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Posts Tagged ‘Mick Jackson’

Just when it looks like the late-summer interesting-movie drought is a thing of the past, the UPP goes and closes for its annual week of maintenance. Sigh. Still, when it returns, it is at least with an amusingly tongue-in-cheek choice of subject matter for its usual revival season – the weeks leading up to October 31st feature a series of films under the umbrella title of Apocalypse, Now?, connected by the fact they are either dystopian or downright apocalyptic British-set movies. One can appreciate the joke even if, fingers crossed, recent events mean that Halloween no longer has particularly ominous associations this year.

I expect it says something about me that most of the films in the Apocalypse season are ones I’m already rather familiar with. It includes A Clockwork Orange, Children of Men, and The Day the Earth Caught Fire, and you’ve already got two classic films there at least. The curve-ball of the season, however, is a film which wasn’t originally made for the big screen, and, well… it’s a very different kind of beast from those others. It is Threads, from 1984.

If I may digress a moment, a few years ago I was in Prague for a long weekend and one of the places I visited was a nuclear bunker in the suburbs of the city. We had an engaging time exploring the facilities, putting on the gas masks and having our photos taken in them, and so on, and then the guide pointed out to us that the mirrors in the bathrooms were all sheets of polished metal, rather than the usual glass. And when we asked why, he explained it was part of the policy to make the bunker suicide-proof, because it was anticipated that even the survivors of a nuclear strike would be very likely to contemplate ending their own lives. And suddenly we felt a bit subdued and queasy, and everything was considerably less jolly.

Threads is a film which will give you that moment of uneasiness and recognition of what is really at stake here, and stretch it out to 108 minutes. It was first broadcast on British TV in 1984, and even before the transmission it was drawing complaints – even the front cover of the BBC’s TV listings magazine was considered to be too disturbing and explicit. I was much too young to watch the actual film when it was shown then, but the cover did lodge itself in my memory as a grisly, haunting symbol of the film.

Quite when the film is set is a little ambiguous – based on the dates given on screen, it appears to be a near-future 1988, but it is clearly meant to be contemporary, although it does not identify specific politicians. In the opening scenes, we meet lead characters Ruth (Karen Meagher) and Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale), a young couple living in Sheffield, getting on with their lives, not paying much attention to the world situation – Russian troops have recently moved from the USSR into eastern parts of Iran. Ruth falls pregnant, and in the absence of any other options, they decide to marry and move in together, although Jimmy’s commitment to the relationship seems far from complete.

They buy a flat, start to think about a wedding; the two sets of parents get to know each other. But while all this is going on, tensions are building in the Middle East, with both the Americans and Soviets building up their forces in the region, and the rhetoric becoming increasingly antagonistic. Slowly it impinges on the characters that armed conflict is a possibility, then a likelihood. There is panic-buying in the supermarkets. The TV broadcasts public information films about how to convert part of your home into a fall-out survival room, and what to do if someone dies while you are in there. Key personnel and resources are quietly moved into locations of safety.

And then, one Thursday morning, the air attack warning sounds. As an industrial city not too far from USAF bases in England, Sheffield is targeted and struck by several nuclear warheads.

The first half of Threads has something of the look and feel of a kitchen-sink drama – something gritty and naturalistic, about the real lives of young people today, albeit one punctuated by occasional captions giving supplementary information, and contributions from an omniscient narrator (Paul Vaughan). The very nature of the production means it has an extraordinary atmosphere of impending doom, and a weird tension – you’re kind of anticipating the moment when the world comes to an end, and wondering what it’s going to be like, and yet at the same time you are dreading how the actual reality of it is going to be presented to you.

And your instincts are quite right, because the second half of Threads is probably the most soul-crushingly bleak hour of TV ever broadcast in the UK – yes, even worse than the final episode of Blake’s 7. And the tone and nature of the film feels like it undergoes a quite radical shift. Some of the documentary realism persists, but it is mixed with an almost impressionistic approach to portraying the scenes of nightmarish horror which ensue: we see fragments, odd scenes; montages of photographs take the place of live action. We almost seem to be seeing events from the point-of-view of Ruth and the other characters as they teeter on the edge of madness. Perhaps this was necessitated; even on a pretty big budget by 1984 standards, the BBC was probably quite incapable of naturalistically presenting the sheer scale of the horror of the aftermath of a UK-wide nuclear attack. And perhaps even the writer’s mind recoiled from the magnitude of the task he had been charged with. The film covers the decade-and-a-half or so following the attack, and we are presented with an increasingly disjointed set of snapshots of the dismal future world which comes into being. But the horror of it is tangible: survivors breaking up farmland with hand tools, swathed in cloth to shield themselves from post-nuclear UV exposure; children being taught to read using fuzzy pre-apocalypse video recordings; and the concluding sequence of the film, suggesting that the damage extends far beyond the severing of the threads of civilised society, even to the essential humanity of the survivors.

There is perhaps a bit of a mismatch in the creative team behind Threads – the writer was Barry Hines, otherwise best-known for the working-class bildungsroman A Kestrel for a Knave (famously filmed as Kes by Ken Loach), while the director was Mick Jackson, who would go on to make rather more cheerful Hollywood movies like LA Story, The Bodyguard and Volcano (more recently, he also directed Denial). Apparently there were creative tensions between the two of them on set. But together they produce something which does full justice to a weighty remit – Hines’ script is loaded with social and political anger, although it resists the temptation to make explicit political points and still finds time for formal quirks (one major character simply vanishes out of the film, midway through the bombing sequence) and heart-breaking moments of pathos (we see that Ruth is still carrying around tiny, useless mementos of her dead loved ones, years after the end of the old world). Jackson brings documentary realism to the early parts of the film and a willingness to go big and cinematic in the key moments depicting the attack. The film is superbly made, even if it is also in a very real sense awful to watch.

It would be nice to say that age has worked wonders to diminish the ghastly power of Threads, and rendered it a bit of a cold-war era curio, a reminder of what kept our parents and grandparents awake at night with alarm, something we have moved on. Certainly, all the video tapes and fake TV news broadcasts do give Threads the feeling of a period piece. But the last time I checked, we still have nuclear weapons, we still have international tensions, we still have foolish politicians who want to look like strongmen in the global media. (That nuclear bunker in Prague could be made fully operational again in only 48 hours.) We have not stepped back far enough from that brink: Threads suggests it is impossible to step back too far. This is one of those pieces of art which transcends time and place.

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Democracy, I commented recently, has had a rough couple of years. I must, of course, qualify this by saying I speak as a left-leaning progressive and internationalist; should you be a right-winger who fervently believes in the primacy of the nation state, you will probably be little short of delighted with how things have turned out for you. Perhaps it’s better to say that recent events have conspired to show up the cracks in the system. As Churchill famously said, democracy is a terrible way of organising things; it just happens to be better than all the others. It inevitably reduces the multi-layered complexities of human opinion and belief down to a black and white tick-your-preferred-box choice.

And this is when the system is functioning as it’s supposed to. Situations like the one in the USA last year, when the person who scored three million votes more than the second placed candidate did not in fact win the contest, almost inevitably lead one to wonder in what sense the electoral college system is genuinely democratic. Meanwhile, here in the UK, we have repeatedly had the problematic situation where the slenderness of a winning majority has had no effect on the behaviour of a winning side – you may only get 52% of the vote in a referendum, but that still gives you 100% of the power to impose your interpretation of the result on the population, under the cover of the useful phrase ‘the Will of the People’.

The extent to which the Will of the People really matters is one of the issues examined by A Very British Coup, a 1988 TV drama which I was recently moved to revisit (available free-to-watch to UK residents). Rather to everyone’s surprise, it is showing every sign of becoming prescient and topical: written by Alan Plater from Chris Mullins’ novel, and directed by Mick Jackson, it opens on the day of a general election, in which former steelworker and lifelong socialist Harry Perkins (Ray McAnally) is victorious and becomes the Prime Minister of a borderline-Marxist Labour government. In addition to the nationalisation of various sectors, Perkins’ legislative programme includes open government, limiting private ownership of the media, nuclear disarmament, and the removal of US Air Force bases from British soil.

Unsurprisingly, this is met with horror by various members of the British establishment, not to mention the current American administration, and a shadowy coalition including senior figures at MI5, the head of the BBC, a Tory press baron, and members of the CIA comes together to undermine and, if necessary, topple the elected government of the UK. For the good of the country, naturally.

As I say, the series was made in 1988, and has a near-future setting (most clearly indicated by the fact that there are various references to ‘the King’) – apparently if you squint you can see tax discs for the year 1991 or 92, not that it really matters. The story was apparently inspired by persistent rumours that a military coup against Harold Wilson’s government was a very real possibility in 1974, not to mention alleged CIA involvement in an Australian constitutional crisis at around the same time.

It’s a solidly-made production, a product of that time when the scope and production values of British TV drama were becoming more cinematic, while its tone remained more theatrical. It is quite talky, and the audience is credited with some intelligence. McAnally carries the production ably, and there’s one of those interesting supporting casts made up of people on their way to a somewhat bigger time – Keith Allen plays Perkins’ press secretary, Jim Carter is the Foreign Secretary, Philip Madoc is the press baron, Tim McInnerny is a ruthless MI5 operative, and so on. (Of interest to a more niche audience – Geoffrey Beevers, Caroline John, and Jessica Carney also appear in roles of differing sizes.)

It’s a product of its time in another way, too – it’s hard to imagine anything quite so openly party-political being made by a UK broadcaster nowadays: Perkins is unmistakably the good guy throughout, with the forces against him clearly those of conservatism (with both a big and small C) and the right. The series was made while Thatcher was in power, based on a book written when it seemed distinctly possible for a hard left politician to become Prime Minister (in the early 80s, prior to the Falklands adventure, it seemed that Thatcher might lose the 1983-84 election and someone like Michael Foot or Tony Benn would take over – V for Vendetta was also originally predicated on this type of scenario). One of Thatcher’s most enduring achievements is that for many years it seemed wildly improbable that a committed socialist could ever get the job again.

And yet here we are. The series failed to foresee the fall of the Soviet Union, which inevitably colours its international outlook, and barely touches on the topic of the UK’s relationship with Europe, but to me it still feels like one with relevant things to say about the country’s situation today. Our papers are full of editorials referring to the Will of the People – or at least a particular, narrow interpretation of what that Will might be – and we see the privately-owned media united in attempts to discredit the leadership of the Labour party. ‘Partisan’ and ‘biased’ doesn’t even begin to properly describe the treatment of Jeremy Corbyn by many papers. Once again, no doubt the editors involved would say they are doing it for the good of the nation. They may even believe this themselves.

A Very British Coup takes biased press coverage as being just the first of the conspiracy’s moves against Perkins, going on to include fomenting industrial action, forged evidence of financial impropriety, and actual murder (a pro-disarmament scientific advisor is assassinated by MI5 – or so it is strongly implied). The series ends ambiguously, with another election, talk of ‘constitutional uncertainty’, and the sound of rising aircraft engines, implying that perhaps a genuine coup d’etat is in progress (again, there has already been speculation as to the likely response of the military to a Corbyn victory). Before all this, however, is a scene between Perkins and the head of MI5 where the civil servant admits that the prospect of a successful, genuinely left-wing government terrifies the establishment and those with a vested interest in the status quo, hence their determination to destroy Perkins and his government.

It’s a powerful scene and a disturbingly credible one, although still slightly theatrical. Who really runs the country? Does the Will of the People carry any real power? Or is it just the case that our elected officials are only allowed to govern within certain parameters, regardless of their popular support? If so, who has the real power, and what is it based on? In a few days there is a chance that all these questions may feel very urgent and significant indeed, and it will be interesting, to say the least, to see if any answers emerge.

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There are timely films, and there are timely films, and then there is Denial, the latest from veteran (though irregular) director Mick Jackson. It seems strange that not too long ago everyone was talking relatively casually about the fact we were all living in a post-truth world: if all I see on the news is true, then suddenly the truth is back in fashion – the problem is that everyone seems to have their own ideas about what it is, and most of those versions are not exactly mutually compatible. Jackson’s film may be an account of events from nearly 20 years ago, but that doesn’t stop it feeling very relevant, for it concerns the historic (in more ways than one) court case brought by an eminent Holocaust denier against a Jewish female historian.

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The late novelist Iain Banks came up with a characteristically witty and effective way of dealing with Holocaust deniers: you invite them to debate the topic on TV with you, then punch them in the mouth in front of the cameras. But it gets even better, for when they complain and call the police, you simply deny the attack ever took place. Ah, if it were only that simple (and satisfying) – taking these people on means stepping onto a hard road fraught with risks, as the film makes clear.

Rachel Weisz plays Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish and Holocaust Studies at a university in Atlanta, Georgia, and author of a book about Holocaust denial. She has so far refused to debate with Holocaust deniers on the grounds that she does not want to give them the exposure and credibility that would result, but is nevertheless ambushed at a speaking engagement by the British historian David Irving (Timothy Spall), who accuses her of lying about and defaming him.

Irving eventually brings a libel action against Lipstadt, in a British court where the burden of proof lies with the defendant rather than the ostensibly injured party. Naturally she feels compelled to take him on, rather than settle, and to this end employs hotshot young solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and charismatic barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) to lead her defence. But she is unprepared for some of the arcane details of the British legal system, and also the demands of the case: Irving proves an unexpectedly canny legal operator, and the apparent ruthlessness of the men on her own side is also disquieting. Will truth really be the victor here?

Well, if you don’t want to know how it all ends, don’t look on Wikipedia, that’s all I can say (or David Irving’s own more-than-slightly-appalling website, for that matter – for of course it still exists, offering unique insights into modern history, or possibly just its operator’s psyche). ‘Based on a true story’-movies are of course notorious for being just that – based on truth, nothing more than that, with events and characters being amalgamated and rearranged to suit the demands of the form. I wonder if this was a factor while Denial was in preparation, for it would be rather odd for a film which is so adamant in its insistence that truth should be held sacred and inviolable to depart too egregiously from reality itself.

And yet you could argue that’s just what has happened (and, sure enough, Irving has been claiming this himself), for Timothy Spall’s striking, mannered performance as David Irving, while as technically accomplished and memorable as we might expect from such a capable performer, does not seem to even attempt to be a representation of the man himself – one might even call it a theatrical grotesque. On the other hand, one of the themes the film returns to time after time is the need to deny credibility and plausibility to Holocaust deniers, whatever the source – a ‘balanced’ representation of the two sides of the argument would give the (entirely wrong) impression that both sides have merit. By presenting Irving as a comprehensively sinister and unpleasant individual, you could therefore probably argue that the film is similarly trying to avoid giving his views even the slightest credence. It’s just a bit odd for a film which is about the importance of historical honesty and objectivity to be quite so partial in its representation of a key figure in its story.

Still, Spall does give a very fine performance, in a film which is notably strong in this department – I was about to comment that Rachel Weisz does vanish somewhat behind the hairstyle and accent she adopts, but then again I suppose transforming yourself into another person is the essence of fine acting, and she is notably good in a challenging role. I’ve never quite seen what all the fuss is about where Andrew Scott is concerned – possibly I’ve just been put off by all the racket from the Sherlock crowd – but here he is extremely good, too. Best of all, however, is Tom Wilkinson, who more than anyone else brings the film to life and brings some genuine humanity and anger to many scenes. (Also in the cast are John Sessions, who almost appears to be turning into William Shatner as-he-is-today, and Mark Gatiss, giving an impressive and entirely, um, straight turn as a Dutch academic.)

You should never be short on drama if you do a courtroom-based story properly, and this film certainly delivers – one of the running themes is the slightly arcane nature of the British legal system, which is helpfully explained for foreign audiences. (Also, you would have thought it would be relatively easy to debunk the deniers, given the numbers of actual Holocaust survivors still around to give evidence, and yet no survivors, nor even Lipstadt herself, testified at the libel trial, and the film makes it very clear just why this was.) But while all this is certainly thrilling stuff, the film never loses track of the fact that it is primarily concerned with the most serious of issues, and there are a number of sequences and scenes which are not afraid to evoke the dreadful reality of what happened at Auschwitz and elsewhere, without ever seeming sentimental or manipulative.

Rampton’s courtroom demolition of Irving and his prejudices was so comprehensive that the film struggles to find much in the way of tension for its closing section, as the verdict is awaited, but in a way, this is beside the point. The point it makes is surely not that truth triumphed over deceit on this one occasion, but that truth, justice, and other civilised values must be protected and fought for time and time again. Also, probably, that the existence of the principle of freedom of speech does not mean that truth itself is somehow up for grabs or subject to a popular vote. As I say, a very timely film, probably, and a well-made and very well-acted one.

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