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Review: Skios by Michael Frayn


Michael Frayn

Faber & Faber, 224pp, £15.99

Michael Frayn’s new novel is an attempt, not exactly doomed from the start though botched in the execution, to borrow devices associated with one narrative form and put them to work in another. The setting is a sun-kissed retreat devoted to the promotion of civilised values but teetering on the brink of chaos. The Fred Toppler Foundation has a dead figurehead – the one-time major shareholder of TipToppler Beauty Products; a living figurehead, Toppler’s glamorous, much younger widow (formerly known as the dancer Bahama LeStarr and Apricot del Rio); and a reclusive, paranoid director. In the absence of leadership, whether living, or competent, or sane, it falls to Nikki Hook, Mrs Toppler’s PA, to organise the annual Great European House Party and its climactic event, the Fred Toppler Lecture.

The chaos of stage farce is replicated all right; what is missing is a sense of how easily, how invisibly, such things can occur. The central mishap turns on Nikki, known for her diligence, driving to Skios Airport to pick up the latest lecturer, an expert on scientometrics, without any way of identifying him, and returning with the wrong man.

Oliver Fox is a playboy tired of the lifestyle (“Why do I do this kind of thing?”) who resolves to train as a doctor at just the moment Nikki appears in his sights at Arrivals waving a name-card. Being Oliver Fox is “destroying his life”, so he decides to becomes Dr Norman Wilfred instead.

Dr Wilfred is no less fed up with his existence (“Why does one do it?”) and is happy to find himself ensconced at the villa where Oliver was due to meet Georgie, his latest catch. Where Nikki is in the dark about her impostor, Georgie knows full well that Dr Wilfred isn’t Oliver, but she still needs someone to apply her suntan lotion. Needless to say, the stud wings it as a nerd better than the other way around. The scenes with Oliver at the Toppler Foundation and Dr Wilfred at the villa are founded on the idea that anyone can imitate academic jargon, whereas convincing sweet-talk is a rare gift indeed.

Frayn thickens the plot quite considerably, as is to be expected, but without his usual rigour. Characters come across as obstinate rather than short-sighted, and the whole island appears to be suffering a bout of forgetfulness, affecting place names and directions in particular. The internet exists in the novel, but the characters refrain from using it when doing so would complicate events for their creator (that is, make matters more straightforward). Dim-witted female characters are a legitimate comedy resource in farce, but the stupidity here is too extreme. At one point, Georgie mistakes another of Oliver’s girlfriends for a foreign cleaner: “The woman had cleared out even the great muddle of creams and lotions that Georgie had left around the washbasin. They were all in the pool.”

It isn’t just that the narrative wheels are visible, it’s that they are visible in the moment of being greased. Georgie and Nikki are old schoolfriends – the party-going airhead and the goody-two-shoes – so Frayn goes out of his way to conceal their whereabouts from one another. Georgie is under the impression that Nikki works not on Skios but with “skiers”, but at the precise moment she reveals her confusion over the phone (“since you’re in Switzerland”) Nikki is “distracted”. When, during another phone call 120 pages on, Georgie finally refers to her location, Nikki “didn’t hear”.

It’s possible to imagine these near-misses being livelier on stage – in a double-centred scene, perhaps – but the effect here is exasperating in the wrong way. Fiction, even when it “shows”, is still bound to a form of telling (verbal description) and a consecutive form at that. It is hardly surprising that farce, so dependent on visual humour and simultaneous action, developed as a genre of the theatre and remains one. The stage directions of Noises Off would hardly be expected to leave you crying with laughter, and Skios is a book of stage directions. Stage directions with a thesis tacked on. The common ground between farce and philosophy is territory that Frayn has made his own, principally by treating farce not as a potential vehicle for philosophy, but as a branch of philosophy, with reflection on fate and human agency, appearance and reality built into its DNA. In his best work, farce is a machine that thinks. Here, however, he adopts the farce-as-vehicle approach. Not content with cultivating what the form organically and inevitably secretes, he arranges details to suit his themes (Wilfred is a near-anagram of “free will”), and towards the end there is even a section where he indulges in teacherly direct address. But the impulses aren’t integrated. Aristophanes passes the baton to Aristotle, who passes it back again. Meanwhile, the reader, tossed between traditions, choking on comic conceits, and still waiting for all those pennies to drop, assumes the role of a pantomime-goer stripped of all comforts: alone in the auditorium, and with nothing to yell at but the book.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Halal: Britain’s most feared food

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

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.