Acres of oilseed rape in flower amid the limestone hills of Yunnan, southern China. Photo: George Steinmetz/Corbis
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There is nothing very lovely about oilseed rape

Don’t be fooled by its seas of scented acid-yellow blooms, the plant otherwise known as canola is one of the world’s most unethical crops.

It was an awkward moment. I had been in Yangzhou a week, one of a dozen foreign writers attending the Slender West Lake Poetry Festival, and throughout the trip, our very diligent hosts had conspired to show us all that was best about the local culture, from brush painting to fine cuisine to the live traditions of calligraphy and guzheng (Chinese zither).

Best of all, for me at least, were the gardens, from the parkland around the lake itself to classical courtyards where extraordinary specimens of penjing (the Chinese equivalent of bonsai) stood proud amid the jade flowers and flowering plums. Every turn had presented new pleasures: not just the orientalism that this hurried description might suggest, but living examples of how human beings can get it right in their dealings with the land. Yet, according to my hosts, one particularly memorable sight was to come.

From the one hint I’d been given I should have guessed – I would see a great expanse of sweetly scented yellow flowers, running all the way to the horizon. But how could I have known, in that Eden of cherry groves and jade flowers, that the coming treat would be nothing more than a Chinese version of those industrial-scale oilseed rape fields that, supported by extravagant subsidies, have come to dominate the British landscape? Was it possible, as we descended from our coach after a two-hour drive, that we, and the thousands of others abandoning their cars anywhere they could and streaming down this gridlocked road, had come to see a rape field?

It was, as I say, an awkward moment – and yet there was something magical about it, too. Unable to push any further through the crowds, our driver had simply stopped and let us off to walk the last mile with the other pilgrims, some carrying babies and toddlers in their arms, many wearing surgical-style masks over their mouths. By the roadside, enthusiastic country folk peddled rapeseed honey (apparently considered to possess healing properties) and when we finally reached the main field, a five-storey pagoda at its centre, something like a fair was in progress, with people selling everything from pig meat to inflatable plastic toys. The smell – boiled pork mixed with candy sugar and rapeseed pollen – was overwhelming, but the exhilaration was strangely contagious, and when one of our host party turned to me, smiling, waiting for my positive reaction, I found myself nodding and mumbling that most British of compliments. “Lovely,” I said. “It’s just . . . lovely.”

But is it? For many, oilseed rape (marketed as “canola” in the United States after the original tag, “Lear” – for “low erucic acid rapeseed” – failed to catch on) is a classic indicator of all that is dubious about industrialised agriculture.

It was made infamous when the agrochemical giant Monsanto sought damages of $400,000 from Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian grain farmer, after he was found to be growing Monsanto’s patented genetically modified rapeseed. The seed had blown into Schmeiser’s field: a common problem, as most North American rapeseed production is GM-based. Rape is prized for its high tolerance of herbicides, while the oil is commonly obtained by solvent-based processes, with further chemicals employed to bleach and deodorise it. Moreover, after these initial treatments, it is often used in the production of processed food where, some researchers claim, trans fatty acid levels of up to 40 per cent can occur during hydrogenation.

The jury is still out on the consequences for land use and consumer health. So, as pretty as it may be in full flower beneath the early summer sun, oilseed rape may not be so lovely after all.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

Trumbo still
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What the modern-day relaxation of border controls between TV and cinema means for actors

It’s ironic that a man who got his breakthrough in a TV series with cinematic ambitions should now be the star of a movie, Trumbo, which resembles television at its most unadventurous.

Speak to many film professionals today and you will hear the same cry: Give me a series! It’s not only the security of a long-term contract. There is also the attractiveness of high-calibre writing and the relative liberty of working for an AMC or an HBO, a Netflix or an Amazon, compared to a movie studio.

Directors such as Todd Haynes (who made Mildred Pierce for HBO during a seven-year hiatus from cinema that ended last year with Carol) and Steven Soderbergh (who has defected permanently to television and is currently in negotiations for a possible third round of his Cinemax series The Knick starring Clive Owen) both speak of the creative freedoms afforded them in the TV world.

Soderbergh is currently lining up a new HBO show, Mosaic, which will star Sharon Stone and Garrett Hedlund. It’s been described as an interactive, “choose your own adventure” experience that allows viewers to follow different narrative paths, presumably in the manner of the once-popular children’s books: “You find a sword. If you pick it up and slay the dragon, turn to page 48. If you, like, can’t be bothered or whatever, turn to page 65.”

The boundary between TV and film performers was once rigidly patrolled, with television the training ground for cinema; once an actor moved up to the major league, there would be ignominy in returning to the practice yard. It’s a truism to say this is no longer the case.

The traffic of familiar faces flows freely back and forth without snobbery or preconceptions. And though there are still actors who can be TV A-listers while remaining unknown in the film world – Sarah Lancashire (Happy Valley) and Suranne Jones (Scott & Bailey), both former residents of Coronation Street, spring to mind – it is more common now for a performer’s star value to be bankable across the TV/cinema divide.

A case in point is Bryan Cranston, who was a reliable and recognisable TV actor for many years, often in a comic capacity (Seinfeld, Malcolm in the Middle), before he became an outright star for playing an accidental crystal-meth kingpin in Breaking Bad. In Cranston’s case, his TV success must have helped push Trumbo into production, a new film in which he plays the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Gun Crazy, Roman Holiday, The Brave One), who continued writing under other names after being blacklisted for being a Communist.

Like some of the other movies that have addressed the same dark period in Hollywood’s history (Guilty By Suspicion, One of the Hollywood Ten), Trumbo is all conscience and no panache. Cranston doesn’t discredit himself in the lead – he is studied, level-headed and workmanlike, and he has one wordless and especially powerful scene, when he is humiliated during a body search before being admitted to his prison cell.

But it’s ironic that a man who got his breakthrough in a TV series with cinematic ambitions should now be the star of a movie that resembles television at its most unadventurous. Sure, he got a Best Actor Oscar nomination. But that figures. Hollywood adores him (rightly so) but it also loves atoning for its sins in drearily respectable dramas like Trumbo.

My favourite example of the richness that can come from the modern-day relaxation of border controls between TV and cinema is the case of Alec Baldwin. Here is an actor whose career has been at various points promising, fascinating and mysteriously self-sabotaging. But Tina Fey’s fiendishly inspired NBC sitcom 30 Rock has been his salvation. Having only caught occasional episodes of it over the years, I am currently picking my way through every minute of it and marvelling at the interplay between Baldwin’s real-life persona and career and that of his character, Jack Donaghy.

When this sort of thing is done badly, it can capsize a scene and even an entire movie – the new superhero comedy Deadpool, which features Ryan Reynolds in character cracking jokes about Ryan Reynolds, is a particularly grisly example. But 30 Rock gets the balance right in a way that creates a dazzling comic frisson.

There are numerous references to Baldwin’s filmography but the boldest overlap yet occurs in the 100th episode when Donaghy launches into a warning against the dangers of movie stars appearing on television. What it amounts to is a précis of Baldwin’s own career:

“Do TV and no one will ever take you seriously again. It doesn’t matter how big a movie star you are, even if you had the kind of career where you walked away from a blockbuster franchise or worked with Meryl Streep or Anthony Hopkins, made important movies about things like civil rights or Pearl Harbour, stole films with supporting roles and then turned around and blew them away on Broadway. None of that will matter once you do television. You could win every award in sight. Be the biggest thing on the small screen [but] you want to hit rock bottom again? Go on network television.”

The joke, of course, is that 30 Rock didn’t sink him – it saved him. Bryan Cranston is a fine actor whose career won’t be waylaid by a few dull choices. But it would be encouraging to see the goodwill he built up from Breaking Bad (or from being great in poor movies such as Argo) being parlayed into movies that took chances or played with the form in some way, as shows like 30 Rock and Breaking Bad have been able to do.

Dalton Trumbo was a firecracker of a writer; it’s a shame that the movie that now bears his name lacks any of the sizzle he brought to the screen.

Trumbo is on release.

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.