 'you and I are one.' The central episodes, where Jane is the governess at Thornfield made gripping TV, although they did stress the 'Gothic' aspect of the story rather too much for my taste. Jane's wedding is carried of brilliantly; what sticks in the mind is not the high melodrama of the lawyer at the back of the church saying 'There is an impediment!' but Rochester looking at Jane in awe and saying 'How could I have imagined you would have looked better in that gaudy veil!' The use of flashbacks to bring those of us who haven't been watching The Wide Sargasso Sea up to speed with the mad-woman in the attic are also a good idea in theory, although they tend to underline the fact that Rochester can't really be imagined in any context apart from his rambling Gothic mansion. So, all in all, a jolly good piece of Sunday night TV of the kind they don't make any more. What it wasn't, of course, was an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.



Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre concludes with Jane receiving a letter from her former suitor Rev. St. John Rivers, who has gone to be a missionary in India (as opposed to Africa, incidentally.) He's very ill; but he knew when he went that the climate would probably kill him. ' "My master,"he says "Has forewarned me. Daily He announces more distinctly 'Surely I come quickly!' and hourly I more eagerly respond, 'Amen; even so, come, Lord Jesus.' " ' The last line of Jane Eyre is the same as the last line of the Bible. St. John is quoting St. John. This is important at all sorts of levels. Rochester is the most important person in Jane's life, but he's not the be-all and end-all of her world: when she concludes her 'autobiography', she has higher things than romance on her mind. The story has partly been about Jane's spiritual growth: it starts with her at the mercy of some thoroughly nasty Christians; but it ends with her thinking about a thoroughly good one.


The BBC's version ends with Jane and Rochester entertaining some kind of family gathering, possibly the christening of their second child. They form up into a family group, and the final image of the film is a photograph in a floral frame. (Quite who was taking snapshots in 1847 is open to question: perhaps they held the pose for a week or so while someone did an oil painting.) Granted, this is an attempt to deal with the four most un-adaptable words in English Literature; but it's clear that we are being told that they all lived happily ever after. The book leaves us wondering, as Jane is presumably wondering, whether she did the write thing to follow her heart back to Thornfield rather than follow her head and become a clergyman's wife. In the TV series, the question is not even on the table: all stories end with weddings and if it comes to a choice between God and Toby Stevens, there's no contest. The idea that 'spiritual and religious development' could be one strand of a novel that is also about lurve is clearly not something which TV audiences could deal with. So out goes. So out goes most of the Lowood section (about a quarter of the book) and out goes much of the relationship with St. John.


We know that Jane is never going to go to Africa with Rivers, because she spends all the time that she is with him having flashbacks about Rochester, rendering the sci-fi climax, in which she is summonsed back to Thornfield by telepathy, rather gratuitous. At one level, these flashbacks are a rather elegant bit of TV narration. We jump straight from the revelation of the madwoman in the attic to Jane's being found wandering on the moor by Rivers and his sisters. The flashbacks gradually fill in the details of what happened in between, but also serve to keep Toby Stevens present on the screen when he is absent from the plot, and thus, to prevent the distaff contingent switching to channel 5.


On what would have been their wedding night, Rochester goes to Jane's bedchamber and begs her to run away with him to Italy. Jane is lying on her back; Rochester is lying on Jane, in what Rev. Rivers would presumably not have called the missionary position. It is in this position that he suggests that they could live as brother and sister, so she would not have to live in sin. I think Jane would probably have regarded miming intercourse with a man she didn't think she could legally marry as quite sinful enough, thank you very much. In case we have missed the point, when she goes back to Rochester after the fire, they end up lying on top of each other on the grass, decently clad but with their legs most indecorously intertwined.


Adapting a 19th century book and expecting the characters to adopt 21st century attitudes is precisely like going on holiday to Spain and insisting on drinking fish and chips and Courage best. There may have been a time when the BBC adapted Great Books in the hope that the Unwashed Masses who hadn't read them would be encouraged to discover the wonderful world of reading; or else they did radical reworkings of the classic to challenge and titillate the people who had. Now, it's just a matter of scouring old books for period love stories. Historical tourism.


Meanwhile, if you are the sort of person who finds themselves compelled to look at road accidents, then the BBCs other high-profile costume drama has not yet been removed from its prime time Saturday evening spot.


I think I probably first met Robin Hood in a Christmas production of Babes in the Wood . Then the BBC did The Legend of Robin Hood as one of their Sunday tea-time classic serials, my lady this and my lady that, earnest, historical and probably filmed in a quarry. I've also seen Basil Rathbone trying to conceal the fact that he is an accomplished fencer and Errol Flynn isn't; and Michael Praed pretending that if he goes on and on about Herne the Hunter, no one will notice his girly haircut. But these are all travesties. We all know the canonical version of the story, the one against which all others are judged. It's the one where Robin is a fox, Little John is a bear and Friar Tuck is a badger. In terms of seriousness, conviction and authenticity, it knocks the BBCs present offering into a cocked hat. With a feather on it.


Robin himself is probably the most interesting thing in the new series. In a Saturday teatime sort of way, he's trying to be a rounded character. We're in the version of the story where Robin is not a mere yeoman, but the Earl of Huntingdon. (He's also referred to as Robin of Locksly, which suggests that the writers have been studying some of the more obscure Greenwood ballads. Or watching DVDs of Robin of Sherwood.) He's only recently returned to England; and something very bad happened to him in the Time War, sorry, did I say Time War, I meant Crusades, although so far we haven't found out exactly what. His peasants love him, and he loves them: the reason he steals from the bad and gives to the good is that he still feels some responsibility to his peasants even now he's lost his lands. He very specifically robs the rich to feed the poor: he hasn't been back in England five minutes before he's inviting them to a slap-up feast in Huntingdon manor. He likes to leave gifts for the peasants in surprising ways and then watch the look on their faces when they find them, making me wonder if the writers had possibly confused him with Father Christmas. He likes the thanks and the adulation of the peasants, either because he is a glory hound, or because he has a neurotic need to be loved. (Clue: Answer B will turn out to be correct, probably because he lost someone dear to him in the Holy Land.)


Oh, and he's a pacifist, presumably due to his bad experience in Iraq, sorry, did I say Iraq, I meant Jerusalem. I think that he must have been designed in one of those role-playing games where you get extra skill points if you accept a big disadvantage. Robin has put all his skill points into Archery (he uses a Saracen bendy bow, not an English longbow, which arguably misses the point). He can do anything he likes with his arrows. He's forever shooting the ropes off innocent men on the gallows and shooting down arrows in flight which are about to kill innocent people, and firing six arrows at once which all miraculously go exactly where he meant them to. Most of this happens in slow motion, which presumably makes it a bit easier for him. But like the Green Arrow in the 1970s he has a Code Against Killing. So in episode 1, when the Sheriff is about to cut off Alan Adale's hand, Robin fires off five arrows with pin point accuracy, one between each of Alan's fingers; but then has to run away from the Sheriff's men because he isn't allowed to fire at anyone.


Robin has a sidekick who calls him Master and is devoted to him. His name is Much, but we don't find out if he is a Miller, or indeed if he has a son. I think he may turn out to be a gardener. Once Robin has run away into Sherwood, he finds a ready made troupe of moderately cheerful men. They are led by John, who is very big, but isn't called Little John. (John Little has a little son called Little John: it is obviously much funnier for a little person to be called 'little' than a big person.) Alan Adale shows no sign of being a singer. There are a whole brood of Scarlets, one of them called Will, but he doesn't appear to be a tough guy, or indeed, anything else. Friar Tuck is missing altogether. If we can believe the Daily Express this is because the political correctness brigade thought the character was disrespectful to fat people. But we can't. (In the canonical version, Tuck the badger was not especially over-weight. He lived in a church with some church mice, which suggests a limited understanding of the concept of mendicant orders. But then, since the Franciscans were founded in 1209 and the Dominicans in 1215, there were presumably not a whole lot of Friars in England at the time of Prince John's regency (1190-1194). I digress.)


So far, so harmless. It is certainly uncontaminated by originality, but it slips down easily enough on a Saturday evening. But where the canonical version treated Robin as a a serious heroic character, producer Dominic Minghella can't get it out of his head that what we are watching is a pantomime. This is understandable: if you are an Actor the Sheriff of Nottingham is not so much a nasty character in a medieval romance, but a camp role where the main objective is to get the kiddies to say 'Boo' and 'He's behind you.' Keith Allen can't decide whether he is meant to be playing a slimy politician -- he's rather good when trying to convince the peasants that Robin isn't out for their best interests -- or a pointlessly nasty nastyperson, joking about torture and killing ickle budgies to work off his anger. There is no rapport between this Robin and this Sheriff, because Robin is a dead-pan romantic hero while the Sheriff is camp comedy relief. Guy of Gisborn turns up dressed in biker leathers, and plays the role as a cop-show thug. Three main characters from three different series.



Along comes Marian, who may or may not be a maid. In the canonical version, as in Errol Flynn's, she is a noble lady who lives in the castle and is wooed by the courtly Robin. In Ror-or-or-bin, the Hooded-Man she is pretty much just a female merry man. Here, she is introduced as the ex-Sheriff's daughter, Rob's old flame, who isn't quite sure if she wants to pick up the relationship again. In episode 2 she does the obligatory 'I can help you out of the prison cell' routine, suggesting she just wants to be medieval-drama-lady. Would that she had remained so.


And then we have our obligatory sacrifice to the great god Relevance. I understand, largely because I read it in the Guardian, that Robin-Hood-Robin-Hood-Riding-Through-the-Glen was written by victims of the 1950s anti-communist black-list and contained some subtle digs at McCarthyism. The new series is trying something similar apart from the 'subtle' part. In episode 1, we find out that some people think that Richard has got England involved in an unnecessary war, of dubious legality and morality, against Muslims, because he has much too close a relationship with the Pope. In episode 2, we discover that the Sheriff has introduced a system of indefinite detention without trial for outlaws, who are regarded as 'enemy combatants' for the duration of the war. And in episode 3, we find the slimy sheriff making a slimy speech trying to persuade the peasants that Robin is a bad thing. This goes on in the background while Robin is snogging Marian, so all we hear is 'terrorizing....terror...war on terror!' I want to die. More specifically, I want Dominic Minghella to die.


In Episode 3, we find out that while Robin was off killing Muslims there was another outlaw in Sherwood, who also stood up for the peasants, and who wears a mask. He's called 'The Nightwatchman'. As soon as this was mentioned, I started to repeat 'please don't let it turn out to be Marian; please don't let it turn out to be Marian' over and over again. I needn't have bothered: at the end of the episode, it turned out to be Marian. Are we really so unimaginative that the only alternative we can think of to the admittedly sexist 'courtly love' of the Elizabethan and Hollywood versions is to take the Rich But Fragile Maiden Who The Tough But Strangely Attractive Outlaw Worships From Afar and give her a sword, a bow, and for all I know, a willy?


The aforementioned 'night watchman' is wrongly suspected of having killed the Sheriff's bailiff. The Sheriff, because he is evil, tries to blame Robin for the murder, and, because he is very evil, arranges for a few more of his men to be killed so he can blame Robin for that as well. It turns out that the assassin was someone entirely different; and at the end of the episode, he succeeds in assassinating the Sheriff of Nottingham himself. Except that, because the Sheriff is clever as well as evil, he had himself impersonated by a double while the assassin was on the loose.


'I shot the sheriff!' says Someone Entirely Different. 'No', replies Dick Dastardly 'You shot the deputy.' This would have been excruciatingly unfunny at any time; but it was made worse by the fact that they'd already made exactly the same joke in the title of the episode. I can only assume that it was written by a different Paul Cornell.


It makes me wonder. The opening sequence has a portentous march tune and over-done film style credits. Every new scene is introduced with a caption (accompanied by a silly 'twang' sound) which tells you where the scene is happening, even when you already know or it doesn't matter. The final scene is introduced by a graphic of a spinning archery target. This simply isn't how TV is made nowadays. The episodes end, not with a trailer for next week, but an advert for the BBC's on-line Robin Hood archery game, in which, get this, all the characters are represented as cardboard cut-outs. So...is it possible that Robin Hood is not a drama that fails to take itself seriously; but a deliberate spoof which we have mistaken for straight drama because it is so achingly unfunny?


Prestige literary adaptations have to turn into bonkbusters; kids adventure series just can't help taking the piss. I think the best solution would have been to run the two things together. Jane Eyre Warrior Princess dispossessed from Thornfield hall by evil King George, living wild on the moors with her band of, well, rather dour women, robbing from the industrial middle classes and giving to the inmates of evangelical boarding schools. That would really have been post-modern. Give me a minute and I can work in some hippos.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Walking With Jesuses

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.







...and then one Thursday, nearly 2,000 years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change...



The Genesis Code; The Gospel Code; The Magdalene Deception – W.H Smiths bookshelves are sagging under the weight of silly conspiracy theories about Jesus. So the time is right for the BBC to do a documentary called The Miracles of Jesus. The series promises that it will 'decipher' the meanings of Jesus' miracles. A cipher, you see, is a sort of code. If we can fit the words 'Jesus' and 'Code' into the same sentence, then maybe the young people will turn on the TV during the godslot. Or, on the other hand, maybe they won't.
The shtick is that the programme is presented by a Muslim, BBC war-reporter Rageh Omar, who pretends that he is looking at the Gospels with an outsider's eye. The last time the BBC did a major series on Jesus, it was presented by Jeremy Bowen, another news reporter. God forbid that religious documentaries should be presented by historians, archaeologists or clergymen. That would be old fashioned and deferential; it would suggest that we lived in a world where experts taught and everyone else learns from them. TV shows of this kind have to be presented by naive seekers-after-truth. Unfortunately, it's clear that Omar is better informed than the format permits him to let on. He keeps saying 'many scholars believe....' which makes us suspect that he has read actual books – but he isn't allowed to tell us which books, or what they said.
The hidden message which he finds in the Gospels is – and stop me if you've heard this before – that Jesus believed himself to be the Son of God. Not only that, but he thought that is was necessary to suffer a violent death in order to overthrow Satan. Oh, and his disciples very probably believed that he had come back from the dead – in what was 'perhaps' the greatest miracle of all.
Reith forbid that a Sunday afternoon TV series about Jesus should contain anything so mundane as any actual passages from the Bible. Oh no; it uses 'special photography and computer generated images to bring the miracles of Jesus to life'. That is to say, actors wander around dusty landscapes and roll their eyes a lot. Jesus looks Wild and Strange. The Disciples look Surprised and Foreign. There are subtitles. There is some fairly tasteful pre-watershed flagellation, so I assume that the language must be Aramaic. We get to see the scenes repeatedly, from different angles, sometimes in black and white. Jesus turns water into wine in Matrix-style bullet time.
Since Walking With Dinosaurs the buffer-zone between documentary and fiction has been hopelessly compromised. A sensible viewer might reasonably watch a computer generated reconstruction and say 'How do we know that the disciples laughed when Jesus refused to exorcise the gentile woman's daughter?' or 'How do we know that a brontosaurus marked out its territory with wee?' The answer, in both cases, is 'We made it up. Out of our heads.' But Omar is inclined to treat the filmed reconstructions as if they were the events themselves. He then sets about decoding their meanings. Since the dramas are based on someone's interpretation of what must have happened, this is a dangerously circular argument. Each scene is introduced with a little caption that says something like 'Sea of Galilee, A.D 28' which insidiously suggests that we are watching documentary, rather than historical fiction.
So, after he has been baptized by John the Baptist, we are told that Jesus had a mystical experience, seeing a dove and hearing the voice of God in his head. We see a computer generated dove super-imposed over the actor's face, to make it quite clear that this is a subjective psychological event experienced by Jesus alone. When mystics have such visionary experiences they often become quite confused and have to spend weeks working out the meaning of their vision. And sure enough, we see Jesus spending the month after his baptism in the wilderness, looking very agitated and confused. Omar draws various conclusions from this: Jesus state of mind suggests that he himself was surprised by his vision, and doubtful about the nature of his mission and his role. The trouble with this is, the fourth Gospel is quite explicit that it was John, not Jesus who saw the the Dove. ('And John bare record, saying 'I saw the spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him.') The other Gospels could be read either way. And you have to push the text quite hard to put Jesus in a confused state during the next 40 days. The Gospels describes a personal Devil tempting him, and Jesus responding confidently with quotations from scripture.
All of which is a shame, because Omar's central argument is actually rather good. Jesus was not the only exorcist and healer in first century Palestine – so why did he inspire devotion in some people and hatred in others? The answer is that his miracles conveyed a very specific and shocking message, quite different from the other wonder-workers. For example:

  • Exorcists traditionally used spells and rituals to evoke the power of God: Jesus simply told evil spirits to go away, as if he personally had authority over them. But the only person who has authority over Satan is God. It is very significant that the Gadarene swine ran into the sea, because Leviathan is a symbol of the devil, Leviathan lives in the sea, and in the Old Testament, YHWH is sometimes depicted overcoming Leviathan. (Er...nice try.)


  • When a crippled man was brought to him, instead of healing him, Jesus announced that his sins were forgiven – something which only God can do. Omar implies that in saying this, he is pointing out (or possibly deciphering) a previously neglected significance. In fact, the meaning of the story is absolutely explicit in the text of Mark's Gospel.'Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God only?'


  • On another occasion, Jesus calmed a storm on the sea of Galilee. He seemed to be giving orders to the elements – which everyone knew was God's job. Indeed, one of the Psalms specifically talks about God controlling a storm. (We aren't told which Psalm, because that might make us switch over to Emmerdale instead.) But there was no need to do any deciphering to discover this, because it is quite explicit in the synoptic account. 'Who can this man be? Even the wind and the waves obey him!'


  • Finally, the disciples are shocked (in the film, if not in the Bible) when he changes his mind and heals the gentiles daughter; because Jesus appears to be unilaterally extending the privileges of the chosen people to a goy – which surely is God's prerogative. Omar goes so far as to say that Jesus himself is surprised by this; a pretty weak point, since Jesus has on several occasions argued from the Old Testament that God is concerned with non-Jews.

Most interestingly, we are told (without supporting evidence) that firstcenturyjews regarded Rome, the occupier of the Holy City, as the immanent representation of Satan on earth. The old conundrum – 'If Jesus was a spiritual leader, why did he end up being killed as a traitor by the Romans? But if he was a political revolutionary in what sense was he a spiritual leader?' turns out to be a false dichotomy. Jesus 'would have' regarded curing demon-possessed Cyro-Phoenicians and freeing Jerusalem from the Romans as the same kind of action – kicking Satan out of places he wasn't supposed to be. If this is so, then throwing himself on Roman justice and allowing himself to be killed on the symbol of Roman oppression was a clear and symbolic way of saying 'I am engaged in the ultimate conflict with Satan.'
What the programme needed – and I never thought I would say this about a BBC religious documentary – was a healthy dose of skepticism. It is a good idea to discuss the significance of the miracles as stories, without wasting too much time worrying about whether it is scientifically or philosophically possible for them to have occurred. But once you have decided to treat something as a story, surely you have to ask: Who told this story? Under what circumstances? To whom? What, to coin a phrase, was it's life-setting? But Omar accepts uncritically that the Gospels are reports about incidents in Jesus' life – possibly inaccurate and biased, but essentially historical accounts. The story of Jesus temptation is, for him, a psychologically plausible event in the life of a visionary: the idea that '40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness' could be an allegorical or symbolic reference to the book of Exodus isn't even hinted at. We are told that 'some scholars believe' that the calming of the sea isn't literally true, because it is 'just too spectacular.' But he doesn't mention that the parallels with the book of Jonah – or indeed, the allusion to Psalm 107 – make other scholars think that the story is a literary creation.
Perhaps this doesn't matter. Mark reproduces a story in which Jesus acted as if he was God. And Mark certainly believed that Jesus actually was God, which is why he thought the story worth telling. It may not make much difference whether he was repeating a story told him by an eye-witness (say, Peter); recording one element of a 'Jesus tradition' that had been embellished by many hands; or making it up himself. Either way, the meaning is the same. And this really is as far as you can go. The New Testament writers write about a Jesus who believed he was God, because that is what they believed; and what they believed he believed. Is it what The Historical Jesus believed? We certainly can't find out by reading the Gospels and trying to 'decipher' what is blindingly obvious on every page.
When the BBC transmits this kind of programme, some Christian always stands up and says 'Pah! You wouldn't make a film that was nearly so skeptical about Mohammed!' I would be inclined to draw a different conclusion. You wouldn't make a film about Mohammed that gradually and tentatively came to the conclusion that he may perhaps have believed that the Koran was written by Allah and delivered to him by an Angel – and which expected your audience to be surprised by this information. Most people have got a rough idea what Islam teaches about the Prophet. But despite an Established Church and a degree of compulsory religious indoctrination that would be un-believable to most Americans, the population of the UK seems to be largely ignorant about The Jesus of the Gospels. (Look at the furore over The Passion of the Christ: most commentators seemed genuinely not to know what significance the Crucifixion has in Christianity.) Most of us seem to sincerely believe that Hippy Jesus – the one who preached peace and love and was murdered for it by those pesky Italians – is the one venerated by the Church. So I guess there is some point in the BBC using CGI to remind us that Scary Jesus – the person who said he was God and lived up to it – is the only Jesus you'll find in the Bible.
And yes. They do quote the appropriate bit of C.S Lewis.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Guilty Pleasures

I have a terrible confession to make. I allowed the DVD rental people to send me the first two discs of the 1956-7 Adventures of Sir Lancelot TV series. And what is even worse, I rather liked them.

I assume that Sir Lancelot was a follow-up to the Richard Greene Adventures of Robin Hood. It does the same spinning round thing with the titles; and it has an annoyingly catchy theme song over the closing credits. "Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen..." became a chart hit. "Come listen to my story/come listen while I sing/of days of old in England/when Arthur was the King..." presumably didn't.

I rented the thing because I wanted to see William Russell in some role other than Ian Chesterton. But I was disappointed. Sir Lancelot is in all respects the same character as Ian. He has the same combination of self-effacing modesty and square-jawed resolution. His relationship with Merlin is precisely the same as Ian's relationship with the first Doctor. Lancelot is an endless fount of general knowledge. He not only knows the quote about doing as the Romans do while you are in Rome; he also remembers that it was St. Ambrose who said it.. When Merlin wants to preserve an ancient book by Archimedes, Lancelot is the only knight who has heard of him. When Merlin has the amazingly original idea of using pigeons to carry messages, it's Lancelot who points out that the same thing was tried by Solomon. He imparts this information in a self-effacing but resolute way. One might almost think that in a previous life he'd been some kind of school teacher . He certainly comes across on the jousting field as a patient but demanding cricket master. "It's not enough to be quite good in this game. You have to be very good indeed....". (He pronounces it all as one word, veddygoodindeed.) His relationship with his squire, Brian, also recalls Ian's relationship with Susan. Lancelot always knows best, and won't put up with any nonsense, but he's honest and upfront with the lad. ("Do knights really keep their vows? says Brian. "Some do, and some don't." replies Sir Ian. "You can beat them, can't you?" says Brian when Lancelot is about to fight some anachronistic gladiators. "I don't know Brian" says our hero "I just don't know.")

And as was so often the case in Doctor Who one feels that William Russell is an Actor with a capital A. It is often very obvious that he is "carrying" the rest of the cast. He delivers even the corniest lines with a light, naturalistic touch. He does his best not to upstage the drama-school hams he's surrounded by. But you get a sense he's wondering why he's on children's TV when he really wanted to be a matinee idol.

The world of Sir Lancelot is a world of strange accents and even stranger haircuts. The real star of the show is Sir Kay's false moustache. Squire Brian is introduced as a kitchen-lad; and for the first few episodes, he sometimes remembers to talk in mummerset, but he soon gives up and reverts to RADA posh. ("I shell try orfally hard to be brave" he says, before being dragged off to be tortured by Sir Someone-or-other.)

These are boys stories: about boys, for boys. The Knights of the Round Table are big boys; interested in boyish things like fighting, and – well, fighting, basically. The squires are smaller boys. Apart from Brian, they don't have names; and they go about in a group, rather as if they were the Round Table (Junior Division). The big boys are generally nice to the younger boys; even though they sometimes have to tell them off. When Merlin complains that Brian is playing pranks, Lancelot laughs that that is how boys are, and says that even Merlin must have been a boy once – but he backs Merlin in giving Brian extra chores. King Arthur is the only proper grown-up, and he says things like "I can see from your face that you have been punished enough." Merlin is very old and wise but the boys can go to him for advice. ("I don't mean to interrupt your work" says Lancelot. "Helping knights who are in trouble is part of my work" says Grandfather.) Clearly, Camelot is either a Scout camp or a public school. When William Russell takes a week's holiday and Brian gets a story to himself, the whole thing turns into Sir Thomas Brown's School-days. Another lad dares Brian to sneak into the girls dormitory and steal Matron's nightcap. ("It was only a lark, Sire.") Why there is a girls dorm at Camelot, we never find out.

There are grown up Ladies as well. They are there mainly for decoration. They get abducted by evil knights, in which case Sir Lancelot rescues them -- although they have a disconcerting tendency to admit that they actually quite like their captors. Sometimes, it's Sir Lancelot who gets captured by evil knights, in which case Ladies visit him in his cell and do him unexpected kindnesses, often involving keys. When Lancelot disagrees with Arthur (about one episode in three), Guinevere sometimes says "My Lord, perhaps Lancelot is in the right in this case." Uncouth knights often have gentle sisters who nevertheless love them and can appeal to their better natures. When foreign knights visit Camelot, Guinevere shows them round the castle. There are no nuns or witches. Even female peasants seem to be in rather short supply.

