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Posts Tagged ‘drama’

One of the incidental pleasures of life as a pathological movie-goer is that you become intimately familiar with censor-speak: that is, those extra remarks which the BBFC append to a film’s certificate explaining why it’s been given the rating that it has. ‘Injury detail,’ for instance, ‘strong violence’, ‘moderate sex scenes’ (this is moderate on a spectrum running from ‘mild’ to ‘strong’, not ‘disappointing’ to ‘outstanding’, naturally). I was a little surprised, therefore, when the certificate for Ritesh Batra’s adaptation of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending limited itself to a simple ‘only suitable for viewers 15 and older’. A metropolitan BBC drama with a bit of a period element and proper actors like Jim Broadbent, Harriet Walter and Charlotte Rampling? A 15? If it was only a question of a few basic effs and jeffs (‘strong language’) they would surely say so; the same for a quick game of ‘whose leg is it anyway?’ (‘moderate sex scenes’).

Well, much to my surprise it turned out that the main reason the 15 rating on The Sense of an Ending goes unannotated is because, well, if you started, you’d probably never stop. This movie is shot through with a particularly repressed and British kind of grimness, for all that it is superbly written, directed, and performed.

Jim Broadbent plays Tony Webster, a semi-retired shopkeeper, who seems like a very average chap as the film gets underway. (Perhaps the point of the film is that he actually is a very average chap.) He seems well-set in his daily routine, has reasonable relationships with his ex-wife (Walter) and heavily pregnant daughter (Michelle Dockery) – he’s perhaps a bit too reserved and irascible to be what you’d genuinely call a nice fellow, but neither does he seem an especially bad person either.

Then Tony receives a solicitor’s letter, telling him he is the recipient of a bequest – one recently-deceased old acquaintance has left him the diary of another, long-dead old friend. He has not heard from either of these people in decades, for all that he had significant relationships with them when he was a young man. However, there is a further complication – the executor of the will, another former intimate of Tony’s, is refusing to hand over the item in question. But why? And why exactly does Tony find himself growing so obsessed with (as he puts it) claiming his legal property? Are there other psychological forces at work here he is unwilling to acknowledge?

Much of the film is told in flashback, with Billy Howle playing the young Tony, and Freya Mavor as Veronica, the girl he finds himself getting so involved with (who eventually becomes the uncooperative executor, played with customary steely froideur by Charlotte Rampling). Emily Mortimer plays Veronica’s mother, Joe Alwyn is Tony’s close friend Adrian, and Matthew Goode gets the much-coveted ‘and’ position in the credits as their history teacher.

For a while I almost felt a bit cheated, for I had turned up to see a film with Jim Broadbent in the lead role – and who doesn’t love Jim Broadbent? – and this seemed to be turning into a period drama with Broadbent only participating in the framing sequence – but the action, such as it is, definitely returns to the present day for much of the latter part of the film. At one point in his rather turbulent personal life, the young Tony wrote an impulsive letter, posted it, and then promptly forgot about it, little suspecting the consequences it might have for its recipients.

No, really – who doesn’t love Jim Broadbent? Everyone knows him as one of the UK’s greatest comic actors (one of the few people capable of coming in and stealing an episode of Blackadder while ostensibly playing a minor role), but also effortlessly touching when the part requires it, and the man’s sheer work-rate is also startling – I’d completely forgotten that he was in three films I’ve seen in the last year or so, in addition to the ones I actually remembered. And he turned down an OBE, on the grounds that actors aren’t the most deserving recipients of that sort of honour, and he didn’t want to be seen to celebrate the idea of Empire. What a guy.

Of course, a lot of Broadbent’s movie work consists of him coming on and doing a little character cameo, more often than not comedic in nature, so the prospect of him playing the lead role in a film which really gives him a chance to do his stuff was, frankly, a bit mouthwatering, regardless of what the actual movie was about. And Broadbent’s performance lives up to expectations (of course) – in some ways his role here almost resembles the one he plays in the Bridget Jones movies, in that he’s the awkward, almost-bumbling father of a young woman who spends her times rolling her eyes at him a lot. But as the story unfolds the less appealing aspects of Tony Webster rise to the surface – unwittingly or not, this is a man quite possibly responsible for horrible things, and Broadbent isn’t afraid to appear unsympathetic and even quite sinister as he acts upon the fixation which gradually develops in the course of the story.

It seems to me that this is a film about a man looking to get a feeling of closure – that sense of an ending alluded to in the title – regardless of whether this is justified, or suits the other people involved, or is even in any way true. One of the advantages of having the film partly set in a school is that the characters can have fairly abstract debates about the intersections between story, history, and motivation without it seeming contrived, and these certainly feed into the theme of the piece. Can we ever truly know why somebody does something? Even if that person is us? And if that’s the case, can we genuinely claim, or disclaim, responsibility for the results of our actions?

Well, I know it sounds heavy (and perhaps a bit pretentious), but the story itself is engrossing (if not exactly a barrel of laughs) and Batra handles the telling of it with deceptive skill, given the various flash-backs, flash-forwards, and other shifts in time and place. (He even tackles one of the more challenging set-pieces in the directorial playbook – that moment when two people attempt to, er, become fully engaged with one another on the back seat of a car – with impressive deftness. No, really, think about it: you’ve got two actors, a cameraman, a sound operator, possibly the director himself, and all the necessary gear, crammed into the interior of a car. Imagine the logistics. Imagine the jostling for space. Imagine the potential for the camera ending up pointing somewhere deeply unflattering or intrusive. I tell you, there should be a special Oscar just for bringing back-seat whoa-ho-ho to the big screen.) It doesn’t have quite the same emotional payoff as his previous film, The Lunchbox, but then that isn’t really the point of the exercise.

You don’t emerge from The Sense of an Ending blazing with delight or quite ready to rave about the film to strangers in the street, but that’s understandable – this is a film about the ambiguities of life, quite ambiguous itself in many ways, with many questions left intentionally unresolved at the conclusion. But it is still a deeply satisfying piece of drama, with the performances of the rest of the cast as impressive as that of Broadbent, and the writing and direction not showing many obvious flaws, either. It’s a quietly dark film, which may not endear it to everyone, but it’s also an extremely accomplished one, and I wonder if the producers haven’t done themselves a disservice by effectively releasing it as counter-programming to Fast and Furious 8: an Autumn release might have made this a genuine awards contender. Nevertheless, no matter the season, this is an impressive movie.

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Since the heyday of Roger Corman there has been a pleasing synergy to the fact that horror movies have traditionally offered a reasonably safe route to decent box-office returns on a relatively small budget, thus allowing writers and directors near the beginnings of their careers the chance to make movies about quite challenging and sophisticated ideas, provided they respect the conventions of the genre. The early films of George Romero and David Cronenberg are full of social commentary and metaphorical power, it’s just that this is to some extent obscured by the fact they are apparently just exploitation movies about zombies and parasitic infection.

The question is to what degree the same is true of Julia Ducournau’s Raw, which appears to be an entry into one of horror’s least respectable sub-genres, but clearly has other things to say for itself. Garance Marillier gives a remarkable performance as Justine, a bright young student off to university for the first time. She is studying to be a vet, as is her older sister Alex (Ella Rumpf), who’s at the same college as her. Justine has been raised as a staunch vegetarian by her parents, but she is unsettled to discover that Alex seems to have lapsed a little into the ways of meat-eating.

The initiation rituals for new students at the college are extreme and debauched, and include the newcomers having to eat a raw rabbit kidney. Justine demurs, as you would, but without anyone to support her principled stance, and the threat of social ostracism looming, goes ahead and swallows the bunny bits anyway.

Her attempts to come to terms with the new opportunities, threats, and temptations of college life are somewhat complicated by the unexpected way in which her body reacts to eating raw flesh. Initially there is a rather grisly rash, and after this fades Justine finds herself gripped by a strange hunger that drives her to steal meat from the canteen, gnaw on raw chicken straight from the fridge, and even contemplate much darker sources of sustenance…

So, yes, this is the French-language feminist cannibal movie of which you may have heard, and (wait for it) fairly strong meat it is too. Cannibalism may not be your thing at the cinema; I can understand that, I’m not an unconditional fan of this sort of thing myself. It almost goes without saying that this is not a film for the faint-hearted or weak-stomached – there is gore aplenty, and while it is not spectacular it is certainly intense. That said, the film is uncompromising on all fronts – quite graphic sex and other bodily functions also feature – and, to be honest, the sequence which made me squirm the most involved one character giving another a not entirely competent bikini wax.

The fact the film isn’t just about bloody flesh is an indicator that at heart it isn’t, as I had feared, just some piece of heavy-handed agitprop on behalf of militant vegans. There seems to be a lot of this sort of thing doing the rounds at present and I’m not sure I really need to see more of it; I’m aware that from a certain point of view eating meat is ethically indefensible (certainly if you have any dealings with the mainstream meat industry), but, well, I’m told that the human capacity to simultaneously hold numerous mutually incompatible beliefs at the same time is one of the keys to our success as a species, so why not make use of it: animal welfare is a significant issue, but some animals do taste delicious. Inasmuch as the film is actually about vegetarianism, it’s because this is something which initially marks Justine as an outsider and thus makes her socially vulnerable. One of the things the film is about is the demands on young women to conform to certain standards of behaviour, whether they want to or not, and the ugly double standards that are often involved if they try too hard to fit in.

Cannibalism as a metaphor for peer pressure is an interesting approach to take, but Ducournau makes it work, and also makes it clear what a tightrope young women are on at this time in their lives – transgression of any kind can see them ostracised, ridiculed on social media, or worse. The urge to try and disappear must be strong. The director doesn’t hold back in making the student culture of the college just as repellent as anything that Justine’s little eating disorder drives her to (her cannibalistic tendencies are implicitly compared to bulimia at one point), and makes it very clear just how vulnerable an unworldly young woman like her is, surrounded by so many new temptations.

One thing that possibly weakens the film is the way that Ducournau attempts to insert another layer of metaphor, making Justine’s desire for flesh figurative as well as literal: the new world she is plunged into finds her having to contend with feelings for her room-mate (Rabah Nait Oufella) – she becomes jealous, possessive of him, finds these powerful new emotions difficult to deal with. But what does she really want to do to him? Suffice to say the ensuing scenes are powerfully sensual, if not completely comfortable viewing, and the film is strong enough to survive this slightly split focus. It also manages to accommodate a closing scene which largely seems to be there to provide a startling and memorable twist ending, which while not quite feeling like a complete cheat, does feel somewhat like it’s drifted in from a film which is much more of a black comedy than this one.

I wasn’t sure quite what to expect from Raw, but I was impressed with what I got – in an odd way it does have that clinical, queasy feeling of a very early Cronenberg movie, but the skill with which the director handled picture and soundtrack (Jim Williams’ score is also highly impressive) almost put me in mind of… well, I almost hesitate to say this, but in some ways Raw resembles the cannibal horror film that Stanley Kubrick never made. If you only go and see one feminist cannibal horror movie in French this year, Raw should be your choice – always assuming you have the stomach for it.

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Well, it’s time for another installment of our very irregular and even more pointless feature, New Cinema Review (that’s ‘new’ as in ‘new to me’, not as in ‘freshly constructed’). On this occasion, the venue in question is the Octagon Theatre, Market Harborough. As you may have surmised, this is not one of your actual cinema chain outlets but a legitimate theatre which occasionally puts on a film on a slow night. Well, it’s always nice to go somewhere where the bottom line of the refreshments stand doesn’t appear to be the sine qua non of the whole operation, and the fact this is a proper theatre guarantees a decent rake and line-of-sight to the screen. No adverts (yay), no trailers (boo), no BBFC certificate (hmmm), and some interesting films on their coming soon list (Mustang, Captain Fantastic, Elle, and Headhunters all due in the next few months) – I’ve been to worse places, that’s for sure.

On this occasion I had turned up to watch Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon, a film from last year which I didn’t bother going to see at the time, because, well, it looked like the whole thing had been in the trailer (not to mention on the rolling news back in 2010, though I missed it myself due to being incommunicado in Sri Lanka). This is a movie based on a fairly well-known event from the recent past, so I was a bit surprised to find myself being flapped and hissed at for predicting what we were in for, in the bar before the film: about forty-five minutes of all-American character-building and then an hour or so of stuff blowing up, quite possibly with a billowing US flag at some point. Does this really constitute a spoiler? It’s like being told off for revealing that the boat sinks at the end of Titanic.

Well, anyway. Chief point of audience identification is Mike (Mark Wahlberg), top electrical bloke on the Deepwater Horizon, an oil exploration rig in the Gulf of Mexico. (The name Deepwater Horizon is really a gift to film-makers, being exciting and ominous in just the right blend – I bet if they’d called the thing Riggy McRigface it would all have turned out very differently.) As things get going, Mike is about to head back to the rig for another tour of duty, leaving behind his lovely wife Felicia (played by Kate Hudson) and winsome young daughter (played by a winsome young child actor). As this is a mainstream movie not solely aimed at experts in oil extraction procedure, the winsome daughter gets a sequence where she explains what Mike does for a living in language a ten-year-old child could understand, which means most of the average cinema audience can probably cope with it too. This comes with visual aids, as well – never before has shaken-up cola frothing out of a can been such a portent of doom.

Mike flies off to the rig with his boss Mr Jimmy (Kurt Russell in a fine moustache) and co-worker Andrea (Gina Rodriguez). Needless to say, all is not well as they arrive, as visits by the camera to the sea bed beneath the rig make clear: ominous bubbles leak from around the drill head. It transpires that the preparation of the oil shaft for an actual extraction rig is far behind schedule, rather to the chagrin of the project’s paymasters at BP. They are pressuring the rig workers to accelerate their operations, even if this means cutting corners on things like safety.

You know what happens next: ambiguous results on safety tests are interpreted by the money-grubbing BP suits in the most optimistic manner, things go creak, things go bubble, things go whoosh, and then things – a lot of things – go boom (honestly, the really impressive takeaway from this movie is not the spectacle of this rig exploding, but the fact that these things don’t go bang more often). Mike, Jimmy, and Andrea find themselves initially trying to get the situation aboard the stricken rig under control, before eventually realising it’s all basically terminal and their main concern should be getting off in one piece…

I don’t mean to be especially glib or flippant about what happened to the Deepwater Black, not least because eleven men died in horrible circumstances. That’s a tragedy, a dreadful loss – no question about it, no argument from me. But given it’s such a tragedy, the question must always be, what are we doing making drama-entertainment films about it? Are we not just complicit in satisfying our own suspect urges, in the same way that we do when we rubberneck at a road accident? With, of course, the complicity of the film-makers, who are fully aware of this, but happy because it allows them to use all their pyrotechnical virtuosity in a film the critics are virtually obliged to treat respectfully, as it is about Real Life Heroism – in other words, they get to blow things up but still be taken seriously!

I rather suspect we have a case to answer, because Deepwater Horizon is structured just a bit too much like a crowd-pleasing thriller for comfort. The technical details of what specifically went wrong on the rig are never really gone into, and the first half of the film does feel more like the opening of a disaster movie than anything else – characters are established, warning signs overlooked, the experience and instincts of decent working men is ignored by contemptible guys in suits, and so on. We are told that virtually every scene in this movie is based on eyewitness testimony, which at least allows for some moments you wouldn’t accept in an actual piece of fiction – Mr Jimmy receives an award for his outstanding safety record about an hour before his oil rig literally explodes – but, even so, the film has clearly delineated good guys and bad guys in a way real life generally doesn’t. Chief bad guy is a BP exec played by John Malkovich, who is in form which I can only describe as very John Malkovich. It’s an idiosyncratic turn quite at odds with the studied naturalism of everyone else, but I did enjoy it, inasmuch this is a film you can honestly enjoy in a guilt-free way.

Technically, this is a very proficient film, and the performances are fine, too – Wahlberg can play this kind of Everyman in his sleep – and the big bangs and flashes, when they come, are as accomplished as you might expect. You could argue that a lot of the dialogue is unintelligible, not least because it’s technical drilling jargon, but you don’t need to understand every note to grasp the tune on this occasion. It’s all very capably done and exciting, and yet come the end you are still reading a list of the names of real people who died, and seeing their photos, and how are you supposed to handle the cognitive dissonance there?

I suppose you could make the same argument about many other ‘based on true events’ type movies, some of which I have said quite positive things about in the past – Everest leaps to mind as one, and I’m sure there are others. Perhaps it’s simply the approach that Deepwater Horizon takes – it’s a lot less interested in why it happened (and what happened next) than it is in how big the explosions were, and who a convenient scapegoat might be. On a technical level this film is impressive, but I think the memory of those lost in the disaster might have been better served by a less simplistic film.

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The block of three Parkes-scripted episodes towards the end of Survivors series 3 is so focused on one particular plotline – Charles’ increasingly fanatical quest to restore the electric power – that it’s a real wrench when the programme fundamentally shifts gears and tackles a wholly different story – namely, just what has Greg been doing all this time? It’s not just that – The Last Laugh functions on a wholly different level to the rest of series 3, if not the series as a whole. More than anything else it makes you incredibly regretful that Ian McCulloch wasn’t much more central to the creation of the final series, because it certainly seems like he had a much better idea of the potential of this programme than the people who were actually in charge of it.

It transpires Greg is looking for Dr Adams, a leading member of a community near the one Pet and the kids have settled at. On his journey he encounters a group of wanderers, led by Mason (George Mallaby), a former playboy-sheep-shearer turned full-time itinerant sheep-shearer (I kid you not). Greg is initially extremely suspicious of the group, suspecting them to be just another group of raiders, but when they express an interest in his scheme to federate the settlements, he lowers his defences. A bit too soon, as it turns out: he is knifed in the back and left for dead.

Unfortunately, Greg’s notes on the disposition of valuable resources scattered around the countryside are all in Norwegian, and so Mason and his men set off to find Anna, who is at the settlement with Pet, Jack, and the kids. One of them lingers, however, but lives to regret it (briefly) – Greg is not as dead as they assumed, and after a brutal fight the raider gets his head staved in with a rock.

Greg is still in a bad state, though, and makes his way to Dr Adams’ settlement – but there’s no sign of the forty people who are supposed to live there, and the two men who are resident are acting very suspiciously. Someone seems to be being held prisoner, and Greg discovers signs that human bodies have been burned there. Showing all his usual resourcefulness and determination, he outwits his presumed-captors, and breaks in to find Dr Adams (Clifton James)…

…who is in self-imposed isolation, disfigured and suffering from a mutant strain of smallpox that has already wiped out almost the entire settlement. The disease is usually lethal within two weeks and highly infectious. Greg initially thinks he’s cheated death yet again, not initially feeling any signs of infection, but his hopes are cruelly dashed the next morning. He has the virus. Dr Adams suggests the only thing to do is to make his peace and await the inevitable.

What follows, of course, is a tremendously powerful performance from McCulloch in a long two-handed scene between him and James. Lucy Fleming has spoken of the anger which is always at the core of McCulloch’s performances as Greg, and it is of course present. Greg speaks about his feelings for Jenny, and his regrets about the path his life has taken. And then, of course, being Greg, he sets out intent on revenge, determined to find the men who attacked him and share the virus with them as well. Adams is appalled, quite rightly suggesting that this may just lead to the virus spreading across the whole countryside, but Greg doesn’t give a damn. Has the shock of learning he is dying unhinged him? Or has he been less than entirely selfless all along?

Seeing an episode which mixes these kinds of big questions with decently-mounted action and a reasonably tight plot, not to mention one of the series’ most plausibly despicable villains in George Mallaby’s Ed Mason, really reminds you of what a great show this can be when handled properly. You can pick holes in the plot if you really want to – Pet’s settlement does seem rather sparsely populated, given all we’ve heard, and while I’m sure Greg is a bright guy, why on Earth has he learned to say ‘I have smallpox’ in Norwegian? – but this towers above the rest of series 3 on every level, with a thoughtful, allusive script – there are allusions to Shakespeare and Gerard Manley Hopkins – and great dialogue, too. After a raft of episodes which are ultimately hopeful, focusing on the threads of society slowly coming back together, The Last Laugh is shockingly dark and bleak, too. One of the handful of essential Survivors episodes, I would say.

Any episode following The Last Laugh would effectively have been slipped the hospital pass, but the thing about Martin Worth’s Long Live the King is… well, it’s not that it’s a bad episode, as such, it’s such an infuriating one, not just on its own merits, but in the way it epitomises all that makes the third series of Survivors such a frustratingly inconsistent one.

At least the makers of the programme appear to have realised that the death of arguably its central character could not go uncommented-upon by the other characters, and this episode is to a large extent about Greg’s legacy. The journey of Charles and the others up to Scotland is put on hold when he receives an urgent message asking him to meet Greg at an army camp on the east coast of England – Jenny’s response is ‘oh, no, not again’, quite possibly speaking for the viewer by this point. Charles resolves to go there; Jenny and the others press on.

Charles arrives at the camp to find ‘GP’ signs in evidence everywhere, and the place under the control of Agnes, who seems to have turned into a paramilitary version of Rosa Luxemburg. Greg’s most trusted associates from across the country have been summoned to form the new ruling council of Britain – the rebirth of the nation, even. The problem is that the coalition Greg has been putting together since his return from Norway is heavily reliant on his personal authority and charisma, and with Greg now, well, dead, the whole thing is showing signs of collapsing before it is even properly established.

And it turns out there is another problem – the Captain (Roy Marsden), the real leader of the band of raiders from The Last Laugh, has escaped from the farm which was destroyed by smallpox and is heading for the camp, too…

Watching Long Live the King made me realise there’s an element of classic theatre about the last series of Survivors, but only because it’s either very reminiscent of Waiting for Godot (to be more accurate, it’s Looking for Greg) or just Hamlet without the Prince. You get a very strong sense that there have really been two stories happening all season – that of Greg travelling the country preparing to restore the basis of civilisation, and that of the others rather haplessly wandering around in his wake, never quite catching up with him. On the basis of what we see on the screen, the story of Greg is considerably more interesting and involving than the story of the others: I feel cheated!

The plot gymnastics required to tie Long Live the King to the end of The Last Laugh are bizarre, and to be honest not that successful – some weeks have passed since the end of the previous episode, and exactly what has happened in the meantime is never completely clear. Given Agnes is lying her head off for most of the episode, can we really believe what she says about nursing Greg in his last days? What are we supposed to make of her claim that, having had brucellosis, she is now apparently immune to the mutant smallpox which was so terribly contagious and lethal last episode? Something very odd seems to be going on here, anyway – the Captain has had the smallpox but seems to be okay now, and not contagious, but what was he doing at the farm anyway? Did Martin Worth even see the finished script for The Last Laugh before writing this one? As I say, it’s infuriating and frustrating, not least because the Captain is an absurd, cartoon villain – he’s wearing a flat cap, welly boots, and a tie, for crying out loud – and arguably all he contributes to the story is to provide a sign of how much the backdrop is changing: despite having murdered two women in the course of the story, he is not executed out of hand but held as a prisoner at the end. The rule of law has been restored.

The episode is largely about what it takes to run a functioning, large-scale society, and it is impressively cynical about it (this angle is interesting enough that it makes the more peculiar elements of the plot even more annoying, as they’re spoiling a superior episode). The new society Agnes is proposing to inaugurate is essentially a massive scam, based on various deceptions. (It’s quite ironic that it’s Charles who takes her to task over this, given how ruthless many of his own recent activities have been – he does come across as a bit of a hypocrite in this episode.) But the episode makes it very clear that every society is, to some extent, based on exactly the same kind of shared fictions, especially when it comes to things like money. I’ve been reading Yuval Harari’s Sapiens recently, which discusses very frankly how cultures function, and Harari stresses that money, while being essential to a large-scale society, only has any utility as long as people believe in its value. But how do you create money for a society which hasn’t used it at all in years? How do you foster that kind of shared belief in the intrinsic value of bits of paper? It’s a fascinating area, one I’ve never seen dealt with anywhere else, and it’s just a shame so much of the episode is preoccupied with other business.

As I say, a real mixed bag of an episode, and rather infuriating as a result. At least the final irony of the story of Survivors is clear at the conclusion, and it’s one that says a great deal about the differences in how drama is written and produced now, as opposed to 40 years ago. Characterisation in genre series tends to be better these days, I suppose, but characters tend to be defined in very strict ways – they tend not to have space to develop or unexpectedly reveal surprising facets to themselves. Most of the time they just have one or two defining characteristics which they display over and over again. But in programmes like Survivors you do get a sense of the actors and writers learning about the characters as they go along, and often making surprising discoveries along the way. Real people aren’t as flatly and immutably archetypal as they’re usually presented on TV. One of the things that makes Survivors so special, for me, is the authentically human unknowability of the principal characters – their capacity to develop in genuinely surprising ways in the course of the story, while remaining recognisably the same individuals: Charles, the passionate visionary, shows signs of becoming a ruthless political operator as the series nears its end; Hubert, the comedy relief yokel, murders someone in cold blood for the good of the group.

And Greg Preston, the survivor who initially didn’t want to get tied down or take on any particular responsibilities at all, ends up as the man almost solely responsible for recreating his nation, with his initials on the flag. Long live the King, indeed.

 

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The final chapter of the original run of Survivors, comprising the last six episodes, gets underway with three episodes in a row from Roger Parkes: the only time other than at the very start of the series that one person does so. At least this gives you hope of a little more tonal consistency than is often the case with this series.

The first of the three is The Peacemaker (The Pacemaker might also be an appropriate title, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). To begin with, would you believe it, Jenny, Charles, and Hubert are still searching for Greg (it’s starting to seem like Jenny’s suspicions that he doesn’t actually care about her or his son may have some truth to them), but almost at once they get distracted when they discover a working windmill under the control of a religious group. These guys initially look like Christian monks of some kind, but it soon transpires they’re not quite as ascetic as they appear (Hubert gets a roll in the hay before the end of the episode – we don’t see this on camera, thank God), and many of their beliefs in fact seem to be vaguely Hindu – an Indian woman, Rutna, has converted them all to vegetarianism, for instance. Hubert is appalled when he discovers curry is on the menu, grumpily complaining (in one of those only-in-1977 moments) about – oh dear – ‘wog food’.

The ostensible leader of the mill settlement, Henry, is in fact very much reliant on his mentor, Frank (Edward Underdown), as indeed is everyone else. Frank was apparently a professional head-hunter (as in, recruitment consultant) before the plague, and has become a kind of counsellor and, for want of a better expression, life coach. Everyone is very protective of him, and the visitors soon sense a little chilliness towards them – but then their horses are poisoned, stopping them from making the prompt departure they were intent on…

This is an interesting episode, for all that Hubert’s mutterings about ‘darkies’ make it a slightly awkward watch 40 years on.  There’s some slightly contrived shotgun-toting action half-way through (it has to be said that neither Denis Lill nor John Abineri is as adroit at this sort of thing as Ian McCulloch usually was) but mostly this is character-based stuff, exploring what it takes to be the kind of mentor Frank has become, and also (once again) the question of what kind of world it is that the survivors are trying to build. The mill setting is somewhat distinctive, as is the religious angle, and there are some interesting moments along the way – Charles criticises Henry for his decision to withdraw from the outside world, viewing it as a desertion of his responsibility, while Jenny gets an excoriating speech, tearing into Charles, Frank, and Greg (in absentia) for being all too ready to set out across the countryside on their various crusades and pilgrimages rather than staying in one place and meeting their more quotidian responsibilities there. And you can’t really blame her, especially when the search for Greg is finally parked, and the trio, joined by Frank, set off in search of an electrical engineer who may be able to help Charles get the electricity switched back on. This is probably not the greatest episode ever, but it’s a big improvement on the last couple, for sure.

Next from Parkes is Sparks, which primarily functions to introduce Alec Campbell (William Dysart), the last major character of the original run of Survivors. I have no idea whether there were ever plans for a fourth series of the show in 1978 (received wisdom seems to be it was canned in favour of Blake’s 7), but if there were, could it be that Alec was intended to become a new male lead? Given the problems that arose when Ian McCulloch and Denis Lill were sharing the male lead role, it would have been a slightly odd choice, given that Alec is, like Charles, a passionate, bearded Celt. Unless the plan was to ditch Charles completely.

