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Papa’s got a brand new blag – Britain’s Favourite Hoaxer reviewed

Wednesday, October 09, 2002

‘Do you think there’s something wrong with us, doing this, like?’ asks Tommy, just before he and his mates blag their way onto the podium at the British Grand Prix, for a spot of Riverdancing.

Nothing wrong at all.  They’re just living a low-budget heartwarming British movie – The Full Monty for the new century.

Channel 4’s documentary, Britain’s Favourite Hoaxer, showed the effort behind Tommy and his mate Karl ‘Fat Neck’ Power’s sporting stunts, from crashing the team photo at Manchester United’s Champions’ League quarter-final last year, to playing tennis on Centre Court at Wimbledon.

In this quaintly British story, Tommy and Karl are unemployed dreamers from a dodgy part of Manchester, who reckon that high-profile blags are their ticket to fame and fortune.

Karl could have been a contender. He was a successful amateur boxer until his career and almost his life were cut short when he was viciously beaten up in a case of mistaken identity (or mistaken hoodies).

Tommy’s the brains behind the operation while Karl does most of the stunts. Tommy’s girlfriend thinks her forty-year-old should get a real job to support his family, but that’s not for him.

He’s a consummate blagger, and we see him casing the joints the day before. In a smart jacket, with a mobile stuck to his ear, he breezes through security checks and always ends up pitchside having scored an ‘access all areas’ laminate. And one for Fat Neck.

The programme followed their five blags, from the Manchester United photo through going out to bat at a Test Match to performing a Maori haka on the pitch at the Italy vs England Six Nations clash.

And there’s a perfect dramatic shape to the adventures. The early success (United), and the one that nearly goes wrong – at the Test Match, Karl was miscued from his hiding place in the toilets when a friend called to see how the blag was going.

On the ferry to Italy, Tommy and Karl imagine themselves living large. They’re the little guys who might just make something of themselves.

But then come the setbacks – Karl bottles it in Rome, and no-one sees the haka. Tommy’s girlfriend leaves him, and we wonder if it’s all over for the lads. But they keep on going and the Wimbledon stunt works perfectly – they only leave the court when they run out of tennis balls, and the security guards politely escort them off the premises without a mention of criminal charges.

Finally, there’s one last job – the biggest challenge yet. Surely there’s no way they could blag their way onto a Formula One podium just minutes before the real trophy presentation? Kommandant Ecclestone will have them shot, or sent to race CART.

It doesn’t look good. The point man’s phone runs out of credit (BMW lent the blaggers a Mini Cooper for their Italian Job, but they could really do with sponsorship from Vodafone), and there are squads of security everywhere. With just seconds to go they find themselves on the wrong side of one last locked gate.

And a helpful guard opens it for them. Triumph. They jig in their racing overalls, and make the papers again. And Tommy gets back with her indoors.

Our heroes aren’t as smart as they think they are, and it’s less than clear how these stunts will really make their fortunes, but there’s no denying that they’ve pulled them off, one way or another. And presumably got Channel 4 to give them money for the documentary. Now if they could just sell the film rights to their unlikely tale. Nice one. Sorted.

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Losing the Ryder Cup

Monday, September 30, 2002

Spare a thought for Steve Ryder, the journeyman sports broadcaster for the BBC.

He’s just spent the last three days covering the Ryder Cup (no relation), without being able to bring us any live coverage, because the Sky Sports schemers had the rights.

Poor Steve, normally enthroned on high above the 18th green, was left standing beside an outside broadcast truck in a car park, anchoring a meagre late night highlights show.

And his audience fared little better. While Philip Price (voted Pontypridd Man of the Year in 1997) was delivering a big blow of the whoop-stick to Phil Mickelson (ranked no. 2 in the world, more than a hundred places above him), golf fans across the UK and Ireland were pacing the room listening to it all on BBC Radio 5 Live.

Radio golf commentary beats radio tennis but is less rewarding than watching snooker on a black and white TV. Whispering summarisers stalk the players up the fairways, but you never feel you’re part of the action.

The crowd tells you the fate of a putt before the commentators can, and majestic drives or masterful chip shots are reduced to a list of distances and club selections.

When things get tense, you want be shown not told – let me see David Duval hiding behind his Oakleys and Sergio Garcia leaping like a loon. Instead we get Alan Green trying to sound knowledgeable and sundry ex-pros joshing with each other.

And the players aren’t even getting paid for this. They normally work on Sundays for a million dollars a time, but just this once they’re playing for pride. So Sky are the only people making any money.

And going to the pub to watch it was not really an option. If a football match is a poem, this competition is a sprawling Victorian novel requiring a three-day commitment to get a sense of all the characters before the drama reaches its unlikely conclusion. Arriving in time to see Paul McGinley go in the lake would be like only reading the last chapter.

So while the unfancied Euros were beating the odds, we were left to imagine it all in less than glorious MentalVision. Our golfers won, but as viewers we’d already lost the Ryder Cup.

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Ray Mears – Practical visionary

Monday, July 22, 2002

Ray Mears is that rare and perfect combination – a practical visionary. When he’s talking you through the challenges of surviving in the world’s wildernesses, you trust his judgement and expertise, but you also warm to his more philosophical side.

I’ve always been disappointed they make astronauts out of fighter pilots and not writers. Sure, you need someone who’s good under pressure and will do as they’re told, but if you’re sending a spaceship off the planet, shouldn’t you have someone on the trip who can explain what it’s like to be doing such an amazing thing? ‘Houston, we have a problem,’ might get the job done, but it’s not exactly deathless prose. It’s like asking footballers how they scored a breathtaking goal – ‘Well, Smodger knocked it over and I just hit it – it either goes into the stands or it goes in.’ Being good at some jobs means being bad at talking about them.

And Ray Mears is definitely good at his job. Send him to the Arizona desert and he’s finding water in no time, send to Siberia and he’ll knock you up a waterproof shelter and have the kettle on while you’re still trying to unfreeze your toes. He can spot a poisonous fungus at thirty paces and watching him make fire is a constantly amazing sight.

His ruddy bulk and boyish face help him in this. He was definitely the kid who built camps and swings in the woods and knew what all the things on his penknife were for.

The hero of the Just William stories meets John Rambo. When he tells you not to leave your vehicle if it breaks down in the desert, you believe him. But there’s a more reflective element to even his most gung-ho TV expeditions. He has huge respect for indigenous people living simple lives in difficult places, and he relies much more on old wisdom than new technology.

There are lessons to be learned from living a life closer to nature, and while Ray’s never going to be a tree-hugger, it’s clear he appreciates the perspective his adventures give him. And in his gruff no-nonsense way, he shares this with us armchair travellers.

The chances are we’ll never need to know how to find food in a tropical swamp or make sure we can light matches when our fingers have got frostbite. But we can still get a lot out of watching Ray show us how.

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Snow Business – How good is Channel 4 News?

Monday, February 18, 2002

The world is going to hell in a handcart, and you’re just sitting there watching. But at least if it’s Channel 4 News you’re watching, you know there’s some hope for us.

Captain Jon Snow and his able lieutenants, Krishnan Guru-Murthy and Kirsty Lang, sail the seas of the early evening schedules in the UK in their nippy destroyer, giving us attitude and accuracy in equal measure.

The programme achieves the difficult task of giving us a round-up of the news of the day at the same time as offering deeper analysis and debate on a range of issues. It’s the best Kirsty Wark grilling from Newsnight combined with Peter Sissons’ straight-ahead Ten O’Clock News style, and it shows Sky News that continous coverage is completely worthless without some joined-up thinking.

With his sharp ties and even sharper mind Jon Snow appears to be less combative than Paxman, but he elegantly fillets sophistic spinners, and asks all the necessary questions. The man who shrugged off a fatwa against him during the Satanic Verses episode is not going to be fazed by a junior minister trying to be economical with the actualit?.

The program’s correspondents are equally trustworthy. Elinor Goodman’s no-nonsense knowledge of the political world is matched only by her quietly stylish clothes.

David Smith, their correspondent in the US, seems daily more disillusioned by life in the capital of the one remaining superpower. As he reports on yet another example of US knavery and small-mindedness, his hangdog expression shows you he’s enduring a long night of the soul to bring you the story.

Providing good basic news and excellent analysis of the big stories would make Channel 4 News reliable viewing on its own, but what really impresses is the way they cover stories that no-one else is reporting.

They have the courage and vision to launch investigations into issues that aren’t currently high on the agenda of the chattering classes. For example, a recent expose showed how US companies were implicated in widespread human rights abuses in China. Prisoners were being forced to work as slave labour in factories, producing goods for the export market. The US importers denied any knowledge of this, but some good honest sleuthing threw up customs documents signed by executives of the US companies, which clearly identified the source of the goods. Gotcha.

This type of story takes a lot of time and money to produce, and it’s a lot easier just to cover the obvious stories that everyone else is running with. Not to labour a point, it’s the sort of thing Sky News should be doing, but their claim to be ‘First with the news’, just means they’re first to report the carefully-controlled press conferences and staged interviews that everyone else has. Deciding to cover a story that no-one else was doing would seem like madness to their editors – there’s a banal safety in numbers.

With the profound changes happening at ITN – the company that produces Channel 4 News, as well as ITV’s woeful news coverage – there’s some doubt over the future of Snow’s good ship. Let’s hope they’re left alone to keep up the great work – may God bless her and all who sail in her.

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Up the War Wall – Sky News’ Afghan war coverage

Wednesday, November 21, 2001

In conducting its attacks on Afghanistan, it can be argued that the Americans have relied too much on flashy technology and not enough on old-fashioned, on the ground intelligence. But they’re not alone – you can level the same charge against the TV channels reporting the war.

It’s a standard American mistake to confuse technological superiority with real superiority, but of course smart bombs are only as smart as the people aiming them. Spending lots of money on kit and then not being able to use it without making a huge mess of things is something that Sky News knows a fair amount about as well.

Sky’s NewsWall, SkyStrator and video stings complete with martial music must make Chris Morris wonder why he bothered at all. Murdoch’s executives obviously watched ‘Brass Eye’ with their notebooks out, muttering ‘Oh, that’s a good idea’.

But behind all this nonsense is a marked lack of joined-up thinking. Some of Sky’s journalists in the field are doing a pretty good job – David Chater, for example – but despite having all the time necessary for some intelligent analysis back in the studio, instead we see the same stories repeated on top of an underlying set of assumptions that are never questioned.

The military analysts they wheel on can discuss the effect of a daisy-cutter bomb, and the designers in the graphics studio can do up a nice graphic of this monster being lumbered out the back of a Hercules on a pallet, but you’ll not see anyone on Sky asking whether it’s a good idea to be dropping such devices in the first place.

The anchors on the shows are so lightweight that it’s no wonder the coverage drifts aimlessly around. While a tape of Osama bin Laden is dismissed as ‘Taliban propaganda’, the clip of a gung-ho George W. that immediately follows is presented as ‘the latest news’, as if it were inherently more reliable.

Like the middle-market tabloids in the UK like The Mail and The Express, Sky News accompanies its selective accounts of events with a limited range of opinions that won’t upset its viewers. Just occasionally a guest will make a more interesting point, and the anchors look aghast before it’s back to Francis for the weather.

Of course it’s my own fault for mistaking quantity for quality. Despite its immediacy, I find it a waste of time watching Sky News, because I only have to check everything they say against a more reliable news source later. Watching what the BBC and Channel 4 can do with a couple of videophones and a commitment to fair-minded broadcasting is a heartening contrast. And when David McWilliams is talking to Noam Chomsky on TV3’s Agenda programme, you begin to see that there is a wider range of opinion about events in Afghanistan than Sky can imagine.

When the BBC’s John Simpson is sifting through the rubbish in an abandonned terrorist training centre, or reporting on the hoof as he follows the Northern Alliance into Kabul, you know he’s asking himself ‘What is really going on here, and why should I believe what I’m told?’. 

Meanwhile, Sky’s James Forlong is on board a US aircraft carrier getting excited over all the cool bits of kit. Chiselled pilot Chuck is telling him, ‘I’m going out on these missions and just doing my job,’. Well at least one of them is.

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Sharp Cards – Late Night Poker reviewed

Monday, November 05, 2001

It’s 1am in the morning. Why would you want to watch complete strangers sitting around a table playing a card game you don’t fully understand? Because ‘Late Night Poker’ is the best game on TV, that’s why.

The premise is brilliantly simple. Stick serious poker players (some gifted amateurs, many hardened professionals) in a studio and record them playing cards. Add engaging expert commentary and the cool feature of being able to see what’s in everyone’s hand (there are cameras under the glass table), and you’re quids in.

Watching it, you’re being given an insight into a shadowy world that would normally be closed to you. The players are a diverse bunch, from Malaysian playboys to Irish builders, from glamorous Austrian women to a guy from Hull called the Devilfish, but they all share a few characteristics.

Firstly, the obligatory poker face. When you know they’ve got nothing in their hand, watch them try and bluff, or even more impressive, watch them feign uncertainty and fear when they’re on a strait. Remember their skills the next time you take your mangled bike to the shop and try a blank, ‘I don’t know what happened. I was just riding along. I’m sure it’s still under warranty.’

Secondly, the players take chances with the air of people who understand more about the world than the rest of us. In poker, you can play perfectly and still lose, and you won’t win anything without luck. In other words, these prodigiously calm risk-takers use their abilities as well as they can, in the full knowledge that it’s not completely down to them what happens. A lesson for us all.

Helping you understand all this is the excellent Jesse May, a commentator with the Technicolor vocabulary of an old Wild West movie. He describes the play as if it’s a bar-room brawl – when the river card is turned over on the table and someone’s just got slammed by a flush, he’s yelling, ‘say goodnight and call me a doctor!’, and after a fine piece of subterfuge sees a player bet big in the mistaken belief that they’ve got the best hand, Jesse reflects, ‘he had him sucked in like a dead dog.’

The play is remarkably dramatic when you consider that it’s just a few chips and some bits of card being passed around. The type of poker they’re playing means that there’s always some uncertainty, and glory or disaster can hinge on the revelation of the last card. 

The immediacy is enhanced by the judicious use of the under-table cameras. We see what one or two players have got, but are left guessing about some of the others. This puts us in the same position as the players, trying to read their opponents, and deciding how far to back their own hand. 

If this all sounds like I know loads about poker, I’m just bluffing, as I’ve never played in my life, and all my knowledge has come from a couple of episodes of the programme. But I’m hooked, and can’t wait for next week to hear Jesse wailing, ‘Here comes the flop, and ohhh, the Devilfish’s two sevens are down in flames, as Anand’s matched his eight with the eight on the table. Two snowmen freeze out the Devilfish!’

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Who should win Big Brother 2?

Wednesday, July 11, 2001

OK, we’re down to six people in ‘Big Brother’, and there can be no doubt who the winner should be; so here’s the order in which I would off them,

In an ideal world, Paul would be the first on my list, but he’s dodged nomination this because his fellow inmates have given up trying to get the public to vote his sorry Teflon-coated ass out of the house. His continued survival is nothing short of astonishing. I’ve heard suggestions of rigged telephone voting and that wouldn’t surprise me since it’s the only waythis self-important, arrogant ignorant homunculus could have beaten Bubble a couple of weeks ago.

Paul’s boast to Amma that he ran the household shows the depths of his foolishness, and his conspiracy theory involving Josh being straight is plain bizarre. Becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of the house can’t be much fun, but he’s brought it on himself. Run him out of town on a rail the first chance you get, but meanwhile send Josh packing.

Josh is funnier and more empathetic than Paul, but he hasn’t contributed a great deal and would be no loss to the group (although he does use a skipping rope in a much more polished fashion than Elizabeth, who skips like she’s eight). He appears to be reasonably controlled and secure, but his sudden gatecrashing of Brian’s head shaving pointed to a need to grab some attention.

On which point, we come to Helen. At first I hated her whining childishness, but I’ve come to be more entertained by her antics, and the nocturnal hand-holding with Paul was great drama. She’s got a heart of gold, but she’s as stupid as a box of rocks – Monday night’s diary room discourse on whether or not time was passing quickly in the house was bewildering in the extreme.  She’s got some sparkle, but not enough to deserve to win, so she’s next after Paul.

That leaves a final three of Brian, Elizabeth and Dean. The next to pack their Samsonite is Brian.  Yes I know he’s Irish and he’s funny and he’s been a real help to some people in the house, but he’s also bitchy and juvenile and shallow. Sometimes he’s all of these things at once, blowing up when Bubble asked him to remove the letters from above his bed.

His best has been pretty good, though – his fake rows with Bubble were much better than his real one, and his jaw-dropping exchange with Helen and Paul this week was priceless.
Brian to Helen: “I think you and Paul would be good together.”
Helen (taking the bait, of course): “Why?”.
Brian: “Because you’re a dirty bitch and I’d say Paul would like that.”

But with Brian, it’s all about Brian.

Whereas for Elizabeth, it’s hardly ever about herself. The Mother Teresa of the household, she’s always looking after the practical stuff, offering sage advice to the kids and not letting this cat herding get to her.

When she had her birthday party I was amazed to discover that she’s only 27.  She and Dean have ended up in the position of parents in this wildly dysfunctional family, and Elizabeth’s outburst to Dean last week was a frustrated mother moaning to her husband over a gin and tonic when the kids have finally gone to bed.

But there can be only one winner, so Elizabeth goes next leaving our hero, Dean. He’s clever, funny, calm and is the undisputed leader of the house, because he doesn’t want to be. He’s kept his head, got on with everyone and managed to preserve some integrity and sense of proportion under the most bizarre circumstances.

When he slagged Brian for not knowing when the first moon landing was, he raised the level of debate in the show at a stroke: “I know when it was not because I was around then, but because it was a massively important event.” For this and other signs of having a few brain cells and the will to use them wisely he wins my vote (and he can also build a record-breaking tower of sugar cubes).

So that’s it then: Dean should be the winner of ‘Big Brother’ (not that I’ve been watching it all that much, you understand).

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The real deal – Faking It reviewed

Friday, May 11, 2001

There was a great moment in this week’s ‘Faking It’ (Channel 4, Tuesdays), when Alex, the frightfully posh, 5’6”, gay student from Oxford University, looked straight to camera and said in his new bouncer brogue, ‘I AM a doorman’. He wasn’t faking it any more.

The format is brilliantly simple – take an unlikely candidate, give them four weeks’ training in a new discipline, then set up a competition where experts try and spot the imposter. So we’ve had a classical musician taught to be a club DJ, a painter and decorator taught to be an artist, and the fey student taught to be a bouncer.

There are echoes of any number of other shows (anyone remember ‘In At the Deep End’?) but the show triumphs by getting real people rather than journalists to undertake the challenges.

For the first 15 minutes, the audience is convinced that it will never work. Sian the musician asks the cool DJ if you follow sheet music while working the decks, and Alex arrives at an estate in Hackney wearing a Barbour jacket, tweeds and a tie. Different sort of estate, mate.

But the intensity of the work then involved is immense – the fakers live with their teachers and have to transform their appearance, their accents and their back-stories as well as learn the craft they’re supposed to be faking.

Watching Sian emerge as a club kid was fantastic – the scene when her movement coach has her dancing round the room shouting ‘Coxie took the ROOF off last night!’ will live long in the memory. And Alex going to the barber’s for a number 1 complete with Nike swoosh shaved on the back of his head was the start of an amazing transformation.

The teachers deserve a great deal of credit. They offer support and encouragement, but they also offer friendship and are completely delighted when their charges fool the experts. ‘It’s like seeing your little brother take his first baby steps,’ marvelled Chris, the huge kick-boxer that looked after Alex.

If the mentors get a lot out of it, then the effect on the fakers themselves is amazing. At some point during the preparation, the fakers get so into their new life that they stop faking. They still have to concoct a plausible set of lies, but when it comes to performing their new skill, all of them actually mean it.

Sian’s growing sense that she genuinely enjoys this new form of musical expression was borne out by the set of decks sitting behind her when she was interviewed at home after the test was over.

And Paul felt early on that his immersion in the art world chimed with something that he’d sensed was already in him. He had something to say in his painting, and watching this self-discovery was deeply impressive.

Being a bouncer might not be so creative or obviously fulfilling, but even this got Alex in touch with a part of himself that he scarcely knew was there.

There’s also a class angle that makes the program very British. Sian and Alex were decidedly posh, and part of their training was to lose their plummy accents. But in the course of the four weeks, the bonds they built up with their teachers show an impressively healthy attitude on both sides to take people as they find them. 

Paul didn’t have to lose his Scouse vowels, but he did have to learn a new vocabulary (his use of the word ‘serendipity’ in the final test was masterful), and also a new way of thinking about himself.

You might expect ‘Faking It’ to be merely a diverting hour’s TV which tells you a little about a range of professions, and lets you laugh at an amateur making a hames of it. Instead we get to watch brave people learning valuable lessons about themselves and about the good people who take them under their wings. ‘Faking It’ is for real.

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Those who can’t – Teachers reviewed

Friday, May 04, 2001

Earlier this week Tony Blair announced to the world that he needed glasses for reading, and would be wearing them in public from now on. He explained when it was he realised he couldn’t go on bluffing in his speeches any more. 

In one address he had got to a line which went, ‘There’s been a huge increase in problems of drugs, social exclusion and crime amongst teenagers.’ But instead of ‘teenagers’, he said ‘teachers’. He doesn’t need glasses – he’s just been watching Channel 4 on Wednesday nights.

After the earnest school-based dramas like ‘Hearts and Minds’, ‘Teachers’ instead uses the staff room as a basis for comedy and character, not posturing and politics. So a real teacher might not often smoke dope with their pupils, or get down and dirty in the stationery cupboard, but so what? I’m not sure how many Boston lawyers see dancing babies or have sex with complete strangers at carwashes, but we don’t criticize ‘Ally McBeal’ for not being realistic (in fact, recently, we criticise ‘Ally McBeal’ for just being crap, but that’s another story).

‘Ally McBeal’ and ‘Teachers’ both give us ensemble playing and fantasy elements (brilliantly done in ‘Teachers’, by the way) and they both show us that people in apparently responsible jobs are just as unreliable and flaky as the rest of us. In fact, they act just like big kids.

In the legal profession, authority is hedged about with smart suits, mad hourly rates and all the trappings of the judicial system. Teachers might appear a bit more lowly, with their poor wages and clapped out cars, but parents entrust their little darlings into their hands every day, and might expect a bit of maturity.

Not when you’ve got Egg as your leading man. A while ago Andrew Lincoln played a teacher in the costume drama ‘The Woman in White’, and it looked all wrong – all I could think about was him in ‘This Life’ lying in bed moaning about something while Millie fussed around getting ready for work.

So it’s good to see him back where he belongs. Lincoln’s mastered the portrayal of charming but feckless young men who are fighting against growing up and all that it entails – responsibility, commitment – that stuff he’s supposed to be teaching the kids, of course.

Hanging out with his two fellow teachers in a sty of a flat, going to the pub straight after classes, and scrambling around at the last minute to get stuff handed in, Simon is still a student at heart. Just in case we haven’t sussed that, he still rides a bike.

This creates the perfect opportunity for the fun and frolics we saw in the early episodes, especially when Lincoln is supported by tight writing, a good cast, smart direction and a class soundtrack (pun absolutely intended).

But in the last couple of shows, the writers have wisely decided to try and force the character to grow up a bit. Simon’s problem is that he has no problem being self-centred and unreliable, but he does have something of a conscience. So when he finally realizes that his laziness can cause problems for other people he likes (namely his best friend Susan), he gets all confused and uncomfortable. Like someone’s given him a huge bag of sweets and he’s discovered to his horror that he doesn’t actually want to eat them all in one go.

What I think is happening (and here I could be completely wrong) is that the stage is being set for Simon to wise up enough to stop his juvenile fantasies about Jenny, and prove himself worthy of Susan, who’s conveniently just left her man, and is far and away the most likeably together character in the show.

As if to underline his character arc, Jenny’s been softening, Brian’s been wanting to ditch his tracksuit, and the mute secretary’s begun to speak. Things will get worse before they get better – big fight between Simon and Maggie of course – but underneath all the swearing and juvenile humour, I think there’s some old comedic conventions about to fall into place. Can you say ‘happily ever after’?

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Forever England – Bridget Jones’s Diary reviewed

Wednesday, April 18, 2001

What are the hallmarks of an English person? Ask the English and they might say a stiff upper lip, a sense of fair play and a gutsy determination to get the job done. Ask other people from around the world, and you might get hypocrisy, bad food and imperialism. (Here, in the interests of full disclosure I must tell you that I was born and raised in England, but I’m feeling much better now).

But as the film version of ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ shows us, the real attributes that describe the nation are embarrassment, understatement and friendship.

The film is less a slavish representation of Helen Fielding’s book and more the conclusion to Richard Curtis’ loose trilogy that started with ‘Four Weddings’ and ‘Notting Hill’. Essentially the same premise is observed in all three films – a good-hearted, slightly clumsy, rather under-confident main character gets put through the mill of love before living happily ever.

Let’s look at those attributes – first, embarrassment: as a people, the English are hyper-sensitive about appearances and hate standing out – it’s just so undignified. (On the other hand, there’s something so liberating about just doing what you want to, and not giving a shit, which is one of the many reasons that English people have a grudging but definite respect for the Irish).

So Bridget spends most of the film being mortified in various ways. It’s bad enough that she has to dress up in the outfit her Mum has laid out for her, but it’s so much worse when she overhears Mark Darcy slagging her off, since the rules say that everyone has to try hard to avoid embarrassing everyone else – so even if someone is wearing curtains, it’s very bad form to mention it.

Then she turns up to a garden party dressed as a bunny girl, when everyone else is in civvies, and later reveals her shapely backside to the world while sliding down a fireman’s pole.

But it’s not just Bridget who suffers from this. In the most convincing fight scene I’ve seen in ages (compare and contrast with the Nietzschean self-belief of ‘Fight Club’), the two leading men apologise profusely to disrupted diners as they tumble across their tables during a brawl. You also get the sense that being thrown through a window actually hurts.

Of course, if you’re afraid of being embarrassed all the time, the you’re automatically very suspicious of love because it makes you do stupid things. Which is where understatement comes in, offering a roundabout route to avoid saying anything so clumsy as ‘I love you’. As Anthony Lane in the New Yorker points out, when Colin Firth says, ‘I like you very much,’ that’s ‘Englishman’s code for uncontrollable lust’.

And even getting that out of him is a real effort – it’s not that he doesn’t have the feelings (Colin Firth is excellent at showing himself suprised and uneasily amused at what he feels for Bridget), it’s just that he’s incapable of revealing its true depth.

Of course Bridget undestands this code and uses it herself, ‘If you wanted to pop by sometime, that might be nice,’ is her deepest profession of love for him.

(Of course sometimes this understatement is entirely appropriate. For example, when it allows for one of the few good anal sex jokes in modern cinema.)

The final characteristic on display in buckets in ‘Bridget Jones’ is friendship. Richard Curtis has a very good line in sketching in a set of supportive and understanding friends, who are always there to give advice, and act like a Greek chorus in the proceedings. If you’re constantly embarrassing yourself, and can’t quite say what you mean when it matters, then you certainly need a good set of friends who don’t care about any of that, and will love you even when you serve them blue soup.

So apart from a few missteps – like the excessive use of fake snow in the climactic scenes, the film is a success. Rene? Zellweger masters the same middle class South East accent that Gwywneth Paltrow aced in ‘Sliding Doors’, Hugh Grant shows that he can convincingly cross over to the dark side and use his charm and floppy hair for evil, while Colin Firth reprises his stern but upright Mr Darcy role from the TV version of ‘Pride and Prejudice’. He even has the big house (but we didn’t get to see if he’s got a lake round the back).

Of course, Colin Firth’s character in ‘Bridget Jones’ being called Mr Darcy is no accident. Not only did Andrew Davies share screenwriting credits on both projects, there’s another Jane Austen reference thrown in, when Bridget remarks at one point, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged . . . ‘

This depiction of English life, with embarrassment, understatement and friendship playing crucial roles is as much a part of Jane Austen’s world as it is modern London, and seen in this way Bridget Jones comes across as quite old fashioned. 

The rigid set of acceptable social behaviours and expectations that power the humour in ‘Bridget Jones’ is a world away from the good-natured anarchy of ‘Teachers’ or ‘Spaced’, for example. And while it’s only a certain type of modern Englishman who would wear a reindeer jumper with the same degree of pained perserverance shown by Colin Firth, the world would be worse off without them.

Posted by David in • Square EyesFilmUK