Archive | September, 2013

Why everything you thought you knew about Citizen Kane and Hamlet is wrong

23 Sep

ImageCitizen Kane was shown on BBC4 last night. Everyone has their own take on this classic – one of my first published pieces of journalism was about the links between Citizen Kane and Alan Moore’s graphic novel The Watchmen – but I am still intrigued by something Geoff Andrew pointed out to me a long time ago. Geoff was the Film Editor of Time Out, now head programmer at BFI Southbank, and he remarked on the fact that though the whole film is supposedly framed by a journalist’s quest to discover the meaning of “Rosebud”, the word Kane whispers with his dying breath, there was no one in the room to hear it.

It follows logically that the whole film must be taking place in Kane’s head, his life flashing before his eyes.

There is a similar revisionism in Nick Hytner’s astonishing 2010 production of Hamlet, which gets an encore screening on October 22 as part of the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary celebrations. I’ve seen more than a dozen Hamlets over the years, from Jonathan Pryce summoning up the ghost of his father in a guttural voice from deep within himself to Michael Sheen in a mental asylum, deluded into believing that all the world’s a stage and that he is merely playing Hamlet in it. Hytner’s is one of the most interesting and well-rounded.


Rory Kinnear as Hamlet, Ruth Negga as Ophelia — was her death suicide, or murder?

Anyway, Hytner evidently noticed something that every other director has overlooked: the death of Ophelia makes no sense. That long, lyrical description of her floating down the river, “till that her garments, heavy with their drink, pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay to muddy death” – if someone witnessed the scene for long enough to describe it thus to the Queen, why did they not step in to help?

Hytner’s conclusion is that after Ophelia went mad, Claudius had her assassinated, and the drowning story was concocted to cover it up. This, after all, is a man who has already killed his own brother, and in the context of Hytner’s modern production, with burly security guards with ear-pieces always standing at the ready and the palace a hot-bed of back-stabbing intrigue, it makes perfect sense. A fun one for the Diana conspiracists, too.

Incidentally, Rory Kinnear as Hamlet at one point adopts a smiley-face T-shirt with the word ‘Villain’ under it — “oh, villain, villain, damned smiling villain!… One may smile and smile, and be villain” — which brings us back full circle to Alan Moore’s The Watchmen.

I strongly suggest you book for the one-off screening. If it captures anything of the brilliance of the original live production, you’re in for a treat.


The Hartlepool Monkey: how we made comic-book history

21 Sep

ImageSummer’s always full of comics turned into films. We’ve had Superman, Iron Man 3, Wolverine, 2 Guns, Red II and Kick Ass II, with R.I.P.D. still to come. But comics aren’t all about superheroes – in fact this year’s Cannes Palme D’Or winner, Blue Is The Warmest Colour (opening Nov 15 in the UK), was based on a graphic novel.

The world of comics is much more diverse than some people realise, as demonstrated by The Hartlepool Monkey, a French graphic novel which I co-translated with the multi-award-winning Frank Wynne, published in the UK in early October. It’s based on the true story (the details of which are shrouded in legend) of a monkey who was washed ashore from a wrecked Napoleonic vessel, and hanged by the Hartlepool locals who mistook the small, hairy brute for a Frenchman.

To this day, the Hartlepool football team has a monkey as its mascot. In a bizarre twist of fate, the man in the monkey suit ran for mayor in 2002 on a platform of free bananas for school children… and won. He was even reelected in 2005 and 2009.

The graphic novel is terrific, so much so that it recently won the prestigious “Rendez-vous de l’histoire” prize, awarded by a distinguished panel of historians. Sadly, my excitement at opening an advance copy was somewhat diminished by discovering that the English-language edition had one salient omission: our translators’ credits were mistakenly left off! Ah well. Virtue is its own reward. (And the fee, of course.)

You can find advance previews here: Propermag, The Times (paywalled), Hartlepool Mail, Forbidden Planet, and The Crack magazine. To pre-order from Amazon, click here.


One’s a movie, the other’s a film: About Time vs. The Great Beauty

16 Sep

Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams in About Time

I went to the cinema twice this weekend. It occurred to me afterwards that both films were about the same thing – love, and loss, and ageing, and how looking back stops you looking forward, or how sometimes not looking back stops you looking forward. The first film was Richard Curtis’s About Time, his “new funny film about love, with a bit of time travel”; the second was Paolo Sorrentino’s Palme d’Or-nominated The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza).

I enjoyed About Time. It was simple (I mean that in a good way) and occasionally moving. The young lead, Domhnall Gleeson (formerly Bill Weasley in Harry Potter), was surprisingly good; Rachel McAdams grinned her way gamely through an underwritten part that called for her to be incessantly endearing (she even gives way to the groom on every detail of wedding planning, which stretches credulity more than the time travel!); and Bill Nighy, as the doting dad, does that bumblingly cool Bill Nighy thing that Bill Nighy always does.

But, when you watch The Great Beauty straight after, you realise quite how shallow, manipulative and manufactured Curtis’s effort is in comparison. About Time is just a movie; The Great Beauty is a film. Unlike in Curtis’s best work, such as Four Weddings and Notting Hill, not a single moment seems real: the embarrassment  of being asked to rub sun-cream on a beautiful girl’s back, and squirting it prematurely all over her; or of blurting out something about blow jobs when your girlfriend’s parents turn up out of the blue – these are all movie moments, unrooted in real life.


Tony Servillo and Sabrina Ferilli in The Great Beauty

Whereas The Great Beauty, caricature of empty Roman high society though it is, is full of understated glimpses of truth. Every character, however parodic, has his or her moment: the Cardinal who is more interested in cooking tips than in spirituality; the ageing woman who looks down at her younger lover, as he swims against the current in their indoor pool, and knows that he is cheating on her; and all the peculiar bit-part players on the stage of the Roman night that the 65-year-old writer protagonist observes as the strolls through the streets in his immaculate suit: the tourists, the drunks, the nuns, the Muslims, the stick-thin dog-walkers and even, bizarrely and briefly, Fanny Ardant as herself.

About Time wraps its message up neatly with a little red bow: who needs time travel, when all of us, in our lives, are travelling through time; the object is to use that time wisely. The Great Beauty, in contrast, defies simple explanation. At times it feels like a thriller, where you are not trying to work out whodunnit, but whydunnit. It’s fragmented, often frustrating, breaking every Save The Cat rule of screenwriting, with no clear plot in sight nor objective for the protagonist. It’s also luminously beautiful and, despite its veneer of cool detachment, almost unbearably moving.  

As a writer, I’m much more Curtis than Sorrentino. I’ve even written my own time travel romance. I too have a tendency to wrap things up for the viewer in a neat little bow.

Watching The Great Beauty is a timely reminder that film can be more than a novel, greater than plot. It can ask some of the great questions in life and, precisely by not answering them, force the viewer to supply their own response.  


Colonel Badd: watch the full interview with a supervillain

11 Sep

The poker scene at the end of Colonel Badd. Your humble scribe is the hook-handed villain in the middle

It’s up! Colonel Badd, the interview with a supervillain that I co-scripted, and that was accepted into the Cannes Short Film Corner this year, is now viewable in full online: click here.

It seems like a lot more than a year ago since I met director Tony Errico in a Soho cafe, and pitched him my involvement by letting loose a series of increasingly loud villainous laughs (the other cafe clients affected not to notice. Londoners, eh? They’ve seen it all). The end result is far from perfect – the zero budget shows in the sets, or rather lack of them, and I feel it’s a tad long – but it’s a great premise, and has some good laughs. You get to hear my American accent in the final scene, where I’m doing my best to play poker with a hook for a hand.

See what you think. There’s a little twist in the end credit sequence, so stay with it…

We’ve all learned hugely from the experience, and Tony’s now making a new short called The Left Hand Path, with a proper budget this time. Which is where you, gentle reader, come in. Take a look at the crowdfunding page at Indiegogo, and consider making a contribution.

I’m not involved – I’ve been doing a short with Ben Charles Edwards and Sadie Frost, which is in post-production and looking FANTASTIC; more anon – but I’m glad to give Tony a plug. He’s a great guy, very collaborative, full of ideas, and I’m sure the film’s going to be great.



Frost/Wells: when David Frost quizzed me on drugs*

1 Sep

ImageR.I.P. David Frost, one of the true giants of British broadcasting, who died of a heart attack last night on the Queen Elizabeth cruise ship, where he was to have given a speech. He was the Paxman of his day, but without the beard.

Starting as a satirist in That Was The Week That Was, he moved on to more “serious” interview programmes, and was a co-founder of London Weekend Television in 1968, and of TV-AM in 1983. How many news presenters have had Michael Sheen playing them in a Hollywood movie? (Frost/Nixon, 2008)

Slightly less earth-shatteringly than Nixon, I, too, was one of Frost’s interviewees. It was in 1994, and for the first time I had just devoted a whole issue of Time Out magazine to a single topic: drugs. I ran a four-page news investigation by Tony Thompson; a readers’ survey (86% had smoked dope, and about half had taken ecstasy, LSD and cocaine); a consumer guide to the different drugs, listing both beneficial and harmful effects (put together by Andrew Tuck, now editor of Monocle, and Susannah Frankel, who became The Independent’s fashion editor); and, most illuminatingly, I got five journalists to keep a diary of their experiences while actually under the effect of five different drugs.

This wasn’t done in a cavalier fashion. I had had enough friends lose their minds or their lives. And yet the prevailing political attitude was “all drugs are bad”, symbolised by Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” campaign. If the rhetoric held cannabis to be as harmful as heroin, it’s not surprising young people stopped believing the official line, and started necking anything they could get their hands on. They needed a voice they could trust, to tell them exactly which drugs did what – what, in short, the highs and the lows were. That voice, I thought, should be Time Out’s.


David Frost in 2005, conducting an interview with Donald Rumsfeld

It won me the first of four BSME Editor of the Year awards, and also landed me on ITV’s The Frost Programme, an audience-based news show a bit like Question Time. An unexpectedly articulate Rat Scabies of punk group The Damned was seated next to me. Rat, or “Mr. Scabies”, as Frost kept calling him, was on the pro-drugs side; some Tory MP supplied the anti; I was the moderating influence in between.

Two things stand out in my mind, 19 years on. One was being asked outright by David Frost if I had ever taken drugs myself. This was not something public figures admitted to in those days; it would be years still before Bill Clinton’s typically evasive, lawyer’s answer that he had smoked dope but “didn’t inhale”. These days Obama can ‘fess up to it whole-heartedly with scarcely a dent in his ratings. My candour brought a round of applause.

The other was that I interrupted the Tory MP in mid-flow. He was holding forth pompously about the perils of drug-use, reciting a pre-prepared list: “Side-effects include nausea, dizziness, euphoria, short-term memory loss…”

“Excuse me,” I butted in, “but it seems to me only a Tory politician could describe ‘euphoria’ as a harmful side-effect.”

It got a laugh, and the Tory MP struggled to regain any authority. Good times.

* Quizzed me about drugs, that is. Frost himself was not on drugs at the time. Or not that I know of.