2014: My Top 50 TV Shows

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Now we’re talking. For almost four years now, I have been required to watch television for a job. It is a lovely job, even in the weeks when it is an uphill struggle to find anything to rave about into a camera at the Guardian offices in King’s Cross. (You surely know me well enough by now to know that I am a bad TV critic because I have too much empathy with people who make TV programmes and thus find it difficult to slag them off for dramatic effect. So be it.) I cannot lie to you: when, in November, I appeared as a talking head on Channel 5’s Most Shocking TV Moments, I was inordinately proud to be captioned for the first time ever as “Andrew Collins, TV critic”.

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Most Shocking TV Moments was not one of the Top 50 TV shows of 2014, although it wasn’t at all bad, and was important in its own way.

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I can definitely list 50 TV shows that I loved this year, which is a first for my cultural roundup of the year so far, currently a bit undernourished. That’s because I watch a lot more telly than I listen to records or read books. It’s best to get used to that, and not worry about it. Telly is in the best shape it’s been in for years and we should give thanks for that, while music’s in a parlous state and films are struggling to keep up with the small screen. You know it’s true. I’ve had a rethink since first publishing this list, which is a pointless qualitative exercise in any case, and instead of a Top 50 (or whatever the total is up now), I’m reverting to the Top 10, followed by all the rest, as, frankly, after that it’s a fairly random list of television programmes that I thoroughly enjoyed in 2014. There’s no way of measuring which was my 21st favourite and which was my 22nd favourite. (Also I caught up with two episodes of Toast after first composing the list and tried to move it up the chart, but it threw everything else out of whack and I conceded my folly!)

In its present state, it can do no harm, especially if it prompts debate or that warm feeling of “Oh yeah, I forgot about that.”

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1. The Leftovers, HBO/Sky Atlantic
2. Gogglebox, C4
3. Peaky Blinders, BBC2
4. Detectorists, BBC4
5. Hinterland/Y Gwyll, S4C/BBC Wales/BBC4
6. The Newsroom, HBO/Sky Atlantic
7. Game Of Thrones, HBO/Sky Atlantic
8. The Code, ABC1/BBC4
9. True Detective, HBO/Sky Atlantic
10. Gomorrah, Sky Italia/Sky Atlantic

The Lost Honour Of Christopher Jefferies, ITV
Looking, HBO/Sky Atlantic
The Missing, BBC2
Boardwalk Empire, HBO/Sky Atlantic
Happy Valley, BBC1
Line Of Duty, BBC2
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, HBO/Sky Atlantic
The Walking Dead, AMC/Fox
Intruders, BBC America/BBC2
Mad Men, AMC/Sky Atlantic
Toast Of London, C4
Olive Kitteridge, HBO/Sky Atlantic
The Good Wife, CBS/More4
Babylon, C4
Stammer School, C4
The Mimic, C4
Marvellous, BBC1
W1A, BBC2
Boss, Starz/More4
Veep, HBO/Sky Atlantic
Penny Dreadful, Showtime/Sky Atlantic
Utopia, C4
Stewart Lee’s Alternative Comedy Experience, Comedy Central
The Honourable Woman, BBC2
Cilla, ITV
The Strain, Watch
Nixon’s The One, Sky Arts
The Legacy, Sky Arts
Plebs, ITV2
Scot Squad, BBC Scotland
Grayson Perry: Who Are You?, C4
The Bridge, BBC4
The Mill, C4
A Very British Renaissance, BBC2
The Village, BBC2
Uncle, C4
Suspects, Channel Five
The Great British Bake Off, BBC1
Dave Gorman’s Modern Life Is Goodish, Dave
The Trip To Italy, BBC2
The Art Of Gothic, BBC4
The Life Of Rock With Brian Pern, BBC4
People Just Do Nothing, iPlayer/BBC3
Modern Family, ABC/Sky1
Rev, BBC2
Hannibal, Sky Living
Sherlock, BBC1
Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds, BBC4
Louie, Fox
The Daily Show, Comedy Central
House Of Cards, Netflix

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Glib conclusions? Thank the lord for HBO, and by definition, Sky Atlantic. Also, what a year for drama. And not just American drama. In the Top 10 we find an Australian drama, and an Italian drama, as well as one from the UK (Peaky Blinders, which I hymned at length for the Guardian’s Top 10 TV here), and more specifically one from Wales, in Welsh (which premiered on S4C, in its native language, in 2013, but expanded into countless other territories, from Denmark to the US and Canada, in 2014). Other notable British entries include The Lost Honour Of Christopher Jefferies (which reminds us that ITV is the equal of the BBC when it wants to be), The Missing, Happy Valley, Line Of Duty and Intruders (a co-prod with BBC America).

I find it intriguing that a number of dramas in the list have been based on novels: The Leftovers, Game Of Thrones, Intruders, The Strain, The Walking Dead (a series of graphic novels). Great long-form TV drama is often referred to, with critical reverence, as “novelistic”, and this seems now to be literal. I’ve often felt that a 90-minute feature film, the usual resting place for a novel, is the wrong medium; eight hour-long parts seems so much more conducive to capturing a book’s essence. (Hey, that’s why Lord Of The Rings was made into three movies.) Anyone see The Slap, another all-too-rare Aussie import, in 2011? That was a novel; it worked on telly. I guess the weird bit – and this will be true for my favourite show of the year The Leftovers – is how to produce a second series when the source has dried up.

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Telly drama made the news in April when “Mumblegate” saw the BBC in the firing line – again – for the questionable sound quality of its latest original British drama, a three-part dramatisation of a novel, Daphe Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. This was mere weeks after I’d sat on the Bafta jury for Best International Programme with its talented writer Emma Frost (I really liked her adaptation of The White Queen in 2013). I enjoyed the first episode of Jamaica Inn, and said so in my Guardian review, but having viewed it on catch-up I think we missed out on the technical problems that bedevilled it for those who watched it live. Also, we watch so much mumbly drama in our house, we had no problem straining to hear what Sean Harris was saying. Others had a bigger problem, and a storm in a teacup brewed. Harris redressed the balance with his sweetly self-conscious acceptance speech for Southcliffe at the Baftas. But I felt sorry for Emma, because I am a writer, and there but for the grace of executive whim, go I.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the coverage of The World Cup on ITV and BBC in June and July, and you can re-read my enthusiastic but clueless reports, Braz1l, Bra2il, 3razil, Br4zil, Bra5il and 6razil here. That’s a lot of hours of television, right there.

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My own contributions to the small screen have been limited this year. I was thoroughly proud to have script-edited the second series of Badults on BBC3, and – a new gig – the second series of Drifters on E4. One of my in-development sitcoms bit the dust, but not through want of effort and lateral thinking and getting Simon Day in to help gag it up.

My talking head was on the aforementioned Most Shocking TV Moments on Channel 5, also, for the same channel, I did Greatest 80s Movies, which I didn’t see, but I assume went out? More covertly, I added my two-penn’orth to Crime Thriller Club on ITV2, as I like the kind of crime thrillers that are on that channel and quite fancied talking about them with my head. Apart from that, I’ve been busying myself writing and rewriting my dystopian thriller, which is, yeah, yeah, in development. Here’s hoping it does something slightly more meaningful than get rewritten in 2015. Reuniting with Simon Day has been a positive thing, and I’d love to think we can do something together in the near future.

Telly Addict continues, of course, which is a bit like being on the telly, isn’t it? Here’s your static moment of Zen …

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2014: My Top 50 books

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I did not read 50 books in 2014. But then, neither did I in 2013. Or 2012, so there’s a pattern forming. In truth, I haven’t read ten books in any year since 2005 when Stuart Maconie gave me a subscription to the New Yorker for my birthday, which I have slavishly renewed every year. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, one of the books I did read this year was The Unwinding, by New Yorker scribe George Packer, a patchwork quilt of American stories that cumulatively and incrementally describe the fall of a once great nation. Oh, and when I say “read this year” I don’t mean read to the end. That’s another cold, hard reality of my literary life. I am about halfway through The Unwinding, as it’s a hardback and thus too cumbersome to cart around in my bag, and I find I get tired much earlier than I used to, so late-nite reading is at a premium. I like the cut of its jib, but I find it difficult to get back into each true and meticulously researched story as the book’s narrative cuts back and forth between, and I have to re-read the previous installment to get back in the groove. My guess is that to read The Unwinding in one sitting would be preferable to the way I’m doing it. (You can see why I have only part-read eight books!)

You can find fuller reviews of my friend Jim Bob’s latest novel (the only work of fiction I read in 2014 and thus number one) and my friend Mark Ellen’s life story here. I finished both of them, which says something about them. I also finished the nerdily entertaining history of TV Armchair Nation, even though it was a hardback, which says something about The Unwinding. This may have come out in 2013, but such administration means nothing to me. I bought Martin Gilbert’s self-explanatory slice of history Kristallnacht a couple of years ago (it was published in 2006), but picked it up this year after a documentary on TV inspired me to and I hope to finish it – cheery as it isn’t – before Christmas. I accept that I will never read Capital In The Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, one of the most talked-about books of the year in its English translation, even though, as advertised, it is a readable tome about the failure of capitalism; it’s just too forbidding, and a hardback, which actually hurts my wrists when I try to hold it up to read in bed. But I’m happy to have it in my house. I read Kevin Bridges’ likeable but premature memoir (he turned 28 while writing it) on a train journey to Glasgow, which seems apt.

James Meek’s Private Island isn’t really a book; it’s the collected essays of James Meek from the London Review Of Books and the Guardian about the failure of privatisation, and it’s a proper page turner. I loved it, and couldn’t put it down. (It was a paperback, so I didn’t have to put it down in order to protect the joints in my old hands.) I recommend it highly if you’re in the mood to shake your fists at the sky and scream, “Why?” at regular intervals. Meek thinks there are some things in this world that shouldn’t be privatised. Most the ones he writes about in detail have been, and the others are in the process of being done. I happen to agree with him, but he did the research and we on the left should be truly thankful.

I am just about to renew my subscription to the New Yorker. Sorry, books. But congratulations to the eight that managed to break through the barrier around me that looks a bit like the Manhattan skyline.

Books 2013: coming up for air

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Ah, I can hear myself now, repeating exactly what I said last year. I haven’t read nearly enough books this year. And once again I blame – if “blame” is the apposite word – The New Yorker. On a weekly basis it floods my time with words that cry out to be read and processed, and I succumb. Sorry, books! That said, even though it’s not enough to even make a Top 10, I am delighted to say that I thoroughly enjoyed all of the following eight books, which at least cover a certain amount of ground and six of which were published in 2013. (Montague Terrace is a compilation of the Pleece Brothers’ sublime comic strips.)

Tracey Thorn Bedsit Disco Queen (Virago)
Morrissey Autobiography (Penguin)
Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson Going South (Palgrave/Macmillam)
Joe Moran Armchair Nation (Profile)
George Orwell Coming Up For Air (Penguin)
Gary and Warren Pleece Montague Terrace (Escape)
Mark Kermode Hatchet Job (Picador)
Christina Kallas (ed.) Inside The Writers’ Room (Palgrave/Macmillan)

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I guess there’s a theme. Three of the new books were sent to me by publishers at the behest of their authors. In Mark Kermode’s case, he actually asked me for my thoughts on Hatchet Job at the proof stage and thanked me in the acknowledgments. I also provided a quote for Inside The Writers’ Room, which I believe was used for publicity, although I saw no publicity for it. (It’s a great book for TV writers, or aspirant TV writers.) I paid for Morrissey’s book and indeed went out and bought it from a shop on the day of publication, which is something worth marking in any year. I also bought Elliot and Atkinson’s readable if scattershot vision of economic apocalypse.

Perhaps the square peg is George Orwell’s Coming Up For Air, first published in 1939. (Hey, it and Montague Terrace are the only fiction titles in my tiny list.) I had a meeting with the head of development at a major UK production company in April who recommended it to me. I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but I mentioned it on Twitter and none other than comedy critic Bruce Dessau offered me his secondhand copy. I remain grateful to both parties, as I really did enjoy it.

Oh, and not in the list but pictured above as this is a review of the year in books: the brand new 2013 edition of Still Suitable For Miners (Virgin) gets a mention as it was the first book I ever wrote, way back in 1997, and remains close to my heart. Not only that, it means I get to spend some quality time with Billy Bragg every three or four years, which I did at the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013. I love the new cover artwork, too. Publishers are not falling over themselves to publish a book by me, so I take comfort from the fact that, in the past, one of them let me write a book about Billy Bragg, and that they continue to let me update it.

No point in resolving in 2014 to read more books. Not while The New Yorker continues to publish weekly.

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.

Who art in Kevin

This is one of those films I saw quite a while ago, but it’s released this Friday, so let’s get my feelings down. We Need To Talk About Kevin is a rare beast, in that it’s based on a novel that I have read. Yes, a novel that I have read! (If you don’t know me by now, you’ll never, never, never know that if I’m reading a book, it will be a non-fiction book, as I’m too hungry for knowledge to read things that are made up and with each passing day I become hungrier.) As such, I can be one of those bores who leave the cinema and say, “Well, it’s not as good as the book.”

Of course the film isn’t as good as the book. Whatever film it is, it’s going to be shorter than the book, unless it’s a tiny book, and when you read the book, you imagined what it would be like, in your imagination, and thus any visual interpretation of the book will be other than your own, and intrinsically disappointing. Unless the film’s screenwriter and director happen to have cast, interpreted and shot the film exactly as you imagined it, it’s going to feel weird. Also, if you love the book – and we’ve been down this read recently with One Day – no filmmaker is going to be able to match that love, as they will have had to hack the story back, and details you know will be missing. Sometimes whole characters. Certainly whole scenes. I was once asked to come up with a list of five films that are better than the book for an item on The One Show. Off the top of my head, and up for a fight, I think I chose A Clockwork Orange (because Burgess’s book is, while seminal, for me, difficult to read even on a good day, and the film is easier to follow), The Shining (because Kubrick – again! – extracted the right bits from a fairly dense novel and made Jack Torrance the focus and not his son, Danny) and … three others which I can’t remember. It’s a pretty audacious thing to judge. Better not to compare. As I am about to do …

I came late to Lionel Shriver’s book. It was first published in 2003 and I don’t believe I picked it up until around 2007, after it had won the Orange Prize. I knew roughly what it was about – although to be fair, this is given away on the blurb on the back, which makes it more interesting and not less – and I knew it was widely acclaimed. I’d also had it recommended to me. I’m sure I must have resisted. It sounded like a book about parenting and wondered if I’d be able to connect with it.

Well, I was able, and it actually offered a lucid insight into parenting. In daring to investigate the issues around a mother who hates her child, from birth, Shriver seems to say the unsayable. By making Kevin something of a monster, as a baby, as a toddler, and eventually as the sociopathic high schooler, but telling the story exclusively from the mother Eva’s perspective, the author allows us the cold comfort of possibility that his monstrousness is at least partly in Eva’s imagination. Certainly, Franklin, the doughy old softy of a dad, doesn’t see him this way. Kevin does bad things, for sure. And if you haven’t read or seen it, I won’t even hint at what those things might be.

The book is presented as a series of letters written by Eva to her by-now-estranged husband, through which the story gathers momentum. Lynne Ramsay, who directed We Need To Talk About Kevin and co-wrote it with Rory Stewart Kinnear, might not be your first choice to take on such a huge task. Her previous work had been personal, esoteric and impressionistic. And British. Her astonishing debut Ratcatcher was set in the Glasgow in which she grew up, and at a time, 1973, when she was growing up in it. It was raw, and moving, and boldly mixed social realism with moments of quasi-fantasy, certainly rapture, and marked her out from the word go as a talent. (It picked up awards like a magnet.) Her follow-up, Morvern Callar, based on the Alan Warner novel, showed that she could work with existing material, but make that her own, too. It was, if anything, less linear and more fuzzy, and was quite a trip. How would Ramsay – whom I interviewed for Radio 4 at the time and found her humble, likeable and determined – follow this? Well, she didn’t.

She got caught up in what sounds like a nightmare, down to adapt and direct her first blockbuster novel, The Lovely Bones, and eventually forced off the project, if I understand it correctly. It can’t have been a happy experience, and the only Ramsay credit we’ve seen between 2002 and this coming Friday was her video for Doves’ Black and White Town. This was a tragedy. So all hail We Need To Talk About Kevin; not only does it prove that she’s the equal of any bestselling source novel – and would surely have made a far better job of The Lovely Bones than Peter Jackson did – but it puts her back on the circuit.

Throwing out the letters and presenting a straightforward narrative, Ramsay and Kinnear nonetheless play with the chronology, and it is this approach that makes the film so intriguing. You really have to pay attention. And even if you see the pivotal event coming, you won’t see what comes after it coming. (Unless you’ve read the book, of course! Luckily, I’d actually forgotten it.) The film grips because of finely tuned performances from Tilda Swinton as the mother who has the joy squeezed right out of her lovely bones, John C Reilly as her soulmate turned antagonist, and Ezra Miller as the teenaged Kevin, all asymmetric fringe and glowering eyes. In chopping the story up into bitesize chunks and throwing them all up the air to see how they land, Ramsay creates a fractured narrative that says so much with glances and glimpses and hints. Usually, when you’ve seen a film’s trailer as many times as regular visitors to the Curzon have done, you look forward to discovering the wider context of the snapshots therein. With this film, you may find that they are merely part of slightly longer snapshots. This also gives the impression of it being a saga remembered. It’s not playing out before your very eyes, but in the memory of its chief protagonist.

I really loved it. It’s dark and foreboding, hot and stuffy, and convincingly American, and through Swinton’s exacting and subtle performance, it provides an X-ray of a mother in distress. It’s as if you can see through her translucent, Scottish skin and watch her soul squirming around within. It’s not a great film to see if you’re thinking of starting a family, especially, I would imagine, if you’re the prospective carrier of this progeny.

Lynne Ramsay, still only 41, has yet to put a foot wrong in her career. But while Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar worked on a relatively small canvas, Kevin is much bigger, much more mainstream, but without ever losing its eye for detail, or its feel for the arthouse.

A good idea on paper

I had two choices at the Curzon this afternoon (because I work on Saturday mornings, I often give myself Friday afternoon off in lieu and treat myself to a film): True Grit and Never Let Me Go, both preceded by hype, both packed with actors I like, both weighed down with awards and/or nominations. I chose the latter, which, on a drizzly afternoon when I was a bit tired anyway due to early starts, was the wrong choice. At least a big, fat western would have woken me up a bit.

Never Let Me Go, directed by Mark Romanek (the impressive One Hour Photo and, among a long CV of pop videos, the magnificent Hurt), and adapted for the screen from the 2005 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro by Alex Garland, who can also write a novel, it has all the hallmarks of quality. It has subtle titles; it is bleached out; it is slow; it drip-feeds information rather than – like, say, Outcasts – beats you around the face with signposts; and its acting is subtle and quiet. This is not a film to please dimwits. However, it is a film to displease me. Having read the rave reviews I am now concerned that it may be me, rather than the film. While editing the reviews of the new releases for Radio Times this week, I suggested we take out mention of the story’s central premise from the review, because to know it is to have a huge slice of your potential enjoyment taken away before it starts. (Most reviews I’ve read give it away – at least Sight & Sound warned of spoilers in red letters – so if you don’t know it, read nothing. There will be no giveaways here.)

It’s possible that knowing the “twist” (it’s not a twist that comes at the end, which is why I use speechmarks) reduced my own enjoyment of Never Let Me Go. It’s also arguable that the opening scene, although elliptical, gives it away too. Either way, a lot unfolds from a seemingly benign first act in a very measured and intelligent way. It moves at its own pace and gathers to a sort of climax, although not one that’s climactic in the popcorn-munching sense. Am I being vague enough? All you need to know is that the action hinges on three performances: Carey Mulligan (whose character Kathy also narrates), Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield. I am an admirer of the work of all three, even Knightley’s. Unfortunately, we don’t see their characters as adults until about midway through, as the first act takes place at an enigmatic English boarding school – so we’re stuck with child actors, none of whom are bad, but all of whom are children, and as such, an elongated tease before we get to Mulligan, Knightley and Garfield.

By the time the action catches up with our heroes in young adulthood, it’s been a pretty dull ride. It was only when I emerged into the light from the film’s overriding browns and greys, that I realised what had failed to ignite. It’s a classic case of film-based-on-a-novel. I can imagine its langourous pace and gentle act of unfolding working superbly on the page, when you are forced to imagine it all; likewise, the eloquent narration of Kathy is designed to be read, not listened to, or at least, not listened to in the context of a dramatisation that’s intended to make fictional events real. I’m not against narration per se – unfashionably, I like Blade Runner with the voiceover – but it can pall when there’s this much of it. Garland apparently wrote the script before the novel was published, that’s how certain he was that it would make a film. Well, it does. But my guess is that it makes a better book. Damn, I feel as if I must be some kind of philistine for not getting much out of this film. It has not affected my love of the actors, or the filmmakers. We just passed each other by, somehow. I wonder how those who have read the book will feel?

Still, True Grit tomorrow. That was a novel too. Narrated by a female character.