Archive for the ‘ken loach’ Tag

Best of British – Top British films of the last 25 years

Mike Leigh's Naked

Mike Leigh's Naked (ooh matron!)

My response to today’s Observer Film Magazine list of ‘The Best British Films 1984-2009’

My 15 favourite home-grown films of the last quarter century (in no particular order) are:

  • In Bruges [not in The Observer list, made by FilmFour, a cracking script by Martin McDonagh]
  • 24 Hour Party People [I’m not a huge fan of Steve Coogan but he’s brilliant in this #24 of 25]
  • Venus [Peter O’Toole and Leslie Phillips make a great double act, not in The Observer list]
  • The Remains of the Day [deeply moving performances by Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, not in The Observer list]
  • A Room with a View [perfectly executed film of its type, not in The Observer list]
  • Naked [the fruit of David Thewlis’ creativity #14]
  • The Hours [Nicole Kidman shines among a host of brilliant actresses, not in The Observer list]
  • The Constant Gardener [another powerful Ralph Fiennes performance, not in The Observer list]
  • Last Resort [Pawel Pawlikowski bursts onto the British scene, not in The Observer list]
  • Hunger [a bold, fresh artist’s film from (the other) Steve McQueen but not an arty one #16]
  • Chaplin [captures something of the greatest film-maker of all time, not in The Observer list]
  • Secrets & Lies [a culmination of Mike Leigh’s approach #3]
  • In the Name of the Father [powerful acting spearheaded by Daniel Day-Lewis, not in The Observer list]
  • A Month in the Country [a gentle, bucolic one – not in The Observer list]
  • Defence of the Realm [a top-class thriller shot by Roger Deakins, not in The Observer list]
  • The Commitments [energised by the powerful lungs of Andrew Strong, not in The Observer list]

Bubbling under: Borat, Howard’s End, High Hopes, Shadowlands, Johnny English, East is East, The Bounty, Son of Rambow, Billy Elliot

venusI enjoyed flicking through the pages of today’s Observer Film Magazine, The Nation’s Choice, focused on contemporary British cinema as I supped my Cullen Skink outside a pub on the Shore of Leith, winding down from the manic activity of the Edinburgh Television Festival, said soup surely worthy of sitting alongside Tarmac and Lino as a GSI (Great Scottish Invention). [It would have been fun to check out the online discussion the mag urges us to visit but after ten minutes searching for it on The Guardian/Observer site I gave up.]

Leafing through I realised this has been a fairly significant part of my life over the years, despite being more focused on telly – from the photo of my old flat-mate Emer McCourt alongside #21, Ken Loach’s Riff-Raff, to Loach’s producer Rebecca O’Brien who sat at the table I hosted at the TV BAFTAs a couple of years ago; from Mike Leigh who I met at Dick Pope‘s around the time my first son was born (the same son who three years later slammed a heavy glass door onto the renowned director in a Crouch End shop) to Dick himself, one of my first bosses at Solus, who shot #3 Secrets and Lies (and much of Leigh’s oeuvre besides); from Ben Gibson, Director of the London Film School, with whom I was involved trying to set up a South African film/tv scholarship to Ewen Bremner, featured in both #1 Trainspotting and #14 the marvellous Naked, who I met when he was making a training film early in his career (written by John Mole and, unbeknownst to the casual viewer, based on Beowolf).

Beyond this punctuation of connections though is the steady presence of Channel 4, FilmFour, More 4, Britdoc (the Channel 4 British Documentary Film Foundation) – in particular, my esteemed colleague Tessa Ross whose fingerprints are on so many of the films (from Billy Elliot to #9 Slumdog Millionaire), dubbed recently the Mother of British Film-making. Choose Life is engraved on the glass doors of Channel 4’s Glasgow office in recognition of the Channel’s role in bringing the landmark movie that is Trainspotting to life. #11 Touching the Void was commissioned out of Peter Dale’s More4. #16 Hunger was patiently nurtured by my much missed colleague Jan Younghusband in Channel 4 Arts (her ex-husband Peter Chelsom made Hear My Song, which starred my friend Adrian Dunbar and whose script crossed my desk at Solus (and still sits in my bookcase) on its way to Roger Deakins, another of my bosses at Solus – the kind of thing which links the Channel 4 nexus and my pre-C4 web of experiences). The next generation is represented by Mat Whitecross, whose film Moving to Mars is being broadcast on More4 in November and was part-financed by Britdoc, run with flair by former C4 fellow Commissioning Editor Jess Search. I haven’t worked it out exactly but I’d say well over 30% of the Top 25 has FilmFour/Channel 4  input. Stephen Frears’ big break with #5 My Beautiful Launderette. From #17 Shane Meadow’s This is England to #10 Four Weddings and a Funeral, the full gamut. What an incredible record and a significant contribution to the last quarter century of British cinema.

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Hunger

Steve McQueen directing Hunger

Steve McQueen directing Hunger

I have to admit I was a bit worried when I heard Channel 4 were making a film about Bobby Sands and the Maze hunger strike. Having sat through shite like Ken Loach and Rebecca O’Brien’s ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ I feared the worst. But ‘Hunger‘, by Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen, is an artist’s film of intense emotional impact and real insight. And it belongs on the big screen, its compositions and rhythms fill the space. That it is a London born film-maker, a black film-maker, that provides such insight into so fraught and sensitive an Irish story is all the more remarkable.

It was commissioned by my colleague Jan Younghusband, Commissioning Editor for Arts and Performance at Channel 4. She is a woman with a purist and committed approach to art, as I learned from working with her on projects like Big Art Project and 4mations. ‘Hunger’ was five years in the making and conception. Through her work on the Turner Prize Jan came into contact with McQueen, hooked up from time to time in a cafe on Old Compton Street and gradually homed in on this most demanding of subject-matter. Film 4, in the person of Peter Carlton (who I worked with last year on My Movie Mash-up/Faintheart, which amply demonstrated his ballsy approach) came in to back the film as a theatric offering. I have to say, having just emerged from a viewing of the finished film, I couldn’t be prouder to be part of an organisation that creates a work like this.

I walk past Bobby Sands regularly in the form of a Christ-like statue of him in Newry, the town in County Down where my wife was born. She grew up in Northern Ireland in the 70s and early 80s – I can hardly imagine how she and her sisters will watch this film. Whatever you feel about the politics behind Bobby Sands (of which most of our (British) population is incredibly ignorant, and was so back in 1980 – as a suburban London teenager it was right off my radar beyond what I gleaned from Stiff Little Fingers) the portrayal of political conviction and of inhuman bigotry is as powerful as it comes. Thatcher’s voice, heard in voice-over punctuating the film from time to time, comes across as truly monstrous. Everything about its coldness and stridency speaks of the huge cultural gulf between the Lincoln grocery and a family gathering in West Belfast or Gweedore, Donegal (where the key flashback scene of the film takes place) or pretty much anywhere in Ireland or an Irish home.

My wife recalls how her life and the lives of all around her were overshadowed by the hunger strike. A time punctuated by the staggered deaths (they deliberately spaced the starts of their hunger-strikes two weeks apart to maximise the impact of their sacrifice). Looking back from the last few years it is only now she truly recognises what a troubled, hard childhood she and her contemporaries lived through. A couple of years ago we were in the (old) Tate with the children. They were copying some of the pictures in the Pop Art rooms. As we emerged from the gallery I noticed my wife was really upset. I asked her what was up and it turned out walking through a room of Richard Hamilton images of soldiers on the streets of Belfast [The State 1993] had really disturbed her and awakened ghosts. (Richard Hamilton of course also portrayed Bobby Sands draped in blanket in his picture ‘The Citizen’ [1981-83].)

When I first visited Newry in 1986 I was greeted by the most surreal of experiences – walking down the high street I watched British troops, armed with machine guns and equipped with radios, ducking in and out of shop doorways between little old ladies struggling along with their shopping bags. Nothing in my North London childhood had given me the slightest clue that such dark comedy was to be had on the streets of ‘my country’.

On my way out of the screening I met a woman who looked pretty shaken by the experience (naturally enough). It turned out her daughter works at the Channel and she comes from Crossmaglen, Co. Armagh. Needless to say she knew the one family I know in Crossmaglen, as that is the way of Ireland. I knew the hospital she was born in in Newry, Daisyhill aka Crazyhill, as my wife was born there too. I knew her school in Kilkeel as my wife went there too. It’s a small, connected place. In her family home this woman I got talking to has some of the tiny notes smuggled out of the Maze – that’s how connected it is.

I thought the starvation in Sean Penn’s ‘Into the Wild‘ was painful to watch and moving but it goes nowhere near the forensic observation of this film. The skeletal bodies are resonant of Auschwitz – and the crucifixion. And yet the film captures something incredible, something transcendent about the human spirit and will.

Towards the end of the film we see a flashback of the Belfast boy on a coach traveling over the border into Donegal to attend a cross-country race put on by the Christian Brothers (purveyors, as Pete McCarthy amusingly put it, of “the carrot and stick method of Education – only without the carrot”). Behind the face of the young Bobby is a blurred swoosh of gold, low sunlight on the ferns and bogland. It represents a paradise to the starving man.

Recalling when I first went to that place – Gweedore – brings a smile to my lips. I’d followed the roadmap and came to what I thought was not far from Gweedore. I stopped at a junction, reminiscent of where Cary Grant gets off the bus in ‘North-by-Northwest’ and gets attacked by a crop-spraying plane. There was a small shop at the junction, outside of which stood an old fella in a flat cap. I wound down the window and asked him where Gweedore was. You’re in it. Where? All around. He was trying to explain the concept of a ‘townland’ which was foreign to me. ‘Town’ I get. ‘Land’ and ‘country’ I get. But this was something in-between, half way to the imagination, between the word on the map and the ground beneath me was a cultural gap and an imaginative leap. ‘Dhun na nGall’ (Donegal) means ‘fort of the foreigners’ – foreigners have given the people there a tough time since way back – from the marauding Vikings (who probably explain my wife’s love of the battle and fighting scenes in ‘Gladiator’) to the screws beating the living shit out of Bobby Sands and fellow prisoners with their truncheons and tattooed knuckles. The same shit these men smeared on the walls of their cells in an astonishing act of defiance for over 4 years, the shit McQueen turns into a kind of circular abstract painting in one scene. The ability of people to survive that kind of degradation and brutality for the sake of an idea is ultimately uplifting. The ability to inflict that kind of degradation and brutality is to be the subject of one of my next posts (bet you can’t wait 😉 inspired by Philippe Sands‘ recent book Torture Team about torture in Iraq, where Steve McQueen served as a war artist in 2003.) So shifting Sands from Bobby to Philippe – not easy subjects but then 7/7 isn’t an easy day…

Life afta Bafta

Bitter Lemon

I think it was Sartre who said: “You’ve got to be philosophical about it.” Well, I was trying my best last night at the TV BAFTAs after Big Art Mob lost out to Spooks in the Interactivity category. I tried to put on my least bitter look, so more mandarin than lemon but not really peachy.

That said, I had an enjoyable enough evening. Besides my co-nominees (Alfie Dennen of Moblog and Clifford Singer of Edition, who showed an admirably rigid upper lip) at my table was the dapper Peter Kosminsky, writer and director of Britz (for Channel 4), which caused the biggest upset of the night by stealing the Drama Serial category from hot favourite Cranford. He gave a lovely acceptance speech acknowledging his late father, an aspiring writer who never achieved recognition. Accompanying Peter was his wife Helen who works for Artichoke, the outfit behind The Sultan’s Elephant – which I had the great pleasure of stumbling on by accident as I left a meeting at the ICA, one of those unexpected pleasures which make life worth living.

The two leads from Britz were also at our table, Riz Ahmed and Manjinder Virk, the former filling us in on his non-acting activities as Riz MC – I’ve just downloaded a track (The Post 9/11 Blues) and it’s a jolly little choon with a nice twist of politics. Talking of twist, he told an illuminating story about coming back from the Berlin film festival (where Britz won the Silver Bear) and being detained and roughed up by British immigration when he reacted with incredulity to their bizarre full-on questioning as he arrived home-sour-home.

Among our number was also a trio of filmfolk – David Aukin, formerly head of FilmFour (in the Trainspotting era) who told us a bit about his new movie that kicked off production yesterday starring the marvelous William Hurt (The Big Chill, Altered States, Smoke); Rebecca O’Brien, Ken Loach’s long-time producer; and Kierston Wareing, up for best actress for It’s a Free World (not bitter either), who was sitting on the other side of a large clump of decorative foliage from me so never had the pleasure of engaging with her beyond admiring her LBD+ (second only to Joanna Lumley’s flowing tangerine Grecian number).

Otherwise caught up with Ben Miller (of Miller and Armstrong) who co-wrote MindGym with Tim Wright and me. The best thing about working with him was that he insisted on performing the stuff he wrote before he would hand it over. He was also being philosophical about things having lost out in the Comedy category to C4’s Phonejacker.

Another philosopher was Matthew MacFadyen who, having missed out on Best Actor (in his role in Secret Life) to Andrew Garfield (Boy A), confirmed it’s all a pile of crap (the classic default position until you triumph), backed up by his Mrs Keeley Hawes who confirmed it’s all down to who’s in the room the day they do the judging (the back-up default position).

Other highlights of the evening included having a piss beside the Top Gear boyz Richard Hammond and James May which impressed the Enfants Terribles no-end (they’re Dave addicts); getting picked up from my gaff by a chauffeur-driven posh Audi (driven by an off-duty road cop from Northampton) – I took as long as I could decently do getting from the front door to the car for maximum neighbour-exposure; meeting various Skinsfolk including Tony and the late Chris; and spotting a psycho-stalker-autographhunter (complete with two cameras round his neck, the cover of an Emmerdale video among his equipment, and seriously deranged teeth) as we went into the Grosvenor bash, who, together with the red carpet experience before the Palladium show, made you happy not to live the celeb life-style and truly content with the Simple Pleasures.

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