Dazed and confused

Steve Coogan is far too kind to his latest creation, a washed-up former roadie


Steve Coogan has admitted that he was disappointed by the low-key response last year to the first series of Saxondale, in which he plays an ex-roadie-turned-pest-control expert with anger management issues; he couldn't understand why more people didn't get it. Well, I did get it, and I wanted to love it: the title sequence, in which Tommy Saxondale's custard-coloured Mustang powers through the streets of Stevenage to the sound of "House of the King" by Focus, promised so much. (Focus, pop pickers, is a prog-rock band from the Netherlands; "House of the King" was also used as the theme tune for Don't Ask Me, the Seventies science show that made Magnus Pyke a household name, and is often mistaken for a Jethro Tull number.) An exuberant fart of flute and petrol, it announces the man so succinctly, Coogan could afford to cut back on Tommy's character-establishing range of tics - though he doesn't, of course. Why limit yourself to one twitch if you can get away with a dozen?

So why didn't I love it? It wasn't funny. The first series was ruthlessly well-observed, from the way Tommy chomped his beard (it was like watching a tortoise in a wig go at a nice bit of butter lettuce) to the way he pottered at home (the red-brick doll's house on a close that he shares with his girlfriend, Magz, is as far from backstage madness as Genesis are from being cool). Rasmus Hardiker, who plays Tommy's ghostly assistant Raymond, was divine: a giant Adam's apple in overalls. But everything the characters said had the feeling of having been worked to within an inch of its life. Tommy would bare his awful teeth, some long and overly rehearsed line would lollop out, and all I could picture was Coogan and his co-writer Neil MacLennan splitting their sides at their own devastating wit. As Tommy might put it, the script was like Phil Collins: however hard it tried, it never quite managed to sing.

I couldn't fathom how they were going to crank out a second series and, now I've seen the first part (23 August, 9.30pm), I know that they barely can. There's the comedy of embarrassment, and then there's plain embarrassment: boring plots, lame and repetitive jokes, the sight of talented actors clinging desperately to the fact that they are better than their lines (Morwenna Banks, who plays Vicky, the secretary at the pest-control business, might as well have a sign above her head that says: "Directors, please audition me! I'm great, even in dross like this!"). The pity of it is that, occasionally, you see flashes of what Saxondale could be. It's good when a surrealist note creeps in. In the opening scene, Tommy was at his anger management group, trying to make a fool out of a man who'd boasted of his adventures with cocaine and prostitutes. Tommy listed a series of his own ever more outlandish escapades, which ended with him saying: "Then I stole a live dolphin and used it as a bong."

If you pay close attention (actually, you could watch it with one eye closed and the other on Philip Roth and still notice this), you'll grasp that Tommy Saxondale is just late-era Alan Partridge with a beard and a Captain Beefheart T-shirt: neither one can control his rages, both are living on past glories, both have a desperate desire to get one over on the more successful. But late-era Partridge was hilarious and very black; it had something genuinely savage to say about celebrity. Tommy, on the other hand, was never much of a success in the first place - an East Coast tour with Emerson, Lake and Palmer was about the height of it - and now he is cosily ensconced with Magz, who makes him pea-and-ham soup and strokes his crinkly hair. This sweetness is the work of a comic (Coogan) who is entering middle age himself; perhaps he can't help but be a bit kind to his creation. But it's a fatal weakening on his part. The monster market - Partridge, David Brent, Malcolm in The Thick of It - relies for its success on its creators' unblinking and pitiless detachment. Moist eyes and fond smiles just will not do.

Pick of the week

Boys From the Brown Stuff
27 August, 9pm, BBC2
Fascinating film about “flushers” – the men who unblock sewers.

Starts 28 August, 10.35pm, BBC1
Claire Skinner and Hugh Dennis star in new family sitcom.

The Restaurant
Starts 29 August, 8pm, BBC2
Raymond Blanc assesses nine couples running their own place.

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 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Bush: Is the president imploding?

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Windows on the soul: AS Byatt on Simon Schama's The Face of Britain

Britain’s portraits tell stories of subversion and obsession in a book which reveals something new on every page.

The Face of Britain accompanies Simon Schama’s BBC Television series on British portraits, and the form of the book keeps very closely to the form of the broadcasts. There are examinations of single faces, in single lives, ranging from the earliest days when real faces were studied and represented, to photographs of life in Notting Hill in the 1960s and 1970s taken by the Jamaican-born Charlie Phillips. The studies are roughly but not narrowly chronological, and are arranged thematically in groups – “The Face of Power”, “The Face of Love”, “The Face of Fame”, “The Face in the Mirror”, “Faces of the People”. Most of the studies concentrate on one face, one person – the historical and psychological moment, the relation between artist and subject.

Schama begins with a meditation on faces and how we scan them. Like him, I knew my children were searching to see my face from the moment of birth, even though theory then said this was not possible. Eyes, he says, are the part of our body that does not change size. How do we recognise individuals in their portraits? How do we know what Francis Bacon or Thomas Gainsborough saw when they made their works – or Samuel Palmer, or Gwen John?

Schama’s first example is the painting that Graham Sutherland made of Winston Churchill in 1954. He writes succinctly and splendidly about the historical moment, Churchill’s expectations, Sutherland’s lack of prior thought about painting history. Churchill and his wife disliked the work intensely and it was covertly destroyed. Schama shows us a transparency that survived – and remarks that it “is enough to make it painfully clear what was lost in the fires of Lady Churchill’s sorrow and anger”. He knows the history, the biography, and the art history, and connects them subtly.

The succession of finite broadcasts, one after the other, turns out to be a wonderful form to read. We meet the individuals, painters and painted, in their own worlds, as we would in an art gallery, before moving on to the next – and yet the juxtapositions change the individuals.

“The Face of Power” shows us the iconic images of Charles I by van Dyck and others, as well as Cromwell in a marvellous miniature by Samuel Cooper, warts and all; Schama comments on the painterly brilliance of the warts: “so lovingly rendered that they cast their own individual shadows, from the pimply one at the crease of the brow to the majestic King Wart beneath his lower lip, incompletely concealed by a small beard”. This section also contains the family faces of power – the ambivalent domesticity of Victoria and Albert, the aristocrats of the 18th-century Kit-Cat Club – and also James Gillray’s ferocious mockery of royalty and politicians: Pitt as a toadstool on a dunghill, or as Death in a lethal parody of Milton. Yet the image that sticks most in the memory is Gillray’s image of himself, drawn as “the dimness closed in” and titled Pray Pity the Sorrows of a Poor Blind Man. He is grey, with closed eyes and few teeth, begging; and this sadly decrepit figure is scribbled over with shadows and spidery blots in fine black lines, unfinished faces and figures.

Towards the end of “The Face of Love” Schama juxtaposes two studies of obsession – Lewis Carroll’s photographs of Alice Liddell and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s repeated paintings of William Morris’s wife, Jane, or Janey. It is interesting that I, too, keep these images side by side in my mind. My primary emotion about them is a ferocious embarrassment.

Carroll’s photographs of prepubescent girls were part of a cult in the early days of photography. They represented innocence. He had to proceed with caution in asking for permission – above all for photographs of naked nymphets in their purity and truth. Alice Liddell lived her life as the girl to whom the Wonderland was told. Reading little girls like me admired the written Alice, for her brave and intelligent independence, whatever mad thing came her way. Yet what we see here of the real Alice is not loveable.

Schama juxtaposes three images of Alice Liddell. One in carefully arranged tatters, a little girl holding out a begging hand, both quizzical and sad. It is hard to like her and hard not to feel she is being used. Then there is the photograph Carroll took of Alice when she was 18 – an image to which I return again and again. She is a young woman with her hair up, sitting in a leather-covered chair, in a pretty dress, and corseted. Her head is turned aside. She is looking down. Her mouth is sulky – or something stronger than sulky. Her body is embarrassed in an angry way. What was the Reverend Charles Dodgson thinking?

And then Schama prints a photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron from 1872 of Alice as Pomona: looking ahead, still with the corners of her mouth downturned. Schama argues that Cameron’s strong woman, long-haired and inviolate, is both a deliberate reference to Dodgson’s poses and an assertion of female independence.

There is something terrible about Rossetti’s renderings of Janey Morris’s louring beauty. Schama prints a photograph of her at Morris’s ideal country home – Kelmscott, from which Morris generously went away, in order to leave Rossetti and Janey together. Janey is brandishing willow boughs, part of the language of Morris’s life and work. She is unforgettable, threatening and a captive. I was amazed to find that L S Lowry of all people collected paintings of Janey – because he found her terrifying. I try to imagine how Morris felt, at home with these images by his wife’s lover on his wall. Janey, like Alice Liddell, is being used by her artist-lover.

“The Face in the Mirror” deals with self-portraits, and particularly the rendering of women, and women’s bodies, by women. Schama interweaves the stories of two great artists – Laura Knight (1877-1970) and Gwen John (1876-1939). How does a woman present herself, in a world where nudes have been desirable or repellent; objects, not subjects? There is a wonderful discussion of Knight’s self-portrait of 1913, which Schama says is a masterpiece. In it, she is standing in the foreground, seen from behind, in businesslike clothes, a scarlet working jacket and “her favourite high-crowned black fedora”. She is painting a female nude from the back, whom we see on a raised stage and on canvas – an intricate form, rendered exactly. The impression of work being done, the relation between the women, is complicated yet simple. Schama’s background descriptions of other standing naked women with clothed companions is masterly. He made me look and learn.

I know of Gwen John, I thought – I look at her paintings whenever I can, and have always been happy that her then more famous brother Augustus insisted she was a better painter than he was. Like Knight, she painted herself clothed with a naked model. Schama shows two self-portraits, one from 1902, calm in a red blouse with a cameo at her neck (the only painting she signed) and the other, a few years later, in a brown shirt, holding a letter. Schama recounts her wild and desperate affair with Rodin in heart-rending detail; it changed her from poised New Woman to maniacal letter-writer and obsessive sex object: “My master. I am not an artist. I am a model and I want to remain your model for ever.” Later she went back to drawing and painting: nude women, a series of nude self-portraits, “executed with a kind of wistful tentativeness, images that seem to stir and move a little in the empty white space as if blown by a draught coming through the window”.

As he does throughout The Face of Britain, Schama deepens our understanding and excites our interest – the two women illuminate not only each other but also the work of Tracey Emin and Yoko Ono. He is a great storyteller and we learn something new on every page.

A S Byatt’s most recent book is “Ragnarok: the End of the Gods” (Canongate)

Simon Schama appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 29 November

The Face of Britain: the Nation Through its Portraits by Simon Schama is published by Viking (£30, 603pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis