Hugh Laurie's Blues Changes: The devil in the detail

Laurie took to the lectern and described in detail the genesis of the song. The detail, the sheer pedantry, was simultaneously thrilling and unbearable.

“Gary Clark Jr there, with ‘When My Train Pulls In’. And as luck would have it, it’s a train that will pick us up the same time next week. I’m Hugh Laurie and this is BBC Radio 2.”
 
The first in a series about the blues (Mondays, 10pm) ended as it began, with an immaculate neatness from a presenter who had, among other things, been debating-society keen to over-enunciate dates and names (“That was ROBERT JOHNSON playing in NINETEEN THIRTY-SEVEN”).
 
The programme opened with Laurie and his band covering Alan Price’s “Changes”, a song Price had recorded for the soundtrack to Lindsay Anderson’s forgotten satire O Lucky Man! – a film 40 years old this year and every bit as mad and satirical as when the thirtysomething Price appeared as a member of the cast, banging out all the music on-screen and looking like the nicest and most unflappable person ever to have tuned a piano in the back of a van, while Malcolm McDowell worked his hands up a 28-yearold Helen Mirren’s jumper. (Ooh, isn’t she sexy? Will it never end? Now, I’ll tell you who is sexy. Alan bloody Price in 1973. Nice flat cap. Nice mustard suede shirt. Extremely nice fingers tinkling the ivories.)
 
After this, Laurie took to the lectern and described in detail the genesis of the song, from a Presbyterian hymn (played in full) to a First World War trench anthem (played in full) and beyond (played in full). The detail, the sheer pedantry, was simultaneously thrilling and unbearable.
 
Was the whole programme going to unfurl like this? Just a long, come-into-my-brownstudy dissection of one song, with Hugh booming, “Let’s tease out some further connections” and (you feel certain) doing his Bertie Wooster face to give oomph to his cadences; the face that implies he’s just had his bonnet knocked off by ragamuffins?
 
Laurie did end up changing the record (kind of a shame, although he did make room for a fantastically unpretentious interview with Muddy Waters) but I’ve got to hand it to him: most of the time, his listen-with-mother diction and whopping confidence had me all bright and responsive on my night trudge to buy yoghurt – and I never listen to Radio 2! Ever! Radio to forget the station to. This is probably a first.
 
Hugh Laurie: detail and sheer pedantry. Image: Getty

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era