It’s not a bedsit, it’s a flat

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Let us then belatedly mark the nicest job the BFI have ever asked me to do: the Spaced event on Saturday. A marathon, tied in to Channel 4’s 25th birthday, at which hundreds of Spaced fans gathered and watched the whole of series one and two on the big screen in NFT1, introduced by the cast and director Edgar Wright (albeit sadly lacking Jessica Hynes, who sent a filmed message), and with an hour-and-40-minute Q&A, hosted by myself. I’ve interviewed assorted filmmakers on this very stage down the years (Michael Moore, Terry Gilliam, Christopher Guest), not to mention hosted three TCM Classic Shorts awards, but this was a true labour of love. (Simon Pegg actually asked me by text about a month ago, and I texted back yes without even asking when it was.)

It was a lovely way to spend a few hours, not least because of the audience, which comprised the most devoted fans (one guy had flown to London from Seattle specifically to attend), who were warm and appreciative, and didn’t need anything explaining to them, obviously. I’ve met Simon a few times this year, and we’ve become email pals (partly because we discovered we have a Northampton connection), and I met Nick Frost briefly, but this was the first time I’ve been in the presence of all of them, in a big row. Edgar and Simon came on first, then I introduced the others, to a massive round of applause each: Nick, Mark Heap, Katy Carmichael (Twist for the uninitiated) (actually, if you’re uninitiated, you won’t know who Twist is), and Julia Deakins, who wins the prize for being least like her character. Although both Katy and Mark insisted in the green room that they didn’t want to speak, I made sure everybody got a question, and it turned into a free-for-all come the end. We could have talked all night, but they still had series two to screen. You can watch amateur highlights, thanks to YouTube (scroll down), although if you’re not a fan of Spaced or shaky camerawork from Row H, I wouldn’t recommend it. Here are some grabs, for posterity. (Oh, and by the way, I also met Colin the dog, aka Ada. Which will mean nothing etc. etc.) If anything like professional photos come my way, I’ll post them here.

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Edgar, me and Simon (I wore a jacket to give myself an air of authority, which worked)

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Edgar in full anecdotal flight

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Simon and me attentively listening to Edgar

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Me looking adoringly at Simon

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Edgar, me, Simon, Nick, Katy (Nick may have just mentioned bukaki)

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We had joy, we had fun


Part 1 (which includes the intro and part of the Q&A)


Part 2 (all Q&A)

These rather more official photos appeared on Edgar’s MySpace blog (so I’m kind of assuming he won’t mind me showing them here):

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Does my bomb look big in this?*

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So, in the week of its 25th birthday, Channel 4 galvanises its reputation for serious drama and social conscience, with Britz, a cracking and thought-provoking two-part thriller-cum-morality tale that actually worked in two parts and benefitted from being shown across two nights. Written and directed by Peter Kosminsky (The Government Inspector, Warriors, The Project), it was the story of a British Muslim brother and sister who take diverging paths in reaction to the War On Terror: one joins MI5, the other becomes a suicide bomber. [Spoiler alert! It’s impossible to write about it otherwise.] That it is Nasima (Manjinder Virk) who straps the homemade bomb to her body, concealed beneath a false pregnant belly, is the shock. She starts out as a secular political activist and medical student, seen composing a letter in her bedroom to President Bush complaining about the treatment of detainees in Guantanamo Bay: an idealist, basically. She goes against her family’s strict wishes by going out with a black non-Muslim at college. This proves a flashpoint, when she is sent back to Pakistan in shame after telling her father – the other motivating factor is the suicide of her best friend, arrested on a jumped-up non-charge under the Terrorism Act, abused and put under a Control Order, the draconian nature of which is apparently all true (you surrender your passport, you’re restricted from seeing listed persons, electronically tagged, your case is heard at a closed hearing where your legal representative is chosen by and works for the state, the Home Secretary has the power to renew indefinitely etc.). This required a leap of faith – aptly enough – on behalf of the viewer, as handing out leaflets at a student demo, which Nas is seen doing, does not necessarily lead to a training camp in Pakistan and the decision to offer up your life to jihad. You had to suspend your disbelief a bit for the story of Sohail (Riz Ahmed), too – he’s a law student, again pretty much disinterested in religion, who joins the secret service, where his position as the token Muslim – asked to spy on his friends back in Bradford – gives him pause for doubt. His story is told first, so when it intersects with Nasima’s, you’ve no idea how she got to that point. Her story, told second, fills in the gaps.

What I liked about Britz was that it seemed to sidestep cliches. Although Kosminsky clearly isn’t a Muslim, or Pakistani, he based his script on hours of interviews with British Muslims. Certainly, the legal picture painted by the film is an accurate one, and it’s not pretty for post-September 11 Asians in Britain or anywhere. The police were depicted mostly as getting on with their job under the Terrorism Act – it’s the laws passed down by this government in the last six years that were being questioned. (Certainly, we saw a couple of ignorant, racist cops, but we also saw ignorant, racist Pakistanis, kicking the shit out of Naz’s black boyfriend. Bigotry abounded throughout, not least in terms of gender within the family.) Britz pandered to neither those who would paint all Muslims as potential suicide bombers, nor those liberals who romanticise Asian religion without looking too deeply into it. The final shot – after well over four hours of drama – was Nasima’s suicide video, in which she spoke to all non-Muslim Brits (or Britz), conferring guilt upon us for voting Tony Blair back in. Which is all very well in theory, but hey, some of us didn’t. In fact, a minority of Britons voted him back in, thanks to the first-past-the-post system. It was a powerful ending nonetheless. It wasn’t put there to excuse her act of mass-murder – far from it – but this was an intelligent, educated young woman from Bradford who’d reached a point where she wasn’t gonna take it any more.

The thriller elements occasionally sat uncomfortably with the unfolding family drama, but I guess you have to keep bums on seats, and this was certainly a far more challenging two-parter than an episode of Spooks, which some of it resembled, except with a lot more paperwork. (I love Spooks, but it’s so left-wing, anti-government and anti-American, it’s possible to second-guess sometimes. Anyway, it’s a pure thriller, and the political issues it touches on are ultimately there to serve the suspense.) Reading the Channel 4 forums after the show, there was a general consensus, from Muslim and non-Muslims, that it was a good drama with useful things to say about two burning issues: how to deal with a multi-racial, multi-faith society and have we turned into a police state? One or two doubters had their say, but in CAPITAL LETTERS, which always undermines your argument, and quite a few questioned the veracity of the MI5 scenes, such as the use of a mobile phone by a visitor inside the lobby of Thames House, which isn’t permitted. (Having just seen Elizabeth: The Golden Age at the pictures, I can live with a couple of factual inaccuracies like that!)

* Sorry, I stole this headline from Shazia Mizra, the Muslim stand-up. It struck me as apt in the circumstances, but I don’t wish to make light of the subject.

Bah bah bah ba-baaah ba-ba-da-ba-baaahh!

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Welcome to my world. Yesterday afternoon, I went up to Broadcasting House to record a column (ie. authored piece that you read out) for the estimable Front Row on Radio 4. It compared the opening night of Channel 4 with the schedule of this week, in a light-hearted way. (They don’t usually ask me on for a non-light-hearted view – they have plenty of others for that type of thing.) It was fun to do, as it began with me musing on the fact that TV channels no longer have fanfares, as they all did when I was growing up. I was going to ask producer Laura to drop in clips of the fanfares for Thames, LWT, Anglia and early C4, which are all reassuringly available on YouTube, but we decided it would be more amusing if I sang them, as you might in a pub during a conversation about theme tunes. So I did. With the column recorded, I came home. Then, about an hour and a half later, I had a concerned call from Laura, who was mid-edit: it turns out I had erroneously sung the Thames theme for Anglia. Hey, you try remembering channel idents on the spot, in a BBC studio. They get mixed up. So, I travelled all the way back into Central London just to sing the Anglia TV ident. We found a studio, we set up, I put on my headphones, sang, “Bah bah bah ba-baaah ba-ba-da-ba-baaahh!” and then came home again. What professionalism, you’re thinking.

Anyway, it was worth it, I think, to lower the tone of Radio 4 for a few minutes on a Thursday evening. You can, if you wish, listen to the column (it’s the last item on the show, as my items always are!) and to Kirsty Lang back-announcing it with a jaunty laugh in her voice, possibly put on, possibly not. I don’t care! Look for Thursday night’s Front Row here.

(Of course, C4 dropped its fanfare in 1996 and went all esoteric. Nowadays you get an ambient “bed” over which the announcer can rabbit on, and the logo is constructed, mid-air, out of haystacks or bits of council estate.)

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And if anybody needs to see or hear the old Anglia fanfare, here it is: