Notes in the Margin: Island living

Jersey's film festival turns cinema-going on its head

Jersey: a channel island famous for its cows, potatoes and wealthy residents. It's not the first place you'd think to go for a film festival. But from 22 - 25 September the Branchage International Film Festival returns, for the fourth time, to the tiny island off the coast of Normandy.

The festival launched in 2008, with the aim of entertaining local audiences as well as drawing visitors from the UK and Europe. This is not the place to come to see the premiere of the latest George Clooney movie, or A-list movie stars gracing a red carpet, but, as if in acknowledgement of its lack of headline-grabbing glamour, Branchage has sought to make its name by offering unusual and often unpredictable cinematic experiences.

In past years, the festival has screened The Battleship Potemkin on a tugboat and Sleep Furiously (a 2009 documentary about a small farming community in Wales) in a barn. The locations offer a welcome change of scene from a popcorn-strewn Odeon. This year, the unconventional offerings include screenings at the island's Opera House, at parish halls, in occupation-era war tunnels and at a castle separated from the mainland by a causeway, which the audience can only get to (or escape from) at low tide.

Without the power (yet) to attract big-ticket premieres, the festival mostly screens recent art-house hits (this year the programme includes Joanna Hogg's Archipelago, and the wonderful French film Of Gods and Men, for example). But it also commissions new work, particularly soundtracks, and the new creations are often as intriguing as their venues. To name a few: a new animation film by Sam Steer will be screened accompanied by his harpist sister performing a newly commissioned score; the artist Fritz Stolberg will show a multi-screen installation consisting of footage from the Jersey archive and old home movies discovered in islanders' lofts; the cellist Gerard Le Feuvre will play a new accompaniment to the 1929 footage shot by Captain Irving Johnson as he sailed around Cape Horn on a square rigger vessel; and the festival will close with a live performance of a soundtrack to The Great White Silence - the footage from Captain Scott's last Antarctic expedition in 1924.

Such unusual, live performances show the imagination of this small, relatively unknown festival. It might lack the showiness of Cannes, or the romance of Venice, but those annual jamborees, with their predictable bank of glossy stars and paparazzi, lack something too: a spirit of adventure and originality that allows an audience to watch a film in an entirely new way. And then walk home at low tide.

To find out more about the festival, visit branchagefestival.com

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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What Jodie Whittaker as Doctor Who tells the rest of the world about Britain

If any silly kids’ show can say something about the country's changing view of itself, it’s this one. 

Over the past 54 years, the hero of the TV series Doctor Who has been to the end of the universe, where the stars are going out and civilisation is all but dead. He has seen the Earth die in a ball of flame, and he has been propositioned by Kylie Minogue while standing on the deck of a starship called Titanic.

But next year, he will go somewhere he has never been before: the ladies loo. This Christmas, Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor will die and regenerate into Jodie Whittaker, a 35-year-old whose most high-profile role to date was as the mother of a murdered child in the ITV crime drama Broadchurch.

On Sunday 16 July, both social media and the old-fashioned kind were flooded with discussion about the Doctor’s new gender. Inevitably many non-fans were also abroad, demanding to know why anyone should care about the casting in a silly kids’ show. The obvious answer is that, after half a century, this show means a great deal to some of us. But there’s a more practical reason why the decision matters, too: Doctor Who is one of the BBC’s most valuable brands.

The original version of the show, which ran from 1963 to 1989, may have been known for its wobbly sets and aliens made of painted bubble wrap. Since Russell T Davies brought the programme back in 2005, however, it has picked up a global following. In the past few years, it has finally broken America; in 2014, the cast and crew went on a publicity tour, including stops in Australia, South Korea and Brazil. In Mexico, the show is broadcast under the frankly superior name of Doctor Mysterio. All this means that Doctor Who is an opportunity to present a view of Britishness that isn’t based on imperial history, or class politics, or cricket, or cake.

Because of the flexibility of the programme’s format, if any silly kids’ show can say something about Britain’s changing view of itself, it’s this one. And what it has just said is that it’s time men stopped dominating everything.

Regeneration – the process by which one Doctor dies and the next is born, enabling the show to recast its lead – seems so baked into the Doctor Who formula now that it’s strange to think that it wasn’t there all along. Yet, for his three years in the role, William Hartnell was never the first Doctor: he was simply the Doctor.

Hartnell played the character as irascible, patrician and grandfatherly (literally, in the case of his first companion, Susan). He was also imbued with a certain imperial self-confidence. In one early episode, he hit a Frenchman round the head with a spade.

In 1966, however, a new producer decided to recast the role. The standard narrative is that Hartnell was too ill to continue; more likely, since he was both expensive and difficult to work with, he was pushed out. The replacement, Patrick Troughton, made no attempt to impersonate Hartnell. Instead, he played the Doctor as an entirely new man, less grumpy and more funny.

Over the following decades, each new Doctor added something to the character. Jon Pertwee brought action, Tom Baker bohemian silliness, Peter Davison youth. Colin Baker brought a hint of menace and almost got the show cancelled. Sylvester McCoy brought a sense of mystery. In the half-American-funded 1996 TV movie, Paul McGann became the first Doctor – and this seemed quaintly shocking at the time – to kiss a girl.

Most of these men were either great character actors (Hartnell, Troughton, Davison) or flamboyant showmen (Pertwee, Tom Baker). While the show was off the air, though, stories speculating about its return generally attached names from the latter category, such as – and here are two men you rarely find mentioned together – Alan Davies or David Hasselhoff.

It was a statement of intent, then, when Russell T Davies cast Christopher Eccleston as his Time Lord: the show may seem silly but we’re taking it seriously. Since then, playing the Doctor catapulted both David Tennant and Matt Smith to fame and work in Hollywood. In 2013, when we met a previously unseen incarnation of the Doctor, it wasn’t a guest turn for a comedian but the last major role for the late John Hurt.

So what does the choice of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor say? For one thing, it marks her out as one of the great actors of her generation, capable of comedy and tragedy and delivering convincing technobabble, often in a single line. Perhaps it also suggests that the new lead writer, Chris Chibnall, feels under pressure to shake things up a bit.

But it also says something about how our heroes should look. The box-office and critical success of Wonder Woman has highlighted both the huge appetite for female leads and the shocking lack of them. As a result of Whittaker’s casting, for the first time in Doctor Who, a woman will play the lead, not just his (or her!) companion.

Both Capaldi and Tennant were fans of the programme before they were its star; both became actors in part because they wanted to play the Doctor. It’s a lovely idea that, somewhere out there right now, there’s a little girl who might do the same. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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