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

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

Anthony Clavane's A Yorkshire Tragedy: The Rise and Fall of a Sporting Powerhouse is published by Riverrun

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era