Going to the chapel: the cast of Four Weddings and a Funeral, 1994
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I feel it in my fingers: The Reunion on Radio 4

An edition of The Reunion reunited cast and crew of Four Weddings and a Funeral, 20 years on.

The Reunion
Radio 4

An edition of The Reunion (Sundays, 11.15am) marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Four Weddings and a Fu­neral. Its writer-producer, Richard Curtis, its director, Mike Newell, and its stars Kristin Scott Thomas and James Fleet were amiable but rarely gushing when recalling the production of one of the highest-grossing British comedies yet made, filmed in just six weeks “in a variety of fields” for under £5m. Curtis says he felt compelled to plough through 17 drafts of the script after suffering 72 weddings in five years.

Among the many things the production had in its arsenal was an “aristocracy co-ordinator”, Amber Rudd (now the Conservative MP for Hastings and Rye), who “knew a lot of dukes and earls” willing to lend authenticity to the church scenes.

When the film came out in the UK following an enthusiastic response in the United States, I was doing work experience on a north London free sheet whose film critic approached movies as a branch of Marxist socio-economic theory. To my excited inquiry about the film, he replied, “If you like your brew in a mug, then it won’t be your cup of tea.” But few others mustered genuinely umbraged social comment about the upper-crust bohemianism of Four Weddings (even Tom Paulin on Late Review declined into a burble of approbation).

“Were there ever any doubts about the posh theme?” asked the presenter Sue MacGregor, in a tone that suggested in truth she couldn’t really get behind accusing Four Weddings of being self-satisfied, unaware of its privilege and only all right if you’ve got the money.

There was a polite shrug from Curtis, who mentioned the easy, leavening presence of the classless John Hannah and the pivotal funeral in the industrial estate. He could also have pointed out that, crucially, those were good times economically: 1994 fell in the middle of a long boom and it was OK to be well off – any guilt could be rendered comically. Besides, just consider the long, distinguished cinematic history of escapism. Four Weddings succeeds where its hundreds of imitators have failed, because it is a romantic comedy about those two things: romance and comedy.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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The Gallows Pole's ultra-violence turns reading into a kind of dare

Author Benjamin Myers's capacity for the grotesque is constantly threatening to breach your tolerance of it.

Here is a tip for the squeamish when reading a Ben Myers novel. Imagine the worst thing that could happen to the characters, and then drop the book, because whatever Myers has imagined will definitely be worse than your version. The Gallows Pole is Myers’s sixth novel, and its territory is recognisably his own.

A northern, rural setting: here, the Yorkshire moors. An inspired-by-true-events story: this time, the Cragg Vale Coiners, a notorious ­late-18th-century gang of forgers. And a profane lyricism punctuated by the kind of ultra-violence that turns reading into a kind of dare. As in Ted Hughes’s Crow poems or David Peace’s Red Riding sequence, Myers’s capacity for the grotesque is constantly threatening to breach your tolerance of it.

“People will always need walls. Boundaries are what makes us civilised,” Myers has an itinerant “waller” say here. But the author is interested in what happens when those boundaries are uncertain, or broken. Beyond our self-created limits, there is a wildness both dreadful and transfixing, and David Hartley – the King of the Coiners – is its avatar here.

When we first meet him, we are told that he “appeared of the earth, of the moors. A man of smoke and peat and heather and fire, his body built for the hills.” A man of viciousness and visions, who sees stagmen dancing on the moors.

That relationship between man and land (and it is men, because Myers’s world is ­intensely masculine) is about to be ruptured for ever. The Industrial Revolution is coming. Ground that was a birthright to the labourers and farmers of Yorkshire is being bought up for factories; capitalists are even re-carving the waterways. Hartley and his men will take no share in the wealth this generates. They are the left-behind, and in this context, forging is not merely theft: it’s insurrection.

“Clip a coin and fuck the crown” is the Coiners’ cry. Their attack on the currency is also an attack on the nation state attempting to impose its rule on the countryside. Money is a circulating manifestation of the social contract, passing the impress of authority from hand to hand, and Hartley wants none of it.

The government takes their threat absolutely seriously and sends the relentless exciseman William Deighton (or “that cunt Deighton”, as Hartley inevitably calls him) after the gang. It is clear from early on that Hartley and Deighton, bound by mutual hate long before they ever meet, are willing themselves to destroy one another. Coercion and rebellion mirror each other, drawing purpose from their opposed positions.

Although the setting is historical, Myers’s obsession with place and power is urgently contemporary. Society is fragile. The walls can, and do, collapse.

Today the political shocks of Brexit and Trump make this obvious in a way it hasn’t been for a long time: the strand of malevolent machismo that seemed like deliberately shocking Gothic in Myers’s 2014 novel Beastings feels closer to home now. It seems as though Myers, seer-like, has merely had to wait for the world outwardly to become as he long ago divined it to be. Yet that is not to say there is no invention here, and Myers’s use of language in particular is notably creative.

The story is told between terse, third-person portions, and Hartley’s diary entries are written in a rich pidgin of semi-literacy. It resembles more than anything the dense, punning future dialect of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker; and like that novel it suggests a society where the bonds are so frayed that even words are unreliable. But where Hoban can fairly claim use of any word ever to have existed, Myers’s playfulness sometimes presses at the edges of his historical fiction: when Hartley writes “foghorn concollusion” for “foregone conclusion”, for example, the maritime vocabulary is jarring coming from this landlocked man.

Foregone conclusions are a problem in another way. Even if you don’t already know about the Coiners, Myers foreshadows the story’s end well in advance, and the plot occasionally sags.

Though his general register is frankly abrasive, Myers sometimes sacrifices tension to sentiment in the lead-up to a set piece: when a character has an unusual access of tenderness, you can hear death stalking in the background. Another weakness of his is in writing women and children – the latter tend to the syrupy and the former barely exist.

In The Gallows Pole, if a character isn’t likely to raise a hand in anger, he isn’t likely to interest Myers. His element is violence and, in his element, he is thrilling: intelligent, dangerous and near untouchable.

The Gallows Pole
Benjamin Myers
Bluemoose Books, 363pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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