Stephen Mangan in Sky Arts' Birthday. Photo: Sky Arts
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The Mumsnet bloggers left me queasy – but Birthday is still excellent television

I loved Birthday, but the bloggers were mostly unable to see beyond personal experience in the matter of art.

Birthday
Sky Arts

The people at Sky Arts, now one channel instead of two, invited me to a preview of Birthday (began 9 June), an adaptation by Joe Penhall of his 2012 stage play of the same name. It was held at a smart hotel, with drinks, and the screening was followed by a panel discussion with Penhall and the film’s star, Stephen Mangan. There was, however, a catch. The publicist had warned me that the Mumsnet bloggers would be out in force: the film is about childbirth, but with a twist, as it is Mangan’s character who’s in the delivery room groaning like a hippopotamus on heat. And so it proved. There they all were, eager to share their own thoughts on NHS midwives and husbandly trauma. Crikey, but my palms were sweaty. Having once been on the receiving end of a particularly vile Mumsnet thread, I am somewhat sceptical of the idea that the website is all about supporting women. Basically, it plays the Death Star to my Princess Leia.

I loved the film, but was mildly depressed by the discussion afterwards, during which the bloggers – and even the chair of the panel, Fi Glover – were mostly unable to see beyond personal experience in the matter of art. In essence, it was their view that Birthday could only really mean anything if one could “relate” to it; which, luckily, they all could, in their capacity as mothers. It seemed not to occur to them that one of the functions of art is to take us elsewhere. And what about empathy and imagination? No one mentioned those, either, which seemed particularly dumb in the case of Birthday, a drama that set out to convince its audience that a man was having a baby. Apparently, they had no trouble at all “relating” to this bit of scientific craziness, perhaps because they just shot conveniently past his testicles to the birth itself, which they very much could, you know, connect with, etc etc.

If they’d glanced in my direction, they would have noticed that the conceit had certainly worked on me, in spite of the outrageous fact that – whisper it – I’ve never given birth. Eew. By the end, I felt distinctly shaky. OK, I wasn’t mad on the dialogue, which began by being funny and quite subtle but then descended into a pretty trite meditation on the loveliness of being a parent and of, well, love in general. But I relished the expert direction (by Roger Michell) and the performances, which were so deliciously well judged, each character (the play is basically a three-hander) contriving to rub the others up in just the right wrong way. Anna Maxwell Martin put in a marvellously understated turn as the mostly unsympathetic wife who, having given birth to their first child, was determined to be unimpressed by her husband’s querulous demands for raspberry leaf tea and a Tens machine, and Llewella Gideon was a hoot as the incompetent and borderline-sadist midwife. As for Mangan, he was properly, outrageously brilliant, moving from petulant and slightly blustering to exhausted and finally to frightened without ever losing sight of the essence of his character, who is just a little bit of a chump.

Although his prostheses – a belly as tight as a drum and a neat little pair of heavy breasts that he fondled somewhat forlornly at one point – were amazing, I feel certain he would have been just as convincing without them. Physical pain and indignity are difficult things to portray; the danger is always that, in the effort to convey them to the audience, hamminess will set in. But not in the case of Mangan. I believed in his discomfort and humiliation –“I’ve been fingered more times than an unripe avocado!” he shouted as yet another hand was shoved up his backside – to the point where I was rather surprised to see him ambling casually from the back of the screening room and plonking himself down on a chair on the stage. Hadn’t we just seen him begging for a doughnut-shaped cushion on which to rest his sore behind? For a second, I thought of rolling up my coat and rushing to his aid. But then the Mumsnet crowd began talking, and reality – or at any rate, their epidurals – set in, and I came to my senses, imagination swiftly departing the room, and with it all of my queasiness. 

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 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

Pompidou Centre
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Harry Styles: What can three blank Instagram posts tell us about music promotion?

Do the One Direction star’s latest posts tell us about the future of music promotion in the social media age - or take us back to a bygone era?

Yesterday, Harry Styles posted three identical, captionless blank images to Instagram. He offered no explanation on any other social network, and left no clue via location serves or tagged accounts as to what the pictures might mean. There was nothing about any of the individual images that suggested they might have significance beyond their surface existence.

And, predictably, they brought in over a million likes – and thousands of Styles fans decoding them with the forensic dedication of the cast of Silent Witness.

Of course, the Instagrams are deliberately provocative in their vagueness. They reminded me of Robert Rauschenberg’s three-panelled White Painting (1951), or Robert Ryman’s Untitled, three square blank canvases that hang in the Pompidou Centre. The composer John Cage claimed that the significance of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings lay in their status as receptive surfaces that respond to the world around them. The significance of Styles’s Instagrams arguably, too, only gain cultural relevance as his audience engages with them.

So what did fans make of the cryptic posts? Some posited a modelling career announcement would follow, others theorised that it was a nod to a Taylor Swift song “Blank Space”, and that the former couple would soon confirm they were back together. Still more thought this suggested an oncoming solo album launch.

You can understand why a solo album launch would be on the tip of most fans’ tongues. Instagram has become a popular platform for the cryptic musical announcement — In April, Beyoncé teased Lemonade’s world premiere with a short Instagram video – keeping her face, and the significance behind the title Lemonade, hidden.

Creating a void is often seen as the ultimate way to tease fans and whet appetites. In June last year, The 1975 temporarily deleted their Instagram, a key platform in building the band’s grungy, black and white brand, in the lead up to the announcement of their second album, which involved a shift in aesthetic to pastel pinks and bright neons.

The Weekend wiped his, too, just last week – ahead of the release of his new single “Starboy”. Blank Instagrams are popular across the network. Jaden Smith has posted hundreds of them, seemingly with no wider philosophical point behind them, though he did tweet in April last year, “Instagram Is A BlackHole Of Time And Energy.”

The motive behind Harry’s blank posts perhaps seems somewhat anticlimactic – an interview with magazine Another Man, and three covers, with three different hairstyles, to go along with it. But presumably the interview coincides with the promotion of something new – hopefully, something other than his new film Dunkirk and the latest update on his beloved tresses. In fact, those blank Instagrams could lead to a surprisingly traditional form of celebrity announcement – one that surfaces to the world via the print press.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.