Top ten 1914 campaign slogans which were never used

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1. Don’t worry! It’ll all be over by Christmas!  (1918)

2. Do your bit for Britain! Hang a dachshund today!

3. Girls love a man in uniform! It won’t just be the horses they’ll be throwing themselves under!

4. Slow down Fritz! Leave some nuns for the rest of us!

5. Britain first! Defend the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha!

6. Join up! (You’re statistically more likely to die of Spanish Flu afterwards than be killed anyway).

7. Your Country Needs You! Best poetry entrants win.

8. It’s something to do with an Archduke getting shot. That’s all I know.

9. Fight for Britain and accelerate the rate of imperial decline.

10. Come on! Those deserters aren’t going to shoot themselves you know!

WARNING: Butterflies are a protected species. Any soldier on either side who is seen attempting to catch one before the cessation of hostilities, risks an immediate death penalty.

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Is Gravity a science fiction film?

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I was surprised by some of the online reaction to my recent blog entry “Could Gravity be the first science fiction film to win the Best Picture Oscar?” It wasn’t so much that people disagreed whether it would win or not. Indeed, I am not really expecting it to win myself (12 Years A Slavery currently looks like a safer bet). I was more surprised that some disagreed that Gravity was even a science fiction film in the first place.
This seems odd and my initial thought was that respondents were exhibiting the odd sort of snobbery which often bedevils the genre. Even Canadian author Margaret Atwood has in the past denied that her futuristic novel Onyx and Crake. Even though, it is.
Definitions of science fiction do vary quite dramatically, however, so let’s think about this.
Gravity centres on a major accident in space. In this, it resembles Ron Howard’s film Apollo 13. But Apollo 13 is clearly not science fiction as it is based on real events. The same goes for the film of Tom Wolfe’s astronaut themed The Right Stuff. The fact that both are also set in the past does not matter. Science fiction can be set in the past. Consider the early scenes of The Time Machine or even the Star Wars films which are all set “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”
In the loosest sense then Gravity is constructed around a fictional science themed scenario. It is not clear whether it is in the future or the present. However, it also features astronauts dying in space. This has never actually happened, thankfully. A total of seventeen people died in the Apollo 7 fire and Challenger and Columbia explosions but none of these were actually in space. It seems likely that had any Cold War Soviet space missions ended in fatalities, we would now know about them.
This pushes Gravity further into the realm of sci-fi. One respondent cited the fact that the film is “all too plausible” as evidence against it being science fiction. This is silly. Much of the best sci-fi, such as the recent film Contagion, depicting a devastating apocalyptic plague, is very plausible.
One thing my blog totally failed to anticipate, however, was that another science fiction film Spike Jonze’s Her, would also get nominated for Best Picture. Good luck to them both.

In defence of Blackadder

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The year 2014, as every schoolboy knows, marks an important anniversary. It is twenty five years since the final series of perhaps the best British sitcom of all time, Blackadder: Blackadder Goes Forth.

It is a shame then, that some have used another anniversary (the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War) to attack the much loved series.

Unpopular Education Secretary Michael Gove is only the latest to do so, launching a broadside at the sitcom during a wider attack on “left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders” in The Daily Mail.

“The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite,” Mr. Gove has written.

Gove seems to have thrown Blackadder into the attack almost as an afterthought. Blackadder is not , after all, a “drama”. Watching the series again, it is difficult to understand what he is on about.  It is hard to see where, for example, he feels Blackadder “excuses Germany of blame” for the war.

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Presumably, he is unhappy with the portrayal of the real life Field Marshall Haig by Geoffrey Palmer in the last episode. At one point, Haig is shown callously brushing “fallen” toy soldiers off a replica battlefield with a dustpan and brush. The Education Secretary also doubtless dislikes Stephen Fry’s portrayal of the buffoonish General Melchett.

“We’re right behind you!” Melchett reassures Baldrick (Tony Robinson) as he sets off for the Front.

“About thirty five miles behind you,” Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) responds dryly.

Gove points to new revisionist histories which he says paint both the role of Haig and the merciless slaughter of the Battle of the Somme in a new light. But it is unfair to attack Blackadder for this. Not only were these new interpretations not around in 1989 when the series was made but they are highly questionable anyway. Gove argues that the Somme which occurred in 1916, more than two years before the end of the war in November 1918 can now be viewed as a “precursor to victory”.

It is worth remembering that on the first day alone of the Battle of the Somme, British fatalities alone were close to twenty thousand, seven times the entire number of deaths from the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. And not a single British General died on the Somme.

Although the Daily Mail has captioned pictures surrounding Gove’s words with phrases like “Captain Coward” for Blackadder himself, this is unlikely to be a view shared by many who viewed the programme. The series, of course, ends with all the main characters charging wilfully towards death on No Man’s Land. They know they are probably going to die, but proceed anyway. What on Earth is cowardly about that? Gove argues that: ”For all our mistakes as a nation, Britain’s role in the world has also been marked by nobility and courage.” Nobility and courage? Don’t the deaths of Captain Blackadder, Lieutenant George, Captain Darling and Private Baldrick perfectly exemplify these qualities?

Attacking popular culture rarely works out well for politicians. Michael Gove’s botched attack on Blackadder is no exception.

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Could Gravity be the first science fiction film to win the Best Picture Oscar?

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Today sees the announcement of this year’s Oscar nominations. But with all the questions raised by this year’s unusually strong field of contenders (12 Years A Slave, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street and Philomena amongst them), one question remains more tantalising than any other: could  Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity becomes the first science fiction film to secure the coveted Best Picture Oscar?

It would certainly be a first. For while sci-fi films have been the recipient of countless technical and science fiction awards, the genre despite (or perhaps because of) the big box office it has generated, has generally been viewed with lofty disdain by the Academy of Motion Picture, Arts and Sciences throughout its eighty five year history.

Even the advent of higher quality sci-fi at the end of the Sixties changed little. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes (both 1968) went unrecognised in the Best Picture category. The latter was even based on a novel by Pierre Boulle, the French author who had previously penned the source material for the multi-Oscar winning Bridge on the River Kwai. But it was all to no avail. Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange was nominated in 1971, although its science fiction content was generally overshadowed by controversy over its violence.

Then, in 1977, a new hope. Star Wars was nominated for Best Picture. True, it was beaten for the main prize by Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (a fairly unusual case of a comedy winning. This has only happened three times since). But with sci-fi entering a new period of high quality in the next decade (Ridley Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner and James Cameron’s Aliens and Terminators), did this mean the genre would finally receive its due?

Alas, no. the Eighties was also a period in which the Academy went out of its way to award worthy films (Amadeus,  Out of Africa, Driving Miss Daisy) rather than those that were necessarily entertaining. Sigourney Weaver got a nomination for Aliens. But nothing from the genre has won since.

What has changed? Well, for one thing, 2004 saw the final part of the Lord of the Rings saga, The Return of the King carry off the Best Picture statuette. No, that is not a science fiction film and yes, Daniel Radcliffe is right to complain none of the Harry Potter films were ever nominated in the big categories for anything. But it feels like a start.

Then, in 2010, James Cameron’s blue creatured 3D space epic Avatar came tantalisingly close to Best Picture glory, only for gritty (and, frankly, overrated) Iraq drama The Hurt Locker to seize the crown.

Also, we seem to be enjoying another era of high quality sci-fi courtesy of The Huger Games films, Ender’s Game and Elysium.

And finally, Gravity has received a wealth of critical acclaim rarely bestowed on a film of the science fiction genre. Even Alien and Blade Runner never received such praise at the time of their release.

Whether Gravity ends up carrying off the greatest prize at the awards ceremony in March, or not, it has certainly struck a blow for this critically unsung genre. We shall have to wait and see.

House of Cards Vs. House of Cards

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The new Netflix US version of 1990 BBC drama House of Cards has met with widespread and deserved critical acclaim. But how does it compare to the original series by Andrew Davies, itself adapted from a novel by Michael (now Baron) Dobbs? (Expect spoilers).

The essence of the story is the same. In the UK version, Tory Chief Whip Francis Urquhart (the late Ian Richardson) is denied a cabinet position after a broken promise by incoming Prime Minister Henry Collingridge. Using young journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) as a conduit, Urquhart plots revenge and begins a steady rise to power. In the US version, House Majority Whip Frank (or Francis) Underwood is angered after the new President Walker retreats from a pre-election promise to back him as his nominee for Secretary of State. Journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) plays a similar role to Mattie in the original.

The original series was set in what was then the near future. Collingridge succeeds in a leadership contest following the fall of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (in fact, Thatcher fell while the series was being broadcast, a fortunate stroke of timing as it made the series hugely topical). The US version is simply set in an alternative 2013 in which Walker is president instead of Obama.

The US version is about three times as long as the UK one and includes a number of new storylines. Blogging, instant messaging and other 21st century innovations also play their part.

Underwood is a southerner, perhaps making him feel like an outsider. The north/south divide has no real equivalent in UK politics at least not in the same way, largely due to the American Civil War.

Urquhart is from an extremely privileged background which in 1990 was reasonably unfashionable for a prospective Tory leader (Heath, Thatcher and Major all came from quite humble backgrounds while Douglas Hurd was harmed by a perception that he was “posh”). Class plays less of a role in US politics and Underwood is, in stark contrast, from a very poor background.

Underwood is a Democrat, not a Republican as one might expect (the US Republican Party is closer to Urquhart’s Tory Party than the Democrats are). Perhaps this is simply to give the show extra contemporary resonance as the US currently has a Democrat president.

Although Urquhart’s wife plays an important supportive role in the British series (and even more so in the follow ups To Play The King and The Final Cut), Frank’s wife Claire (Robin Wright) plays a far greater role in the Netflix series. There is a strong Shakespearian vein running through both versions. Both Ian Richardson and Kevin Spacey had backgrounds in Shakespearian theatre.

Frank Underwood is actually a very different character to Urquhart and much more obviously ruthless from the outset. Urquhart conceals his true aims behind a veil of false modesty. Underwood speaks more crudely than Urquhart too but with a sort of eloquence reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson.

The wry asides to the audience remain, however. Underwood even waves to the audience during President Walker’s inauguration ceremony.

The relationship between Underwood and Barnes has a more overt sexual undercurrent from the outset. This could be because of their use of instant messaging or simply because Barnes is a more flirtatious character than Mattie Storin was. It could also be because Underwood appears much younger than Urquhart did, making a relationship seem more credible from the start. In fact, in the actor Kevin Spacey was only three years younger than Ian Richardson was when he performed the role (Richardson was 56 in 1990, Spacey was 53 in 2013).

The president barely appears in early episodes of the US series. Underwood complains he is not present at the meeting in which he is denied promotion. In the British version, Urquhart meets Collingridge frequently.

The affair between Congressman Russo and his staffer no longer has an interracial dimension as that of his equivalent Roger O’Neill did in the UK series.

“You may very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.” This catchphrase remains. Essentially, as an answer to a direct question, it is a euphemism for “yes, you are right”.

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