Tuesday, January 21, 2014 

A street called deceit.

Call me the cynical sort, but it doesn't exactly come as a surprise that TV production companies can tell lies on the scale of our very finest tabloids.  That prior to going with Channel 4 Love Productions had approached the BBC and pitched "The Benefit Street", a series which would look at a certain James Turner Street in Birmingham rather underlines the contempt shown to those featured who weren't informed of the likely end title of the programme they were taking part in, only it was likely to be something along the lines of "Community Spirit".

The whole farrago reminds of one of the most depressing pieces of television I've witnessed in recent years, another Channel 4 "documentary" (I can't recall the title), which compared and contrasted a British and a Polish building firm, as well as the families they were working for.  The British builder, was, naturally, a lazy and incompetent white van man, while the Polish were, naturally, professional, courteous and motivated.  Despite this, the British couple the Polish were doing the extension for weren't satisfied with the work and complained at every turn, finally succeeding in getting a major discount, the Pole filmed driving back home saddened by the experience.  The whole thing was representative of absolutely nothing, except that at times TV producers seem to like nothing better than showing this country in the worst possible light.

Exactly the same is true of Benefits Street.  It's been put together with just enough panache that it confirms the prejudices of those watching it: Charlie Brooker felt it sympathetic rather than exploitative, while to Fraser Nelson and plenty of others it's just the latest piece of anecdotal evidence proving welfare reform hasn't gone anywhere near far enough.  Taken as a whole it's only slightly less fictional than Made in Chelsea or The Only Way is Essex, but as it's a "documentary" rather than a "reality" show it's deemed a worthy topic of political discussion.

Factor in the non-arrival of our friends from Bulgaria and Romania and the opening month of the year has been little more than one long announcement of new restrictions on who can and can't claim social security.  Yesterday saw not just Theresa May and Iain Duncan Smith jointly make clear that jobless EU migrants aren't entitled to housing benefit, without of course providing any figures as to how many in such a position are claiming it, our old friend Rachel Reeves also popped up to explain how those who lose their jobs will have to jump through another new hoop before they can claim Jobseeker's Allowance under Labour.  They'll need to take a test in basic numeracy and literacy and agree to go on courses to improve both if necessary before they can get their princely sum of £72 a week.  Whether there'll be enough places available on such courses or not we'll of course worry about once yet another potential sanction is in place.

It doesn't take much to excite certain sections of the commentariat, and with Reeves also setting out how Labour might attempt to reintroduce a further contributory aspect to JSA, her speech was greeted with praise for how it could start to change the debate around welfare.  As laughable as that notion might seem, it did show just how difficult it is to suggest changes to social security which aren't punitive: Reeves set out how those who've made national insurance contributions for either 4 or 5 years could receive an additional £20 on top of their JSA for the first six weeks.  You don't need to pass even the most rudimentary numeracy course to realise that getting less than the equivalent of two weeks' JSA after having paid in for that period of time or longer doesn't strike as being especially generous.  It would be different if it was for three months if six months would be far too expensive, but just six weeks?  It doesn't even begin to re-establish the contributory principle, if such a thing was an unalloyed good idea in the first place.

The problem, as so often, is that Labour is approaching the issue from the wrong perspective. The  Institute for Public Policy Research, having been appointed to give Labour's plans the once over, says "[I]t is vital that those of us committed to a resilient and effective welfare system advance feasible reforms that can chime with popular values".  Popular values and popular views are not the same thing, it's true, yet values are influenced by views.  When the public believes £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is lost to fraud, and 29% think more is spent on JSA than pensions, gearing reforms towards popular values doesn't strike as going together with "defending against the worst attacks on vulnerable people".  The more Labour tries to triangulate with the Tories on welfare cuts, the more they're encouraged to go even further.  Trying to introduce facts into the debate could backfire further, but it would at least make for a novel enterprise in what otherwise seems a time of universal deceit.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013 

A sort-of review of The Fall.

Whenever someone says that films or TV designed to be frightening don't scare them, it's difficult not to regard it as a boast.  It is after all typically blokeish to maintain that regardless of the atmosphere a movie tries to create, despite how much ketchup is thrown against the lens and however loud the bang that signals it's time for the audience to jump is, none of it has ever and will ever faze *me*.

The problem is that I'm most certainly not one of "those" men, and yet it's been a hell of a long time since anything I've watched on a screen with the intent of freaking me out has done so.  I do get scared, most certainly, often at myself more than anything, and there are other things I just can't watch, or rather, simply won't, but as for the mainstream it doesn't tend to happen.  The closest I've come recently was during re-watching the Exorcist, and that was thinking you can see why someone like James Ferman genuinely thought this film could scar adolescent girls for life.  He was clearly wrong, but you can see why.

Instead of being scared, I tend to be either troubled, worried, uncomfortable or even close to being upset by certain content, most often sexual violence.  Our betters at the BBFC feel the same way, except they often seem to reach bizarre conclusions on the kind of scene which in their view "eroticises" sexual violence and therefore has to be cut lest it affect the impressionable.  In theory this is a worthy system, and clearly there's a responsibility on film-makers to treat scenes of rape differently to how they would mere violence, but where's the line drawn when a film instead skirts around the edges of both?

I ask this having watched last night's episode of The Fall on BBC2.  Where the episode last week introduced us to the characters of Stella Gibson, played by Gillian Anderson (the main reason I tuned in, I have to admit) and Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), the chief investigating officer and the killer respectively, and also led inexorably to Spector murdering Sarah Kay (Laura Donnelly), the woman he had been stalking, this week's opened with an around 8-minute long sequence cutting between Spector meticulously cleaning and then posing the body of his victim, and Gibson having meaningless sex with the officer she propositioned last week.  If those switching between channels may well have been slightly surprised at a man carrying the naked, clearly lifeless body of a woman between a bath and bed so soon after the watershed, then I have to say I felt distinctly uneasy as well.  Not because there were any taboos being broken, or that the juxtaposition was unwise, more at the length and the distinct feel of reality involved.

Most certainly, I've watched films that are either more graphic or downright nasty in the way in which they depict the work of serial killers or abductors.  H6: Diary of a Serial Killer and Lucker the Necrophagus come to mind, the former being a far superior film in every way to the latter, yet neither caused me to actually pause and wonder whether someone could possibly be influenced or informed by what was depicted.  Even closer to the knuckle is the sub-genre of exploitation films that have attempted to portray the lives of real serial killers, Bundy and the Hillside Strangler being prominent examples, both of which are utterly tasteless, even if not utterly without merit.

Perhaps closer to the disquiet I felt was some of the worry that surrounded Irreversible when it was released a decade ago.  The controversy surrounded not the rape itself, which compared to some others isn't particularly graphic, but the violence that accompanies it, the sheer length of the scene, which goes on for an excruciating 9 minutes and consists of a single take, and that a penis was digitally added to the finish. The film's defenders argued that as well as being realistic, in that it accurately depicted the brutality of a stranger rape where the act is seldom over quickly, there was also no ambiguity: no one could possibly find it arousing. While it certainly doesn't eroticise the rape, the length still seems problematic: movies often make killing another human look far easier than it is in actuality, with a few notable exceptions. The Passion of the Christ is one such, and is one of the most wretched films in recent memory as a result. Irreversible isn't a terrible film by any stretch of the imagination, but it's also one that's impossible to actively like or recommend.

Which is much the same as I feel about The Fall so far. It's a cold and clinical production, the soundtrack is either lo-fi or silent, and the camera work is unorthodox, all things I admire in any work, yet the lingering on the victims, without being gratuitous, still seems a step beyond what's truly necessary to establish the calculation and perversion of this otherwise seemingly normal family man.  It also seems more than just a little clichéd that a drama set in Belfast that is otherwise so tightly scripted has to involve the continuing stand-off between the police and paramilitaries as a sub-plot.  That could yet turn out to be integral to the main plot, and with three episodes to go, there's plenty of time to make such criticisms seem short sighted.  Much like me in general. 

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Tuesday, October 30, 2012 

Are you a fucking horse?

The Thick of It has come to what seems likely to be the end.  For an ostensibly political comedy, its influence is difficult to overstate: it went in four series from satirising New Labour's spin machine to err, providing lines for the now in opposition Labour party to use against the government.  In Malcolm Tucker Armando Iannucci, the other writers, and of course Peter Capaldi have created one of most terrifyingly brutal and yet still likeable characters in recent sitcom history, a man who doesn't so much wield the power he has as use it to cosh everyone who screws up around him, which happens to be everyone.  In the hour-long special Rise of the Nutters, when Ollie somehow finds it within himself to accuse Malcolm of bullying, Tucker is insulted: "I am so much worse than that".

Tucker isn't just Alastair Campbell, just as the Tory spin doctor Stewart Pearson introduced in the specials isn't just Steve Hilton (although clearly, "The Fucker" is Andy Coulson).  Iannucci maintains he based him not wholly on Campbell as much as Hollywood agents and producers, but what he's come to symbolise and be is the political dark arts, the plotting, the sniping, the manoeuvring, the smearing, the treachery, the threatening and the double dealing which we've now come to associate with media management.  The Thick of It's success is that it took all these things, and managed to make them flesh.  Tucker is, as he's variously described throughout the series, a force of nature, a "bad Gandalf".  He seems to appear out of nowhere, and then as soon as he does he's gone, leaving little trace.  Moreover, he's a survivor of negative media coverage, plots by rival spinners and of eventual electoral defeat.  He's only finally brought low by doing things that are arguably in the public interest: bringing down a useless leader of his party while leaking information about a vulnerable man who's being treated appallingly by the government.

Just as remarkable is that The Thick of It isn't a cynical show, or at least isn't about politics itself.  In an age where the refrain often heard "is they're all the same", The Thick of It always presented the actual politicians not necessarily in a good light but almost never in a wholly bad one.  Chris Langham's wonderful performance as Hugh Abbott showcased a minister who's out of his depth, incompetent, false and desperate to cling on to his job, but also as demonstrably human.  He hates that he has to push through policies which he personally disagrees with but does it anyway, has almost no family life due to the long hours that leave him perpetually tired, and at one point even asks Malcolm if he gets lonely, only for both men to step back from admitting and talking about their problems.  The episode where Abbott is forced to give up the London flat that gives him a small amount of respite came before the expenses scandal, but touched upon whether while dismissing our representatives, we also expect too much of them, as does the episode where Nicola Murray is forced by Tucker into deciding whether her husband leaves his job in PFI or her daughter goes to a comprehensive instead of an independent school.

Indeed, arguably the only politicians to be presented as truly irredeemable are Fergus, Peter Mannion's Liberal Democrat junior minister at DoSAC (he's making me hate politicians and I am one, remarks Mannion when Fergus emotes for the cameras after the death of Mr Tickell) and Dan Miller, the horribly slimy, charmless Labour minister who eventually manages to become leader.  That Miller is also the most obviously electable politician on the show is a highly satirical comment on who we seem to keep electing: those who aspire for power or who believe they were born to rule when both qualities ought to rule those very individuals out.

In fact, with the notable exception of the spinners and special advisers other than Tucker, the rest of the cast also fit the "flawed but sympathetic and likeable" trait.  Chief civil servant Terri is hopeless, obtuse and hates her job but does her best while everyone insults her; her assistant Robyn provides additional comic relief; Glenn's the human sponge who realises he's wasted the majority of his life working for and with backstabbing bastards; and Angela Heaney is the journalist repeatedly caught in the middle of the spin storm.

Where the show's ire is squarely aimed is at the careerist young advisers from both sides of the political spectrum.  Ollie is as morally bankrupt as Terri describes him when asked by Nicola, and also dangerously unreliable, typified by when he screwed over Glenn to get in Malcolm's good books.  He effectively defenestrates his party's leader twice, on both occasions at the bidding of Tucker, for the reason that he one day wants to be him.  Mannion's junior SpAd Phil Smith meanwhile is the archetypal Tory child of the 80s, a nerd who could only possibly fit in amongst the weirdos and obsessives in politics, whereas Emma is an "insipid rich bitch" interested only in herself and her career trajectory, sucking up to anyone who she thinks might help her along the way.  These people aren't in politics to help anyone, or make life better in general, nor are they there because they believe in anything beyond an outline; it's just another job, or what seemed like the obvious thing to do after getting a PPE degree from Oxford.

It does in the end though all come back to Tucker.  As he puts it in his monologue at the end of the hour long inquiry special, this is a political class which has given up on morality for the sake of popularity at all costs, and he's the one tasked with achieving it, regardless of how.  The Thick of It says the blame for having reached this situation should be spread around liberally: with the fickle, cynical public, who often are as Mannion once referred to them, "fucking horrible", the media, for whom a crisis must always also be a drama and who allow no respite, and the politicians who can't do anything without a focus group or the advice of someone who's never had a real job in their life.  As for those who sit in judgement, they themselves had to bend the rules to get into that lofty position.  All are guilty, but all are human.

Which is why the show worked.  You might not believe they could all be as imaginatively sweary, but you can believe all these characters are reflections of real, flawed people with real, flawed ideas, all trying to stay on a ride that none of them truly enjoy, but who do it because they don't know anything else.

And I haven't even mentioned Jamie.

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Thursday, December 01, 2011 

Personally, I think everyone who complains should be shot.

Jeremy Clarkson must be thoroughly pissed off tonight. While there's probably no change there then, he really has been hung out to dry by the BBC over his appearance yesterday on the One Show. Shorn completely context, as even the BBC were originally providing it as, his apparent statement that all those on strike should not just be shot, but in front of their families does seem outrageous. If you watch just the clip of him saying that, then while it's clear he doesn't really mean it, it's still enough to offend.

Read the full transcript the BBC finally got around to releasing at the same time as Clarkson apologised this evening, and it ought to be obvious even to our modern day Mary Whitehouses that he was mocking the BBC's standard impartiality policy of getting two people with completely opposing views to debate a subject. He even mocks himself slightly, with his reference to feeling at home in the 1970s before he then goes on to provide his own "balance". As he says once Matt Baker and Alex Jones have attempted to add to the gag and failed, they're not his views, they are "two views".

From this, helped along by Twitter and what the BBC have described as an orchestrated campaign, we've had a mini-repeat of Sachsgate, that incredible worldwide incident where a comedian and presenter went slightly too far with a joke and the Daily Mail nearly exploded. Just as that was political and seized upon by those who should have known better, so now we've got those who've always disliked Clarkson and want to score points against David Cameron making an unholy stink. Even taken out of the crucial context demands for his sacking were ridiculous; now they look and indeed are downright ignorant.

It's also been wholly self-defeating on the part of Dave Prentis, the head of Unison: by most measures yesterday's strikes were highly successful in gaining public support. Instead of discussing the madness of the government's austerity plans, we've been talking about something entirely inconsequential. No change there then either.

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Tuesday, August 02, 2011 

TV review: Bodysnatchers of New York.

Michael Mastromarino would describe himself as a "quadruple A personality that's driven". Not many individuals currently serving a sentence of between 18 and 54 years in prison would talk about themselves in such terms, and it's also doubtful that should they essentially have an entire documentary dedicated to their crime they would deliver the line to camera while smiling.

It's also the essential problem with Bodysnatchers of New York, the More 4 documentary (first shown last October, so I'm only slightly belated with this, even if it was repeated last week) on Mastromarino's Biomedical Tissue Services company and its illegal harvesting of the skin and bone of the dead that it focuses to excess on the central figure, letting those involved tell the story and in effect lay all the blame at his feet, giving only very fleeting consideration to those who meant to be regulating Mastromarino's work as well as the companies that were paying for him to cut up cadavers.

The central conceit of letting the various interested parties tell their side of story most egregiously fails in that we fail to learn much about what led Mastromarino to set-up BTS in the first place. All he tells us is that while working as dental surgeon, having had at one point a string of practices across New York, including on Madison Avenue, he started to use Demerol to self-medicate his bad back. The full truth is rather more alarming: he fell asleep while performing surgery and was also found in the bathroom with a syringe in his hand and blood on the floor having already put a patient under general anaesthetic. He was forced to surrender his licence to practise dentistry after he left Ana Ortiz with a permanent "left-facial droop". He was then also arrested for being "under the influence of a controlled dangerous substance", charges which his lawyer Mario Gallucci managed to get dropped.

Knowing that last part would somewhat undermined Mario Gallucci's own appearance, who throughout, not always convincingly portrays himself as just another person misled and lied to by Mastromarino. It would also shine a light on the US Food and Drug Administration, whose extensive three-day course was all Mastromarino had to go on to set himself up as the owner of a tissue bank, his previous unfortunate failings as a dentist not a consideration.

The format does, it must be said, work incredibly well when there's a straight-forward tale to be told: Josh Hanshaft, the district attorney whose initial digging exposed Mastromarino's racket, drives the narrative forward, while the quiet dignity of Dayna Ryan, who had her spine fused with bone harvested from BTS and almost certainly contracted Hepatitis B from it, and Anthony Dumaine, whose father's bones were stolen, is incredibly affecting.

The overall effect though is to deliver an hour-long kicking to Mastromarino, who although still in denial and clearly unrepentant for his actions, continuing to justify them on the grounds that he was only giving people what they wanted and that through the sterilisation methods there was no chance of disease being passed on, doesn't really deserve further vilification. The documentary is far more relenting on Mastromarino's main accomplice, Lee Cruceta, who carried out much of the harvesting. This admittedly is a natural response when Cruceta's appearance gives the impression of a man whose conscience is weighing him down, the heavy bags under his eyes saying almost as much as his sentences, yet he went along with Mastromarino and didn't let the small things like how the tissue was meant to be harvested within 24 hours of death stop him from cutting the bodies up days later, and at least once sewed back up with a surgical glove left inside.

Completely left out of proceedings, one suspects in case legal action was threatened and not just because it wouldn't have fit within the first-person format, is any real comment from the companies whom Mastromarino was supplying. Even though they were tricked into taking the illegally harvested tissue with forged documents, and the samples supplied for pre-testing were swapped with healthy blood, it seems they never did a second test once the actual extracted tissue had arrived, nor did they double check the consent forms. They also didn't query how in such a short space of time Mastromarino managed to supply such quantities of what they wanted, when overwhelming numbers of next of kin normally refuse any such harvesting. Mastromarino's contracts with companies like Regeneration Technologies, Incorporated, still proudly trading and boasting on its site of a "proven record of safety", barely get a mention. The programme ends by fingering greed as the main underlying factor, and while difficult to argue with, it's only Alistair Cooke's daughter, Susan Kittredge, her father the most famous victim of BTS, who points out that "Mastromarino, crook and scum though he is, is a cog in the wheel". Bodysnatchers of New York suggests the opposite.

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