Art of Persia: Episode 3: Genghis Khan to 1979

Filming in Isfahan’s Half the World Square at the height of Nowruz 2019 (BBC/Craig Hastings)

The final part of Art of Persia ends where most programmes and news about Iran begin – in the Islamic Revolution of 1979. We feature the beautiful Shiraz-born poets Saadi and Hafez and their influence on Byron Goethe and the European Romantics. But the story of Persia is also dominated by notorious conquerors: Genghis Khan, Timur (or Tamburlaine – as he’s known in Christopher Marlowe’s play) and Nader Shah – the looter of Delhi and the Peacock Throne.

The citadel at Takt-e-Soleyman filmed by Craig’s drone camera (copyright BBC/Craig Hastings)

It also features perhaps my favourite location — Takt-E-Soleyman – King Solomon’s Throne. The UNESCO-listed citadel in northwestern Iran has the ruins of a magnificent Zoroastrian Fire Temple. built around a sulphurous lake in an extinct volcanic crater. Craig Hastings’ masterful drone camerawork really captures the magic of this place, surrounded by snowcapped peaks, when we went in June last year. It’s thought the priests created the legend that Solomon kept monsters imprisoned in the lake and another neaby mountain, to help protect the site from the Arab Muslim invaders. It seems to have worked.

With the Shahnameh in one of the priests’ corridors under the fire temple at Takt-E-Soleyman (copyright BBC/Craig Hastings)

But for episode 3 we focus on the palace that the thirteenth century Il Khanid dynasty – the descendants of Genghis Khan – built there, richly decorated with stories from the Shahnameh as they, too, like previous invaders, became seduced by the art of being Persian.

The 19th century Pink Mosque in Shiraz features churches and roses in the tile work (copyright BBC/Craig Hastings)

Remarkably Timur’s descendants spawned the Timurid Renaissance with a magnificent flourishing of miniature painting – something very recognisable in India’s Mughal tradition, too. One of the first places we filmed for Art of Persia was in the workshop in Isfahan, where as you’ll see the tradition lives on with recognisable schools of Afghan (Herat) and Mongolian style. It’s a group of French tourists you’ll glimpse walking into the shop; proof that a number of tour groups of curious travellers continue to come to Iran, despite sanctions and political tensions.

The Timurid Shahnameh we examine at the Golestan Palace Archive is one of the highlights of the series. You may have been it featured in my news report for the News At Ten on June 12th. The fact that it was brought out at all is, we think, a significant gesture, and one that has excited scholars, who have been waiting years to see some of these treasures. You can tell how thrilled scholar Gity Nourouzian and I are to be able to turn its pages.

With restorers including Mohammed (left) at work on the Soltaniyeh Mausoleum (copyright BBC/Craig Hastings)

I have a fascination with subjunctive history. And Solteniyah – the fourteenth century Il Khanid capital of the Mongols northwest of Tehran – is one of history’s great what if..s. Like so many of old Persia’s capital cities, it’s all but disappeared. One building stands out though: Our focus in the film is the magnificent blue domed mausoleum. Just as medieval Christians thought of the pilgrimage potential of holy relics and cathedrals, Sultan Oljaitu had grand plans: He was going to bring the remains of the martyred Imam Ali from Karbala here, to turn it into the greatest Shia pilgrimage site outside of Mecca.

Inside, it was moving to talk to Mohammad, leading a team of restorers, painstakingly painting and reviving this beautiful building. We filmed so much more, but you’ll get a tantalising glimpse of the work going on and what it means to Iranians.

In the brutalist 1950s Nader Shah Mausoleum modelled on a tent – every concrete detail was symbolic of his life and reign (copyright BBC/Craig Hastings)

Nader Shah – the soldier of Afghan heritage-turned ruler has been compared to Napoleon, and it’s a useful not merely Western-centric comparison. It was also a strange experience for me, raised with stories of the barbarians who destroyed Delhi, to visit his brutalist 1950s built mausoleum in Mashad, where he is regarded with reverence. To be honest I felt the same about Napoleon’s mausoleum at Les Invalides in Paris. We filmed in Mashad exactly a year ago, and the mausoleum is a perfect example of the current debate about how problematic statues and memorials can be. Among the tourists I had a great chat with one American Iranian dad who’d brought his children from California to learn about their heritage. He said Nader Shah was a boyhood hero. In the same way Nelson or Napoleon or Julius Caesar might be to British or French or Italian schoolchildren.

Experiencing the enduring power of the
bazaar in Isfahan (copyright BBC/Craig Hastings)

The episode and the series end exactly where we pointedly did not start – in 1979. By exploring the link between the last Shah’s grand celebration at Persepolis to connect himself to the ancient Kings such as Cyrus, and his fall.

Busstop in Nishapur (copyright BBC/Craig Hastings)

It’s been thrilling to see how this series, has made a connection with British audiences of all backgrounds. Of Iranian heritage as well. I really hope it will be bought and shown by international broadcasters, especially in Europe and North America and south Asia. Understanding history can only be a good thing in trying to make sense of our difficult present relations as nation states, and forge a more hopeful future.

My thanks as ever to the entire international team in Iran and the UK who worked so hard to make this happen.

Episode 3 of ART OF PERSIA is on BBC4 on June 29th 9pm with repeats and all previous episodes on BBC iplayer

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Behind the scenes of Art of Persia – episode 2

On the Tower of Silence overlooking Yazd

We’ve had such amazing audience praise and enthusiasm for Episode 1 so I thought I’d give some more insights and answer a question.

A number of viewers asked why we described the Cyrus Cylinder -with its declaration of tolerance for all his conquered peoples – as “propaganda”. I asked Professor Lloyd Llewellyn Jones of Cardiff University (one of the experts in the series) about this.

Cyrus the Great is held up as this champion of human rights, because of the wording on the famous carved Cyrus cylinder, now in the British Museum, supposedly declaring a conquest that allowed freedom of belief to his subject peoples. It’s now understood to be more a symbol of propaganda than fact. Cyrus carried out massacres too. But Llewellyn Jones has witnessed students chanting his name it late at night in Shiraz; and crowds have gathered at Pasargarde on October 29th –  now Cyrus Day – as a figurehead of a civil resistance to the regime.

Even the Nobel Laureate, human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, cited it in her Peace Prize acceptance speech, in which she declared, echoing the rhythms of those cuneiform statements of pride: ”I am an Iranian. A descendant of Cyrus The Great”. She was later reportedly mortified to learn of her error.    

Some of that identification is based on a lack of knowledge. It doesn’t help, believes Llewellyn Jones that Iranians aren’t taught much about their early history at school; just a few pages in text books on the Achaemenids and Xerxes. “Iranian history begins with the Arab conquest in the 7th century. So straight away there’s this paradox set up even in the teaching [of it].”

With Zoroastrian guide Farahnaz Chehelmard

So on to episode 2. This is an episode where we go into people’s homes. We focus on the remarkable religion of Zoroastrianism. There is still a sizeable Zoroastrian community around the desert city of Yazd and you’ll see Farharnaz Chehelmard, show me round one of the holiest sites of their religion — the fire temple at Chak Chak. We were incredibly privileged to be allowed to stand right in the holiest part of it, where the mountain spring flows out of the barren desert rocks.

Filming in a Zoroastrian village near Yazd

Thanks to Farzaneh, we spent a morning meeting many other Zoroastrians in the home of a local council leader, a woman incidentally, with worshippers who recited prayers in their ancient language Avesta. The story of how this religion survived despite the Arab invasion is one of the most moving of our series.

With street art of Rostam from the Shahnameh in central Tehran

We look in more detail at the story of Abolqasim Ferdowsi, the author of the Shahnameh, with a wonderful couple who’ve devoted their lives to educating Iranian schoolchildren, including their own sons. about the chivalry and heroism of these stories and characters. They also cooked us the most delicious meal, which you’ll see me enjoying.

And what could summarise the untold Iran better than the fact that that street art of Rostam was in the shadow of a building you often seen on the news – with the old revolutionary mural of a US Flag made of skulls and falling bomb trails instead of stars and stripes, saying “Down with the USA”.

Shooting the “Arabian Nights” sequence In the teahouse at Isfahan

My thanks as ever to the remarkable team in Iran and the UK who worked on this for 4 years and the generosity of all the Iranian people we met during our filming.

Art of Persia episode 2 is on BBC4 on Monday June 22nd 2020 and iplayer after

Episode 1

Further reading

The Art of being Persian (Financial Times June 13th 2020)

Posted in Culture, History, Religion, Travel, TV, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

The art of making Art of Persia

It was 2016 when I was first approached about the possibility of going to Iran to make a major series about the history and art of Persia.

Teahouse in Isfahan, where we filmed the Arabian Nights vizier story (copyright BBC/Craig Hastings)

It took 3 years to get the visas and we filmed exactly a year ago. I’d last visited in 2002 for a Channel 4 Series Islam Unveiled that focussed on Islam and feminism around the world and always wanted to go back. It seems to me exactly what the BBC should be doing: informing, educating and entertaining.

Fixers Naser Safarzadeh, Meisam Jebelli while filming at the frieze of Shapur’s victory over 3 Roman emperors in the Chogan Gorge (copyright Meisam Jebelli)

Going beneath the news headlines to help us meet the Iranian people and get an insight into how they see themselves and their place in the world. I cannot thank the ordinary people of Iran who welcomed us enough, and hope these films do their rich heritage and resilience justice. Thanks to the UK based-academics you’ll see in the programmes who helped provide context and insight and spoke with passion and expert knowledge about how to interpret these sites and objects.

Not quite sure what producer
Richard Downes and I are looking at in Shiraz, but it was clearly hilarious (copyright Meisam Jebelli)

And there is obviously a real poignancy in seeing the films shot before the Covid 19 pandemic. Some of these photos capture ideas we filmed, like the roses sequence below, but sadly couldn’t fit into the final programmes. 7000 years in just 3 hours!

Piece to camera in the city bazaar from a lost sequence about the importance of roses to the legend of Shiraz
l-r Doug Dreger, Richard Downes (copyright Meisam Jebelli)

You’ll see amazing imagery (including some remarkable drone shots) thanks to cameraman Craig Hastings and hear memorable sounds and insights thanks to Doug Dreger our BAFTA nominated soundman.

Ray Harryhausen moment at the Cave of Shapur (copyright Meisam Jebelli)

I am hugely grateful to producer Richard Downes for his stamina, patience and care, who brought the benefit of his experience on his earlier Silk Road documentary series to work so hard on this and is the shaping force behind it all.

In the desert by the fire temple of Chak Chak. That’s my English
translation of the Shahnameh on my lap (copyright Meisam Jebelli)

Special thanks to Mark Hedgecoe for recommending me for this. And to everyone at BBC Studios and BBC Arts and in post production and publicity for editing and the gorgeous graphics and the promotional work with a trailer and interviews to raise awareness of the series..

Art of Persia: on tour at Pasargarde (left Naser Safarzadeh, Meisam Jebelli, Craig Hastings behind me, driver Ali, Richard Downes to my right) (copyright Meisam Jebelli)

The series wouldn’t have happened without the longterm work and daily support of our colleagues in Iran. Meisam Jebelli and Naser Safarzadeh were on the road with us every day; Meisam translating as well as organising filming access and interviews. Senior Producer Reza Ganji got the whole show off the ground. It was an honour to work with them.

All photographs are copyright of Meisam Jebelli and Craig Hastings.

Further Reading/viewing

Art of Persia starts on BBC4 on Monday Jun 15th 9pm and iplayer

The Art of Being Persian (Financial Times Jun 13th) – my feature on the making of Art of Persia

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Broadcasting Press Guild award speech 2020

This is the text of the speech I gave on winning Audio Presenter of the Year at the Broadcasting Press Guild Awards 2020 at the Guildhall, London. I’d like to add my thanks to producers and editors Jon Tolansky and Simon Pitts, who’ve both supported me and made such wonderful programmes with me.

Thankyou – I didn’t think anything could top meeting Hartley Hare at the Writers’ Guild Awards. But I think this does.

It’s an honour to be nominated alongside such great presenters.  And especially to be recognised by journalists and critics. All I’ve ever asked is to be judged on my own abilities and to be given equal opportunities. Thankyou so much to the broadcasting press guild and to all my interviewees for coming on.

As a little kid I used to make my own radio shows with a tape recorder. So this will mean a lot to that child. I was seriously going to apply for the job of Director General but I think I might wait till next time on that. My heart is in broadcasting.

Thanks to my great school teachers Miss Charlton, Frau Harris, Mrs Kirman and Mrs Wilson, to all my tutors at St Edmund Hall, Oxford Reggie Alton, Bruce Mitchell and Lucy Newlyn who inspired me, valued me, and taught me the importance of critical thinking. To my teachers on the BBC news trainee scheme: Phil Ashworth, Sarah Bulling, Rona Christie, Peter Dorling and Simon Lloyd – who gave me an absolutely amazing entry into broadcasting.

My agent Sue Ayton and the team at Knight Ayton management.

BPG’s Kate Bulkley and HIFMV producer Farah Jassat

Thanks to producer Farah Jassat who’s here and Intelligence Squared who developed HIFMV and thought of me to present it. I love working with you.

Thomas and Simon Guerrier at Elizabeth Cromwell’s grave for The Fundamentalist Queen (Radio 3 Sunday Feature)

Simon Guerrier who’s here – with whom I’ve tackled Oliver Cromwell’s wife, HG Wells and the H Bomb, John Ruskin’s dancing girls and Victorian lesbian tomb raiders. You and Thomas Guerrier your brother and fellow producer stretch me creatively every time we work together. You also forced me to wear a corset.

Simon Guerrier (left) and Big Issue TV writer Adrian Lobb

All those who’ve supported me at Front Row and BBC radio. Mohit Bakaya, Philip Sellars the editor who brought me on board at Front Row. All the production team, especially Ekene Awalawu, Tim Prosser and Hannah Robins who produced the Germaine Greer special. Thanks to the amazing studio managers who’ve been so creative. And the broadcasting assistants.

And the kind security staff and the cleaners and cafe staff who all have been so supportive of me over the last few months. These are the people who make up the backbone of the BBC.

The brilliant creative Luke Doran at Radio 4 Extra with whom I’ve tackled the faces on the Sergeant Pepper album, why Carry on Films are better than Shakespeare and what I’d give James Bond for Christmas. And Belinda Naylor who produced our Sisters in Satire special on women in radio comedy for Radio 4 Extra.

Sandi Toksvig, Lyndsey Fenner and Jeremy Hardy who welcomed me into the family on the News Quiz. Jeremy would have had so much fun at my employment tribunal. I miss you my friend.

But there are a couple of BBC names that stand out. The biggest in my career is Tony Phillips who is here and who as commissioner of Radio 4 and World Service Arts encouraged me and championed me within the BBC and recommended me for Front Row. You’ve always been a champion of new voices, too. You’d be an amazing DG, and if you aren’t then whoever the new DG is should be doing all they can to get you back. 

And there’s my friend and fellow BBC broadcaster Matthew Sweet whose friendship has been one of the best things in my life since we and Simon Guerrier first crossed paths at that screening of Daleks Invasion Earth 2150 AD with the Bernard Cribbins Q&A. Bernard Cribbins, I thank you too.

My dad and mum taught me the value of hard work and fair play. And my mother never to be afraid. My mother who used to take me to Bush House and Pebble Mill with her as a small child and showed me the camaraderie of the staff who made the programmes who believe in public service.

Who juggled her own life as an actress and broadcaster with motherhood. And Like so many other mothers of broadcasters, took care of my children so I could work. Thankyou to all the mothers and the unpaid labour that gets radio and television made.

My parents remember the days when there were signs in windows that said no blacks no Irish no dogs.

The BBC had a ban on broadcasting the fascist Oswald Mosley till 1968. I’m not talking about banning. But after the end of the nonsense of false equivalence over climate change it’s time all broadcasters thought long and hard about the right to hold the moral line on not normalising racism and prejudice. It doesn’t compromise our journalistic balance. I know it’s not easy in the current climate when the enemies of the BBC are on the attack again. But the BBC belongs to all of us and has a responsibility to protect all of us, including the most vulnerable. We need to stand against normalising such views.

Last year I was privileged to spend several weeks travelling around Iran making a BBC4 TV documentary series about understanding modern Iranians through the history of Persian Culture. It took 2 years to get the visas. It goes out in June. It’s exactly the kind of cultural diplomacy and programming that only the BBC could do and persevered in doing. Thankyou Mark Hedgecoe for getting me to present it and to everyone who’s worked with me on it through BBC Studios. We need to stand up for the best of the BBC and reform the areas that need reforming. I think listeners and viewers understand that.

So finally and more than anyone I’d like to thank all the listeners and viewers, especially Radio 4 listeners, who care passionately about culture, about the truth, about standing up to power. It’s an honour and a privilege to present the shows I do. I never take you for granted. And I always think about you every time I write a script or ask a question.

And I’d like to accept this award on behalf of all the immigrants who raised children like me. To all our mums and dads who helped make this country great. Thankyou.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Why the 90s was a bloody brilliant decade to be a young woman (despite the backlash)

Wrote this 2 years ago. It inspired 3 bonus questions on University Challenge in August 2018. (A lot has happened, like #MeToo) But posting it here Marcel Proust- style after finally seeing kd lang on her Ingenue at 25 tour last night…

It was the best of times it was the worst of times. I mean the 90s of course. Stumbling across Liam Gallagher’s face on the new GQ cover with the fawning headline claiming 72 “extraordinary” hours” with the Oasis singer got me thinking about the deluded praise heaped on Lad culture’s pinups 20 years on.

A few days later seeing a 25th anniversary edition of KD Lang’s album Ingenue and it hit me: Actually the 90s–the decade when I left university and started work as a BBC journalist–was a bloody brilliant decade to be a young woman. Released in 1992 Ingenue was a flawless songcycle–all about lust and unrequited love. In the golden age of the CD we had it on constant repeat.

And while at first glance it couldn’t be more different to the brash pop of Madonna’s stadium-filling Blonde Ambition tour, both, together with Annie Lennox’s Diva had a key thing in common: They put female desire (lesbian desire in the case of Ingenue) at the heart of mass popular entertainment.

On TV’s X Files Gillian Anderson’s Agent Scully was the calm rational skeptic, and the bloke was the superstitious, emotional one. In her brightly coloured pantsuits, flashing her FBI pass, Scully was my generation’s role model, entering the bastions of government and civic power.

Our manual was Susan Faludi’s Backlash (1991)–a book that changed the way we read and watched the news. It exposed the dodgy stories getting coverage in mainstream outlets, designed to induce panic just as women were really making inroads in the workplace; most notoriously a spurious “study” that single female graduates over 30 were more likely to be killed in a terrorist attack than marry. It equipped my generation of women journalists to consciously challenge sexist editorial attitudes.

That same year millions via TV watched Anita Hill –an African American lawyer and academic testify before a Congressional committee about the sexual harassment she’d endured from Clarence Thomas –the first black man to be appointed to the US Supreme Court.The wretched details, and the double discrimination she endured -accused of being a race traitor -shocked us and actually helped change the gender balance of governments. Many women who are now in Congress and the Senate say they were inspired to run for elected office BECAUSE of her.

We felt it here too. Some papers may have patronizingly labelled them “Blair’s Babes” but the huge influx of women into Parliament in the 1997 election changed the way it operates now. In 1992 one of the first events I covered as a new BBC network news reporter was the General Synod vote to allow women priests. I remember female deacons cheering and hugging around Church House in Westminster. Hell, even in the Church sexism felt like it was for squares.

In the cinema our star was Geena Davis: Thelma and Louise, The Long Kiss Goodnight, the ground breaking Cutthroat Island and A League of their Own. Now her Geena Davis Institute campaigns on changing the way Hollywood makes films to better represent women and girls. In Britain female led groups such as Lush,Elastica and Skunk Anansie were liberating pop from the zombie grip of Stock Aitken and Waterman. Anyone could join in. One of my mates –a BBC secretary to the reporter pool where I worked –was in her big sister’s riot grrrl group The Voodoo Queens. Her sister had taught her the essential keyboard chords. “I’m going to be on the Word tomorrow!” she announced one day. And she was, performing their new single Supermodel Superficial. Those heady days didn’t last but they were glorious.

And then the Lad thing happened. I can actually remember sitting watching TV one day and thinking hang on, they only just stopped showing Benny Hill and all those stupid sexist shows. Backlash o clock! Suddenly there were these invisible ironic quotation marks around all the same stuff. Blokey bands strutted around on shows like TFI Friday. Even supposedly more cerebral Blur made a Benny Hill style video for Country House with Page 3 girls, directed by Damien Hirst. Porn-y mags such as Loaded created a corrosive sexual culture that exploited a lot of young women. We should reflect on the contradictory currents under the progressive surface of the 90s that haunt the present :President Clinton’s predatory treatment of the White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Clarence Thomas becoming the judge who officiated the oath at President Trump’s inauguration. The enduring pay gap in institutions including the BBC. Why it’s taken more than 20 years for women bishops to be appointed. The awful things Joss Whedon’s ex wife Kai Cole has revealed about the unfeminist stuff going on during the making of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. But those of us who were there in the 90s can tell you, we did make progress. We learned there’s always a backlash. So don’t fall for the attempt to glorify and revive Lad culture. It’s just for squares.

A version of this article first appeared on The Pool in September 2017

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The story behind How I Found My Voice

The podcast is the idea of Intelligence Squared’s Matt McAllester and was developed by producer Farah Jassat – one of the brightest young talents in broadcasting – who recently joined Intelligence Squared after several years at the BBC as a production trainee and producer in current affairs and culture notably on BBC2’s Newsnight. Intelligence Squared is well known in the US and Canada as well as the UK for its live discussions and debates around culture and politics. Both Farah and I have always enjoyed that intersection of politics, culture and news. I believe in thorough research, listening, and digging around behind the obvious to find out something new. And it was delightful to be approached by Intelligence Squared as the perfect match to host it, so here’s a podcast devoted to how we all like to approach the world. Listen via ACAST or SPOTIFY or iTUNES . And rating and recommending it would be great.

Producer Farah Jassat with Philip Pullman recording How I Found my Voice
in his library. Reading from the yellow folder manuscript to The Secret Commonwealth. His (red) first edition of Paradise Lost

We’ve tried to choose a range of people – comedians, writers, actors, artists, but potentially politicians and non arts figures too – to get inside that sense of awakening power. What people did as children and when and how their influences shaped them finding their voice as professionals.

In my case it was imbibing the news from my earliest years, writing school compositions drawn on real news events like terrorism, making my own radio shows with a tape recorder and microphone and my own newspapers and magazines.

Rose McGowan was an obvious choice for episode 1. I’d loved her film and TV performances, and after reading her powerful and thoughtful memoir Brave, was struck how the activist and actress has been slandered in news and online since she came forward to speak up about sexual exploitation (that Adam Sandler casting call) and then Harvey Weinstein. There was also something my teenage daughter said about watching old episodes of her show Charmed – how you could tell she was always pushing at the boundaries and subverting things. Rose McGowan’s beautiful, articulate and good humoured interview is peppered with shocking experiences – her abusive childhood in the Children of God cult in Italy and then later in the US , and the way she was treated in Hollywood as her career took off in the 90s. (A fascinating counterhistory to the jolly 90s indie scene version of that decade on film). But it’s also full of great fun – how she got the studio to write in her hair colour change when she came back to shoot the next series of Charmed. Her directing and music career are significant moves. I want to see what she does next. And above all it’s an inspiring reminder of someone who has chosen to be in the resistance not a collaborator.

If Rose is a newly adopted Londoner, then Katherine Ryan is very much an old established city sister now, having moved here some years ago. She intrigues me, especially for how she’s forged her own space in the macho arena of standup and panel shows which have seemed to problematic for women. She is a formidable feminist combination of intelligence, beauty and fearlessness.

We talked about the importance of performance taught in our Catholic schools – hers French Canadian and mine Irish – where we both learned to recite poetry before audiences. But it’s Katherine’s experience working as a waitress in Hooters that revealed the most unexpected lessons – in female solidarity, pushing the boundaries on humour and male expectations. Her new Netflix sitcom The Duchess, drawing inspiration from her own experiences as a single parent will be unmissable.

Philip Pullman and his wife Judith Speller’s generosity was touching. They invited us to do the interview at their home in Oxford and made us a beautiful lunch with home made bread and soup. We recorded in the library and if you like the word “exclusive” you’ll get your very first listen to Philip reading the opening of his long awaited Book of Dust 2 – The Secret Commonwealth.

Philip Pullman’s childhood seems to have come from a postwar British children’s novel – an RAF father who died when he was a young boy, a beloved older relative who shared the joy of books with him, and a peripatetic childhood of journeys by ship to live in Africa, Australia and then Wales. How Philip regards it is fascinating and honest.

Our conversation is peppered with the poetry and rhythms that shaped his confident, absorbing style – Longfellow’s Hiawatha, Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Just So Stories. But also the visuals he draws that are such a strong part of his books and his style – those Edgar Allen Poe inspired images of ravens, and beetles. For those who don’t know his career, Philip Pullman’s story of finding his voice is refreshing self-made: His English degree at Oxford was not a happy experience, but teaching in schools and discovering the joy of story telling was transformative. His is a model of a career based on stamina, diligence and passion.

It was also good to talk about the moral steel I love in his work. From his committment to humanism (we have fun discussing why he loves Milton’s Paradise Lost) to the powerful evocation of a Stasi/Stalinist style purge in the school in La Belle Sauvage, where children are enlisted by the authoritarian church regime to report on teachers who defy the new orthodoxy. Philip Pullman is definitely another member of the resistance.

Adam Buxton defies categorisation, but he’s such a huge star I was delighted he was up for taking part. And as someone of almost exactly the same age I enjoyed seeing how we shared many of the same influences – Kenny Everett, a fascination with the idea of being on TV, the possibilities of pop videos – but he’d transformed his passion into a new hybrid artform.

His many fans will find something new in the backstory of the schoolboy friendship with Joe Cornish and Louis Theroux. Like Philip Pullman, Buxton is driven by the passion for making the best work he can. From his TV and radio shows, to his videos, to his live happenings, to his podcasts – he’s been years ahead of everyone else on finding art and joy in the internet. And most delightfully of all, as his art school tutors failed to understand, he is driven by a sense of fun. The latest series of his hugely popular Adam Buxton podcast starts this Friday (April 21st)

Meeting Mark Millar at the Kingsman junket (2015) That’s director Matthew Vaughn’s hand

Mark Millar was the first guest I knew I HAD to have on and suggested to Farah — the renowned comic book writer and creator of worlds at Millar World (recently bought by Netflix). He’s that rare thing — a celebrity guest I’d got to know, interviewing him at a junket (for the Kingsman film, based on his own comic) and ended up becoming friends with. We’d both been to see the same Sinbad/Spiderman double bill circa 1978 and grown up loving the same old films and TV; notably the original Christopher Reeve Superman. His life story is remarkable.

Mark Millar aged 6 (right) – photo copyright Mark Millar

A working class boy with five older siblings from Coatbridge near Glasgow, he seemed driven from an early age to work in comics and to head for NY and LA. His episode features his writing a letter of commiseration to British Prime Minister James Callaghan on losing the 1979 general election to Margaret Thatcher, dressing up as Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock and trying to solve crimes around his local housing estate, coming up with the idea of his acclaimed Superman Red Son comic series aged 6 (baby Kal-el crashing in Soviet Russia in the 1930s instead of the USA) and why Kick-Ass is based on him as a teenager and him as a dad. What is infectious about Mark is his endless curiosity, his ability to conjure up new stories, and his open mindedness. I should say we have a healthy disagreement about conspiracy theorists like David Icke. But you’ll come away with a real understanding of superheroes and villains and the new boundaries he’s pushing now with his latest creations such as Jupiter’s Legacy and Empress.

Still to come:

With Benjamin Zephaniah at Brunel University

I’ve been recommending the autobiography The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah to everyone over the past 6 months and buying it as birthday presents for all the men I know. So he was another obvious choice for me and Farah.

My personal fascination with his career and writing goes back decades. He wrote and starred in my favourite ever piece of British television – Dread Poets’ Society – a short BBC2 comedy drama film about him encountering the spirits of the Romantics – Byron, Keats, Shelley and Mary Shelley based on his own experience being demonised by the national press and literary establishment when he was under consideration for a poetry professorship at Cambridge University in the 1980s. Its now very famous and impressive cast also features Timothy Spall and a then unknown Alan Cumming.

Then when I worked at Channel 4 News I remember sitting in the studio watching him convince – on air – the writer and broadcaster Yasmin Alibai-Brown to give back her MBE and reject the whole British system of honours.

Benjamin Zephaniah’s life story is so complex and so inspiring. From the world of Birmingham in the 50s and 60s through to the exciting radical fringes of London in the 70s; from racism and violence in childhood, to crime and borstal in his youth, to finally getting recognition for his literary powers and becoming one of Britain’s most famous and respected poets. And vegans. We conducted the interview at Brunel University, where he’s Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing.

Elif Shafak after recording How I Found My Voice

Novelist and activist Elif Shafak‘s eloquent interviews about literature, freedom and Turkish politics have made her a regular fixture on news and current affairs shows such as Radio 4’s Today as well as in the book world. She’s another writer I first encountered through an earlier work interview, speaking to her about her novels. Writing in English and Turkish and embracing the history of both worlds as well as the present in her fiction, Elif Shafak is another of life’s resisters. And, with the ongoing turmoil in Turkey, an ever more essential voice challenging attempts to divide or diminish shared principles of human rights. Her episode has fascinating insights into her warm and creative childhood and way of seeing the world.

I hope you enjoy the series and do let us know what you think. Recommendations and ratings where you download it and all that stuff are really helpful for a new podcast, especially for me, if you’ve been following my work. as it’s my first.
HOW TO LISTEN

Several episodes of How I Found My Voice are already available on acast, iTunes and Spotify. The others will drop every Monday.

ACAST

SPOTIFY

iTUNES

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

How we made The Victorian Queens of Ancient Egypt

Rare intact mummy cartonnage brought back by Amelia Oldroyd (in Bagshaw Museum) All photos copyright Samira Ahmed. No reuse without permission.

Have you ever wondered why ancient Egypt lives in so many museum collections across Britain? Not to mention Germany, France, the USA and other former colonial powers. Why it haunts our dreams and our films and since childhood our imaginations? Well that’s the starting point for the documentary I made with Simon and Thomas Guerrier. The short answer is, because of Victorian collectors, several of them women, who went out to the Nile Valley hungry for adventure, fascinated by the beautiful, rich and complex world of the Pharoahs but also driven by a self-defined desire to “save” a worthy culture from the “primitive” present.

With producer Simon Guerrier and archaeologist Heba Abd el Gawad (centre)

The seed for this documentary was meeting and interviewing the remarkable Cairo-born Egyptologist Heba Abd el Gawad for Front Row. At the time she was completing her phD at Durham University and had co-curated the 2016 Beyond Beauty exhibition at Two Temple Place about ancient Egyptian culture around the body and transformation. The exquisite pieces including intimate makeup containers, jewellery and masks had been drawn from regional collections all over from England.

From Marianne Brocklehurst’s journal (courtesy of West Park Museum)

The impact of the exhibition made some local MPs and officials think whether these collections could, if revitalised in the right way, help revive their towns, attract tourists and locals alike, after years of struggling with central government budget cuts. But It also got me thinking that there as a bigger story to be told about the women collectors. Who were they? How did they manage to get out there at a time when even wealthy women’s lives were so circumscribed? Part of the documentary would need to be a very current conversation about colonial era looting and the ethical dilemma of where these objects should be, and how, when it came to the human remains of mummies, they should be displayed. Talking to Heba it was clear she had a unique perspective, as an Egyptian expert in the field, having also studied the Victorian collectors themselves.

Marianne Brocklehurst’s study in Macclesfield Sunday School Museum with unlabelled mummified hands in cabinet

Amelia Edwards was the most famous. She was the founder of the Egypt Exploration Fund (EFF), which crowd-financed the expeditions of the so-called father of Egyptology, Flinders Petrie – the renowned British Victorian explorer. But we saw a special story to be told about the mill heiresses from the North of England, who used wealth from now long lost industries — spinning silk and Egyptian cotton, to bring back these cultural riches for their towns. So we focussed in on three remarkable women: Marianne Brocklehurst from Macclesfield, Amelia Oldroyd from Dewsbury and Annie Barlow from Bolton who all had amazing stories. In the case of Brocklehurst amazing diaries which we are grateful to West Park Museum for showing us. Can I stop here to thank all the remarkable museum teams and Egyptologists and archeologists who gave up so much time and expertise to help us. Special thanks to Simon and Thomas Guerrier who are always such an inspiration to work with. I remind readers and listeners to the programme of the enduring challenge for local authority cultural insitutions in the face of year on year central government grant cuts.

Bolton Museum has invested heavily in a magnificent new gallery to showcase Barlow’s treasures and celebrate the real lives, not just the death rituals, of Ancient Eygptians. We found children bursting with excitement, full of knowledge and passion. We also found connections to modern women archaeologists who, proving the transformations in British social and gender mobility in the past century, had been directly inspired in their careers by being taken to see these Victorian women’s Egyptian finds in childhood.

With Danielle Wootton in Bolton Museum

Danielle Wootton’s Bolton family roots included a grandmother and an aunt who had worked in the Barlow and Jones family mills and shared stories with her about those times.

Rebecca Holt in front of her favourite statuette of Goddess Ti in West Park Museum

Postgraduate Rebecca Holt had become passionate about Egyptology in her childhood, as a result of being taken to see the mummy case in the local West Park Museum, built by Brocklehurst with her own money to house her collection.

Mummy case and jewellery from Abydos collected by Amelia Oldroyd (Bagshaw Museum)

Council staffing cuts and budget changes have hit West Park Museum badly. Dewsbury Museum, which housed Oldroyd’s collection shut in 2016 with the pieces, including a magnificent cartonnage moved to the atmospheric mansion of Bagshaw Museum in Batley. Influenced by the impact of the Beyond Beauty exhibition, Kirklees Council has invested in a magnificent reconstructed burial chamber from Abydos in the Bagshaw Museum to display tomb jewellery and its mummy case, which is wonderful, but sadly also suffers from restricted opening hours and has lost its specialist curators.

With Bagshaw Museum curator and guide Katina

I’m grateful to the museum team and especially curator Katina Bill who showed us round this remarkable Gothic building museum and archives for our recording.

Records of objects brought by Amelia Oldroyd for Dewsbury Egypt Exploration Fund (in Bagshaw Museum)

 

Bagshaw Museum, Batley where Amelia Oldroyd’s collection now lives

 

She also brought out the fascinating old leatherbound record books which list all Oldroyd’s purchases as an agent for the local Dewsbury branch of the EFF.

Marianne Brocklehurt’s smuggled mummy case in Macclesfield Silk Museum (the story of how the body was dumped is told in our programme)

Two more Egyptologists provided a living connection to the Victorian EEF adventurers to the modern day: Chris Naunton, author of Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt and Alice Stevenson, associate professor of museum studies at the Institute of Archaeology at UCL.

Chris Naunton (c) Alice Stevenson (r)

Both are very aware of the ethical issues around excavation and restitution. Chris is a former director of the Egypt Exploration Society – the modern incarnation of EFF – and was taught by Danielle Wootton. He offered a valuable insight into how the experience of excavations could shape people’s attitudes. Chris and Alice’s passion for archaeology was also shaped by their early experience of museum collections. She gave valuable insight into the political attitudes of the day, including within Egypt, against which these controversial extractions of ancient Egyptian tomb artefacts took place.

Heba offered valuable perspective and insight into how museums have to be honest about the history of their collections. She spoke about the importance of museums having a responsibility to promote social justice, not just for the living, but for the dead.

As with my last Sunday Feature, Laura Ingalls’ America, I’ve tried to show how women of the nineteenth century can still inspire us with their remarkable achievements in the face of strong patriarchal barriers. Brocklehurst’s fascinating diaries show how she protected a female servant being beaten by the cook – sacking him and promoting the maid to his job.

Both Amelia Edwards and, it’s believed, Marianne Brocklehurst were double pioneers as lesbian women living independent lives with their partners. It is impossible not to be filled with admiration and emotion on visiting the modest double grave of Brocklehurst and her life partner Mary Booth just five miles from Macclesfield in the village of Wincle and yet thousands of miles from Egypt where they had their adventures.

However as with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s legacy, museums cannot and should not ignore the racism and colonial attitudes that are a part of the story too, even if it makes many people feel uncomfortable. Like the world of the ancient Egyptians, the past informs the present.

The Victorian Queens of Ancient Egypt is on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday February 3rd at 645pm and on BBC sounds/online/podcast/downloadable afterwards.

Further reading

The women who love mummies (BBC News feature Feb 2nd 2019)

The lure of ancient Egypt is a way to revitalise faded industrial towns (Guardian Jan 21st 2019)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Two Gentlemen Sharing: Swinging London’s “race” picture

The films of Swinging London have been pored over and cherished ever since the 1960s. Which made Saturday’s rare BFI Southbank screening for Two Gentlemen Sharing with a Q&A with director and the two leading ladies all the more intriguing. There’s another to come on Sept 23rd.

Based on a novel by David Stuart Leslie about a white ad man sharing his Knightsbridge flat with a Jamaican lawyer – both Oxford-educated – the screenplay was written by Jamaican born writer & Joseph Losey collaborator Evan Jones whose 60s film credits include Modesty Blaise and Funeral In Berlin. Evans’ own experience as an Eng Lit graduate from Wadham, Oxford, is directly given to Hal Frederick’s Andrew McKenzie. The film is sumptuous to look at. London locations around Knightsbridge, Hyde Park and Notting Hill fizz with energy and action shot amid real people. The girls delight in the height of 60s fashion: brightly coloured suede jackets and mini dresses with giant false  lashes and “daisy” eye makeup and big hair. Robin Phillips in his pink shirts, tight slacks and wide lapelled suits is an upper middle class dandy closer to the kind of people who were filling the Scotch of St James than the working class heroes that cinema often gave us at the time.

Canadian director Ted Kotcheff says he was raised in a home of civil rights awareness. His Hungarian born parents went on a protest march against the conviction of the Scottsboro Boys in 1931 when he was still in the womb.

And Two Gentlemen Sharing would make a magnificent double bill with Waris Hussein’s A Touch Of Love (also 1969 and also recently screened at the BFI with director and the star Ian McKellen) – which shows another Oxbridge outsider/insider eye for the same locations, milieu, ambigious sexuality but with a radically different female point of view.

Much of the fascination of Two Gentlemen Sharing is simply seeing the racial diversity of London at the time and its weird, often contradictory exploration of sex and race. Children play in the street with derelict cars or stop to star at the camera while the heroes and heroines have romantic heartfelt encounters.  There’s a magnificent documentary like sequence with our heroes at a Caribbean jump up in a town hall reminiscent of the British social realism pictures of the early 60s. At the end of the night, as the steel band play the national anthem we see a handful of party goers remain to stand respectfully – a Sikh gentleman in a suit and a sari-clad woman, who we’d earlier seen bopping with enthusiasm.  A cricket match sequence where Andrew shows his prowess, features Garfield Sobers, the renowned West Indies player who was captaining Nottinghamshire at the time.

But like the posters for Ken Loach’s Poor Cow the sell of the film was often made on uncomfortable sexual innuendo and treatment of women. Two gentlemen sharing indeed.

Judy Geeson, who’d made her film debut opposite Sidney Poitier in To Sir, With Love said straight off it was one of her favourite film and how wonderful it was “to be playing a role that wasn’t a “dollybird”. The complexity of integrated lives at the time is captured in the lovely scenes with Earl Cameron — we see her raised by a Jamaican stepfather and a white mother who’s learned to cook rice and peas. This kind of relationship is one so many of us born in the 60s remember seeing in our parents’ friendship circles. The open minded  women who married “across the colour bar” after the war deserve to have more of their stories told.

 

Esther Anderson – who described herself in the Q&A as a Jamaican beauty queen, played  Caroline, a posh middle class Jamaican girl modelling in London but making up a false identity as a British born girl from middle class Beckenham in Kent. “Do I look like an immigrant?” she says challengingly on meeting the white Roddy (Robin Phillips) for the first time.

But Anderson also revealed that on set she and other black women felt pushed into exploitative unscripted sex scenes prompting her  to lead a fight back. And she expressed a concern, that despite the beautiful cinematography she felt the black women were definitely not lit with as much care as Judy Geeson.

In one scene as Roddy visits his “frigid” girlfriend’s ghastly parents, the father dismisses her and her mother as “bitches”, laughing enthusiastically at Roddy’s plans to drop her for his working class hairdresser Judy Geeson. However throughout the film there’s a strong indication that Roddy is gay, and that sense of repressed sexuality adds another powerful layer to a film that seems limitless in the issues it explores, and seems to speak beyond its time.

Two Gentleman Sharing shocks still for several reasons. It’s set in an upper class London. Those n-words have an extra resonance from those posh mouths. Some of the sex scenes remind you of the “even the bath water’s dirty” horror allegedly felt by Hollywood executives when they saw a cut of of the contemporaneously shot Performance.

Norman “A Hard Day’s Night” Rossington as Roddy’s lower class ad-man chum brings both welcome honesty and sleaze in his obsession with bedding black girls.  Like Peter Watkin’s Privilege it prowls around the weird world of 60s ad-land, but for laughs – sexy laughs – rather than cold dystopian horror. In Two Gentlemen Sharing the emphasis is on comedy and entertainment, but like Performance the decrepitude of Rachmanesque slumland is a visual nightmare on screen. “Notting Hall” jokes Andrew to Roddy, welcoming his white flat mate on a visit.

Perhaps the most shocking imagery of the film is when Roddy takes his black and white friends to his parents’ crumbling Jacobean mansion. It looks like a Rachman slum inside. Mater and Pater crawling around hidden in the filthy servants’ quarters. Kotcheff said he saw the metaphor for the crumbling British class system. 50 years on it’s a reminder of an age of supertaxes and how much the aristocracy have since been rehabilitated and fetishised in popular culture.

The big question is how and why was the film supressed in Britain? It was the UK entry to the Venice Film Festival that year. Esther and Judy remember the scale of international press interest. Burt Caesar who hosted the BFI screening said an X certificate and concerns that it could spark race rioting led to it being effectively banned in Britain, despite its straightforward release in the US, Canada and Europe, where anecdotally it seems to have had a significant presence on the European film circuit over the years, notably in France.

The film sets off new lines of enquiry, beyond its strange hanging ending. Where is Hal Frederick now? Judy says he was last known to be running a restaurant in LA. Robin Phillips after starring in a few films made his career as a renowned stage director in Canada.  According to his 2015 Guardian obituary “he is credited with the first modern-dress Shakespeare production at the RSC, in 1970 – Two Gentlemen of Verona, with Helen Mirren, Ian Richardson and Patrick Stewart lounging round an onstage swimming pool with cocktails and shades.”

Esther revealed so much about the network of Caribbean performers helping eachother out – she cites Bond girl and “white Jamaican” Daisy Mae Williams who was also in the film, for standing up for her.

Ted Kotcheff – had directed Life At the Top before going onto such Hollywood fare as the Rambo film First Blood, Weekend at Bernie’s and TV’s Law and Order, and my own personal favourite of his – Split Image  (1982) about a cult deprogrammer starring James Woods, Peter Fonda and Karen Allen.

The daring and the experimentation of what was poured into Two Gentlemen Sharing endures. Its flaws are part of its power. Kotcheff told the BFI audience via skype that he had only recently rewatched the film after 50 years.  He told us: “I always aim for 100 and this film was as close to 100 as a film could be”.

My thanks to both Burt Caesar who’s done so much research into this film and to curator David Somerset for sourcing the film and getting it shown again.

Two Gentlemen Sharing is screened again at the BFI Southbank, London on Sunday September 23rd at 520pm

 

Posted in Culture, Film, History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Duran Duran and the glamour v grit music wars of the 80s

Roger Taylor (l), John Taylor (BBC Wogan House, June 25th 2018)

Ahead of tonight’s BBC4 Duran Duran night.. There is one rather interesting section of my interview with John Taylor and Roger Taylor we couldn’t quite get into the final Front Row edit on Monday night.   So here’s the transcript. Growing up in the 80s it’s clear that not only was there an enduring sneering attitude against any band that had a large female teenage fan following, but bands were politically labelled. In the era of Red Wedge, the yachts, the sharp suits and the models saw the band put alongside yuppies and bankers on one side of what felt like a rigidly policed divide about class and attitude. You can listen to the broadcast interview here. It features a broader discussion on their roots, the way traditional indies like NME and Melody Maker sneered at bands with a  large teenage female following, and how Duran Duran made a stonking great Bond theme with a very grumpy John Barry.

Samira Ahmed: The thing about the 80s was it was a time when music could be quite political, and a time when having money seemed quite a political statement. There was a big divide in Thatcher’s Britain.

Roger Taylor: You’re exactly right.

SA: How did Duran Duran get labelled, or how did you feel you fitted in, in what was quite a polarized music scene?

John Taylor: I feel like we were following our instincts and I have no truck with where we were coming from. Like Roger talked about our roots. Our parents knew austerity, they’d served in the war. I mean we all came from a very rigorous and austere working class background. Where we chose to go, where we let ourselves go felt natural, it felt creative, fun. We got a lot of flack for that. 

SA: Unfairly?

John Taylor: Unfairly. Fairly. Whatever; people have opinions for whatever reasons. I was watching another BBC documentary on the post punk era and they were showing a lot of artists. Joy Division were one. And then they get to Duran Duran and they show Hungry Like the Wolf and it felt like everything that had come before it was in black and white. And suddenly Duran Duran was like widescreen technicolor. And I could understand why people were like, “Whoa, well you know.. they’re selling out.” And yet it was big screen.

SA: It was escapism too?

Roger Taylor: It was I think. It was escapism. Somebody said to me the other day, “Oh, did you like UB40?” I said, yeah, I loved them. They used to rehearse next door to us. “Really?” Yeah, yeah, they had the next room. Same city. Same background. But they were singing about being on the dole and we were singing about girls on film and glamour. And how we got that kind of shift, why it went in that direction and we went in ours, I don’t quite know what it happened. It was just one of those weird shifts in life that puts you on a different direction.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

I sense a disturbance. Everything that’s missing from The Last Jedi (some SPOILERS so see it first!!)

The scroll screen could have been written for Ep VII. As if nothing has happened. First rule of sequels: Take the story on. What’s the new line? Please hire me to write proper copy in future.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Leia is unconscious for half the film. Seriously. She does almost nothing when she’s awake either. For a film playing a strong Madame President image in the poster this is the biggest shocker.

Gwendoline Christie is BARELY in it. Again.

Mas Kanata is in ONE scene by webcam. I actually wanted to see the film she’s in. It looks quite exciting. But seriously. WTF.

That’s all three women over thirty from The Force Awakens barely in it. This film was 2 and a half hours long.

Luke milking a giant breasted creature and staring at Rey aggressively while he drinks it was just not healthy. There’s some weird unintentionally misogynistic stuff in here.

Your two most swashbuckling leading men Finn and Poe Dameron are sidelined from the main action. This is madness. There is a giant Han Solo shaped gap and their projection of aspects of him was essential to the charm of the first.

We never learn about why Mas had Luke’s lightsabre.

C3PO is hardly in it except  for a couple of excellent but tiny cowardly moments.

Chewbacca gets almost nothing to do except one good macabre joke with some Porg.

The Porg are actually a really welcome addition. And the ice foxes. They seem to have character development, a purpose and help scene setting. Think about that.

R2D2 does almost nothing.

Well over an hour (an hour and a half I think)  till we get a proper lightsabre fight. I checked my watch. Single best scene in the film – Kylo and Rey.

Makes you realise how good the red set dressing in Flash Gordon was, and how influential. And it draws on the Bride’s fight sequences in Kill Bill.

There is no proper onscreen reunion of the older stars.R2D2, C3PO hardly get a hello master Luke moment.  Where is the melancholy camaraderie of the first generation?  Even Hamill has commented on this publically. Unforgivable.

Hardly any reflection on loss of Han Solo.

There is no proper interaction of all the new comrades either. Poe, Finn and Rey are kept apart till the end. Unacceptable.

We learn NOTHING about Snoke before he’s killed. Like Darth Maul. Unforgivable.

We learn nothing about Rey. Even in that initially visually intriguing scene in the cave.

It would be really nice if she does turn out to be nobody; a rejected urchin. It’s not going to happen, is it?

Careless racism from Rey at the fish nuns – like a race of Mrs Doyles on Craggy Island. “What are those things?” she says. They’re the “native” population according to Luke, who have apparently been (forcibly?) converted like and do all his laundry.

We learn nothing about how Kylo Ren came to join the First Order.

Why is Emo Kylo Ren’s best frenemy General Hux in charge? He seems to have far older and superior officers by his side. An eye roll from the best of them does not make this ok. Maybe I should pretend there’s a Donald Trump Jr reference in his overpromotion?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

For most of the film we are encouraged to think like Poe Dameron, that Laura Dern is an overpromoted feminazi because of political correctness gone made. “What, the admiral is a a woman?!” is the gist of his reaction. Poe is all Eric Trump snide. Even the big reveal about her is pretty late and pretty poor. Why doesn’t she make her big heroic gesture a bit earlier and save all the other transports? She looks amazing but there’s something strangely impractical about how she’s dressed like a cross between the violinist in Yellow Submarine and  the Columbia Film lady.

Look at Oscar Isaacs and John Boyega. Why would you not use them as much as possible in the main story? Much of the action involves Oscar Isaac sitting on a slow moving bus being chased at 20mph by a giant milkfloat. But apparently not blown up because of some special new rule. Imagine Errol Flynn sitting in a cart looking over his shoulder for the whole of The Adventures of Robin Hood. And not even driving.

Boyega at least gets a real Flash Gordon sense of 1930s adventuring but…

Unpleasant sense of Finn being separated off as a romantic possibility (what happened to the good old love triangle?) for racially dodgy reasons and the kiss from Rose felt like they were telling us they’re pairing him off with someone from Engineering so stop complaining.

Rose is a great character (Joss Whedon’s Firefly, anybody?). But this doesn’t excuse doing nothing with all the established leads.

Lots of great diverse casting but in new tiny roles. It doesn’t excuse removing all the non white actors from the main emotional arc of the story.

The Casino planet – a James Bond mix of Monte Carlo and the UAE – a den of arms dealers & child exploitative camel racers – is raced through at high speed. Felt underused and superfluous at the same time. Shame.

There is a lazy, nasty “bath her and bring her to my chamber” vibe, even if now Disney de-sexualised, in how Rey is treated by Snoke. Was a lot of this torture-y thing in Ep VII. No excuses for so much of it.

Why do the New Order always park so far away from the entrance to the Rebel Base?

The giant laser spinning battering penis to ram the dark hole of the hidden rebel base. Sigh.

It all goes a bit too astral plane Doctor Strange for my liking at the end.

The child scenes with Disney references are too heavy handed. (Sorcerer’s Apprentice broom, shooting star as if over the castle)

Two more that twitter people spotted: Why doesn’t Lando Calrissian turn up in the Casino? Come on!

Zero mention of the Knights of Ren. But by this point are you surprised?

Small Disney observation: While East Asian cinema has been doing the ambiguous whole duality of light/dark so well for decades -which Star Wars copies in Rey and Kylo Ren, this film has reworked some types and imagery from classic Disney Princess films. Some of it very successfully, others more prosaically.

With the red and white colours Rey and Kylo Ren seemed like Snow White and the Prince crossed with the humanised Raven from Maleficient – as equals and each with lightsabres. Most intriguing. Obviously there’s a whole Beauty reforming the Beast plotline. But being equally armed for battle is promising for little girls who have traditionally been rather short changed in Star Wars.

Rose – first discovered sitting and crying in Cinderella pose by the Aladdin-like Finn. But being a qualified engineer and all she’s a recognisably modern Disney princess (think Moana, even Frozen). Modern Disney princess types are very talented and resourceful and their confidence quickly emerges.

Princess Leia has been transformed into a fairy godmother character right down to flying. I think this is the jumping the Disney shark moment.

If you’re going to put Kylo Ren in without a top on, just do it. Strange weak humour (throughout the film) here, to undercut a rare moment of actual sexuality.

Ep VII Rey’s Flashback

The only thing we really learn is the Rashomon-style 3 versions of the night of the massacre at the Temple. But even that was focussed only on Luke and Kylo Ren – just the two of them. What about everyone else? How about matching it to the Jedi temple massacre-in-the-rain flashback in The Force Awakens? Great to see Luke Skywalker and the ever dependable Adam Driver get such great moments out of this film. Shame we didn’t have more of this.

Too much reliance on gaps between films to fill in what happened. How can we be 2 films into a trilogy and I still only know one thing more than I knew in the first?

All this has reminded me how much I love Kung Fu Panda. A lot of the same themes (Rey is the Panda). But The Last Jedi lacks a villain as dark as Ian McShane.

My interview with John Boyega, about his career including Shakespeare,  Star Wars and Detroit  BBC Radio 4 Front Row (Dec 14th) on iplayer via this link.

 

 

Posted in Culture, Film, Media, Science Fiction/Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments