Before they were batty: the cast of TV’s Gotham.
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Mark Lawson: What the boy Batman tells us about TV prequels

Gotham follows an established formula in applying to fictional CVs the nostalgic-ironic tactics of TV archive series such as Before They Were Famous.

In choosing an adult name for his superhero identity, Batman subliminally encouraged speculation about a younger self, and an American series arriving in Britain this month is a sort of Batboy. Gotham, screened here by Channel 5, depicts the events that made Bruce Wayne grow up to be a secretive millionaire with an English manservant and a high-flying night-life in black rubber.

Gotham becomes the third spin-back from a big movie character in the current TV schedules, joining Bates Motel (Universal Channel), which dramatises the adolescence of the man whose bathroom issues were explored in Hitchcock’s Psycho, and Hannibal (Sky), in which we meet younger versions of the FBI’s Will Graham and Dr Lecter from the works of Thomas Harris.

Gotham follows the other two series in applying to fictional CVs the nostalgic-ironic tactics of TV archive series such as Before They Were Famous. Here are villains such as The Joker and Penguin (before they were infamous) and the character later known as Police Commissioner Gordon is a young cop on the Gotham force, investigating the murder of the parents of a boy called Bruce Wayne.

The obvious attraction of such shows to broadcasters is that, in a digital marketplace crammed with calls on viewers’ attention, they arrive already knowing the backstory (or, strictly, front-story). When the English actor Sean Pertwee introduces himself as Alfred Pennyworth, not only do we immediately know that he is a valet but, in our movie-shaped imaginations, he grows up to become Michael Caine.

But, depressingly, Gotham, Bates Motel and Hannibal have almost identical motivations, seeking to justify the later behaviour of the protagonists – Bruce’s benevolence, the malevolence of Norman and Lecter – through events of their childhood, a Freudian reductionism that is already present in the adult narratives (especially in Harris’s prequel novel, Hannibal Rising), but never as simplistically. The boy Bruce is haunted by his inability to intervene in his parents’ murder but this feels a flimsy psychological explanation for soaring over cities at night dressed as a bat.

Viewers who are not fanatics of the franchises may also tire of storylines that depend almost entirely for effect on us knowing what comes next. Every moment when the young Bruce looks down from a height or teenage Norman walks past a shower head can feel like those war movies in which the hero is first seen playing with toy soldiers.

The trio of shows can be seen as evidence of the popularity of film franchises as a source of TV drama, although, in the case of Gotham, the traffic between big and small screen is more complicated, Batman having been a brief but much-repeated American TV show in the 1960s.

And, increasingly, the road between TV and cinema is successfully two-way. Whereas, in the past, hit Britcoms such as The Likely Lads or Are You Being Served? would be turned into a flop movie, The Inbetweeners and Mrs Brown’s Boys have become financial, though not critical, hits.

There is also an intriguing subset of TV classics that grew out of films without most viewers even noticing. The 11 seasons and long syndicated afterlife of M*A*S*H grew far beyond its origins in Robert Altman’s cult 1970 film, based on the same books about an army hospital in the Korean war, while The West Wing (NBC, 1999 to 2006) is chiselled on TV’s Mount Rushmore, far overshadowing the 1995 film The American President, with which it shared a screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, and the same set re-creating the White House.

Gotham, though visually striking, will surely prove, like Bates Motel and Hannibal, to be a B-movie in comparison with the films that made it so attractive to television.

Condescending Wonka: his stage debut

Another intense cultural competition exists between theatre and the internet. Playhouses fear the web, in the way that print media do, as a potential thief of revenue and customers, though some companies have pioneeringly explored streaming as a way of reaching broader audiences, as the Hampstead Theatre in London did with Howard Brenton’s play #aiww.

The Royal Court Theatre is now staging its second recent production that attempts to put online on stage. Following Jen­nifer Haley’s The Nether, in which actors played fictional characters and their avatars on a fantasy site, Tim Price’s Teh Internet Is Serious Business aims to dramatise the virtual world without ever using film or screens.

The web itself is a pit of brightly coloured balls, while code-writing is represented by dance and internet memes such as Condescending Wonka take physical form.

Both plays are eloquent about the political possibilities and the moral risks of digital interaction – but surely people go to the theatre to get away from the internet. Trying to theatricalise screen culture feels like a vicar trying to fill the pews by asking a Satanist to preach.

“Teh Internet Is Serious Business” is at the Royal Court Theatre, London SW1, until 25 October

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 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £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 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear