On The Radio: Mark Steel’s In Town (Hastings)

“You’re at the end of the line, so no one is going to be checking up on what you’re doing …” so runs one of Mark Steel’s observations about Hastings (and St Leonards) in the opening episode of the ninth series of Mark Steel’s In Town. Having laughed along to dissections of all manner of places across the British Isles it was time for a gaze I’d sort of assumed to be fair, accurate and amusing to be turned on what is now my home town … so I was glad we got the FILTH acronym out of the way at the start so I could actually enjoy what I was hearing.

There’s a sort-of truth that you think columnists are wise until they write about something that you actually know about. I tossed aside a promising book about the shipping forecast because its description of the crossing to Shetland was deliberately downcast to score points with London readers whereas my experience of the ferry was joyous. I was slightly afraid that listening to long-time hero of mine Mark Steel talking about the place I am now proud to call home could be the same. Mark doesn’t know it but we go all the way back to a Radio Five (pre Five Live) programme he did about English cricket. I’d have been heartbroken if he’d got Hastings wrong.

Thankfully, he didn’t.

Yes, I’ve spoken with people who think the journey from Hastings to Bexhill is onerous. I’ve even been in several Old Town shops and been thoroughly confused as to what, exactly, their selling point was, even as I was handing over cash for a purchase. I’ve been amused that the Asda was forced into saying it was the St Leonards branch whereas the Tesco (in St Leonards) can call itself the Hastings branch. I was unaware of the conflict of the light on one side of the pier to the other but all too aware that any day of the week in any part of Hastings can produce a show and a march that needs to be accompanied by a drink or several. And, god, we all know about the drugs and the homelessmess but how nice not hear it as a stick to beat us but as a reflection of what it means to be a hard-to-reach, determined-to-be-itself town. There can’t be too many places where the parkrun startline is adjacent to where several homeless people sleep and the volunteers check on them before setting up.

All this came through. And the obsession with pirates and 1066. I speak as someone whose kids have had parties aplenty at the 1066 Gym and who love the 1066 Bakery and as someone who enjoys a good breakfast at the Route 1066 cafe. I don’t often make it to Pirate Day or Jack in the Green though. An autistic son who needs routine couldn’t cope – that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

So, impartially, another excellent episode of a fine Radio 4 series. And, as a thoroughly biased resident of Hastings for the past six years who never plans to leave, a fine celebration of the best damn town in the country.

TV Review: Transfers (Transferts)

Five years after falling into a coma, carpenter Florian Bassot wakes to find that, thanks to the wonders of science he has made a full recovery. Granted this recovery comes with the downside that his mind is now occupying an entirely new body, a body that previously held the lifeforce of Sylvain Bernard. And who is Sylvain Bernard? Oh, he’s just a cop tasked with preventing the illegal transfer of minds into new bodies and rounding up those who undertake such activities. Just as well that’s all that could go wrong. It’s not like an upturn in religious mania, a twisted avenger called Woyzeck trapped in a young girl’s body, and a dodgy pharma company could be about to make things worse. Or a love triangle. Or … a whole lot of other stuff.

Transfers (Transferts in French) crams a lot in. But unlike some sci-fi that mistakes melodrama and technology for plot and intrigue, it does so in a way that feels, within its world, almost completely believable. Bassot’s survival has been made possible by his devoted wife and the emotion of her betrayal as her husband drifts more towards the life of his body rather than his brain is one aspect of the story (amongst several) that simply wouldn’t feature in some other narratives. Similarly, the aforementioned Woyzeck (brilliantly played 14 year old Pili Groyne) has a depth that the character doesn’t need to drive the plot along but which makes it more compelling when they do.

The turbulent world of Florian/Sylvain is, with an abundance of digressions, the heart of the series and the role is well played by Arieh Worthalter. It was genuinely disturbing to see his face grafted onto other people during his moments of regression, and also the sheer ups, downs and confusion of trying to keep a personal mask in place whilst inside madness reigns was consistently well delivered.

I also like that the religious side wasn’t delivered in any sort of patronising way. The believers were sincere and their reasons for belief, even if they drifted into cult-like behaviour, were plausible. Obviously, because this is TV, the actual leader was dodgy but then there’s no point having high powered people in drama if they actually believe what they say. The faith amongst the regular characters is represented by Béatrice (Brune Renault) whose own emotions are often no less turbulent than those of the transfers.

The downside is that this is six episodes and done. I can’t see that it’s been renewed so even with the opening (no, not a spoiler) at the very end for a possible next series this could be all we’re getting. A shame if it is, I’d like to visit this world again and do so deeper exploration.

On the radio: Ropewalk House

Into a building that once housed the longest ropewalk in the world walk a small acting company looking to create a new immersive piece loosely inspired by the myth of the minotaur. But this building is not what it seems and whilst they may leave their own threads behind, they will keep losing their way as relationships, moods, stories and walls all shift.

Ropewalk House was recorded and part-improvised in a venue that writer Anita Sullivan refers to as having too many doors. And so doors, and their inherent lack of honesty about what is on the other side, featured a lot. As did some neat revelations about characters revealed through the sort of worlds they would imagine for themselves. The director Jarek (Nigel Barrett) noting that the man on a tapestry reflecting his own state of looking at a tapestry was somewhat fitter than he himself really was, for example. Meanwhile, some people would just like to get on with making a play whilst others are just keen to find the way out again … but are now finding that their individual threads are getting dangerously knotted.

There were some strong vocal performances. I particularly liked Hannah Ringham as the Production Manager, Sarah. And, proving that the Ringham family must be quite annoyingly talented, the music by Ben and Max Ringham added to the whole atmosphere of confusion and menace.

Radio drama comes in for a lot of criticism but none of that should ever be directed towards Drama on 3, in which consistently good strand this was another strong entry – and a fine example of the kind of drama that works best in audio. Those sounds struggling just beyond the realm of normal hearing will be circling the edges of my brain for a while.

At the Match: Bexhill United v AFC Varndeanians

Watching the match from the Polegrove stand … Copyright (C) Jon Smalldon 2019, all rights reserved

“For fuck’s sake, just fucking hold the fucking cunty thing up, fucking will you?” So enquired an AFC Varndeanians player of a team-mate as yet another attack from the visitors came to nought in the first half. And that was one of the milder interactions in a feisty, competitive game between the sides placed third and fourth in the first division of the Southern Combination Football League. 

The Polegrove pitch is in good nick despite now being played on regularly by two Bexhill United teams and Bexhill Town who’ve moved here from Bulverhythe. And the crowd were mostly in good humour throughout the kind of game that gives non league football a good name. Hard fought, tight, bursts of skill and a suitable amount of controversy. And a pint costs £3 once the taps have been given a proper pre-match clean.

It was in the second period that the match really came to life. The first was competitive without ever being particularly exciting. Neither goalie had too much to do as attacks were well handled by the defences. That changed after the break as Bexhill exerted real pressure over a prolonged period, forcing some good stops from the Varndeanians’ ‘keeper. The deadlock was broken on 71 minutes through the hard-working Nathan Lopez. Bexhill held the lead for just under a quarter of an hour, in which time the red and black clad visitors grew stronger. Their equaliser via Joe Keehan might have been scrappy and slightly against the run of play but the remainder of the game saw the lion’s share of possession and chances go their way. A draw, overall, a fair result.

Sadly though, this is the classic draw that neither team would really have wanted. Bexhill may sit only one point behind second placed Alfold but it’s the higher team with the game in hand; Varndeanians are a further five behind Bexhill although have played a game less. It’s tight but you like to knock over your rivals in such chases.

Still, the positives are that there seemed to be a healthy number of people here and this Bexhill team really seems solid is performing well. AFC Varndeanians can also be happy. After two seasons basically at the basement of the division they are doing things well enough to be at the top end. That might even bring some kind of pleasure to to players who when on the pitch demand to know what’s to be done with the cunty thing.

Film Review: Leave No Trace

Hidden amongst the dense growth of a public park outside Portland, damaged veteran Will lives with his daughter Tom. Their dwelling is a canvas sheet under which they cook, play chess, read about seahorses and generally carry on as far away from civilisation as possible. Trips to the city for supplies are rare. One day, they are spotted and, from there, this straightforward, if bizarre, existence will not be the same.

Leave No Trace holds an approval rating of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, was Mark Kermode’s Film of the Year and is listed with ‘universal acclaim’ on Metacritic. I’m not exactly going against the consensus is saying that it’s an impressive and emotionally impactful film.

Debra Granik follows up her 2010 fim Winter’s Bone by again returning to people whose existence is tied together intimately with their environment. Then it was the wintry Ozarks, now the damp green of Oregon. In both, it’s a teenage girl who must find a path for her own life after something shocking happens to destabilise the world her father has created for her. And, as with Winter’s Bone, the direction and photography is so tender you almost believe you could reach out and touch the foliage.

Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie are Will and Tom. Foster, now making something of a habit of being good in decent films, whereas this seems to be the first significant role for McKenzie. In both their individual scenes and their interaction, they are both note perfect. It’s hard to see how the relationship, in all its complexity, could be put across better. This is a film where dialogue is spare so every word counts, and motion and gesture are significant.

In other hands, the story of Leave No Trace would have been just another coming of age story, or a tale of people on the edge struggling against (or with) a system that can’t understand them. Of course it is all that. But with Granik’s direction, the steady and confident storytelling, and the wonderful central performances, it is also so much more.

Film review: And Breathe Normally

Lára, a single mother, is struggling. She isn’t opening the envelopes that are piling up in the letterbox, her card is declined when she wants to add a nominal amount to her shopping, and her landlord would like to know where the rent is. Her son would just like the normal things a young boy should have. And then, one day, into this completely ground down life comes someone whose situation is objectively worse: Adja, an asylum seeker from Guinea-Bissau who is just about to fall into the Kafka-esque nightmare of bureaucracy where no one is evil but no one is helpful either.

And Breathe Normally a hard film to describe without making it sound like something it is not. I’ll try. It is a tender and intelligent portrayal of people at the bottom of the pile that does not imbue its protagonists with false dignity or patronise them by making the real dramas of the lives they represent unbelievably melodramatic and overwrought. No one gets to make a defiant speech even when their actions are defiant, no one howls at the moon even when the very structure of their life is being assaulted.

The Iceland of And Breathe Normally is a land of the grey of the end of evening twilight. Colour comes from the roofs of apartment blocks, or the red of Lara’s battered old car, or the distant lights of roads and airports. People are connected but not always in the most obvious ways, and the script and direction from Isold Uggadottir is determined that the viewer finds things out rather than gets told them. The dynamic between the three main characters of Lara (Kristín Þóra Haraldsdóttir), Adja (Babetida Sadjo) and Eldar, Lara’s son, (Patrik Nökkvi Pétursson) is well handled, with clever use of language switching and attempts at communication when words fail. The performances feel natural throughout.

There are times when the title becomes almost literal. Breath is held as scenes play out and then released at the end. What could be, at times, depressing, is never played for grim voyeurism. Humanity may not shine but it is clear and never out of sight. In the end, you are left strangely thankfully that you’ve spent time in the company of some extraordinary ordinary characters.

Film Review: Bad Seeds (2018)

Trying to find out anything about Bad Seeds is like … well, it’s like trying to get a troubled kid to open up about their personal story and then build a better future for themselves. It’s not helped by the existence of, in no particular order, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, a 2016 Quebec film of the same name when translated, and a recent Rob Lowe film called The Bad Seed. But it was popping up quite regularly on my Netflix recommends so I thought I’d give it a go.

Telling a well-trodden story, Bad Seeds focuses on Wael (Kheiron), who has fled terror as a child to wind up as a somewhat wayward adult under the somewhat wayward guidance of Monique (Catherine Deneuve) in a France that is about as far removed from the postcard Paris views of other French films as its possible to be. One day one of their scams goes wrong and, as a form of both punishment and punishment avoidance, Victor (André Dussollier) insists Wael takes charge of some errant teens that Victor’s charity is keen to put back on the straight and narrow. He has one task: make sure they all come back the next day.

As you’d expect in this kind of film, the teens are a cross-section of society but all have found themselves far from the path of self-fulfilment. Some of it is self inflicted. Some because society is a right bastard. And some because there are nasty people on the fringes who benefit when they fail.

Oh, and this is a comedy. Sort of. And quite a funny one at times too. Wael and Monique make a sweet, yet solid, pairing, and Victor, who knows he’s being played is no mug either. There’s some decent interplay between Wael and the kids, and between the kids themselves.

As well as playing Wael, Kheiron also wrote and directed Bad Seeds. One of the things that’s particularly gratifying is that whilst it is very much a film about Wael, in no scene does he overwhelm. He shares screen time and good lines around. And whilst he may lead the redemption of others, there is no need for anyone to stand on a chair and say O Captain, My Captain. It is all neatly and commendably understated.

So, whilst it’s a sod to find out about (just go straight to IMDb, forget google), Bad Seeds is worth the investigation. A satisfying film that you won’t need persuading by nefarious means (it’s a plot point) to stick with.

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