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Follow the funny

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In the new comic drama series, Gaslit, Julia Roberts excels as Martha Mitchell, the forgotten whistleblower of the Watergate scandal

“If it hadn’t been for Martha [Mitchell], there’d have been no Watergate.” So declared Richard Nixon in his legendary interview with David Frost in 1977.

With this in mind, it is extraordinary how little credit has been given to her in the scores of books that have been written and documentaries made about the downfall of the 37th US president and the extraordinary revelations about corruption and crime in the White House that led to his public disgrace and resignation in August 1974. 

Martha Mitchell at home with her husband Attorney General John Mitchell and their daughter Marti, 1970

As the wife of John Mitchell, Nixon’s Attorney General and then campaign manager, Martha was perfectly placed to blow the whistle on the scandal – and did her best to do so at social events and in phone calls with journalists. Her reward for trying to do the right thing was brutal treatment by Nixon’s henchmen, systematic efforts to discredit and defame her, and a later life of obscurity and insecurity.

For their part, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward – the Washington Post reporters who followed the trail from the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate complex, all the way to the Oval Office – barely mention Martha Mitchell in their original book, All the President’s Men.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the Washington Post newsroom, 1973

Woodward mused that, in her indiscretions, she might be “becoming the Greek chorus of the Watergate drama – sounding her warnings to all who would hear.” But when, in September 1972, he visited the Essex House hotel on Central Park south where the Mitchells were staying, he found her “anxious”, “fidgeting” and reluctant to discuss “dirty politics”. Woodward’s exasperated conclusion was that “it had been a wasted trip”.

In his memoir Blind Ambition, meanwhile, John Dean – the former counsel to the president, sentenced to prison for his part in the criminal conspiracy – writes about Martha purely as a “hysterical” liability, an Arkansan socialite prone to “raising hell”. According to Dean’s deeply unsympathetic account: “From [John] Mitchell’s end of the conversations, I heard talk of doctors, sedation and alcohol. The pathos and despair of the scene were so immediate they cut through everything else. I knew Mitchell had more to contend with than Watergate.”

It is this demeaning caricature – of a reckless woman making life even more difficult for men of power struggling for political survival – that Gaslit (Starz), Robbie Pickering’s eight-episode drama (based on Leon Neyfakh’s Slow Burn podcast series) seeks to overturn. 

In one of her best performances in years, Julia Roberts portrays Martha – the “Mouth from the South” who, at time of the scandal, was a hugely prominent figure on television and in Washington society – as a shrewd and increasingly appalled observer of her husband’s plot to get Nixon re-elected at any cost.

Sean Penn, barely recognisable in prosthetics, is also excellent as John Mitchell, Nixon’s attack dog and protector, often barely aware of his wife’s presence and ruthlessly manipulative in his attempts to control her. But Martha fights back. When he hits her, she shouts: “You take a fucking breath! My mama slaps me harder than that!”

Into the Mitchells’ circle saunters Dean (Dan Stevens), a silkily ambitious hypocrite whose longing for power and access to the president overcomes his instinct that the political espionage project with which he is entrusted will end in disaster. 

“I know your dirty secret,” says Mo Kane (Betty Gilpin) to her future husband. “In the moments when you actually shut up, you know how to listen.” But that is Dean’s whole problem: he listens to everything and does nothing about it. The burglaries, subversion and “rat-fucking” of Nixon’s opponents proceed as if they have a life of their own.

Much of the power of Gaslit lies in its gallows humour. Is it possible that these clueless, posturing macho men were able to destroy a presidency and wreck the self-confidence of a great democracy? Yes, most certainly.

This is the screwball comedy that acts as an overdue counterpart to the classic movie adaptation of All the President’s Men (1976). The energy and earnestness of Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein are etched into our collective cultural consciousness – especially Woodward’s tense meetings in underground car parks with his most clandestine source, Deep Throat (unmasked in 2005 as former associate director of the FBI, Mark Felt – on all of which, see Woodward’s book The Secret Man).

Yet on the other side of this mirror was a comedy of errors: of braggarts, blowhards and entitled idiots. A highlight of Gaslit is Shea Whigham’s turn as the deranged G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent hired by the Committee for the Re-election of the President (CRP) to turn the White House “special investigations unit” – the so-called “Plumbers” – into an attack force. The very first scene of the series shows Liddy performing his manic party trick in which – to prove his masculinity – he would hold his hand over a candle flame until the smell of burning flesh filled the air. 

After an initial meeting with John Mitchell goes badly, he screams: “He’s lucky I didn’t snap his spine right in the fucking room!” One of the most unintentionally funny books I have ever read is Liddy’s 1980 autobiography, Will, which reveals the full extent of the author’s insanely Nietzschean private universe. Less amusing – as Whigham’s performance demonstrates – is the fact that such a figure was ever let off the leash to wreak havoc at the heart of America’s political system.

Martha and John N. Mitchell, 1971

Psychologists now speak of the “Martha Mitchell Effect” as an identifiable syndrome, in which a person’s justified beliefs are misrepresented as a delusion: a cruel affliction indeed, and one for which the woman who gave the clinical term its name paid a heavy price. Gaslit, at least, begins the process of rescuing Martha Mitchell from what, in a very different context, the historian EP Thompson called “the enormous condescension of posterity”.

Here are this week’s recommendations:

Watch

Ten Percent (all episodes, Prime Video)

The original French title of the smash hit Netflix series Call My Agent! – now renewed for a fifth season, with a movie in the works – was Dix Pour Cent. But why bother with a relocated, English-language reboot, in which the Parisian talent agency ASK has its counterpart in the Soho-based Nightingale Hart? Because, as the US version of The Office showed, such acts of comic export can yield unexpected brilliance. And because, in this particular instance, the export has been overseen by writer, executive producer and director John Morton, the genius behind Twenty Twelve and W1A. Though its fidelity to the original is strong, especially in the first episodes, Ten Percent has its own distinctive spirit, thanks in large measure to an excellent ensemble cast: Jack Davenport, Lydia Leonard, Prasanna Puwanarajah, breakout social media star Harry Trevaldwyn, Tim McInnerny and the inimitable Jim Broadbent as the boss, Richard Nightingale. Call My Agent! purists will grumble that it lacks the chic of the Parisian original – but that is rather the point. Watch out, too, for great cameos by Kelly Macdonald, Emma Corrin, Himesh Patel, Helena Bonham Carter and (especially) Dominic West.

Shining Girls (Apple TV+ , 29 April)

In the past quarter century, Elisabeth Moss has nurtured an entirely new kind of fame as the first true superstar of the prestige television era. Since her breakout role as Zoey Bartlet in The West Wing, she has clocked up an extraordinary run of award-winning performances in Mad Men, Top of the Lake and The Handmaid’s Tale (the fifth season of which is now in production). It is not that Moss’s talent does not translate to the big screen: she was remarkable as Shirley Jackson in Josephine Decker’s Shirley (2020). Rather, that she seems principally drawn to the longer-form world of high-quality streaming drama – this time in the eight-episode Apple TV+ adaptation of Lauren Beukes’ 2013 novel The Shining Girls. Moss plays Kirby Mazrachi, an archivist at the Chicago Sun-Times and survivor of an assault. In Kirby’s case, trauma disrupts time itself, propelling her into alternate realities. “Everything is like always, and then it’s not,” she says to her mother. “Nothing is where it should be, and I don’t recognize it anymore.” Apparently omnipresent in this cruel multiverse is Harper (Jamie Bell), a sinister misogynist, who looks the same in 1992 as he did in the mid-Sixties. Interspliced with this is the murder of Julia Madrigal, (Karen Rodriguez) whose case is being investigated by crime reporter Dan Velazquez (Wagner Moura). The pace, punctuation and disruptive power of the action are deliberately disorienting, but the series is held together by Moss’s predictably excellent performance.

Casablanca Beats (selected cinemas; Curzon Home Video)

Set in Sidi Moumen, a shantytown suburb of Casablanca, Nabil Ayouch’s exuberant movie (originally titled alā ṣawtuk or “Against Your Voice”) explores the power of music to liberate individuality from social and religious conformity. Hired to teach a programme called “The Positive School of Hip Hop” at a struggling arts centre, Anas (Anas Basbousi) instructs his students to take rap seriously as an artistic challenge to their assumptions and limited expectations – citing the role that African-American culture played in the rise of Barack Obama and the Arab Spring. Tensions arise not only with conservative parents, but with those male pupils who think that their female classmates should not veer from the rules of religious etiquette. The powerful authenticity of Casablanca Beats is reflected in Ayouch’s casting of the centre’s real-life attendees as versions of themselves and in an editing style that often recalls the visual grammar of a documentary. The soundtrack by Mike and Fabien Kourtzer is terrific, too.


Read

Villager – Tom Cox (Unbound)

“You know, very firmly, when you’re in it, that you’re not in London, or Kettering, or Ipswich… the trees have beards, the lanes have ferny green sideburns, and your hair is made of rain.” Thus is the moorland Devon village of Underhill described in Tom Cox’s eagerly awaited fictional debut. One of the very best and most eclectic writers at work today, his non-fiction has ranged from his love of the countryside, to music of all kinds, to the lives of his cats (some of whom have had their own Twitter accounts), the powerful draw of folklore and local magic. His 2019 collection of spooky stories, Help the Witch, augured well for his first novel, and Villager does not disappoint. Though the plot is hard to encapsulate in a sentence – a strength, in this case – its focal point is the role that a little-known musician called RJ McKendree has upon Underhill over a long period of time. But the true appeal of the story is its interweaving of themes and narratives: local personalities, the impact of pylons, the interconnection between past and present, and the relationship between people and the land that, literally, has a voice in the narrative. Villager is one of the must-read novels of 2022.

The War on the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason – Douglas Murray (HarperCollins)

Since the death of Sir Roger Scruton two years ago, Douglas Murray has had a good claim to be the most important conservative polemicist writing in the English language – a claim that is strengthened by this fascinating book. In The War on the West, he explores “what happens when one side in a cold war – the side of democracy, reason, fights and universal principle – prematurely surrenders”. And not only surrenders, he contends, but embarks upon a sometimes deranged cultural project of self-flagellation in which legitimate criticism and analysis of past injustices has mutated into a much more sinister crusade to make the West – and only the West – the villain of global and national histories. There is much with which I disagree: I think Murray radically underestimates the extent and depth of contemporary racism, for instance. I am much more sympathetic to the modern social justice movements than he is. But so what? There is much food for thought in these pages, especially on the corrosive role of resentment and the cultural decadence of any society that holds only itself to account. More to the point: it is troubling that – encouraged by the tribal force of social media algorithms – it has become so commonplace for so many readers to avoid, on principle, writers who hold different views to their own. It is especially progressives who should be testing their own opinions on the anvil of Murray’s considerable intellect. And – though the book was completed before Putin invaded Ukraine – what better moment to reassess what the West still stands for and, more to the point, what future we want it to have?

Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK – Simon Kuper (Profile) 

In this tightly-focused work of social anthropology, Financial Times writer Simon Kuper shows, to brilliant effect, how the antics, caucusing and political ambitions of a small group of Oxford undergraduates planted the roots of the national jungle in which we all now live. Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Cameron, Daniel Hannan, Dominic Cummings and many more, consciously or otherwise, and to differing degrees, used the university as a laboratory in which they honed their campaigning methods, worldviews, epic self-confidence and sense of entitlement to the glittering prizes (several, notably the Etonians, already had a pretty well-developed sense of entitlement when they arrived). The story is not linear or straightforward. Some of its aspects were personal and accidental: the influence of the late right-wing historian Norman Stone, for example. But, in other respects, the thread that connects Oxford in the mid-Eighties to the politics of the 2020s is clear. So is the key formative influence of the Union – its debating society japes a finishing school for proto-parliamentarians. Kuper’s thesis that the cause of Brexit owed much to this generation’s yearning for a war or an imperial mission is also very plausible. Best of all, this is not just a book for political obsessives but a social parable, showing how the high jinks of gilded youth can, in a few decades, translate into power and decision-making that affects millions.


Listen

Everything Was Beautiful – Spiritualized

The title of the ninth album from the veteran space rock band completes the quotation from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 (“Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt”), the second half of which inspired the title of their eighth. In essence, Spiritualized has always been a morphing musical collective overseen by Jason Pierce (AKA J Spaceman), who plays 16 different instruments on Everything Was Beautiful, alongside more than 30 other musicians and singers. The consequence is a maximalist triumph in which the listener quickly becomes completely immersed – more so than could be said of any Spiritualized album since Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (1997). Pierce’s range is formidable: from the bluesy rock of ‘Best Thing You Never Had (The D Song)’, via the unexpected country sound of ‘Crazy’, to his tribute to Iggy Pop, ‘Let It Bleed’. On the seventh and final track, the ten-minute-long ‘I’m Coming Home Again’, Pierce creates a huge psychedelic canvas that conjures the image of Phil Spector remixing the Beatles’ Revolver. “I’ve kind of had it with philosophy,” sings Pierce, “because I’m thinking I am / but I’m failing to be.” It may not always be easy being a cerebral space rocker, but we’re fortunate that he keeps trying.

Rebecca Clarke: Works for Viola – Vinciane Béranger, Dana Ciocarlie, Hélène Collerette and David Louwerse

The British-American composer and violist, Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) was one of the most brilliant musicians of the last century – and yet has received a fraction of the acclaim that she deserves. A student of Lionel Tertis and Ralph Vaughan Williams, she even had to resort, when presenting some of her compositions, to using the pseudonym “Anthony Trent”. Happily, the Rebecca Clarke Society, founded in 2000, and discerning recording artists have been seeking to correct this deficit – a collaborative enterprise towards which this record is a significant contribution. The celebrated violist Vinciane Béranger joins forces with pianist Dana Ciocarlie, violinist Hélène Collerette and cellist David Louwerse to perform a range of pieces, leading off with Clarke’s Viola Sonata and Morpheus (a piece originally attributed to the fictitious Mr Trent). The beauty of the composer’s particular version of English impressionism and her passion for chamber music shine through. (For more on her artistic achievement and its delayed recognition, try A Rebecca Clarke Reader by Liane Curtis – regrettably hard to get hold of, though partially available online.)

Ukrainian National Anthem in Dub – Jah Wobble and the Ukrainians (feat. Jon Klein)

Trust Jah Wobble – one of the most consistently interesting musicians to emerge from the post-punk demi-monde – to come up with such a creative way to raise funds for Ukraine. And great to hear master guitarist Jon Klein, formerly of Siouxsie and the Banshees, lending his talents to the project. 

Do buy the digital track for £1 or more – the proceeds going to the DEC (Disasters Emergency Committee) Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal and the AUGB (Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain) Help Ukraine Emergency Appeal (see here also). First-class dub, for the best possible cause.


And finally…

Thanks to Tortoise member, Jelena Sofronijevic (@jelsofron) for her review of ‘A Century of the Artist’s Studio: 1920-2020’ (Whitechapel Gallery, until 5 June):

“If working from home has revealed anything, it is how far the clean office ‘ideal’ is from our lived reality. Artists are no exception. Yet Andy Warhol’s Silver Factory has for too long been heralded as the archetypal studio-as-stage. It’s become a twentieth-century modern art installation all of its own. This exhibition reveals how these spaces have never just served as simple showrooms – but as workplaces, spaces of experimentation, and sites of refuge.

Integrating over one hundred artists across nationalities, genders, ethnicities, and media, it shows that there’s simply no right way to create or curate. Take Shadi Ghadirian’s ‘Untitled (Qajar Series)’ (1998), a set of solemn monochrome images of Iranian women wearing full dress. They stand directly opposite Tracey Emin’s colour photographs of the naked female body. The point is implicit – that artists variously interpret or diverge from the same idea to produce entirely different works, depending on the context. But these subtle juxtapositions become strikingly powerful when you stand back and survey the studio as a whole.

Featuring titans of international art, Century doesn’t canonise, but humanises these individuals, inviting us into the private spaces of their studios. Francis Bacon’s passport photographs are pinched from 7 Reece Mews, South Kensington, his home and studio from 1961 until his death in 1992. A hand-scrawled copy book details his desire to curate the ‘highly controlled chaos’ of this dual purpose space.

Above all, you cannot help but leave Century inspired yourself to create – and perhaps reconsider that studio of your own.” 

A longer version of Jelena’s review can be read here. Thanks, too, to Tortoise member Paul Atherton for his take on Mark Ravenhill’s production of La bohème at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington (booking until 28 May):

“Ravenhill’s La bohème is designed to be the perfect entrance into opera for a new audience, Gone is the vast cast – it’s a four hander. Instead of wearing elaborate costumes, most of the cast remain in hospital scrubs throughout; the singing is in English and, rather than the intimidating surroundings of, say, the Royal Opera House, the production is staged in the backroom theatre of a north London pub. 

Gone. too, are the three-hour-plus performances normally associated with opera: this runs at a tight 90 minutes with an interval. And what remains is glorious. Our protagonists Mimi and Robin are now gay, meet on Grindr on Christmas Eve and play out the dance of love, through house parties, jealousies, ill health and break-up – all with the inevitable ending. 

The singing – with new lyrics set to Puccini’s original score – is sublime, including some brilliant interplay with the audience by Black opera singer Grace Nyandoro (Marissa). Lyricist and pianist David Eaton brings a lightness of touch to what is normally a hugely orchestrated piece. The male lead voices, Daniel Koek (Robin) and Phillip Lee (Mimi) are extraordinary and the beautifully performed, straight comic relief comes from Matthew Kellett (Marcus).

For those who’ve never seen an opera this will be your best introduction ever; for those who already love the art form, a perfect uplifting reimagining of a classic, with the small space lending much more power to the performance than a distanced stage. Emotional, funny, unmissable.” 

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 Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Starz Entertainment, Wally McNamee/Corbis via Getty Images, Ken Feil/The The Washington Post, Kerry James Marshall/Collection of Charlotte and Herbert S. Wagner III courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner London and Jack Shainman Gallery