Family values: the cast of Citizen Khan
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What would Tony Hancock make of Neville’s Island and the muezzin app?

Mark Lawson’s weekly Critics Notes.

The Swiss are currently applying for national heritage status to be given to the art of yodelling and so maybe the British should seek similar cultural recognition for the ­sitcom. There is a certain type of humour – involving a group of people with one comic characteristic each swapping puns and misunderstandings in a closed setting  – that is as associated with the UK as Basel is known for rolling high notes around the throat.

While situation comedy is primarily associated with television – Citizen Khan starts its third series on BBC1 on 31 October – the genre occurs more generally. For the next five weeks, BBC Radio 4 is running new recordings of five editions of Hancock’s Half Hour, the radio series by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson that began in 1954 and which is one of the progenitors of Brit sitcom. These are recast re­-creations of some of the Hancocks that do not survive in the archives.

Even in theatre, the ­Hancockian influence is felt. Tim Firth’s much- produced 1992 stage farce Neville’s Island, in which four Salford businessmen are stranded during an outward-bound bonding exercise, has the feel of a tele­vision comedy and the revival that has just opened at the Duke of York’s in London acknowledges this heritage by casting four familiar TV faces: Adrian Edmondson, Neil Morrissey, Robert Webb and Miles Jupp.

Although originally a protégé of the great stage craftsman Sir Alan Ayckbourn, Firth has been drawn more towards television, especially with his Territorial Army series Preston Front. And, while Neville’s Island conjures some very funny stage pictures – including two blood-spattered tableaux in which the mood seems to have shifted from comedy to horror – the plot and characterisation constantly betray a desire to stop
after 30 minutes and pick up in a week’s time. The audience seemed to warm more to Edmondson, cast close to his dangerous TV persona, than to Webb, playing against telly type as a psychotic Christian.

In the Muslim sitcom Citizen Khan, the basic set-up of tension between relatives echoes family comedies from . . . And Mother Makes Three to Mrs Brown’s Boys. Co-written by Adil Ray – who also plays the title character, a self-elected “community leader” – the show is a combination of English jokes very old (the protagonist clashes with his mother-in-law) and very new: Khan has a muezzin app on his iPhone to call him to prayer.

Because religious hypocrisy is a running gag – one of Khan’s daughters hides her enthusiastic western values behind a ­hijab and piety – the show has been accused of racism, although largely, in the modern way, by white liberals, perhaps because that tribe is a target of many of the best jokes: Khan often extracts himself from slapstick embarrassments by telling non-Muslim authority figures that his behaviour was “a cultural thing”.

The treat among our trio, though, is The Missing Hancocks on BBC Radio 4, in which Kevin McNally proves a spooky auditory substitute for the late Hancock and Galton and Simpson give a masterclass in joke writing. The biggest risk of English comedy is the reduction of dialogue to punning but these writers show – as they would continue to in their later TV classic Steptoe and Son – the ability to play with language at a much cleverer level.

“I promised your mother I’d never let you go to Paris after what happened last time,” someone says.

The protesting reply: “But I’ve never been to Paris!”

“No. But your mother did!”

Literature and its double

The big autumn film releases include The Imitation Game (released next week), a movie about Alan Turing and the Bletchley code breakers, which activates the memory circuits of those who grew up watching the BBC Play for Today series because one of the standout achievements of that franchise was an Ian McEwan screenplay with the same name and subject, directed by Richard Eyre. The title is the only overlap between the projects.

And, in another soundalike, this year’s Man Booker Prize winner – Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North – shares its name with a 1968 play by Edward Bond about the Japanese poet Basho whose travel sketch (of the same name) was the inspiration for both Bond and Flanagan. As all three texts are still in print, let’s hope that no online book buyers are sent the wrong one.

A really narrow road at the moment seems to be the naming of travel books. Just last month, both Clare Balding and Sonia Choquette published hiking chronicles called Walking Home, which Simon Armitage had used only a couple of years before.

Titles can’t be copyrighted but it feels sad, in the case of The Imitation Game, that the Hollywood movie should, in effect, paint over the memory of a fine tele­vision play, which would now be hard to repeat in case it looked like passing off or cashing in. Greater baptismal imagination seems needed to prevent entertainment schedules becoming like classrooms that have four Georges or five Sophies.

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 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

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Are we taking Woody Allen for granted?

In some ways, Allen is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect.

Do you know what a state Annie Hall was in when it first emerged from the editing room? Maybe you’ve heard that its original title was Anhedonia – referring to Alvy Singer’s inability to experience pleasure – but it wasn’t just a title. That was the film that Allen shot: a Fellini-esque stream of consciousness, honeycombed with flashbacks to Alvy’s Coney Island childhood, featuring a murder mystery, a Nazi interrogation dream, an elevator trip to hell and a basketball game between a team of philosophers and the New York Knicks.

“Terrible, completely unsalvageable,” said Allen’s co-writer, Marshall Brickman, of the film they saw as a rough cut in late 1976. Only one thing worked: the subplot involving Alvy’s romance with Annie Hall. “I didn’t sit down with Marshall Brickman and say, ‘We’re going to write a picture about a relationship,’” Allen later said. “I mean, the whole concept of the picture changed as we were cutting it.”

His reaction to the success of Annie Hall – his biggest hit at the box office at the time and the winner of four Academy Awards – was the same reaction he had to any of his films that went over too well with the public: he disparaged it, while quietly absorbing its lessons. Bits and pieces of Annie Hall showed up in his other films for the next two decades – Alvy’s Coney Island childhood resurfacing in Radio Days, the murder mystery in Manhattan Murder Mystery, the elevator trip to hell in Deconstructing Harry – while reshoots and rewrites became a staple of most of his pictures, granting him the freedom almost of a novelist working through successive drafts.

“It was remarkable what he did for me,” Diane Keaton later said of Allen’s ear for Annie’s Chippewa Falls language: self-conscious, neurotic, a little jejune in her attempts to sound smarter than she is, “flumping around, trying to find a sentence”. Annie Hall was a breech delivery, as indeed it had to be, as the first film of Allen’s that was almost entirely taken over by another performer, a voice other than his. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, Allen studied the great magicians and in many ways his greatest achievement as a director has been to make himself disappear.

Introverts often grow up thinking that they are invisible – a fear, perhaps, but a strangely comforting one and something of a sustaining fantasy should they become famous. These days, Allen has the invisibility of ubiquity, noiselessly producing a film every year for critics to take a whack at: is it good Woody or bad Woody?

Allen is a figure occluded by the scandals and speculation of his private life, which still sends tabloid Geiger counters crackling, some two decades after his break with Mia Farrow. The headlines could almost be the pitch for a Woody Allen film, were it not that Allen has already made it. In Zelig, the chameleonic hero is, you may remember, “sued for bigamy, adultery, automobile accidents, plagiarism, household damages, negligence, property damages and performing unnecessary dental extractions”, before finding redemption in some Lindberghian derring-do – an accurate forecast, in a sense, of Allen’s return to making crowd-pleasers in the mid-1990s. Except that Zelig was released in 1983. On the rise and fall of Woody Allen, Allen, it seems, was there first.

His 46th film opens in cinemas on 11 September. In Irrational Man, Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a dishevelled, alcoholic philosophy professor who decides to pull himself out of his funk with a spot of murder, which has long replaced masturbation as the favoured activity of the Allen male. I’ll leave it to Allen’s old shrinks to tease out the connection between comedy and murder, spotted by Freud in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious – why else do we talk of comedians “killing” it, or “slaying” their audience, if not for the release of hostility common to both? And I’ll leave it to the critics to decide the relation of Irrational Man to the earlier Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

The problem with late Allen is not that the films are bad necessarily but that they are sketchy: spindly and dashed off, the result of a too-easy passage from page to screen. Allen’s has to be the shortest in show business. A film a year, as regular as clockwork, with zero studio interference. He is the one genuine success story to emerge from the big, hairy, super-freak auteurist experiment of the 1970s – the auteur of auteurs. Francis Ford Coppola crashed and burned. Martin Scorsese crashed and came back. Robert Altman was driven into exile, Terrence Malick into early retirement. Who would have guessed that the only film-maker to keep chugging along would be the writer of What’s New Pussycat?

It may tell us something about auteurism as an idea, certainly as a production model in Hollywood, which has always reacted to success by throwing money at it, granting film-makers ever greater control – a dubious drug denying them the artistic constraints and collaboration in which their creativity first flourished. It vacuum-packs their talent.

The one-man-band aspects of Allen’s career mask the juice that he gets from his co-conspirators: Keaton, but also Dianne Wiest, Farrow and Judy Davis. Most of his biggest box-office successes have been co-written: Annie Hall and Manhattan (with Brickman), Bullets Over Broadway (with Douglas McGrath). “The first thing he says is, ‘If you’re not comfortable, change it,’” said Wiest of working on Hannah and Her Sisters.

“It’s as if he’s got a feather in his hand and he blows it and it goes off in a dozen directions,” said Jeff Daniels after starring in The Purple Rose of Cairo. It’s a lovely image, for that is what the film is about: the unruliness of creation running disobediently beyond its creators’ grasp. This is the great Allen theme. It is the theme of Bullets Over Broadway; of his other great farce about artistic creation, “The Kugelmass Episode”, his New Yorker short story about a professor of humanities who drops into the pages of Madame Bovary to conduct an affair with its heroine; and of his one-act play Writer’s Block, in which the characters of an unfinished manuscript push open the drawer and take over the author’s Connecticut house. It is the theme of all of the romances, too, in which women grow, Pygmalionishly, beneath the green fingers of the Allen male, only to outgrow and leave him.

The biggest dead patches in his work, on the other hand, have come when he was most cut off from collaborators: the run of movies he made in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Farrow, clenched in silent agony and overdosed in brown; or the series of comedies that he dug out of his drawer for DreamWorks in the early 2000s – The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Any­thing Else – long after he had lost interest, or could summon the energy for farce.

In some ways, Allen today is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect. He encourages his actors to change his scripts as much as they want, but who is going to pluck up the courage to tell the quadruple Oscar winner that kids don’t “make love” any more, or fall for “nihilistic pessimism”, or name-drop O’Neill, Sartre and Tennessee Williams? Jason Biggs, the star of American Pie and American Pie 2 and Allen’s lead in his 2003 film Anything Else? I think not.

One should, however, resist the temptation to give up on him. Midnight in Paris moved with the sluggishness of melted Camembert but Blue Jasmine had the leanness of a cracked whip, in part because in Cate Blanchett Allen found a collaborator willing to go the distance with him on a theme close to his heart: female vengeance. “Take after take after take of very exhaustive, emotional scenes,” recalled Alec Baldwin. “I sat there at the end of the day and thought, ‘She is unbelievable.’”

If Allen’s early films mined comedy from Thurber-like fantasists and romantic Machiavels and his mid-period work drew rueful comedy from reality’s refusal to co-operate, his late work seems most preoccupied by the painful urge to peel the world of illusion, to see it stripped bare. He is now at work on his 47th film, starring Blake Lively, Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, Parker Posey and Bruce Willis – and the excitement there is surely at the thought of Willis, once the king of the wisecrack and exploding fireball, now 60, collaborating with a film-maker deep into his own twilight. Both men could well find each other’s groove, or, better still, shake one another out of it. Yipikaye, pussycat.

Tom Shone’s “Woody Allen: a Retrospective” will be published by Thames & Hudson on 11 September

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism