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Bruce Forsyth: an appreciation written for, but not used by, the Guardian

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The melodramatic phrase, “We may never see his like again,” is overused. But in this case, we have a pressing question on our hands: who will ever fill the shoes of Bruce Forsyth?

Always light on his dancer’s feet, he was the very definition of the beloved entertainer. An all-rounder, a song-and-dance man, a music-hall act (the Mighty Atom) at 14, a concert party natural during the war and a dogged veteran of summer season, club bill and panto until the London Palladium beckoned, and thereafter a household name who was barely off our TV screens for six decades. He could sing, he could tap, he could tell jokes, he could almost act (people forget that he took over Leonard Rossiter’s starring role in Thames TV’s supermarket-set sitcom Tripper’s Day in 1986, the Trollied of its time), but much more than this, he could host.

When, in 2012, “Brucie” entered the Guinness Book of Records for having the longest career of any male TV entertainer – with, at the time, only former Golden Girl Betty White to beat to the all-gender title – we were reminded that his first appearance on the box was in 1939 at London’s Radiolympia exhibition when he was 11 years old, doing the old soft-shoe on what might be considered an early draft of The X-Factor, Come and Be Televised.

The footage may be long lost, but we know that Bruce Joseph Forsyth-Johnson came and was televised. And we can assume that television liked him, because it kept on televising him until his octogenarian appearances on Strictly were the butt of a thousand affectionate jokes. (He was quipping self-effacingly about being “doddery” as far back as series six, when he was a sapling of 80.)

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Like one of those sweet granddads you see on local TV news who are still stacking shelves in B&Q with no intention of retiring, Bruce lived to work. (He even described his other passion, golf, as “masochistic”.) He was the kind of entertainer who, if he broke into a spontaneous verse of It’s Impossible and nobody heard, may as well have not have broken into it at all.

Those of my generation grew up with him. Too young for his first peak of TV ubiquity at the helm of Sunday Night at The London Palladium in the late 50s/early 60s (and, more pertinently, as adept crowd marshal of its frantic game show Beat the Clock), we clasped him to our collective bosom during his second wind at the helm of Bruce Forsyth and the Generation Game in the 70s, his household name already in the title.

The announcer called it “family fun”, and its selling point was to bring parent and sibling generations together to compete in games of guesswork, memory, vocational karaoke and physical humiliation. It’s hard to think of a more effective familial glue than the weekly edition at 6.30 on a Saturday evening. A grinning, avuncular natural with the public at a time when the public were tongue-tied and shy, he would look askance to camera or grimace offstage, saying, “We’ve got a right one here!” or “Where do you find them?” without losing a single passenger. (I remember one young contestant in less than formal attire being greeted with the off-the-cuff remark, “Did you come here on your skateboard?”)

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In the 1973 Christmas special that Generation Game staple the amateur-dramatic finale featured Frankie Howerd in Cinderella. Soaking up the studio applause on his entrance, he gestures back at Bruce, playing Buttons, and says, “Isn’t he looking old these days? No wonder they call it Snow White.” Bruce was 45, but his fuzzy mutton chops were already more salt than pepper and his fringe was well on its way over the crest of the hill. I wasn’t alone in thinking of him as an older man in the 70s than he was in the 90s.

Although the descriptive tramline wrinkles multiplied around his eyes and smile, and a moustache added gravitas, by the time he was hosting ITV’s You Bet in the late 80s, the hair was darkened and combed forward. His toupée was entertainment’s worst-kept secret, but Brucie would bristle if interviewers brought it up. He looked a lot better with it than before it.

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Poached from the BBC by ITV in the late 70s, it didn’t matter which of those two impostors had him under contract, as he always took his catchphrases with him for continuity. Whether fronting the irresistible call-and-response of Play Your Cards Right or ill-advised, voice-activated rounds of computer tennis on Bruce’s Big Night, it was always nice to see him, to see him nice. (Big Night was a rare lapse of judgement in that 76-year career, an act of network hubris that saw him take over the whole of Saturday night in the winter of discontent in 1978 and get beaten in the ratings by The Generation Game under new host Larry Grayson.)

In 1997, the year he joined the hallowed ranks of Kenneth Williams, Billy Connolly and Peter Ustinov with his own An Audience With … for LWT, he told an interviewer, “I feel death coming nearer.”

Of the all-rounders, he even outlived Ronnie Corbett. If not for Ken Dodd, he would have been the last family entertainer standing from that concert-party generation who earned their spurs on the club circuit and built empires around themselves in the voracious vacuum of telly in the 60s and 70s. But as the next wave came – Cannon & Ball, Jim Davidson, Little & Large – their forebears proved remarkably resistant and only premature death (or in Mike Yarwood’s case stage fright and alcoholism) removed them from the stage on Saturday nights.

Retiring in 2015 but never shy, Brucie ended his record-breaking career in a massive Saturday teatime blockbuster, still twinkling, still soft-shoeing, still grimacing offstage; he was surely the most resilient of them all. We had a right one here. As for a replacement in all of the fields in which Forsyth excelled – where do you find them?

 

 

 

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There at the New Yorker

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Thanks to an enterprising gentleman/scholar called Gavin Hogg, and his ongoing blog project to log all issues of the much-missed Word magazine, I have just re-read my autumn 2005 article on the New Yorker, which is my favourite current magazine and I suspect always will be. I don’t get commissioned to write “long-form” articles that much. The occasional meatier piece for Radio Times (I’m working on a Star Wars story right now, and I’m going on the set of Peaky Blinders this week), and the even more occasional feature for the Guardian or G2 (although the newspaper’s filo-pastry-like commissioning process is sometimes as impenetrably layered as the BBC’s!), but I mostly, these days, I seem to talking again – on the radio, on the Guardian website, on further talking head shows – and my writing work is all beneath the surface, in script form, in development. So, it was an education to re-read what turned out to be an educated three-page feature in its original – and rather fetching layout. I reprint it here, as – what the heck! – I’m rather proud of it. It was from the heart, and decently researched, and comes from a place of genuine love, which is always a good place to start. I wish Word magazine still existed, but remain truly thankful that it ever did.

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Writer’s blog, Week 25, Tuesday

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Tuesday. Unless you’re one of these weird dilettantes who goes on holiday, you have to take your respite – even if it’s only geographical – where you can get it. A couple of days’ house-sitting for Mum and Dad in Northampton feels like a holiday, even though I have the same amount of work to do as if I were in London. A change of scenery is as good as a new play, sometimes. Because it’s sunny, I ate my breakfast on their patio. I could do this at home, but choose not to. I think I may be trying to make a few days’ hard work feel more holiday-like. Leave me alone.

Haven’t done a writer’s blog for a while – end of April – so there is much to update. I was at that time deeply optimistic about what had been previously coded Sitcom A but had entered the public domain via the British Comedy Guide as Wild Life. We staged a full-cast read-through in a small theatre above a pub in Turnham Green and it was a fabulous day. We couldn’t have put in any more effort – and by “we”, I mean my management company Avalon, our producer/director Sioned, and the illustrious cast, Frankie Boyle, Isy Suttie, Miles Jupp, Craig Campbell, Adam Hess and Angela Simpson.

It was not picked up.

I am disappointed by this outcome, but at least it draws a line under a project that was “in development” for two years. There’s only so much blood, sweat and tears you can put into something. During that time I was paid a one-off fee, despite all the extra rewrites and other energies expended upon it. A writer does not work by the hour, or the day, in development. (Actually, even when green-lit, a project pays a writer by the script, before residuals. This is why I sometimes wish I had the skills and training to be a plumber, where good work is paid for, and some even incur a call-out charge just to come and look at the problem. I never resent paying a plumber, as they can plumb and I cannot – despite my best DIY efforts in this vexed area!) Anyway, we move on.

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Maybe Sitcom C should now be promoted to Sitcom B (I may call it The Scottish Sitcom, actually, for luck). It has – as previously logged – been turned down by one broadcaster, but is still “in play” with another, according to the exec at the production company which originally pitched it. With each day that passes without news, I imagine the worst.

What was Sitcom B last time we spoke (the collaboration with a very funny comedian based on one of his characters) has with caution and by default been upgraded to Sitcom A, in that it looked for all the world to have the best chance of being commissioned until BBC3’s move online was announced and all bets seemed to be off. Having, again, put a lot of hours in on this, I’d like it to go further, but nobody can legislate for the channel it’s pitched at being effectively shut down. I have made a new friend, either way. And no writing experience is wasted experience.

The production company who pitched Sitcom A also make Badults (that’s how I met them), which enjoyed a return to BBC3 before the drawbridge is pulled up, two Mondays ago. Having script-edited this series, I can honestly say I think it’s twice as strong as the first, which suffered many a sling and arrow on social media, but impressed the channel enough to get a second bite of the cherry. As is now traditional, we all watched Episode 1 go out live, round at Ben’s flat. Here we are.

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From left to right: exec Gav (seen in cameo as the man with balloons in Ep1), producer Izzy, Badults Tom, Ben and Matthew, actors Ivan and Max, and script editor me. It’s a fun show to work on, and a thrill to see my name fly past in the end credits. I rather suspect its chances of a conventional third series are low, but nobody yet knows what the online BBC3 will look like, or if it will even commission anything longer than 10 minutes. (If I was fully online, I wouldn’t.) It’s very sad, and I hope David Cameron, Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre and Alistair Campbell are pleased with themselves.

Drama A, incidentally, is moving at a pace slower than any comedy. We had a meeting with a broadcaster three weeks ago, at which positive noise were made (positive noises cost nothing – they literally give them away), and the first script and seven detailed storylines have been delivered. Why it’s taken me 26 years to discover this, I don’t know, but getting anything commissioned on TV is like trying to get the attention of a giant, distracted baby. Some days, you just run out of gurgling noises and funny faces.

Here’s your moment of Zen. BBC2 repeated I Love 1980 last weekend (as you know, I appeared on I Love 1980, I Love 1981 and I Love 1982), but it never turned up on iPlayer or On Demand, so I was unable to watch it. I found a shit version on YouTube, as a couple of people had pointed out how young I looked on it. (It was shot in 2000.) What you didn’t say was how fat I looked on it. I fear I have misremembered this particular bit of the past.

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H.R. Giger changed my life

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I was sad to read of the death, aged 74, of the Swiss surrealist artist Hans Rudolf “H.R.” Giger. Through his groundbreaking, influential designs for the alien and its environments in Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking, influential murder mystery in space Alien – a style that was known as “biomechanical”, a precisely airbrushed cross between the visceral and the metallic – he had more than crossed my radar. Although I was under the age of consent to see Alien on release in 1979, as an avid teen film fan I bridged the gap by requesting The Book Of Alien – a lavishly illustrated making-of by Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross – for my birthday in March 1980. Via the portal of this otherwise conventional softback souvenir, I entered the rarefied, graphic world of Giger (the book was full of initial sketches and designs by various artists, but his dominated).

This book, though cherished, did not change my life. But Giger did, in 1987, although I didn’t even know it at the time. I was a student at Chelsea School of Art in 1987, on the cusp of graduation and what I hoped would be some approximation of a “career” as an illustrator or more specifically a cartoonist (my chosen area of expertise in the sense that it chose me: I wasn’t much good at proper drawing). I had been an avid reader of the NME since the year Alien was released, and had keenly rolled with its evolutionary punches as it morphed from the inky rag of the post-punk era to a post-modern media studies pamphlet designed with acres of white space in the early-to-mid 80s. What I didn’t know, as a reader, in 1987, is that the paper was on its knees, commercially speaking. This would have been no concern of mine; as long as my weekly fix of music news, culture and dangerous Marxist politics arrived on a Tuesday, all was well.

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I was the sort of nerdy NME reader who pored obsessively over what I didn’t know at the time was called “the masthead” (ie. the list of staff and freelance writers), and noted any personnel changes with interest. As a student of art and design, I also mapped the visual changes in the NME in relation to whoever was  designing it, and knew that the reigning art editor in 1987, Joe Ewart, had ushered in a starkly dynamic page layout, of which I approved. It was very much in keeping with advances in style magazine design over at The Face and i-D, except printed on shitty newspaper.

In 1988, I was living in a studio flat in South West London and attempting to keep the wolf from the door by taking on soulless freelance illustration work for a modest design agency. It was not “art”, but if I drew enough cartoon cats, cyclists and reindeers in a month for corporate handouts, I could pay the rent. (If you bought the puzzle magazine Puzzled around this time, you will have seen my cartoon owls, polar bears, penguins and other assorted fauna – this was the vertiginous level at which I toiled.) In order to satisfy my creative juices, I decided to produce my own fanzine and write about things that interested me and perhaps sell a few copies, like two new NME writers on the masthead whom I had quickly grown to idolise, Steven Wells (who produced Molotov Comics) and James Brown (Attack On Bzag).

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I did not make my own fanzine, This Is This, in their image; instead, I went for neatly typed columns of copy with – yes – plenty of white space around them. I wrote about Tony Hancock, Stephen King, Gerry Sadowitz and the water metaphors in Lloyd Cole’s lyrics, and drew my own cartoon strips satirising TV-AM, Time Out and Apocalypse Now. I borrowed the photocopier at the design company that employed me and used it to “size up” my illustrations and create a clean page design. Then I paid Kall-Kwik to print me up and staple 100 copies. My aim was to carry them around in an Our Price plastic bag and sell them at gigs. I think I sold around a dozen.

However – and here’s where my life intersects with H.R. Giger’s, without his or my knowledge – I sent a copy of This Is This to James Brown, recently installed Features Editor at the NME, and, I hoped, a kindred spirit. The height of my ambition at this stage was to have my fanzine mentioned in the bitty news section Thrills, which James edited. Maybe I would flog a few copies by mail order. What I wasn’t doing at this point was looking for a job at the NME. The prospect was a fictional one.

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I’m glad that I didn’t know then what I know now about how the office of a weekly music paper works. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have wasted a stamp. The probability that the brown envelope containing This Is This would have been opened, never mind the contents being read, was close to zero. I could never have imagined how high the teetering pile of envelopes on James Brown’s in-tray was. However, the stars were aligned for me, and he did open my envelope, and he did flick through my fanzine, and he did phone me up.

In the message he left on my answer machine he said he liked the fanzine and wanted to have a chat with me about it. I was cock a hoop, and yet still only dreaming of seeing my fanzine mentioned in the pages of the NME. He invited me up to the offices of the paper in London’s New Oxford Street – which was, for me, like visiting Mecca – and casually mentioned that he might be able to put a bit of writing work my way.

Now, the history books tell us that back the white heat of July 1976, the NME ran a small ad asking for “hip young gunslingers” to write “lively and incisive prose” in an effort to refresh the lifeblood of the paper in the wake of punk rock with a new staff writer. (Actually, the history book – Pat Long’s closest-to-definitive The History Of The NME.) It ended up with two from the 1,200 applications: Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, with Ian Cranna, Paul Morley and Paul DuNoyer taken on as freelancers. No such formal clarion call went out in 1988, but Brown and his successor on the live desk, Helen Mead, were unofficially tasked with trying out some new writers. It was in this spirit of provincial empowerment that I found myself sucked into the wonderful and frightening world of the NME. (Barbara Ellen, Stuart Maconie and Steve Lamacq were among those who also had their professional lives changed in the same period of conscription.)

Though lured into the office with the promise of writing work, a part-time vacancy was going in the NME art room and, technically if not practically qualified, I was introduced by James to editor Alan Lewis and new art editor (previously Joe Ewart’s assistant) Justin Langlands, who seemed to like me – or perhaps just my dungarees and Age Of Chance baseball cap – and took me on. All of sudden, from a standing start, I had landed a two-days-a-week post at my bible, which quickly expanded to three days. When Justin took his first holiday in the August of ’88, I actually became Art Editor for a fortnight; that’s two issues of the paper I’d read and re-read for almost a decade under my aesthetic control (yes, I redesigned all the logos while Justin was away, and Justin reinstated the old ones when he got back).

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From my new vantage point, I set about bothering all the section editors for writing work, and one by one, they caved. My “journey” from layout boy to actual bylined NME writer had begun. The rest is autobiography. But without H.R. Giger, the man whose art had so captivated me in The Book Of Alien, my life might never have wound its rudderless way in this direction, and the NME might have remained a weekly newspaper I pored over and not one I actually tinkered with from the inside. The “media”, as I did not yet refer to it in 1988 – and an industry of which I did not count myself as a member – might have remained over there. I have no idea if I would still be a freelance illustrator, providing print-ready artwork for puzzle books, but it’s conceivable. If not for nine erect penises …

In 1987, when my wildest dreams still revolved around perhaps drawing my own comic strip for a newspaper, the NME I loved was undergoing one of its habitual regime changes. I couldn’t have known how seismic. According to Pat Long’s account, sales had fallen below 100,000 copies for the first time in 31 years. It is sad to say, but choosing Neil Kinnock as its cover star in the week of the General Election – a decision that thrilled me to marrow of my bones as a reader, and cemented all my political ideals – was symbolic of the NME‘s propensity to back a loser. The paper’s owners, IPC, saw that famous cover (“Lovely, lovely, lovely!”) as the shortest suicide note in history. Editor Ian Pye was sacked, and “safe pair of hands” Alan Lewis was parachuted in.

His commercial instinct and desire to drag the NME back to being about – hey – music were seen as anathema to remaining stalwarts like media editor Stuart Cosgrove PhD – a mid-80s appointee of editor Neil Spencer, under whose leadership the paper entered what was, for me, a purple patch of polemic and pretense. It was future Channel 4 Controller of Arts and Entertainment Cosgrove who produced an issue devoted to censorship while Lewis was on holiday in September ’87, which involved the reproduction of a sexually explicit painting by H.R. Giger known as Penis Landscape. It had been given away as a poster by Californian punk activists the Dead Kennedys in 1985 with their Frankenchrist album and landed the band and their lable in legal hot water. It depicted nine erect penises entering nine orifices that could be vaginas or anuses. What could possibly go wrong?

The NME folklore passed down to us was that the printers had refused to  print it and downed tools. According to Long, it was more a case of the colour repro lab complaining about having to print it, but the industrial kerfuffle gave IPC management the excuse to get rid of the staffers it considered “troublemakers”, notably Cosgrove – who I presume considered it a cause worth dying for – and Joe Ewart. “Media” returned to being a token section of the paper with film and book reviews in it, and Ewart’s assistant, Justin, took the art reins. (Having worked under him, I know that Justin was surprised and delighted to get the gig, although the trade-off was allowing Alan into the design room, whose lack of design finesse did not stop him wielding a scalpel and demanding bigger, clearer, more literal layout.)

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Without understanding its significance, with a few months of my arrival in Justin’s art room, the NME moved offices back to IPC’s skyscraping HQ King’s Reach Tower in Waterloo. We were the unruly child, taken in hand and put under the same roof as Mum and Dad. I had no real idea that I was part of a new era, but events have proven that to be the case. Under Alan’s earnestly commercial helm, we started to produce a tighter, brighter, more focused, less discursive and more humorous paper. The circulation went back up. We even managed to cover Acid House within the newly revived, conventional rock format, made easier when, during the Madchester boom, guitar bands took E and picked up samplers, while Lamacq and new lieutenant Simon Williams plugged directly into an energised, corporate-sponsored indie scene. (As Lamacq told Long, “Everyone at that time wanted Danny Kelly’s approval,” and this genuflection to the larger-than-life successor to Alan Lewis generated real heat in the office, regardless of musical affiliation.)

If you’d asked me my preference as a media outsider in 1987, I would have wished for a Labour government and the continuation of the Ewart/Pye/Cosgrove regime. I would have cheered a pullout H.R. Giger anal fantasia every week and stuff those evangelistic reactionaries in the print trade. But it was not to be. There’s only so much sticking it to The Man you can get away with when you’re part of the machine, which the NME always was. (Believe it or not, we never referred to it as a “brand” in the late 80s – that was all to come.)

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So rest in peace, H.R. Giger. You changed my landscape, and very possibly paved the way for Hull indie rockers Kingmaker to breach the Top 20 in 1992.

 

 

I hate you, butler

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I feel I ought to do the Oscar movies. I haven’t seen all of the big hitters yet, but I’m well on the way; pretty much, one Llewyn Davis short of a full house. First up: Northup. Steve McQueen’s third film, 12 Years A Slave, seemed poised to sweep all boards this season, having picked up a number of accolades at various prizegivings decided by circles, guilds and associations (for instance, from where I’m sitting, it seems to have beaten every other film to every award at the Florida Film Critics Circle in December, and you can replace “Florida” with “Iowa” or “Las Vegas” and get the same comprehensive result). And then the Golden Globes were distributed two weeks ago and 12 Years squeaked only one award out of seven nominations. True, it was for best motion picture (drama) and meant that McQueen and crew got to fill the stage as the TV credits rolled, but I can’t have been alone in expecting a clean sweep.

Having seen 12 Years just days before, I have to say I was glad that the Globes were so evenly distributed among the big players: American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club, Wolf Of Wall Street, Blue Jasmine, Gravity, Her, Mandela and even the criminally overlooked All Is Lost, which picked up best score. In any year, I cross my fingers for a mixed bag of winners. I don’t like it when one film wins everything, whatever that film may be. I like surprises. I like upsets. I dislike sure things.

There’s no doubting the quality and ambition of 12 Years, but if it wins everything at the Oscars (and the Golden Globes at least hint that this might not be the case), my fear would be that it’s not the film but the abolition of slavery that’s being voted for.

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As you may know or remember, Hunger, McQueen’s debut, was my film of the year in 2008. I found much to applaud in his follow-up, Shame. And I take my hat off to him for moving so much further into conventional narrative cinema for 12 Years. As a black, London-born Briton of Grenadian blood who grew up at a time of great racial tension in the 70s and 80s, it’s not hard to see why it’s a personal film for him, even though it is a story about southern American slavery in the 1840s and 50s. And, like his previous work, it’s beautifully, artistically framed and confidently and movingly staged. It is a work of great power and adds another fine performance to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s CV. We hold these truths to be self-evident. And yet … it has unequivocal moral certainty on its side, and as such seems a slam-dunk with a modern, liberal audience, especially a white, liberal audience, and especially a white American liberal audience. I’m not saying it was an easy option – its depictions of unbearable, sadistic cruelty of an institutional, almost industrial kind are not for eating your dinner off a plate in front of a TV to – but it’s difficult to imagine anyone coming away from the experience wishing it had been less fair on the white plantation owners. Like the white apartheid South Africans in Mandela – another film whose morality comes in black and white – it wouldn’t be out of place to boo the screen at them.

I was fortunate enough to grow up with Roots on TV in the 70s. Regardless of the veracity of Alex Haley’s tale, its compelling narrative which took us from Africa to America, told a major historical truth. I was 12; I learned a lot. This is not to say I don’t need another fictionalised drama to tell me the same thing. But 12 Years A Slave tells the story of an educated, cultured freeman who is kidnapped and sold as a slave, which I felt we were supposed to be more indignant about than an African snatched from his homeland and shipped over. It veered towards those films set in Africa which always have a white protagonist so that, subliminally, white audiences will have someone to root for. Was Solomon Northup’s ordeal worse than the other slaves’ because he could play the violin, had visited Canada and used to wear a nice suit? The fact that the title reassured us throughout that after 12 years he would be free again took some of the sting out of it, for me.

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What, then, of American Hustle? I have always enjoyed the work of David O’Russell and can claim to have been in quite near the ground floor, having eyed his talent in Flirting With Disaster in 1996, his second feature. I’ll never hold him as dear as I do his contemporaries Alexander Payne, Paul Thomas Anderson or Wes Anderson, but Silver Linings Playbook was entertaining, and so is American Hustle. Is it an Oscar movie? That’s my question. Playing the 70s for cheap laughs – it opens with Christian Bale painstakingly glueing down his preposterous combover – is a fairly tired old sport now. It’s hard to imagine anyone topping Boogie Nights on that particular playing field. But in fictionalising a true story of private-sector confidence tricksters and an FBI sting, Hustle does boast a bit of content, a bit of story, to go with its hairstyles.

It’s hard to fault the sporting work by the principal cast: Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence (all logged with the Academy) and Jeremy Renner. You will enjoy seeing Louis CK in a meaty supporting part, too, plus an uncredited Robert De Niro atoning somewhat for his facile schtick parts, and Boardwalk Empire fans will be as chuffed to see Shea Whigham in a wig as they will be to see him in a boat captain’s whites in The Wolf Of Wall Street. The screenplay by O’Russell and Eric Warren Singer smart-mouths through some pretty complex grifting and triple-crossing, but at the end of the day, it’s a caper movie. So was The Sting, I know, and that was Oscar-approved, but I’m just a little bit niggled by the blanket adoration Hustle is getting from juries. Is life so bad in 2013-14 that we can only bear to watch films set in other eras, whether ones we remember or not?

