Author: notreallyworking

Growing Up with The Graduate

Dustin Hoffman

Life in the goldfish bowl: Dustin Hoffman and William Daniels (left)

The Graduate is the movie I would nominate as my “Desert Island disc” if I were unfortunate enough to be marooned somewhere with limited home entertainment options.

When director Mike Nichols died last month, aged 83, I wanted to write a blog post but was hampered by a serious case of writer’s block. You might even say that I was overcome by ennui – much like Benjamin Braddock, the hero of Nichols’s most famous movie, The Graduate. I found myself adrift in a seemingly endless 60s montage of my own making, scored by Simon & Garfunkel songs.

Even people who haven’t seen The Graduate know that it features songs by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel – The Sound of Silence, Scarborough Fair, Mrs. Robinson. But how many are aware that the rest of the soundtrack was composed by the brilliant Dave Grusin, whose later work includes Tootsie (also starring Dustin Hoffman) and one of my all-time favourites, The Fabulous Baker Boys.

Most film buffs have at least one movie or franchise that they return to regularly, luxuriating in the familiarity of plot, dialogue and performances, while also finding something new every time. The Graduate is the movie I would nominate as my “Desert Island disc” if I were unfortunate enough to be marooned somewhere with limited home entertainment options.

The danger of familiarity is that it can breed boredom. I can honestly say that has not been my experience with The Graduate. Since I started blogging about cinema I have enjoyed and appreciated the film more than when I first watched it in the mid-80s.

I was only four when Nichols’s sophisticated comedy was released in December 1967. By the time I was ready to sit through the whole film, I had recently left university with a law degree and the crazy idea that I could have a meaningful career in publishing. In reality I had a boring job, a miniscule salary and, like many of my friends, regarded work as an interruption to my social life.

At least I wasn’t living at home. That put me one step ahead of Benjamin, the aimless hero of The Graduate, who soon finds his post-university idyll threatened by his overbearing parents (played by William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson) and the predatory alcoholic Mrs Robinson (the unforgettable Anne Bancroft).

The age-old problem of the generation gap is handled with great sophistication by screenwriters Calder Willingham and Buck Henry. From the opening party scenes, the Braddocks are rather too eager to parade their newly returned son like a prize heifer in front of their affluent friends and neighbours.

Nichols skilfully employs close-ups and point of view shots (Ben lumbering into the pool in his new diving apparatus) to emphasise how he feels both smothered by and alienated from the world of his parents. The degree of misunderstanding is never more stark than in Ben’s “half-baked” engagement announcement to his bewildered parents. This sums up the alternative reality in which he now exists.

For later generations weaned on the comedies of Judd Apatow, the sly humour might prove too subtle. (The sad clown picture hanging on the landing of the Braddock house.) But I think The Graduate still strikes a chord with underachievers who feel that they haven’t quite lived up to their education or their parents’ expectations.

Now that I have reached middle age, I find I am more sympathetic towards Mrs Robinson – seducer, relationship-wrecker and all-round bad mother.

In reality, Anne Bancroft was a lithe and beautiful 36-year-old when she played the “broken-down alcoholic” Mrs Robinson. But as her affair with Benjamin sours she’s portrayed as a termagant, determined to keep him away from her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) even at the cost of destroying the family.

She’s made to look not just deglamorised but almost monstrous in the rain-drenched scene where she hijacks Ben’s date with Elaine. In the climactic wedding sequence, Mrs Robinson is reduced to flailing hysteria as she screams at her daughter and then hits her.

Katharine Ross, The Graduate

Home truths as Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross square up in church

Despite all this, two earlier moments do emphasise Mrs Robinson’s vulnerability and how she “lost interest” in everything apart from booze and illicit sex. First, when Ben insists on some pillow talk during one of their trysts and quizzes her about her life. He can’t see the reaction, but her expression reveals the sadness at a shot-gun wedding, a husband she loathes and college studies in art that never went anywhere.Later, during the montage when Elaine leaves for Berkeley, she stands apart from the family – there’s no goodbye from her daughter.

The Graduate doesn’t allow her a redemptive moment, but I’d like to believe that Mrs Robinson eventually made it to the Betty Ford Center, kicked the booze and took up painting or charity work.

Finally, I recognise that I’ve grown increasingly anti-religion in the years since I first watched The Graduate.  (No, I’m not singling out any religion in particular.) I love the fact that this film ends with Ben locking the baying crowds inside the church with a large cross, as the runaway couple make their getaway.

Who needs churches, religion, parents or unquestioning obedience to outmoded ideas?

“Elaine, it’s too late!” shouts a desperate Mrs Robinson following the marriage to stuffed shirt Carl Smith. “Not for me!” shrieks Elaine.

It’s the last line of dialogue and sounds a note of defiance and optimism, though for all we know her happiness may not lie with Ben.

Unsporting Sports Personalities of 2014

U09_Luis_Suárez_7523 (pic Ailura)

Hungry for World Cup glory: Luis Suárez (pic Ailura)

As another year of sporting achievement draws to a close, the BBC is preparing to hand out the gongs at BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2014 on 14 December. Those who like acronyms will know this event as SPOTY, and I see that for fans of brevity it’s been shortened to SP14, which sounds like a tax form.

