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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

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