What do you want? A medal?

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Happy New Year’s Honours! In fact, unhappy, as this country’s preposterous awards system always riles me when the gongs are handed out like sweets. I heard Barbara Windsor, or Dame Barbara Windsor, cooing about hers on the news and stating, for the record, that she is a dyed-in-the-ermine royalist. Fair enough. I think Barbara Windsor should wear her damehood with pride; it’s clearly the highest honour the nation could bestow upon her for her acting and charity work. For the record, I do not think Barbara Windsor should have refused her New Year’s Honour. What I do think is that the whole prizegiving ceremony is based upon a rotten premise: the British Empire. Call it an MBE if you like, Goldie, or an OBE if you like, Damon Albarn, but its full title contains the words “of the British Empire.” Remember that? Of course you don’t. When dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah turned down his Order of the British Empire in 2003, he was very clear about why:

Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought. I get angry when I hear that word ‘empire’; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised … Benjamin Zephaniah OBE – no way Mr Blair, no way, Mrs Queen. I am profoundly anti-Empire.

Now hear this: I think the refusal of a medal based upon the British Empire and all the brutality that historically goes with it is a matter of personal preference. For instance, I think it is heartwarming that ordinary Britons are recognised for their work in the community, and for charity, and in the care of others – everyday heroism, let’s call it, which I understand accounts for 76% of the awards handed out – and I would not expect any of the good people today honoured to do anything other than gracefully accept. Michael Pusey, 41, who receives an MBE as the voluntary founder and head coach of a BMX park in South London, for instance, who I saw on the news yesterday. He should be proud.

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But why are we still giving out medals of the British Empire, please? They are, after all, for “chivalry”, according to the small print, and are divided up into “commanders” and “officers”, all of which smacks of colonialism and militarism. The Empire itself has been over since the Second World War. Britain hasn’t ruled the waves for some time. And when the Union flag was lowered in Hong Kong in 1997, that ought to have been the perfect time to rename and modernise the otherwise theoretically positive giving of credit where credit’s due. But there are fundamental, infrastructural and symbolic things wrong with the Honours system as it blindly lumbers on in breeches and riding boots as if Victoria is still on the throne and viceroys are still teaching the natives cricket in far-flung outposts of a global occupation built on profit and exploitation and slavery. We’re all Team GB now, aren’t we? Shouldn’t our prizes be similarly freshened up for the 21st century? If you are unable to scrub the years of blood off those medals, perhaps try a coloured ribbon, or a certificate, instead?

If the recognition being heaped upon Damon Albarn, and Idris Elba, and Chris Froome, and James Nesbitt, and Dr Michael Jacobs the consultant who treated three Britons with Ebola, was rebranded, and perhaps expunged of all the politics, it would be something we could all be proud of. Forget honorifics and titles and chivalry. Bollocks to Sir and Dame Grand Cross and KGB and all that forelock-tugging cobblers. Reward good service, beyond the call of your job description (which cancels Tory spin doctor Sir Lynton Crosby for a start), and by all means give the winners a free buffet at Buckingham Palace in their Sunday best. (I was twice invited to charity events at 10, Downing Street, and jumped at the chance to get inside the building, have a free drink and set aside any problems I had with Gordon Brown’s leadership of a busted Labour party. You can go to the Palace without becoming a royalist – Jeremy Corbyn did and escaped with his republican soul. But none of us in 2015/16 needs or wishes to be associated with the East India Company running opium out of China in the 18th century, surely?)

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If the Empire part had been ditched when Britain had to give back India, Burma, Sri Lanka and Palestine in the 40s, we might not be looking at such a long and illustrious list of recipients who turned down their Honour throughout this nation’s most creative, innovative and progressive decades in the latter half of the 20th century and into this one: (in no particular order and only a partial roll-call) Francis Bacon, John Cleese, JB Priestley, Michael Foot, Alan Bennett, David Bowie, Danny Boyle, Rudyard Kipling, LS Lowry, Michael Faraday, Alistair Sim, Mark Rylance and AJP Taylor, who understood his history. Even Keith Hill, Blairite apologist and my local MP in Streatham when Britain invaded Iraq (and yes I did write him an angry letter), turned down a knighthood in 2010, saying, “My fundamental reason is that I have never had the least desire to have a title. I don’t want to be discourteous, but I find the whole idea a little embarrassing and too much for me.” Good on him.

Luckily, even if I devoted myself to do seven-days-a-week charity work for the rest of my life, I doubt I’ll be getting the letter on my doormat, so I will never get the chance to prove that I would turn down an Order of the British Empire, but I would. I remain uncomfortable about those I admire who have let their desire to give the family a nice day out eclipse their principles. For me, the whole thing is hypothetical. Allow me to enjoy that on this tainted day.

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Ironically, the staunchly establishment Daily Mail, whose management uniquely pine for the simpler times of the East India Company and good, honest imperialism, used the headline, “TAINTED NEW YEAR HONOURS” today, using the example of Jacqueline Gold, CEO of the Ann Summers chain, as an unsuitable CBE, presumably because she reminds them that there is a thing called sex. Tainted the British Honours system may be, but not by the recognition of a strong, successful, independent woman who sells handcuffs and other bondage items for fun, rather than actual slavery.

 

Cock and ball stories

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“Contains strong, real sex.” There’s a warning which, for some, will operate as an enticement. It adorns the posters for Stranger By The Lake (or, more properly, L’Inconnu du lac) a current French erotic thriller that’s been picking up five-star reviews and which I went to see for my birthday. It was quite a present.

The story – one of social intrigue, moral ambiguity and brazen man-on-man rumpo – revolves around a secluded, idyllic gay cruising spot in the South of France on the edge of a man-made lake, where man-made men of all ages routinely spend the day sunbathing, swimming and chatting, often nude, as a springboard to sexual acts in the undergrowth. Notwithstanding the thriller element, it paints a utopian picture (all the better to be shattered by the thriller element). The sun glistens off the water. Blue skies gradually fade to cool evenings. There is ample car parking. Nobody seems to have a job to go to. Consenting adults get to know each other on towels, or not, and partner off, while others simply loiter in the bushes and watch.

For a lifelong heterosexual who was ostracised as a “poof” in his teens for dressing effeminately and warned off hanging out with actual gay men by his parents as it was interfering with his A-levels, onscreen portrayals of this sort of “scene” – ritualistic, understood, honest, practical – always fascinate me, I cannot lie. All the bullshit that goes with heterosexual courtship is refreshingly absent. Although most of the men in the film are fit, buff and handsome, some are older, fatter, and less idealised looking. Some are single, some are not. Most use condoms, others play a riskier game. It’s the perfect milieu into which to introduce a less controllable danger: that of murder.

Outside of the thriller aspect, which recalls some of the more generic tropes of Plein Soleil and its English remake The Talented Mr Ripley, with more literal recent echoes of Jane Campion’s Top Of The Lake, and even The Returned, Stranger By The Lake is notable chiefly for being the latest 18-certificate film to blur the borders between simulated sex and real sex – that is, frank, explicit, non-simulated, and thus by most people’s definition “pornographic”. The sex we’re used to seeing onscreen, even in “sexy” films, is clearly all artful, choreographed bump and grind, and elevated to gentle titillation by soft focus, tantalising editing, orgasm acting and a saxophone. The sex herein involves erect penises and ejaculation. There, I’ve said it.

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The screening of Stranger By The Lake we attended was in Soho and on a weekday morning. I specify “we”, as all other patrons in the cinema were singles, and male, and – dare I generalise? – of a certain age. Not young men. This was an 18-certificate showing of a film. Not a porn movie in a porn cinema (although I’m sure Old Testament Daily Mail moralists would have a thing to say about its content). And yet, as specified, it contained images of strong, real sex. Which you don’t get on the telly, not even in the background on True Detective.

As unfashionable as it may be to say it, I’m not partial to porn. I actually get more out of one of those faked, edited, saxophone scenes in 18-certificate movies, albeit briefly. I have no great desire to see people “do it” for real. But many do and they are better served in this regard than ever before. So is it wrong to pay money to see Stranger By The Lake for reasons on titillation? No. This is a healthy desire, albeit one perhaps better served at home. Because a lot of the film comprises people sitting on towels and talking, often about very little of import. If it were porn, it would be quite annoying.

As a film, I think it’s quite brilliant. Singular, atmospheric, cool, disturbing; elliptical and sometimes unclear in terms of what’s going on, but of a piece with the naturalistic way it’s shot and acted. Director Alain Guiraudie holds his nerve, and the recurring fixed shot of the car park is a brilliant, evocative way of showing the passage of days. Pierre de Ladoncahmps and Christophe Paou are captivating as the younger, more innocent, smooth-skinned tourist Franck and the older, more hirsute alpha male Michel, respectively. It is their relationship – essentially sexual, but with emotional benefits – that drives the story. And although you think you see them have “strong, real sex”, the more real bits are performed by body doubles. Even actors who are prepared to go full frontal are not necessarily up for going all the way.

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A similar sleight of hand, or slight of genital, occurs in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Vol I and II, a diptych that really impressed me when I saw a preview of it in January – both films back to back, a four-hour sex marathon – and which I would recommend if you’ve enjoyed his previous work (particularly the first and second parts of this, Von Trier’s loose “trilogy of depression”, Antichrist and Melancholia). It’s surprisingly linear, telling the self-loathing life story in flashback of the fearless Charlotte Gainsbourg’s sex addict. Each “chapter”, adorned with symbolism and cod-Freudian analysis, touches on a different aspect of her sex life, from virginity-shedding to sado-masochism and beyond, and there’s a good deal of what looks like “strong, real sex”.

And guess what? It’s not Shia LaBeouf or Charlotte Gainsbourg’s parts you’re seeing going into each other, or being spanked or sucked. It’s the parts of some porn actors, which have been seamlessly edited or digitally composited into the action. (See also: the astonishing Blue Is The Warmest Colour, which also apparently involved full prosthetic vaginas that the non-porn actors were strapped into. It’s amazing what they can do these days.) Although some of the sex – particulary between LaBeouf and Stacy Martin playing the young Gainsbourg – borders on conventional, if not quite Hollywood, and its pretty torrid, but I would still steer you away from Nymphomaniac if it’s titilation you seek! Much is seedy and disturbing, not least the scene where two African men have an argument over Gainsbourg while standing there naked and erect, like swordsmen. (That is, disturbing in the men’s attitude to Gainsbourg – which, to be fair, the character has masochistically brought upon herself – but also quite a sight if you’re not used to seeing men with erections banging around in front of them.)

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Coincidentally, Pierre de Ladoncahmps from Stranger By The Lake, the non-hairy one, reminded me of Patrick, the lead gay man in Looking, HBO’s simply adorable new comedy-drama about life on the non-heterosexual side of San Francisco, just coming to the end of its first season on Sky Atlantic. More education into the way things work within the gay community in America’s gayest city. (I loved San Francisco the moment I set foot in the place back in the early 90s and fancied myself as quite local on a two-week stay there.) Patrick, played with puppy dog charm by Jonathan Groff (whom I don’t even remember from Glee), is far less aggressively gay than his two companions, the experimental Agustín and the seasoned Dom, in that he’s yet to be seen in a bathhouse and only in leather as fancy dress, and I guess he acts as a “way in” for hetero viewers. But the show does not shrink from its sexual preference. It could be about any firm friends in any city and their lives and loves, but many of the “issues” are gay-specific. I love it.

I think I was bound to; one of its founding writers and directors is Andrew Haigh, the openly gay British filmmaker whose second film Weekend I only belatedly caught on Film4 this year. It’s as fetching and raw and irresistible as the reviews said at the time of its release: simply, the whirlwind 48-hour romance of two men in Nottingham, whose relationship is concertinaed by the fact that one of them is leaving for America on Monday. (Just as the talented Haigh would, ironically.) It’s nothing like as sexually explicit as Stranger By The Lake, but it’s still frank and unabashed, and once again depicts the mechanics of “encounter” culture – what the cool kids in America have now dubbed a “hook-up”, I do believe: sex without strings, something women are now permitted to admit to pursuing. (Imagine!) This bypass of traditional courtship is again refreshing and confusing to a Victorian gentleman like myself.

Although it is simply beyond my understanding how anyone could regard a same-sex relationship as any less valid or meaningful or natural as a bi-gender one – I mean, really, are we still debating same-sex marriage and the equalisation of rights in the 21st century? – I do seem to have been exposed to a lot more gay cinema and TV of late, and my reaction to it is bound to be different to the reaction of someone gay, lesbian or transgender. Heterosexuals: we’re like the fourth emergency service!

Dallas Buyers Club is an Oscar-stamped film about the gay community, set at a time when it was under attack not just from Bible-bashing moralists and the ignorant but from a new virus, too. Matthew McConaughey’s real-life Texan protagonist is super-straight and in his bones homophobic, and his shifting attitude to the likes of Jared Leto’s male-to-female transgender, HIV-positive drug addict forms the heart of the story. It is essentially a heterosexual film about homosexuality, and, like Patrick’s “soft” gay man in Looking, McConaughey’s conflicted cowboy acts as a bridge into another world.

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I grew up in the 70s, when gays were figures of fun in entertainment, and little more. Thankfully, come the 80s, when my politics started to harden, gay storylines became de rigueur in soaps and entered the mainstream. The terror of AIDS served to either confirm or wash away prejudice. The tabloids continued to treat homosexuality as something that must be “confessed” by celebrities right through this progressive decade, and homophobia is still horribly rife among certain knots of men. But much progress has been made. The Sun still objectifies women and reduces anything complex to single syllables and capital letters, but you don’t sense that the simple act of being gay is the news story it once might have been.

All that said, I wonder if some of the five-star reviews from heterosexual critics for Stranger By The Lake – mine included – are borne out of solidarity as much as out of dispassionate critical consensus. A willfully contrary, negative review of Under The Skin at the weekend called it “misogynistic” for its male gaze upon the Hollywood body of Scarlett Johansson, and yet – without giving too much away – it’s the men who are presented as victims, not to mention meat, in the film. They appear completely naked, while she generally gets to keep her bra on, and are apparently priapic, although the light is low and my failing eyesight meant that I didn’t even spot that their members were erect! Maybe I’m just getting used to them?

Blue movie

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There are three distinct reasons why Blue Is The Warmest Colour threatens to be an uncomfortable watch. One, it’s a film about a lesbian relationship. If you are a heterosexual male – and I am not the first to entertain this taboo thought – discomfort might extend from a feeling of being unfairly judged by others for choosing to go and sit in a darkened auditorium to see two young actresses pretend to fall in love, because of the common heterosexual fascination with lesbian relations. I’m self-aware when it comes to my feelings about sex, which are frankly prudish and distorted by a deep sense of guilt about the “male gaze” and institutionalised sexism; and this makes me ill at ease around porn. You’ll know that the thumbnail sketch of Blue Is The Warmest Colour since it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes is predicated on its explicit same-sex sex scenes.

Which brings me onto the second reason for discomfort: Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, who won the combined acting prize at Cannes for their lead roles in the film, are on record complaining about the “horrible” way they were treated by director Abdellatif Kechiche. To be fair, this assessment was as much about the emotional demands of the roles as it was the gruelling sex scenes, but they did state that they’d never work with him again. It’s not easy to know that when you watch the film.

The third reason for trepidation was, for me, perhaps the most pressing. The film is 179 minutes long. It’s had rave reviews, mostly four- and five-star ratings, so it was vital that I saw it, but the prospect of sitting still for three hours was daunting whatever the subject matter. (When a three-hour film is compelling, such as the Romanian film Aurora a couple of years ago, it’s amazing to be able to lose yourself in it. If it’s a stinker, it’s an ordeal.)

Well, I steeled myself on all three counts yesterday and saw Blue Is The Warmest Colour and the first thing I want to say is: the three hours fly by. Clearly, it’s not a porn film and never was going to be, and although the couple’s first bedroom exploration – for the younger girl, Adele (played by Exarchopoulos) it’s her maiden Sapphic experience; the elder, Emma (Seydoux) is a seasoned “out” lesbian – goes on for a full and frank ten minutes, it’s both narratively and artistically justified. The build-up has been slow and gradual, and it explodes with pent-up feeling and, yes, love. The camera by definition exerts a “male gaze” – there’s a man behind it, and one whose tactics were “horrible” – but you are able to lose yourself in the story. It’s all about the story.

Onscreen sex has been getting more and more explicit for years in any case, and not just in foreign movies – think of Michael Winterbottom’s Nine Songs, or the English-speaking Intimacy – but at least in all of these cases, it’s a long way from Hollywood sex, that glossy, soft-focus, blue-filtered, slo-mo pantomime. The sex in Blue Is The Warmest Colour is corporeal, and sweaty, and urgent. There’s no saxophone, is what I’m trying to say.  The Hollywood kind is way more embarrassing. I’m not a lesbian, and I have never seen real lesbian sex, so I’ve no idea if lesbians smack each others’ arses as much as the couple of Blue Is The Warmest Colour, but it seemed a little excessive.

Moving on from those ten minutes to the other 169 minutes, what’s compelling and moving about the film is the acting. The two leads are definitely fearless for those ten minutes – especially as we know that scene took days to shoot – and deserve our respect and admiration. But the emotional ups and downs are even more demanding, and both, but especially Exarchopoulos (only 19 at the time), rise to the challenge. Utterly convincing. Kechiche’s technique of always framing their faces so they fill the screen, gives us access to some very clever acting. Adele changes a lot over the course of the story, as she has further to grow up, and she effects these changes subtly; she leaves school, takes a job as a classroom assistant, then teaches “first-graders”, and you can see her maturing as this takes place.

The story, partly based on a graphic novel of the same name, is a love story, but it’s also a film about peer pressure, expectation, nature versus nurture (both sets of parents are brilliantly essayed, but it is Emma’s, the more free-spirited and bourgeois, who create the little conservative, ultimately) and betrayal. It also touches on the buzz phrase “sexual liquidity”. Adele starts out as a heterosexual, seemingly finds her true sexual calling, then prevaricates. I’m sure this is common.

It’s not perfect. The colour blue is played heavy handedly. The scenes in the classroom where literature is dissected fall a little too neatly into the themes of the action. But overall, Blue is a seriously well-played saga that never drags. You could cut the sex scenes, or scenes, down to a minute or two and it wouldn’t detract from the story. But there they are. (The second, shorter one, feels hugely indulgent; it doesn’t move the story forward one iota. But I would say that.)

Not seen as many French films in 2013 as I usually do of a year – In The House, Something In The Air – but Blue Is The Warmest Colour reminds me of why I should remedy that. Perhaps it’s the familiarity of the language. Or simply the aspirational nature of French life: bread, cheese, philosophy, really intelligent seeming kids. (Positive enough stereotype for you?) In my lists, France seems to have been edged out by superior works from Germany, Romania, Argentina, Russia, Denmark, Ireland and Italy. Not that it’s a race. Except it is.

A writer called Nick Dastoor wrote a very pertinent, honest and funny piece in the Guardian called A Single Man’s Guide to Seeing Blue Is The Warmest Colour. (They should have added “Heterosexual” to the headline.) I was fortunate enough not to have to sit in the darkened auditorium yesterday afternoon alone, but I know exactly where he’s coming from. (Don’t go below the line, though, I warn you. Seriously. Don’t.)

 

Open the box

TA124There are scenes of a sexual nature in this week’s Telly Addict. Indeed, it’s impossible to ignore the old in-out in-out in a week that gave us the actually rather coy Sex Box on C4; the much more frank but simulated Masters Of Sex on C4; and the frankly gynaecological Breathless on ITV. Also given a once-over: a very promising pilot in the form of Sleepy Hollow on Universal; the “proper lush” Tom Kerridge’s Proper Pub Food on BBC2; and a nice report from Downing Street on BBC News.

Bad men

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In July 1983, when I was 18, Peter Adamson – the actor known to and loved by millions as Len Fairclough on Coronation St, a character he’d played since 1961 – went on trial for the indecent assault that April of two eight-year-old girls in a swimming pool. As you can see from the blunt-instrument graphic used by the Sun newspaper, the lines between Adamson and his fictional persona were deliberately blurred. I remember the trial well, as I was an avid viewer of the soap at the time. I stuck the above graphic into my diary on Thursday July 21, mid-hearing, alongside this doctored collage from the same newspaper:

LenFaircloughtrial - Version 2As you may be able to see, I wrote “GUILT” in pencil over Adamson’s suit, so I would be able to add, “He’s got guilt written all over him.” This was my 18-year-old’s idea of a joke. A casualty of trial by tabloid – and the red-tops were pretty despicable then, in their early-80s pomp – I had passed judgement before the court had. (It’s a shame I wasn’t more sensitive, but we cannot rewrite our own history.)

In the event, on July 26, the jury found Adamson – and by dimwitted association, Fairclough – not guilty. But it was immaterial; he’d already been tried and convicted in the public mind. Although he lived until 2002 and managed to get some theatre work, he was never again seen on Coronation St, having been written out back in February, before the arrest, ironically for selling stories to the tabloids. A sad figure by all accounts, he struggled with a long-standing drinking problem and died penniless after a 1991 bankruptcy.

The clinical term “paedophile”, although well established, was not in general use in 1983; it was certainly too long a word for the Sun. I suspect, as well as “dirty bastard”, Len will have been branded a “pervert”. I bring up his story partly because it has stayed with me, and partly because at least two equally well-loved Coronation St stars are currently embroiled in court cases over alleged sexual assault: Michael Le Vell, who’s played Kevin Webster since, coincidentally, 1983, and William Roache, the longest-serving Coronation St star of them all, having been Ken Barlow since the first episode in 1960. Le Vell goes to trial in September for 19 charges, including alleged sexual assault and the rape of a minor; Roache goes to Crown Court next month for the alleged rape of a 15-year-old in 1967. Both men deny all charges.

These big tabloid stories interest us – and, one assumes, appall us – because they are men in the public eye. In the wake of Jimmy Savile, which I wrote about at the time, and Operation Yewtree, the truism is to say that each week discredits another previously loved celebrity from the 60s, 70s and 80s (which covers a lot of our childhoods). If any of these multiple, often historic accusations turn out to be true – and when Stuart Hall pleaded guilty to indecent assaulting 13 girls, aged between 9 and 17 years, between 1967 and 1986, he became the first to cross over from lurid speculation to actual admission of despicable deeds – then it will say dark things about society in the not-too-distant past.

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I’m not really here to talk about “the culture” that permitted a now unacceptable degree of “harmless” fun between powerful men and often much younger women, and children, nor about how boundaries have been more clearly drawn in the more enlightened decades since, as to do so often risks sounding as if you excuse the bottom-pinching that was the tip of a much more sinister iceberg. If an ex-Radio 1 DJ is accused, historically, of groping a female work colleague in the 70s, we should not excuse it just because it was time of Carry On films and Benny Hill, any more than rape should be excused because the victim was wearing a skirt. It’s very likely that the victim either didn’t come forward because she feared he or she would not be believed (that’s certainly the case with Savile’s victims), or that he or she did come forward and wasn’t believed.

This past week, Stuart Hazell, who was not a celebrity but achieved a level of ubiquity through his disgusting deeds, was imprisoned for a minimum of 38 years for the murder of his partner’s 12-year-old granddaughter. At the trial, some pretty disturbing insights into this 37-year-old man’s character emerged. With barely time to catch our collective breath about the prevalence of this kind of abuse and murder of children from within families, we saw seven members of a “sex grooming ring” in Oxford convicted at the Old Bailey of abusing six girls, who were targeted, drugged and suffered “sadistic abuse” while aged between 11 and 15. The details are too horrible. I won’t repeat them. Difficult debates are being had about the ethnic background and religion of the men, which largely matches that of the nine convicted last year after a Rochdale sex trafficking ring was exposed. However, there’s a much bigger coincidence, which links Stuart Hall to Stuart Hazell and every other sex offender in between: they’re all men.

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Suzanne Moore has been writing passionately and controversially about this subject in the Guardian from a long-range feminist perspective (today’s column was particularly furious). Her concern is not just the seeming ubiquity of male sexual assault, whether historic or current, it’s the failure as she sees it of men to do something about it. She has harsh words for the authorities, social services, the police, the media, for failing to act, but she asks, legitimately, why women seem to be more enraged about it than men. Does that make all men culpable?

This line unfortunately takes us down the hardline Andrea Dworkin route (the uber-feminist wrote, in a 1987 paper called Intercourse, “Physically, the woman in intercourse is a space inhabited, a literal territory occupied literally”), and is not helpful, especially when most men – surely! – are not potential rapists, respect and like women, and know that a child is a child.

I’m quick to say that society is to blame, but that’s not to let individuals off the hook. If you talk about “a crisis of masculinity” it suggests you wish a return to the good old days when men were breadwinners and “masters of the house”, and I have no love for those Victorian values. The pressure on men today is not to be “the man” but to be a more caring, open-minded, feminised member of a family or social group. You might say that men are not born this way; to be the leader is somehow in the DNA of the hunter-gatherer, the physically stronger sex, the Martian (if we really are from Mars). But society changes, for the better, usually, and to fail to adapt is to die.

I re-educated myself in the 80s, taking onboard new information, discarding orthodoxies handed down to me from less enlightened times, and adjusting my behaviour and my thinking accordingly. This was not unique for the time. (I also went to art school, a more effeminate choice than most, and was in a minority as a male at my halls of residence and at college, which can only have had a good effect on me. I also looked effeminate, by choice, and was called a “poof” often in my teens, which galvanised my instincts about sexual equality.) I really do worry about subsequent generations who have grown up with available 24-hour porn, and especially those young enough to have come of age in the post-Loaded era of Nuts and Zoo. Those boys are going to have to do a lot more adjustment than I did.

Anyway, there’s a link between casual, seemingly benign sexism among male friends and unspeakable acts. I am not a psychologist, but the need to wield power must lie at the heart of sexual assault. To abuse, to rape, to threaten, to kill, are all acts of power. Stuart Hazell wanted something that was forbidden under the laws of the land, but he could not stop himself from taking it. Once the switch flicks, men are capable of bad things. We all do and say things we regret, and relationships break down all the time, and we can find ourselves saying unkind things to people we love, but all of this takes place within boundaries. To raise a hand is to cross that boundary; to break the law is to cross another one.

I don’t think you should hit women, but I don’t think you should hit men, or children, either.

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Tabloid headlines never tell the whole story. They paint men as “evil”, and quote relatives of victims who wish to see them “hanged”. The headlines above from the April Jones and Tia Sharp cases are designed to lure us in on our basest instincts. The “goodies” and the “baddies” are clear cut in the blunt-instrument tabloid narrative, but the stories also offer voyeurism, and that’s where a lot of the bad stuff starts: looking at things you shouldn’t look at, or looking at things that you should look at, but looking at them in a funny way.

We do not yet know if Rolf Harris, or Michael Le Vell, or Max Clifford, assaulted anyone, although we do know that their careers are likely to be over, even if they are acquitted. We live in suspicious times. (Anyone else see Paul Shane’s name the other night and think, “Oh no, not another one”, before sighing with relief when you found at that, no, he had only died?) The historic cases and the contemporary ones tell a sad story about men. I am, at heart, a self-hating man, in that I have no great love for my gender. I am not perfect, but I do consider myself a feminist and have a pretty sensitive radar to everyday sexism.

I felt very uncomfortable about the fact that, for no real narrative reason, and in a 12A certificate film, Alice Eve stripped down to her underwear in Star Trek Into Darkness. This was a Nuts moment, pandering to the young male’s worst instinct, which is to ogle and objectify. It’s not a trivial matter. Stamp this sort of thing out and you get to the root of the problem: some men hate women and don’t even realise it.

Raymond reviews: bah!

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Well, I went in to see The Look Of Love with expectations at ankle-height thanks to all the below-par reviews, which ran the gamut from lukewarm to cold-shower, enough to give anyone a winter bottom. A straightforward biopic of Soho porn baron and property magnate Paul Raymond, built, or so it seemed, around Steve Coogan’s desire to impersonate him (which he does well), and regular collaborator Michael Winterbottom’s desire to capture to pre-enlightenment days of London’s former sex district, The Look Of Love turned out to be very good.

Maybe the critics turned on it because it seemed to arrive rather engorged with self-confidence, as if asking to be pulled down a peg or two. (The string of TV comedy cameos – David Walliams, Matt Lucas, Miles Jupp, Stephen Fry – may have added to the perceived smugness.) Both Coogan and Winterbottom are prolific, and much admired, so it’s easy to knock them while celebrating their other triumphs. So, too, with screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh, who wrote Control, which was feted across the board and given a Bafta, and Nowhere Boy. I actually wondered if I was going to love it after seeing the trailer; it had the hallmarks of being “perfunctory”, as many reviewers maintain that it is. I respectfully disagree with them all.

Aside from David Sexton’s virtual lone voice of praise in the London Evening Standard (well, it is a very “London” film), few could even strain up to a three-star rating. Philip French of the Observer called it “crude”, “shallow” and complained that Raymond’s world and life lacked illumination by a “larger social context”. He also said it lacked “wit … insight and … detail”. Our own Stella Papamichael in Radio Times named Winterbottom “a co-conspirator in Raymond’s objectification of women.” Emma Jones in the Independent reported from Sundance, saying it “lacked soul” and calling it “an interminably dull orgy”, but at least recognised that this was probably Winterbottom’s intention. Tim Robey in the Telegraph, another trustworthy critic, used the words “perfunctory” and “hollow”, not to mention “flaccid”, and wondered aloud what Scorsese would have made of it. (Again, he’s clever enough to spot that a British porn baron’s tale is never going to have the crackle of Boogie Nights or Larry Flynt.)  The Mail‘s Chris Tookey stamped it a “turkey” and called it “unobservant, unerotic and dull,” and went further with “dishonest”. Though only awarding three stars, Empire at least identified its “healthy sense of naffness.”

Maybe that’s the problem, although not a problem for me: it does not make apologies for Raymond, as he rises from “entertainer” to impressario, and makes his money through property and pornography. He is plainly depicted as a cad and a sexual cheat, unfaithful in a sort of industrial manner to his first wife (Anna Friel) and his live-in girlfriend Fiona Richmond (a frequently nude Tamsin Egerton) by decree. Yes, he took a showgirl for his wife. Greenhalgh’s script presents Raymond as a man of natural charisma and wit, but doesn’t deify him; he made his living in a sleazy business in what was a sleazy part of town (“welcome to my world of erotica”), using tits to put bums on seats in theatrical sex farce and disrobed revue alike, always pushing against the boundaries of what the Lord Chamberlain allowed.

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If he was any part of a libertarian or champion of free artistic impression, this is soon eclipsed by his greed for more flesh as he buys into Men Only (whose coke-snorting editor, Tony Power, is skilfully played by Chris Addison, for whom The Look Of Love may provide a more fruitful shopfront than it ever could for the better-established Coogan, whose Raymond does brings to mind an X-rated combination of Partridge and, as per The Trip, Coogan). It’s grubby stuff, mostly, with any glamour tarnished by a combination of 60s and especially 70s naffness (the space-age telly watched by the almost-beaten 90s Raymond after his daughter’s sad death, brilliantly encapsulates the datedness of that metropolitan notion of James Bond cool that only James Bond could pull off).

In terms of the randy threesomes and the magnetic pull of the shag-pile boudoir, you get the sense that Coogan understands this self-destructive cock-led compulsion. The constant refrain of “house champagne” is a nifty way of exposing the cheapness beneath the largesse. (Raymond does keep insisting he’s the boy from Liverpool who arrived in London with “three bob” in his pocket.) If anything, on occasion, Coogan possibly makes Raymond too amusing and suave, in what must be improvised scenes, including impressions of Brando and Connery. (Maybe he was an excellent mimic, but I doubt as adept as Coogan!)

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It’s not life-changing. It is, deliberately, unerotic. And it doesn’t tell us anything new about the history of porn, which was done with more seriousness when Our Friends In The North ventured down south. But at least, for all the flesh on display – including a 70s-appropriate bush of pubic hair that’s foregrounded purely for reasons of nostalgia! – it features a strong, driven, successful woman in Richmond, through whom Egerton rises above the exploitation of her own body and compensates for all the insipid, giggling dollybirds, as they used to be called.

If it has anything to say, it’s that a vast property portfolio, enough money and assets to be named the richest man in Britain at his peak (and before the foreign money took over), doesn’t bring happiness. You’ll still be trying to impress people by telling them that Ringo Starr designed your flat (which Raymond does), and measuring your worth via notches on the bedpost. Raymond ends the film sad and introspective, and minus his beloved daughter (Imogen Poots, who steals much of the film with her rounded, likeable, unspoilt portrayal of a beneficiary of nepotism who rose above it, only to fall victim to cocaine and heroin abuse).

It may sound glib to say it’s a bit of fun, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Winterbottom shoots on the hoof, keeping budgets low, on location (Londoners will love, as I did, the sightseeing aspect), and encourages improv, and while Raymond’s story doesn’t have the innate cool or bangin’ soundtrack of 24 Hour Party People, he may happily file The Look Of Love alongside: a breezy portrait of an essentially naff English success story who charmed his way through a number of scams and left his mark. It’s a bit of a useless title, and it’s a pity Ramond’s estate owned the rights to its intended one, The King Of Soho. What about 24 Hour Porno Person?

Hey ladies

By accident and not design, I saw two films at the cinema over the weekend that were about women. The first, Damsels In Distress, written and directed by a man, portrayed men in a very bad light; largely as thick-headed, arrogant dimwits or shysters. The second, Elles, written and directed by a woman, also portrayed men in a bad light; as desperate, shallow sad cases, sometimes cruel with it.

The first, and more successful, was Damsels In Distress. American indie auteur Whit Stillman takes his time. He’s only made four films since 1990. The first two, which I haven’t seen, were linked by low budgets, no stars, lavish praise and a concern for the urban haute bourgeoisie, Metropolitan and Barcelona. I’d like to see them. I saw The Last Days Of Disco in 1998, the third part of a loose trilogy apparently, because I was tempted by the subject matter, and I remember really enjoying it. It also revolved around two women.

Disco was set in the early 80s. Damsels is set now. Or, at least, I think it is; there are few clues that time has passed much since the 1950s, and because it’s set in a minor, fictional Ivy League college where the puzzling culture of fraternity houses still holds primitive sway, it all seems very remote and old-fashioned. That is, I’m sure, the point. (There is a subplot about the frat houses being closed down.) When I saw National Lampoon’s Animal House in 1979, aged 14 – it was my first “AA” – this was my first exposure to the arcane college system of the United States, and I wasn’t worldly enough to spot that it was set in the early 60s. I realise that now, just as I realise that Happy Days was set in the 1950s, which I didn’t at the time. America seemed so foreign when I was a kid, I assumed it was still all about milk bars and the hop. Which, of course, to an extent, it still was in the 70s, and to a lesser extent, still is today.

Greta Gerwig is the only recognisable face. As Violet, she leads a group of prissy girls whose stated mission is to “save” dimwitted boys by going out with them and seeking to improve them. It’s a bizarre almost sexless set-up, but Stillman plays it so straight, it’s hard not to be drawn into this parallel universe. Nobody speaks as people speak; they are all dazzlingly eloquent and self-aware, and you will either find this a delight, or a massive irritant. I fell almost immediately into the former camp. If someone told me they couldn’t even sit through it, I would empathise.

It’s a 12A. There’s nothing in Damsels to frighten the horses. One subplot hints that a boy – duplicitous and untrustworthy, naturally – elicits anal sex with one of the prissy girls by claiming it’s a religious necessity for him, but this is as close to adult the film gets. It’s sort of the anti-Heathers. Gerwig’s troupe, who run a suicide prevention centre and offer tap-dancing as a therapy, seem brittle, remote and untouchable at first, but reveal deeper human feelings as the story progresses, even depression, all of which are whipped back into a fluff by an ending that comes as something of a shock, albeit a feelgood one.

It’s rare you see a film that reminds you of little else. Damsels is one such. (I gather it reminds people who’ve seen them of, yes, Metropolitan and Barcelona, the first of which was also concerned with an Ivy League college; Stillman went to Harvard.) It’s clever, wordy and weird, and if it puts women on too high a pedestal – and casts men into such a corresponding trench – well then, hooray for Whit Stillman. Better his breathless praise for the opposite sex, than Polish director Małgorzata Szumowska’s apparent disdain for her own, as we are about to see.

I’d read some lukewarm and hostile reviews of Szumowska’s French-language reverse-porn film Elles before seeing it, and such reviews are rare for anything with Saint Juliette de Binoche in. She plays an almost totally implausible journalist for Elle magazine, the kind who sits at home in her gorgeous Paris apartment staring at a computer and fielding calls about word-length from an unseen editor. (It may have been sloppy subtitling, but at one stage, she and the editor haggle over 8,000 “characters”, which must surely have meant words?) She interviews two female students who work as prostitutes to supplement their fees, and in doing so, unlocks her own inner prostitute. Not literally, of course, but that seems to be the thrust of the story.

It’s tosh. The studes, one French, Charlotte, one Polish, Alicja (hey, the director is Polish and she’s making her first French film, who can blame her?), seem not just guilt-free about servicing “bored husbands” for Euros, but empowered by it. They are certainly no damsels in distress. I may have missed a few meetings since becoming a feminist in the 80s, but the empowerment of women through submission to male needs and fantasies has always been a thorny one for me to grasp; clearly, women should enjoy nothing less than equality in all areas of life, from work to sex, but I’m not modern enough to see how pole dancing fits into this.

Anyway, Elles (rotten title) revolves around Binoche’s superwoman preparing a slow-cook casserole for her blasé husband’s boss, juggling the kids (including a particularly nightmarish teenage dopehead son), going food shopping and trying to fix the fridge door, while also attempting to finish her article, which chiefly involves listening to interview tapes that provide us with flashbacks mostly of the two students having frank sex with various men. Their clients run the clichéd gamut: from the businessman who bursts into tears after a premature ejaculation, to the shark in the hotel room who turns out to be a disgusting sadist (a rare instance of momentary distress there, but not enough for Charlotte to consider putting a stop to her extracurricular revenue stream). The only character who seems new is the middle-aged bloke who serenades his prostitute, naked, on an acoustic guitar. Was this odd moment of comedy supposed to show that not all men who pay women for sex are bad? That rather lets them off the hook, doesn’t it?

Although the sex is not titillating – or at least, not titillating unless you are titillated by seeing bored young women service older men – there is a lot of it, and I’m not sure it added much to the already fairly thin thesis. In the end, I found Elles infuriating, which wasn’t helped by the couple sitting next to me who had sought out the Noisiest Snack Available in the foyer and kept talking until I politely asked them not to.

I didn’t buy it. Binoche is literally never bad; and she gave the part her all – an “all” it didn’t really merit – imbuing a cardboard cut-out with life and radiance. But her grown-up journalist seemed to find the whole subculture of prostitution so shocking, you started to wonder if she’d ever read a newspaper article in her life. The scene where she gets drunk with the Polish student and they indulge in a sort of semi-erotic, quasi-Oedipal display of dancing to a terrible electro track is particularly embarrassing, and if it had been conceived by a male writer/director, you could have put it down to sleazy voyeurism. But it wasn’t.

Perhaps Elles is simply intended to be a protest about student fees. But a film about bar work isn’t really going to get the punters in, is it?