Lennon Naked

BBC4 has made some good biopics – this isn’t one of them.

On the way to visit friends, my husband and I try to work out how many John Lennon/Beatles biopics we've seen between us. Quite a few, it turns out. Before we've pulled out of the street, we've counted four: The Hours and Times, Backbeat, Two of Us, Nowhere Boy.

I tell T that the latest, Lennon Naked (23 June, 9.30pm), which I've seen and he hasn't, shows John L during his very worst period: in the late Sixties, when he dumps the band and his long-suffering wife Cynthia, and goes off with an artist called Yoko Ono (I use the word artist advisedly; in my view, she's about as close to being an artist as I am to climbing K2).

"Basically," I say, "he just acts like a total p**** throughout."

“Well," says T, "he'd earned the right to behave like a total p****."

I suppose this is true, and I'm happy to say that when I listen to Revolver, I don't give two hoots how unpleasant and narcissistic Lennon was. Lucky for me, I haven't yet caught the pathetic modern contagion that makes people expect great artists also to be lovely sorts, kind to children and garden hedgehogs. However, whether I want to spend 85 minutes watching someone pretend to be a genius behaving badly is a different matter. On balance, I don't. About half an hour into Lennon Naked, I could hear - above the din of John (Christopher Eccleston) and Yoko (Naoko Mori) wailing and beating biscuit tins with drumsticks - the sound of a barrel being scraped. It wasn't pleasant; it was worse, in fact, than being forced to listen to Lennon's self-pitying dirge "Mother" on a loop.

But first things first. Christopher Eccleston. He has never been a favourite actor of mine; there is something infuriatingly earnest and slightly histrionic about all his performances. He is so desperate to be great. Here, though, he was just disastrous. Not entirely his fault: he was dreadfully miscast. John Lennon died at 40; Christopher Eccleston is now 46. He made for a laughably raddled Mop Top, and even when Lennon had grown his hair and was deep into primal therapy, he looked pretty stupid (in 1970, Lennon was 30). It was as though Eccleston had turned up, not at a film set, but at a fancy-dress party: "I'm John Lennon! Can't you tell?" His Scouse accent was also too strong; Lennon, remember, was brought up by his aspirational Aunt Mimi. If you closed your eyes, it was like listening to Lily Savage.

The film looked not at the effect on Lennon of his absent slutty mummy, Julia, but at the misery caused by his absent drunken daddy, Freddie (it was screened as part of BBC4's fatherhood season). Oh dear. For a grown man, Lennon cleaved pathetically hard to the slights of his childhood, and if Robert Jones's script was supposed to make us sympathise with him, it roundly failed; self-obsession is never pretty, but here it was just boring and repetitive. "What about me? What about me?" he kept saying, a big baby in silly yellow spectacles and an Afghan coat. Freddie, who was played by Christopher Fairbank, an actor with a face as crêpey as a pair of hotel curtains, turned up at Lennon Towers with only a suitcase and an ancient overcoat to his name. We were supposed to think him sly, a user and a waster. But I was rooting for him; if I woke up and found I had a son like John Lennon, I'd need a stiff drink, too.

There followed an extended scene in Lennon's swimming pool: Eccleston was filmed underwater, as if in amniotic fluid - the most torpor-inducing attempt to pad a film I've seen in a long while. In recent years, BBC4 has screened some good biopics: Enid Blyton, Kenneth Williams, Margaret Thatcher. This film showed the danger of over-reliance on them. I know they're cheap; all the production designers on Lennon Naked had to get their hands on was a silly-looking Roller, a Tudorbethan house and a few second-hand kaftans. When they do Kenny Everett - yes, he's up next - they'll need only a beard and a giant pair of prosthetic breasts. But they should remember: one dead famous person does not a decent drama make.

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.

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

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