When quizzing was dodgy

On Sunday, Richard Goodwin passed away. He had a distinguished career, partly spent as an advisor and speechwriter in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the 1960s. However, my primary interest in Goodwin centres on his role as a Congressional investigator into the Twenty One quiz show scandal in the 1950s, which was dramatised in the 1994 Robert Redford film Quiz Show. As an erstwhile quizzer of very minor note, obviously it’s a movie I have a particular interest in. However, I’ll go further. Quiz Show is one of my very favourites, a bona fide prestige film. It’s much better than the romantic comedy Starter for 10, notionally based around University Challenge, yet hampered by a paucity of actual quizzing (in fact, the whole movie could have been better had it been reoriented around the Benedict Cumberbatch character, but that’s a whinge for another time). Read More »

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The un-Britishness of Brexit

“Two World Wars and one World Cup, doo-dah, doo-dah”. Did they really mean it? On one level I had always assumed they didn’t. About the World Wars, that is. Even as a child, with limited awareness of the war, it struck me as obtusely solipsistic and historically dubious. But there are often moments when I’ve been left wondering. At the time of writing, the UK government is conducting an intense internal debate about customs union options that are either impractical or delusional, and in any case have been rejected by the European Union. Just as they have previously rejected the cherry picking “three baskets” proposal. That being one of many phrases, along with the likes of “ambitious managed divergence” and “Canada plus plus plus”, that have fallen by the wayside over the last few months. As one observes this farcical nonsense unfolding, an obvious thought is to wonder how it came to this – yes, of course, it is in large measure the dilettante Cameron’s fault. But another thought is to behold how many members of the cabinet, along with the architects of the Leave coup, are so unlike my experiences of the British people over a decade. There just seems to be something fundamentally un-British about this whole Brexit caper.Read More »

Sock! Pow! Biff! Take that, contemporary superhero franchises!

This writer might previously have admitted that he feels somewhat out of step with his time. He has certainly been effusive in his contempt for the contemporary movie franchises clogging up the multiplexes – in its way, a dismal manifestation of rentier capitalism. Perhaps the most significant cultural fault line is that which separates people who take superhero movies seriously, and those who are mystified by popcorn tosh po-facedly masquerading as a window into the human condition. Nowadays we are expected to regard “origin stories” with the utmost seriousness, and to admire the conscientious mapping out and curating of a cinematic universe of characters, even though it saps all the mystery and wonder that make these stories interesting. This mainstreaming of weird, anoraky obsession is almost wholly without merit or charm, but it’s where our popular culture has ended up – an incontinent deluge of essentially interchangeable and quickly forgettable movies, and a concomitant conference circuit of stupendously risible self-importance.Read More »

The meaning of sporting baubles

“Is this important?” is a question I am sometimes asked as I sit down to watch a game of football. It fills me with dread, not simply because it could be interpreted as a coded challenge to my commandeering of the television. It is actually a deeply philosophical question, which induces a kind of agony as I flounder in search of a response. Sometimes the question will come with a qualification. “I meant, is this for something?”, or “Is there something being handed out at the end of this?”. There is a need to know whether this game I want to watch isn’t just part of the same endless football cycle. The answer to whether a match could ever be important is obviously no, however much people approvingly quote Bill Shankly in these matters. The answer to the supposedly more benign version of the question is also no, and sometimes no less of a squirm-inducing experience.Read More »

Roger and me

Private Eye is very good at sending up journalists who write what are ostensibly tributes to recently deceased celebrities, but which are actually self-aggrandising articles about themselves; “The Bowie I knew”, and so on. Recalling my one encounter with Roger Moore, I admit I couldn’t help appropriating the title of Michael Moore’s breakthrough film. However, I largely do so to confess I didn’t really excel myself in that moment, which came during a date in a speaking tour by Roger Moore when he visited the Cambridge Union. I wanted to ask him something, but I was struggling for a good question of my own. In the end, I asked him almost the same question that Alan Partridge once asked him but couldn’t get an answer to – who would win a hypothetical fight between James Bond and The Saint? Moore took a moment to consider the question, then turned towards me with eyebrow raised archly (naturally) and replied, “It would depend on who was playing Bond”.Read More »

Going La La over … what?

How much should a film be commended for being what it’s not? It’s the first thought I experienced after walking out of the cinema last weekend, as I tried to comprehend the love that’s been directed towards La La Land over the last few months. There were too many nods to Gene Kelly and other instances of familiarity and outright déjà vu for it to be regarded as something ground breaking, but it has one characteristic that prevented me feeling hostile towards it. It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact moment when ironic in-jokiness for its own sake became venerated, even if substance was otherwise absent, and La La Land is refreshingly lacking in the gruesome, artless knowingness that afflicts so many movies of the last few decades.Read More »

Culture stasis

This blog had not intended to go into hiatus for two months, but life intervened in various ways that left me with neither the time nor the energy to offer any commentary about the world around me. Since then, the United States ignored my warning to ignore the siren call of Donald Trump, Brexit head bangers seem ever more poised to visit chaos and long term decline on the UK, and another swathe of great entertainers have gone to their reward (of these, the career of George Michael has some relevance to what I will subsequently write). And now we are in 2017, which seems the scary sort of number some of us partly imagined, and partly hoped, would never come around. It is the year of the setting of The Running Man, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger tries to survive a sadistic game show, two years after the setting of Back to the Future Part II, in which self-lacing technology for shoes and hoverboards are commonplace, and already twenty years beyond the setting of Escape from New York, in which Manhattan is depicted as a giant maximum security prison. Read More »

Sequels, prequels, remakes, and the most contemptible of them all … reboots

This blog was originally intended to be a tribute to the great comic actor Gene Wilder, who passed away at the end of August. Obviously that would not be such a timely post now, and instead I will largely focus on something else. However, I will say a few things about this legendary figure, as one of Wilder’s most famous roles provides a useful starting point for my latest little tirade. For many people, especially those who first saw Wilder on screen as children, he will forever be synonymous with Willy Wonka. The film can be enjoyed superficially, but it is worthwhile to salute the subtle genius of Wilder’s portrayal, which on one level might be said to be all of a piece with the decency he projected as an actor. If you break down what he does physically, and analyse instantaneous moments, there is almost nothing especially zany or affected about anything he does with the role. There is no cynically overt attempt to chew the scenery and grab attention from the other actors. And yet the overall effect is mesmeric and disorienting.Read More »

My night with the Berlin Philharmonic

I have not made any forays into high culture since beginning this blog, as the mission statement indicated I would. Cries of “fraud” and “charlatan” I have not yet heard, in truth, but it does feel that I haven’t honoured the mandate I awarded myself when I started out. Up to now, I’ve felt a bit reluctant to offer opinions on the refined, the recherché, and the avant garde. How initiated does one need to be to dare express thoughts on art that doesn’t make compromises? In this post, I’m not going to pose as a critic, but I will write about the experience of being in an audience for a concert that took place a few months ago.Read More »

The incomparable distinction of The Greatest

It has frequently been remarked that 2016 is a year of living dangerously for celebrities. One had expected that to be invoked again following the death of Muhammad Ali last weekend, but this writer hasn’t encountered any such talk. It’s as if Ali is in a category of his own, or hors catégorie, as the mightiest mountain passes in the Tour de France are nowadays defined. It’s perhaps apt to describe such a transcendent figure thus. Yesterday he was laid to rest in Louisville, and, given how much he suffered throughout his mental and physical decline after retirement – or perhaps it would be more apt to trace his degeneration to that brutal contest with Joe Frazier in Manila in 1975 – one is tempted to regard his passing as a mercy or release. But any questioning of the extent to which one should feel sorrow is mitigated by knowledge of the absence of regret from Ali himself throughout his struggle with Parkinson’s disease. Of course it’s a time to be sad for this 20th century titan.Read More »