Don't cry for me: Elaine Paige in full flow performing a song from Evita at the 2012 Olivier awards. Photo: Getty
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The day Elaine Paige went quiet

She had you longing for the days when she would just pipe up, laughing dementedly, or refer to herself in the third person.

Elaine Page on Sunday
BBC Radio 2

Among the questions nagging the listener after the annual Radio Academy Awards a few weeks ago – in which a special prize was given to Nick Clegg’s jockstrappishly uncomfortable and now possibly redundant call-in show on LBC – is that of Radio 2’s inexorable rise. Taking home the UK Station of the Year award for the first time since 2005, it currently has more than 15 million listeners a week. Pick of the Pops, Steve Wright’s Sunday Love Songs, Sounds of the 60s – all of them are slam dunks. It’s inexplicable beyond, perhaps, a subtle upping of the ratio of music to chat during shows. I don’t think I’m imagining it. Sometimes the station has the air of Magic 105.4 FM: a glassy, do-not-disturbness to the playlists, a sense of the spoken word being ushered off.

Even Elaine Paige has picked up 19,000 more listeners for her 1pm Sunday show (ten years old this September) featuring hits from musicals. Although still conducting the occasional sympathetic interview,  these days she seems to be doing less – creeping on to confirm that, yes, that was indeed Howard Keel singing “Bless Your Beautiful Hide”, then creeping off again, like an iguana. One wonders (and not for the first time) how Paige occupies herself between links. The other day she admitted to making her way through a plate of sandwiches, which sounded innocent enough and had you longing for the days when she would just pipe up, laughing dementedly, or refer to herself in the third person. I liked to picture her sitting with a large bag of Haribo, CCTV cameras mounted in her tiara. There was a crazed edge.

This episode, she roused herself momentarily to articulate a bat-squeak of desire for Hugh Jackman (“a busy boy and terribly talented”) – but otherwise all the life in the show was located in the messages left on its answerphone by amateur singers plugging local shows, relayed to listeners in a section called “Break a Leg”. “Hi Elaine! My name is Samuel and I’m playing Nanki-Poo, a wandering minstrel, at the Cotswold Savoyards’ 100th show . . . Bye, Elaine!”

“Byeee,” responded Elaine, with what sounded like increasingly heavy eyes. “Or rather goodbyeee. Whatever.” A drowsy bee seems to have found welcome in Paige’s bonnet. And still the ratings rise.

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 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

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.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories