Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Eccleston’

Watching Our Friends in the North again in 2022 was… strange. I apologise, because you may need to pay close attention to this next part. The series – a landmark, classic drama serial if ever there was one – depicts the lives of four people over thirty years, starting in 1964 when they are twenty, and finishing in 1995 when they are in their early fifties. I watched it when it was first on, and was in my early twenties myself. 26 years later, I am obviously much closer in outlook to the charatcers-at-the-end than the characters-at-the beginning. But, as I say, it is an odd experience to realise just how much time has passed, how much has changed, and… how much hasn’t.

Writer Peter Flannery has modestly described it as ‘a soap opera, but a soap with something to say’, and while this hardly does it justice, it is almost like watching decades of a soap artfully cut down to nine hours or so of TV. The first thing that will probably strike anyone coming fresh to the programme is the astonishing cast that the BBC managed to assemble – or so it appears nowadays, anyway. Christopher Eccleston plays Nicky, who – to begin with at least – is a fiercely idealistic young man looking to change the world for the better. Playing his best friend is a then-almost-unknown Daniel Craig; his role is that of Geordie, a more relaxed and perhaps cynical youth, coming from a troubled family background. One of Geordie’s other friends is Tosker, played by Mark Strong: Tosker’s main interest is in getting on in the world, whether as an entertainer, an entrepreneur, or something else (he seems not to care as what). Rounding out the quartet is Gina McKee, a bright young woman who only really comes to realise who she is as the story continues. So there you go: one James Bond, one Dr Who (technically, two, as David Bradley also has a significant role in the series), one much-in-demand star of numerous Hollywood blockbusters, and… well, it’s perhaps worth remembering that Gina McKee possibly had a higher profile on British TV than some of the other lead actors, even if she hasn’t become quite as big a star as the others since (she was still in Notting Hill and Phantom Thread, amongst other things).

It’s a bit fatuous to attempt to summarise the plot, but here goes anyway: with the election of a Labour government in 1964, Nicky abandons his university career to get involved in the murky world of local politics and the provision of cheap housing. Mary, who has until now been Nicky’s girlfriend, is alienated by his lack of interest in her and ends up marrying Tosker instead. Geordie, meanwhile, flees the town after a whole series of family problems and ends up living in London.

Nicky realises the housing business is horribly corrupt, which is also what Geordie discovers about the London police: he ends up working for a ruthless pornography baron, and makes the mistake of having an affair with his mistress. Mary and Tosker’s marriage falls apart, while Nicky – disillusioned with the Labour party – drifts into fringe politics. The revelation of corruption in both the Met and Newcastle is a watershed moment for all of them, and it’s still only 1974.

Nicky runs for parliament in 1979 but is defeated by a ruthless and unprincipled Tory campaign; Mary becomes a solicitor, and then a local councillor, while Tosker remarries and becomes a successful, if morally flexible, businessman. Geordie, in a beautifully subtle bit of storytelling, simply drifts out of sight for years. When Nicky stumbles upon him again, in the late 1980s, he is just one of many homeless people living in the social wasteland produced by nearly a decade of Thatcherite government. Despite being clearly mentally ill, as a result of many hard years, he is eventually sentenced to life in prison for an act of arson.

Tosker is nearly bankrupted by the financial crash of 1987 but manages to recover; Nicky, having moved to Italy in the aftermath of a failed marriage to Mary, returns for the funeral of his mother. It is this event, more than any other, which brings the quartet back together, over thirty years after the start of the story. The country feels like it’s on the edge of another fundamental change (or perhaps this is only visible with the benefit of hindsight), and perhaps from the stories of its past, we can approach the future with something akin to wisdom.

It is, as you can see, a hugely ambitious undertaking, tackling events as diverse as corruption in Tyneside housing provision and the Scotland Yard vice squad, the rise of Thatcherism and the miners’ strike, the degeneration of British society, and much more. Layered in on top of this are the more soap-opera moments, concerning the various lives and loves of the main characters and those around them. It would be remiss of me not to mention that the supporting cast is also remarkable – I’ve already mentioned David Bradley, but also playing significant roles are Malcolm McDowell as a Soho gang boss, Freda Dowie and Peter Vaughan as Nicky’s parents, Donald Sumpter, Peter Jeffrey, and David Schofield as the Met establishment, Alun Armstrong as Nicky’s first mentor, a Blair-like figure who relinquishes his principles just a little too much, and even Julian Fellowes – nowadays famous for creating Downton Abbey (a more different TV drama it’s hard to imagine), but here playing a corrupt Tory minister.

One thing about this series which is especially striking nowadays is how politically uncompromising it is: the two most traditionally heroic characters, Nicky and Mary, are both heavily involved with the Labour movement, as are their mentors. The only main character who shows much sympathy for the other side is Tosker, who is often presented as a flawed, overconfident man and a bit of a clown. The rest of the Tory establishment is shown as almost entirely corrupt and self-serving, callous and morally bankrupt. Good luck getting something like that on the screen in 2023, regardless of how truthful or not it is.

The series’ thesis is persuasive, mainly because it is mixed in with and coloured by all the other elements of the story: there is romance, humour, tragedy, sex and violence. In the end it is the sheer scale and consistency and ambition of the story which is most impressive. Watching it now it’s almost irresistible to imagine a sequel following the characters over the intervening years, and catching up with them now as they approach their eighties. Apparently the series was adapted for radio in 2020, and a ‘new’ episode tagged onto the end doing just that, but this sounds like only the barest nod in the direction of what might be possible – then again, these days hiring Daniel Craig to do a nine-hour TV series would probably bankrupt the BBC.

I suppose in a way it has something of the same fascination as The Crown, another quasi-generational drama with many different tones to it, starting as an absolute period piece but slowly advancing towards the present. Both shows mix politics with soap opera, but Our Friends in the North is subtler, and – perhaps because it is freer in its storytelling – more satisfying and moving. Not only does it provide a convincing (if partial) social history of the UK in the final third of the twentieth century, the final episode, and particularly its closing scene, capture the zeitgeist of the time it was made with remarkable truthfulness. Geordie, of all four characters the one still furthest from finding real peace, walks stoically across the Tyne Bridge, out of shot and into an uncertain future, as Oasis’ Don’t Look Back in Anger plays on the soundtrack. In real life the country was about to experience the first Labour government in nearly two decades, with the death of the Princess of Wales not much further away: September 11th, the second Iraq war, the financial crash, Brexit, and the pandemic were all beyond imagining back then. When the story of our own times is told, I only hope it is done with the same intelligence, skill and integrity as happened back in 1996.

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It’s not normally a good sign when you go to see a movie with a friend and can’t decide afterwards exactly what sort of film it was supposed to be. I suppose you could have gone to watch one of those films which sets out to subvert the whole idea of genre, but then those are always a dicey proposition. Generally it just means you’ve spent a couple of hours watching a film with a bit of an identity crisis. This is not inappropriate, now I come to think of it, when we are talking about Brian Helgeland’s vaguely-monickered new movie Legend.


Legend concerns the lives of the infamous Kray twins, London gangsters of the 1960s, who were notable for being celebrities as well as criminals. This is by no means the first film to be about them, either directly or obliquely, but it has carved out a bit of distinctiveness for itself by using the miracle of modern technology to enable Tom Hardy to play both twins, a challenge he tackles with considerable gusto (maybe a bit too much gusto, but we’ll come back to that).

The movie opens in the early 60s with the Krays rising figures on the London gangland scene, routinely watched by the police (when they’re not actually in prison). Reggie Kray is presented as the brains of the firm, a smooth, plausible-seeming businessman (though not averse to a spot of the old ultra-violence when necessary), while his brother Ronnie, according to the film, is a slightly thick criminally insane maniac. Fairly early on they dispose of their main rivals, the Richardsons, after a gruesomely violent bar brawl, and from then on the city is theirs.

The film is mostly framed by Reggie’s relationship with Frances Shea (Emily Browning), the woman he eventually marries, but covers all the stuff you’d expect a Kray biopic to handle – gang warfare, the Boothby scandal, their connection with the Mafia, the murders of George Cornell and Jack McVitie, and so on. This is, inevitably, the kind of film which concludes with mugshots of the principals and captions relating what happened to them in later life (at the risk of spoilers: an awful lot of porridge).

Helgeland has assembled an impressive, mostly British cast, including Christopher Eccleston, the ever-watchable Paul Bettany, David Thewlis, Tara Fitzgerald, and so on, but the focus is almost always on Tom Hardy. Now, as Reggie, I would say Hardy gives a customarily good performance. The problem is with his turn as Ronnie – it seems to me that playing both characters perhaps allows Hardy to take each a bit further than he would if he were playing only one of them. Or perhaps a good deal further, because as Ronnie he arguably goes way over the top a lot of the time.

There’s rather more Dinsdale Piranha in Hardy’s glazed-eyed performance than is probably a good idea: he makes some rather curious choices, to say the least. ‘What accent is he doing?’ asked the friend of mine I saw Legend with, and I had to confess I had no idea. Is Tom Hardy genuinely playing a real-life convicted murderer for laughs? It’s difficult to say, and that itself is a little disconcerting.

Then again, the whole film is arguably softer on the Krays than it should be – probably more than Peter Medak’s 1990 biopic was. As the title suggests, this paints the twins as glamorous, almost romanticised figures – ‘gangster princes… the city was theirs to conquer,’ gushes the voice-over at one point, while within minutes the film is trotting out that old chestnut that the Krays were lovely boys who only ever hurt their own, and you could leave your front door unlocked in the East End back in the old days… and so on. It’s not until close to the end of a long film that you’re reminded that terrorising witnesses was part of the Krays’ standard procedure, by which point it’s a jarring realisation.

Even so, Legend has apparently been criticised by surviving members of the Kray clan for misrepresenting the twins – particularly the depiction of Reggie brutalising Frances Read, although the film doesn’t make reference to the allegation that Read was actually murdered by Ronnie. Whatever you think of the twins, it’s very difficult to shake the sense that their story has been stretched and twisted to fit Brian Helgeland’s agenda, which appears to be to incorporate some modishly savage gangland violence into an ain’t-those-Brits-quaint-style period piece. I’m not sure the intention justifies the changes – as ever, the morality of making an entertainment out of real life killers strikes me as questionable.

And an entertainment this certainly is. On the way out I asked my companion (who is not well acquainted with British culture or recent history) what kind of film she thought Legend was, and she said she thought it was a dark comedy. I couldn’t honestly disagree, but on the other hand it can’t really avoid being judged as a based-on-true-events crime drama, either. The technical skill and commitment that has gone into the entirety of the film is undeniable, for it is by no means badly made, but – just as with Tom Hardy’s central performances – some of the creative choices that have been made are, to say the least, deeply questionable.

