Thursday, 23 May 2019

Bodies

Rob (Max Beesley) and Donna (Neve McIntosh)

If, like me, you are missing Line of Duty, fear not. For whilst AC-12 might not return to our screens for at least twelve months ("Mother of God!"), help is at hand. The Beeb, in their infinite wisdom, have dug up Bodies, one of Jed Mercurio's earlier forays into television, and stuck both series on the iPlayer here. And you should take a look.

Made in 2004-6, Bodies is set in the obstetrics and gynaecology department of a fictionalised acute hospital. Max Beesley stars as new registrar Rob, who quickly becomes concerned about the competence of his consultant, Dr Hurley (Mercurio favourite Patrick Baladi, who'll LOD fans will recognise as the Huntley's slippery lawyer friend Jimmy, from series four). So there's a pressurised acute hospital setting, with patients dying or being left with brain damage all over the place, backroom machinations, intrigue, plotting, double-crossing... plenty of dramatic mileage.

However, if you're hung up on Mercurio's more recent work, like LOD and Bodyguard, well, you might initially be a little disappointed with Bodies. It shows its age a little, I think, amazing given that it is a 21st Century piece of television. I guess things move pretty fast. But in our hi-def, colour-saturated 2019, Bodies feels a bit ... there's no other word for it, grainy. And hurried too. There were only six episodes in series one; stories and sub-plots move along so quickly, occasionally unrealistically quickly, it feels. Plus, and I mean no disrespect, I don't think Max Beesley's acting chops are quite up to snuff, here at least. Lucky for us then that the wider cast (and it really is an ensemble piece) are excellent - the aforementioned Patrick Baladi, Tamzin Malleson as Polly, Susan Lynch as whistle-blowing anaesthetist Maria and, most of all, Keith Allen, who seems to be having a great time as senior consultant Mr Whitman (Keith and Tamzin are partners in real life - I don't know if they met before Bodies, or on set, but it certainly helps their on-screen chemistry). Best of all is Neve McIntosh as ward sister Donna, who would go on to appear in Dr Who occasionally as Madame Vastra - she's excellent in Bodies, even if her role is a little under-developed at times.

I think it's also worth reminding ourselves that, whilst Bodies also plays fast and loose with NHS management processes and structures (hard to believe, for example, that hospital manager and all-round bad guy Paul Tennant would be involved in every staff discipline case and suspension, as well as the hospital's inspection, departmental monthly reporting, clinical trial panjandrums and more) it only does this to serve the story - to keep the world of the acute hospital, behind the scenes, understandable for the viewer. This works, for the most part; as someone who's worked in the NHS, and comes from a family of people who've worked in the NHS, I can tell you it still feels real, despite these shortcuts. And so it should, when you realise that Jed Mercurio went to medical school and spent time working as a doctor in a hospital. He's been there, done that. Makes you wonder how much of what you see is (semi-) autobiographical... The same is true for his first TV output, the somewhat lighter mid-Nineties satirical comedy-drama Cardiac Arrest.

Also worth remembering that this was (and still is) pretty ground-breaking television in what it was prepared to show - stillborn babies, premature babies being given CPR, graphic surgery, botched tracheostomies and horrible deaths. Oh, and plenty of sex too. I don't know what time of day this was on, or channel (I'd guess 10pm on BBC Three, as was) but Holby this most definitely was not.

It's not perfect but there's plenty to admire in Bodies. You can catch all seventeen episodes over on iPlayer for another ten months, or pick it up on DVD if you prefer. Either way, you might never look at a hospital in the same way again... Here's the opening moments from series one, episode one, to whet your appetite.

And oh, The Guardian agree with me...

Monday, 20 May 2019

Sdrawkcab

I was lucky enough to experience Belgian artist Johannes Bellinkx's Reverse at the weekend, as part of an annual arts festival. And I'm not quite sure how to describe it... immersive walking tour? Performance piece, where you are the performer? Neither/both?

Maybe I should just describe how it works and you can decide for yourself. Basically it is a walking tour, of sorts, but you walk backwards, following a white line on the floor (not by looking down, but by keeping an awareness of it on the periphery of your vision). All the while, you're wearing headphones which are Bluetooth-connected at various points along the route to provide appropriate ambient noise.

Sound weird? Well, it is a bit weird, to be honest. Weird in that you quickly place utmost faith in the white line (at no point did I have the urge to look over my shoulder). Weird in that it is not easy to distinguish ambient noises filtering in from the real world with those from the headphones (most notable with conversations going on behind me by the market). Weird in that passers-by, oblivious to what you are doing, seem genuinely perplexed by the sight of someone walking backwards (one bloke filmed me on his phone, at some point). And most weird of all, how the whole experience starts to mess with your senses... or rather, how the brain tries to reinterpret the stimuli it is receiving, to make some sort of sense of them. This last point most of all, for me - after a while, I started to feel that everyone else was going backwards and that I was the only one moving conventionally.

At the end of the route, 50 minutes later, the artist himself was on hand to talk to participants. He was particularly pleased to hear of my "reversal"; apparently his original inspiration was another artist who had filmed someone walking backwards through Tokyo for nine hours and then reversed the film, to give the impression that the rest of the world was running backwards. Bellinkx's intention with Reverse was to attempt to create that sensation in a live setting. For me, it sort of worked. There's quite a moment too, when the white line the participant has been so reliant on, is suddenly removed from view - I won't say how (no spoilers), but this is just one of many sensory tricks Reverse plays on the participant. Others (like a different appreciation of gradient) are picked up in this review, if you're interested. Reverse has moved on now (next stop, Copenhagen, I think) but if you get a chance to have a go at this somewhere, sometime, you really should.

Of course, The Stone Roses famously transposed some of their songs to make others, and I was going to embed Don't Stop as an example, until I saw this. Imagine creating a song by backmasking another song, but then trying to play the new, backwards song live - playing forwards something that is the artificial backwards version of something else? Here's a clip of the band rehearsing to do just that (and a reminder of just how vital Reni was to The Roses' sound...)

Friday, 17 May 2019

Blue Friday - While She Waits

For my 800th post, some Smiths-lite. No bad thing. And 800 might sound like a lot, but it's not when you spread it out over 14 years.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Nineteen in '19: The House of Rumour

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading nineteen books in 2019. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

8/19: The House of Rumour by Jake Arnott

The blurb: In 1941, Larry Zagorski was a naïve young writer of science-fiction. Seven decades on, he looks back on that crucial year and traces his place in a mysterious web - one that connects the Second World War with the Space Age, stretches from London to Cuba and Southern California, and links Ian Fleming with Rudolf Hess in a conspiracy that reverberates in the present.

Could this be the secret history of the 20th century? In a mesmerising novel peopled by spies and propagandists, the conned and the heartbroken, dreamers and fanatics, the question is: who will you believe?

The review: where to start? Arnott has woven together multiple stories that entwine a cast of fictional and fictionalised characters, centred on SF novelist Zagorski. The real-life characters include Ian Fleming, Rudolph Hess, Aleister Crowley, Jack Parsons, L Ron Hubbard, Robert Heinlein, Philip K Dick, and more. On occasion, I had to check with Wikipedia as to the reality of some of the protagonists, such is the breadth (and skilful blend) of fiction and fact. There's a real spotter's fun to be had for the reader here too, most notably in the scenes with Ian Fleming, spotting references to events that later turn up in Bond novels: a boss called M, a character called Trevelyan, conceiving of a spy breaking a crime syndicate by bankrupting them in a casino, and more...

But what of the actual story? There are so many sub-plots here, and so many narrators, it's not always clear what the underlying story is. That fiction can inspire real events? That is certainly a recurring theme, notably that a (fictional) story might have been the inspiration for Hess's trip to Scotland. Or have foretold, as is often alluded here, as there is a recurrent motif in this novel of cults and the occult, tarot, the supernatural, the alien. Plenty of the protagonists buy into one or many of these schools of thought... but the real theme, to this reviewer at least, is disinformation - the black art of seeding just enough credible nonsense to divert or misinform. This recurs throughout the book, from pre-war paranoia, through Hess's flight to Eaglesham Moor, to UFOs and Area 51, goings on in Cuba, McCarthyism, Dianetics and Scientology, the Jonestown Massacre and secret service agents who could make or break people on one hand but be caught out by sexual predilection and a petty chancer on the other. So yes, there's a lot going on. Sometimes it's hard to keep up. And you might gather from the amount of time since my last review in this series, I've hardly raced through The House of Rumour. But it's works, ultimately, even if the story sometimes pays second fiddle to the storytelling. Not one for dipping in and out of, but a book that rewards your attention.

The bottom line: a decent slice of meta-fiction that succeeds because the real and the imagined are blended so well, you cannot see the join.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★☆☆

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Something for the weekend...

...a cherished song, a cherished film, some art... what better way to start your weekend?

And a parody because, well, why not?

Proper blog posts will return soon, I hope.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Blue Friday - Skin and Bones

Oh, Harriet (obligatory sigh). "We're just flesh and blood, and we're nothing much more..."