Gilbey on Film: the real Oscar winners

Suffering from awards fatigue? Our film critic has the antidote.

Awards fatigue, which descends around this time each year, has been alleviated slightly by last week's London Film Critics' Circle Awards. As a voting member, I was naturally thrilled to see the award for Film of the Year go to what I considered to be the right film -- A Prophet -- and even in the other categories there wasn't much to quibble with.

Let the Right One In and Fish Tank got some deserved love, and as for Avatar . . . well, let's just say that James Cameron probably spent Thursday evening eating a hell of a lot of comfort food and sobbing himself to sleep on a bed of $100 bills. We sure showed him.

But with the Baftas behind us and the Oscars looming, the cultural nausea returns. So, let me recommend an effective antidote in the form of those websites that revisit the scenes of past Academy Award ceremonies in the interest of righting wrongs.

The internet has successfully undermined the idea that history is written by the winners, proposing instead that it can be annotated, challenged and rewritten in favour of the losers. And nowhere is this more apparent than at stinkylulu, where Oscar rematches (or "smackdowns") in the Best Supporting Actress category are a regular and stimulating feature.

Cheer as Angelina Jolie's 1999 statuette for Girl, Interrupted is snatched from her livid fingers! Then gasp as it is handed instead, after much heated and knowledgeable debate, not to the deserving Chloë Sevigny (Boys Don't Cry), but to Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense).

Applaud as Josephine Hull loses the Oscar she won in 1950 for Harvey! Then guffaw wildly as it goes to Hope Emerson, whose portrayal of a sadistic prison guard in the trashy Caged makes Nurse Ratched look like Little Miss Marker.

One smackdowner, Ken, puts it brilliantly: "Built like Foghorn Leghorn, she's six-foot-two of slow swagger, prowling around looking for the next can of worms to pry open, torturing her victims with that slow-motion chuckle from Hell. Line up, you tramps -- and salute one of the great screen heavies."

You get the gist: it's a feast for anyone whose TV is stained from all the projectiles thrown at the screen each Oscar night. In the same vein is a new and, so we're promised, regular item at mainlymovies, where past Oscar categories are replayed with added wisdom, sanity and imagination.

So, instead of Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe (both in Platoon) battling it out with the eventual winner, Michael Caine in Hannah and Her Sisters, to be crowned Best Supporting Actor 1986, we get a far more inspired batch of nominees, including Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, Ray Liotta in Something Wild and Tom Noonan in Manhunter.

What a war of the psychos that would've been! My vote has to go to Liotta -- not just for his seductive, oddly sad menace, but for the way he wears his responsibility for changing the entire character of that fine film in its second half with such lightness.

Next to such delicious "what ifs", this year's "Cameron v Bigelow" Oscar contest looks about as exciting as Kramer v Kramer.

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.

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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge