Archive for TV Shows

Doctor Who Worlds of Wonder (till the 1st of May 2023)

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

Since its inception in 1963, Doctor Who has been a science fiction icon, a show that has transported audiences through time and space. However, what many fans might not realize is that the show has a history of featuring science and technology that has later become fact. As the exhibition notes say, “Doctor Who has always celebrated the creative, limitless possibilities of technology. And in some areas of research, the real world is catching up fast. Ideas that were once pure sci-fi dreams are the focus of real science, right now.”

The exhibition is a treasure trove of creative ideas and associations. It is very good at linking Doctor Who themes and plots with scientific developments. For example, human cloning is featured in the 1965 episode “Galaxy Four”, and cyborgs with high-tech prosthetic limbs and bionic eyes are a regular occurrence.

The exhibition makes clear that Doctor Who was ahead of its time in dealing with environmental issues. For instance, the 1964 episode “Planet of the Giants” deals with a callous industrialist named Forester (Alan Tilvern) and his ecologically damaging insecticide called DN6. In more recent episodes like “The Waters of Mars” (2009) and “Thin Ice,” (2017) the show has continued to explore climate change and environmental destruction head-on.

Doctor Who has also tackled pandemics and infectious diseases in episodes like “The End of the World” (2005) and “The Girl Who Died” (2015). The show’s writers have always had a knack for using science fiction to explore real-world problems, and this has continued throughout the show’s long history.

But Doctor Who hasn’t just been ahead of its time in terms of technology and issues. The show has also featured robots who are both friendly, such as Kamelion from 1983, and unfriendly, such as the organic/robotic Daleks, which were introduced in 1963 and the robotic posties in “Kerblam!” in 2018. In fact, the exhibition notes state that “in more than 860 episodes (and counting), Doctor Who has asked again and again ‘What if?’ and fed our imagination.”

The Drahvins, female clones from the Galaxy Four episode. Dr Who has always drawn on scientific developments and possibilities.

One example of the show’s prescience is the sonic screwdriver, which was invented by the Doctor in the show’s fourth season in 1968. The tool quickly became a staple of the show, allowing the Doctor to unlock doors, disarm enemies, and even perform medical procedures. Today, we have devices that work in a similar way, such as ultrasonic scalpels and other non-invasive medical tools.

It’s clear that Doctor Who has been a cultural touchstone for decades, inspiring generations of scientists, engineers, and writers. By featuring technology and concepts that have later become a reality, the show has played a small but important role in advancing science and technology. And by addressing important issues like pandemics and environmentalism, the show continues to remind us of the power of science fiction to inspire change in the real world. As the exhibition notes state, “Doctor Who has always celebrated the creative, limitless possibilities of technology.”

Not only that but the props and pictures displayed in this exhibition are sometimes beautiful. I loved the coral based Console room of the Tardis designed by Ed Thomas in 2005 to give one example.

Adult tickets from £12, National Museums Scotland Members free.

10% off when you book as a family

Book here


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Culture Vulture: Our Streaming Selections for February 2023

Here’s our Culture Vulture guide to what’s streaming in February 2023. Selections are by Pat Harrington.

Streaming on Amazon Prime

All In: The Fight for Democracy

The essence of democracy shines brightly in this documentary, which delves into the history of voting rights in America and the persistent efforts to protect it. This film provides a comprehensive look at the evolution of the voting process and the ongoing battles to safeguard this fundamental right. Whether you align with a particular political ideology or not, this documentary is a must-watch for all individuals who believe in the power of democracy. It highlights the significance of the right to vote and the importance of preserving this fundamental aspect of our democracy. So, regardless of your political views, make sure to catch this captivating and enlightening film.

From Wednesday, February 1st.

Streaming on Netflix

Your Place or Mine (2023 film)

Debbie (Reese Witherspoon) and Peter (Ashton Kutcher) are polar opposites and close buddies. Debbie values stability with her son in Los Angeles, whereas Peter relishes unpredictability in New York. As they exchange homes and lifestyles for a week, they realize that what they desired might not be what they truly require.

From Friday, February 10th.

Streaming on Hulu

Bad Reputation (2018 film)

Bad Reputation is a documentary film that focuses on the life and career of the legendary rock star, Joan Jett. The film takes an in-depth look at Jett’s journey to becoming one of the biggest names in rock and roll, including her time as the lead singer of The Runaways and her solo career. It also explores Jett’s impact on the music industry and her status as a feminist icon and a trailblazer for women in rock. Through interviews with Jett and those who know her best, Bad Reputation offers a unique and powerful portrait of a true rock and roll legend.

From Wednesday, February 1st.

Wu-Tang: An American Saga

The Wu Tang Clan is one of the most influential hip-hop groups in history, and their formation is the focus of the show. The group was brought together by Bobby Diggs, who saw potential in a group of young Black men who were struggling to find a balance between their passion for music and the pressures of crime in their community. Through Bobby’s leadership and the unique talents of each member, the Wu Tang Clan rose to become a symbol of hope and success for not only their community, but for the entire hip-hop genre. This show highlights the journey of the Wu Tang Clan and the challenges they faced, showcasing their incredible resilience and their ultimate triumph as one of the most ground-breaking and successful musical acts of all time.

From Wednesday, February 15th.

Cocaine Cowboys (2006)

Cocaine Cowboys explores the rise of the cocaine trade in Miami during the 1970s and 80s. The film features interviews with former drug smugglers and law enforcement officials who recount the violence and excess of the era, and how Miami was transformed from a sleepy beach town into the drug capital of the world. Cocaine Cowboys provides a compelling look at one of the most notorious periods in American history and the individuals who profited from the proliferation of cocaine.

From Wednesday, February 15th.

Cocaine Cowboys 2 (2008)

Cocaine Cowboys 2 is continues the story of the cocaine trade in Miami, now focusing on the events of the 1980s and 90s. It follows cocaine dealer Charles Crosby beginning in 1991 on the inner-city streets of Oakland, California. The story of Griselda Blanco is presented in greater depth.

From Wednesday, February 15th.

Cocaine Cowboys: Reloaded (2014)

Cocaine Cowboys: Reloaded is a 2014 follow-up to the successful documentary series, Cocaine Cowboys.

From February 15th.

Streaming on FX

Snowfall (2017–2023)

Snowfall is a dramatic television series that explores the early days of the crack cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles during the 1980s. The show follows a diverse cast of characters, including a young drug dealer, a Mexican wrestler, and a CIA operative, as they navigate the dangerous and rapidly changing drug landscape. Through its complex characters and intense storytelling, Snowfall provides a compelling look at the social and cultural impacts of the crack epidemic, and the consequences of choices made by individuals caught in its grip. With its gripping performances, rich historical context, and powerful themes, Snowfall is a must-see for fans of drama and crime dramas.

From Wednesday, February 22nd.

Streaming on Disney+

Victoria Gotti: My Father’s Daughter (2019 TV film)

Victoria Gotti: My Father’s Daughter is a 2019 television film that tells the story of Victoria Gotti, the daughter of notorious mob boss John Gotti. The film offers a unique look at the life of a woman growing up in the shadow of one of the most infamous crime figures of the 20th century, and the challenges she faced as she tried to carve out her own path. Through Victoria’s perspective, the film provides a fascinating window into the inner workings of the Mafia, and the human toll of living in a world of crime and violence. With its strong performances, particularly from lead actress Chelsea Frei, and its powerful exploration of the complexities of family and loyalty, Victoria Gotti: My Father’s Daughter is a must-watch for fans of crime dramas and family sagas.

From February 10th.

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Mrs Merton and Malcolm Revisited

The Show that Stunned the Nation: Reviewed by Anthony C Green

“The most disturbing program on television’Time Out Magazine.

One of the major delights for me of the recent Christmas/New Year period was discovering that this short-lived 1999 Sitcom’ was available to stream in its entirety, all six episodes of it, free of charge, on You Tube. Last time I looked, maybe three or four years ago, it wasn’t available. For some reason, I also had it in my mind that it’d never had a physical release. In fact, a cursory glance at its Wikipedia page reveals it to have been released on DVD back in 2008, nine years after it was broadcast for the first and last time on BBC One, and is still easily available to buy from third-party sellers on Amazon. Why I hadn’t thought to check this out before, is frankly beyond me.

So, why have I long had a fascination for this almost forgotten by-water of British situation comedy? Well, firstly, precisely because it is all but forgotten. The late Caroline Aherne’s comic creation Mrs Merton is of course remembered by everybody, its spoof chat show format recalled perhaps most fondly for her question to magician’s assistant and celebrity wife Debbie Magee: ‘So, what was it first attracted you to millionaire Pau Daniels?’ But very few seem to have any recollection of its sitcom spin-off.

Episode One

The second reason for my interest is simply that I liked it at the time, despite it being near-universally panned. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, my interest is down to the way I make my living. Already at the time the show was broadcast I’d been a support worker in the field of learning disabilities and mental health for five years; and much of the criticism of Mrs Merton and Malcolm centred on the idea that the show was poking fun at the cognitively impaired. I didn’t think that then, and now, almost a quarter of a century on, I still don’t think that.

A little background: The show was written by Aherne, Craig Cash and Henry Normal, the same team behind The Royle Family which had first aired a year earlier, and starred Aherne and Cash, with Aherne as the mother and Malcolm as her thirty-seven-year old man-child son. Each episode takes place solely within the pairs’ home, over the course of a single day, and apart from the two of them the only constant, visual character is the forgetful neighbour Arthur, played by Brian Murphy who is best known for playing George Roper in Man About the House and George and Mildred. Arthur pops in to see the bedridden Mr. Merton upstairs on a daily basis. Mr. Merton is never seen or heard, existing only as a shape under the bedclothes in the Merton’s marital bed. Steve Coogan appears in every episode, but apart from the final episode where he plays the vicar visiting the house after Mr. Merton’s funeral, he does so only as a voice on the radio or on Malcolm’s motivational tapes. The only other characters to appear in the series are the local pharmacist Mr. Malik who appears in two episodes, his assistant Judith, whom Malcolm hopes to take on a date, who appears once, and Malcolm’s obnoxious friend, a boy called Justine who, although his age is never stated appears to be around eleven yeas’ old. He also appears once.

When preparing to rewatch this series, two comedy parallels sprung to mind. One, the 1980’s Ronnie Corbett vehicle Sorry, and Ricky Gervais’ creation Dereck, which was screened initially over two seasons on Channel Four between 2012 and 2014.

In the first of these cases, it was only after listening to the two episodes featuring Sorry on the excellent British Sitcom History Podcast, and by watching a sample episode, that I realised the parallel doesn’t at all stand up to scrutiny. It’s true that the life of Timothy in Sorry is, like that of Malcolm, dominated by his mother. But whereas Malcolm accepts this as totally normal with no indication, apart perhaps from the thwarted hope of a date with Judith, that he would want his life to be any other way, Timothy constantly seeks to rebel, in small ways against the clinging, some might say Satanic embrace of his mother. Indeed, much of the humour in that show stems precisely from Timothy’s desperate, forlorn attempts to break free of her influence.

In addition, away from his mother, Timothy lives a perfectly normal, modestly successful, middle-class life, with a job as a librarian and his own circle of friends. Malcolm’s job in the pet shop is referred to in each episode of Mrs Merton and Malcolm, but only in the context of his mother offering to ring in sick on his behalf the next day, because he’s been over-excited by his birthday party (to which no one but him, his mum, and Arthur the neighbour attended), or because he’s worried that he may be asked to handle a snake which is due to be delivered. It’s never sated whether this is a paid or a voluntary position.

Gervais’ character of Derek is much closer to that of Malcolm, in that he too is a man-child and, were we to meet them, we would most likely conclude that he did indeed have a mental impairment of some kind. The main difference is that, within the care home setting where the two seasons of Derek almost entirely take place (apart from a single trip to the seaside, as far as I remember), Derek’s world is much wider than that of Malcolm. He is loved by the care home manager, by the other workers, by the elderly residents and visitors. Derek is a gentle soul who would never wish anyone any harm, and this does sometimes lead the show too far in the direction of sentimentality, though I did enjoy the series much more second time around. This gentility isn’t to be found in the much darker Mrs Merton and Malcolm. Derek is devastated whenever one of the elderly residents of the care home passes away. Malcolm’s only apparent upset at the death of his father in the final episode stems from the fact that it reminds him of the death of his pet hamster some years earlier.

It’s perhaps not the place to discuss it here, but I agree with the critic who said that Derek would have been much better had Gervais stuck to writing and directing. He’s not actually a good enough actor to pull off the lead-part, too many times slipping out of character, becoming Ricky Gervais rather than Derek. Conversely, Cash’ performance as Malcolm is note perfect.

One comedy parallel that didn’t occur to me, either in 1999 or at the tail-end of 2022, was that of the character of Frank Spencer, played by Michael Crawford, in the hugely popular Some Mother’s Do ‘Ave ‘Em which ran on the BBC between 1973 and 1978, including Christmas specials. And yet, according to the BBC website, this was the character that was apparently closest to the model the writers were aiming for with Malcolm. This was one of the reasons Aherne and co. were so shocked by the negative response to their new show. After all, nobody as far as I’m aware anyway, ever accused the creators of Frank Spencer of belittling the cognitively challenged.

Of course, the similarities between Malcolm and Spencer don’t really stand up to close scrutiny, any more than do those to Timothy or Derek. Each episode of Some Mothers’… is marked by bizarre and often highly dangerous adventures, for which Crawford generally performed his own stunts. In the case of Malcolm, we never see him leave the family home, and the most dangerous thing he ever does is embark on a series of competitive children’s games on the day Justine comes to visit. In addition, whilst Malcolm can only dream of an innocent date with dowdy Judith, Frank somehow manages both to marry and father a child with Betty, played by the rather lovely Michelle Dotrice.

Aherne/Cash/Normal’s creation Mrs Merton had already been on our screen in her faux-chat show for four years at the time the sitcom spin-off was made. Her son Malcolm had frequently been mentioned by Mrs Merton, and had appeared briefly on three occasions, played by Cash. So, further development of the idea seemed, on paper to be a good idea. At over seven million per episode, viewing figures weren’t bad either. It was the damning critical reception that killed off any idea of a second season, and even the scrapping of a planned and already partially written Christmas special.

Assuming the character of Malcolm, like Derek, does indeed have some form of mental developmental disability, should that necessarily put it be the bounds of acceptable comedy?

With the proviso that it’s done well, I would argue not. And in Mrs Merton and Malcolm, it is done very well indeed. What I like most about the show, is that the writers have created a surreal, alternative reality, that exists on its own terms with only a tangential relationship to the real world. For instance, Malcolm is indeed a man-child who likes to play childish games, seem mainly in the episode with Justine, but these are games that were popular with children when I was growing up in 1960’s or ‘70’s, and even then they were seen as a bit dated, not the games that were popular with children as we approached the turn of the millennium. Malcolm’s main hobby is making Airfix models, something again that harked back to the days of childhood-past. It is almost as if Malcolm has remained trapped in his childhood of twenty-five or thirty years earlier, and this is also noticeable in the old fashioned clothes he wears This can and does happen with some people with learning disabilities. Some parents will continue to dress and treat them as a child throughout their life, which only adds to their ‘otherness’, to use a trendy, modern phrase, and their exclusion from mainstream society. We can’t ignore the possibility that the behaviour of Mrs Merton has, whether consciously or not, added to or even perhaps caused her son’s issues of arrested development.

This is another thing I really like about the show. The suggestion of dark themes beneath the surface. I don’t quite get the suggestion of a possibly incestuous relationship between mother and son, a possibility that was apparently raised in some contemporary reviews. This idea seems to rest solely on Mrs Merton’s comment that ‘if I was only thirty years younger….and not your mother,’ which was said really as a perhaps misguided means of raising Malcolm’s spirits after Judith failed to turn up for their planned date at the cinema. It wasn’t a theme that was further pursued.

But there are two other possibly very dark suggestions that occurred to me at this second time of watching.

The first of these is the idea that Mr. Merton’s bedridden state might not be caused entirely by necessity. At one point, Mrs Merton hands Malcolm a piece of ‘junk’ mail, saying ‘put this in the bin Malcolm. I do wish Mr’s Merton would stop sending off for these stairlift brochures.’ Does this suggest the possibility of a deeply depressed Mr. Merton cowering under the bedclothes dreaming of escape? It’s certainly possible.

Secondly, one of several great running gags used in the show is that the neighbour Arthur will gently provide some musical entertainment to Mr. Merton by his bedside, after he’s been reminded of the purpose of his visit by Mrs Merton. In episodes one and three he sings the kind of old-time songs you would expect of this generation, respectively Oh What a Lovely War and If You Were the Only Girl in the World. In episode two he simply plays the spoons. In episode four this musical entertainment has somehow morphed into Starman by David Bowie, and has come yet more up to date in episode five with The Drugs Don’t Work by The Verve. In episode six, Arthur sits by the empty bed of the recently deceased Mr. Merton and quietly, sadly, sings Seasons in the Sun by Terry Jacks. Given that we know that this is a song that deals with the subject of suicide, is there a suggestion here that Mr. Merton’s death may not have been entirely of natural causes: assisted suicide, perhaps? Or maybe I’m radically overthinking it.  

After the undeserved critical lambasting of Mrs Merton and Malcolm, Caroline Aherne and her co-writers decided to concentrate their efforts on The Royle Family. It’s worth mentioning that both of these shows broke with the convention of canned/studio audience laughter, still a brave, if not entirely unique, move at the time. It would be another two years before Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant permanently made old school situation comedy seem outmoded with their invention of the comedic ‘mockumentary’ with The Office.

Aherne and co. had certainly helped pave the way.

The Royle Family was, and is, of course hugely popular, genuinely landmark television; and it is for that that Aherne, along with the character of Mrs Merton, will best be remembered.

In her personal life, she certainly had her demons, like deep depression, alcoholism, and the cancer that killed her at a mere fifty-two years old. But she was a unique talent, and Mrs Merton and Malcolm was in my opinion a weird and wonderful, experimental expression of that unique talent. Even if it were to be regarded as a failed experiment, given its short-lived nature and critical hammering, then in my opinion it was definitely an experiment that was worth conducting.

Revisiting the show was a revelation. It was funny, it was dark, it was very strange, and very, very good. It deserves to be better known, and demands to be remembered.

“We’ve been accused of all sorts…from incest to insanity. But we honestly didn’t mean it to be. We didn’t think there was anything offensive about it.”

Craig Cash.

Mrs Merton and Malcolm is currently available to steam free of charge on You Tube

(1197) Mrs Merton & Malcolm – S01 E02 – YouTube


Mrs Merton &Malcom: DVD & Blu-ray

Mrs Merton and Malcolm – Wikipedia

BBC – Comedy – Mrs Merton And Malcolm

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Did I Ever Get the Feeling I’d Been Cheated?

Anthony C Green reviews Pistol, an FX Production, produced and directed by Danny Boyle, and written by Craig Pearce

Currently streaming in the UK on Disney+

I only subscribed toDisney+ in order to watch the Beatles Get Back last November, and only the continued existence of Family Guy and pressure from my ten-year-old son has kept me subscribed. The news that this was also to be the place to stream a new FX-made six-part drama, produced and directed by Danny Boyle, about the Sex Pistols, based on the 2016 book Lonely Boy; Tales of a Sex Pistol by guitarist Steve Jones gave me another reason to keep my £6.99 a month Standing Order current.

I was fourteen when the Pistols recorded Anarchy in the UK, fifteen at the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and the height of the band’s popularity/notoriety a year, give or take, later.

And now we’ve just celebrated The Platinum of the Eternal One and I’ve suddenly hit sixty. The original Punk explosion is now so long ago that if we were to travel back in time by the same distance from now to the time it was happening, we would be in the early stages of microphone-enhanced vocals and Bing Crosby Mania.

In any case, I was never a punk. In 1977 I was in my very early stages of second-generation Beatle fandom, and mourning the loss of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. I remember liking Pistols’ single Pretty Vacant, but only in the way I liked other current hits sing-a-long hits of the time.

Only later, would I discover Punk as a moment, and Never Mind the Bollocks as one of the most important albums ever made.

It’s also one of the best. That’s what many people forget about the Pistols. Yes, they were a cultural phenomenon that changed forever the world of Popular Music (or for a long time at least, before the movement was co-opted and reincorporated back into the big business, capitalist machine, as all sub-cultures ultimately are, no matter how outwardly radical.) But they wouldn’t have become what they were to become if they hadn’t had the songs. Not many songs, it has to be said, but in the end, the short and (not so) sweet nature of their career, and the fact that there is only one proper Pistols album is soooo right.

The book on which the series is based

And the world of popular music, and entertainment in general, is all the better for stories that are perfect in and of themselves, no matter, in fact often because of, the tragic nature of the end of those stories. The Beatles had to end at the end of the sixties. Elvis had to die when and how he did; and the Sex Pistols had to produce that single near-perfect collection of songs (OK, there’s a handful of post-Lydon Pistols’ tracks you should have in your collection, Silly Boy, Something Else, My Way, but that’s still not proper Sex Pistols material.)

I limbered up for the series by watching John Lydon, Rotten as was, on a couple of lengthy podcast appearances.

He was not a happy man.

Or rather, that is to say, that he strikes me as a man who is happy, with his place in history. True, drinking wine from a pint glass, as he did during one appearance, suggests alcoholism. But he’s still working, limbering up for a new Public Image Ltd. tour, and if he is indeed an alcoholic I’d suggest it is of the high functioning variety(And I too was once such a best, so I know what I’m talking about).

But he was/is not happy about the Pistol’s series, claiming that not only was he not involved in its making, but that Danny Boyle gave him no opportunity to be properly involved, his claim, if true, IS rather scandalous.

He also mentioned several times that this Disneyfied re-telling of the Pistols’ story would trash the band’s legacy and ‘everything we had stood for.’

Arguably, the 1996 Filthy Lucre tour, the clue is in the name, did that, as did other, more short-lived reunions, but we’ll set that aside. All I’ll say here is that I like Lydon, and believe him to have many admirable qualities. Not least, the clear and unconditional love in the way he speaks of caring for his beloved Nora, mother of the late Ari Up, once of The Slits, and his wife of forty-three years, though now several years of rapidly worsening [GC1]  dementia.

But he has never been great at giving credit to his former bandmates, indicating to this day that, whatever it says on the record labels, where the whole band is listed as co-composers, he alone is really responsible for the creation of those songs. This of course particularly unfair on Glen Matlock, the most musical of the Pistols’, a fact that legend has it, and as we will soon come to, in large part led to his removal from the band and replacement by one John Simon Ritchie, AKA Sid Vicious.

And, although of course, it would have been better had Lydon been involved in its making, at least morally, we should remember that the series is actually based on Jones’ book, a fact that must be taken into account when assessing its style and quality.

It also should be mentioned that Lydon’s podcast denunciations were based only upon seeing a single, short-trailer to the series, not on the series itself, which he claimed, and as far as I l now still claims, to have never seen.

This said, is he right: Does FX/Disney/Danny Boyle’s telling of the Sex Pistols’ story really trash their legend? Is it any good?

The two things are of course not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Firstly, I have to say that the best acting performance of Pistol comes from Anson Boon as Lydon. He has him down to a tee, the strange mix of cockiness and insecurity, the manic stare that always was an act of self-parody, and has merely become more so over the years. The would-be wordsmith who is at first reluctant to share his words with the world, the jerkiness of his movements both on and off stage, the man of principle who loves being in the Sex Pistols but not at any price, the boy/man who wishes to put two fingers up to the world, whilst actually quite liking people, and caring about them.

That’s the other point: not only is Boon’s portrayal of Lydon spot on, but Lydon, despite all of his expressed misgivings about the making of the series, actually comes across as by far the most likable character in it. The caring nature that he shows today when he talks about Nora’s dementia, and his reaching out to other sufferers and carers in the same position as the two of them, is already there, in the way he cares about and tries to look out for his mate John Ritchie, and his later agonising over how his own role in re-christening of him as ‘Sid Vicious’ and promotion of him to the status of Sex Pistol (essentially in order to even up the score as far as voting power in the band went) contributed to his early self-destruction, though as Jones says in the final episode, “Sid was always going to end up like that, whether he became a Sex Pistol or not.”

Of the others, Toby Wallace puts in a good performance as the roguish Steve Jones, a young man whose compulsive thieving and shagging were really a mask donned in order to hide the chronic lack of self-esteem caused by being raised by a brutish, hateful, domineering stepdad who had made it his mission in life to drill into the young Steve that he would never amount to anything, and a weak, often drunken mother. It’s not a greatly nuanced performance, but I did find myself rooting strongly for him as he set out to learn the rudiments of guitar in four days straight, helped only by handfuls of amphetamine pills and a determination to prove his stepdad was wrong.

His upbringing also contrasts nicely with that of drummer Paul Cook (played by Jacob Slater), the product of almost stereotypically nice working-class parents for whom nothing mattered more than their son’s happiness. They even allowed Paul to keep his drum kit in their bedroom, as this was the only room in the house that allowed him the space to properly practice, despite the obvious inconvenience to themselves.

The best-known actor in the series is probably Thomas Brodie-Sangster (you’ll know him when you see him) who plays the Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren. I’ll admit I’ve never been the world’s biggest fan of McLaren, nor have I ever really brought fully into his role as Situationist-Svengali of genius, feeling that this over-emphasis of his role, which of course is largely a creation of McLaren himself in the truly terrible Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle film, and is I think bought into to a regrettable degree by Julian Temple in his The Filth and the Fury movie, a documentary which should be, but isn’t quite definitive.

But there it is. You can’t ignore Malcolm, and Brodie-Sangster gives a decent performance in his portrayal of him. A little over the top and cartoonish perhaps, but that just about suits the subject matter. Talhula Riley as his King’s Rd Sex boutique sidekick Vivienne Westwood gives a much more measured performance, and it is often her, through a word here and a look there, who exposes Malcolm’s pretensions for what they are – pretensions stolen from others. I’d have liked to have seen more of Westwood, but I’ll return to that shortly.

Of the other roles, Louis Partridge does a good job as the talentless, doomed, sadomasochistic Vicious, as does Emma Appleton as the dark, satanic, equally doomed groupie Nancy Spungen, a woman for whom it seems no one but Sid had a good word, in life or death.

And then thee of course there is Glen Matlock (played by Christian Lees). Poor Glen Matlock, the butt of the band’s jokes for the crime of ‘liking the Beatles’ and being quite good at his instrument. It is of course a cliché that he was sacked because of his love of the Fab Four, and it’s a cliché that is here mentioned early and mentioned often. The truth is, Lydon wanted him out of the band because he saw him as a threat to his dominance through being the only band member who had a justifiable claim to being at least as responsible for their greatest songs as John was. As someone once said, after Glen was replaced by Sid, the band produced their best ever photographs. They looked great. But there were no more songs.’

Yes, the ‘liking the Beatles’ gag is laboured, but Matlock comes out of the series pretty well, which is of course another reason for Lydon to hate it.

And finally, as far as acting performances go, we come to the truly vital role of Chrissie Hynde….

‘What’s that,’ you say, ‘Chrissie Hynde, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders Chrissie Hynde: what’s she got to do with the price of glue?’

I knew Chrissie had been a face on the scene at this time, as the girlfriend of legendary ‘rockist’ to use a word then current, New Musical Express, NME, ‘or ‘Enemee’ as Lydon liked to pronounce it, journalist Nick Kent. I also knew that Chrissie, an American resident in the UK, herself contributed occasional articles herself to the British music press. I also believe I was aware of the fact that she had an affair with Steve Jones, and was, briefly, a musical collaborator with Steve’s near-namesake, Mick Jones, soon to become a key member of the Clash (then trading under the name of the London SS). I also may have just about been aware that she quite fancied the gig herself as the replacement for Matlock once the decision was made to sack him. Maybe. But was I aware that her presence and sheer ubiquitous-ness within the Pistols circle made it likely that she would have at least as much screen time as the members of the Pistols themselves, probably more so in the case of Cook, in five out of the six episodes of a far-off futurist dramatisation of their story?

No, I was not aware of this, any more than anyone else was, including probably Chrissie, because I strongly suspect it isn’t true. What I do strongly suspect is that her role was beefed up in order to fulfil the apparently mandatory need for a Strong Woman character in every television drama series now made.

 If that was indeed the criteria, then actress Sydney Chandler does a good job of meeting it, being most definitely strong, and even more definitely a woman, as revealed in the more than ample sex scenes with (Seve) Jones.

But I believe that this now apparently mandatory role could have been played much better, and more truthfully, Vivienne Westwood.

Another possibility would have been to increase the screen time of punk tend-setter and fashion icon Jordan, a woman who sadly died soon before the series went to air, and at least got an episode dedicated to her.

Or what about a little more of the action for Siouxsie Siox (we do see her reciting The Lord’s Prayer, with Sid Vicious on drums, in what is generally regarded as the debut performance by the Banshees), or the girls who were soon to become The Slits, including Ari Up, daughter of the soon to become Mrs Nora Lydon?

In other words, what about showing that there were women on the scene who had a genuinely important part to play in the Birth of Punk?

Anyway, just a thought, and for those who are wondering, Chrissie also made a brief appearance in episode six too, singing a version of Brass in Pocket, almost certainly long before it was written.

Some of the above leads me to another major criticism of the series. Punk is shown as a movement of philosophical and fashion aesthetics and attitude, essentially led by McLaren, Westwood, Jamie Reed (the man behind the graphics, including the ‘Bollocks’ cover), and to some extent the band themselves, in particular Lydon. But apart from that brief snapshot of the nascent Banshees, we don’t see it as part of a wider musical movement that included The Clash, the Damned, The Slits, the highly underrated X-ray Spex, and bands that were never punks but who got their great break through the opportunities that punk provided, bands like The Jam, The Stranglers, and I suppose The Police and The Pretenders too.

So, the series lacks depth in that regard. If you want depth, I’d suggest reading Jon Savages’ excellent England’s Dreaming book, or investigating the wonderful, regionalised Messethetic collections of great bands that would never otherwise be heard, bands like The Digital Dinosaurs, Crispy Ambulance (best name for a band ever), The Homosexuals, and The Performing Ferrets Hyped to Death’s front door

Somehow, although it undoubtedly lacked depth, Pistol also managed at times to seem stretched. The main case in point here is Episode Four, Bodies. This episode is essentially an attempt to dramatise the rationale behind the macabre lyrics of the song Bodies off ‘Bollocks.’ It is apparently true that the lyrics were based on a real story, that there really was a severely mentally damaged woman called Pauline who was known to the band, and who really did carry around an aborted Foetus in her handbag for a time. But did this relatively minor Pistols track really need a whole episode in order to justify it? I’m also unsure of whether or not Pauline really was a black woman, or was this another attempt to insert another element of unnecessary diversity?

Just on that subject, we do get flashes of the undoubtedly real sense of camaraderie that existed between the punks and Ganga-smoking, reggae-listening Rastafarians. Lydon, in particular, was of course a big fan of Reggae music, a fact that showed through in parts of ‘Bollocks’, and much more so on the first two, arguably first three, excellent Public Image Limited albums.

And there was some nice attention to detail here. Lydon had a Captain Beefheart poster on his wall because that signified his real taste in music. Maybe he did listen to Iggy and the Stooges and the MC5, but he also listened to Beefheart, Peter Hamill/Van Graff Generator, Can, Faust, and the rest of the Krautrock/Musice Cosmiche oeuvre. That’s why those PIL albums sound like they do. It has been said that early PIL is essentially how the Pistols would have sounded had Lydon had his way. McLaren of course preferred a Punk Bay City Rollers, though he didn’t quite get that either.

So, that’s about it really. It’s certainly not a boring series. It has weaknesses, some of which I have highlighted. But it didn’t trash the Pistols’ legacy, and no, it didn’t leave me feeling I’d been cheated….

I have to say that I enjoyed it more the second time around too. First time, for me, there was a bit too much confusion as to who was meant to be who. For instance, I thought Jordan was Siousie Sioux first time around. I also thought initially that Pauline in the Bodies episode was Pauline Black, soon to be of the Selector, and that two random schoolgirl Pistols’ fans determined to follow the band from far away oop North, actually were two members of the soon-to-be Slits. Once these misunderstandings were overcome, it was simply easier to watch.

There was a nice vignette too from Mathew Cottle as the great newsreader Reggie Bosanquet (a man forever known to me as the man who broke the news of Elvis’ death), unapologetically buying ladies’ underwear for himself in the Sex boutique, then slipping the staff a wink at the end of New at Ten in order to let them know he was at that moment wearing his latest purchase under his regulation Newsreader attire.

One last point about the music. The actors performed the music themselves, and aside from James Slater who played Cook, who had previously fronted a band but had never played drums, none of them had any previous musical experience at all. With that in mind, they did a good job and made me forget that I wasn’t listening to the Pistols themselves.

THE highlight of the series was for the recreation, and recreation is the right word here, of the Pistols’ (in)famous Bill Grundy television series appearance. This was very well done indeed, and showed, through sticking almost word for word and frame by frame to what actually transpired, showed conclusively that it was Grundy (played by Steven Pemberton), a drunk, a local television presenter who will only ever be remembered for this moment, who very clearly and very deliberately goaded the young, naïve Pistols and their entourage into using ‘rude’ words. Lydon’s later comment that the accolade for being the first person to use the ’F’ word on British television belonged not to either he or Steve Jones, but to Irish Poet Brendan Beehan, gave Lydon another opportunity to show his literary, knowledgeable side.

I also very much enjoyed the excitement the Pistols showed, like any other young band in any genre, in crowding around a transistor radio in order to experience God Save the Queen’s inexorable rise to become the number one single that never was. The joy the band exhibited in showing the completed single of GDTQ to their families (apart from Jones’ joyless family) made me think perhaps of the Beatles probably handing around a copy of Love Me Do in a similar fashion a decade and a half earlier.

Glen might or might not have been sacked for liking the Beatles but in reality, the two bands were essentially in the same game. Yes, the Pistols may have helped rid the world of fifteen-minute guitar solos (and the Jones character got that particular cliche out the way within five minutes of the opening of episode one), but it was only temporarily, and didn’t we all, in the end, decide that there was room on this Earth for both the Sex Pistols and Rik Wakeman?

As Billy Joel would one day point out, “It’s still Rock ‘n’ Roll to me”

Anthony C Green, July 2nd, 2022.

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Culture Vulture: our guide to the week’s entertainment

Saturday June 11 2022

Putin’s Way PBS America 6.25pm

Tracing the career of Vladmir Putin over the past two years.

Putin’s Road to War PBS America 7.35pm

The “inside story” of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Ziggy Stardust at 50 BBC RADIO 4 20:00

How David Bowie’s creation of the androgynous Ziggy Stardust had a profound effect on his career and allowed him to emerge as a pop prophet, gay rights champion and cultural icon.

Also Next Friday 12:04

Sunday 12 June 2022

Desert Island Discs: Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the TUC BBC RADIO 4 FM 11.15am

Inspiring union leader Frances O’Grady

Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, shares the eight discs, book and luxury item she would want if cast away on a desert island. With Lauren Laverne.

Picture attribution for Frances O’Grady – Johninnit, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Also Next Friday 09:00

Grenfell Channel 4 10.30pm (1/2)

This is based on the not-for-profit production, entitled Grenfell: Value Engineering, which was on stage in London (at The Tabernacle) and Birmingham (at the Birmingham Rep).

The play – which was called “mesmerising, informative and alarming” in one review – is based on the words of those involved in the inquiry into the 14 June 2017 blaze, which killed 72 people.

Grenfell was created by producer and director Nicolas Kent and the creative team responsible for the dramatisation of The Colour Of Justice: The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, which ran at the Tricycle Theatre and the National Theatre in 1999.

Kent said: “In the heart of one of the richest boroughs in Europe 72 people died in the horrific circumstances of the Grenfell Tower fire, and this play looks at the causes, failures and those responsible for this tragedy, and how we can try to ensure that it never happens again.

“When last autumn we produced the play close to the Grenfell site the production was welcomed by the four main Grenfell support organisations.

“We were regularly told by residents that they hoped it would have a future life as they believed it’s important that people kept talking about the systemic failures which led to the fire.”

Monday 13 June 2022

The People Vs J Edgar Hoover BBC RADIO 4 (1/8) 1.45pm

Emily Maitlis tells how Hoover built and ran the FBI and helped create today’s fears of a “deep state”

Listen to the teaser here

Grenfell Channel 4 11.05pm

The conclusion of the stage play based on evidence from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.

Sherwood BBC1 9pm (1/6)

A divided police force, a relentless manhunt and a killer tormenting an already fractured Nottinghamshire community. In Episode 1 DCS Ian St Clair is called to investigate a tragic and unexpected murder in an ex-mining town as news of the crime threatens to inflame historic tensions. Powerful drama starring Joanne Froggatt and David Morrissey.

Tuesday 14 June 2022

The People Vs J Edgar Hoover continues on BBC RADIO 4 continues (see Monday).

Wednesday 15 June 2022

The People Vs J Edgar Hoover continues on BBC RADIO 4 continues (see Monday).

Thursday 16 June 2022

The People Vs J Edgar Hoover continues on BBC RADIO 4 continues (see Monday).

The Real Derry: Jamie-Lee O’Donnell Channel 4 10pm

Best known as the gutsy Michelle Mallon, now the Derry Girls star Jamie-Lee O’Donnell is bringing the real city to our screens. Channel 4’s The Real Derry: Jamie-Lee O’Donnell explores the Troubles and how they shaped the Northern Irish city we know today, especially for younger generations “who still live with the impact of the Troubles”. The actress will look back at her Catholic upbringing in the ‘90s during the 45-minute documentary special, while students from her former high school will speak on today’s Derry.

Friday 17 June 2022

The People Vs J Edgar Hoover concludes on BBC RADIO 4 continues (see Monday).

Look Away Sky Documentaries 9pm

As the documentary’s synopsis explains: “Look Away confronts the darker side of rock and a subject the music industry has glossed over for years: statutory rape and abuse against women.

For the first time, women – coerced, groomed or mistreated; many in their teens – offer an unfiltered account of their experiences as they share some of the abuses and harassment that were tolerated in the music industry in the 70s and 80s. These women share their encounters with powerful music names like front men Steven Tyler and Axl Rose, and Kim Fowley, manager of fledgling teen group The Runaways.”

“Look Away addresses how the music industry fostered a culture where relationships with underage girls were normalised and aggressive sexual behaviour was ignored.”

Selections from Henry Falconer and Pat Harrington

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Culture Vulture: our guide to the week’s entertainment

Saturday 14 May 2022

Profile: Michelle O’Neill BBC RADIO 4 19:00

Who is Michelle O’Neill?

The Sinn Féin deputy leader set to become the first nationalist first minister of Northern Ireland. Mark Coles profiles Michelle O’Neill.

This Cultural Life: Jarvis Cocker BBC RADIO 4 19:15

Singer-songwriter and Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker talks to John Wilson about his cultural influences.

Sunday 15 May 2022

File on 4: Locking Up the Sick BBC RADIO 4 17:00

Reporter Annabel Deas discovers that nearly half of all seriously mentally ill prisoners who need hospital treatment are refused the treatment they need.

Monday 16 May 2022

Empire of Pain: A Good Name (1/10) BBC RADIO 4 FM 9:45an
The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe

Patrick Radden Keefe’s investigative book explores how the Sackler family acquired their phenomenal wealth and their role in America’s opioid crisis. Kyle Soller reads.

Elon Musk: Superhero or Supervillian? Channel 4 9pm

Using rare archival footage, the film digs into the South African–born Tesla and SpaceX owner (pictured), whose flamboyant PR stunts, eagerly promulgated visions of techno-futurist utopias and incessant Twitter trolling have made him one of the most omnipresent public figures in the contemporary world.

Tuesday 17 May 2022

Inflation and the cost of living crisis: The Long View BBC RADIO 4 9:00am

Jonanthan Freedland returns with the Long View of Inflation, comparing today’s gathering cost of living pressures with inflation peaks in the 1920s and 1970s.

Wednesday 18 May 2022

HMP Belmarsh: Maximum Security Channel 5 9pm

Sunil Patel: An Idiot’s Guide to Cryptocurrency: How to Get Rich off Crypto Alone BBC RADIO 4 11pm

In a desperate bid to become rich, comedian and broadcaster Sunil Patel attempts to live off cryptocurrency alone.

Thursday 19 May 2022

In Our Time: Comenius BBC RADIO 4 9

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Czech man who tried to use education to build a better understanding between the peoples of Europe who were otherwise divided by religious wars.

Friday 20 May 2022

A Brief History of Progress BBC RADIO 4 12:04

American satirist Joe Queenan follows up his programmes on blame, shame and truth with a question that has troubled many of us in recent years – has progress come to a halt? Beginning with the end of the Neanderthals, Queenan charts the ascent of man with the help of some surprising guests including Emma Garland, Terry Jones, Bertrand Russell and Edith Hall.

Queenan tackles all the major areas of concern, including progress and nature, progress and money, and progress and war.

“I think it’s inevitable that men will gather together and club each other to death,” he says. “I don’t think you can pin that one on women. If women were running Afghanistan things would be great.”

Selected by Pat Harrington

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Culture Vulture: our guide to the week’s entertainment

Sunday 8 May 2022

Jazz All Stars: Cheltenham At 25 BBC4 8pm

Gregory Porter, Paloma Faith, Joe Stilgoe, Vanessa Haynes and Tommy Blaize, alongside new artists, perform some of the greatest jazz hits of the past 120 years.

Afghanistan: No Country for Women ITV 10.15pm

British-Iranian correspondent Ramita Navai powerfully exposes the reality of life for women under Taliban rule in Afghanistan: No Country for Women. In this documentary for ITV’s Bafta-winning Exposure strand, Navai secretly films in a jail where she discovers women being held by the Taliban without trial or charge, their fate often unknown to their families.

Ramita Navai uncovers evidence of Taliban officials using violence to forcibly marry young girls, as she accompanies an underground network of female activists on dangerous missions to rescue women hunted by the Taliban and joins a women’s protest that is broken up by their security forces.

Over the course of six months, ITV’s Exposure has investigated the Taliban’s treatment of women – and uncovered abuses that have never been reported before. Speaking Dari, one of the main languages of Afghanistan, Ramita Navai gains access to rarely visited areas undetected, gathering evidence.

In northern Afghanistan the team investigated reports that women had been disappearing without trace since the Taliban gained power. Highly-placed contacts told Navai the women had been jailed by the Estegabaarat, the Taliban Intelligence Service, for so- called ‘moral crimes’, such as travelling without a male relative. They alleged the arrests were being kept secret. “The Taliban want international recognition. They want to show women are OK and they do not have problems.”

Filming with a hidden camera, the team gained access to a major prison where they suspected the missing women were being held. They discovered around forty of the women huddled in a courtyard, with others in nearby cells. Those Navai spoke with said they were held without trial or charge.

Later, a few families negotiated the release of their daughter and the programme follows them as they are reunited with their families. They described being tasered and beaten, adding that officials pressured them to marry Taliban fighters. They resisted but one girl told Navai, “They detained other girls, 5 or 6 days after us, and they forced them to marry Talibs to get their freedom.”

The programme speaks to Najia Soroush who founded Radio Sada-e-Banowan, the Voice of Women. Although she is the station director the Taliban have decreed she must visit only when the offices are empty. None of her female staff have been able to return to work and she says she receives threats. She said: “Before we had programmes with music. Girls could host live talk shows and there was laughter. Before, a girl could joke with a boy, but we can’t do that anymore.”

In the capital, Kabul, the team join an underground network of young women who live in hiding, operating secret safe houses for those on the run from the Taliban. The team follows the network on a risky mission to rescue an exhausted and frightened woman and her family. Before the regime, the woman was a journalist and the Taliban are now hunting for her. She showed Navai a recent picture of her brother, whom she says the Taliban had branded with a red-hot poker in an attempt to force him to reveal her whereabouts. She tells Navai, “You wouldn’t do this to an animal but they do it to humans. Why? Because I am a journalist.” Navai meets other women who say relatives have been tortured, as the Taliban search for them.

Navai tells Government spokesperson Bilal Karimi about what the team have found. He denies these things can have happened and says they are ‘lies’ and ‘baseless claims’. “We tell everyone that you must follow Islamic standards. We will never allow our men to commit such indecent acts. Other countries should not impose on us what is good for them. We have our own culture, interests and values. The international community must now allow us to build a government for ourselves.”

Monday 9 May 2022

Beyond Belief: Fierce and Feminine: Kali and Shakti BBC RADIO 4 16:30

Visiting the British Museum to see a brand new sculpture of the fearsome Hindu Goddess Kali, Ernie Rea explores the idea of Shakti, a divine feminine force.

Fergal Keane: Living With PTSD BBC2 9pm

BBC Special Correspondent Fergal Keane has covered conflict and brutality for more than 30 years.

From Kigali to Baghdad to Belfast, he was always at the heart of the story and became a trusted BBC face, known for reporting with humanity and extraordinary empathy. But off screen, Fergal struggled to keep another story from overwhelming him. He was suffering from an acute form of post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2020, Fergal went public with his diagnosis of PTSD.

In this film, Fergal lays bare its impact on himself, and others like him. Fergal explores how post-traumatic stress disorder led him to consider withdrawing from conflict reporting in a personal new film for Horizon. Fergal also investigates the latest scientific thinking behind PTSD and its treatment.

Tuesday 10 May 2022

Escher: Journey Into Infinity Sky Arts 7pm

Narrated by Stephen Fry in M.C. Escher’s own words, ESCHER: JOURNEY INTO INFINITY is an exploration of the Dutch artist’s life and world-wide influence on modern art and popular culture today.

Wednesday 11 May 2022

Just One Thing – with Michael Mosley: Take a Nap

Michael embraces the joys of an afternoon nap. It’s not a lazy snooze, it’s a brain booster! Here’s how napping can help your heart, improve your mood and enhance your memory.

Other episodes I’ve so far listened to include one on the benefits of dark chocolate and another on restricted eating times and health. Check them out on BBC Sounds.

Thursday 12 May 2022

The History of the Red Army: The Great Patriotic War (1/2) PBS America 8.35pm

Created by Trotsky in 1918, the Red Army abandoned its egalitarian and democratic ideals to repress civil revolts. Stalin, worried about the power of the army, launched a purge of officers, the beginning of the ‘Great Terror’ of 1937-38. As a consequence, the Red Army was a shadow of its former self when Germany invaded the USSR in 1941 and it took all the energy of General Zhukov, the Resistance and the Allies to overcome the Nazis. On its way to Berlin, the Red Army discovered the extermination camps. Germany surrendered on May 2, 1945

Friday 13 May 2022

The History of the Red Army: The Cold War (2/2) PBS America 8.35pm

After the Second World War, the soldiers of the Red Army fell into disgrace. As the Cold War began, Khrushchev rehabilitated the Army for purely repressive purposes, and revolts were suppressed in blood. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, the USSR and the Capitalist Bloc jockeyed for position. Meanwhile, as Russia entered the 1970s the living conditions of the Red Army’s soldiers deteriorated. The long intervention in Afghanistan definitively undermined the Soviet system, and at the end of 1991 the USSR disappeared. Today, the Red Army is purely symbolic, caught between nostalgia and nationalism.

And also….


Red Ellen, Lyceum Theatre (Edinburgh) till May 21 2022

This remarkable new play, from Caroline Bird directed by Lyceum Artistic associate Wils Wilson, tells the inspiring and epic story of Ellen Wilkinson, Labour MP, who was forever on the right side of history, forever on the wrong side of life.

Caught between revolutionary and parliamentary politics, Ellen fights with an unstoppable, reckless energy for a better world. Running (quite literally in some cases) into the likes of Albert Einstein and Ernest Hemingway, she battles to save Jewish refugees in Nazi Germany; campaigns for Britain to aid the fight against Franco’s Fascists in Spain; and leads 200 workers in the Jarrow Crusade, marching from Newcastle to London to deliver a petition to end unemployment and poverty. She serves as a vital member of Churchill’s cabinet, and has affairs with communist spies and government ministers. But, despite all of this, she still finds herself – somehow – on the outside looking in.

This is the story of Ellen Wilkinson.

Selections by Pat Harrington

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Nova: Bat Superpowers

Bats are generally given a bad reputation in our popular culture – associated with evil and implicated in deadly epidemics such as COVID-19. This documentary, however, will encourage people to think differently about bats.

Common Fruit Bat (Rousettus aegyptiacus) flying in Israel

There are around 1421 living bat species that exhibit an incredible diversity in ecology, longevity, sensory perception and immunology. Bats (mammals like us) have superpowers.

Can we learn from bats and harness those powers in humans? Numerous questions still remain regarding the genomic basis of these spectacular features but scientists are making progress. This documentary introduces us to these scientists and their work. Viewers are taken on a journey from caves in Thailand and Texas to labs around the globe.

Bat1K is one group of scientists we are introduced to. They are sequencing bat genomes, further uncovering the genetic basis of bats’ rare and wonderful superpowers.

Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems, and the Center for Systems Biology, Dresden, Senior Author, says: “Our genome scans revealed changes in hearing genes, that may contribute to echolocation, which bats use to hunt and navigate in complete darkness. Furthermore, we found expansions of anti-viral genes, unique selection on immune genes, and loss of genes involved in inflammation in bats. These changes may contribute to bats’ exceptional immunity and points to their tolerance of coronaviruses.

Bat1K, a global consortium of scientists dedicated to sequencing the genomes of every one of the 1421 living bat species, has generated and analyzed six highly accurate bat genomes that are ten times more complete than any bat genome published to date, in order to begin to uncover bats’ unique traits.

The hope is that ultimately, studying bats will help researchers understand the genetic basis of longevity, a better immune system and other key factors. Let’s just think about longevity for a moment.

Humans are considered relatively long-lived animals, tending to live about four times longer than most other mammals when adjusted for size. But bats can far exceed that. Some species can live 40 years – eight times longer than similarly sized mammals — which is why scientists have long sought to understand bats as a model for healthy aging. If we lived as long as bats, adjusted for size, we could live 240 years.

Longevity is just one way, as this documentary points out, that the study of bats might help us. It’s a tantalising prospect.

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

Picture Credit: Original photo: אורן פלס Oren Peles Derivative work: User: MathKnight, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

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Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This three-part PBS documentary explains how and why the ill-conceived state of Yugoslavia descended into chaos and barbarity not once but twice, first in the 1940s and again in the 1990s.

The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, re-named Yugoslavia in 1929, was established in 1918 at the end of the First World War. It brought together Serbia and Montenegro, which had been independent before the War, with Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, which had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The King of Serbia became Head of State and both the army and administration were dominated by Serbs. There were problems from the beginning. Serbia and Montenegro had fought on the Allied side in the War, the other nationalities on the other. Serbs and Montenegrins were Orthodox in religion and used the Cyrillic script, Croats and Slovenes were Roman Catholic and used the Latin. Although Bosnia-Herzegovina contained large numbers of both Serbs and Croats they were outnumbered by Bosnian Muslims (known as Bosniaks). In addition the Kingdom had large Hungarian and Albanian minorities. Not exactly a recipe for stability, as was demonstrated when on a state visit to France in 1934 the King was assassinated in Marseilles by Croat separatists.

The German and Italian invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941 led to its disintegration. An independent state of Croatia was established controlled by the Ustase, an extreme Croat nationalist movement led by Ante Pavelic, whose aim was to produce an ethnically pure Croat state targeting Serbs, Roma and Jews. Concentration camps were set up, the most notorious being Jasenovac. The Serb minority in Croatia, concentrated in the Krajina and Eastern Slavonia, was terrorised and massacres took place, with as many as 200,000 Serbs killed. The northern Serb province of Vojvodina was occupied by Hungary. Civil war erupted in Serbia and Bosnia between a collaborationist Royalist regime, Serb nationalists (known as Chetniks) and Communist partisans led by Tito. Communist support grew as the War progressed and when German and Italian forces withdrew in 1945 Tito`s forces took control of the whole country and carried out violent reprisals against collaborators, Ustase and anti-Communists.

Tito ruled Yugoslavia until his death in May 1980. Under the slogan “Brotherhood and Unity” he hoped to overcome national divisions by establishing Communist administrations in Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, under the authority of a central government in the Serb capital Belgrade. Serb influence was further diluted within Serbia itself by the creation of separate administrations in Vojvodina and Kosovo. Under Tito`s iron hand this appeared to work well. Having broken with Stalin in 1948 Tito assumed leadership of Non-Aligned countries affiliated with neither the U.S.A. nor the Soviet Union, thereby giving Yugoslavia a prominent role on the world stage. Industrialisation, worker participation in state-run companies and the rapid growth of a tourist industry on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia produced apparent stability and relative prosperity in the 1960s. The re-emergence of nationalism in the Croatian Communist Party in the early 1970s was countered by the imprisonment of its leaders. However the economy faltered in the 1970s. Prosperity was unevenly spread, with Slovenia and Croatia resenting subsidising the other republics. Albanian unrest simmered in Kosovo. There were growing fears that Yugoslavia might not survive after Tito`s death.


Was its collapse inevitable? I do not think so, but the circumstances certainly existed for ambitious nationalist politicians to exploit. The atrocities committed in the 1940s were well within the living memories of millions and passed on to their children and grandchildren. As economic problems grew worse in the 1980s it was Yugoslavia`s tragedy that such politicians emerged, notably Slobodan Milosevic, who became Head of the Serb Communist Party in 1986, and Franjo Tudjman in Croatia. The first crisis erupted in Kosovo, where demonstrations by the Albanian majority against discrimination by the Serb-dominated administration led to counter-demonstrations by Serbs. Milosevic visited Kosovo and championed the cause of the Serbs, making him a nationalist hero not only in Serbia itself but amongst the large Serb minorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. Predictably, this in turn produced a counter-reaction. By mid-1990 both Slovenia and Croatia were threatening to secede from Yugoslavia, followed shortly afterwards by Bosnia-Herzegovina. Albanians in Kosovo demonstrated for the right to secede from Serbia. Old hatreds were being re-kindled. The result was a decade of warfare and ethnic cleansing involving the deaths of hundreds of thousands and atrocities not seen in Europe since the end of the Second World War, ended only by the intervention of NATO forces in 1995 to end the war in Bosnia and again in 1999 to bring hostilities in Kosovo to an end.

Why was this? Slovenia`s secession in 1991 was almost bloodless because it was homogenously Slovene, but this was not the case in either Croatia or Bosnia. Almost 40% of Serbs lived outside Serbia as minorities in either Croatia or Bosnia. This didn`t matter as long as they remained all together in Yugoslavia However, when in 1990 Croatia elected a government led by Franjo Tudjman`s HDZ party committed to independence, Serbs who formed a majority in the Krajina region of Croatia, backed by Milosevic`s government in Belgrade and the predominantly Serb Yugoslav Army, declared their own secession from Croatia. For them, Croat nationalism meant the Ustase, and the hatred and fanaticism can only be understood in the context of memories of the 1940s. Sporadic fighting in that region continued until August 1995, when the Croatian Army, trained and equipped by the U.S., recaptured the region in Operation Storm. The Serb population fled in their cars and tractors and were eventually re-settled as refugees in Serbia proper. There was also extensive fighting between Serbs and Croats in the Eastern Slavonia region of Croatia, eventually settled by the Dayton Peace Agreement (see later) in December 1995.

Milosevic`s aim was to bring together all Serbs in former Yugoslavia in the same state. Inevitably this involved conflict with non-Serbs in both Croatia and Bosnia, which declared its own independence in April 1992. Fearing minority status under Bosniak (Muslim) rule, Bosnian Serbs set up their own state, Republika Srpska. elected their own President, Radovan Karadzic, who in turn appointed Ratko Mladic as commander of a Bosnian Serb Army which commenced a 3 year bombardment and siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo (where a memorable Winter Olympics had been held as recently as 1984). Some 20% of Bosnia was predominantly Croat. For a year Croats and Bosniaks fought side by side against the Serbs, but in the spring of 1993 the Croats changed sides, Tudjman and Milosevic plotting together to divide Bosnia into Serb and Croat regions at Bosniak expense. In 1994, under U.S. pressure, the Croats changed sides again in return for U.S. backing for an independent state of Croatia. Finally in August 1995, after the massacre of some 8000 Bosniak men and boys by Mladic`s Serb forces in Srebrenica, NATO decided that enough was enough and intervened militarily to bring the siege of Sarajevo to an end and force the warring factions to the conference table at an airbase in Dayton Ohio.


Dayton brought the wars in Croatia and Bosnia to an end. Yugoslavia was no more, replaced by Independent Republics in Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and Macedonia (recently re-named Northern Macedonia). Bosnia was divided into two regions, Republika Srpska and a Bosniak-Croat Federation. It did not, however, deal with the problem of Kosovo. For Serbs it was their historic heartland which for them had an almost mystical significance. The Albanian majority, however, had had enough of Serb repression. A guerrilla force the K.L.A. carried out attacks on Serb targets, to which Milosevic`s forces responded with increasing ferocity. Historically Serbia had always looked to Russia for support, but Boris Yeltsin`s Russia was at a low ebb in the 1990s and humanitarian demands for western intervention against Serbia grew. NATO bombardment of Belgrade and other Serb targets in the spring of 1999 again brought Milosevic to the conference table and an independent state of Kosovo was set up. Thus by 1999 what had been a united Yugoslavia in 1990 had been replaced by seven separate states.

The three-part PBS documentary covers all of this in graphic detail and provides a valuable and objective guide to this complex unravelling of a country. German re-unification and the collapse of Communist regimes in the Soviet satellite states had been almost bloodless. The reason why this was not the case in former Yugoslavia is a combination of historic conflicts, populist nationalist politicians and the indifference of the rest of Europe until it was almost too late.

Slovenia and Croatia are now members of the European Union. Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo are all candidates for accession. Bosnia has not yet met the conditions for membership and its future is uncertain.

Henry Falconer

Tito photo credit: Unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Milosevic photo credit: Stevan Kragujević, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Map of the former Yugoslavia attribution: Yusuf Ziya Safi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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PORTILLO`S EMPIRE JOURNEY Episode 3 South Africa (Channel 5)

Michael Portillo offers a slanted view of South African history

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Editorial note: Portillo’s Empire Journey (Friday) is the latest offering from Channel 5. The first episode focused on India and the second on Jamaica but it is the third on South Africa that this review concerns.

Michael Portillo`s attention has turned, at least temporarily, away from railways to a series on the malign influence of the British Empire. In this episode he investigates the origins of Apartheid, for which he attempts to blame the British. This is such a one-sided version of South African History that it deserves to be challenged. Its fundamental flaw is that it fails to point out that Afrikaners, not British, colonists formed a majority of the white population of South Africa. Apartheid was a policy designed by Afrikaner governments to serve the interests of the Afrikaner population, much of which was working-class and fearful of native African competition in the jobs market. Most of the white English-speaking population went along with it if it seemed to secure white supremacy. Portillo`s is a classic example of a programme designed to reach a pre-ordained conclusion.

Afrikaners (also known as Boers) were descended from Protestant settlers, predominantly Dutch but also some French Hugenots and Germans, who established a colony at the Cape in 1652. Their language, Afrikaans, a variant of Dutch, reflects this. The Cape remained a Dutch colony until 1815 when the Dutch, as a punishment for having supported Napoleon, were forced to cede it to the British. The first British settlers landed in the Eastern Cape (the area around Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown) in 1820, but at no point did they ever form a majority of the white population. When the British government in London abolished slavery in the British Empire in 1833 thousands of Afrikaners protested and migrated to the interior in what is known as the Great Trek, defeated the Zulus in the Battle of Blood River in 1838 and set up their own republics in what came to be known as the Orange Free State (around Bloemfontein) and the Transvaal (around Pretoria). In 1843 the British established another colony on the east coast – Natal (around Durban). So by the 1870s there were four white colonies in South Africa, two Afrikaner and two British. Portillo`s programme, far from explaining any of this, ignores the Afrikaners altogether and begins with the British invasion of Zululand from Natal in 1879.

The Zulu War was the subject of the hit-film “Zulu” in 1964 which focused on the Battle of Rorke`s Drift, defended by greatly outnumbered Redcoats against the spear-brandishing Zulus. Despite a British force having been wiped out on the previous day at Isandlwana, Zululand was overrun by the British in a few months and annexed to Natal. Portillo correctly portrayed the Zulus as victims but failed to point out that they had acquired their land by conquering and subjugating rival tribes some two generations previously under their great warrior leader Shaka.

Portillo then turned his attention to the discovery of gold in 1886. This was in the Transvaal, in Afrikaner (Boer) territory. Prospectors flooded in from all over the world to what became known as Johannesburg. Businessmen, known as Randlords of whom the most famous is Cecil Rhodes (who had already made a fortune from South African diamond mines), acquired ownership of the gold mines. Here Portillo is on surer ground and what follows is by far the most shameful episode in the whole of British involvement in South Africa. Spurred on partly by a wish to bring the gold mines under British control and partly by a fear that the Traansvaal President (Kruger) might favour German influence in the region, they provoked Kruger into launching pre-emptive invasions of British Natal and Cape Colony in 1899. After initial successes, notably at Spion Kop (which became a Liverpool legend) the Boers resorted to guerrilla warfare to which the British responded by herding women and children into the world`s first `concentration camps` in which c28000 died, of whom c22,000 were children (as well as c20,000 black Africans). These were denounced in the House of Commons by a future Prime Minister (Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman) as `methods of barbarism` and were a gift to Nazi propagandists some 40 years later.

Portillo`s portrayal of later South African history is a travesty, resulting from his failure/refusal to recognise the role of the Afrikaners (Boers) who, I repeat, formed a majority of the white population. The four colonies (Cape, Natal, Transvaal, Orange Free State) were combined in 1910 into the Union of South Africa, which remained in the British Empire/Commonwealth until 1961. Economic life was dominated by English-speakers and a large minority of Afrikaners were recognised by the 1920s as forming a `poor white problem` similar to that in the American South in the years after the American Civil War. The Carnegie Commission (1928-32) investigated this and recommended measures including a programme of job reservation for whites. When a predominantly Afrikaner party was elected in 1948, under the leadership of Malan, followed amongst others by Verwoerd, Vorster and P W Botha, it began to implement this and to attempt to secure the future of whites in South Africa by a separation of the races known as Apartheid. Thus, for example, when I travelled on a whites-only overnight train from Johannesburg to Durban in 1982 the porters on the platforms, the ticket collectors, dining car attendants etc. were all white Afrikaners. Their jobs were secure; they had nothing to fear from non-white competition. This is what differentiated Apartheid from policies of white supremacy pursued in British colonies elsewhere in Africa (Rhodesia and Kenya in particular) where there was no poor white problem and fewer restrictions on native African employment. Portillo`s failure to recognise Apartheid as an Afrikaner policy designed to protect the interests of poor whites as well as the maintenance of white supremacy and his attempt to blame the legacy of British colonialism is deeply flawed.

Reviewed by Henry Falconer

Picture: Smerus (David Conway) / CC BY-SA (

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