Film Review: Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

“I’d rather be a free man in my grave, than living as a puppet or a slave” – Jimmy Cliff – The Harder They Come

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is a historical drama film directed by Shaka King, released in 2021. The movie is based on the true story of Fred Hampton, the charismatic and revolutionary chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s. The film explores the events leading up to Hampton’s assassination by the FBI and the Chicago Police Department.

Daniel Kaluuya stars as Fred Hampton, who is depicted as a visionary leader who fights for the rights of black people in America. He inspires and unites the community, organizing various social programs and raising awareness about the inequalities faced by black Americans. However, the FBI, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, sees Hampton as a threat and starts a covert operation to neutralize him.

The US establishment saw the Black Panthers as a threat due to their revolutionary rhetoric and the fact that they were armed. The tactics used by the police to neutralize the Panthers were often shocking. In the film the FBI allowed one informant who had been involved in a murder to go on the run and visit various Panther offices as an excuse to raid them. They even went so far as to drug Panther leader Fred Hampton and plot and carry out the killings of Panther members with the help of informants. One reason the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover were frightened of Hampton was because he had the ability to reach out to poor whites as well as blacks with a message that transcended cultural and ethnic divides. Hampton was a charismatic leader and a powerful speaker, which made him a formidable opponent in the eyes of Hoover and the FBI.

The film also features LaKeith Stanfield as William O’Neal, a petty criminal who is coerced into infiltrating the Black Panther Party by the FBI. O’Neal is tasked with gathering information on Hampton and reporting back to the FBI. He ultimately becomes embroiled in the events leading to Hampton’s death and must confront the consequences of his actions.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is a powerful and thought-provoking film that sheds light on a critical chapter in American history. It highlights the government’s brutal tactics in suppressing the Black Power Movement and the fight for racial justice. The film is a tribute to Fred Hampton, who continues to inspire and influence future generations, and serves as a reminder of the ongoing struggle for equality and justice. In contrast William O’Neal ultimately met a sad end, consumed with guilt his actions brought him only a legacy of infamy going down on the wrong side of history as a traitor and a puppet.

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

Judas and the Black Messiah
2h 6m
Shaka King
Will Berson (story by )Shaka King(story by) Kenneth Lucas(story by)
LaKeith Stanfield Daniel Kaluuya Jesse Plemons

Image attribution: By IMP Awards, Fair use,


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Culture Vulture (4th to 10th of February 2023): Our Guide to the Week’s Entertainment

Selections by Henry Falconer and Pat Harrington. Music by Tim Bragg. If you enjoy this podcast pleas subscribe.

Saturday 4th of February 2023

The Maltese Falcon 6am BBC RADIO 4 Extra

In 1928, San Francisco, private detective Sam Spade is thrust into a dangerous case when his partner is killed during an investigation. Sam immediately becomes suspicious of their mysterious client and believes that they are hiding crucial information about the case. However, things take a turn for the worse when he learns of a valuable black falcon statuette that is at the centre of the investigation. With motives becoming murkier and the stakes getting higher, Sam must use all his wits and skills to unravel the truth and bring the murderer to justice.

Great Continental Railway Journeys: Batumi to Baku 6.50pm BBC2

Michael’s journey begins in the picturesque port of Batumi on the stunning Caucasian Riviera. There, he immerses himself in the local culture, savouring the rich flavours of Georgian wine and exploring the stunning countryside. In his travels, he stumbles upon a hidden gem – a nineteenth century tea plantation tucked away in the West Georgian hills. This unexpected discovery leads him to the seat of power in Kutaisi, where the magnificent glass dome of the Georgian Parliament awaits. Built in 2012 when the Parliament was relocated from Tbilisi, the dome serves as a symbol of the city’s political significance and is a must-see attraction for visitors. Michael’s journey is a celebration of Georgia’s rich history, vibrant culture, and stunning landscapes.

North Sea Connection 9pm BBC4

The breath-taking beauty of Ireland’s west coast is the backdrop for a dark tale in North Sea Connection. Ciara is forced to confront the dramatic consequences of her brother Aidan’s dangerous decision to smuggle drugs by sea. The film explores the tension between the stunning scenery and the illegal actions taking place just out of sight. Aidan’s actions have far-reaching consequences and Ciara must navigate the dangerous waters to protect her brother and herself.

County Lines (2019 film) 1.30am BBC1

This is a powerful and intense drama that explores the dark world of child exploitation and drug trafficking. The film follows a teenage boy who becomes embroiled in the criminal underworld, and the devastating consequences that ensue. The film is well-acted, with strong performances from its young cast, and the direction is tense and unsettling. County Lines is a thought-provoking and deeply affecting film that shines a light on a pressing social issue

Sunday 5th of February 2023

The Citadel 6.50pm BBC RADIO 4 Extra

AJ Cronin’s ground-breaking novel about medical life before the NHS, dramatised by Christopher Reason.

Ku Klux Klan 10.45am,repeated 8.30pm PBS America

This episode deals with the history of the Klan from 1865 to 1944.

The Iceman (2012 film) 9pm Film4

The Iceman is a tense and thrilling crime drama that tells the true story of notorious contract killer Richard Kuklinski. The film is anchored by a powerful performance from Michael Shannon as Kuklinski, and the supporting cast is also strong. The direction is tight and the film effectively builds a sense of suspense, making it a gripping watch. The Iceman is a well-made and entertaining film that provides a fascinating glimpse into the life of a notorious killer.

Dunkirk (2017 film) 10pm BBC2

Dunkirk is a masterful war film directed by Christopher Nolan that tells the story of the evacuation of British and Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk during World War II. The film features breath-taking cinematography and a tense score, making for an immersive and suspenseful experience. The acting is strong, particularly from newcomer Fionn Whitehead, and the direction is skillful, with Nolan expertly interweaving multiple perspectives and timelines. It is a stunning and powerful film that showcases the best of what war films can be, and is not to be missed.

Walter Presents: Top Dog 11.15pm Channel 4

Walter Presents is a platform that offers a collection of the best European and World dramas on All 4. It is perfect for binge-watching and has been operating since January 2016. In February, Walter Presents has a new addition called “Top Dog” that will be available on Friday 3 February on All 4, and it will premiere on Channel 4 on Sunday 5 February at 11.15pm. “Top Dog” is a Swedish drama about two unlikely partners, an attorney named Emily and a convict on parole named Teddy, who are brought together by a mysterious disappearance. Emily and Teddy must work together in secret to find the kidnapped son of a prominent client. This drama stars Josefin Asplund, Alexej Manvelov, Gustav Lindh and more, and is in Swedish with English subtitles.

Monday 6th of February 2023

Putin v The West 9pm BBC2

From the 2014 annexation of Crimea to the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, this is a comprehensive account of a decade of tensions and confrontations between Western nations and Russia under President Vladimir Putin’s leadership. The story is narrated by key Western leaders who were at the forefront of these events, providing first-hand accounts of the strategies, negotiations, and decisions that shaped the course of events. These leaders offer a unique perspective on the events that have defined the relationship between the West and Russia in recent years, providing insight into the motivations, challenges, and consequences of their actions. Through their stories, we can gain a deeper understanding of the geopolitical dynamics that have shaped the world in recent years and the lessons that can be learned for the future.

Russia 1985 to 1999 10pm BBC4

In Russia, a sudden shift towards democracy is underway with a new plan to establish it overnight. Those in power claim it to be logical, yet it results in a destabilizing and frightening reality, where everyday life is thrown into chaos. At the same time, haunting visions of Russia’s imperial past begin to resurface. Despite widespread poverty and difficulty affording basic necessities, American cosmetic companies are teaching Moscow’s women how to smile.

Tuesday 7th of February 2023

Consent 10pm Channel 4

Consent is a new Channel 4 drama based on testimonies from young people from both state and private schools about attitudes towards sexual assault. The show tackles the issues of porn, lack of sex education, and conversations about consent. The drama is set in a fictional private school for aspiring leaders and focuses on the story of Archie, a wealthy white high-achiever, and Natalie, a black working-class scholarship student, who bond over feeling like outsiders. The story takes a dark turn when boundaries are crossed at a party and trust is broken, leading to an accusation against one of the school’s students. The lead roles are played by Lashay Anderson as Natalie and Tom Victor as Archie. The show highlights the need for education on acceptable behaviour and the importance of investment in schools.

Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool (2017 Film) 11.15pm BBC2

This is a touching and charming romantic drama based on the true story of the relationship between actress Gloria Grahame and a younger man. The film is anchored by fantastic performances from Annette Bening and Jamie Bell, and the chemistry between the two leads is electric. The film is well-directed, with a strong sense of style, and the screenplay is sharp and insightful. “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is a heart-warming and beautifully crafted film that is sure to leave a lasting impression.

Wednesday 8th of February 2023

The Silk Road (Part 1 of 3) 9.15am repeated 2.15pm and 7.05pm PBS America

Starting in Venice, Dr. Sam Willis delves into how the city’s Renaissance architecture and art have been influenced by the East and the extensive exchanges along the Silk Road. He then travels to Xian, the ancient capital of China, where he goes back in time to recount the story of an emperor who, in his quest to secure horses for protection of his borders, made a crucial trade agreement that would change the course of history. In exchange for war horses, the emperor offered silk, considered the most valuable material at the time. This historic deal paved the way for the creation of a vast network of trade routes stretching across thousands of miles, connecting merchants, traders, envoys, pilgrims, and travellers.

Fortunes of War 10pm BBC4

The first four episodes of Alan Plater’s 1987 epic adaptation of Olivia Manning’s novels, which chronicles the wartime experiences of British Council expatriates Guy and Harriet Pringle, will be rebroadcast tonight. The lead roles are played by the impossibly youthful-looking Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson as Guy and Harriet Pringle, respectively. This sweeping adaptation offers a unique and captivating portrayal of the lives of British expatriates during the war and is a must-watch for fans of historical drama. The talented cast, engaging story, and vivid production design come together to create an unforgettable viewing experience that will leave audiences eager for more. So, don’t miss this opportunity to catch the first four episodes of this classic adaptation tonight.

Thursday 9th of February 2023

Israel – A Twice Promised Land (Part 1 of 2) 10.50am, repeated 3.50pm and 8.30pm PBS America

This first episode reviews the three decisive years that carved a Jewish state out of Palestine. Focussing on the period from the end of the Second World War through the UN vote on the Partition Plan in 1947, it concludes with Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948.

Friday 10th of February 2023

Classic Literature and Cinema 12 noon Sky Arts

The return of the programme examining film adaptations of great literary works, beginning with cinema depictions of dystopias.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940 film) 6pm Talking Pictures

This tells the story of the Joad family during the Great Depression. The film is based on John Steinbeck’s award-winning novel of the same name, and features strong performances from its cast, particularly Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. The film’s direction is powerful and the cinematography effectively captures the bleak and desolate setting. “The Grapes of Wrath” is a landmark film that remains an important and relevant commentary on social and economic issues, and is a must-see for fans of classic cinema.

Walter Presents: The Wall: Cover Your Tracks More4 9pm

A murder takes place in a small mining town in Quebec during the winter, causing turmoil among the population as everyone becomes a suspect. Detective Céline Trudeau investigates the crime and teams up with a young local policeman to solve the case. However, their investigation is complicated by the tension between them and Céline’s unexpected reunion with her estranged daughter. As they uncover the truth, the residents of the town are forced to confront their darkest secrets. The series, created by Patrice Sauvé, stars Isabel Richer, Alexander Landry and Maripier Morin.

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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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Culture Vulture: our guide to the week’s entertainment (28th of January to the 3rd of February 2023)

Selections by Pat Harrington.

Highlights this week include The Stasi: Secrets, Lies and British Spies, Emily Atack: Asking For It? and The Ku Klux Klan: An American Story.

Listen to the Culture Vulture podcast of this guide and subscribe to our channel

Saturday 28th of January 2023

Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World (three of four) 9pm BBC2

This third episode, “Culture Wars,” begins in the aftermath of Los Angeles. Hip-Hop is reaching new heights and bringing fresh perspectives to a wider, primarily white audience. But as the genre’s popularity grows, its artists become targets of a backlash. Ice-T is among the first to face the backlash from authorities over his song “Cop Killer.” This is just the beginning of a larger cultural war that erupts. In the 1992 Presidential election, Bill Clinton had been courting the Black community, but he suddenly turns against Hip-Hop activist Sister Souljah, a member of Public Enemy’s collective. Rap music becomes a political pawn. Out West, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Tupac are producing ground-breaking music that draws even more criticism for its hardcore misogyny, prompting Queen Latifah to release her Grammy-winning track “U.N.I.T.Y.”

Sunday 29th of January 2023

Why Coups Fail 1.30pm BBC RADIO 4

Natalie Haynes asks why overthrowing a government by force is not as easy as it was in Ancient Rome, or even the 20th century – and examines the newer, quieter threats to democracy.

The Stasi: Secrets, Lies and British Spies 10.15pm ITV1

For four decades, the Stasi secret police force in East Germany was one of the most powerful and feared organizations in the world, with a vast network of spies and informants spanning the globe. Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, many of these agents were still active in the United Kingdom. Using newly-opened court records, journalist Julie Etchingham uncovers some of the Stasi’s operations in the UK and investigates why the identities of many suspected British informants are still being kept secret 30 years after Germany made its files public.

The Man With The Iron Heart (2017 film) 12.05am BBC2

A 2017 French-Czech war drama film directed by Cédric Jimenez and starring Jason Clarke, Rosamund Pike, and Jack O’Connell. The film is based on the true story of Operation Anthropoid, a World War II mission to assassinate SS General Reinhard Heydrich, a key figure in the SS.

The film is well-acted, with Clarke and Pike delivering strong performances as their respective characters. The film also features impressive production design, particularly in its depiction of Nazi-occupied Prague. The action sequences are well-choreographed and intense, and the film’s depiction of the Holocaust is both brutal and sobering.

However, the film does have some flaws. The pacing is a bit uneven, and the film’s focus on character development sometimes comes at the expense of its historical accuracy. Additionally, the film’s ending feels a bit rushed and unsatisfying.

The Man With the Iron Heart is a solid war drama that is worth watching for its performances and production design. But those looking for a historically accurate account of Operation Anthropoid may be disappointed.

Monday 30th of January 2023

Panorama 8pm BBC1

Healthcare workers, who were celebrated as heroes during the pandemic, are now claiming that they are being neglected by the National Health Service (NHS) and the government. Many are suffering from long Covid and report that it is having a devastating effect on their personal and professional lives. For the BBC’s Panorama program, health correspondent Catherine Burns interviews staff who are struggling to return to work and uncovers how some are now facing financial difficulties and may have to retire early or even face termination.

Phantom Thread (2017 film) 11.15pm BBC2

An American period drama film written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, and Lesley Manville. The film is set in 1950s London and follows the life of Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), a renowned dressmaker, and his relationship with Alma (Krieps), a young waitress who becomes his muse and lover.

The film is a masterful work of art, with a stunning attention to detail in its costume design, production design, and cinematography. Day-Lewis gives an outstanding performance as Woodcock, capturing the character’s obsession with perfection and his complex emotions. Krieps also delivers a strong performance as Alma, bringing depth and nuance to her character.

Additionally, the film’s score, by Jonny Greenwood, adds to the film’s atmosphere with its rich and immersive quality. The film also explores themes of love, power, and control in a unique and thought-provoking way.

On the downside, some viewers may find the film’s slow pace and lack of traditional plot structure to be a challenge. The film’s ending is somewhat ambiguous, which may leave some viewers feeling unsatisfied.

The film is a visually stunning and emotionally powerful film that is a favourite among art-house audiences.

Tuesday 31st of January 2023

Emily Atack: Asking For It? 9pm BBC2

In the documentary, Emily shares her personal journey of dealing with escalated abuse during lockdown and how it led her to realize that she was not alone. Women from all backgrounds came forward to say that they too were experiencing the same thing, and that they had normalized this type of behaviour for far too long.

Emily seeks to understand why the blame for unwanted male attention is so often placed on the victims of abuse and questions whose responsibility it is to put a stop to this behaviour.

The film follows Emily as she continues her fight to make cyber-flashing illegal and explores the measures being taken to protect young women and girls online.

She examines the psychology behind this behaviour, reaching out to men who have sent her explicit content and delves deep into her own experiences and how they have shaped her. She speaks to her parents about this for the first time and reflects on how these incidents have shaped her in the hope that she can finally stop blaming herself.

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (2019 film)  11.45pm BBC2

A French romantic drama film directed by Céline Sciamma and starring Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, and Luana Bajrami. The film is set in 18th-century France and follows the story of a painter, Marianne, who is commissioned to paint a portrait of a young woman, Héloïse, who is to be married off to a wealthy Italian nobleman.

The film is a masterful work of storytelling, with excellent performances from its leading actresses. Merlant and Haenel have a powerful on-screen chemistry, and their performances are nuanced and emotionally powerful. The film also features stunning cinematography and production design, which captures the beauty and isolation of the coastal setting.

Additionally, the film explores themes of female desire, sexuality, and autonomy in a thought-provoking and honest way. The film is also a love letter to the art of painting and its ability to capture both the beauty and complexity of the human experience.

Wednesday 1st of February 2023

The Ku Klux Klan: An American Story (one of two) 8.30pm PBS America

This is a powerful documentary that explores the history and legacy of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States. PBS does an excellent job of presenting a comprehensive and unbiased account of the organization, tracing its origins in the aftermath of the Civil War and its evolution throughout the decades. The film also examines the impact of the Klan on American society and its influence on politics, race relations, and civil rights.

The documentary features a wealth of historical footage and photographs, as well as interviews with experts and historians who provide valuable insights and context. It also includes first-hand accounts from former Klan members and victims of Klan violence, which adds a personal and emotional dimension to the story.

One of the most striking aspects of the film is how it illustrates the Klan’s ability to adapt and evolve over time, from its early days as a secret society to its resurgence in the 20th century as a more public and politically active organization. The documentary also delves into the Klan’s lasting impact on American society and the ongoing efforts to combat its hateful doctrine.

It’s a well-researched and well-produced documentary that provides a comprehensive and nuanced look at one of the most notorious and controversial organizations in American history. It is a must-watch for anyone interested in understanding the origins and legacy of the Ku Klux Klan and its role in shaping American society.

Part two airs tomorrow.

Lapsis (2020 film) 11.50pm Film4

An independent science fiction film that tells the story of a man who becomes a “cabler” for a new technology that is revolutionizing the world. The film is directed by Noah Hutton and stars Dean Imperial, Madeline Wise, and Babe Howard. The film explores themes of technology, labour, and class, as the protagonist is forced into a situation where he must choose between his own survival and his principles. The film also has a unique visual style, with a mix of live-action and animation.

The performances from the cast are good, especially from Dean Imperial as the protagonist. The film’s story is interesting and thought-provoking, raising questions about the future of technology and the impact it has on society and the individual. The film’s visuals are also well done, adding to the overall atmosphere and tone of the film.

“Lapsis” is a well-crafted indie film that offers a fresh perspective on the impact of technology on society, and the individuals caught in the middle of it. It’s a small but important film.

Thursday 2nd of February 2023

In Our Time: Tycho Brahe 9am BBC RADIO 4

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the innovative 16th century Danish astronomer, renowned for the accuracy of his observations, all taken before the invention of the telescope.

Cold Case Forensics (one of three) 9pm ITV1

A three-part series explores the work of renowned forensic scientist Dr. Angela Gallop and her team as they uncover previously undiscovered clues to solve heinous crimes. Through the examination of cases such as the 1988 murder of Lynette White in Cardiff, the 1992 death of Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common, and the Stephen Lawrence murder case, the series delves into the ground breaking techniques and forensic advancements used by Dr. Gallop and her team to bring justice to these tragic events.

Friday 3rd of February 2023

Vice (2018 film) BBC2 11.05pm

A biographical drama film directed by Adam McKay and starring Christian Bale as former Vice President Dick Cheney. The film tells the story of Cheney’s rise to power and the impact he had on American politics during his tenure.

The acting in “Vice” is superb, with Bale delivering a transformative performance as Cheney. He fully inhabits the character, capturing his mannerisms and speech patterns perfectly. The supporting cast, including Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney and Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, also give strong performances.

McKay’s direction is bold and unflinching, as he doesn’t shy away from depicting the controversial actions and decisions made by Cheney and his team. The film also uses a unique and non-linear narrative structure, which keeps the audience engaged and on their toes.

The film’s screenplay is also noteworthy, as it effectively balances humour and satire with serious political commentary. It provides a thought-provoking and entertaining film that offers a fresh perspective on a significant chapter in American history.

Music in this podcast is by Tim Bragg. We hope that you’ve enjoyed this week’s Culture Vulture. To get our weekly guide why not subscribe?

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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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Culture Vulture: our guide to the week’s entertainment (21st to 27th January 2023)

Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) is an international day of remembrance on January 27th, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp. The day is dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust, as well as the victims of other genocides, and it is an opportunity to learn about the Holocaust, its causes, and its lessons. Consequently this week there are a number of educational programmes being screened and we’ve highlighted some of those.

On 29th of December 2022 our nation lost Vivienne Westwood. We’ve highlighted two programmes about this remarkable woman. Westwood: Punk: Icon: Activist and Vivienne Westwood Talks to Kirsty Walk.

Saturday 21st of January 2023

Profumo Confidential 8pm BBC RADIO 4

A radio program directed by Tom Mangold, a journalist who covered the Profumo Affair in 1963 for the Daily Express. The Profumo Affair was a political scandal involving the British Minister of War, John Profumo, and his affair with Christine Keeler, who was also allegedly having an affair with a Russian spy. The scandal led to Profumo’s downfall, hastened the departure of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, and led to the suicide of Stephen Ward, a society osteopath who had friendships with all the players and a louche lifestyle. Ward was hounded to trial on flimsy allegations of living on immoral earnings.

The program is based on the new documents that Mangold acquired, including the private notes of Lord Denning’s right-hand man, who investigated the scandal, and the full manuscript of Ward’s unpublished autobiography. The program offers an extraordinary insight into the behind-the-scenes of the Denning investigation and a vivid snapshot of Britain in the early 1960s as one aging generation fought desperately to keep the swinging sixties at bay. It also features an exclusive broadcast interview with Mandy Rice-Davis, Christine Keeler’s erstwhile companion. The program is a Whistledown production for BBC Radio 4, it’s informative and engaging, it reveals new facets of the event that more than any other etched the shape of a generation and changed the face of Britain forever.

Fight The Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World (first of four) 9pm BBC2

This documentary series that premiered on Netflix in 2021. The first episode, “The Foundation,” provides an overview of the origins of Hip Hop and its impact on the culture, society, and politics.

The episode is well-produced, with a mix of archival footage, interviews with Hip Hop legends, and commentary from experts in the field. It covers the early days of Hip Hop in the Bronx, New York, tracing its roots back to African American communities in the South Bronx during the 1970s. The episode explores the cultural and social impact of Hip Hop, highlighting the role it played in giving voice to marginalized communities and the way it has been used as a tool for political and social change.

The episode features interviews with Hip Hop pioneers such as Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, and Kool Herc, who provide insight into the early days of the genre and the way it has evolved over time. Additionally, the episode features commentary from experts and cultural critics who provide context and analysis of the significance of Hip Hop in the larger cultural and political landscape.

It’s definitely worth watching for fans of Hip Hop and anyone interested in understanding the genre’s significance in shaping modern culture and politics.

Triple 9 2016 Film 11.05pm Channel 4

“Triple 9” is a crime thriller directed by John Hillcoat and starring an ensemble cast including Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins Jr., and Woody Harrelson.

The film follows a group of corrupt police officers who are coerced by a powerful Russian crime lord to pull off a heist by creating a “999” situation, police code for “officer down”, as a distraction. The plot is complex, with multiple characters and subplots, but it is well-written and keeps the audience engaged throughout the film.

The acting performances are all strong, with stand-out performances from Affleck, Ejiofor, and Harrelson, but the film is elevated by the direction of John Hillcoat who creates a tense and gritty atmosphere that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. The film also features some intense action sequences that keep the audience engaged.

It’s not for the faint-hearted, as it is violent, but it’s definitely worth watching for fans of the genre.

Sunday 22nd of January 2023

Westwood: Punk: Icon: Activist 9.15pm BBC4

Dame Vivienne Westwood in 2008

This 2018 documentary film directed by Lorna Tucker that explores the life and career of British fashion designer and activist Vivienne Westwood. The film delves into Westwood’s early days as a punk designer in the 1970s, her rise to fame in the 1980s, and her continued influence on fashion and activism today.

The film is well-made, with a mix of archival footage, interviews with Westwood and her friends and colleagues, and commentary from experts in the field. It provides a comprehensive look at Westwood’s life and work, highlighting her unique vision, creativity, and boldness as a designer. The film also explores her political activism, her support for environmental and social causes, and her influence on the fashion industry.

Westwood herself is a charismatic and fascinating subject, and the film does an excellent job of capturing her energy and passion. Additionally, the film features interviews with some of the biggest names in fashion and culture, providing a diverse and interesting perspective on Westwood’s impact.

During her lifetime I often saw Westwood hanging out at the V&A museum in South Kensington. She drew inspiration from the designs there. My mother, who had been a seamstress had brief conversations with her there. Westwood was a fascinating woman.

Overall, “Westwood: Punk: Icon: Activist” is a well-made and informative documentary that provides a comprehensive look at the life and work of one of the most influential figures in the world of fashion. It’s definitely worth watching for fans of fashion and anyone interested in the story of one of the most iconic and inspiring figures of our time.

Vivienne Westwood Talks to Kirsty Walk 10.35pm BBC4

This 2021 documentary film features an interview between fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and journalist Kirsty Walk. The film is a conversation between the two women that covers a wide range of topics, including Westwood’s background, her rise to fame, her political activism and her views on the fashion industry.

The film is well-structured, with Walk guiding Westwood through her life and career, and allowing her to speak at length about her experiences and her views. Westwood is a charismatic and passionate speaker, and the film does an excellent job of capturing her energy and her unique perspective on the fashion industry. Her views on the environmental impact of the fashion industry, her political activism and her artistic vision are also covered in depth.

The film also features archival footage and photographs, giving viewers a glimpse into Westwood’s past and the evolution of her designs. Walk, as the interviewer, is a skilled journalist and she guides the conversation with Westwood with tact and professionalism.

Walter Presents: Grow 11.20pm Channel 4

“Grow” is a Danish crime drama series screened on Channel 4 and can be streamed on More4. The show follows the story of two brothers, Adam and Jakob, who are caught up in the world of organized crime in Denmark. Adam, a junior analyst at a successful brokerage, inherits his father’s criminal empire after his death, while Jakob, a young police officer, is recruited to a task force that aims to take down the trafficking gangs and reduce crime in the country. The show explores the themes of family, power, and the cost of ambition, and features strong performances by the cast, particularly Andreas Jessen and Lars Mikkelsen. “Grow” is a well-made crime drama that is sure to be enjoyed by fans of nordic noir.

Monday 23rd of January 2023

Kramer vs Kramer 4.50pm Great!movies

“Kramer vs Kramer” is a powerful and emotional drama film directed by Robert Benton and released in 1979. The film stars Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep as a couple, Ted and Joanna Kramer, going through a bitter divorce and custody battle for their young son. The performances of both Hoffman and Streep are outstanding, and their chemistry on screen is electric. The film does an excellent job of exploring the complexities of marriage and the impact of divorce on both parents and children. It also deals with the themes of gender roles, parenting, and the balance between career and family. “Kramer vs Kramer” won numerous awards including five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.

The Boat Smugglers 8pm BBC RADIO 4

Sue Mitchell joins forces with Rob Lawrie, a former British soldier and aid worker, to uncover the process of obtaining boats for migrant Channel crossings and the significant profits being generated from it.

The US and the Holocaust (3 of 3) 10pm BBC4

We should have mentioned this series in Culture Vulture previously as we are now on the final episode. Previous episodes can be found at the BBC websites though. It’s a 2019 documentary series directed by Richard Trank that explores America’s response to the Holocaust during World War Two.

The series has a mix of archival footage, interviews with experts in the field, and testimony from Holocaust survivors. It provides a comprehensive look at America’s response to the Holocaust, highlighting the country’s political and social climate during the time and the factors that influenced the US government’s decisions. The series also explores the role of American Jewish organizations and the media in shaping public opinion and the US government’s response to the Holocaust.

This episode deals with how the first reports of the mass killings reached the US.

The series is both informative and emotional, providing a detailed look at the Holocaust from the perspective of the United States. It is a powerful reminder of the atrocities of the Holocaust and the importance of bearing witness to the past. The series also provides a sobering reminder of the dangers of extremism, hate and anti-Semitism, and the importance of speaking out against them.

Tuesday 24th of Juanuary 2023

Super/Natural 8pm National Geographic (first of six)

An exploration of super senses from the natural world. This first episode looks at alliances between different species who collaborate to find food, flee foes and produce the next generation.

