Just Above Sunset
20 Nov 2005: Cheap Shots and Ethical Dilemmas (or The Joke-teller's Responsibility in an Age of War)

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Our Man in London is Mike McCahill - born in Warwickshire, England in 1978. He currently works as a film critic for The Scotsman, The Sunday Telegraph and the BBC, while trying to string together novels, screenplays and travel guides for places he's never actually been to. Mike divides his time between the Midlands and London, where professional duty requires he spend at least the first part of every week sitting in small dark rooms. With a couple of exceptions, he is open to offers.

Listen carefully, dear reader. Can you hear anything? The sound, perhaps, of a pin dropping?


If so, said dropping would be much the most significant event to seize the headlines in the UK over the last seven days. It has been a quiet week, to put it mildly, one swept along by no greater force than some typically British fussing, a need to put one's house in order.


There was some minor controversy over Labour's new plans for schooling.


A raising of the national retirement age was mooted, to counter the long-forecasted pensions crisis.


And there was a definite rise in the cost of a British passport, to fund the whizzy new scanning technologies that will save us all from further terrorist attacks. 


The Tory leadership contest bumbled along in the background.


There was mild uproar over two new TV dramas about the Royal Family: one presenting the Princess Margaret as an alcoholic lush, the other documenting Prince Charles' relationships with first Diana, then Camilla.


And it was the tenth anniversary of the demise of the boy band Take That, which sparked a lot of phoney nostalgia for an act that won't mean anything to anyone in the States, and really shouldn't mean anything to anyone over here.


With none of these particular topics capturing my attention, I did consider writing a column about the demise of the British eccentric. A documentary screened this week revealed the contents of the late, legendary DJ John Peel's black record box - one hundred or so vinyl singles he kept aside from his vast collection, recordings of particular musical or personal significance intended to be the first rescued in the event of a sudden house fire. And this week also saw a memorial service for the equally idiosyncratic and irreplaceable Richard Whiteley, host of the long-running TV quiz show Countdown.


While I'd feel satisfactorily qualified to give you the low-down on Peel in particular - having long been a devout fan of his much-missed late-night radio show - the task of explaining Whiteley, a professional Yorkshireman with an inexplicable fondness for loud ties and the cheapest of puns, falls a little beyond my means. So, what, then? Might I stretch to that ultra post-modern of stand-bys, the column about the perils of being a columnist in a slow news week? A column about not writing a column?


Hardly. Rather, I decide to write a column about writing something else. As the little grey box at the top of this column might suggest, I spend my days in the guise of a freelance film critic. One of the drawbacks of being a freelance journalist is that it only ever seems temporary, the sole permanence being that one seems forever to be waiting by the phone for somebody to call and offer a commission of some kind. Much of that time is spent, in my case at least, polishing off minor bits and pieces that keep a roof over my head but hardly further the evolution of mankind, and playing Minesweeper when I should be getting on with what one might call real work.


However, for several months, I've had an idea on the backburner, bubbling away in the distant caverns of my imagination and now - only now, after several weeks of gathering steam - approaching creative boiling point. Trying to write a screenplay that might be put into production by the British film industry as it currently stands is almost impossible these days, unless you know a multi-millionaire or are prepared stick firmly to the Full Monty/Billy Elliot of unemployed communities coming together to triumph over adversity.


Yet I want to write something a little more distinctive, perhaps more argumentative, certainly more discursive. (In other words: something that, in the current cultural climate, is unlikely to make a great deal of money for its producers. Oh to be in France, where such projects seem to get off the ground with far greater ease.) I want to write a love story in three parts, the first and third parts of which are tied up in the space of one scene, the second of which takes up the best part of the film's action.


I won't trouble you with too much of the detail, save to say that I've been having trouble with one line of dialogue in the film's third part. This third part is due to be set after the fall of mankind (like I said, no rousing Full Monty finale here), and features a man and a woman who have spent the rest of the film falling for one another, at each other's throats, falling for one another again, and at all times singularly failing to get it together. The gag is that, even now, with these two apparently the only survivors in the Western world, they'll still manage to blow any hope of a lasting relationship somehow.


Except I'm not sure how comprehensively tragic I should make this apocalyptic finale. In my notes, I have one character asking the other whether they are, in fact, the only two survivors. "Yup," the other replies. "Well, unless you count those folks still fighting in Iraq." (Ba-doom-tish. I thank you, you've been a great crowd, etc. etc.)


Here's my dilemma: it's a throwaway gag, designed solely to give a contemporary comedy-drama one iota more political relevance. But is it a cheap shot, I wonder? Satire is one thing, but can a joke like this really be justified, when fighting is still going on in Iraq, with body bags returning home all the time, and seemingly no sight of any of it arriving at any kind of peaceful conclusion?


For the time being, the joke stays in. ("It's a workable punchline", being my considered defence.) My greater point is that I wonder whether the war has ceased - in the public's eyes - being "unjust" and "an outrage", and now become an accepted part of our daily fabric, something that Just Happens, something which a guy sitting at a laptop at some considerable remove from it all might write a smart-assed joke about. That's really what perturbed me about the minutiae and trivia of the British headlines this week: that the fact there are still people being killed for some reason somewhere in the world somehow got relegated to an inside page, no longer provoked marches or angry letters or impassioned leader pieces.


The controversy over white phosphorus - this year's Agent Orange - could be interpreted as evidence that this isn't quite the case, certainly. But it strikes me as a small detail in the grand scheme of things, and I wonder whether getting bogged down in detail is the healthiest tactic for the anti-War faction. There is a sense of an issue on which people are quietly losing (or - perhaps better - being made to lose) their bearings, leaving the majority desperately confused about why we went into Iraq, why we're still there, and why the heck, in the face of all the bloody, smouldering evidence, we haven't yet got the hell out of this particular Dodge. No joke.



Mike McCahill

November 18, 2005




Copyright 2005 – Mike McCahill

Email the author at mikemccahill@fastmail.fm






Editor's Note: British spelling and punctuation retained here.


Mike is taking a much-needed holiday and his weekly column will not appear next week, in the 4 December issue.  He will return to these pages the following week.


In the meantime, we will see about getting him a membership in this organization, just down the hill on Robertson Boulevard.  But I think you have to be based here, sending copy back to wherever there is.


Hollywood Foreign Press Association


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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