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?

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
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The best film soundtracks to help you pretend you live in a magical Christmas world

It’s December. You no longer have an excuse.

It’s December, which means it’s officially time to crack out the Christmas music. But while Mariah Carey and Slade have their everlasting charms, I find the best way to slip into the seasonal spirit is to use a film score to soundtrack your boring daily activities: sitting at your desk at work, doing some Christmas shopping, getting the tube. So here are the best soundtracks and scores to get you feeling festive this month.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Although this is a children’s film, it’s the most grown-up soundtrack on the list. Think smooth jazz with a Christmas twist, the kind of tunes Ryan Gosling is playing at the fancy restaurant in La La Land, plus the occasional choir of precocious kids. Imagine yourself sat in a cocktail chair. You’re drinking an elaborate cocktail. Perhaps there is a cocktail sausage involved also. Either way, you’re dressed head-to-toe in silk and half-heartedly unwrapping Christmas presents as though you’ve already received every gift under the sun. You are so luxurious you are bored to tears of luxury – until a tiny voice comes along and reminds you of the true meaning of Christmas. This is the kind of life the A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack can give you. Take it with both hands.

Elf (2003)

There is a moment in Elf when Buddy pours maple syrup over his spaghetti, washing it all down with a bottle of Coca Cola. “We elves like to stick to the four main food groups,” he explains, “candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup.” This soundtrack is the audio equivalent – sickly sweet, sugary to an almost cloying degree, as it comes peppered with cute little flutes, squeaky elf voices and sleigh bells. The album Elf: Music from the Motion Picture offers a more durable selection of classics used in the movie, including some of the greatest 1950s Christmas songs – from Louis Prima’s 1957 recording of “Pennies from Heaven”, two versions of “Sleigh Ride”, Eddy Arnold’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and Eartha Kitt’s 1953 “Santa Baby”. But if a sweet orchestral score is more your thing, the Elf OST of course finishes things off with the track “Spaghetti and Syrup”. Just watch out for the sugar-rush headache.

Harry Potter (2001-2011)

There are some Christmas-specific songs hidden in each of the iconic Harry Potter scores, from “Christmas at Hogwarts” to “The Whomping Willow and The Snowball Fight” to “The Kiss” (“Mistletoe!” “Probably full of knargles”), but all the magical tinkling music from these films has a Christmassy vibe. Specifically concentrate on the first three films, when John Williams was still on board and things were still mostly wonderful and mystical for Harry, Ron and Hermione. Perfect listening for that moment just before the snow starts to fall, and you can pretend you’re as magical as the Hogwarts enchanted ceiling (or Ron, that one time).

Carol (2015)

Perhaps you’re just a little too sophisticated for the commercial terror of Christmas, but, like Cate Blanchett, you still want to feel gorgeously seasonal when buying that perfect wooden train set. Then the subtly festive leanings of the Carol soundtrack is for you. Let your eyes meet a stranger’s across the department store floor, or stare longingly out of the window as your lover buys the perfect Christmas tree from the side of the road. Just do it while listening to this score, which is pleasingly interspersed with songs of longing like “Smoke Rings” and “No Other Love”.

Holiday Inn (1942)

There’s more to this soundtrack than just “White Christmas”, from Bing Crosby singing “Let’s Start The New Year Off Right” to Fred Astaire’s “You’re Easy To Dance With” to the pair’s duet on “I’ll Capture Your Heart”. The score is perfect frosty walk music, too: nostalgic, dreamy, unapologetically merry all at once.

The Tailor of Gloucester (1993)

Okay, I’m being a little self-indulgent here, but bear with me. “The Tailor of Gloucester”, adapted from the Beatrix Potter story, was an episode of the BBC series The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends and aired in 1993. A Christmastime story set in Gloucester, the place I was born, was always going to be right up my street, and our tatty VHS came out at least once a year throughout my childhood. But the music from this is something special: songs “The Tailor of Gloucester”, “Songs From Gloucester” and “Silent Falls the Winter Snow” are melancholy and very strange, and feature the singing voices of drunk rats, smug mice and a very bitter cat. It also showcases what is in my view one of the best Christmas carols, “Sussex Carol.” If you’re the kind of person who likes traditional wreaths and period dramas, and plans to watch Victorian Baking at Christmas when it airs this December 25th, this is the soundtrack for you.

Home Alone (1990-1992)

The greatest, the original, the godfather of all Christmas film soundtracks is, of course, John William’s Home Alone score. This is for everyone who likes or even merely tolerates Christmas, no exceptions. It’s simply not Christmas until you’ve listened to “Somewhere in My Memory” 80,000 times whilst staring enviously into the perfect Christmassy homes of strangers or sung “White Christmas” to the mirror. I’m sorry, I don’t make the rules. Go listen to it now—and don't forget Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, which is as good as the first.

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