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On serving on an Old Bailey jury

Published June 22, 2017 by tootingtrumpet

A letter arrives with the dread word “SUMMONS” blazing on garish, John Waters pink paper, screaming its way past the junk and the bills, demanding attention. You scan the key paragraphs, fill in the slip to confirm that you do not fall into the limited disqualified demographics and set aside the advice leaflets that nobody ever reads.

A few weeks later, you make your way to the heart of The City, to the site of Newgate, where crowds would gather to see public hangings (until as late as 1868). Once you locate an entrance door that defines the word “unprepossessing”, clear airport security, prove your identity and register, you ascend to a fifth floor room with which you become very familiar. Part airport terminal, part polytechnic refectory, you find a seat amongst the curiously long rows and stare at a lost world from the time before the franchising / branding / management of such spaces became a globalised, homogenous “customer experience”.

Notices are blutacked on walls, the words formed by letters individually printed, one per sheet of A4, to make up words like “E N Q U I R I E S”. A canteen area offers coffee from a machine, a croissant or two – and I do mean one or two – and an almost heroically limited range of sandwiches, as if it were still 1974. Later, a hot lunch is offered, “choice” limited to three dishes, my old school dinners inevitably brought to mind. It’s not the fault of the staff who multi-task in the way of things today, serving food, taking the money, clearing plates – but quite why a Starbucks or a Pret-a-Manger cannot deliver something a little less 70s I do not know. (One day, I did glimpse the kitchen staff arranging a tray of rather attractive looking asparagus, lightly buttered, but I suspect they were delivered to the Barristers Mess on the other side of the fifth floor).

While court announcements (which we have been told to ignore) blare on the (excellent) PA, staff dedicated to managing juries use a local system that cracks and hisses but, just about, gets the job done. Indeed, that is but one example of the staff’s patience, professionalism and bloody good humour in the face of an infrastructure that shows the impact of The Years Of Austerity – perhaps best exemplified in seats the PVC upholstery of which is held together with gaffer tape (you really have to see that to believe it). For all that, the security guards, the court ushers, the canteen workers, indeed all the staff I met, were a credit to the country.

Though it was barely an hour earlier, the information imparted in the induction is entirely forgotten as you file into a court for selection and avoid eye contact with the defendants. I was one of forty or so candidates for a trial we were told would last up to eight weeks, news that caused an invisible, but perceptible, frisson of excitement to pass through our number. Names were called out and we squeezed past the desks, up to the judge for a whispered conversation and then, more often than not, were recused due to family obligations, holidays booked, hospital appointments. Reasons for standing down did not need to be substantial, but they did need to be real and, after an hour or so of this palaver, we were whittled to 12 + two reserves that soon became just 12 – charged with being a just 12 after swearing in.

Court is assembled every day before the jury enters (and we’re first out come 4.00pm too), so you can’t help but wonder if there’s a Toy Story thing going on with dancing and singing (perhaps a Rocky Horror style party with the Judge as Frank N. Furter and the usher as Riff Raff) that stops the moment we walk in and starts again the moment we leave. It is an eerie experience to file out of the court each afternoon and see it, identical in all details, the next morning. Such fantasies have plenty of time to brew in the long hours of argument.

While the Judge sits on the biggest chair and gets the coolest wig and lots of “Milords” and bows from the barristers and police officers (and the more experienced witnesses, who know the bureaucratic ropes in the same way that Fletch knew them at HMP Slade in Porridge), we sit in two rows like the worst Blankety Blank panel ever. But the Judge is very solicitous of our needs, eying us for signs of fatigue (and there, ahem, a few such in the post lunch watches) and ensuring we can hear the arguments and the words of the more reticent witnesses. There’s an occasional glint in the eye and cutting aside from the Bench that allows just enough humour into what is often a grim, occasionally tragic, show – but those lighter moments serve as an inoculation against a sometimes strong urge to shout or laugh loudly, Tourettishly, as the hours drift by.

There’s jargon of course – there is in any workplace – but it’s genuinely limited as far as we are concerned since explaining matters to the jury is a priority for pretty much everyone involved. There’s a “My Friend” or two in court naturally, and notices around the building are splattered with acronyms, but my favourite bit of inside talk was the Judge’s reference to chats “downstairs”. Yes, you guessed it – “downstairs” refers to the custody cells. When things got a bit heated amongst the QCs – and they did – we were ushered out of court since there were points of law to decide (matters that you wouldn’t want to expose to your wife or servants to I suppose). On return, things were noticeably less fraught, and the ship sailed on.

One of my few talents is an ability to concentrate – six hour adaptations of Shakespeare in Dutch and three hour subtitled Russian epics I can lap up – but one’s mind inevitably wanders a little to the personalities on show and, for all the talk that wigs and gowns divest the actors of their individuality, the people really matter and we get to know their habits and foibles quite well. Because of severe restrictions on what we can talk about with regard to the evidence – every day is akin to the interval on a Press Night with its omertà on discussing the play – so, in the long periods of waiting, we default to talking about the cast.

The avuncular judge gets a good press from us – firm but fair always goes down well. Counsels get mixed reviews, the inevitable verbal and physical ticks revealed over the hours in court provoking amusement and annoyance in roughly equal measures. There’s fun to be had observing the more spiky exchanges that emerge when briefs run cut-throat defences, attacking each other as much as the witnesses. With the stakes as high as they were, the emotional temperature could rise swiftly and unexpectedly, the posh boys getting stuck in for their clients. Some of us enjoyed analysing the relationships between barristers and their hardworking, but usually silent, juniors too – and speculating on how much time it took to tousle out the hair, just so, from beneath the horsehair wig.

That said, the real stars of the show were the witnesses, telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth… or so their oaths obliged them. What a cross-section of humanity were paraded before us! There’s an ultra-professional pathologist, seemingly flitting from one court to another, graphics in hand, his Estuary English accent tempered by education and erudition – a wonderful turn. There were the nervous, the frightened, the hungover, the confident, the aggressive, the submissive, the meek, the bold and the utterly compelling. That last descriptor fitted a pair of brothers, key players in the case, with pasts that might be charitably described as “chequered” (even they admitted that) but the kind of presence that is the product of a charisma given to few. It was plain to me how they could easily have made successes of many walks of life – The Bar for one – but the dice had rolled differently. That said, if Guy Ritchie is pitching another one of his Lock, Stock follow ups, casting directors need not look too far beyond this pair of likely lads.

We’re not always in court of course, and not always in the waiting room. The halls and corridors of The Old Bailey form a warren of ill-described rooms and spaces, one ideal for parkour boys to glide, vault and slide through – indeed, a film of such an escapade would open up the whole stuffy environment beautifully, humanising the harsh wooden panelling and hard marble floors that turn the brightest of summer days an autumnal grey. Tall people are everywhere – some police of course – but I’ve never seen so many stiletto heels this side of a production of Chicago. Must be a thing.

Outside court, I mused on how things had changed, yet had not, as a group of builders, carapaced with hi-vis jackets and lots of training, carefully avoided flirting with a group of mollish women, all push-up bras, lycra-based fabrics and spiky shoes, waiting for their men to complete evidence inside or be released on bail from the dock no doubt. The jury box can be a grim and silent space too, so I enjoyed the good humour and smiles at Coco di Mama across the road, whose wonderful staff stood me a valedictory cappuccino on the house when I told them it was my last day.

I have a letter now that offers a free pass for ten years if I am called to serve again, but I doubt that I’ll use that er… Get Out Of Jail Free card. Not only is jury service an important civic duty, it’s also a longstanding check and balance on the powers of the three pillars of government: Legislature, Executive and Judiciary. And, if court proceedings aren’t quite as packed with razzmatazz as they were in medieval times when The Assizes would come to town trailed by jesters, jugglers and pickpockets, there’s still plenty enough to entertain and inform. But one should never forget – and it never was, not even for a minute of my eight weeks or so as a juror – that lives are being weighed in our hands and that justice, expensive, slow and cumbersome as it is, is very much worth the whole crazy show. 

A bientôt, rather than farewell, to the Lady with the Sword and the Scales.

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The Politics of Mad Max

Published May 17, 2015 by tootingtrumpet

guernica3When I first saw Mad Max, it seemed straightforward to my teenage eyes: a revenge movie, like the Charles Bronson vehicle, Deathwish or, more upmarket, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Yet it also seemed both less than those films (and their many imitators) since the exposition was perfunctory and the characterisation minimal; and also more, because we could fill in so much of the movie’s morality ourselves. The MM1 has something of Picasso’s Guernica about it, a montage of images through which violence is mediated, the impact not so much linear (as in narrative) but holistic (as images connect, then slide away). It helps that the film is remarkably beautiful to look at, every shot soaked in an exotically other Australianess that is also present in another violent movie that is much more than it appears on the surface, Chopper.

But what of Politics of Mad Max seen with eyes now 34 years older? Much has been made of Mad Max: Fury Road’s lead character, Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, a woman who, like Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, would not take it any more. She doesn’t attempt to assassinate the President – instead she makes a break for a mythical rural idyll with his most prized possession: five women (The Wives) who look like they’ve wandered in from a Helmut Newton shoot (and, along for the ride, two men). One of those is Max himself, looking after Number One as usual, but more explicitly buying into Furiosa’s dream than he did Pappagallo’s in MM2. This may be the softening of Max’s heart by the recognition of a kindred spirit in Furiosa (and lest we forget, her extreme beauty, though he is unmoved by Newtonish models after a first lustful look), but it’s also an important clarification of Max’s motives as they have developed from MM1 through MM2 to MM:FR.

MM:FR is firmly fixed in the dystopian novel / film genre, but it is not nihilist in its depiction of its world. Not only does Max edge towards Furiosa’s idealism, Nux, the would-be suicide bomber, is also won over (perhaps a little too glibly) to Furiosa’s cause by the gentle hand of one of The Wives (and, a little, by his own disillusionment with his brainwashing). This may be just another re-working of John Lennon’s “All You Need Is Love” but it’s an important message about the redeemable nature of human beings, one all the more important in an age of religion-inspired terrorism when even a court in Boston can calmly sentence a man barely out of childhood to be executed by the State. The left-leaning viewer can have their qualms about MM:FR, but can also relax knowing that the film is, at the very least, open to an interpretation with which they can be comfortable.

MM2 is the most conventional of the three films under discussion (click here for my reviews of MM1 and MM2 and MM:FR), a conventional tale of a town under siege needing heroic sacrifice to be saved. The good guys are recognisably modern democratic people, fighting anarchy not with greater anarchy or authoritarian clampdowns, but with the solidarity that a shared and decent culture brings. The key question is whether you believe that Max knew what he was doing when he offered to drive the rig in the final chase – I suspect he did, seeking redemption for his failure to protect his own child in MM1 by saving the Feral Kid, with his music box (the music box reappears in MM:FR, a nice touch). Again, a message that the politics of the Left (if not the politics of pacifism) can feel at ease with.

Which brings me back to MM1 – is it just another yarn about a vigilante standing in for a state that was too weak to protect his wife and kid? There’s plenty that says yes, including the greasy lawyers getting the bad guys off and the overwhelming outnumbering of the police by the crazies. But is there also a reluctance too, an absence of joy in Max’s retribution, a longing for the domesticity that has now gone forever, casting him out into the Outback, shutting out the bad dreamtime as much as he can? This is not the tease of “Do you feel lucky punk?”, it’s a hollowed out man, finding a way back to himself.

Well, maybe – but perhaps a leftist sensibility can only enjoy MM1 as a guilty pleasure – as it does American Sniper and many movies (and the novels of Evelyn Waugh and much else). Not so MM2 and MM:FR. For all the uber-violence, these movies bear messages that support a leftist Weltanschauung. Pleasures without the guilt.

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis – reviewed

Published August 25, 2014 by tootingtrumpet

photo posted on post-gazette.comTwenty-five years or so ago, ordering a beer in a Prague cafe, my bad German attracted the attention of the only other English speaker in town, an American, and we got talking. I wasn’t intending a trip to Poland, that slab of plain so unfortunately flung between Germany and Russia, because I had no visa, the London Embassy needing more time and money than I had found convenient. But, following the American’s directions to an upstairs office nearby, ten dollars bought me the entry documentation and I was off on the sleeper to Warsaw and on to Krakow.

Two days later, an old train rattled over the lines left unbombed to Auschwitz. There was no sense of ghoulish tourism then, barely a tourist in those rickety carriages, so I was relieved to fall in with a couple of Dutch guys with whom I shared beers and jokes, imagining the Olympic Games staged like an early round of Miss World in traditional national dress (they didn’t fancy their chances in the 100 meters – the clogs you see). We reached the small rural railway station in laddish good spirits and a handful of us disembarked, the air still, the clouds pushing down a little, the station quiet. There was a guide and we listened respectfully to her introduction as we walked towards the gates, wondering whether they were Soviet impostors or if they had somehow survived all, all… that. The path’s gravel crunched under our sandals reminding us that we had some dominion over this awful space, but, as we entered the nearest building, words wouldn’t form in our mouths and and we could hear only our guide’s soft voice as we read the multilingual labels on the display cases of false teeth, walking canes, children’s shoes. Soon she joined our silence and nothing was said – nothing could be said.

We bore witness to the blocks in which men, women and children were invited to shower in rooms with floors that had no gullies, no drains, no water – but we had long since been overpowered by the scale of the camps, the banality of its evil, the collapse of the comfortingly abstract into something terribly tangible. We sat on the steps of, what, some building or other and still said nothing. Or rather, still could say nothing. Words, language, thoughts even had run out – insufficient to do the job they had done for 25 years or so. One of us eventually broke the stillness and we walked, heads bowed a little, back to the railway station to catch the return train. That evening, we played pool, sank a few very cheap beers and tried to chat up the local girls, but our hearts weren’t in it. We made our farewells and the Dutch lads headed towards Berlin, while I made for Budapest. 

Weaving in and out of The Zone of Influence, Martin Amis’s novel set in a thinly disguised Auschwitz, is the same problem I had – what can language do when set against this vast depravity? Amis feels compelled to write about the Camp, but feels equally compelled to acknowledge that the subject exhausts language, exhausts understanding, exhausts explanation – indeed, exhausts even the question of whether it is explicable at all. What emerges is an unsatisfactory, disgusting book that it also moving and thrilling, worthy of its sources (including, read halfway between my first and now my third “visit” to Auschwitz, Primo Levi’s heartbreaking If This Is A Man).    

Amis gives us three narrators, all with familiar, if re-energised, Amisian voices, their accounts overlaying each other, as events are described by each of them in turn. 

Golo Thomsen is the nephew of Martin Bormann, an photofit Aryan if not quite a photofit Nazi, who uses his connections to cover the fact that his ardour is more directed towards the Fatherland’s big, busty Mädchen than the Fatherland’s thousand year destiny. Thomsen is educated, an intellectual and a cynical exploiter of what comes across his path – until his eye falls upon Hannah Doll, the kind of woman who looks like she might, just might, serve foaming steins of bier in a keller, but is actually the apparently demure, much younger wife of Paul Doll, the Camp Kommandant. 

Doll is the second narrator and a classic Amisian man: small (in every sense); unintentionally funny; drunk on power. His voice drives the narrative forward simultaneously revealing the horrors he supervises mediated through euphemism and a 180 degree skewed perspective, so twisted that even a fanatical dullard like Doll has cause to question. He gets most, if not quite all, of those signature Amis sentences that fizz off the page provoking a guilty laugh, the author catching you again in that smartarse’s net he has used since The Rachel Papers. How about (Doll at an opera) – “It wasn’t like the last occasion, when I became gradually immersed in the logistical challenge of gassing the audience”. BANG! There’s more, a lot more, like that – unspeakable crimes spoken of in the argot of the put-upon middle manager.

The third voice is that of Szmul, a Polish Jew in charge of the processing and disposal of thousands of dead bodies. Intelligent and sensitive, these two traits serve both to keep him alive, as he continually makes himself too valuable to kill, and to torture his soul, as he wrestles with his guilt at not fighting back and his desire to ensure that his story is told. His compromises reach their inevitable endpoint when he sees one of his teenage son’s childhood friends heading for the shower block and intervenes to call in “a favour”.

Other characters, factual and fictional, turn up in the narratives, as the War slides away from German control after Stalingrad, but the Camp is the fixed point of the novel, a crushing, cruel, incomprehensible site of the application of industrial logic to psychotic ends. In an Afterword, the author writes of the impossibility of identifying why the Holocaust was not just prosecuted, but prosecuted with such fervour, to the very end, the Camp lasting longer than the Reich itself, smashed and overrun, its demise long expected, not least by its wretched architects.

By the last page, Amis, like me and the Dutch lads a quarter century gone, has run out of language, explored all the places words can go, exhausted all the accounts of the unaccountable. He has left behind a book that jars the reader with its appalling humour and its sickening scenes and reminds us – not least because German, the language in which the Final Solution was framed, sits so close, so uncomfortably close, to English, the means by which we, a we that has unimaginable military and industrial power at our disposal, explains and manages the world. The Camps may be bounded by the iconography, the politics and the social conditions of Europe in the first half of the 20th century – but not the men. Thomsen, Doll and Szmul walk amongst us – they always have and they always will.

Going to Sea in a Sieve The Autobiography by Danny Baker – Review

Published October 27, 2012 by tootingtrumpet

Nobody’s going to argue with that Dan!

If you can conjure a working class, smart and savvy Bertie Wooster, then you can conjure Danny Baker. Sure it’s hard to do (perhaps only the man himself can really pull it off) but his autobiography makes the task much easier. As ever with The Candyman, the mosaic of anecdotes, jokes and “rib-tickling plays on words” leaves little for us other than to sit back and raise a chuckle, a skeptical eyebrow and (occasionally) one’s entire self up to applaud the sheer brio of the man.

His idyllic inner-city childhood, stacked as high as a 70s Fine Fare’s baked beans display with dangers, poor role models and the exhilaration of innocence treasured then swiftly foregone, overflows with details of dreadful delights. Here our man describing his best friend’s Maltese father – “Smoking roll-ups the circumference of an ant’s leg, he would throw his arms wide and jabber at us kids about urgent world events as though he had stumbled across us playing chess in the Jardin du Luxembourg”. There’s classic Baker right there – the Wodehousean simile, the perfectly chosen verb jabber, and the startling geographical and cultural shift from a Bermondsey estate to the lee of the Eiffel Tower.  How he’ll hate the Ph.D theses that will, if they haven’t already, cite his work.

Baker’s father dominates these early years (and later years too, if less insistently). Something of a whirlwind that could blow good or ill, he was a docker, a ducker and diver and a dream to be on the right side of. There’s plenty of the self-sufficiency of working class life built on mores forged in the war(s) resulting in the shared (though never codified in religion, law or (especially) regulations) mysterious sense of right and wrong. Petty fraud, backhanders and bunce oiled the wheels of an economy that everyone had an interest in preserving – except the growing ranks of those for whom order was as strong a drug as disorder was for the likes of Baker (père et fils) and plenty more on “the estate”. Fans of our man’s radio work will be familiar with some of the stories, but how could anyone tire of the antics of the Bakers’ dog, who would surely have been a more natural TV personality than even its loving master. For all the joy bouncing out of the text, there’s some darkness too – regrets about incidents at school in which he was associated, if not complicit, and (later) impatience with the bone-headed nihilism of a punk rock audience.

As you could do in the 70s, Baker simply walked out of school before sitting any exams, in order to seek his fortune by (essentially) being Danny Baker. Already having mastered the art of knowing enough to know when to reveal that one is knowing and when to withhold such information (extremely useful for a working class lad mixing it with middle class girls and gays), he inherits a job in the hippest of record shops whose customers include those who would be described these days as ITK and stars (and superstars) of the explosion of British musical talent between Woodstock and Westwood (Vivienne). Surrounded (and trusted) by a gay subculture, he learned the invaluable lesson of running multiple personalities for different situations, and how intensely attractive it was to girls in the 70s (and in the 80s too, believe me) to hint at a little gayness in one’s own make-up, despite its total absence. He effected a tour-de-force in becoming “David Essex’s brother” as a time when such a connection was a very hard currency in the dating market.

From there, it’s on to music fanzine, Sniffin’ Glue and the NME where his smart-arsery fitted, even if his disenchantment with punk and instant dismissal of worthy intellectualism didn’t. I read NME cover to cover about that time and can still recall treatise like Paul Morley’s on The Police but I also loved the silly stories (many simply made up by Baker to amuse himself and the other writers) and the dazzling captions and headlines (at over thirty years distance, “Are Trends Eclectic?”  above a review of Tubeway Army’s first hit has the stamp of Baker all over it and is still brilliant). There are tales of being on the road with Ian Dury and The Blockheads, Darts and Sham 69 and (of course) the famous encounter with Michael Jackson before, just as London Weekend Television hoves into view with wheelbarrows of cash for you guessed it, being Danny Baker, the book finishes. There’s one allusion to “the next book”, so we’ll have to wait for the telly, the radio and the football, of which there is almost nothing in this volume, but we’ll probably wait in vain for the chemo – which is how it should be.

With expectations high (how I would love to have Baker’s knowledge of popular culture, his command of language and fearless self-assurance in the value of a working class upbringing – in fact, I do have all that, just not to that extent) – Going to Sea in a Sieve is just a tinge disappointing. Sure it’s full of laugh lines and wit, but there’s little really new for Baker’s hordes of devotees. His father is portrayed in glorious technicolor, but many other characters who would surely benefit from the Baker treatment, are somewhat skated over, cast too quickly as walk-ons in the biopic. It’s not the man’s style to stick the knife in and I wasn’t expecting an Angeresque “Bermondsey Babylon”, but I’d happily have read a slab of 532 pages, if we could have had double the word count on Nick Kent, Kosmo Vinyl and dozens more who come and go so quickly on and off the page.

No doubt some will be irritated by the writer’s disregard for the hypocrisy of typically English self-effacement (though he does reveal more insecurities than I expected) and others will bridle, flinging the book down with a “Well, it’s all right for you to say that” indignation at his attitude to the acquisition and disposal of money, but, as became evident when he announced his cancer, Baker is, whether he likes it or not, a national treasure.

I’ll be buying Volume II the moment it’s published.

Spartacus Vengeance – the half term report card.

Published March 3, 2012 by tootingtrumpet

Iconic!

Spartacus (Liam McIntyre) – Now a politician more than a man of action, he spends most of his time making speeches and slaying Roman foot soldier. Liam does what he can with the part, but he lacks the charisma and acting prowess of the much-missed Andy Whitfield (who said so little and communicated so much). The character’s weakness in in his distance from his direct enemy (Glaber), now that Batiatus is scheming in the afterlife. Maybe that’s for the best – Spartacus’ main task so far has been in getting off camera and allowing the other characters to grow.

Gaius Claudius Glaber (Craig Parker) – Still overly reliant on a glassy stare and a biting of the lip to portray his impotence, the up close and personal murder of his father-in-law may herald a much-needed replacing of words with deeds. Glaber and Spartacus need to be in the same space sooner rather than later, lest we lose interest in them, as their friends’ and enemies’ travails drive them out of our attention.

Crixus (Manu Bennett) – Progressed from a brawling beefcake into the most interesting of all the franchise’s characters and owner of one of television’s iconic moments, unforgettably tapping his shield to beckon Spartacus to his leap to the pulvenus in “Kill Them All” (2.20 here). Now caught between those whose feelings towards him remain confused, Oenomaus and Lucretia, separated as ever from Naevia and with Ashur’s enmity greater than ever, Crixus has but his honour, his loyalty and his judgement of people to get him through each day – for he, unlike Spartacus, is no politician. Probably the only actor to appear in every episode of the three Spartacus’ series, Manu Bennett’s performance is immense, no matter how much high-minded critics’ prejudice blinds them to it.

Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) – Unbowed despite the carnage wrought in her home when Spartacus freed the slaves, Lucretia is playing a long game in her plan to bring down Illythia. The cleverest of the Romans, she ruthlessly exercises her ability to manipulate everyone who comes into her orbit. Her weaknesses are that she may have found her match in collaborator / survivor Ashur and that her feelings for Crixus bubble rather closer to the surface than she would like. Though not as funny as her dead husband, Batiatus, she makes up for it in villainy. Lucy Lawless, superb in both previous series, has had little to do so far – but has done it very well indeed.

Illythia (Viva Bianca) – As impetuous, ambitious and cruel as ever, Illythia’s plans are still being thwarted by her lack of understanding of human nature – because she thinks only of herself, she cannot see how her actions will affect others and, crucially, how they will behave as a result. Saw off the miserable challenge of the underwritten Seppia (Hannah Mangan-Lawrence) for the affections of Varinius (Brett Tucker) with exactly the right level of glee and is being sucked into Lucretia’s web through a typically arrogant acceptance of Lucretia’s power gained by her (apparent) soothsaying line to the Gods, dangerously failing to accept Lucretia’s greater intelligence. Viva Bianca continues to look like a greek statue, but perhaps overdoes the swinging between simpering coquettishness and blazing-eyed anger, with little in between.

Oenamaus (Peter Mensah) – Only the dazzlingly realised character of Crixus keeps Oenamaus from being the main focus of Vengeance. Like Manu Bennett, Peter Mensah has turned a cookie-cutter role into one packed with pathos. Suddenly vulnerable having been tricked by Ashur into giving away Spartacus’ intentions and having had his rigid belief in honour shaken by the messiness of life outside the ludus, his home since adolescence, the second half of Vengeance will see Oenamaus torn by dilemmas.

Ashur (Nick Tarabay) – Like the snake he is, he wriggles and wriggles and frees himself from any danger through cheek, wit and his unmatched capacity to play one off against the other. Nick Tarabay has crafted a wonderful anti-hero (how can you not admire Ashur, even as he disgusts you?) who knows confrontation with Oenomaus and Crixus is coming, but knows too that he can do work for Lucretia and (even) Spartacus that might purchase his survival.

Mira (Katrina Law) – Travelling the same path as Crixus from eye candy to compelling character, Mira is warrior, strategist and lover. The moment is coming soon when Spartacus’ feelings for her will overcome his desire for as many hands as possible to be in a fight… and I think we all know what Mira will do when told to stay at home and do the ironing. Rising in seniority and likely to clash soon with lieutenant to Spartacus, Agron.

Agron (Dan Feuerriegel) – Having disposed of Barca too quickly in Blood and Sand, it’s a smart move to have resurrected the character (and Barca’s lover Auctus) in the persons of Agron and Nasir. Strong-willed and having shown himself willing to defy Spartacus and Crixus, it’s unlikely that Agron will toe the line for the rest of the series. He did not bear witness to Ashur’s treachery in the mines, a fact that won’t have escaped the astute Assyrian.

Gannicus (Dustin Clare) – Despite looking like Randall Flagg from the television adaptation of The Stand, Gannicus has become much more interesting now he wearies from fighting and takes refuge in women and the bottle, like a Capuan George Best. Is due a pivotal reckoning with Oenomaus, as two men not quite broken by their own despair and with much to offer Spartacus, may be forced to find an accommodation on the run.

Lucius (Peter McCauley) – A Roman making common cause with Spartacus… or Roman willing to sell out Spartacus to the highest bidder? We’ll soon find out.

Overall report – Vengeance has much that attracted viewers to Blood and Sand, primarily its ultra-strong set of central characters brilliantly cast and acted. It misses Batiatus’ humour and the language isn’t as spectacularly inventive as in either of the previous series, perhaps through familiarity. With the producers having much more money to spend, it is a more cinematic product, grittier and more realistic in its presentation of the mines for example – but it unapologetically retains its video game aesthetic – and why not? As there was at the half-way point of Blood and Sand, the stock of characters includes many whom we can expect to go from marking time to moving the plot forwards. We can also expect new characters to be introduced weekly. Betrayal will come – but where and what will be its price?

 

My review of Gods of the Arena is here.

Spartacus – Gods of the Arena

Published April 26, 2011 by tootingtrumpet

Look, but for God's sake, don't touch.

Spoiler alert!

One of the great television treats of 2010 was Spartacus – Blood and Sand. Actually, no. One of the great television treats of 2010 was watching Spartacus – Blood and Sand develop from something akin to the adverts for shoot-em-ups that I inadvertently see when watching football, into something more like (and I kid you not) “I, Claudius“. With a hit on their hands, Starz prepared to gear up for franchise status when news of Andy Whitfield’s cancer broke. Without the mighty Spartacus, what to do? Starz’s answer was to give Andy some time and make a prequel – hence Gods of the Arena. (Andy is doing okay, but the sequel will be filmed with Spartacus played by Liam McIntyre).

“Gods” tracks the ascent of the House of Batiatus, as it rises with the new arena being built in claustrophobic, clammy Capua by ruthless businessman Tulius. Its sand is destined for gladiators from the ludus of his pet lanista Vettius – or so they think. Fans of “Blood” will welcome the return of its aesthetic – and you really do have to buy into the violence, the painterly, almost impressionistic, sets and speech littered with oaths, both Anglo-Saxon and cod Latin. The fights are even more choreographed – balletic – and the script, though more wordy than in “Blood”, is still beautifully stilted – Romans almost certainly did not speak like that, but you wish they did.

“Blood” rose above the merely impressive to magnificent by virtue of its characters’ development from cartoonish stereotypes to fully rounded men and women, whom you loved and hated. “Gods”, despite its title, is more concerned with the citizens than the gladiators and slaves, so the distance traveled is shorter, but there’s plenty of fine work from John Hannah (Batiatus) burning with ambition, but unable to contain his thuggish temperament (think Coleen with Wayne’s personality). Lucy Lawless (Lucretia) is as good as ever – protective of her husband and genuinely concerned for the well-being of her slave-girls – but utterly ruthless. Amongst the citizens, Jeffrey Thomas (Titus) is brutal as Batiatus’ father, his stubborness forging the son into exactly the man he does not want and Craig Walsh Wrightson (Solonius) is magnificent as the cowed, but learning, lanista on the make.

All good so far – but it is within the walls of the ludus that “Gods” sells its characters short. Lesley-Ann Brandt (Naevia) is allowed little more to do than a biting of the lip, in stark contrast to her wonderfully judged performance in “Blood”. In similar vein, Manu Bennett (Crixus) reverts to the grunting brute of the first half-dozen episodes of “Blood” and Nick Tarabay (Ashur) is confined to a ball of resentment with little sign of his Machiavellian scheming behind those darting eyes. Dustin Clare (Champion of Capua, Gannicus) was always going to suffer in comparison to Spartacus himself and I’m afraid he came across too much like a cross between a WWE wrestler and Randle Flagg from the TV miniseries of Stephen King’s The Stand. I found myself unable to care much about the fate of any of the gladiators of “Gods” – and I think I actually loved Varro in “Blood”! The exception is Peter Mensah (Doctore) given the scope to work his sergeant-major up into a sympathetic man that his performance in “Blood” so deserved. Like the citizens, we see exactly how he became the man who cracked the whip at Spartacus.

So good, but not great, would be my verdict with more expected of the sequel next year. In the meantime, Spartacus – Blood and Sand is rerun in the UK on Sky One from Monday May 2 (10.00pm). Don’t miss it – and don’t turn off after four episodes, because it’s only then that it soars like a (Roman) eagle!

Epics on two wheels

Published December 31, 2010 by tootingtrumpet

It is no secret that the sport of cycling is a favourite of this correspondent and that the pain inflicted by Pantani’s, and, especially, Miller’s and Hamilton’s drug abuse (amongst many others) is still keenly felt. Over the last twenty years, first with the brilliant pairing of Sherwen and Liggett on Channel 4 (now ITV 4), then with the acquired taste of the eccentric, sometimes overweening, occasionally deeply moving David Duffield of Eurosport, I had come to treasure these three weeks as a highlight of the sporting year (indeed in odd years, the highlight). Add to that the Classics (especially the Belgian “Hard Man” races (Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Rund van Vlandareen), a crazy world championship race and a smattering of true characters (Chippollini, Pantani, Chiapucci, Durand, LeMond, Fignon, Lance, McEwan, mad Frankie Vandenbroucke, lately Boonen), the sport had a lot going for it. To top it off, pro cycling isn’t an easy watch – it takes years to learn the jargon, understand the tactics, judge the players – so you became part of a secret brotherhood who knew the difference between hunger knock and choosing 39 21 instead of 42 19. Even the drugs I accepted as part of the absurd denial of human frailty pro cycling demands – so long as it wasn’t too much…

And then a vulnerable genius (Pantani) and two educated, articulate, cosmopolitan cynics (Hamilton and Miller), allied to team managements deeply implicated in systematic drug use, turned me away from the sport, and I cancelled my subscriptions to both “Cycle Sport” and “Procycling” (for years I literally couldn’t get enough!)But the last two days, Stages 16 and 17, reminded me of what I’m missing.

Wednesday saw Floyd Landis blow in a manner that a Formula 1 car blows when the smoke pours from the gearbox and the driver coasts to the pits off the racing line. 11 minutes went, as well as morale and belief (more important in a Grand Tour than any other sporting event). I was heartened, as this was racing as it was in the mid-Eighties, when a bad day was a disaster, rather than losing twenty seconds in the last kilometre and when riders yo-yoed on an off the groups on the climbs as they put in efforts and recoveries, rather then just efforts and more efforts – it seems the clean-up at last is working. Rasmussen, a pure climber, won the Reine Etage in the grand style and reminded me of Luchio Herrera, my first great stick-like hero in the mountains. Floyd suffered horribly.

As I settled at 7.00pm for the ITV 4 highlights package tonight, I smirked as Landis claimed that he would go for the stage – “You’re for the broom wagon mate” I inwardly said. Once underway, I, in common with Phil and Paul, couldn’t understand what Landis was doing as he set off alone on the first mountain of five brutal climbs in the cauldron of a French July. I thought that even a Yank would know that the live television coverage would only really start on the second last climb, so it wasn’t even worth doing for the publicity.

The gap widened and the bunch bickered about who would work – even the dreaded earpieces failed to sort out an alliance to chase, and my jaw dropped lower and lower. Floyd was going on a epic ride and pulling it off. And, the other side of the beast that is the Joux-Plane (the only mountain to trouble post-cancer Lance), Floyd, afloat on a sea of adrenaline, rode over the line and into favouritism for the Maillot Jaune on Sunday. At 9.00pm, I watched the whole lot again on Eurosport just to be sure it happened.

It’s almost certainly my sporting highlight of the year even if Landis falls off tomorrow: but if he wins on Sunday, it’ll be one of the all-time great sporting comebacks.

And I’m falling in love again…

(Written in the immediate aftermath of Landis’ extraordinary ride in July 2006 – I wasn’t in love for long).