Room for one more look back at 2011? My Guardian Telly Addict review of the TV year went up on New Year’s Eve, and I fear it may have been missed in all the excitement. I know it’s 2012 now and we’re all about the future and Sherlock and Endeavour and Treasure Island (all of which I’ll be dealing with this Friday), but if you fancy being reminded of what was on telly between April and December last year, and see my mouth moving about in between, have a look.
Well, that’s enough lists. How about I sum up 2011 in terms of things that came and went, and stuff that went right and wrong. This was a year of momentous news from around the world, some of it uplifting, much of it troubling. The so-called Arab Spring, which seems not to recognise the seasons, has been both. The disparity between the Level 7 meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in March and George Monbiot’s turncoat “green” conversion to nuclear power made it a very confusing world. I can no longer treat Monbiot as a beacon of common sense.
I’ve long admired Will Hutton, but his assessment of the current Tory government’s handling of the Eurozone crisis – that Cameron is not in politics for the sake of politics, merely to feather nests for his toff mates and then move on, hence his veto on behalf of the Square Mile – puts him back at the top of media commentators I take notice of. I have found the news to be the most compelling narrative of the year, despite all those films and TV shows I usually write about. It’s hard not to feel utterly powerless when capitalist institutions are allowed to go about their merry business even after they’ve fucked it up for everybody.
Certainly we can protest and we can occupy and we can boycott (I can’t wait for my contract with Vodafone to end so that I can extract myself from their dirty dealing with HMRC, although let’s face it, one telecommunications giant is as shifty and shareholder-beholden as another); but the financial system that governs us all is not something that anybody can control, seemingly. And governments aren’t in a hurry to change it.
One goes on with one’s life. I find ecological tumult and civil unrest more worrying than the failure of financial services, although it’s the money markets that have turned me, not uniquely, into a penny-pincher. Another year of cuts at home, and no holiday. This is the way we live now; when I spend time among my friends and family, we all seem to be talking about money – the rising cost of utilities, rip-off Britain, bargain-hunting, vouchers, the shocking injustices of curbed council spending and rising unemployment in the public sector – this is the national conversation. In this regard, I think I’d rather spend time with people who don’t work in the pampered media. I find I’ve had a more serious 2011 than I expected.
I ended my flirtation with stand-up comedy in 2010 and I’ve not looked back. I’m quite happy to let others stand up and make me laugh. I missed Edinburgh, in both senses of the word, but I needed to make a break from my silly fantasy about becoming a comedian. I’m too old for all that, and much better off trying to get better at writing scripts.
I spent a lot of time interviewing Iain Morris and Damon Beesley this year for a long piece about the genesis of The Inbetweeners for Word magazine, work that I’m inordinately proud of. Instead of trying to be them, I was happy enough translating their testimonies into what I think was a clear and entertaining read. I’m not a journalist, but I do get a big kick out of seeing my words on a printed page. I love printed pages.
It was a surprise to find myself engaged on a professional basis by the Guardian, a newspaper I’ve never managed to get into by the front entrance. I’ve been reviewing telly and harvesting my own clips on a weekly basis under the guise of Telly Addict since April, and it’s a proper thrill when it goes live on their website, almost in secret, around midnight on a Friday. I like the fact that all 33 of my little eight-minute films, most of them directed and edited by the indefatigable Andy Gallagher, are available to view. I don’t really know what my job at the Guardian is – am I a critic now? – but I do know that it’s possible to work for them without anybody outside of the digital republic knowing I’m in the building.
On a slightly more even keel, this has been my tenth year at Radio Times, and even though its publisher, BBC Magazines, has been sold to the highest private-sector bidder in order that the Corporation can “deliver quality first” to a Tory government that despises it, I seem to have survived another upheaval. I only really go to the office once a week, but it’s nice to have a bit of routine in the midst of an otherwise amorphous and insecure career. Long may they keep me on. It’s a paper magazine that still sells a million copies in an age when paper is on the way out, or so we keep being told. It’s too big – and represents something even bigger – to fail!
I survived 2011 without succumbing to the iPhone or the Kindle. I feel very good about this. For a start, I can’t justify the expense. For another thing, I still value not being connected. I spent two days at my parents’ house this week and I checked my emails once, on their PC (as it was officially a working day and I am self-employed). If I’d had a smartphone, I would have been tempted to check them every five minutes and it would have tainted a happy visit. Once I’m online, I will check Twitter. So, best not to be constantly online. I retain mixed feelings about social networking, and feel pure for boycotting Facebook and all the other ones, but Twitter entertains and informs me. Unfortunately it can also show the worst aspects of human nature in action: pettiness, meanness, disruption, cruelty, idiocy. I am constantly pruning in this regard. And I love carting unwieldy books around in my already-too-heavy bag. I love it.
One must make social networking work for you; one must not work for it. The adventure with Boston’s Andrew Collins on Twitter, who was so kind and sporting, and let me have his Twittername in March, was a heartwarming slice of human interaction across two continents. I wish it could all be like that.
I thank Martin White and Danielle Ward for giving me the chance to show off, every couple of months, at Karaoke Circus. This is as close as I get to being in a gang, or a club. And it’s certainly the closest I get to being a performer. Many things have ended this year. Let’s hope Karaoke Circus keeps going, in some form or other, in 2012. Again, it represents the 99% of human nature that’s silly and supportive and kind, rather than begrudging and abusive and self-aggrandising.
I do not get on the telly very much (I’m not saying that in a Richard Herring “Pleeeease let me be on the telly” kind of way), so I guess it’s rather apt that over Christmas I’ll be seen on two talking heads shows – Epic: A Cast Of Thousands, BBC4, December 24, 10.40pm, repeated December 28, 11.40pm; and The Greatest Ever Carry On Films, Channel 5, December 27, 10.05pm – the sort of programme that people expect me to be on. (C4 repeated The 100 Greatest Toys from last Christmas, and it’s amazing how many people remarked upon it, many assuming it was new.) I know my place. I’m not going to be picked to present anything, or to appear on Have I Got News For You, so it’s nice to be asked to pontificate and busk at a three-quarters angle every now and again. Keep your ambitions small and avoid disappointment!
I am 46. I have been skulking in reception of The Media since 1988. That’s 23 years in, or near, showbiz. And yet I still get excited about having my photo taken with someone famous. Long may this continue. I am cynical in many ways. I literally disbelieve the news. I distrust every single politician on television. I am tempted by every conspiracy theory going. I assume everyone is corrupt, or simply in it for the money. And yet … give me half a chance to grin next to Jean Marsh or John Humphrys for a camera, and I will, happily. You should never get jaded. I can’t believe I’m still so starstruck, but I am, and that little burst of twinkly innocence is worth hanging on to.
I took delivery of a new Apple MacBook Pro this year. I am using it right now. It turns out to have a fault with the Ethernet input. Not something most users would even notice. But I tried to connect it up to my stubbornly old-school broadband router at home and the Mac would not recognise the cable. However, if you plug it into my old MacBook, which is all sluggish and tired, it works. Hence: it’s the socket, not the cable, or the router. I cannot be arsed to take it into the menders, so have brought my old MacBook out of retirement and now use it at home if I need to get online. In this, my enduring love-hate relationship with Apple – and my inert tendency towards Luddism – flourishes. I feel bad that Steve Jobs worked and fine-tuned himself to death. Nobody should let their work kill them, but from where I’m sitting, that looks to be what happened. I will not let my work kill me. In 2011, I kept my weekends largely for “family time”, which includes DIY, digging holes in the garden, baking biscuits and, frankly, doing nothing or catching up with what’s on the Sky+ from the week. I’ve worked Saturday mornings on 6 Music for some of the year, but only because I want to maintain my relationship with the station, and with its listeners. And who turns down work? I’m sad that they’re taking me and Josie off the air for at least a couple of months in 2012, but I’ll be glad to have my Saturday mornings back.
I first met Josie Long in 2008, when I made my debut at one of Robin Ince’s inclusive comedy nights at Battersea Arts Centre. I have performed on the same bill as her – thanks to Robin, and Karaoke Circus – on many an occasion since. But this year was the first time I’d worked with her. It was an experiment on the part of 6 Music, and I feel that it worked. I am certainly grateful to have had the chance to work with her, as she is a breath of fresh air on many levels, and she has changed me for the better. She seems built for the tumultuous times we live in. I think I was built for the 80s, so it’s good to get an upgrade, politically speaking.
The August riots were horrible. They spread like a very fast rash down to my end of South West London, but did not actually reach my high street, despite all signs that they might. (If the riots did any good, it was in binding communities: I found myself in meaningful conversation about social unrest with the old lady who works in my local newsagent, and the lady in the queue behind me. It’s good to talk.) When Clapham Junction was looted and despoiled, I could almost smell the smoke. I identify with some of the anger that clearly underpinned the mini uprisings – about reduced public services, job losses and the overarching disparity between ordinary people and the fabled 1% – but I’m comfortable enough in work and at home for this not to find an outlet in stealing some trainers. However, forgive me, but anything that makes David Cameron even momentarily uncomfortable is fine by me. I want him to think, “Shit, why didn’t I just stick to my cushy job in PR?” on a daily basis. This is, after all, his adventure and we’re powerless to opt out of it – so no wonder sparks fly and blameless local traders are smoked out of their livelihoods by enraged but directionless youths.
We all have to eat. We all have to work, or at least try to work. I don’t know how the rest of you cope with kids. It’s expensive enough feeding and heating two adults and a cat. Those of us who are self-employed must take work where we can get it. I have been paid by Rupert Murdoch this year, on more than one occasion. I also pay him to deliver satellite television into my house and for one of the Sunday newspapers. Principles are harder to come by in a recession. Equally, I doubt if Rupert Murdoch knows that Sky1 has a new sitcom called Gates in production, one of whose writers is me. (He would have us believe that he doesn’t know anything much about what happens at the various companies he runs, of course. But he’s lying about a lot of that.) I still regret crossing the NUJ picket line in November 2010. The fact that I refused to cross it when they went on strike this summer reflects, I hope, a re-hardening of my old principles. As far as I know, only myself and Lauren Laverne stayed away from 6 Music on that day. I do not believe in name-calling, and it must be up to the individual conscience, but in 2010, when times were even less hard than they are now, I allowed a fear of loss of earnings to influence what became, for me, a practical, dispassionate decision. I learned this summer that it cannot be made without passion.
At the end of the year, I find myself more serious, more passionate, more realistic. I think I still have a few more years of energy left in me, and I suspect I will need to make the most of them if this laughably gelatinous career is going to see me through to anything approaching retirement.
The elephant in the room for 2011 remains my relationship with Richard Herring, which effectively ground to a halt after Podcast 166 [pictured above, with oddly prescient absences where he and I should be on his sofa in the attic]. I didn’t realise I was bringing it to an end when I made my momentous decision to work with another comedian on 6 Music, but history tells us that it was my doing. I feel sad that it came to an end without the chance to say goodbye. When, 21 weeks later, we tried to mend things, it was, again, my decision to knock it on the head after Podcast 167, which is literally the only podcast I have never listened to. It was too painful, and I didn’t enjoy recording it, so had no enthusiasm to listen to it, as I have traditionally done since February 2008. I was always the only one of us who listened back to the work. Richard was, perhaps correctly, more inclined to let it go and move on. Having kept going through the “tiny Andrew Collings” storm, I assumed we would go on forever. I was wrong. I retain a tiny hope that Richard and I will reconnect, if not professionally, then personally. I really like him, after all. And we did some amazing stuff together. We even got paid for some of it. Friendships do have a habit of hoving in and out of view. I have old friends I’ve not seen for years but whom I still consider to be friends. So all hope is not lost. Lots of things began and ended in 2011, but this was the biggest and most difficult.
Such things are sent to try us. I expend an awful lot of energy trying to be nice and decent and polite and moral, so it was unpleasant to have upset a friend in a way I hadn’t anticipated. But at least I never called him a “mong.” That would be unforgiveable.
Hey, it’s nearly Christmas. I could do with a couple of days off. Thanks for reading this blog this year. I am always surprised by how many visitors I get a day, even when I’ve not posted anything new for a week. I have so much work to do I don’t really have time to write this. Or to take a couple of days off. But sanity is important.
Here’s to many more vouchers in the year ahead. We must not let the bastards grind us down. You know who the bastards are.
Here, then, after much deliberation are my Top 27 LPs of 2011. I’ve placed them carefully in order of greatness, but, to dust down an old cliché, if they are in this list, they are great. (Also, by the time you are about halfway down, you can barely get a cigarette paper between them.) I know it doesn’t matter in the broader scheme of things, but I have spent the past couple of weeks intensively listening again to the contenders for the Top 10, sometimes mixing them up on my iPod so that I don’t know what’s coming next, which may be counter to the spirit of the album, but it helped me make some difficult choices. There’s nothing like the feeling when a track comes up on shuffle from a playlist comprising only your favourite albums of the year and you don’t immediately recognise it but you know you love it. That way, impartial assessment can be achieved. So …
1. Rob St. John Weald
2. Ghostpoet Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam
3. Metronomy The English Riviera
4. The Horrors Skying
5. James Blake James Blake
6. Adele 21
7. Jonnie Common Deskjob
8. The Kills Blood Pressures
9. Battles Gloss Drop
10. Elbow Build A Rocket Boys!
11. Luke Haines 9½ Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and Early 80s
12. The Wild Swans The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years
13. Katy B On A Mission
14. Death Grips Ex-Military
15. Bon Iver Bon Iver
16. Anna Calvi Anna Calvi
17. Chris T-T Disobedience
18. TV On The Radio Nine Types Of Light
19. Lymes Goodbye Bangkok
20. Little Dragon Ritual Union
21. Frank Turner England Keep My Bones
22. Los Campesinos! Hello Sadness
23. Bombay Bicycle Club A Different Kind Of Fix
24. Alex Turner Submarine
25. Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi Rome
26. Das Racist Relax
27. Martin John Henry The Other Half of Everything
Here’s what happens now: you’ll post comments beneath this list and ask me why I haven’t included an album you love, and it will be because of one of these two reasons – I haven’t heard the album, or I don’t like it enough to put it in my Top 27. So, no King Of Limbs by Radiohead or PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake. It’s just a matter of taste. There’s something very odd about liking one of the most successful albums of all time – Adele’s 21 – but I’ve had it for most of this year and I’m still enjoying listening to it. I can’t help liking so many of this year’s Mercury shortlist either – that’s just the way the cards fell. I have no desire to shock you with my obscurity or impress you with my cool. I am 46.
I do like the fact that my list is bookended by two Scottish-based solo records with a similarly pastoral/geographical looking cover, and that both are solo debuts, too. That seems entirely apt. I’ve found my love of music reinvigorated this year, as I’ve stated for the record elsewhere – by depping on 6 Music, by watching Later…, by hanging around Josie Long, and by the fact that smaller labels tend to put handwritten notes in with things, and that makes me take notice. I like that this has happened, as I was worried that I could no longer form new relationships with artists. This turns out not to be true. I’m genuinely more excited about the new than I am about the old as this year turns into another one.
Enough of my yakkin’ – let’s play some records!
Well, I’d love to bring you my favourite books of 2011, but I made a New Year’s Resolution on January 1 to only read book this year that I already own. I felt that this was a genius idea: I’ve got loads of books I’ve bought but never read and what better time than a global financial downturn to make the most of what I’ve already got? My bookshelves are groaning under the weight of mostly non-fiction books which I accumulated during the good years when more of my income was disposable. Staring down the barrel of another straitened year, and gazing up at all those unread books – books that I really wanted to read! – I had my eureka moment.
Thus, my 2011 has not been one of exciting new books. It has been one of exciting old books. I’ll be honest, I’ve not exactly torn through a lot of them. I put this down to two things: the New Yorker, again, which continues to fill my reading hours on public transport, and the news itself, which has required closer reading of the Guardian on a daily basis, as the international political and economic situation has become ever more compelling and grave, and more closely tied in with the way we live now.
My book-reading choices have been tied in with this. I vowed to finally finish Andy Beckett’s stirring and enlightening When The Lights Went, his study of Britain’s political 70s, which I’d carried over from the year previous. But guess what, I still haven’t finished it! Why? Especially when I love it so much? Because, around chapter 15, Brent Vs The Cotswolds, which looks in detail at the flashpoint Grunwick strike of 1976-1978, Beckett starts to quote in earnest from The Path To Power, Margaret Thatcher’s second autobiography. (She wrote The Downing Street Years first, then worked backwards.) I remembered that I’d bought The Path To Power a few years ago when I was planning a novel set during the Falklands war. It’s doubly ironic really – that I would even dream of writing a novel, when my publisher would in fact only allow me to write memoirs; and that The Path To Power ends just as Thatcher takes office, and thus does not cover the Falklands. Beckett’s book ends with Thatcher’s victory in 1979, as does The Path To Power. These books form an interesting pair. Although Beckett writes from the left, his account of the decade is fair-minded. Thatcher’s account is much more ideological and one-sided, as you’d expect. (In fact, you’d ask for your money back if it wasn’t.)
I decided to take it off the shelf and read it because I have a simple theory that the rot for this country set in during her long reign in the 1980s. However, she didn’t just turn up in 1979 and ruin everything, as Beckett’s book reminds us. And you need context if you’re to understand what went wrong. And something really did go wrong. The wreckage lies all around us. I hoped that reading about Thatcher’s formative years, I would come to understand why she dismantled British industry, broke up communities, screwed public services, sold us all down the home ownership river and turned us all into selfish bastards who’d do anything to get a better car than our neighbour’s. I’m still 100 pages off finishing – she’s currently telling me all about her international trips made as Leader of the Opposition and why it’s sometimes necessary to shake hands with dictators, and even socialists – but I think I’m starting to understand her.
She’s a far more complex and yet way more ideological individual than you’d ever guess from the forthcoming The Iron Lady film, with Meryl Streep. (I’ll be reviewing that in January – it’s pretty disappointing, I’ll tell you that much in advance.) Her belief in free market economics was sown early on, and her pathological distaste for “statism” as she always calls it, and the namby-pamby trappings of collectivism and socialism merely harden in office. It’s fascinating to read her gearing up for power, and how Labour handed it to her on a plate in 1979 under Callaghan, who attended a summit in the Caribbean sunshine during the Winter of Discontent. You rather suspect Thatcher would have snubbed Carter, D’Estaing and Schmidt to stay at home and drive through the streets in a tank.
In all, a fascinating book, albeit sometimes boring, as political memoirs tend to be, and a valuable insight not just into the woman who, I still maintain, ruined Britain, but to the climate that allowed that to happen.
I like films. And Scenes From A Revolution by Mark Harris sated my interest in this regard. Again, an old book – it came out in this ugly-looking hardcover version in 2008 – it looks in laser-surgical detail at the five films nominated for best picture in 1968 and what they tell us about the industry’s paradigm shift from the old-style roadshow-based studio system and the new, counterculture-reflecting handover of power from producers to directors and writers – Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate, In The Heat Of The Night and Doctor Dolittle. It’s a poor title, as well as a horrible cover, but the book inside is engrossing, and full of great trivia! I do have a tendency to get into books that are either hardbacks or just massive, like Thatcher’s, which means they only get read at home. This makes the going very slow indeed. But Scenes From A Revolution, in skipping back and forth between each film as it grinds ever closer to release, has a lovely momentum. As you leave one film in production, you can’t wait to return to it, to see how it’s getting on, and this maintains your interest through the whole book. Frankly, I already knew the story of how Hollywood changed hands in the late 60s, but not, I found, in this much detail.
I thoroughly enjoyed Post Everything, Luke Haines’ follow-up to Bad Vibes, his rewrite of Britpop history. This is the only new book I read this year, and that’s because it was kindly sent to me. He is an incredibly funny writer, and afraid of no one, which is why his humour is so cutting. Haines is the only person alive to have a book in my Top 5 and an LP in my Top 20 (which I haven’t posted yet, bear with me).
And that’s kind of it for my literary year. I also have a copy of Pete Doggett’s The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie and The 1970s, which someone kindly sent me and which is clearly a work of admirable industry about a man I love in a decade I love, but it’s not one for reading; rather, it’s for dipping into, which I have been doing.
I broke my New Year’s Resolution in November and bought a clutch of quiz books with which to test my general knowledge for Celebrity Mastermind, the best of which are pictured above, two from the Best Pub Quiz Book Ever series, which I came to rely on as a portable brain gym. I also caved a couple of weeks ago and bought a brand new paperback copy – from an actual bookshop! – of Keynes: Return of the Master by Robert Skidelsky, first published in 2009, which I’ve sneakily started reading as I’m pretty sure I’m a hardcore Keynesian but wanted to double check. (If Thatcher hates him, I’m probably going to love him.) Skidelsky positions JMK in the midst of today’s economic crisis, and his description so far has clarity on its side. I’ll get back to this when I’ve finished the other two books about British political history I’ve mentioned.
I’ve been glancing jealously over the endless book roundups in the newspapers and I wish I’d been able to read Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, which is constantly mentioned in dispatches, and the much-fancied Walter Isaacson bestseller Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography, and I wish I could have afforded to buy The 9/11 Wars by Jason Burke in hardback as it would look nice on my hardbacks shelf even if I’d not got around to reading it yet, but these are hard times. Maybe I’ll get to them next year. I’m thinking about rolling over my 2011 New Year’s Resolution into 2012. It’s been pretty cool. Although I’ve just renewed my subscription to the New Yorker for another 47 issues, so maybe I won’t read any books at all.
Now, I was asked to compile my Top 10 films for the Radio Times website a couple of weeks. I found I couldn’t reduce the year in film down to ten choices, so I did 12. Well, I’ve had a couple of weeks to adjust, and I’ve seen two more films that deserve recognition, so I’ve decided to go nuts and expand it to a Top 20. This has, it turns out, been a good year for films.
Ryan Gosling had an amazing year – especially in terms of being fancied by heterosexual men – but although The Ides of March, Crazy, Stupid Love and Blue Valentine (in which we see him as a balding, paunchy, older version of himself) showed him off, this was the film that surely anointed him as one of the most exciting, sexy, subtle actors of our time: as a driver-for-hire in Nicolas Winding-Refn’s superstylised LA-set thriller, Quentin Tarantino-like in its sheer arrogance. Although horribly violent in places, it’s the shock of these scenes that holds the power, and subsequent viewings – which Drive merits – cauterise their repulsion factor, and you can watch with your eyes wide open. (Interestingly, I have never seen a Winding-Refn film before, despite having his Pusher films on DVD in my cupboard.)
2. The Artist
Didn’t see this one coming, but I’m glad I waited until the actual end of the year before carving this list into stone tablets. It exists in a category all of its own, and stands apart from the rest of the list (while there is a lot of crossover between other pictures, whether in terms of casting or theme).
3. A Separation
An Iranian film that pushed back the boundaries of what could be portrayed in a kitchen-sink drama in a still-oppressive country, this was a tantalising glimpse into the world of day-to-day middle-class life in Tehran, in which a couple simply seek a divorce in the face of a patriarchal society. If a film can be a window on another culture, then Asghar Fahardi’s domestic drama is it. An education in the most enlightening sense of the word.
It still feels odd to recommend a film that’s violent, harrowing and depressing but Paddy Considine’s feature-length directorial debut is not a film you’ll forget easily. It’s always on my mind. Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman and Eddie Marsan are superb as a triangle of damaged souls, whose individual calamities seem insoluble. In the best tradition of British film-making. Makes This Is England ’88 seem like a sitcom. Avoid if you find implied violence towards dogs difficult to stomach.
Arguably Lars von Trier’s best work, certainly his most visually sumptuous; an end-of-the-world disaster movie combined with a Mike Leigh-style wedding reception from hell. I found it profound and moving, and actually very scary. Best thing Kirsten Dunst has done, too.
6. Animal Kingdom
As if we needed any more proof that the Australian film industry was in tip-top shape, this brooding, tense but thoroughly believable suburban crime drama was a smash hit in Oz in 2010 (released here in February this year) and earned Jacki Weaver, as the Melbourne family matriarch, an Oscar nomination.
7. The Deep Blue Sea
Terence Davies, a unique British talent who stays away for too long at a time, provided the year’s most torridly romantic film in his liberty-taking adaptation of the 1952 Terrence Rattigan play set in bombed-out, postwar London. Rachel Weisz is impeccable, rising star Tom Hiddleston (also seen in Archipelago, Midnight in Paris and, less probably, Thor) even looks like a 1950s matinee idol.
8. The Guard
An Irish film in all but funding – and its talented writer-director John Michael McDonagh (brother of Martin) is actually London Irish by birth – this low-budget, Connemara-set police buddy movie is all heart. Witty and scurrilous by turns, it gives Brendan Gleeson a homegrown role that only he could properly play as a Galway Garda visited by Don Cheadle’s FBI man to help bust a drug ring. This is where I like to go on holiday, so it gave me real pangs in a year when I couldn’t afford to go on holiday.
9. Kill List
More horrible violence, but narratively justified in Ben Wheatley’s follow-up to the low-budget Down Terrace (which I’ve never seen), in which two hitmen get mixed up in something far nastier than they imagined. Like Melancholia, it goes for the Mike Leigh vibe early on, but mutates into something else. Seems like it was a good year for British, and Irish, cinema, with emergent, original talent everywhere you looked (Joe Cornish, Richard Ayoade). You may need to avert your eyes, at least once. I did.
10. Meek’s Cutoff
I love a modern western, and Kelly Reichardt’s dusty, authentic Oregon Trail fable was the height of visual splendour and languid storytelling. Michelle Williams – also fantastic in Blue Valentine; I’ve not yet seen her in My Week With Marilyn – might be America’s most reliable screen actress.
11. We Need to Talk About Kevin
Our own Lynne Ramsay made her American debut with this stark and inventive telling of Lionel Shriver’s bestselling novel about the gulf between mother and first-born son. It’s actually a UK/US co-production, and it stars Tilda Swinton, but the subject matter is definitively American: high-school shootings. Ramsay finds beauty amid all the hate and violence.
Documentary of the year, in a crowded field, Asif Kapadia’s skillful and compelling montage of Formula One star Ayrton Senna’s firework-like ten-year Grand Prix career, which ended in tragedy, tells its tale without narration, using only existing footage and spoken testimony. I hate motor racing, and I was gripped.
13. The Tree of Life
With Terence Davies and Terrence Malick back in the same year, somebody is spoiling us. Malick also takes his time between films, but really pulled one out of the hat with an apocalyptic tale that takes us back to 1950s America and uses abstract, scientific imagery to suggest the creation of life and its apparent doom. Heavy stuff, but how nice for US cinema to produce something this challenging.
14. Another Earth
I mentioned to Peter Bradshaw that I thought he was too hard on this debut feature from Mike Cahill – he gave it two stars in the Guardian – and he said that maybe he expected too much from its premise. I had lower expectations, although I was intrigued by the trailer, and I felt it hit the spot. A moving and philosophically provocative slice of no-budget sci-fi.
15. True Grit
Easy to take this for granted, but another modern western that – like all the best modern westerns – loves the old westerns. The Coen Brothers on top form.
16. Take Shelter
Of a piece with Melancholia, Contagion and The Tree Of Life – and even Another Earth – for its interest in the end of the world and more cosmic matters than, say, a global recession, this was director Jeff Nichols proving himself a talent to watch, with Michael Shannon perfectly cast as the Ohio engineer plagued by apocalyptic visions that may, or may not, be rooted in a genuine approaching storm.
It’s been a good – and bad – year from dogs in film. They were being strangled in Wuthering Heights and kicked to death in Tyrannosaur, while Uggie the Jack Russell in The Artist and Cosmo the Jack Russell in Beginners, were having much more meaningful roles, and saving the day. The latter, from writer/director Mike Mills (not that one), is the kind of American indie that gives the economic imperative-cum-genre a good name. Best thing Ewan McGregor’s done for ages, and Christopher Plummer as his gay dad might well find himself Oscar-nominated.
Timely dramatisation of a global pandemic in which everybody is famous, this was a modern day disaster movie that might have been made especially for me. Stephen Soderbergh will be sadly missed if he really does retire to paint, as he’s threatening.
19. The Skin I Live In
A film whose imagery has stayed with me, Pedro Almodovar’s tribute to 1930s “mad professor” horror movies inevitably manages to work in transgender issues and rape, and although not as obviously ravishing as Volver, packed with audacious ideas.
20. X-Men: First Class
You see? Credit where credit’s due. A comic-book sci-fi blockbuster can find its way into my Top 20.
The next 10: Archipelago; Blue Valentine; 127 Hours; Pina; Sarah’s Key; Dreams Of A Life; 13 Assassins; Salt of Life; George Harrison: Living in the Material World; Black Swan
Worst film of the year: The Tourist
Right, this promises to be solipsistic. I’m gearing up to compiling and publishing my lists of the year. I have already calculated my films of 2011 for the Radio Times website and you can read it here, although I may tweak it before re-publishing in this parish. (Also, I was duty bound to explain what all of my choices were, as it’s Radio Times, whereas here I will assume foreknowledge in a cavalier manner.) It might be time to assess my working year, however, which can’t be chopped up into a list. I fully realise the year is not strictly over yet, but having been involved in the production of the Christmas double issue of Radio Times, we’re working on the first issue of 2012 already, so it is all over in our office.
For the past few weeks I have been marvelling at the writing in Rev on BBC2, which is now most of the way through its second series. I’ve already made clear my adoration of Fresh Meat, created by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, which returns for its second series next year, but I sort of expected it to be good, due to their pedigree. (I’ll be honest, I’ve always had trouble connecting with Peep Show, their key work, but I admire it and appreciate it, and enjoy the performances – I just find the P.O.V. device distancing, that’s all. But everybody involved with The Thick Of It and In The Loop must be feared for their talent, and what’s more, I’ve seen Bain and Armstrong interviewed and they talk a good fight too. And they worked on the mighty Four Lions.) I have never met them, but I love them.
But James Wood, who co-created Rev with Tom Hollander, and has written every episode so far apart from two, has less overt pedigree. I remember seeing one episode of Freezing, but I never saw Down To Earth, on which he was one of many writers, and this means, for me, he comes out of nowhere. With Rev. I mean, really! I am so enchanted by it. Clearly, the cast are out of this world, from Hollander, who always strikes me a very humble performer, which suits a vicar, and the already-anointed Olivia Colman, through Miles Jupp and Simon McBurney, to the great Steve Evets, but a great cast do not a great sitcom make. It’s also directed by Peter Cattaneo, who made The Full Monty and Lucky Break so he knows what he’s doing, but again, you can’t brilliantly direct an average script. With comedy, it really is all in the writing. And Wood writes like a dream. It’s funny, of course, and the plots sit together, as they should, but it strikes me that this is a writer who enjoys the art of conversation. He must be a good listener. Having set up the congregation of characters in series one, in two, he seems to have earned the right to just sit back and let them live.
I write. Clearly I’m going to focus on the writing when I’m enjoying fiction on television, or at the cinema, in the same way that, as a drummer, I hear the drumming on a record I like. It’s instinctive. I know when I like the sound of a guitar, but I wouldn’t even be able to attempt to reproduce it, so I take it at face value. But I’m interested in the drumming on a technical level. Because I can type words in order, I feel I have an understanding of how James Wood might have written an episode of Rev. We might even use the same software. In this, we are in the same business. And yet, I’m pretty sure I’m not in the same league.
I’ve spent another year in which writing and broadcasting have wrestled for my very soul. There have been weeks, especially in the summer, where I’ve done more talking than writing; in other words, when someone has been ill or pregnant or on holiday from 6 Music. I was asked on Friday morning, by text, if I could fill in for Steve Lamacq that afternoon. I could not, and had to say no. It’s rare that I say no. I am like the emergency plumber of 6 Music. This is fine. It keeps things varied and unpredictable. I’m not going to get into a mind-numbing routine there, am I? Even my shows on Saturday morning, which began with Richard Herring in January, then stopped, and then restarted with Josie Long in December, before they stop again in two weeks’ time, have been built on balsa wood foundations. I have learned not to get too comfortable.
My biggest professional thrill of 2011 was radio-related, but did not involve me talking in between records. It was Mr Blue Sky on Radio 4, commissioned in July last year, made in March this year, and broadcast in May. After years of collaborating, usually with comedians, it was a joy to be able to put my name to something that I could call my own. Not since EastEnders have I had sole writing credit on anything. That’s a long time in showbiz. In the interim, I had it on every episode of Grass under Simon Day’s, and on 13 episodes of Not Going Out over four series under Lee Mack’s, and I realise I’m lucky to have had both. (I wrote one episode of Mumbai Calling, but I seem to recall it had a lot of other writers’ names on it, too.)
We assembled an impeccable cast for Mr Blue Sky, but at the end of the day, once again, it would live or die on the writing. That we had some nice reviews, supportive Tweets and were commissioned for a second series is all the affirmation I need that I didn’t do a bad job. It’s slow going when you’re trying to get something commissioned by television; radio is a much quicker process, and you get paid much, much less, but that doesn’t lessen the gratitude you feel, I can promise you. I’m hoping Radio 4 will repeat the first series before airing the second in 2012, as they only left episodes up for seven days on iPlayer, which was pretty mean, as it made it impossible to pick up if you missed the beginning.
I am currently writing series two – six episodes this time – and it’s a joy. No easier, but a very lucky thing to be allowed to do: take the characters established in series one and run with them. The prospect of being back in that studio with Mark Benton, Rebecca Front, Justin Edwards, Michael Legge, Joe Tracini and the rest of the gang is a mouth-watering one for the new year. (I’ve enjoyed seeing Javone Prince in the second series of PhoneShop, although he will forever be, to me, Kill-R in Mr Blue Sky.)
The BBC has long been my major employer, ever since my first tentative steps into broadcasting and writing on Radio 5 in the early 90s. But this year, the landscape changed. I spent a large part of 2011 writing Gates, a group-written, group-created sitcom for Sky 1, which airs early in the new year. Not a great year for Rupert Murdoch, but if you write and produce comedy you’d be mad not to look to Sky, as they are investing a lot of money in brand new, original, British-made programming. This won’t help you when Gates is on if you either refuse to, or can’t afford to, subscribe to Sky. But this as-yet unseen programme, set around the school gates of a junior school and starring the likes of Joanna Page, Sue Johnston, Tom Ellis and Tony Gardner, has taken up a fair chunk of my year.
It was interesting to be involved in group writing, although once the core four of us had spent many intensive days sat round the producer’s kitchen table, bashing out characters and storylines, we actually wrote alone, and I was asked to script-edit scripts right up to the wire. It involved a lot of work, and a lot of meetings, both at the production company’s offices in Shepherd’s Bush, and at Sky’s eerie campus in Isleworth, and, having just seen a couple of finished episodes, I think it will be worth it.
I can’t shed any more light on it at this stage, but I’ve also been in development with a comedy at another broadcaster, and have been commissioned to write the first script. This needs doing before Christmas, which is why I’ve been blogging less of late. I am under the cosh, with two commissions colliding, and although this is stressful, and not how one man’s workload would be sensibly planned out, I’m hardly going to complain.
My working life, as I’ve stated before, is essentially a series of meetings. The holy grail is a commission, whether it’s a pilot script, or a broadcast script, but there’s a sort of silver grail along the way, which is development money. I was paid by BBC Comedy to develop Mr Blue Sky for TV, and in the end they passed on it. So we took it to radio. I am currently being paid by another broadcaster to develop the other project which I can’t talk about. (All will be revealed if it comes off – this time last year, Gates was a project I couldn’t talk about.)
I get such a kick from actually sitting down and starting a page of script, as terrifying as that can be, and the really big news of 2011 was me actaully forking out and buying the software Final Draft. I used to have it when I wrote for EastEnders, as it is pretty much the industry standard format and they gave a copy to all their writers. However, I lost it when my laptop drowned in 2007 and was no longer an EastEnders writer by then. I have managed to survive writing a BBC1 sitcom, an episode of an ITV sitcom, a Sky 1 sitcom and script-editing a one-off comedy short for Sky (Shappi Khorsandi’s episode of this Christmas’s Little Crackers series, on over the festive period) using Word. I promised myself that if the secret sitcom went to script, I would stop fannying around like an amateur and pay the £140. This, I have now done. I feel like a grown-up again.
So, let’s hope, as we always do, that 2012 will be filled with scriptwriting. I will continue to aspire to be as good as Bain, Armstrong and Wood in comedy terms, but I continue to hold up serious drama as the biggest prize in sport. I started out writing drama, after, and EastEnders is the notch on my CV that got me my first gigs in comedy scriptwriting. The best comedy writing is, after all, drama with jokes. That’s certainly true of Rev, which is where we came in.
So, 2011 may well be the year in which I discovered my services would not be required on series five of Not Going Out, which airs in the new year, but that body blow was countered by better news with Gates and Mr Blue Sky – and the other thing. I shall be watching the new series for the first time as a viewer. It will be interesting. I remain bitter about it, but I promise not to let that cloud my judgment. There is enough bad feeling in the world, without adding to it.
I’d be interested to hear from you which writers you admire, in comedy or drama. In many ways, the best writing often goes unnoticed. Sometimes, clever writing can jar. (Not everybody liked Hugo Blick’s The Shadow Line, which was in places quite obviously “written”, but I thought it was just about the best thing on TV. My Top 10 TV Shows is coming soon, though. Just have to do a bit of work first.) Let me know.