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The Wolf Of Wall Street is Martin Scorsese’s first all-out comedy. (The King Of Comedy was about comedy, but closer to a tragedy?) Based on the real life of fraudulent “penny stock” trader Jordan Belfort and set during his rise and fall in the late 80s and 90s, it takes a fairly reprehensible individual working in an institutionally unsavoury sector and, through a winning (maybe even Oscar-winning) turn by Leonardo DiCaprio, turns him into if not exactly a hero, certainly someone you find yourself rooting for, against your better judgement. In this, and over a potentially wearisome three-hour running time, it cannot be faulted for holding its nerve. Talking to camera when he’s not rallying his white-collar troops like a cross between Gordon Gekko and Tom Cruise’s motivational speaker Frank T.J. “Respect the cock!” Mackey from Magnolia, DiCaprio somehow puts meat onto the bones of an appalling man doing appalling things with his even more appalling wingman Jonah Hill.

Foul-mouthed, misogynist, self-serving, dishonest, drug-addled, amoral, scheming, brutish, mercenary and at the very least seedy, these financial whizz-kids are no less confidence tricksters than Bale’s American hustlers and yet, working under the regulatory radar, they are almost Robin Hood figures in Scorsese and writer Terence Winter’s version of events. Theirs is a male business, and they behave in the most appallingly male ways. Women – and good luck being an actress in this movie – are commodities: whores, essentially, to be bought and sold and discarded. Sure, Belfort gets his comeuppance – they all do – with Kyle Chandler’s subway-riding CIA man constantly encircling with his friendly, squinty eyes and “sweaty balls”, but what makes Wolf Of Wall Street so compelling is that very eventuality. You know, just as you know Solomon Northup will soon not be a slave, the orgy cannot last. But you will it to carry on, such is the velocity of Scorsese’s film.

It’s pointless to have a favourite, but of the best picture nominees, I’m currently divided between Nebraska, Gravity and Wall Street. Gravity is what I call “pure cinema”. Nebraska is Alexander Payne revisiting his home state for an austerity comedy drama that tilts at The Last Picture Show for profundity and epic sweep. Wall Street dares to lionise the sort of casino-banker who arrogantly manhandled us into this recession and may forfeit Academy votes as a result. But it’s so rare to see a rollicking comedy duking it out with drama’s big boys. There are elements of comedy in Nebraska, Hustle, Philomena and – I detect – Her (another omission on my dance card), but none are all out. Wall Street is.

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Can I say a few words of support for this year’s great lost Oscar movie? All Is Lost, from JC Chandor, whose debut was the outstanding financial-crash fable Margin Call, is as “pure” as Gravity, and also about human beings adrift. In place of Sandra Bullock in space, we have Robert Redford’s solo sailor in the middle of the Indian Ocean. For both, all seems lost. I won’t confirm the outcome; needless to say, with a screenplay of few words, Chandor and Redford tell a tale that resonates down the ages: man versus the elements. Beginning with the unnamed captain’s message in a bottle, it works backwards eight days and walks us through his deteriorating pickle.

That All Is Lost was recognised with one Oscar nomination for best sound editing, and two Globe nominations for actor and score (the second of which it won), is a disgrace. Bafta ignored it altogether in its haste to garland American Hustle. (All hail the New York Film Critics Circle, which spotted that Redford was the year’s best actor.)

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Gravity has digital spectacle on its side, and Alfonso Cuarón may well deserve best director for what he has achieved within the strictures of that job description – I saw the film in 3D and 2D, and it works in both. But while Gravity pushes forward to infinity and beyond, in a sense All Is Lost delves backwards into analogue action spectacle. Robert Redford, the old man, and the sea, thrown together in the water tank built for Titanic, and, er, that’s it. I was gripped from one end to the other, with no notion of how it would play out. It’s probably just a coincidence that Captain Philips, more conventional still, should depict those in peril on the sea.

Tom Hanks stars in Columbia Pictures' "Captain Phillips."

Again, I was gripped. And it should be noted that the cinema showing I attended was potentially scuppered by a row of four disgraceful young kids who had bought their tickets with no intention of respecting the film and kept talking and changing seats throughout, destroying any mood skilfully constructed by Paul Greengrass, Tom Hanks and the crew. Staff were called to the screen on three occasions, the third by me, and at no point were these kids dissuaded of their approach, or threatened with expulsion; we complained afterward, for what it was worth. Captain Phillips‘ towering achievement was to grip and involve with all that shit going on. Bravo.

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The thing about Nebraska is that I knew what it was going to be like from the first stills, never mind the trailer. I am attuned to Payne’s melancholia and his penchant for men walking along by the sides of roads, and although I knew I’d love his hymn to the wide open spaces of the Cornhusker State, this does not diminish that love. I’d be more than happy if Bruce Dern – at 77 the same age as the snubbed Robert Redford – took best actor and made DiCaprio wait another year. It’s a Henry Fonda or a Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond, a Christopher Plummer in Beginners, a Richard Farnsworth in The Straight Story, a John Wayne in True Grit, an Emmanuelle Riva in Amour … hey, a Jack Nicholson in Payne’s About Schmidt – the kind of part you have to earn.

I have yet to see Dallas Buyers Club, although I have been enjoying Matthew McConaughey’s renaissance and felt his energy in a cameo in Wall Street, so there’s little reason to doubt he’s on award-winning form as the HIV-positive Texan. Of the best actresses, Cate Blanchett is the best thing about Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, so my hopes are on her, with a soft spot too for Sally Hawkins are best supporting actress in the same, rich film. If Somalian limo driver Barkhad Abdi got best supporting actor for Captain Phillips, his first film, we could all go home happy: he’s electrifying.

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There’s a grumpy line that says we shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about who wins the Oscars, or indeed any of the other statuettes and perspex doorstops. “When was the last time the best film of the year won the Oscar?”, the naysayers say, when not saying “nay”. As stated, I know for a fact that one of my favourite films of 2013 won’t win any of the major awards, because it is All Is Lost. Same goes for Inside Llewyn Davis, which is also locked out of the love-in and yet looks for all the world to be the best thing the Coens have done, if you like a bit of bleak medicine, and I do. I haven’t said much about Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, because it’s a pretty unremarkable film about a remarkable man, the least anyone could do with his lifestory, just as Ordinary Love is the least U2 could do for a theme tune. But for the song to earn a nomination and Idris Elba not is typical of the seemingly random nature of it all.

Hey, it’s my job to worry about the Oscars and to second-guess the proclivities of an organisation that, as of 2012, was 94% white, 77% male and with a median age of 62. Also, it’s quite good fun, isn’t it?

And at least they ignored The Butler.

Velocity rapture

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It may seem a little prosaic, but do you mind if I just list some band names? Jasmine Minks. The June Brides. Mighty Mighty. Big Flame. Grab Grab The Haddock. The Wolfhounds. The Dentists. The Servants. The Seers. The Brilliant Corners. The Close Lobsters. Is this painting any kind of picture for you? Cherry Red records, the label who were at the epicentre of the birth of indie, are about to release a five-disc box set entitled Scared To Get Happy: A Story of Indie Pop 1980-1989. It’s out on June 24, and there’s a gig in London on June 22 to mark its arrival.

The compilation boasts 134 tracks by 134 artists, beginning in style with Revolutionary Spirit by the recently reactivated Wild Swans on Zoo in 1982, and ending with Catweazle by future hitmakers the Boo Radleys on Action in 1990; in between, you will be transported back to a simpler time, when t-shirts had horizontal stripes, fringes were worn sticking out of the front of Greek fisherman’s caps and guitars were played in a masturbatory style that somehow perfectly crystallised the raw, undersexed emotion that lay beneath. I have been immersed in this grand testimonial for a week, repressing squeals each time a new memory is unleashed: Delilah Sands by the Brilliant Corners, Toy by the Heart Throbs (the first band I ever interviewed as a cub reporter for the NME at a picnic table outside a pub near Rough Trade’s Kings Cross HQ), Almost Prayed by the Weather Prophets, Every Conversation by the June Brides (a defining anthem of my early student years, which took me and my friend Rob to the Venue in New Cross) …

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It’s also great to hear early efforts by bands who went on to greater things in the grown-up chart on major labels: Sick Little Girl by Pop Will Eat Itself, Quite Content by the Soup Dragons (whom I interviewed prior to their chart explosion and became good pals with), Motorcity by Age Of Chance (whose baseball hat I proudly wore to my first days at the NME, only to have it frisbeed across the art room by Steven Wells), Vote For Love by Jamie Wednesday, who would become Carter USM. It’s personal for me, this music.

As much as anything, it reminds me of being largely single and occasionally lovesick, which is apt, living on my own, subsisting off boil-in-the-bag Findus meals and large panfuls of mashed potato and cheese, and taping everything but the reggae off Peel and quirkily naming the cassettes (actually, I did record some dub, and certainly remember loving Adrian Sherwood and On-U Sound at the same time, although there is no place for that here).

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It’s also amazing to hear Grab Grab The Haddock again, the group formed after the Marine Girls by Jane Fox, whom Rob and I adopted as “our” band and followed around a bit. (How bitter the disappointment when they put us on our first ever guest list at the old Marquee, and the doorperson told us that the support band had no guest list.) And the Marine Girls’ Don’t Come Back, all the more poignant for my having sort of befriended Tracey Thorn – certainly remotely – in middle age, as well as Jim Bob, and Miles Hunt (the Wonder Stuff are represented by A Wonderful Day).

There are some “big songs” here, as well as ones that may only mean something to the lucky few: Up The Hill And Down The Slope by The Loft (whom Rob and I saw split up, without knowing it, at Bay 63, supporting The Colour Field, and whose bassist Bill Prince would become my colleague and friend at NME and Q); Velocity Girl by Primal Scream; Just Like Honey by Jesus & Mary Chain; Shine On by the House Of Love. National anthems, all.

I met and interviewed and shared tour bus seats with so many of these indie luminaries as they crossed over to major label hopefuls in the late 80s and early 90s, catching them on the way up, but not necessarily that long before the way down. There are some bands I only remember by name, and not by song – the Corn Dollies, the Waltones, the Raw Herbs – but even the names evoke lazy afternoons and lager in plastic glasses and zip-up jerkins and cheap Top Shop Ray-Ban copies and plastic carrier bags full of fanzines; they speak of Steve Lamacq and Simon Williams and Ian Watson and other be-capped indie enablers.

Railway Children (too new)Wolfhounds

It is a commonplace now that the word “indie” has been stripped of all meaning. But this compilation places it back on an ideological pedestal at a time when it meant beating the system and operating by its own back channel.

As I wrote in 2006 for a piece in Word, the first time I remember seeing the word “indie” was in Sounds, the first of the weekly music papers to carry the indie chart, inaugurated in January 1980 in trade mag Record Business, after an idea by Cherry Red boss Ian McNay. It was based on sales from a network of small record emporia, and was open only to records independently produced, marketed and distributed, that is, outside of the infrastructure of the major labels.

The likes of Virgin, Chrysalis and Island, though established as indies in the 60s and 70s, didn’t count in the 80s as they were distributed by The Man, and this was key to our understanding of the word. The same ideological exile had befallen pre-punk stalwarts Chiswick and Stiff, when they took the majors’ shilling. The indie charts did exactly what they said on the tin, and rapidly became not just an indicator of what was selling, but a useful business tool for the alternative sector, especially in terms of foreign licensing.

Incidentally, I can’t have been the only Sounds reader who initially assumed that the chart bluntly headed “Indies” was dedicated to artists from the West Indies, and not Eyeless In Gaza, the Marine Girls and Crass.

My Select co-conspirator David Cavanagh nailed the scene in his Creation Records doorstop My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For The Prize (named after a line in the Loft classic), producing a revolving paint dream of indie life in 1980, as Alan Horne, founder of Glasgow’s Postcard, and Edwyn Collins, leader of Orange Juice, put 800 copies of the band’s debut Falling And Laughing into the back of Horne’s dad’s Austin Maxi and head South. They arrive at Rough Trade, still primarily a shop, though also a label. Geoff Travis, hippyish boss of RT, plays the record, digs it and takes 300 on the spot. They manage to get Small Wonder, another capital-based indie shop-turned-label, to take another hundred, and head back to Scotland, “in good cheer.”

It was, in many ways, all downhill from there for the true spirit of indie. But the 134 tunes under Cherry Red’s latest umbrella (and by the way, where would indie be without their pivotal Pillows & Prayers compilation?) are flag-bearers for its finest ideals. Cheap and largely cheerful, albeit wan and apparently permanently single, these songs do it for the kids. If the golden year of 1986 has its own flag – NME’s iconic (yes it is) cassette C86, all of whose contributors are found here, I think – then Scared To Get Happy might have to be casually known as C80-89. It’s that complete.

Let us not remember indie by the snobbish panic that marked the late ’80s when Ecstasy changed the rules. It was certainly too hot to wear leather trousers and tassly suede jackets when you were “on one”. Dance music, while energising the indie scene with heady possibility – and later leading to the comedown-drone of shoegazing – also rent it asunder. Again, as I wrote in Word in a piece brilliantly headlined, by Mark Ellen, Wan Love, in the ensuing cross-pollination, the proliferation of one-off post-Acid House singles in the indie charts offended the purists.

As the Cav notes, one week in July 1992, the highest-placed guitar tune in the indie charts was at number 13. Chart compilers CIN eventually went all Stalinist and excluded these bleeping anomalies, to protect the integrity of Mega City Four, The Family Cat and Midway Still. A similar ideological panic occurred in 1989 when PWL dominated the indie charts with hits by Rick Astley and Kylie Minogue. Until Pete Waterman inked a deal with Warners, he was more indie than the likes of The House Of Love, The Wonder Stuff and The Fall, who had already made themselves ineligible by signing up with majors of their own. They were followed by the next wave, t-shirt bands like Carter USM, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and Kingmaker.

With indie a marketable property, the majors started setting up their own “boutique” labels – Hut, Dedicated, Indolent, Laurel – all the credibility of indies, none of the tiresome independence. But let’s not go there. Indie: it was alright while it lasted. Now, where’s my fisherman’s cap?

Find out about, and pre-order, Scared To Get Happy (and explore the rest of Cherry Red’s catalogue) here.

After you! No, after you!

TA89grabLast week’s Telly Addict broke box office records at the Guardian website – I believe I am right in saying that it was the most viewed of all my little, ten-minute TV reviews since April 2011. This week’s Telly Addict can only take a concomitant ratings dive, as it contains no full review of Mrs Brown’s Boys. I fully intended to assess the final episode of series three – the one with the gay wedding – on BBC1, but BBC1 forgot that it’s the most successful comedy on television and bumped the Saturday night repeat for the rugby, failing to find another home for it on any of its other BBC channels. (Let us not forget that the repeat was pulling four million viewers. Who needs ’em, eh?) Instead – apart from a couple of spare clips from last week’s Mrs Brown’s Boys – it’s all about Dancing On The Edge, Stephen Poliakoff’s latest glacial masterpiece, on BBC2; Stewart Lee’s Alternative Comedy Experience vehicle on Comedy Central; Danny Baker’s magnificent Great Album Showdown on BBC4; and a little nod to what might be the final mystery for Lewis on ITV. Perhaps I should have reviewed the rugby. (Oh, by the way, I shall be passing judgement on Louie, belatedly, and Nashville, next week.)