Greed with Steve Coogan (warning contains spoilers)

I came across this the way you do, trawling through Netflix and alighting on a slice of Steve Coogan. I was never a fan of Alan Partridge – I think comedy should be a release, not make people more uptight – but recent incarnations of his in films such as Philomena have revised my opinion. So we gave this a go.

From the trailer I thought it was pretty clear that ‘Greedy’ McReadie was a portrait of Philip Green, though as the action progressed we decided it was more a composite of Green and Mike Ashley: anyway the action shifted from present to past to distant past in a way that seems de rigueur nowadays, showing us bits of his childhood as well as some deals he’d made and centring on the staging (the word is apt) of his 60th birthday party on a Greek island.

For the centrepiece builders are constructing a wooden amphitheatre where a real lion (actually a very convincing piece of CGI) waits caged up to fight a ‘gladiator.’ The parallel is apt; McReadie is never happier than when shouting at people, unless it’s when he makes a deal that will net him millions while crushing the poor garment workers who have to fulfil the order. He’d have made a good Roman emperor.

There are some frankly revolting scenes as a film crew making a ‘reality show’ on the same island are obstructed by a group of refugees camping on the beach. They can’t clear them away so they decide to film themselves giving the refugees some food. The poor sods are just about to tuck in when the director shouts ‘Cut!’ and they have to wrestle the food away from the refugees so they can film it all again. It reminded me of this Steely Dan song.

The climactic scene comes when Amanda, a member of staff who has tried to help the refugees, spies McReadie taunting the lion and presses the button to open the cage door. The result is predictable: McReadie shows his hubris by believing he can talk the lion out of eating him. He can’t. He dies, horribly. Afterwards Amanda says, ‘I didn’t feel it was me pressing the button. I just happened to press it and the cage door opened. Then the lion came out and killed him. That’s how McReadie is; he makes a deal, the company cuts its costs and the workers suffer. But he thinks it’s nothing to do with him.’

I’d have enjoyed this film more if it hadn’t spent so long skipping about time-wise. It also needed to make up its mind what type of film it wanted to be: sometimes it was a drama, sometimes a documentary and sometimes a comedy. Of course a film can have elements of all three, but it needs to decide which one predominates, otherwise it’ll feel like a muddle.

But I still recommend it.

Kirk out

Stan and Ollie

Sometimes it can happen that an actor you’ve never really rated can astonish you. It happened with Hugh Grant in A Very English Scandal and it’s happened again with Steve Coogan. Not being a fan of cringe comedy I never particularly enjoyed the Alan Partridge series, and the edgy competitiveness of The Trip with Rob Bryden left me cold – but Stan and Ollie was an absolute revelation. To be fair Coogan had shown his prowess playing Martin Sixsmith in Philomena when he helped an Irish mother on a quest to find her son, in the process unravelling outrageous behaviour on the part of the Catholic church. But in Stan and Ollie he was Stan Laurel to the life. I’m old enough to remember when the pair were on TV; like Morecambe and Wise the format was corny and traditional but there was something that made them funny in themselves. You could plonk them down on a desert island and they’d be doing routines with the coconuts and dancing with the trees. I was utterly stunned by the brilliance of Coogan’s Stan Laurel and by the film in general; John C Reilly was pretty good as Oliver Hardy but Coogan played Stanley without a trace of mimicry. Nothing was self-conscious or overdone; he simply seemed to get into the skin of the character and play him from the inside out – which I guess is what good actors do.

It must be difficult playing real people, especially when those people are within living memory. Jason Watkins played a blinder as Harold Wilson in The Crown and he gives an interesting interview to Mary Beard about the process in her series on culture in lockdown. On the same programme there was a discussion about historical drama. How far should you go in taking liberties with the facts? Is there a distinction between fact and a deeper truth? Much of the fascination with historical drama is that it goes ‘behind the scenes’ and gives us action which, in the words of The Crown‘s preamble, is ‘imagined to be consistent with the facts.’ It’s this aspect of imagination, brought into play in order to tell a deeper truth, to which good drama aspires – but Simon Jenkins of Guardian fame didn’t seem to get this at all. ‘How do they get away with it?’ he wailed, clearly not understanding the difference between drama and journalism. (I was once in the same room as Simon Jenkins, at a CND conference.)

The weekend’s viewing also included a Victoria Wood-fest (Saturday night, BBC 2) and a retrospective of June Whitfield (Sunday, BBC4) as well as the inevitable Casualty. If I talk a lot about TV it’s because hardly anything else happens. I did a Quaker meditation and went for a drive to charge the car battery – and that was that. Next week I shall be taking a week off to do some decorating, so I’m looking forward to that; a nice trip out to B&Q to get some paint. Lovely.

Hope you had a good weekend. What were you watching?

Kirk out

Life on i-player: seeing double

At Peter’s house on Sunday I watched something I’d previously seen a couple of years ago and hated: ‘The Trip’.  Starring Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden as ‘Steve Coogan’ and ‘Rob Bryden’ (there’s a lot of this about: see ‘Miranda’, for example) it’s about two blokes who go on a tour of preposterously expensive and pretentious restaurants and write reviews of them.  At least, Coogan does: Bryden is just there to keep him company.  Now, it’s odd how when you watch a programme in a particular sort of mood, you can find it funny: I was aware as I was laughing at this, that in a different mood I might have found it unbearable, and so it proved: when I got home and described it to Mark he told me I’d watched it a couple of years ago and found it – well, unbearable.  I have no recollection of this, but then I have no recollection of anything much at the moment, so that’s not surprising.  Anyway, I guess if you like Rob Bryden and Steve Coogan and if you enjoy a couple of smart-arse blokes scoring points off each other, you’ll enjoy this.  Or maybe you’ll just be in the right mood, like I was…

Casualty was the usual car-crash: a mix of enjoyable preposterousness and emotional mangling, and apart from that I’ve come across very little to interest me.  I always enjoy a viewing of ‘Mastermind’ and I invariably wonder whether it is easier than it used to be or whether I know more: however one thing that does seem indisputable is that the questions on ‘Celebrity’ Mastermind are a lot easier than they are on regular Mastermind.  In fact the greatest difficulty I have is identifying the ‘celebrities’ in the first place.  But what has definitely not dumbed down – nor could it, with Stephen Fry in charge – is QI.  I’ve seen a couple of these this week, and the one I enjoyed the most had ‘Gran’ as a fifth competitor:

This prompted a discussion on ventriloquism and the question of how far the puppet is seen as a separate person.  Nina Conti said that she definitely experiences ‘Gran’ as a separate person and on occasion has looked at her and thought: ‘why aren’t you speaking?  It’s your line!’

Ventriloquism is rarely done well outside children’s entertainment; but Conti is a master.  Gran is an engaging character, understated but undeniably present; much better than Orville (but what wouldn’t be?) and much less annoying than Emu (though that was just a non-speaking part), so I recommend you see her if you haven’t yet done so.

On watching her you both know and don’t know that Gran is a puppet: Nina Conti is extraordinarily daring in actually showing the hand up the back or moving the arm; and yet Gran seems somehow more real in spite of that: