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Posts Tagged ‘satire’

My unpublished (and, let’s face it, unpublishable) NaNoWriMo novel from 2016 has repeatedly proven to be eerily prescient in a number of ways. So here are a couple more vaguely-topical extracts.

Chapter 29

The story so far: in the face of an insurrection by political folk-hero Nigel Brittain, hapless Prime Minister April Trace has finally been driven to resignation by the sinister forces of continental superstate, the Federation of 27…

Soon to be ex-Prime Minister April Trace closed the doors of her private flat above Number Ten Downing Street, and the panicky wailing of most the cabinet outside in the vestibule was blessedly silenced. That was a relief, but it meant that for the first time she was alone with her thoughts. Had she made the right decision? It had felt like it at the time. But now, of course, it was starting to sink in. She looked around the lovely flat with its lovely curtains in front of the lovely triple-thickness armoured glass. She was giving all of this up, and for what? A point of principle. A belief in the primacy of basic human decency and kindness.

‘Maybe I was never really cut out for politics after all,’ April Trace murmured to herself.

There would be time enough for soul-searching (by which she meant searching her soul, of course, not searching to see if she actually possessed a soul, which some of her less kindly critics had occasionally suggested might not in fact be the case) later. The Buckingham Palace tech support people had indicated Her Majesty the Queen would be ready to process her resignation in about an hour, so that was her top priority.

Well, almost her top priority. From out of the kitchen came the slender, reticent figure of Mr Trace, the soon to be ex-Prime Ministerial consort. He had his apron on and had clearly been doing something domestic in the Prime Ministerial kitchenette. As ever, his face broke into a beaming smile as he saw her, and she felt something inside thaw a little.

‘Prime Minister!’ he cried with obvious delight. ‘I didn’t expect you home so soon.’

She smiled at him. ‘I’ve told you so many times,’ she said, ‘you don’t have to be so formal when we’re at home together, Mr Trace.’

‘Sorry,’ he said. Something about her mien clearly registered with him. ‘Is everything all right, my dear?’

‘Oh, Mr Trace!’ She ran into his welcoming, if slightly confused arms. ‘It’s all over. I’ve resigned as Prime Minister. The Federation forced me into it.’

‘What!’ Mr Trace clearly couldn’t believe his ears. Bafflement danced about behind his big round glasses. ‘But the Federation needs you! Who’s going to run the country now?’

‘Oh, I don’t know. Some compliant ovine, I expect,’ said April Trace. ‘Bronson, maybe. Or… the Blaine creature. He’d be the perfect choice for them.’

‘But the country would be up in arms! They’d never accept Toby Blaine as Prime Minister again – he’s not even an MP -‘

‘Another emergency decree,’ she shrugged. ‘And a major uprising now – it wouldn’t make a lot of difference, would it?’

‘I suppose you’re right,’ her husband said. He forced a smile onto his dear little face. ‘So, what’s the plan?’

‘I have to go to the palace and formally resign to Her Majesty the Queen,’ said April Trace. ‘Then I suppose we have to get the removals people in.’

‘Hmmm,’ said Mr Trace, with the expression unique to a man considering the problem of how to relocate three large roomfuls of unique and extravagant footwear at very short notice.

‘We’ll manage,’ April Trace assured him. ‘There’s always your business to fall back on if times get hard.’

‘Let’s hope the market for professional Charles Hawtrey lookalikes stays buoyant,’ said Mr Trace earnestly.

‘I need to change,’ April Trace said. ‘The car will be here soon -‘

‘Mrs Trace, open the door please.’ The voice boomed from out in the corridor. The Traces looked at each other in surprise, then she went to the door and unlatched it.

A squad of large men in dark jumpsuits and blue body armour and helmets stood there, the gold stars of the Federation prominent amongst their insignia. They were carrying an alarming range of weaponry and other gear.

‘April Trace? We’re here to take you into protective custody,’ said the squad leader.

‘I – I don’t need protective custody,’ said April Trace in alarm, glancing at her husband.

‘The Acting Prime Minister has decreed otherwise.’

‘Acting Prime Minister? But I haven’t even resigned yet -‘

‘We don’t have time for this. Get her, lads!’ the squad leader barked, hefting his pump-action shotgun threateningly in Mr Trace’s direction.

‘Stay strong, my dear! Take care of my shoes!’ cried the ex-Prime Minister as she was grabbed by the Federation enforcement squad and bundled out of the flat.

‘Mrs Trace! Mrs Trace!’ shouted the former Prime Ministerial consort forlornly, running to the door. But April Trace had already been swept away. He heard the front door of Number Ten Downing Street slam heavily, then there was only silence.

‘It’s the end of an era,’ Mr Trace murmured sadly, then went back into the flat to start packing up all the footwear.

european-union-eu-flag-missing-star-brexit

From Chapter 40:

Nigel Brittain has triumphed and England is free again. Heroic young soldier Billy Sharples roams the streets as the celebrations continue…

Everyone seemed to be relaxing, finding warmth and fellowship. Well – almost everyone – he spied two stooped, thin figures, weighted down with heavy bags, keeping well away from the bonfires and the singing as they crept out of the city. Curious, he followed after them, until he was sure his first response to seeing them had been correct.

‘Mrs Trace,’ Billy said.

The former Prime Minister and her husband both started and looked at him, clearly on the verge of panic. Both were dressed in battered, shabby old clothes, and were carrying heavy suitcases and rucksacks. What appeared to be a tiger-striped kitten heel was poking out of one of the bags.

‘I thought it was you,’ Billy said.

A nervous glance between the couple. Then – ‘Please, we just want to get out of the city. Find a quiet place to live now,’ Mr Trace said. There was pleading in his eyes, behind the big round glasses.

‘I – I don’t know,’ Billy said. Surely these two were complicit in so many of the crimes inflicted on the English people? Didn’t justice need to be done?

‘I – I just meant it all for the best,’ April Trace said, tears starting to trickle down her cheeks, voice cracking and splintering. ‘I thought there was no other way…’

‘Well, you know better now,’ Billy said. In that moment he could no longer find any hatred in his heart for this pathetic couple. If they couldn’t find it in their hearts to be merciful in victory, Billy thought, then it was no victory worth mentioning. He nodded. ‘Go on, then. On your way.’

‘Thank you. Thank you!’ The Traces scuttled on their way.

And let that last vestige of the old regime disappear, Billy thought. It was a time for new faces and new ideas – well, no, he corrected himself, old faces and old ideas. He allowed himself a thrill of excitement at the thought of the country making this unprecedented journey back to the way things had been forty or fifty years before.

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Is it just me, or was the back end of last year particularly busy when it came to the kind of big commercial studio releases that tend to guzzle up multiple screens at the typical multiplex? The reason I ask is that a couple of films which I would have expected to make at least some kind of appearance on the big screen in central Oxford seem to have been squeezed out entirely. It’s not unheard of for this to happen when it comes to a certain kind of low-brow action-thriller, but here we’re talking about much more distinctive pieces of work – as I mentioned, I missed Bad Times at the El Royale UK release entirely and had to go to Berlin to see it, while Boots Riley’s extravagantly well-reviewed Sorry to Bother You likewise barely seemed to trouble either the big chains or my art-house cinema of choice, and I only just managed to catch it at the Ultimate Picture Palace (doing sterling work in its function of providing exactly this sort of last chance saloon).

Set in a sort of version of present-day San Francisco, this film retells the curious odyssey of Cassius ‘Cash’ Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a young African-American man struggling to establish himself financially: he and his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a performance artist and sign-twirler, are having to live in his uncle’s garage, for example. He seems to be making some kind of progress when he gets a job as a telemarketer with a company named RegalView, although the work is initially challenging. Success comes when an older colleague (Danny Glover) suggests that he use his ‘white voice’ when making calls as this will be more reassuring for his clients (in the first of many quirky choices, when using the white voice Stanfield is dubbed by David Cross).

This leads to great success for Cash, even as his fellow employees are agitating and trying to organise for better working conditions. Eventually he is promoted to ‘Power Caller’, handling extremely lucrative and important business transactions, especially for a company named WorryFree. Owned by the visionary tycoon Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), WorryFree has become greatly successful by playing on people’s stress and uncertainty about modern life – by signing away all rights to self-determination, they are provided with work and the essentials for living. Is this exploiting a gap in the market or simply a clever re-branding of slavery? Cash does his best not to worry about it and concentrates on the material rewards his new success is bringing him, until Steve Lift himself approaches him with a proposition that could change both his life and the world to an almost inconceivable degree…

I suspect that Boots Riley won’t thank me for saying so, but the shadow of Charlie Kaufman does seem to me to hang rather heavily over Sorry to Bother You – this is the same kind of wildly absurdist comedy that Kaufman made his name by writing: the structures of modern urban life are present, but have had their normal contents emptied out and been refilled with things which are almost palpably ridiculous. The sheer inventiveness of the film is impressive, not to mention the strike rate of its jokes – there are some unforgettably funny moments in the course of the story.

However, this is the kind of satirical comedy which is setting out to draw blood, and while Charlie Kaufman often seems to me to be playing with ideas for the fun of it, Riley clearly has serious social and political points to make throughout this film. The element of this film which most of the early coverage settled on was the gimmick of the ‘white voice’, which as well as being a striking cinematic gag is a convenient metaphor for the different modes of behaviour many people, perhaps especially those from ethnic minorities, are obliged to adopt. That said, it’s still a relatively minor element of the film, which is about… well, lots of different things, to be honest, perhaps even a few too many for it to be entirely coherent as a narrative. Many of these are, admittedly, about the somewhat-vexed question of race in America – I thought that one sequence, in which Cash, as one of only two black men at a party for the super-rich, is commanded to rap for his hosts, manages to be funnier, more provocative, and say more about cultural appropriation than all of Get Out.

That said, I think this is much more a film about economics than race, although Sorry to Bother You is naturally smart enough to acknowledge that the two things are inseparably linked in modern America. Riley has said that the title itself doesn’t just refer to a telemarketer’s usual opening line, but also the film’s intention to confront the audience with some uncomfortable truths which they may habitually try quite hard to ignore. Well, maybe so, but I wonder who he imagines the audience of this film will be – I imagine that most people seeing it will already be aware of the immense social and financial inequities in western civilisation, the immense power wielded by the wealthy, the dehumanising effects of many modern jobs, and so on – these things are not secrets, they’re just treated as facts of life. Once you look past the larger-than-life characterisations and ridiculous gags, the parable of Cash’s socio-economic awakening is actually fairly straightforward, as the young man has to make a choice between getting very rich very quickly or doing the right thing. It’s only the relentless onslaught of outlandish jokes and ideas that makes the film so memorable and entertaining. Similarly, the only real solution the film has to offer basically seems to be for workers to unionise, which some might consider a little anticlimactic (well, there’s a suggestion that a violent uprising might also solve some problems, but given its context in the film it’s hard to see this is a serious proposal).

I would say that the film possibly outstays its welcome by just a few minutes, and the third act in particular shows signs of becoming completely unravelled, but the film is a satire and heavily allegorical, so this is less of a problem than it could have been. It is, in any case, quite bracing to discover a film which is so smart, so energetic, and so willing to be openly political in its comedy. I’ve heard Sorry to Bother You described as the best SF film of 2018 – I can see how someone might think it qualifies, but the science fiction elements are just part of a brew which defies conventional genre descriptions. A very funny, very sharp film, driven along by great performances from Stanfield and Hammer; one could perhaps reasonably take exception to its politics, but not to the skill with which it has been made.

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Now of course, if we are going to talk about famous auteur comedians, then the place to start is surely with Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin is a curiously ambiguous figure these days: he remains possibly the single most recognisable person in history (while in his Tramp rig, anyway), and is still considered one of the greatest artists in the history of cinema, but his films have – generally speaking – fallen out of favour and are little-watched these days. All this was really presaged in Chaplin’s lifetime, with his immense popularity in the early part of the last century declining to the point where he was essentially obliged to leave the country at the beginning of the 1950s.

With hindsight, the moment of Chaplin’s peak commercial and critical success was also one in which the seeds of his fall from grace were visible. I’m talking about his 1940 film The Great Dictator, which was his biggest hit at the box-office, and is one of his best-regarded films these days, possibly because of the subject matter. At the same time, though, it’s one which demands you keep its historical context in mind.

 

An opening caption informs the audience that the film is set between the two world wars, a period in which ‘Insanity cut loose… and humanity was kicked around somewhat’. From here we go straight into a lengthy, quite lavish sequence depicting the final hours of the First World War, and the exploits of a hapless soldier fighting in the army of Tomainia (played by Chaplin himself, clearly as a variation on the Tramp character). After various misadventures he ends up being sent to a veterans’ hospital with amnesia.

Twenty years pass and Tomainia falls under the control of the dictator Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin again, making the most of his passing resemblance to Adolf Hitler), who institutes a regime of vicious oppression against his Jewish citizens. When the soldier, now revealed to be an unnamed Jewish barber, is discharged from hospital, he is shocked to discover what has befallen the country.

What follows is basically a film with two main plotlines – one concerning the barber, his romance with a local woman (Chaplin’s then-soon-to-be-ex-wife Paulette Goddard), and their attempts to live some kind of life in the ghetto, which mainly consists of sentimental melodrama and slapstick comedy, and one focusing on happenings within Hynkel’s palace. This is mostly farcical satire, with lots more slapstick in the mix. In the end the two storylines come together, with the fact that Hynkel and the barber are identical crucial to the denouement, but there’s never a moment where someone says ‘You know what, you look just like him!’ – the similarity is never commented upon prior to the moment it becomes central to the narrative.

I think that before you decide about your opinion of The Great Dictator, you really do have to remember that this is a film made at a particular moment in time: in 1940, to be precise. Why is this significant? Well, for one thing it is important to remember that this was a full year before the USA entered the Second World War, and the two countries were still technically at peace; for Chaplin to make a film which so openly ridicules both Hitler, Mussolini, and various other senior Nazi figures was a bold choice (after Hitler saw the movie he put Chaplin on a death list, or so the story goes).

But there’s more than this. These days you sit down to watch The Great Dictator in expectations of a timeless masterpiece in the modern sense. In the opening minutes what you get is a sequence in which Chaplin is in charge of firing a piece of artillery: he pulls the ignition cord, the gun goes off with a big bang, Chaplin falls over and waggles his legs in the air. Enemy planes attack the area and so Chaplin mans an anti-aircraft gun; frantically spinning the wheel that controls its direction and angle of fire, he ends up whirling around uselessly like a man on a fairground ride. Assigned to help a group of infantry, he is given a hand grenade; having pulled the pin, the grenade drops down his sleeve and ends up in his trousers. And so on.

In short, this is very broad slapstick, and not especially distinguished as such (later sequences in the film make it quite clear what an astonishingly accomplished and capable physical performer Chaplin was, even in his fifties). To a modern viewer there is something inescapably out-of-kilter about this sort of thing appearing in a film about Hitler and the Nazis. But it persists as the film continues: Goering and Goebbels are lampooned as Herring and Garbitsch (pronounced as a homophone of ‘garbage’), Mussolini is played as a cartoon Italian gangster (it is somewhat eye-opening that the performer, Jack Oakie, was Oscar-nominated for the role); and yet in the same film there are scenes of Jews being beaten and robbed by Hynkel’s stormtroopers, having their homes burnt to the ground, eventually shot… this is not the stuff of comedy, by any sane metric. It is an uneasy juxtaposition.

But, as I say, you have to remember this is a film from 1940 and the full scale of Nazi atrocities had yet to become clear. Over twenty years later Chaplin himself wrote that …had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator, I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.’ Which is fair enough, I suppose. But the film is still uncomfortable to watch in parts.

Apparently, Hitler was under the impression that Chaplin himself was Jewish, and if this had been the case it would have explained the film-maker’s decision to lampoon the dictator with quite such asperity. But he wasn’t, and – beyond simple moral outrage – there doesn’t seem to have been a particular reason for him to make this film, although he himself observed that ‘one doesn’t have to be a Jew to be anti-Nazi, just a decent normal human being.’ Then again, apparently Hitler held a strange fascination for Chaplin, the two men having so much in common – they were born within days of each other, both rose from backgrounds of extreme poverty to immense fame and power, and so on. ‘[Hitler]’s copying your act,’ observes Kevin Kline as Douglas Fairbanks in Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin; perhaps Chaplin felt the need to return the favour in some form.

Whatever the reason, The Great Dictator is clearly a heartfelt piece, and this is never more clear than in the concluding sequence, in which the barber (now pretending to be Hynkel) addresses his followers. Chaplin is speaking straight into the camera, in a monologue that goes on for nearly five minutes, calling for peace, brotherhood, freedom and democracy. Some people think it is beautiful and uplifting, others that it is overly earnest and quite simply preachy (it has been identified as the moment at which Chaplin’s personal politics began to impact upon his public image, to his eventual detriment). Personally, I can only agree with Chaplin’s sentiments, I just don’t think this is the stuff of good film-making.

But then The Great Dictator is not really traditional film-making, in the sense that this is not primarily entertainment – Chaplin’s intention seems to have been to use his popularity, especially as the Tramp character, to attract audiences to a film with an overtly political purpose. Chaplin’s physical performance is terrific, and there are some very funny scenes (such as the one with the puddings filled with coins). But that’s never quite the point. Judging The Great Dictator as entertainment kind of misses the point of it. As a piece of political satire, though, I have to find its intentions admirable even if the execution often makes me rather uneasy.

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I used to be a fairly regular participant in the great British tradition of the pub quiz, back before the institution was effectively killed off by the rise of the smartphone and hand-held search engines. One of the methods by which the proprietors of these events tried to limit people’s ability to cheat was by introducing things like music and picture rounds, where you couldn’t just google for the answers. There was usually an interesting mixture of difficulties on display.

I recall on one occasion being heads-down with the rest of the team poring over some of the more challenging pictures we were being asked to identify: 1970s football managers, obscure cousins to the queen, and so on. And there was one photo of a middle-aged man in a shapeless hat and a raincoat, smoking a pipe, with a rather peculiar expression on his face.

‘Is that Eric Morecambe without his glasses?’ wondered one of the team, aloud.

‘No it’s not. Maybe it’s Harold Wilson,’ said another, prompting an instinctive and visceral hiss from the members of the team who also belonged to the local Conservative Club (one can’t always freely pick one’s pub quiz team-mates).

Something was stirring in the back of my brain, as the machinery back there (which I have given up trying to understand) quivered and buzzed and finally coughed up an answer.

‘I… I think that’s Jacques Tati,’ I said.

They stared at me a lot, torn between lack of comprehension at what I was on about and bemusement that I actually appeared to know the answer. For myself, I was astonished that a picture of a French comedian from the middle of the last century had turned up in a pub quiz picture round in the north-west of England, and also that I was able to recognise him despite never actually having seen one of his films.

I mean, come on, it’s French comedy: our cousins across the channel are famous for their wine, their cuisine, their sense of style, and the sense of humility which they take with them whenever they travel abroad, but French comedy is (generally speaking) down the list beneath their pop music when it comes to les grandes realisations de la France.

Then again, there are exceptions to everything, and if there is a French comedian with a claim to international recognition it is Jacques Tati, acclaimed as one of the greatest auteurs and film directors of all time by people who should actually know about that sort of thing.

Well, as I say, I’d heard of Tati (and clearly seen a picture of him at some point), but had never seen one of his movies until recently when a stack of films passed on to me by a friend happened to include Tati’s 1958 film Mon Oncle (even I, who didn’t even take GCSE French, can figure out that this means My Uncle).

monocle

With a title like that it sounds like some sort of sentimental, family-themed romp, but (and to be honest you had best get used to this) Mon Oncle defies – or, perhaps, ignores – expectations. Tati plays his most famous creation, Monsieur Hulot, a carefree, easy-going gentleman of middle years, residing in a chaotic Parisian neighbourhood at the top of a ramshackle apartment block.

This is quite at odds with the lifestyle of his sister (Adrienne Servantie), who along with her husband Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola) has relocated to an ultra-modern home in the suburbs, with all kinds of modern fixtures and conveniences. Despite all of this, their son (Alain Becourt) seems much happier spending time with his uncle, Hulot. This is a source of much chagrin to the Arpels, who view Hulot as a feckless embarrassment and seemingly spend most of their time trying to get him to adopt a more ‘appropriate’ lifestyle – working in Arpel’s factory, and so on.

There is, it must be said, not much more in the way of plot when it comes to Mon Oncle, mainly just a succession of set-pieces which usually depict Monsieur Hulot unintentionally wreaking havoc upon the ordered existence and plans of the Arpels. Your sympathies are intended to be with Hulot throughout, not because he is a particularly engaging or identifiable figure, but because the lifestyle of the Arpels is depicted as phoney and dehumanised: their home is a sterile environment depicted in a palette of dull greys, the most distinctive feature a fairly ugly fountain (which Mme Arpel hurries to switch on whenever they receive an important guest).

This extends to the film’s view of the factory and the consumerist lifestyle which the Arpels have enthusiastically adopted: rows of grey cars trundling in perfect unison between grey boxes. The contrast with the slightly shambolic, but always warm and vibrant neighbourhood in which Hulot resides could not be much more clear. Points are obviously being made, and there’s a certain sense in which Mon Oncle would be a good double-bill companion piece to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, for they are both obviously very seriously-intentioned satires of consumerism – indeed, Mon Oncle occasionally seems almost reactionary in its suspicion of modern technology.

Satire isn’t an exact synonym for comedy, of course, which I suppose is my way of delicately raising the issue of whether this famous comedy film is actually funny or not. I suppose it is, but this feels like the kind of comedy which is meant to be taken very seriously – in other words, it is Art. As you admire the conception, composition, art direction and performances of each scene, it almost seems disrespectful to laugh at the film: an approving, serious nod feels like a much more appropriate response.

It’s not really the style of comedy you expect, either. Monsieur Hulot is clearly part of a tradition of clowning which – in cinematic terms at least – goes back at least to Chaplin’s Tramp and continues on to characters like Mr Bean (Rowan Atkinson has acknowledged Tati’s influence on his work). But the difference is that with the Tramp or Bean, you are always watching a star vehicle – they are always centre stage, the comedy built around them. In Mon Oncle, on the other hand, many of the scenes are filmed in long shot, with Hulot just one figure in a crowd of other characters (if he is present at all). He is a major character, but the film does not revolve solely around him.

I should probably also observe that there is an abrasive element to Anglophone clowning which seems to be almost entirely absent here. There is a lot less falling-over, slapstick, and comic violence than you might expect – there’s a fairly lengthy sequence about an automatic garage door opening mechanism which eventually causes the Arpels a lot of trouble after their dachshund starts to accidentally trigger the mechanism. I was anticipating the moment where someone either gets hit by the door or entangled in the works and whisked out of sight; it never happens and it almost feels like a scene without a pay-off. There are many other almost-throwaway moments of visual inspiration.

So I have to conclude that while Mon Oncle is clearly a well-made film and the product of a distinct creative sensibility, it didn’t actually make me laugh very much. Then again, it seems to be a film about ideas and the changes in French society in the late 1950s at least as much as it is a comedy; the conclusion (Hulot is banished to the provinces to become a sales rep) seemed to me to be genuinely affecting and rather sad. Still, an interesting film, though definitely the product of a rather different comedic tradition.

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Normally I wouldn’t dream of inflicting my attempts at fiction on the internet at large, but given all the terribly interesting political developments currently going on, I couldn’t help but feel it appropriate to share a couple of brief extracts from my very-much-not forthcoming (if there’s any sanity left in the world) dystopian satire Nigel’s Kingdom, which I knocked out for NaNoWriMo at the end of 2016.

(From Chapter 12. The story so far: The oppressive European Federation, aka the Union of 27, has decreed that its vassal state the UK must abandon the pound and adopt the Federal Eurocredit. Bright young progressive BBC executive Rose has been assigned to prepare the ground for this unpopular move, and has just learned one of her first assignments is to meet the Foreign Secretary… ) 

‘Wow,’ Rose said, impressed almost despite herself. Like most people of her set, she knew she ought to instinctively dislike Alex Bronson, for he was self-evidently a smug, self-serving, lecherous, unprincipled borderline sociopath concerned only with his own advancement, but he was such a character! You couldn’t help but laugh and warm to him. That was his unique political gift, his ability to get people onside, even though his antics in service of his own career had earned him many enemies. It was not surprising Bronson had been brought in to help the Eurocredit project in some capacity.

They arrived outside impressive double doors in a corridor where virtually every square inch of wall was covered with distinguished old paintings. It had a certain musty beauty to it, Rose thought, but it was so old-fashioned and traditional, and the 18th and 19th century politicians showed such a lack of diversity it made her very uncomfortable to look at them. An aide was waiting for them and smiled. ‘The Foreign Secretary will see you now,’ he said.

Rose and Omar went into the room, which was high and airy, and had a leather-topped table surrounded by chairs at its centre. There was no sign of anyone else in the room, and there was only one other door, a small and modest looking one. Odd little clunks and thuds drifted out from behind it.

Omar looked at Rose uncertainly and went over to the door and opened it. Blinking characteristically, beneath the famous hair which resembled a freeze frame of a detonated haystack, Alex Bronson emerged from what appeared to be a stationery cupboard.

‘Ah. Hello,’ he said, peering back and forth between them. ‘No light switch in there. No light, either… well, stands to reason, I suppose. Ho ho.’

‘What were you doing in the cupboard, Foreign Secretary?’ Omar asked.

‘Trying to get out,’ Bronson said with a hopeful smirk. ‘No, actually I was looking for the bogs. Ended up in the cupboard. Oh well – errare humanum est, that’s what I always say.’

Omar and Rose both blinked as an acrid smell wafted out of the cupboard after the Foreign Secretary, who seemed completely oblivious to it. He shambled over to the table and lugged out one of the chairs, and Rose couldn’t help smiling. What a card he was! How charmingly human!

‘Now than,’ Bronson said, as they joined him around the table. ‘You’re the wallah from BBC news, aren’t you?’ Omar looked slightly pained by his choice of words but managed to nod. ‘And you are…?’ He looked inquisitively at Rose, and she thought she could detect a glitter of interest in the Foreign Secretarial eyes.

‘I’m Rose Lewis, Foreign Secretary,’ she said. ‘Also on the Eurocredit introduction taskforce.’

‘Aha. Smashing. Smashing,’ said Bronson. ‘Looking forward to working with you. Both of you,’ he added quickly, glancing at Omar.

‘Thanks for giving us your time, sir,’ Omar said. ‘We know you must be busy.’

‘Actually, there’s a lot less to this Foreign Office lark than you might think,’ Bronson mused, leaning back and lacing his hands behind his head. ‘Mainly just sitting around the office and fairly regular foreign beanos. I’m looking forward to getting stuck into some proper work for a change – that’s what the PM’s asked me to do, anyway.’

Word around the BBC was that the Foreign Office civil servants had been sending pleading emails to April Trace for many months, begging her to find some way of keeping Bronson occupied so their staff no longer needed to constantly monitor him and could go back to doing some actual proper diplomacy, but that was just the sort of funny story that made up the Foreign Secretary’s large and amusing hinterland, like the one about him getting stuck on the end of a bungee cord, or having a series of affairs with colleagues, or conspiring with friends to have journalists beaten up. Rose let an indulgent smile play around her mouth. He really wasn’t the sort of person one should like, but she couldn’t help herself.

(Later, from Chapter 17: hapless shoe-loving Prime Minister April Trace is in her command bunker monitoring reports of the reappearance of the dreaded arch-patriot and nemesis of the Federation, Nigel Brittain, and discussing this with the Union of 27’s representatives…) 

She was interrupted by the conference room doors clanking open and the entrance of Alex Bronson and Toby Blaine. Bronson was clearly disgruntled and she guessed that Blaine had insisted on sharing the ministerial ride over from the judicial sports centre. This was no time for their petty grievances.

‘Sorry we’re a bit late, April,’ Bronson said cheerily. ‘Stuck in a jam on the Embankment. Tempus fugit, and all that.’

‘Ah,’ the Prime Minister said. She looked at Blaine. ‘I trust Alex kept you entertained, Mr Blaine? A selection of his latest limericks, no doubt?’

Blaine’s face came close to losing its perma-smile as he nodded back to the PM. ‘Still, we’re here now,’ he said with brittle pleasantness. ‘What’s the situation?’

‘A suddenly upwelling of seditious activity, sparked by the resurfacing of this man Brittain,’ one of the Office of Political Correctness agents said, before April Trace could finish opening her mouth. She clicked the luminous perspex heel of her left shoe against the floor and pursed her lips. They weren’t even attempting to maintain the illusion that she was in charge any more.

‘Excuse me, we have a connection with a police command unit in the Thames Valley,’ one of the operators piped up. ‘They’ve got the two Standards Enforcement agents who were there when this all started happening.’

Sure enough, the two hollow-eyed, traumatised looking men appeared on the screen, still in their vests.

‘Report,’ said the lead OPC agent.

‘We were on patrol in Aylesbury town centre, in accordance with standard operating procedure,’ said one of them.

‘Seek out signs of non-metrication and subdue and humiliate with maximum prejudice,’ said the other.

‘And then he was there. Shouting and insulting and… and making people listen to him,’ said the enforcer plaintively. ‘Then all them were shouting at us. He took a crowd and turned it into an angry mob.’

‘Aylesbury town centre,’ said Alex Bronson, sagely. Beside him, Toby Blaine nodded automatically.

‘We had to run or they’d have torn us apart,’ the agent concluded his report. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it! The man has some dark power, some rhetorical genius, like nothing our training prepared us for. I don’t know -‘

‘That’s enough. Keep your head,’ said the OPC man viciously. He nodded to the operator who ended the transmission. Behind them the doors opened, presaging the entry of the tea and refreshments trolley. There were standards to be maintained, after all.

‘What kind of demographic does this man Nigel Brittain appeal to?’ asked the OPC agent, seeming genuinely baffled.

‘English people,’ said the Prime Minister, coldly.

‘That’s not helpful, Mrs Trace.’

‘All right, a specific section of society, those predisposed towards this kind of extreme reaction. Many, including my predecessor, were inclined to dismiss them as -‘

‘Nuts!’ Alex Bronson’s eyes lit up and he descended on the refreshments trolley, happily grabbing for the pistachios.

‘Foreign Secretary, please. As I said, the knee-jerk reaction is simply to say they are -‘

‘Oooh, fruitcakes!’ Toby Blaine joined Bronson at the refreshments, and started carving himself a generous slice.

April Trace sighed. ‘I mean, you might think they’re just -‘

‘One slice short of a full Swiss Roll, I see,’ Bronson sighed, looking at the woman manning the trolley, who mumbled her apologies.

‘Gentlemen, we are dealing with a crisis,’ said the OPC man, even more frostily than before.

‘Yes, I suppose so,’ muttered the Foreign Secretary, wiping crumbs from his waistcoat absently. April Trace noticed that Toby Blaine was surreptitiously eyeing up a cream horn, even so.

‘So what’s to be done?’ one of the OPC men said, slightly unexpectedly.

‘We need to know what Nigel Brittain is planning to do,’ Blaine said.

‘We need to stop him from doing it,’ Bronson nodded.

‘Oh, really!’ April Trace rolled her eyes. ‘We know what he’s planning – he’s going to come here and try to wreck everything, just like last time – when he nearly succeeded, if you hadn’t forgotten!’

‘That cannot be allowed to happen again,’ one of the OPC men hissed. They really were the Federation incarnate, April Trace thought.

(As I say, it was 2016. The rest of it will most likely never see the light of day. No need to thank me.)

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For a nation which supposedly possesses a classless society, the United States of America often does a good job of looking otherwise. There may not be the delineation of society into a stratified series of groups, defined by their economic and educational status, but one frequently gets a definite sense of certain institutions and regions looking down on others – for a relatively young nation, the States often seem to have a definite mad on for age and tradition.

This occurred to me while watching Sidney Lumet’s celebrated 1976 movie Network, which is an example of one medium commenting on the values and workings of another – not entirely unlike The Post, currently enjoying its own moment of acclaim. However, where The Post is a paean to noble journalism, Network is a scabrous satire – but nonetheless astonishingly prescient for all of that.

The key character is Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a long-serving news broadcaster whose ratings have fallen to the point where he is fired by the network (a deadpan opening monologue recounts the high and low points of Beale’s life, all framed in terms of his TV ratings). Approaching old age, and with his marriage a casualty of his career, Beale feels he has nothing to live for and announces live on air that in a week’s time he will commit suicide on television. Naturally, the producers terminate the broadcast and see that Beale receives support.

Network bosses, amongst them Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), are initially minded to fire Beale on the spot, but when a second live appearance – supposedly an apology, which turns into another scatological rant – draws big viewing figures, they reconsider. Plans have been afoot to downsize the news division of the network, simply because it runs at a considerable loss, but rising young programming executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) sees an opportunity here to give the news a bit more glamour and entertainment value, to the horrified disbelief of traditional news editor Max Schumacher (William Holden).

Despite showing every signs of being in the midst of some kind of psychiatric breakdown, Beale is given his own show where he vents his spleen about the modern world. His repeated cries of ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!’ connect with an audience for whom the oil crisis, Vietnam, and Watergate (to name but three) are still a recent memory, and he becomes a kind of folk hero as ‘the mad prophet of the airwaves’. The network executives are delighted, but do they fully understand the forces they have unleashed?

Almost no-one gets everything right when they try to predict the future, but in criticising what he saw as the state of television at the time, Paddy Chayefsky managed to be almost eerily accurate in suggesting the way that TV news in particular would develop over the following years. There’s a general point about ratings-hungry TV executives being totally bereft of any kind of moral compass or principle, happy to put on anything that gets a good score – ‘gutter depravity,’ in Schumacher’s words – but also some more specific things. The movie predicts the rise of reality TV – one subplot concerns an attempt to mount a TV series, The Mao Tse-Tung Hour, based on the doings of a far-left terrorist group, with members of the group involved in the production – and there is, of course, the film’s depiction of how a possibly-unhinged rabble-rousing populist TV star achieves remarkable power and influence in the nation. No one actually mentions ‘fake news’, but you would not be surprised if they did.

The film starts off looking like a sardonic comedy-drama, and it’s only as it progresses that its wilder elements begin to appear, so gradually that they initially seem like throwaway jokes. Many of its biggest laughs come from its most outrageous moments – there’s a scene where the network lawyers sit down with members of the Communist terror group to work out the contract for the new show, and a snarling revolutionary insists on getting her share of the residual fees, while by the end of the film, the network executives are casually and calmly conspiring to organise an assassination in order to solve their ratings problems.

Despite all this, the characters remain well-drawn and well-performed – the film never quite loses sight of the nature of Schumacher’s affair with Christensen, or the effect it has on his wife. Perhaps this is one reason why the film won three of the big four acting Oscars – Finch’s bravura performance in particular obviously deserved recognition, but I must confess to being a little surprised that Beatrice Straight (playing Holden’s wife) won Best Supporting Actress for a performance where she’s barely on screen for five minutes. The cast is strong throughout; this is yet another film featuring a minor appearance by a (fairly) young Lance Henriksen, who sometimes seems to have been hanging around the set of every noteworthy film of the 70s.

On the other hand, writer Chayefsky sometimes seems to have been as fond of a rant as Howard Beale, and in the closing stages of the film it sometimes feels like everyone gets a chance to deliver an impassioned and largely uninterrupted monologue about their personal beliefs. Beale rants about the death of democracy, the network owner speechifies about the deep truths of market economics, Schumacher rails against the moral vacuum at the heart of the TV medium…

Is it true to say that when Hollywood makes a film about newspapers, it generally depicts the men and women who work on them as generally upstanding and heroic figures, but when it does one about TV, it is much less inclined to be complimentary? It certainly feels that way. Perhaps it is just the case of cinema looking up to an elder medium (print) and looking down on a younger one (the tyranny of the cathode ray tube). You can argue about whether that’s entirely justified or not, but the fact remains that Network is an entertaining and well-argued polemic that history has proven to be on the money about many of its claims.

 

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Quite a few years ago, I saw Shekhar Kapur’s adaptation of The Four Feathers, which was one of those films that almost dropped through the net completely – it didn’t get much of a release, received lukewarm reviews, and didn’t recover its budget. The reason why, I suspect, is that The Four Feathers is a stirring tale of imperial bravery, whereas Kapur’s movie was intended as a deconstruction and critique of colonial attitudes – almost a wilful subversion of the source material.

This sort of approach is very difficult to pull off. Unless you are Paul Verhoeven, apparently, for he does something very similar in his 1997 adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Over ten years earlier Verhoeven had made one of the best SF films of the 1980s in RoboCop, and while I’m not sure I’d make the same kind of claim about Starship Troopers, it’s still a typically provocative and accomplished piece of work.

Some time in the future, Earth has become a gleaming utopia; rather Americanised too, it seems, for even Buenos Aires looks like somewhere in California. Here we find Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), handsome high-school jock, his more academic girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards), and Diz (Dina Meyer), a girl who has a bit of a thing for him. Carmen wants to fly spaceships, so she enlists in the military of the Terran Federation, as this is her best chance of doing so. Johnny follows her into the service, largely to impress her, and Diz joins up to stay close to him.

Carmen gets her wish and ends up in the space fleet, while Johnny and Diz become members of the infantry. Their training proceeds, with only a moderate level of maiming and crippling amongst the recruits, but events are progressing in the wider world, with tensions growing between the Terran Federation and the Arachnids, an arthropod race from the other side of the galaxy. A devastating Arachnid attack on Earth results in Johnny and the others going to war with the invertebrate menace…

Starship Troopers, the movie, has a very strange relationship with its source novel, but this becomes a bit more understandable once you learn that it started existence as a wholly separate entity entitled Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine. When various similarities with Heinlein’s book were noticed, the decision was made to buy the rights to it and retrofit the script to be even closer to the story.

If nothing else, this explains one of the most noticeable differences in the substance of the movie – the novel’s most lasting SF innovation was the invention of powered armour battle-suits, as worn by Rico and the others as they take on the Bugs. Power armour is completely absent from the film, which mainly concerns foot infantry carrying automatic rifles and rocket launchers.

The more significant change is subtler and arguably more interesting. Heinlein’s novel is largely a vehicle for the author’s political views, and as a result the book is very right-wing, to the point where some have accused it of open militarism (written as a piece of SF for younger readers, the original publisher refused to accept it for this reason). However, what is sincerely and seriously presented in the novel is outrageously satirised in the movie – the movie is to some extent parodying the book it is based on.

As a result, Verhoeven and his scriptwriter Ed Neumeier have been criticised for wilfully misrepresenting Heinlein. The movie depicts an implicitly totalitarian, arguably fascist society, where public executions are broadcast live on TV and having a child requires a license, and one of the key points of the book is that its world is still a democratic one. There’s something to this, but on the other hand the book does contain a sequence in which Heinlein argues the case for aggressive war as a moral imperative, on apparently racial grounds.

The important thing is that whatever political commentary Verhoeven is making, it’s entirely implicit: it’s possible to watch Starship Troopers and just come away thinking you’ve watched a lavish SF action-adventure with a somewhat hackneyed story, and this does in fact seem to be what happened on the film’s original release, given the extent to which it apparently baffled audiences and divided critics. Personally I find the nature of the film as another piece of stupendously violent SF satire impossible to miss, no matter how tongue-in-cheek it is (and it is extremely tongue-in-cheek in places) – I’ve even heard it argued that the casting of Denise Richards, an actress whose dramatic range means she is really best qualified to appear in shampoo commercials, is a flag to the audience that this is not meant to be taken seriously.

The difference between RoboCop and Starship Troopers, I suppose, is that at the heart of RoboCop is a genuine and powerful human story, which Verhoeven surrounds with various elements of topical satire, whereas the story of Starship Troopers is a deliberately superficial and corny tale, solely intended as a delivery system for the satire which is what the film is really about. One striking thing about Starship Troopers is the eerie way in which it seems to anticipate American politics and foreign policy, and media coverage of them, in the years immediately after the September 11th attacks. Watching the movie now, it seems resonant and relevant in a way it didn’t at the time it was released.

That said, of course, while the movie may only superficially be an SF action movie, it’s still an extremely accomplished one – Verhoeven knows when to play it straight and pull out a superb set-piece action sequence, and does so at various points in the movie – the Them!-meets-Zulu battle at the outpost is as good as anything in Aliens. He’s helped, of course, by a score from Basil Poledouris, the best composer in the Hollywood if you want to make bombast sound fun (also the only one to play a redshirt in Star Trek), and special effects which still stand up well today. In terms of the casting, Verhoeven seems to have been actively searching for blandly good-looking young actors (see comments on Denise Richards above), but he also finds a chunky role for veteran genre actor Michael Ironside, who delivers a perfectly-pitched performance – I can’t imagine anyone else delivering a line like ‘His brain has been sucked out!’ with quite the same degree of ambiguity – is he playing it absolutely straight or engaged in a deadpan send-up of the whole thing? It’s impossible to tell. Perhaps he’s doing both.

Then again, the same is true of all of Starship Troopers – it’s both an exploitation movie and a vicious parody of exploitation movies, a lavish war film and a parody of war films – apparently hugely excessive and dumb, but at the same time very subtle and clever. The one thing it’s not, except on the most superficial level, is a genuine attempt at an adaptation of Heinlein’s novel. No-one else has made SF movies with the same level of wit and sense of gleeful mischief than Paul Verhoeven, and few people have matched his level of technical ability as a storyteller. Starship Troopers requires you to engage your brain in a way that few other Hollywood SF action movies do, but that’s hardly a criticism, especially when this is what makes it such a rewarding piece of entertainment.

 

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