Denial 11,15on BBC2

“Denial” is a 2016 drama film directed by Mick Jackson and based on the true story of Deborah Lipstadt’s legal battle against Holocaust denier David Irving. The film stars Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt, Tom Wilkinson as her lawyer, and Timothy Spall as Irving.

The performances are strong, particularly Weisz, who delivers a powerful and emotional portrayal of Lipstadt’s struggle. The film skillfully explores the themes of Holocaust denial and the importance of historical truth. It also delves into the personal and emotional toll that Lipstadt’s legal battle takes on her.

The film’s direction and pacing are also noteworthy, as it keeps the audience engaged throughout the legal proceedings, making it both informative and suspenseful.

Wednesday 25th of January 2023

Angelou on Burns 10pm BBC4

This documentary film that explores the relationship between Maya Angelou, the famous African American author and poet, and Robert Burns, the famous Scottish poet. The film delves into the impact Burns had on Angelou’s life, particularly during her childhood, when she was raped and stopped speaking for five years after her community killed the perpetrator. She believed her naming of him had caused his death.

The film shows how reading Burns’ poetry helped Angelou regain her voice and heal from her trauma, and how his poetry had a profound impact on her life and work. The film is a love story, showcasing Angelou’s admiration and affection for Burns and his poetry, as well as her own life and legacy. It features Maya Angelou as the main subject and star of the film, and it captures her love for Burns through her storytelling and her emotional reactions to recitations of his poetry.

Beyond Burns 10.50pm

Directed by Jackie Kay this documentary explores the life and legacy of Robert Burns and the other overlooked poets of Scotland. The film delves into the work of poets who have influenced Jackie Kay, such as Robert Fergusson, Margaret Tait, Liz Lochhead, and Norman MacCaig, and it features interviews with writers such as Val McDermid, James Robertson, Hannah Lavery, and Kevin MacNeil. The film also explores the themes of identity and belonging that have been at the heart of Kay’s work, and it candidly shares some of the personal stories and events from her past that have shaped her life and work. The film highlights the richness of Scottish poetry, the nation’s poets and their work, and its breathtaking landscapes.

Thursday 26th of January 2023

Baloon (2018 film) 12.05am BBC4

“Balloon” is a 2018 German historical thriller film directed by Michael Herbig. The film tells the story of two families who attempt to escape East Germany in a homemade hot air balloon in 1979.

The film is well-made and engaging, with a strong cast that delivers powerful performances. The story is tense and suspenseful, keeping viewers on the edge of their seats throughout the film. The film is also visually striking, with beautiful shots of the East German landscape and the hot air balloon in flight. The attention to detail and the use of accurate historical costumes and settings are also noteworthy, they give the film a sense of authenticity, making the audience feel like they are in the middle of the action.

The film also deals with the themes of freedom, family and the power of hope and determination. It’s a heartwarming and emotional story that will resonate with audiences of all ages.

Friday 27th of January 2023

Is Psychiatry Working? 11am BBC RADIO 4

As the demand for mental health treatment increases worldwide, what is known about the available treatments? How were they developed, how reliable is the evidence that they work, and what is the future outlook for mental health care?

Selections by Pat Harrington

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Picture Credit: Mattia Passeri, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Culture Vulture: our guide to the week’s culture (14-20 January 2023)

Welcome to Culture Vulture our guide to the week’s entertainment. Highlights this week include Soundtracks:songs that defined history, Ken Loach: This Cultural Life and the film Collateral. Selections are by Pat Harrington. Music is from Tim Bragg. Music is from Tim Bragg. Tim is a multi-instrumentalist & singer-songwriter. You can hear his songs here: – or any streaming service or on YouTube.

You can listen to a podcast of this on YouTube here

Saturday 14 January 2023

Project Nim 11.30am Sky Documentaries

Powerful documentary about a chimpanzee taken from its mother at birth and taught to communicate with sign language.

Six by Sondheim 2pm Sky Documentaries

Emmy-nominated documentary lifting the lid on the prolific life and career of the late composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

Sunday 15 January 2023

Trainspotting 11.30pm C4

Renton, heavily involved in Edinburgh’s drug culture, attempts to leave it behind and overcome addiction despite the temptation and pressure from his peers.

A review is available on our website and YouTube channel.

Monday 16 January 2023

Hadrian 8.25pm PBS America

Historian Dan Snow follows in the footsteps of Emperor Hadrian and reveals an enigmatic and powerful ruler.

Tuesday 17 January 2023

Soundtracks::songs that defined history 12.15 AM Sky Arts

This first episode explores the music tied to iconic moments in history begins with a look at the civil rights movement.

Wednesday 18 January 2023

Ken Loach: This Cultural Life 10pm BBC4

Ken Loach is a renowned British film-maker known for his politically charged works that address issues of social justice, freedom, and power. He has won the Palme d’Or award at Cannes twice – once for “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” in 2006 and again for “I, Daniel Blake” in 2016. The latter is a contemporary British story that highlights the challenges of unemployment and poverty. He speaks with John Wilson about the events in his life that have shaped his creativity, including his childhood, his love for Czech cinema, and his influential television films such as “Up the Junction” and “Cathy Come Home” which tackled important social issues and reached a wide audience. Loach also cites the real-life stories of ordinary people as a major influence on his work.

Ken Loach’s Up the Junction follows.

Up The Junction (1968 film) 10.30pm BBC4

Up the Junction” is a powerful and thought-provoking TV play that explores the lives of working-class people living in London’s gritty South Bank. The performances are strong across the board, with the lead actors delivering nuanced and authentic portrayals of their characters. The writing is sharp and insightful, delving into the struggles and triumphs of everyday life with a keen sense of realism. The cinematography is also noteworthy, capturing the gritty and industrial setting with a sense of gritty realism. Overall, Up the Junction is a must-watch for fans of gritty and realistic drama.

Croupier (1998 film) 11.20pm Film4

Croupier is a sleek and stylish thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. The film, directed by Mike Hodges and starring Clive Owen, tells the story of a struggling writer who takes a job as a croupier at a casino in order to research a novel. As he becomes more entrenched in the world of gambling, he finds himself drawn into a web of deceit and corruption.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is its atmosphere – the neon-lit casino, the smooth-talking patrons, and the high-stakes action all come together to create a sense of danger and intrigue. Clive Owen gives a magnetic performance as the croupier, a man torn between his desire for success and his abhorrence of the immoral world he’s become a part of.

The film also has a good amount of twists and turns that keep you guessing and make you question the intentions of the characters. The ending is satisfyingly unpredictable.

Overall, Croupier is a smart and well-crafted film that is sure to keep audiences engaged. If you’re a fan of crime thrillers, it’s definitely worth checking out.”

Thursday 19 January 2023

Collateral (2004 film) 10pm ITV4

Collateral is a tense and gripping crime thriller that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats from start to finish. The film, directed by Michael Mann, stars Tom Cruise as a ruthless hitman who commandeers a taxi driven by Jamie Foxx’s character, forcing him to be his unwitting accomplice on a night of murders.

Cruise gives a chilling performance as the killer, perfectly capturing the character’s cold and calculated nature. Foxx also delivers a strong performance as the taxi driver, who is forced to confront his own morality and survival instincts as the night progresses. The two actors have great chemistry together, creating a sense of unease and tension throughout the film.

The film also boasts stunning visuals, with Mann’s signature use of neon lighting and long tracking shots adding to the film’s atmosphere. The action sequences are also well-executed, keeping the pacing of the film fast and thrilling.

Overall, Collateral is a well-crafted crime thriller that is sure to keep audiences on the edge of their seats. With strong performances from Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx, as well as visually striking cinematography, it’s a film that’s not to be missed.”

“Love and Mercy is a biographical drama film that tells the story of Brian Wilson, the co-founder and lead songwriter of The Beach Boys. The film is directed by Bill Pohlad and stars John Cusack and Paul Dano as Brian Wilson in different stages of his life.

The film does a great job of capturing the creative genius of Brian Wilson, as well as the struggles he faced with mental health and the manipulation he faced from his therapist Dr. Eugene Landy, played by Paul Giamatti. Cusack and Dano both give powerful performances, capturing the nuances of Wilson’s character and the turmoil he faced throughout his life.

The film also features an excellent soundtrack with some of The Beach Boys’ most iconic songs, which add to the emotional impact of the film. The film also does a great job of depicting the 1960s and the 1970s, which are integral to the story of the band and Brian’s life.

Love and Mercy is a well-made biographical drama that tells a powerful and emotional story of one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. The film is a must-watch for fans of The Beach Boys, as well as anyone interested in the struggles of mental health and the impact of therapy.”

“The Guard is a dark comedy crime film directed by John Michael McDonagh and starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle. The film tells the story of an unorthodox Irish police officer (Gleeson) who teams up with a straight-laced FBI agent (Cheadle) to take down a drug trafficking ring operating in his small town.

The film is a masterful blend of comedy and drama, with Gleeson delivering a standout performance as the irreverent and often politically incorrect police officer. His chemistry with Cheadle is also excellent, creating a dynamic that is both humorous and tense. The supporting cast is also solid, with Liam Cunningham and David Wilmot delivering memorable performances.

The film’s script is sharp and well-written, with clever dialogue and unexpected twists that keep the audience engaged. The film’s direction is also noteworthy, with McDonagh masterfully balancing the film’s comedic and dramatic elements.

The Guard is a unique and entertaining crime film that is sure to appeal to fans of both comedy and crime genres. With a great cast led by Brendan Gleeson, a clever script, and excellent direction, it’s a film that is not to be missed.

