Orson Welles

Orson Welles – director, writer, rebel, maverick, star – was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 1915 to a sickly concert pianist and an alcoholic inventor, and introduced himself to America by causing mass panic. As Welles recited his War of the Worlds radio play on October 30, 1938, legend has it that his threatening, sonorous baritone sent Americans running for the hills screaming of Martian invasion. Overnight, he was catapulted to stardom.

Welles was a genius, and no one believed it more than he did. At the age of 10 he ran away from home and was found a week later singing for money on a street corner. In his teens, he marched into a theatre in Ireland and introduced himself as a Broadway star, convincing the stage manager to cast him as the lead in their next play. Welles only ever worked on terms that were defiantly his own, and he left every competitor trailing in his slipstream.

To be described as an auteur – a director with enough stature to command total and absolute control – is the highest accolade one can pay to a filmmaker. Welles filled every frame of his films with his personality. Critic Andrew Sarris called Citizen Kane, which Welles wrote, directed and starred in, ‘the work that influenced the cinema more profoundly than any American film since The Birth of a Nation.’ At the time of shooting, Welles was 24.

Everyone can recall the sight of Charles Foster Kane riding Rosebud through the snow as his mother negotiates his departure, or the three-minute tracking shot at the start of Touch of Evil as Charlton Heston rides into the US from the Mexico border, a bomb in the trunk of his car. Everyone can recall the indefinable look on Welles’ face as he walks between the mirrors in Xanadu, or when he emerges from the shadows of Vienna in The Third Man.

Working at the height of the studio era, where staid panning, rhythmic cutting and boxy, conservative composition were de rigueur, Welles punctuated his films with nonlinear narratives, heavily-wrought chiaroscuro, wholly unpredictable camera angles, off-the-wall sound techniques borrowed from radio, deep focus lensing that leant a previously unrealised depth of field, and long takes that a modern steady-cam would struggle to accomplish.

To the Hollywood suits, this uninhibited auteurism was as alien as the creatures described in War of the Worlds. Hollywood was, and still is, an industry dominated by formula. Directors were treated with the disdain of hired guns, actors were swapped like pawns and films were shot with the regularity of shift-work.

Orson Welles wanted everything, right now, and his career can be viewed as a case of too much, too soon. In 1941, RKO offered a contract to an untried director that has never been repeated; Welles was given complete artistic control for a two-year shoot. The result, Citizen Kane, may be widely considered the best film ever made, but it’s one that haemorrhaged money.

By the time of Welles’ second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons, in 1942, his right to the final cut was revoked and RKO President George Schaefer, desperate to recoup the cash he’d burned on Kane, was ratcheting up the pressure. Welles insisted on a set constructed like a real house, in which the walls could roll back, be raised or lowered to allow the camera to appear to pass through them in a continuous take. The film went careering over schedule and budget. Welles’ final version stood at 135 minutes and he refused any changes before heading to Brazil to work on another project.

With the director out of the country, RKO slimmed the film by 50 minutes, reordered the scenes, tacked on a happy ending and destroyed the original negatives to free up vault space. The film tanked at the box office and, when Welles returned to the US, he found himself shunned by the major studios.

By the late ’40s, Welles’ reputation in the States was in freefall. He’d embarked on a disastrously expensive stage version of Around the World in 80 Days in 1946, which had to be bailed out by Columbia President Harry Cohn. In exchange, Welles agreed to write, direct, produce and star in a film for free. The result was 1947’s Lady From Shanghai. When Cohn saw the final cut of this abstract murder mystery, he offered $1000 to anyone who could explain the plot.

In 1948, Welles’ Macbeth was heralded as another failure in the US, but was celebrated in Europe. Sensing which way the wind blew, he departed for his European odyssey, starring in Carol Reed’s British noir The Third Man in 1950, casting himself as Othello in 1952, before filming in Italy, Spain, Germany and France for 1955’s Mr Arkadin.

On his return to America, Welles finally returned to form. He reunited many of Kane’s technical team on 1958’s Touch of Evil, finishing the shoot on schedule and within budget. But Universal still demanded re-edits, and when Welles sent them a 58-page list of rejections, the studio responded by cutting another 30 minutes. Welles insisted on being disassociated from the film. It was only 30 years later, after his death, that the film was released as Welles originally intended.

Welles never did come to terms with the hard truisms of the American film machine. He raged, sometimes successfully, often pointlessly, against the moneymen and their entrenched methods. By the end of his life, he possessed an elephant’s graveyard of epic projects that lay in a state of half completion or had been cut to ribbons. They are now nothing more than footnotes in his epitaph.

Welles suffered from the Rosebud syndrome; a true individualist in an industry defined by collaboration. He finally transformed into his own Charles Foster Kane; he died in Hollywood in 1985, estranged and alone, obese and depressed, trapped in his own Xanadu.



Howard Hawks

The golden era of Hollywood is symbolised by a number of household names – Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, John Ford, Ernst Lubitsch, Cecil B. DeMille. When held against these luminaries, Howard Hawks is often denigrated as a studio stooge; productive, but lacking innovation. Versatile, but bereft of a signature voice.

US critic Leonard Maltin labelled Hawks ‘the greatest American director who is not a household name.’ Where some directors experimented to the point of distraction, their modernism compulsive, even obsessive, Hawks’ style was inhibited, overwhelmingly concerned with economy of expression. He doesn’t move the camera unless he has to, and even then it is rarely more than a simple pan. With the exception of Red River, montages are almost unheard of. He rarely strays from the basic interchange of medium shots and close-ups, always letting the basic elements of performance and dialogue determine the flow of his films. He was Hollywood’s greatest reductionist. As he famously said: “A good movie is three great scenes and no bad scenes.”

And yet so much of Howard Hawks’ career was remarkable. How many filmmakers can claim to have directed films for over 50 years? Hawks made eight silent films before his first talkie. El Dorado, considered one of the most iconic westerns, was released alongside Cool Hand Luke, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night and Bonnie and Clyde in 1968.

And yet Hawks shouldn’t be remembered for his longevity, or his consistency. He’s defined by his range. He didn’t just command a wide variety of genres – he shaped and sculpted them with works that have never been surpassed. ‘Far from being hemmed in by genre conventions, Hawks was able to impress upon these genre films his own personal worldview,’ writes the academic David Boxwell. ‘It is essentially comic rather than tragic, existential rather than religious, and irreverent rather than earnestly sentimental.’

With 1946’s The Big Sleep, afforded a re-mastered cinema release on December 31, Howard Hawks made the definitive noir before the term even existed. With Scarface (1932) and Only Angels Have Wings (1931), he made gangster movies when gangsters still ran the cities, as well as introducing the public to actor Paul Muni – the first Irish-American to become a national figurehead. Rio Bravo and Red River began as westerns and grew to become emblems of American identity, establishing John Wayne as ‘the Duke’. Bringing Up Baby set the benchmark for the romantic comedy, pairing Cary Grant with Katharine Hepburn – the most effortlessly anarchic screen duo in the history of Hollywood.

Only Stanley Kubrick – with 2001, Spartacus, Full Metal Jacket and The Shining – can perhaps claim a similar command, and indeed sway, over such distinct genres.

Part of the reason why Hawks failed to gain the recognition he deserved as a director is the power of stars in his film. Kubrick was never an actor’s director – his films were too visionary to kneel to any performer. The only performer Orson Welles allowed to detract from the expanse of his direction was Orson Welles himself.

But Hawks was more of a pragmatist than an egotist. He was naturally conciliatory where Welles and Kubrick were individualists. He worked in the studio era and he learned how to make the studios work for him. The studio system was a constellation of stars, and no one managed a star like Hawks. Grant, Hepburn, Muni and Wayne: each in their own way owes their career to him.

But Hawks closest and most complex screen relationship was with Humphrey Bogart, ranked by the American Film Institute as the greatest male star in the history of Hollywood. Bogart is primarily remembered for his ‘Play it again Sam’ turn in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942). There, he played the straight-up romantic loner, his heart thawing out at regular gradients until that wonderful, warming finale. But Bogart, an unhappily married man to a perennially jealous woman, was a notoriously reserved figure on set. Ingrid Bergman had a reputation for affairs with her leading men, but her relationship with Bogart was professional at best. “I kissed him, but I never knew him,” she later recalled.

If Bogart’s screen time in Casablanca is limited, in The Big Sleep, he dominates every frame.

The Big Sleep was an assault course to direct. For starters, Hawks had to find a way to deal with Raymond Chandler’s subject material, which, quite apart from its provocative sexuality, touched on the taboo subjects of drug abuse, homosexuality and pornography. At the time of release, Time magazine wrote of Hawks’ direction: ‘Even on the chaste screen, Hawks manages to get down a good deal of the glamorous tawdriness of big-city low life, discreetly laced with hints of dope addiction, voyeurism and fornication.’

More than that, Hawks had to find a way to handle Bogart who, this time, was emotionally invested in his co-star Lauren Bacall. They met on the set of an earlier Hawks’ adaptation of the Ernest Hemmingway novel To Have and Have Not (1944). It was Bogart’s first affair with a leading lady. Bacall, young, precocious and knowingly beautiful, tried to manipulate him – and he was happy to let her. But by the time of The Big Sleep two years later, their relationship was under strain. Bogart was still married, and her mischievousness was being replaced with resentment. He was 47; she was 21.

The Big Sleep is famed for its Rubik’s cube ambiguities; it is a film coiled in innuendo and inference in which the murderer is never quite revealed. Bogart, with his creased face, his flinty eyes and his slow drawl, seems to lean against the world at an angle. It was his finest performance, leading Raymond Chandler to comment, “Bogart can be tough without a gun. He has a sense of humour that contains that grating undertone of contempt.” Time wrote: ‘Bogart can get into a minor twitch of the mouth the force of a slug from an automatic.’

But it is the scenes with Bacall that stick. They seem eternally elusive, locked in a silent battle, familiar and yet uncomfortable with each other, crouched in a searing, almost tragic jealousy. Hawks, who was rumoured to have fallen for Bacall himself, knew exactly how to play them off each other. He said of the pair: “Bogie fell in love with the character she played, so she had to keep playing it the rest of her life.”

Unwittingly, he also seemed to be talking about himself. Hawks was a myth-maker around whom stars orbited, the ultimate company man who stood aside from the mores the studios so rigidly adhered to. As David Boxwell writes: ‘He created a body of work that has been accused of ahistorical and adolescent escapism, but Hawks’ fans rejoice in his oeuvre’s remarkable avoidance of Hollywood’s religiosity, bathos, flag-waving and sentimentality.’

Biutiful Review

Biutiful is the latest installment in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ongoing campaign to prove life-is-hard-but-yet-we-are-all-connected.

His previous films Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel were branded ‘the death trilogy,’ and Biutiful is no departure. His humanist brand of filmmaking always has latent conflict at its core; conflict with our past, our bodies, our poverty-induced morality.

Here, his vessel is Javier Bardem’s Uxbal, a gentle, weary man trying to make ends meet in the labyrinthine backstreets of Barcelona. Uxbal has two small children, a bipolar wife and a scumbag of a brother. He tries, vainly, to provide street work for African immigrants facing deportation and is single handedly responsible for the fate of 24 Chinese blackmarket workers. He has no food and a rotting home and is forced to cremate his buried father for a few more Euros. Oh yeah, and he’s terminally ill with cancer.

Quite a lot to deal with for one bloke, but if anyone can shoulder it, Javier Bardem can. Bardem is known to most cinema-goers as the remorseless murderer with the dodgy bowl-cut in No Country For Old Men and Woody Allen’s fantasy avatar in Vicki Cristina Barcelona, but prior to Hollywood he had a long and extensive career as Spain’s leading man, building a rep as an actor with serious character pedigree. He spent most of his time in a wheelchair in Pedro Almodovar’s acclaimed Live Flesh before gaining international recognition playing the rebellious Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls and an impressionable detective in John Malkovich’s The Dancer Upstairs.

As Live Flesh proved, Bardem has never possessed qualms about challenging his sex symbol status. He lost some serious weight for this film and, beyond sporting a ponytail, has to act in scenes when he repeatedly wets himself, urinates blood or, at one point, wears a nappy to show in unflinching detail the worst indignities of a cancer sufferer. He is in virtually every scene, many of them wordless, and carries the whole thing on his back. It is, by any standards, a heavyweight performance.

And thank God it is. Biutiful is Iñárritu’s first film that doesn’t involve his longtime screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga after they suffered a very public falling out. Iñárritu has never possessed subtly, but Arriaga would add intrigue by weaving their films around one tragic event, elusively shifting timeframes and perspectives, and his absence here proves almost terminal. Biutiful has none of these kaleidoscope complexities. Instead, it’sa  painfully linear melodrama that begins to labour with a leaden monotony. The increasingly portentous sense of grandiosity never breaks or alleviates, and Iñárritu is forced to overcompensate. As such, the occasional flashes of brilliance that he is so abundantly capable of – like the opening scene, in which two hands slowly circle and lace, or the moment Uxbal hears his daughter’s heartbeat as he draws her close, or the overhead sequence when police chase street vendors who scatter like startled deer – are swallowed up, suffocated by overwrought overstatement.

The film is dedicated to Iñárritu’s father, and it seems he has become too close to what can justifiably be termed a passion project. We are all allowed our indulgences but, for the sake of cinema everywhere, let us hope he gives Arriaga a call, and gives peace a chance.

The National – High Violet Review

The National are the quietly admired if unfettered alt-rock sons of Brooklyn. After five studio albums, an immediately distinctive sound and a decade together, their new release is inspiring serious anticipation.

High Violet is not a departure, but an arrival. An appeal, a catharsis and an evolution, they have perhaps arrived definitively.

The usual elements are present on opening track Terrible Love – the fastidious rhythms punctuated with unpredictable accents, the warm, small hour keys and thumbing bass, the guitars that seem to shift and swell from murky depths before breaking and crashing with unbridled glory.

As the album begins to move through its gears, it is clearly shaped with a clarity of purpose and production previously unrealised. Added to this are beautifully rendered choral harmonies, used sparingly on Sorrow then looped on Afraid of Everyone. The horns used on England, too, are signs of a band finding their natural voice.

Rarely is a band’s ambience so closely tied to the subject of its lyrics. Matt Berninger’s vocals, crooned in that soft, cavernous baritone, range from poetic to expressionistic to oblique. “Cover me in rag and bones, sympathy” he sings on Sorrow, whilst on the elegiac England he draws us with “You must be somewhere in London/ You must be lovin’ life in the rain.”

But Berninger’s confessions and his band’s tragi-epic melodies are not just personal reductions of angst, more a deep plea to a sense of shared existence. If not immediately placeable, they’re metaphors of genetic empathy.

Although not verifiably a political band, this is an album born of its times. Following on from Boxer’s Fake Empire, the anthem about liberal impotency in the face of neoconservatism which accompanied Obama on his presidential campaign, we are given Afraid of Everyone, which seems to re-imagine the dystopic aftermath of Katrina: “With my kid on my shoulders I try, not to hurt anyone.” On Lemmonworld, he sings of foreign wars: “I gave my heart to the army, the only sentimental thing I can think of.”

Subtly possessed, unfeigned and gradually vivid, The National’s avant-garde envelopments are the antithesis to the layerings of enameled, apathetic cool hallmarked by those other Kings of New York, The Strokes.

High Violet is a baring invitation, an echo of existentialism that is absolutely universal. The National may be awaiting Godot, but they have invited you to sit beside.

Madras – a short story

I reckon I’d been doing the job for a month or so before Jim invited Kate and I over for some food. Just some grub and a couple of jars, he’d said. Nothing fancy. Bring your lass over she can meet Nicol. We lay the boy down ‘bout six, so come over after and we’ll have ourselves a good time. Our Nicol, she makes some lovely puddings. We’d love to have you.

He was like that, old Jim, thought he had to take care of me, show me how it works up here. He’d made a show of taking me down the Cat after my first day, bought me a pint of ale and scratchings and got the landlord to tell me that story. Then he’d jabbered on about that boy of his. George his name was, eighteen months, smile like the sun. He’s the reason I get outta bed in the morning, he kept on saying. I’d stumbled home to Kate drunk as a skunk and smelling of kebab. He was alright, old Jim.

Do you reckon we should take anything round? I’d said to Kate. Dunno she’d said. Bottle of wine, box of chocolates? She wasn’t bothered about going out, she didn’t care. She’d flashed me a look. Why do we need anyone else, she was saying with that look. We’ve got each other, we’ve got this flat in Shalesmoor, we’ve got the car. Why do we need anyone else?

Come here pug-face, I’d said to her. Come give me a cuddle.

But she’d agreed to go, and there we were, Saturday night at seven, driving down Chesterfield Road in the drizzle. You’re buying him Pale Rider? she’d said when we stopped at Swiggies. He’s turning you turning into a Northerner.

Shut it pug-face, I’d said.

Jim was stood outside his house, beaming away. Hello, hello, hello, come in, come in, come in he was saying as we climbed out of the car. He shook my hand before leaning over and planting a kiss on Kate’s cheek. Great to meet you finally, he was saying as he ushered her down the drive. Birmingham Dave’s told us all about you. That’s what the work lads call him-Birmingham Dave. It’s because he’s called Dave and he’s from Birmingham.

Kate cut me a look whilst Jim laughed at himself. I’ll shut up, he said. Come on, come inside.

Nicol love, he shouted, stop cookin’ love, they’re here now.

Kate was doing that thing she did when she’d start trying to tuck some non-existent hairs behind her ear. She was hanging back, waiting for me to take the lead. This was stressing her out. I gave her a squeeze.

Nicol greeted us with flushed cheeks and hot hands. We were having pork chops and mash potato. She hoped that would be ok. We sat round their kitchen table while she bustled about the kitchen and Jim told the story I knew he’d tell. Kate had already heard it, but from me not him.

So, our fat bastard boss is makin’ a nuisance of himself, he said, leaning over the table towards Kate, and your lad ‘ere wanders through the front door ten minutes late. And the boss goes, ‘Ere, you, new lad, where’s tha’ bin? And Dave looks at him like he’s got a screw loose. And he goes, what do you mean?

And the boss goes, I said, where’s tha’ bin? And Dave’s still lookin’ at him like his loopy, so he points to the corner of the office and he says, It’s over their boss, under the desk, where it’s always been.

I shrugged and started to laugh at the story. It’s the accent, I say. Can’t deal with it.  Kate was laughing too. She laughed properly, in that nice way she does, and she let Jim refill her glass and I sat back and thought yeah, this is going well. She’s alright, this is good.

So Nicol sets down plates of food, and we all started eating. This is lovely, Kate said, and it was. And we talked about how we were finding the city and Kate made them laugh by talking about how confusing the word breadcake was.

And then, just as we were finishing off our treacle sponge, Kate dropped her spoon and let out a scream.

What the hell’s wrong? I say.

She points at the patio doors. There’s something in your garden, and it’s looking at me, she said in a high-pitched voice.

I looked across and, sure enough, a big furry thing with pointy ears and big round eyes was stood at the patio doors, watching us eat. Jesus Christ, I said.

Jim twisted around in his seat to see what she was pointing at that.

Oh don’t be scared, he said. That’s Madras. He’s our pet llama. Sorry, should have warned you. He’ll be wanting his tea. Loves treacle sponge.

Come now, Nicol interjected. He’s not a llama. He’s more of an Alpaca.

You have a pet llama? Kate asked, a little strained.

An Alpaca, said Nicol.

Aye well, either way he lives in the garden. He’s as soft as a brush. They’re great with kids so we got him when Nicol had George.

Kate’s mouth was wide open. She wan’t a fan of big hairy things.

You’re joking, I said to Jim.

No no I’m serious, Jim said. George loves him, rides around on him all over. You should hear him giggle when he’s riding around on on Madras.

I didn’t know what to say, neither did Kate, so we sat there and didn’t say anything.

I’ll tell y’what Birm…Dave, Jim said, breaking the silence. Let’s head to the Sheaf and we’ll hitch up Madras and take George down too. No no, I won’t hear another word about it. Nicol, wake the baby, I’m going to fetch him in.

Nicol stood up and hurried upstairs whilst Jim marched over to the patio doors. The llama, seemingly aware of the impending trip, started to do a little jig of excitement.

But what do you we do with…Madras when we get to the pub? Kate asked.

Are you kidding? Jim said with his barrel laugh. He’s the life and soul. He comes to the bar with us and everything, absolutely loves Pale Rider.

Before we knew it, Jim had led the llama into the kitchen, his hooves clip-clopping on the wooden floor. Come and say hello, Jim said to Kate. Kate, her eyes firmly on me, reached out and slowly started to pet the llama. There there, she said, stroking its neck. Haven’t you got lovely fur? she said.

Jim let out another of his rolling laughs and swallowed down the rest of his pint. Hey, tell you what, if you’re really lucky, after the pub, I’ll show you why we call him Madras.

The llama started to nuzzle against Kate. I must warn you though, he said solemnly, he can get a little frisky after one too many.

Kate stopped stroking Madras and started to hide behind me. We are out of our comfort zone, I thought.

Jim starts to bellow up the stairs. Nicol, we’re saddled up, what’re you playin’ at?

We’re comin’, she called back, and we listened, the four of us, as she descended the stairs, talking to her gurgling baby in a singsong voice.

Who wants to ride a llama? Nicol sang. George wants to ride a llama. Yes he does. Yes. He. Does.

Radio Review

This course has subjected me to BBC Radio 3. I need to call ChildLine:
The Essay
BBC Radio 3
11 to 11.15 pm.

AS PART of his continued series The Essay, Hugh Cunningham studies the reasonably modern social preoccupation with the balance between work and leisure time.

Britain, as Cunningham describes, has always been a society orientated around the need for hard work. If those in the 19th century knew how much time and effort we spend debating how to use our leisure time, it would have provoked astonishment. The general consensus was a man perfects himself through hard work, the most noble of things.

The rise of Marxism provided a new strategy. He believed that our ability to apply ourselves to work was what distinguished ourselves from animals but also alienated man from his true nature.

An utopic vision was born by three factory owners called Carlisle, Ruskin and Morris, who are recognised as some of the founding fathers of the labour movement. They believed work could be at once individually fulfilling and socially necessary.

Unfortunately, this has never been realised and, although our working lives can now be characterised as less physical, it can be as monotonous and is accompanied by more pressure.

We have now, Cunningham says, become saturated with the idea of how our work defines our identity and by impinges on our family lives. This, at least, is a sign of progress.

The Ocean- What Lies Beneath
BBC Radio 4
9 – 9.30pm.

Man may have walked on the moon and worked out a way to communicate with each other from every corner of the earth in which we populate so comprehensively, but one aspect of our world remains largely unknown – the ocean.

BBC Radio 4’s programme What Lies Beneath, presented by Gabriel Walker, argued that we may be on the verge of a golden age of discovery as we begin to explore and harvest coral reefs for the dense chemical compounds which its animals naturally produce as a means of survival.

“We have spent centuries exploring the land,” said scientist Leon Sann. “This is the century of the sea.”

In an age where we are faced with increasingly damaging and destructive diseases – AIDS, cancer, superbugs and Alzheimer’s disease – we are ignoring a vast resource of potential answers, an “immeasurable chemical factory.”

Talking about the chemicals secreted from sea anemones found in the coral reef, scientist William Fenickle said: “These are compounds that have evolved over millions of years, and are so much more developed than anything we can possibly hope to make in a lab. It is a nice idea that creatures that are protecting themselves can also be used to protect us.”

The show communicated how excited scientists are by the new information that could be discovered and cures to be developed. The show also voiced concerns that coral reef is already in particular danger from intensive tourism and irresponsible fishing.

“Its exploration for the purpose of exploitation,” said Walker.


From Me to You.

Just wanted to wish seasonal greetings and to send the following out to my friends, all the people that read this and the blogosphere in general.

My ol’ goose of a Mum bought the book for me last Christmas and I read it late at night a few weeks ago. It’s one of my favourite pieces of poetry and deserves to be shared:


So early it’s still almost dark out.

I’m near the window with coffee,

and the usual early morning stuff

that passes for thought.

When I see the boy and his friend

walking up the road

to deliver the newspaper.

They wear caps and sweaters,

and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.

They are so happy

they aren’t saying anything, these boys.

I think if they could, they would take

each other’s arm.

It’s early in the morning,

and they are doing this thing together.

They come on, slowly.

The sky is taking on light,

though the moon still hangs pale over the water.

Such beauty that for a minute

death and ambition, even love,

doesn’t enter into this.

Happiness. It comes on

unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,

any early morning talk about it.


Hope everyone feels a lot of love around them as I write this. Despite being an Agnostic, I thank Christ I do.

History Will Be Kind To Me

The BBC’s treatment of history. 


Edward Sorel. First Encounters: Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill, 1991


I assumed a horizontal position on the sofa the other night with my cat and a bottle of red and hopped the channels before settling on a show called World War Two Behind Closed Doors, a historical documentary about the intricate political wranglings that took place at five minutes to the midnight of the Second World War. 

With its late Sunday evening slot on BBC 2, World War Two Behind Closed Doors is bread and butter for the BBC, the kind of program they’ve been trading off for years. 

The usual criteria are present. Expensive dramatisations of real-life events are intercut with eyewitness interviews and a sombre voiceover. Both accessible and cerebral, investigative and informative. Proper television when ITV are offering Craziest Police Car Chases Ever 6 and Channel 4 have got I’m an Albino Prostitute With a Lizard Fetish and I Feel Picked on at Work.

After a little digging, it appears Behind Closed Doors is a big deal for the BBC. The series marks the departure of Laurence Rees, the BBC’s Creative Head of History and go-to man for documentaries. Over the last 12 years, Rees has been responsible for War of the Century, The Nazis: A Warning From History and Auschwitz. According to this article by Jasper Rees (apparently not a relation):

“It’s not going too far to state that much of what most viewers know about the war, they know because Rees has told them.”

The BBC laud themselves as being the best broadcaster in the world, and they may very well be. But how much are they taking this title, and with it their audience, for granted?

Underneath this veneer of respectability and substance, World War Two Behind Closed Doors is little more than a base character assassination of Josef Stalin. The vast majority of the hour-long program was not about the Second World War, not even really about the thawing of relationships between America and Russia that led to the Cold War. It was about Stalin being a ruthless, bloodthirsty, paranoid bastard, and not an awful lot else. 

Don’t get me wrong. I acknowledge it’s difficult to be even-handed with a guy like Uncle Joe. He was probably all those things and more. But as the program progressed its depiction of Stalin became increasingly Disneyfied.

Stalin as a panto-villain may be a good idea for the next controversial West End show, maybe something Damon Albarn can get involved in, but surely a statutory commitment to objectivity is still the basic foundation from which to build any sort of documentary, be it contemporaneous or historical?

To dismiss Stalin as this mad, power-hungry and bloodthirsty brute shrouded in an Iron Curtain is easy, unchallenging and about as investigative as Spot the Dog. Surely we’re better than this.

I asked my Dad what he thought and he said: 

“This is about as close to historical fact as you are going to get.” 

This may be true, but they were specific facts carefully chosen from the myriad of facts available to someone who wants to make a program such as this. 

Maybe Britain feels it has a privileged position when it comes to interpreting history. We did, after all, win two world wars. As Churchill said: 

“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”

One wonders how history would have been documented if the other side had won or if the Cold War had ignited. Would we now be watching programs by the Soviet Broadcasting Company about how Churchill, a bulbous, bourgeois capitalist, was the first to order the bombing of civilian areas in the war? 

Churchill did, after all, give the order to raze Dresden, the jewel of Europe. He ordered the firebombing of Tokyo knowing that it was mostly made of wood and would go up like a box of matches. He refused to evacuate Coventry after the intelligence services at Bletchley Park had broken the German code. 

Truman was the man who reacted with elation on hearing that the Atom bomb had caused far much more devastation and loss of human life in Hiroshima than indicated by the tests. He was soon working out where the next target would be. 

Tell you what, I’ll write to Laurence Rees with a suggestion for his next series.

Watching the American elections earlier on this year bought it home time and time again; rash, loud, arrogant patriotism is not something that comes naturally to Britain.

This is not to say this country is not patriotic. We are arrogantly patriotic, but in a quiet, knowing, sweep it under the table way. 

Even if we wanted it to, this won’t change so long as we are fed on a diet of historical documentaries that merely reinforces a message; Britain possesses the moral high-ground and everybody else are sly, stooping, unreasonable and underhand. 

Maybe the BBC have a better grasp of history and understand their audience far more intricately than I do. Therefore, they fulfill a far more complex role within our national consciousness than merely the trade of information and entertainment.

And maybe the holy grail of objectivity is just that; a fairy tale, helping us to sleep easy at night.

… is sex with the person I love the most.

A Bout of Self-Analysis.

The following is a bit of a departure from my usual, somewhat serious blogging, but I’ve been told to make Camera Obscura a bit more personal. Not sure whether this is exactly what they had in mind.

It’s a Friday evening and I’ll soon to be going out to get as drunk as a skunk. The difference from any other Friday is that this Friday marks the end of my first term at Cardiff Journalism School. When I rightfully should be in bed or drinking or combining the two, I find myself in front of my laptop. What the hell has this course done to me?

Well, it occured to me on the cycle home that, since getting here, I have had to re-calibrate who I am, or at least who I think I am.

I’d like to say that Cardiff has provided me with an insatiable appetite for hard-work. It hasn’t really. I’m not a perfectionist, I haven’t got much of an eye for detail, I am highly talented in denial,  procrastination, over-indulgence and unrelenting laziness. I can stick my head in the sand with my ass stuck in the air for all to see.

My attention span is roughly as long as my ability to say no to another pint, the ‘do the limit’ mentality that has seen me through my academic career is still very much evident and, despite the feeling that I let myself down a lot, I’m mercifully willing to consistently accept half.

I find it easy to justify my own actions, irregardless of what those actions may be.

When I don’t see the use in doing something, or find something boring, I generally just won’t do it.

If it hasn’t occured to you from reading this, I possess an ego. I’m narcissistic, self-absorbed and pretentious.

They are my weaknesses.

The gap between who I want to be and who I am never seems to widen or narrow. I never feel I’ve got a grip on a subject or can talk about something with a sense of authority. This is both a strength and weakness.

I find it difficult to conform and I hate feeling like I’m jumping through hoops. This is both a strength and a weakness.

I possess an ego. I am narcisstic, self-absorbed and pretentious and I have no difficulty with that. I’m unapologetically who I am. This is a strength and a weakness.

Cardiff has coincided with my first prolonged period of singledom since I was about 17 after coming out of a relationship before I got here. Although I have maybe spent a little bit too much time lying in bed listening to Hurt in Your Heart by John Martyn, I’ve come through with a comfortableness in my own skin. This is a strength.

I now don’t feel I need to be continually reassured. This is a strength.

Simple things have the ability to make me happy. This is a strength.

I’ve continued down a deceptively difficult path with many mistakes and missteps along the way and now I can confidently say, I can make a mean bowl of pasta.

I’m a better footballer than I thought, although I still do a passable impression of a dyslexic Yak on rollerskates.

My Hamsters are still alive, despite being in my soul care since I got here.

When someone or something means something to me, they really mean something to me and when I do care about something, I will really work hard at it.

I can read others well, I tend to know when they need help, and I can provide it.

I have the ability to seek out and form close and trusting relationships with fascinating, strong, funny and warm people. If I’m referring to you (and I hope you know if I am) then thank you.

And, thanks to a certain lovable Scowser with an inferior leather jacket, I have learnt that this is the best piece of live music ever recorded:

That’s right John, keep on lovin’.

Ok, nuf sed. Hunger to communicate bout of intense self-analysis now sated. Time for shower, glad-rags and hedonism.

If I missed anything please comment below or, alternatively, just take me down a peg or two. On re-reading this, I probably need it.


I should probably add, for employers’ sake, I have a reasonably good understanding of libel and defamatory law, I’m getting better at structuring a news-article, I know how to conduct a press conference, and I can turn a phrase. Shame about the shorthand.

And just ignore all the negative stuff, I was delirious.

The End of Paper and Ink

Hangover Revelations

Wet Book and Razor Blade. Flickr Creative Commons

A Saturday morning in November, the Cardiff sky an opaque grey, phone lines swaying with the wind as I forged my away across town. Head bent against the cold, my mind excavating and reforming dross in a poor apology for thought, chewing gum to avoid the acrid, ashtray taste of last night’s small hours, stopping only to avoid the pools of dirty water already perforating my broken shoes. One motivation alone, to take solace in the small comforts of a warm pub, live football, weekend paper, dirty food, idle banter and probably, finally, more beer.

At this moment, as I stalked down Woodville Road with my eyes fixed to the pavement, I experienced a moment that alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity.

Lying beneath my feet was the page of a book ripped from its spine, the jag of the tear intersecting the carefully fonted words. A few steps later lay another, and then another. And then a record, the ringed disc slightly jutting out of its sleeve, the psychedelic, tie-dye cover standing against the mercury of the paving slabs.

I looked up and saw the front garden of a terraced house piled high with what seemed to be hundreds of books and records that had been tossed out of the front door and now lay discarded and useless. I stopped amongst those that had fallen over the wall and now lay on the pavement, and surveyed this small apocalypse. Paper and print and audio-media you can touch lay redundant, casually dismissed. Yesterday’s technology, ink running, pages turning in the wind, beginning to rot in the falling rain.

As I stood absorbing this, the opening horns of Otis Redding’s A Change is Gonna Come began to play on my iPod. I’d compiled the content of my iPod randomly and was playing it on the shuffle setting, so the way this piece of serendipity came together seemed to be almost filmic in its creation, as if someone was watching me.

Originally written by Sam Cooke in 1963 and covered by any number of black artists, A Change is Gonna Come is regarded as synonymous with the civil rights movement. Indeed, it’s arguably a direct influence on Obama’s celebrated rhetoric. But, transcending the song’s socio-political significance, it is a statement about the belief in the reliability of change.

Last week’s lecture from Antony Mayfield, Head of Content and Media at iCrossings, succinctly communicated that we are in the throes of a fundamental revolution, a re-calibration that can be talked of in the same breath as the advent of the printing press and the camera. Mayfield, unlike some of his compatriots, was genuinely optimistic about the future and therefore offered a much broader perspective. A history graduate, he described how senior monks opposed the invention of printing, instead continuing to advocate the laborious process of writing out a book word for word because it provided more time for thought, recollection and investment with the subject.

When I first started this blog I sympathized with those who repelled the new technologies of the day. Now I’m reformed, a true believer. As Michael Rosenblum illustrates, the digitalisation, continued fragmentation and democratisation of our media is so inevitable, so inexorable that to try and suggest or rationalise against it is akin to trying to argue the Earth doesn’t revolve around the Sun or the BNP are a credible vote at the next election.

Regardless, we still have our fair share of illusionists and deniers and sentimentalists trying to tell us we’re on the cusp of a journalistic apocalypse. We’re not. People will still write, still be curious, still care about hard facts and the trade of information as they have done for centuries. We’re now just at the end of one format and the start of a new, wholly different frontier.

Rob Alderson’s blog make the great point that this is a process of creative disruption and within all this uncertainty there is one guiding force; Google. As Mayfield said:

“When Google first appeared, it changed everything. It made the internet work because its basic premise is to always put the user first.”

Therefore, there’s one thing we do know for definite about this new frontier; it will be completely and utterly defined by the collective conscience of the consumer. It has no choice but to be, because that’s what makes Google what it is. Bluddy ‘ell, at this rate we might be able to talk about the media as a genuine public service.

There is another side. The media industry still hasn’t worked out how to make money out of the net and, until this is resolved, this is a problem because unfortunately nothing comes for free.

For all the convenience of Web 2.0, for all its rich potential for journalism, communication and as a tool for information in a democratic hyper-reality, is it giving rise to a something-for-nothing-culture? If so, we could end up with an indiscriminate, sourceless media, obsessed with the next new platform and 24/7, up-to-the-minute breaking news whilst failing to give due notice and attention to credible voices saying significant things. The tabloidisation of our media, revolving around a blogosphere based on inference, agenda and an axe to grind cannot compare to carefully considered analysis, indisputable information and a statutory obligation to objectivity.

The sight of those books so brutally exposed to the elements was both anarchic and forlorn, a sobering illustration of the cold reality of the modern day. Print is now no more than an exercise in nostalgia, a casualty of human innovation.

We are now collectively precipitating on an uncertain, undefined path. If we’re not careful, if we fail to keep in mind the principles that journalism is built on, then this remorseless period of change could be regressive. I, for one, want to prove the illusionists and deniers and sentimentalists wrong.

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