Notes from the Trenches–Journal of a Dole Scrounger

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“Yes, I’d seen that one,” I said, as the harassed looking Job Centre clerk handed me a vacancy printout. “I’m actually looking for something permanent, so I haven’t been bothering with temporary positions.”

She looked askance at me for a millisecond, before declaring, in a schoolmarm-who-will-take-no-objections sort of voice, “You will if you want to claim benefits.”

And there was me thinking the Department of Work and Pensions might want me off its ever growing list of the unemployed for good. Apparently they’re so desperate for the appearance of one less NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training) on their figures, even a job for a few months must be chased – regardless of the fact that it was fixed term contract work that got me into this position in the first place.

Welcome to the wonderful world of unemployment. With the Coalition government’s proposed welfare reforms all over the papers right now, it’s a topical place to be. But contrary to the overwhelming media narrative, not a nice one.

The ‘reform’ of the Welfare State is yet another in a long line of Tory ideological dreams that somehow conveniently fit the purpose of bringing down the deficit – or to use Tory Central Office language, “sorting out the mess left by the last government”. To this end, a media narrative has been carefully framed, helped by the sympathetic right-leaning press. The DWP and other august government bodies have been calculatedly releasing a series of sensationalistic sets of statistics that have shifted public opinion of the jobless to seeing us as bloated, obese couch potatoes, shovelling down crisps while watching Jeremy Kyle all day in our palatial mansions – all at the hardworking taxpayers’ expense. When we’re not on those all expenses paid holidays, of course.

Think it’s an exaggeration? Just try looking at a few newspaper websites. Inevitably, the Daily Mail leads the pack; searching their website with the keyword ‘benefit’ calls forth a massive list of articles about fraudsters and scroungers. Ooh, a naughty man pretended to be disabled, but he can do gardening! Judge’s fury at alcoholic on disability! 76% of those who say they’re sick could actually work!

A similar search on the Daily Express website brings similar results – albeit slightly more tempered by the fact that the word ‘benefit’ doesn’t always apply to state welfare. Those ‘sick note scroungers’ are here too, though oddly this time only 57% of them are lying. Playing to the Express’ usual concerns, they note how immigrants are falsely claiming benefit. And then there’s the usual ‘scandal’ of people deliberately having huge families just to claim enough benefit not to have to get a job. Even if you believe that one, it’s hard to imagine that the “190 families” cited in the article are enough to break the state welfare budget.

The Sun, meanwhile, focuses more on the sensationalistic individual “what a bloody nerve” stories. What about the disability claimant who was caught skydiving, eh? Ooh, a friend of 12-years-dead TV host Paula Yates has made a fraudulent claim! And those sicknote scroungers are here as well – this time it’s a massive 80% of them who could go to work! And what about the fact that “one in three” benefit recipients is a criminal,eh? Bloody scrounging scum!

Well, we’re all familiar with the thorough research and impartial reporting brought to us by the British tabloids, so this should surprise no-one. But it’s the government’s steady stream of press releases, reports and statistics that feed the beast. Those last two stories in the Sun were brought to you courtesy of the Department of Work and Pensions and the charming Employment Minister Chris Grayling – a man who almost scuppered his chance of a ministerial post because he stated that Christians had the right to exclude gays from their businesses on religious grounds. What a nice feller. Isn’t the country lucky to have him extolling such Christian values as compassion and giving to the needy? Oh wait…

Trumping Grayling is the architect of the Coalition’s grand welfare reform scheme, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith. Another committed Christian, Smith was formerly an ineffectual caretaker leader of the Tories in opposition, and gained the less than thrilling nickname of ‘the quiet man’. Apparently he took this to heart, and seems to have become some kind of jobless-persecuting Torquemada in his quest to bring down the insane levels of benefit fraud that are so crippling the Treasury – estimated to be a staggering less than 1% of the benefit budget. But just in case tackling this massive army of scroungers doesn’t do the job, he seems intent on prying benefits back even from those who currently need and are entitled to them – like the disabled, those with large families, and those living in expensive-rent areas like, say, the entire South East of England.

But surely the welfare system needs reform, doesn’t it? Well yes, to be fair, it does. It’s massively overcomplicated for a start. You claim your Jobseekers’ Allowance (a princely £67.50 a week) from the DWP, your Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit from your local authority, the many and varied disability benefits from the DWP again, Child Benefit from the DWP, emergency crisis loans from the DWP – for now. Soon those too will be handed over to cash-strapped local authorities with no obligation to dispense them when they might need the cash to replace non-existent buses.

So right now, there’s a baffling array of benefits potentially available, all of which need to be applied for by in separate ordeal-by-complex-form, dealt with and paid by different departments. Under the circumstances, Iain Duncan Smith’s idea of a ‘Universal Credit’, which takes into account all your entitlements to form one conglomerated payment, seems like rather a good idea.

What doesn’t seem such a good idea is using this reform – and the sacred cow of deficit reduction – to massively slash existing payments to those who really need them. Especially in a climate where public sector job losses and increasing business closures due to unnecessary austerity are causing a massive rise in the numbers of jobless. With fewer and fewer jobs around, the long term unemployed will not be ‘scrounging’ off benefits to fund a lavish lifestyle. They’ll be trying their best to make the already meagre payments available last long enough to pay the rent, buy the shopping and, potentially, move to an area which might have more available jobs. Like, say, the South East of England. Where they won’t be able to afford to live, even if they scrape a low-level job at Tesco, since the paltry minimum wage has to be topped up by tax credits to provide a normal living. And the state won’t be funding those if Mr Smith has his way.

Of course, the increasing level of unemployment, which the Coalition presumably believe to be a price worth paying to enact longstanding Conservative ideology, will inevitably mean a bigger welfare bill. So surely cutting it makes sense? Well, it’s true that, according to statistics, the welfare budget for 2009-2010 was £192 billion, massively greater than most areas of government spending. But the key to bringing this number down is not to slash that spending and send hundreds of thousands into poverty and homelessness. It’s to try and create jobs to get people off those benefits.

Because, contrary to what Smith, Grayling and their press puppets would have us believe, the vast majority of jobless people are not idle scroungers. They want to work. But the high levels of unemployment means that companies can be choosier than ever when looking for employees. Even to get a job as a labourer now requires previous experience, and sometimes a professional qualification. Retail jobs demand knowledge of the precise commodity they sell, meaning if/when HMV goes under, their thousands of redundant employees won’t be able to just haul ass to Next without clothing retail experience.

Yes, there are job opportunities out there. According to the Office of National Statistics, there are about 439,000 of them across the country. But that’s against 2.685 million unemployed people. At its most basic, that means there are six times fewer jobs than there are jobseekers. And that’s before you take into account the regional variations that push that ratio even higher in some areas of the country. The government/media narrative that the unemployed are just lazy simply doesn’t add up.

Which brings us back to me, and my experience of unemployment. Am I one of those crisp-guzzling, Jeremy Kyle-watching scroungers that the narrative wants to portray us all as being? Of course I’m not. I was made redundant nearly five months ago, from a fairly high level job in education management, so you’d think I’d have pretty good prospects. And yet after five months of looking, I’ve found a surprisingly small amount of jobs I can even apply for.

It’s the usual paradox. Even if I set my sights much lower than I had been at (and I’m looking at jobs that pay less than half my previous wage these days), I’m considered too old (I’m 42) and too overqualified to take on the kind of jobs that rapacious employers can easily underpay kids for. And as for the kinds of jobs that equate to what I’ve been doing for the last four years, they mostly have experience requirements so precise that literally only someone who’s done that exact job before stands a chance. Which means that my best bet is to try and get another job back at the place I’ve just left – since they’re the only employer who has that exact position within 70 miles or so.

In the mean time, it may sound like a life of Riley to some – having no job to go to, no set time to get up, all that free time to do what you like…Well, no. Not really. Just looking for a job can become a full time occupation in itself. I spend an inordinate amount of time searching the myriad job sites and agencies on the internet, compiling lists of jobs I could apply for, however tenuous. Each application, if done properly, can take two hours or more – there’s the time spent researching the employer, writing a good cover letter, tinkering with the CV, sometimes filling in application forms or going through online hoops to submit information. To do four job applications can easily take more than eight hours.

Not that I do that every day. Even the stern-faced Job Centre lady I mentioned at the start advised me not to spend more than a couple of hours per day looking, and she was right – it’s spirit crushing (though I do spend more time than that, whatever the advice). Because what the ‘scrounger’ narrative doesn’t mention is the sheer sense of worthlessness, purposelessness you feel. You’ve gone from being a productive member of society to a drain on it, no matter how much you try not to. It is staggeringly, mind-bogglingly depressing.

And you can’t do much with all that free time – because doing things requires money, and you’re only getting £67.50 a week. In the mean time, I do not watch Jeremy Kyle; the TV is seldom on, and when it is, it’s usually tuned to BBC News. Sometimes I watch a film – this morning it was the less than cheery Revolutionary Road, which didn’t help my mood much. Or I’ll read a book. Currently I’m halfway through Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. How’s that for your uneducated couch potato?

I’m better off than most. I’ve worked consistently for most of the last twenty years (though my contribution based allowance will be cut after six months, just like anyone else), and I’ve managed to pay off all my debts and put aside a reasonable level of savings. Of course, they were going to be put towards a deposit on a house, but right now they’re supplementing my benefit, because £67.50 isn’t a whole lot to live on in Cambridge. My partner still has a job and a reasonable income, so I don’t need to claim Housing Benefit (not that I’m entitled to it under those circumstances). Nonetheless, I’ve used my savings to pay my share of the rent for the next year. And we don’t have children to think of.

So compared to a lot of the jobless, I don’t have a whole lot to worry about – even though it’s taking me longer to find a job than it ever has before. And yet my self-esteem is lower than ever. I feel useless, rejected, worthless. Now try and imagine how that would feel if I’d worked for twenty years at a decent career, had a mortgage on a nice house and a couple of kids (with all the attendant debt), and suddenly found myself on the scrapheap. Thanks to Iain Duncan Smith’s proposed benefit cap, if I lived in London, I’d probably have to sell up and move somewhere cheaper, like the North. Where the jobs aren’t.

Think of those people, because they’re going to be getting more numerous in coming months if the government have their way. I don’t have all those problems, and even I’m getting pretty depressed – not to mention resentful at the relentless media insinuations that I’m a lazy scrounger. The unemployed are not subhuman, and the continued demonisation of them to justify a Tory ideological wet dream should be a national scandal instead of a commonly accepted Goebbels-style Big Lie.

The Spoiler Statute of Limitations

N.B. – Despite the subject matter of this piece, I’ve worked hard to ensure that it actually contains no spoilers!

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Spoilers! Don’t you just hate ‘em! Steven Moffat certainly does, as he repeatedly gets River Song to tell us in Doctor Who. It’s undoubtedly annoying, when you’re following a TV show, to be made prematurely aware of some vast, game-changing plot point that the creators had intended to come as a gobsmacking surprise. But recent developments in how we watch things have given rise to a new problem, and a new question – just how long should we wait before openly discussing (on the internet or in the pub or wherever) some major plot twist?

This came to my attention recently, when a frustrated Facebook friend in the US complained of his friends in the UK discussing openly on the site a major plot twist in that night’s Doctor Who. Now, given the fact that BBC America broadcasts the show in the US pretty quickly after the UK (not to mention the, ahem, naughty downloads), I did see his point in complaining that it wouldn’t be too much of a burden for his UK friends to refrain from discussing the plot for a little while at least.

But I can also understand that some people still think that, once a TV show has actually been broadcast, it should be fine to start talking about it. It’s an understandable assumption, particularly for those who grew up watching TV when it was a communal, even national thing; when you could be reasonably certain that your friends would have watched the same show at the same time as you. Back in 1980, for example, nobody worried about spoilering the eagerly anticipated question of ‘Who Shot JR?’ in Dallas. International communication was rare and expensive, and most people in each country who cared were watching the show at the same time.

However, ever since the advent of the video recorder, that’s not been guaranteed. And the problem has intensified; in these days of international chat on the internet, via forums and social networking sites, you have to take real care that you don’t, however unintentionally, reveal something that should have come as a surprise. But how long should you wait? What, in a nutshell, is the statute of limitations for spoilers?

The trouble is, there’s no hard and fast answer to that one. For filmmakers, it’s not a new problem at all, as films have never had the same simultaneous viewings for whole nations. Way back in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock popped up on the trailer for Psycho to plead “Don’t give away the ending, it’s the only one we have.” Fair enough, but is there really anyone left in 2012 who doesn’t know how that ends? And if there is, is it unfair of them to expect those who want to discuss it to keep silent, 52 years after the fact? It’s actually a very common problem with films – they get older and older, but there’ll always be somebody for whom they’re new. Will that person’s viewing experience be tainted by a spoiler that’s become cultural common knowledge?

There are plenty of well-known examples. The first time I saw Psycho, I already knew the ending; I still thought it was a pretty fine movie, but I wonder how much more I might have enjoyed it had the twist come as a surprise? And yet, it seems churlish of me to demand that the entirety of society should refrain from discussing a very old plot twist on the off chance that I might not have seen the film yet.

But what about more recent films? How soon is too soon? The original Planet of the Apes, for example, has often been released on video and DVD with a cover picture that actually gives away the twist ending before you’ve opened the box – again on the assumption that it is, by now, common knowledge. OK, that movie was made in 1968. How about 1980, a ‘mere’ 32 years ago? Can there be anyone left who doesn’t know the twist in The Empire Strikes Back? Apparently so, if this clip of a four year old reacting to the previously unknown revelation is for real. I saw that one not long after it was released, but that particular spoiler was already common knowledge. Would I have been as gobsmacked as that kid if it had been news to me, too?

A bit more recently, is there anyone left who doesn’t know the twist endings to M Night Shyamalan’s early movies? I was about a year late seeing 1996’s The Sixth Sense; by then, the ending had entered common culture so thoroughly that I’d found it out in, of all places, an article in Boyz magazine. I still enjoyed the movie, but again, how much better might I have enjoyed it had the end come as a surprise? Similarly, I’ve never actually watched his 2004 film The Village; though that’s less because I’ve found out the twist and more because I’d seriously started to go off his work after the nonsensical Signs. I did manage to catch David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) before its ending became common knowledge, and that was certainly effective – but again, 13 years later, I’m willing to bet that that’s become cultural common currency.

But now, an old problem for films is very much a current problem for TV shows. Some websites have hidden text sections for spoilers, others, like Facebook and Twitter, rely on the (apparently infrequent) discretion of their users to avoid releasing spoilers into the public domain. It comes back to, how long should you wait? One friend has a self-imposed limit of a week – seems reasonably fair. Some would say not – after all, how many of us now catch up with TV shows on DVD box sets long after the original broadcast?

Reasonably, if you’re desperate to avoid spoilers, it looks like your only pragmatic choice is to stay away from the internet. Completely. Because if something’s popular enough, any major plot developments end up being referenced anywhere and everywhere. I recall rushing through the final Harry Potter book for precisely this reason, and avoiding Facebook et al for fear of finding out the ending before I reached it. It’s not ideal, I know, but unfortunately it’s a more sensible solution than expecting everyone else in the world to be sensitive to your viewing (or reading) habits.

Of course, some people take a perverse, trolling delight in spoilering. One old friend of mine had an irritating habit of flicking to the last page of whatever book I was reading in order to tell me that (character X) made it to the end. Others use it as a status-building ego reinforcement – “look how important I am, I know something you don’t, and I can prove it!” Unfortunately, if you’re a true spoiler-phobe, complaining is like a red rag to a bull for this kind of person; you’re actually better off not encouraging them. Just try to close your ears, or step away from the internet.

So can there ever be a ‘statute of limitations’ for spoilers? I’d have to conclude not, pragmatically. If you find them annoying, then your only recourse in the real world is to do as much as you can to avoid them, because, sadly, they’re not going to go away. On the flipside, if you have a friend who shares your interests, it might be courteous to refrain from discussing plot points unless you know your friend knows them too. But for how long is between you, your community, and ultimately, your conscience. Everyone has different standards, and in the end, if you want to avoid spoilers for as long as you deem fit, the final responsibility has to be your own. We could wish for a more polite, considerate world where that’s not the case, but somehow I don’t see it happening soon…

SOPA–Free Speech Vs Profit

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So, it looks like yesterday’s internet protests by the likes of Reddit and Wikipedia may be having an effect, as US representatives back away from supporting the controversial SOPA and PIPA bills in the Senate and the House of Representatives. The White House is said to be looking dimly at the legislation. But we shouldn’t get complacent – much as I want to like Barack Obama as a President, he does have something of a history of doing the opposite to what he’s publicly said. Just ask the inhabitants of Guantanamo Bay.

So what’s the problem with these bills? Ostensibly, their supporters claim, their purpose is to stop those dastardly pirates from ‘stealing’ copyrighted material such as music, films or TV shows, thus depriving the poor, starving artists like Bono and Steven Spielberg from their pittance of a living wage.

Obviously I’m being flippant – piracy is an issue, but this isn’t the right way to deal with it. The various techies opposed to the legislation point out that this is a sledgehammer to crack a nut; when you’ve used it, you won’t have any nut left to eat anyway. The bills would provide the US federal government (and its ever-attentive corporate lobbyists) with a legal mandate to force websites to remove apparently copyright-violating material, without any recourse to argument, or face having their sites shut down by law.

This is plainly not a transparent process, much like the UK’s ‘Control Orders’, which have frequently allowed the detention without trial of ‘terror suspects’ without giving them any knowledge of the supposed case against them. But it’s not just the lack of an ability to challenge the rulings which make SOPA and PIPA so disturbing. It’s the fact that it gives the US government legal authority to shut down websites, in direct contravention of the Constitution’s First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech.

The United States paints itself as the standard bearer for democracy. And yet these bills allow, in the name of monetary profit, the same kind of internet censorship regularly practised in repressive dictatorships like Syria, Iran and China. The legislation is (presumably intentionally) so loosely worded as to effectively allow the federal government to use it as a pretext to censor virtually anything. And not just in the US – given the internet’s global reach, they’re attempting to extend their legal control beyond their borders and across the entire world. Think that’s an impossible challenge? Tell that to 23 year old Richard O’Dwyer, shortly to be extradited for trial from the UK to the US for hosting a site which linked to illegal downloads, despite not having broken any law in the country of which he is a citizen.

That also highlights the ridiculous nature of the UK/US extradition treaty, but that’s an argument for another time. Suffice to say, the US has similar extradition treaties with numerous other countries. If any person has posted anything the loosely worded legislation prohibits, on any website at any time and in any country, not only could said website be removed from existence, but the person concerned could find themselves locked up. As a friend of mine on Facebook put it, if you upload a Michael Jackson song, you could face up to five years in prison – one year longer than the doctor who killed him.

“Ah, but,” supporters of the bill say, “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve nothing to fear.” But who’s to say what you’ve posted is ‘wrong’? The government of course, with the helpful advice of their corporate lobbyists. You might be surprised how easy it is to infringe the labyrinthine intellectual property laws – just ask Lamar Smith, the Republican Congressman who actually wrote SOPA. His campaign website has been shown to use stock images from a photographic library for which he or his organisation never paid. They’re barely visible, but they’re there. In the unfortunate event that these bills pass into law, he could well find himself one of the first to be prosecuted.

This leads into the popular perception that this is a solution being proposed by befuddled, elderly politicians and media moguls who have no clue about the technical intricacies of how the internet actually works, and are unaware of any potential unintended consequences. I’m not so sure. As Dan Gillmor argued, even if these people are really that dumb, their advisers most surely are not. The people agitating to get this draconian legislation passed must be well aware of its potential for totalitarian suppression of any dissent.

And then there’s the ridiculous binary argument that if you oppose SOPA, you must be in favour of untrammelled piracy. Well, aside from the fact that piracy always has existed and likely always will, this is not the way to go about stopping it. Nothing has ever stopped it, and the kind of totalitarian control this legislation advocates is certainly not going to. All it will do will be to make ordinary people suffer the consequences of lessening profits for companies, to the advantage of a censorship-hungry state.

So who are the people who want this? Well, inevitably it started with the Recording Industry Association of America, and the Motion Picture Association of America were quick to jump aboard a ship that was ‘hunting pirates’. These guys have been ineffectually playing catch-up since 1999, when Napster’s file sharing innovation created a seismic shift in the way entertainment was distributed. Suddenly, it was possible to get your hands on music – and later films and TV shows – without actually paying for it. And when corporations are deprived of profit, they get angry.

Of course, Napster was quickly stamped out. But the idea had taken hold, and multitudes of file sharing websites, in multitudes of countries, sprang up to take its place. A sea change had occurred, and suddenly an industry that had held entertainment in a dollar-squeezing stranglehold for the better part of a century was being rendered impotent. And worse, less profitable.

But is this, in itself, so bad? Record companies, film studios and TV producers would say yes. However, it’s worth looking a bit at the history of profit from entertainment; when you do, what you see is a redressing of the balance that existed prior to the monetisation created by the advent of recording what entertains us.

Before CDs, before vinyl, even before wax cylinders, there was still music. And musicians earned their living by playing music live. Your entertainment was a transient thing; in order to experience it again, you had to pay the musician to play it again. Most, if not all, of the money therefore went directly to the musicians themselves, and they in turn actually had to work to earn it.

But at the tail end of the 19th century, recording devices were invented, and suddenly you could listen to one of those transient performances as many times as you liked, without having to pay the musicians again. Naturally, the musicians weren’t too happy about this, and recording companies came into existence. They provided the technical means by which the music could be reproduced, and they, along with the new figure of the ‘agent’ made sure that musicians were recompensed for the loss of earnings caused by no longer having to repeat their performances so frequently.

Not so bad, surely? But fast forward a hundred years or so, and record companies are making vast sums of money, with an entire industry of many thousands most of whom have nothing to do with actually creating the music. Sure, there are musicians who, as a result of record sales, became phenomenally rich – Elvis, Frank Sinatra, U2 etc. But however much money they got, you can bet the record companies got more. And for the vast majority of musicians, record companies and agents ended up netting far more from their work than they ever would. David Bowie may be an industry titan these days, but in his early years apparently made the disastrous decision to allow his manager to control the rights to his songs; with the result that he was virtually penniless by 1980 despite his records still selling by the bucketload.

Piracy, in the form of file sharing, undoubtedly does deprive artists of revenue. But not half so much revenue as it deprives record companies of. And pragmatically, it’s a shift in the way entertainment makes money that cannot be reversed – no matter how much the RIAA tries to clobber it into submission with insanely draconian laws like SOPA. The music industry is changing, and cannier musicians appreciate this. Recorded music will never go away, but downloading can be, and has been, monetised with reasonable efficiency. The problem of ‘piracy’ will never go away either – remember the ‘Home Taping is Killing Music’ campaign in the 80s? It wasn’t killing music then, and neither is file sharing now.

Instead, the future of music may be back where it began; in live shows, with musicians entertaining their fans in person. But there are other ways to use the new mould to musicians’ advantage. Radiohead famously self-released their last two albums digitally, allowing fans to set their own price for the first one. Canadian singer-songwriter Jane Siberry does the same thing, and goes further; her website allows fans to download (at any cost or none) her entire back catalogue, going back to her first album from 1981.

The record industry, of course, hates this – because they make no money out of it. Only the musicians do. Many musicians – including the aforementioned Bowie – recognise the change that has taken place, and are moving on. Record companies are not – hence the arrival of mad schemes like SOPA, which try desperately to cling on to an outdated business model and, in the process, allow a supposedly democratic country an unprecedented level of global control of free speech. Profiteers and political control freaks – are these really the people we want policing everything we say?

As of now, it’s looking less likely that this legislation will be passed. A grassroots protest of actual democracy on the internet has made plenty of US lawmakers step back and think. But as I said at the outset, the bills are far from dead, and Lamar Smith – that dirty ol’ copyright thief – has pledged to keep on fighting for them. This struggle is far from over as a result of one day of mass protest – and in that spirit, I hope Jimmy Wales won’t mind me reproducing his Wikipedia front page from yesterday. To quote Bertolt Brecht, “Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall

“You hope to beat me. I tell you that you will never beat me. If you are clever enough to bring destruction upon me, rest assured that I shall do as much to you.”  – from the journals of Dr John H Watson, MD, The Final Problem

It’s a well-known story. Arthur Conan Doyle, fed up of the public’s insatiable demand for his creation Sherlock Holmes, wrote a story in which he determinedly killed off his hero. Heroically plunging from Austria’s Reichenbach Falls in a death struggle with his arch nemesis Professor James Moriarty, Holmes was no more. Or so it seemed until, bowing once again to his readership’s demands, Doyle revealed that Holmes had survived his certain death after all, and gone underground to protect his friends.

That’s such a good story, in fact, that it was basically the plot of the entire last season of Doctor Who. But last night’s Sherlock saw Steven Moffat and co returning to the source. I must admit, I had slight misgivings when I saw that scripting duties had fallen to Steve Thompson rather than Gatiss or Moffat himself, as I’d thought his middle contribution to the previous series – The Blind Banker – was a bit of a weak link in an otherwise strong chain. Not that it was in any way bad (although the stereotyping of the Chinese seemed a little 19th century), but it was surrounded by two almost perfect stories from Moffat and Gatiss. Knowing that this year’s season finale was very probably going to feature Sherlock’s apparent death, I wasn’t too sure that Thompson was the right guy to write such an important story.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. The Reichenbach Fall has its flaws as a story, and I’ll come on to those, but no more so than either of the previous two. It plays with the expectations of Holmes aficionados far less than recent episodes, taking the bare bones of Doyle’s The Final Problem – a duel between Holmes and Moriarty, culminating in their apparent deaths – and dispensing with the rest to come up with a twisty turny tale all of its own. And in the process, it rather cleverly plays with our expectations not of Holmes the 19th century character, but of Sherlock the now established 21st century hero.

Presumably thinking the audience would be aware of the story’s ultimate end, Thompson actually opened with a scene of a tearful John talking to his therapist about the death of his ‘best friend’ Sherlock Holmes. So expectations were set from the very beginning, but in fact this pre-credits revelation was easily forgotten in the tempestuous story that then unfolded.

In a “Three Months Earlier” timeframe, we were shown a montage of Sherlock solving various crimes, including the theft of the painting ‘The Falls at Reichenbach’ (the only nod to the story’s original setting). But as Holmes began to attract more and more press attention (much to John’s concern), it was as ‘The Reichenbach Hero’ that he was labelled. John, much to his annoyance, simply attracted the label “confirmed bachelor” (“What are they trying to say?!”), in yet another reference to the perception that he and Sherlock could be a couple.

Intercut with all this was a sequence of Moriarty setting up, then executing, a fiendish plan to simultaneously break into Pentonville Prison, the Bank of England, and the Tower of London, where he sat draped in the Crown Jewels until the police turned up to arrest him. Cleverly scored with Rossini’s ‘The Thieving Magpie’, this was a well-put together sequence from frequent Doctor Who director Toby Haynes, who kept up the series’ standard of visual excellence extremely well throughout.

From then on, it was a battle of wits between Sherlock and Jim Moriarty, as Jim used Sherlock’s new press fame in an attempt to discredit and utterly destroy him, while Sherlock tried, seemingly in vain, to keep up and finally nail the villain who sat at the middle of his spiderweb of crime. The resemblance to last year’s finale The Great Game was a little bit of a flaw, but this was anything but formulaic. Perhaps as a result of the Holmes/Moriarty dynamic, the idea of a battle of wits between hero and villain is now de rigeur in crime drama, and when done well – as it was here – it never fails to entertain me.

Far more so than The Great Game (where he only appeared for a few minutes at the very end), Moriarty was given centre stage here along with Sherlock, and Andrew Scott again showed how much fun this new version of Sherlock’s nemesis can be. By turns camp, playful, and utterly, dangerously insane, Jim Moriarty was plainly every bit Sherlock’s equal. And again in keeping with the established idea of the hero/nemesis dynamic, he was presented as Sherlock’s dark mirror equivalent. In the splendid scene when Jim visited Sherlock at 221B Baker Street – another pinch from the original  story – Jim even stated this outright: “We’re just alike, you and I.”

That was hammered home by the fact that both viewed their battle as an intellectual game, while John and Lestrade were there, appalled, to remind them that there were real lives at stake here. But you got the impression that Sherlock cared about these just as little as Jim – chillingly demonstrated by Sherlock’s declaration that, “I might be on the side of the angels, but I’m definitely not one of them.”

Jim utilising his tame tabloid hack (The IT Crowd’s Katherine Parkinson) to demolish Sherlock’s reputation felt oddly timely in the light of the Leveson Inquiry into press standards. As Sherlock was suspected of kidnapping, pursued by the police, and finally confronted by Jim in the alias of ‘Richard Brook’, an actor supposedly hired by Sherlock himself to be an arch nemesis, this had the potential to really screw with the audience’s heads as they reflected that everything they’d seen since the show began might be false.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that clever gambit worked as well as it might have. Like John, we never doubted Sherlock for a moment. Still, even if it didn’t hoodwink the audience, it served its purpose in deceiving the characters in the show – except, of course, John, Mrs Hudson and Lestrade. And so, with nowhere left to go, Sherlock turned to his poor admirer Molly at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, only to find himself in a final confrontation with Jim Moriarty atop its windswept roof.

This was an electric scene, brilliantly played by Scott and Cumberbatch, as each tried to gain the intellectual upper hand in their game. Jim revealed that his supposed ‘unlock anything’ phone app never really existed, and that his plan was for the demoralised Sherlock to kill himself. If he didn’t, assassins were primed to shoot his only friends, John, Lestrade and Mrs Hudson. Sherlock countered with the knowledge that Jim must be able to call them off if necessary. Then Jim made the ultimate endgame move – as the only way to ensure Sherlock’s suicide was for him to die too, he promptly shot himself.

That was a bit of a shocker, but the scene had increasingly and convincingly revealed the extent of Jim’s insanity. You really believed that he would go so far as to die just to win his  intellectual pissing contest with Sherlock. And it looked like he had won; with nothing else left to do, Sherlock confessed to John that he really was a fraud before quite graphically throwing himself from the roof and landing in an all too convincing bloody heap on the pavement.

Even more so than in The Final Problem, this made Sherlock’s death seem a certainty. After all, we’d been shown him stepping off the edge, then shown his bloodied body on the pavement, attended by John who surely couldn’t have misidentified him. And yet the final scene, as a tearful John and Mrs Hudson paid their respects at his graveside, showed him to be very much alive, standing silent and unseen nearby. Rule number one – Moffat lies.

I’m still not sure if this was the right way to play it. Surely it would have been a better cliffhanger if, as in the original story, we thought he really was dead, and hoped against hope that there’d be some way out of it. But on the other hand, I can see why the showrunners might not have wanted to end the series on such a down note. What it does do, though, is leave us with an intellectual cliffhanger – how on earth did he do that?

Unsurprisingly, I’ve seen plenty of internet theories already. Some have speculated on the hallucinogenic drugs from last week’s episode, which seems unlikely – Sherlock would presumably have had to drug all the witnesses. Still, with it taking a gaseous form, not impossible. Another theory is that the ‘help’ he wanted from Molly was to procure a lookalike body from the hospital morgue in just this eventuality; or that there was already a Moriarty-created lookalike – remember the little girl kidnap victim who screamed on seeing Sherlock at the hospital?

My theory is that it has something to do with the mannequin we already saw at Sherlock’s flat, as he tried to solve a century-old crime. Holmes fans may remember that, in his ‘return from the grave’ story The Adventure of the Empty House, he tricked would-be assassins with a mannequin replica of himself strategically placed in the window of his flat. Given the show’s frequent nods to the source material, my money’s on some variant of this. As Steven Moffat has now confirmed via Twitter that there will be a third series, we shall find out – let’s hope it takes less than eighteen months this time!

Moffat also used Twitter to indicate that there would be “two nods to the past” in this episode. Not sure exactly what he meant, as the show is always chock full of references to Doyle’s original stories. But my guess would be, firstly, the return of that hat, given as a jokey present by the police to Sherlock.

I love what they’ve done with the convention of the character wearing a deerstalker. Doyle’s stories never reference this kind of hat; it was popularised firstly by some of Sidney Paget’s illustrations, then by Basil Rathbone’s screen version. And yet the popular perception has become that this is the kind of hat that Holmes always wears. As John amusingly puts it, “that’s no longer a deerstalker. That’s a Sherlock Holmes hat” – which, as the owner of several deerstalkers, I can confirm is exactly what people think. That Sherlock actively hates the hat makes this even funnier.

The other major reference to Doyle must be the appearance, finally, of Mycroft’s beloved Diogenes Club, a refuge for “the most unsociable and unclubbable men in town”, where speech is strictly forbidden except in one reserved area. Knowing the rule as I did, it was hugely funny to see John trying exasperatedly to get a response from the increasingly appalled looking club members, until finally some stewards hauled him off to the visitors room to meet Mycroft. Latterday literature has recast the Diogenes Club as the public front for shadowy British intelligence agencies – given Mark Gatiss’ portrayal of Mycroft as having fingers in every government pie, that seems equally believable here. I wonder if we’ll see more of it next series?

But the final word on this gripping finale must belong to the portrayals of the main characters. As Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch has been, if anything, even better than he was last year. With the final plot twist that he’ll sacrifice his reputation and even (seemingly) his life to help his friends, this story shows the culmination of an arc of ‘humanisation’ of the Asperger’s-like Sherlock this year. In A Scandal in Belgravia, we saw him exhibit real (if deeply repressed) feelings for Irene Adler, and having to make an awkward, forced apology to poor Molly. By The Hounds of Baskerville, shaken by his experience with the terror-inducing drug, he offers a no less awkward, but voluntary and heartfelt, apology to John. And in The Reichenbach Fall, we see a hero who acknowledges that he loves and needs his few friends – enough to, in effect, destroy himself for them.

And Martin Freeman has stepped up his already likeable performance as John to reflect this. The constant in-jokes about whether he and Sherlock are in a relationship now seem to have a real purpose; because, despite the fact that John is entirely straight, they plainly are. It’s an indication of this series’ fluid approach to love and sexuality that John, while not gay, is genuinely in love with his best friend, to the extent of his heartrending tears in the opening and closing scenes of this episode. A ‘bromance’ indeed, and pretty similar to the highly infrequent displays of emotion from Holmes in the original stories.

This has been a triumphant second series for Sherlock, and any doubts I had about Steve Thompson’s ability to satisfyingly conclude it have been washed away. Each of the stories has been great in its own, uniquely distinct, way, and if anything, the quality has topped the first acclaimed series. Along the way, we’ve seen some thrills, some humour, some brain taxing plots and even some controversy. But I’ve enjoyed it hugely, and if a limit of three episodes per series, produced over a very long period of time, is what it takes to maintain this standard, then so be it. However long it takes, this viewer – and, I suspect, millions of others – will be back.

Sherlock: The Hounds of Baskerville

“Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”  – from the journals of Dr John H Watson, MD, The Hound of the Baskervilles

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In some ways more enjoyable than last week’s very good effort, Mark Gatiss’ adaptation of perhaps Arthur Conan Doyle’s best known Sherlock Holmes story is, if you’re a fan of the original, one of the cleverest bits of writing I’ve seen in terms of subverting expectations. But more than that, it stood up as a damn good Gothic thriller in its own right. Like last week, it cunningly played with the knowledge of Holmes fans without alienating the casual viewer: either way, even if you knew the story, this was a twisty turny bit of writing that had you never knowing what to expect.

Just as last week’s story showcased Steven Moffat’s preoccupations – sexy femmes fatale and plenty of intrigue – this week’s was in many ways a perfect exhibit of what we’ve come to expect from Mark Gatiss. From the outset, as a terrified little boy on the moors morphed into an equally terrified Russell Tovey in a darkened hollow, it was clear that we were in Gothic Horror territory. As indeed we should be. Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories often have their roots in the atmosphere of 19th century penny dreadfuls, which is exactly what we’re used to getting from Mark Gatiss in The League of Gentlemen.

Steeped in atmosphere it certainly was, but adapting The Hound of the Baskervilles is, in many ways, a more difficult task than last week’s free flowing expansion of a pretty short story. For a start, The Hound of the Baskervilles is a full length novel, so adapting it to a new format doesn’t leave the adapter a lot of room for change. It’s also had probably more previous adaptations than any other Holmes tale, so there’s the problem of familiarity as well. And perhaps most significantly of all, if you’re to follow the original book faithfully, Holmes himself is actually absent for about half of it.

Thankfully, neither of the creators of the new Sherlock have felt themselves bound by the need for ‘faithful’ adaptation – and in the process have actually managed to produce stories that are arguably more faithful to Doyle’s in spirit than some that follow his narratives exactly. Gatiss takes the basics of the tale, and discards what is no longer useful or relevant. In the process, though, he keeps plenty of material just to throw the Holmes aficionados off the track.

In this case, that was most noticeable in the names of the characters, though not so much in their basic relationships to each other. Baskerville Hall became the Baskerville Research Centre, a Porton Down style establishment so inescapably reminiscent of similar ones in early 70s Doctor Who that I kept expecting Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart to pop round the corner. Shorn of his surname, Sir Henry Baskerville had his title moved to the end of his name to become Henry Knight – do you see? Elsewhere, shifty servants the Barrymores had their names transplanted to the Major in charge of the Research Centre, while Dr Mortimer remained as Henry’s faithful physician – but in keeping with the spirit of the times, she was now his therapist. And last but definitely not least, cantankerous neighbour Mr Frankland became Dr Frankland, a perhaps too-friendly scientist.

But before we got into the story proper, the game of sly Holmes references was very much afoot from the outset. Sherlock was seen to burst into his flat covered in blood, carrying a blooded harpoon – only to exclaim – “well, that was tedious!”, showcasing Benedict Cumberbatch’s actually rather adept comic timing. This is, of course, a reference to the solution of The Adventure of Black Peter, in which Holmes tests his theory of a harpoon being the murder weapon by repeatedly hurling it into the corpse of a pig.

Having solved that one, he was bored, and as in the original stories, when he’s bored, he falls back on his addiction. Perhaps more harmful than his original fixation with cocaine, the new Sherlock wants cigarettes – as cocaine was perhaps even more socially acceptable in the late 19th century than tobacco is now, that makes perfect sense. And as a smoker who can’t light up in the house while watching it, I found his demented search for his ‘emergency supply’ both funny and cringeworthy. But lest we miss the reference to his cocaine habit, he wondered about trying something “7% stronger” – like the 7% solution of cocaine he used to inject in the original stories.

This was fun for the Holmes enthusiast and funny for the casual viewer. But the story proper started as Russell Tovey burst in, looking harried and paranoid, and affecting a rather odd ‘posh’ accent that was the only negative point of his otherwise highly intense portrayal of Henry Knight. Sherlock was intrigued by his tale of “a giant hound” (the line lifted verbatim from the original, though Dr Mortimer says it there), and resolved to investigate, rather than take up the odd case of a missing luminous rabbit.

The rabbit thing was the first in a long line of playing with your expectations if you knew the original story – the hound in the original having been painted with luminous chemicals to look as frightening as possible. Obviously the rabbit was going to be connected. But as it turned out, nothing here was obvious – a welcome surprise if you thought you knew exactly what to expect.

For a start, Sherlock didn’t stay out of the action here. After a throwaway line about sending John as “his best man” (as he did in the original), he did an abrupt volte face at Henry’s rather archaic use of the word “hound” rather than “dog”, and went down to Dartmoor himself, with John in tow, for all the world like the Doctor and one of his companions.

Because Gatiss is a Doctor Who fan and writer himself, and it shows. Besides the Baskerville Centre’s obvious resemblance to things like the Inferno Project in 70s Who, the way in which Sherlock and John bluffed their way in – using Mycroft’s stolen ID – was straight out of Who, as was John’s pulling rank on that pretty young Corporal to get him to show them around. Once inside, the ranks of labs and ‘mad scientists’ also owed a fair bit to Who, though I’m sure Gatiss’ horror fixation was drawing inspiration from Frankenstein as well. And cold scientist Dr Stapleton’s answer to the question of why they were doing such weird things – “Why not?” – called to mind a similar exchange with a mad geneticist in The X Files – “Why are you doing these things?” “Because I can.”

As Sherlock and John investigated, nothing was quite as it seemed – either here or in the original story. I was expecting the usual escaped convict to show up, particularly when the barman in the pub mentioned “the prisoner”. Instead, in a laugh out loud moment, the apparent Morse signalling John spotted across the moor was actually caused by some unfortunate joggling on a headlight switch at a local dogging site. ‘Hound’, ‘dogging’ – do you see?

The usual running gag about Sherlock and John being more than friends was also much in evidence, although I’m beginning to wonder whether that’s been done to death now. Still, it was nice that they met a genuine gay couple in the wilds of Devon, in the form of pub landlord Gordon Kennedy and his mustachioed young feller (and barman). And they had a role to play too; in this version, they were the ones keeping the half-starved vicious dog roaming the moor, though they were trying to drum up tourist trade rather than commit murder. By this point, I’d been so thoroughly thrown off the track I thought I knew that I was perfectly prepared to believe them when they said they’d had it put down – a mistake, as it turned out.

Sherlock and John’s ‘bromance’ was at its best this week, as a penitent Sherlock actually found it in himself to actually apologise (sort of) for his cavalier treatment of his only friend while under the influence of terror-generating drugs. There’s been some criticism of this aspect of their relationship, with the recently coined term ‘bromance’ thrown about as an accusation, but fair’s fair – this is absolutely the way they were in Doyle’s stories. No, if I have any criticism of Gatiss here, it’s actually the one that was thrown at Moffat last week – he really doesn’t do female characters well. There were two major characters here who were women, and neither was much more than a cypher. Sasha Behar did her best as Henry’s therapist Dr Mortimer, but the character was paper thin; beyond being ‘caring’ she was only there to be the subject of another of John’s doomed flirtations. Amelia Bullmore as Dr Stapleton fared a little better, as the red herring ‘mad scientist’, but she didn’t really get much to play with either.

But mentioning Dr Stapleton brings me to the point that some Holmes purists might find hard to take – this time round, Stapleton didn’t do it. Instead, the culprit was Clive Mantle’s avuncular Dr Frankland, which I must confess I really didn’t see coming. I did twig fairly early on that the ‘terror’ of the hound was down to weapons-grade hallucinogens – Cumberbatch’s out of character twitchiness after ‘seeing’ the monster was a dead giveaway. This also led to the initially terrifying sequence of John being menaced by an unseen ‘something’ in the Baskerville lab, which in retrospect became very funny when it was shown that it was actually Sherlock putting him through the ordeal as an experiment, while casually playing growling sounds down the PA system. Much kudos to director Paul McGuigan, who pulled off some genuinely heart in mouth suspense sequences while being equally at home with the light touch required for the character comedy.

He also pulled off possibly my favourite sequence of the series so far – a perfect visualisation of Doyle’s conceit of Sherlock’s ‘memory palace’, the artificial mental construct where he files his memories and data. As we were treated to an inspired and often funny scene of Wikipedia-like info scrolling across the screen, and sometimes across Sherlock’s very face (marvellously composited), he finally put together what Henry was remembering – the words “Liberty, In”. All right, the actual solution that it was a secret project in Liberty Indiana, codenamed H.O.U.N.D., and emblazoned across Frankland’s T shirt when he murdered Henry’s father was a little (well, actually a lot) contrived. But it was a neat solution.

As was the revelation that the hallucinogen was actually in the fog at the murder scene – “it’s the scene of the crime and the murder weapon!” That’s one of the neatest ideas I’ve seen in any crime drama, up there with the murderer actually feeding her murder weapon – a leg of lamb – to the police in Tales of the Unexpected. But even after that, Gatiss pulled out a last ace – we weren’t to be cheated of a scary monster after all, as the vicious dog was still alive and roaming, and we got to see it as our drug-addled heroes did, a red-eyed CG monstrosity that was… well, fairly convincing anyway.

All that remained was for Frankland to stumble into Grimpen Mire, here reinvented as Grimpen Minefield, and never get out again. Which he duly did, with an impressively large explosion. That part was reasonably faithful to the original tale, and I’d guessed it would happen early on; but by the time it actually did, the script had played around with my expectations so much I wasn’t sure of anything any more!

This was a series at the top of its game, and – minor criticisms aside – I think I may actually have enjoyed it even more than last week’s. Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman continue to have fantastic and believable chemistry, and the direction was once again top flight. My only question would have to be, why can’t Mark Gatiss write Doctor Who episodes this good?

Next week, to judge by a chilling epilogue, Moriarty is properly back for a reckoning. We saw him released from what appeared to be some kind of psychiatric cell by who knows who (although it sounded like Mark Gatiss as Mycroft), with Sherlock’s name scratched with lunatic obsession into every surface. As Moriarty was perfectly at liberty last time we saw him, there’s plainly some backstory to be filled in here. And it’s notable that, while hallucinating, Sherlock’s ‘greatest fear’ was a vision of Moriarty. Next week may be hard to come back from. Although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle managed it…

Crumbling ironwork – The Iron Lady

“All I wanted to do was make a difference in the world.”

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There have been many onscreen depictions of Margaret Thatcher, both during and after her highly divisive Premiership. She’s been portrayed by satirists (Janet Brown, Jennifer Saunders), respected actresses (Lindsay Duncan, Maureen Lipman) and the just plain unlikely (John Lithgow on Saturday Night Live). All of these have tended to focus on one particular incident in her turbulent time in office – her struggle to become MP for Finchley, her conduct of the Falklands War, her relationship with Chilean dictator and all round bad guy General Pinochet. But Phyllida Lloyd’s much trumpeted new biopic The Iron Lady is the first attempt to make a comprehensive biography of this most divisive of Prime Ministers. Generally, it succeeds. But there are some massive, glaring flaws.

Margaret Thatcher is a difficult figure to approach objectively. Not for nothing have I used the word ‘divisive’ twice in the last paragraph; this is a woman whose leadership polarised political factions more than any other. To the left, she’s a catch-all demon, to be invoked as an example of everything that’s wrong with free market Conservatism. To the right, she’s the perfect angel, in her defeat of socialism, quashing of troublesome trade unions and championing of that very same free market. The truth is almost certainly more complex and nuanced than the popular perception, and it’s that truth that Abi Morgan’s screenplay tries to get at here – not the truth about Thatcher as a politician, but Thatcher the human being, Thatcher the woman, Thatcher the mother, and most of all, Thatcher the wife.

To do this, the film tries its level best to be generally apolitical, not passing any moral judgement on anything Thatcher did or didn’t do, but merely attempting to depict it without comment. But Margaret Thatcher can’t be separated from her politics – politics is what drove her, what made her the person she is or was. The trouble is, with feelings about her still very strong on both sides, it’s difficult for a film maker to produce a partisan piece; support her, and you’ll win firm condemnation from any left-leaning viewers, condemn her, and you’ll be damned as a leftist yourself. The trouble is that sidestepping the moral issues of the politics makes the movie seem in some ways rather anodyne.

I’ve generally enjoyed Abi Morgan’s work as a writer, most recently her 1950s set newsroom thriller The Hour, but in order to walk this apolitical line, the script she’s come up with here is a curious mixture of the cliched and the inspired. In keeping with the most overused of Hollywood tropes, it shows Thatcher as a woman triumphing over all the odds against her, fighting against the (male) establishment and winning. Now, no doubt there’s a fair bit of truth there. But the presentation, all sneering men against our plucky heroine, Thomas Newman’s score giving us swelling strings as Margaret triumphs yet again, recalls all the numerous Hollywoodisations of women triumphing over adversity – Silkwood, Erin Brockovich et al.

In keeping with that style, they’ve got a Proper Hollywood Star in to play Maggie – no less a luminary than Silkwood star Meryl Streep herself, in case you’ve been living in a cave and missed the insane amount of media coverage her casting has had over the last year. But while I wanted to dislike her – how dare this American try to portray our most famous post-war Prime Minister, even if I did hate her? – I have to join in the rest of the critical worship and admit that Streep simply makes the movie.

Her performance is extraordinary, and extraordinarily good. With some clever and subtle makeup, she somehow manages to pull off the tricky feat of convincingly impersonating a well-known public figure while simultaneously giving a nuanced performance. For most of the time she’s onscreen, you forget to admire this, because she so thoroughly inhabits the role, your brain never questions that what you’re actually watching is Margaret Thatcher herself. Not only that, but Streep shows us Thatcher developing over decades, from Education Secretary to Conservative leader to Prime Minister to frail old lady, and catches all the mannerisms that we, the public, always saw in her. That shrill, hectoring voice, trained downwards for authority in her run for party leader, is easy to impersonate, but not so easy to incorporate into a performance; but a real performance is what Streep pulls off, and talk of Oscars seems perfectly justified to me.

The trouble is that, while Streep towers over the rest of the movie, other aspects of casting and characterisation are less successful. There seems to be, in British drama, a standard roster of character players you’re used to seeing as Parliamentarians in this kind of thing, and they all seem to be present and correct here. Nicholas Farrell is Airey Neave, Roger Allam is Gordon Reece, Richard E Grant is Michael Heseltine, etc. For the seasoned viewer of TV satire and docudramas, the struggle was to not associate them with all the other parliamentary dramas they’d been in, and remember that they were playing real people.

And since the movie isn’t being outright political, they’re playing those real people as cyphers, two-dimensional cutouts that lack even the depth given to them at the time by Spitting Image. This is a shame; there are some good actors here who do the best with the material they’re given, but it’s telling that, some of the time, I couldn’t tell who they were meant to be until I looked at the cast list. Given the most screen time is Anthony Head, trying his best to dull down his natural smooth good looks and impersonate Geoffrey Howe. He does pretty well, but his attempt to imitate Howe’s flat drawl comes across as rather forced, as though he’s smoked 80 Marlboro a day then taken a dose of Mogadon.

That the movie chooses to avoid politics by sidelining figures like these is actually a shame, because anyone who lived through those years knows that the British politics of the 70s and 80s was genuinely colourful and dramatic. In the days before spin, before focus groups and the domination of PR companies, politicians seemed like real, often wildly eccentric personalities. The movie catches a little of that, in a couple of montages that show the House of Commons to be a kind of shrieking Bedlam (accurate enough), but reduces some real, flamboyant figures to little more than extras. Grant’s Heseltine, for example, is barely seen, even when he stabbed Thatcher in the back to challenge her leadership; Ted Heath, portrayed rather colourlessly by John Sessions, only gets one scene before he is deposed (offscreen) by Maggie and her scheming cohorts. The few occasions which do show Thatcher sparring with her opposition in the House give a little glimpse of how well this could have been done, with Streep electric in catching her subject’s vehement, strident certainty. But even here, her main opponent is Michael Foot (a convincingly scruffy portrayal from Michael Pennington), though her most fondly remembered scraps of the 80s came with Labour leader Neil Kinnock, not even shown here.

Of course, like her or loathe her, everyone has their favourite Thatcher moment, and it would be impossible for the movie to please everyone on that score without being longer than The Godfather. But for the sake of the drama, it seems odd that some moments have been left out – most notably, Thatcher’s own ultimate downfall could have been neatly counterpointed by details of how she inflicted an identical betrayal on Heath, heightening the sense of hubris when she is ultimately deposed in the same way. Instead, we get an almost disturbingly messianic sequence in which, composed apart from a glistening tear, she exits 10 Downing Street along a bed of rose petals to the accompaniment of a mournful operatic aria.

This kind of virtual deification is disturbing, and recurs at key moments in her career, most notably her ascension to Prime Minister. Streep delivers the “where there is despair, may we bring hope” speech well – perhaps better than the real thing – but for a movie that tries to avoid being partisan, it’s difficult to rein in the triumphalism that’s so key to ‘women triumphing over adversity’ movies. The main side effect of which is that, in portraying her as the conquering heroine, the script seems to implicitly side with her politically. It’s hard to admire her as a person without admiring her politics, and oft times, the movie seems to do that.

As it progresses then, we get a potted history of her political career, which tells us little we didn’t already know. We see her intransigent stand against the trade unions, but with little conveyance of the consequences it had; the miners’ strike is glossed over in a couple of minutes. We see her agonising over the deaths in the Falklands (though, significantly, not the Argentinian ones). And we see her shaken by terrorism, as she is (implausibly) the first one to the scene when Airey Neave is blown up by a car bomb, then victim herself in an effective recreation of the Brighton hotel bombing. All of this is well enough done, but has an almost ‘tickbox’ approach. The scene late in her Premiership in which we see her ruthlessly bullying her Cabinet at a meeting is brilliantly done by Streep et al, but is nonetheless nothing more than a convenient dramatic shorthand to emphasise her ego and hubris, which made her downfall inevitable. Done better, this could have been almost Shakespearean; as it is, it just seems workmanlike.

But even if the movie seems (to me) to fail by divorcing Thatcher from the politics that were so much an integral part of her, it does rather well on its own terms, at portraying her as a flawed human being in her relationships with her family. This is best shown by the framing narrative which actually takes up about half the film; Margaret as she is now, a doddering frail old lady, guarded by machine gun wielding policemen who keep her a virtual prisoner, and most notably haunted by the shade of her beloved Denis, dead eight years previously. As Denis, Jim Broadbent is reliably brilliant, making him loveable in a way that he actually really did seem at the time. Broadbent has two tasks here. In the flashbacks, he’s the real Denis, curmudgeonly, irascible, but part of a loving relationship in which the participants endearingly refer to each other as “M.T.” and “D.T.”. In the present day, he’s a hallucination of the increasingly frail Margaret, prone to sharp observations that logically must have come from deep within her own fragmented mind.

This framing narrative is where the movie works best, though as a consequence, it’s quite uncomfortable to watch. The ageing make up on Streep is thoroughly convincing, as is her body language as she shambles, lonely, through her dimly lit flat. Since by this point you’ve virtually come to believe that she really is Thatcher, it’s hard to watch the indignity to which she’s come. Which isn’t entirely helped by the presence of Olivia Colman as her frequently visiting daughter Carol. Colman, a skilled actress does pretty well, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the glaringly obvious false nose she had to wear – evidently all the good makeup had been saved for Streep.

But these scenes do work extremely well, though I can see why some real life acquaintances of Thatcher find them in poor taste, particularly while she’s still alive. Interestingly, the other really effective sequences are the flashbacks to Margaret’s early years, in which we see her enthusiasm for politics fired up by her small business owning father, and falls in love with an improbably pretty young Denis. For all the praise that’s been heaped on Streep, it’s fair to note that Alexandra Roach also makes a real impression as the young Maggie; Harry Lloyd effectively twinkles as the young Denis, though he’s a little distractingly good looking.

It’s a telling point that the screenplay works best at being apolitical in these sequences particularly; it’s a tightrope it can’t quite walk depicting her actual time in office. As a director Phyllida Lloyd teases out some great performances, and also has the occasional flash of visual brilliance. In particular, there are some very effective overhead shots; of Margaret, the only flash of colour in a crush of black-clad MPs, or of Margaret surrounded  by a crush of the admiring press at her ascension to PM, who gradually fall back from her as if in worship. But Lloyd is a little hamstrung by the movie’s low budget. It really needs a sense of scale to match the real life events, but this can only be provided by the insertion of grainy contemporary news footage, stretched to fill the widescreen image so that people in it look oddly wide. This is generally jarring, and actually has the effect of highlighting the lack of budget, making the viewer even more conscious that the filmmakers couldn’t afford to restage these events in the manner of movies like, say, Gandhi (and that’s a comparison I never thought I’d be making).

The Iron Lady is, at best, a deeply flawed film which can’t quite find an identity. But it is very watchable, if only for Streep’s magnetic performance. And it might be interesting to find out the reaction from people who have little knowledge of the real events portrayed – mostly more than 20 years in the past now – who would be able to take the movie on its own terms rather than as a recreation of times they actually lived through. It comes across as a TV movie writ large, elevated beyond BBC4 by the casting of an international superstar and little else. Not that that’s any reason to condemn it, and as an attempt at a proper biography it works pretty well. But I do wonder whether, with a perspective of distance, later films about Thatcher might be able to come up with a better judgement of her leadership than simply her triumph over adversity as an undeniably formidable woman.

Shocked by Sherlock? – The problems with diversity on TV.

IreneAdler

As hypothesised in my review of Monday’s Sherlock, the pre-watershed broadcast of (discreetly shot) nudity (only Irene Adler’s, I note, not Sherlock’s) has got certain people all hot under the collar. Well, the Daily Mail, inevitably. Indeed, so eager were they to condemn this filth being available to those children still up at 8.10pm, they printed the above picture of it for children to see at any time of the day, alongside their usual sidebar parade of bikini-clad celebs cavorting on the beach.

It is debatable whether a show where one of the central characters is a paid dominatrix who uses her sexuality as a weapon in her games is acceptable pre-watershed viewing. But I stick to my guns of saying that it walked a thin line without falling off; think of all the pre-watershed crime dramas in which prostitution is a key part of the plot. It used to be almost a weekly occurrence in The Bill, back when that was a half hour show on at 8pm. Not to mention the downright dirty jokes in sitcoms and sketch shows as far back as the 70s – did anybody really not get the double entendres about Mrs Slocombe’s pussy in Are You Being Served?

Nor is (I’ll repeat, discreetly shot) nudity anything new in pre-watershed programming. I don’t recall any storms of protest over pre-9pm broadcasts of Carry On Camping, which contains that scene of a young Barbara Windsor accidentally losing her bra. And oddly, less discreetly shot male nudity seems to go without comment on many occasions – what about that bit in Doctor Who episode Love and Monsters where man-hungry mum Jackie Tyler contrives to get Marc Warren’s shirt off?

No, the Mail’s usual hysteria didn’t strike me as anything to worry about. But as a bit of a lefty liberal, what did concern me was a couple of articles condemning Steven Moffat’s portrayal of Irene Adler as demeaning to women, and a retrograde step from Arthur Conan Doyle’s original character. Both Jane Clare Jones’ piece in The Guardian and its presumable inspiration on the Another Angry Woman blog maintain that the final few minutes of the show undercut a previously good portrait of a strong female character, by having her machinations revealed to have been planned by Moriarty (a man), then falling for Sherlock despite having previously claimed to be gay, and finally and most ignominiously of all, having to be rescued from peril by Holmes himself. Both argue that this reduces the ‘strong woman’ status of a character who, in Doyle’s original, needed no help from a man.

It’s certainly a reading you can make. And I can understand all sorts of objections to that final flashback, which tonally did reduce a previously cerebral drama to the level of Boys’ Own heroism (and yes, I did choose that particular comic as an example intentionally). However, it has provoked the same heated online debates as so many feminist articles in The Guardian – it’s anti-men, it’s humourless, it’s just a TV show etc. I must admit, this was my first reaction on reading the original blog post, but then I realised it was a topic worth thinking more seriously about. And to give her credit, blogger Stavvers posted a well-reasoned follow-up in light of the controversy, making a good argument for the need for diversity in mainstream TV. But in defence of Steven Moffat, I’d like to add my two cents worth as to why I didn’t  – quite – see it this way.

Firstly, it must be remembered that the original Irene Adler only appeared in one, pretty short, Holmes story – A Scandal in Bohemia – and that Arthur Conan Doyle was, at the time, writing basically pulp literature for those with short attention spans (one reason I’ve always found it so accessible, I guess). As such, detail on Irene’s character, her personality and her past is necessarily sparse, and much of the popular perception of her is based on the reams of theses and fan fictions produced by scholars and fans of the Holmes canon.

Yes, in the incident with Holmes she is a strong female character, who achieves everything she does independently, without male help. And yet, how do we, the readers, know that she’s always been this independent? Doyle provides no definitive answer either way. Like so much perceived prejudice on TV, our perception of Moffat’s version of Irene depends on preconceptions we ourselves have developed before watching; I really don’t think we can categorically say that Doyle’s character was definitively a more independent woman than Moffat’s.

The nudity in that scene where Irene first meets Sherlock has been seen as exploitative, too, but I took it to be rather cleverer than that. Most obviously, she’s done her research on Sherlock, and knows how much he can deduce about a person from their clothing. Her nudity is a deliberate attempt to prevent that – as shown by his visualised inability to work out anything about her from her initial appearance. But it does go deeper than that. This Irene, extrapolating from what we know of Doyle’s original, is empowered enough to use her sexuality as a weapon. And while John is most obviously discomfited by this, it’s worth remembering that Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock is cleverly poised between genuinely asexual and deeply repressed. I don’t think he would have been entirely immune.

Which also has a bearing on another big objection both Stavvers and Jones have to this portrayal. It can seem as though Irene (who has stated that she’s gay) has overcome her sexuality to fall for Sherlock because he’s just so great, while he, conversely, is free of such ‘feminine’ things as emotions, and therefore superior to her.

Again, though, I disagree on almost every count. Sherlock is portrayed, both in the writing and the performance, as deeply emotionally repressed – but that doesn’t mean he’s without emotions (or superior for that matter – in this regard, John comes off as the better human being). The whole point of the relationship is that, yes, she does have feelings for him, feelings she can’t admit – and so does he. Cumberbatch’s performance sold that to me totally, and I’m surprised anyone missed it.

As to Irene’s apparent disregard of her sexuality, it should be noted that the context of her statement about being gay is very significant. It comes just after she’s been taunting John  about the homoerotic undercurrents in his relationship with Sherlock, and he’s exasperatedly exclaimed, “I am not gay!”, with hints that this is just denial. When she follows it up with, “I am.”, I took that as yet another dig at him and his apparent denial, as we’d already seen that Irene’s sexuality was rather more fluid than that from her ‘clients’. And speaking as a man who is – mostly – gay, I always prefer my TV characters to be sexually fluid rather than rigidly pigeonholed by attraction to one gender or the other; that was one reason I found the portrayal of Captain Jack Harkness in the recent Torchwood so disappointing, as he’d gone from being ‘omnisexual’ to just plain gay. That, to me, felt like more of a retrograde step than this portrayal of Irene Adler. And there, I’m willing to admit, is a view shaped by my preconceptions…

That last flashback, though, in which Sherlock rescues a prone Irene from decapitation-hungry terrorists, is harder to defend. Aside from lowering the tone of the drama rather (not that this bothered me particularly at the time), you can see how Irene ends up as the traditional damsel in distress, dependent on the hero for rescue – very much the antithesis of how the character is usually seen.

The problem here is one that I know has offended Holmes purists as well as feminists – Irene doesn’t win, as she did in the original story. As a Holmes fan, I wasn’t sure I liked that either. But if the final story in this three part series is indeed based on Doyle’s The Final Problem, we’re going to see a cliffhanger which looks like Moriarty has beaten Sherlock – or at the very least ended up with a no-score draw, as both characters are seen to die. I don’t think the series is established enough yet to start showing Sherlock as so fallible at he loses more than he wins in one year. That’s not sexist, it’s just the nature of a show which depends on having a (nearly) infallible hero.

But speaking of Moriarty, what of the claim that his assistance renders Irene’s independence as a woman invalid? That’s an interesting one, precisely because I originally wondered whether, in this new ‘reinvention’, Moriarty would be ‘reinvented’ as a woman. There’s precedent for that kind of thing – Blake’s 7’s ubervillain Servalan was originally conceived as a man, apparently, but the casting of the majestic Jacqueline Pearce in the role gave the narrative a whole new dynamic.

With that in mind, I’d thought that a female Moriarty (the Imelda Marcos of crime?) would be an interesting idea. But I can see precisely why Moffat didn’t do it – because, as a Holmes fan, he wanted to feature Irene Adler as ‘the woman’. So we’ve ended up with a male Moriarty, although I wonder whether, given his level of camp, he’s actually gay. More likely, as a counterpoint to Sherlock, he’s similarly ascetic, I suppose. But I didn’t get the impression that he’d masterminded Irene’s scheme. Again, quite the reverse – he was willing to postpone killing Sherlock and John when he had the chance, simply to allow Irene to use them as tools in her game. That’s how I saw it, anyway.

As Stavvers notes, Doyle’s Irene does what she does to ensure the security of a good marriage, but that’s the social context of the period in which the story was written. Fair enough, but what about the context of this time period? Have we reached a stage where mainstream TV diversity is so guaranteed that it’s irrelevant, plotwise, what gender/sexuality/ethnicity a character is and how independent they are? Both Stavvers and Jones maintain that we haven’t, and further that Steven Moffat is a serial offender in negative portrayals of women as weak and dependent on men.

I find the second point hard to accept about the man who created Lynda Day in Press Gang and River Song in Doctor Who. In fact, I tend to find River Song annoying precisely because she eclipses the (male) main character so much of the time. And Coupling, which Stavvers condemns as “heteronormative” and “binary-obsessed”, was surely a typical situation comedy, not seeking to broaden horizons but merely to entertain in a mainstream way. Besides, from what I’ve seen of it, both genders come off equally unfavourably.

But the argument that we still haven’t reached a point where diversity is the norm is harder to refute. Many moons ago, Star Trek sought to redress a criticism that its ‘inclusive’ universe didn’t include any LGBT characters, with the awful Next Generation episode The Outcast. This totally fudged the issue in two ways. Firstly, by evading the actual subject, introducing an asexual species for whom any sexuality was a thoughtcrime. Secondly, and more significantly, by making it an issue at all. In a truly inclusive future, it simply wouldn’t be a big deal, which Star Trek later did right in a throwaway line in Deep Space Nine. Confronted by a ‘reincarnation’ of a former lover, now female like herself, Jadzia Dax is torn over whether to rekindle their relationship. But it’s not a gender issue; rather, it’s a cultural one relating to her race. As far as same-sex relationships go, the rest of the crew just shrug and wonder why she isn’t just getting on with it.

That’s the right way to handle it, as soap operas are slowly realising with some believable storylines in shows like EastEnders and Hollyoaks. But there are still plenty of plotlines revolving around homosexuality as an issue in itself. Regardless of Harvey Fierstein’s one-time assertion that any visibility is better than none, I’d rather see LGBT people not ghettoised on TV as they were in the 70s, when John Inman and Larry Grayson were everyone’s TV shorthand for homosexuality.

Of course, Russell T Davies made giant strides here, first with the breakout success of Queer as Folk, then with the “just like anyone else” gay characters in Doctor Who. For which he was, of course, accused of having a “gay agenda”. Again, this is an issue depending on the preconceptions of the viewer, and this viewer saw it as a positive step that, in the Whoniverse, gayness was just accepted (except in the historical context where it wouldn’t have been, in stories set in the past, but even this is generally handled well). For my money, Moffat’s run on the show has continued this trend, with characters like the “thin, fat, married, gay Anglican Marines” in A Good Man Goes to War, and the Doctor’s general acceptance of every kind of relationship – as exemplified by his kissing James Corden to distract him in Closing Time.

In terms of diversity, though, some insightful bloggers like Jennie Rigg have noted a tendency, particularly over the last couple of years, for non-white characters to be treated as cannon-fodder – in Star Trek terms, disposable red shirts. Having watched the show recently, I can see this point, though it’s worth pointing out the flipside of this. Basically, there are now so many characters with no script-specified ethnicity – as it should be – that many of them, including the more numerous background characters, are non-white. The flipside of this, of course, is that non-recurring characters in Doctor Who have a tendency – even under Steve Moffat – to die.

I’d argue that the reason it might seem like Who has a racist agenda in this regard is actually as a result of increased inclusiveness in its casting. This is, after all, the show whose reintroduction featured its white heroine in a relationship with a black man, something some more conservative territories found hard to stomach. True, she did almost immediately run off with a dour Northerner, but Mickey Smith went on to show himself as one of the strongest characters in the show, as did, later, Martha Jones. That’s a non-white, female character saving the world when the Doctor can’t, right there. And it didn’t even seem like an issue, because that’s one thing Who tends to get right.

One that did stand out this year – and this was remarked on – was the death of Muslim character Rita (Amara Karan) in Toby Whithouse episode The God Complex. But here again, this was the most positive portrayal, without being overly earnest, of a Muslim I’ve seen on TV recently. And in that episode, every – human – character died, white or not, leaving the only survivor of the episode David Walliams’ weaselly alien Gibbis – was the episode anti-human?Smile

No, I think Doctor Who’s got it about right, in terms of the balance between ethnic diversity in major, minor, regular and non-regular characters. But having done that, it’s churlish to complain of perceived racism if some of them get killed in a show which, let’s face it, has a lot of death in it. After all, how many white people got killed in the show the last few years. Come to that, how many non-humans? There’s only one ethnic boundary left to conquer – the first black Doctor. How about the brilliant Daniel Kaluuya? Or perhaps a female Doctor, as we know from Neil Gaiman’s The Doctor’s Wife that Time Lords can change gender when regenerating. If we’re concerning ourselves with diversity, it’s interesting to ask yourself which of those – if either – you’d find harder to deal with. (Clue – it should be neither of them.)

This has ended up being a longer ramble than I originally intended, and the fact that there is so much to say on the subject shows, in my mind, that there are still are problems with diversity on television. But I think we’ve made bigger steps than Stavvers or Jane Claire Jones think. Again, this is a result of my preconceptions, but I’ve tried to examine them and think it through, something I’m not sure those with less reflective agendas have. There are often hints that some commentators believe writers should be issued with an equality checklist for every character like the ones you get on job applications, to ensure that each TV drama/comedy contains the requisite proportion of demographics, and that none are portrayed in any way negatively. But on television, as in life, positive discrimination is still discrimination, and reaching a decent balance needs to be achieved some other way than by militancy.