Friday 20 January 2023

Dreamland (2019 Film) 9pm Film4

Dreamland is a visually striking film. The film features a talented cast, with Margot Robbie, an Academy Award nominee for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, delivering a fantastic performance. The story is set during the Great Depression and follows Eugene Evans (Finn Cole, Peaky Blinders) as he discovers a wounded, fugitive bank robber (Robbie) and becomes torn between turning her in for the bounty and his growing attraction to her. The film also stars Travis Fimmel (Warcraft), Kerry Condon (Avengers: Infinity War), Darby Camp (Big Little Lies), and Lola Kirke (American Made) and has been praised as a “beautifully shot coming-of-age story” (Indiewire). The film’s lush cinematography and authentic score add to the immersion in the gritty and glamorous world of jazz music. However, the plot may be a bit complex at times and the pacing may not be as fast as some viewers prefer.

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Culture Vulture: Our Guide to the week’s entertainment (7th to 13th of January 2023)

Highlights of Culture Vulture this week include: The Medici: Bankers, Gangsters, Popes, Clubland, a radio series exploring the history of working men’s clubs in Britain and “James Arthur: Out of Our Minds,” a documentary following the singer-songwriter as he discusses his struggles with mental health. You can listen to this as a YouTube podcast here.

Saturday 7th of January 2023

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) 9pm Channel 4

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is a biographical film released in 2018 that tells the story of the iconic rock band Queen and their lead singer Freddie Mercury (played by Rami Malek). The film follows the band’s rise to fame and Mercury’s personal struggles with his identity and sexuality, culminating in their legendary performance at Live Aid in 1985.

One of the standout elements of the film is Malek’s performance as Mercury. He perfectly captures the energy and charisma of the rock star, delivering an impressive vocal performance as well. The film also does a good job of recreating some of Queen’s most memorable concerts and music videos, which will likely be a treat for fans of the band.

The film’s direction, by Bryan Singer, is solid and the cinematography is impressive, with some beautiful shots of the concerts and landscapes. The supporting cast, which includes Gwilym Lee as Brian May, Ben Hardy as Roger Taylor, and Joseph Mazzello as John Deacon, also deliver strong performances.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is a well-made and entertaining film that will likely appeal to fans of Queen and biographical films. While it may not be a perfect depiction of the band and its members, it is a tribute to their music and legacy that is worth checking out.

Can Psychedelics Cure? 10.50pm PBS America

Hallucinogenic drugs, commonly referred to as psychedelics, have a long history of use in human societies. These substances, which can be either natural or synthetic, have the ability to alter a person’s perception and consciousness. In recent years, scientists have been conducting research on the potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelics for a variety of mental health conditions. This includes the use of psychedelics to treat addiction, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

One of the most well-known psychedelics is LSD, which was first synthesized in 1938. In the 1950s and 60s, LSD was studied for its potential use in psychotherapy and as a treatment for alcoholism. However, the drug became heavily associated with the counterculture movement of the time and was eventually banned in the United States in 1968. More recently, LSD has been the subject of renewed interest for its potential use in the treatment of depression and anxiety.

Another psychedelic substance that has garnered attention for its potential therapeutic benefits is psilocybin, a naturally occurring compound found in certain types of mushrooms. Psilocybin has been shown to be effective in the treatment of depression and anxiety, as well as addiction and PTSD. Research is ongoing to better understand the mechanisms behind psilocybin’s therapeutic effects and to determine the optimal dosing and administration of the drug.

It is important to note that while these substances may have the potential to offer significant clinical benefits, they should be used with caution and under the supervision of trained medical professionals. Further research is needed to fully understand the risks and benefits of psychedelics and to determine the appropriate use of these substances in a clinical setting.

Sunday 8th of January 2023

The Medici: Bankers, Gangsters, Popes 3pm BBC RADIO 4

In the first episode of “The Medici: Bankers, Gangsters, Popes,” we follow the story of Cosimo de’ Medici as he inherits his father’s bank and rises to become the wealthiest man in Europe. Through his intelligence and business acumen, he becomes a patron of the arts, but he must also contend with the resistance of the Albizzi family and other ruling families of Florence who do not see him as their equal. Starring Patrick Baladi and Sirine Saba, and directed by Mike Walker, this episode sets the stage for the complex and tumultuous tale of the Medici dynasty.

Spector (episode one of four) 9pm Sky Documentaries

The series traces Spector’s rise to fame as the mastermind behind the “Wall of Sound” production style, which revolutionized the music industry in the 1960s.

One of the standout aspects of the documentary is its use of archival footage and interviews with Spector’s friends, colleagues, and family members. These provide a comprehensive look at Spector’s early life and his experiences working in the music industry. The film also delves into Spector’s later years, including his tumultuous personal life and his eventual arrest and conviction for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson.

Throughout the film, director Vikram Jayanti presents a nuanced and complex portrayal of Spector, exploring both his artistic genius and his deeply flawed personality. The film does not shy away from the dark aspects of Spector’s life. Bleak but compelling viewing.

Monday 9th of January 2023

Clubland (episode one of five) 9:45am BBC RADIO 4 FM

Pete Brown explores the history of working men’s clubs in Britain in this book. From the founding of the movement by teetotal social reformer Reverend Henry Solly, to the mid-century heyday when over 7 million Brits were members, the book delves into the role these clubs played in the social lives of Brits, offering entertainment and a sense of community. These clubs were often the venues for performances by famous musicians and comedians, and served as a vehicle for social mobility and self-improvement for working people. The book also examines the clubs’ impact on class and community identity, and their place as informal, community-owned precursors to the welfare state.

Other episodes follow daily.

KGB: The Sword and The Shield: Dserschinski & Co. 8.30pm PBS America Part 1 of 3.

Set up as a ‘temporary’ measure by Lenin, millions of Soviet citizens would die at the hands of the secret services as internal dissent, real or imaginary, was crushed. Outside the Soviet Union, however, they were busy infiltrating German High Command, British Intelligence and America’s Manhattan Project, constructing the world’s first atomic bomb. Soon, Moscow had the means to build one of their own. The Cold War and the philosophy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) had begun in earnest.

James Arthur: Out Of Our Minds 10.40pm BBC1

In this documentary, singer-songwriter James Arthur delves into the underlying causes of his mental health struggles, including anxiety, depression, and severe panic attacks. Throughout his career, which began with his win on the X Factor in 2012, James has faced both great success and difficult challenges, including considering suicide at his lowest points. At 34 years old, he is considering whether to return to the use of antidepressants in order to find some sense of peace. Follow James on his journey as he seeks ways to manage his mental health and move forward in his life and career.

Margaret Atwood: A Word After a Word After a Word is Power 1.35 (late) Sky Arts

The renowned author discusses the power of language and how it has shaped her own work and the world at large. Through a series of conversations with fellow writers, Atwood delves into the ways in which language can be used to manipulate and control, as well as the importance of truth and accuracy in communication.

Atwood’s insights and observations are thought-provoking and engaging, making for a captivating watch for fans of her writing and anyone interested in the role of language in society. The documentary also offers a unique look into Atwood’s personal life and creative process, making it a must-see for fans of the author. A fascinating and educational exploration of the power of language and its impact on the world.

Tuesday 10th of January 2023

KGB – The Sword and the Shield: Berija & Co. Part 2 of 3. 8.30pm PBS America Part 1 of 3.

By August 1949, at least five years earlier than expected, the USSR became the world’s second superpower, thanks to its spies who had stolen America’s atomic secrets. But by March 1953, Stalin is dead and the KGB chief, Beria, is executed later the same year. Nikita Kruschev tries to reduce the power of the security service, splitting it into several sections… but it doesn’t last, and soon the KGB is back. Abroad, it has pulled off its greatest-ever recruitment coup – a mole at the very top of the CIA.

Wednesday 11th January 2023

KGB – The Sword and the Shield: Putin & Co. Part 3 of 3. 8.30pm PBS America Part 1 of 3.

Coup d’etats, assassinations, sex scandals, radioactive poisoning… it’s the stuff of a Bond movie. But in today’s Russia, it’s all very real. Under Vladimir Putin, the KGB (or FSB, as it’s now called) rules Russia with an iron rod directly from the Kremlin. To challenge its authority, even from apparent safety abroad, means risking your life. The KGB has even managed to outlive communism itself. Today, Russia is no longer a State with a Security Service: instead, the Security Service has a State. Part 3 of 3.

The Old Devils 10.30pm (1 of 3 with other episodes following) BBC4

Dramatisation of Kingsley Amis’s novel follows Alun Weaver, a successful but flawed writer who returns to his hometown in Wales and reconnects with a group of old friends. As he spends more time with the group, including his former friend Peter Thomas, Alun begins to engage in infidelity with the wives and girlfriends of his friends. The drama stars John Stride and James Grout and explores themes of jealousy, betrayal, and the consequences of one’s actions.

Thursday 12th January 2023

Witness (1985) 9pm BBC4

“Witness” is a crime thriller film released in 1985 that tells the story of John Book, a detective played by Harrison Ford, who is assigned to protect a young Amish boy named Samuel (Lukas Haas) after he witnesses a murder in Philadelphia. Book takes Samuel and his mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis) back to their Amish community in rural Pennsylvania to keep them safe.

As Book gets to know the peaceful Amish way of life, he begins to question his own values and priorities. The film explores the contrast between the violence and corruption of city life and the simplicity and forgiveness of Amish culture. The performances by Ford and McGillis are strong, and the film features beautiful cinematography and a poignant score. “Witness” is a thought-provoking and compelling film that addresses themes of faith, family, and redemption. It’s a personal favourite of mine.

Colosseum 9pm Sky History

“Colosseum” is a documentary series that aired on Sky History in 2021. The series explores the history and cultural significance of the Colosseum, one of the most iconic landmarks in Rome and a symbol of the Roman Empire. The series takes a deep dive into the construction, design, and purpose of the Colosseum, as well as its enduring legacy and influence on modern culture.

One of the standout features of “Colosseum” is its use of stunning visual effects and immersive 3D animation, which brings the ancient structure to life in a way that is both informative and visually stunning. The series also features interviews with experts in the field of Roman history, who provide insight and context into the significance of the Colosseum and its place in the broader narrative of Roman civilization.

This episode deals with Emperor Titus and his plan for 100 days of games to celebrate the Colosseum’s completion in 80 AD.

Friday 13th January 2023

Alexander the Great 9pm Sky History

Alexander the Great is portrayed as a complex and ambitious leader. This follows Alexander’s rise to power, as he expands his father’s kingdom from Macedonia to Egypt and India, becoming one of the greatest warfare strategists in history. Along the way, he encounters power struggles and excess, and is open to the foreign cultures of the lands he conquers. The film presents a nuanced portrayal of Alexander, highlighting both his strengths and flaws as a leader. Overall, “Alexander the Great” is a captivating and lavish depiction of one of history’s most dazzling personalities.

Episode Notes

Thanks for listening to our CultureVulture weekly podcast. Selections and previews were written by the Editor of Counter Culture, Patrick Harrington. Don’t miss next week’s episode. Our music is by Tim Bragg. Tim is a multi-instrumentalist & singer-songwriter. You can hear his songs here or any streaming service or on YouTube.

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Review of Muhammad Ali, the Eight-Part BBC television series, currently streaming on the BBC iPlayer

Big George and the Nature of Religious Conversion

When the then twenty-nine-year-old former World Heavyweight Champion George Foreman was laid out on the treatment table in his dressing following a shock twelve round points defeat by Jimmy Young (not that one), in March 1977, exhausted, suffering from heatstroke and feeling himself close to death, he had a full-blown spiritual experience, complete with visions of Jesus and the voice of God Himself. From that moment on, he decided to dedicate himself to the spreading of the Christian message, first on street corners, and then by forming his own church, the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, in is hometown of Houston, Texas. Within this church he performed the role of both ordained pastor and chief fundraiser. It would be another decade before, and at around three-stone over his old fighting weight, he returned to the ring. When he did so, beginning with small-hall fights against what are known in the boxing world as ‘trial horses,’ code for fighters who can be relied upon to put up a decent performance but almost invariably lose when facing decent opposition, he stated three clear goals for his unlikely comeback: 1) to continue to raise money for his church; 2) to defeat Mike Tyson, then not yet twenty-one yea’s old and at his seemingly invincible boxing peak, having just won the World Boxing Council version of the Heavyweight title from Trevor Berbick; and 3) to regain the Heavyweight Championship he’d lost to Muhammad Ali in the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle,’ in Kinshasa, Zaire, now the Republic of Congo, back in November 1974.

The first of these tasks was always going to be relatively easy. George still had his name, and was always going to make more money bowling over mediocre opposition than he would by passing around the begging bowl following his sermon in his little Houston church every Sunday morning. But defeat Mike Tyson? Regain the championship? Not even the most hopeful of long-shot-gamblers would have bet serious money on either of those things occurring…

Well, after his ten-year retirement, George continued to compete between March 1987 and November 1997, a second career lasting more than a decade, during which he scored a total of thirty wins from thirty-three fights, twenty-six inside the distance, and made enough money to build a whole empire of the kind of Super-Churches which would have made Billy Graham feel like he was slumming it. So, first task accomplished… But he never did get to fight Mike Tyson.

The story goes that as an up-and-coming, powerfully built but problematic teenager Tyson would spend his downtime between training and fighting watching old fight films with his manger Jim Jacobs, and his legendary trainer Cus D’Amato. Jacobs, in these days before VHS tapes were common, and when nobody had yet begun to compile old fights onto them in any case, was said to own perhaps the most extensive collection of reel-to-reel old fight tapes in the world. One of the fights Jim and Cus would regularly ask the young Tyson to watch and study was footage of Foreman’s six-knockdown, two round demolition of the great Joe Frazier in Kingston, Jamaica in January 1973. By this time, of course, circa early to mid ‘80’s Foreman had been long retired and the likelihood of him ever squaring off with the prodigious Tyson was unlikely to say the least. Nevertheless, as George once again pummelled Smokin’ Joe to the canvas up there on the flickering white screen in a darkened room, old Cus, who sadly died a year before Tyson beat Berbick for the title, would nod sagely, turn to Mike, and say ‘Of course, we’d never have taken a fight with Foreman, ‘cos you’d never have got past his jab…’ This advice seems to have stuck with Tyson, and he never showed the slightest interest in fighting Foreman even when Big George was in his forties and the true lineal heavyweight champion. Apparently, when the legendary promoter Don King tried to make the fight in the spring of 1990, after Tyson had suffered his first loss to James’ ‘Buster’ Douglas in Tokyo in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history, and Foreman the biggest win of his comeback so far, a two-round knockout of one-time Great White Hope Gerry Cooney, Iron Mike, despite being offered a purse in the region of ten million dollars, is said to have screamed at King ‘Look, if you love George so much, you fuckin’ fight him…The man’s a monster!’

But although he never did get to fight Tyson (and for the record, I think old Cus was right, that even an aged Foreman would have kayoed Tyson within three rounds), he did, in November 1994, with a tenth-round knockout of Michael Moorer, regain the Heavyweight Championship of the World at the astonishingly advanced age of forty-five, and a full twenty years since he’d lost it to Ali.

As far as comeback goal-setting goes, as Meatloaf long ago pointed out, ‘two out of three ain’t bad…’

Those of you who’ve been interested enough to have read thus far will probably be wondering why, in what is apparently a review of a BBC documentary series about Muhammad Ali, I’ve spent the first nine hundred words or so talking about George Foreman. Well, I do have a reason, and here it is.

After initially coming up with a litany of excuses for his Kinshasa defeat by Ali , including being ‘drugged’ and given a ‘fast count,’ Foreman, good Christian that he became, learnt humility, made his peace with Muhammad, admitted he fought the wrong fight through over-confidence after too many quick wins (he hadn’t been taken beyond the second round by anyone for over three years at the time of the Ali fight), and now says that he is simply ‘proud’ to have been part of the amazing story of Muhammad Ali. But, and this is the main point here, he also compared his religious experience following the Young fight, with Ali’s embracing of the Nation of Islam (NOI from now on, though were more usually called them the Black Muslims back in in the sixties and seventies.) George’s assertion was that he didn’t believe Ali ever had aa spiritual/religious experience comparable to his own, that Ali’s decision to involve himself with a militant, segregationist, and frankly metaphysically crackpot form of Islam (though he began to quietly embrace more conventional forms of the religion from the time of the death of NOI leader/’Messenger’ Elijah Muhammad in 1975 onwards, before formally and publicly declaring himself closest to the Sufi tradition in 2005) was essentially a political rather than a religious decision, a response to the racism he saw around him in America in the 1960’s, and a riposte to what he saw as the inadequacies of the mainstream, integrationist civil rights movement as led by Dr. Martin Luther King and his co. thinkers. Foreman himself of course rejected Black Nationalism of all kinds. After he won his Olympic Heavyweight Gold Medal in 1968, whilst other black American athletes gave the clench fist salute on the podium, George showed his patriotism by walking around the ring waving a small Stars and Stripes flag.

The Importance of Being Ali

Although we can’t ever know for sure, my own research on the subject suggests that this observation of Foreman is true. Even if it isn’t, the then Cassius Clay’s embracing of the NOI is of vital importance in understanding the life of Muhammad Ali, in particularly how he became such a massive, global cultural icon. Had he remained ‘Cassius Clay,’ a name of which he’d once been proud (‘don’t I sound like a Roman Gladiator?’) but which rejected as his ‘slave name’, officially the day after his first heavyweight championship victory over Sonny Liston in February 1964, although it seems he’d been on the periphery of the NOI for around three years prior to that. Indeed, research showed that his Great-Great-Grandfather had indeed been a slave owned by a man named Clay, though his original name and point of origin in Africa are unknown. First, and briefly, Clay became ‘Cassius X’, largely in homage to his then friend and mentor Malcolm X, before Elijah Muhammad renamed him Muhammad Ali (literally ‘Beloved of God’, or sometimes translated as ‘Worthy of Praise’ and ‘Most High’). Had he stuck with the consortium of eleven white Kentucky businessmen who signed him following his victory at Light-Heavyweight in the 1960 Rome Olympics, then he’d still have become a great champion. He’d likely have reigned for close to a decade, maybe beat Joe Louis’ record of twenty five successful title defences. He’d have had big fights at Madison Square Garden, the Inglewood Forum in LA, stadium appearances at the likes of the New York Yankee stadium. Unlike Louis and most American heavyweight champions, he may even have defended his title in Europe from time to time.

But he definitely wouldn’t have become what he was to become. Without the influence of the NOI, he would have accepted his draft into the US army and no doubt spent his years of service not fighting the Vietcong in the jungles of South-East Asia but, like Louis during the Second World War, entertaining the troops by boxing exhibitions at army camps around the world. He may have made it to ‘Nam, but it would’ve been more likely in order to clown around on stage with Bob Hope than to wield a rifle in the service of American Imperialism.

Refusing the draft made ‘Ali’ become something ‘Clay’ could never have been, a controversial world-figure, both loved and hated, a spokesperson for Black America and the scourge of what his leader/messenger referred to as the ‘White Devils’ who’d kept his people in servitude long after slavery had formally ended.

He wouldn’t have toured Africa soon after beating Liston for the title. He would never have fought in the likes of Zaire, Manilla, Kuala Lumpa, because heavyweight championship fights weren’t staged in such places. He wouldn’t have had illiterate black Africans who’d perhaps never even seen him fight on television, chanting his name: ‘Ali, Bomaye!’, ‘Ali, kill him’ as they shouted in Zaire, often joining him in the searing heat on his morning road-runs as they did so, treating him as a returning hero whilst Foreman brooded in his training camp and complained about the heat and flies.

No, Muhammad Ali became a true champion of the whole would, from the Americas, to Europe, to Africa and Asia in a manner that could never have happened had he remained plain old Cassius Clay.

The three-and-a-half-year ban from boxing, during which the American government took away his passport so that he couldn’t even fight abroad (and those who claim Britain is and always has been a ‘racist’ country should be reminded that we would have welcomed him here with open arms in the late sixties, as would much of Europe, had he been free to travel); and the threat of a five year prison sentence that fortunately he never had to serve, added extra layers to his legend, and made the achievements of his comeback possible and all the more extraordinary.

The BBC series

The documentary series is particularly strong on the cultural/political/religious/spiritual dimensions of the Ali story, more so than on the strictly boxing aspects, and it’s all the better for that. After all, if you’re merely a casual boxing fan who wishes to relive those great Ali fights, or perhaps even to experience them for the first time, then they’re all available to you free of charge on You Tube. You even get a choice of watching the British television coverage with the Harry Carpenter commentaries I remember so well from my childhood and youth (‘Oh my God, he’s won the title back at thirty-two!’), or the American coverage, often featuring the great Howard Cosell, which weren’t a part of my own cultural landscape and are all the more interesting for that.
This Ali documentary series offers something different, something more, something better and of greater importance, demonstrating that Ali was bigger than boxing, as Ali himself often stated.
Boxing in my Blood

I’d like to say a little about my own history with Ali, about how his life and career were to a large extent intertwined with that of my own. I come from a boxing family. My dad told me the story of how, during the Second World War, in trouble again for arriving back late and rather the worse for wear after a spot of Rest and Relaxation, away from camp, he was given a choice by his commanding officer: ‘It’s either thirty days in the glass house, or we need a Bantamweight for the boxing team. You look about the right size, so…? Unsurprisingly, my dad chose boxing. He also told me that after the war, already in his mid-twenties and preparing to marry, he wrote to the Boxing News asking if they felt he’d left it too late to consider a professional career. They replied that, if he was prepared to put in the training, it wasn’t necessarily too late. But it never happened, and it’s not something my dad ever seemed to have regretted, not publicly at least.

But I do have wonderful memories of us watching the big fights together, almost always on delayed recording the night after the fight in those days, though occasionally proceeded by live, as-it-happened radio commentary in the early hours of the morning. As far as Ali goes, I can go as far back to his first comeback fight following his enforced lay-off, against Jerry Quarry in October 1970, when he won on cuts in the third round, followed by all those memorable Ali fights/occasions of the seventies, Ali v Frazier 1-3, Ali v Norton, also 1-3, v Ernie Shavers, v Ron Lyle, v British contenders Joe Bugner and Richard Dunn, and most of all that incredible victory over Foreman in Zaire, when Ali produced what I still regard as the greatest display of improvised sporting genius at any sport, ever.

We’d look forward to these fights for ages, read all the newspaper and magazine build-up and preview articles, and make little bets on the likely result. I’m still proud that, as a precocious twelve-year old boxing-fanatic who’d been subscribing to the Boxing News weekly since I was ten, I took £2.50 from my dad by correctly predicting that Ali would defeat the seemingly indestructible Foreman. How clearly I remember my dad coming into my bedroom a few hours earlier after the fight had ended, transistor radio playing in his hands as Ali held court for the world’s press, my dad saying, understated and happy to have been proven wrong, ‘Ali knocked him out in the eighth.’

All good things come to an end of course, and I, with my best friend then and now, Michael Anderson, was on the overnight train from Grimsby to Aberdeen, en route to Lerwick, Shetland via the St Clare ferry, on the night of October the 2nd 1980, annoying fellow travellers by fiddling with my little Elvis Presley transistor radio, attempting to find commentary, or at least news of, what turned out to be Ali’s disastrous attempt to regain the Heavyweight title for an unprecedented fourth time against the underrated Larry Holmes; and we watched a recording of that sad, sad fight on the boat the next night, before the two of us strapped on our guitars and took to the stage for a drunken and shambolic unscheduled live performance…

And fourteen months later, now back in Grimsby, not long after becoming a member of Militant and the Labour Party Young Socialists, I skived off our usual Saturday lunch time town centre paper sale in order to watch the delayed recording of what turned out to be Ali’s very last professional fight, a brave but ultimately futile ten round points defeat against the afore-mentioned Trevor Berbick in the largely undramatic ‘Drama in the Bahamas’.

And, around and a decade after that, I had the pleasure of seeing the great man himself, at St. Ann’s square in Manchester, a shadow of his former self, but still a magical, magnetic presence. I was even moved to write a poem about the occasion soon afterwards, for a creative writing course,l, a version of which is available here Going to Muhammad • Tony Green (

I do regret that for whatever reason, perhaps simply because Olympic Games’ opening ceremonies are generally dull affairs best avoided, that I didn’t get to watch live as Ali lit the torch to signal the beginning of the Atlanta games in the summer of 1996. But it still brings a tear to my eye, the footage of that white clad figure, struggling to accomplish his task with hands that shook almost, but not quite uncontrollably, his mask-like face a study in concentration as he, willed on by the tens of thousands of people in the stadium and the untold millions watching at home, finally did what needed to be done in what was perhaps his greatest victory of all, a victory, albeit temporary as all such victories are, over sickness and Time. As the British boxer and fellow follower of Islam Naseem Hamed would later observe, Muhammad Ali, at that moment, was the most recognisable and loved figure on Planet Earth.
And of course, when I awoke on the morning of the third of June 2016 to find that Muhammad Ali had quietly slipped away at the age of seventy-four, surrounded by his family, after a noted Iman uttered the final words he would ever hear in this life – ‘Muhammad Ali, your name has inspired millions, now take your place in Paradise!’ – it was to a day of quiet reflection, of the intersection of my life with that of Ali, of memories of my dad, of watching the fights and documentaries on You Tube, of reading the online obituaries and talking with online boxing or simply Ali fans. ‘A life well-lived,’ although a cliché, perhaps best sums up the life of this incredible man.

The Greatest, not always the nicest…

Muhammad Ali was a flawed human being however, as are we all, and the BBC, thankfully avoiding hagiography, does not shy away from a discussion of his many faults in this eight part documentary series. Here, leaving aside the more general topic of his support for racial segregation, which in the 1960’s found him in alliance with the likes of the notorious white separatist Governor of Alabama George Wallace, which is a whole topic in and of itself, I will mention three that are covered in the series.

Firstly, there is no doubt that Ali was a serial womaniser who cheated on all of his wives,’ with the possible exception of Lonnie, the fourth and final Mrs Ali, on an epic scale. Angelo Dundee, his legendary trainer from shortly after his Olympic triumph until the final Berbick fight two decades later, was once asked if Ali followed the old-school fighter’s routine of abstaining from sex for a period before a big fight, so as not to weaken their body, and in order to build up reserves of tension, rage and determination that required physical, and in this case violent release. Dundee replied with words to the effect that Ali did not follow this routine. In fact, he’d been known to have sex not only in the build up to a big fight, but actually in the dressing room before his ring walk began.

His first wife, Sonji,, was a beautiful, normal, sixteen-year-old all-American black girl who liked to dance and to party, and had aspirations to be a pop star, when she first met the new heavyweight champion in the summer of 1964, and was no doubt proud to show off her tall, brash, incredibly handsome, rich, super-fit athlete boyfriend to her girlfriends. After their marriage, only a few weeks after they’d met, his heavy-handed attempts to mould her, following the strictures of the NOI, into the perfect, good Muslim wife, were not what she thought she’d signed up to, and were not exactly amongst his most edifying moments. Nor was his introduction to the press of his third wife Veronica in the build up to the Thriller in Manila with Frazier in October ’75, whilst still legally married to his ever-loyal, and exemplary Muslim, second wife Khalilah (formally Belinda), as Khalilah herself recounts during the series.

All that can really be said in Ali’s defence on the subject of his treatment of women, is that at least Ali doesn’t seem to have been a hypocrite as regards the racial aspect of his adopted belief system. Once he joined the NOI, which is of course strictly opposed to any form of miscreation, there doesn’t seem to have ever been any suggestion, despite his prodigious sexual appetite, that he ever had a sexual relationship with a none-black woman.

(It’s worth mentioning that Ali’s final wife, Lonnie, who’d known Muhammad from being a little girl, is herself an impressive, formidable woman who finally banished the large entourage of hangers-on from Ali’s life, sorted out his finances, and did more than anyone to help build the brand ‘Ali’ into both a hugely marketable commodity, and the man himself into a figure who was almost universally revered and loved. A valid criticism of her however is that the price paid for this transformation in the public perception of her husband was to make him ‘safe’ For mainstream society At the dawn of the twenty first century, Ali saw in the new millennium as an honoured guest amongst the super-rich on Wall Street. As one journalist at the time noted, in previous times he would more likely have celebrated within the poorer neighbourhoods of his home town of Louisville, Kentucky, or perhaps of Harlem).
Perhaps more serious than how Ali conducted his private life, is the way he treated Malcolm X.

As mentioned earlier, Malcolm had been his mentor, the man perhaps most responsible for guiding Ali towards the NOI. He was also a close personal friend. However, soon after Ali joined the NOI, Malcom quit. After making the obligatory Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, he realised that contrary to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, Muslims actually came in all colours. As well as rejecting the racial aspects of the NOI, he was also, more and more, partly under the influence of the socialist experiment on the island of Cuba, only a short boat ride away from Miami, becoming more and more drawn to the conclusion that revolutionary change he believed necessary was best brought about through the unity, not the separation, of the poor and oppressed of all colours.

Malcolm soon paid for his change of direction, and for the charismatic challenge he posed to the leadership of Elijah Muhammad, with his life, being assassinated in New York City on February 21st, 1965. Though it’s never been definitively proven, the leadership of the NOI have long been suspected pf involvement in his killing, with the possible connivance of the USA deep-state.

Sadly, Ali commented at the time that ‘Malcolm X and anyone else who attacks, or talks about attacking Elijah Muhammad will die. No man can oppose the Messenger of Almighty God.’

To his credit, Ali later acknowledged the wrongness of his treatment of Malcolm. In his 2005 memoir ‘Soul of a Butterfly’ he described him as a ‘great thinker and even greater friend,’ going on to say that ‘Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life…’

Thirdly, we turn to Ali’s treatment of his greatest rival, ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier.

Frazier established himself as the best active heavyweight in the world during Ali’s enforced absence from the ring between 1967 and 1970, cementing that position by flooring the come-backing Ali in the fifteenth and final round en route to a close but deserved points decision in the Fight of the Century in March 1971.

Though he’d known far greater poverty in his early life than the young Cassius, who grew up in a relatively stable and happy environment, Joe was an old school American patriot who, if he held any particular views about the civil rights movement and other political matters of the day, tended to keep them to himself. He’d opposed Ai’s decision to refuse induction into the US army, but he’d also opposed the decision to take away his license to box: ‘If his punishment is prison, then let him serve his time. But while he stays free, you don’t take away a man’s right to earn a living, to feed his family. You don’t take away a man’s tools.’ This was a principled, honest position to hold, and in addition, at a time when Ali, a man who always seemed incapable of moderating his spending according to changed circumstances, was so broke that he accepted a relatively paltry sum to take part in the staged ‘computer fight’ against the forty seven year old Rocky Marciano (and in one of life’s sad ironies, Rocky would die in a plane crash only a week after his filmed sparring with Ali ended, never even learning whether the ‘computer’ had decided whether he ‘won’ the ‘fight’ or not), Frazier is also said to have lent Ali money.

Ali repaid this support and kindness with a constant stream of invective, deriding him as ‘dumb’ and an ‘Uncle Tom’. This abuse reached its pinnacle before the third, epic, brutal fight in Manila, where in addition to the usual insults, he also routinely described Frazier as a ‘gorilla,’ an epithet that had it come from a white fighter would undoubtedly have been viewed as unforgivably racist.

Ali, who collapsed in the ring shortly after Frazier’s trainer Eddie Futch forced a reluctant, and by now almost blinded Frazier to remain on his stool before the bell to start the fifteenth and final round sounded in Manila, and who described the fight as ‘the closest thing to death,’ would later express nothing but admiration for Frazier as a fighter and as a man. He would always say that his pre-fight abuse of opponents was never about anything more than selling tickets, a trick which, along with his general ‘I am the Greatest’ boast-fullness he always said he learnt from the 1950’s/1960’s white wrestler Gorgeous George, and was nothing personal. Frazier, however, never did forgive Ali for his treatment of him. Whilst, after their careers were over, the two would often appear on television or at various boxing functions together, shaking hands and even on occasion embracing, and praising the fighting prowess of one another, in unguarded moments Frazier was also heard to express pleasure at Ali’s sad physical decline, going so far as to take pride in the role his punces had undoubtedly played in that decline. On another occasion, he also said that the only way he could finally defeat Ali now was to outlive him. Sadly, for Joe, this proud warrior who never quite quite escaped from the shadow of his greatest rival, he didn’t achieve this final wish, dying of liver cancer at the age of sixty seven in 2011, five years before Ali.


So, yes, Muhammad was undoubtedly a man of many faults; and we could add to that the obsessive love of the limelight which caused him to fight on too long, when he could have walked away with his health intact. Defenders of boxing, of which I am obviously one, seeing in it the most primal and basic of all sports, will often try to claim that Ali was simply a victim of Parkinson’s Disease, and will point to fellow famous sufferers like the actor and fellow sufferer Michael J Fox, whose job did not involve being regularly beaten about the head, as evidence that Ali’s contacting of Parkinson’s was nothing more than bad luck. This is a position born of either ignorance or dishonesty. I love boxing and all combat sports, my eleven year old son even does Mixed Martial Arts, but I know and admit their dangers.

‘Parkinson’s’ actually refers to a set of symptoms, the slow, whispering, slurred way of speaking, the stumbling gate when walking and other motor impairments, the trembling hands, and so on, all of which Ali was beginning to display even before his boxing career ended. One of the causes of these symptoms is indeed Parkinson’s Disease. But Ali never was diagnosed as suffering from this disease. Other causes include drug and alcohol abuse, never an issue for Ali, or trauma to the brain, either by a single devastating incidence, or by repeated blows over a prolonged period of time. It’s 99.9% certain that this was the cause of Ali’s poor health during the last thirty-five years or so of his life.

And Ali had plenty of warning that his continuance of his boxing career was putting his health at great risk. Angelo Dundee told the story of how, when the young Cassius Clay was training in his Miami gym in the early ‘60’s, a broken down ex pug came over to converse with him, slurring his words badly as he did so. Clay treated him with his customary playful kindness, but when he had gone he turned to Angelo and said ‘Angelo, if I ever start to slur like that, tell me, and I’ll quit.’ Years later, following the fights in Zaire and Manila, Dundee was driving Ali somewhere or other, and Ali was talking, as he usually was. Dundee said to him: ‘You now champ’, you’re starting to slur.’ Ali just laughed and continued to talk.
It wasn’t just the 108 amateur and 61 professional fights, against some of the hardest punchers in heavyweight boxing history, either . His sparring sessions, especially in his later years,, would often consist of Ali lying on the ropes absorbing punches. They may have been wearing headguards and big gloves, but even in sparring these punches impact on the brain, shaking it about in its encasement within the skull. Thousands and thousands of punches to the head over almost three decades of competition and training, from twelve years old to almost forty: how could these not have a detrimental effect on a man’s health?

Ali actually had a rationale for this method of sparing. He was seeking to disprove the old boxing adage that the one thing you can’t train a fighter to do is to withstand big punches. A fighter either can do this, or they can’t. Ali believed this was wrong, that by deliberately putting himself into what he termed the ‘twilight zone,’ a state where conscious is almost but not quite lost, he could learn to fight on instinct alone, until his head cleared, remaining upright and fighting back when lesser mortals would have been down and out. George Foreman has an example of this from Zaire. He says that when he landed one of his haymakers, and Forman was undoubtedly one of the hardest punchers in history, he saw Ali’s eyes close. He was to all intents and purposes knocked out, George was as certain of this as he was ever certain of anything, apart perhaps from the existence of God. Yet, somehow, Ali remained standing, close to the ropes from where he’d conducted much of that incredible fight, and from somewhere deep within, he willed himself back to consciousness and continued the fight, taunting to George with such comments as ‘Is that all you got, sucker? They told me you was a big puncher, George…’

As his career continued and his speed and reflexes, once his greatest assets, slowed, Ali more and more came to depend on his incredible resilience, punch resistance, courage and determination to win fights at all cost. It was the primary weapon for his greatest victories, but it was also his undoing as far as his health was concerned.

And over the years, once his boxing career was finally over, as his biographer Jonathan Eig put it in his book ‘Ali’, he got quieter and quieter and slower and slower, until finally he could talk no more, and his public appearances, encouraged by Lonnie as a means of keeping him motivated when perhaps a quiet withdrawal from public life might have been kinder, was eventually reduced to a slumped, sad figure in an electric buggy, his eyes shielded from the sun, and his tendency to spend much of his life sleeping from public view, by omnipresent dark glasses.

Always Ali

But, as Frazier once commented, partly motivated by envy and continued bitterness, ‘He’ll always be Muhammad Ali, always have people chanting his name wherever he goes.’ And it seems that, although he might have had increasing trouble expressing it, he continued to enjoy being who he was, the brash kid Cassius Clay, disliked more than liked, who became Muhammad Ali, perhaps the most famous individual on the planet, almost universally loved, who would often, whilst it was still possible, walk the ten miles, at his glacially slow ‘great-grandaddy’ pace (as he himself described it) from his rural Kentucky home to the nearest shopping area, simply to be around ‘his’ people, to sign his name, by now simply ‘Ali’, with shaking hands, on the inside cover of Islamic tracts and hand them out to anybody who wanted one.

Michael Parkinson, who interviewed him three times, described him as ‘the most remarkable individual I have ever met.’ And Parkinson interviewed the likes of James Cagney, Bette Davis, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Jimmy Stewart, George Best, Jason Donovan…’

A remarkable man indeed, and this BBC documentary does the best job of doing him justice I’ve yet seen.

Reviewed by Anthony C Green

Picture credit, Ali. This work is from the New York World-Telegram and Sun collection at the Library of Congress. According to the library, there are no known copyright restrictions on the use of this work.

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Review: David Bowie: Finding Fame (2019)

“David Bowie: Finding Fame” is a BBC documentary that explores the early years of David Bowie’s career, from his time with the band The Lower Third to the development of his alter ego Ziggy Stardust. The documentary features archival footage and interviews with Bowie’s friends and colleagues, including Lindsay Kemp, Mick Ronson, Woody Woodmandsey, and Trevor Bolder.

The documentary offers a fascinating look at Bowie’s early struggles as an artist and his transformation into a boundary-pushing, genre-defying musician. It also delves into his personal life, including his relationship with his mother Peggy and his half-brother Terry, who struggled with schizophrenia.

While there are certainly some tough moments for fans of Bowie’s later work, such as his novelty single “The Laughing Gnome” and early miming routines, the documentary ultimately portrays Bowie as a heroic outlier and trailblazer. It highlights his ability to persuade his bandmates to embrace makeup and unconventional fashion and his willingness to push musical boundaries, even when it wasn’t popular or fashionable.

Overall, “David Bowie: Finding Fame” is a must-watch for fans of the iconic musician and a great introduction to his early career for those unfamiliar with it. It provides a deeper understanding of the man behind the music and the events and experiences that shaped him as an artist.

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

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