Monday, 28 October 2013

EVERY PICTURE TELLS AN UNTRUE STORY


Yesterday I went to see James Corden in his new film 'One Chance'. Cheeky Chappy plays Paul Potts, the goofball nobody from nowhere who won the first-ever series of 'Britain's Got Talent' in 2007, and gave a performance at the Royal Variety for Her Majesty the Queen. Against all odds do losers like Paul achieve greatness, is the message. The movie lacks the sweeping style of Billy Elliot, to which it has been compared. Nor does it do a lot for Julie Walters, invariably perfectly-cast in everything she signs up for, whose role as Potts's doting mother deserves more screen-time that it gets. With the big guns behind it – Weinstein, Cowell – it is predictably no-expense-spared: the location work in Venice is sublime. It features shameless product-placement - Carphone Warehouse, Boots the Chemist (I'd love to see those contracts) - and has the requisite happy if so-what ending. For the real Paul Potts, despite having shifted five million copies of his three albums, the debut also called 'One Chance', has not metamorphosed into the Pavarotti-style opera singer he yearned to be. He's a good enough light tenor concert performer now and again, and a recording artist, primarily - with precisely the requisite charisn'tma to be just that.

I made myself take the night to digest, but I'm still a bit sad about it. You'd think, after making my living for more than twenty years on a street unaccustomed to allowing any truth to get in the way of a good story (or whatever Mark Twain actually said: I prefer the line about first getting your facts, after which you can distort them at your leisure, myself, not that I ever, ever did this, you understand, there are exceptions to every rule, blah), that I'd be utterly immune to a tad of truth-bending. Granted, the disclaimer is clearly displayed before the film even starts: that the feature is based on a true story. In which case, why call the poor bloke Paul Potts?

The first thing that grated on me, as a Welshwoman, was Corden's complete lack of Welshness. It was pathetic, really. The little bugger lives in Port Talbort, for Christ's sake (and his pronunciation of his town annoyed me too: we say TALbot, not TALLbot). The real Paul spent his childhood in Bristol before moving to Wales, and speaks in an accent best described as Bristolian Welsh.

There was worse. Potts the Real has a degree in Humanities, and once worked as a Bristol City councillor. Corden's Potts was a bullied academic failure with no future beyond that of salesman in the local mobile phone shop – oh, and a brief stint in the steelworks. The distortions thereafter come fast and thick: not least the beam-me-up depiction of his wedding night, when Paul confesses to Julz (in real life Julie-Ann, irresistibly played by Alexandra Roach) that he has 'never done this before.' 'I've had thousands', his bride deadpans. The real Paul had his share of girlfriends too. To portray him as a virginal fumbling fatty, on top of all his other loserliness, was a piss-take too far.

All this aside. I get creative license, it's the point of most entertainment. I understand that movies change even the endings in Shakespeare, though who the hell could approve? If studio executives perceive that they must rewrite the greatest storyteller of all time, there's something rotten in the state of Denmark (for which, read Hollywood). The real Paul has just penned his autobiography, actually written it himself, without resorting to a ghost. If that's true, it is no mean feat, for a non-writer: I mean, we all find the process crippling, even after decades churning out millions of words. I read somewhere that he claimed to have blitzed the manuscript 'over four or five weekends'; that he was contracted to turn in 60,000 words, but presented his publisher with a whopping 130,000. As a writer, I want this to be true, I so do. But the point is, he has had to produce this autobiography to set the record straight. To make clear which parts of the film were exaggeration, invention, distortion and lies, designed to up the sentimental ante and tear-jerk the audience deep into their popcorn. Aside of the fact that his book is sure to be launched in time for the all-important 'Christmas market', and will undoubtedly find its way into millions of Christmas stockings, netting jillions in profit, could they not have cut to the chase and told the celluloid story correctly in the first place? I've just answered my own question, forsooth.

Which brings me back to Simon Cowell. He's had his ups, his downs, his riches-rags-riches in his own real life, don't we know. He's been bankrupt, discarded and a loser in love. He even fell for a baby with another man's wife: 'fell' being the operative. But he overcame all earlier obstacles to recreate himself as the patron saint of no-hopers, whose fortunes turn on a sixpence against those all-important odds. Whether we're talking Britain's Got Talent or the X-Factor, the tale is much the same. On this year's series so far (and I don't even watch it, really) we've had every down-and-out drama: from Tamera, the shoplifting Beyonce pose-alike to SeSe, the pregnant group-dumper who wound up in Magimix or whatever they were called. Yep, another group. Anyway, they're out now.

Against all odds. The moral of the Paul Potts story is this, isn't it: that without the magic wand of Simon Cowell, Potts might still be toiling in the phone shop, or shovelling slag. Like Susan Boyle he dreamed a dream. He made it over the rainbow: one of the few I-want-this-sooo-muchers who ever do. What happens to the losing contestants beyond the money-spinning touring shows? Who cares. Cowell can't do. He is reborn as the Wizard of Oz, reinforcing his own self-madeness. Dishing out brains and hearts, and courage, and new teeth, even. Winging Dorothy Gale back to Kansas. Making Emperor's New Clothes.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

TELL ME SWEET LITTLE LIES



Better to snuggle beneath a duvet plumped with comfortable lies than to shiver through naked honesty? It's a question I 've often asked myself during the eight years since my divorce. Had I known the truth, would I have turned a blind eye and have gone with the flow, as wives tend to – terrified by the thought of the disintegration and withdrawal of all I held dear - ? I sometimes wish that I'd had that choice, but I didn't.

Is it still relevant, this honesty business, or has truth had its day? Just because it mattered to the ancient Romans, who worshipped goddess Veritas as the mother of virtue; to Confucius, who declared it to be the foundation of love, fairness and communication; and to the children of Israel, for whom the Ninth Commandment as given at Mount Sinai taught against bearing false witness – should it matter to us? Everyone seems to lie about everything these days. We all seem to be getting away with it. We 'know' that truthfulness is the foundation of positive human relationships and personal integrity … but with such abandon do we cast it aside in the name of 'love' and the pursuit of our 'truest' desires.

It's not something I often dwell on, to tell you the truth. But I did last night. I was at the Almeida Theatre, Islington, for Sir Richard Eyre's provocative revival of Henrik Ibsen's 'Ghosts.' Bear in mind that Ibsen penned the play in 1881, ripping into the hypocritical morals of of Victorian society with such rage that he was vilified for it. Denounced as a 'cesspit of a play', it was called 'sordid', 'shocking', 'blasphemous', even – at a time when promiscuity and sexually-transmitted diseases were never acknowledged in polite circles, heaven forfend.

The wealthy Widow Alving reveals to her Pastor the long-hidden, shameful secrets of her late husband's infidelity. Having denied herself the privilege of motherhood by banishing her young son to protect him from his father's debauched lifestyle, she is overjoyed and empowered by the boy's return. But the great Dane contrived a hell of an ending for Ozzie. He has the young man fall in love with Helen's housemaid, Regina – who turns out to be the bastard of the late Captain Alving himself. Oswald is smitten by his own half-sister. The union can never be. The sins of the father appear visited upon the child. He succumbs, in the end, to hereditary syphilis. Helen is faced with the unthinkable decision of whether to administer the morphine and euthanize her offspring out of his misery. We never know which way this goes, it's left hanging.

Helen is portrayed by the phenomenal Lesley Manville (of Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies, Another Year and All or Nothing) as a brave but hopeless femme. It is revealed that she had acted on the stern advice of the Pastor, a man she once loved. Duty, respectability, charity and philanthropy were prized above all in that confounded patriarchal age. The hideous Victorian Compromise had much to answer for – but what choice, for females of her ilk? Helen condemned herself to keeping up dishonest appearances and concealed hideous truth. Her morality is consequently corroded. Oh boy, does she regret the unfortunate business now.

'Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it', asserted Jonathan Swift. Sure does. On the other hand, what goes around, returns.

Want to know what I have found to be true so far? Here you go. 1), everybody's not you. 2), things will change, they always do. 3), it's always darkest just before dawn.

Would I lie to you?