“I may accept, if they come up with the proper money. Science fiction – which gives me pause – but it is to be directed by Paul [sic] Lucas who did American Graffiti which makes me feel I should. Big part. Fairy-tale rubbish but could be interesting perhaps.”
So wrote Sir Alec Guinness in his diary in 1975, as he mulled over the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the first Star Wars movie (now known, almost half a century later, as Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope). Though he recorded that he liked George Lucas well enough when they met for lunch in London, he was clearly not sufficiently bowled over to remember the director’s first name.
All the same: Guinness did sign up for what was still a fairly ramshackle affair – and, in so doing, was arguably responsible for elevating a relatively minor sci-fi flick into the basis of a global multi-billion-dollar franchise that is still churning out products to this day. As one of the great and most revered actors of his day, he lent gravitas and authority to Lucas’s crazy project – and piqued the interest of the press and public even before the movie had begun shooting in Tunisia.
Kenobi was the diffident magus of the first film, an exiled Jedi master on the desert planet of Tatooine, overseeing the early training of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and steering him towards the rebel alliance that would take on the wicked Emperor and Darth Vader (who, as any fule kno, turned out, in the second movie, to be Luke’s father, Anakin Skywalker).
To Guinness’s initial irritation, Lucas altered the original storyline dramatically: Kenobi had been slated to lead the rebels into battle to destroy the Death Star and to hand out medals in the film’s final scene. Instead, the director decided to kill him off in a lightsaber duel with Vader barely halfway through the story.
Though this denied Guinness screen time, it elevated his significance in the saga (“If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine”). Now an ethereal presence in “the Force”, Guinness’s Kenobi returned occasionally as a spectral figure with a distinctive Ready Brek glow to dispense wisdom to Luke.
And this is Kenobi’s role throughout the saga – its ever-reliable sage, more avuncular and approachable than Yoda, less forbidding than Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace Windu. One of the lines from the first film that everyone knows is delivered by the holographic Princess Leia, projected by R2-D2: “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” Well, indeed.
When Lucas returned with his still-controversial prequel trilogy in 1999, the role passed to Ewan McGregor, a younger Kenobi who trained the Jedi prodigy Anakin (Hayden Christensen) – but could not prevent him from being seduced by the Dark Side of the Force and becoming a Sith Lord. When I interviewed Lucas at the Dorchester in 2005, he was adamant that the third instalment of this backstory – Episode III – Revenge of the Sith – would be, emphatically, the end of the saga: “That story will never appear on the screen again. It’s finished. It’s complete.”
Not so much, as it turned out. Seven years later, he sold the whole franchise to Disney for $4 billion – and we were off to the pod races again, with a new movie trilogy immediately announced, and any number of spin-offs slated for eventual production.
In the past decade, Disney has released five movies, a whole raft of animated adventures and two successful streaming series: Jon Favreau’s The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett, both of which are essentially space westerns featuring gritty bounty hunters on the desert frontiers of galactic civilisation.
And now – with even more fanfare – here comes Obi-Wan Kenobi (Disney+, 27 May), a much-anticipated six-episode drama, directed by Deborah Chow, set ten years after Revenge of the Sith and the rise of the Empire. McGregor is back as the defeated Jedi general, keeping an eye on young Luke, who is being secretly looked after on Tatooine by Anakin’s step-brother Owen Lars (Joel Edgerton) and his wife Beru (Bonnie Piesse).
The greatest thrill of the series is the return of Christensen to the role he last played 17 years ago and the prospect of further showdowns between former master and pupil. Whatever else is said or written about Star Wars – and, God knows, plenty is – the perfection of Vader as a villain is beyond question. The character’s return to the big screen in the excellent Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) was perhaps the most memorable moment of Disney’s custody of the franchise to date (though it was not Christensen in the suit on that occasion, but Spencer Wilding and Daniel Naprous, with the distinctive baritone voice provided by James Earl Jones).
There is much else to enjoy in the new Kenobi series, with Rupert Friend as the Grand Inquisitor (a character familiar from the animated series The Clone Wars and Rebels) and his fellow Jedi hunter, Reva Sevander (Moses Ingram), plenty of lightsaber action and a host of dramatic locations (old and new).
The DNA of Obi-Wan Kenobi is instantly recognisable as gene-compatible with the deepest traditions of the saga – though as Chris Taylor observes in his definitive How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, “true fans hate everything about Star Wars”. The most obsessive believers are indeed incapable of satisfaction and see betrayal everywhere; an ongoing backlash, turbocharged by the Internet, that truly shocked Lucas when he first encountered it.
But this ritualised peevishness has never really threatened the franchise. In our secular age, Star Wars is the closest we have to a planetary myth: heavily and famously influenced by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949) in its inclusion of miraculous birth, the initiation and trials of the hero, and its replacement of a formal deity with a mystical power that represents the interconnectedness of all beings. Though the saga has had many ups and downs, it has earned more than $70 billion, showing that magic can always be monetised.
Most interesting, perhaps, is the changing venue of that monetisation. In origin, Star Wars was emphatically a cinematic experience; a throwback to the great matinee shows of the past. There will certainly be more movies. But the centre of gravity is shifting to streamed content rather than theatrical experiences – a shift that is also visible, though less sharply so, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Already there are plans for Andor (a Rogue One prequel series), Ahsoka (with Rosario Dawson), The Acolyte (set in the “High Republic” era) and Lando (the adventures of Lando Calrissian).
But first, welcome back to General Kenobi, at the centre of it all where he belongs. He was absolutely right all those years ago: he has indeed become more powerful than his wicked apprentice could ever have imagined – and now the two are ready to square off once again.
Here are this week’s recommendations.
Pistol (Disney+, 31 May)
All the surviving members of the Sex Pistols have written memoirs, apart from the drummer, Paul Cook (and you can read of his recollections in this Tortoise interview). Inevitably, perhaps, the most absorbing are the two autobiographies by Johnny Rotten AKA John Lydon (Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs and Anger is an Energy: My Life Uncensored). But the first Pistol was guitarist Steve Jones, whose 2016 memoir, Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol has now been adapted into a six-part drama by Craig Pearce. With Danny Boyle at the helm – and the oxygen provided last year by Lydon’s failed legal bid to stop the band’s music being used – the mini-series does not lack brio or energy. Ben Wallace is good as Jones, a damaged and needy character, abused in childhood, who masks his vulnerability with the angry swagger of punk. Anson Boon as Rotten is a compelling screen presence, as are Louis Partridge as Sid Vicious, Maisie Williams as the iconic model and muse Jordan (see Creative Sensemaker, 7 April) and Sydney Chandler as Chrissie Hynde. I was less persuaded by Thomas Brodie-Sangster as the Pistols’ guru and presiding creative spirit, Malcolm McLaren – though that may reflect the fact that it is impossible not to see him as Sam, the young blond kid in Richard Curtis’s Love Actually.
Boyle is a master storyteller and the pace and vigour of the series cannot be faulted – though there is little new here that has not already appeared in (for instance) Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy (1986) and Julien Temple’s two films on the band, The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle (1980) and The Filth and the Fury (2000). For the definitive story of the Pistols (and much else besides), we shall have to wait for the forthcoming official documentary on McLaren – which, I can disclose, is being made in collaboration with his longtime partner, the artist and writer Young Kim and directed by Nigel Cole – a treat to look forward to later this year or in the first half of 2023.
“That was irony. There’s going to be a bit of that throughout the show. See if you can spot it. That’s when I say something I don’t really mean – for comic effect. And you as an audience, you laugh at the wrong thing because you know what the right thing is. It’s a way of satirising attitudes.” It says a lot for the leaden literalism of our times that Ricky Gervais finds it necessary to spell out how comedy works in the opening minutes of his latest stand-up special. Did Lenny Bruce or Bill Hicks or George Carlin ever have to make such a public service announcement? I doubt it. In any case: this is full-throttle Gervais, with something to offend everyone, and one particular bit – inevitably, on the trans issue – that sparked a social media storm within hours of the special’s release on Tuesday. Ghost-hunting television shows, medical check-ups, the capacity of the platypus to make custard, whether cats would eat us if they were big enough, the etiquette of funerals: all these subjects and many more are dealt with in just over an hour. “This is so childish and misinformed,” Gervais says gleefully. Which is, of course, the whole point. It’s also very, very funny. You remember “funny”?
And thanks to Tortoise Editor and Partner, Keith Blackmore, for this recommendation of Lancaster (selected cinemas; video on demand, 27 May)
“The Avro Lancaster bomber holds an unusual place in British history: revered, even loved by many who remember its crucial role in the second world war; reviled by those who recall instead the horrors of the Hamburg or Dresden raids as the conflict neared its end. A new documentary, Lancaster makes an honest attempt to tell both sides of the story. The filmmakers, David Fairhead and Ant Palmer, make extensive use of often breathtaking footage of the only two remaining airworthy planes, combining it with some terrifying archive material.
But for all the stately beauty of the great old plane and the thrill of hearing its thunderous engines, the film belongs to a handful of human voices: surviving aircrew, a woman who lost her boyfriend without ever having the chance to say goodbye, and even an elderly German who survived the raids. All are now in their nineties but their stories are full of humility, heroism, horror and loss.”
Good Pop, Bad Pop: An Inventory – Jarvis Cocker (Jonathan Cape)
Every life is an old curiosity shop, just as every heart – according to Yeats, at least – is “a foul rag and bone shop”. In this imaginative, eccentric and very readable book (Jarvis Cocker’s “first work of long-form prose”), the Pulp frontman explores the first phase of his creative journey through the ingenious prism of an attic clearance: as he empties a loft full of hoarded stuff, he invites the reader to play “Keep or Cob” (“cob” being Sheffield slang for chuck out or dump).
And there’s plenty to sift through: a pack of Wrigley’s Extra Sugarfree gum, collar supports, a ‘Gold Star’ polyester shirt, a plaster-cast of his teeth, the remains of a bar of Cussons Imperial Leather soap, the Sexy Laughs Fantastic Dirty Joke Book.
There are also hand-written manifestos for his future stardom – a “Pulp fashion” inventory in an exercise book (“my Dead Sea Scrolls”); the chords to John Denver’s ‘Annie’s Song’ (‘Credibility. Blown.’), an early, personally designed 20p ticket to a Pulp concert; and many other fragments of a plan for glory.
The young Cocker wanted to be a pop star, alright. But he also wanted to do it his way, loving “the idea that a culture could reveal more of itself through its throwaway items than through its supposedly revered artefacts” – an idea which he identified in the work of the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol. Good Pop, Bad Pop ends before Pulp really hit the big time, and leaves the reader wanting more. In effect, it is a very personal Britpop version of Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects. But if (as one hopes) there is a second volume, you can bet the endlessly nimble Cocker will think of yet another ingenious format.
Jarvis Cocker will be talking to June Sarpong about Good Pop, Bad Pop on Saturday 11 June at Kite Festival in Oxfordshire. Tickets are on sale here.
Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, in Music Lessons – Jeremy Denk (Picador)
From the roots of Britpop to the heights of classical music… yet the creative passion that stirs Jeremy Denk is not so different to the yearnings that have animated Jarvis Cocker’s artistic journey. Indeed, one of the reasons that Denk (a fine writer as well as a virtuoso pianist: see Creative Sensemaker, 13 January) is so celebrated is that he is so good at explaining what drives him, how he matches his bursting love for classical music to the intense discipline required to play it well, and how everyone can enjoy it.
Typically, this fine memoir, which began life as a New Yorker article in April 2013, includes an annotated playlist of important compositions. One is left in no doubt of the price that a performer of Denk’s standard has to pay; but the point of the book is that the joy that can be derived from great music makes it all worthwhile. In Every Good Boy Does Fine (a mnemonic to remember the lines of the treble clef) we follow his fortunes from his emergence as a six-year-old prodigy in New Jersey; via the revelation as he listens, aged 12, to a cassette of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante performed by the Cleveland Orchestra, of the almost supernatural beauty of music; to the completion of his doctorate at Juilliard in 2002; and his discovery soon thereafter of true love (“I didn’t have to come out; I was already way, way out”). A moving study not only of performing genius but of humanity itself.
Berlin: Life and Loss in the City that Shaped the Century – Sinclair McKay (Penguin Viking)
“There were those in the earliest days of the Berlin Wall who reached out to touch its cold, rough surface; palms on pitted concrete. Some paced beneath it with agitation and distress. It was largely extemporized, yet the concrete carried a terrible suggestion of permanence.” It takes an author of Sinclair McKay’s calibre to pull off a task as audacious as the one he sets himself in this remarkable book: to write not just a history but a biography of a city, full of pulsing life, decay and renewal (obvious precedents are Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography and Jan Morris’s Venice). “Throughout the twentieth century,” he writes, “Berlin stood at the centre of a convulsing world.” It was traumatised by the First World War, by Nazism and then communism. McKay (best-known for his brilliant Dresden: The Fire and the Darkness) cites the verdict of the architect David Chipperfield that every city “has history, but Berlin has too much.” Quite possibly – but McKay gives us plenty to chew on, entwining mighty geopolitical forces with deeply personal anecdotes of the Berliners who were buffeted by them, whilst retaining a sense of wit, creativity and a profound resilience. A majestic work of nonfiction.
Chasing Euphoria – M Huncho
The masked master of melodic trap broke through to a wide audience with his 2020 mixtape Huncholini the 1st, and his journey to the top tier of recording artists will be accelerated by this, his first studio album. Across 22 tracks – especially influenced, he says, by Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Future’s Dirty Sprite 2, and Gunna’s Drip Season 3 – M Huncho combines smooth lyricism with bold beat switches that draw the listener irresistibly into his sonic world. As likely to be rapping about the pain of relationships as about the noise that Chewbacca makes, he has developed a truly distinctive style that is both dreamlike in tone and uncompromisingly realistic in content (he has, in his own words, “made it from the mud”). Stand-out tracks include ‘Stainless’, ‘38’ (produced by Quincy Tellem) and ‘Pray To The East’, a collaboration with BNXN (formerly known as Buju). Nothing is left to chance, from the exquisite cover artwork by Reuben Dangoor and a brand new mask designed with Lucien Clarke. Check out M Huncho’s UK tour dates here (but shop around for best ticket prices).
irreplaceable – Chad Lawson
It says a lot for Chad Lawson and his restless creative ambition that, 13 years after his first solo album, Set on a Hill, he still takes regular piano lessons. With deep roots in jazz, he has become one of the foremost exponents of eclectic modern classical music – as likely to explore ambient sounds as he is to perform Chopin variations. This beautiful four-track EP seeks, in Lawson’s own words, to evoke in sound “that person you could never live without, or that favorite time in your life, or that favorite memory that always brings a smile” – an objective that could easily lead a lesser composer into mere sentimentality (this is so much more than so-called “mindfulness music”). But Lawson is a master of emotional performance, well aware that restraint is as important as passion.
…and thanks to Tortoise reporter Xavier Greenwood for his recommendation of Harry’s House – Harry Styles:
“Plenty of musicians never succeed in the transition from manufactured popstar to bonafide artist, but be wary of critics who declare that Harry Styles has only just done that with Harry’s House. One Direction’s final two albums were rockier than many people cared to notice, and were full of writing credits for Styles – even before he impressed on his self-titled solo debut and the excellent Fine Line. That said, Harry’s House is comfortably his best work yet. You can hear The Beatles in ‘Grapejuice’, Fleet Foxes in ‘Boyfriends’, and of course the album title is a nod to a Joni Mitchell song. But there’s no pastiche here, only an effervescent mix of intimacy and revelry. The incredible ‘As It Was’ trailed the album, but it meets its match in ‘Late Night Talking’ – three minutes of melt-in-your-mouth melody. The giddy and horn-filled ‘Music For a Sushi Restaurant’ and the introspective ‘Matilda’ (with Dev Hynes from Blood Orange on the cello) are among other highlights of a filler-free record. Sure there are some silly lyrics throughout, but Styles is so likeable, the music so brilliant, that it doesn’t really matter.”
The Glass Menagerie – (Duke of York’s Theatre, booking until 27 August)
As he recalls in his 1983 obituary of Tennessee Williams, the young Truman Capote, though still a waiter, helped the aspiring playwright to imagine into language the early versions of The Glass Menagerie – often playing the part of the painfully shy, limping daughter, Laura Wingfield (see Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote). That role is performed superbly by Lizzie Annis in Jeremy Herrin’s fine new production of Williams’s first Broadway hit. Amy Adams is remarkable as the matriarch of the family, Amanda Wingfield, an ageing Southern belle always fretting about the imminent arrival of “gentleman callers” who never come; psychologically marooned in a past life in Blue Mountain, Missouri, as she struggles with middle-aged poverty in a dingy St Louis apartment. Recounted by her son Tom – played by Paul Hilton as the older narrator and Tom Glynn-Carney in his youth – The Glass Menagerie is a “memory play” about the fragility of human beings, symbolised by the delicate glass creatures that Laura collects. Adams’s star wattage dominates the stage, but this is a true ensemble piece full of remorse, yearning and a consciousness that, as Tom reflects, the modern world’s pitiless replacement of candles with “lightning” always leaves human wreckage in its wake.
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner
Photographs courtesy Lucasfilm Ltd/Disney+, Twentieth Century Fox, Alamy, Getty Images, Netflix, Johan Persson