Novel Gothic: George Gilbert Scott's St Pancras Station seen in 1905. Photo: Getty
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Strawberry Hill forever: Two presenters with a distinctly Gothic side

Cruickshank seems unable to speak in anything other than an urgent whisper while Graham-Dixon has the kind of face that looks particularly good rounding the top of a stone spiral staircase on a cold March morning.

Dan Cruickshank and the Family That Built Gothic Britain; The Art of Gothic: Britain’s Midnight Hour 
BBC4

The BBC is having a miniature Gothic season, which is great news if you’re into witches, skulls, mad monks, arched windows, ivy-clad castles . . . and, er, Andrew Graham-Dixon or Dan Cruickshank. Although, now I come to think of it, both of these presenters have their Gothic side, Cruickshank seemingly unable to speak in anything other than an urgent whisper and Graham-Dixon having the kind of face, long and sardonic, that looks particularly good rounding the top of a stone spiral staircase on a cold March morning.

Both, too, are prone to melodrama. Cruickshank’s film about the Gilbert Scotts, creakily styled as The Family That Built Gothic Britain (21 October, 9pm), came with his usual hand-waving, a tic that became more pronounced as he described the descent into madness of George Gilbert Scott Jr. Graham-Dixon’s The Art of Gothic (Mondays, 9pm), meanwhile, was distinctly febrile at times. As he described the three-day orgy with which William Beckford, the author of the naughty 1786 novel Vathek: an Arabian Tale, celebrated his 21st birthday, his voice slowed and softened to such a degree, it was enough to make a girl blush. If his producer had thought to shove a plate of sugar-dusted Turkish delight in front of him, I would have had to leave the room.

The Art of Gothic throbbed with this kind of juicy, if rather familiar, stuff. Here were, in literature, Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis and, in art, Salvator Rosa and Henry Fuseli. Day trips were taken to Strawberry Hill (Walpole’s playful home at Twickenham), to Stowe House in Buckinghamshire (a nice Gothic folly) and to the Tate collection’s basement (to gawp at Fuseli’s super-weird 1783 painting Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma).

Graham-Dixon is an actorly presenter – always casting sidelong looks to the camera – and well able to hold your attention, especially when you sense he is genuinely interested (he seemed keen on Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey, a construction so ambitious that it eventually collapsed under its own weight; ditto Matthew Lewis’s novel The Monk, in which debauched nuns think nothing of lifting their habit to expose a milky breast). But his films are also rather list-like, just one thing after another. No other expert is called, no other voice heard but his. It’s wearying sometimes.

Cruickshank did bring other witnesses to the stand, notably Gavin Stamp, George Gilbert Scott Jr’s witty, impassioned biographer. Still, this was a dreary film. No one could love St Pancras Station, Gilbert Scott Sr’s greatest creation, more than I do but even I couldn’t help yawning. The problem was that the most intriguing Scott – the Victorian giant’s son George Jr, who died of drink in a room in the Midland Grand Hotel above St Pancras – is so elusive, very little of his work having survived (though I recommend to you the tiny church of St Mary Magdalene, East Moors, Yorkshire, built in a zippy Gothic style that seems to me unique). Gilbert Scott Jr’s son Giles, who gave us the holy cavern that is Liverpool Cathedral, thought his father a genius, a man far more talented than his grandfather. But as he met him only twice, this may have been a product of the wishful thinking that is particular to neglected or abandoned children.

Either way, Cruickshank was unable to bring the personalities of the three men to life. He can stroke a pediment with the best of them but human hearts remain for him a mystery, something I regard as a terrible failing in one who hopes to animate buildings. Architecture has so much to do with feelings – from awe to claustrophobia and back again – and relatively little to do with technicalities. In this ghoulish contest, then, my winner, hands down, is Graham-Dixon with his clanking suits of armour. There seems to be something restless in him to which the Gothic clearly speaks. His theory is that our forebears’ passion for all things Gothic was their means of “re-enchanting” their world in the age of Enlightenment – and on this score he knows whereof he speaks. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies

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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