Real thing: Kathleen Turner in Bakersfield Mist, a play about a woman who discovers a potential Pollock
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Mark Lawson: how “keepers of the flame” protect an artist’s legacy

From Larkin’s diaries being burnt to the refusal to acknowledge forgotten Jackson Pollocks, literary and art executors run a tight ship.

The traffic of theatrical hits between Britain and the US is sometimes blocked by failures of cultural translation but an American import that opened earlier this month should have an easy appeal to UK viewers of Antiques Roadshow. Bakersfield Mist by Stephen Sachs dramatises the case of Teri Horton, a former truck driver who bought for $5 in a Californian thrift store a splattered canvas, which a neighbour later attributed to a modern master. Sanitised for cinema frontages, Horton’s reply – “Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?” – became the title of a 2006 documentary.

The Californian ex-trucker never got the moment of apotheosis for which Fiona Bruce’s Sunday-evening audience tunes in. Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, declared her possible Pollock “dead on arrival”, even though a forensic expert found what he believed to be Jack the Dripper’s fingerprints on the back of the painting.

In Bakersfield Mist, Horton and Hoving become abstracted portraits – a sensible precaution in times when lives, like works of art, can be copyrighted by their owners – in the form of Maude Gutman (Kathleen Turner), a retiree living on a Californian trailer park, and Lionel Percy (Ian McDiarmid), a Manhattan curator who has been sent on the Pollock estate’s private jet to validate or trash her find.

In the London premiere, Turner has an easier role than McDiarmid because, as on those TV junk shows, we instinctively want Maude’s picture to be worth the $50-100m that provenance would confer on it. While the audience is left to decide whether the picture is a Pollock or not, most may see Percy as the baddie: a ruthless defender of the Pollock market. The estates of major creative figures are generally cast as the enemy of artists’ fans or academic evaluators, becoming caught up in a sort of custody battle over the work and/or life.

One such recent row involved Jonathan Bate, who was initially granted but then refused access to the private papers of Ted Hughes for a planned book about the poet. Bate has suggested that Carol Hughes, the poet’s widow, broke their deal because she feared he might expose private “secrets” but the solicitor for the Hughes estate responded that Bate had strayed from the literary-critical work he had pitched towards a more conventional biography of a kind that Hughes had instructed his heirs to prevent.

The coincidence of Bakersfield Mist and the Bate-Hughes spat focuses attention on the role of cultural gatekeepers. Their major obligation is control of supply and copyrights, although this function differs intriguingly between visual art and literature.

Painters’ estates generally resist new discoveries – apart from the Horton canvas, there is a dispute over 24 other possible Pollocks – while literary executors tend to extend the shelf: vastly more Philip Larkin poems, for example, have been published since he died than when he was alive. Cynics might see in these opposite attitudes a financial motivation: scarcity makes pictures more valuable, while writers earn more money from big backlists.

But executors, like those of Ted Hughes, sometimes stop books coming out because of the other burden on descendants: control of reputation and perception. Ian Hamilton’s book Keepers of the Flame (1992) fascinatingly traced the way in which literary fame has been shaped by protective followers: from the son of John Donne to the poets Andrew Motion and Anthony Thwaite, who serve Larkin.

Hamilton showed how literary posterity was helped, across 350 years, by the strengthening and lengthening of literary copyrights but hindered by the rise, after Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians in 1918, of scandalous and revisionist biographies. The response of authors and their families was to be wary of authorising books about them – Hughes followed T S Eliot in warning off biographers – and to destroy stuff that might help trouble-trufflers. Larkin ordered that his private diaries be burned and Sylvia Plath’s last journal before her suicide was destroyed by Hughes, in his role as her executor (a word to which some writers on Plath have given a different stress).

Running under most legacy controversies is the always problematic question of what a dead person might have wanted. Plath’s final diary would have been a godsend for scholars but would she have wished her children to read it? Why didn’t Larkin have his unpublished poems ignited with the other stuff, rather than trusting to the judgement of his estate? And might not the ghost of Jackson Pollock cackle at the thought of one of his pictures being first sold as scrap and then offered for $50m?

Ian Hamilton’s conclusion was: “No one should burn anything.” I would add that it might be sensible to have more than one flame-keeper. John Updike, for example, appointed his four children and his second wife and as Adam Begley’s excellent biography of the novelist acknowledges the co-operation of the kids but not the widow, it seems there may have been a difference of opinion. But, by spreading the power, Updike ensured that an exemplary writing life was followed by an exemplary “writer’s life”.

“Bakersfield Mist” is at the Duchess Theatre, London WC2, until 30 August

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.