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Laughter in the dark

Laughter in the dark

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The final season of After Life seals the reputation of Ricky Gervais as a master of comic observation and a valiant defender of irony

Who could have foreseen, 21 years ago, when Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant transformed British television comedy with the first series of The Office, what the duo would be doing in 2022?

Merchant, fresh from directing Christopher Walken in The Outlaws, has just delivered a mesmerising performance as killer Stephen Port in the BBC’s Four Lives (both available on iPlayer). Gervais, meanwhile, is about to unleash the third and final season of After Life (all six episodes available 14 January) on Netflix – a streaming service that did not even exist when he performed his unbelievable dance as the Slough regional manager of Wernham Hogg, David Brent (“I’ve sort of fused Flashdance with M.C. Hammer shit”). 

The Office, 2001

As one of the greatest characters in all comedy, Brent, of course, presented Gervais with a problem – the problem that had faced John Cleese after his unforgettable performance as Basil Fawlty. How not to be trapped and typecast by your own creation?

In this endeavour, Gervais embarked on a threefold strategy. First, he took to the road as a stand-up – most recently with the show SuperNature, due to be his next special on Netflix – and turned his XFM radio series, The Ricky Gervais Show (with Merchant and Karl Pilkington), into a massively successful and splendidly unearnest podcast.

Second, he made a virtue of his sudden access to the most famous people in the world in Extras, each episode of which featured a household name sending themselves up (check out David Bowie’s song in season two, mocking Gervais’ character, Andy Millman, here). 

Extras, 2005

Similar preoccupations were threaded through his mockumentary series Life’s Too Short with Warwick Davis (Liam Neeson’s menacing workshop on comedy was especially memorable). And – for his definitive views on the emptiness of celebrity culture – one has only to watch his five coruscating outings as host of the Golden Globes (“If Isis started a streaming service you’d call your agent, wouldn’t you?”).

Third, and, in context, most audaciously, Gervais has simply carried on making sitcoms, undaunted by the gravitational pull of The Office. In Derek (All 4), he explored the community in and around a retirement home, with an excellent ensemble cast delivering a combination of cringe-making humour and unaffected tenderness.

Derek, 2012

In After Life, meanwhile, Gervais has addressed his biggest and most simple theme yet: death and bereavement. Tony Johnson is a man wrecked by the loss of his wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman, seen in flashback videos), barely going through the motions of working as a reporter at the Tambury Gazette, and frequently suicidal.

What makes the series work – and perhaps accounts for the 100 million views it has already accrued – is its honesty. The bereaved are expected to behave as broken saints, pious and grateful in their interactions with those who offer them a steady stream of unsolicited “thoughts and prayers”.  

In practice, they are often full of unresolved fury, raging at the world and at those (including themselves) who have had the temerity to survive, at the clocks that, to borrow Auden’s image, refuse to stop.

Tony (Ricky Gervais) with Kath (Diane Morgan) in After Life

Tony, for all his evident decency, often lashes out at those who care about him most; mean, capricious and abrupt in his misery. When the prospect of new love arrives in his relationship with his father’s care home nurse, Emma (Ashley Jensen), he cannot help but sabotage his own chance of happiness. After Life captures the disinhibitions of grief, and their self-destructive consequences, and it is this fragile romance that forms the heart of this final season.

Best of all, the show is not remotely mawkish or aphoristic. Tony’s conversations in the graveyard where Lisa is buried with Anne (Penelope Wilton), who is also widowed, could have been the undoing of After Life – but have turned out to be one of its high points; precisely because neither character seeks to rationalise their way glibly out of the pain they feel, or to deny its durability. The question is not how to outlive grief, but how to live with it, how to laugh about it as well as to weep.

Penelope Wilton as Anne in After Life

This relish for subtlety, irresolution and, above all, irony is what makes Gervais such a significant creative force. Naturally, as a 60-year-old comedian who refuses to abide by the purity tests of the modern social justice movements, he has been the target of many social media campaigns. 

To the irritation of his antagonists, however, it is all water off a duck’s back. As he told the NME recently: “I want to polarise people. I want to open the paper the day after this goes out and I want 50 per cent of people to say ‘It’s the best thing I’ve seen’ and I want 50 per cent of people to call for it to be cancelled.”

This is more than a comedian’s belligerence. His unshakeable attachment to irony and ambiguity is not just cussed, but an important stand that should be supported by anyone who believes in freedom of thought, pluralism and a worldview that accepts complexity in a way that ideologies never do. 

Kerry Godliman as Lisa

In the cultural war of many fronts against authoritarianism – in all its forms – irony is an indispensable weapon. As the late Christopher Hitchens put it when reflecting on the Rushdie affair: “The struggle for a free intelligence has always been a struggle between the ironic and the literal mind.” 

Literalism is the friend of gormless power. Irony breaks into no-go zones and nurtures shared ideas and understanding. As Gervais has observed, the starting point these days is “to explain to people what irony is.”

In his case, thank goodness, many of them seem to listen and to engage with the central idea that humour is a civilising force rather than a clear and present danger to their “safety”. Almost a quarter century since he burst onto the scene, Gervais is more important to our cultural life than ever. Truth to tell, I have a hunch that he may just be getting started.

Here are this week’s recommendations:

Watch

Boiling Point (selected cinemas; view on demand)

Since Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), audiences have grown comparatively used to movies that appear to have been shot in one take: Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014) and Sam Mendes’ 1917 (2019) being obvious instances of this cinematic sleight of hand. But a handful of films really are one-shot creations – Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), for instance, or Tuva Novotny’s Blind Spot (2018). Philip Barantini’s Boiling Point sits in the latter category and, as such, is a remarkable technical achievement: following the employees and patrons of a Dalston restaurant for 96 minutes without a single edit. What could be an irritating exercise in directorial self-indulgence turns out to be a perfect marriage of form and content – precisely because the borders that appear to mark out the different sections of a restaurant’s tiny universe are, in fact, completely porous, and a character who is schmoozing customers at their table may, ten seconds later, be out at the back by the bins engaged in a furious row with his colleagues.

The cast is terrific – especially Vinette Robinson as long-suffering second-in-command Carly and Jason Flemyng as celebrity chef Alastair Skye, who is also an investor in the restaurant. But the film’s engine is the preternatural talent of Stephen Graham (see Creative Sensemaker, 3 June 2021) who plays Andy Jones, the restaurant’s chef who – afflicted by marital problems, drinking too much and failing visibly to run a tight kitchen – falls to pieces before our very eyes. “Why wasn’t it fucking labelled?” he yells at a helpless cook who has disposed of some expensive turbot, in tones of desperation that tell a much deeper story. The script, by Barantini and James Cumming, is brutally effective (squirm as Carly berates maitre d’ Alex Feetham as “a budget fucking Kardashian”); the pace relentless and adrenaline-soaked. Not to be missed.

Euphoria (Sky Atlantic, Now TV)

Sam Levinson’s extraordinary drama series returns for its second season, a year after two special episodes appeared at the height of the pandemic to keep us gripped (see Creative Sensemaker, 21 January 2021). Though the spine of Euphoria has always been the complex, passionate relationship between Rue (Zendaya, spectacularly good) and her transgender lover, Jules (Hunter Schafer), the greatest strength of the series is the depth and breadth of the world it portrays – a world in which the characters routinely hover between regular life and criminality, sanity and chemically-induced psychosis, innocence and sexual adventure.

Much of the first episode of season two is devoted to the backstory of dealer Fezco (Angus Cloud) and his romantic interest in Lexi (Maude Apatow); it is also punctuated by moments of shocking violence and self-destructive drug use (“It’s just heroin!”) and of great wit. As Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero did in 1985, Euphoria captures the sheer brutality of growing up and the pitiless choices that face young people in an increasingly precarious world – but with more heart than the cold texts of the mid-Eighties. In this golden age of prestige television, the show ought to be spoken of in the same breath as Succession, Mare of Eastown and The Handmaid’s Tale – and it’s criminal that it isn’t.

Scream (general release, 14 January)

This reboot of the horror franchise launched by the late Wes Craven in 1996 really should be titled Scream 5. But, in the new era of so-called “requels” or (worse) “legacy-quels”, the convention is simply to go back to square one (a trend initiated by Halloween in 2018 – in fact, the 11th film in the series). Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (who made the terrific Ready or Not) take us back to Woodsboro for the return of Ghostface, and the familiar trio of Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette – alongside younger performers including Melissa Barrera, Jack Quaid, and Dylan Minnette.

Since the original Scream was a horror movie about horror movies – a postmodern riff on the most familiar tropes of the genre – this instalment in the franchise is technically a horror movie about a horror movie about horror movies, full of references, Easter eggs and in-jokes. The new Scream could have been unbearably smug; in practice, it is an entertaining and efficient movie, tautly directed but never taking itself too seriously. Not for the squeamish, this is superior popcorn fare, and worthy of the franchise which it seeks to revive.


Read

Scary Monsters: Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin)

Even in its structure, Michelle de Kretser’s seventh novel is a study in dislocation and unease: it has two front covers, which means that you can flip the book over to decide which of its two novella sections you read first. Lili is set in Montpellier in the Eighties and recounts the yearning of a young Asian Australian assistant at a high school to live up to the high feminist principles of her idol, Simone de Beauvoir. “I had the boring version of Johnny Rotten’s problem,” she recalls. “I knew what I wanted but I didn’t know how to get it.” The monsters of racism, ageism and misogyny loom in a more chilling form in Lyle – a dystopian vision of a near-future Australia, socially lacerated by climate change, pandemics and bigotry. Islam has been banned, repatriation is commonplace and euthanasia legislation is imperilling the old and infirm. What unites the two sections is a vivid preoccupation with identity, the status of migrants and the perils of authoritarianism, petty or otherwise. The writing is fabulous – a case study in contemporary fiction that engages with the nuance and crannies of political reality through the lens of human vulnerability.

How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them – Barbara F. Walter (Penguin Viking)

“If America has a second civil war,” writes Professor Barbara F. Walter of UC San Diego, “the combatants will not gather in fields, nor will they wear uniforms. They may not even have commanders. They will slip in and out of the shadows, communicating on message boards and encrypted networks, They will meet in small groups in vacuum-repair shops along retail strips, in desert clearings along Arizona’s border, in public parks in Southern California, or in the snowy woods of Michigan, where they will train to fight.” The United States, she argues, has already passed through what the CIA, in its analysis of foreign countries, calls the “pre-insurgency” phase and now simmers uneasily in a state of “incipient conflict” – the prelude, potentially, to full-blown “open insurgency”. Though Walter is naturally drawn to the terrible events of 6 January 2020, and the storming of the Capitol, her vistas are much broader and her warnings much more sophisticated than mere doom-mongering. America, she concludes, is now an “anocracy”, somewhere between functioning democracy and full-blown autocracy. The question is: what are those who believe in the integrity of the republic going to do about it? An important book that should banish all remaining complacency about how much is at stake – and not just in the US.

Living and Dying with Marcel Proust – Christopher Prendergast (Europa Compass)

Some books are so epic in scale that they require their own manuals to help the first-time reader (Declan Kiberd’s Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living is a great example of this subgenre).There are many popular guides to Proust’s ​​À la recherche du temps perdu, including Alain de Botton’s ingenious and entertaining How Proust Can Change Your Life. Christopher Prendergast’s new book is less playful, reflecting, as it does, a scholarly lifetime studying the author and editing one of the most highly-regarded English translations of his great novel. But this is a welcoming book, engaging the reader with the layers of meaning, preoccupation and yearning that are to be found in Proust’s 1.25 million words – food, addiction, memory, colour, music, snobbery and so on. “We live in a culture of speed, instant obsolescence and rapidly processed information,” the Cambridge professor has observed. “Proust is the antithesis of all this, an invitation to slow down and take one’s time.” Who can resist such an invitation?


Listen

The Boy Named If – Elvis Costello & The Imposters (14 January)

“I thought you’d change/ Get a little humble/ You strike your strange disposition/ Like a drummer hits a cymbal/ And rings on in the vicinity/ From an instant thrill to infinity.” Listen to the razor-sharp lyrics and sheer attack of the first single from Costello’s latest album – ‘Farewell, OK’ – and you could be forgiven for thinking that we are back in the classic New Wave era of This Year’s Model (1978) or Armed Forces (1979). But for all the verve and grit that The Boy Named If definitely boasts, it is not anything as gauche as a “back to basics” LP from the great singer-songwriter. Indeed, the album’s style owes as much to, say, Muddy Waters and Costello’s long-time collaborator, Burt Bacharach, as it does to the late Seventies London-New York scene from which Costello emerged as a supreme talent. At 67 – almost 45 years since his first single for Stiff, ‘Less Than Zero’ – the artist formerly known as Declan McManus is still experimenting, fusing genres, expanding his musical range. There is nobody quite like him; long may he reign.

Mozart Piano Concertos – Jeremy Denk & Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra

An absolute gem from the 51-year-old native of North Carolina, who is a fine writer as well as one of the world’s greatest pianists (here he is on Julian Barnes, for instance). On this release, Denk collaborates with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra to glorious effect, recording two of Mozart’s piano concertos – No 25 in C major, K503 and the better known No 20 in D minor, K466as well as the Rondo in A minor, K511. The performances are full of wit and audacity, and reflect his close relationship with the composer who features in the first and last chapters of his forthcoming memoir. Of the D minor concerto he has said: “The first and last movements are the most vivid and shockingly iconic music that Mozart ever wrote. It’s the most romantic work that Mozart composed. It’s not in the classical style, but you hear the romantic era waiting to explode out.” You certainly do.

Transparency – Twin Atlantic

The Glaswegian duo’s fifth studio album is also their best to date. After the expansive pop of POWER (2020), Sam McTrusty (lead vocals, rhythm guitar) and Ross McNae (bass) return with an unashamedly quirky, lo-fi slice of post-punk, anchored by McTrusty’s entertainingly sarky lyrics (think early Squeeze in a blender with Iggy Pop). Experience and maturity have made Twin Atlantic more mischievous, rather than less, and their sound in 2022 blends electronica with garage rock as if it were much easier than it actually is. Recorded in the depths of the pandemic, these ten tracks (especially “One Man Party”) deserve to be danced to by sun-drenched crowds at the summer festivals – and can be heard before then on the band’s tour in May.


And finally…

Thanks to Mark St Andrew for this last-chance-to-enjoy recommendation of Measure for Measure at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (until 15 January):

“I love Shakespeare’s dialogue. He has written speeches that can make your heart soar – but plotting and endings are not his strongest suit. Unlikely coincidences, bizarre character motivations and spurious mistaken identities stretch credulity for modern audiences, and all these are present in Measure for Measure

Known as one of the so-called “problem plays”, thanks to its wobbly mixture of comedy and drama, Measure for Measure gets a bad rap – with some justification. The core of the story is that young Isabella, a nun, is forced into sleeping with a powerful man to stop him killing her brother. The rest of the characters, a motley crew of pimps, drunks, and prostitutes seem on board with this.

Blanche McIntyre’s production in the wonderful candle-lit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse moves the action from 17th-century Vienna to the 1970s, albeit with a very light visual touch. Believe it or not, it works. This update helps make sense of one of Shakespeare’s more outrageous plots and suddenly the attitudes of the characters ring true because this now a Seventies sex comedy: Shakespeare à la Ray Cooney, and it is glorious. This production does remarkable service to the text, and McIntyre has coaxed the comedy to the surface when it matters. 

The performances are universally good – although special mention goes to Georgia Landers, who brings a much needed steely grace to the role of Isabella (her famous “To whom should I complain? … Who would believe me?” speech feels uncomfortably relevant post #MeToo). Daniel Millar, in riotously comedic form, also delivers a standout performance as Elbow. It turns out that Shakespeare rather suits the sleazy Seventies. Cancel your Friday night plans, put on some flares and treat yourself.”

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker 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 Netflix, Paramount Pictures, BBC, Channel 4, Helen Murray/Shakespeares Globe