Lion – a review

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Only a person with a heart of concrete would refuse to adopt little Saroo on first sight

Warning: Lion is a two-hanky movie; it will have you bawling unless you swallow really cold ice-cream to encourage a brain freeze, or by driving a nail into your palm. That might get you through the first third of the film, but I guarantee by the end you’ll be blubbing like a school kid who’s lost his playtime piece.

I knew it was a tear-jerker so I took a handkerchief. I should have taken a warehouse of Kleenex tissues.

The movie is in three parts, it begins as it should with the young Saroo at home and then lost to his mother; the centre concerns itself with Saroo in his early twenties adopted by an Australian mother and father; and finally Saroo searching for his family back in India.

The middle section is the weakest. It’s over-long, frequently repetitive, and uneven. It holds your attention because you are keen to see how Saroo manages to work out where in that vast continent called India he might have lived, but it sags lopsided when trying to show us the complicated relationship with his surrogate mother, in particular, his  troubled adopted brother, and his new-found girlfriend, played by the redoubtable Rooney Mara. To be honest, it just skirts on the right side of pseudo psychology.

The film’s Aussie centre – Hobart in Tasmania – exists because this is a film based on a true story backed by the Australian Film Fund. It also has Nicole Kidman as the adopting mother. You can’t  have a movie star give a film box office legs offered only a single scene. She has to get space to emote: express joy, anger, and weep to show her acting chops.

I have not read the book on which the film is based, A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley, but by all the reviews I have read it’s a riveting story not at all well told. If that is true, the film under the confident hand of director Garth Davis elevates it well beyond the maudlin and the sentimental.

In a nutshell the film asks: How do those of us living in relative comfort square our good luck with the lot of the rest of the world? I am not sure it manages to answer that question but it does prick our conscience.

The author, Saroo Brierley, was born in a small Indian town, then lost at the age of five tender years of age in Kolkata, and after various adventures in survival in an adult world full of dangers, got adopted and raised by a pair of well-heeled Aussies.

Saroo did not manage to return to India to seek his birth family until a quarter century later, and the profound sorrow of those years – and the guilt of having been given a life of plenty and opportunity denied to them – permeates the whole film, haunting the adult Saroo every day, and often every waking night.

He is constantly jolted by images of his adoring mother collecting rocks in a quarry to make ends meet, and his elder brother who loved him as much.

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Dev Patel letting us know he’s well on his way to seriously handsome and hunky

Like Slumdog Millionaire this is a commercial film. Nobody should expect interior and moral complexity. As the story unfolded I kept wishing a truly poetic director had been its guide, not that Aussie Garth Davis does a bad job, his direction is sure enough, but he often misses out on the subtle and the silent.

A poetic vision would have dumped many of the Australian sequences in preference for Saroo’s childhood, and what was left of scenes in his Australian home shed of their extraneous dialogue. A master such as Satyajit Ray might have had camera shots lingering on faces and emotions a few beats longer than we are given, making us feel we are at one with the people we see on the screen. The film’s middle is far too busy leaving little time for the last act which seems overly compressed in comparison. There would have been time to see more of Saroo’s life with his mother, and how she eked out an existence between a hard life and starvation.

In real life as in the film’s reconstruction, five-year-old Saroo gets separated from his older brother at a train station near their remote village. He holes up in out-of-service train to sleep, but awakens locked in the carriage barreling east 1500 kilometers distance. When the doors are unlocked at a station packed with the morning’s commuters he is in a strange crowded land with a language he does not speak, Bengali. He speaks Hindi, a conflict that isn’t developed far enough.

Davis throws us a neat clichéd, one-note montage of everyday folks brushing poor Saroo off balance left and right – some even slapping him for getting between their feet – as he tries to make his way into the metropolis. Saroo is harassed and shouted at, at every turn.

Still, the lost-in-India scenes are compelling, intimidating and beautiful all at once, as you would expect with anything shot in that iridescent land of the tiger and the peacock. The trick is, however, to avoid the seduction of showing poverty set against the warm glow of the evening sun, or in the multi-colourful market places filled with herbs and fruits. Davis doesn’t always manage to avoid temptation.

Saroo find his way among overhead bridges and through station tunnels. There’s close to majesty in a steady shot, from a distance, of him dashing down the stairs of a block of flats, fleeing sex traffickers.

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Director Davis gives Saroo and his companion a tip on how not to look at the camera lens

Our heart is with the young Saroo at every step, and we hold our breath when he gets into trouble, and run like the wind with him when he flees from jeopardy.

We are constantly taken by surprise by the acts of kindness he experiences from the poor of the city, many destined to physical penury for life or an early death, or both. When he arrives at an over-crowded orphanage we expect the worst to befall him from the hard-worked, hard-pressed supervisors, but we give a sigh of relief when the adoption inspector arrives to lift him from uncertainty to hope.

It’s at this point the story moves too soon to Australia and one last look at the bright eyed smile of Saroo as he opens his adopted parents fridge and surveys it packed with food, more food than he has ever seen in his short life. Those are the moments that should have lit up every scene, without words. Suddenly, too abruptly, we are with Saroo the elder.

Hunky Dev Patel takes over the role.

We see Saroo the elder doing all he can to fit into his new society, relating to his new parents, having misgivings about his  origins, express an ambition to own and run an hotel, (shades of Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) being with college chums, having misgivings about his origins, romancing his girlfriend, adapting to his brother-in-law, also adopted from India but a truly troubled soul, and … having misgivings about his origins.

In scenes reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters where the protagonist keeps moulding volcano-like structures out of his food, paper, clay, et cetera, before he realises aliens are telling him which shaped mountain to meet them, the elder Saroo keeps looking at Google Earth and sticking pins in a map of India on a wall, in a vain search for his real home, a name he cannot recall in full.

Rooney Mara appears as an American love interest for Saroo in a hospitality management college programme; she and Patel are predictably attracted to each other, and just as predicable, seeing Saroo’s quiet anguish, says pleading, “You can’t go on like this!”

As for Patel, he is maturing into a stupendously sensitive actor. I hope the British film industry handles his career with great care.

Your moment of Scottish Zen: In the Australian sequences there’s a section of cross-talk an alert Scot will see as highly significant.

Among college chums, Saroo joins in banter about his Indian heritage. Trying to belong he lies, “I was born in Calcutta,” he says, warding off prying questions. “Which part?” enquires a student, catching him unawares. He’s saved from embarrassment by another student who asks, “You love cricket. Which cricket team do you support? Come on. India or Australia?” Saroo hesitates, “Australia, of course.” Scots who feel Scottish and not something vaguely British know that trick question in a different form.

After that I was in a lot of hurry to get Saroo back to India searching for his family, I just wasn’t prepared for the sobs and wailing around me in the cinema when it came to pass, but at least the chorus of whimpering and weeping helped cover up my own.

In the last minute the title Lion comes up on screen as if an after-thought. It heralds a series of photographs of the real characters in the drama taken in 2013 when they all met – so don’t leave the theatre too early to wash away your tears in the cinema toilet, there’s more blubbing to be done.

  • Star rating: Three and a half stars
  • Cast: Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara
  • Director: Garth Davis
  • Writer: Saroo Brierley (book adapation) Luke Davies
  • Music: Volker Bertelmann, Dustin O’Halloran
  • Cinematography: Grieg Fraser
  • Duration: 1 hours 58 minutes
Posted in Film review | 5 Comments

My Racist Taxi Driver

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Narrow nationalists applaud Theresa May’s denunciation of narrow nationalists

The student as racist

I wouldn’t have taken much note of my taxi driver’s ranting had it not been for a pig-ignorant, vain, histrionic Stirling University student writing an irrational opinion piece only days before in the Guardian newspaper. The article is venomous, partisan, and riddled with distortions. I will not name her. I would not want to give her a sliver of extra publicity for her preposterous deceitful and incompetent quick study of Scotland’s history.

To put it bluntly, in a fit of auto-erotic exultation she charged the SNP, and by implication Scots who vote Yes to self-governance restored, with being a bunch of racists. Her essay larded with straightforward errors and misrepresentations is studiously provocative to the point of racial abuse.

Her university tutors ought to re-examine their teaching methods for she demonstrated her cultural intolerance while in the very act of deploring it.

The SNP consists of people of all political and religious persuasions. It endured political and cultural suppression of various kinds over its eighty odd years of struggle, not an unknown situation in a country dominated by its ruling neighbour.

This was no courageous dissident striking out for justice in an authoritarian state. This was a third-rate student in an open society smearing an entire people in order to curry favour with a right-wing establishment of which she feels a part.

Her Twitter replies to a scree of thunderous anger, frustration, and ridicule was robotic. That anybody could reduce Scotland’s democratic ambitions to gutter level  in this day and age is unbelievable. The callowness of youth knows no limits.

She gave a nation’s humanity the finger.

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Khan, mayor of London using straight talk to imply all Scots are racists

The wrath of Khan

The student wrote it in support of London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, a man of equal vanity and no detectable shame. Khan gave his best impersonation of the classic arrogant Englishman. He arrived in Perth to speak to a dribble of Labour party members but chose instead to lecture the population of Scotland that had rejected his party.

His weasely thesis mastered the craft of error and lies posed as implication echoed by the student. It was just as insolent, just as violent: he claimed the SNP, a party founded by intellectuals, historians, poets and writers, has an inherently racist creed.

Khan’s sin was an amoral sophistry that could have been lifted from the speeches of Joseph Goebbels, with barely an adjustment.

Challenged by journalists he refused to withdraw the insult. His reply was a lesson in equivocation, the Little Britain comedy type of yes-but-no-but yes. He waffled all over the place denying it was what he said, it was only what he meant.

Deny debate of Scotland’s rights

The race card is Better Together’s ace for beating the threat of a second referendum on Scotland’s wish to exercise a different kind of politics, a humane society, compared to England’s political culture. That’s the level they plan to exploit.

Attacked for their outrageous tosh, the student and Khan resorted to posing as victims for our sympathy, he as St Sebastian, she as Joan of Arc leading some imaginary army of moral rectitude.

In both cases print versions reveal an impressive effort, that must have taken careful planning and co-ordination, to construct an exercise in defamation that would command the day’s news and beyond. Neither have retracted or corrected their assertions.

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Not my taxi driver, but a good semblance of the type herein, but not the majority

How are they connected to my taxi driver?

For one thing the driver espoused the same intolerance, xenophobia and extreme right-wing prejudices barefacedly. My Scottish driver was no defender of Scotland’s civil rights.

For another thing his conversation was riddled with misrepresentations, half-baked opinion, and offensive racism in the same abhorrent vein as the airhead student and London’s dimwit mayor on a day trip to the savage north.

This is where the story really begins

The morning did not begin well. No ‘Good morning’, or ‘How are you?’ He arrived disgruntled that he could not make a U-turn in the street’s cul-de-sac. Nor did he open his taxi door. I’m used to tax drivers who can’t be arsed to get out of their cab to welcome a £20 fare and a man with a suitcase. He was unkempt and distracted.

He was also garrulous. From the minute he collected me from my home to dropping me off at the airport he didn’t cease his prattle. He barely took a breath between rants. To make sense of it for the reader I’ve published it in paragraphs, but in reality it was seamless word association.  (I carry a journal everywhere to keep notes.) I publish a small portion.

“Tha’ Rowling, tha’s some hoose she’s got there. She’s a really nice lassie. I met her once. Very civil, very pleasant woman tae talk to. Had a wee chat wi her. Nae airs or graces, yi ken.

Yer no allowed tae look at her kids of course, cannae stare at them, or take photographs. Probably why she’s surrounded by bodyguards. I wis told they’re awe ex-SAS. Nae kiddin’. Ah believe that. She kin afford the best.

Yi get frisked when yi go tae her hoose, phone camera taken aff yi. Tae be honest, she’s paranoid. Ah think she’s a control freak.

I wonder what she does wi’ awe that money. She’s done a lot fir Scotland. Ah think she had a bad time when she wis younger an’ that’s why she helps wummin’s charities. Her first man must be kickin’ hissel fir dumpin’ her, or maybe she dumped him, Ahm no sure. Yi dinnae hear much aboot him these days, ha ha. Course, if he had’nae done whit he’s done she might’iv no written a bliddy word of Harry Potter. Yi have tae be proud she wrote that book in Edinburgh.

Ah’ll tell yi who’s she close pals wi. Di yi ken? Naw? Wi yon Gordon Broon’s wife. Best pals. Soon as Broon’s wife had a wean [baby] Rowling was first tae visit her.

Now there’s a man wi oot a blemish on his character. Ye’ll no find Broon takin’ back pocket money. Of all politishuns yi can count on him being clean as a whistle. Gies speeches, an’ tha’, fir thousands of pounds and gies the lot tae charity. Son o’ a minister, son o’ the manse, that’s him. Ah gid man. Ah’ve a lottay time fir Broon. Anyway, her an’ Broon are close friends.

Christ, the weather’s bin great this while. Nae snaw so far, though we kin get it as late as May. Ah dae a lot o’ fishin’, sea fishin’, no oot oan a boat, oan hard rock, on the shore, an’ tha’. Actually, me an’ mah pals got a trip up at Arbroath planned fir this weekend. Always a load o’ fun.

There’s a bar up there we like tae visit, English guy bin runnin’ it fir years. One day there wus a gypsy wummin sittin’ in a corner feedin’ her wean fay her tit, ken – her breast, sorry, yi know whit Ah mean, nae shame.

Ah’ve got tae say this, an Ah dinnae give a fuck for awe them liberals and lefties. Ah don’t care what they fuckin’ think, but Ah hate fuckin’ gypsies. They’re theivin’, lying, cheating bastards, livin’ aff our welfare. Yakin’ as much as they kin get. Yi would’nae trust them wi’ yer life.

Anyway, this wummin was feedin’ her bairn bare-breasted, an’ the bar man suddenly grabbed her by the throat and pushed her up against the wall.

We wus all shocked, yi know, he did it so quickly and brutal, like.

“Yer no doin’ that shite in ma bar!” he screamed it intae her face, yi know. “Ya fuckin’ slut!” An’ he threw her an’ her wean oot o’ the pub. Yi have tae admire his attitude. Ah’d probably hae done the same thing if it were ma pub. Fuckin’ gypsies.

Yer on yer way tae Dublin? Whit a place tha’ is. Been a few times wi the lads. There’s the Temple Bar we go tae. It’s really a tourist bar, an that’, prices much higher than the real Irish bars, but there’s always a crowd an’ the atmosphere’s good, ken.

A bunch of wanky tourists came in an’ asked what wis the local drink. The barman said Guinness. He probably says that tae every dumb tourist who asks. “Okay”, says wan o’ them, “Gie us six half-pints of Guinness.” Who the fuck drinks half-pints of Guinness? What a shit. Half-pints of Guinness, god help me.

An’ whit about that giant metal spire in O’Connell Street. What is tha’ all aboot?

Whit a pile of shit tha’ is. The IRA blew up Nelson’s statue tha’ used tae be there. Ah kin understand why they’d want tae do that, but why replace it wi’ a giant knittin’ needle? Whit’s it supposed to represent? Wis it an Englishman designed it, or Dublin council ordered it? Kerrist.

Mind you, naebody will be able to blow tha’ up. Impervious tae terrorists tha’ thing is. Ah, ah ha, aye, nae problem there. Nae chance tae damage tha’ thing.

Okay, wur there now. Plenty time fer yer flight. Yull ken where tae go fae here, yes? That’ll be £19 pounds, ta. Hiv a good time in Dublin.”

So, there you have it

My taxi driver sees no contradiction applauding a racist barman who assaults a woman for being a gypsy and a mother, but loves JK Rowling for helping battered women’s causes.

He hates liberals and lefties for protecting his civil rights, but thinks Gordon Brown, bag man to corrupt banks, a man without a sin to his character.

My taxi driver’s not to know I’m ‘best pals’ with the engineer and architect who designed the ‘spire to the sky’ in Dublin’s O’Connell Street, Academician and Scot, Ian Ritchie.

It would not surprise me to hear that after getting me to the airport he dropped in to the Tory party conference in Glasgow to hear what Theresa May had to say about how to keep him and the rest of us docile and servile.

Khan and his dead-on-cue racist student, and every right-wing British newspaper that elevate their outrageous slur are pals with my taxi driver – and he’s a unionist.

Work that one out.

Posted in Scottish Independence Referendum, Scottish Politics | 22 Comments

BBC Scotland Goes Indy

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The austere interior of BBC Scotland’s headquarters could have been designed by M.C Escher

The Great British Broadcaster, BBC, plans a dedicated television channel for Scotland. The fashionable sarcastic rider is to add ‘What a time to be alive’.

Trumpeted as if an announcement of Queen Elizabeth’s belated abdication, newspapers dutifully parroted the BBC director general’s puffery unchallenged, repeating the phrase ‘substantial reform’ as if the holy scriptures. Brit nationalists got busy carving protests in blue blood, “We don’t want repeats of The White Heather Club or Dr Findlay’s Casebook!

Based on BBC’s inglorious past history in Scotland, a dedicated television channel has all the sincerity of explorers offering a string of beads to the natives to show they’re friendly.

The skinny [plus my emphasis]

The channel will go on air UK-wide in the summer of 2018 with a budget of about £30m – a sum similar to that spent on BBC4, replacing the Scottish programmes currently shown on BBC2.  It includes a dedicated one-hour news and current affairs programme at 9pm. The channel will broadcast between 7pm and midnight, presumably without viewers rising to respect the sign off music ‘God Save The Queen’.

Tony Hall, the BBC’s director-general, told the corporation’s staff in Glasgow that spending on new drama and factual programming made in Scotland would increase by £20m. Hall said the channel would lead to 80 new jobs based in Scotland. The plan dumps any intention of a six o’clock news bulletin from Scotland, not that there ever was unanimous support for that token gesture.

The apology

Hall said: “I said at the beginning of the year that the BBC needed to be more creative and distinctive. The BBC is Britain’s broadcaster but we also need to do more for each nation just as we are doing more for Britain globally. BBC executives admit the corporation has failed to keep pace with devolution across the UK, or reflect the different political systems now operating in different nations and regions.”

Hall added: “We know viewers in Scotland love BBC television, [whirling Dervish spin] but we also know they want us to better reflect their lives, and better reflect modern Scotland. It is vital that we get this right. [No kidding, Kemo Sahbee?] The best way of achieving that is a dedicated channel for Scotland.

The promises

Hall stated “It’s a channel that will be bold, creative and ambitious, with a brand-new Scotland-edited international news programme at its heart. The BBC has the luxury of having first-class creative teams and brilliant journalists, who I know will make this new channel a huge success. The additional investment in Scottish drama and factual programming rightly recognises both the need to do more across our output and the huge pool of talent available in Scotland.”

More details will emerge as start day nears; this is my analysis based on inside experience and blunt force trauma working for BBC in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

Will the new station really happen?

The proposals must first be discussed by the quango Ofcom, the regulation authority for the UK’s communication industries. No Scottish entity had a hand in choosing its members. It isn’t exactly brimming with Scotiaphiles excited to see reform.

Resistance to BBC Scotland representing Scotland’s unique politics, values, topography, and needs has been BBC’s shame since its inception. Two director generals who asked for more Scottish content broadcast UK-wide were brutally dismissed. SNP supporters and socialists keen on independence got side-lined for promotion. The same was true for past communist members in BBC England – a warning Christmas tree stamped on their employee file.

Overt openness for self-governance issues was stifled by the demand for ‘a balanced’ view, or a pessimistic narrative. BBC Scotland’s land-bank held for a new HQ near Scotland’s parliament was sold off for profit.

Opposition to a dedicated channel is marshalling among right-wing MPs and peers. Much will be spoken behind closed doors and in Pall Mall clubs, such as the RAC. BBC bosses dare not annoy the Tory government for fear of inviting anger. Therefore, it is likely to happen but within narrow guidelines, better known as severe restrictions.

Will a dedicated channel be truly independent-minded?

Not a snowball’s chance in hell. (See previous paragraph.) The ethos of the BBC is strictly hierarchical and bureaucratic. Just as the UK Treasury takes all Scotland earns and gives it an inadequate annual allowance, so BBC London takes all Scotland’s licence fees and gives us a farcically tiny portion of the sum collected. Those who cut the cheque call the tune.

Being innovative depends entirely on what motivates its employees and the freedom given to be anarchic and iconoclastic.

Expect a handful of stand-up comics to get off with some risky political jokes, but don’t expect Frankie Boyle to be given his own weekly satire show. Do expect at least three MI5 moonlighters to be key staffers, there to keep an eye on those suspect revolutionaries.

From where will it recruit staff?

Bold and adventurous doesn’t arrive chosen by old and conservative.

Hall doesn’t tell us where the new staff will come from only that the new channel will create 80 new jobs. One supposes that includes reception staff, cleaners, and some existing BBC Scotland staff applying for a transfer. Again, there’s no mention of criteria for selection, or who selects the staff and how they will be recruited.

BBC Scotland places the excuse for its paucity of Scottish programming on the lack of indigenous talent, (a comment at odds with Hall’s ‘pool of talent’) which begs the question, are 80 new jobs imported staff? Will commissions go to English independent productions companies with an office in Glasgow?

What’s needed is positive discrimination – employ resident personnel with bold ideas, otherwise it’s an office in BBC HQ, Glasgow, with a different label on toilet doors.

Will it cover the next independence referendum?

The BBC is a state broadcasting company, as Hall reminds us in his hollow promise of ‘substantial reform’, and it remains a state broadcasting company. The activities of the Royal family will be all over it.

The BBC failed to adjust its attitude when the SNP was first elected as a minority government – a  sea change in the public mood of which the BBC was oblivious – and it resisted a more sensitive outlook when the SNP was given a landslide victory, all other political parties banished save for one representative each.

The next plebiscite will probably be in 2017, once Theresa May signs England’s kamikaze declaration of isolationism from all but Trump. BBC has neatly side-stepped covering both referenda from a purely Scottish perspective.

What does a budget of £30 million get us?

It’s a teaspoon in the canteen cutlery drawer. It makes some sense if it does not include staff salaries, or administration costs, which must be the case. Media pundit copy-cats to a dunce ridicule it as less than the budget for The Great British Bake Off.

There’s a contradiction. Hall states £30 million total budget, but in the same interview says £20 million will be spent on drama and current affairs. That leaves £10 million for documentaries, reality shows, sport – actually, there’s no mention of sport or the arts.

Will a dedicated Scottish channel see the end of imported reporters?

In theory a wholly Scottish orientated channel should not require to plane or train London journalists for an all-expenses paid junket to cover Scottish events, such as the Edinburgh International Arts Festival. But don’t count on it.

Cultural infiltration is a BBC hallmark. If you switch on BBC Radio Scotland you’ll be lost to find ‘experts’ speaking with a Scots accent. Whether that’s a deliberate colonial ploy by the BBC depends on your political point of view, but it doesn’t bode well for Scots speaking about Scotland to the world. It seems we need interpreters and proxy experts for that job.

BBC journalists are defended from criticism as impartial specimens of the trade. There is no evidence that a Scot cannot be objective when reporting events, though he or she might not be impartial if a patriot. Then again, what unionist hack was ever culturally objective?

Are we going to see Scottish drama produced at last?

It all depends on what you mean by drama.

There’s historical drama called costume drama, contemporary drama, and experimental drama. Each can contain political content. So far BBC has avoided anything political since the SNP attained high office. The only political drama ever to come of Scotland in the last 25 years was the Glasgow set, award winning ‘Brond‘, a three-part Channel Four funded thriller, not BBC. (You can see it on YouTube.) It was shown in the States, and other territories, and without subtitles! We’re capable of producing more of that, and how!

I remain sceptical anything reinforcing Scotland’s history as an independent nation, anything reflecting its political ambitions, will be commissioned if it appears to push the case for full and final self-governance.

Won’t you be looking forward to serious drama and comedy drama?

I’m not looking forward to Edinburgh’s ‘vote No’ Rory Bremner in a TV version of “Walter Mitty”. Reading his recent Twitter indicates he’s repositioning himself for a chunk of the budget. I am looking forward to new, exciting talent and dramas.

Scotland has a weekly soap, but soaps don’t break any new creative ground. Will that soap be transferred to the Scottish budget? Tony Hall makes no mention of cross-over costs.

The budget doesn’t allow for a weekly series unless international sales are secured in advance. That takes a year to sign and seal. BBC would need to commission drama now to have one for day one. Expect the occasional drama about a warring couple, or a lonely English naturalist and her pet otter surviving on a remote island, or a Gorbals thug hiding on a remote island from the law terrorising a lonely English naturalist and her pet otter.

In any event, costume drama tends to be expensive to produce; so, unless conceived on a shoe-string, historically set dramas are a no-no. A film about the Highland Clearances is as guaranteed as George Galloway admitting he’s a closet Scottish nationalist. There’s a chance for dramatization of the corrupt politics behind the Skye Road Bridge build, but I wouldn’t bet my last dollar on it.

Good drama should not be confined to a Scotland-only transmission. The 21st century method of countries speaking to the world through their culture is in filmed story-telling. We have no-end of world class novelists to adapt their books or create original scripts.

A Scottish channel will surely promote Scottish arts?

A dedicated channel would be in breach of its brief if it ignored the arts: painting, photography, the performance arts music and dance. Architecture in Scotland is shouting out for a critical television series. Whether or not any arts programme can free itself from the highly selective values of London’s standards is another matter. You need an entire mental shift not to compare what happens here with what happens in London.

What we don’t want is an arts series fronted by a vacuous celebrity with no grounding in the arts, but does have a Jack Vettriano at home on their wall.

How will the channel serve Scotland’s vast rural areas?

That remains to be seen. If we can film life in Alaska we can film life in the snowy north.

To be in the least credible the channel has to serve our countryside life and businesses, in mountainous areas, islands and all, in news, current affairs and documentary terms at least. And there’s fishing. Sticking a murder series in the Shetlands has limited plausibility, a place where rarely a dog bites man, let alone a man bites dog.

Scotland isn’t only Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. There’s an important farming industry plus crop growing that justifies regular attention.

Will we get science and medicine programmes?

I have no idea, but what is a dedicated channel for if not to represent scientific advances and debates? Scotland is famous for its scientists and medical pioneers.

The problem here lies in the economic fashion for reality shows, or cheapo productions wrapped in the guise of panel games. Expect, ‘Name That Operation’, a half-hour panel game hosted by somebody who once had her tonsils removed, and four competing stand-up comics with only one a woman, probably Elaine C. Smith if  Susan Calman is too busy appearing on English game shows. Would that it were my preference: Ronni Ancona.

Will the channel duplicate English series or show US fare?

The hope is that we are clever enough not to make carbon copies of ‘Great British Canal Journeys’, but there’s a case for a reality series on ‘Bagging 282 Munros in a Year’.

We don’t want Neil Oliver retracing his steps along the Scottish coast. We want Professor Tom Devine telling us the truth about how England helped defeat the Darien scheme, and why Mary Queen of Scots was a lot smarter than Elizabeth I. We don’t want a once a year visit by English based shows, we want our own series.

As for US imports, I’d like to think we’d prefer more intelligent fare from Ireland, Iceland, Scandinavia, and Europe; you know, keeping pals with the EU on the sly

There’s a chance British nationalists will say it’s all tartanalia and sporrans?

What a surprise. Scotland has been the butt of racist scorn for over three centuries. The first year’s programmes will attract a ton more. Wear a suit of armour, or get a backbone.

But we will get a real national-international hour of news at last, right?

BBC 24-Hour News is an awesome machine. If BBC can’t collate an hour’s mixed-source news it’ll be a shock to them. For all-corners of Scotland news the BBC will call in favours from its local television and radio stations. There’s promise of studio interviews too. How they present Scotland in a positive light and not concentrate on SNP BAD from dubious sources is anybody’s guess at this stage. Andrew Neil on yet another nightly gig pitching for our right-wing imperial masters is not acceptable. Nor is David Torrance welcome as Scotland’s roving reporter, unless he’s stationed permanently on Rockall.

Bouillabaisse soup won’t do. A news programme has to have a well-honed remit and agenda to make intellectual sense. It has to work as a cohesive entity unmistakeably Scottish in cultural mores, and it must reflect our democratic structures and omissions.

Reflecting Scotland’s lost civil rights as a nation is the real test; some argue the only test.

Are you saying a dedicated channel is a spoiler?

A BBC Scottish channel is a diversion from the genuine article.

Since the day Middle-Englanders convinced by power elite with Asperger’s disease pulled us out of Europe, neo-conservatives are out in force in all their guises softening us up for our loss of liberties, intrusion of English laws, loss of free movement, agriculture and fishery grants, energy efficiency goals, and climate change advocacy.

A state broadcaster-run channel cannot by definition represent Scotland’s political agenda when so much of it conflicts with the British state’s agenda.

Oh, come on, Nicola Sturgeon said it’s a good thing.

The SNP have a policy of accepting every morsel so that one day they have the full menu.

Fact: The channel was announced on the same day Prime Minister Theresa May instructed her cabinet to fight the evil of Scottish self-governance to the last man. That command is a serious threat to Scotland’s civil and cultural rights, and a hellova responsibility on the  sloping shoulders of Scotland’s last Tory, David Mundell. The slow-witted will be convinced BBC has given Scotland the real thing.

Even half-successful, a BBC channel undermines the overarching need for a separate people-owned Scottish broadcasting company with its own ethos, its own hand-picked staff and creative leaders, its own international connections, ready and able to represent Scotland properly at home and abroad.

In the end it isn’t about money. It’s about absolute freedom of expression.

Posted in BBC, Scottish Politics | 16 Comments

The Great Wall – a review

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Matt Damon does his best to blend in with some fetching outfits

The Chinese invented paper, printing – block and moveable type, porcelain ceramics, lacquer, silk cloth, seed drills, iron ploughs, rice terraces, land cultivation, agriculture, fireworks, gunpowder, canons, rockets, and military precision, the list is almost endless, but they needed Matt Damon to help them defeat thousands of murderous mythological beasts. No one else had the wit to figure out a plan, not even Confucius, though I’m sure he foresaw the coming of a pale rider.

The Great Wall is The Man Who Would Be King produced by Hollywood for the Chinese market. With a tonnage of talent aboard all we get is a video game with a million monsters and some real actors. The by-line should be, (cue deep, gravelly voice-over) “How many beasts can a man kill with only one quiver of arrows, one sword, and a pony tail?”

I can imagine the boardroom scene.

STUDIO BOSS: We’ve been bought by China’s top theatre group. Now what?              STUDIO EXEC: Yeah, and first picture they want gotta be set in China.                            STUDIO BOSS: Tall order. We’ve got diddly-squat set in China.                                STUDIO EXEC: We got a storyline about a couple of mercenaries fighting wolf packs. STUDIO BOSS: So?

(Junior executives shuffle their files, avoid eye contact, lost for ideas.)

STUDIO EXEC: So … we switch it to two soldiers in China fighting for the Emperor. STUDIO BOSS: That’s got legs. The language barrier, how do we deal with it?                 STUDIO EXEC: We hire director, Zhang Yimou. He’s done big cast movies.                       STUDIO BOSS: Terrific. Matt Damon owes us a picture. Offer a contract.                           STUDIO EXEC:  Yes, sir. And I can get Pedro Pascal for the European market.                 STUDIO BOSS:  Great! Box office projections gives you $150 million budget, PR included.

The Great Wall is Matt Damon’s first foray into China, Zhang Yimou’s first English-language production, and the first film to come out of Legendary Pictures’ continent-hopping strategy, a production company bought by the Wanda Group of Chinese cinemas. The result is a whopping disappointment; in a nutshell: a hundred and one things to do on the Great Wall of China.

Sure, it’s engrossing, and everybody wears fantastic Italian fashion house designed body armour in matching colours, but it’s seriously tired fare, with a script a first year pupil could have written during his lunch break. There are half-a-dozen identifiable characters given lines – subtitled – one Chinese who speaks perfect English, with Damon and Pascal wearing dusty old leather jackets. Damon’s accent runs from Suffolk to Jersey to Californian and back again. He struggles with his dialogue, anachronistically peppered with modern vocabulary. One guy gets to say “bitch”. There’s some clunky humour, and bromanctic quips between himself, Pascal, and a completely lost Willem Dafoe held captured as the novelty westerner for twenty-five years.

They’ve travelled from Europe to China to bring home ‘black powder’, a magical explosive concoction they’ve heard about, better known as gun powder. Printing didn’t reach  Europe for 300 or more years yet the duo could have made heroes, fixed in the history books, for ‘inventing’ printing, instead our boys chose to bring home a sack of the crash-bang, wallop stuff.

How did this sappy epic get the green light? Money. Official co-productions are entitled to better revenue-sharing terms than imported films usually receive in China, 43 percent of after-tax ticket sales, instead of the usual 25 per cent, but there are onerous conditions attached. In exchange, they must feature large numbers of Chinese cast, employ high-level Chinese production crew, shoot in the country and tell a story involving Chinese cultural elements.

Given that North America and China are the largest movie distribution territories in the world, there are gargantuan profits to be made, but studios have found it daunting to meet the demands, while telling a story that straddles disparate cultures. The Great Wall fails at the start gate.

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Are you going to fire that thing or not? Well, are you?

Still, Damon has certainly lent the whole enterprise a certain class, and his presence, alongside Willem Dafoe and Chinese A-listers Andy Lau and Zhang Hanyu, should propel the film to box office success in China. For the international market, however, the film is best positioned as a novelty for monster-flick fanboys.

Using computer-generated images of the Great Wall, the film begins with short on-screen texts explaining that, as the wall enters its third millennium in existence, there are both facts and legends about it. “This is one of the legends,” the text reads, defending itself from the avalanche of  detractors throwing eggs at the stupid premise to follow.

The protagonist here is one William Garin, (Damon), who, while fleeing from the “hill tribes” in northern China, gets himself and his fellow mercenary Tovar, (Pedro Pascal of Game of Thrones) captured by a military garrison at one of the main outposts along the Great Wall.

With their claim that they’re just traders easily debunked, the pair’s lives are spared when William proffers a giant paw he chopped off from a beast that attacked him in the Steppes. His Chinese captors realise the  advance of the devouring beasts is upon them early, something that happens every sixty years – a completely arbitrary number – and could wipe out all Chinese civilisation and beyond. That’s is why the Chinese built the great wall, but no one twigs they would have been eaten at any time while building it.

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The Emperor as young boy – Bertolucci eat yer heart out

The monster, they are then told, is a Taotie – yes, I had to look up this drivel in IMDB to check my facts – a deadly lizard-like paranormal species.

Having saved a soldier in the battle and showcased his archery skills, William is welcomed into the life of the garrison. That was easy. Now for the food and the wenching.

But this is a film for the Chinese market, so strict codes of conduct are enforced. People who lust after each other can only smile longingly. Initially bent on getting what he wants, his conscience is soon awakened, (this is Matt Damon, after all), and his head turned by Lin (Jing Tian), the only female and English-speaking commander at the outpost, and not a single instance of sexual harassment or wolf whistle.

It’s hardly a surprise that William chooses to stay, not that you are cheering for him. And while the “Westerners” are regularly shown up by the principled Chinese warriors, it’s hardly a surprise who eventually gets to save the day for China and all mankind.

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Damon on set looking bored, and Yimou looking for the exit

There’s also a moral message, which I forget, something about trust, anyhow, the banality of this moral is representative of the weightlessness of nearly every aspect of the film.

I haven’t touched on the sheer lack of logic in the film: Why do the Taoties only attack humans every 60 years? Why does the army host a “crane corps,” involving female soldiers bungee-jumping down the wall to lance the beasts, when there are cannons and other artillery? Why does no one sleep? Why is William not called Jason Bourne?

Then again, Zhang Yimou might have delivered exactly what was asked of him, a no-nonsense visual spectacle that stops at nothing in its portrayal of an imaginary, mysterious ancient culture. I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and conjecture they decided to make it as a starter, and then concentrate on something better with more time to think about it. It’s new terrain, so one step at a time, lads. But it’s no creative breakthrough.

Damon has come in for a lot of stick for choosing a role as an American lead in a Chinese film, but he’s weathered the storm of criticism. He argues his character “was always intended to be European,” and emphasizes the collaborative nature of the project,  planned to fuse Hollywood and Chinese star power. “That whole idea of whitewashing, I take that very seriously,” he said, during a press conference in Beijing.

Remember this is a movie made by Zhang Yimou, one of the great directors, one-time lover of the mesmerising Gong Li, scourge of the dead hand of Chinese bureaucracy, maker of visually exciting, wondrous epics such as Red Sorghum, (1987) Raise the Red Lantern, (1991) and House of Flying Daggers, (2004). It ought to be a sure fire winner, but for all its whistling arrows, zinging spears, and fiery explosions it’s a damp squib. Beyond the casting and the ceaseless onslaught of diverse special effects, Zhang and his Hollywood screenwriters have delivered nothing more than a formulaic monster movie.

Sheesh! Enough with the Terracotta warriors and  JK Rowling silly nonsense!

For a blockbuster epic it’s epically uninteresting.

  • Star rating: Two-and-half
  • Cast: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe
  • Director:  Zhang Yimou
  • Screenplay: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy
  • Cinematography: Stuart Dryburgh, Zhao Xiaoding
  • Music: Ramin Djawadi
  • Duration: 103 minutes

Posted in Film review | 8 Comments

Moonlight – a review

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In the moonlight a black man’s skin turns blue

Macho man incarnate, I’m the last movie fan to lose good lousing time to see a film about gay love among black men in Miami, but the street noise for Moonlight has been getting louder and louder; so, it was off to Edinburgh’s Cameo cinema where all the seats recline.

Moonlight is what critics used to call a chamber piece, and it is exactly that, but shot on digital anamorphic  widescreen which gives it weight and volume. It is the collaborative work of playwright and screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney, (another faux Scots-American surname) and director Barry Jenkins. As a low-key character study it’s flawless.

There’s a seductive sensuality to the colours on screen, faultless set pieces and settings, a languorous pace of events, characters are given lots of time to think and speak – the space between words given great meaning, and responses edited into thin slices giving them a minimalist power. The lazy sounds of sea lapping on sand commingle with crickets chirping in the sultry night air.

A fundamental question is posed to the main character of Jenkins’ bold, honest new film: “Who is you, man?” The beauty of Jenkins’ second feature radiates from the way that query is explored and answered: with expansiveness, not with foregone cliché or conclusions. It is asked by a black man of another black man; for me, the first I’ve heard it spoken in that context, and not a black man holding a knife at the throat of a white man demanding money with menaces.

The setting is a black Miami neighbourhood where streets and avenues are ‘blocked’ to individual drug traffickers. The locale is Liberty City, a housing project in Miami where Jenkins grew up, as did the playwright McCraney, whose unproduced drama In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue the filmmaker adapted for the screen.

This is a story of the coming of age of Chiron, a boy who knows his mother and doesn’t like what he sees and hears, but doesn’t know his father, and never sees nor hears of him. Watching the film, McCraney says, feels “claustrophobic, like I’m back in that situation”. The hardest parts to watch are his teenage self getting bullied, and the reconciliation with his mother – the latter because it didn’t quite happen. “I did visit my mother [before she died] and it was awkward. I didn’t have that reconciliation but it’s so close to reality that it feels like it could be real.”

The story is divided into three chapters following its central protagonist, each titled with his name or nickname.

The three stages are: at ages 9, “Little,” played by Alex Hibbert, 16, “Chiron,” played by Ashton Sanders, and aged approximately 26, “Black,” played by Trevante Rhodes. They are all superb and physically actually appear as if grown up versions of the younger Chiron. As were Jenkins and McCraney, Chiron is being raised by a drug-addicted mother, Paula (Naomie Harris).

The first section concerns itself with Chiron school days, his attraction to a sympathetic school mate, the school bully who senses he’s gay and doesn’t know it, and his surrogate ‘father’ Juan who guides his emotions, played Mahershala Ali, a local drug kingpin who provides the crack that is ravaging Chiron’s mother.

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Juan the drug trafficker gives Chiron his first swimming lesson, how to stay afloat

In the first third there’s a pivotal exchange. “What is a faggot?” asks Chiron of Juan. Juan gives him a diplomatic answer. “Am I one?” asks Chiron in response.

“No, you aint. You is gay”, says Juan, matter-of-fact, without judgement.

“How do I know I’m gay?” queries Chiron. “You just do”, answers the wise Juan. This moment takes place in Juan’s condo that Chiron uses as a sanctuary to escape his  tempestuous mother. Juan shares his home with his doting girlfriend, Teresa, a fine big-screen debut from Janelle Monáe.

This is one of the many painful ironies in the film, highlighted without being underscored: a stranger’s house or an empty dope hole serve as safe places for Chiron. Chiron spends a lot of time trying not to go home, sleeping rough,  and hiding from his mother and the school  tormentors.  The boy finds refuge in the boarded-up house and holds an empty crack vial to the light, a stretch of silence that Hibbert, among the most watchful young performers I’ve ever seen, makes spellbinding.

The skill in the filmmaker’s arsenal of techniques is telling the tale of a monosyllabic man so well that we know how he feels at every moment. “You hardy speak a sentence that has more than two words in it”, says Chiron’s lover. Watching his reactions we’re convinced we know what is going on in his head. It’s method acting done without the histrionics. This film has a surfeit of feelings and emotions.

“At some point you gotta decide who you gonna be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.” The message is universal, everybody craves loves and affection but too many of us miss the intimate contact when fate intervenes, or our own fears hold us back.

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You rarely get painters to explain the meaning of their work, but filmmakers are ever enthusiastic to elucidate every and each nuance and motivation

There is drama and there is conflict – one thing presupposes the other – but it’s delivered in a disciplined way at odds with today’s fashion for over-wrought anxiety and over-the-top theatrics exemplified in hospital dramas.

A betrayal in the second section leads to more than one reconciliation in the third and to an even swoonier kind of romance. In his mid-20s and now living in Atlanta, Black, the sobriquet bestowed on Chiron by Kevin in high school, has entered his onetime mentor’s profession and has built up a carapace of muscle.

A phone call from Kevin, played as an adult by André Holland, the first time Black has heard from him in a decade, prompts a drive back to Florida and a reunion that, filled with so much pain, regret, omission, hurt, tenderness and love — is almost too much to bear.

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There are moments straight out of an Edward Hopper painting

“I got sent up for some stupid shit,” Kevin, grinning, tells his old friend as they’re catching up in the diner where he now does double duty as a waiter and cook. “Same stupid shit they always put us away for.”

After the restaurant clears out, Kevin plays a song on the jukebox for Black, a moment that could so easily have fallen into sickly sentimentality but here grips the throat. The mood switches and both characters are transported back to their school days and their one intimate moment.

Black men loving black men is the revolutionary act. In Jenkins’ film, that love – whether carnal, paternal or narcissistic – has many manifestations. It also need not extend to another person. “I’m me, man,” Black replies when Kevin asks him that key question of who he is, a declaration of ever-endangered pride and self-worth. And he’s never let another man touch him, or a woman, for that matter. He’s a man cleft in two.

The film has been highly praised in all quarters, but you’ll only find it in art house cinemas. It reminds us of the sort of thoughtful intelligent story we miss among all the action and special effects trash. And the music is a wonderful fusion of rock and classic. Oh, and it was executive produced by Brad Pitt.

I have one criticism, and it’s a big one. About thirty per cent of the dialogue is spoken in unintelligible local patois. And the rest is soft spoken. The movie demands subtitles. For that reason, for stopping us hearing some of its poetry, it doesn’t get five stars.

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Searching for affection, for tenderness, can be a man-made cage

I’ll leave the last word to the author.

McCraney sees the type of homophobia in Moonlight as an expression of misogyny. “The pressure of toxic masculinity forces men to forget things that are innate. You hear from men, ‘I want love, I want tenderness’ and yet we’re taught to act in the opposite way. If you’re cutting off the ability to give that, you’re cutting off the ability to receive it. We tell boys ‘You can’t be a nurturer, you gotta show brute strength’. When we place a child in that binary, we are cutting off a part of them. That’s rooted in misogyny, in a class system, ‘femininity is weaker’, ‘masculinity is stronger’.”

  • Star rating: Four stars
  • Cast: Alex Hibbert, Ashton Saunders, Trevante Rhodes
  • Director: Barry Jenkins
  • Writer: Tarell Alvin McCraney (Based on his play)
  • Cinematographer: James Laxton
  • Music: Nicholas Britell
  • Duration: 110 minutes
Posted in Film review | Leave a comment

Roots of English Racism

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What is a locomotive doing in an essay on racism? Well, are you sitting comfortably?

The one that got away

Fascinated by the monumental presence of steam locomotives, it was always a marvel to me that the Flying Scotsman – the world’s most famous locomotive – was not called the Flying Englishman. With the dominant nation in ascendancy it seemed an uncharacteristic blunder. Railway platform staff only ever referred to the train simply as ‘the 10 o’clock’.  The public, ever alert to a memorable moniker, nicknamed it, the Flying Scotsman.

The proposal for a through run from London Kings Cross to Edinburgh Waverley was the idea of Scotsman Walter Leith, General Passenger Superintendent of the Great Northern Railway. At that time the journey was made by three separate railway companies, ten long hours, long in corridor-less, buffet-less, smoky carriages. He proposed luxury coaches and a dining car. His innovation was erased from the history books, as was an original Art Deco poster advertising “Take me by the Flying Scotsman”. Thereafter posters proclaimed “London-Edinburgh, leaves Kings Cross 10am “.

The engine used for the journey was one of the finest designs of engineer Sir Nigel Gresley, born in Edinburgh. It’s an LNER A1 class locomotive, but on service it was known only by number, 4472, given its name officially in 1924. On London published timetables it was erroneously described as the “10am Special Scotch Express” – a call to boozers north and south, perhaps.

There is a wonderful parable in that service being one of the few things uniting north with south Britain, a bridge created by a Scot and an Englishman born in Scotland.

From train to shame

We read how England tamed the warring clans and civilised Scotland. We were the cultural evil ‘other’. No mention of clan chiefs and their sons and daughters taught in the best European universities, fluent speakers of Latin, French and Italian.

The truth is, Scotland sits too close to one of the world’s most aggressive nations. No wonder the Welsh think it safer to sing in choirs and play host to Dr Who series. Had the English Channel not existed I don’t doubt Brittany would be part of southern England. Mary, Queen of Scots, might never have spoken French or married the Dauphin of France.

Scotland is used to being treated as a second-rate nation by our English cousins. Indeed, if you feel the most successful nation in the world, the greatest ever, almost every other nation has to be second-best by arithmetic. To the weariness of the London parliament ever-rebellious Scotland is given special status, and special treatment. In contradictory unionist fashion Scotland is full of the uppity downtrodden.

As the Sun newspaper so aptly put it when a poll showed a massive surge of popularity for reinstatement of self-governance, “It’s in their very name, The Conservative Party. They’re desperate to maintain the status quo, always wary of those who rock the boat or whose eyes drift above their station. Nothing freaks them out more than a self-educated working man, except for a self-educated working woman.”

English propensity to demean any nation or race they cannot understand or dominate is a dark characteristic admirably illuminated by Etonian George Orwell in his masterly essay, My Country, Right or Wrong. In it he makes a single, brief  allusion to Scotland, namely that the nationalist movement of his day claiming a spiritual superiority, (our poetry, music, mystical topography) was just a euphemism for demanding political power.

Orwell was correct to a degree, though he did not deride Scotland’s wish for self-determination restored. However, that one short statement is the one lifted by English nationalists, including J.K. Rowling, to defame Scots, carefully ignoring the rest of the essay deploring English racism and suspicion of intellectuals, especially Jewish ones.

During the independence referendum Scottish unionist and English unionist politicians were fearful of people in Scotland becoming ‘foreigners’, an echo of the debate in 1706. “I do not want my sons to see Scotland as a place of foreigners”, said Ed Miliband, the then leader of the Labour party. “If you do not sign a treaty we will have you foreigners”, said the English Parliament in 1706.

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Unionists in Glasgow’s George Square celebrating the memory of Hitler

Where did it all begin?

These attitudes go back to the days of ‘merciless bare-arsed savages’, and the unwanted ‘minority’ population of Gaels. As soon as Scotland allies with a nation England abhors we become England’s mortal enemy, annoyingly part of the island they wish to inhabit in full. We saw it during the Great Debate on our independence. Ireland, Norway, Iceland, even Finland got it in the neck as soon as anybody dared suggest they were fine countries we should emulate.

There are countless false written records of Scotland’s savagery and the fiendishness of Scottish clans visited upon the good peoples of peace loving England, a peace addicted nation perpetually at war with other nations. It’s an attitude prevalent particularly when some “racial” element can be invoked, as when UKip economic migrant and former leader Nigel Farage called the European Parliament – and thus all Europeans – corrupt and meddlesome, not bad from a politician renowned for being an opportunist and a liar. Addressing the EU Parliament after England decided to dump it, but Scotland retain its historic links, Farage is on record shouting “Fuck Scotland!”

A land of evils giants

As with most things in mankind’s history religion is at the bottom of intolerance. As far back as the mid-thirteen century the English Church and the propaganda of royal writs enjoyed depicting ‘the mountainous land to the north’ as filled with evil giants. This was echoed in the 20th century in Spielberg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book, The BFG, in which a mild mannered put upon English giant lives in an impressionistic Scotland of cannibalistic giants. Sometimes stereotyping is unintentional and subliminal.

England’s  opinion of Scotland has barely changed in 600 years; we are a barbarous people living in a permanently rain sodden kingdom allied with England’s enemies. Unless, that is, there’s an estate for shooting deer and pheasants. We are “uneducated tenement dwellers”, invariably drunk, work shy welfare junkies.

Scotland’s population had to endure that calumny throughout England’s Hundred Years War with France. Readers will note that in the 21st century half of England appears to want another endless war with Europe.

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One Tory politician who seemed to get the message after the dark deeds were done

Medieval claptrap

Medieval English authors seldom visited Scotland but, like internet trolls, called on the opinion of others, or conjecture, to bolster their prejudices. Accounts such as “common knowledge“, influencing the works of Boece’s “Scotorum Historiae“, (Paris 1527) and William Camden’s “Brittania“, published in London (where else?) in 1586, plagiarising and perpetuating negative attitudes.

In the 16th century Scotland was characterised as lawless, a savage place filled with wild-eyed Scots, Highlanders in particular.

Here is a short quotation from Camden’s account promoting an image of the Scottish nation as a wild and cruel people:

They drank the bloud [blood] out of wounds of the slain: they establish themselves, by drinking one anothers bloud [blood] and suppose the great number of slaughters they commit, the more honour they winne [win] and so did the Scythians in old time. To this we adde [add] that these wild Scots, like as the Scythians, had for their principall weapons, bowes and arrows. Camden (1586)

On every rewriting of Camden’s accounts they were modified to compare the Highland Scots to the inhabitants of Ireland, another local nation that has got it in the neck for centuries. Again, I draw readers attention to the barrage of racism thrown at Ireland during the independence debate. God help anybody Irish, Jewish and black. As I write this essay anti-Semitism has broken out in universities, with swastikas daubed on doors and holocaust denial leaflets distributed among students. Free of Europe, English racism feels free of constraint.

And the abuse goes on…

Contemporary allusions to Scots as carrot top redheads, (little different from Arab ragheads) vegetable hating haggis eaters, abuse uttered by puerile stand-up comedians and sanctioned by the BBC, continue the stereotype so often chosen by English to depict “ungenerous Scots living off English taxes”.  The mentality of the diehard racist is chronically incapable of distinguishing one “skirt wearer” from another.

An edition of the tired BBC political jokes show Have I Got [Stereotypes] For You, (26 April 2013) repeated since without edit, was condemned by viewers because of its anti-Scottish abuse. Regular panellist Paul Merton suggested Mars bars should become the currency of a post-independence Scotland. Guest host Ray Winstone added, “To be fay-u, the Sco’ ‘ish eekonomay has its strenffs – its chief exports bein’ oyal, whisky, tartan an’ tramps”. These insults are classed as ‘banter’. That banter had no bearing, of course, in the racial murder of English MP Joe Cox. That is shelved as a coincidence.

Readers are referred to Dr Jack Shaheen’s studies of stereotyping in visual media, though much of his research is aimed at American films and television. After winning five Oscars, the movie Braveheart, about the life and death of Sir William Wallace, was condemned by the English press, aided and abetted by ‘shocked’ historians, taken aback that anybody should make a film about a Scottish historical character.

No longer a man protecting the sovereignty of Scotland, or repelling invasion, Wallace was depicted as really a mad, murdering thug. That people get killed in English battles led by their warring heroes is neither here nor there. The Butcher of Cumberland comes to mind.

Sadly, racism and stereotyping has increased in recent years. These are police matters, but Scots are expected to take the abuse on the chin as cut and thrust of political discourse.

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The annual service commemorating the dead of Glencoe

A colonised nation

It’s one of the mysteries of Scotland that its separate identity has survived despite over 300 years of attempted assimilation with English mores and values. Anglophiles won’t ever admit Scotland is a colonised nation, culturally, politically, and economically, but there is no other way to describe the grip the British establishment has over Scottish life and political aspirations.

That’s only a bare beginning of the shocking record of the Anglosphere and its settler-colonial version of imperialism, a form of imperialism that leads quite naturally to the “utter extirpation” of the indigenous population, and to what can be categorised as intentional ignorance on the part of beneficiaries of the crimes.

‘Intentional ignorance’ is the reason we should adopt a ruthless attitude when faced by spurious English claims of superiority. Among a minority of Right-wing Scots there remains a residue of animosity toward Gaeldom, best exemplified in the racist whinge, “Why are the Scots wasting English taxes creating road signs in Gaelic?”

Secretaries of state cannae hack it

It was the Secretary of State, the Master of Stair, employee of the English government, who first suggested a clan should be  wiped out as a warning to Scotland to heed English power. He happily endorsed the edict of King William III to “extirpate that troublesome sept’, the clan MacDonald for daring to be late swearing an oath to the English Crown. (Secretaries of state ever since have had a damnable job coming to terms with Scottish aspirations over English interests.) William had to pacify the Scots if he was to be free to concentrate on  killing Frenchmen. It was a strategic necessity.  He would never accept the Scots as equals and his Scottish supporters knew that. The Scots had to be crushed.

Of course, there was, as there always is, a willing Scot to do an Englishman’s dirty work, one who feels that sense of inferiority. The massacre took place during the winter night of February 13th, 1692. As massacres go it was modest in number, around 48 souls, many more sent to the hills to hide, but it stands as a symbol of today’s genocidal impulses.

Stair’s attitude is no different from  General Henry Knox, the first secretary of war of the United States, describing “the utter extirpation of all the Indians in most populous parts of the Union [by means] more destructive to the Indian natives than the conduct of the conquerors of Mexico and Peru.”

Intentional ignorance

In modern time we read ignorant press articles about the wisdom of Providence that caused the natives of Scotland to disappear like the withered leaves of autumn, even though colonialists had “constantly respected” them. They are referring to the Highland Clearances that drove tens of thousands of Scots to the Americas, Canada, and Australia.

This intentional ignorance regarding inconvenient truths about Scotland continue to this day as English racists, emboldened by dumping Europeans, call for the annulment of Scottish ‘privileges’ and the disillusion of its devolved parliament. Like Native Americans, Scots still need to be civilized by supremacist whites. That over 370,000 English live happily among us is neither here nor there. As one Scot-hater said, “Fuck them!”

The white English supremacist doesn’t differentiate Scot from Pole, or Pole from African. Withdrawal of political decision making is the new genocide. The sad revelation of broken faith, of violated treaties, of  appropriated  resources, phony Vows, and of inhuman acts bring a flush of shame to the cheeks of those who say they love Great Britain.

As Tories and some blue-blooded socialists keep telling us, the expansion of the peoples of white blood during the British Empire has been of lasting benefit to most of the peoples already dwelling in the lands over which the expansion took place, notably those who had been “extirpated” or reduced to destitution and misery. That’s only a bare beginning of the shocking record of the Anglosphere and its settler-colonial version of imperialism, a form of imperialism that leads quite naturally to the intentional ignorance on the part of beneficiaries of imperial crimes.

But some English are not racist

I can hear the screams of suppressed anger now, winging its way to this website: “Yes, bad things happened in the past, but let us put all of that behind us, and march on to a glorious future, all sharing equally in the rights and opportunities of citizenry now we are devoid of  European interference in our lives.” They do not see the racism.

It was Blair’s government that passed the Bill to reinstate a devolved parliament – very reluctantly. He thinks it was a serious error of judgement: “It only encouraged them to ask for more.” In a self-serving trade Blair stole Scotland’s oil rights. Getting a hobbled Parliament back is hopelessly inadequate compensation.

When it comes to humane politics, to treating their neighbours as they themselves would wish to be treated, the English set themselves terribly low standards, which unfortunately they fail to live up to.

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Carrozzeria Carnage

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Daddy of all car chases, from Bullitt. McQueen’s car passes the green VW Beetle at least four times, such was the limited budget to shoot the scenes in San Francisco streets

There are three staple ingredients used and reused by lazy screenwriters. The first is the mobile phone. Need a plot problem solved instantaneously? Have a main character get a phone call with relevant information to move the plot forward.  

The next ingredient is the shoot-out where all plot difficulties and character conflicts are solved in one go, where the villain gets his comeuppance. Shoot-outs are invariably boring. They should come at the start of a film to save us wasting two hours waiting for the inevitable. Get it over with as soon as possible. Don’t talk, shoot!

Finally, there is the car chase. Car chases and car sequences are as old as films themselves: Laurel and Hardy in their old jalopy that, circus fashion, falls apart as soon as they start the engine; a hundred one-reel Keystone Cops antics where a string of inept police officers hanging onto the car in a snake line as it takes bends too fast, those were the staple comedy fare of the time.

Serious chases took off in the Fifties confined to the last ‘reel’ of the film. Nowadays they can appear at the start, or be dropped into a story many times.

Sweeny bollocks

I’m reminded of this having watched a really bad British film, The Sweeney, starring Ray Winstone, a professional cockney who plays bad ass cockneys more bad ass cockney than cockneys. It contains a car chase every five minutes, or what seems like it.

It is de rigueur for drivers in celluloid chases to negotiate vehicles coming at them in all directions, and if that doesn’t happen then swing down a busy street the wrong way against oncoming traffic. You are free to dash over pavements, (sidewalks) and hit the obligatory stack of cardboard boxes, rubbish (garbage) bins, or a street seller’s stall.  

Winstone’s cars negotiate miles of absolutely empty winding country lanes, and across fields at breakneck speeds with nary a car in sight. He might as well have been making a television commercial where new cars always move down empty roads, inner city streets blissfully bereft of vehicles, unless parking between two with hands-free ease to begin a bank robbery. The film is a huge disappointment, the story and plot are pants.

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Genevieve – the name of the car, a very British car film

Cars as stars

A 1953 British production gave us Genevieve, complete with a 1904 Darracq on a London to Brighton veteran rally. It was very successful at the box office but the car never really caught the public’s imagination. What survived the film is Larry Adler’s hummable harmonica score. Cars as stars came into their own in the Sixties with Disney’s 1968 comedy Love Bug about an adorable anthropomorphic VW Beetle with a mind of its own.

About the same time television saw Simon Templar’s Volvo P1800 in The Saint series. Those dramas showed a car can hold its own when playing the buddy of the key character, and enhance his sex appeal. By the way, why did God give us eyebrows? So that Roger Moore had a career.

In time, every recurring character in a drama had to be seen in an individualistic vehicle, preferably a sporty brand, with a powerful, noisy engine, and an adoring blonde in the passenger seat.

The Saint’s producers wanted an E-Type for Roger Moore’s freelance goody two-shoes detective. Snooty Jaguar declined the invitation. Volvo answered the car with its one and only sports coupe. That elegant model, incidentally, holds the record for the greatest mileage in automotive history, without a change of engine – three million miles, and counting, a car kept in New York State.

Once producers realised a car could be the star it was a matter of who could create the wackiest vehicle that was one up on all that had gone before – the children’s musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and its flying veteran car – or the fastest car, Steve McQueen’s Ford Mustang in Bullitt (1968).

Bullitt set the ball rolling

Inspector Bullitt’s chase, as far as I am concerned, up and over the vertiginous streets of San Francisco, is still the best car chase of all; all others are copies, including Gene Hackman’s chase under the overhead city railway in The French Connection (1971).

For Bullitt McQueen did not do any of the chase stunts himself. That  honour belongs to stuntman Loren Janes. At one point McQueen fails to take a corner and is forced to back up. He was a good driver but not a stunt driver. And the cars involved were heavily modified. Anybody buying one of those cars today, now categorised as classic American muscle cars, is in for a disappointment and a big repair bill. The film cars had to drive faster than the stock model, and take a lot of beating and bashing. Suspensions were beefed up too. McQueen’s car and the villain’s car eventually get into a knock-for-knock  shouldering as they try to push the other off the motorway, each vehicle pretty well destroyed in the process. There were three Ford Mustang fastbacks and three Dodge Chargers. It’s all trickery, folks.

The scenes were shot one street at a time over four weeks. In the end director Peter Weir had to repeat shots to get the rhythm to work, which is why  the same green VW stunt driven Beetle is seen passing McQueen’s car so often on Taylor Street.

Cars didn’t become villains until Australian Peter Weir’s 1974 film, The Cars that Ate Paris. The horror genre manifested itself later in Maximum Overdrive, and as a murderous truck in Spielberg’s Duel with its malevolent gasoline tanker, followed by the Plymouth Fury in Christine, and many more hungry saloons since, all leading to the Stealth Bomber intimidation of Batman’s cars.

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Connery and the Aston Martin DB5 – is there a photograph as cool?

Bond’s bounty

But all of them are out-famed by James Bond’s silver Aston Martin in Goldfinger, (1964) a touring car acting as anti-hero, whose weaponry gadgets came from the imagination of set designer Ken Adam’s frustrations trying to park in London. By the time the pouting Daniel Craig took on the role, Bond films became a product placement dream for Aston Martin, Ford, and Range Rover. They get in the way of the story’s credibility.

A bit of movie gossip: I got the opportunity to ask Sean Connery why he did not buy the Aston Martin DB5 knowing it had become world famous, it value sky rocketing. “Mah head kept hittin’ off the roof!” Connery is six feet two inches.

High profile detectives

I never understood why a clandestine spy should drive around in a flashy bright silver luxury touring car, or undercover cops Starsky and Hutch use a flamboyant bright red Ford Torino with a huge white strip along its flanks.  They’re sitting ducks for motorway speed cops, or the sniper.

And on the subject of televisions detectives, I can accept Inspector Maigret will drive a Citroen Traction Avante of his day, but what do we make of Lieutenant Columbo’s beat-up Peugeot convertible? I can’t fathom why Peter Falk’s rumpled Columbo drives a clapped out old car and wears an old raincoat and soup stained ties, yet smart-ass natty Lieutenant Kojak has a sleek Chevrolet Monte Carlo, and wears high-end suits, police officers both on the same salary.

The golden age

If the silent movies saw the first golden age of cars as supporting characters and gangsters in drive by shootings, we are surely going through a second golden age for cars, or arguably a boring age of derivate plots for cars, depending on whether automobiles raise any interest for you.

It’s difficult to think of a movie set in contemporary times that doesn’t feature a car as a central character, the battered old Mini in The Bourne Identity, and every car in this century’s The Fast and Furious franchise, all out-doing the laconic star of the series the aptly named Vin Diesel, diesel the obvious fuel, but VIN less so, not just short for Vincent but also a car’s date of manufacture.

Back in the day on screen car smashes called for real cars bought for the scene. Today the same carnage  is accomplished by digital magic. The cars pushed over the cliff in The Italian Job, the film really an advert for Mini cars, were real E-Type Jaguars and Ferraris, engines removed. When we see The Matrix we see a plethora of clever effects showing cars doing balletic cartwheels in the air, and ten car pile ups.

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The Lego Batmobile, no imagination required

What comes first, film or toys?

The recent very funny Lego Batman movie is a blatant commercial for Lego and the Batman franchise. It’s a film best watched on television. The cinema screen ought to be for more honest material, but there is no getting away from the cleverness of the script that deconstructs the entire Batman oeuvre hocus-pocus, right down to the live actor’s artificially husky tones.

Included in the story-line is the Lego Batmobile. You can buy the Lego pieces in one pack to build that car, a long way away from the days Lego sold you a pack of Lego parts and left you to build whatever came out of your imagination. Stimulating creativity, it seems, is junked in preference to selling ready-made products at hefty mark up prices. The film won’t do any harm to Lego sales, quite the opposite, but Batman’s producers must be confident their money maker isn’t going to get hurt kicked around in this Lego roasting.

For the less intellectually demanding the unbelievably versatile vehicles in the futuristic Transformers take some beating. Those film rely on digital tricks not on stunt drivers.

Normally toys are a spin off from a popular film, but as each sequel progresses the films become marketing tools for the toys. There’s an audience for stuff that goes crash, crunch, swizzle and explodes. And if too adult to take that tripe you can always make the excuse that Pixar’s Cars is a different sort of car movie.

The anarchic have their Mad Max anthology, now reaching a stage where any sort of vehicle can be constructed out of any other sort of vehicle. Perhaps Mad Max expresses our frustration with the damage cars have done to our cities and are our revenge. Multiple deaths are part of the Mad Max story, live hard, drive hard, die easy. Cars get trashed.

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James Garner and Yves Montand two of the stars of Grand Prix talking to real racing drivers, Graham Hill and Joe Bonnier, in an off-camera moment for Grand Prix

A race to the death

The one film about real car races with real racing drivers was toxic in every sense. Steve McQueen – that man again – and James Garner’s passion to make a film about the Grand Prix reached fruition in 1966 directed by John Frankenheimer. It won three Academy Awards but had a production history littered with delay, disaster, and spiralling costs. There’s not much acting in it, but there is a lot of racing cars interspersed with real footage – hence the length the film took to shoot all its sequences and edit them together.

The tale of Formula One racing drivers involved real-life drivers of the day, Phil Hill, Graham Hill, Juan Manuel Fangio, the great Jim Clark, and Jochen Rindt.

Gran Prix almost certainly caused the death of risk-taker McQueen, a star who demanded a car or motorbike chase in every picture. The bandana McQueen used as face protection from fire was soaked in asbestos. They didn’t know any better in those days. For once the King of Cool was too laid back for his own good. He died of cancer a few years later.

(A modified version of this essay appeared in iScot magazine.)

 

 

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