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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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

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 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump