Plus: Ricky Gervais’s After Life is a wasted opportunity
Halfway through the first part of Channel 4’s extraordinary documentary Leaving Neverland (Thursdays), I flicked through the comments on social media in order to gauge the global reaction. Surely, I thought, Michael Jackson’s reputation will never recover from these bombshell revelations.
If you sat, squirming, though Dan Reed’s excruciatingly prurient documentary you’ll know what I mean. Lots of those who didn’t have been justifying their decision to ignore it with excuses like ‘Yeah, but we knew this already. Michael Jackson was a paedo. It’s hardly news, is it?’ But this strikes me as glib and dishonest.
Every day our age seems to be getting madder and madder, in defiance of the notion that man is a rational creature and of the even more risible Whiggish narrative that we’re on a path of continual progress.
I’ll give you some examples: the murder of women’s sport by the transgender agenda; the rejection of nuclear power in favour of renewables; HS2; the possible prosecution of the Bloody Sunday paratroopers; the articles celebrating Shamima Begum as a victim; the idea that only gay actors should play gay characters; the government’s wilful rejection of the biggest popular mandate in British history.
I could go on, as I’m sure could you, but I won’t because it’s too depressing. Instead, I want to tell you about a marvellous book, now celebrating its 50th anniversary but still hugely fresh, perceptive and readable, which will help you put all these horrors into perspective and teach you to be more philosophical: Christopher Booker’s 1969 classic The Neophiliacs.
Steve Coogan is back as Alan Partridge but frankly who cares? Like Ali G, I’ve long thought, he’s one of those ‘classic’ 1990s comedy characters funnier in recollection than ever he was in reality. He should have been confined to brief sketches — like Paul Whitehouse and Harry Enfield mostly did with their cheesy has-been DJs Smashie and Nicey — not cruelly exposed in endless TV series where you’ve got the joke in the first five minutes and the rest is pure cringe.
Actually, though, This Time with Alan Partridge (BBC1, Mondays) is genuinely funny, clever and enjoyable because finally he has scriptwriters who don’t hate him. For his original writers — Patrick Marber, Armando Iannucci and Peter Baynham — Partridge was little more than a spitoon in which to hawk all their metropolitan liberal prejudices about parochial, clumsy, racist, sexist Little England. As proper, successful, high-minded talents in grown-up TV and theatre, they looked down on Partridge, a loser in mere local radio who voted — ew — Tory. So there was never a need to understand him; he was there purely to be tortured like some disabled kid who has got it coming because he’s wearing a Maga hat.
Before I begin, I want to make it clear that I have nothing but respect for Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs: fine, upstanding people who want only to ensure that the government collects the proper and fair amount of tax it needs to finance all those things we love, such as HS2 and subsidies for offshore wind and vital foreign projects like the one that funded the Ethiopian Spice Girls.
That said, I have to ask: what is it you hate about us self-employed? Or rather, why is your boss Philip Hammond so determined to make our lives so miserable, first with his mooted National Insurance hike (cancelled only after protests from Tory MPs), then with his vindictive IR35 tax laws (aimed at reducing the number of people with self-employed status), and now with this wretched new programme called Making Tax Digital?
So why exactly had the poor girl’s embarrassing father chosen to film a naked video of himself and then post it up on YouTube for the entire world to see? Well the main one, fairly obviously, was as a satirical response to Victoria Bateman, the Cambridge professor who has been protesting against Brexit over the past few weeks by using the novel method of getting her kit off on TV and the internet.
Like Dr Bateman, I scrawled BREXIT in black ink across my chest. Unlike her, I did leave at least a teeny bit to the imagination: I covered my wedding tackle with an enormous dangling sock. Partly this was for puerile comedic purposes; partly to avoid being censored; but mainly because filming outdoors in February is not conducive to the most flattering portrait of a chap’s rude bits.
Some medical experts claim that Lyme disease is worse than cancer. It’s not a competition, but I do know one thing: at least if you’ve got the Big C you get sympathy, understanding and prompt treatment. With Lyme you’re pretty much on your own.
This isn’t a plea for public sympathy. I’ve had Lyme for God knows how long — decades possibly — and though it has disrupted my health and my life in myriad weird, torturous and sometimes hideous ways, I still consider myself one of the fortunate ones. First, it hasn’t killed me; second, I’ve had some state-of-the-art stem cell treatment which with luck will eventually cure me. But it’s definitely not a condition I’d recommend.
Plus: I really hope Netflix’s Sex Education is not the future of TV.
Boy often likes to rebuke me for having impossibly high standards when it comes to TV. ‘Why can’t you just enjoy it?’ he says. This is disappointing. One reason I ruined myself to give him an expensive education is so I wouldn’t have to share my viewing couch with a drooling moron happy to gawp at any old crap. Worse, whenever I try to draw his attention to stuff I consider to be extra specially worth watching — Fauda, Babylon Berlin, etc. — he rejects it because it has been tainted by my recommendation.
So the next brilliant thing he won’t get to see is Gomorrah (Sky). This relentlessly dour and violent series about the Camorra mob in Naples is now filming its fourth season, but because I’ve come to it late I’m still only on the first. What I so love about it — essentially my criterion for all great art — is the ruthless, uncompromising integrity of its vision.
When I first heard rumours that Michael Gove was planning to go round the country with his environmental Gestapo, ripping out our wood-burning stoves in order to heal the planet, greenwash conservatism and reduce an imaginary 36,000 deaths a year, I must admit that a small part of me felt ever so slightly relieved. Of all the desirable accessories that I’ve coveted in my life, I don’t think any has quite disappointed me as much as the wood-burning stove now staring at me accusingly as I sit at my desk.
It looks very handsome and room-furnishing, as cast-iron stoves do. And when it gets going, it really does pump out lots of heat. But there’s a reason, you eventually realise, why western civilisation graduated from such 18th-century technology to central heating. One is easy and convenient; the other, a massive pain in the arse.
Plus: Channel 4’s SAS: Who Dares Wins shows you what equality between the sexes really looks like
As the Allies advanced towards Germany in September 1944, their supplies were brought all the way from western Normandy in a constant shuttle convoy known as the Red Ball Express. If you were making a realistic movie about this, three quarters of the truck drivers would be played by black actors, because that’s how it was in real life.
Similar rules would have to apply to any remake of Zulu or Zulu Dawn. It is an awkward but inescapable historical fact that there was no diversity whatsoever among Cetewayo’s Impis: they were all, resolutely, from the same African tribe. At the Battle of Crécy, on the other hand, every single participant was white European — even the misleadingly named Black Prince — so any movie version probably wouldn’t involve a call to Samuel L. Jackson’s casting agent.
In the days when I was less happy in my skin than I am now, I used to feel stabs of envy whenever I visited the large country homes of much grander friends. I’d notice their array of class signifiers — the boot room with battered hunt coats and riding crops; the massive Victorian baths with enormous taps, weird cylinder devices instead of plastic plugs, and funny little dog foot stands; the framed pictures in the loo of Oxbridge matriculations and born-to-rule offspring posing with the beagle pack at ‘School’ — and think: if only this could one day be me.
Well now it is me, more or less. Finally, in my early fifties, I’ve got round to joining, near as damn it, the country squirearchy. And let me tell you, it’s every bit as enjoyable as I’d hoped. I get to be rude, eccentric, antisocial, reckless, prejudiced, reactionary, unkempt, unapologetically conservative and free to a degree that just wouldn’t have been possible in my benighted townie years.