Drink acid or read lesbian fiction?

Enthusiasm is in short supply, as the arts world throws up a muted defence of the North and a temper

Grim up North?

In the week when David Cameron’s favourite think tank decided the North of England should be packed up and moved nearer the Thames, there’s been little outrage from the Northern arts world. Even the Liverpool Cultural Company, responsible for the events marking Liverpool’s year as European City of Culture had nothing to say about the fact said city was “beyond revival”. Perhaps it’s too much time around Ringo Starr, who kicked off the celebrations but admitted there’s nothing he misses about Liverpool.

Not everyone is so pessimistic. Poet Ian McMillan, Northern and proud, told us he’s got a few ideas about how to revive these Northern cities. “How about Parliament and the Royal family being based in the North?”, he wondered. “The Queen in residence in Clifton Park, Rotherham and Parliament meeting in Bradford Town Hall?”.

Somewhat rattled, he continued: “The report assumes, reading between the lines, that nothing from the North is of intrinsic value, and that we all want to move to the South to better ourselves. Of course that isn’t true, but the report certainly helps to rock (or re-rock) the North’s sometimes fragile sense of self-confidence.” Whatever next, he mused. “A state funeral for Margaret Thatcher?”

Preaching to the inverted

The book which rocked Britain is celebrating its 80th birthday. Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness was put on trial for its promotion of “sexual inversion”, with Virginia Woolf appearing in court in the book’s defence. Radio 4 is commemorating the occasion with a two-part guide to the history of lesbian novels, curated by crime writer Val McDermid.

Sadly it wasn’t much of a party for The Well of Loneliness with none of the invited guests having a kind word for it. Sarah Waters found it “a bit mawkish and a bit daft”. Jeanette Winterson was even less restrained. "It's so terrible," she wailed. "It's enough to make a girl straight."

Still, they view the book rather more highly than James Douglas, then editor of the Sunday Express. "I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel. Poison kills the body, but moral poison kills the soul." Funnily enough, I’d take the acid over the Sunday Express anyday.

Tessa takes centre stage

Having taken on the 1992 election, privitisation and the Iraq war, David Hare is turning his reproachful gaze to the moral vacuity of Tony Blair’s Labour. His new play, Gethsemane, takes on two recent scandals, cash for honours and the company kept by Tessa Jowell’s husband, David Mills, with both Lord Levy and Jowell making thinly-veiled appearances in the play.

Gethsemane opens in November at the National Theatre, the institution which Jowell previously had nothing but praise for. Speaking of the NT’s famed £10 Travelex season, she said “I hope it means thousands who don’t consider themselves theatre-goers decide to give it a try." Sadly Gethsemane isn’t part of the season but perhaps the thousands can still be tempted.

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Marvel's Doctor Strange is like ketchup – it's formulated to please, but you won't love it

Benedict Cumberbatch’s well-honed turn in Doctor Strange is enjoyable, but the film isn't one you'd ever fall in love with.

In 2004, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article asking why there were dozens of varieties of mustard, and yet a single brand of ketchup – Heinz – utterly dominated the market. He discovered that Heinz ketchup was a perfect synthesis of the “five known fundamental tastes in the human palate: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami”.

Food scientists call this amplitude: Coca-Cola has high amplitude, blending vanilla, cinnamon and brown spice in a way that makes it difficult to pick out an individual note. That also makes it easier to drink buckets of the stuff; the palate tires easily of a single, spiky flavour, as with orange juice. But ketchup? You can smother that on anything.

The studio behind The Avengers, Thor and Iron Man has invented a similar condiment. Let’s call it Marvel Sauce. Take one superhero movie, add an even mix of buff beefcakes and Shakespearean actors, then marinate in light sarcasm to offset the fact that everyone is talking seriously about giant hammers or saving the world in costumes they look like they have to be sewn into.

That the process creates homogeneity is not the snobby criticism it might at first appear. (I’ve drunk Coke in places where the water wasn’t safe, or local tastes were very different from mine, and I’ve been grateful for it.) Yet it does mean the films’ greatest strength is also their greatest weakness.

Doctor Strange is smothered in Marvel Sauce. It looks phenomenal: if you liked the city-folding from Inception, this film lets M C Escher’s grandchild have a go with the software. The actors are first-rate, from Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron Mordo to Mads Mikkelsen’s baddie, Kaecilius. (Wanted: someone else who studied Latin at school to appreciate my joke about Kaecilius being “in horto sedet”.) The tone is just right, undercutting anything too portentous with snark and slapstick. At one point, Benedict Cumberbatch is giving it proper, squinty-eyed, superhero duck face in the mirror when his sentient cloak pokes him in the eye.

Admittedly, the plot is pretty thin. Our hero is Dr Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch), an arrogant surgeon at a New York hospital with a lucrative sideline in after-dinner speeches. (He has to be American: first, NHS surgeons don’t make enough money to own the watches and glass-walled midtown apartment on show here. Second, he’d be Mister Strange, and would spend half his fights explaining this to people.)

One night, he is purring off to an after-dinner speech in his Lambo when he decides to look at MRI brain scans on his Microsoft Surface while overtaking in heavy rain. This is a bad idea. He wakes up with scarred and damaged hands and is bereft until his physiotherapist tells him about another patient who recovered from breaking his back. Strange finds the guy, who tells him to travel to Nepal (a change from the Tibet of the comics, apparently made to appease Chinese film distributors) to learn some old mystic bollocks.

From there on, the story suggests that the screenwriters have more than a passing familiarity with The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. Strange enters the special world, meets the mentor – a bald Tilda Swinton, who teaches him to bend time and space – and undergoes an ordeal, including his death and rebirth. He “seizes the sword”, an eye-shaped necklace that can rewind time, and uses it to battle Kaecilius’s plan to collapse Earth into the Dark Dimension. There is one surprise, which is that Strange’s core superpower is revealed to be boring enemies into submission.

Is this film enjoyable? Yes. Is it the kind of film you can fall in love with? No. I left thinking of the one Marvel film that’s mustard, not ketchup: the profane Deadpool. Its hero is also disfigured and cut off from his old life. But Deadpool’s scars ruin his face, and he is ostracised and feared. Strange gets to make swords out of energy and teleport using a magic ring, which seems a decent consolation for not being able to play Chopin. Deadpool also gets a real human woman as a love interest, rather than the one-dimensional saint of an A&E doctor of Dr Strange, played by Rachel McAdams. But then, Deadpool was an 18-rated parody, and this is a blockbuster. It’s ketchup. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage