Death at a Funeral
Sunday 28th October 2007
The traditional British farce hasn’t been doing very well lately. The Whitehall Theatre has been re-invented as Trafalgar Studios, Alan Ayckbourn hasn’t had a new play in the West End since 2001 and Ray Cooney doesn’t even get a mention in State of the Nation, Michael Billington’s recent history of British theatre. Is the bedroom door about to slam for the last time on this well-loved comic form?
I’m happy to report that the answer is no — at least, not yet. Next week sees the release of Death at a Funeral, a dazzling example of the genre directed by Frank Oz and written by Dean Craig. Set in a country house, the film unfolds over the course of a single day in which an extended family gather to attend the funeral of the clan’s patriarch. The tone is set in the opening scene when the undertakers turn up with the wrong corpse and it isn’t long before a combination of hallucinogenic drugs, a wheelchair-bound uncle and a homosexual dwarf are threatening to derail the proceedings.
The reason it works so well is that Craig, a 33-year-old British screenwriter, has managed to retain the essential components of the form while jettisoning some of its more out-dated aspects. For instance, at no point are any of the male characters discovered with their trousers round their ankles and there are no cases of mistaken identity. The problem with most farces, in my experience, is that they require too great a suspension of disbelief. Events unfold — and people behave — in a way that stretches an audience’s credulity to breaking point. That doesn’t matter if you’re a member of that generation who grew up with the genre — you’ll be willing to accept its bizarre conventions — but modern audiences tend to baulk at just how implausible the farcical universe is.
Fortunately, Dean Craig has injected a much-needed dose of realism into the genre. There’s nothing too theatrical or over-the-top in Death at a Funeral; the big comic set-pieces seem to emerge, organically, from the situation. Far from being comic stereotypes, the characters are people we are familiar with from our own lives and they behave in recognisable ways. In this regard, Craig and his director are helped considerably by an extremely talented British cast, particularly Matthew Macfadyen as the put-upon male lead, Andy Nyman as his hypochondriac cousin and Daisy Donavan as the closest thing Death at a Funeral has to a sexpot.
It is particularly heart-warming to see a British farce work so well on the big screen. In recent years, the most successful celluloid farces have all been the work of a Frenchman named Francis Verber, the writer and director of La Doublure, Le Placard and Le Diner de cons. In Dean Craig — who has already directed two shorts and is about to direct his first feature — we could have found the British equivalent.
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Abigail’s 30th Birthday Party
Saturday 20th October 2007
Next week sees the 30th anniversary of a significant cultural event in Britain’s post-war history: the television broadcast of Abigail’s Party. At the time, the BBC had little idea of just how iconic this one-off comedy would turn out to be. It was running as a stage play at the Hampstead Theatre and, rather than commission Mike Leigh to adapt it for television, Margaret Matheson, the producer of Play For Today, decided to transplant the stage production into a television studio and shoot it over four days. The production values were low — Leigh says he can’t watch it without wincing with pain — but Matheson succeeded in capturing lightening in a bottle. In the list of 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, Abigail’s Party was ranked number 11.
Why should this 90-minute play have become such a classic? Well, for one thing, the comedy is played out against the backdrop of the English class system and that is a feature of British life that hasn’t changed much in the last 30 years ago. The central character, Beverly, is still a recognizable national stereotype: the petit bourgeois social climber whose constant stream of snobbish remarks inadvertently reveals his or her lack of sophistication. There are echoes of Beverly in David Brent, the character played by Ricky Gervais in The Office, and, indeed, Mike Leigh more or less invented the comic genre that The Office falls into: the comedy of embarrassment. (For my 2003 tribute to The Office, click here.)
Then there’s the fact that Abigail’s Party is so controversial. A few days after it was broadcast, Dennis Potter condemned it as “a prolonged jeer, twitching with genuine hatred, about the dreadful suburban tastes of the dreadful lower middle classes” and, to this day, people are bitterly divided as to whether Abigail’s Party is an instance of the snobbery it purports to condemn. Are we being invited to sympathise with Beverly as someone whose life has been blighted by class consciousness — or merely laugh at her because she gets everything so hopelessly wrong? Leigh is adamant that it is the former, claiming that Abigail’s Party “is not a play about them, it’s about us.” Whichever side you come down on, the fact that the reaction to the play is so polarized — and can provide the fuel for endless dinner party discussions — is a guarantor of its longevity.
Finally, there’s something monstrous about Beverly that strikes a chord with people the world over, not merely in Britain. (There’s currently a production of Abigail’s Party running in San Paulo.) She’s the Lady Macbeth of the suburbs, a castrating bitch-goddess of the type that has transfixed audiences since the beginning of theatre itself. In Abigail’s Party, Mike Leigh and his collaborators succeeded in creating a Medea for our times.
*BBC4 is devoting an entire night to Abigail’s Party on October 28.*
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The New York Times Reports on the Making of How to Lose Friends
Sunday 14th October 2007
There’s a piece in today’s New York Times about the film version of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People.
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The Baby Wars
Sunday 14th October 2007
If you don’t have a child under ten, you’re unlikely to appreciate the significance of Gina Ford’s attack on Claire Verity last week. Verity is the 41-year-old “supernanny” who is currently appearing on a Channel 4 series called Bringing Up Baby in which she advocates a return to the Spartan child-rearing philosophy of Truby King. King was a Victorian health reformer who believed it is in a baby’s best interest to be kept on a strict routine when it comes to feeding, sleeping and bowel movements — an attitude that was passionately argued against by Dr Spock, the American pediatrician who advocated a much more flexible approach, including feeding-on-demand.
Ford’s attack came in the form of a letter to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in which she accused Verity of “child abuse” and the reason it was such a surprise is that most people think of Ford as being in the anti-Spock camp. Ford’s main claim to fame is The Contended Little Baby Book, a child-rearing manual based on her own experiences as a maternity nurse in which she argues for a return to routine. The crucial distinction between her and Verity — the reason Ford has “gone nuclear” in the Baby Wars, so to speak — is that Verity believes parents should feed small babies every four hours, whereas Ford believes they should be fed every two or three hours, depending on their size and weight. In addition, while both are passionately opposed to feeding-on-demand, Verity recommends ignoring babies who cry in between feeds, whereas Ford believes in trying to “settle” them.
To those of us with small children, it is not surprising that such infinitesimally small differences should provoke such a ferocious dispute. Among my peers, no topic is more likely to polarize dinner-party conversation than child-rearing techniques. The War in Iraq pales into insignificance by comparison. I imagine that it is now one of those subjects that ambassadors are trained not to bring up at state dinners, alongside religion and politics.
Why should this be so? My theory is that childrearing has become the new battleground in which the ideological disputes that divide Generation X are being fought out. The main fault line is between those who were brought up in liberal households and have reacted by becoming more conservative and those who were brought up in more conventional circumstances and now embrace a hedonistic libertarianism. The former subscribe to the childrearing philosophy of Gina Ford, while the latter adopt a more laissez-faire attitude, often presented as a more “natural” approach. The irony, of course, is that the Fordists are the products of Dr Spock’s teachings — Spock was very popular with liberal parents — while the parents of the Back-to-Nature brigade are more likely to have been influenced by Truby King.
The conclusion would appear to be that no member of my generation wants their children to turn out like them. (For a different take, see this piece by Frank Furedi, the author of Paranoid Parenting.)
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The Muhammad Ali of British Politics
Wednesday 10th October 2007
Has David Cameron rope-a-doped Gordon Brown? “Rope-a-dope” was the phrase coined by Muhammad Ali to describe the strategy he used to achieve his famous victory over George Foreman in the 1974 World Heavyweight Boxing Championship. In essence, it involved lying back against the ropes during the first six rounds of the fight and allowing Foreman to punch himself out before launching a ruthless counter-attack in the eighth round that culminated in a knock-out punch.
There’s certainly a striking similarity between the Rumble in the Jungle and the battle between Brown and Cameron. Foreman was an old-fashioned heavyweight, relying on his punching power and methodical cunning to win his fights, while Ali was much more agile and light on his feet. During the bout, Foreman looked much stronger than Ali in the first five rounds, just as Brown completely dominated Cameron during the first three months of his premiership. By the sixth round, however, Foreman was clearly exhausted and his punches became increasingly wild, just as Brown’s have done in the past 48 hours.
In this context, Cameron’s performance in the House of Commons today was the verbal equivalent of the devastating combination of punches that Ali used to finish off Foreman in the last 20 seconds of the eighth round. Ali preceded his onslaught by taunting Foreman — “Fight hard. I thought you had some punches?” — just as Cameron has urged Brown to call a General Election. Then, Ali unleashed his barrage. Here is Norman Mailer’s description of it in *The Fight*:
Now Ali struck him a combination of punches fast as the punches of the first round, but harder and more consecutive, three capital rights in a row struck Foreman, then a left, and for an instant on Foreman’s face appeared the knowledge that he was in danger and must start to look to his last protection. His opponent was attacking, and there were no ropes behind the opponent. What a dislocation: the axes of his existence were reversed! He was the man on the ropes! Then a big projectile exactly the size of a fist in a glove drove into the middle of Foreman’s mind, the best punch of the startled night, the blow Ali saved for a career. Foreman’s arms flew out to the side like a man with a parachute jumping out of a plane, and in his doubled-over position he tried to wander out to the center of the ring.
Of course, the analogy’s hardly perfect. There was no moment of fatal hesitation on Foreman’s part just before Ali turned the tables on him — on the contrary, he was going after him, hell for leather, from the very beginning — and Brown clearly isn’t about to fall to the canvas. Nevertheless, there are enough similarities for Cameron to have earned the right to be called the Muhammad Ali of British politics, particularly after today’s performance at the dispatch box.