Comment isn’t free

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First, a few unpaid words from Stephen Hull, UK editor-in-chief at the Huffington Post, the newspaper that was never a newspaper and always a website which empowers its writers by not paying them. He was being interviewed by media interrogator Steve Hewlett on Radio 4 (as reported on the New Statesman website). If you are a writer, or someone hoping to make a career out of writing, make sure you are not holding any hot drinks. Ready?

“If I was paying someone to write something because I want it to get advertising, that’s not a real authentic way of presenting copy. When somebody writes something for us, we know it’s real, we know they want to write it. It’s not been forced or paid for. I think that’s something to be proud of.”

So, conveniently, payment robs comment of authenticity. All those words I’ve written for money – and indeed all those words written by Noam Chomsky, JK Rowling and Paul Morley for money – are in some way inauthentic. Oh, and paid writing’s only purpose is to attract advertising.

As an unpaid blogger, by choice, and a paid writer in other quarters – a line of work I have been pursuing for 28 years – this not only infuriates but saddens me. The Huffington Post is successful, innovative and decorated. It is a beacon for our times, when print, deserted by traditional advertisers, is choking on its own thin air. It offers a high-profile platform and shop window for its writers (it calls them bloggers to stop them getting fancy ideas above their station), and you can’t buy that kind of exposure. Except you are buying it. You are buying it with your time and your expertise; your ability to rearrange the English language into sentences. Writing is not a mystical art. All but the technically illiterate do it every time they fill out a birthday card or leave a note on the fridge. But increasingly, as those public outlets for writing dwindle – farewell, the printed Independent; hello, unloved piles of wafer-thin giveaway NMEs thrown back into cardboard gondolas at Sainsbury’s and railways carriages decorated in crumpled copies of today’s Metro as if in dirty protest – the once romantic idea of wielding a quill for money withers on the vine. People would rather watch a Vine.

I’m lucky. I was first paid to write my first ever review in 1988, a year out of college – and not a college where I studied journalism, or the written word: this was the 80s, a golden era of opportunity between the closed shop and the internet. I was paid £23.00 for this review by the publisher IPC, as quaintly typed out in the payslip above, which marks the day I became a professional writer. It seemed like an awful lot of money to me. I would have paid IPC to see my words in print.

ThisIsThisMy only qualification to write this review and see it published was a single copy of a fanzine I’d put together [left], and the skill of being keen enough to ask. This century, I’m often asked to give advice to people wishing to get a start in the media. I’m a media veteran. I’m always happy to tell people my own story, although with each passing year, it becomes less and less relevant to today’s literary and journalistic wannabes. For years I’ve been telling students that I envy them. In the mid-80s, I had to type up my fanzine on an electric typewriter, cut it out and Pritt-stick it down, and pay to have it printed at a high-street Kall-Kwik, then hawk it around in a shopping bag at gigs hoping to sell a copy for a pound. (I sold one by mail-order – it was mentioned in a magazine called Underground and two kids turned up at my flat to buy one, with cash. I was fucking cock-a-hoop.) These days, you need only a broadband connection to publish instantly to the world. No guarantee that a single soul will read it, of course, but it will look professional and you will by definition be a published writer. You can publish a novel in the same way. It’s liberating. It’s also demonetising.

I wrote about the curse of unpaid labour in the media three years ago. I wasn’t paid for writing it. I wrote it for free, here, on this blog. I commissioned myself to write it, sub-edited it myself and headlined it Keeping up appearance fees. If you have the time, you can read it here. Most of it is still true. I will precis the salient points here.

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When you see somebody talking on the telly, do you assume they have been paid? You are right to. Unless they are a member of the public whose opinion or testimony has been sought by a news crew, or an audience member doorstepped by the host on an audience show, or they are questioned in a news studio as a representative of either a political party or a private company, then they will usually be paid an appearance fee.

This will be nominal, but it covers their time and their expertise, and reflects the fact that – like an actor in a drama, or a singer or dancer in a chorus – they have helped to make a TV programme, and without them there would be a person-shaped gap, which will never do. TV programmes have budgets, and from those budgets, fees for actors, singers, dancers or contributors are found. (It goes without saying that there are many, sometimes hundreds of people you don’t see on the telly who are just as vital to the making of the programme, and they will be paid too. This will effectively be a non-appearance fee.)

However, it ain’t necessarily so. When, in 2013, James Gandolfini died, I was contacted on the day by email – via the Guardian as it happens – by a broadcaster who requested my presence on a live studio discussion about Gandolfini, to take place at 4pm the next afternoon. Having gathered my thoughts sufficiently to write a blog and be filmed for the Guardian video obituary, I felt confident I could make a good contribution to this TV show.

However, having agreed on principle with the producer to be at the studio for 4pm (which just happened to be geographically between the British Library, where I was writing, and 6 Music, where I was headed for an appearance on Roundtable, so it was all awfully convenient and meant to be), I was then told, “It’s not actually our policy to pay guests.”

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Without wishing to come across as some kind of square, I rather insisted that I would expect some recompense for my time and expertise, and after a couple more emails, during which the producer went to their editor and came back, we hit an impasse, at which the producer said, “We’re going to have to go with someone else.” This meant somebody who didn’t require paying. Fair enough. I had pushed for payment and they’d called my bluff. To be honest, it was one less extra thing to think about. I was at the time writing a second draft of a pilot sitcom script to a deadline, something I was being paid for.

I have a realistic view of my own importance. I do not delude myself. But I do believe the 28 years’ mileage on my clock gives me a degree of authority and I like to think I can string a sentence together on a good day. I cannot build a wall or fix a radiator but I can talk. A tradesperson is rightly seen as someone who is paid for their time and expertise. If you can plaster a wall yourself, you have no need to call in a plasterer; if you can’t, you must expect to pay a plasterer for the work, and they must be expected to do that work to a certain standard in return.

I once entered some provisional talks with a small, independent publisher about publishing my “selected works” in a book. It never happened, but I had a title: Punctual. I have always been proud to be reliable, to write to length, and to deadline, to turn up on time, and to call ahead if unable to do so. These boring qualities go a long way in showbiz. (I have heard of certain performers who are apparently a nightmare to work with – ones you would instantly recognise on the telly – but you have to be pretty bloody good at your job to get away with this.) I have never fooled myself into thinking I’m some kind of literary, verbal or televisual genius, to whose door broadcasters will constantly be beating a path, but to borrow a phrase, I like to think I’m never the problem.

Now, if I had accepted the no-fee for the Gandolfini appearance on the current affairs show and given my two penn’orth to the broadcaster that day at 4pm, here’s what would have happened:

  1. My face would have been on the telly.
  2. Some people might have seen it.
  3. The whole thing would have lasted a matter of minutes (which, when you build in the travel at either end, plus the buffer of some green-room waiting time, makes the appearance a tiny percentage of the time and effort expended).
  4. The broadcaster might have used me again in the future and on that occasion maybe even paid me.

Also, I suspect, if you’d seen it, you would have assumed I’d been paid. But I wouldn’t have been. It would have been voluntary work, except not voluntary work for a worthy cause.

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So I declined, politely, and wasn’t on. I wonder who was? It doesn’t matter. The world kept on turning. The broadcaster who wouldn’t pay my fee for talking about James Gandolfini offered a car there and back. What a waste of money. It’s nearly always easier, and quicker, to get about London on public transport. Why would I want to be in a slow-moving car? Think of all the money they could save by not running a private car hire service. Perhaps they could pay contributors with that instead? I’ve also been offered unpaid slots on TV and radio shows where my reward was to be able to plug something. This is actual bullshit. Literary festivals are currently under fire for not paying authors (and I mean really famous bums-on-seats authors, not authors at my level) for personal appearances, again, on the understanding that they will be able to flog a few books afterwards. I’ve promoted my books this way, and a) people who run festivals, bookshops and libraries where the event is likely to be tend to be really nice, and b) you do get to sell a few signed books. Should authors be paid a small stipend on top? Or is the platform – like the Huffington Post – enough? Are you being paid “in kind”?

Not all potential guests and contributors are egomaniacs. Given the choice between appearing as a pundit on Channel 4 News and getting home in time to watch Channel 4 News, I’d always choose the latter. I turn down roughly 75% of the offers I get to be myself on radio and TV. It may be more. Frankly, I don’t have anything to flog. And I have no deep need to hear my voice or see my face. I will always jump at the chance to be on Front Row on Radio 4, because I love the show and, oh, I will be paid. Not much. But enough to take a short detour via Broadcasting House and get to talk to the always amenable people who make Front Row.

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I was invited last week to mentor someone hoping to break into the media by an entirely admirable charity-based body that encourages that very thing. I’ve done unpaid work for them in the past. My choice. I like them. But I had to decline the mentoring gig, as I remain a self-employed freelancer and I don’t have the luxury of time to devote to this year-long commitment. (Others in the media who have taken it on seem to work for, or run, production companies or TV channels.) Also, I would, in a roundabout way, be training someone to steal the work that puts food on my table! After all, it may be tough to break into the media and earn enough to actually live on in a digital age where writers are called bloggers and comment is literally free at the point of sale, but at least the young have youth on your side. This is a valuable currency in the magpie eyes of a demographically myopic media. I was delighted to be asked to host the red-carpet coverage of the Bafta Film Awards for Bafta many years ago, the first time the august body had produced its own content for its own website; it was deemed a roaring success and as a result, the next year, I was replaced by a younger, more attractive and more famous host. It was the day I stopped dreaming of being a TV presenter. But even in this cruel Logan’s Run world, the one thing I can offer is something that money can’t buy – experience. It’s just that increasingly, broadcasters and content providers want it for for nothing.

DON’T WORK FOR FREE. UNLESS YOU CAN AFFORD TO. OR IT’S FOR CHARITY.

I will donate the non-existent fee for this article to myself.

 

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World of the news

OK, the news. Preamble: in 1999, I was writing for Heat magazine. Seems unlikely now, but when it was first launched by Emap – the publisher for whom I’d worked on Select, Empire and Q before I went freelance – it was not the epoch-defining behemoth of celebrity tittle-tattle and eugenics that it is today; rather, it was a typically middlebrow attempt at a British Us Weekly: a bit of everything under one roof. To give you an idea of how different it was in its first, not-very-successful incarnation, I was commissioned to write a 1,300-word double-page spread comparing books about serial killers (“Dahmer cooked and ate the bicep of one victim with salt and pepper and steak sauce: ‘My consuming lust was to experience their bodies'”), and another comparing books about war (quoting Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad at this much length: “The silence that fell on 2 February in the ruined city felt eerie for those who had become used to destruction as a natural state. Writer Vasily Grossman described bomb craters so deep that the low-angled winter sunlight never seemed to reach the bottom, and ‘railway tracks, where tanker wagons lie belly up, like dead horses'”). Confusion initially reigned about what tone the new weekly should take. It was on fire in the TV ads, but not in real life.

Anyway, I was dispatched to interview Chris Tarrant, by then a huge TV star again thanks to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. It was a hugely enjoyable interview and I delivered the copy. However, there was a problem. I hadn’t asked about his estranged stepson. I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know he had a stepson, estranged or otherwise. But it had been in the tabloids apparently. And, sensing a certain lack of newsstand appeal, the editors of Heat seemed to want to move into a different realm. I was pretty mortified to have to go back to Tarrant’s PR and request a “top up” chat with Chris about this urgent matter that I had failed to ask him about on the day, too busy was I asking him about Tiswas.

Tarrant was, I felt, gracious in agreeing to a bonus 10 minutes on the phone. He was in the back of a car being ferried somewhere, and, forewarned, he knew I was calling about more personal matters. I apologised for what I was about to ask him, and explained that I was under the cosh, but he said fire away. This is what I had been instructed to ask, and what he said, and what was printed, in full, at the end of the subsequent interview in Heat (you can skip past it if you’re not interested in a TV presenter’s relationship with his stepson in 1999):

Your 18-year-old stepson Dexter told one of the tabloids last year that you had thrown him out, saying, “Chris was an egotistical pig who tried to buy his family’s love with money.” What went on there?

The bottom line was, he wasn’t thrown out, he chose to run off into the night because he didn’t like the idea of doing a day’s work. It was very hard at the time, particularly on his mum, very upsetting all round. He and I are now having a continued dialogue, we’re working towards a sort of amicable reunion. He made his protest like all kids at 18 do, but had no idea that it was such a ridiculously high-profile thing to do. It happens to half the families in the country, but unfortunately because he’s my kid it became a big deal. Dexter himself has been amazed, horrified and saddened by this huge public profile that he then got. He’s cool, I spoke to him yesterday.

Other than that, the press have been pretty good to you haven’t they?

Until Heat really. Those stitch-up bastards!

As you can see, he accepted his fate as a public figure with tabloid form with good humour and honesty. But I felt dirty. I was a freelancer, so I was cutting off a revenue stream, but I made clear that I was uncomfortable with this type of work, and I wasn’t asked to write any more profile interviews. As it turned out, the magazine turned a corner when Mark Frith took over the rudder and the launch of Big Brother decided the magazine’s fruitful fate. I was no longer required, and nor were my 1,300-word book pieces. (I guess the real irony of all this, is that David Hepworth and Mark Ellen were the launch editors – and it was Mark who’d sent me back for the extra tabloid content on Tarrant. Now, both of these men understand magazines, and Mark has a natural instinct for how to tell a story, which he uses when commissioning and editing for Word, but a more decent, honest, faithful and true pair of gents you would not meet. It does seem bizarre now that they started Heat. But they did.)

This was my first, last and only flirtation with tabloid journalism, and even then, at one remove from the real thing. It’s not my strong suit. I’m rubbish at getting the killer quote. If I ever have got one, it has been by accident. My interview style is to try to find some common ground and develop a matey rapport with my interviewee in the allotted time, which can sometimes lead to a relaxed enough attitude for enlightening stuff to come out. Most of the time, you just get a chat. I’m happy enough with this, but don’t come to me for a scoop. Leave that to the journalists.

As we speak, the profession of journalism seems to have split down the middle. On one side, we have the venal, unscrupulous, immoral, bloodthirsty, phone-hacking News Of The World scum; and on the other, the noble, investigative, truth-seeking, establishment-undermining Guardian knights in shining armour, who broke the phone-hacking story, and dragged it out into the open from the shadows of nepotistic self-interest and corruption. It is worth stating that not all tabloid journalists are scum. Not all journalists are tabloid journalists. And not all non-tabloid journalists are saints. Equally, not all journalists who worked at the now-defunct News Of The World were involved in illegal phone-hacking. But it seems fairly likely that journalists at other tabloid newspapers will have also paid for phones and emails to be hacked; after all, if it was common practice at one Sunday tabloid, it was probably on the menu at the others. After all, the newspaper market, in decline now, has always been pretty cutthroat. At the visible end, we’ve seen price cutting, bingo wars, spoilers and endless free CDs, DVDs, downloads and Greggs steak-bake vouchers; behind closed doors, far worse goes on.

“Tabloid journalism” is not restricted to the tabloids. Everybody’s after a quote or a headline, a line it can sell, whether it’s the Sun, or 6 Music News, or Radio Times. Tabloid mentality is endemic, and as the media marketplace becomes ever more frantic, attention spans more microscopic, and the meat on the bones of the available audience ever more scarce, tactics will get dirtier. Or maybe, now that the deletion of texts from a murdered schoolgirl’s mobile stands as the flashpoint for the current crisis of confidence, tactics will have to be cleaned up. At least until we’ve all forgotten about it.

Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks are merely the most public and most powerful faces at the centre of the current circus of death. It’s easy to hate an apparently vulgar old billionaire who effects dodderiness when it suits him, and yet rules one of the biggest media empires the world has ever seen, so can’t actually be that doddery. It’s just as easy to hate a jumped-up, Harvard-educated corporate automaton and heir, who speaks in a monotonous American accent and exclusively in legalese. And it’s even feasible to hate the woman who launched the “name and shame” campaign, even if that was the only alarmist stunt Rebekah Wade/Brooks ever pulled while editing a tabloid newspaper. They all claim to have been clueless, which is a counter-intuitive quality for chief executives of multi-million-dollar companies to show off about, when you think about it. I rather expect my bosses to know everything.

And when key News Of The World shopfloor whistleblower, Sean Hoare, is found dead – a death that is without suspicion in the same way that David Kelly’s was – it’s easy to feel a certain degree of sympathy for the reporters who were the last contact between their newspaper and a revolving cartel of seedy private investigators with loose morals and a tendency to go through bins. Hoare said that he and other reporters endured a climate of fear: get the story or else. The blame must go to the top. The bankers played with our money. The media moguls play with our heads.

But let us not think ourselves morally superior to all this. Or to absent ourselves from the morass. We’re all responsible for the culture that took us to this particular brink … unless you have actually ignored celebrity tittle-tattle since 1969 when Murdoch’s brand of lowest-common-denominator sensation began (“HORSE DOPE SENSATION”). I have never really been a tabloid reader in adult life. My Nan used to bring the Sun round our house on a Thursday, and as a teenager on the cusp of discovering sexism and Labour party politics, I used to flick through it for easy, “ironic” entertainment and funny things to cut out and stick in my diary with Pritt, like frames from the cartoonishly erotic Axa comic strip, and disembodied soaraway headlines. I would soon be under the Guardian‘s spell, once I got to college.

Ironically – and I don’t mean “with irony” – I bought the Sun pretty much every week for three years between 2008 and 2011 so that Richard Herring and I would have something topical to make jokes about on our weekly podcast. We also bought the Mail, but mocked both for their poisonous and laughable idiocy, and in our own way, I hope, atoned for the 20p and 50p we paid out for those rags. But I’ve also bought the Sunday Times for my own use on a Sunday because I like the Culture section, and on occasion the Saturday Times, because I like the books section (which I’ve sporadically written for), so I’m in trouble when it comes to the absolutist stance of the cancel-your-Sky-subscription lobby – most of whom, I fancy, pay to see films made by the Murdoch-owned 20th Century Fox, or buy books published by the Murdoch-owned HarperCollins, or watch ITV, in which Murdoch has a 7.5% stake, or watch the Murdoch-owned National Geographic via another satellite provider. (And if they don’t, I congratulate them. Truly. I avoided Starbucks for years after reading No Logo, and then I read that Naomi Klein occasionally uses Starbucks if it’s the only coffee outlet available, say, at an airport, so I calmed down.)

It’s been a hell of a week for the top brass at News International and News Corp. The latter’s bid to buy the remaining 61% of the shares in BSkyB is dust. Execs including Brooks, Andy Coulson, Les Hinton and Neil Wallis, have either resigned and gone home, or resigned and then been arrested and then been released and gone home. The toppermost of the top brass have been called before a Parliamentary select committee, beamed all around the world, there to squirm beneath the desk, get the words “humble” and “humbling” mixed up, dish out platitudes and apologies and denials in the same voice, and in one soaraway instance, almost get some shaving foam on them. (All the while, the Metropolitan police, who appear to have been up to their necks in News International appeasement, are shedding chiefs by the day, to the point that – gasp! – a woman might have to be drafted in to save them.)

It’s been gripping telly, and although the newspapers have been perhaps unnaturally biased towards coverage and analysis of just the one story while the Eurozone and the United States have been on the brink of economic collapse, again, it’s been engrossing to read. It’s ironic that the news is the news, and that the news has drawn people back to the news, whether on the news channels, one of which is 39% owned by News Corp, or in the newspapers. I don’t usually like to see 80-year-olds being humiliated on television, but I do like seeing the most powerful people on the planet humiliated, so I didn’t stay conflicted for too long on Tuesday. And as someone who also bangs tables when he’s making a point, I even sympathised when Murdoch Sr was told by his wife to sit on his wrinkled hands.

But we are all to blame, as I say. The celebrity culture, whereby fame can be achieved by selling a story, or appearing on a stupid reality show, or having breasts, makes mugs of us all. Even looking at the headlines of the Sunday tabloids while picking up our Observer – just to see, ha ha, what they’re frothing about this week, oh, it’s Cheryl Cole – makes us complicit, even if we don’t hand money over the counter. So let’s not be too smug here, unless we are truly without sin. I will say this: Piers Morgan must be squeaky clean if he’s prepared to challenge Louise Mensch the way he did on CNN on Tuesday night after she collated two passages from his book The Insider and made five, using Parliamentary privilege as a fig leaf for basically accusing him of phone-hacking during the hearing, which he denies.

Equally, you have to hope that nowhere down the line has anybody working for the Guardian done a dirty deal in an alley to get information at any point, otherwise its overarching smugness might too turn to albumen. (You have to hope that there are some good guys somewhere on Fleet Street.)

Rupert Murdoch’s empire seems unlikely to strike back. If it turns out that victims of 9/11 were hacked, then it gets really nasty for him back home, as the Americans done like it up ’em, and I think I’m right in saying that corporate justice is much more bullish over there. We’re giving Man and Boy a fair old roasting over here, even though the parent company is based in the US, and he’s not from round these parts. Maybe a world where media empires don’t exist would be a better one, although the one I do a lot of my work for, the BBC, is a global force to be reckoned with, and that’s why the rest of the media are so enthusiastic about bringing it down. (The deal the government did in 2010 after which the licence fee was frozen, necessitating redundancies and property sell-offs and the threat to bring back the testcard, was done, we must now assume, at a time when News International ran the country. The NUJ are certainly asking the question: can we look at that again, in light of recent developments? If it’s a battle between the BBC and News Corp, I know whose side I’m on.) I don’t think David Cameron will be gone by Sunday, by the way. We shall see.

Sorry, going on a bit. But it’s a big story, and I’ve been too busy to tackle it this week. Some once powerful men and at least one woman might go to prison over this. The Met are going to have to clean up their own back Yard. News Corp will surely sell News International, and another publisher will be delighted to buy the Sun at a knockdown price, which remains a very popular newspaper, and the Times, whose heritage and reputation cannot be knocked up overnight (but which doesn’t make any money, and whose courageous paywall has yet to create a domino effect through the British newspaper industry). But will “the culture” look any different when the fuss has died down? We live in a post-News Of The World world. But its readers seem to have simply migrated to the Star and the Sunday Mirror and the People, because millions of British people wish to be entertained and titillated on a Sunday. And a Monday. And a Tuesday.

Like boxing, if you ban stupidity, it will only go underground. And anyway, isn’t Google far more sinister and powerful than News Corp? Discuss.

You do the maths

That showed ’em. I was down to see a big preview screening of Iron Man 2 tonight at “a West End venue” (as they always put on the tickets until you RSVP for the actual name of the cinema), but I discovered, late in the day, that it was one of those big preview screenings where security is post-9/11 and frankly tiresome. I was politely pre-warned that I would be subject to a bag search and would be required to hand in my mobile phone and any other devices that may be used for recording, to be collected afterwards. Now, this can include laptops. I have no wish to hand over my laptop to security. It is too important an item to lend to a man I have never met for over two hours.

So, I declined the invitation to see Iron Man 2 three days before it goes on general release. I will, instead, pay to go and see it at the cinema, where I will be permitted to take my phone and my laptop into the auditorium with me. This was my decision. I didn’t go there and make a scene; I merely informed the press office I would not be attending. I understand fully why Paramount, like any other major Hollywood studio, would be so paranoid about piracy that they would make journalists feel like criminals, but I opt out of this arrangement. Fortunately, I am not reviewing the film for anyone in advance, so it’s not even a debate I need to engage in.

Instead, I went to a local cinema and watched a new film that is already on general release called Agora, a pretty unsexy-looking, 12A-certificate historical drama starring Rachel Weisz as the “legendary philosopher and mathematician” Hypatia, set in AD 369, when tensions between pagans and Christians in Egypt were running high. Put it this way, unlike Iron Man 2 (which incidentally I was looking forward to seeing, as I enjoyed Iron Man), most of the action is set in a library.

Guess what? I really liked Agora. A Spanish-made film in English and shot in Malta, but cast with a lot of British actors (albeit not famous ones), as well as partially recognisable Middle Eastern ones like Homayoun Ershadi (The Kite Runner) and Ashraf Barhom (The Kingdom), it told me things that I didn’t know about the period, served up a sort of love triangle, used neat CGI in a functional rather than showy way to recreate the ancient port of Alexandria, and made some fairly obvious parallels to modern religious conflicts by having a statue of a bearded man pulled down and treasures looted. Director Chilean Alejandro Amenábar did the smaller-scale drama The Sea Inside, but he adapted well to a bigger canvas. Do you know what, over two hours, I wasn’t bored once. That’s the mark of a decent film.

It could almost have been made 40 years ago and been shown in the afternoon on BBC2, but that’s a compliment. I suspect it will not be a massive box office smash, but I’m jolly glad that I eschewed the heavy handed security of a West End screening and went local, to see a film that’s already out.