Commie Roots

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Thatcher Stole My Trousers | Alexei Sayle Bloomsbury Circus £16.99

I applied to Chelsea School Art in 1984 for its reputation, location and the fact that its prospectus arrogantly contained no photographs, a brutalism I found appealing. The clincher, though, was Alexei Sayle, the angry stand-up described in an early review in the London Review of Books as a “portly, spring-heeled Liverpudlian with an Oliver Hardy suit.” I’d identified him as a Chelsea alumnus in a 1983 episode of BBC1 documentary series Comic Roots, in which the thirty-ish Sayle was filmed drinking in the union bar bemoaning the “three years of total nonsense” he spent at the school between 1971 and 1974.

It was thus with some solidarity that I devoured the first chapters of Sayle’s terrific second volume of memoirs (the first, 2010’s Stalin Ate My Homework, mined his family’s Commie roots and left him on a foundation course in Southport). Through parental influence a card-carrying member of the carefully named Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) since short trousers, he was drawn to London by “all the rock gigs, exhibitions and plays … I didn’t actually want to go to any of them, I just wanted to live in a place where they were on.” This will ring true to anyone who has ever gravitated towards the capital. Now 63, he writes with the wisdom of someone taking stock and retrospectively hymns Chelsea as “a wonderful and humane institution” – the Soviet-sounding “painting council” declined to throw him off the degree course after he showed them a film he’d made satirising them.

A deft writer whose short stories led Clive James to compare him to Guy de Maupassant, Sayle is a genial, self-deprecating tour guide on this second voyage around himself and not as didactic or hectoring as his high-blood-pressure comic persona might suggest. On his journey from post-graduate miasma and jobs at the DHSS and in teaching via community theatre to fame and fortune during the so-called Alternative Comedy boom at the birth of the 80s, he finds time to disparage the Arts Council for its remit “to give money only to things that were unpopular”, and the Design Centre as “an Arts Council for teapots.” He thumbnails the infant Channel 4, which gave him and his comedy pals their big break in The Comic Strip Presents in 1982, as a magnet for advertisers of “wines from Bulgaria and different kinds of cheese.” And as a former beneficiary of social housing, he remains bothered by the notion that “if you were a council tenant there were no consequences to your actions, as if you were a big baby.”

Gently mocking his own granite political convictions, he praises the “high quality of snacks” as “a little known benefit of revolutionary politics,” and sees the funny side of his domineering Maoist mother Molly sending Christmas cards in the late 70s bearing the legend “Season’s Greetings from H Block” at the time of IRA prisoner Bobby Sands’ dirty protests.

Like all comedians’ autobiographies, once the career takes off and the hardships fade the prose slides into a list of tour anecdotes and meetings with commissioning editors. But there is insightful reportage on location in Helsinki for his first film role in thriller Gorky Park, observing “dark green trains decorated with Cyrillic script” and “beautiful Estonian prostitutes with hair the colour of butter.” His admission to a semi-religious “sense of wonder” about TV studios is also beautifully illuminated: “the images on monitors glowed brighter than the paintings of Caravaggio in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.”

This instalment ends circa “the first summer of the Miners’ Strike,” around the time Sayle was asked to film the edition of Comic Roots that drew at least one teenaged comedy fan to Chelsea School of Art. Thatcher stole his trousers, but he changed my life.

Kindly reprinted from the Mail On Sunday, 13 March 2016

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Whatever | November 2010

Whatever | In praise of print
The printed word is so last century. But you’ll miss the airport novel and the boarding pass when they’re gone

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I am against the Kindle. There, I’ve said it. As lightweight and graphite-cool as Amazon’s proprietary e-reader clearly is, I simply don’t want an electronic device designed primarily for the purpose of reading digital books. But please don’t equate my antipathy with Ned Ludd’s violent decommissioning of two mechanical knitting machines in the early 19th century. My aversion to the e-reader is rooted not in ideological proletarian revenge or technological nostalgia, but in the simple truth that choosing which paperbacks to pack for my holiday gives me an inordinate amount of pleasure.

One year I used up most of my Ryanair baggage allowance by selecting Ian Kershaw’s Hitler for a relaxing week in Ireland; it defined my stay as much as the choice of cottage or location, and you can see it in the holiday snaps – unlike whatever’s on a Kindle screen. I have no beef with progress. But with each incremental tweak of our eternally rechargeable daily lives by stubbled geeks riding scooters around a place of work they genuinely believe to be a “campus”, we inch further from culture’s moorings: tactility, intimacy, fallibility and, yes, its occasionally musty smell. My bullshit detector always starts to twitch whenever an electronic device is advertised as having the same qualities as previously adequate acoustic delivery systems, such as talking, reading or doing. (“iPad is … delicious … playful … friendly … literary,” lies the commercial.)

We live in a word that’s shredding its paper. We’re glued to touch-screens and reliant on the mystical power of unseen hard drives, mainframes and servers to remember everything; utility companies offer rebates for “paper-free” billing; album “artwork” is merely an unclicked file document; and we recently learned that the third edition of the voluminous Oxford English Dictionary, due for completion in ten years, will only be available online.

Meanwhile, last June I cancelled my subscription to The Ecologist magazine. Not in a fit of purple-faced pique – the decision was forced upon me when, with laudable eco-intent, its print edition ceased production after 39 years and moved exclusively online. I’m old-skool enough to consider a “digital edition” an option and not a fait accompli.

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It was Massachusetts doctor Duncan MacDougal who discovered that the human body instantaneously loses 21 grams when we die; hence the attractive hippy myth that the departing human soul weighs 21 grams. If you delete the “digital edition” of a magazine, or drag an eBook to the trash, your tablet computer’s weight remains constant. Ergo, the laptop has no soul.

This July, although he didn’t live to see it, Stieg Larsson became the first author to sell a million eBooks on Amazon, a milestone dutifully fanfared in the national print media, an industry staring down the barrel of extinction because of the cleverly marketed convenience and alpha status of, well, e-readers. I for one am in predictive mourning. James Brown, who made his name in the 1990s by selling a whole stack of magazines when that’s all we knew, talks up Sabotage Times, his new online venture, by denouncing what he calls “dead tree publishing”; the very phrase makes me sad.

I hope it’s not just my age, but in common I think with many of my generation I grew up in a home full of felt tips, pads and propelling pencils; my dad brought home carbon paper, hole punches and other exotica from work; and I was educated by way of chalk, red pen and whiteboards. When I wrote my dissertation for college, Mum typed it up for me; to be “printed” bestowed legitimacy – it was proper.

My first fanzine was furtively designed at the office photocopier and printed at Kall Kwik; with it, I secured a foot in the door of the NME, where my first job involved laying out pages – that is, sticking Letraset and Xeroxed pics onto paper grids with carcinogenic aerosol glue. Perhaps I am masochistically wedded to an outmoded ideal of inconvenience. I certainly equate what you put in with what you get out. Kershaw’s Hitler is available as an eBook, as easy to cart around and read on the train as an idea or a vibration. But where’s the commitment? And if you have every book at your 3G fingertips, where’s the fun?

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American business and IT expert Nicholas Carr wrote an essay for Atlantic magazine entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid? It now forms the bones of a book, The Shallows, whose subtitle is less inflammatory: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember. Never mind changing – according to Carr, who blames scrolling screens for rewiring our neural pathways, leading tocursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning,” it’s doing to our patience what Ned Ludd did to those knitting machines.

It will only be by active and militant conservation that printed matter will defy the dustbin of history. We must protect magazines, maps, documents and Post-Its as we do tracts of marshland and designated places of historic interest and natural beauty. I recently returned to Ireland – having booked my flights online but printed out the boarding passes on paper – and found myself blissfully out of wi-fi range. More grateful than ever for paperbacks to thumb and newspapers to luxuriate in, I started filling in crosswords, something I haven’t done since I was a boy. I even bought a propelling pencil.

Sure, you can pull up an infinite catalogue of crosswords online, enter and re-enter the answers without recourse to a pencil eraser, and even click on words to see if you’re right. But where are you meant to scribble out the anagrams?

Now, as is my idiosyncratic wont, before delivering this column electronically, I will print it out in order to read it back. Because only then will it be proper.

First published in Word magazine, November 2010

How to review books written by your friends: some tips

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I am a published author. I like to self-pityingly think of myself as a former published author as the publisher of my exponentially worse-selling memoirs never writes and never calls, but the writing fraternity don’t need me to add to their woes, as the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society have just produced a report that says writers’ incomes are dwindling fast and only the 1% can actually live off rearranging the English language; cue: death of novel, end of world etc. Anyway, a large proportion of book reviewers are published authors. Ergo, authors are constantly reviewing other authors. (After all, what is an author if not a reader with a typewriter?)

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It’s a minefield, and Private Eye‘s Books and Bookmen column is particularly hot on exposing elbow-patch nepotism, whether between authors locked in a critical love-in, rival publishing houses locked in internecine warfare, or simply pals giving good notices to pals. Writing is a lonely furrow, so writers tend to be sociable, and always up for a free drink at a reception or launch.

I have not reviewed that many books professionally. Both the Saturday Times and the Saturday Mail have teased me with what looked like regular book-review work in the past, and I enjoyed it while it briefly lasted (the Times even tasked me with providing the first, overnight review of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, but I fear this was an administrative error). I’ve reviewed quite a few titles here. The commissioning editor of this blog obviously fancies me. But I do know this much: it’s much harder and more time consuming than reviewing, say, records or films. You have to read a book, for a start.

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If you ever find yourself in the precarious position of having to review a book written by one of your friends, here are my tips:

  1. Declare an interest straight away.
  2. Specify the depth of the friendship, which will help us know whether or not to trust you.
  3. Go out of your way to make at least one critical judgement if you’re otherwise praising the book.
  4. If you don’t like the book, do anything in your power to get out of reviewing it.

Duly armed, I shall now review three books written by three of my friends.

ExtraOrdinaryLifeFrankDerrick81The Extra Ordinary Life Of Frank Derrick, Aged 81 by JB Morrison (Pan Macmillan, £7.99 paperback) is unique among the trio for being a novel. It is JB Morrison’s first book, but Jim Bob’s fourth. I am Jim Bob’s friend. I have known him since Sheriff Fatman, we send Christmas cards to each other, support each other in our respective careers (I recommended him for the Mark Ravenhill Barbican panto gig; he lets me hang out backstage at Carter reunion gigs) and occasionally have a coffee. We have never been to each other’s houses, but I know where he lives and he knows where I live. He has previously thanked me in the acknowledgments of his novels as I have read them in galley form and told him they were good, which they were. I love the fact that a man so renowned for his witty and clever lyrics has transferred that skill to prose. Important disclosure: he didn’t send me Frank Derrick to read, so I’m not thanked in it, and I read it when it was already a book. Maybe this JB Morrison is a bit less matey than Jim Bob. It helps to create a professional distance.

I loved the book. In Storage Stories and Driving Jarvis Ham, quite a lot happens but it is told in a sort of downbeat, matter of fact way. The same approach applies to this tale of a Sussex village octogenarian widower as he convalesces after being knocked down by a milkfloat, but – beyond the accident (“Frank had a broken toe, the one next to his big toe, the little piggy that stayed at home, which was also his prognosis: to stay at home”) – very little happens. He is assigned a carer, an intrusion he initially resists, but in the form of Kelly Christmas, turns out to be a ray of light that illuminates his life (“it felt like a whirlwind has swept through his flat”). That’s pretty much it. But what a vivid picture of old age, male pride, smalltown politics and the arse-ache of familial responsibility Jim paints. Economically, too.

On the low crime rate in the village of Fullwind: “The sound of sirens meant that somebody had left the window open and the TV up too loud during Midsomer Murders.” A new pair of glasses are “so light he might forget he was wearing them and begin a hunt round the flat to find them.” Winning £2.40 on the Lottery, Frank is “almost too embarrassed to collect it … It felt worse than not winning at all.” Jim is a quiet observer of people, and Frank Derrick is his best novel. Although I was all for the Kurt Vonnegut-style drawings in Storage Stories, and the music biz allusions in Jarvis Ham, by narrowing his focus, he’s upped the narrative ante. It’s harder to write about something extra ordinary and make it extraordinary. I can’t think of a negative thing to add, for nepotistic balance. Er, the name Albert Flowers was a bit on-the-nose for the man in charge of Villages In Bloom.

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Rock Stars Stole My Life! by Mark Ellen (Coronet, £18.99 hardback). Now, is Mark Ellen my friend? Well, if we bumped into each other this afternoon, we would, I suspect, hug. He’s someone I’ve known for 23 years. Before that, of course, I read his pop magazine and watched his rock TV show, then read his next two pop magazines. In 1992 he interviewed me for a job and thereafter gave me the job, at the second of those magazines, Select. Such is his voluble, non-hierarchical personality, even if he is your boss, he becomes your pal. If you’ve seen him on telly, or heard him on the radio or a Word podcast, that’s what he’s like. I was around Mark Ellen for five years of my magazine publishing career on a nine-to-five basis, feeding off his boyish enthusiasm, if that’s not too prosaic a word for whatever it is that fizzes around his veins. Freelancing for him at Word was even more like being in his and David Hepworth’s gang. I sorely miss the excuse to drop into the office and soak up Mark’s vibes, or shoot the £50-man breeze with him over a recording device. And now he’s written a book about it all.

Rock Stars Stole My Life!, presented and penned like a sidebar in Smash Hits, it actually reads like Mark’s half of a spirited conversation (and his was never as little as a half). It’s exclamatory, endearingly vague, citation-free and all over the place. It begins “somewhere over Greenland” on Rihanna’s Boeing 777, where the elder statesman of pop journalism is among a more youthful press corps and, in less than a page, ticking off the first of his print-trade neologisms: “I wander down the aisle to see if I can scare up some more booze.” Mark really does use the phrase “scare up.” So in love with the intricacies and left-turns of our old pal the English language is he, such daft verbal ticks become lifejackets as he bobs about in the ocean of nonsense that is pop and the pop industry. Herein, he turns his life – well, his professional life, he’s not big on the old private life, beyond fond passing mentions of his wife Clare – into a 40-chapter Hoary Old Rock Anecdote.

Each tale is turned on the lathe of froth with a flourish and a curlicue throughout – to say they are “embellished” suggests they are untrue, but it’s not that. Mark cannot use a grey, functional sentence. It is not in his bones. Henceforth, whether he’s recounting early festival safaris “sleeping in fertilizer sacks”, his first, faltering steps at the NME, or the full flowering at Smash Hits and the subsequent executive-level eyries at EMAP, we get “records of every stripe”, copy that comes in “screeds”, the video boom that comes in “warm trade winds”, machinery that “cranks into action”, Toyah being “of no audible talent”, the Beatles being “cheese-scented”, the Q Awards negotiated over “long months of fragile protocol”, and “m’learned friends” are mentioned more than once. His style bounces across the facts like a beach ball. It’s difficult to take your eye off it. And the getting there is half the fun.

Though Mark’s writing is decorative, it’s actually as economical as Jim Bob’s. We can see the elder rock journalists in the Knebworth press paddock when he describes them as “roguish characters in leather jackets … forking smoked salmon off paper plates.” When he notes that new partner-in-speechmarks Tom Hibbert was a fan of Big Star, all we need know is that they were “thin, lackadaisical men from Tennessee who played chiming melodies with a mournful cadence and a doomed, romantic sheen.” (It was always a great injustice to the rest of us that Mark declined to review records for the magazines he ran.) He is generous, namechecking other talents as he goes, showering humble compatriots like Hepworth, Andrew Harrison and Paul DuNoyer with bubbly approbation, and never less than effacing about himself. (When he becomes “editor-in-chief” he calls the title “embarrassingly grand-sounding.”)

More than a passing interest in music and magazines is a prerequisite but that’s obvious. If you happen to have lived quite a lot of the book, as I have, it will sing to you. Not least when, just prior to he and Dave jumping the good ship EMAP to go it alone, we learn that the company’s “upper corridors” are suddenly stalked by “highly paid strategists hell-bent on evolution.” What was once the “greatest place to work imaginable”, had become “infiltrated by wiry creeps in designer shirts.” I remember it well. To declare an interest, I get my sole namecheck on page 319, when the Word podcast is hymned and he enthuses that I am “still besotted with Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine.” Which is where we came in.

MemoirsOASGDQ Memoirs Of A Shoegazing Gentlemen by Lord Tarquin (Sonic Cathedral, paperback). Last night, I attended the launch of this tiny but rather beautiful edition because its author, David Quantick, is my friend and since he moved out of London I haven’t seen him very much. Sonic Cathedral is celebrating its tenth year as an independent label specialising in Shoegazing music by producing its first ever book, the collected columns of “Lord Tarquin”, originally published in the NME between October 1991 and February 1992, Shoegazing’s peak. They appeared in the “humour” section, Thrills, edited by Stuart Maconie, with me looking over his shoulder as our desks adjoined and he, too, was my friend. I’ve known Quantick since 1988, when I first walked into the NME. He, Maconie and I formed a comedy triple-act at the turn of the century and took our show (about music journalism), Lloyd Cole Knew My Father, to the Edinburgh Fringe, and onto Radio 2. Quantick had always appeared on our Radio 1 shows, and we had a certain, arch chemistry. (We even had a few huffs during the tense making of the Radio 2 series, which proved how much we liked each other.) For a long while, we were all three represented by the same agent.

To revisit Quantick’s wryly wicked words in stout pamphlet form, exquisitely designed and illustrated by Marc Jones, was a tonic on the train home from last night’s launch at the Heavenly Social, wherein a solo-strumming, flat-capped Mark Gardner of Ride, and three quarters of Lush (host Miki, DJ Phil, guest Emma, all looking hale) provided the royalty. (Andy Bell also turned up, but after I’d left.) The “Lord Tarquin” conceit was then, and remains, that the Shoegazing scene was populated by poshos. It wasn’t, strictly, but it felt that way, with its Thames Valley epicentre and its languidly studenty sound (and one or two actual well-heeled members). Blur, Lush, Chapterhouse, Slowdive, Catherine Wheel, Revolver, even Chicane, all were dragged into Quantick’s world of privilege, boarding, “double deten” and “botheration” at Shoey House school. Tossed off at the time, they may have been, but these short-form lampoons are rich with imaginative language. It is very much in the sculpted spirit of one Mark Ellen.

“Just popped back from a round of fives in the Lower Quad with Russell from Moose! Top-hole shuffle! Russell was ten up on a double shubunkin when he dropped the bally spinnaker! The cream buns are on him next time we pop into Mrs Shoggins’ tea shop in the village!” And so it goes. We might all toss something off as funny and daft as the memoirs of Lord Tarquin. That there is a label specialsing in Shoegazing music at all – never mind that members of the bands affectionately pilloried in a music paper 22 years ago are happy to grace the launch of said satire – simply proves my 20 Year Rule. It’s one that only people who’ve lived for 40 years or more can appreciate: that everything comes round again after 20 years; all you have to do is wait it out, and not fall out with anybody or die in the interim.

Not available in all good bookshops (whatever they are), Memoirs Of A Shoegazing Gentleman is available to purchase here and, before that, from Sonic Cathedral’s stall at the Independent Label Market in London on Saturday (12 July).

Now, fun over, back to reading the introduction of Thomas Piketty’s Capital. I have never met Thomas Piketty and he is no friend of mine, so my review of this book will be pure and unsullied by soppiness and nostalgia when I review in about … a year and half’s time?

Into the Valley

TA156HVjAs I type, we’re mere hours away from the final part of Happy Valley on BBC1, brutal and brilliant and one of the landmark dramas of the TV year so far, and featured heavily in this week’s Telly Addict. While animated by ensuing episodes of Sally Wainwright’s fem-centric Hebden Bridge crime saga, I have been let down by the way From There To Here unfolded in its second episode, also on BBC1, and also covered this week, for balance. Plus: the 1950s-Dublin-set Quirke, also on BBC1, which I’m loving, so I am, and Imagine: Philip Roth Unleashed on BBC2, a rare treat for those of us who’ve only read Portnoy’s Complaint. For fun, I cover Four Rooms on C4, which returned for its fourth series and is basically a posh Cash In The Attic, but no less fun for that. Happy Valley! Happy Valley! Happy Valley!

Writer’s blog: Week 41, Sunday

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Guess why it’s been a long while since I’ve blogged, solipsistic diary style, about my writer’s life? Because I’ve been crushingly busy actually writing. For my job. So today, Sunday, a day of rest, here I sit, and here I sip, in a unique position. One, I have what we’ll round up to “five minutes” to take stock. It is an unusual Sunday morning in many other respects. Chiefly, I am in the conservatory of a very nice hotel. But I am not on holiday. I am here, in the rarefied environs of Cheltenham, for the Literature Festival, where last night I appeared, live and direct and strapped into a Lady Gaga-style headset mic, in a rain-lashed tent, “sold out” (except the tickets were free), banging on about subtitled films and telly and the joys thereof.

For this unpaid job (I know, the devil’s work, don’t tell Philip Hensher etc.), I was put up in a very nice hotel for the night. You have to grab such opportunities. The hotel just plied me with a very nice Full English and I have taken coffee to the lounge to listen to the rain and traffic in a wicker chair. It may be pissing down, but the sort of very nice person who attends a literature festival – and Cheltenham is less a festival, more a 10-day way of life – soldiers on regardless, hungry for stimulus of a literary bent. I so wish I could afford the time and money to come here for a week’s holiday and “do” the rich calendar of talky events. I am easily the least famous speaker in the fat Cheltenham booklet. (As I tarried in the “Writers’ Room” hospitality tent before my gig, I saw John Bishop and David Davies and no doubt half a dozen august novelists I wouldn’t recognise from their ruddy faces and tweed coats.)

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It’s not unpaid work. I am here as an ambassador of Radio Times, whose presence at the festival is considerable, and who pay me a stipend to be their Film Editor. I can’t tell you how many of the hardy band of lit-hounds who filled the Exchange tent from 7.30 last night were Radio Times readers, but all were interested enough in foreign films and telly to come along, in the rain, when the pubs and restaurants of Cheltenham warmly beckoned. I told them that it was an privilege to be among them, and it was. I had a basic PowerPoint presentation to help me, and a stack of DVDs to give me something tangible to hold and wave, but it was essentially me talking about my own childhood introduction to foreign films and telly, and sharing some thoughts about the importance of availing ourselves of other cultures through “national cinema” and, increasingly, imported foreign TV. But the crux, for me, was getting the audience involved, and it was a joy to have them shout out the foreign films that first inspired them. A shared experience in bad weather. Terrific.

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This, above, is one of the jobs I’ve been doing rather than blogging for free. I cannot give away specific details for – here we go again – superstitious reasons, but I have been locked in an office with another comedian, with whom I’ve been cooking up a pilot script of a new comedy. It’s been something like seven years since I did this with Lee Mack on series one of Not Going Out and I’ve had a few flashbacks, mostly good ones. You’ll see whiteboard and Post-It notes. It’s that serious. (If I had an office to work in full-time, you wouldn’t see the walls for Post-it notes. But they take a dim view of that at the British Library.)

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Fruit. Marker pens. Cups of coffee. Through such talismanic items are scripts co-written. Look at the size of these Sports Direct zero-hours mugs which we found in the kitchenette. My co-writer enjoys funny tea in a gallon of hot water.

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Because I can be in four places at once, I’ve also been battling away with a radical second draft of a pilot script of my own, which hit a patch of turbulence, was then becalmed, and has since chugged back into life after a useful meeting with the two executives I owe it to. (What insight this must offer: vague descriptions about projects with no names and no pack drill.) I am also script-editing the second series of Badults, whose first read-through with “the boys” took place on Friday, so that’s off the starting blocks. I am also doing a “read and notes” on another script for another set of people. And until yesterday, I was working up a viable presentation about subtitled films and telly. And writing my first ever TVOD for the Guardian Guide, which you’ll be able to read next Saturday.

It has been whatever the positive and grateful version of a living hell is called. And I think I have earned this little break in a wicker chair before heading back to London to put my clips together for tomorrow’s Telly Addict. I plan to do no work whatsoever in the car.

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Oh, and “that” read-through (left-to-right: Tom, Ben, Matthew, exec Gavin, script editor me, producer Izzy) …

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Theatrical release

It was Baz Luhrmann who coined the phrase “red curtain cinema” to cover his loose trilogy Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge. What he meant by it was film that embraced the theatre and revelled in the theatricality of performance, even when frozen in celluloid and thus robbed of that particular verité. Song, dance, heightened reality, a certain opulence, a sense of camp, grandeur and all-round stagey staging add to the effect, and as someone who saw Moulin Rouge in a huge, impersonal West End cinema in the immediate, overcast aftermath of 9/11 and found myself part of an ordinary paying audience cheering at the end, I can account for the best of the effect “red curtain” achieves.

Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina is part of that tradition. It wasn’t always meant to be this way – indeed, Wright’s last-minute decision to re-stage and shoot Tolstoy’s torrid aristo-romance in a theatre and to make that its narrative and visual advantage apparently drained the colour from screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s cheeks, and has rubbed some critics up the wrong way, too. Me? I found it not only bold and brave, but mostly thrilling. A gamble that paid off.

Historically, the novel was staged before it was filmed, in 1907, but its most famous adaptations have been for the screen – Greta Garbo in the 1935 version; the 1977 BBC series with Nicola Pagett; perhaps even the 1997 one with Sophie Marceau, the first Hollywood adaptation to be filmed in actual Russia. This, however, is something different. It begins in the theatre, with Matthew McFadyen playing Count Oblonsky in heightened farce mode, and the actors moving betweens sets and backdrops, with stage hands lurking and scenery being changed. The “realism” of the theatrical setting is challenged at key moments; firstly, when Levin (a suitably dour and serious Domhnall Gleeson) leaves St Petersburg for the countryside and steps outside of the theatre into a vast, David Lean-style snowy landscape. (I haven’t read or studied the book, but I can see that the contrast between the ritualised dance of town and the agrarian honesty of the country is key.)

For me, when the action deliberately and symbolically moves outside of the constrictions of the theatre to convey the vastness and openness of the country – where, for instance, Levin mucks in with the workers on his estate in what looked like a deliberate, dappled echo of Days Of Heaven – some of the film’s singular magic ebbs away and the film becomes conventional again. (That said, the way the scythes swoosh in time to Dario Marianelli’s soundtrack pulls it back a bit.) Conversely, when Keira Knightley, as Anna, sits beneath a toy railway to reassure her young son before heading off to Moscow, and then we zoom in on the lit carriages of the toy train in a fake snowscape, wherein Anna now travels, it is a captivating leap from artifice to “reality”.

Some have found Wright’s approach a bit “arm’s length”, and criticised him for removing us from the emotion of the story by placing obstacles in our way, but while I accept that much of the cleverness – including a horse race with actual horses also held inside the dilapidated auditorium, and a government office building transformed into a restaurant, with workers revealing aprons beneath their formal suits to become waiters – is designed to dazzle rather than involve, this is an artistic risk, and you have to credit Wright for taking it.

And anyway, the performances are rich and real enough, notably Knightley’s and that of Jude Law as her cuckolded husband. Both these performers improve with age, and while Law might have been playing the cocky Count Vronsky if the film had been made ten years ago, I prefer him as the balding, formal, upstanding Count Karenin. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is Vronksy, and embodies all the arrogance of privileged youth. He’s not likable, but is he supposed to be? Too many decent actresses are reduced to cameos – Shirley Henderson, Holliday Grainger, Emily Watson, Michelle Dockery, even Ruth Wilson’s part is relatively small – but then this is one of those lavish costumed productions that actors presumably fall over themselves to be in, and in the patriarchal society it depicts, the men are in charge while the ladies fan themselves in royal boxes. Of the female characters, only Anna is allowed any real substance.

At its most Luhrmann-esque, a courtly dance, choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, seems to blend a more modern framework over the 19th century formality, with an intricate interweaving of hands and arms that almost threatens to usher in a modern dance track, as per Moulin Rouge (amid whose wayward wackiness, it might have worked). Thankfully, this never happens, and Wright keeps a tighter lid on the inner logic of his production. I almost yelped when Vronksy and Karenin – by now locked in a Cold War for Anna’s affections – leave and enter by adjoining revolving doors in the lobby of the theatre, glimpsing each other through the glass; this is Wright hitting the jackpot.

It’s a long book, and the film is too, at 130 minutes, towards the end of which I found myself drifting a little. But overall, despite the aforementioned remoteness, I thought this Anna was a treat. Oh, those Russians.

The height of cruelty?

As mentioned previously, I have a problem with Wuthering Heights, Andrea Arnold’s stunningly elemental interpretation of Emily Brontë’s famous novel, and that’s with the implied animal cruelty in it. It’s set on the wild and windy moors, of course, and through Arnold’s radical and beautiful vision, we almost literally have our noses rubbed in the mud of this unforgiving rural landscape. By use of shallow focus and forensically sharp digital stock, she takes us right down into the undergrowth, there to see dewdrops glistening on a single strand of a spider’s web, or a thread of sheep’s wool snagged on a thistle. We can almost smell a horse’s breath, or feel the hairs on its head. It’s thrilling filmmaking, and a piece of cinema I would recommend you see, despite its narrative deficiencies. Unless you have a problem with the implied mistreatment of animals.

Using a largely unknown, and inexperienced, young cast, Arnold imbues what is for many a familiar love story with new life. (I have never read the book, but I’ve seen it on TV and heard the hit single.) She and her screenwriter Olivia Hetreed make Heathcliff black, rather than a gypsy, which brings a new power to his relationship with Cathy. As I note in my much shorter Radio Times review of the film, the detailed sound design, lack of score and action-chasing handheld camera bring the story alive. And Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave are striking as the young Cathy and Heathcliff. It’s such a modernist approach, almost as if this version is a guerilla documentary about a more conventional dramatisation of Wuthering Heights, captured on the hoof for the second disc of the DVD, your suspension of disbelief is occasionally shattered and, ironically, you start to think: it’s some actors on a hill. Indeed, it’s the reality of it that gives me my Big Problem.

The film carries a 15 certificate, which, according to the detailed BBFC report, is mainly to do with the strong language – which is only moderately fruity albeit at one point racist to modern ears – and what it refers to as “animal killings.” This is what the report goes on to state: “There are four scenes involving live animals, with a sheep’s throat being cut, a rabbit’s neck being broken and two dogs seen hanging from their collars from a fence and a branch, implying that they are left to die. Assurances have been provided by the production company explaining in detail how these scenes were filmed, including detail of special effects employed, so as not to harm any of the animals involved.”

I have to take that at face value. I don’t know how they used special effects to make it look like two dogs were being hung on a gatepost and a branch, but it looks just like they are actual dogs being actually hung, for a few seconds, by their collars, and are left, for a few seconds, to wriggle around uncomfortably. It’s easy enough to imagine animal trainers rushing in to unhook them after being on film for a few seconds, but that can’t be the case, surely? To be honest, as I never tire of saying, even implied violence towards animals onscreen bothers me. In a week when one prize fucking idiot was caught on camera actually swinging a cat around by its tail, and another was apparently stolen after being featured in an article in the London Evening Standard, I worry about people. And if animal cruelty is shown, even in an arthouse film, it might subconsciously go in.

I’m going to trust Andrea Arnold and the BBFC and accept that, somehow or other, no dogs were even made uncomfortable for a few seconds in the making of this film. But if you’re as soppy as I am, you might want to be ready to look away, or stay away.