Blog

Shogun

Only two episodes in and Shogun is already one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time.

An adaptation of James Clavell’s best-selling novel, it’s rich, meaty, measured, with a lush production design and first-rate scripts and direction,

It tells the tale of John Blackthorne, an English sailor who rolls up in feudal Japan on a secret mission and instantly plunges into the culture clash between East and West.

The political chicanery and treachery are interspersed with astonishing set pieces that have you on the edge of your seat.

And the acting by a predominantly Japanese cast is excellent. Disney obviously spent a lot of money on this and it shows.

Lots of good lines, but I enjoyed: “Two baths in one week? Do you want me to catch the flux?”

3 Body Problem

Thoroughly enjoyed the first episode of Netflix’s 3 Body Problem.

I have a feeling this one is going to be massively divisive. Fans of the original novels will probably be furious it steps away from the books’ cold abstraction to attempt a more human connection, something that is absolutely necessary to reach the broader audience required for a TV adaptation.

But those coming expecting Netflix’s own Game of Thrones via the rep of showrunners Benniof and Weiss will also be disappointed because it brings from the books the need for an at least rudimentary understanding of science, scientific terms, even the Cultural Revolution. The pacing is also glacial.

And unlike GoT you don’t get any tits and knobs to break up the exposition.

But somewhere in the great Venn diagram there’s a little segment which appreciates the changes made and that’s where I slot in.

The vastness of the universe, mysterious countdowns, the fifth generation of Apple’s Vision Pro, puzzles and conundrums and a climate crisis analogy coupled with some solid history rarely seen in the West made for an intriguing watch.

I also saw someone complaining that all the key scientists were good-looking which is Nerd-Rage at its finest.

Running For Creativity

I’m a runner. Nothing extreme or competitive. No marathons. But I do about 7km a day, most days, and have done since I was at university.

Over the years I’ve found it’s the greatest source of creativity – many ideas have come to me while I’ve been out in the greenery. It’s also deeply meditative, cleaning out the detritus of daily life.

Which brings me to the Tendai Buddhist monks in the mountains of Japan. In a practice started 1200 years ago, they run the Kaihogyo, a seven year ultramarathon which they see as the path to enlightenment.

During that time, a monk must run:

*25 miles a day for 100 days for the first three years

  • 25 miles a day for 200 days for years four and five
  • 37 miles a day for 100 days in year six
  • 52 miles a day for 100 days, then 25 miles a day for 100 days in the final year

That takes them a distance greater than the earth’s circumference and they do it in sandals made from woven rope.

Just in case you were looking for a new fitness challenge.

Tales Of The Weird

The British Library’s Tales of the Weird series does a great job preserving the rich heritage of the fantastic in literature, digging up long buried stories from obscure authors (and many famous ones) and presenting them to a new audience.

Here’s the first from my subscription – one book a month, with a couple of art prints and a bookmark thrown in – Doomed Romances – Strange Tales of Uncanny Love. The familiar authors here are Angela Carter, Mary Shelley, Wilkie Collins and Sheridan le Fanu, but there are plenty more I haven’t heard of.

There’s been something of a move in recent times to say past works from dead genre authors have no relevance in the modern world. But all students of literature know that everything builds on what’s gone before, even if unconscious, however revolutionary.

You can’t truly know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve come from.

Many of these old stories still stand up today, creepy, unsettling, imaginative, and it’s a slow-burning revelation to realise that what disturbed people in the past still does so today. There’s something of humanity in that.

It’s good to see this book series has been such a huge success because the British Library is going through a bit of a crisis right now. It came under a massive cyberattack from the ransomware group Rhysida in October.

Entire systems were destroyed, staff and book data stolen and sold on the Dark Web.

So devastating, in fact, that the National Cyber Security Centre, part of the GCHQ intelligence service, is still fighting to get everything back to normal. Authors waiting for their PLR payments this year may have to wait for a long time.

So far there are 39 books in the Tales of the Weird series, with a new one coming every month, excavated from the library’s archives. For anyone interested, you should be able to get on the 3-for-2 sale now running.

Best TV Drama 2023

All those writers pumping out columns about the Death of the Golden Age of TV should walk away in embarrassment. 2023 was a great year for the medium. There were lots of shows I could have included here – Swarm, The Last of Us, The Crown – but these are the ones that stayed with me for different reasons.

10. THE MORNING SHOW

(Apple TV+) A step-up from the disappointing second season thanks to a cohesive and driving narrative. This season weds its usual soapiness with some sharp commentary on the state of modern media, a timely takedown of Musk and his cronies using their fortunes to degrade things the public love. Jon Hamm comes on board to add some much-needed weight with the meaty role of a tech bro who loves flying rockets and buying and breaking things. Greta Lee is a standout as the conflicted executive and there’s great work from Billy Crudup (who gave a smart speech to graduating students at NYU’s Tisch School of Film and Drama this year).

9. THE MARVELLOUS MRS MAISEL

(Amazon Prime) This show has been a delight from start to finish and it’s not often you can use that word about modern TV. Its charm is stitched into the very fabric, through the lush production values that capture 50s New York and Jewish culture of that time and through the characters all dealing with their low-stakes dramas. There’s a feminist streak to it as Midge tries to plough her own furrow as a stand-up and TV comedy writer, challenging the patriarchy in all its forms, but it’s not laboured. This season was a good sendoff and ends with a feeling of being wrapped in a warm blanket (though the flash forwards to Midge in future decades were completely unnecessary.)

8. ATLANTA

(FX) Donald Glover revealed a brilliant and mercurial mind in the way he took Atlanta from its initial premise about a rapper, Paperboy, and his manager to a show that could comment on anything large or small, with a format that twisted reality, plunged deep into the weird and unsettling, kicked over statues and smashed tradition. At times it felt like a modern version of the Twilight Zone, at others a trippy exploration of black lives everywhere. But it was always rooted in character and anchored by a superb performance from Brian Tyree Henry.

7. POKER FACE

(Peacock) “What year is this?” Agent Cooper said at the end of Twin Peaks and you could be forgiven for asking the same question here. From the get-go you’re thrown back into the 1970s through familiar typeface and stylings designed to evoke a certain feeling, even though Poker Face is set now. Yes, Knives Out’s Rian Johnson has decided to do his own version of Colombo. The same format – you get the murder up front and see who did it – and then the drama comes from how Natasha Lyonne’s on-the-run casino worker gets to solve it. Every episode is a self-contained character-driven story, which used to be an American TV tradition back in the first golden age of TV, all of it delivered with brilliant actors and lots of panache.

6. BILLIONS

(Showtime) The ending of a show is critical for its longevity. The Sopranos and Six Feet Under got it right. Dexter and House of Cards didn’t. Billions, I’m happy to say, lands perfectly. It just about survived losing its lead Damian Lewis for a season after the tragic death of his wife, but he’s back as Ax here, with a vengeance. The show’s traditional twisty-turny plot goes exactly where you expect it to, though not in the manner you thought. That works because the ending is hugely fulfilling for viewers who have followed these characters through their seven season long Shakespearean battle. Spin-offs are coming.

5. SILO

(Apple TV+) Based on Hugh Howey’s novels, Silo is set in a dystopian future where a community survives, just about, in a deep silo cut off from the rest of the world. The atmosphere of mystery is suffocating as the population is forced to accept what they’re told about the outside world by their leaders – the themes here are clear – but there’s an emotional heart to the intellectual games. Rebecca Ferguson is a tough hero, kicking against the rules, and there’s strong support from Tim Robbins, David Oyelowo and Rashida Jones.

4. SLOW HORSES

(Apple TV+) You can’t take your eyes off Gary Oldman when he’s on screen as the belching, farting, curmudgeonly but brilliant and ruthless Jackson Lamb, the head of Slough House, a unit for useless failed spies. The pace hasn’t slowed, the characters are maturing with each season, the humour is just as pointed. The show has done great justice to Mick Herron’s excellent novels, capturing the sly, wry tone and the sardonic view of the failings of the powerful, but it’s Oldman’s performance that holds everything together.

3. A MURDER AT THE END OF THE WORLD

(FX) This crashed into the zone just as I was preparing to write this list, a show that grabs all sorts of traditions and rams them relentlessly into the modern world. On the surface it’s a murder-mystery set in an isolated house – here a hi-tech hotel in Iceland – but as you would expect from Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, the creators behind Netflix’s exemplary The OA, it twists into something different entirely. Symbols, serial killers, society-changing technology, a world on the brink. Anchored by an astonishing, award-winning performance by Emma Corrin as reluctant investigator Darby who grew up around dead bodies, the series also manages to be deeply affecting in the way it sketches Darby’s relationship with Harris Dickinson’s Bill. And these TV creators really don’t like Elon Musk, do they?

2. SUCCESSION

(HBO) Everyone held their breath to see if Jesse Armstrong could pull off an ending to his biting satire about the hateful, hyper-wealthy but also loveable in their miserable, fucked-up lives Roy clan. He did. Each episode is a mini play, usually confined to a single location but which crackles with the tension of well-defined characters clawing themselves one step away from destruction. The shocks come out of left field – no spoilers – but it’s the little moments that stay with you: Kendall Roy’s excruciating public speaking, always one step away from a breakdown, Roman Roy’s unexpected tears that reveal the depth of his trauma, but mainly the numerous weaslings of Matthew Macfadyen’s Tom Wambsgans who is a potent brew of oil and desperation. The Murdochs should watch and weep.

  1. THE BEAR

(Hulu) Proof that you don’t need heavy plot to make one of the most compelling and affecting shows of the year. The first season of Christopher Storer’s comedy-drama was fantastic. This takes it to a whole new level as we dig into the lives of the hard-pressed crew working in a Chicago sandwich shop and discover the demons that drive them all. The cast is uniformly excellent – vis all the Golden Globe nominations they just landed. But it’s the big heart and the humanity that will stay with you.

A Murder At The End Of The World

Just as I was about to start writing my annual Top Ten TV Drama of the Year, this one slipped under the wire and crashed straight in.

Made by the couple behind Netflix’s exemplary The OA, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, A Murder at the End of the World is a twisty mystery that is propelled by excellent performances, smart direction and writing, and the showrunners’ genre-bending take.

It’s based on traditional roots – an isolated house – this time in Iceland – and a collective of suspects/victims.

But there’s no last century nostalgia here – it’s thoroughly modern in its understanding of the world we now inhabit and the rapid technological and social changes we’re all going through.

In a star-making turn, Emma Corrin is the Holmesian detective figure (though that parallel is only in her elegant intellect and attention to minute detail). She truly is phenomenal as Darby, an author and investigator who grew up around dead bodies with her pathologist father.

What elevates this is her affecting emotional connection with Harris Dickinson’s Bill, another Brit playing American.

If you enjoyed The OA there are lots of Easter eggs here, symbols and general strangeness. As you’d expect from Marling and Batmanglij, it shows what you can achieve when you stop looking back and start looking forward.

On Disney+ in the UK, Hulu in the US.

A Farewell To A Pogue…And Kiss My Arse

Shane MacGowan’s funeral has been going on all day in Dublin and what will undoubtedly be an epic wake hasn’t even started.

Massive crowds lined the street to say goodbye to The Pogues’ frontman, someone who defined a certain kind of Irishness and was deeply loved for it.

Nick Cave was there to do a reading, as was Johnny Depp, Bob Geldof and Bono with a mass of other celebrities in the pews.

The outpouring across the world might seem surprising for someone who only had one hit that broke into public consciousness.

But what a song.

Fairytale of New York will be with us forever at this time of year, capturing something deep and powerful, the raw emotion of people who hate each other but can’t walk away because behind it all their love is enduring.

And it changed reality. Once the song hit hard, the NYPD set up the choir they never had before – even though the choir in MacGowan’s lyric is the chorus of the n’er-do-wells banged up in the drunk tank.

But the rest of his output was phenomenal and just as affecting. Sally MacLennane. A Pair of Brown Eyes. In fact the whole of Rum, Sodomy and the Lash.

Few people know Shane went to Westminster Public School on a scholarship. It’s to his credit he didn’t use any of the advantages that afforded him. He ploughed his own furrow with his own talent.

Shane and The Pogues meant a huge amount to me in my formative years. The music captured the worldview that I love and which has been embedded in all my writing – a deep romanticism suffusing the urban landscape. Rain in Soho. Mist on Albert Bridge.

With that genius came a huge amount of self-destructiveness as is often the case with brilliant artists, the light and the dark bound up together creating a synergy that reveals truths.

Shane was a drunk. He lived in the pub in Kilburn before he moved to Ireland, chain smoking and legless. When I wrote a piece about him trying to kick the booze, all the other members of The Pogues got in touch to say, no, he’s killing himself. They were all desperately worried. That was years ago and somehow Shane just kept going, until he didn’t.

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone and I have no doubt that Shane MacGowan’s fame will now grow to the level it deserves.

So kiss my arse, Shane – the meaning of the band’s original name, Pogue ma Hone. Kiss my arse and let’s see Fairytale of New York the Christmas number one.

Billions

Endings are hard. Doesn’t matter if it’s a novel or short story, TV series or film. How the audience is left depends on whether the story will live on, whether the readers or viewers will pick up more of the creator’s work, often whether the project gets published/made in the first place. It’s critical.

There are a couple of simple rules. The payoff must be better/bigger/more surprising than the set up (so not The Village which did the opposite just to get a twist). And it’s not good enough for the end to be logically right or arrive at the right place. It has to be satisfying for those who’ve invested their time and money (so not Dexter which arrived at the right place but without earning it).

So no to House of Cards, no to Game of Thrones. Yes to The Sopranos, yes to Six Feet Under.

And yes to Billions, which has been a fantastic series from start to finish, even surviving the loss of a star for a season after the tragic death of his wife. Shakespearean in tone, it gets to the heart of today’s struggle between vast wealth and fairness and the law and all the messy compromises involved in that battle, including the personal toll.

Huge characters, twisty-turny plots, unashamedly clever and with two amazing performances among many from Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti. The ending landed, was satisfying and stayed true to the themes. Such a success for Showtime, four spinoffs are in the works.

The First And Only Rule Of Creativity

There are some truly bad takes on what it takes to be a successful creative. On one of my Facebook posts someone suggested the worst: don’t say anything controversial if you want to “make fans” or sell work.

That view will kill any hope you have for a career.

Nobody buys anything bland. Nobody wants things that don’t leave any mark on the surface of humanity. If they stumble across one by accident, they won’t buy any more. Why would you want any grey in your life?

The creator’s character is infused into their work and that’s what people buy into. A voice. An opinion on the human condition. A stand. It will repel some people and that’s how it should be because no creative work is for everybody. But some people will connect and when they do they’ll stay with you forever because they sense a bond deeper than words or pictures.

A characterless work is for nobody.

So be authentic. Speak your mind. Kick over statues, upset people. Accept some are going to hate you, then ignore them – they’re not good enough for your work.

Be you.

That’s the only way to make something that lasts. And that’s the only way to live with yourself.

The New Age

Hamlet

Applicants per student place in 2023:

University of Cambridge 6
RADA (BA Acting) 121

This comes from a Financial Times piece on The Economics of Acting. You might think this merely points out how many dreamers there are. I think it shows something deeper.

The world is changing fast, as anyone can see. Values are changing, beliefs are altering. That’s leaving some, generally older, people bewildered.

One of the big transformations is in the world of work. People no longer feel they have to devote the precious years of their lives to becoming a cog in the great machine, existing in dull offices because that’s how things have always been done.

They want something better, some kind of fulfilment, and they don’t want to play the old game any more. Particularly when it benefits others and not them.

Economic necessity will always force some down hard roads. But they will still dream in the way they might not have done in the last century.

You can see it in the powerful work from home movement, with many under 35 refusing to take jobs that force them to grind unnecessarily in the office for five days a week.

They’re turning down higher pay, ignoring the fury of politicians and company bosses, demanding a new of operating that benefits them.

Recognising the creativity that burns inside and refusing to have it squashed is an act of rebellion against a broken system.

Change can’t come fast enough.