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.

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture