2019: What did it look like?

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For all sorts of reasons, I’ve been slow to update what I think of as the “original blog”. It’s partly because of politics, a grey area that was once totally off limits, when I was a broadcaster for the BBC during what may come to be nostalgically looked back upon as its “state-funded heyday”, and still presents challenges at the advertiser-funded commercial broadcaster Global, home of the microphone with my name on it, Classic FM. I have the same political thoughts and opinions as I have always done, and as everyone does, but these are ill-suited to my current radio show, whose very name Saturday Night at the Movies genuflects towards a very clear brief. I continue to oversee the Film section of Radio Times, another job I love, and one that has expanded to include commissioning as well as writing. The fast flowering of streaming services and other digital outlets for movies brings even greater depth and availability, which means, for instance, the joy of playing film scores, themes and cues that are not necessarily from the biggest blockbusters, nor the most seasoned classics.

Five years into my time at Classic FM, and a staggering 20 at Radio Times, I am right to feel duty-bound to list my favourite films of 2019 and the music I have enjoyed from an even wider net. Here, then, belatedly, are those subjective favourites of 2019, before we get swept up into 2020’s haste and awards-season flurry.

Scroll down for My Favourite Films first released or streamed in the UK during 2019 [my Top 20, in no order, are in bold]

PS: It pleases me that so many films I rated this year are about families. That must say something? The families exist on the margins, in many cases, and that’s profound too.

  • Colette | Wash Westmoreland | US
  • Stan & Ollie | Jon S. Baird | UK
  • If Beale Street Could Talk | Barry Jenkins | US
  • Vice | Adam McKay | US
  • Ray & Liz | Richard Billingham | UK
  • Missing Link | Chris Butler | US
  • Rosie | Paddy Breathnach | Ireland
  • The White Crow | Ralph Fiennes | UK/France
  • Pick of the Litter | Dana Nachman, Don Hardy | US
  • Thunder Road | Jim Cummings | US
  • Minding the Gap | Bing Liu | US
  • Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes | Sophie Huber | Switzerland
  • Vox Lux | Brady Corbet | US
  • Girl | Lukas Dhont | Belgium/Netherlands
  • Tolkien | Dome Karukoski | US
  • At Eternity’s Gate | Julian Schnabel | France/UK/US
  • The Quake | John Andreas Andersen | Norway (2018)
  • Being Frank | Steve Sullivan | UK
  • The Current War | Alfonso Gomez-Rejon | US
  • Blinded by the Light | Gurinder Chadha | UK
  • Gloria Bell | Sebastian Lelio | US/Chile
  • Fyre | Chris Smith | US
  • Rolling Thunder Revue | Martin Scorsese | US
  • The Black Godfather | Reginal Hudlin | US
  • The Flood | Anthony Woodley | UK
  • She’s Missing | Alexandra McGuinness | Ireland
  • Inna de Yard | Simon Webber | France
  • American Woman | Jake Scott | US
  • The Report | Scott Z. Burns | US
  • Loopers: The Caddie’s Long Walk | Jason Baffa | US
  • Only You | Harry Wootliff | UK
  • Fighting with my Family | Stephen Merchant | UK/US
  • Ibiza: The Silent Movie | Julien Temple | UK
  • Support the Girls | Andrew Bujalski | US
  • Memory: the Origins of Alien | Alexandre O. Philippe | US
  • Long Shot | Jonathan Levine | US
  • A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon | Will Becher, Richard Phelan | UK
  • Hitsville: The Making of Motown | Benjamin Turner, Gabe Turner | US
  • The Front Runner | Jason Reitman | US
  • Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love | Nick Broomfield | UK
  • Making Waves: the Art of Cinematic Sound | Midge Costin | US
  • The Souvenir | Joanna Hogg | UK/US
  • Ordinary Love | Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn | UK/Ireland
  • Toy Story 4 | Josh Cooley | US
  • El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie | Vince Gilligan | US
  • How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World | Dean DeBlois | US
  • Diego Maradona | Asif Kapadia | UK
  • Pavarotti | Ron Howard | US
  • The Public | Emilio Estevez | US
  • Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans | Dominic Brigstocke | UK
  • The King | David Michôd | Australia/US
  • Non-Fiction | Olivier Assayas | France
  • By the Grace of God | Francois Ozon | France/Belgium
  • Boy Erased | Joel Edgerton | US
  • The Edge | Barney Douglas | UK
  • Little Monsters | Abe Forsythe | Australia/UK/US
  • Aquarela | Viktor Kossakovsky | UK/Germany/Denmark/US
  • The Nightingale | Jennifer Kent | Australia
  • Marriage Story | Noah Baumbach | US
  • So Long, My Son | Wang Xiaoshuai | People’s Republic of China
  • Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood | Quentin Tarantino | US
  • The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part | Mike Mitchell | US/Denmark/Australia
  • The Irishman | Martin Scorsese | US
  • Avengers: Endgame | Anthony Russo, Joe Russo | US

But who are the other two people?

The full coverage of last week’s Radio Times Covers Party is now online at the RT website, and in this week’s magazine. But they have kindly allowed me to publish this exclusive session here. About two thirds of the way through the well-oiled occasion, I asked if I might have my photo taken in the pop-up studio in the lobby of Claridge’s. Strict picture editor Olivia quite rightly declined my request and said that I could only have my snap taken with the prop RT cover if I delivered a famous person to be photographed with. Duly challenged, within moments I had delivered Vic Reeves and Vicky McClure, legends both, who happened to be deep in conversation at the time, which I cheerily interrupted. They sportingly allowed me to invade their “cover.”

You know me: I live to stand next to famous people. But this was a particularly charming constellation, I thought.

By the way, you thought the comments left on the Guardian website were bitchy and negative. Beneath the coverage on the Radio Times site, someone posting under their full name (to their credit), wrote: “And we’re meant to be impressed by this self-congratulatory event, how … ?”

Ouch.

PHOTOGRAPHS: GARY MOYES

And here’s a final crop to finish …

Please RT

Hey, this is my blog. You are reading it. I thank you for that. Some of you subscribe to it. And I thank you for that, too. But for the last three months, I’ve been writing a regular film-related blog for the all-new, singing, dancing, listing Radio Times website. It’s called Take Two, because we didn’t want it to be called anything with the word “Reel” in it, and I seem to have already written nine of them. You can see them all here. The blogs under this banner tend to be shorter, tangential and discursive, rather than grand, opulent reviews of films, but you might find something there to stimulate a response. My latest one is about being distracted by recognising a lesser-known actor in a film and being unable to get back into the plot. That one is here.

I was asked by a friend of my teenage nephew the other day what I did for a living. I rather obliquely used the line, “I rearrange the English language.” I wish I had just given him the straight answer he deserved, but I was feeling coy. In any case, it is precisely what I do for a living. I worry, of course, that one day I will run out of ways to rearrange it. But the project seems to be chugging along quite nicely at the moment. And I’ve always relished being connected with Radio Times, as it’s a magazine I’ve taken, every week, for virtually my whole life: my parents bought it, and its glossier then-companion TV Times, and now I have it delivered to my door. And if I didn’t work for the magazine – something I’ve done for 12 years – I’d still subscribe.

PS: In searching through my archive to establish which year I was first commissioned to write for Radio Times, I found what I believe was my debut contribution: a “sidebar” called The Perfect Sitcom that went with a larger feature on the artform, and makes odd reading over a decade later, especially one during which I co-wrote 21 episodes of two sitcoms for the BBC, one episode of a sitcom for ITV, and script-edited another for BBC2, after which, I still don’t know any more than I knew when, as a viewer, I wrote this:

If there’s one thing writers and commissioning editors actually agree on, it’s that there’s no formula for the perfect sitcom. No-one saw Fawlty Towers coming, Seinfeld ran for three years on NBC before drawing a crowd, and Thames TV were convinced they had a classic on their hands in Tripper’s Day because it had Leonard Rossiter in it. Alas, it stank the place out.

So what makes a sitcom great? What, scientifically, separates a Bottle Boys from a Likely Lads? Let’s retrace our steps. In America, they often start with an established comic – Dick Van Dyke, Phil Silvers, Ellen DeGeneres, Jerry Seinfeld – and build the plot around them. British stand-ups fare less well in sitcoms, especially old-school entertainers (Jim Davidson in Up The Elephant And Round The Castle, Bruce Forsyth in Slinger’s Day), while the post-alternatives stick to sketch shows. So the perfect Britcom requires a great comic actor like Arthur Lowe or Richard Wilson in a role “written for them” (the ultimate flattery). Having said that, ensemble sitcoms are equally durable, from Dad’s Army to Are You Being Served?, where top billing is shared. This is not easy.

One thing’s for sure, our sitcom must only run for two series, to avoid cosy repetition a la Last Of The Summer Wine, and to keep the original writer keen. The middle-class Terry And June drawing room setting is out, the working-class Royle Family council house is in (best stick to a middle class writer, though). The professions make fruitful subject matter, although most have been done: buses, shops, rag and bone men, accountants, police, vicars, even security guards (remember Channel Four’s weird Nightingales?) Here’s one: a sitcom about a reflexologist. It’s original. Let’s call it Best Foot Forward: featuring an ensemble cast, but led by a big name (the master: David Jason); it mixes gritty, docu-soap realism with Father Ted surrealism. Eight episodes. Oh, and sex. We need the all-important “men’s-magazine vote” like Babes In The Wood – perhaps Emma Noble co-stars as the flighty receptionist.

Our perfect sitcom is character-based, not gag-based, yet full of gags, with The Young Ones’ cult appeal and Only Fool And Horses’ ratings. Crucially, the multi-BAFTA-winning Best Foot Forward must be on the BBC, in order to preserve what Galton and Simpson identified as ‘three minutes’ quality time’. Plus incidental music performed on a slap bass that sets your teeth on edge (it worked for Seinfeld).

Radio Times Zelig, slight return

Had a lovely time at the annual Radio Times Covers Party on Tuesday night. (I think we have it on a Tuesday night so that we can turn the coverage round for the next week’s magazine. It does always seem to be on a Tuesday, a frankly underloved night of the week.) It’s an excuse, every year, for me to stand next to some of the actors, producers and performers that I admire off the telly. I may be something with Editor at the end of it at Radio Times, but this doesn’t reduce the fan in me. So, with a magically self-refilling flute of champagne in my hand, I managed to bother Rob Brydon, Steve Pemberton, Keeley Hawes and the great Jean Marsh this year. David Morrissey, who I bothered last year along with James Nesbitt, said hello but left before the great post-presentation luvvy-a-thon. Thanks to RT‘s Stuart who took the above pic on his phone, even though we were in the area outside the Claridge’s Ballroom where professional portraits were being taken for the magazine. Doctor Who fans will be jealous that I was in the same building as Amy Pond, who was wearing some hot pants, but this was frankly wasted on me. I’m far more excited about having thanked Jean Marsh for Upstairs Downstairs. There is a whole reel of star-studded pics here. I’ll publish a few more next Tuesday, once the magazine is out. Don’t want to steal their thunder. In the pic below you can see how good an actor Brydon is, as he convinces me that he’s interested in what I’m saying.

And look, two years ago, in virtually the same spot, I bothered Philip Glenister. Ironically I was talking to him about the sitcom I was writing, which eventually got rejected by the BBC, but has now been accepted by Radio 4. I wonder if he remembers the conversation, and the name of the sitcom? Note: same jacket. But different black shirt, so let me off.

I wonder if I will ever become blasé about meeting these people. I really hope not.