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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Eclectic children

This useless summer is apparently driving people into cinemas, so it’s not all bad. Here’s what the crannies of the arthouse circuit – and one DVD – lined up over what was a cinematically satisfying and geographically various weekend. I’ve been slow in reviewing films this year, due to workload and a sudden need to exorcise my political demons in words. So let’s log five … (all are illustrated in chronological order above)

A Royal Affair (aka En kongelig affære) is the Danish historical drama produced by Lars Von Trier and yet about as far from his own work as could be, within the realm of gloomy Danish cinema at any rate. It’s the true story, possibly well known to Danes but not to me, of the Enlightenment-driven town doctor who became the trusted adviser to “mad” King Christian VII and manipulated him into passing enlightened laws, all the while, power-hungry, having an affair with the Queen. It’s torrid, cape-and-dagger stuff, well told by director Nikolaj Arcel, and a cracking yarn for the uninitiated. (My grasp of Danish history is poor, considering how highly I rate the country’s cinema and TV, and this film filled a gap.)

Full marks to Mads Mikkelsen, who is best known to foreign audiences for playing the baddie in Casino Royale and perhaps for tough-guy roles in some CGI sword-and-sorcery epics. He imbues Dr Struensee with just the right amount of everyman charm and radical fervour. Silver Bear-winning Mikkel Boe Følsgaard manages to make the sniggering, weak-willed young monarch three-dimensional and when, under Struensee’s Svengali-like spell, he almost becomes his own man, the transformation is credible. (Great news for fans of Scandi-drama: Søren Malling aka Jan Meyer in The Killing and Torben Friis in Borgen, pops up as a sympathetic courtier.)

Nostalgia For The Light (aka Nostalgia de la Luz) couldn’t have been more different: a Chilean documentary about, ostensibly, astronomy, which turned out to be more of a poetic meditation on the “disappeared”. Filmmaker Patricio Guzmán, now 70, is not someone whose earlier work I’ve ever seen, but he’s been making films since the 60s and if there’s a thread to his work it’s Chile’s shameful recent past, specifically the horrors committed under Augusto Pinochet. (I now need to see his classic trilogy of films about the 1973 coup, The Battle Of Chile – this is an aspect of history I know a lot about already, but I’ve missed these films.)

Here, he starts with the magnificent but incongruous telescopes built in the Atacama desert, where there is no humidity and thus makes stargazing just about perfect under its thin, clear skies. Having met an astronomer, who articulates why he is devoted to exploring space, and walked the Mars-like red, dusty surface of the unyielding desert and seen its fossils and Indian drawings, etched into rock, we suddenly hit the Pinochet coup, and learn that the thousands of Chileans killed were buried in the desert. Now the link is made.

A survivor of Pinochet’s concentration camps, explains that astronomy lessons were banned because the authorities feared prisoners would use the constellations to escape. I must admit, I thrive on connections like this. And Guzmán mines these links with poetic ease. The reviewer in Sight & Sound praised the film’s beauty and structure, but felt it was “moribund” as a piece of theory. I disagree. To link astronomers searching the skies, archaeologists searching the rocks, and a few devoted widows and bereaved mothers picking through the dust in search of bone fragments of lost loved ones, almost 40 years later, strikes me as deeply profound. When a cosmic-terrestrial link was made between stardust and the calcium in all our bones, I was sold. This is a lovely film, whose disturbing subject matter and accent on grief and the political power of memory is always offset by visual splendour.

The Giants (aka Les Géants) is a Belgian coming-of-age drama directed and co-written by actor-writer-director Bouli Lanners that has drawn comparisons with Stand By Me, but it’s a whole lot darker than that. All credit, first of all, to Zacharie Chasseriaud, Martin Nissen and Paul Bartel, who play Zak, his older brother Seth and their slightly tougher friend Danny, three boys who find themselves against the world, having been abandoned in the Belgian forest for the summer. (Danny’s parents seem to be dead; Zak and Seth’s – apparently diplomats? – have dumped them at their deceased grandfather’s summer house, with their mother’s voice heard occasionally on a mobile.) Naturally, their fun and games – dope-smoking, hot-wiring, canoeing – take a more dangerous turn when their money runs out and the only solution to make some more involves a truly unpleasant drug dealer.

Although the boys’ travails far outweigh Stand By Me‘s leeches, junkyard dog and railway bridge for threat and peril, there are parallels. Adults are largely absent, and those that we do meet – the dealer, his doped-up girlfriend, Danny’s psycho older brother – are caricatured to such a grotesque extent that, against the naturalism of the kids, you wonder if perhaps we aren’t seeing the grown-ups through young eyes. It’s not an over-stylised film otherwise, and indeed it drinks in the verdant forest and millpond, green-coated water, the natural beauty serving to point up the ugliness of the houses we go into.

A rite of passage is guaranteed, of course, but if this were a Hollywood movie, it would be far more conventionally plotted. Aside from that one mobile phone, it’s a film that journeys away from “civilisation”, and takes these would-be savages back to the mud and the elements. What drives them on is – deal with it – friendship, loyalty and laughter. When Marthe Keller turns up as a benevolent adult, she is almost saintlike, and again, you wonder if this is all in the minds of these abandoned, and thus frankly abused, youngsters. The adults are “les geants“, and they are not wholly big and friendly.

I loved The Giants. I hope you can find it. After The Kid With A Bike, I’m beginning to see the appeal of Belgian filmmaking.

Electrick Children rounded off a fantastically varied weekend at various Curzons. Hey, it was English-language! A token gesture towards my native tongue. The directorial debut of Rebecca Thomas, about whom I know very little, it mined a peculiarly American seam, in which a Mormon teen (Julia Garner, last seen in the thematically similar Martha Marcy May Marlene) escapes the strictures of an Amish-like community in modern-day Utah and drives to Las Vegas. Are you thinking fish? Are you thinking water? Yes, it’s a worn trope, but something about this beguiling and single-minded film sidesteps obvious clichés. In her pinafore dress, this 15-year-old girl, pregnant by immaculate conception, or so she claims, and in awe of the technology of a simple cassette player, rocks up in America’s most garish town in search of the singer of a rock song on a tape she has illicitly heard and become obsessed by. Her brother (Liam Aiken), has stowed away in the truck, and wishes to take her back. But she falls immediately in with Rory Culkin’s rock band pals and goes on an odyssey.

You expect peril. None is forthcoming. Although she knows not of dope or rock gigs or clubs or cursing, Rachel is keen to adapt. You expect some kind of social embarrassment. None is forthcoming. She accepts her new friends and they accept her. Her relationship with Culkin’s Clyde (also a runaway, except from well-to-do suburban parents) is touching and warm. If I’m making the film sound airy or fairy, it isn’t, but it’s magical-realist rather than realist.

I was charmed by it. Thomas’s dialogue is original, and if the storytelling hinges on one too many coincidences, you won’t care, as it’s so breezy and uplifting to watch. She elicits are real, unabashed youthful energy from her main cast, and – as with The Giants – the adults are cast as remote, usually adversarial figures, lacking in empathy for those at a more difficult age. Billy Zane works well as the righteous preacher who drives Rachel away, and Bill Sage makes a good guardian angel as the hippy driver of a red Mustang, itself imbued with sexual subtext thanks to an earlier sequence.

I must say I’m constantly in awe of first features. The aforementioned Martha Marcy May promised much of writer-director Sean Durkin, as did, last year, Animal Kingdom of David Michôd, and Another Earth of Mike Cahill. There’s something bracing and tantalising about seeing a debut that’s as good as Monsters by Gareth Edwards, or Margin Call by JC Chandor, or District 9 by Neill Blomkamp, to pluck a couple of recent examples, which have yet to be followed up. Imagine starting so high. Electrick Children tells us to watch out for Rebecca Thomas …

21 Jump Street saw us back in the living room with a new DVD that could have gone either way, in that it’s a mainstream Hollywood comedy aimed at teenage boys rather than being about them, and – desperately – based on an 80s TV series that we never got over here anyway. With expectations at knee-height, it turned out to be a pleasant surprise (and not least because the knowing screenplay, by Scott Pilgrim‘s Mike Bacall, acknowledged the anorexic nature of the source).

I like Jonah Hill, and have enjoyed seeing him graduate from stoner comedies to more substantial acting parts in Moneyball and Cyrus, so this might have been a backward step, but – having co-written it – his easy, off-the-cuff style helped 21 Jump Street along, and, under the direction of How I Met Your Mother‘s Phil Lord and Chris Miller (never seen it, by the way, but I know it has made their joint career), the usually plastic Channing Tatum also found his inner comedian.

It’s two rookies who go back to high school, undercover, and the humour is often subtler than the obligatory gross-out/swearing-match moments suggest, with some wry digs at how the traditional high school caste system has changed in a short number of years from jocks and nerds to something more subtle and less extreme. (Basically, Tatum’s jock becomes a science nerd, and Hill’s nerd becomes a sort of … something else; I’m not pitching well.)

Hey, it’s an “action comedy” so you get the also-obligatory funny car chases and funny, if blood-spurting, shoot-outs, and while the drug-bust plot is merely a line upon which to hang gags, it adds a degree of momentum. At the end of the day, if you’re smiling or laughing at the antics of those onscreen – essentially Hill, Tatum and a potty-mouthed Ice Cube as their boss, with extra juice from Rob Riggle – that’s all that’s required.

Films. It takes all sorts to make a weekend.

Free, fringe

First, the important news.

Lovely Lisa Faulkner, with her tears and her neck and her lack of self-esteem, proved that she can act and cook on Celebrity Masterchef 2010. Because this year’s actually fed into my Secret Dancing show, which I have been performing in tandem with the final stages of the competition, the two will always be interlinked. And watching the semi-finals with Tom Wrigglesworth, and the final with Richard Herring, will also imprint them on my mind. It’s a shame I found out that Lisa won before catching up with the final last night on Sky+, but that’s the nature of the beast. I still enjoyed watching she, Dick and Christine cook up their last supper for John and Gregg. (And, yes, Gregg did use the phrase “Dick it up,” when describing Strawbridge’s propensity to match unusual flavours, right to the end.) Now, enjoy Lisa’s moment.

And while we’re here, perhaps you’d like to see if you can spot a theme running through the last three Celebrity Masterchef winners.

I’m saying nothing.

Last night, I caught up with Pappy’s at Pleasance One, the huge theatre space the popular sketch troupe played last year. Their ramshackle, good-natured, deceptively clever DIY tomfoolery was, a year ago, provided by four. This year, they have shed Brendan (don’t know enough about the politics to go into exactly what happened, but I don’t think any of them like to talk about it, except Brendan), and the Fun Club, and are streamlined to three. It is no comment upon Brendan, whose contribution was always essential to the dynamic and the spirit, but three is better than four. It makes the three – Matthew, Tom and Ben – work harder, and it just gives a nice symmetry.

Their new show, All Business, is only loosely themed around having to find a new investor for their sketch show. From here, they find ways of having Matthew play a dog, Tom play a cockney vending machine (“I’m out of order!”) and Ben a chicken that surely consciously echoed his popular dinosaur from last year. The props are even worse than Jeremy Lion’s, but do the same job. It’s impossible to stop laughing and clapping throughout; even when a sketch fails to quite hit home, the next one – a wordless one about a wardrobe clash – makes up for it. And they battled with a technical disaster not just valiantly, but creatively, turning the constant irritating buzzing coming through Matt’s headset mic into further comedy. I could easily believe that he got more laughs last night than on a night when the mic worked. That’s how they roll.

It was a pretty grim experience queuing up, as it was raining, the Pleasance Courtyard was packed (it was, lest we forget, a Saturday night), and the start time was delayed by almost 15 minutes, while Pappy’s wrestled with their sound problem. Also, because the queue, which snakes around the courtyard, had to be split into two, to allow passage for other punters, we could see people either inadvertently, or absolutely advertently, pushing in where the gap was, gaily unaware of their queuecrime. Even though we were all damp and cold and delayed, nobody pointed out their queuing “error.” Plus, when we finally filed in, the Pleasance staff decided to open the back door of the venue to speed things up and usher the back half of the queue in that way, which meant they got in first and we, who had been halfway back, had to make do with the back rows of the theatre. It was so unfair. Still, who can remain grumpy at a Pappy’s show?

I thought it brave of Tom to announce at the end that the show had been “a metaphor about us not working on the telly.” Last year, he had berated a TV commissioning editor in the audience for not putting them on the telly. It’s a constant theme. They did have a pilot once, but it failed to capture their raw, unpredictable energy. Maybe this really is a stalemate. Telly is not everything, Pappy’s! You are better than telly!

There seem still to be tickets for the rest of the run. Book them.