Yes to Scottish independence


Another year, another Edinburgh. It’s great how you can refer to a trip to what really is my Second City to coincide with the Festival, or Festivals, as “an Edinburgh.” We all know what it means. And it means mostly wonderful things. Before I prepare my report on this year’s three-day piped-bagpipe bagatelle, here’s the traditional shot of me at my first Edinburgh, in 1989.


I feel sure I don’t need to go into detail, but I was two years out of college, one year in the NME art room, far enough into a hair-growing project to produce a nub of a ponytail, and part of a Tooting-based, medical-school-formed am-dram group called Renaissance Comedy Associates; our play, which I co-wrote with co-star Matthew Hall*, was called President Kennedy’s Big Night Out and one or two people paid to see it in a church hall on Princes Street – it was a great adventure, but I didn’t go back until 2001, when the show was Lloyd Cole Knew My Father and we looked like this.


I have been up every year except one ever since. The big shift for me occurred in 2009, when, having been up to do an experimental week of live Collings & Herrin Podcasts at the Underbelly, I was also invited to host, or “chair”, my first session at the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, which – after my heartfelt retirement from stand-up comedy in 2010 and a welcome year off in 2011 – has thereafter been my ticket up there. It being Guardian-sponsored, a short clip of me talking to Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin in 2009 is still available to view. My body language says: I am not yet confident enough as a “chair” to sit properly in one.


I like to think I am now a far more confident host. Once you’ve done your first live gig as “facilitator” – whose brief is to introduce the session, get the best out of your interviewees (ie. “facilitate” their illuminating answers), move the thing along, hit the clips at the right moment, coordinate a short audience Q&A at the end and exude approachable authority – you start to get into a rhythm of being miked up, having a producer bark into your ear via an earpiece, knowing when to skip a huge chunk of questions for time, and being unclipped from your mic at the end (always courteous and grateful to the venue staff, as without them you would not be miked up, or able to reach for a sip of water, or even know where the hell to go in the warren of suites, green rooms and auditoria). I am not staff. I am not paid to do this work, but the Festival does pay my train fare and puts me up in a serviceable hotel (the one you can guarantee none of the big stars will be staying in – I know my place). Most importantly, it gives me the chance to be here.


I have rhapsodised Edinburgh aplenty. In a way, I’m the wrong person to ask about the city as I’ve literally only ever stepped foot on the platform of Waverley Station during the Festival. This is clearly not what life is like in Edinburgh for the other 11 months of the year (except for the weather and the novelty drunks and the souvenir shops piping out bagpipe music). But I have made friends up here who do live in Edinburgh and adjoining Dunfermline, so it’s not as if I only hang out with London media wankers like myself. I made enough friends when I was a stand-up to be able to sneak in to see a couple of their shows while I’m up here, which is always a bonus, and I make an effort to conceal or remove my pink, YouTube-sponsored TV Festival pass when I’m walking down the street. I certainly stride maplessly about the place like I own it, which I hope stops me ever looking like a tourist.


Because I always come on my own, what I do feel like is a travelling salesman. Especially at breakfast.


I’ve been a regular at Apex hotels for the past couple of Festivals: no-nonsense places but a cut above a Best Western or Novotel (and I say that not as a hotel snob but as someone whose default, austerity overnight is a Travelodge if I’m paying the bill). This year, for no apparent reason, I was placed in a Hilton. I’m worldly-wise enough to know that the “Hilton” logo does not automatically speak of glamour and the high life. It’s just a hotel chain, a Premier Inn that fancies itself.

There are a couple of Hiltons in Edinburgh (which shows how exclusive they’re not) and I think I was in the least glamorous Hilton. I don’t expect to live like a king – all I require is a bed, wi-fi, a full Scottish breakfast and a free paper. The Hilton gives away the digest version of the Independent whose actual name looks like a mistake of you type it: the i. I’ve never had a minibar. Luckily, I don’t demand a room with light in it either, as this year I was in a non-air-conditioned basement whose windows were painted shut and which was illuminated only by tiny desk lamps (the only fitted ceiling light was in the tiny hallway). I did not complain. I was not paying for it. There was free shortbread with the tea- and coffee-making facilities. I thought: I am living the dream.


The title of this blog entry refers not to Scotland’s forthcoming independence – a matter much discussed and a passion-fuelled debate I felt fortunate to have landed in the middle of at the height of national indecision – but my own current independence. Travelling alone, essentially being on holiday alone (even for three days), is replenishing for the soul, I find. I did plenty of solo travelling when I was a much younger music journalist, and it hardened me up. I flew to Dublin for three hours last week to interview Cillian Murphy for Radio Times and I felt a bit like an international jetsetter, albeit one too intrinsically stingy to pay for a fucking coffee on the plane, especially as the otherwise courteous Aer Lingus declined to offer any of us a free drink while we sat on the tarmac at Dublin for two hours, the mercenary bastards.

I arrived in Edinburgh on Wednesday afternoon alone, declined to pay for a cab and thus walked, with my rucksack, to the Hilton, which was 30 minutes away, alone. Checked in alone, unpacked alone etc. etc., you get the manly picture. And within the hour I was back out, alone, marching towards my favourite venue, The Stand, to pick up my ticket to see my friend Josie Long, alone. I bought some fish chowder, which came in a bowl made of bread, from a stall at the new Fringe hub, St Andrew Square Gardens, whose convenience actually prevented me from making my annual day-one pilgrimage to the Pleasance. (This will be the first Edinburgh ever where I haven’t had a pint at the Pleasance. Time bends.) I bought my ceremonial first pint in a plastic glass and sat, alone, among booming revellers, to silently eat my soup and drink my lager. I was happy enough. Edinburgh is full of groups and couples and families at this time of year, but also solo artists, like me. You’re never alone with a plastic pint glass: it is your passport to sit anywhere and just be.


I do regret only seeing one Fringe show this year (I usually squeeze in at least three), but I do not regret choosing Josie Long‘s. It’s been a few years since we were buddied up by 6 Music (and then let go with an empty promise to have us back on – not bitter about that), and even longer since I first met her in a pub basement and offered to hold her indie coat while she sang Nothing Compares 2 U at Karaoke Circus, so I feel I can praise her new direction without being too partisan.

After years of building up her unique and deeply-felt political persona, this year’s show, Cara Josephine (a title movingly explained in the final section), is a left turn. Or a right turn, since she’s already so far to the left. It’s a personal show about heartbreak and failed relationships and being “on the shelf” at 32 that’s quite a jolt if you know her stuff. But it’s delivered in such a way that, while contextually shocking in places (and actually really challenging at one particularly raw and graphic juncture, which I won’t spoil), it’s still Josie being who she is, with her American accents and her self-effacement and righteous ire always bubbling under the surface. It may even be her best show, although that needs to be taken in context. Nobody can accuse her of coasting, that’s for sure.


Back to the picture at the top, which I repeat for reference and which, for all the world, looks like a triumphant stand-up gig, or perhaps a rally, but is actually me introducing an exclusive, public screening of the new Doctor Who episode, Deep Breath, at the mighty Filmhouse cinema on Lothian Road, which has been my de facto base for three years. We screened Asylum Of The Daleks two years ago, with a fabulous Q&A with Steven Moffat afterwards. This, blurrily, was it: ACSMEdTVFest12

No Q&A this time, but the preview itself was enough to pack the 280-seater auditorium of Cinema 1 with enthusiasts of all ages. I did a warm-up and by a show of hands (my fallback warm-up technique) established that we had kids in who were too young to remember when David Tennant regenerated into Matt Smith, and at least a couple of gentlemen who remembered seeing the first ever episode! It was pretty easy to get them excited before the screening, as they arrived pre-excited.

It was fun to be part of, and the episode itself is pretty damn good, with Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor a real shot in the franchise’s arm – his very Scottishness seems to have reinvigorated Moffat’s writing: the 80-miute episode is overlong but full of great jokes, including a couple “about” the Referendum. On Friday morning, in the noisy lobby of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, hub of the TV Festival, I filmed a special Telly Addict review of the episode for the Guardian with my usual producer Tom, busked rather than read from autocue, as we didn’t have one, and it will go live right after the episode airs on BBC1 this evening.


Thursday also had me manhandling the roving mic for an industry session back in the EICC and another exclusive screening: the pilot of a new, grown-up romantic comedy called Catastrophe, written by and starring Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, produced by Avalon (who also manage me) for C4, and due next year. I “met” them both via Twitter on the train up to Edinburgh and we got on famously. This can happen. It was a buzz to see the creators of a show experience their work with a large audience of their peers, and to soak up the constant laughter. It was an easy Q&A, as it was always going to be, but you wouldn’t believe how panicky PRs and managers get beforehand, as if perhaps I was going to bypass how Sharon and Rob wrote the show in the 15 minutes available and ask them a series of improper, probing personal questions to make them squirm and stutter.

Having been out so late on Wednesday night with my two go-to Edinburgh pals Tony and Helen that two bars shut in our faces, forcing us to go to a much nastier one for a final round, I took it easy on Thursday and retired to my dark room early with a chalice of Stella from the hotel bar to sip with two free sticks of shortbread and watch the world burning on the news with the sound down. (Full disclosure: my manager bought me a posh burger and a beer in a posher hotel than my own, and I did a short spin of the National Museum of Scotland where ITV held their annual TV Fest drinks to discover that I only knew one person in the cavernous space, Badults producer Izzy, whom I was most grateful to talk to.)

EdTV14ACDynamoWe’ll come to the impish, slumped fellow to my right in a moment. Friday was the biggest mountain to climb, with the biggest names to facilitate. It was halfway through the afternoon when I remembered how easy it is to miss entire mealtimes when you’re working the Festival. I’d had my hearty breakfast of course, while weeping lonely tears into the Islamic State headlines in my i (simply doesn’t work, does it? What the hell were they thinking?), but the Guardian filming ran into a session I was keen to attend asking how the US “showrunner” model can be introduced into UK drama production (conclusion: it can’t), and that ran into my first session as host. I did the least imaginative thing possible in the world and ate a warmed-up panini in Caffe Nero for the loyalty stamp in about five minutes flat. Here is a photo of that session, taken by @Missread, my favourite photo of Edinburgh 2014:


A year ago – inspired by seeing the popularity of a session with Vince Gilligan at the TV Festival – I wrote a piece for the Guardian about showrunners. In researching it, I discovered Des Doyle, an Irish filmmaker who was Kickstarting a feature-length documentary about the US TV industry called Showrunners. I plugged it and quoted it in the piece, as you could tell by the trailer than it was going to be an authoritative treat for TV geeks and Yankophiles like me. Well, the extra funding came in, and he finished it, and it’s being released here and in the States in October. It was a pleasure to be able to screen it for the public as well as delegates, as it’s a cracking piece of work, and we’d secured the great Ron D. Moore for a Q&A (he’s the genius behind Battlestar Galactica if you don’t know the name – a wise, softly-spoken sage who happens to be in Scotland to shoot his latest opus Outlander).

In the picture above you can see both Des and me looking adoringly at Ron. This is what a TV festival should be like. It’s all very well to be “industry” and all dry and po-faced about telly, but at heart we should all be fans of the medium and of those who make it, even if, technically, they are our peers. (Our Q&A was foreshortened by The Next Thing, as these events tend to be on this media merry-go-round, but it was great to be in his aura and chat offstage to him about “that” Portlandia sketch.)


Thanks to @envypost for the borrow of the above moody photo, by the way.

Dynamo, boyish 31-year-old underground-overground star of Magician Impossible (whose forthcoming fourth series has been announced as his last for the channel Watch), is a different kettle of fish to anyone I’ve ever facilitated. Although the industry panel we did was conventional (see: above), with his producer/confidsnt Dan, Lucy from Phil McIntyre who manage him, and Richard from the channel, fanned around the coffee table onstage with me in the middle, and with clips playing on the big screen above, the subject – a television show – was not. How do you get under the bonnet of a show whose very beating heart is illusion (what Dynamo prefers to call “events” rather than “tricks”) and to which the question, “How did you do that?” is not only inapplicable, it’s downright rude.

For my intro, I borrowed the quote from Walter Bagehot, 19th century essayist, who warned, “We must not let daylight in upon magic.” And I hope we didn’t, and yet I hope we did a bit. If you’ve not seen Dynamo’s work – indebted to both the street style and spectacle of David Blaine, but without the wankiness – look him up on YouTube or Catch Up. It’s quite unique, as is the way he just walks off after doing something amazing, while Dan’s camera stays on the amazed. Dynamo might have turned out to be a tricky customer in real life, but he was sweet, funny and self-aware, and more than able to deal with a large auditorium. (He’s taking a break from TV to do a live tour, by the way.) When he did a bit of magic, and melted the hearts of even the stoniest TV miseryguts in the audience I think, I was right there next to him. I saw him turn some Lottery tickets into £20 notes by just shaking them. If they were “special” ones, I don’t know how they worked. He also turned his hand all the way round on his wrist, and swapped a playing card he held in his mouth with the playing card held in the mouth of a female volunteer. I know it’s magic, but Iogic disappears when you see someone as cool and casual as Dynamo do it.

The industry session was followed by a public screening, back at the Filmhouse. Sold out, of course, with a crowd that needed even less warming up from me than Doctor Who‘s. We watched Ep1 of his new, typically globe-trotting, celeb-packed series (showing on Watch in September), and Dynamo slipped into the seat next to me in the dark, mid-screening, to soak up the audience reaction. A small child in the row in front turned round and saw him and it was like he’d seen Jesus. After the Q&A, during which he did more magic, he was literally mobbed, enveloped, subsumed by disciples. He’s a star of the Instagram Age and he understands the power of that, but it was still incredible to see how patiently and diligently he gave them all the time they individually craved. Here’s a selfie he had taken with a volunteer, @DimpleMagician:


His popularity, that kid-from-Bradford approachability and a superstar’s diligence combined to become a health and safety issue. I slipped out into the bar to have a chat to my Dunfermline pal Paul (whose daughter – who was such a fan she’d done a school project on Dynamo – queued patiently with her mum to get the now standard autograph/selfie) and realised that, without any warning, my working holiday was over. And it had stared raining.


It was with a little sadness that I ate my last breakfast this morning, and packed my bags. I got absolutely soaked through on the walk home last night in the statutory proper Edinburgh downpour, but along the way (I was too mean, and too wet already, to hail a cab), I saw women without jackets or coats, let alone umbrellas or kagoules, determined to have a Friday night out regardless. You have to love the north. The Scots are already independent, spiritually and behaviourally, and Alex Salmond’s million signatures were reached yesterday, but I still fear the don’t-knows will win the day and Scotland will remain adjoined more than just geographically to the bit of the country that votes in Tory governments. (Capaldi’s Doctor blames the English for his woes in Deep Breath.) I will still love them as anyone might love a different tribe who almost speak the same language.

My last memory of Edinburgh 2014 will be sitting in wet jeans in the Hilton bar with a burger and a chalice of Stella, reading Charlotte Higgins’ brilliant, eloquent but depressing final analysis of the BBC in the Guardian, the newspaper that sponsors the Festival that pays my train fare and gives me the golden opportunity to see auld acquaintances annually, and asks me to busk a review of Doctor Who in a lobby. See you in 2015, yes?

Or should that be: see you in 2015, YES.




*Oh, Matthew Hall changed his name to Harry Hill. Whatever happened to him?



TA130It’s not all Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary this week on Telly Addict, but some of it is: The Day Of The Doctor (not in 3D in our case) on BBC1; the lovely An Adventure In Space And Time on BBC2; plus some similarly nostalgic black-and-white footage from Dominic Sandbrook’s 60s-set Cold War Britain on BBC2; from a little less far back, some Gogglebox from last week on C4, reviewing the week before; and – a treat – Hinterland, or Y Gwyll, from S4C, a Scandi-style noir in Welsh that’s available here to view on their website, something I suggest you do, especially if you aren’t a Welsh speaker and can enjoy the language barrier and the concentration aid that is subtitles.


TA117We’ve hit that competitive cookery sweet spot where Celebrity Masterchef is still on BBC1 as The Great British Bake Off begins on BBC2. A mouth-watering week for Telly Addict, then, with an unholy amount of blue tape around its ravaged fingers and thumbs. More blood and guts – for one unfortunate farm animal at any rate – on Under The Dome, Channel 5’s latest import, this time a CBS adaptation of a fat Stephen King novel about a town in Maine that’s … under a dome; the welcome return of Top Boy to C4, proving that the channel can look at the vexed issue of poverty – or at least an underground capitalist economy – without humiliating anyone; and the finale of season one of The Americans on ITV, which ended as it began with a period-appropriate song. No room for Sky1’s promising Chickens or BBC1’s intriguing What Remains this week; will remedy that next week.

The future’s blight


Dystopia: I want to go to there. I have a real soft spot for dystopian visions of the future, or of the parallel present. Who wouldn’t? Utopia is clearly never going to happen. And if it does it’ll be based on credit, which never lasts. As a general rule – and I’m basing this on sci-fi films rather than sci-fi novels, as I’ve hardly read any – if things look bright in any given future, then things are about to go very badly wrong. Look at Logan’s Run. Or Westworld. Or The Island. Or Metropolis. Or, right now, look at Elysium at the cinema, or Oblivion on DVD.

Elysium first. Out on 21 August, it’s the hotly-anticipated follow-up to South African Neill Blomkamp’s sleeper hit District 9, which was also dystopian, in that it allegorised apartheid by way of a lower caste of aliens, disparagingly known as “prawns” and kept in a Johannesburg township by the administrative human master race. With a much bigger Hollywood budget to play with, it’s interesting that Blomkamp has stayed within his discomfort zone and created another sun-baked dustbowl shanty world, this time Los Angeles in a future when the earth has become largely uninhabitable; meanwhile, the 1% – as they are not called – are safely ensconsed in a revolving space station designed like an architect’s brochure of luxury gated living. (Star-gated, if you will.)

As a bleak and arid vision, Blomkamp’s is clever, as it accentuates divides already in place in our own unequal society: the poor are getting poorer, and the filthy rich filthier and richer. Elysium, the ultimate rich person’s retreat, even hangs in the air, visible to the majority who can never afford to zip up there in a little spaceship. (It’s fascinating, too, that in Oblivion – another exhausted earth, this time wasted by war, and with its oceans being industrially sucked up to create energy – a controlling space station, the pyramid-shaped Tet, also hangs in the air. I think I’m right in saying that, in both films, a spaceship ride to both Elysium and Tet is a 20-minute hop.)

Matt Damon is the everyprole in Elysium; he knows that the 1% get to lie in special pods that cure all known diseases, which is why he so wants to get up there; on this, the story hinges. We want him to get there; we identify with the 99%. In this sense, as with District 9, it’s a socialist film. The proletariat are always the heroes in dystopias, the workers who rise up. Maybe this is why I like these films so much; even though they have a musclebound hero (and Damon is pumped up to the point of looking like Stretch Armstrong), which cleaves to the old right-wing Reaganite 80s action-hero orthodoxy of one man saving the world – without help from Big Government, right? – they usually lead the downtrodden to a better world. I won’t say whether he does it or not, as that would be a spoiler. But you’ll root for him in a film that’s actually more interesting as a concept than as a film, as in the third act, it follows one too many sci-fi action presets.

Oh, and corporate America is the bad guy, once again. This happens a lot, and almost suggests that such films are not made by corporate America. (To be fair, Blomkamp’s is a co-production with money coming from Canada, Mexico and South Africa, as well as the US.)

Oblivion is also a thoughtful film, and with less metallic, Transformers-style action to bog it down and make it feel generic. Adapted from his own apparently unpublished graphic novel by writer-director Joseph Kosinski, it really is a like a graphic novel on the screen, with stunning production design, and gorgeous vistas, albeit ones set on a sucked-dry earth, awaiting the final departure of the last few humans. The race is not unsatisfactorily represented by Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough’s seemingly perfect couple, who live in a giant iPad on a stick above a scorched earth that looks like Iceland, where much of it was evocatively filmed, with CGI bits of recognisable New York sticking out of the top of it, recalling Planet Of The Apes, of course.

It’s hard to go into too much plot detail, partly because there are a number of key structural and temporal twists, and partly because it’s way too complicated. The story is well told, and Melissa Leo is key, even if her character only appears in a tiny screen on Riseborough’s touch-screen coffee table, as she represents the smiling face of authority up on the aforementioned Tet. Again, it speaks of our own time, as in flashbacks we see New York as it once was, and shows how fragile “civilisation” is. It’s more sombre than Elysium. Things get blown up, and shots are fired, but the more memorable scenes are quieter, more existential, and set in landscapes that seem to go on forever. Unlike Elysium, there’s not much city.

Although Cruise and Riseborough are frankly beautiful and serene, they are still the everyproles, technicians working on mankind’s final exit and maintaining robot drones, which protect and serve, with firepower. (Oh yes, it’s a short thematic hop to Obama and his unmanned weaponry in those drones, surely, especially as this is post-war.)

Nobody wants our own future, or near-future, to pan out like Elysium or Oblivion, with all-out war or all-out profligacy laying waste to the planet, even if some of the gadgets look nifty. You can keep those. Me? I feel trapped enough by the dystopian present. Especially on days when I feel like I already live in a one-party state, where the totalitarian government holds ordinary people in contempt and would willingly wipe a whole caste out if it thought it could get away with it in the media.

I recommend both films (Oblivion, the longer of the two at just over two hours, is out on DVD on 19 August), especially if you’re a connoisseur of futures that are so blighted, you’ve got to wear protective suits.

Geek ending


Honestly, you wait ages for a male-bonding apocalypse comedy, and then two come along at once, like computer-animated ant fables, Truman Capote biopics or volcano-based disaster movies. Except Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s This Is The End wasn’t the end of the world. The World’s End is.

I’ve been so looking forward to sharing my thoughts about the third and final part in Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright’s audacious Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy – completing the set with Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz – ever since I saw the first 45 minutes of it, at an exclusive preview in mid-May. (We signed a press embargo when we saw the whole thing last Wednesday, but this apparently lifted last night when Variety went live, and all the other reviews crashed in behind them.)

Because the film’s release date was “pulled forward”, to use the impenetrable industry jargon, by a month, there has been a certain amount of frenzied activity behind the scenes at The World’s End as it was readied for public consumption, which is why selected journalists with long lead-times were treated to the weirdest screening ever: the first half of a film. (It was even introduced by Edgar.) In it, Pegg’s boorish Gary, the hedonistic goth who refused to grow up and is first seen in rehab, gets the old gang back together to stage a second attempt, 20 years on, at their old hometown’s “Golden Mile” 12-hostelry pub crawl. (The town is Newton Haven, played by two “garden cities”, Letchworth and Welwyn, which join Crouch End and Wells in Somerset on the Cornetto map.)

The gang – who have all inconveniently grown up in the interim and view the developmentally arrested Gary as something of a necessary irritant – are played by regulars Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan, and a finer bunch of British avengers you could not hope to assemble. (Rafe Spall and Julia Deakin also have small parts, which means they have been in all three films, along with Pegg, Frost and Freeman.) In those first 45 minutes, we get a keenly observed and deeply self-critical portrait of misspent adulthood, which does Pegg, Frost and Wright – all essentially huddled around the big four-oh – proud.

Wright is still haunted by a crawl he never completed in his youth, and his own nostalgia and self-examination seem to fuel the story – as well as provide the soundtrack of iconic early-90s indie-dance-crossover tunes that are not heard in films as often as, say, 60s beat hits, or mid-90s Britpop. (When the lads groove to the Soup Dragons’ I’m Free in Gary’s car, it’s all good, clean, I ♥ The 90s fun until he reveals that not only is this the same compilation cassette from 20 years ago, it’s also the same car. For this, he is regarded as comically tragic by the others. But who doesn’t cling to simpler times?)

When I interviewed the trio last Tuesday in Claridge’s I still hadn’t seen the second half of the film we were there to discuss. This would ordinarily be intolerable – the height of film studio arrogance and cheek. But hey, it really was not quite finished yet. We all saw it on Wednesday. For those of us who’d seen the first 45 minutes – which ended with the first clue that all was not of this earth in Newton Haven – it was odd to see the run-up again, but, like all of their best work, it’s worth repeating, and in fact matures.


It’s a terrific film, confident, silly, warm and surprising, and a worthy finale to an insane, parochial cinematic adventure. Don’t worry: I won’t tell you anything key about the plot, or where the third Cornetto comes in, or reveal a couple of well-kept casting secrets, as it’s not out until next week. Pegg, Frost and Wright were being extra careful last Tuesday, mouthing names to each other, and playing a guessing game about an extra audio detail Wright had inserted into the final sound mix. When you set this much store by details, metatextuality, in-jokes, paybacks and cross-references, it’s important to handle them with care. The title – and the trailer – are pretty explicit about the apocalyptic end-point, but not the getting there, other than it involves hand to hand combat, at one juncture with pub stools for weapons. It also gives away a sight gag that refers back to Shaun and Hot Fuzz, although knowing about it does not subtract from the glee of seeing it.

My admiration for the work Pegg, Frost and Wright do as a fighting unit – and although Wright is very definitely the director, and Pegg and Wright credited with the script, it’s clear Frost is closely consulted throughout – is very high. To adapt the fanboy fun of Spaced to work across a broad canvas, not to mention sell it to the Americans, has been one of the more heartwarming successes of British cinema in the 21st century. (The support they’ve had from Working Title and Universal, as well as Big Talk, is key, too, but these guys are the ones with the ideas and the pre-midlife crises to draw on.)

This geek ending is final in every sense. It’s bigger and costlier than the previous two films, but as good rather than better. To have kept their end up, to the end, is reward enough. I always enjoy seeing Pegg and Frost in other stuff, and Wright will easily adapt to a Hollywood career if he wishes it, but there’s nothing to beat the three of them in a room together, and you have to hope they’ll reunite through a cosmic need to do so, rather than a financial imperative.

Having met the clubbable Pegg and Frost during press for Hot Fuzz, and struck a surprising seam of mutual admiration with Pegg (ie. he’d read my books, which had been given to him by a mutual Northampton-based friend, Tony Kirkland, with whom I co-starred in a Weston Favell Upper School production of Macbeth in 1983), I was lucky enough to reflect in the collective glory of the whole Spaced gang at a BFI reunion day in November 2007, where I first met Edgar and crossed that Rubicon where we might actually say hello in the street. They’ve all been kind to me ever since whenever our paths have crossed, and Simon gave me a cover quote for my non-selling third memoir, which I still treasure: “Fucking hilarious.” As is often the case when you meet cool people professionally, you start out as a fan, gain their trust, and became something slightly less needy. (But remain a fan.) Here’s me unable to hide my enjoyment onstage at NFT1.


I’ve read all the reviews that went up last night. Most critics have been impressed by the scale; which is to say, the bigness of the sci-fi half, but also the intimacy of the first, without which the second half would just be big. Even when things are credibly sci-fi, they remain just as credibly real, thanks to the chemistry of Pegg and Frost first and foremost, but among the other cast, too. One or two have said it’s too long at 109 minutes, but I found that even when the big stuff hits a plateau of destruction, it’s always cleverly undercut by the matey and often foul-mouthed dialogue. That comes from practice, I’d say. I could watch it again now, and that would mean seeing the first 45 minutes for the third time.

The World’s End is released next Friday, July 19, and if you are fond of the other two films and the sitcom from whence they came, you’ll be first through the doors, and you won’t want to leave at last orders. This Is The End is still on general release. Let’s Boo-Boo.

Not Ripley, believe it or not

Overbearing hype? Protracted fanfare? Viral marketing campaign? Self-defeating build-up? Adverts for adverts? What a waste of money. They had me at “Prometheus.” Prometheus! It’s only Ridley Scott’s bloody prequel to Alien! 20th Century Fox (a News Corporation company) could have saved millions of dollars and just chucked it out without even bothering to design a poster. Surely cinema traffic would have been identical.

I was almost literally first in the queue for the first showing at 12.40 yesterday. The 3D glasses seemed new, which is a bonus, as they’re so often smeared with popcorn grease which cannot be removed, even with the wiping skills of Lady Macbeth. I hate 3D. Have I mentioned this? Because Prometheus is an “event picture”, and I was genuinely excited about seeing it, I convinced myself that seeing it in 3D would add to the “event.”

It sort of did, at the very beginning. But as soon as we were looking at people talking to other people, which happens a lot in films, even blockbusters, the 3D became an irritant. I don’t wear glasses, so even having them on feels awkward. And the only 3D films I’ve seen that work are computer animations. Live action in 3D is pointless. My guess is that the amazing visuals in Prometheus – the planet scenes, the CGI alien spaceship, the Alien-echoing egg-type chambers etc. – would be amazing in 2D. I look forward to finding out on DVD.

If Prometheus had been as magnificent as I was willing it to be, I would have gone back to see it next week, in 2D somewhere. But I’m afraid it was a disappointment. I’d say three stars, which is not a disaster, but three stars is not enough for a film subject to that much hype and expectation. I won’t go into too much detail, as the less you know the better it will be (I turned over when the much-fanfared second, longer trailer was “premiered” in the middle of Homeland, for fear of finding out too much), but Michael Fassbender steals the show as android David. Imperious, subtle, clever, fluid, he’s by far the best character. The rest of the crew, cryogenically awoken at the beginning, Alien style, a bit crumpled and Anglo-American, Alien style, were really nicely cast – Rafe Spall, Benedict Wong, Sean Harris, Idris Elba (playing an American just about) – but as with any supporting character in this type of story, they are mere pawns in a game of “Who gets killed next?”

There are moments, and entire sequences, in Prometheus, that feel like they are in the prequel to Alien, which should be a lovely big gift to fans of the franchise. (One with Noomi Rapace that I will not even hint at, is a tour de force on every single level.) But, like Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, which was Alien inspired, it starts much better than it ends. That’s why I can’t go into any more detail.

It’s a good sci-fi horror thriller. It rewards a working knowledge of Alien. It sticks to what Alien does best. And, of course, Ridley Scott can direct. He invented many of the moves in Alien, which have been copied and copied and copied ever since, so when he has another bash at them, he is Prometheus! It’s also possible that the bloody 3D spoiled my experience, but I’m confident enough in my critical juices to know that the promise at the outset is not paid off in the death. I wanted more. Not more action, not more gore, not more panoramic spectacle, but more … words. More story. More depth.

I’d be really interested to know what others think, so let me know. (I only switched over by accident but they seemed to be in the process of giving it a right kicking on Newsnight Review last night – I think Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian came closest, from the reviews I’ve read.)

On a lighter note, the man after me in the queue at the cinema asked to buy a ticket for Promiscuous. I wonder if that was in 3D?

I could murder a Mexican Pt 2

One of the many hyperventilating press quotes that are daubed all over the posters for Monsters, an arresting low-budget sci-fi debut from British filmmaker Gareth Edwards, declares, “Believe the hype.” Well, do and don’t. If at all possible, avoid the hype. (It isn’t possible.) This film cost the measly sum of $500,000 to make, using a crew of four, and a principal cast of two, and with the remarkable Edwards acting as writer, director, production designer, cinematographer and effects designer (his background lies in effects). That it is enjoying a pretty wide release and a big marketing spend is testament to his achievement. All of the shorthand thus far is correct: it’s a bit like District 9 and Cloverfield, and it has compelling – and conscious – elements of Apocalypse Now and Jurassic Park and The Road in it. But it’s not your average post-apocalyptic sci-fi alien-invasion monster movie whichever way you cut it, and in mostly confounding genre expectation (I said mostly), it scores a lot of points. It’s also a 12A certificate – yes, that’s a 12A, suitable for children over 12 and for children under 12 if accompanied by an adult.

Because it’s been done on the hoof, and shot cheaply – with its sparing CGI work added in afterward – and because it’s about a man and a woman, played naturalistically, in peril, it reminded me of Open Water, whose monsters were also unseen. But it’s more ambitious than that, and other comparable no-budget sleeper hits. Basically, we are told that a NASA probe went up six years ago, found alien lifeforms, came back with some spores and crashed, in Mexico, which has since been designated the Infected Zone. A crumpled, roving photojournalist (Scott McNairy) is strong-armed into babysitting his proprietor’s daughter (Whitney Able) and getting her out of Mexico’s safe zone and back into the US. To do so, they are forced by a string of circumstances to cross the Infected Zone, illegally, which is how the film turns into a road movie. It’s a simple but effective set-up, and although the two-antagonists-thrown-together trope is age-old, McNairy and Able shoulder the film well, and, as an actual couple in real life, bring a certain unbottlable chemistry to their development.

I know it was part-improvised – and by the way, the South American extras who get speaking parts, notably the corrupt ferryman, are well cast – but I’m afraid some of the dialogue is inane. Even though they know they’re going through the Infected Zone, and public information films and constant rolling news about the aliens that occupy the Zone seem to be on a loop on TV, when our two heroes hear their first blood-curdling animal roar, he says, “What is that?” This duff line is repeated later on. “What is that?” It’s one of the big aliens off of the news? What do you think it is?

As the film neared its conclusion, I was just starting to congratulate it for its restraint in terms of how much alien we have actually seen, which is not much, and all the more frightening and unsettling for it. But, just as in Cloverfield, which too made a virtue of this budgetary cloaking device, the director can’t resist a “money shot.” Again, on a shoestring, it’s a technically proficient money shot, but it comes amid a sequence that I can only tell you conforms almost religiously to genre rules. That’s all I’ll say. (Peter Bradshaw was a bit free and easy with the spoilers in his rave, four-star Guardian review. I shall pull back here.)

Here’s the problem with Monsters – which I saw at the Curzon last night, unable to attend the special Q&A screening, with Gareth Edwards, much to my chagrin – it’s being over-praised, and the hype may let some audiences down with a bump. Its genesis and success (apparently it’s already made its money back before being released!) gives the media a brilliant, heartwarming story, obviously, and it’s a film that should be written about and promoted – it certainly shows up Avatar and the 3D like, which cost millions and make billions – but let’s not get carried away. Horror aficionados will be disappointed by the lack of horror. Sci-fi fans will be disappointed by the lack of sci. Teens gore-immunised by the Saw movies will wonder why they are watching a love story. Indie iconoclasts will exhale deeply when it goes down more obvious roads. Mainstream audiences lured in by the poster and the quotes and the fact that it’s showing at a cinema near them may even feel mugged. But if you go in with a clear head and realistic expectations, you will find much to admire and enough tension and tease to rank with films that cost literally 100 times as much to make.

Edwards is a massive talent – not only can he do special effects, he’s an artist as tuned in to Edward Hopper as the people who make Mad Men, believe me. (Hint: look out for the gas station.) We should give thanks that he was able to get his debut made and a lot of us get to see it in cinemas. I’m already wondering what he’d do with even a few million dollars. (Nick Roddick in Sight & Sound reckons that, given a blockbuster budget, this is a filmmaker who’d still tend towards minimalism.) Low-budget indie crossover hits are difficult to follow up. I haven’t seen Paranormal Activity 2, but I can’t see how it can repeat what the first film did, because of the first film. Did anybody else have the misfortune to see The Blair Witch Project 2? Oh dear. Because that’s what was missing from the first film: bright colours.


Serving suggestion

So, we’ve had the first nine episodes of Caprica on Sky1 – the remaining nine come later this year – and contrary to the image above which was used to sell the series and the DVD, at no point did Zoe take her top off and eat an apple. It’s almost as if that image was created to lure people in. (She’s a schoolgirl, by the way, so I hope Christopher Tookey’s averting his eyes.)

Zoe (Alessandra Torresani, actually 22) is, however, the pivot around which the action revolves: it’s 58 years before the Cylon attack on the Twelve Colonies that precipitates the Battlestar Galactica saga, and after a bit of decadent, last-days-of-Rome scene-setting in the permanent-disco virtual world where teenagers hang out, we lose Zoe in a suicide bomb attack on a monorail. From here on, she exists only in scrubbed-up avatar form, until uploaded into a prototype, red-eyed robot or “cybernetic lifeform node” (ie. Cylon – tingle!), where she gradually achieves a Frankingstein-type life. Meanwhile, her dad, seemingly genial ginger prof Daniel Graystone (the show’s only big name, or biggish, Eric Stoltz), starts to unravel through grief, corporate guilt and technical frustration, and so does his wife.

We also meet the Old Man, when he’s a Young Boy, William Adams/Adama the Tauran hoodlum-in-waiting being schooled by his little-bit-wooh-little-bit-weergh hoodlum uncle Sam – Uncle Sam? – our most explicit link to BSG (we know he’s actually going to turn out to be a Battlestar commander of substance and honour, who even tries a moustache out for a bit). The idea of Caprica, courtesty its creators Ronald D Moore and Jane Espenson, is that you don’t need a working knowledge of BSG to get into it, and that’s probably true – it’s closer to a soap opera than a space opera – but how much more thrilling it is when you know what happens in 58 years’ time. I love Polly Walker as Sister Clarice, too, matronly high priestess of  the Soldiers Of One.

There’s lots to get your teeth into in terms of racial identity and prejudice, as well as the trademark pantheism versus monotheism holy war, and the foretold Skynet-style showdown between man and machine. So what if there’s more emphasis on teenagers? Caprica is a Colony on the verge of extinction and it doesn’t yet know it – we know the kids can’t prevent the apocalypse, but they still embody hope and change. Having now seen The Plan, I could foresee further prequels sets on the other Colonies (“the oceans of Aquaria are burning etc.).

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Caprica‘s first nine episodes – they certainly know how to play a cliffhanger (“Zoe?” – that was one of my favourites) – and I look forward to the Final Nine. Perhaps Zoe will take her top off and eat an apple at some point. Or not.

Battle of the planets

Sci-fi update: it begins next week on the Sci-Fi channel in the UK, butI’ve seen a preview of the pilot of V – that is, the all-CGI, post-9/11 remake of the probably rose-tintedly revered 80s miniseries and series about a quasi-fascist alien invasion of Earth. This time around, with original creator Kenneth Johnson’s name all over the credits, they’ve added an FBI element, and toned down the Nazi allusions which probably felt fresh in 1983, although it looks like the Hitler Youth angle is going to be played out. I was quite taken aback in the pilot when the aliens promised universal healthcare for the human race: it’s post-Obama! Anyway, the formidable Elizabeth Mitchell off of Lost is the star, playing a Fed who finds her way into the resistance. The rest is very familiar – the big spaceships hovering over Earth’s major cities but mostly New York (look! it’s Big Ben! briefly!), the attractively humanoid Visitors etc. – but there’s added irony this time, as two geeks on some news footage make the comparison to Independence Day that we’re already thinking, with a dropped hint that they didn’t think of it. Other than that, it’s played reasonably straight, and quite gory, so hopes are high for the reveal with the guinea pig. Clearly, if you’re not old enough to remember the 80s, you can just start with a clean slate, but I like the way they’re rewarding older viewers with references back. I’m in.

Meanwhile, back at the motherlode of sci-fi War On Terror allegory and reminder just how smart it all was, one-off 2009 prequel Battlestar Galactica: The Plan has finally aired in the UK, on Sky1, and it was worth waiting for, if only for scraping some more crumbs from the table for aficionados of The Greatest Sci-Fi Series Ever Made. Using existing footage from the saga, and artfully dropping in and interweaving brand new stuff with the likes of Grace Park, Tricia Helfer, Michael Hogan, Kate Vernon, Edward James Olmos and others reviving their roles, under the steady aegis of Jane Espenson, it basically tells the tale of the destruction of the Twelve Colonies from the Cylons’ perspective – particularly poignant with Caprica ongoing – and fills in any narrative gaps that probably weren’t really bothering BSG fans that much, but which BSG fans will gladly gobble up anyway. I know we did. Like Olmos, who directed the fresh footage, said at the time, it’ll make us all want to go back and watch the whole shooting match again. Which it does. Great to see what amount to deleted scenes, with lots of Cavill, and Anders, and Five, and Six, and even the Chief, stringing it all together. As has been noted elsewhere, this is a REALLY BAD PLACE TO START, as it requires detailed, anal knowledge of the BSG saga to appreciate. They spoil us, Mr Ambassador, with their in-jokey, commitment-rewarding minutiae, especially the way Cavil effectively “loses” Leoben and Sharon to human empathy, the eavesdropped squeals of Starbuck and Anders having it off, and the insertion of a corner-cut note to the Old Man, hinted as Baltar’s, about the 12 Clyon models. Oh, it’s so indulgent. But who cares? It’s like finding outtakes from one of your favourite albums. And so say we all.