Robert Hanks

3 September 2020

On ‘Penda’s Fen’

I’m old-fashioned enough to think that for something to count as a cult, it should be dark, subterranean and bound up with sacred mysteries. On that definition, Penda’s Fen (1974) may be the only authentic cult TV I’ve come across.

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12 September 2018

‘It Happened Here’

Fascism in fiction has been in vogue for a while now: the television versions of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Man in the High Castle, Penguin’s republication (on the day of Trump’s inauguration) of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, people scurrying to the bookshelves to note all the pre-echoes of Steve Bannon’s politics in Philip Roth’s The Plot against America. I don’t know what emotional need these might-have-beens and could-it-yet-bes serve, unless it’s a version of ferreting around in Nostradamus for strings of words that might be contorted into a prediction of something that’s just happened: things feel more manageable when you can tell yourself that someone saw this coming.

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8 July 2015

At Cemetery Junction

When Vittorio De Sica was looking for funding to make the film that became Bicycle Thieves, the story goes, David O. Selznick offered to put up the money on condition that the lead would be played by Cary Grant. Film historians tend to take this as an instance of Hollywood crassness, though maybe it should be classed as one of cinema’s lost opportunities.

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11 February 2014

Hey ho, the wind and the rain

When that I was and a little tiny boy, or at any rate about 14 years old, I was deeply disconcerted by J.G. Ballard’s novel The Drowned World, set in a London submerged by the melting of the polar icecaps under a tropical swamp. Now I see it for the utopian dream it was – tropical? We should be so lucky. Hey ho, the wind and the rain.

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13 February 2013

The Man Who Would Be Pope

As everyone knows by now, it’s 600 years since a pope last resigned. It’s even longer than that since the pope was an Englishman: Hadrian IV (1154-59) is the only one there’s been so far, and it seems unlikely there’ll be another any time soon, despite the aspirations of the Twitter account @tonyforpope: 'Tony Blair. Regular guy, former PM, saviour of Western civilisation, next pope.' Hadrian IV has had a few fictional successors, though. Hadrian the Seventh (1904) is a brilliant fantasy self-portrait by Frederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo.

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26 January 2011

Upping the Circus Quotient

With bread prices rising, governments are having to think about upping the circus quotient: hence, the conspiracy theories run, the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton; and hence the signing of an agreement this month for Edinburgh Zoo to receive two pandas, Tian Tian and Yangguang. Royalty and pandas have more in common than you might think: both have found their ecological niche shrinking, but have managed to cling on by rebranding themselves as a tourist draw; both have suffered over the years from a failure to renew the gene pool; and this helps to explain why both come under intense public pressure to perform sexually and produce offspring.

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21 October 2010

Natural Causes

On 18 March last year a fox, or foxes, found their way through a damaged fence into the penguin enclosure at London Zoo and slaughtered 11 rockhopper and blackfooted penguins. News of the massacre only appeared this weekend, after the Independent got hold of a report on the zoo from inspectors at Westminster Council; since 2007, foxes have also killed a flamingo chick, a chicken and two mara (which the Independent described as ‘rodents resembling small kangaroos’; they’re more like guinea pigs on stilts).

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13 July 2010

Vindictive Tendencies

Claire Bloom – Ophelia to Scofield and Burton; Lady Anne to Olivier’s Richard III; the girl handpicked by Chaplin to play his protegée in Limelight, the last of his films to have any shadow of greatness; Lady Marchmain in the original television Brideshead Revisited – is going to appear in an episode of The Bill next week. Whatever you think of Bloom’s acting (she’s always struck me as limited by her self-conscious seriousness; try to imagine her telling a joke), and despite her stints in daytime drama in the US and last year’s cameo as the Doctor’s mother on Dr Who, she will be an incongruous presence on ITV’s long-running, soon-to-be-axed cop opera, with its notoriously plodding scripts and cut-price production values. (A series like The Wire still only shows the way poverty blights imagination; The Bill embodies it.)

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14 June 2010

Something else is alive

The news of a fox attacking nine-month-old twins less than a mile away has caused much excitement in Hackney. The fox is assumed to have entered the house through a patio door left open on a warm Saturday night, then wandered up the stairs and into the bedroom where the babies, Lola and Isabella Koupparis, were asleep. Afterwards, three foxes were trapped in the family’s garden and killed.

Local feeling has been appalled, but also thrilled – perhaps rather more of the latter than decency would dictate, given that the children’s injuries turned out to be far more serious than initial reports suggested (Isabella spent several days in intensive care, and a week on remains in hospital). In part, this is the ordinary frisson of having been in the vicinity of, but not directly affected by, calamity; but it seems to me that the real thrill has come from a revelation of nature, red in tooth &c., on our doorstep, from seeing it proved that, as Jeff Goldblum says in Jurassic Park, 'Life finds a way.'

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21 April 2010

A New England

On the Today programme last Thursday, Billy Bragg was interviewed about his play (or, as he describes it, ‘part play, part gig, part installation’) Pressure Drop, a collaboration with the playwright Mick Gordon. It’s about being white and working-class in modern Britain, and was inspired by the conspicuous success of the British National Party in Bragg’s home patch, Barking in Essex. While Bragg’s contempt for the BNP is unwavering – he had a stand-up row with their candidate in Barking and Dagenham on Monday – he says that ‘immigration, the ability of people to move where the work is now, has changed the face of the borough.’ He himself has moved to the noticeably more homogeneous locale of south Dorset, but members of his family, including his mother, still live in Barking. One of the characters in Pressure Drop, a grandmother in her seventies, has the following lines: ‘Do you know what came through the door yesterday? Something from a witchdoctor. A witchdoctor? I just don't know any more. I'm starting not to recognise the place.’ Bragg glossed: ‘That actually happened to my mum’ – someone had posted a flyer offering to cast spells to improve her love life and make her richer.

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