Review: The 70s


I’m all in favour of expertise on TV: better a historian than a newsreader, a scientist than some bloke off Countryfile. But knowledge isn’t the only thing that matters. Warmth is important, too: a connection with the viewer, whose attention the presenter must hold. On BBC2, there comes a well-timed new documentary series, The 70s (Mondays, 9pm), which explores the years that brought us Black Tower, Genesis and the rise of the Wimpey housing estate. It’s presented by Dominic Sandbrook, whose writing about postwar Britain is much praised and whose latest book, Seasons in the Sun, is a history of Britain between 1974 and 1979.
Sandbrook knows his stuff, which is all to the good so long as people stay tuned. But will they? I’m not sure. I would have switched off if I hadn’t been reviewing the programme and I could not be more interested in the 1970s if I tried. Ah, those halcyon days when my parents fought one another in the courts for half-shares in a teak dining table, various earthenware bowls and a few sets of Sanderson curtains!
The BBC publicity department styles Sandbrook as a “1970s enthusiast”. But you can no more imagine him cracking open the Findus Crispy Pancakes than you can George Osborne. Often, he seemed to be sneering. When he wasn’t sneering, he was grimacing, and when he wasn’t grimacing, he could be found looking distinctly awkward in, variously, someone’s front room, the HQ of the National Union of Mineworkers in South Yorkshire and a three-star hotel in the Costa del Somewhere called the Barracuda. My dear! The places one sees when one is on tour with a television crew!
He described the British taste in wine as “untutored” – what did your parents drink in 1971, Dominic? Château Lafite? – and the educated, entrepreneurial Ugandan Asians who landed British jobs with such admirable speed as having “dragged themselves up”. (He meant this as praise but his tin ear means that he is prone to reaching for the wrong word.) He even, when he compared the prime minister’s French to that of Voltaire and found it wanting, achieved the astonishing feat of making me feel sorry for Ted Heath. Heath, incidentally, installed gold carpets in No 10. His pals thought this made the place look like a modern bachelor pad. But most people – or so Sandbrook said – thought it looked like “a boudoir” (nudge, nudge).
Which people? This is the other problem. The series cries out – it positively screams – for interviews. I longed for someone other than Sandbrook (who was not even born until 1974) to look back, to give events both perspective and immediacy. As it was, this was just a clip show with a grand essay laid decorously over it, like a doily on a Formica table.
They were sometimes very good clips. Someone had dug up fantastic footage of miners who had been told by their bosses to wear hairnets down the pit; better that, the young men said, than abandoning their be­loved new feather cuts. And I loved the moment when a TV reporter asked a wailing Bowie fan why she was crying and all she could tell him was: “He’s smashing!” (The campaign for the revival of the word “smashing” starts here.) Only the stupid or heartless could fail to take pleasure in watching Rodney Bewes in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? and Leonard Rossiter in Rising Damp. Especially Bewes, whose luxuriant and preternaturally springy hair puts me in mind of a family-sized malted loaf.
But this kind of thing isn’t enough to sustain an hour of television, let alone four. Sandbrook tried his best to give it some energy: he scattered the word “seismic” about and attempted to surprise us by claiming, for instance, that Arthur Scargill’s rhetoric was “almost That­cherite” (as ideas go, this seemed a little strained to me). The soundtrack, meanwhile, didn’t fall silent for a moment, so if Journey, T. Rex and the Moody Blues are your thing – and when I’m in the right mood, they’re certainly mine – this could be the show to do your ironing to. Still, it felt to me like a horribly missed opportunity. It was uninvolving, whe­ther you were there or not. What a shame. People do love the 1970s, as I remember every time the ageing rock star who lives on my street wobbles by on his chopper.

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 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

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.