As readers of this blog may already know, I gave up watching SPOTY a few years ago. The endless montages, cheesy interviews and wall-to-wall sycophancy gave me a headache.

There’s not even much of a competition this year, with World Number One golfer Rory McIlroy seemingly a shoo-in to beat new Formula One World Champion Lewis Hamilton for Sports Personality of the Year 2014. That’s disappointing news for fans of the ever fertile Roger Federer, who’d argue that fathering a second set of twins is even more impressive than picking up two Majors.

Instead of watching SPOTY, I’d like to salute those players, managers and administrators across the sporting world who made the headlines in 2014 for all the wrong reasons.

Luis Suarez: big mouth strikes again

When you look back on the 2014 FIFA World Cup, what do you think of first? Is it the 5-1 rout of defending champions Spain by the Netherlands or Germany’s ruthless 7-1 semi-final annihilation of over-confident hosts Brazil? Of course not. It was Uruguay’s goal-hungry striker, Luis Suárez, apparently sinking his teeth into Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini that made headlines around the world and sent the British press into a feeding frenzy. Suárez had previous form – most recently an attempt to nibble Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic’s arm – so his four-month ban wasn’t a surprise. Love him or hate him, the orthodontically challenged Luis is a gift to sub-editors (“It had to be chew!”) and GIF-makers. Liverpool haven’t been the same since he left.

Phil Mickelson: a formula for failure

The British press had the knives out for veteran Phil Mickelson at the 2014 Ryder Cup. Both before and after his team’s 16 ½ to 11 ½ points defeat by Europe, Mickelson’s penchant for shooting his mouth off overshadowed the action. I’ve always found Phil’s swashbuckling style, expanding girth and incipient man boobs quite appealing. His “we also don’t litigate against each other” quip – referencing Rory McIlroy’s dispute with former management company Horizon was more innocuous than obnoxious.  Sadly not many people appreciated the candour of Mickelson’s “We have strayed from a winning formula” post-mortem on Tom Watson’s feeble captaincy. A case of bad timing?

MickelsonTPCAwardCeremony (pic minds-eye)

The prize for motor mouth 2014 goes to Phil Mickelson (pic minds-eye)

Kevin Pietersen: right to reply?

I’ve never been able to make up my mind whether Kevin Pietersen is a “maverick genius” or just another tattooed narcissist with too many trick shots. Following England’s disastrous Ashes tour last winter, the ECB terminated KP’s contract – some would say with extreme prejudice. His response was the imaginatively titled KP: The Autobiography, in which he lambasted the “bullying culture” supposedly fostered by former coach Andy Flower and senior England players like Graeme Swann and Matt Prior. No doubt the mutual mud-slinging helped KP shift lots of units, but it wasn’t what Alastair Cook’s beleaguered team needed.

Kevin_Pietersen_2014 (pic NAPARAZZI)

Swann song: Kevin Pietersen criticised several former team-mates in his autobiography (pic NAPARAZZI)

Shamil Tarpischev vs the Williams sisters

Shamil Tarpischev sounds like a girl’s name to me, but even if the president of the Russian Tennis Federation had an “ova” he’d still be no match for Serena and Venus Williams. That ill-judged reference to the “Williams brothers” during a Russian chat show appearance briefly made Tarpischev a household name. The WTA slapped him with a US$25,000 fine and a 12-month suspension. Serena Williams hit him with the triple-barrelled accusation of being “extremely sexist, racist and bullying”.

The ever popular Rio Ferdinand

Rio Ferdinand’s Twitter account was in the news again in 2014, following that ill-advised “sket” hashtag. The FA fined him £25,000 and banned him for three matches for introducing fans to this Caribbean slang for a loose woman. The FA took into account that @rioferdy5 has almost 6 million followers and is therefore held to a higher burden of responsibility as a prolific tweeter. In response he tweeted: “Is humour even allowed….I’m baffled! Ludicrous…. & I don’t mean the rapper.” 

Money talks & West Indies walk

In the 70s and 80s the West Indies test team were world-beating entertainers with the scariest fast bowling attack and Master Blaster batsman Viv Richards. In 2014 Dwayne Bravo’s team made the news for abandoning a tour of India in October because of a pay dispute. I don’t know who’s to blame: the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB), the West Indies Players’ Association (WIPA) or the players. I do know it’s a terrible advertisement for the game of cricket.

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Sherlock Holmes at the Museum of London

Benedict_Cumberbatch_filming_Sherlock (pic by Fat Les (bellaphon) from London, UK)

A Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century: Benedict Cumberbatch

The Museum of London – a mid-70s hotchpotch of grubby concrete, white tiles and multi-level entrances – doesn’t look like the most obvious place to begin an excursion into the Victorian era. Hansom cabs being in short supply, I travelled to Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die on a shiny new Metropolitan Line tube. I changed trains at Baker Street (where else?).  After descending two floors at the museum, I was directed “through the bookcase” into a world of gaslight, deerstalkers, dastardly villains and a consulting detective with superhuman intellectual powers and an unhealthy appetite for cocaine.

I discovered Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories a few Christmases ago and found them a welcome distraction from the bland landscape of seasonal telly. I’ve not seen much of the BBC’s Sherlock series because I prefer to watch the stories in their original (Victorian) setting. I’ll take the commanding presence of Jeremy Brett over the foppish Benedict Cumberbatch any day, but I know there are many fans who’d disagree.

In the first room of Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die the faces and voices of a century of screen Sherlocks crowd in on every side. William Gillette (who created the character on stage), Basil Rathbone, Christopher Lee, Tom Baker and Robert Downey Jr look down from banks of TV screens and walls of posters.

If you’re a film fan, your appetite will be well and truly whetted by the some of the posters advertising both “official” Sherlock Holmes movies and spin-offs such as the garishly shot A Study in Terror (1965). A slavering beast on Hammer’s superb Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) rubs shoulders with a busty femme fatale on the French poster from Billy Wilder’s 1970 The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

Fans of antiquarian books will enjoy seeing the beautifully illustrated and carefully preserved first editions of A Study in Scarlet. They’ll also discover a bit about the history of Tit-Bits magazine (note that hyphen) and its publisher George Newnes, who was the man behind The Strand Magazine.

If you’ve simply come to wallow in Sherlock Holmes memorabilia, you’ll have to go almost to the edge of the Reichenbach Falls to find it. In the penultimate room of the exhibition, fans can swoon over that Belstaff Milford coat worn with such panache by Benedict Cumberbatch. There are also cases of displays featuring everything from vintage typewriters, candlestick telephones, pipes and (cunning) disguises, to the fascinating accoutrements of the 19th-century cocaine addict.

But in between the posters and the artefacts, some visitors might be feel that they’ve strayed into a different exhibition.  That’s because after introducing us to his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (some of the author’s Southsea notebooks are on display), this show veers off into the streetscapes of Victorian London.

For those who like old maps, The Museum of London has meticulously plotted the course of some of Holmes’s most famous adventures, including A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles. (In this pre-Google Maps era, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle apparently relied on the Post Office Directory to plan his indefatigable detective’s progress around town and the suburbs.)

Different colours highlight the routes takes by Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr Watson, on foot, by train or their preferred mode of transport – a hansom cab. Underneath these maps, speeded-up video footage shows the same journeys through 21st-century London. What struck me was how boring and homogeneous the centre of the city looks today from the back of a speeding cab – a succession of Starbucks, Prêt à Mangers and mobile phone shops.

One of the five sections of Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die is given over to prints, etchings and paintings of London as it looked in Conan Doyle’s day. While these pictures don’t directly illustrate the stories they do give a flavour of the buildings, fashions and vehicles of this era of “pea-soupers”. Here you’ll find household names (Matisse, Whistler) cheek by jowl with many long-forgotten chroniclers of London’s lost landscapes.

In a different venue, the focus of this exhibition might have leaned more heavily towards the history of Sherlock Holmes on the big and small screen. At the Museum of London it is the inextricable links between the Victorian city and the adventures of Conan Doyle’s most celebrated character that take centre stage.

Sherlock Holmes Exhibition at the Museum of London

The Museum of London plays host to Sherlock Holmes

From Borgen to Barcelona: the BFI London Film Festival 2014

Kristen_Stewart_Snowwhite_Premiere

From Twilight to the glare of Camp X-Ray: Kristen Stewart (Pic. Eva Rinaldi)

After a three-year break, I found time last weekend to attend the BFI London Film Festival 2014. Thanks to a generous friend who was prepared to endure the eccentricities of the LFF online booking system, I managed to fit in four films in three days.

Watching new films in a Film Festival environment is a completely different experience from turning up at your local multiplex or even a Curzon and enduring a couple of hours in the company of the popcorn-munching, FaceBooking masses. (Who are these morons who refuse to switch off their phones for the short time required to watch a film?)

Film Festival attendees don’t have sit through up to half an hour’s worth of adverts and trailers before the film starts. Instead, there’s a live introduction from one of the Festival programmers and sometimes a cameo appearance from one of the film’s stars (see below). At the end, there’s often a Q&A session with the director. Three of the four films I saw this year offered this “bonus” feature.

In previous years I have churned out full-length film reviews for websites that didn’t pay me anything. I won’t be doing that again. Instead, in a nod to the wise creator of Paragraph Film Reviews, here are some brief reflections on what I saw at the BFI London Film Festival 2014.

The Duke of Burgundy (director Peter Strickland)

Guardian and Radio Times-reading TV viewers were fixated by the Danish political soap Borgen and its multi-lingual star, Sidse Babett Knudsen. She swept into the cinema just a few minutes before I sat down to watch Peter Strickland’s beautifully shot but bizarrely plotted erotic drama The Duke of Burgundy. (The title is a reference to a type of butterfly.)

Knudsen plays Cynthia, the cool, immaculately dressed employer who puts her younger “maid” Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) through her paces with a mixture of contempt and boredom. From turning up late at the door of the amateur entomologist’s ivy-encrusted mansion, to sitting down without being invited and then failing to wash her employer’s silk undies properly, poor Evelyn just can’t avoid punishment.

Appearances are deceptive: their rather stilted interactions are elaborate role-playing (complete with hand-written cue cards) at the heart of a sadomasochistic relationship. Soft-focus photography, sly humour and a surprising lack of nudity make the specifics of their games seem less salacious – though I’m glad we never found out more about that much-vaunted “human toilet”.

The Duke of Burgundy is essentially a two-hander that relies on the charisma and the chemistry of its two stars to overcome the fact that both the characters and the setting of the story remain an enigma. Cynthia’s increasing physical and psychological frailties – her struggles to satisfy her younger lover’s demands – add emotional weight to what might have been a cold, stylised drama.

Viewers who entertained fantasies about seeing Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg in silk lingerie will not be disappointed. Far more revealing is what Sidse Babett Knudsen’s affecting performance reveals about the universal fear of growing old.

Camp X-Ray (director Peter Sattler)

I have given the Twilight films wide berth, but Peter Sattler’s Guantanamo Bay-set prison drama, Camp X-Ray, shows Kristen Stewart in a whole new light. She brings a convincing mixture of steeliness and vulnerability to her role as Amy Cole, a soldier charged with babysitting detainees at the controversial facility. In her relationship with long-term inmate Ali (Peyman Moaadi), Cole begins to question the morality of this system of internment without trial.

Peter Sattler wisely concentrates on the human elements of the drama rather than railing against the shortcomings of America’s human rights record. (The opening scenes in which the orange-suited Ali is bundled into a cage, bleeding and utterly dehumanised, speak for themselves.) The later confrontations between guard and inmate that take place around Ali’s cell door are some of the most nerve-shredding I’ve seen for years.

If you’re not moved to tears of rage by the plight of the Harry Potter-loving Ali, then perhaps you should just stick to watching vapid teenage vampire flicks.

Charlie’s Country (director Rolf de Heer)

The BFI London Film Festival programme gives all the films a positive write-up, and never more so than in the case of “visionary director Rolf de Heer’s Australian-set drama. David Gulpilil won Best Actor at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for his powerful performance as Charlie, an ageing Native Australian who finds himself on the wrong side of the white man’s draconian laws in the post-“intervention” era. Broke, hungry and shorn of his weapons, Charlie takes off into the Outback to reclaim his freedom, but ends up desperately ill and then incarcerated.

As you’d expect, Charlie’s Country is primarily a showcase for the talents of the veteran Gulpilil, a star of Australian cinema since 1971’s Walkabout. It is his face and personality that dominate every scene in this gruelling and often slow-moving story. There are lighter moments here – notably Charlie’s ill-fated buffalo hunting trip and the way de Heer emphasises the colour and quantity of prison food as it’s doled out.

I can’t say that really enjoyed Charlie’s Country, but I did learn something about the discriminatory and (frankly) infantilizing measures taken by the Australian Government in 2007 against Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.

10.000 Km (director Carlos Marques-Marcet)

I wasn’t convinced that a long-distance love story conducted mainly through Skype would make for compelling cinema, but writer/director Carlos Marques-Marcet has pulled it off. That’s largely down to his two very sexy, intelligent and appealing actors – David Verdaguer as teacher Sergi and Natalia Tena as his photographer girlfriend Alex.

After the long opening scene in their Barcelona apartment, the pair are forced apart when Alex decides to move to LA for a year for her career. Lonely, bored or just horny, the twentysomething pair soon discover the limitations of trying to share intimacies over wi-fi when you’re thousands of kilometres apart (9,661.4 to be precise).

Despite the physical confines of the plot – the characters are seen on-screen only in their respective apartments – Marques-Marcet keeps the pace brisk as we chart the elapsing days over their 12-month separation. He trusts the viewer to fill in the blanks, as when Alex shuts her screen during an online sex session or when Sergi’s one-night stand is heard showering but never glimpsed or mentioned.

Regardless of technology, a love story stands or falls on whether you care about the fate of the couple. I would happily spend another 100 minutes Skyping with this pair.

David Fincher’s Gone Girl

Rosamund_Pike_2011 (pic Justin Hoch)

Before the 2014 BFI London Film Festival gets under way next week, I decided to indulge in some mainstream, big-budget Hollywood entertainment – David Fincher’s Gone Girl. This eagerly anticipated adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestseller stars Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike as the picture-perfect Nick and Amy Dunne. When beautiful blonde Amy disappears from the couple’s home in North Carthage, Missouri on their fifth wedding anniversary, the police uncover suspicious blood spatter quicker than you can say Dexter Morgan. From then on Gone Girl is a roller-coaster ride of plot twists, culminating in that old BFI favourite: “strong, bloody violence”.

I haven’t read Gillian Flynn’s novel, but those familiar with the source material will know that it’s difficult to reveal too much about the plot of Gone Girl without plunging headlong into spoiler territory. It starts out a bit like a police procedural (Nick even cracks a joke about Law & Order), as the (not sufficiently) distraught husband comes under intense scrutiny from the cops, the locals and excoriating TV host Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle). Meanwhile, flashbacks of Amy writing in her diary fill us in on their past life as yuppie journalists in New York, and what may have proved to be a fatal attraction.

Gone Girl is a story in which two highly unreliable narrators pursue high-risk agendas that pull audience loyalties one way and then the other. Though the opening half hour is a bit slow, skeletons soon start tumbling out of closets and something nasty (or at least very unwelcome) turns up in the woodshed, as the protagonists revel in media manipulation, role-playing and illicit sex.

With her patrician beauty, English rose Rosamund Pike might seem like more obvious casting for genteel period drama like Downton Abbey than the rigours of a David Fincher movie. (Remember what happened to Gwyneth Paltrow in Se7en?). But despite the occasional wobble in her accent, she is a revelation here as the missing trust-funder with a penchant for picking the wrong guys. Chomping hamburgers on the fly and splashing about in buckets of blood, Pike throws herself into the extremes of “Amazing” Amy’s jaw-dropping antics with gusto.

Some people don’t like Ben Affleck (maybe it’s the Oscar wins, his politics or the fact that he’s really an Affleck-Boldt). For me he’s the natural successor to Jeff Bridges in Jagged Edge, as the handsome, lazy and morally reprehensible bar-owner Nick Dunne. Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry are also highly effective as, respectively, Amy’s creepily devoted ex-suitor and Nick’s hot-shot attorney.

The problem is that while director David Fincher seems tailor-made for this kind of high-concept thriller, I didn’t find Gone Girl nearly as much fun as some of the critics who’ve gone overboard with their praise this week.

Of course it’s not essential that any of the main characters are likeable or sympathetic – they’re certainly not in this film. I didn’t bring art-house level expectations of a profound meditation on modern relationships or media excesses to what is, after all, just a pot-boiler. But given my unfamiliarity with the material I did expect to be much more shaken, stirred, excited and even horrified by this ugly tale of a thoroughly toxic relationship.

Perhaps the problem is that at 145 minutes long Gone Girl continues the 21st-century trend for films that outstay their welcome by a good 20 minutes. I also found that the content and the presentation of Amy’s diary entries made for a boring, bland introduction to the character, though perhaps that was deliberate.

Gone Girl will be best enjoyed with your blood-alcohol level raised and your expectations lowered. Despite the hype, this is not a modern masterpiece.

LA Stories: Lance Armstrong on Film

"<a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lance_Armstrong_MidiLibre_2002.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Lance_Armstrong_MidiLibre_2002.jpg">Lance Armstrong MidiLibre 2002</a>" by <a href="//de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benutzer:Hase" class="extiw" title="de:Benutzer:Hase">de:Benutzer:Hase</a> - Self-photographed. Licensed under <a title="Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0" href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0">CC BY-SA 3.0</a> via <a href="//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/">Wikimedia Commons</a>.

Lance Armstrong hides those “lyin’ eyes” during the 2002 Grand Prix Midi Libre

The most glaring absence from The Armstrong Lie is the keen intellect and infallible bullshit detector of author, journalist and Teflon-coated anti-Lance crusader, David Walsh.

In the week that the Tour de France brought a triumphant splash of yellow to Britain’s roads, the BBC and Channel 4 served up two films illustrating the darker side of cycling’s recent history.

The Armstrong Lie (Channel 4) and BBC Four’s Storyville: Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing offered a fascinating compare and contrast experience for fans of movies, sport and conspiracies. As I’d recently read two books about the Lance Armstrong doping controversy (Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle’s The Secret Race and David Walsh’s Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong), I didn’t need much persuasion to spend four hours mainlining Lance.

The Armstrong Lie was made by Alex Gibney (Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God and Taxi to the Dark Side), while Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing was directed by Alex Holmes, writer/director of the 2004 miniseries House of Saddam. Both films recount how cancer survivor Lance Armstrong’s record seven Tour de France victories (1999-2005) were eventually revealed to be the work not of some two-wheeled messiah but of a power-crazed charlatan, boosted by EPO and blood transfusions. But though they often employ the same archive footage and interview the same people, the results feel very different.

Gibney’s film is the more “authored” piece, in which his own relationship with the Lance Armstrong Story takes centre stage. Gibney set out to make a movie about Lance’s comeback to cycling and his decision to compete in the 2009 Tour de France, riding for Astana. That project was derailed in the wake of Floyd Landis’s revelations about what really went on inside that all-conquering US Postal Service team. In October 2012 an investigation by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) finally led to Lance being stripped of his yellow jerseys and banned for life.

When Gibney returned to the project, his main question was why Lance ever risked coming back to the sport and exposing what had been a remarkably effective cover-up of doping activities. Was he really riding “clean” in that comeback Tour? Gibney cuts between archive footage, material shot in 2009 and new interviews with his subject, to bring the story up to date. We drop in on Lance at home with the doping inspectors and see clips from his tête-à-tête with an unforgiving Oprah Winfrey in January 2013. A supposedly chastened Lance tells Gibney, “I didn’t live a lot of lies but I lived one big one”, and speculates on whether his cycling feats will remain expunged from the record books in decades to come.

The price of Gibney’s access to his subject is that The Armstrong Lie feels like a wholly undeserved opportunity for Lance have the final word — yet again. There is some eye-opening behind-the-scenes footage from the 2009 Tour de France, in which team director Johan Bruyneel fails to control Lance’s team-mate (and bitter rival) Alberto Contador. But can we expect any real insights or revelations when Armstrong himself keeps popping up every five minutes to offer his best impression of sincerity and contrition?

For me, Storyville: Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing is the far superior documentary because it allows Lance’s victims – and there are many – to have their say. The difference between the two films is best summed up with an incident from a 2009 press conference, in which Lance attacks Irish journalist and ex-cyclist Paul Kimmage for describing him as the “cancer” of the sport. “You’re not worth the chair that you’re sitting on,” he self-righteously declares, while more or less claiming to be the man who’s single-handedly ridding the world of that terrible disease. (It’s that messiah complex again.)

Gibney’s film then cuts to the grinning face of Lance’s former team-mate, George Hincapie, who was at that press conference and now seems to regard the hypocrisy as a bit of joke; Storyville shows us Kimmage’s angry riposte at the time. It’s significant because it emphasises that the BBC film is less concerned with myth-making and more focused on the voices of dissent that dogged this American “hero” throughout his glory years.

Lance’s former team-mate Frankie Andreu and his fearless and incorruptible wife Betsy (think Deputy Solverson from Fargo) are interviewed at length in both films. Frankie’s career was damaged and both suffered intimidation as a result of their refusal to adhere to the Armstrong “Omerta”. But in the Alex Holmes film we also hear from others who were traduced and thrown under the (team) bus, including former soigneur Emma O’Reilly, Tour de France winner Greg LeMond and the USADA’s Travis Tygart, who admits he received threats to his life. Tyler Hamilton gives us the lowdown on those blood transfusions, providing graphic detail that’s absent from the Gibney film.

The most glaring absence from The Armstrong Lie is the keen intellect and infallible bullshit detector of author, journalist and Teflon-coated anti-Lance crusader, David Walsh. In Storyville: Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing he highlights the stupidity of Armstrong not allowing the “ticking bomb” that was Floyd Landis back into his team, following Floyd’s two-year ban for doping in 2006. That decision pushed Landis towards his fateful decision to blow the whistle on Lance.

Walsh also points out that Lance’s demand that his accusers produce “extraordinary proof” of his doping reflected an unwavering belief that “different rules apply to the gods”.

As for why Lance Armstrong came back to the sport, Walsh calls it “the oldest theme in Hollywood”, comparing the cyclist’s high-octane career to that of a master jewel thief or an assassin, “They do their job brilliantly . . . someone says just one more job . . . they can’t resist”.

Courting controversy: Wimbledon’s all white obsession

Serena Williams, Wimbledon 2012 (pic Katherine Shann)

Serena Williams wasn’t in the pink at Wimbledon 2014 (pic Katherine Shann)

It’s not often I find myself in agreement with Roger Federer, but Wimbledon’s “all-white” rule is cretinous. Of course The Federator was far to polite to actually use that word, but he has spoken out against the All England Club’s decision to eliminate as much colour as possible from the players’ attire.

In recent years competitors have got away with jazzing up their pristine white attire with the odd splash of colour. So tennis queen Serena Williams was able to don a regal purple headband or highlight her posterior with an eye-catching pair of red shorts. Sadly, those hot pants failed to make the same impact as Venus’s infamous flesh-coloured drawers in 2010.

In 2013 Roger Federer was ticked off for taking to the court in a pair of Nikes with day-glo orange soles. They weren’t nearly as offensive to the eye as veteran Radek Stepanek’s banned red and blue footwear from 2012, but still unacceptable to those All England killjoys.

A few years ago I remember commentator Pat Cash saying he would eat his hat if Tim Henman managed to win Wimbledon. Given “Tiger” Tim’s unerring ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, I thought Cashie was on pretty safe ground with that boast. But the straight-talking Aussie did come unstuck with his footwear this year during a veterans’ event, after failing to observe Point 8 of Wimbledon’s revised Clothing and Equipment guidelines “Shoes must be almost entirely white, including the soles.”

In a tradition that stretches back to Gussie Moran’s lace-trimmed knickers in the 1940s, there’s nothing the press loves more during Wimbledon fortnight than an opportunity to write about ladies’ underwear. It’s so much more rewarding (and photogenic) than speculating about Andy Murray’s latest cursing outburst.

So editors must have been cheering Wimbledon’s decision to make the ladies and their “unmentionables” even more high visibility this year. If anything is going to show up through that perspiration-soaked dress (or shirt) it “must also be completely white”.

Caroline Wozniacki was able to see right through the All England Club’s underwear fixation, declaring it “creepy”. But ceremonially setting fire to your (non-white) bra, as those pioneers of women’s tennis might have done in the early 70s, is not an option these days. Wimbledon decrees that “common standards of decency are required at all times”.

As you may have detected, I am a tennis fan but I am not an admirer of strict dress codes – either in sport or in any other walk of life. I do not respect institutions who cling on to their precious, and in this case utterly pointless, traditions at the expense of flexibility or common sense.

Has anyone ever felt tempted to walk off Centre Court because a player was wearing red knickers or had an excessive amount of colour trim on their shirt? I’d be much more irritated by the grunting, shrieking and excessive towelling-off that punctuates so many matches these days.

Many of the colour combinations at this year’s French Open ranged from the unflattering (Roger Federer’s grey top with red sleeves) to the downright hideous (Tomas Berdych’s floral ensemble). But at least it was easy to distinguish one badly dressed player from another.

Of course Wimbledon’s “all white” rule is just a dress code. For much of the 20th century a sign that said “Whites Only” had very different connotations if you lived in the US or in apartheid-era South Africa. Wimbledon isn’t being racist – it’s just being annoyingly petty, pointlessly traditional and utterly British. So let’s tear up the rule book and have more stripes, more colour and more fun.

Under Offer: Estate Agents on the Job

Under Offer: Estate Agents on the Job (BBC2)

As the post-mortem on the BBC’s feeble W1A continues, a genuinely hilarious workplace comedy arrived on our screens last night. I’m talking about BBC2’s Under Offer, Estate Agents on the Job, a six-part documentary series that promises to “lift the lid on the UK’s crazy property market”.

I’m not a fan of reality TV and I have been contemptuous about TV property shows and estate agents on this blog, but this hour-long programme was even more wickedly enjoyable than the downfall of Culture Secretary Maria Miller. With narration by Derek Jacobi and jaunty incidental music that could have come straight out of The Apprentice, this first instalment zig-zagged between London, Exeter, Birmingham and County Durham, to follow “the highs and lows of the people who broker the biggest purchases most of us will ever make”.

In the thriving property market of Exeter we met the ebullient 30-year-old Lewis Rossiter, manager of Bradleys estate agents, and about to become a father for the third time. Lewis wears those naff coloured shirts with white collars that Terry Wogan made famous in the 80s. He also turns out to have a comedic flair that his namesake Leonard Rossiter would have admired. That’s just as well, given that he has just 10 weeks to flog a house in Willeys Avenue – otherwise glamorous, blonde mother-of-two Sam will lose her deposit on the featureless Lego house she’s set her heart on.

Lewis Rossiter

Meanwhile, in County Durham Lynne Blaney is breakfasting on Froot Loops and sighing over the fact that around one-third of her housing stock comes from repossessed homes. This is truly “heart-rendering” [sic], as is her failure to sell a four-bedroom detached house called The Chapelry, whose owner has foolishly fitted it out with an excess of Brazilian mahogany. Given that swathes of the North of England are Poundland territory in terms of property prices, Lynne has more chance of turning her Fruit Loops into 24-carat gold than finding a new owner for this £249,000 white elephant.

Even more wickedly enjoyable than the downfall of Culture Secretary Maria Miller

The Birmingham scenes with straight-talking Dave Simms were less engaging, though I had to agree with his withering assessment of property shows fronted by Sarah Beeny and Kirstie Allsopp. While Dave’s bungalow sale storyline had human interest (an elderly couple who were desperate to downsize), I suspect most viewers were more interested in smooth-talking veteran Gary Hersham, from Mayfair-based Beauchamp Estates.

Gary’s been wheeling and dealing among London’s super-rich since the late 70s. Operating solely in the Capital’s smarter postcodes – W1, SW1, SW3 – his impressive portfolio ranges from a paltry £2 million (that’s broom-cupboard territory) to £120 million mansions for the uber-wealthy.

Gary earns more from a single mega-bucks deal than poor Lynne will see in her lifetime and he clearly knows his target market: “The super-rich look for instant gratification.” But even at this rarefied end of the property market, someone still has to do the unglamorous job of humping boxes of leaflets around. That’s where Ernesto comes in handy.

The star of Under Offer, Estate Agents on the Job turns out not to be cheeky chappie Lewis, but the podgy, sweaty and slightly camp Spanish gentleman who works for Gary. Judging by the carefully staged scenes we saw, their relationship is like a retread of Fawlty Towers, with Gary in the Basil role (“Bleedin’ Spanish twerp!”) and Ernesto as a supersized version of the cowering Manuel.

“My relationship – it’s a leetle beet of love/hate,” confides Ernesto. After watching this episode I’m starting to feel the same way about estate agents.

The Crimson Field

Hermione Norris in The Crimson Field (BBC1)

Hermione Norris is out to spook those new nurses in BBC1’s The Crimson Field

In a makeshift tent somewhere in France, three rookie nurses are set the exacting task of making up a hospital bed in just two minutes under the steely gaze of Matron. They’re cheered on by a motley band of supporters. Is this “The Great British Bed Off”, a new spin on the BBC’s hugely popular The Great British Bake Off? No, it was episode one of The Crimson Field, BBC1’s much-hyped First World War drama about VAD nurses.

In 1915 three young ladies arrive at “Hospital 25″, somewhere in northern France, to begin their baptism of fire at the hands of formidable Matron Grace Carter (Hermione Norris) and her sidekick Sister Margaret Quayle (Kerry Fox). A clumsy expositional scene reveals that Grace has recently (and unexpectedly) won promotion over Margaret, who brushes off the snub with a none-too-convincing “I couldn’t be more proud” speech. Fox, who’s been turned into a “Silver Fox” for this role, later enjoys a couple of moments of villainy, when she steals a cake and helps send a traumatised soldier back to the Front.

The Hour’s Oona Chaplin plays Kitty Trevelyan, the most insubordinate – and therefore most appealing – of the new arrivals. We know she has a romantic past because she’s first glimpsed tossing a ring off the prow of the Boulogne-bound ship, in a scene that might have come straight out of Titanic. With her smoking, blaspheming and answering back to Matron, Kitty was courting trouble even before she almost got herself killed by a distressed and dying patient.

Marianne Oldham’s priggish Rosalie Berwick – “The rules are there for a reason” – tries to lay down the law to the defiant Kitty and gets a tongue-lashing for her trouble. Dim-witted Flora Marshall (Alice St. Clair) provides most of the lighter moments in this episode, mainly thanks to her faltering attempts to deal with a large heap of bloodied bandages containing some putrefying body parts.

A soldier instructs floundering Flora to toss the severed digits (they look a bit like raw chipolatas) into something that resembles an outdoor pizza oven. “They’re rotten – neither use nor ornament,” he explains, thereby summing up the likely contribution of VAD nurses to the war effort.

The brilliant Blackadder Goes Forth showed how black humour can be an effective way to convey the horrors of mechanised slaughter. But I imagine the producers of The Crimson Field were also aiming to provoke sorrow at this endless parade of broken bodies and souls, and anger at the apparent callousness of some senior officers. As the head of the hospital, Lt-Col Roland Brett, Downton Abbey’s Kevin Doyle has a couple of good scenes in which he tries (and fails) to engineer a humane exit for a psychologically broken soldier.

Until the belated arrival of Suranne Jones as the motorcycle-riding civilian nurse Joan Livesey, the main reason to keep watching The Crimson Field was Hermione Norris. Admittedly, Matron Carter was saddled with a very predictable storyline here, as she alternated between tender concern for her moribund patients and barely disguised contempt for her new charges.

You can stick her in a WWI nurse’s outfit in a field in France (it’s actually Wiltshire), but Hermione Norris will always be Ros Myers, the ass-kicking, terrorist-chasing, leather-jacketed heroine of spy drama Spooks. Watching her castigate the hapless Flora for wearing scent (“just rosewater”) I found myself wondering how the take-no-prisoners Ros would have dealt with these simpering females.

My best guess is that Ros would have dunked Flora’s empty head in that bowl of water, washed out the impudent Kitty’s mouth with the bar of soap and then told Rosalie to stop being such a sycophant.

A Talent for Survival: The London Group Reception at Tate Britain

Dr Richard Cork, Susan Haire

Dr Richard Cork with London Group President Susan Haire (pic Tom Scase)

On 5 March 1914, The London Group held its inaugural exhibition at the Goupil Gallery, 5 Regent Street, London. You probably haven’t heard of the Goupil, which shifted between several central London locations before it was flattened by a German bomb in 1941. Despite a nomadic existence, The London Group has proved much more durable: it survived the Second World War, decades of changing tastes in the art world and a verbal carpet bombing by bilious art critic Brian Sewell. Dr Richard Cork, Sewell’s predecessor at the London Evening Standard, was much more complimentary when he spoke at a reception at Tate Britain on the 100th anniversary of that first exhibition.

An invitation to an after-hours event at a major London gallery is always exciting. With fewer people around it’s easier to absorb the impact of Caruso St John’s high-profile £45 million makeover of Tate Britain. Entering through the reopened “front door” on the Millbank side, I descended via the stunning new spiral staircase beneath the rotunda, to the pristine white surroundings of the cavern-like Djanogly café, where the reception was held.

Current members, their partners and invited guests heard Richard Cork reflect on The London Group’s early years. It was an era in which the art world was dominated by “isms” (Fauvism, Cubism, Vorticism), and the challenge of conveying wholesale slaughter on the battlefields was taken up by many painters and sculptors. They included David Bomberg, who was part of the Group’s first exhibition and whose painting, In The Hold, was a key work in last year’s A Crisis of Brilliance exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

London Group catalogues

A selection of catalogues from London Group exhibitions, held in the archives at
Tate Britain (pic Tom Scase).

As Cork touched on some of the controversies and described the brutal evolution of Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill sculpture, I thought about a more recent attempt at emasculation. Brian Sewell’s withering assessment of the exhibition, Uproar! The First 50 Years of The London Group 1913-1963, included the assertion that the Group has been in “irreversible decline” since the end of the Second World War and “ought long ago to have been put down”. Strong stuff. I might be reading too much into the rantings of a grumpy old man, but it sounded as though Brian thought The London Group should have perished in a Luftwaffe bombing raid.

I’m not a professional artist or art critic; I was flattered to be invited to the Tate reception as a result of a blog I wrote last year. Brian Sewell is much better qualified than I am to compare the merit and the impact of The London Group’s second half century with its early years at the cutting edge of the art scene. The first London Group show featured more than 100 works by artists including Wyndham Lewis, David Bomberg and CRW Nevinson. It’s probably too early to say whether any of the current members will be as influential – though Dame Paula Rego’s international reputation precedes her.

But Sewell’s comment that The London Group in its later years “has meant very little to working artists and nothing at all to the wider public” is breathtakingly arrogant and ill-informed. Did he bother to interview any current members before reaching this conclusion? Speaking to them last night and at previous exhibitions, I know that what Sewell dismisses as a “pathetic” Collective is an integral part of their professional lives.

Fortunately, Brenda Emmanus took a more measured approach in this week’s BBC London piece about the The London Group On London exhibition, which continues at the Cello Factory until 12 March. Among the interviewees was 91-year-old Albert Irvin RA, a member since 1965, whose paintings and prints are most often characterised as “exuberant”. (That’s not a description that could ever be applied to Brian Sewell.)

Longevity is not always a reliable guide to the value of work, organisations or individuals. (A certain veteran art critic should have been put out to pasture some years ago.) But enduring links to a pivotal era in 20th-century British art are worth celebrating. Tate Britain holds a fascinating collection of London Group documents, catalogues and photos within its huge (entirely dust-free!) archives.

In the words of its current President, Susan Haire, “The London Group is thriving and we expect to be around for the next 100 years.”

http://www.thelondongroup.com