Anyway, as the episode gets started, Charles, Jenny, Hubert, and Frank are searching for Alec, as they need his expertise as an electrical engineer to restart the hydroelectricity plants of Norway (the point is stressed that Greg, a civil engineer, is from the wrong specialisation). Alec is living in a settlement based out of an old and rather decrepit church, which reflects his rejection of the technological world and everything it represents. He is a bitter, sombre figure, much given to brooding over his dead wife’s picture (Vincent Price was presumably unavailable for the part).

Well, the main thrust of the episode is about Charles and Frank’s increasingly startling attempts to snap Alec out of it so he can help them get the electricity turned back on. The possibility that Alec has the right to hold whatever views he wants is at least touched upon, but not explored in any detail – one of the things you take away from this episode is how quietly fanatical Charles and Frank seem to have become about federation and the reconstruction, and you’re more inclined to agree with Jenny, who finds it all deeply suspect (and inevitably gets patronised when she raises a dissenting voice).

When Charles’ impassioned reasoning fails to get Alec to shift his position, kindly old Frank’s solution is to get hold of a bottle of pethidine and slip Alec a slug of it without telling him. This appears to trigger some kind of psychotic breakdown, not to mention hallucinations and suicidal impulses, but apparently this is all for the best (according to Frank) as it is breaking through the shell of his alienation and allowing a catharsis of the… you get the idea. Frank and Charles even get Jenny to pretend to be Alec’s dead wife to assist in the ‘cure’. Quite apart from the fact that this is handled in a rather stagey and melodramatic fashion, you have to wonder about exactly what kind of new society these guys are planning on setting up, because (based on their treatment of Alec) it isn’t one that seems to value the rights of its individual citizens very highly.

Oh well. By the episode’s end, Alec has made an absurdly rapid and full recovery from his long-term psychiatric malaise, and is as keen as mustard to switch the power back on – but why go all the way to Norway? There are power stations up in Scotland, after all. (Does this mean all the Norwegians will be left to starve after all? After everything else this episode, I wouldn’t completely rule it out.) So, the quest to meet up with Greg and help establish a trading connection with Norway, has, somehow, mutated into the mission to switch on a hydroelectric plant in Scotland. By this point I suspect most viewers are inclined to just shrug and let them get on with it. Lucy Fleming is making the most of an increasing number of good scenes where she takes the others to task for being ruthless, self-centred, and unreliable, and there’s a decent scene where Charles and Frank consider how they coped with the death of their own loved ones during the plague, but this is a very odd episode and a rather unsettling one. (It also ends on a freeze-frame, which is another oddity for this show.)

Things initially don’t show much sign of improvement in The Enemy, which opens with Charles, Jenny, Hubert, Frank, and Alec (Uncle Tom Cobley and all are presumably travelling just off camera) heading north as fast as they can. This is bad news for Frank, whose pacemaker battery is showing signs of conking out. To allow him to rest up, the party stop at a settlement near an old coal mine – just the kind of resource Charles and Frank want to preserve. Frank doesn’t want to let on to Alec how ill he is, so they have to find a pretext to stay – and, luckily, the settlement has a generator they can’t seem to get working.

There’s quite a long sequence with Charles, Hubert, and Alec getting epically wrecked with the locals. Charles and Frank, coming across even more like a chillingly Machiavellian post-apocalyptic Arthur and Merlin, have figured out that Alec will be easier to keep under control if they use Jenny and her feminine wiles to manipulate him (I repeat: this is Charles, ostensible hero of the series, doing this). Meanwhile, we are also introduced to Sam (Robert Gillespie), a technician and ex-junkie who believes his life was saved by the collapse of the old world in the plague. Sam is concerned that Charles’ quest to restore the electricity will symbolise the resurgence of the bad old ways and the destruction of the new, purer world the survivors have managed to create.

We get another electric scene between Charles and Jenny, where he at one point suggests it’s her moral duty to sleep with Alec, and also reminds her that her dedication to Greg seems to have declined a bit in recent weeks, regardless of how indifferent he seems to her (Greg does seem to have visited every other settlement in the country before finally heading back to his friends; this episode marks one of the few times Charles arrives somewhere Greg hasn’t visited first).  The episode’s big revelation comes later – just what is the enemy alluded to in the title? Is it laziness or boredom, as the settlement leader suggests? Apparently not: the enemy is a true believer with an agenda.

The generator won’t work because it has been deliberately sabotaged. Sam is so terrified of the old world and all its evils – the social workers who he feels enabled his addiction, ‘softness’, corruption – that he is prepared to destroy the surviving technology himself. He tries to persuade Frank of the justness of his cause, believing Charles won’t listen to him, but Frank dies before he can warn Charles and Alec of what Sam believes. Alec fixes the generator anyway, and Charles has visions of a techno dream team to get everything running again – Alec, Greg, and Sam! It’s a properly ominous set-up for the climax of the series, and works quite well because of the strength of Robert Gillespie’s performance – he was equally good in a small part in one of the very early episodes. He’s a convincing softly-spoken zealot, and just sympathetic enough to be very interesting, especially when placed in opposition to characters like Charles and Frank, who seem equally fanatical and ruthless in their own way, and equally unwilling to examine their own motives. Is Charles indeed right to try and bring about his own vision of progress without really having consulted anyone around him? His motives are more obscure now than when we first met him. All in all, an episode with more strong elements than weak ones, I would say.

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You can’t help but get a sense of the third season of Survivors either losing the plot or pulling a slight fast one: at the beginning of the year, everything is straight-forward enough – Charles, Jenny, and Hubert are in one place, Greg is in another, and they set off to meet each other. Of course, they never do. It may just be a realistic depiction of post-apocalyptic life that they all keep missing each other, sometimes by only a matter of a few metres, but my money is on the producer desperately trying to spin things along for as long as possible, not to mention keeping Ian McCulloch and Denis Lill from being on set at the same time.

Greg’s only in two episodes all season, of course, but it seems like there were initially plans for him to do more – apparently Don Shaw wrote the fourth episode, Mad Dog, specifically for McCulloch, and he was quite annoyed when it ended up going to Lill instead, giving Charles his only solo adventure of the entire series. The bleakness of the third season is most obvious here, not least in the settings – it’s actually snowing in some scenes, and one suspects the actors didn’t need to try too hard to look as uncomfortable as they frequently do.

Charles has gone searching for the eldest son of the woman they rescued from Brod in the previous episode, as they can hardly abandon her until he comes home, but runs into another pack of feral dogs and is bitten by one of them. Things look grim for him, but a stranger named Fenton (Morris Perry) turns up and rescues him – Fenton carries a sophisticated semi-automatic rifle, which helps. Charles is initially grateful, but soon becomes repelled by Fenton’s detached cynicism about humanity’s chances of survival. Fenton was a philosophy lecturer before the plague and takes everything very philosophically indeed, trading from his cache of stolen army weapons for food and keeping notes on all the people he encounters. Charles becomes interested in a hurry when he hears about this, especially when he learns of a tall man who claimed to have been to Norway and back…

Before they reach Perry’s home, however, it becomes apparent that Perry has contracted rabies from one of the dog packs in the area and is about to lose it, big time. Charles fetches help from another local, Sanders (Bernard Kay), but Sanders’ only response is to shoot Fenton dead as a potential menace. Seeing the bite on Charles’ arm, Sanders concludes that it’s only a matter of time before Charles turns rabid too, and promises to make it quick and painless if Charles will just stand still and let them shoot him, too…

No big ideas in this one, obvious, unless you count the discussion between Charles and Fenton near the start: it’s not quite the one-damn-thing-after-another non-stop ordeal that some have suggested, but this is still a fast-paced action adventure for much of its length, and you can see why McCulloch was peeved not to be in it. Denis Lill gets some good scenes with Charles at his passionate best (very Welsh he gets, too) and some proper running, jumping, riding, and shooting, too. I strongly suspect the episode doesn’t get its medicine quite right (can you really keep a rabid person at bay by threatening to splash water on them?), but the main problem with Mad Dog is that all the most exciting and dramatic bits happen at the beginning – it doesn’t really have a climax or conclusion, as such, just Charles escaping on a train which he unexpectedly finds in operation.

One of the dramatic high-points of Bridgehead.

I suppose this does mark a bit of a turning point in the series – in only the previous episode, railway carriages were only good as places to sleep, but here there’s an operating railway line. Ever since the first episode of the whole series, the default assumption has been that people have been living in small, isolated settlements, with any wider form of society being limited only to occasional trading or mutual defence agreements. For the first time, the potential of a genuinely national or regional form of civilisation again seems possible, and it’s something that will shape the rest of the series.

As I think I’ve made clear in the course of these pieces, for me, Survivors works best when it’s a mixture of big ideas and good old-fashioned action adventure, which may be why I find most of series three to be fairly disappointing – sometimes it has one, sometimes it has the other, very occasionally it has both, and depressingly often it has neither. We’re in ‘neither’ territory for the next couple of episodes.

Bridgehead is a promising-sounding title from the normally reliable Martin Worth, but I suspect it’s only called that because someone at the BBC realised that Market Day or Brucellosis would be terrible episode titles. The episode is almost completely procedural, concerned with tying up loose ends from the previous couple of episodes – the fate of the farm raided by Brod, and the truth about the railway that Charles escaped on at the end of the previous one. Stirred into the mix to try and pep things up a bit are a storyline about cows going down with brucellosis and the discovery of an expert in homeopathy: neither of them really prime pepping up material, I think you’ll agree. It climaxes – if that’s the right word – with a group of people standing around on a railway platform arguing about trading cheese with each other. I don’t think it’s quite as bad as The Witch, but it’s getting there – it manages to be almost completely unmemorable, too.

Don Shaw’s Reunion is at least about something, but that thing is the stuff of sentimental soap opera. Our heroes still haven’t moved on, when a friend of Hubert’s falls off his horse and breaks his leg. There isn’t a doctor within easy travelling distance, but there is a vet, and so off they go to see her. Janet Millon the vet and her man live in relative luxury, trading their skills for what they need to survive. All fair enough, but then it turns out that Janet had a son, John, whom she hasn’t seen since before the plague. ‘Was your son called… John Millon?’ asks Jenny, thus showing why she’s the brains of the team. Not, by the way, John Millen, as that was Patrick Troughton’s character in series two and that would just be weird. No, John Millon is the full name of  young lad John who Jenny has been looking after ever since early in series one. Now that’s what I call a co-inky-dink. (And why did no-one say something to the effect of ‘What, another John Millon?’ when they heard about Troughton’s character back in Parasites?)

(I’ve mentioned before the abrupt change in the ground rules of the programme in its third series, with multiple members of the same family coming through the plague alive, and I suppose this could be just about plausible if it wasn’t too common – but this is surely pushing plausibility right up to its breaking point. Even more radical amendments to the status quo are still to come.)

What follows is all about child psychology and John reconnecting with his mum, and it may be just me, but I found it thoroughly non-gripping. Much more interesting is a simmering subplot about Jenny, whose feelings for Greg seem to be going through a bit of a change – not unreasonably, given he seems to always be just around the next corner, but is apparently more interested in open-cast mining and methane-powered cars than in actually getting back in touch with his friends (this aspect of the series has become more than a bit ridiculous). Jenny is on the point of concluding that he doesn’t care for her or his son at all, and prepared to give up on the search for him. Charles remains the optimistic idealist, of course. Maybe the production team thought the audience would feel cheated if Greg just vanished or was never mentioned at all, but I’m not sure this is any sort of solution to the problem of Ian McCulloch’s absence. In any case, looking for Greg is about to be replaced as the focus of the show, as it enters its final phase.

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Excavating the inspirations for well-known SF TV shows and movies can lead you to some unexpected places: Star Trek is indebted, in fairly equal measure, to both the Hornblower books and Forbidden Planet, and therefore on to The Tempest; Doctor Who to the collected works of HG Wells; The Invaders (by way of The Fugitive) to Les Miserables. I was still a little surprised to discover that V (a well-remembered if slightly schlocky 1980s tale of man-eating aliens staging a takeover of the USA) was in fact inspired by a 1935 satire by the Nobel-prize winning author Sinclair Lewis, entitled It Can’t Happen Here.

It Can’t Happen Here has apparently enjoyed a significant sales spike in the last few months, presumably because many people believe that, on the contrary, It Can Happen Here, and indeed, It Is Actually Happening Here Right Now… here being the United States, of course. There are, needless to say, no aliens, man-eating or otherwise, in Sinclair Lewis’ book, which owes its current moment in the spotlight to the fact it depicts the rise to power of an authoritarian demagogue and the creation of a totalitarian police state within the US itself.

The main character is Doremus Jessup, a fairly bien-pensant Liberal newspaper editor from Vermont. Jessup has a comfortable life with his family, is initially more amused than disturbed by the rise in popularity of Senator Buzz Windrip – along with his like-minded friends, he dismisses the concerns of those who see Windrip as an American Hitler or Mussolini (I will just mention again that the book was written in 1935), cheerfully asserting that ‘It can’t happen here!’ – one of the book’s pearls of wisdom being that the first step to making sure such a takeover possible is to assert that it isn’t.

But of course it can, and does; Windrip is elected president and imposes his populist manifesto on the country – state ownership of industry, a raft of anti-feminist, anti-semitic, and just plain racist measures, the emasculation of Congress, and so on. Criticism of what becomes known as the Corpo regime by the press meets with a brutal response, with critics and other undesirables banished to the concentration camps which spring up across the country. Jessup finds himself increasingly falling foul of the local Corpo apparatchiks and their thuggery, appalled by the disappearances and book-burnings and endemic corruption, until he joins the resistance to Windrip himself…

You do not, I suspect, need to be a cultural commentator of particular insight to work out just why It Can’t Happen Here is enjoying such popularity at the moment: one current edition has as the cover crit ‘Eerily prescient’, just adding to the general consensus that Sinclair Lewis was somehow predicting the arrival of Donald Trump as US President. (To British readers, there is even a pleasing semantic consonance linking ‘Windrip’ – the name of the book’s Trump-analogue – to ‘break wind’ and then on to ‘Trump’ (which is slightly archaic British slang for a flatulent eruption).) Anyone turning up to the book expecting a close satire on the Insane Clown President’s rise and doings will, obviously, be disappointed. The book was written a decade before Trump was even born, after all, and the author’s concerns were on other things, most obviously the then-new Nazi regime in Germany.

Parallels between the book’s Corpo America and Nazi Germany are numerous – the Corpos position themselves as being the only party prepared to defend America from communism, and their rise is partly facilitated by the paramilitary wing of the organisation, the Minute Men or MM (vide the SS). There is anti-Semitism, book-burning, concentration camps, warmongering. The shady characters surrounding Windrip do recall Goebbels, Goering, and other senior Nazis. On the other hand, Windrip himself is Hitlerish only in his peculiar oratorical abilities – the rest of the time he is a clownish, none-too-bright figure, as much like Ronald Reagan as Donald Trump.

And some of the resonances in the book are eerie and a little unsettling – the US declares war on Mexico before the end of the book, for one thing. Windrip is pretty much only a narcissistic figurehead in the sway of a rather more sinister, ideological figure, Sarason, and some might say that this pretty much describes the dynamic between Donald Trump and Steve Bannon. Watchers of Bannon’s own documentary output have suggested that he is, essentially, an ideological warmonger, and it’s disturbing to hear sentiments coming from characters in the book which recall ones which real-life thinkers have been known to offer, especially on the topic of militarism and war as something to be welcomed inasmuch as it boosts a nation’s moral fibre.

So the book sort of does tell us things about the Trump regime, but only inasmuch as it is about, and a warning against, how democracy can be subverted and totalitarian rule take its place. One wonders if some of the observers on the Left who have seized upon It Can’t Happen Here as a warning from history are subconsciously holding their breath in anticipation of the moment when Trump wheels out the jackbooted stormtroopers and really gets busy with the brutal oppression of all opponents. Is that going to happen? I don’t know. Less than a hundred days into the ICP’s term of office, there are signs of the wheels coming off the juggernaut (if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor).

Is there, then, much more to It Can’t Happen Here than an odd little book which circumstances happen to have made unexpectedly topical once again? Well, as with many cultural artefacts of significant age, there are things about the book which have become strikingly odd – impenetrable cultural and historical references, curious choices of literary style, a narrative voice which is at different times both laborious and sentimental. Many of the characters are not drawn with great depth – although the protagonist, Jessup, is an exception, and not quite the paragon of all virtues you might have expected – and the story is frequently manipulative. Then again, that’s possibly the point; it is certainly readable and resonant enough to be fairly rewarding even today, even if it isn’t quite the chilling prediction of the present day you might be led to believe. If does turn out to be on the money, of course, 1930s literature will be the last thing on anyone’s mind, so it might be better to read it soon, just to be on the safe side.

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