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Let us cut directly to the central burning issue of the week. It is with something of a heavy heart that I have to report that Marvel Studios have perpetrated a bit of a cheat at the end of Thor: The Dark World, their latest box-office guzzling extravaganza. One of the incidental pleasures of the various Marvel films is sitting through the interminable credits for the teaser scene at the end which either sets up the next film in the series or (in the case of Iron Man 3) just provides some fan-pleasing comic relief. In a welcome move for those of us who sometimes have to leave the premises sharpish in order to catch the bus home, the credits scene from The Avengers was moved to a mid-credits position; Iron Man 3 reverted to the post-credits position. One of the issues with Thor: The Dark World (and, all right, it’s a comparatively minor one) is that it apparently has both a mid-credits and post-credits sequence.

So what, you may say – well, what happened at the screening I attended was that virtually everyone stayed put as the credits rolled, until the mid-credits bit appeared (this scene, featuring a rather camp Benicio del Toro, will probably baffle anyone not heavily steeped in Marvel arcana and is more confusing than appetising). At this point we relaxed, all got up and went home, missing the post-credits sequence. I wouldn’t complain so much except that my understanding is that this scene resolves a key plot point the film itself leaves hanging.

I’m making a big deal out of this, I suppose, but I think it is symptomatic of my experience of this movie. It has an enormous amount going for it, and simply by virtue of its connection to the other Marvel films can expect a very comfortable level of audience goodwill. And yet I still somehow found it to be a mildly unsatisfactory film on many levels.

thor TDW

Ken Branagh apparently having shied away due to his lack of experience when it comes to heavy special effects sequences, this new installment is overseen by Alan Taylor, who apparently has an impressive record in that TV show about musical chairs. Thor (Hemsworth again) is leading the forces of Asgard as they restore order to the Nine Realms (apparently) plunged into chaos at the end of the first Thor. Meanwhile Odin (Hopkins again) has been prevailed upon to spare the life of his rascally adopted son Loki (Hiddleston again), following his role in the invasion of New York at the end of The Avengers.

Meanwhile, Thor’s love interest Jane Foster (Portman again) is in London, where she initially appears to be living in a bad romantic comedy film. Luckily her research into Plot Device Mechanics leads her to a hole in the fabric of the script, through which she plummets and discovers an ancient doomsday weapon called the Aether.

This was built by the Dark Elves, whom we have already met in one of those exposition-heavy introductory flashbacks of which big genre movies are so very fond. For reasons best known to themselves, the Dark Elves want to blow up the universe, and the Asgardians confiscated the Aether to stop them doing this. Even though they believe the Dark Elves are all dead, the Asgardians don’t seem to have hidden the Aether in a very sensible place, but such are the demands of the plot.

Of course, they are not all dead, and now that Jane has found the Aether, their leader Malekith (the great Christopher Eccleston under a ton of make-up) is quite keen to get hold of her for obvious reasons. Obviously Thor feels strongly motivated to help his girlfriend out, even to the point where he is obliged to ask Loki for help…

Thor: The Dark World clearly wants to be an epic, wide-ranging fantasy adventure, but the problem is that for its opening section at least, ‘wide-ranging’ actually reaches the screen as ‘all over the place’. Once we’re past that slightly eggy flashback with the Elves, the plot rattles around between various different realms, the actual nature and relationship of which the film doesn’t really bother to explain in any detail. Asgard, Vanaheim, Svartalfheim – it just feels like being bombarded with names and chunks of plot, the significance of which are taken for granted.

You have to bear in mind that the look of the film is a slightly baroque mixture of SF and pure fantasy – there’s more than one fight between people waving swords and other people carrying laser rifles and black hole grenades – not to mention that there are great swathes of CGI on display, and fairly central to proceedings is Natalie Portman. Now, given a good script, Portman can be a searingly effective performer, but without one she often reverts to shop-window mannequin mode, and that’s quite often the case here.

All-in-all, then, the initial sequences set off on Asgard and the other places are frequently horribly reminiscent of The Phantom Menace, as very fine actors in extraordinary hats and hairpieces flounder around inside a script which doesn’t quite hang together, the pain of this being somewhat mitigated by the astoundingly good special effects and production design.

Comparing any film to The Phantom Menace is, I realise, the critical equivalent of hitting the nuclear button, and I have to say that overall Thor: The Dark World is not nearly that bad. Once the plot finally achieves some cohesion in the second half, and Tom Hiddleston (consistently one of the Marvel films’ biggest assets) actually gets to contribute to the story, it picks up very considerably. The problem, of course, is that Loki inevitably overshadows the ostensible villain this time around – Christopher Eccleston just doesn’t get the material to compete – most of his dialogue is in Dark Elvish, which can’t have helped – and Malekith comes across as a dull, cipherish stock villain.

Not necessarily a problem, but certainly slightly peculiar, are the sequences of the film set in the realm of Midgard, or Earth (but, if the films’ captions are to be trusted, known to the Asgardians as ‘London’). Most of the movie takes place elsewhere and these scenes do feel a little bit crowbarred in, not least because they’re tonally completely at odds with the rest of it. Most of the movie is fairly straight-faced fantasy-SF, but the stuff in London is, as I said, like some kind of wacky romantic comedy. Chris O’Dowd gets a cameo, Stellan Skarsgard wanders about in his underpants, Kat Dennings is also trying to do comic relief. Even scenes with Hemsworth in them, including some of the climax, are camp and fluffy in a way the rest of the film just isn’t.

So this is a very inconsistent and choppy movie, but it would be remiss of me to suggest that it’s not at all worth seeing. Pretty much every single scene looks beautiful (possibly excepting the ones with Skarsgard’s pants), and it does effectively conjure up a sense of a vast and diverse cosmos (just not one which actually makes sense). If Chris Hemsworth doesn’t have quite the same charisma as some of the other Marvel leads, well, the film has Tom Hiddleston, which more than makes up for this.

(Conspicuously absent from the screen, by the way, are most of the elements which have connected previous Marvel movies – for example, SHIELD gets name-checked, but none of those characters appear. Possibly the existence of the – distinctly so-so – SHIELD TV show as an entity in its own right makes it harder to work the concept into the actual movies. I note we are promised that the TV show will be doing an episode set in the aftermath of this movie, though.)

While leaving the cinema and missing the post-credits sequence, I happened to overhear other members of the audience talking – ‘Wow, that was so much better than the first Thor!’ was the initial response of one of them. Now, the weird thing is that I could see exactly what she meant – The Dark World is bigger, brighter, more confident and more fun – but I’m not sure I would necessarily agree with her, because I like a film with a stronger plot and better storytelling than is really on display here. Thor felt like a film from a studio ambitious to try something new and excitingly different; The Dark World shows signs of being a project collapsing under the weight of its own grandiosity. It’s a fun, crowd-pleasing adventure, but overall for me it’s the weakest Marvel Studios movie since Iron Man 2. Still, that’s not a bad track record, and it’ll be interesting to see how the next couple of films pan out.

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I started properly reviewing old Doctor Who stories again partly because I hadn’t really done so for a long time, but also because I wanted to do something celebratory about the series in this anniversary year. That this has entailed my watching a large amount of Doctor Who is by no stretch of the imagination a burden, of course, even if for various reasons the quantity of material I’ve been able to watch from the sixth, seventh, and eighth Doctors has been rather limited.

This is not the case with the ninth Doctor. If any one era of the series contains within it a reasonable variety of stories but also lends itself to consumption within the space of a few weeks, it is that of Christopher Eccleston’s incarnation. But here we hit a bit of a problem – as I said, I’m trying to be positive and celebratory about Doctor Who, and the danger when writing about the ninth Doctor is to forget about that.

This is not because Christopher Eccleston is a weaker Doctor or his stories are somehow inferior, but for quite the opposite reason: this season, as a whole, is almost incandescently good. I’ve commented in the past on the succession of brilliant stories in, for example, Tom Baker’s third season, but to a modern viewer these are inevitably coloured by the technical limitations of TV drama 35 years ago. The Eccleston stories were made recently enough for this not to be an issue. You could transmit the 2005 season as new, right now, and it would seem as fresh and impressive as it did when it first appeared.

And so one inevitably wonders why they don’t – or, to put it another way, why the most recent seasons feel like so insubstantial and disappointing. The danger with writing about pretty much any Christopher Eccleston episode is that will inevitably turn into a false-flag hatchet job on the show as it exists under the curatorship of Steven Moffat. I like Steven Moffat, honestly, but I am still routinely baffled by how someone of his obvious talents and understanding of the show can think that getting rid of two-part stories is a good idea, and that episodes like Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and Rings of Akhaten somehow fully exploit the potential of Doctor Who. Yet I don’t want to spend my time bashing the current show any more than I just have.

So I will try and avoid that and concentrate instead on talking about how good the Eccleston season is. I suppose one must ask just how Rusty Davies and his crew managed to produce something which at the time was a hit on a stupendous scale. And the answer must be that, firstly, they set out to produce something which was both iconic Doctor Who and yet totally accessible to a new audience, and, secondly, they were terrified of failing. This last is not to be underestimated as a factor in the success of many things: the first season of any new Doctor is largely made before the new incumbent is secure in the affections of the public, and this may explain the urgency and energy most new Doctors show in their debut year before settling down into something a little more relaxed and confident.

Of course, the debut year is all we got (and all, I suspect, we will ever have) of Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor. Watching these episodes again has really made me certain that Eccleston is grossly overlooked when people – especially fans – consider the revived series. He gives a brilliant performance week after week in this season, and yet the response to the news he had declined to appear in the anniversary story was essentially a grunt and a shrug from fandom.

I think that encapsulates fandom’s Eccleston problem quite nicely. Nowadays we are used to having Doctors who not only love playing the part, but are card-carrying fans in their own right. David Tennant is one of us, so is Peter Capaldi, and Matt Smith – though obviously a member of the lost generation – has given plenty of interviews about how much he loves Tomb of the Cybermen. Eccleston, on the other hand, is obviously a Doctor Who who wasn’t especially bothered about Doctor Who; it was a job, and one where he apparently didn’t like the prevailing culture, so he was quite happy to walk away from it when the opportunity arose. His indifference to the show has resulted in much of fandom seemingly being indifferent to his contribution to the series.

This is hugely unfair. Simply in terms of the acting performance, Christopher Eccleston is a better Doctor than Matt Smith and a serious challenger to David Tennant as the best of the 21st century bunch. It may help that he has better scripts to work with, of course. Anyway – I’m supposed to be reviewing a particular episode, not overviewing the whole season, so which one? When it comes to good stories one is really spoilt for choice.


I’m going to be a little obvious and go for Dalek, by Robert Shearman, simply because this was the episode that really and finally sold me on the revived series. To be perfectly honest I was initially a little nonplussed by the style of some of the earlier episodes, and could imagine myself being absolutely appalled by Aliens of London and World War Three had I stumbled across them unsuspecting. But Dalek was the one that made me relax and convinced me that this really was going to be something special.

The TARDIS lands in a bunker beneath Utah in the distant space year of 2012. The installation is owned by IT billionaire Henry Van Staten, who uses it to house his collection of extraterrestrial artifacts – some technological, some organic, and one living. On coming across the Doctor, he hits upon the clever idea of using him to try and persuade his live specimen to co-operate – little suspecting he is just enabling the continuation of the greatest conflict in the history of the Universe…

One should probably acknowledge Dalek‘s origin in the audio story Jubilee, a clever piece about how monsters both real and fictional are neutered through overfamiliarity. Dalek isn’t trying anything so complex in either its plot or its theme: it’s primarily about making the Daleks scary for a new generation. (Here is the bit where I would naturally bang on again about how awful Asylum of the Daleks is, which supposedly has the same intention, is by comparison, but I am restraining myself.)

And it works. Even for a new viewer, by the end of the episode you know everything you need to about the Daleks, even though only a single one of the creatures appears in the story: their psychology, their intelligence, how formidable they are in combat (subsequent stories have downplayed some of the innovations like the force-field and the rotating design). Like the rest of the season, it’s deeply informed by the history and mythos of the series but in no way beholden to or sentimental about it.

The other main job of the episode is to fill in a wodge of backstory about the Time War and the destruction of Gallifrey, most of which comes from that remarkable early scene between the Doctor and the crippled Dalek. On the whole I think the Time War works rather well as a narrative device, making a virtue of the gap between the two versions of the programme and actually giving the Doctor a bit of a character arc (and an accessible one at that). Eccleston is obviously magnificent in this scene, but so is Nick Briggs as the Dalek, managing to give that familiar rasp an urgency and pathos it has seldom had before.

Bits and piece about the Time War had been seeded into earlier episodes but this is the one where it all snaps into place and the ground rules of the modern series are established. Of course, you’re not really thinking about that at the time as the story of the Dalek’s escape and the Doctor’s increasingly desperate attempts to contain or destroy it understandably takes up your attention. That the story concludes with a cannon-toting Doctor intent on cold-bloodedly killing a Dalek which is only searching for freedom sums up everything that is innovative about the new series.

And, like many brilliant things, the danger when reviewing Dalek is that you just end up making a list of things which are good about it. As usual, it all boils down to the script, the acting, and the direction – and if we’re talking about Robert Shearman, Christopher Eccleston, and Joe Ahearne, we’re discussing three people who all knocked the ball out of the Doctor Who park their first time around, only to leave in very short order, unlikely ever to return. And, to return to my earlier point, that really is an immense shame. But it shouldn’t detract from an appreciation of just how good they were.


The Obligatory When’s It Set Discussion

‘When’s It Set’ issues are a bit less common in the 21st century series, though quite why this should be I’m not sure. Anyway, Dalek is one of those stories giving an on-screen date of 2012, which seems simple enough.

Inevitably, though, the plot point of Van Staten believing his Dalek to be unique – and not knowing its name – is a bit problematic given the events of other stories. One can just about accept that even a man of his resources could have overlooked military records of previous Dalek incursions on Earth – I’m thinking here of Remembrance of the Daleks, set nearly 50 years earlier, and Day of the Daleks, very roughly 40 – given that he doesn’t know what the creature is called. However, his bunker must be very well-insulated indeed for him not to have noticed the swarm of Daleks over London during the Battle of Canary Wharf (occurring in 2007) and especially the Dalek Empire laying claim to the whole planet two years later.

Obviously what’s happening here is an actual example of time being rewritten (something we hear a lot about but hardly ever see on-screen): events as seen in Dalek have since been overwritten by something new as a result of the two stories mentioned. One wonders why the Daleks didn’t spring Van Staten’s prisoner in 2009, given it was emitting a distress signal – assuming they didn’t, in the revised timeline, the only major alteration to the storyline would be that Van Staten would know his pet’s real name at the start of the story.

Dalek’s spatio-temporal quirks don’t quite end there, for we also have the scene in which the Dalek reports that it can’t detect any trace of Dalek activity via the radio telescopes of 2012 Earth. One assumes they would be capable, which leads us to the question of why this should be. Certainly in the timeline of the 20th century show, there are Daleks native to the early-21st century – given they invade Earth in the mid-22nd and their origin is implied to be at least a thousand years previously, there have to be. So the Dalek should be able to listen in on the activities of its ancestors, should there be any in range.

Possibly the Dalek means it can’t detect any activity by its contemporaries, though I’m not completely sold on this. The alternatives are that the 21st-century native Daleks are operating beyond the effective range of human detectors (a comforting thought) or, more intriguingly, the entire history of the Daleks has somehow been removed from the timeline by the Daleks’ participation in the Time War.

This makes a certain kind of sense – the most obvious tactic in any kind of temporal conflict is surely to try and stop your opponent being born, and so placing your history out of harm’s way is an obvious defensive response (particularly so in the Daleks’ case, given the Time Lords made at least one attempt in this direction before the War even started). Quite how one would do this I leave as an exercise for the interested reader, of course. Doctor Who sometimes talks about the manipulation of history as a concept, but seldom really uses the idea. Dalek is one of the rare stories which – in the context of the rest of the series – gives us some inklings as to how this actually works.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 18th 2002:

Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People is the vaguely true story of 15 years in the strange double life of Anthony Wilson, by day a local TV news reporter, by night a self-declared visionary pop impressario and music business mastermind, a man who played a crucial role in the rise of club culture (and drug culture), a man fundamental to the regeneration of Manchester, the man who gave the world Factory Records, the Hacienda nightclub, New Order, and the Happy Mondays.

