Diplomacy in Action

Wonderful little nugget within the BBC documentary about the workings of the Foreign Office. Boris Johnson is being briefed by his expert advisor, before he gives a speech in Paris. He’s rather inclined to do the speech in French. She’s not sure about this, and if he plans to do it she wants to see the script. she’s worried that there are nuances he may miss, things he’ll simplify. He burbles a bit in French, as if to demonstrate just how fluent he is. she stays quiet and tight-lipped. Her French is streets ahead of his, but she’s focussing on the job that needs to be done. He’s busy preening, and the whole trip is regularly interrupted by the need for Boris to pose and record a little snatch for his Twitter feed, which he keeps having to reshoot because he gets things wrong. We were paying for all of this, just like Londoners were lashing out thousands for the various vanity projects that marked his time as Mayor. Dangerous to be too confident, but it does finally look as though we’ve seen the end of the illusion that this vain charlatan might be a possible candidate to be in charge of the country.

So Near and Yet So Far

Phew! We got within a point of beating the world champions. Closer than that, we scored a brilliant try which was disallowed after the TMO overruled the ref, but the TMO’s not supposed to do that unless there’s a clear…blah blah blah. On the other hand, if you have a 15-0 lead against the All Blacks and you let it slip, maybe you don’t deserve to win. and we did get a one-point win against the Springboks, on the basis of a very flukey TMO decision, so maybe that’s quits. We had chances, we made mistakes, the line-out was a shambles, and the All Blacks are very resilient. and maybe if the weather had been dry and more conducive to really good rugby, they’d have thrashed us. but it was exciting, and much more cheering than the slough into which the vaunted England team has slipped over the last year. so maybe a bit of the Eddie Jones magic still survives. It was certainly worth watching.

Better than Bodyguard?

People keep referring back to Bodyguuard as the revival of watercooler Tv, the moment when we were all spellbound by great television. As I’vve explained in a previous post, I don’t share this enthusiasm (though I’m a massive Jed Mercurio fan), but catching up with other stuff makes me even more mystified by this chorus of praise. Informer, for instance, seems to me much better. As it happens, there are a number of close points of comparison. Paddy Considine also acts the part of a troubled male with a grim past, but he does it with more conviction and variety, and the impact on his partner is much more carefully traced. The working context of the two main detectives is depicted in much more plausible detail than the endlessly complex netwioorks hinted at in The Bodyguard. And as for the depiction of Asian characters - Informer wins hands down. One of its triumphs has been the close, heartbreaking depiction of a very particular family with Pakistani roots - light years ahead of the extreme cartoon of the woman in Bodyguard - look, she’s a passive female stereo type - oh no, she isn’t, she’s a calculating killer! So if I end up buying the box set of one of these, it won’t be The Bodyguard.

Television Riches

I’ve said it before, but we really are being spoilt with the drama. some diappointments, admittedly. I wrote about Bodyguard on 26.9.18. I had high hopes of Black Earth Rising (spending time and effort exploring the complex morality of Rwanda’s emergence from mass killings, but it’s drifted into self-important solemnity, with Hugo Blick’s vanity being fed right over the top:look, he doesn’t just write, produce and direct - he’s also an actor!

But don’t despair. there’s also Killing Eve, Vanity Fair, The Cry and probably other good stuff I’ve missed. Certainly Informer was far better - tougher, livelier, more complex - than I’d feared it might be, and thanks to reviews I’ve been able to catch up on Butterly. No, a three part drama about a transgender boy/girl on ITV wouldn’t have been my first choice, but it is by Tony Marchant, and it’s definitely worth a look. So, blessings to the gods of television drama, who are keeping us generously supplied. And there’s still Little Drummer Girl to come.

House of Assad

A series of three documentaries, about the recent history of Syria. But with a strong emphasios, and for good reason, on Basher’s family. He’s not meant to be running the country; older brother is being groomed for that, but older brother dies in a car crach. Basher, the shy eye surgeon with the liberated, modern wife, suddenly has to fit in the mould that’s waiting for him - heir to the hawkish, defiant Dad. Ruthless suppressor of criticism or dissent, which actually means he will end up opposed to all the things that he and his wife originally intended to support. Through a series of crises and accidents he blunders his way into destroying large parts of his country, killing his subjects, driving them out of their homes - and all thetime he sounds like an amateur actor who hasn’t learnt the script. There were moments when it could have been different, when advisors with more vision offered him alternatives, but no. He chose to keep his mum happy, to fit into the mould, to make the lying speeches claiming he was defending the country from terrorism, while driving it relentlessly towards oblivion. Heartbreaking, but also fascinating in a morbid kind of way.

Arsenal Poetry

We have, it must be said, paid our dues. Arsenal fans have put up with a load of rubbish and heartbreak over the past few years, so it’s good to have something to warm the cockles of our hearts. Our third goal (from a 5-`1 demolition of Fulham, admittedly) was a thing of beauty - the ball caressed from one player to the next with a series of deft, outrageous touches which somehow transported it from one end of the pitch to the other, enabling Ramsey to guide it into the net with a sublime conjuror’s flick. OK, we haven’t beaten anyone good yet, and the defence very much remains a work in progress, but emery works and he cares, and he’s got the team looking a lot more lively than they have for years. We’ll settle for what we can get, and count ourselves lucky.

The Mighty Redcar

More documentary gold, more pleasure available on catch-up. Didn’t fancy it from the title - “who do these northerners think they are, calling themselves mighty” - but was totally wrong and am delighted to have the chance to change my mind. There’s incidental stuff which isn’t incidental at all - like a brilliant overall commentary, some fabulous photography and really classy contemporary music, all of which add to the pleasure. But the real joy of it is the sympathy with which people are dealt, sometimes even dozy, loser-type people who delude themselves entirely. The stories centre on young people at a very tough time, some of them ludicrously talented, others not so much. but they’re all treated sympathetically, and we get to know and care about them. There’s also a powerful strand running through it, of older mentors, relatives, friends who are looking out for these kids, and trying to help them succeed against the odds. it’s on catch-up. It’s not too late. Go and have a look.

Passage to Britain

There’s a ton of stuff to watch at the moment, lots of it drama, so I tend to skim over the documentaries. But Linda’s much keener on them, and sometimes as I clock in at 10.00pm to pick up some news I catch the end of something she’s been watching. This is how i latched on to “Passage to Britain” and I’m so glad I did. Kid simple idea. Pick three passenger liners, coming from India to Britain, in 1930s, 1940s, 1950s. Pick out some interesting characters, and tell their stories. Except there’s a lot more to it than that, hours of work and research, and presumably an endless budget. Yasmin Khan is talking to a woman in England about her childhood in India, when hey - she takes her back to Calcutta. All right for some. and Yasmin’s a bit special. she looks like an eager sixth-former, all round faced and enthusiastic, but she’s very clear about the bad stuff - the racism experienced by these people who came here to better their lives, often with our encouragement or at our invitation. It’s a really good, detailed, informative story, and i thank the telly gods yet again who have given us catch-up.

Mother's Day

Lots of hysteria about Bodyguard, which is fine. I'm a big Mercurio fan, and will happily watch anything he's created. But won't someone say just how clear, careful and intelligent Mother's Day was? the story of the Warrington bombings, and what followed from them. Irt actually suggested a closer link between the parents of the teenager who died and the Irish mother who campaigned as a result, but that's OK. There was nothing articicial or contrived about this, just a measured, slow look at what was happening to the people involved.

for which you need really good actors. Anna Maxwell Martin, Vicky McClure and Daniel Mays is a good start, but the whole thing oozed class and care, avoiding all the plentiful booby traps into which a quicker, louder, shallower production might have fallen. We didn't have to watch people endlessly sobbing to the sound of violins. But they did turn away, restrain themselves, disagree, and have moments of utter helplessness - just like real people. Nobody else is making much fuss about this, but I will - catch it while you can. 

Rites of Passage

It's been so long. But now Grayson Perry's back, and it's as if he had never been away. He's one of the real TV naturals, talks well, listens well, somehow knows eactly how to react, even with the most potent material - and some of this is heartbreaking. He's looking at funerals, how people face the death of themselves and their loved ones, and how they might devise new rituals of their own. He negotiates this tricky territory with huge charm, sometimes just listening, often laughing, but never imposing himself over the people he's dealing with, always encouraging them to find the words, find the actions, which will help them deal with what they're facing. Utterly uplifting. Don't take my word for it. Watch it. 

Keeping Faith

It's a sad science, working out when and why you give up on a TV series. Keeping Faith looked promising for a while - ravishing settings, camera lingering lovingly on Eve Myles while music played, a steady arc of disintegration carefully outlined...but the simple things were missing, like common sense and plausibility. The police stuff, the child care stuff is deeply unconvincing, and we've seen these things done well so many times that it really shows. Faith's talent as a lawyer seems to consist of looking smart and talking earnestly, which results in some totally incredible courtroom triumphs. she does, of course, cock things up, and one episode finishes with a client's treasured garden totally vandalised, mainly because of her cocky confidence in her own infallibility. "I'm sorry", she intones, "I'm so, so sorry." But in the next episode we don't go back again, to see how bad the damage is. We move on to the next climax, the next crisis for Faith, because she's the only thing the writers think or care about.

Tonight was the parting of the ways. Faith has a crucial hearing in the afternoon, when she might lose her children. She needs character witnesses, so we watch her work through three possibilities, each of which turns her down. Harrowing stuff. But this is on the morning of the actual hearing. Even if they wanted to testify for her, there;'s no way that they'd be available. It's just total nonsense, start to finish. some nice moments, but not enough. 

Magnetic Footage

It's a while since I watched a cricket match with any interest, but the highlights of the last day of this year;s first test against India were totally compulsive. It wasn't perfect cricket. Both sides made mistakes, and it could easily have gone the other way - but it's those tight margins which make it riveting. It's at moments like that that the star performers stand out - and I can't be the only person of my age of thereabouts for whom Ben Stokes is a reminder of Botham in his prime: all that hunger effort and determination.

 

Which brings us all back down to earth when see the footage of the night-club attack for which he must be facing a prison sentence - and yes, there's the same determination and hunger, the refusal to be diverted into wiser, safer alternatives. It's a highly combustible material is male aggression, with huge potential both ways.   

Travels in Trumpland

Seeing advance clips of Ed Balls in a wrestling costume wasn't that enticing. we've seen him prat about before, and it's not an edifying sight. Press reports indicated that Yvette Cooper (who must be wearily familiar with this territory by now) had suggested that there might be red lines which he should be careful bot to cross, and maybe this was one of them...So I wasn't inclined to watch Travels in Trumpland.  

But I was wrong. It's terrific. the silly stuff in thw wrestlibng outfit was actually part of a very intelligent analysis of the parallels between Trump's approach to PR and the atmosphere generated in a wrestling arena - and Ball's expert guide, himself a thoughtful Trump suippurter, agreed totally on the closeness of the similarities. it's not surprising that Balls has all kinds of reservation about Trump, but he doesn't try to thrust these down the throats aoof the very varied and fascinating Trump voters with whom he comes into contact. To my surprise, he has something to Grayson Perry's talent for simply getting on with people, talking to them and listening to what comes back, which make for much more interesting viewing. You watch this series of documentaries, and you end up wiser. It really is as good as that.   

Reporting Trump's First Year

The New York Times, way back at the start of 2017, makes this brave decision that they'll let a TV documentary crew film what goes on inside their offices, as they work out how to respond to the tsunami of news coverage that's implicit in the Trump presidency. In four one-hour episodes we get the fruit of that - a wonderful, lively portrait of intelligent professionals at work, getting the stories but also working out just exactly how the rules have changed. and then there's the impact of Google, and loss of revenue, the need for the paper to reorganise - the only way they can hire the extra investigative reporters they need is to cut down on the editorial staff they used to need when digital was a dream. Lots of people on opposite sides of the fence, both being totally rational. And then there's the buzz of Twitter, to which many reporters are openly addicted. They're smart, they're fast, they're popular - but it isn't always the cleverest way for the paper to be seen...Lots of tough decisions there. It's a wonderful series. Maybe the most chilling moment is watching a Trump rally, where he's directing the crowd's attention to the lying scum of the press - tantamount to urging on a lynch mob. We see the reporters, familiar faces by now, nervously packing up their gear, because this might be the moment when they get attacked. Dangerous times.      

Football Heaven

And the heatwave goes on, apparently for ever. My second poetry outdoor gig of the week involves reading my Jo Cox poem at the Great Get Together picnic, on Much Wenlock Church Green on Sunday afternoon. It lasts from 2.00 till 5.00, but I reckon if I produce lunch early I can just sneak in the first half of the England v. Panama game before I go - 1.00 pm - 1.45. Oh boy. As good a forty-five minute stretch of football as I've seen any England team produce - so many different kinds of good, of thought, of skill. A five-nil lead at half-time - I don't ever remember that. OK, so Panama weren't great, and they moaned about the two (perfectly clear) penalties which were awarded against them, delaying the taking of the kick, in a way which might have worried you in previous years. Not Harry Kane. Bides his time, and when the ref is ready, blasts it into the top left corner of the net. Twice. But there's also Jesse Lingard's sweet goal, all flowing movement and sudden power. Not to mention the hilariously clever rehearsed free-kick routine which produced Stones' second goal. we might win the World cup and we probably won't, but we've already had more pleasure than we could reasonably expect. Thanks, guys.   .   

A Very English Scandal

You're never quite sure what they'll do. Even though there's considerable talents involved (Russell T.Davies writing, Stephen Frears directing) big names can still produce turkeys. But not this time. A Very English Scandal has been a total treat.

At first sight, I wasn't sure. Jaunty music, chirpy camerawork, as though the whole thing were a spiffing wheeze, when it's also a dark parable about the corruption of class and power. I needn't have worried. Those aspects were fully, intelligently explored, but with a tone of laughs on the way, and some terrific acting - Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw, Alex Jennings. All three were given clever things to do and say, so it was always entertaining, but for those of us who remember that time, it was also chillingly recognisable - yes, that's exactly how Thorpe spoke and behaved, that tempting mixture of charm and arrogance. and the level of deceit and self deceit - about homosexuality, and power, and morality - was almost incredible.

Except that - thanks to the cussedness of Tom Mangold, a nosey reporter who didn't accept the Director General's advice that his documentary should be ditched, we have the conclusive evidence of his film, buried at the time because of the surprise acquittal - virtually demanded by the judge - which got Thorpe off and added to the further humiliation of Norman Scott. some things have got better. 

Manchester Hate

It's a year on from the Manchester bombing, so there'll be some looking back, to see what's happened since. If it's all as good as tonight's documentary, we'll be fine. Most of it was really heartening, with the community determined to hold together, heal the wounds, insist on a multi-cultural community which would not be torn apart by fanatics. The efforts of the police and the imams, often working together (to their own surprise) were heart-warming.

The downside was the gangs of feral kids, some of them 10 or 12, who feel they now have the licence to shout at, spit at and attack anyone who might possibly be Muslim. The problem is taken seriously, and again the police are working their socks off to try to tackle it, but when they get the kids into custody centuries of resentment kick in. "What's your name?" No comment. "Why did you kick her?" No comment. "How do you think she feels?" No comment. it's a pointless, mindless ritual which says "Don't bother. You're not dealing with anything rational here. I just hate them, and I'm not going to change." Huge problem. But a good programme.   

The Split

Oh boy. I've always been a fan of the playwright Abi Morgan - loved Sex Trafficking, though less keen on The Hour (which pinched its central situation from the film Broadcast News, without sustaining its power). But The Split is a real treat. A bit glossy, sure, and unashamedly feminist - big family drama, with Mum and three daughters, right? But it's so intelligent, and the fact that they're almost all divorce lawyers gives the scope for all kinds of exploration into middle-aged marriage/fidelity/honesty/cowardice/boredom. Beautifully done and acted, with tonight's climax a dinner party scene where lone rebel Nina decides this is the right moment to tall the rest of the family where they're going wrong - in detail,. and one at a time. They can all see it coming, knows she's had too much to drink, try to talk her out of it - but no. She wants this scene, so here it comes. Just wonderful. 

Alfie Evans

Generally, I plan to keep up with the news, but there are some stories i just can't bear to follow. The current one is Alfie Evans, the terminally ill baby whose parents are desperate to keep him alive, against the considered opinion of medical professionals. It's a desperate situation for everyone, but what makes it unbearable is the hysteria of those who seek to exploit it. the Christian missionary Christine Broesamle, for instance, proudly proclaims that "Alder Hey hospital really hates me because I've worked so hard for Alfie's defence." Presumably she thinks that they haven't, that the hospital is part of the attack on Alfie, so the more anger and rage that can be generated against hospital workers, the better it is for Alfie's side. It's so blinkered, intolerant and sure of its own rectitude. I don't know what should happen. But I do know that it's complicated and good people are working hard to try to resolve it. Pretending that it's a kind of Star Wars battle between good and evil isn't any kind of answer. 

Stephen Lawrence

Amazing how some names retain their potency for years. just those two words, and the images flood back - five stroppy youths, looking for a fight with an angry crowd. the three part TV series did a good job of tracking over the ground, and incidentally threw up a wonderful contrast in police attitudes. the hardened professional, who'd worked in the Met for over twenty years, and just knew it wasn't racist - so all that evidence, analysis, and thought just wasted. throw it down the drain. But then there was the real hero of the piece, a slightly fussy, very old-fashioned guy who didn't seem to be anything special but actually made all the difference, by a meticulous search for and analysis of the evidence that the earlier inquiry had so blatantly mishandled. some things do get better, if only a bit at a time.