It's rather well staged; it looks like more time was spent in National Trust castles than in the studios. The costumes show signs of having been glanced at by an historical adviser. There are no battles -- it seems to be possible to besiege a castle with two knights and one catapult -- but there are enough extras for fairly impressive skirmishes. On foot, combat is desperately theatrical: swords clash above our heads and then below our waists, before Lancelot pushes Sir Nasty with his shoulder and orders him to yield. Spiral staircases, battlements, and rooms with lots of furniture in them are the best places for a sword-fight. If you lose your sword, you can generally make do with a candlestick; or if that fails, a piece of wood. Sir Lancelot seems to find mounting and dismounting his horse rather difficult, and can look a little awkward in mounted close ups...but as soon as he puts his visor down, he miraculously becomes a rather competent horseman. The jousting is really done very nicely indeed.

The theme song proclaims, a trifle ambitiously that Lancelot has fought a million battles and never lost a-one. This presents problems for the writers, but they show some ingenuity in coming up with plots which challenge Sir Invincible. On St. Stephen's Day, all the knights take a vow not to carry arms, and to do whatever their squires tell them, which is inconvenient, considering that that's the very day Sir Baddy steals Excalibur. Sir Wimp goes off to rescue his Lady's father on his own, although he is no match for Sir Villain; Lancelot must follow in secret and help Sir Wimp beat Sir Villain while keeping his honour. Sir Newbie is a skilled warrior but loses his nerve in actual fights; Lancelot must find a way to give him some self-confidence. And Arthur keeps finding that in the case of this particular urgent and crucial mission, it would make sense for a single knight to go alone.

Connections with any known Arthurian legend are few and far between. In episode 1, Lancelot and Guinevere exchange significant glances. Morgana le Fey gets name checked, but doesn't appear. All supernatural elements are resolutely debunked. Merlin lets the knights think he has magic powers but it's really done with pulleys, levers. semaphore, chemistry and carrier pigeons. Excalibur is nothing more than a symbol. Lancelot spins a yarn about finding his own sword in a lake, and some credulous folk take it seriously.

It is never camp or ironic; it never tries to be clever. It's a series of 25 minutes stories about knights-in-armour and you have to accept it for what it is. In 1955, cameras were clunkier and editing rooms less efficient: actors were presumably given their scripts on Monday and shot the episode on Friday. So there's no scope for visual trickery, no swift cuts or cinematic niceties. Scene follows scene with nothing but simple narrative to carry the day. Something surprising happens; which leads to another surprising thing; which leads to yet another surprising thing – and so on until Brian or Merlin but usually Lancelot comes up with a surprising stratagem to save the day. Arthur puts the crown jewels on display in Sir Someone's abbey. After he has gone, robbers emerge through a trap door and take the jewels! Merlin tells Brian to take his pigeons to Coventry as punishment for another prank. On the way, Brian hitches a lift on a wagon. The wagon is then hijacked by the jewel thieves! Brian finds the jewels, and uses the pigeon to send word to Merlin. The thieves catch Brian, and lock him up in their castle..... Sophisticated it is not, but I kept on watching because I wanted to know what happened next.

I don't know. Lack of sophistication is not automatically a virtue. Black and white photography does not excuse all narrative sins. (The series eventually goes to colour, which is a mistake. You mean Arthur dressed his men at arms in bright pink?) A regular diet of plot-plot-plot would become as indigestible as a regular 1950s diet of meat-and-two-veg. And it goes without saying that I think that Ladies can do things apart from look pretty. Some ladies, any way. Yet in world which sometimes feels 'tired with the weight of too much liberty', there is something very appealing about an age when TV thought that its main task was to tell a story which actually made sense. And there's something naively attractive about the unapologetic boyishness of the whole thing. (I think that "boyishness" is the word I am looking for: male, but in no sense laddish or macho. Finding a gay subtext, particularly in the Lancelot/Brian relationship, would be like shooting peasants in a barrel.) I don't really want to go back to a time when such TV shows were the norm; but then; I don't especially want to live in a world where you solved disputes by sitting on horses and hitting each other very hard with sharp metal objects. I never really enjoyed Scout Camp very much. But it's great fun to imagine that there was a mythical past where such things were so.


"In days of old...when knights were bold...this story's told...of Lancelot!"