No head Turner?

Turner Prize 2008

"If you’re working as an artist nowadays the worst place to be in terms of critics is Britain… You go elsewhere, you go to America, you go to Europe, then you get a fair reception. People look at your work and actually try to understand it," the artist Mark Leckey told Channel 4’s Nicholas Glass on Monday, immediately after winning the Turner Prize.

Nevertheless, this year there was little of the ‘Is this Art?’ style criticism usually associated with the Prize in the arts press, although The Daily Telegraph did wheel out Sister Wendy.

Rather, the critical consensus was largely one of indifference: "It didn't start any fires” and “bland”, were common criticisms of the four nominees, seen to be rehashing stale ideas (see Cathy Wilkes's jumble of ‘ready-mades’), rather than offending the nation. Further, the art world seems to seek actively not to be understood; Leckey himself described his desire for a "cultish practice", in a "cosseted" art world.

In her show, nominee Goshka Macuga took on the role of curator, re-arranging photographs from the Tate archives; Mark Leckey presented a video of one of his lectures, in which he is both curator and critic. This new autonomy of artistic practice can be baffling to the outsider. The impenetrable jargon of the Tate curators only went to enhance this sense of an exclusive, closed-off art world.

Having now won the Prize, Leckey may want to broaden his horizons. The 1999 Turner Prize winner, Steve McQueen, carried off three awards at the British Independent Film Awards (Bifas) for his film Hunger. Best Film went to Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle’s film about a Mumbai street child.

Golden Revolution

1 January, 1959: the puppet dictator Fulgencio Batista flees Cuba for the Dominican Republic; after six years of struggle, and four hiding out in the Sierra Maestra, the island belongs to the Cuban Revolutionaries... The photography agency Magnum have decided to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of this event with a "Permanent Revolution Season". Wednesday saw the opening of an exhibition documenting the agency’s long engagement with Cuba, from Rene Burri’s iconic image of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, to the portrayal of life today in Castro’s Cuba. They will also be a screening both installments of Steven Soderbergh’s two-part film about Che Guevara on 1 January at Curzon Soho, Curzon Richmond and the Renoir Cinema. (The official release date is 2 January, Che: Guerrilla comes out on 20th February).

Both "Che" films will be shown in Havana this weekend, as part of the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema. Benicio del Toro, who plays Che in the film, will be there, as will Rodrigo Santoro, the Brasilian actor who plays Raul Castro. He may even meet the man himself, and it would be interesting to see how the Castro brothers receive an American film about the figure they turned into the poster boy of the Revolution. The President of the Film Festival, Alfredo Guevara, spoke positively of US President-elect Barack Obama in his inaugural speech on Tuesday. Two weeks after the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, Obama will assume the Presidency: might we see a change to the deadlock of US-Cuban relations?

Bombs over Bollywood

Mumbai is not just the financial centre of India, it also hosts the nexus of film, music, celebrity, gossip and fashion that goes by the name of Bollywood. The terrorist attacks have had their effect there, too. Cancelled film releases, ruined parties, closed cinemas and postponed weddings have gone alongside the more serious consequences of the bombings and shootings.

The actor Amitabh Bachchan, revered demi-God of Hindi film, wrote extensively on his "Big B Blog" in response to the attacks, revealing that he now slept with a loaded revolver under his pillow.

His thoughts were faithfully reproduced in the papers and on fan sites. The Mumbai Mirror, however, condemned those Bollywood celebrities who sought to use the attacks as an opportunity for exposure as "vultures". This blow to the Indian film industry comes at a crucial time of extensive Hollywood investment in Bollywood.

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit