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Episode 05
Going underground

Going underground

Episode 05

The second season of Temple – in which Mark Strong plays a doctor in an illegal underground clinic – is a gripping parable for our insecure times

Here’s what Peter Ackroyd has to say about the subterranean capital city in his minor classic, London Under: “It is the home of the devil and of holy water. The underworld moves the imagination to awe and to horror. It is in part a human world, made from the activities of many generations, but it is also primeval and inhuman. It repels clarity and thought. It may offer safety for some, but it does not offer solace. London is built upon darkness.” 

It was precisely this darkness that made the first season of Temple (Sky) so intriguing. Created by Mark O’Rowe and based on the Norwegian drama, Valkyrien, the series confronted us with a Faustian dilemma: what would happen to a distinguished cardiac surgeon (Mark Strong), compelled to treat criminals and fugitives for cash in an illegal underground clinic so that he could also care, off the books, for Beth (Catherine McCormack), his terminally ill and officially dead wife? 

In daily life, Daniel Milton is apparently the purest of paragons – a grand medical authority, striding the brightly-lit corridors of his hospital, supposedly an attentive father to his daughter, Eve. Yet, underground – beneath Temple tube station – he is caught in a world of lawlessness, criminality and bedlam, assisted by Daniel Mays as Lee Simmons, a transport worker with dodgy connections and the nous for survival that Daniel naturally lacks.

In its second season (Sky Max; Now TV), Temple shifts up a gear to the level of must-see prestige television. Milton’s situation becomes more rather than less complex, his wife’s recovery overshadowed by the fact that it owes so much to the research of his lover (and Beth’s friend), Anna, brilliantly played by Carice van Houten. His prospects of escape from working in the underground clinic are also radically reduced by the arrival on the scene of the crime boss, Gubby – Rhys Ifans at his most sinuously lethal. 

What makes Gubby so specifically dangerous to Daniel is not only his readiness to kill, but his understanding that part of the doctor relishes the illicit thrill of what he does in the tunnels. As Lee tells Milton in moments of lucid fury, it has all – always – been about him.

As excellent as the cast is, it is Strong who makes the show what it is. He is, quite simply, one of the greatest actors of his generation, whose apparently impassive features can transform a scene with the merest flicker of anger or sorrow.

Indeed – in a striking case of nominative determinism – his presence in a movie or television show is pretty much a guarantee that it will work. In the first seconds of Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), it is not John Hurt as Control, peering through the opened door, but Strong’s appearance as Jim Prideaux that subconsciously reassures the viewer that this is going to be a good film. 

Strong in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Watch Zero Dark Thirty (2012) again, and realise that, alongside Jessica Chastain’s Oscar-winning performance as Maya, it is Strong, as “George”, a senior CIA official, who acts as the movie’s fulcrum, embroiled in Washington politics but also furiously determined to stand up for the agency’s operational teams. And if you really want to test my thesis: check out Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla (2008), an amiable mess of a movie, which is only given coherence by Strong’s character – Archy, laconic fixer to Tom Wilkinson’s gangland boss, Lenny Cole, whose delivery of the line “It’s all go on this job” in one particular scene is worth the price of admission on its own.

Mark Strong and Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Temple’s additional secret sauce, especially in this second season, is the success with which it scratches at the insecurities of the 21st-century middle class professional. A character such as Milton’s is supposed to be immune from the hazards, bloodshed and volatility of the criminal underworld. He flourishes, literally and figuratively, above the grimy tunnels of London, in his shiny surgical theatre and his faultlessly tasteful home. All the same: misfortune comes knocking in various guises and he is plunged into a world for which he is singularly ill-prepared.

Strong alongside Tom Wilkinson in Guy Ritchie’s Rocknrolla (2008)

In this respect, Temple is a fine addition to a genre that was launched by Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad – the saga of the milquetoast teacher who resorts to cooking meth to pay for his cancer treatment – and developed in Ozark. The latter show, due to return for its fourth and final season in January, has transformed the characters played by Jason Bateman and Laura Linney from a cornered, panicking financial advisor and his wife into international money launderers, familiar with the proximity of death and fast-learning how to lead a very successful life of crime.

Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad

In this, there is a contemporary theme and a universal warning. First: that nobody is secure in the modern world and that the house of cards upon which bourgeois routine and safety are built may be swept away at any moment – leaving those who have taken it for granted to face other, much less appealing options. These characters are dramatised proxies for every middle-class suit in 2021, puzzled that their careers are no longer safe, that their children will not necessarily be better off than they were, that the gales of chance seem to be blowing ever more furiously through what was meant to be a settled, predictable life. 

The warning is that the devil has all the best tunes; that, as Gilligan remarked of Walter White, Mr Chips can, in very specific conditions, become Scarface. And – just like Walter in Breaking Bad and Marty and Wendy Byrde in Ozark – Daniel Milton (or at least part of him) is horribly drawn to the limitless possibilities and reckless freedoms of the lawless existence. When, after a lifetime of playing by the rules, do the better angels of our nature start to sound boring?

Jason Bateman and Laura Linney in Ozark

As Ackroyd notes, darkness is to be found beneath even the greatest monuments; and it is infectious. In spite of what we tell ourselves, humanity is ineluctably drawn to the other side of the tracks, to the violation of social mores and to the glittering rewards that often accompany such a choice. There are many temples in a great city, and not all are consecrated to the gods.

Here are this week’s recommendations.


Watch

Last Night in Soho (general release, 29 October)

Nostalgia is a hell of a drug – and it can take a terrible toll. The power of Edgar Wright’s latest movie dwells in his ostentatiously ambivalent attitude to the past – dramatised in the paranormal night-time journeys made by young fashion student Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) from contemporary London to the swinging city of the mid 1960s – which she experiences through the eyes of aspiring singer, Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy). Initially, the neon surrealism of Eloise’s visits, the terrific music and the attentions of nightclub promoter Jack (Matt Smith) amount to an exhilarating escapism. But – as so often with Wright – there is a twist, achieved with clear nods to Hitchcock and Italian giallo thrillers. Real menace lurks in this night-time world, not least in its toxic masculinity and the pressures of the male gaze. The connection between past and present is personified in the performances of Terence Stamp and Diana Rigg (sadly, her last before her death in September 2020). Invigorating, unsettling and subtle, Last Night in Soho shows that the director of Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007) and Baby Driver (2017) is just getting warmed up.

Invasion (Apple TV+)

At Monday’s ThinkIn with Paul Krugman on science fiction, we discussed – amongst much else – the general decline in alien contact movies (an honourable exception being Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, released in 2016). Even worse has been the scarcity of decent extraterrestrial invasion films and television – which is why this new ten-part series from Apple TV+ is so welcome. Created by Simon Kinberg and David Weil, Invasion is high-quality drama that takes the old tropes of 50s B-movie sci-fi and fills them with humanity. Yes, we are in the middle of a scary alien conquest – but the point of the series is to ask how such a seismic shock to the planetary system would affect all the things that we were already doing. So just before disaster strikes, Aneesha (Golshifteh Farahani) discovers, at home in Long Island, that her husband and father to her two children has been cheating on her with an Instagram foodie influencer. What makes the plot work is that the couple continues to argue about the affair even after it becomes clear that the Earth is under attack. In London, a bus full of teenagers careers into a quarry, unable to get signals on their phones; again, the shock of their situation does not stop the class bully from picking on his favourite victim. At mission control in Japan, it is the loss of Hinata (Rinko Kikuchi) in a space disaster that truly affects her lover Mitsuki (Shioli Kutsuna) – rather than the growing evidence of extraterrestrial attack. The point being that the human heart continues to suffer and exult even in the most outlandish and trying circumstances. Worth persisting with.

The Harder They Fall (cinemas general release; Netflix from 2 November)

It is a measure of the esteem in which Idris Elba is (rightly) held that he is single-handedly expected to reinvent just about every movie genre: most sensible people are aggrieved that it now appears to be too late for him to take on the role of Bond, a part he was born to play. Meanwhile, Hollywood has been building him up by stages as the saviour of the Western: first, in Nikolaj Arcel’s bonkers fantasy film, The Dark Tower (2017), in which he played the gunslinger Roland Deschain, and then, more seriously, in this year’s Concrete Cowboy (see Creative Sensemaker, 1 April). In Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall, co-produced by Jay-Z, two rival gangs led by Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) and Rufus Buck (Elba) shoot it out with action-packed, often grisly determination. “While the events in this story are fictional,” a title card reads, “These. People. Existed.” In other words: this is not a didactic film, but it is also not a corporate exercise in tokenism. It is high time that the stories of the Black cowboys were told and – with a terrific ensemble cast that also includes Regina King, Lakeith Stanfield, and Zazie Beetz – Samuel’s excellent movie does so in gripping style.


Read

Putting the Rabbit in the Hat: My Autobiography – Brian Cox (Quercus)

“You never stop wanting to show off, working out that insecurity, expiating yourself of your guilt. You never stop.” So writes Brian Cox of the actor’s psychology in this splendid memoir which not only traces his first 75 years from childhood in Dundee to global stardom as Logan Roy in Succession, but is also a deeply intelligent exploration of his chosen profession, its joyous rewards and its mind-scratching demands. There’s plenty here for fans of Logan and his unlovable children (“He does villainous things but he’s not really a villain”; Cox shares with Logan a measure of “disgust with the rest of the human race”, a feeling “that humanity is a failed experiment”; Roman [Kieran Culkin] is “the interesting one, of course. He’s still forming and developing as a character, and Logan can see that there’s actually something that’s quite considerable in his youngest child”). But there is so much else besides: Cox’s memories of his work with the great director, Lindsay Anderson (“Brian, don’t just do something, stand there”); his legendary performance in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1988 production of Titus Andronicus; discovering weed at the age of 50; and what to do when nude on stage and your testicles retract into your body (answer: insist on underpants). Throughout, his honesty is disarming. Did he mind Anthony Hopkins being cast as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), a role Cox had already played with chilling distinction (though with the different spelling of “Lecktor”) in Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986)? Not really – apart from the money, “because of course Tony went on to win the best actor Oscar for it and when you win an Oscar your salary goes whoosh.” But Cox’s career has been a calling as well as a job; his ambition as an actor was “to displace the air” – and it is glorious to read about the many ways in which he has done just that.

An Editor’s Burial: Journals and Journalism from The New Yorker and Other Magazines – edited by David Brendel (Pushkin Press)

You absolutely don’t need to have seen Wes Anderson’s new movie The French Dispatch (check out Creative Sensmaker, 21 October) to enjoy this collection of classic journalism – though it will certainly enrich your understanding of the film and its inspirations if you have, or intend to. As Anderson reflects in an introductory interview, he had long wanted to make a movie that – amongst other things – paid homage to the greats of the New Yorker, the magazine that has been one of his fixations since high school. So here is a terrific selection of writings on post-war France by (for instance) Lillian Ross, S.M. Behrman, Janet Flanner, James Baldwin, A.J. Liebling and others that capture both an era and an ethos, encapsulated by, though not limited to, the pages of the great weekly founded by Harold Ross in 1925. Invidious as it is to single out one piece, the stand-out is probably Mavis Gallant’s ‘The Events in May: A Paris Notebook Part I’ (1968) which is both an unrivalled account of les événements, and full of contemporary resonance in our own age of social justice movements and youth rebellion.

The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present by Paul McCartney – edited by Paul Muldoon (Penguin, 2 November)

Only a fortnight after the publication of The Beatles – Get Back, edited by John Harris (see Creative Sensemaker, 14 October), here comes another essential book on the Fab Four. Though Paul McCartney has always resisted demands for a standard autobiography (going no further than allowing his friend Barry Miles to publish an authorised biography in 1997), he has finally relented in his own way – telling the story of his life through the prism of 154 songs, exhaustively analysed across nearly 900 pages. The organising spirit is Paul Muldoon, the Irish poet and scholar, who had 24 taped conversations with McCartney over five years, but the content is pure Macca – irreverent, packed with anecdote, driven by an implacable optimism that is also underpinned by hints of wounded sadness. Sometimes, the inspiration for a song turns out to have been a single phrase. ‘All My Loving’ (1963), for instance, was born on a tour bus: “I started to think of these words: ‘Close your eyes…’ It’s probably more of a reflection on what our lives were like then – leaving behind family and friends to go on tour and experience all these new adventures.” A constant presence has been his mother Mary, who died when he was 14: she is there in ‘Lady Madonna’ (1968) and, of course, ‘Let It Be’ (1969): a decade after her death she came to him in a dream, “and seeing my mum’s beautiful, kind face was very comforting… and she said to me, ‘Everything will be all right. Let it be.’” There is plenty here, too, about McCartney’s lightly-worn learning – his debt to Louis MacNeice, Eugene O’Neill, and Ivor Cutler – and, of course, his relationship with John Lennon, the creative axis around which his world still spins and to which the rest of the world owes so much.


Listen

Folarin II – Wale 

I have heard Wale described as “an acquired taste”, which has always puzzled me, as the 37-year-old Nigerian-American rapper specialises in a seriously infectious style of music that blends lyricism, earworm melody and an ingenious use of sampling. Nine years after the original hit mixtape, Folarin, its 15-track sequel – Wale’s seventh studio album – is pure delight, and, with collaborators including Rick Ross, J. Cole, Chris Brown and Jamie Foxx, never lets up in its sheer brio. Spotting the samples is fun as ever (‘Ting-A-ling’ by Shabba Ranks, Faith Evans’s ‘Caramel Kisses’). Wale’s range is tremendous, too, from the emotion of ‘Dearly Beloved’, to the storming dance music of ‘Poke It Out’. He’s about to hit our screens, too, in a Michael Bay action movie, Ambulance, due out in February. As the man himself raps: “Honestly, I’m really one-of-one, Honestly, I got no company, let it breathe.”

Mozart Concertante – Aleksandra Kurzak, Yuuki Wong, Tomasz Wabnic, Morphing Chamber Orchestra

Aleksandra Kurzak is one of the world’s most celebrated sopranos – she was on stage at the Opéra Bastille in Paris last night singing Adina in Donizetti’s L’Elisir D’Amore – and frequently appears with her husband, the acclaimed tenor, Roberto Alagna. In this collaboration with the Vienna Morphing Orchestra, she relishes six of Mozart’s finest arias: from the Queen of the Night’s ‘Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen’, via Vitellia’s ‘Ecco il punto…’ and Zaide’s ‘Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben’, to Fiordiligi’s ‘Ei parte…’. Kurzak’s performances are a true tour de force, confident in range, intonation and expression – with the bonus of three sinfonie concertante, showcasing the talents of violinist Yuuki Wong and Tomasz Wabnic on the viola. 

Bittersweet – Jah Wobble & Son

Since more or less reinventing modern bass playing as a founder member of Public Image Ltd – he left the band in 1980 – Jah Wobble (AKA John Wardle) has remained constantly innovative and eclectic in style, never forgetting his post-punk and reggae roots but exploring Chinese music, English folk, ambient music and jazz with equal passion, often, though not always recording as Jah Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart. He is one of only a handful of performers who would devote a whole album to the inspiration of William Blake, thanks to an intelligence that is very much on display in his fine memoirs. This collection on the Felt website is modestly described as “production music”, but, as ever, Wobble is experimenting with form and content, from jazz and hip hop to soulful guitar music. A secret national treasure, whose music deserves to be much more widely celebrated.

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
@MatthewdAncona

Photographs courtesy Sky TV, David Lee/Netflix, Warner Bros, Moviestore Collection/Alamy, Dark Castle Entertainment, Focus Features, Apple TV+