In the film Wilson is portrayed by the comedian Steve Coogan, a shrewd choice as Wilson’s image – a pretentious, middle-class faux-intellectual prat surrounded by working-class pop warriors – isn’t too far removed from that of Coogan’s most famous creation, Alan Partridge. Coogan plays the image, and neither he nor the script try particularly hard to uncover the real man. The film openly admits to being more interested in legend than truth – at one point Wilson discovers his wife (Shirley Henderson) in flagrante with Howard Devoto of the Buzzcocks, at which point the real Devoto pops up and makes it absolutely clear he doesn’t remember this actually happening. It’s a neat post-post-modern moment, but this kind of deliberate, ironic distancing means that serious events such as the suicide of singer Ian Curtis (played by Sean Harris) lack any real emotional impact.

It’s played mostly for laughs anyway, by Coogan and other TV comics like John Thomson, Peter Kaye, and Keith Allen. Obviously some impersonation of quite famous people is required, with variable results: John Simm is spookily convincing as Barney Sumner, but the guys playing the Happy Mondays have only a fraction of the charisma of the real Shaun and Bez, and Ralph Little is simply too young-looking and un-hairy to play Peter Hook. There are cameos from survivors of the scene, too: the real Tony Wilson, Horse from the Mondays, Mani from the Stone Roses, Clint Boone from the Inspiral Carpets, and many more.

It’s all shot on digital video (which if nothing else allows archive concert footage to be edited in less incongruously) and Winterbottom’s direction is suitably sardonic and arch. But there are no real insights into the 80s Manchester scene, and probably not much to attract those who aren’t already into this kind of music. It’s really not bad at all, but for a film with this kind of raw material to work with, the fact that in the end 24 Hour Party People is only not bad and quite amusing is in its own way a significant criticism. Fantastic soundtrack, though.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published November 8th 2001:

Let us suppose you are a British character actor yearning to make it big Stateside. You have paid your dues in the RSC, or perhaps you have appeared in a BBC or ITV classic serial shown over a Bank Holiday Weekend. (Or you may just be a lovably violent ex-footballer with no real talent but a high profile.) How do you secure your big break into the cinema?

Well, you have two options open to you. If you are young and virile-looking enough you can trundle over to the Suits at the major studios while they assemble their latest pre-fab blockbuster and ask to play the villain. Here you will join an illustrious roll-call alongside Alan Rickman (Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, etc), Gary Oldman (Leon, etc), Dougray Scott (Mission Impossible 2), Jeremy Irons (Die Hard 3), Tim Roth (Planet of the Apes), and even that bloke off Poirot (Executive Decision). (In fact my spies tell me that so short are the studios of unfamiliar British villains that we will soon see Bruce Willis fighting Alan Bennett in Die Hard 4.)

On the other hand you may be knocking on a bit and/or still have some self-respect left, in which case you should wander over to the Historical and Comedy department and be prepared to play the butler or maid. Many others will have preceded you here, too – Sir John Gielgud (Arthur), Denholm Elliott (Trading Places), and George Cole (Mary Reilly) to name but a few. And now the stalwart writer and comedian Eric Sykes has joined their number following his appearance in Spanish writer-director Alejandro Amenabar’s highly engaging new film The Others.

The Channel Islands, 1945, and wealthy householder Grace (Nicole Kidman) is forced to recruit some new staff for her isolated, perpetually fog-shrouded mansion – the previous lot having mysteriously vanished. The new set are Mrs Mills (Fionnula Flanagan, who judging from the internet is best known for an interesting set of political beliefs and the fact she played Data’s mum in Star Trek. Yes, really), Mr Tuttle (Eric Sykes) and the mute Lydia (Elaine Cassidy). Life in the mansion is complicated by the extreme photosensitivity of Grace’s children Anne and Nicholas (Alakina Mann and James Bentley) – prolonged exposure to daylight will kill them. And it soon becomes apparent that there’s more going on than first seems to be the case – footsteps echo from empty rooms, doors unlock themselves, and the children report seeing ‘the others’ – inexplicable strangers in the house…

This is a really solid piece of work, a haunted house story in classic style – albeit with the obligatory twist ending. It’s quite extraordinarily creepy and atmospheric, almost always shrouded in mist or lit only by candles. As a ghost story, the key question must be – is it frightening? And I’d answer with a firm yes; in addition to the generally nervy atmosphere there are lots of genuinely scary moments. It’s hugely refreshing to see that such a straightforward, non-ironic movie can still make a modern audience jump out of their seats in shock – even amongst the usual Saturday matinee crowd of urchins, guttersnipes and delinquents there was a lot of nervous giggling, fluttering and clenching, and even a few screams.

The success of this film is really down to two contributors – the first being Alejandro Amenabar. His script flawlessly captures the idiom of 1940s speech (‘Cowardly custard!’ etc), and his direction is knuckle-whiteningly effective. (He also manages the best lost-in-the-fog sequence since Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.) He even does the score rather well, keeping it low-key and wisely saving the shrieking Psycho strings for crucial moments. The other key element is Nicole Kidman’s performance. While I’m not a great follower of hers, I’ve seen quite a few of her movies (even her debut in BMX Bandits) and I don’t think she’s ever been better than here. As the uptight, emotionally brittle Grace, she’s quite convincing, and from the opening seconds you’re entirely certain something’s not quite right in the mansion.

Flanagan has the other major role and she’s the most alarming screen nanny since Billie Whitelaw in The Omen. The kids are excellent too, none of your Haley Joel Osment doggy eyes and wispy voices here. Christopher Eccleston pops up briefly, and – to paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan – while he doesn’t actually do much, he does it very well. The same can be said for Eric Sykes and Keith Allen (who has a short but crucial cameo).

If I had to find fault with The Others, it’d be that the story meanders ever so slightly from time to time, allowing the tension to seep away. There isn’t the big finish you might expect, either, and this gives the film an insubstantial, lightweight quality – highly involving while you’re actually in the theatre, but not lingering much in the memory. There’s always the possibility that one person’s great horror film is anothers’ bad comedy (and vice versa, of course), but I spent a very satisfying and pleasantly terrifying two hours in the company of The Others.

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Class distinctions seem to be very much a hot topic at the moment here in the UK. This seems to be due to a) the success of The King’s Speech, the tale of one of the toffiest people imaginable bonding with someone who’s not just a pleb, but an Australian, and b) the fact that in a few months time we’re all to be given a day off work (well, those people who actually have jobs – the rest of us won’t feel the benefit of this particular piece of largesse) to celebrate the fact that the future monarch will be marrying a ‘commoner’ – she’s never even had her own coat of arms! It’s madness! (Then again she’s never really had a proper job either, so surely the jury’s still out on her woman-of-the-people credentials.)

So class is a still live issue here in the UK, though perhaps less than it has been in the past: while the way a person speaks, behaves and dresses can still tell you something about their background, you would be unwise to draw too many assumptions from this. Television in general also seems to have abandoned its general condescension towards and suspicion of the working class.

(Yeah, I’m sorry, but this is a piece about the British class system, which really obliges me to use generalisations like ‘working class’, ‘middle class’ and ‘posh’. As ever, real life is much more complicated.)

This is hardly surprising given that for a long time TV was, on the whole, made by university-educated chaps, who may not have been that familiar with the full spectrum of society. In the TV of the sixties and seventies one can surely detect a sort of panem et circenses approach in the provision of things like soaps and game shows, and an assumption that the really worthwhile stuff was plays and authored documentaries.

Certainly, if you look more closely at TV SF and fantasy, it seems to be very much a middle-class pursuit. Survivors, in particular, presents a world where the working classes seem to have suffered disproportionately from the plague, and the few still around are mostly either shotgun-toting bandit scum or the comic relief. Blake’s 7 is nearly as bad.

And it’s the same with Doctor Who, throughout the original run. Of the attempts to create a believable working-class companion, only one is really successful, and that’s a character from the mid-Sixties (and before you object, Ace just comes across as a middle-class girl pretending to be ‘street’ most of the time). Honorable mention for Sergeant Benton, though.

The rest of the time, you’re only really likely to meet anyone working class if you go out into the countryside, and even then they’ll probably be a comedy yokel or tramp. I suppose one has to mention Drax from The Armageddon Factor at this point: Drax is a Time Lord and old mucker of the Doctor’s, who he bumps into off in deep space somewhere. Drax has spent so much time in 20th century London he’s gone native and developed a Cockney accent. The crucial thing is that Drax’s accent is irrelevant to the plot – it’s simply a character quirk, and one that to me seems deeply tied up with the fact that he’s basically a comic-relief sidekick to the Doctor.

'Cor blimey guv'nor. Strike a light. Would you Adam'n'Eve it?' etc. etc.

Things improve a bit as the series goes on – though not a huge amount, the ‘girl gangs’ of Paradise Towers still talk like they’ve all been to Roedean – and it does score a definite success in Survival, with its depiction of Ace’s old friends and their haunts in a London suburb of tower blocks and vandalised community centres.

It’s become a bit of a cliché to marvel at the continuity of tone and setting between Survival and Rose, as though one could watch the entire series in sequence and barely notice the transition (and it’s hardly as if either was particularly representative of the series at the time). But one way in which Rose is very much signalling a change of approach is in the social background of its characters.

In the first year of the revived show, there are probably more significant and serious working-class characters than in any five or six of the old run – most obviously there are Rose, Mickey, and Jackie, but in addition to that there’s Raffalo the space-plumber, Gwyneth the maid, all the people at the wedding the Reapers crash, Nancy and her kids, Lynda with a Y… admittedly, some of them come from different societies to ours, but the creative decisions were made to have them dress and talk in way that hits a particular set of cues.

And there’s no overlooking the fact that Russell T Davies even has a damn good try at making the Doctor seem working-class. On the face of it this seems an absurd proposition – not only is his general demeanour that of a brilliant academic, he’s a Lord, for heaven’s sake – but the strengths of the scripting and Christopher Eccleston’s performance are such that, somehow, the quintessential Doctor survives beneath the jeans and leather jacket and accent (one of the very few good gags in Adam Roberts’s Doctor Who parody E.T. Shoots And Leaves was his summarisation of Eccleston’s Doctor as being performed in the style of ‘an unemployed northern builder on E’ – funny, because it’s ultimately true).

His Lordship, slumming it with the chavs.

I’m not sure how much of this was what you’d call a conscious decision on Rusty’s part – nearly all his work outside Who-world operates in this kind of narrative space, with characters from this sort of background. His background writing for soap operas may be significant, or it may just be the way his creativity operates. Certainly it works well in terms of making the revived series accessible to a wider audience, which was doubtless a major concern at the time, although the insertion of the ‘soap opera’ element drew heavy flak from some parts of the fanbase.

It is curious, though, that ever since 2005 the series appears to have slowly creeping back towards its former position. David Tennant’s Mockney accent is just that – no-one in the show seems to read anything into it regarding his background. Post-Rose, the Doctor’s associates have generally gone back to being from the professions – Martha’s a doctor, Jackson Lake is a teacher, Adelaide is a scientist, Christina is a fellow toff – although of course Donna and her grandad don’t quite fit this pattern. (We should remember that Donna was originally only written as a one-off character, and Martha’s replacement was planned to be Penny the journalist.)           

Post-Davies, this shift has only accelerated: you couldn’t describe Matt Smith’s deranged boffin as being in any way down to Earth or recognisable as someone you might meet in everyday life, while Amy Pond hails from a picture-book country village rather than a housing estate or suburban street. The general tone is now fairy-tale rather than soap opera, though it hasn’t abandoned everyday life entirely: putting the Doctor into just such a setting is the whole point and joy of The Lodger, for instance.

And, so far as one can tell, this return to a slightly more ‘classic’ style doesn’t seem to have compromised the series’ mass appeal in any way. Does this mean Rusty was being overcautious in the way he pitched his earlier work on the show? Well, I don’t know; maintaining a big audience isn’t the same thing as attracting one in the first place, after all, and I can quite see why he wouldn’t want to take any chances. And as I said, I doubt it was entirely a considered choice on his part.

I suppose you could argue that, against the wider background of TV in general, what’s been going on in Doctor Who over the last year or two has been an ultimately retrograde step – moving against the democratisation of TV over recent decades. Possibly – if, as I’ve argued, this is simply the show’s core values reasserting themselves – this is one of the rare signs that the programme we’re talking about is, in TV terms, is a product of a different, ancient world, with its roots in a wholly different style of storytelling. Slightly archaic it may be, but this style has served it well for nearly half a decade and should continue to do so in years to come.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 7th November 2002:

‘John Wyndham did not invent the UK novel of secretly-longed-for disaster… but he effectively domesticated some of its defining patterns: the city (usually London) depopulated by the catastrophe; the exodus, with its scenes of panic and bravery; and the ensuing focus on a small but growing nucleus of survivors who reach some kind of sanctuary in the country and prepare to re-establish man’s shaken dominion.’ – John Clute, The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction

There are some things that we here in Britain like to think we do better than anyone else. Costume dramas. Glam rock. Jingoistic psychosis (especially when it comes to our chances in sporting events). And the End of the World. The catastrophe novel was one of the mainstays of British literary SF throughout the 20th century, ranging from J.G. Ballard’s The Drought (apocalypse by drought), to John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (apocalypse by famine), and going right back to Richard Jefferies’ 1885 novel After London. Of course, in recent years American writers and filmmakers such as Stephen King and George Romero have done much interesting work in this genre, but it’s still enormously pleasing to see British storytellers return to the idea – as they do in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later.

Boyle’s film, written by Alex Garland (author of The Beach – so he’s clearly a forgiving man), superficially resembles a transatlantic take on the subject, not least in that the disaster that destroys civilisation is a form of plague rather than a natural catastrophe. But it seemed to me that the major influence on this film was the most famous of the all the British post-apocalypse novels, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids.

The film starts with a brief pre-credits sequence in which animal rights activists break into a lab with the intention of releasing chimpanzees that are being used as test subjects. Little do they realise the apes are infected with ‘rage’, a viral agent spread by blood and saliva, inducing a berserk, feral mania in those infected…

28 days later (hence the title) bike courier Jim (newcomer Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a London hospital – he was involved in a traffic accident some weeks earlier. The place seems deserted… and not just the hospital, the whole city. Early signs that some terrible disaster has occurred are confirmed when he is set upon by deranged, infected strangers… But he’s rescued by fellow survivors Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley), who fill him in about the rising tide of violence that swept away civilisation. Eventually they meet up with former taxi-driver Frank (Brendon Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns), who have heard about a possible sanctuary, up north. But it turns out that the infected don’t hold the monopoly on irrational violence…

28 Days Later draws upon a number of sources: the infected hordes are a slightly more athletic take on George Romero’s rabid zombies (from Dawn of the Dead, etc), while another less explicit influence seems to have been The Omega Man (for one thing, to begin with Harris’ character dresses and acts like Rosalind Cash from that movie). But Wyndham (or at least, the catastrophe story as defined by Wyndham) seems to have supplied most of the inspiration (and certainly the opening). The coming together of survivors, the cheerful looting of shops, the abandonment of the city for a rural refuge, and the country house under siege: they’re all here, along with the vital conflict between pre-apocalypse morality and the needs of post-apocalypse survival.

I’ve always thought Danny Boyle to be a rather overrated and pretentious director but here he does a very good job indeed. His stylistic flourishes don’t get in the way of the story, and he handles the action sequences with aplomb. There are some startlingly big stunts in this movie, which basically blow Boyle’s cover: this film isn’t made on grainy digital video because it has a particularly low budget, but simply because Boyle likes the medium. It works to his advantage, though, giving some sequences an oddly dream- or nightmare-like quality, particularly those in the impressively-staged empty London.

Most of the performances are fine, too: Murphy is an engaging screen presence, as is Harris. Brendan Gleeson is particularly affecting as the concerned father. There are only a couple of off-key turns: Christopher Eccleston, normally so good, struggles to convince as an army officer determined to rebuild civilisation at any cost. And in the vital precredits sequence, the role of the scientist who explains the dangers of the ‘rage’ virus is played by David Schneider, a man best known for playing Alan Partridge’s stooge, with all the credibility problems that raises.

And, if we’re honest, telling this kind of story on film always has its problems, mainly in coming up with a ending that’s satisfying without seeming glib. Certainly 28 Days Later weakens near the end as it first turns into a more orthodox action-thriller, before abandoning its grim but coherent subtext (human beings are innately violent and self-destructive creatures) for an unlikely, hopeful conclusion. But these are minor flaws in an engaging and well-made film. It may not capture the existential dread and crushing sense of loss of the best of its literary antecedents, but this is still the best screen treatment of this genre in over twenty years. Recommended.

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