Most survival game stories keep the cash offstage, trading instead in lives, weapons and vital resources. In Squid Game, the conversion of lives into cash is literally writ large, on a giant scoreboard that keeps count of the diminishing number of players and accumulating prize money. An allegorical reading about class or capital seems redundant when the role of individual debt, financial speculation and violent inequality is as transparent as the giant glass piggy bank that hangs over the players’ dormitory. Which leaves us free to ask slightly different questions about the survival game as a prominent feature of contemporary culture: not what it is about, but what is it for?
The death of the actor Michael K. Williams, at the age of 54, was reported on 6 September. He had been found unresponsive in his Brooklyn penthouse. Williams was a major player in The Wire, one of American culture’s sharpest analyses of what happened to the country in the wake of 9/11.
It’s hard to work out who the intended audience for Sky History’s reality show The Chop was supposed to be. The channel itself seems pitched at middle-aged men who own too many books on Nazi Germany and Roman Egypt. The Chop aimed to find ‘Britain’s top woodworker’ by pitting contestants against each other in a series of challenges, perhaps using different historical carpentry methods. Regardless, those of us who missed the first episode last week will now never know, since Sky has been forced to pull the entire programme from its schedules, and delete all video clips of it, after receiving thousands of complaints from people (I was one of them) who’d seen a trailer featuring a contestant with white supremacist tattoos on his face.
Last week, Ofcom decided not to investigate a routine performed by the dance group Diversity on Britain’s Got Talent earlier this month. So far so good. The performance, which referred to the death of George Floyd and the wave of protests that followed, drew a record-breaking deluge of 24,500 complaints: that the dance routine was ‘racist towards white people’, portrayed the police negatively and supported a political organisation. ‘In our view,’ Ofcom responded, ‘the clear overarching narrative of the performance was to reflect the events of 2020 and to call for social cohesion and unity.’
I’m old-fashioned enough to think that for something to count as a cult, it should be dark, subterranean and bound up with sacred mysteries. On that definition, Penda’s Fen (1974) may be the only authentic cult TV I’ve come across.
In the hope of understanding Alexei Navalny’s fate, I’ve been watching RT. The Kremlin-funded media network formerly known as Russia Today has dubious form when it comes to apparent poisonings. A couple of years ago, its editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, interviewed the two men suspected of smearing Sergei Skripal’s door handle with a ‘novichok’ nerve agent. She didn’t challenge their claim that they visited Salisbury to admire its cathedral spire. Almost despite itself, however, RT’s coverage of Navalny’s sudden illness has been revealing.
At the end of the first chapter of Émile Zola’s 1887 novel La Terre, a sower looks on encouragingly as an adolescent girl helps a thrusting bull to mount and ejaculate into the enormous cow she has walked over from a nearby town. The book is full of sex, violence and sexual violence; its first English publisher was prosecuted for obscenity. A few years earlier the Daily Telegraph had denounced Zola’s writing for its ‘unnecessary and offensive grossness’. The BBC’s striking new miniseries, I May Destroy You, written by and starring Michaela Coel, neatly observes Zola’s three principles of naturalism: faire vrai, faire grand and faire simple. The plot follows Coel’s character, Arabella Essiedu, and her friends as she pieces together the events of a night out that ended with someone spiking her drink and raping her.
Quiz is based in part on a book written by my husband, James Plaskett, and the late Bob Woffinden. James had himself been obsessed for years with getting on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? He got as far as the studio several times but was lagging on the ‘fastest finger first’ test, so I rigged up a little board with several light switches screwed to it. That seemed to help.
Not since the financial crisis of 2008, when there were fewer smartphones in the world by a factor of ten, has the world as a whole faced an emergency like the coronavirus epidemic. And while the financial crisis affected countries differently, Covid-19 affects countries in pretty much the same way. Such different parts of the world, all the same, all in it together. The fear, the uncertainty, the panic-buying, the masked figures swarming around hospital beds and public buildings. Palm trees in the background, then snowy mountains in the background, then apartment blocks in the background – is this San Francisco, Milan or Shanghai?
This summer has for some time been looked forward to as a make-or-break moment for English cricket. With England and Wales hosting the World Cup and an Ashes series starting here in August, it should be the perfect opportunity to make cricket part of the national conversation again; to try and halt the decline in enthusiasm for, and participation in, England’s traditional summer sport.
In the BBC TV play Threads, broadcast on 23September 1984, the nuclear bomb that drops on Sheffield is something of a social leveller. Mr Kemp, an out-of-work steelworker, is badly burned in his terrace house and his young children are killed outright. But there’s little to envy in the extra few days endured by the steelworks manager Mr Beckett and his family in the sturdy cellar of their large suburban semi. Just before the bomb falls, CND activists are rounded up. Police muscle into a demonstration and snatch a trade unionist calling for a general strike. Barry Hines’s screenplay was a response to Thatcher and Reagan’s economic policies as well as their nuclear brinkmanship.
Game of Thrones is arguably responsible for a quarter of my not being able to speak Spanish. Has it been worth it?
A circle of sycamore trees had appeared overnight in Camden Square on Saturday morning. Across the road, outside the Irish Centre, a queue had formed by 10 a.m. Some of the men wore FBI badges. Some of the women wore magenta wigs, and many wore skirts or tops in a black-and-white zigzag pattern, accessorised with something red. My next-door neighbour, who’s retired but still helps out at the Irish Centre, shook her head when I met her on the street. ‘They’re saying they’ll be having real owls going around the place,’ she said. ‘It’s about some show I haven’t even heard of.’ I showed her my ticket for the Ninth Official Twin Peaks UK Festival. Like Lindsey Bowden, the former actor and events manager who organises the festival, I was 14 when Twin Peaks came to BBC2 in October 1990.
In the spring of 2009 I received a phone call from someone who worked for a programme on the Travel Channel called No Reservations, of which I had never heard. He told me they were planning to shoot an episode in San Francisco over the summer and would I be interested in appearing. As no one had ever asked me to be on television before (or since), I said: ‘Sure.’ I was told that the star, Anthony Bourdain, had borrowed a copy of my book of essays, Cutty, One Rock, on a long flight to Sri Lanka from one of his staff and liked it so much he wanted to have me on his show. ‘That’s nice,’ I thought to myself.
My Catholic mother feared that David Cassidy would inspire dirty thoughts when he was on the covers of Teen and Tiger Beat in the early 1970s. The magazines weren’t permitted at home; I read them greedily when I was sent away to camp. He heated my ten-year-old blood when, on Friday nights in 1970, The Partridge Family first aired on TV. I followed him on the show for the next three years. He was so charming, so un-intimidatingly sexy, that he inspired dirty thoughts – well, cosy dirty thoughts – even when I wasn’t looking at the magazines or watching the TV show. He seeped into my dreams.
Eric Rochant's TV series Le Bureau des légendes, known in English as The Bureau, is everything Homeland isn't: an understated, subtle and nuanced espionage drama. In the first season there are no explosions, the body count is negligible, and there's hardly any talk of patriotism. The hero, undercover agent Guillaume Debailly (played by Mathieu Kassovitz), has risen to the top of the Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure, by adhering to a rigorous, almost ascetic set of principles, but these principles are more artisanal than patriotic, and he eventually finds himself forced to abandon them. The focus is on the work, and most of that work takes place in the cramped offices, and in front of the computer screens, of the DGSE.
Last night's episode of Sherlock on BBC1 – spoiler alert – was the third piece of prestige TV I've watched in as many months to conclude with the self-sacrificial death of the superpowered lone female member of a gang of outsider heroes.
My historical centre of gravity, so to speak, is the 1890s, and has involved research into the London Metropolitan Police; so I’ve been a keen watcher of Ripper Street on BBC2, starring Matthew Macfadyen as Inspector Reid, a fictional detective in Whitechapel around then. It takes a strong stomach to watch it; but historically it’s pretty accurate, despite the occasional (unsurprising) anachronism. This week’s episode centred on the Thames Ironworks factory in the East End; and in particular its football team. Thames Ironworks FC was the original name of West Ham United, a.k.a. the Hammers or the Irons. I've followed them for decades. On Monday night, we saw them playing, convincingly (i.e. roughly but skilfully), in late-19th-century strip. The plot involves the murder of one of the star players – with a hammer. It also features the Arsenal. But I don’t want to give too much away.
In 1928, a foot-high papier-mâché Felix the Cat was the first image to be broadcast on TV, spinning round on a turntable in the NBC studios in New York to test the new technology.
In The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Žižek takes a scalpel to the late Soviet period. The surface, spoken ideology, Žižek argues, was not what actually held the system together. You could joke about ‘great leaders’ and the inadequacies of Marxist economics: the system let you have a giggle. The real holy of holies was the idea of the narod (‘common people’), in whose name the leadership could validate any action. Thus the deeply subversive nature of Milos Forman’s early, Czechoslovak films such as The Firemen’s Ball, which portrayed the narod as stupid, greedy, ugly. This was a cut the system couldn’t take and Forman had to leave. Over the last few days Russia’s only independent (and really rather small) TV channel, TV Rain, was accused by the Kremlin of stepping ‘beyond the limits of the permissible’. Most cable carriers dumped the station, leaving it in crisis and its future under serious question.
When Abdullah Mando flew to Montreal in 2004, he promised himself he would one day return to Jeddah. No one believed him: he was on his way to Concordia University to study film production, and going back to Saudi Arabia, where there aren’t any cinemas, seemed absurd. He grew up watching bootleg copies of Western movies, but ‘American films didn’t speak to me,’ he says. ‘They didn’t ask questions young Saudi people were asking.’ And so, along with Anmar Fatheldeen and Omar Murad, Mando set up UTURN Entertainment, an online television network.
Earlier this month the bestselling crime writer Boris Akunin announced that as Russia was becoming a police state with political prisoners, any form of co-operation with the state by cultural and artistic figures was tantamount to collaboration. There has been much agonising since: what about if you work at a state newswire agency? Or at the Bolshoi? It’s an old debate in Russia: there are still fights about whether Shostakovich was collaborating with Stalin or subverting the system from inside. But the challenge is harder now the Kremlin has learnt to speak the language of democratic capitalism, and goes out of its way to own opposition narratives. I once did some consultancy for a hotbed of Russian liberal journalism: Snob.
At a certain age, apparently, it’s well known that women give up on trying to beautify their bodies and get to work on improving their houses instead. No longer is it Vogue and Grazia cluttering the coffee table, but Living Etc and Elle Decor, laid out in a tidy fan. No longer does one venture out in body-con dresses, but nests instead at home, in an animal-look onesie, snuggled on the sofa with this or that box set. All that effort that used to go on fretting about one’s outfit has to go somewhere. So is it the quality of the writing that’s the best thing about Danish television at the moment, or is it the interior design? I wrote here about the utopian symbolism – as I saw it – of all those beautiful, glowing and planetary Danish light-fittings in The Killing, my previous box-set project. And I’ve been delighted to see all the classics – the Artichoke, the Enigma, the Henningsen PH4 – out in force in my new favourite, Borgen, the second run of which begins this evening on BBC4. This is the one in which Birgitte Nyborg, the middle-aged and middle-class leader of the exceedingly middle-of-the-road 'Moderate Party', unexpectedly finds herself the first female prime minister of Denmark. The stirring credit sequence shows her bounding off her bike from her domestic life and into the public sphere, leaving her kids behind in her elegant house with her handsome husband to stride the corridors of the Folketinget, smiling her captivatingly crinkle-nostrilled smile. 'It’s a chess game, if you like,' the veteran correspondent Hanne Holm says about Danish electoral politics at the beginning of the first episode. Certainly one of the programme’s many pleasures is second-guessing Nyborg on her increasingly raptor-like calculations as she fires people and forms various weird-looking and fragile coalitions.
Last week the internet group Anonymous hacked into the emails of Nashi, the pro-Putin youth organisation often compared to the Hitler Jugend. It turns out that Nashi keeps lists of ‘enemies’ – including writers, bloggers, activists and politicians – alongside allegations to smear them with, such as ‘gave a blow job to a black man’ or ‘sleeps with prostitutes who say he has a small penis’. Top of the list of exploitable ‘weak spots’ is a Jewish background. But the biggest stir has been caused by allegations that Ilya Varlamov, a photographer and blogger thought to be anti-Putin, received large payments from Nashi. Varlamov, who denies the charges, is said to have been given 400,000 rubles (around £8400) for two photo blogs which, if not blatant propaganda, did make Putin look rather smart. The revelations have opened up an old debate in Russia: what are the limits of co-operation with an unsavoury state? When is it OK, if ever, to take money from Kremlin Inc?
It seems as if the student occupations and protests of last year have already passed into legend. There have been documentaries, books, e-pamphlets, anthologies, songs and now TV dramatisations. In last night’s episode of Fresh Meat, Channel 4’s new (and increasingly funny) comedy about being a first year at university, the Manchester housemates took a coach to a London march. The screen split in two, and as the fictional students on the top of the screen pulled moonies and discussed which target they would throw their pigs' blood at, the real students marched on Parliament Square below.
The essential moral of Hans Christian Andersen’s story ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ for people who live in a modern western democracy is that when the laughing stops, the emperor is still the emperor. Indeed, he is more powerful for having allowed himself to be laughed at. As for the small boy who pointed out his nakedness, he can deal with him later. In his new title sequence for The Simpsons, already shown in the US and due to air in Britain on 21 October, the graffiti artist Banksy tracks away from the Simpson family on its suburban Springfield sofa to show a subterranean Asian sweatshop making Simpsons merchandise. A child dips images of Bart into a vat of acid, kittens are pulped to make stuffing for Bart dolls, the tongue of a beheaded dolphin licks envelopes, an enslaved panda hauls a cart, an exhausted, broken unicorn punches holes in DVDs.
The story of Russia’s deep cover suburban spies in America is the perfect pitch for a 13-part TV series. It’s The Wire (illegals v. law enforcers), The Sopranos (aspirational lifestyles and typical middle-class problems among people living dangerous secret lives) and V (aliens among us) rolled into one. Lost? They do seem to have been. Like Nigerian email fraudsters, whose sensational Moll Flanders-like tales of inheritances and warped morality suggest their talented authors would make more money bashing out African soap opera scripts than they ever would ripping off naive northerners, the easiest way for the Russian taxpayer to get back the money wasted on this loony espionage venture would be to deport the spymasters responsible to Los Angeles with a contract for a 50 per cent cut of whatever the going Screenwriters Guild rate is these days.
It has been a Grand Guignol for the moral majority. Patricia Hewitt, Stephen Byers and Geoff Hoon, if not Margaret Moran, belong within the inner ring of the Blairite rump. All four are leaving the Commons for good on dissolution. Apparently Monday evening’s PLP meeting saw a mass outpouring of grief and loathing, as backbenchers who aren’t standing down waxed bilious at having their re-election hopes shafted. Hoon and Hewitt may have calculated, after the fiasco of their January putsch against the PM, that they had little left to lose. Their places on the red benches in Another Place have been cancelled. The one Tory MP suckered by Channel 4, Sir John Butterfill, has also hit the ermine ceiling.
With the obvious exception of Baltimore, the most fashionable American city in which to set a cop show with a twist lately seems to be Miami. Perhaps Michael Mann's big screen remake of Miami Vice has something to do with it. The same year that movie came out, the first season of Dexter went on the air. The eponymous hero (played by Michael C. Hall) is a forensics expert with the Miami PD. In his spare time he kills murderers who've escaped more regular forms of justice. He thinks of himself as a serial killer, and that's the show's ostensible conceit: Our hero's a serial killer! But, that aside, he's a nice guy! It's a bit more cunning than that, though,
America's Fox TV network has an irritating habit of cancelling half-decent science fiction shows after only one or two seasons. The network seems especially to enjoy junking series made by Joss Whedon, who as a result is still most famous for creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy ran from 1996 to 2003 but should have been cancelled sooner: the last season and a half were rubbish. The latest Whedon venture to have bitten the dust is Dollhouse, about a sinister, top-secret company that is able to erase and replace its employees' memories, effectively turning them into different people every day. It then hires these 'dolls' out to its rich and secretive clients. The show was often as daft as this bald summary makes it sound, but quite a lot of the daftness was the network's fault, demanding that it appeal to what Fox executives imagined to be the lowest common denominator. And when it was good, Dollhouse was – nearly – very very good.
An email from a researcher doing a documentary for BBC3 on the history of teenagers arrives. That’ll be short, I think. She wants to talk to me about ways of presenting the Sixties to today’s teenagers, who she has discovered know nothing about the period. BBC3, with a viewer age range of 16 to 24, doesn’t do history documentaries as a rule, so it’s a bit of an experiment. She phones. ‘We’ve got a bit of development money for the project and I saw you had a book out about the Sixties. The reviews said you were involved with young people, and I was wondering if you had any ideas for grabbing the attention of modern teenagers about what teenagers were like in the Sixties.’ A researcher. She had (mis)read a review or two of a book she hadn’t even looked at. Might be worth a phone call.