The Sacred Cows column was a popular column in Uncut around the turn of the Millennium, dismantling the reputations of artistes and artefacts hitherto regarded to have been above criticism, ranging from Spike Milligan to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin On? But who was The Reaper? And was he serious?

Friday, March 12th, 2004

Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando is considered a massive influence, not just in movies. Gore Vidal even credited him with the spiritual invention of rock’n’roll. A star pupil of the Method Acting school, he supposedly brought a rugged, physical/emotional dimension of spontaneity to cinema, liberating male leads from the stylised constrictions of previous generations, investing an intensity into his roles that transcended the dictates of script and conventional direction. As Jack Nicholson said, “He gave us our freedom”.

Freedom indeed. Freedom to make a virtue of lazy, macho, overblown self-satisfaction, something Nicholson certainly learned from The Master. Freedom from such bothersome tasks as actually learning your part – Brando used cue cards from 1958 onwards, even for his minimal, grossly overpaid role in 1978’s Superman. Freedom to rest on your laurels for decades. Brando did indeed attain a freedom in Hollywood but it was an undeserved and squandered one.

Brando’s filmography is substantial and mostly forgettable. T’would be easy to mock his obese oil tycoon in 1980’s The Formula or his clayfooted efforts at light comedy in 1964’s Bedtime Story. Yet Brando is, in a sense at his worst in his most “unforgettable” moments which have become became the stuff of much-mocked cliche. (Brando’s “What’you got?” rebel persona was having the piss ripped out of it even in 1960, by Frank Gorshin in The Bells Are Ringing). His biker cool pose, for instance, in The Wild One, is so dated it would be considered too laughably camp in a provincial gay nightclub.

As for A Streetcar Named Desire, he’s beefy and physical enough, giving Vidal wet dreams in his wet, ripped t-shirt. Give him more than two sentences to string together, however, and it’s like listening to hardened criminals on their first day of drama therapy at Wormwood Scrubs. Having made his reputation as a proponent of masculine self-pity (cf On The Waterfront, whose famous speech Brando sounds like he’s reciting off the side of Rod Steiger’s hat), Brando began to specialise in self-indulgence, believing he could play any part, from his mumbling, broody Napoleon in Desiree to his mumbling, broody Sky Masterson in Guys’n’Dolls, in which his “singing” parts had to be cut and pasted together on tape from the bits where he wasn’t out of key. Brando spent the Sixties cultivating an ironic scorn and high-minded distance from Hollywood, while simultaneously taking every naff part going in a series of blisteringly minor movies, including Chaplin’s dismal The Countess From Hong Kong.

By the Seventies, Brando’s name was mud in Hollywood – an unreliable has-been. However, Francis Ford Coppola held out for him in The Godfather and rescued his career. How unjust, then, that what should be remembered as Al Pacino’s movie, the young war hero turned chilling Don, is instead forever recalled by hoarse parodies of Brando’s ridiculous Vito Corleone, whose “character” consists in stuffing his mouth full of Kleenex and playing a man in his late Fifties as if he’s in his late Eighties. All Brando brings to the film is the weight of his reputation, as opposed to substance to his part. When it came to Apocalypse Now, Brando brought weight in a literal sense, about 1000 extra pounds of it to the role of “gaunt” Colonel Kurtz. How did the fat fuck show his gratitude to Coppola, his saviour? By threatening to pull out of the production and keeping his exorbitant fee, by not even bothering to read Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness in “preparation” for his role. As it was, Coppola had to make do with framing Brando in the shadows, the way they used to Alison Moyet in press shots, to make him appear less obese, while his performance was another tour de force of Method, which for Brando means eating a piece of fruit while indifferently reciting your lines. The wanker. The wanker . . . Sure, Brando refused his Godfather Oscar as a protest at the plight of Native Americans but he should have refused it because he is a badly made-up blight on an otherwise great movie. He’s regarded as an “enigma” – but buying your own island and never going out makes you an uncommunicative couch potato, not an enigma. Visiting a discussion board on a Brando website recently was instructive. There were no postings, none, merely a plea for someone, anyone, to “get the ball rolling”. No dice. Brando coasted for years, carried about on a sedan chair of obsequiousness these last thirty. The lack of care he’s exhibited has now duly been repaid in kind.

Thursday, January 1st, 2004

Primal Scream

Once justly considered twee purveyors of knock-kneed, Paisley shirted indie pop, Primal Scream incorporated, with unseemly abruptness, a dance element into their music with Screamadelica, since which they’ve generally come to be regarded as one of the most important, heavy-duty bands in Britain, to the extent that the decks are reverentially cleared whenever lead singer Bobby Gillespie so much as clears his throat to vent his thoughts. (“It’s all fucked, we need more passion.” etc)

In some respects, Primal Scream present an easy target. Gillespie when dancing, looks like a baby giraffe maliciously dressed up in Keith-Richard-style leathers, trying to keep its balance on a freshly polished floor strewn with marbles. “Get Your Rocks Off” was as embarrassing as Freddy Starr doing a Mick Jagger impersonation. “Bomb The Pentagon” was unfortunately prescient, given that crazed medievalists them followed up with a practical demonstration of such facile anti-Americanism. Bobby Gillespie is so ugly he looks like a knee with a couple of eyebrows felt-tipped on above the nobbly bit. All this is forgivable. None of this, however, excuses the Cult of the Primals, which itself reflects a collective softening of the braincells and slackening of the wits since about 1990 within popular culture. Screamadelica has its moments but these are primarily the responsibility of non-Primals Andrew Weatherall and The Orb, among others. Even so, it sounds pretty, well, vacant 12 years on. Clearly, there was a higher tolerance level back then for loose, baggy grooves which long outstay their welcome, like some coked up Scally at a house party, or like “Don’t Fight It, Feel It”, tumble tediously on like a washing machine on some endless cycle. Elsewhere, cliches once thought dead and buried after they’d been fucked to death are disinterred, scrubbed and presented as fresh ideas. The sitar-flavoured cosmic levitation of “Higher Than The Sun”, which finds Gillespie having to be nudged down from the studio ceiling with a bargepole must have been music to the ears of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, rubbing his hands at the prospect of a new generation of drug-addled popsters with plenty of inner space between their ears to rip off. Then there’s the roping in of gospel singers to make suitably reaffirmative noises on “Movin’ On Up” and “Come Together”, endorphin bursts of quasi-religiosity for white agnostic boys.

Gillespie is one of those people who finds the Sixties brand of blackness most congenial, when they were oppressed and authentic, rather than the more urbane, emancipated sort of blackness you get nowadays. By standing close to figures like George Clinton (who guests on Give Out But Don’t Give Up), or by quoting some thunderously empty rhetoric about music having no categories from Jesse Jackson, he hopes that some of their realness and soulfulness will rub off on him by osmosis. The Primals’ brief “rocks off” phase was a doomed attempt to prove their own particular authenticity as a beefy, proper guitar’n’drums band but everyone laughed till their entrails nearly spilt out of their sides. So it was back to the studio to be putty in the hands of the producers and sound engineers for Vanishing Point in 1997, in which the nonsense of Screamadelica was revisited on “Everybody Is A Star” (no they’re not, Bobby, otherwise who’d mop up your vomit?), on which he namechecks, among other civil rights heroes “Sister” Rosa Parks, (she’s not your sister, man), stating that though she may be gone, her spirit lives on – news, presumably, to the still alive Ms Parks. Then came XTRMNTR, an unfocussed, punky volte-face, with its call to “Kill All Hippies” (present company in the band excepted, presumably) its general air of someone whose swallowed the whole anti-American, No Logo, globalisation protester schtick without so much as a belch. Some might find a virtue in Gillespie’s righteous disgust, others wonder what help the sort of moron who says “all jails are concentration camps” really is. Despite their avowed hope that green-haired soap-dodgers throwing rocks through McDonalds’ windows is the key to global transformation, The Primals’ politics in practice is of the “everything’s fucked, so let’s get high” anarcho-variety. This is the group who portrayed themselves as martyrs of the Criminal Justice Bill when the police called in on them to ask them to turn their music down at 2am in the morning. And rightly so, constables. That’s not martyrdom, that’s inconsiderate twatdom. Jessie “glad he doesn’t run HMV” Jackson was wrong when he said music has no categories. It does and Primal Scream can be filed under F for fatuous.

Monday, November 11th, 2002

Spike Milligan

For a change, I thought I’d start off this month’s column with a few jokes of mine I’ve been working up. Ready? . . . “Contraceptives should be used on every conceivable occasion!” “Anybody can be 52 but it takes a bus to be 52b!” “I’m a guerrilla!” “Did you say gorilla?” I know – rubbish, aren’t they? Sorry. However, I have a confession – they’re not mine at all. I stole them. They are the work, in fact, of the Founding Father of Modern Comedy, Spike Milligan, culled at random from throughout his career.

Spike Milligan is the century’s most over-rated comedian. Granted, it’s understandable why the nation guffawed at The Goons – in the lightheadedness that followed World War II, folks were prepared to laugh at anything, even Arthur Askey. With Milligan, however, there was supposedly a difference. His characters, from Private “hello dere” Eccles (“his economy drive consists of only wearing one sock”) to Major Bloodnok to Hercules Grytpype-Thynne (“subject of a police investigation on homosexuality”) and sagas of batter puddings, atomic dustbins and Mongolian bagpipes bequeathed England its cherished tradition of “zaniness”.

However, while lines such as “A glass of fish and chips, please” are unaccountably bizarre, that’s all they are. Critics used to marvel at how quickly Milligan used to write his Goons scripts – but given that they’re just random forays into the looking-glass world of nonsense, it’s hardly surprising. What’s more – and this is more evident when seeing Milligan on TV on the unlamented Q series – beneath the superficial layer of unfunny surrealism, his comedy is rooted in every stock device, old costume and archaic stereotype known to chuckledom. His “mad” universe is populated by pompous colonels, dimwits, scantily clad girls, batty professors, African chiefs. His methods are shamelessly crass – “silly” names, going cross-eyed, appearing from behind a desk with no trousers, false noses, pulling your hat down over your head.¬†Far from establishing the first principles of avant garde comedy, he embodies every basic pratfall any half-decent comedian should avoid.

What’s doubly annoying is that, like Robin Williams, his face is permanently etched in a self-congratulatory half-chortle at his own mirth. Ah, they say, but both Python and Peter Cook are indebted to Milligan. They are – but only for their crap bits. They were always funniest when there was a logic to their absurdism, a scathing point, as in the Parrot sketch or Beyond The Fringe. With Spike, there was never any point – that, “hilariously”, was the point! That Milligan suffers from depression is evidence to some of a dark, serious side underpinning his comedy. But Milligan’s political pronouncements mark him as a thin-skinned misanthropist (his aggressive animal rights stance animals and hatred of “noise pollution” are giveaways here). His comedy is an escape from, not an expression of, his morbid broodings. The bulk of anecdotal evidence suggests he was a rude and unpleasant individual. His ambiguous and certainly unreconstructed obsession with race took the (needless to say), haplessly laughless form of the sitcom Melting Pot, in which he wrote and starred as a blacked-up Pakistani. The series had to be pulled.

Milligan’s legacy is in every “You don’t have to be mad to work here – but it helps!” sign, every pub bore talking in a Bluebottle-style voice, that tediously “bonkers!” strain of comedy that keeps the British stinted, makes icons of Chris Evans and Noel Edmonds. Milligan may be universally venerated but while Hancock, Bilko, old Ealing comedies are endlessly rerun, The Goons, the Q series, Down Among The Z Men never are.

There’s a reason for this. They’re funereally unfunny. Z-Men is particularly dire. Q became so bad that once again, the Beeb had to reject a series from Milligan so as not to embarrass the old man. A recent film version of Puckoon sank like a stone. To say that it was a waste of Sean Hughes’s talents indicates the whiskery, arthritic paucity of the source material. Programmers know the truth about Milligan but dare not speak it, for fear of being labelled heretics. Now that the miserable old sod is six feet under, however, the truth can finally be bellowed. NOT FUNNYYYYYY! ! ! ! ! !

Monday, July 1st, 2002

The Full Monty

“MISS this at your peril”! urges the East Anglian Daily Times. No less an authority than the Grimsby Evening Telegraph recommends, “Hold on to your hats!” while that august arbiter of taste the Tamworth Herald Extra eloquently declares The Full Monty “the comedy hit of the year.”

One hesitates to pit oneself against this formidable critical consensus, or the unlikely commercial success of The Full Monty but I beseech you . . . Patronising, glib, unfunny, desperately British from the accordion-driven soundtrack down, The Full Monty’s “success” was in coinciding with one of those periodical penchants on the part of American movie audiences to check out our quaint English accents. They goggled amusedly at the spectacle of these Sheffield “blokes” (love that word!) gyrating hilariously much as they would watch a bear riding a bicycle at the circus, ie with no sympathy with or understanding of just what grim fate brought these creatures to this pass.

Mind you, that international audiences might not comprehend of the political context of The Full Monty is hardly their fault – the film provides none. From an opening Sixties Pathe news item extolling the virtues of “booming Sheffield”, we flash forward 25 years to see the city somehow reduced to a post-industrial landscape, through which men walk desolate and brass bands (literally, honestly!) roam about aimlessly. No one, apparently, was to blame. The words “Thatcher”, “Eighties” and “Asset-Stripping Capitalist Bastards” are not heard once. Perhaps Mr Murdoch, head of 20th Century Fox, backers of The Full Monty, might have taken exception to that sort of Ken Loach-style proselytising. The premise is effectively, “Na’ then, lads, through no fault of’t Government, we finds usselves a bit brassic.”

The politics is purely sexual, with Robert Carlyle’s Gaz and co feeling emasculated by their straitened circumstances. But no old-style Socialist whingeing for them. Like good Thatcherites they look after themselves in this post-societal society, graduating from a little petty theft to hauling themselves by their own jockstraps to turn a penny as strippers, becoming Cosmopolitan-style New Men, at ease with their own bodies in the process.

It’d be bad enough if The Full Monty were just a rehash of Fame, with its message that if you wish hard enough, all your dreams, however improbable, will come true, so long as you’re characters in a piece of shit movie. Leave aside Robert Carlyle’s wavering Yorkshire accent, the fact that, ironically, Sheffield isn’t in anything like as bad a way as it’s depicted here (the film-makers had to scout long and hard for suitably dingy locations), that to ensure translantic success every British film now has to feature a fucking funeral. Overlook the laboured slapstick and predictable daft-as-a-brush humour that adds insult to injury or the movie’s abrupt conclusion, copping out of answering all the awkward questions it’s pouch-posed. What’s truly obscene about The Full Monty is the way that it processes the tragedy of unemployment and the ruination of Britain’s industrial base into fodder for the rictus-smiling, sexy Nineties. As a meaningful statement to Northern men thrown out into the post-industrial cold with nothing but a smouldering sense of humiliation to warm them, it makes Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake” sound like Roosevelt’s New Deal by comparison. “I say, you could become strippers, you know, like those Chippendale fellows. Amusing caper, what?”

Time was when that recent Full Monty-esque photo-op of Prince Charles thrusting his groin in a Sheffield dole queue would have been picked up on as a howling gaffe, a mute fuck-off on the part of the haves to the have-nots. Now, it’s greeted appreciatively, as a sign that the Prince has learned to “relax”. In these post-political Blairite times, we’re past disgust, rage, imagining that there’s anything realistic we can do about unemployment. Let it go. Move on. What’s more important is that, like these Full Monty fellows, we loosen up, unbutton, show our willies even, ha ha! Actually, they even cop out of showing us their dicks. But there’s bollocks aplenty on display here. The full bollocks.

Tuesday, April 16th, 2002

Billy Elliot

Remember when BBC newscasters used to end reports with remarks like, “And fingers crossed for Emma Thompson at tomorrow night’s Oscars!”, as if it were a patriotic given that we’d be rooting for the smarmy old cow? Well, expect similar exhortations for Billy Elliot come this month’s awards.

Set in Durham against the backdrop of the 1984 miner’s strike, it tells the “exhilarating”, “stirring”, “bravura” story of an 11 year old boy drawn away from his weekly boxing class towards the ballet sessions organised by Mrs Wilkinson (Julie Walters), much to the disgust of his Father, miner Gary Lewis. His elder brother, a firebrand picketer, is disgusted too. The word “cissy” is bandied about over the kitchen table. But Billy can’t and won’t stop dancing. Will he eventually win over his pa and bro, triumph against the odds and local prejudice and grow up to perform in the Royal Ballet? Did Scargill win the Miner’s Strike?

These are questions we know the answers to from the outset. Billy Elliot is clearly assembled from a Do-It-Yourself-Construct-A-Heartwarming-Surprise-British-Movie-Success-Kit. There are the usual measures of provincial earthiness, “wry humour”, (in this case mostly at the expense of male homophobic inhibitions), with pathos dolloped over the top by thick gravy – Billy’s Mam died young, you see, as a tinkling piano trickling constantly throughout the film reminds us. Julie Walters is drafted in to do her careworn but tough schtick, while Gary Lewis must surely by fed up of playing the dense patriarch who eventually does the right thing out of love for his bairns.

Where do we begin? Well, there’s the boy himself, played by jug-eared sprout Jamie Bell, the most ungrateful, self-obsessed little character visited on us since Mowgli in Disney’s The Jungle Book. Granted he’s 11 but his utter indifference to the privations, picketing and police presence all around him are more to do with his blinkeredness than his innocence. As for his spontaneous dance routines, mostly involving lots of running around punctuated by the occasional clumsy pirouette, you marvel at the stoicism of his family and fellow terrace-dwellers in not gathering him up, hog-tying him to a rail and lobbing him in the canal – they’ve enough to be putting up with as it is. His backyard routine to The Jam’s “A Town Called Malice” just makes you want to toe-punt the little c*** up and down the back ginnel.

As with The Full Monty, Billy Elliot is guilt of exploiting rather than exploring a political backdrop for its own dramatic ends – in this case, the miner’s strike. The permanent phalanx of police is presented as a mere fact, their dubious role in the strike unquestioned. Indeed, if the film imparts any message via Billy Elliot, it’s the insidiously fashionable one that the crisis suffered by the miners was somehow one of masculinity, rather than their being victims of the callous, needless birth-pangs of a post-industrialist project enforced by Thatcher’s Tories. The scenes involving confrontations between police, picketers and coachloads of scabs are often lamentably staged – in once scene, you can see what are clearly a bunch of local extras actually grinning as they’re pursued down the streets by cops.

Then there’s the scene in which Billy’s Dad, reduced to scabbing to pay for Billy’s fees, is confronted by his eldest son, who simply takes a leg-up over a security fence to get into the coalfield. Erm – dunno, but in actuality, wouldn’t he have been hauled back down by about 1500 riot police? Wasn’t that why they were there? Ironically, the truth is that back in the early Eighties, you could have thrown a brick in any of the big Northern industrial town nightclubs and hit half a dozen blokes in ballet tights. The New Romantic era went over huge in recession-hit Leeds, for instance, with clubs like Amnesia and The Warehouse crammed with Spandau lookalikes. Recession-hit areas have always been hotbeds for defiant flamboyance and dressing up, a cultural fact beyond the conceited makers of Billy Elliot with their stereotype notions of dourly conservative Northerners.

Ultimately, however, the sub-text to The Full Monty and Billy Elliot, one that seems especially pleasing to Americans is – okay, your jobs and traditions have been taken away from you but don’t be so sullen and brutish about it. You can still entertain us with your little dances. You Northerners are the new Negroes, dancing is in your blood. Dance, you poor clods, and maybe we’ll throw you some pennies! Some may find this “heartwarming” . I find it blood boiling.