As a 12 year old, Twin Peaks was the most exciting thing I had ever seen.
Show Hide image

What made Twin Peaks so special?

Nothing since has been able to measure up to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Nothing has had its power. Why not?

I watched Twin Peaks the first time it was broadcast on UK television, and I have never really been back. It was the very early 1990s, Tuesdays or Thursdays, I think, around 9ish. Twin Peaks was on just after Food & Drink, which meant that each time I was propelled towards the sweaty, intimate horrors of small town murder and sexual violence, I had only fleeting memories of Paul Heiney holding a whisk to remind me of the world I was leaving behind.

As a 12 year old, Twin Peaks was the most exciting thing I had ever seen. It was also completely terrifying: an abstractly traumatising work fostering awful thoughts that would not be burned away by sunlight. Even my introduction to the show was unnerving. I accidentally caught the start of an early episode that my older brother was watching in the living room. I was sat quietly at a table in the corner, clumsily super-gluing an orc together. I remember the music, the slow pan downriver, and then the investigation began for the evening: a beautiful teenager had been murdered, and a community was coming apart as a result. Although the main narrative followed an FBI agent freshly landed in town to sort things out, it was instantly clear that this was not a crime so much as a sudden eruption of disorder, ill-defined but all-consuming – the sort of thing that might not remain safely contained behind the screen of our old spin-dial TV. That night, I had my first ever panic attack and was sent to bed raving. Inevitably, my mum assumed it was the glue. It wasn’t the glue.

Nothing since has been able to measure up to Twin Peaks. Nothing has had its power. I only realised that this week, almost a quarter of a century after the fact, while reading that the series’ co-creator David Lynch has pulled out of a follow-up due to budget problems. It’s a stark thought, and probably a shameful one: 25 years, and nothing has reached as deeply into my imagination as this dreamy potboiler about the adventures of a heroic federal agent who really likes donuts. Nothing has scared me as efficiently or as thoroughly. It’s made me wonder why.

The Showtime trailer for the Twin Peaks follow-up

Miraculously, in the years since I first saw it, I have not become a Twin Peaks bore. I don’t corner people at parties to quote the Log Lady, and I haven’t actually watched the 29 episodes since they first ran on BBC 2. To see me, you would never know that I have re-read The Autobiography of Special Agent Cooper until the spine crumbled away to white powder, or that I have the Official Twin Peaks Board Game in the attic. (It’s up there because it is terrible, incidentally.) This isn’t embarrassment; it is a question of intensity. I simply loved Twin Peaks with such a crippling passion that I had to put it out of my mind entirely once it was finished.

Mine was that special, bitter kind of love – common in superfans – that cannot be shared with anyone else, at any cost. The show was rebroadcast, it landed on video, then DVD, and now Blu-Ray; it has always been background chatter for my generation. I have studiously ignored all of this, just as I have ignored the fan-sites and the treachery of the central actors turning up in other programmes. (It’s not always easy to ignore this last part, mind. A few months ago, switching channels I briefly glimpsed Agent Dale Cooper, hair now grey but swept back and held in that same, laminated way, firing off lines on How I Met Your Mother. Distanced as I am from Kyle Maclachlan’s FBI days, I wanted to reach through the screen and rescue him.)

It’s a testament to the sheer potency of Twin Peaks that I can still remember quite a bit about it despite years of pretending it never happened. I remember the peculiar Twin Peaks tone, which is unique and coherent from the very start. It is born of a narrative that flirts with soap opera rather dangerously at times, and yet never gives you the easy distance of irony. It mints real terror and wit from its juxtaposition of the awful and the mundane, and this love of the mundane, of worn American icons like warm pie and diner booths and stuffed bears, cannot be written off as campness or satire. Lynch’s own historical support for the GOP isn’t satire, so it’s not entirely surprising that his TV show provided me with a loving introduction to a lot of things I now find rather tricky to love: cloying small town life, bland authority, the heroic FBI. Righteousness in Twin Peaks is often disquietingly simple. The darker supernatural side of things, meanwhile, is so frightening because its own rules never quite come into focus. We just have to accept that there is a portal to another realm hidden beyond a red curtain in the woods, and that the killer being sought is both a member of the community and also a denimy pan-dimensional burnout named Bob.

What I remember most clearly, of course, is Agent Dale Cooper himself, the man who will solve the murder of Laura Palmer and be swept away in its wake. He’s sharp, bright-eyed and good with a gun, but he’s also delicate, whimsical, and besotted, in a slightly alien way, by everything he sees, as if he’s witnessing it for the first time. From his breakfasts at the Great Northern Hotel, ordered with a wonderful oddball precision, to his late night dreams that provide crucial clues to the case, we spend a lot of time with Cooper. We get in close. His habit of dictating memos to his secretary Diane gives him a neat form of soliloquy and allows us unprecedented access to his mental world – and yet something remains unknowable about him. He is unusual: good-looking but rather sexlessly so, a shop mannequin right down to the sculpted, one-piece hair. Unlike other famous detectives, he is a creature of intuition rather than reason. Throughout the series, he seems filled with tantalising gaps. “I don’t like birds,” he says at one point, rather sharply. Why not, you want to ask. What happened? It is wonderfully maddening, such constant proximity to somebody who nonetheless remains slightly remote, who almost never appears outside of his interchangeable work clothes, even.

The energising sense of an absence at the centre of Cooper is echoed in the rest of the narrative - and might explain why it has such a power to fascinate. There is a sprightly haphazardness to the way Twin Peaks flings clues at you, a breeziness as it rockets between feral domestic tragedy and the ancient mischief of the Black Lodge, which makes you wonder if anyone was entirely clear on where things were headed. Breeziness is probably close to the truth, actually. Bob, the principal antagonist, was famously the creation of an on-set mishap: although the full story is apparently a little more complicated, he’s still a stage dresser accidentally caught in a reflection during a take. Created more by chance than by canny design, by intuition rather than reason, he knocks the entire narrative brilliantly off-kilter. He does not look supernatural – he looks like he might sleep in the back of an old Mazda – and so the mystery around him only feels more genuine. (Glancing at Wikipedia, it seems that much of the deeper weirdness of Twin Peaks may have been tidied up and codified in the years since the show was made. There’s now a careful internal structure in place that explains the strangest elements – or at least gives them standardised names – and, in doing so, gently robs them of their power. People who love the series have not been able to save themselves from ironing it all out; proof, really, that you only hurt the ones you love.)

 

***

 

It helps, of course, that in 1990 when it first aired in the US, Twin Peaks was a television pioneer. It was the first slice of TV that seemed to have engaged the full sweep of tricks available to cinema, particularly Lynch’s own work. Columbo didn’t have frequent, arresting close-ups of chess pieces or cigar embers, and it didn’t take a sculptor’s delight in the precise material qualities of creamed corn or maple syrup, dripping from a jug. The A-Team didn’t have the Dutch angles and the dreaminess. The dreaminess! There’s a persistent Valium haze to Twin Peaks. For all the bursts of sudden screaming, it works its wonders by quietly tranquilising you, delivering an unpleasantly romanticised murder victim who looks like a snow queen, wrapped in glittering plastic and gently frosted, and offering a vision of the afterlife that resembles the chill-out room in a low-rent casino. To say Twin Peaks was ahead of its time would be to ignore how beautifully it served as an introduction to the 1990s for a lot of us, right down to Cooper’s wonky new age preoccupations. Still, it certainly seems made for the present day just as well: its catchphrases, non-sequiturs and numinous hotel-room giants allow it to travel quickly through the world of memes and GIFs and 140 character limits.

Looking back, there are more personal reasons that explain the special way that Twin Peaks terrorised me. This murder mystery was very likely the first piece of art I had properly engaged with that was not made for children, and I was coming to it at a peculiarly receptive age. A perfect age. Somewhere around the same time that Twin Peaks was on, my mum, who was finishing an Open University course, told me about a book she was reading: Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. What if Gregor Samsa wasn’t really turned into an insect, she asked. What if it’s just how he felt? My mind was blown by that. I was ready for Lynch.

How different it is to love a piece of art when you are 12. The TV I watched back then was so much more vivid, the books so much more writable. Not because I’m growing feeble with nostalgia, but because as a kid with less history weighing you down on this side, it’s just easier to cross over into the screen or into the text, to imagine yourself within a different world, witnessing it, moving it in different directions. Watching Twin Peaks each week became a kind of sweet punishment because I cared so much about what happened and who it happened to. Growing up inevitably distances you from that, just as an appreciation of how cleverly something is put together can distance you from it even more. Today, I squirm at the punishments dispensed in Fortitude each Thursday because they are graphic and because I am squeamish, but I don’t truly feel for those affected by them, and these people die the moment I turn the TV off anyway. Twin Peaks – OK, and Back to the Future – those two great loves of my childhood seem to have depleted the reserves of genuine empathy I have for anybody else who is not strictly real.

Maybe it was the exhaustion of being so deeply involved. If Twin Peaks was a terrifying education, nudging me towards the idea that life can be a slippery thing of false surfaces, it was still a landscape to dream about. Despite the incest and murder, in Twin Peaks I found a place I wanted to live. In Special Agent Dale Cooper, I saw not just a protagonist, but a model for the kind of adult I wanted to one day be. Dashing but idiosyncratic, he provided an aspiration so lofty and outlandish that it swiftly became embarrassing.

There’s nothing quite like the power of art when it’s encountered in the early years of your life. That’s probably why we bend in such strange directions to try and recapture it. In the same paper that I read about David Lynch pulling out of a new series of Twin Peaks, there was a piece that looked at the emerging genre of colouring books aimed at adults, unlikely bestsellers filled with delicate mandalas of black ink designed to delight and perhaps enrage. David Lynch would understand that combination, I think – and if the bizarre imaginative sprawl of Twin Peaks is anything to judge him by, I think he would safely resist the impulse to stay within the lines.

Show Hide image

Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear