American vs British Women
Tuesday 11th December 2007
There’s an amusing article in today’s Times by Tad Safran about the poor personal grooming habits of British women. I wrote a piece for the Standard in 2002 about the shortcomings of American women that works as a sort of riposte.


Teaser for How to Lose Friends on YouTube
Monday 10th December 2007


Why Do British Comedies Get Bad Reviews?
Saturday 1st December 2007

I recently had lunch with the writer of a British comedy that had just opened in cinemas. He had spent the past 24 hours pouring over the reviews — and the expression on his face was one of wounded bewilderment.

“Why did they hate it so much?” he asked. “I simply don’t understand.”

This was no isolated incident. British film critics are more hostile to home grown comedies than they are to any other genre. To take a few recent examples, Sixty Six, Driving Lessons, Confetti, Starter For Ten, Scenes of a Sexual Nature, Mr Bean’s Holiday, Magicians , I Want Candy, Run Fat Boy Run, Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution and Death at a Funeral have all been poorly reviewed. Some of these films, such as Mr Bean’s Holiday, have had large enough P & A budgets to survive this onslaught, but the majority have not. In effect, the critics have succeeded in killing them stone dead.

The obvious explanation is that the films in question aren’t any good — but that simply isn’t true. Some have deserved the mauling they received — perhaps even most — but certainly not all. Death at a Funeral, for instance, is a well-crafted, Ayckbournesque farce that has won two international awards, yet it was universally panned on its home turf. One reviewer even described it as “the most ineptly-written film of the year”. The critics have a bias against British comedies that not even this little gem could overcome.

Why should this be? One theory is that the critics watch most of the films they review in small, half-empty screening theatres at 10.30AM — hardly the sort of circumstances likely to provoke gales of hysterical laughter. Yet this doesn’t account for why they are particularly hostile to British comedies. Why not all comedies? In my experience — and I’ve been reviewing films on and off for 21 years — American comedies are much more likely to be judged on their merits.

A more convincing explanation, I think, is that many of the critics are themselves frustrated comedy writers. In their heart of hearts, they would much prefer to be writing comic films than reviewing them — as is evident from their attempt to shoehorn gags into their copy at every opportunity. The reason they hold homegrown comedies to such a high standard is to justify their choice of career. If comedy writing was any easier, they would have no excuse for not pursuing their dreams, but because it is so hard — as they prove week after week by mercilessly laying into the local talent — they convince themselves that they are just being prudent. “Where fools rush in,” they tell themselves, as the bile pours from their pens.

In some cases, the vitriol is well-deserved, but in others it is not — and the pity is that many British comedies that deserve to find an audience end up sinking without a trace.


A Defense of Reality Television
Sunday 25th November 2007

The popularity of reality shows is often cited as evidence that British television is “dumbing down”. Typically, a highbrow critic will contrast Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation with I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here to illustrate just how far we have fallen. Lord Reith, we are told, would be spinning in his grave.

Two things can be said against this.

First, the “golden age” of broadcasting, which the BBC is believed to have embodied once upon a time, never existed. In the 1930s, when the Beeb consisted of a single radio station, it was routinely lambasted for broadcasting more light music, comedy and vaudeville than any other radio station in Europe. Indeed, Reith himself was often singled out by these critics who believed that his commitment to creating an inclusive, accessible, national broadcasting system would inevitably lead to the debasement of British culture.

Secondly, most reality shows aren’t nearly as “dumb” as they look. On the contrary, they embody the principles of classical drama as set out by Aristotle in The Poetics. In the case of I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here, a group of people are jolted out of their complacent existence, they are then forced to undergo a series of “trials” in which they’re pitted against the forces of nature and, while most succumb to the fates, some manage to wrest control of their destiny. The winner of I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here is nearly always the person who combines strength, stamina and fortitude with a willingness to sacrifice their own interests to those of the group. In other words, a typical Greek hero.

To my mind, the question isn’t why popular entertainment has “dumbed down”, but why the public has lost faith in more conventional forms of storytelling. Why do we now look to the factual entertainment departments of national broadcasters to deliver the deep satisfaction that a well-constructed narrative can provide, rather than the drama departments? Audiences of reality shows are often criticised for being too credulous — don’t they realise it is no more “real” than a soap opera? — but the interesting question is why those same audiences are no longer willing to suspend disbelief when it comes to scripted drama?

No doubt contemporary novelists and playwrights would claim that the declining interest in their work is, in itself, a form of “dumbing down”. But they only have themselves to blame. The practitioners of high culture in this country took a disastrous wrong-turning when they embraced modernism at the beginning of the last century. This involved abandoning the universal principles on which all great narratives are based in favour of turgid little exercises in formal experimentation. The result has been a vacuum at the heart of our culture that the producers of reality shows are more than happy to fill.


Hollywood’s Two Cultures
Sunday 18th November 2007

In 1959, C. P. Snow delivered a lecture called ‘The Two Cultures’ in which he lamented the fact that educated people in modern society were divided into two camps: those with a background in the sciences and those with a background in the humanities. Reading between the lines, it was clear that he thought the former were more intelligent than the latter.

This same division exists in Hollywood where, if anything, the intellectual gulf between the “two cultures” is even more pronounced. In the past 50 years, the science and technology of filmmaking has advanced in leaps and bounds and has now reached a point where literally anything dreamt up by a person’s imagination can be reproduced on screen. The more “artistic” aspects of the profession, by contrast, have hardly changed — and when it comes to the most important “creative” component of all, namely, the script, we’re actually worse off now than we were in the 1930s.

A case in point is Beowulf, the new film by Robert Zemeckis. From a purely technical point of view, *Beowulf* is breathtaking. It utilises the “motion capture” technique that Zemeckis and his team of computer nerds pioneered in his previous film, The Polar Express, and combines it with the very latest 3-D technology to create an entirely new cinematic experience. It is hard to know how to categorize it, since, to look at, it sits somewhere between digital animation and live action, but you’re left in no doubt that this is where the future lies. Indeed, some of the special effects are so dazzling you get an inkling of what it must have been like for an audience that grew up in the silent era to watch a “talkie” for the very first time.

As a piece of writing, however, Beowulf is woeful. “Just don’t take any class where you have to read Beowulf,” Woody Allen said to Diane Keaton in Annie Hall — and the same applies to students on screenwriting courses. A joint effort by Neil Gaman and Roger Avary, Beowulf reduces the epic poem about a Norse legend to a finger-wagging parable about the risks of infidelity. They even make the elementary mistake of not providing the hero with a fatal weakness — he’s Superman without the Kryptonite. The fact that he’s completely invulnerable means that there’s no suspense when he takes on a succession of demons and monsters. Gaman and Avary achieve something I would not have thought possible: they make a fight between a lone warrior and a fire-breathing dragon seem boring.

The Hollywood writers’ union is currently out on strike, aggrieved that they aren’t receiving their due when it comes to dividing up the spoils generated by New Media. But if Beowulf is anything to go by, it is the techies who work behind-the-scenes that should be paid more, not the screenwriters.

Leave a Reply