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

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In Kid Gloves, Knausgaardian style provides a route through a writer's grief

Adam Mars-Jones has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

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