Square eyes: what do you mean, you can’t see how I see myself? Photo Express/Getty Images
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Tracey Thorn: When I got the TV request, I thought: don’t you know who I think I am?

No thanks – I really don’t want to take part in the “Identity Parade” on Never Mind the Buzzcocks.

A few weeks ago I was asked if I minded giving my email address to someone from a TV production company. No, I didn’t mind at all; in fact I was curious to find out what the request might be. I don’t really like being on telly – which is the only reason I’m not on your screen every weekday night (side-look to camera) – but on the other hand, I’m only human, and so I don’t dislike being asked. I suspect that however far down the VIP list, none of us is immune to wondering occasionally whether we’re eligible for a Bake Off or a Strictly or a fortnight in the jungle. I scanned my spam filter and kept an eye out for the email, anticipating some kind of flattering approach.

Then it came, and what a low blow it was, the very request most dreaded by anyone who’s had a musical career. For it was from the makers of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, asking me – not for the first time – if I would take part in the Identity Parade. If you’ve ever seen the show you’ll know the bit I mean. Out come four perfectly harmless yet anonymous-looking men who’ve had the temerity to become middle-aged and perhaps lose some hair. Then we are shown a clip of Mud on Top of the Pops from some time before the war and have to guess which of these men was the drummer. Jokes are cracked – is it this one? “Muddy Waters”? Or “Mud in your eye”? But there is really only one joke, and it is at the expense of the secret guest, who might as well be wearing a dunce’s hat with “Has-Been” written on it. This is what I was being asked to do.

In high dudgeon, I began to compose a reply, detailing my recent work and achievements – a top-ten bestselling book, appearances on Later . . . with Jools, a soundtrack for a forthcoming film, even this very column! – all of which essentially added up to me thundering: “Don’t you know who I think I am?

Then I started laughing at myself. Because of course that is the whole point; they don’t know who I think I am, or what I think I mean, and neither, they assume, do their viewers. And in this they may well be right. If I am simply that thin bird who sang that Rod Stewart number and/or that even thinner bird who sang that disco number about the deserts and the rain, what can I possibly say to persuade them that I am anything more? No amount of bluster can alter the fact that I used to be in the top 40 but now inhabit this sad wasteland of hitlessness, while also being so haggard and crone-like as to be barely recognisable.

When I wrote that memoir of mine, Bedsit Disco Queen, this was just the kind of story I relished – the anecdote that illustrates how ultimately humiliating it is to be a bit famous. Not famous enough to be known by everyone – a kind of Total Fame, where your power is unquestioned – but a more partial level of celebrity, which comes and goes, sometimes bringing benefits, but just as often opening you up to ridicule.

Agreeing to take part in these spectacles means colluding in your own ridicule, but in this instance I was reminded that nowadays we are all supposed to welcome any opportunity, no matter how undignified, to increase our exposure, and that there is no instance of humiliation or disgrace that can’t be repackaged as promotion. I’m not the first to reject this idea.

When Jim Bob, of the band Carter USM, was asked to appear in the same identity parade, his manager famously turned it down with great good humour but also an unassailable sense of the wrong that had been done to his artist. There was a defiant pride in his response, easier for a manager to express on your behalf. As victim, you just have to suck it up or laugh it off. Any other response risks making you look like a giant idiotic ego.

I originally wanted to call my memoir The Pitfalls, until I was persuaded against using such a “negative” title. But I stand by my belief that it’s avoiding these pitfalls that is the key to survival and sanity. There will always be plenty of people ready and willing to make you look like a fool; you don’t have to join in and help them do it. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

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

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

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 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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