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?

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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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