Adjust your privacy settings now, fool! Reading The Woman In White in the instagram age



Note: Illustration does not resemble actual plot in any way

(Warning contains some partial but not big spoilers!)

“Habits of literary composition are perfectly familiar to me. One of the rarest of all the intellectual accomplishments that  man can possess is the grand faculty of arranging his ideas. Immense privilege! I possess it. Do you?”

So declares Count Fosco to the hero as he sits down to write his own explanation of his dastardly deeds near the end of the Woman In White. What reader under 30 these days can imagine the pace of a world in which the breathtaking action is painstakingly written up longhand just after it happened? It must have taken hours.

Finishing the book this morning for a BBC Front Row tackle-an-unread classic-in-a-week challenge, it struck me that:

1. Even for a Victorian novel involving women inevitably in corsets, there is a LOT of fainting; perhaps an indirect comment on their evil, as our hero is stunned by the “rare beauty” of a woman unconstrained:


2. Its form – entirely written in diary-style entries and post-event journals – is essentially a Storify project.

For younger readers, reluctant to attempt such a tome, I’d suggest imagining how differently the protagonists would handle the situation today. Walter Hartright would probably live tweet his first encounter with the Woman In White, inspiring lots of helpful suggestions from both conspiracy theorists and online Victorian trolls about hysterical women. Later on, instagram postings of subsequent encounters would help the reader make sense of the confusion of identities.

It’s also helpful to transpose the analogue writing culture of the age and the book to modern times. Hence Marian’s daily write ups of the action in her journal which she left in her unlocked desk and her habit of putting important letters in the communal postbag are equivalent to leaving her email open, not adjusting the privacy settings on Facebook and  leaving the locations setting on her mobile phone set to public. Fool!

Got one big question: How did that happy marriage near the end happen if the lady’s identity couldn’t be proved? In a novel emphasizing the total power of  authenticated legal documents, parish registers and birth certificates, surely it would have made it impossible to marry legally under her real name?

Favourite bit: When Walter pretends to sell his beloved’s “poor, faint, valueless sketches, of which I was the only purchaser” to give her the illusion that she’s at all useful.


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Ladybird books: Constructing the future past of modern Britain


I used to visit a beloved university English professor  and his wife. He had won the Military Cross for hand to hand combat in the liberation of the Netherlands in 1945 but never talked about the terrible things he’d seen. After he died in 2003 I would meet his widow for lunch and once, when she asked for my news, I started talking with excitement about the flat my husband and I were buying in Berlin. I saw her face fall in horror.

“Have you ever been to Germany?” I asked, the truth dawning on me. “No. And I never would,” she said with determined distaste. I felt terrible. For failing to anticipate how someone of her generation might feel about that country 50 years on.


While some people like my friend felt a line remained drawn that they could not cross, other made a different kind of choice. Ealing comedy producer Michael Balcon and the German-Jewish émigré director Wolf Rilla made the 1958 smash hit romantic comedy Bachelor of Hearts starring Hardy Kruger as a German exchange student learning the strange ways of Cambridge University and falling in love with Sylvia Syms. It was a kind of benign propaganda to make British people trust young Germans again. As Kruger’s own website acknowledges his international career was launched “when no one wanted to see an actor from a country that had brought death and ruins to the people of this world”.


That idea of benign propaganda applies equally to what Ladybird Books were doing at exactly the same time. I’ve been thinking about the books a lot, digging out all my old copies of the Well-Loved tales and especially the People At Work series: The Nurse, In a Hotel, The Shipbuilders, In a Big Store – because I was recently hosting an event at Conway Hall with social historians and transport and architecture geeks (Helen Day, Tim Dunn, Concretopia author John Grindrod and a special guest appearance by We Go To The Gallery artist Miriam Elia) to muse on why we love these books so and what they reveal about their creators’ vision of postwar Britain.

Crucially I’ve realized they weren’t complacent nostalgia. They were a celebration of a new Britain built out of ashes. The executive behind the series Douglas Keen was, like many of his artists, a middle aged man from working class roots who’d served in the War (an RAF radar unit) and had a socialist vision of the future. One that celebrated social housing, new concrete shopping centres in the place of bombed out medieval cities and the expanded public sector of the NHS and other emergency services. As one of his daughters said at his funeral: “His socialist principles imbued him with a deep respect for the traditions of working-class occupations such as mining, and for public service occupations, eulogised in my own favourite series, “People At Work”.


The white heat of technology was celebrated in books about The Hovercraft or The Computer. There was a photo-realist delight in putting real healthy contemporary children’s faces into retelling old fairy tales or Peter and Jane books celebrating the joys of ordinary life. It turns out that it’s not just our imagination that the skies always seemed to be blue in those books. The illustrators often waited for a fine day to take their guide photos and make their sketches. It’s an interesting coincidence that Keen and illustrator John Berry (People at Work series) were both raised by single mothers whose fathers had left them. Robert Lumley (The Magic Porridge Pot, The Elves and The Shoemaker) had fought at Monte Cassino. John Kenny (Tootles the Taxi and The Story of Nelson) had landed in Normandy on VE Day. Robert Ayton (The story of Ships) was a wartime motorcycle dispatch rider. Their Ladybird work was unashamedly optimistic and idealistic.


Andy Dickens, nephew of illustrator Harry Wingfield, had his own sixth birthday immortalised in the easy reading book The Party. As he told The Guardian last year: “There was no “wow factor”. The adults around at that time – some had been fighter pilots, some had commandeered U-boats. There was a general acceptance that people did what they did and we were equally respectful of the milkman.”

So much of the political vision of the 1950s has been dismantled – in housing, the public sector and the workplace. Think of the work culture exposed in big companies like Sports Direct. Far from being exercises in nostalgia, Ladybird books remind Brexit Britain how it was people who’d endured horror who had the ambition not to focus on fear, but to build a brighter, fairer future.

 This article originally appeared in The Big Issue magazine ahead of an event I curated at Conway Hall on October 10th 2016.

Further listening (audio of the event):


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We’ll get the President we deserve: Suzan Lori Parks on Hillary Clinton & America’s woman problem

“You’ve consumed too much of the Kool-Aid that the man has been serving you.”

Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Susan Lori Parks came into the Front Row studio last week to talk about When Father Came Home From The Wars opening at the Royal Court Theatre. We discussed James Baldwin, the “wormhole” presence of The American Civil War in modern America and, of course the upcoming Presidential Election, especially the question of whether Hillary Clinton is being held to a different standard of accountability and expectation than Donald Trump. We didn’t have time to air that section, but what she had to say on that is really worth listening to..

(All audio is copyright of the BBC. Photo copyright Samira Ahmed)


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Lessons for Trump and us all from the Ronald Reagan Memorial Library

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“I wonder what it’s all about, and why

We suffer so, when little things go wrong?

We make our life a struggle

When life should be a song…”

We should perhaps we grateful that the teenage Ronald Reagan never grew up to be a full time poet, judging from this extract from “Life” that got published in his college magazine. Though it does suggest that in 1928 jocks like this lively American football player weren’t afraid to embrace their gentler side and go fora more Renaissance man profile.It’s one of the many gems on display in his presidential library in Simi Valley, north of Los Angeles that makes me wonder at the political cultural gulf between the US and Britain. 

Of course it’s biased. Rupert Murdoch is one of the trustees of the museum charity. But the attempt to put one’s career up for public display – a kind of physical combination of eulogy, memoir and public record office (the thousands of documents in the archive all available for scholars and historians) – is a fascinating idea. For the thrill seeker there’s the original Air Force One to climb aboard and an exact reconstruction of his Oval Office (fascinating in a way you never get to see in movies or on TV).

My first real memory of Reagan is the Not The Nine O’ Clock News spoof after his election in 1980 when they sang a cowboy song about how they couldn’t believe he was President. Visiting the Library days after watching Trump in action at the Republican National Convention, I wince as I compare the two men. What cynical critics undervalued at the time, was Reagan’s true ability as a communicator, a skill first developed from visiting factory floors and small towns all over America as a radio announcer. The yellow legal pads he used to write up and amend speeches are fascinating for his notes and re-drafts. 

His brush with death is presented dramatically: the footage of the assassination attempt on a loop; the suit he wore on display – the bullet hole and faint bloodstains visible – next to an exact replica of the gun used. The documents on display include the handwritten letter of April 1981 which he composed while still recovering from the shooting. Sent to Brezhnev, against state department officials’ advice, it was a man-to-man approach seeking a way forward on nuclear disarmament: “Is it possible that we have let ideology keep us from considering the very real everyday problems of the people we represent?”Walking through the foreign policy section with dramatic footage of the history of the Berlin Wall, there’s even a section on the Iran Contra affair – when it emerged the government was selling weapons to Tehran – to fund Contra rebels in central America. Seeing how the world looked to a leader of his generation,who saw Communism as their greatest threat, is a useful insight.

The satirists’ view of the deluded B-movie actor has evidence there too – the many films he made allegedly fuelling a mental confusion decades later that he HAD served in World War Two, rather than in the US Military’s film unit. The telegrams a besotted husband sent to his wife are both sweet and unsettlingly childish: “Mrs Reagan if you are going to be home in the morning I wonder if I might drop in on account of I love you.”

Is there an inherent American national pride, beyond anything else that explains the Presidential Library system, because these are leaders voted for by direct election? Or is powerful corporate and individual support the big secret? When Lady Thatcher’s children auctioned off her clothes it seemed obvious that Britain at the very least needed a Smithsonian-style repository for objects of national interest. Of course that would mean their offspring donating, not expecting to maximize earnings by selling off Mummy’s clothes or in the recent past, Daddy Churchill’s papers. And with Tony Blair’s legacy so overwhelmingly tarnished in public discourse now by the Iraq War it’s hard to see any hope of such a library system anytime soon.

But understanding how our leaders saw the world and how they tried to present themselves (Reagan as an early advocate of alternative energy is one of the more intriguing displays) can only be useful. I can imagine Churchill’s playing down the disaster of Gallipoli and his early enthusiasm for eugenics. It’s not likely to be a popular idea in these politician-loathing times. But a British Museum of Political Artefacts at least. For that I’d campaign.

This article first appeared in The Big Issue magazine. Journalism worth paying for. Available from street vendors or subscribe here

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Why Nerve is the selfie generation’s Desperately Seeking Susan

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Discussing Nerve and immersive gaming in film with Naomi Alderman on BBC Front Row on Radio 4 on August 11th and iplayer after. 

The Green Dress. I knew I’d seen it somewhere before in New York the moment it appeared on screen. It helped that I”d avoided the trailer and any prior reviews or images of the film. Nerve works its power best if you don’t watch the trailer which is full of spoilers. This post avoids big ones but assumes you’ve seen it.

Then suddenly it came to me: the green dress is a tribute (subconscious or deliberate?) to Rosanna Arquette’s in Desperately Seeking Susan. And then the parallels wouldn’t stop coming:


  1. Emma Roberts has the same gangly, toothy beauty and charm. Like Rosanna’s New Jersey housewife, this Staten Island Venus is a shy, uncool suburbanite who commutes into the city and dreams of escape.NERVE GREEN DRESS MOTORBIKE
  2. That green dress: With its sparkles and its shortness the green dress is in both films a Wizard of Oz like Emerald metaphor for transformation and new powers. Our heroines discover their elegant sexiness (legs bare, everything else covered) and inhibitions are lowered ready for:DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN MOTORBIKE
  3. The motorbike hero: Aidan Quinn takes Rosanna on a tour of the neon city and into its flamboyant underworld. It’s less high octane and rather more twee than the high speed dare of Nerve and its equally charming and handsome hero, Dave Franco, but the vehicle of transformation and the impact is the same.Screen Shot 2016-08-07 at 19.13.39
  4. The personal ad versus the online game. Roberta/Rosanna starts out as a watcher through the personal ads – the 80s precursor to Tinder and all the rest of today’s social media apps, but is sucked into the Game just like Venus in Nerve. Screen Shot 2016-08-07 at 19.15.35   Only her secret diary reveals how boring and frustrating her life is. In one of the great scenes of the film Susan/Madonna can’t believe it’s real. “No one’s life can be this boring!” It must be a cover for something.  Perhaps the big change is whether Venus, like other teenagers and 20somethings would even keep a private as opposed to online journal anymore?
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When Cathy met Ken: Revisiting Cathy Come Home in Brexit Britain

Photo Copyright Samira Ahmed (no reuse)

Photo Copyright Samira Ahmed (no reuse)

The other night I watched Ken Loach meet Cathy – or rather the young actress Elle Payne, playing Cathy in a Cardboard Citizens’ staging of his 1966 landmark TV play Cathy Come Home. The production featured many actors with experience of homelessness. It was deeply moving and beautiful to watch.
50 years on lines from the play jumped out at you in post-EU referendum Britain — angry people blaming immigrants for their housing problems. Locals burning down the caravans of the undesirables camped nearby.
Never have so many people experienced such existential feelings about their nation. Which Britain is real? The one that muddles through and gets along and loves a curry and a cappuccino? Or The one where adults push notes about “vermin” through neighbours’  letterboxes and children threaten their classmates with deportation? Leave voters complained to BBC News in their droves that THEY weren’t racist and didn’t want to discuss those who were.
And more and more I wonder, as a journalist working on a daily arts show, what art can really do when politics seems so toxic? I started seeing Brexit metaphors in every piece of work I did. Puppeteer Gordon Murray died. Was his Trumptonshire a dreamlike pre-EU Britain for ageing Brexiteers with its health and safety-free cider-swilling Windy Miller operating heavy machinery? Does the news that Nicholas Lyndhurst’s time travelling sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart has been re-commissioned prove we really are retreating to a 40s fantasy version ourselves?
The acclaimed playwright Christopher Hampton came in to the BBC to talk to me about his career as a translator. Hampton’s inquisitive quest for interesting new writers in European theatre has given us Florian Zeller’s award winning plays in his crisp, funny and moving translations: The Father, The Mother and The Truth — all of them so clearly French and yet so universal. Hampton could be dismissed, I suppose, as one of those London luvvies. But you could sense the genuine sadness at the result. What he sees as a kind of “stupidity”, combined with a uniquely British “arrogance.”
In Liverpool I met Turner Prize winning Mark Leckey, who has made a magical film about the city for the Biennial art show. Dream English Kid 1964-1999 AD is a dream collage of his visual memory featuring found footage of dance clubs from his Northern Soul youth and even Carry On actress Liz Fraser in an anonymous film clip reminding him of an erotic possibly false memory. Growing up in Birkenhead and Ellesmere Port he looked from outside at Liverpool as a kind of Emerald City – so near and yet so far. He knows all about the power of nostalgia for a lost England and, as an artist who’s put usually ignored sub culture of 70s & early 80s white working class boys into his art, expressed his own unease both at how Brexit voters had been labelled and the narrowing in of horizons that leaving the EU might mean.

That same night I was in London for Cathy Come Home. I offered to help Denholm Spurr the brilliant young actor playing Reg, Cathy’s troubled husband, spray his 60s style hair do – “no I need loads more or it won’t stay up”. I watched Ken Loach scribble notes as he watched the story of exploitative landlords and homelessness play out on stage. He was such a young man when he filmed it back in 1966. As we age the past telescopes down to not long ago or far away. How did we wake up here?
In the late 80s when I studied journalism we were taught about how art could affect the real world. The two examples we studied were Orson Welles’ 1930s radio version of The War of The Worlds and Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home. The latter inspired anger and influenced social policy. But the Welles inspired panic, an emotion that politicians were keen to whip up in the EU referendum.  In our Q&A after the play Loach said he was angry that Cathy Come Home wasn’t a historical reenactment but showed a demonization of the poor that had got so much worse. When he talked about the need to restore a post war style belief in mass social house building and re-iterated his support for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership I knew that politics remained as complicated as ever. But that moment after when he met the wonderful young actress who had played Cathy it was magic. She smiled. He smiled And shook her hand. The power of great art to move us decades after it was made sometimes takes my breath away.
This article first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine -journalism worth paying for.  For sale from street vendors or subscribe here.
Further reading/listening
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From Jane Eyre to Mary Poppins – de-coding the Brontes on film


I wrote this blogpost for a panel discussion we held with a screening of Jane Eyre (1943) at the Picturehouse Cinema at the National Media Museum in Bradford last Saturday. Novelist Mick Jackson, Bronte Parsonage Museum arts officer Lauren Livesey and  Dr Amber Regis, lecturer in 19th century Literature at Sheffield University gave a fascinating insight into the world of the book and the broader Bronte cultural impact and legacy. We talked about class, masculinity, favourite versions (Toby Stephens’ just pipped Michael Fassbender’s) fan & slash fiction (threesomes with Bertha), why Japanese fans prefer Wuthering Heights while the Chinese go for Jane Eyre and how Bronte heroes have mutated on film over the decades from sinister predators in an old silent Wuthering Heights to Romantic heroes. Damn you, Laurence Olivier. Fifty Shades of Grey is all your fault.  


“Look, weren’t the Victorians cruel?” My mother’s running commentary on the early years of Jane Eyre is indelibly tied to my memory of first watching the 1943 film on TV as a child. We still flinch with earnest anger like young Jane (Peggy Ann Garner) when her boarding school friend (an uncredited Elizabeth Taylor) has her natural curls hacked off for being “vain”. This is a world ruled by callous, hatchet-faced patriarchs, and this film still seems definitive in its faithfulness to Charlotte Brontë’s heroine, driven by honesty and a sense of natural justice.

The concept for the picture was put together by David O. Selznick, best known as producer of Gone With the Wind. However, British director Robert Stevenson created a perfect storm of Gothic feminist grandeur with his only film for 20th Century Fox. He went on to make such Disney female-focused period masterpieces as Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks.


And what talent illuminates the screen: Bernard Hermann wrote the score. The cinematography and lighting cast the perfect shadows; mysterious figures lurk in the gloom and the forbidding crenellated stone walls of Thornfield Hall. The script, co-written by Stevenson with Aldous Huxley and John Houseman, brings the rich textual world of Jane Eyre to life, maintaining its diary-like first person narrative. Orson Welles, in his physical prime, and so often at his best when not officially in charge, added the fog which gives the entirely Hollywood-shot locations a never-bettered Gothic air – something I do find missing from modern productions. Joan Fontaine may not have been any more an authentically “plain” Jane than later actresses but carries it more discreetly. This is a Jane of dignity and buried passions. Agnes Moorehead is a death’s head profile – a grim yet ultimately pitiful Aunt Read.

Visiting the Brontë parsonage museum earlier this year for a Radio 4 Front Row special, I noticed a film still from a silent version of Wuthering Heights (sadly lost) in which Heathcliff crouches like Nosferatu by the bedside of Cathy. Lauren Livesey of the Brontë Society told me the idea of representing such Brontë heroes as “sexy” rather than scary was the influence of the film of the very Jane Eyre-esque Rebecca,  released 3 years earlier, also starring Joan Fontaine and featuring Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter. It has cast a long shadow; the representation of such men is just one of many facets that make the Brontë phenomenon a fascinating subject for debate.

jane eyre pulp cover

Lauren Livesey will be part of our panel discussion, alongside novelist Mick Jackson, who brings a welcome male perspective and the creative insight of having written about the Brontës’ global tourist appeal. 19th century literature scholar Dr Amber Regis can help unpick the imagery of books and films and their influence on modern ideas of psychology, romance and feminism. Together we might reflect on the red room, where Jane is locked for punishment; the madwoman in the attic that spawned a thousand feminist theories; the world of slavery and Empire linked to the characters’ backstories in cotton mills, sugar plantations and plans to be missionaries in India.

We’ll reflect on the different screen versions of these much-loved stories – I should declare my favourite Brontë is actually Anne.

Here at the National Media Museum – the home of storytelling through visual images –  we will reflect on the future prospects for these stories. Jane Eyre might have gone off to India with St John after she runs away from Thornfield. I love the idea of all these alternative storylines: the multiverse of choices and outcomes that Jane might have, that perhaps a more game-focused narrative could explore. One day might someone create Jane Eyre: the Choose Your Own Adventure immersive video game?


Imagine, too, the atmosphere in which British audiences first saw this film – released on Christmas Eve in 1943. This is not a film of romantic nostalgia for a happier time. It’s about endurance and determination despite the cost of injury and physical destruction. Of making peace, after long years, with cruel and powerful people who have wronged you. But it is also about holding out for victory. I have never seen an onscreen kiss more erotic than the one between Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles in Jane Eyre. It makes me blush every time I see it. Worth seeing on the big screen…

Further listening/reading

The Brontes – Front Row at Howarth and discussion with novelists AS Byatt and Sophia McDougall (April 2016)

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The future sound and vision of Liverpool: Biennial special preview

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Tonight’s BBC Front Row is a special programme mostly recorded on location in Liverpool previewing this year’s Biennial of Contemporary Art that runs till October. I particularly enjoyed talking to Mark Leckey about his dreamscape film about his visual memory from 1964-1999. And Betty Woodman who was transfixed by the pink and white of the ancient buildings in post-war Italy and is inspired by the colour of ancient friezes and ceramics to this day. I also talk to the winner of the John Moores Painting Prize.

The programme will be here on Radio 4 and then via this link on iplayer after its 715pm transmission.




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The economics of burkas, bikinis & The Nice Guys


Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 17.50.00

According to a recent BBC World Service programme about Malawi, the nation’s population hit 17.6 million this year and is expected to double by 2040, which the country’s finance minister described as “scary”. “A ticking timebomb of poverty and starvation,” said the reporter. “Malawi desperately needs economic growth.” Malawi has one of the highest incidences of child marriages in the world and last year introduced a new law raising the marriage age to 18.

Changing the law doesn’t by itself change cultural norms fast, but plenty of evidence shows that when women get educated and when countries get richer, birth rates drop very fast. Take Italy – Catholic, still very traditional in its attitudes to women – described not long ago by the Financial Times no less, as the “country that feminism forgot”, it has one of the lowest birth rates in Europe. Economic growth is still widely cited as a neutral champion of women’s rights. But now I find myself asking whether the cultural prejudices that see an enduring pay gap between men and women in nations like Britain, 46 years after the passing of the Equal Pay Act can be eliminated or whether they can in some ways be strengthened by a focus on economic growth?



In France, where feminism is rooted in a proudly secular and monocultural self-image a political row recently blew up after the government’s minister for women’s rights Laurence Rossignol accused fashion houses such as M&S and H&M, which were designing Muslim women’s wear including burkinis, as promoting “the imprisonment of women’s bodies.” She made the ill-received comparison with African Americans voting for slavery and compounded the offence with the use of the word “Negroes”.

M&S Burkini

M&S Burkini

It’s legitimate to reason that the comments suggest a fundamental lack of understanding of how faith and modesty can co-exist with feminism. You don’t have to be Muslim to not want to wear a bikini or show your cleavage. But if we’re honest there’s a deeper problem intertwined therein. The big spenders from nations such as Saudi Arabia who boost British retailers’ bottom line, have shown that economic growth and oppression of women can happily co-exist. In fact with the help of Western corporations selling everything from fashion to police weaponry wealth can be used to solidify barbaric, degrading and cruel oppression. Rossignol’s ignored wider point was that “Today there are some women promoting political Islam and there are some women who are suffering in the suburbs from the pressure.”

In other words that old feminist adage: The personal is political. Our acts of personal consumption are not in isolation but connect us to others. The small but significant number of highly educated British born women choosing to wear strict Islamic dress and demand gender segregation need to think about whether it really is empowering, given the experience of the vast majority of women forced to dress that way around the Muslim world.

Talking of bikinis, the other thing that raised my hackles in recent days was seeing The Nice Guys, Shane Black’s big crowd-pleasing buddy flick set in the porn world of 1977.  There’s lots that’s charming about its two leads Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, so I assume the film will make big money. According to Forbes’ analysis it’s been doing best with men under 35, ie too young to remember the real 70s. We reviewed it on a recent edition of BBC Radio 4’s Front Row programme, when even the male film critic I went to see The Nice Guys with was the first to point out that an opening sequence in which a porn star is seen lying sprawled and naked covered in blood in a Playboy pose, dying after a car crash was in questionable taste. Every woman in the film is a dim witted porn actress or a villain with a handful of lines. The only major female role goes to a 13 year old tomboy, safely pre-sexual in her adolescence.

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1977 was the year of Charlie’s Angels and Lynda Carter’s 6 foot tall Wonder Woman, of Lyndsay Wagner’s Bionic Woman and Charlie perfume. Feminism was mainstream in popular culture. Even Virginia Slims cigarettes controversially played on a feminist slogan with the line “You’ve come a long way, baby.” So how come women are being airbrushed out of our modern versions of it?

Last Christmas why were parents eager to spend having to point out there no Rey costumes or figurines in shops to tie-in with the release of Star Wars The Force Awakens? (According to Forbes this is apparently because those smart economic growth focused toy executives were limited by their prejudice that only boys buy figurines and they won’t buy girls).

Economic growth might bring down birth rates, but it doesn’t necessarily challenge shameful attitudes to women and girls. And while consumer power might nudge big corporations, only campaigning changes social attitudes. Remember the personal, not just personal consumption, is political.

A version of this article first appeared in The Big Issue magazine – journalism worth paying for. On sale from street Vendors around the UK or subscribe here.

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Bryan Singer on: Chariots of the Gods, Valkyrie, Star Trek & the mythology of X-Men Apocalypse

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Here’s my full interview with the very well-read Bryan Singer on X-Men Apocalypse. We talked the Bible, classic Star Trek, the 60s vogue for theories on space seeding aliens, and why the Holocaust is a presence in so many of his films. You can hear a 5 minute version here from Radio 4’s Front Row:

What would you say is new and to people who may never have seen an X-Men film before?

What’s great about it is that it’s an origin story for so many of the characters. So if you see this movie first, actually, it’ll set up characters in their earlier stages that end up showing up in the earlier films. I’ve actually talked to several people who’ve never seen an X-Men film – this was their first one. And they felt completely comfortable and teased into wanting to go back and visit the other ones. So it’s kind of ripe for that, actually.

This film has more of the Bible and epic mythology about it. I gather a big influence on you was Chariots of the Gods  – this 1968 book about aliens seeding early earth civilizations?

Yes, Chariots of the Gods I read when I was a kid. I rewatched the documentary recently. There’s always something fascinating about that. You know, 2001: A Space Odyssey also touches upon what seeded us. I don’t really address the alien element in the movie, but to me in my own heart there’s something about Apocalypse, who’s the villain of the story, tens of thousands of years ago, that hark back to those texts and those ideas.

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 There’s a classic Star Trek episode – Who Mourns for Adonais? – which you throw in there, [seen playing on a TV set in Cairo] presumably for that reason?

Yes, that’s an in-joke between me and my editor/composer. We’re both huge old Star Trek fans and that story is about aliens believing they’re gods. And one character actually grows in size at the end. So if you recognize that, I’m very impressed you do, it’s a very inside piece of humour inside Storm’s apartment scene in Cairo.

 There’s a retro feel to the whole film. That’s partly the setting in the 80s, but partly a use of costume and makeup rather than CGI. It’s John Dykstra from the original Star Wars who’s worked on this with you. How did you want it to look and why?

I’ve always felt that if a villain or certain characters are CGI the humanity of those actors won’t be able to come out. Even if they are mutants, even if they are Apocalypse, they need to be persuasive, they need to be powerful and connective with the other characters. So to use the right kind of makeup in the right way and merge that with visual effects, to me was important, especially because I am working with such amazing actors.

Glenn Ford - Superman The Movie (1978)

Glenn Ford – Superman The Movie (1978)

 How far is it down to having actors who can do it very seriously. You have people of the calibre of Oscar Isaac, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence – a lot of whom have won a lot of awards – and they’re acting, in some cases, against stuff that isn’t yet there?

I’ve always said since I made the first X-Men film, that acting in these movies is one of the hardest, most challenging tasks in the world, because you are acting to things that aren’t there; you’re trying to take these characters that are so heightened and trying to make them real. And I have to credit Richard Donner for Superman: The Movie because he took a comic book film and cast Marlon Brando, Glenn Ford, Gene Hackman – great, great actors; Chris Reeve – a great theatre actor – and made a comic book come alive for me as a boy. So I just set about doing the same thing when I first cast Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in X-Men 1 years ago.

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 It’s set in 1983 and it’s fascinating to see the way you play on a lot of the fears of the time; nuclear weapons going off, the Berlin Wall. And one of the most crowd-pleasing rescue sequences is set to the Eurythmics’ hit of that era, Sweet Dreams. Were you conscious of wanting to play with the decade that you clearly remember very well?

Yes, I was in high school in the 80s. It was a time of the cold war, a time of a lot of international upheaval, but at the same time a lot of complacency in America. So it was nice to take that era – the palate, the colours of that era – and kind of rough it up a bit and blow it out. And I know that era very well. It was my childhood. This was probably the most fun I’ve had with an era.

That rescue sequence [with Quicksilver] to Sweet Dreams – the most complex and sophisticated sequence in the film took a month and a half to shoot two minutes of film. Time around him stands still, which I based on an HG Wells story I had read many years ago. I set it to Sweet Dreams because the character, because he can move so fast, time stands still for him. It’s all a game, a joy for him.

 I gather you originally saw Xavier and Magneto as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X style archetypes. How did you develop that?

When I first joined the franchise and began making X-Men films I always drew the parallel between MLK who just preaches peace and turn the other cheek and Magneto says no, we have to fight, even use violence if necessary, as Malcolm X at times would preach. Those two opposing points of view make for great frenemies, I would call it, and it also grounds the film in its themes, that the X-Men have always had since the inception of the comic book in 1963 at the height of the civil rights movement. It’s all about tolerance, it’s all about the different, and I never want to lose those themes and they make their way into this movie as well.

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 There’s also a return to Auschwitz and the imagery of Nazism: Men in uniform coming to take parents away from children. The opening attempted assassination sequence reminded me of your film Valkyrie about the 1944 assassination plot against Hitler. Why is this theme so recurrent in your work?

I think for two reasons: One, I’m Jewish and so we’re made aware of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust at a very young age. But secondly I had a teacher, Miss Fiscarelli, who taught a class that went in great depth when I was in high school. And I found the Holocaust, the Shoah, very intriguing and horrific. And it stimulated my interest in the entire Second World War and then entire rise and fall of the Third Reich. And I’ve studied it tremendously. It’s touched upon many films I’ve made from X-Men 1 to this film, to films like Valkyrie or Apt Pupil I did with Ian McKellen and Brad Renfro about a Nazi war criminal living in a neighbourhood in southern California. It’s just something that will always intrigue me and is the stuff of a billion movies.

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 Is there something about the team film that appeals to you, going back to one of your most successful films, The Usual Suspects, with its uncertainty about who is really a friend and who might be an enemy?

As with The Usual Suspects I cut my teeth on the ensemble film and I just got a little addicted to them. I like, first of all, no one being completely what they seem, because that’s just human nature. And also when you’re doing an ensemble film with very many characters to the audience it seems like there’s so much to juggle, but for the filmmaker there’s more for me to cut to. People are intertwined, there’s more story and I love story and I love character and they go first. So even though there’s a lot of action and spectacle in the movie, characters are first. Hence why we have so many great actors.

 A complaint that’s been made about some of the other recent superhero films is that they take themselves so seriously and that in fact, they’re not for young people any more. Your film has some very real visceral violence, up close, but it’s populated by a lot of teenagers. Are you aware and conscious of that dilemma, especially as your generation, born in the 60s, are the ones who grew up with comics and kind of won’t let go of them?

Well, I think today’s generation is very different. A lot of young people have the internet, they have access to different kinds of imagery, they show more on the news, more graphic stuff’s on cable and television. So younger people’s tolerance level is a little different than it was in earlier times, so you can put some of that stuff [on screen]. And a lot of kids are quite frankly, jaded to it. I have a son myself and I have to make those decisions about at what age I’ll let him watch what film and it’s going to be an interesting challenge for me. And even my own films. Which ones will I show him first?

 There are so many team superhero films out there. X Men started it off 16 years ago. Do you ever get annoyed that everyone else has jumped on the bandwagon and that it might create a saturation point?

Well, as long as they all know that they’ve jumped on the bandwagon, then I’m ok! To be honest, what differentiates X-Men from The Avengers or from Batman/Superman – those are all worlds that are populated by specific superheroes. The difference is that in the X-Men universe there’s tens, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of mutants living among us and they can always come up at any time with any measure of powers, and that’s how we cling on to our central theme. And it informs our characters and it informs the scope of our universe, which is every bit as large as the remaining Marvel or the DC universe. I’m very flattered and complimented by fact there are so many comic book films. I just want to make sure, well one, everyone sees this film, even if you’ve not seen an X-Men film, but also that they don’t clutter the [film] theatres where other films that I love to death, like Steve Jobs – I love this movie – or films like that don’t get the theatre play that they deserve. So that’s the yin and yang of the superhero genre. But they are our modern day mythologies. I said that sixteen years ago promoting X-Men 1. I say it today.

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