The end of the 20th century was a fascinating time for American cinema. The directors, Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, Bryan Singer, Todd Solondz, Paul Thomas Anderson, M. Night Shyamalan, Spike Jonze and Alexander Payne all emerged and began to make a serious impact as filmmakers in this period, alongside talented Britons such as Sam Mendes and Stephen Daldry. Quentin Tarantino and the Australian Baz Luhrmann had only made their feature debuts a few years’ earlier. Into this heady mix came Sofia Coppola with her adaptation of Jeffery Eugenides’ novel, The Virgin Suicides in 1998. Viewed from the perspective of a quarter of a century on, the film, a moderate indie hit at the time, now looks like one of the most assured directorial debuts ever made.
The Virgin Suicides is the story of the Lisbon girls, the five blonde, beautiful daughters of a strict Catholic family (their parents are played by Kathleen Turner and James Woods) living in the leafy, sunny suburbs of Grosse Point, Michigan. It is set in the 1970s, the decade of Sofia Coppola’s own childhood, a period roughly as distant from the year this was released, 1998, as the year 1998 is now from the present day. It is also the story of the local boys who watch the Lisbons’ unfolding tragedy from afar. We never get to know these boys well in the film. One of them, voiced by the actor, Giovanni Ribisi serves as the film’s narrator.
Of the Lisbon girls, we mostly get to know, Lux: a girl with an oddly bohemian Christian name for someone from such an apparently conservative family. Lux is played by Kirsten Dunst, then still a few years’ away from her success opposite Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man trilogy although even then was, as she remains today, the most well-known of the actresses to play any of the Lisbon daughters. Lux embarks on a brief affair with local teenage stud, Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett). This proves to be a mistake. We later meet the adult Trip (now played by Michael Paré) who, twenty years on, never seems to have got over the experience.
As we live in an age of trigger warnings, it seems only fair to point out that the title, The Virgin Suicides is almost entirely accurate in reflecting the film’s subject matter. Despite this, I have personally never found it to be especially gloomy or harrowing. It is beautifully filmed and has a nostalgic dream-like quality fuelled by its soundtrack provided by the then-fashionable French electronic music duo, Air.
Before 1998, Sofia Coppola was best-known not only for being the daughter of filmmaking legend, Francis Ford Coppola but also for her awkward acting as Mary Corleone in 1990’s The Godfather Part III, replacing Winona Ryder at the last minute in her father’s movie. Although her performance was uneven, critical anger over this apparent nepotism saw her unfairly pilloried with many using her as a scapegoat for a belated sequel that was disappointing anyway. Happily, since 1998, she has become the acclaimed director of a total of seven films. By far her biggest hit was her second movie, Lost in Translation (2002). The film transformed Bill Murray’s career and made Scarlett Johansson a star.
The Virgin Suicides
Available on Blu-Ray, DVD and for the first time in the UK on 4K UHD & digital on 13 March 2023.
Before there was J.K Rowling, indeed, before even Roald Dahl, there was Enid Blyton, the most successful children’s author of the 20th century.
Few writers have been as popular or as prolific. Emerging from a childhood marred by her beloved father’s decision to leave her mother for another woman, Enid, born in 1897, wrote an astonishing number of books between the early 1920s until she developed dementia in the 1960s, The Famous Five, Secret Seven and Noddy series amongst them. Not everything went smoothly for her. Her first marriage failed and she has been accused of treating her own children coldly and her books have been accused of being variously racist, sexist and formulaic. This fine book tells the whole story, Big Ears, naked tennis matches, lashings of ginger beer and all.
The Real Enid Blyton, by Nadia Cohen. Published by: Pen & Sword History. Available: now.
At some point after Stargate but before the Star Wars prequels came Starship Troopers. The most underrated science fiction film of the 1990s made landfall across Earth in 1998. Would you like to know more? Join Chris Hallam as he goes on a bug hunt…
A war correspondent in full futuristic military uniform reports straight to camera from a battle scene. His location is on one of the bug meteors in the Klendathu system, whose deadly inhabitants, the giant insectoid Arachnids have been launching a series of devastating attacks on the Earth.
“It is an ugly planet! A Bug Planet! A planet hostile to life…” he states before he is brutally attacked mid-rant by one of the Arachnids. He does not last long. As if personally insulted by his harsh words about its home world, the monster proceeds to tear him apart in full view of the camera
“Keep moving! Get out of here NOW!” a passing mobile infantryman – in fact, our hero Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) warns the cameraman – and thus in true B-movie style, us. Soon afterwards, another soldier and the cameraman are also attacked by the same creature. So, begins 1997’s science fiction romp, Starship Troopers, directed by Paul Verhoeven and based on Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 novel of the same name.
MAN VS BROOD
It’s a familiar story. Boy meets girl. Boy joins the Federal Service, where despite the opposition of his wealthy parents, he becomes a ‘Roughneck’ i.e. an infantry man. The girl becomes an ace space pilot, but living an entirely separate life, soon breaks up with the boy.
Okay: admittedly this isn’t a familiar story. It doesn’t really matter. For this is just the beginning. Soon the lives of Johnny and Carmen (Denise Richards) are transformed by the devastating war which erupts between the humans and the Arachnids. The various entanglements between, say, Johnny and fellow Roughneck “Dizzy” (Dina Meyer) soon fade into insignificance as the film becomes increasingly focused on the devastating physical confrontations between man and alien.
Or perhaps we should say “person vs alien”? For despite being directed by Paul Verhoeven, the man who brought the world Basic Instinct and Showgirls, the society in Starship Troopers is refreshingly lacking in prejudice based on gender or, indeed, race. Only the fictional species of giant killer insectoid aliens are treated badly. And criminals. And cows.
This liberal attitude extends to a scene in which many of the cast (including Dina Meyer) stripped off in front of the camera, for a unisex shower scene. Somewhat apprehensive, the young cast reportedly only agreed to this, if director Paul Verhoeven agreed to get naked himself while filming. Verhoeven, then overweight and fast approaching sixty was happy to do so. Thankfully, no images recording Verhoeven’s gesture seem to exist.
Actress Denise Richards who played Johnny’s initial love interest Carmen was crucially absent from this scene: in fact, her character was elsewhere, and it would have made no sense for her to have been involved. This did not stop the film and others such as Wild Things (1998), Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) and the Bond film, The World Is Not Enough (1999) launching Richards’ career as a major film star and sex symbol of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Neil Patrick Harris – then, best known for his early 90s teenage TV role as Doogie Hauser MD – plays Carl, the gang’s slightly geeky friend, who ultimately turns out to be psychic. Harris would achieve stardom only later. Today, it is he and Richards not Van Dien, Meyer or even established characters like the late Rue ‘Blanche from Golden Girls’ McClanahan and Michael Ironside, who are easily the most famous people in the entire film.
Has Starship Troopers dated? “Hell! Yes Sir!” Some of the CGI inevitably looks less impressive now than it did at the time. And while fighting aliens in space is still very much the stuff of science fiction, a viewer today in the ae of Zoom, would be forgiven for not noticing that Carmen’s electronic conversations with her long distance boyfriend, Johnny, were anything unusual when the film was made in the 1990s.
None of these things matter. For at the end of the day, watching Starship Troopers remains an enjoyable experience. The scenes of warriors doing battle as vast hordes of Arachnids can be seen teeming over the horizon remain exhilarating, exciting, gory and fun.
The film is also immeasurably boosted by the series of short, sombrely narrated state propaganda films supposedly created by the ruling regime which appear throughout. Presented in the style of Allied Second World War newsreels, while also attempting to deploy internet type technology (the web was still young in 1997), these somehow manage to seem both old-fashioned and futuristic at the same time.
They are undeniably intentionally funny but also give us a taste of the kind of society, Johnny Rico and his friends have grown up in. It is a society which is comfortable with child soldiers and which (like the modern USA) is perhaps a little bit too relaxed about preventing its children from getting their hands on guns. It is a society in which criminals are flogged and executed not just publicly, but on live TV. It is a society in which children are urged to stamp on harmless domestic spiders by war-mad teachers driven into a frenzy by government propaganda. And as we learn early on in Johnny’s civics class, it is a society where citizenship and the right to vote are not awarded automatically, but have to be earned.
The human society in the film, Starship Troopers live in an Americanised fascist state.
The question is, is this what creator Robert A Heinlein would have wanted, either for a film based on one of his books or for human society itself?
THE STATE THEY’RE IN
One day, in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands of the early 1940s, one member of the occupying forces decided to play a cruel game to pass the time. He pointed his gun at a small boy. The boy was naturally terrified and had wet himself publicly before the Nazi stopped.
The boy was Paul Verhoeven. And he never forgot it.
More than fifty years later, he directed Starship Troopers, a film which seemed to confuse many reviewers. Some (for example, the late Jeff Vice) seemed to miss the fact that it was set in a fascist state completely. Others did recognise this, but assumed Verhoeven was endorsing fascism.
The celebrated critic Roger Ebert gave the film two out five. “Starship Troopers” is the most violent kiddie movie ever made. I call it a kiddie movie not to be insulting, but to be accurate,” he wrote, clearly deliberately insulting it. “(Verhoeven) wants to depict the world of the future as it might have been visualized in the mind of a kid reading Heinlein in 1956.” The book was actually first published in 1959. Scott Rosenberg, writing in Salon was disappointed for different reasons. It “lacks the courage of the book’s fascist conclusions.”
Let us be clear: there is no doubt whatsoever about Verhoeven’s anti-fascist intentions in the film. Nor is there any doubt that the society he and screenwriter Edward Neumeier conceived is sufficiently right-wing to be considered fascist. The military are completely dominant. There is little evidence of democracy. Corporal and capital punishment are in use. The characters’ uniforms sometimes look fascistic in design too. By the end of the film, Neil Patrick Harris practically looks like a member of the Gestapo.
The satirical elements in the film are intended to give the viewer pause for thought, drawing attention to similarities between the US and this ultra-right-wing state.
On the other hand, it is easy to see how some people might get confused regarding the film’s attitudes to fascism. For one thing, as mentioned, the very worst aspects of fascism: the extreme racism and persecution of minority groups do not seem to exist here. Unlike every other Far Right state everyone seems refreshingly progressive when it comes to gender and race. The girls and boys fight … and shower… side by side. Even though many of the girls suffer excruciating deaths as they are impaled by Arachnids at least, as they do so they can take comfort from the fact that they are doing so on equal terms with the chaps.
It also must be said that things do seem to function pretty well in the world of Starship Troopers. Everything seems to be almost perfectly set up to counter the Arachnid threat. One wonders if a more democratic, less military society would be so well prepared to combat an alien menace, particularly if they were more constrained by inhibitions over gender and race.
Actor Michael Ironside, played high school teacher turned Roughneck unit commander, Jean Rasczak recalls being puzzled by Verhoeven’s attitude.
“Why are you doing a right-wing fascist movie?” He asked. Verhoeven replied: “If I tell the world that a right-wing, fascist way of doing things doesn’t work, no one will listen to me.” He continued: “So, I’m going to make a perfect fascist world: everyone is beautiful, everything is shiny, everything has big guns and fancy ships, but it’s only good for killing fucking Bugs!”
Many fans of the book had another objection to the film. They didn’t appreciate the implication that Heinlein was a fascist at all. It seems unlikely Heinlein would have appreciated that label either. However, he had died in 1988.
If the novel and film of Starship Troopers are very different, it is perhaps not surprising. The director hadn’t read the book.
“I stopped after two chapters because it was so boring,” Verhoeven admits. “It is really quiet a bad book. I asked Ed Neumeier to tell me the story because I just couldn’t read the thing.”
Starship Troopers represented something of a turning point for Heinlein as he moved from juvenile to adult fiction. There are quite a few differences between the book and the film: there is a lot more technical detail about the troopers’ suits and Heinlein’s years of naval experience are clearly in evidence in the text. But there’s no getting away from politics: Heinlein was, in fact, motivated to write the novel after being inspired by his anger over the moderate Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower’s decision to suspend nuclear testing in 1959. A leftist in his earlier days, by the 1950s, he was clearly firmly on the Right with many of his characters’ words clearly reflecting his own conservative outlook.
The words, “There are no dangerous weapons; there are only dangerous men,” seems like an early formulation of the National Rifle Association’s famously inane but resonant slogan, “guns don’t kill people: people do”. Heinlein is critical of the concept of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and clearly advocates the notion of citizenry and the right to vote are earned through service and combat. He clearly advocates flogging of juvenile delinquents, using a strange analogy about a puppy to illustrate his pointy. His character, Dubois says of the 20th century: “that period was loaded with pre-scientific pseudo-psychological nonsense…half of it fuzzy-headed wishful thinking, half of it rationalized charlatanry.”
It is easy to forget he is writing in the relatively placid USA of the 1950s. Heinlein may not have literally been a fascist, but he certainly had tendencies in that direction. Had he lived to see it, he may not have liked the implication that the society in the film version was fascistic, but it seems unlikely he’d have disagreed with much about how the society functioned in the film.
On the plus side, the book shows few obvious signs of racism at all. This is reasonably unusual for an American book of the mid-20th century and very much to Robert A Heinlein’s credit.
THE RETURN OF RICO
The years rolled by. Robert Heinlein’s status as an author steadily increased. By the time of his death in 1988, the man behind Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress was regularly ranked as one of the “Big Three” of English language science fiction authors alongside Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. The year 1978, meanwhile, had seen a teenaged Sarah Brightman release the single, ‘I’m In Love With A Starship Trooper’ with Hot Gossip. The following year saw The VCs debut in British comic, 2000AD. Unlike the pop song and as he freely admitted, Gerry Finley-Day’s strip clearly owed a lot to Heinlein’s novel, Starship Troopers.
In the 1990s, a script entitled Bug Hunt At Outpost Nine began to circulate. The script was similar enough to Heinlein’s 1959 book that a decision was to buy the rights and adapt it directly. Paul Verhoeven, the man behind the original science fiction blockbusters, Robocop and Total Recall was hired to direct.
Although not a flop, Starship Troopers underperformed at the box office. Had it been a success, it might well have become a major movie franchise. This may yet happen there is serious talk of a reboot and a script has been written. As it is, there are sequels (see the box out) but none made it to US cinema screens.
As it is, 25 years on the film looks better now than it did at the time. It’s true the acting is sometimes ropey – witness Denise Richards’ sudden dramatic recovery from apparent serious injury in the film’s closing scenes – but the film’s depiction of a militaristic American national security state anticipates the struggles of the next decade (the US not fighting Arachnids but Iraqis) and the arguably fascistic tendencies of the Trump Administration (2017-21).
As Paul Verhoeven says: “It’s a very right-wing book. And with the movie we tried, and I think at least partially succeeded, in commenting on that at the same time. It would be eat your cake and have it. All the way through we were fighting with the fascism, the ultra-militarism. All the way through I wanted the audience to be asking, ‘Are these people crazy?’
BOX OUT: HEROES, MARAUDERS AND TRAITORS..
At last! All those spin-offs and sequels in full…
Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles (1998-1999): A 36-part CGI animated TV series. Paul Verhoeven was executive producer and featuring characters (although not the voices) from the film such as Johnny and Dizzy. Ended after being beset with Bugs…er… I mean production problems.
Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation (2004). TV film sequel scripted by the original film’s screenwriter Edward Neumeier (who also wrote Robocop). Richard Burgi, later of Desperate Housewives stars as Captain V.J Dax. Two-word review: it’s bad.
Starship Troopers 3: Marauder (2008) Casper Van Dien returns as Rico in this straight to DVD effort directed by Neumeier. Perhaps slightly better than Hero of the Federation, but not by much.
Starship Troopers: Invasion (2012) and Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars (2017) Japanese computer animated films. Surprisingly, Van Dien and Dina Meyer both reprise their roles from the 1997 film in the second of these, Traitors of Mars.
Remember, remember: Charles and Camilla (Dominic West and Olivia Williams) enjoy the fireworks
John Major is the first living British prime minister to have been portrayed in The Crown and in real life, the man Major is not happy about it. A spokesman for the 79-year-old former premier has attacked the show as “a barrel-load of nonsense peddled for no other reason than to provide maximum – and entirely false – dramatic impact.”
The thought of a fully enraged elderly Major should be enough in itself to make even the toughest of the tough quake in terror. But, in all seriousness, Major’s anger seems unwarranted. His portrayal by Jonny Lee Miller is sympathetic. He is depicted as the loyalist of the loyal. Imelda Staunton’s Queen even praises him for his years of service. What is more, the many problems of his troubled administration are largely glossed over. Unlike Macmillan (Anton Lesser) whose wife’s long affair with another politician, Lord Boothby was shown in Season 2, Major’s 1980s affair with colleague, Edwina Currie is never even hinted at. In truth, Major’s fury seems to have been inspired by newspaper claims that he is shown actively plotting with Prince Charles (Dominic West) against the Queen, something which never happens in the series at all.
His premiership did, however, coincide with many of the most troubled moments of the Queen’s reign. In this episode, for example, we get to relive the embarrassment of ‘Tampongate’ in which a sexually charged private phone conversation between Charles and Camilla (Olivia Williams) from 1989 in which the future King fantasised about being a tampon inside the future Queen Consort is released in the 1990s.
Surprisingly, this conversation is reproduced in a way which makes it less excruciating than you might expect. Looking back, we can see now that they were just two fortysomethings in love. They were very unlucky indeed that their phone chat is intercepted by an amateur radio ham who records it and takes it to the tabloids after recognising Charles’s distinctive voice.
Charles actually comes across well for much of this episode, his attitudes and outlook on many issues in the 1990s now looking way ahead of their time. He is even shown breakdancing at one point something Dominic West naturally looks much cooler doing than the real Charles ever did. He comes across less well in his interview with Jonathan Dimbleby claiming he was faithful “until it became obvious that the marriage couldn’t be saved.”
Diana (Elizabeth Debicki), now separated, knows this account is less than honest. Stealthily, she considers her counter move.
Stand down Margaret: The Princess (Lesley Manville) faces up to the truth
Did you know the Queen’s sister once very nearly married James Bond?
Well, okay, that didn’t exactly happen. But in this episode, the Queen’s younger sister, Princess Margaret (the brilliant Lesley Manville) meets up with her first love, retired equerry, Group Captain Peter Townsend. And he’s now played by Timothy Dalton, who once famously played 007. You see what I mean? Dalton was, in fact, still officially cast as James Bond in 1992 the very year this episode was set. For all that matters.
It’s all quite poignant. As depicted in The Crown: Season 1, the official refusal to allow the young Princess and the divorced Group Captain (then played by Vanessa Kirby and Coupling star Ben Miles: both seen here in flashback) effectively wrecked poor old Margaret’s life. He went on to marry someone else, happily and successfully. She married too: disastrously, leaving her bitter, boozy and resentful. However, here they get to meet one final time. This apparently did happen but not in quite the way it happens here. Margaret is left shaken not stirred as he woos the living daylights out of her (apologies).
There’s some more dramatic licence here: we see Townsend listening to Margaret being interviewed by Roy Plomley on Desert Island Discs as if this occurred, like the rest of the episode in 1992. In fact, as all true BBC Radio 4 fans will know, that particular episode was broadcast in 1981. Plomley died in 1985, in fact, so it is rather surprising to see him still alive seven years’ later.
Anyway, it becomes clear there is still some lingering tension between the Queen (Imelda Staunton) and Margaret over the issue although this all seems to be resolved by the end of the episode. Lesley Manville is great as ever as Margaret. You have to wonder if she was ever considered as a possible option to play the Queen herself
Talking of which, the Queen has a lot on her plate this time. Royal divorces are like buses. You wait ages for one and then three come along at once. First, Anne (Claudia Harrison) wants to remarry after her divorce. This provokes anguished complaint from Margaret. If she can do it, why couldn’t I? In truth, the situations are not actually identical. Anne is the daughter of the Queen not her sister. Anne is also the divorced one in this instance, not her proposed husband. Margaret has also now been permitted to get divorced herself and could presumably remarry if she wished. Margaret also was given the option of marrying Townsend if she was prepared to relinquish all claims on the throne. That said, none of these points are brought up here and Margaret is certainly justified in feeling aggrieved. For the record, Anne’s second marriage to Vice Admiral Timothy Laurence has now lasted for thirty years. It is the most enduring of any of the six marriages entered into by the children of the late Queen Elizabeth II.
Next up, the now disgraced Prince Andrew (James Murray) announces his marriage to the toe-sucking Fergie is over (no, not the football manager or the one from the Black Eyed Peas). Worst of all, the once and future king, Charles (Dominic West) confirms his marriage is over too. Then Windsor Castle burns down. If the 1990s was the worst decade of the Queen’s reign, then 1992 was the worst year. Perhaps of her entire life.
This prompts the famous Annus Horribilis speech in which the Queen admits that 1992’s been as Francis of Assisi might have put it “a complete and utter shitshow”. The Queen Mother (Marion Bailey) objects to the speech: in a touching scene Philip (Jonathan Pryce) and the Queen defend each other. None of the conversation apparently really happened. It doesn’t really matter: the speech undeniably marked a shift away from the stiff upper lipped attitudes of the past towards the “I feel your pain” approach of the post-Diana era.
It’s that man again: Di (Elizabeth Debicki) meets Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Dau)
One of the fun things about The Crown is that you never know when or where each episode is going to start from. You would sort of expect each show is going to start with a caption reading ‘Buckingham Palace, 1991’ or something predictable like that. But, in practice, it’s just as likely to read, ‘Berlin, 1940,’ ‘Amsterdam, 1664,’ or ‘The Planet Osios IV, Alpha Centauri, 8162.’ (I’m exaggerating a little here. Very few episodes of The Crown are actually set in Deep Space).
This time, we open in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1946. Where is this heading? Alex Jennings makes a welcome return cameo appearance as a visiting middle-aged Duke of Windsor before we realise this is The Crown’s introduction to the crazy world of the Al-Fayed family. We witness the birth of Dodi and as the years roll by, we witness his over-sexed father Mohamed’s attempts to establish himself in British society and the resistance he encounters due to a combination of genuine doubts about his character and the usual snobbery and racism. We see him (well played by Salim Dau) buying Harrods and his and Dodi’s (Khalid Abdalla) often overlooked successes within the British film industry. According to this, they actually watched the filming of the famous opening of Chariots of Fire, a sequence once memorably described by Roddy Doyle as “a bunch of tossers running across a beach.”
We also learn of Mohamed’s apparent obsession with the by then deceased ex-King Edward VIII. He employs Sydney Johnson (Jude Akuwudike) a former black valet to the onetime monarch and see him buy Edward and Wallis’s former home. All true enough apparently. In real life, Mohamed Al-Fayed is now 93. I wonder what he makes of all this?
Anyway, later he attempts to meet the Queen (Imelda Staunton) at a racecourse but is charmed by Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) instead. He likes to be called “Mou Mou.” Dodi meets her briefly for the first time too although it’s not quite the thunderbolt moment we might have expected. Dodi says little to her and Di doesn’t really seem to notice him. This is the only time they meet during this series of The Crown.
Do you know Linda Schuyler? No? Fair enough. Neither did I. We’ll try again: do you remember The Kids From Degrassi Street and Degrassi Junior High? As a child of the 1980s, I dimly remember seeing both of these series on British TV. Just about. There was a lollypop man who was shouted at? A voiceover in which a father gradually revealed to his son that his mother would never return from hospital? An East European girl trying to find her feet in the USA? The theme music was quite melancholy. I remember the sequel, Degrassi Junior High being livelier and punchier. I dimly remember learning the phrase “stereotyping” after hearing it used on one episode and a storyline about a snooty girl who forced her younger brother to keep their relationship secret from everyone else in the school. Even the teachers didn’t know they were related, which seemed odd. But that’s about all I remember. It was a long time ago. The show was a very big deal in its native Canada (and elsewhere) and endured in various forms (Degrassi: The New Generation etc) long into the 21st century. The film director Kevin Smith was a big fan. And, no, I’m not going to explain who he is. He’s properly famous. Look him up! Anyway, Linda Schuyler, a former teacher created and oversaw the whole Degrassi Empire. She has lived an interesting life – a life of car accidents, marriages which have failed, marriages which have been successful. Not to mention the heady world of Canadian TV politics. The book would benefit from being trimmed a bit. There are a few too many flashbacks. But overall, it’s a good story and Linda Schuyler knows how to tell it.
Di another day: The Princess (Elizabeth Debicki) spills the beans.
Bad news for fans of Imelda Staunton’s Queen Elizabeth II: she’s barely in this episode at all, appearing only fairly briefly at the start and again towards the end. She is, for the most part, Queen Unseen. Queen but not heard.
Never mind: instead, we get lots about Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) and old Phillip (Jonathan Pryce). Diana is hanging out a lot with her fried, Dr. James Colhurst (Oliver Chris) who acts as an intermediary between her and author, Andrew Morton (Andrew Steele) as she provides first hand material for his sensational warts-and-all biography of her, Diana: Her True Story.
The Duke of Edinburgh, meanwhile, is indulging his love of carriage-riding with family friend, Lady Penny Knatchbull (Truman Show actress, Natascha McElhone). Yes, you heard me: carriage riding. Apparently, this isn’t just something people in 1820 used to do, but a genuine hobby which rich people like to do today: restoring and then riding about in old carriages. Each to their own, I suppose.
But hang on a mo! Lady Penny is much younger than the old Duke and very attractive. Does the Queen not mind about this? Well, fear not, it all seems to be perfectly innocent. The two do achieve a genuine sense of intimacy, but not in a rude way. In a sudden burst of story, Penny does reveal to Philip what Di’s been up to. Philip is annoyed and arranges to meet with Diana and gives her a friendly warning. Don’t rock the boat, he says. And, for once, he doesn’t mean the Royal Yacht, Britannia.
But it’s too late to cancel the book now and anyway Diana doesn’t want to. This seems to mark the point where Diana goes rogue.
Live and let Di: The Prince and Princess (Dominic West and Elizabeth Debicki) go on fighting the Cold War.
It’s 1991 and the political situation is very, very different from how it is today, in November 2022.
Hard as it is to imagine now but back in 1991, Britain had been under the same Conservative government for twelve long years. I know, right? With the economy slipping into economic recession, the Tories had forced out their unpopular woman leader and replaced her with the man who until recently had been Chancellor of the Exchequer. The new Prime Minister was the youngest one so far of the entire century. So, as you can see: nothing like the current state of affairs at all.
But never mind all that, where’s the Queen?
Well, the series opens with a supposed bit of newsreel footage showing the Queen attending a ceremony marking the commissioning of the Royal Yacht Britannia back in 1957. Older readers will remember that for the first decade of her reign, the young Queen was played by the actress Claire Foy and this is the case here. The flashback ends with Foy’s Queen staring, horrified into the middle distance as if she has foreseen the images which appear in the next scene where she has transformed into Imelda Staunton. We first see Staunton’s monarch enduring the banal necessities of a routine medical examination. We are now in the 1990s and like Staunton herself, the sovereign is now supposed to be in her mid-sixties.
Of course, we already know the real problem isn’t with the Queen herself (spoiler alert: she lives for another 31 years) but with her children, three of whom are about to divorce, almost simultaneously. A frisky Princess Anne (Claudia Harrison) is already eyeing up the local talent while Charles (Dominic West) is doing his best to preserve the public face of his desperately unhappy marriage to the much-loved Princess Diana. Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki does a great job of replacing the also excellent Emma Corrin in this challenging role, often displaying a remarkable physical resemblance to the late Princess of Wales. But by this point, the marriage is clearly already doomed, wrecked by Charles’s affair with Camilla and by the fact they obviously have absolutely nothing in common.
The onetime Trainspotting actor, Jonny Lee Miller plays Britain’s Prime Minister, John Major. Major mostly sits quietly while lots of people talk at him in this episode. It is not really made clear whether this is because he is supposed to be naturally inscrutable or because he is keeping quiet because he senses he is out of his depth. Prince Charles, in this, seems to be plotting to encourage the Queen to abdicate and waffles vaguely and attempting to draw vague parallels with the decision to replace the ageing sixty-something Thatcher with the male forty-something Major. Princess Margaret (Lesley Manville) typically attempts to embarrass Major socially. Diana and the Queen are more polite to him. Sadly, there is no repeat of the scene in the Chris Morris comedy, The Day Today, in which the Queen and Major have a full-blown fight during their weekly audience together.
The story so far: Against all the odds, ordinary London girl and granddaughter of King George V, Elizabeth Windsor has risen to become Her Royal Highness, Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. Having seen off many perils during her first forty years on the throne including her wayward, drunken sister, Margaret (Vanessa Kirby/Helena Bonham Carter/Lesley Manville), unstable palace intruder, Michael Fagan (Tom Brooke) and non-U-turning, ex-Europhile, Iron Lady, Great She Elephant, Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), she now faces her greatest enemy of all: HER OWN CHILDREN. Can the Queen resolve the mystery of the Annus Horribilis? Can this series avoid overlapping with the storyline of the film, The Queen, also written by Peter Morgan nearly twenty years ago? And can the Queen work out why after nearly thirty years as Olivia Colman, she has now suddenly turned into Imelda Staunton? For the answers, read on…
Drama Queen: Actress Imelda Staunton takes over the reign/reins…
This book is advertised as being based on “the struggle which inspired Game of Thrones.” This is sort of true, but also very misleading. You certainly won’t find any dragons or ‘white walkers’ in this account. On the plus side, the ending is arguably rather more satisfactory. The Wars of the Roses are the name given to the dynastic struggles which engulfed England in the second half of the 15th century. When studying the wars, it is important to remember two things: a) the wars were really not about flowers at all. The role played by botany in the conflict has been greatly overstated. b) they were essentially a struggle between different armies led by different men called either Henry, Richard or Edward, who were all vaguely related to each other. 1399: Henry Bollngbroke overthrows and kills Richard II and becomes Henry IV, the first king of the House of Lannister, sorry, I mean, Lancaster. Nobody minds much at the time: Richard was a tyrant. But this leads to problems fifty years later… 1450s: By now Henry IV’s grandson, Henry VI is king. Although a good man, he is weak and sometime insane and has effectively lost the Hundred Years’ War to France. He has also fallen out with his old ally, Richard of York who can claim royal descent from the earlier Richard II. Richard rises against Henry. The wars begin! 146os: Richard of York gave battle in vain. He is killed at the Battle of Stoke in 1460. But his son, Edward overthrows Henry VI a few months later. Edward IV becomes the first king of the House of Stark. I mean, York! 1470s: Edward annoys his old ally, the Earl of Warwick (actual name: Richard) known as ‘the Kingmaker’ who teams up with the old Lancastrian bunch to reinstate the now completely mad Henry VI. This doesn’t last long: Edward IV reclaims the throne. Warwick dies in battle. Henry VI is discretely killed off. 1480s: Edward IV dies suddenly. His son, Edward V is now king but is still a boy. Edward IV’s brother places Edward V and his brother (another Richard!) under ‘protection’. The two young ”princes in the tower’ are never seen again. Gloucester becomes Richard III and depending on your view was either good or evil. Two years’ later, Lancastrian exile, Henry Tudor defeats Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. Richard is killed and ends up being dug up in a 21st century Leicester car park. Henry is married to Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth of York theoretically uniting the warring Houses of York and Lancaster. The wars, in practice, continue for a little while longer but as far as 1485 goes, Henry VII is enshrined as the first Tudor king.
Kate Atkinson is a good writer. She tends to write two types of novel: powerful historical ones depicting 20th century life like Behind The Scenes at the Museum or Life After Life and griping crime thrillers featuring her hero, Jackson Brodie. Her new book is pretty much a combination of the two: a crime drama in a period setting. Basically, it focuses heavily on the ups and downs of a fictional major crime family in a world still reeling from the devastating impact of the Great War in the 1920s. It’s a bit like the recent TV drama, Peaky Blinders but much lighter and funnier than that was. It also alternates between York and London. Essentially, it’s an enjoyable read which satisfy Kate Atkinson’s legions of fans as well as anyone new to her work.
Welcome to the world of Kitty Collins. Busy London socialite. Instagram influencer. Wholesale murderer.
She has her reasons, initially only slaying men, almost accidentally at first who she chances upon and who crucially behave very badly in the course of their everyday lives.
We all know the sort. The married man who sleazes over younger women on a drunken night out. The bastard who ghosts her friend after their all too brief relationship with the “clingy” female gets too “serious” for him. Or any number of the gropers, potential rapists or misogynists who walk our streets, drink in our pubs, dance in our nightclubs, vote in our parliaments, work in our offices and sit in our homes on a daily basis.
Less sinister than Dexter and with more fashion sense than Norman Bates, Kitty soon finds herself addicted to this sort of morally righteous brand of killing, finding it provides a real sense of purpose to her otherwise rather shallow social media orientated existence. But with a potential new boyfriend looming on the horizon and an anonymous stalker taunting her with threatening messages, can Kitty really go on killing men and getting away with it forever?
Author Katy Brent has created a marvellous anti-hero here in this wonderfully compelling first novel. Certain to be made into a TV series or film soon, this is a British American Psycho for the 2020s, but somehow a lot more accessible and certainly a hell of a lot more fun.
Published by: HQ Digital. Available on ebook now and in book form on 16 February 2023.
For as long as England has existed, there have always been a brave and stubborn minority who have been prepared to stand up and challenge the existing order in the hope of changing people’s lives for the better. That, in essence, is what this collection of essays is all about. Where would we be now if the barons had not risen against King John, leading to Magna Carta? Or without Wat Tyler and the peasants who revolted against the tyranny of Richard II in the 14th century? Or without the Civil War which briefly unseated the English monarchy and beheaded King Charles I in 1649?
In truth, some of these English rebels and revolutionaries were more effective than others. Wat Tyler’s rebellion, for example, appeared to achieve very little at all at the time, but it did at least show that the common people could stand up and rise up against the King. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Richard II was overthrown forever not long afterwards.
But, we should always remember, history is not about things staying the same. It is all about change. And every one of the rebels and revolutionaries described in this book, played some part in transforming England from a medieval feudal tyranny into the democratic constitutional monarchy of today.
Happy birthday, Harrison Ford! The Hollywood legend is eighty years’ old as of July 13th 2022. Here are some ideas as to how he might have spent the day…
10am: Harrison wakes. Calista is already up and away. Ford resumes work on his draft script for Witness II: Back On The Wagon.
10.30am: Morning stroll. Ford spots Tom Selleck standing outside his house. For a laugh, he decides to shout: “Hey, mister! Were you Indiana Jones?” When Selleck turns round, looking confused, he says, “No! I didn’t think so!” and walks off chuckling to himself.
11.30am: Back at home, Ford is bored. He wonders about recreating the famous boulder scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. He pushes one of Calista’s exercise balls down the stairs experimentally and almost hits the cat.
12.30: After lunch, Ford decides to wind up Selleck again. “Magnum! MAGNUM!” He shouts. When Selleck responds, Ford waves a Magnum Ice Cream at him and says, “You should try one! They’re great!” Selleck shakes his fist at him.
1pm: On returning home, Ford is disappointed to find the Magnum has now melted so much, he can no longer eat it. This is a shame as it was a Double Caramel and they only have a Dark Chocolate left in the freezer, which he’s less keen on. He has one anyway.
1.30pm: Ford subjects the cat to a routine Voight-Kampff test to see if he’s a replicant or not.
2pm: Results! There is only a 17% chance the cat is a replicant but a 79% chance it is a lesbian. The cat also seems to be allergic to cats.
2.30pm: Ford calls Calista at the office and asks how Fish and the Biscuit are doing and if there are any cool cases happening today. Calista reminds him patiently that she is not a Boston lawyer but a professional stage and screen actress. Ford asks to speak to Lucy Liu instead. Calista hangs up.
7.30pm: Ford prank calls Selleck and pretends to be Steven Spielberg inviting him to take part in Indiana Jones V on a day he knows he isn’t actually available.
8pm: The doorbell rings. It is Selleck! And he looks angry. Ford panics, sneaks out the back and gets into his plane. We see the plane driving past the sunset along the ground at high speed as Selleck chases behind it on foot occasionally firing a gun at it until the plane crashes into the conservatory.
According to some accounts, the current release Jurassic World: Dominion might very well represent the final faltering step in the popular movie saga which began so strongly with the classic Jurassic Park back in 1993. In truth, ending the Jurassic series now might well prove to be the best decision, But, just in case, anyone does make the brave and perhaps foolhardy decision to resurrect this dormant movie franchise, here are some potential film titles which have not been used yet…
This year, 2022, marks the 45th anniversary of the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic, 2000AD. Excellent news as this, one sad, though inevitable consequence of the comic’s longevity, has simply been that we’ many of its talented creators have inevitably started to die off. Massimo Belardinelli, Steve Dillon, Brett Ewins, Ron Smith and Garry Leach have all been amongst the talented artists to depart in recent years. Another, Garry Leach, died in March 2022. In 2018, we lost Carlos Ezquerra., at the age of seventy. This book is a fitting monument to the prolific Spanish comic artist’s work.
It’s easy to forget that Ezquerra, who drew lots of very violent images in his time, started off working for girls’ comics like Mirabelle and Valentine. I was interested to see the examples from this period included here, although it’s clear ‘King Carlos’ was yet to establish his own distinctive style yet at that point. Ezquerra really came of age on the war comic, Battle in the 1970s. On strips like Rat Pack and Major Eazy we can see the Ezquerra we know and love emerging for the first time. Now living in Britain, Ezquerra was now collaborating with writers like John Wagner. He also worked on the controversial, Action, a comic famously so violent that according to legend it was banned (it actually wasn’t).
Carlos Ezquerra will be probably always be most famous for creating two legendary sci-fi stories: Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog. The creation of Dredd has always been overshadowed by controversy. Having played a major role in defining the visual look of both Dredd himself (Ezquerra drew inspiration from his own memories of Franco’s Spain) and Mega City One, Ezquerra was enraged when the first ever Judge Dredd story was published in 2000AD Prog 2 in 1977, illustrated by a different artist, the then teenaged Mike McMahon. Ezquerra didn’t begrudge McMahon (himself a significant talent) at all but was furious not to get to produce the futuristic lawman’s debut. The reasons why this happened are still disputed. Such was his anger, Ezquerra refused to draw Dredd for several years. In the meantime, he did other work for 2000AD notably the comic’s own adaptation of Harry Harrison’s light-hearted Stainless Steal Rat and illustrated Gerry Finley Day’s war/horror crossover, Fiends of the Eastern Front. He also created the mutant bounty hunter, Johnny Alpha for the John Wagner story, Strontium Dog in 1978. Still annoyed about the Dredd snub, Ezquerra had created the best story in 2000AD’s short-lived sister comic, Star Lord. Star Lord merged into 2000AD anyway a few months later. Ezquerra drew pages and pages of Strontium Dog for 2000AD during the next decade. Characters from the strip illustrate the cover of this volume.
Ezquerra refused to kill Alpha off, however, and refused to work on the character’s epic story, The Final Solution which was illustrated by Simon Harrison and Colin MacNeil instead. His instincts proved sound. 2000AD soon realised killing Alpha off had been a dreadful mistake. Ezquerra illustrated the revived Strontium Dog in the 21st century. Ezquerra had, in the meantime, finally made his Judge Dredd debut in spectacular style. The Dredd mega-epic, The Apocalypse War ran in 2000AD for the first six months of 1982. Produced almost exactly midway through Ezqerra”s life, it is perhaps his greatest achievement. Ezquerra continued to provide art for both Dredd and Strontium Dog until his final days. The man himself may be gone but the legend of ‘King Carlos’ will never be forgotten.
The Art of Carlos Ezquerra. Published by: Rebellion. Available: now.
The idea might sound bizarre, but in fact, in the case of Hannah Rose Woods’ excellent new book, it makes perfect sense. For this is a history of nostalgia itself. As Woods gradually takes us back from the 2020s to the Tudor era, it makes so much sense that a chapter covering the years 1914 to 1945 should follow the one focusing on the period spanning 1945 to 1979, that it soon begins to seem normal.
Indeed, there never seems to have been a time when Britain wasn’t taking a fond look back over its shoulder to savour the apparent security and certainties of the recent past. Many today might mourn the passing of the immediate post-war decades. But Woods is good at myth-busting and points out things were rarely as simple as they seem. From the perspective of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Britain seemed, on the one hand, to be drifting into seemingly irreversible decline. We had lost our empire, been humiliated over Suez and as the 1960s moved into the 1970s, seemed to be perpetually lurching from one national crisis to another.
This is all true enough. But at the same time as Harold Macmillan pointed out, “most of our people have never had it so good.” During his premiership and for nearly twenty years after it, lots of people had more money and free time than ever, acquiring cars, living in their own homes and going on foreign holidays for the first time. The year 1977 is often seen as marking something of a national low point, coming so soon after the 1976 IMF Crisis. But surveys from that year indicate Britons were then amongst the happiest peoples in the world. As the Canadian philosopher, Joni Michell had argued a few years earlier, “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?”
There is more. Contrary to popular myth, lots of people were pleased to be moved out of their slums, most people who went to the New Towns didn’t regret it (even in Stevenage) and some people were never happier during their entire lives than when the Nazis were bombing them during the Second World War (no joke!)
In short, this is an enjoyable and well-written book, packed with insights. You’ll be sure to remember it fondly, once it’s all over.
Book review: Rule, Nostalgia: A Backwards History of Britain, by Hannah Rose Woods. Published by: W.H Allen. Available: now.
Troubled Tory Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has denied that his leadership had been fatally wounded by last night’s confidence vote. In fact, he appeared to deny that such a vote had even taken place. “If there was a large group of MPs gathering in the Commons on that particular date, I was certainly unaware of it,” he stated, in comments made this morning. He promised to launch an immediate inquiry to establish both whether such a vote occurred and whether he himself had been there or not.
Mr. Johnson went on to deny hearing crowds booing him on his arrival at both the Platinum Jubilee Service on Friday or at the special Platinum Jubilee Concert held on Saturday evening. “I am not aware of either of these events or this so-called “jubilee” which everyone in the media seems so obsessed with,” he argued. “Honestly, the suggestion that most people care whether or not we have a Queen or whether I once saw a birthday cake while walking past a shop window at a serious time like this is just plain balderdash.” He added: “The media seem to be convinced everyone is partying and celebrating all the time. It simply isn’t true. In the real world, most ordinary people are too busy struggling with the cost of living crisis and other problems which my government created.”
Elsewhere, Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries also attacked the media claiming recent footage of the Queen sharing tea with Paddington Bear had been faked using “special effects”.