Pegg is best-known for comedy, but says he would still like to “do some serious acting”. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Is it time to take Simon Pegg seriously?

The actor’s comments about the infantilisation of culture have caused a storm. Is he right to want to put away childish things?

The conflation between high drama and seriousness, like the one between pop-culture and frivolity, is nothing new. It’s a surprise, though, to find it being made by the actor and writer Simon Pegg, who has form in both areas. Promoting his new comedy, Man Up, he told the Radio Times this week that “part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste… Now we’re essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes... Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously! It is a kind of dumbing down in a way. Because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about... whatever. Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.”

He has since elaborated on these points in an interesting and articulate post on his own site in which he links his remarks to the infantilisation of culture that he helped explore in the Channel 4 sitcom Spaced. But it’s still the case, I think, that his initial comments depend on some old assumptions about different types of cinema.

Pegg is best-known for comedy, especially the kind with a geeky, fanboy sheen (such as Edgar Wright’s “Cornetto” trilogy, which began in 2004 with Shaun of the Dead, and which Pegg co-wrote and starred in), or else for big-budget franchise instalments (the third, fourth and fifth Mission: Impossible movies, the first two entries in the Star Trek reboot). But he is also a former drama student, so he must realise that the distinction he makes is slightly bogus. It isn’t exactly the problem that superhero movies are detracting from our engagement with moral issues – the two are not mutually exclusive, as anyone who has seen the first two X-Men films, or Superman II, or has studied Greek mythology will attest. Complex moral and philosophical conundrums can be wrestled with adeptly in those arenas. If cinema can be at its most mature when the cast is filled with plastic figures (Toy Story) or headlined by a rubber alien (E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial), superheroes aren’t going to be much of an impediment. Genre itself is not the issue so much as what filmmakers do within it.

It’s also interesting that Pegg admits to missing “grown-up things” and says he would “quite like to go off and do some serious acting”. He’s trading in some invidious distinctions here. Whenever this particular actor has taken on so-called “grown-up” or “serious” projects, they have usually been striking in their lack of sophistication. A Fantastic Fear of Everything was a comic thriller that felt like the end result of a brief course of psychotherapy: any drama was theoretical, any conclusions jaw-droppingly banal and lifted straight from a textbook. Still, it wasn’t as bad as another of Pegg’s “grown-up” projects, Hector and the Search for Happiness, a self-help manual in cinematic form, full of zany characters and smug homilies.

It would be perverse to claim these movies were more intelligent or skilful than, say, the Star Trek films or Shaun of the Dead, or that Pegg himself was anywhere near as accomplished as he is in The World’s End – sure, that’s a comic fantasy about a small town taken over by robots from outer space, but his performance as a recovering suicidal alcoholic stuck hopelessly stuck in the past is nuanced, moving and funny. If growing up means leaving behind work like that, I would advise strongly against it.

Pegg isn’t the first comic who has felt he might like to be taken more seriously, or has experienced ambivalence toward the very audience who gave him his success. When I interviewed him three years ago, he told me: “People deserve a poke in the face. Maybe not a poke in the face. But the ribs, at least. I like the idea of confounding audiences to a degree, challenging their expectations. We are given what we expect so much now. There’s this desperate fear of upsetting anyone. All we get in the cinema are 3D fireworks displays. But interaction is more important than passive watching; that’s just a waste of the art form. My attitude goes back to Howard Barker’s book Arguments for a Theatre, and his insistence that it should be painful and awkward and difficult for the audience.” Hear, hear. The mistake would be if Pegg equated this with putting away childish things. Keep them by all means. Just keep putting some thought and cunning into how you play with them.

Man Up opens 29 May

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.

Show Hide image

"We’ve got things in common": why one of the EDL's original members quit

An early supporter of the group, painter-decorator Darren Carroll has had death threats since he left. But why did he change his mind about the English Defence League?

Darren Carroll is a slight man with bright blue eyes and an urgent need for redemption. A painter-decorator in his fifties, he has lived in Luton his whole life. He was one of the original members of the English Defence League (EDL), the far-right street movement founded by Carroll’s nephew Tommy Robinson.

Recently, things haven’t been easy. Four months before our meeting at a café near Luton Airport Parkway Station, Carroll had a minor stroke that affected his speech and vision. It was the delayed fallout from an attack in a pub across the road, his local. A stranger, who seemed to know a lot about him, started a conversation. “He showed me his arm. It was tattooed. There was a little bit of white skin left on the whole sleeve,” says Carroll. “He said, ‘Look at that.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘White is right.’ I said, ‘Nah, mate, I know exactly where you’re coming from. There’s nothing wrong with being white but there’s nothing right with it.’”

The man pretended to leave the pub, then walked back in and hit Carroll hard on the back of the head with his forearm. Afterwards, Carroll suffered persistent headaches. It caused a blood clot that set off the stroke. When we met, he had mostly recovered but was still unable to work.

It was not the first attack. Carroll has also had his front door kicked in. He and his children have received death threats. “This is since speaking up,” he says. “Not leaving – that’s different.”

Carroll looks uncomfortable when we discuss the early days of the EDL. “It was an organic thing,” he says. “Lots of people were involved at the very beginning for different reasons. Personally, I was not happy with the way the town was being run on a political level. Looking back, I was disenfranchised from mainstream politics.”

Luton has the dubious distinction of being a centre of both far-right and Islamist extremism. The EDL began here in 2009, in response to a demonstration organised by Anjem Choudary’s now banned extremist group al-Muhajiroun, which in turn was a reaction against an army regiment marching in Luton.

A counterprotest led to arrests and the EDL was born, with sometimes violent neo-fascist street protests spreading across the country. Robinson insisted from the outset that the EDL was not racist, but only “against the rise of radical Islam”. Carroll says it was local difficulties, rather than national issues such as immigration, that unsettled and motivated him – and he didn’t articulate the core problem as racism against white people, not even to himself. The EDL has never had a formal membership, but the think tank Demos estimated that there were between 25,000 and 35,000 active members in 2011, a loose coalition of football hooligans and far-right activists. Today, the numbers are much reduced.

Carroll’s family was closely involved and it was a while before he realised that the EDL was an extremist, racist group. He describes being at a demo in Birmingham soon after the first protest. “I looked at the other lads there and I didn’t like them. They didn’t smell right for me, as far as integrity goes. I thought, ‘I don’t want this.’” Carroll’s parents are Irish and he considers himself the child of immigrants.

It took several months for him to extricate himself from the group and stop attending demonstrations. “It’s a relationship breaker, so you’ve got to accept that things are broken for ever.” On building sites, he was known as the EDL guy. Work dried up.

Amid attempts to coerce him back into the movement, and concerned about damaging his family relationships, Carroll stayed silent for another year and a half, only starting to speak up a few years after he left the EDL. This triggered a new wave of threats. He reeled off a list of incidents: slashed tyres, smashed windows. “Last week, I got one on Facebook [saying] that I’m a ginger Muslim and I’m gonna get shot. That was someone I know privately, which I don’t take as a threat. Their particular problem seems to be that I’m on record saying I’d have a cup of tea in a mosque and sit down and talk to people.”

Carroll did so after seeing a Facebook post by a local activist, Dawood Masood. Masood had shared a video of an imam in Leicester speaking about terrorist violence, with a message saying that any EDL members were welcome to get in touch. Carroll met him and others from the Muslim community and they discussed ways to make Luton better. He told them that he wasn’t interested in religion, but invited them to what he considers his church: Luton Town FC.

“I had the idea it’s about setting precedents, because you never know who or what that affects,” he says. “I just thought, if I’m seen going to the football with them, it’s going to break a big piece of ice.”

As the EDL evolved largely from a football subculture, this was a bold step. They went to the match. “He’s Luton born and bred and he certainly don’t need his hand held. But I made him as comfortable as possible. Luton scored and he’s jumping up and down, loving it. At that point, I thought: ‘This is really Luton harmony. He’s cheering for the same thing and I’m cheering for the same thing. We’re both happy together at this moment in time. We’ve got things in common.’”

They have been to many matches since, Masood bringing his kids, Carroll his grandkids. Carroll has had a few threatening calls but remains undeterred. “The working-class Muslim lads are working-class Muslim lads. They’ve got all the same problems and social issues as us white, working-class people. It’s not just me or us. It’s everyone.” 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage