Shiny, shabby people

The Brits was a mega-show, falling apart at the seams

Who was she? That's what I want to know. The Brits had many lowlights - One Direction, Olly Murs, One Direction - but a particular highlight was the disembodied female voice that boomed across the ferry-like O2 arena. She would say things like, "What a fantastic evening we have planned!" and "Coming up: Rihanna!" before the show cut to ad breaks.

I suppose she was meant to cover the links as James Corden traversed the floor to tell One Direction how beautiful and underage they were. Or the fist-chewingly awkward pause after the blink-and-you-miss-it tribute to Whitney Houston. But it felt like being at an airport. Any second now she was going to warn Kylie not to leave her luggage unattended.

The voice provided welcome relief, though, from the images. It was all so shiny. The X Factor has had more than a musical effect on the pop industry: it has changed the aesthetic of the arena spectacle. Of course Rihanna was going to perform with a small-town population of paint- weilding dancers. There is now no other way. Coldplay, in their matching but individually customised khaki boiler suits, were dressed like one of Louis Walsh's boy bands. Even Noel Gallagher had the look of a man who had been primped into a cartoon version of himself.

Thank God for Ed Sheeran and George Michael, who were, respectively, shabby and pissed and ably scuffed the metallic sheen of the event. When ex-Pussycat Doll (the epitaph of epitaphs) Nicole Scherzinger gave Sheeran one of his awards she looked like a woman whose understanding of the world (looks and money win) was being overturned. In Scherzinger-land, Sheeran is the kind of guy you expect to pick up the sweet wrappers from around your chair, not someone who wins an award. The disembodied voice didn't know what to make of Sheeran either, introducing him to the crowd by citing the number of his Twitter followers, Facebook fans and YouTube subscribers. Forget the album, Sheeran, check out those social media stats!

There were other sources of light relief in the form of Rob Brydon and Alex James (unwittingly), but the big prize for the night should go to the blokes who nonchalantly walked in front of the camera as James Corden pattered away into the ether. Never mind the dancers, the lights, the outfits: nothing reveals the true, shoddy heart of a show than the back of a suit jacket obscuring the view.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

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 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue