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There’s a stage in this kind of project where you realise how far you’ve come and how far you have yet to go. I’ve watched in the region of twenty Hugh Grant movies and I have roughly twenty left to go. Which is a bit daunting, if I’m being honest. It also highlights something, I think, about how fleeting fame both is and isn’t. Because basically the stuff that Hugh Grant is famous for was all released between 1994 and 1999 with a massive build up and a massive tail end where he sort of deconstructs the types of character he made a reputation portraying in quite a narrow window of his career. Anyway, onto the films!

Notting Hill

This is unironically one of my favourite films ever. It is the absolute apotheosis of both Hugh Grant and Richard Curtis. Hugh plays a hopeless, bungling individual who somehow manages to come across as an everyman figure even though he is an unbearably posh independent bookstore owner living in actually quite an expensive bit of London, all of whose friends are also city stockbrokers, small business owners, or those kind of quirky dropouts who somehow exist in films or on television without ever needing to pay rent or buy food. Notting Hill has basically all the same social issue as Four Weddings and Funeral in that it portrays as quintessentialy British and relatable a lifestyle that is accessible to only a tiny, tiny fraction of British people. It also doesn’t help that the film is named after one of London’s more ethnically and culturally diverse areas, but is, well, not terribly ethnically or culturally diverse.

Honestly, I’m kind of assuming if you’re reading this blog you know the plot of this film. Hugh Grant is ordinary bloke. Julia Roberts is screen goddess. They fall in wuv. It should, by all rights, be the most cringe-inducing thing ever. I mean, for fuck’s sake, there’s actually a scene where Hugh Grant says “whoops-a-daisy”. But it somehow works for me. And I should probably say at this point that Notting Hill has probably been part of my mental landscape for so long that I’ve lost all ability to engage with it criticality.

I mean I’m aware it’s got issues. You can read its gender dynamics in lots of different ways, some of which are problematic. Not only is there only one black guy in the film but he’s specifically an American actor, because apparently there aren’t any black people living in Notting Hill in this universe. The portrayal of Bella’s disability is something I am super unqualified to talk about and I suspect mileage will vary a lot here. It’s a recent development so it’s understandable she’s bummed about it and the film does go quite a long way to demonstrate that she still has a perfectly good life, a successful marriage, and a high powered job. But, at the same time, “is in a wheelchair” is kind of her defining personality trait. And there is the bit at the end where she specifically uses that to get special treatment in a hotel. Because, of course, we all know having any kind of marginalised identity means people immediately bend over backwards to do everything you say and give you free stuff.

I also suspect that how you read the central premise of the film (which from a certain point of view is “powerful, successful woman is sad because she hasn’t married Hugh Grant yet”) depends a lot on what lens you’re viewing it through and what narrative assumptions you bring with you. I think the reason I like Anna Scott’s arc in Notting Hill is that it’s very much the arc the hero would get in a more conventional romance. Essentially, she is successful, financially independent, unavailable and emotionally damaged, all of which are classic romance hero qualities. Meanwhile Hugh Grant’s role is to endure and understand her idiosyncrasies, give her unlimited emotional support, and ultimately provide her with a place of sufficient safety that she can be vulnerable.  She even does most of the big romantic gestures, right down to the alpha trope where you demonstrate your affection to someone by giving them a gift that is simultaneously thoughtful and obscenely expensive, thereby reconciling the tension between material wealth and emotional sincerity. And I can see that for some people the “just a girl standing in front of a boy” line could come across as diminishing the value of everything Anna’s achieved but, from a genre perspective, it’s just the classic grovel scene, but switched up because it’s a female character delivering it.

And it’s true that naïve gender reversal doesn’t always code as subversive to all readers. Because, obviously, the wider dynamics of a scene in which a powerful, successful woman begs a man to like her are very, very different from those of a scene where a powerful, successful man makes a similar plea to the heroine. But (and I’m aware I’ve said this as lot) it works for me. I think it helps that Anna Scott is—to me, at least—quite a nuanced and well-developed character, largely due to the fact that Julia Roberts was able to bring an awful lot to the role. Over the course of the film you get a remarkably clear sense of who Anna Scott is, what her public persona is, what she’s like in private, and how those things are different. Taken baldly, the premise of the film is difficult because it’s set against a cultural backdrop which assumes that any woman who prioritises her career over her personal life will be nebulously unsatisfied because she hasn’t got a man. But what you get from Anna Scott in Notting Hill is that there are specific things about her life that make her unsatisfied and that in Hugh Grant and his lifestyle and his friends she finds something that she specifically values. So, to me at least, instead of reading as “career woman needs man to make her happy” it reads as “complicated person with high pressure job, short temper and secret love of whimsy and quietness that is not indulged in their life as it currently stands is better off having found other person to share those things with”.

And I’ve just realised I’ve spent this whole section of my Hugh Grant review talking about a character who isn’t played by Hugh Grant. But this is so much the archetypal Hugh Grant role that there isn’t much to say.

Goodness of film: 5. I love this film.

Hugh Grantiness of film: This should probably be a 6 (out of 5) because this is the Hugh Grantiest Hugh Grant that ever Granted Hugely.

Mickey Blue Eyes

The DVD box for this film is a picture of Hugh Grant looking dorky with a hot Italian-American woman on one side and an old Italian-American man on the other, all above the tagline “They’ve created a mobster”. That basically tells you everything you need to know about this film.

I went into this one with a sense of trepidation because “90s comedy about English guy who finds out his fiancée’s family are mobsters” is, well, an inherently trepidation-inducing premise. I honestly think I wound up liking the film a lot more than I would have if I’d seen it in 1999. I get the impression that its this-movie-writes-itself mix of every mafia movie cliché known to screenwriting with every Hugh Grant movie cliché known to Hugh Grant would have felt pretty tired at the time. But going into it twenty years later with zero expectations and the surprisingly helpful awareness that Hugh Grant would spend the rest of his career parodying his earlier heartthrob image and that at least 40% of the cast would go on to be in The Sopranos made it genuinely quite good fun. I mean, it was terrible and stupid, but it was terrible and stupid in exactly the ways I wanted it to be terrible and stupid.

Perhaps a scene that best sums up why I enjoyed Mickey Blue Eyes far more than I probably should have is the one in which Hugh Grant and his fiancée’s mafia father are on their way to a meeting with two other Mafiosi and, for reasons of plot, Hugh Grant has to pretend to be a Kentucky mobster called Little Big Mickey Blue Eyes. This necessitates the mafia dad teaching Hugh Grant to talk mobster which involves training him to repeat really classic bad mafia movie catch phrases like “fugeddaboudit” and “get outta here”. So you have a situation in which a cartoonish over-the-top Hollywood stereotype of a gangster is trying to teach a cartoonish over-the-top Hollywood stereotype of an Englishman to talk like a cartoonish over-the-top Hollywood stereotype of a gangster. It’s a kind of negative genius.

The plot, such as it is, involves Hugh Grant’s fiancée accidentally murdering Artie Bucco from The Sopranos and Hugh Grant and the mafia dad having to go to extraordinary lengths to cover it up, leading to a climax at their wedding in which Hugh Grant has to fake getting shot so that they can go into witness protection but he does it really badly because he’s Hugh Grant. Spoiler: they all live happily ever after.

Goodness of film: I do not know. 3 maybe? It’s very serviceable for what it is but what it is … is stupid.

Hugh Grantiness of film: I think I have to give this one a 5. He plays a bumbling Englishman who is never entirely sure what’s going on, does a variety of silly voices, and fails spectacularly at doing typically manly things.

Small Time Crooks

This one gave me pause because it’s a Woody Allen film and, obviously, Woody Allen is problematic. And if you’d rather not engage with a film from a director who is the subject of credible allegations of sexual abuse I completely understand that. Honestly, I was seriously considering skipping this one but my sense of completeness combined with the fact that I already reviewed something directed Roman Polanski and a whole bunch of things from the Weinstein Company made me feel it would be hypocritical to draw a line here.

Anyway, Small Time Crooks is about a small time crook (hence the name) played by Woody Allen, and his wife played Tracey Ullman. It’s quite an odd piece in that it starts with Woody Allen planning an overly convoluted bank heist, most of the middle involves Tracey Ullman becoming an unexpected cookie billionaire, and the rest of the plot revolves arounds her aspiration to be part of what I guess these days we’d call the “liberal elite” and his desire to very much not. Part of her arc involves getting Hugh Grant to teach her to be classy and Hugh Grant deciding that he will break up her marriage and seduce her for the money.

I’m never really sure how to feel about stories with the outline “poor person becomes rich, discovers they were better off being poor”. At the risk of oversimplifying, they always feel to me that they’re about justifying social inequality. There’s this intrinsic implication that the only people who deserve to be rich are people who are already rich, and that poor people are poor because they’re happier that way. Which is, y’know, not how it works. And, to be fair, I suspect that part of the problem I had with this film was that it seemed to be grounded in a class consciousness that is very American, and I don’t know to what extent its portrayal of that consciousness felt inauthentic to me because I’m not American, and to what extent it felt inauthentic because it was reinforcing ideas and stereotypes that are harmful no matter which country you’re in.

The core conflict of the film seems to be between Tracey Ullman’s character (Frenchy) who, once she acquires wealth, either wants to or believes she has to act out a particular type of lifestyle that is associated with a particular kind of education and set of values, and Woody Allen’s character (whose name I’ve forgotten … it might be Ray?) who doesn’t. Although I say “who doesn’t” but actually the real issue is that Frenchy and maybe-Ray both uncritically accept what I consider the film’s most troubling assumption: that being rich and having a particular set of values are inseparable from one another. Frenchy feels that because she wants to be rich she has to like opera and classical music and art. Ray-or-whoever feels that because he doesn’t want to like opera and classical music and art he therefore can’t be rich. And, worse than that, now that he is rich that he can’t have any of the things he actually likes (which seem to be eating meatballs and watching movies).

I usually avoid talking about US politics on this blog because it’s a million miles away from being my place to do so, but I found this film particularly difficult in a post-Trump world. Again, I’m very much outside my lane here but I feel that a big part of the narrative that got the Donald elected was one that framed class struggle as being fundamentally about values, not economics. It defined the choice as being between a wealthy corrupt elite, defined by coastal cosmopolitanism, and an honest base of hard working, real Americans, defined by the equivalent of meatballs and movies. With my European socialist hat on, I’d observe that both that campaign and this film present a similar and deeply problematic idea: that the true threat to ordinary working people isn’t uncontrolled corporate interests or rapidly widening wealth inequality, it’s people who like opera.

The annoying thing is that, on account of Woody Allen being irritatingly good at his job, Small Time Crooks is actually quite a well-structured film. The dialogue is sharp, there’s themes and shit, and some very funny set pieces. I just can’t get behind a story that, from my point of view, so fundamentally mischaracterises how class works. And the thing is I do believe that the way we define which types of culture have social cachet is worth examining. And if the film’s thesis was just that eating turkey meatballs and watching White Heat is no less valid or “classy” a way to spend your evenings than eating frogs’ legs and watching opera then I’d have no problem with it. Where it lost me was the point at which it seemed to suggest that you can only enjoy eating turkey meatballs and watching White Heat if you haven’t got any money and you can only enjoy eating frogs’ legs and watching opera if you are not only wealthy, but were born to that wealth. And, for that matter, to suggest that trying to develop an interest in frogs’ legs or opera where you had not previously had one was somehow a betrayal of your essential self.

Anyway. Hugh Grant is in the movie, and it’s actually quite an interesting early example of Hugh Grant As Wrong ‘Un. Basically, he has all the usual Hugh Grant charm and mannerisms, but employs them for sinister purpose.

Goodness of film: I should probably give this a 3 because it is so very competent, and Tracey Ullman is always a pleasure to watch. But for my personal tastes, it came out as a 2 because of all the class stuff.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 3.5. He’s in it quite a lot, but doesn’t show up for long enough that I was thinking “hey, is Hugh Grant going to be in this or not?” quite a while before he actually appears. He’s playing a subversive take on his iconic persona that would later become a secondarily iconic persona. I enjoy this side of Hugh Grant because I think it displays genuine nuance to be able to meaningfully portray a character who is pretending to be like the character you always play but is secretly not.

Bridget Jones’s Diary

Hugh Grant films watched: 4 (v. good)

Cigarettes smoked: 0 (because I don’t smoke)

This one is complicated. Bridget Jones was one of those weird cultural phenomena which we were told very firmly defined what it was like to be a particular sort of person (in this case a woman in the 90s) and which people, therefore, tend to identify very strongly with or react very strongly against.

Bridget Jones’s Diary is a very thinly veiled re-imagining of Pride and Prejudice. There are number of quite subtle parallels, like the behaviour of her mother, her relationship with her father, and the implied difference in social class between various characters. Then there are the less subtle parallels. Like that the hero’s name is literally Darcy and that in the film he is literally played by Colin Firth. I think what makes it fascinating as a Pride and Prejudice riff is that most P&P secondary media (like Lost in Austen, Austenland, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Death Comes to Pemberley) tend to focus on the Regency trappings and the romance element, but largely lose track of the fact that Austen was also a social satirist.

BJD, on the other hand, not only parallels P&P in terms of the relationship dynamic but also in terms of its exploration of being an unmarried woman in the time in which it is set. In some ways, it’s here the parallels are most interesting (and also probably most depressing) in that Lizzie Bennett and Bridget Jones are both basically screwed by completely arbitrary social conventions that haven’t changed anywhere near as much as you might expect in two centuries. Lizzie is considered practically a spinster because she’s unmarried in her early twenties and is under financial duress because her family’s estate is entailed away from the female line. Bridget Jones is considered practically a spinster because she’s unmarried in her early thirties and is under financial duress because living alone in London is frankly only just economically viable and, while she has a career, there’s a sense that her culture and her industry won’t take that seriously because they assume she’s just doing it until she gets married.

I do confess to having very mixed feelings about the fact that, with the best will in the world, Bridget Jones is basically bad at everything. And obviously that’s partly because it’s a comedy so the main character being put in embarrassing situations is part of the deal. But when a particular work of fiction has a reputation (whether intended or not) for embodying a particular category of person, it’s a little bit messed up when that person is as presented being so utterly incompetent. With my most generous hat, I can see that part of the point is that Bridget Jones is supposed to be you as your anxieties fear you are, and that’s part of what makes her relatable. But it does make for slightly uncomfortable viewing twenty years later. I mean, Renee Zellweger is incredibly charming in the role, which means you do really like Bridget Jones, but there comes a point where liking her seems almost patronising. So many embarrassing things happen to her, and she makes so many bad choices, that to carry on sympathising with her you have to tacitly accept that she’s not capable of ever doing better, which is a problematic way to feel about your heroine.

The thing is, I do see why Bridget Jones (problematic as she sometimes is) has value, because we still ultimately live in a world where the range of things that the mass media tell women to be is massively narrower than the range of things that the mass media tell men to be. My perception here is that cultural trends in the depiction of female characters tend to pendulum between over-competence and under-competence, neither end being totally unharmful.

I watched an interesting video on YouTube a few months ago about the differences between film!Hermione and book!Hermione in the Harry Potter series. And one of the things it talked about was that while book!Hermione is very clever and good at magic she also has a lot of fears and insecurities, and doesn’t know much about the wizarding world (because Muggleborn). Film!Hermione, by contrast, is (at least according to the video) basically just brilliant at everything. Now, often, when you get a YouTube complaining about competent female characters in stuff it’s somebody from the more conservative end of the spectrum going on about feminist conspiracies and the pussification of culture (or whatever). But what this video pointed out was that by not allowing movie heroines to have flaws all we’re really doing is creating another set of unattainable and unrealistic cultural expectations for women and girls to live up to which is, y’know, not helpful. I’m not sure but I suspect that the power of Bridget Jones for people who strongly identified with the character twenty years ago (and who may still identify with her today) lies in the fact that she’s a female character who is neither invisible nor invincible.

And, weirdly, thinking about it there’s an extent to which Bridget Jones is kind of the female equivalent to a Hugh Grant. She’s bumbling, socially awkward, stumbles into embarrassing situations all the time, and is terrible at pretty much everything she tries. It’s just that with Hugh Grant that automatically comes across as a subversion of a cultural norm that tells us men are supposed to be masters of everything, and therefore we find it endearing. Whereas with Bridget Jones, depending on which bits of media you’ve been consuming most recently, it’s either a liberating recognition that women are allowed to be messy and flawed or else it’s a problematic recapitulation of the notion that women are all insecure, man-obsessed and hopeless.

Also this film has a scene where Hugh Grant is bad at fighting. I love watching Hugh Grant be bad at fighting.

Goodness of film: I’m giving this a 4, even though it’s borderline impossible to tease out the ways it’s problematic and the ways it’s affirming, because it’s often both at once. I mean, I didn’t even touch on the way her relationship Daniel Cleaver starts with him sending her some really not appropriate flirty emails that become even more not appropriate in a post #metoo environment. But the film just has so much heart and such a sense of fun that I can’t not like it.

Hugh Grantiness of film: I have to give this a 5. I know Hugh Grant isn’t in it very much but just like Notting Hill is the epitome of good Hugh Grant, this is the epitome of Evil Hugh Grant. Basically Daniel Cleaver is William Thacker if he’d cheated on Anna Scott, doubled down on his publishing career and ditched his loser friends.

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So it turned out watching every single movie Hugh Grant has ever made was a much bigger job than I thought it was going to be. But I’m sure you’ll be thrilled to know I’m back on it and I’m here to provide you with my extremely important opinions about some movies that Hugh Grant made in 1995 and 1996, the years of no particular theme.

Nine Months

This is a new contender for Worst Film Hugh Grant Has Ever Been In. Actually, that’s a little bit unfair. It’s just you know how there was a furore recently because some young people on the internet watched some stuff from the 90s and were all like “wow, this seems really regressive” and the baby boomers were all like “hell, no, you’re not allowed to have opinions about things because that proves you have no sense of humour / can’t take a joke / are what’s wrong with the world”? Basically Nine Months is everything that you look back at and can’t quite believe we thought was funny in the 90s.

Hugh Grant plays a conventionally attractive man in his mid-thirties who doesn’t want children (it’s funny because he doesn’t have normative ambitions and values!), Julianne Moore plays his long-term partner who does want children (it’s funny because men and women are different!), Joan Cusack and Tom Arnold play a random couple who they meet on a beach and who keep cropping up on their lives for no reason (it’s funny because their children are badly behaved!), Jeff Goldblum plays Jeff Goldblum (it’s funny because he’s Jeff Goldblum!) and the late Robin Williams—who it is now impossible to see in anything without feeling faintly sad—plays a doctor with an Eastern European accent (it’s funny because he’s an immigrant!). The basic plot is that Julianne Moore accidentally gets pregnant and Hugh Grant can’t cope and then over the course of the film Hugh Grant is bullied into deciding he wants kids after all. This is a happy and uplifting ending.

The thing about Nine Months it that there’s kind of nothing wrong with it and kind of everything wrong with it. I think it’s just genuinely been years since I’ve engaged with a media artefact that has failed so spectacularly to speak to any of my values or interests. I mean, in a way it was almost fascinating because I watched the whole film with an awareness that it was making a bunch of assumptions about who I was, what I believed in, and what I would find amusing or affirming, and you’d think it would be right just a couple of times by pure chance. But it never was. The pregnancy as plot device setup put me off. The unthinking characterisation of Hugh Grant’s desire not to have children as a character flaw put me off. The equally unthinking assumption that this was something he would grow out of put me off. The fact Julianne Moore seemed to have no interest in anything that wasn’t babies put me off. The way we seemed to be asked to see the genuinely disrespectful, intrusive and flat-out rude behaviour of Tom Arnold and Joan Cusack’s kids as adorable and uplifting put me off. The way Robin William’s character’s accent seems to be taken as evidence of his incompetence put me off. The way Tom Arnold’s character’s toxic masculinity was presented as a valuable and productive element of his relationship with Hugh Grant put me off. I could honestly keep going all day. But basically what I’m saying is that I found this film off-putting.

With my rational hat on, I do recognise that there are probably people for whom this film is not the apotheosis of everything they’re not interested in seeing a film about. And, actually, although I’ve ragged on it in detail, really my profound distaste for it comes down to three very personal things:

  1. I am not hugely interested in babies
  2. This film is all about babies
  3. This film assumes thinks not being hugely interested in babies is an unforgiveable and unnatural personality defect

I could probably have lived with the first two. It was three that made it impossible for me to appreciate the film on its own terms.

Goodness of film: Like 2 or 3? Obviously, I really, really hated it but it’s actually perfectly competent. There were two genuinely funny moments, one of them involving Hugh Grant attacking a man dressed as a dinosaur (Hugh Grant being terrible at fighting is one of my favourite things in a Hugh Grant movie), and the other being the climatic sequence in which they rush Julianne Moore to hospital, gradually accumulating injured hangers-on who they’ve accidentally run over or assaulted en-route. This goes on far longer than it should and is, therefore, much funnier than it has any right to be.

Hugh Grantiness of film: Maybe a 3? He is the main character but he’s sort of phoning it in a bit. He’s basically allowed to do two things, which are to look uncomfortable around children or look misty-eyed about children. Neither of these things, I feel, play to this strengths.

Sense and Sensibility

This is one of my favourite movies so I feel bit weird talking about in this context. Because I’m not really a film person, the one thing I did get from watching Sense and Sensibility for a reason other “because I wanted to watch it” was that it made me pay attention to the kind of grown up movie things (like framing and visual metaphors and shot/reverse shot) I know just enough about to know that I know nothing about them. And my takeaway is that this film is really fucking artful: the sheer number of scenes that are shot through doorways (because, oh d’you see) or use minute changes of physical position to display emotional nuance are almost hilarious by the end if you’ve been following them the whole way through.

There was a really old sketch on, I think, Comic Relief which parodied both the style and production of Downton Abbey and it had this faux backstage interview with one of the actors (actually Harry Enfield) talking about how, because it was a very repressed time, everything is portrayed through “Looks”. And then it cuts to a scene from the spoof costume drama in which everyone is just staring at each other in a really obvious way, and it ends with the family patriarch (Harry Enfield again) saying “Has everyone finished doing their Looks?” And this is has made it basically impossible for me to watch costume dramas anymore because every time two or more characters exchange a significant moment I start to giggle.

Anyway, there are a lot of Looks in Sense and Sensibility. But they are really excellent, Austeny Looks. Everyone wants something different from an adaption of a well-known book and this one just happens to work really well for me. Because it’s an early Austen work, I find the actual book interesting but slightly incoherent, for reasons I won’t bore you with here—but I find this version manages to reconcile that incoherence into something that is both very romantic and a testament to the importance of familial love.

Hugh Grant, of course, plays Edward Ferrars—a perfect, if obvious, piece of casting. One of the nice things about watching lesser known Hugh Grant films is that you get to see him being a character actor (which he’s actually surprisingly good at) but the really odd thing about his role here is that because Edward Ferrars happens to be very much like the traditional Hugh Grant character you get to see him doing character acting and doing the Hugh Grant thing at the same time. Much as I enjoy Hugh Grant playing Hugh Grant there’s a tendency, especially in his later films, for it to be a very surface performance (that’s no reflection on him, that’s a feature of that type of role in that type of film) because it becomes sort of a collection of mannerisms held together with charm, stammering and saying bugger in a British accent. But here he’s playing a character who is just like that for character based reasons, and so he brings a lot of quiet depth to the role.

Goodness of film: 5. I’m biased, but I love this film.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 4. I’d give it a 5 because he’s so good in it but he’s not actually on screen very much.

Restoration

This was surprisingly good in a lot of ways, and quite silly in others. It’s based on a Booker-shortlisted novel, which I vaguely recall reading years ago and remember as a lot more coherent than the film winds up being. All of which said, the movie does weirdly hang together as a kind of whimsical picaresque whose tone veers quite sharply between fart jokes and dead of plague.

The whole thing has this peculiar sense of being at once lavish and also a little bit cheap, which is ironically fitting for something set in and around the court of Charles II. The costumes are fabulous while they’re at court and fabulously drab while you’re in the plague pits and the Quaker-run psychiatric facility. The setting is super vibrant and cleanly realised without that thing which modern historical movies tend to do where you put a brown filter over everything so it looks like the whole worried is covered in poo all the time. And the cast is star-studded, except it’s all people who used to be stars, would be stars about three years later, or go on to have a recurring minor role in Harry Potter. It’s got Sam Neill as Charles II (which, actually, somehow works), David Thewlis as a Quaker who dies, Ian McDiarmid as a Quaker who doesn’t die, Ian McKellen as a paternal servant, Meg Ryan as a mentally ill Irish woman who the protagonist randomly gets pregnant, Hugh Grant (for about five seconds) as an ambitious and scheming painter, and Robert Downey Jr (pre breakdown but post Natural Born Killers) looking shockingly big-eyed and fresh-faced as the main character.

The basic plot is that Robert Downey Jr is a physician called Robert Merivel who comes to the attention of Charles II by squeezing a guy’s heart (don’t ask) and who’s given a place at court taking care of spaniels. This leads into a sort 80s frat house movie plot where Charles insists that Merivel marry one of his (Charles’) mistresses so Charles can keep bonking her without Barbara Castlemaine getting jealous. And Charles is all like “and I’ve asked you do this because you’re a rubbish womanizing wastrel and so I know you definitely won’t fall in love with her” and then he definitely falls in love with her. There is then some intrigue involving a portrait. These are the five minutes of the film that Hugh Grant is in. He gets to wear some amazing shoes. They were so good it took me a while to look at his face, and realise he was Hugh Grant.

Once King Charles finds out that Merivel has fallen in love with the woman that Charles was keeping on special bonking reserve he is exiled from court, stripped of his titles and goes to live with Remus Lupin in a Quaker psychiatric hospital. This is something of an abrupt shift, both for Merivel personally, and for the tenor of the movie. Everything is bad and everyone is sad and Remus Lupin dies of consumption and Robert Downey Jr randomly impregnates Meg Ryan (I should clarify: the character played by Robert Downey Jr randomly impregnates the character played by Meg Ryan). He is exiled, once again, this time from the Quakers although they are slightly more friendly about it (because he did good work while he was there). Then Meg Ryan dies in childbirth. Then there is the plague. Then there is the Great Fire of London. And wow shit got real during the mid-1660s. I mean, seriously, we moan about Brexit. But like you ring up someone from 1666 and they’ll be like “yeah brah, we’ve got 7000 people dying a week and now half the city’s burned down” and we’d be like “but Toblerones don’t have as much chocolate in them anymore.”

Anyway. Robert Downey Jr has grown as a person and won back the favour of King Charles, although really it was kind of the favour of King Charles that ruined him in the first place. So, y’know, a mixed blessing. Point is, he started out as a skilled physician with a good reputation and then his skills deteriorated and his reputation was damaged but now both his skills and his reputation and his favour at Court have been … restored. Because the film is called Restoration. And also it’s set during the Restoration. It’s levels like that get you shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Goodness of film: This is another one where I don’t even. I really liked it but I think it might actually not be very good? But, fuck it, it’s my blog and there’s a scene in which Charles constructs an artificial lagoon under the palace so the mistress he’s palming off on Merivel can gradually be rowed across it looking hot wearing a veil and playing a mandolin on a golden boat, so 4.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 2. He actually does a really good job as an ambitious and scheming yet thwarted painter, but he is in the film for, like, 18 seconds.

Extreme Measures

This one’s a bit odd. It’s basically a medical thriller in which Hugh Grant is a successful young doctor who discovers a conspiracy and all the usual things that happen to successful young professionals who discover conspiracies happen to him. His performance here is unusual because it’s not the subtle character work you get when he’s in something less genre-ey but he’s also not the leading man of a light romantic comedy. So what you wind up with is Hugh Grant putting in a very Hugh Grant performance but in a completely un-Hugh Grant context. You have him blustering and stammering to a nurse and then authoritatively asking for 10ccs of Lidocaine stat. You have him leaning against a wall and saying “fuck” in a despairing Hugh Grant voice only it’s because sinister people with guns are trying to murder him instead of because he’s late for his friend’s wedding.

Also Sarah Jessica Parker is here.

Extreme Measures is a perfectly serviceable mid-90s thriller, although (unless you were super keen to, say, watch every film Hugh Grant has ever been in) there’s no particular reason to watch it over any other perfectly serviceable mid-90s thriller. I will, with once again my bleeding heart liberal millennial entitled snowflake hat on, say that I wasn’t terribly comfortable with its disability politics. The basic premise (spoilers for a serviceable thriller from 22 years ago) is that a renowned neurosurgeon played by Gene Hackman is adducting homeless people, deliberately severing their spinal cords and then subjecting them to experimental nerve regrowth techniques in order to find a cure for … I’m not sure it’s very clear … spinal damage induced paralysis? Wheelchairs in general? A whole bunch of people are in on this conspiracy, including (spoiler again) Sarah Jessica Parker, and every single one of the co-conspirators is a) ultimately willing to commit cold blooded murder to protect these illegal and flagrantly unethical medical experiments and b) motivated specifically by the fact that they or a member of their immediate families is in a wheelchair.

This has two probably unintentional but deeply unfortunate implications. The first is that the moment you see someone in a wheelchair you know that they or someone close to them is actively a villain. The second is that Evil Doctor Hackman is sort of supposed to have a point. There’s a bit at the end where he make a big speech about how important his work is and, as part of this, he gives Hugh Grant an epidural to make him think he’s paralysed which causes him to realise that having a physical disability is so life-destroyingly unbearable that you’ll do literally anything, no matter how immoral, for even the hope of a cure. And, y’know, I am in no way qualified to write about disability issues and I am absolutely not intending to minimise the difficulties faced by people with spinal injuries. But, to me, the film went worryingly close to treating being in a wheelchair as functionally equivalent to being dead. Which, from my limited understanding of these issues, is sort of not really considered appropriate any more.

I mean, other than that (which may well be a deal breaker for some people and a non-issue for others) it’s a slightly silly and largely forgettable movie. I think the thing I most appreciated about it was that Hugh Grant’s tendency to be incredibly bad at fighting continued unabated in it. You often find in this kind of thriller that when your Ordinary Person Protagonist gets thrown into sinister conspiracy world he suddenly becomes an unbelievable (in both senses of the word) badass. Whereas Hugh Grant’s plucky doctor continues to be slightly shit at basically anything resembling physical confrontation. I mean, he navigates New York surprisingly well with a bullet hole through his abdomen but when he has to fight a man with a gun in a lift it’s pleasingly flaily and he ends up shooting Evil Doctor Hackman almost entirely by accident.

Goodness of film: 3. It’s kind of the definition of adequate.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 4. He’s basically always on screen and thriller protagonist Hugh Grant is surprisingly similar to romcom protagonist Hugh Grant. But it’s nice to see that character doing a different set of things and being slightly panicked and confused for a different set of reasons.

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Many years ago now, a friend of mine showed me one of those online twenty questions things that identifies which fictional character you’re thinking of. I can’t remember what it was called, but I’m sure there’s a million of them these days. At the time, I thought it was kind of mind blowing (in a “when you think about it, this is exactly the sort of thing you’d expect computers to be better at than humans” kind of way). I tested it with some of the most obscure characters I could think of: Fall from Grace from Torment. Syrio Forel from Game of Thrones (back when Game of Thrones was just the title of the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire rather than the name of an entire HBO series). Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It got everything I could throw at it. 

Then I tried a couple of characters from Georgette Heyer novels. And it didn’t have a clue. 

And I suppose this is partly because overtly non-human characters with massive, obvious identifying features and actual signature weapons are easier to identify than relatively ordinary regency dudes, but I suspect that it also highlights quite a significant bias within the community that designed and—for want of a better term—trained the program. Because the thing is that gaming has certain wells it goes back to again and again, and some that it barely ever touches. The twenty questions machine that I can no longer remember the name of was really well set up for identifying characters from stories that involve a lot of stabbing and shooting, not so well set up for identifying characters from stories that involve kissing or curricles. 

It’s almost tediously fashionable these days for people, even people within the board/video/role-playing gaming community to bemoan the way that games lean on fighting, killing, and very occasionally running away or surviving as the core challenges of their interactive experiences. Boardgamegeek lists its board games in eighty-four categories (I suspect that this number is arbitrary, and the categories are probably mostly a matter of convenience and aren’t necessarily all the same size, but bear with me here, I’m making a cheap point). Of those eighty-four categories, ten include the word “war” or a derivation of it (and that excludes categories that are clearly referencing warfare without using the syllable like “Napoleonic”, “Post-napoleonic” and “Pike and Shot”). By contrast there is exactly one category for “Trivia”. And ultimately there’s nothing wrong with that—competitive games naturally involve some kind of conflict, and violent physical conflict is not only a fairly obvious thing to attempt to model, there’s also an extremely venerable history of modelling it. After all, Chess and Go are basically wargames. 

And of course this is to some extent an oversimplification and a mischaracterisation. There are actually huge genres of game that don’t involve any kind of fighting or killing at all. Even if we ignore abstract games (which are about nothing, kind of by definition) there are games about racing bicycles, building towns, not-dying-of-thirst-in-deserts, escaping from rooms, and so on. Hell, there’s a whole surprisingly massive subgenre of games all about railroads. 

Quite a large number of board games—especially the more modern, more lavish kinds of board game—are attempts to emulate other fictional genres. Fantasy Flight Games’ Arkham Files games are attempts to capture Lovecraftian horror (or at least a pulpy, faintly campy pastiche of it). The ten bajilliion zombie games that you’ll find in any halfway-stocked game store are all about capturing one or other flavour of zombie film. Games like Descent and Gloomhaven and many, many others try to capture the essence of—well—of a very particular kind of dungeon-crawling fantasy that is often itself trying to capture the essence of classic Dungeons and Dragons which is itself trying to capture the spirit of a quite specific kind of 20th century pulp fantasy. 

There are quite a lot of genres, though, that have never had the “thematic board game” treatment. Science Fiction and Fantasy are all over the place. Detective stories get Cluedo or Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. War movies get Escape from Colditz. But I’ve never seen a board game based on—say—a courtroom drama. And unless you count Love Letter, I’d never seen one based on a romantic comedy until I picked up Fog of Love. 

Why yes, it did take me nearly a thousand words to get around to telling you which game this post is about. I think by this point I just need to accept that I don’t do brevity. 

When I originally saw Fog of Love in my local games store, I decided to give it a miss. Gamer culture has an occasional tendency to be uncharitable to the point of dismissiveness about more mainstream genres, especially romance. So when I saw a game billing itself as “Romantic Comedy as a Board Game” I at least half expected it to be full of self-congratulatory cheap shots at the genre and its perceived audience. It wasn’t until I saw the game recommended by Shut Up and Sit Down (who long time followers of my ramblings on board games will know I tend to rely on quite heavily) that I was persuaded to give it a shot. 

I’m glad I did. Because while the game isn’t without its flaws, the most important thing I can say about it is that it has tremendous sincerity. One of the things I value most in a thematic board game is for it to make you feel like you are the thing you are supposed to be, and that you are doing the thing you are supposed to be doing. If I am supposed to be a pirate, I want to feel like a pirate. If I am supposed to be fighting a dragon, I want to feel like I am fighting a dragon. If I am supposed to be a workaholic wedding planner in a tempestuous and potentially doomed relationship with a quirky TV presenter, I want to feel like a workaholic wedding planner in a tempestuous and potentially doomed relationship with a quirky TV presenter. 

I should probably explain. 

The Setup

Fog of Love is a game for exactly two players (in theory, although since it’s very much about the journey, it’s well suited to spectators or doubling-up if you want to play it that way). One player is pink, the other blue. I’ll say at the outset that I’m not totally sure whether I find this coding clever and subversive or still quite problematic. Both players quite explicitly get to define their character’s gender independent of their character’s colour—the blue player can be a girl and the pink player can be a boy—and you can play a same-sex couple if you want to, so I think I mostly come down on the side of “subversive”. The game is ultimately trying to emulate a genre that is often normative in all the ways (especially if you assume it’s specifically trying to emulate movie romcoms rather than romance more broadly) and so it makes sense for the game’s coding to at least superficially evoke the “default” assumptions of the romantic comedy and then give the players freedom to play with those as they choose. 

Each player chooses a gender (independent of their colour) by choosing which way up they place their player card. Strictly speaking, unless I’ve missed something in the manual, the game doesn’t actually specify what gender you’re allowed to choose, or which gender corresponds to which side of the card. Again, there’s some fairly heavy coding going on here—each side shows a silhouette and both of them are fairly strongly gender-marked—and I think it’s for the individual player to decide whether that coding is problematically normative or interestingly subversive. If you do feel that it’s a dealbreaker (or even just problematic) that “assign your character a gender using a binary signalling system” is a mandatory part of setup (and in which binary gender may be an assumed mechanic on some cards—I’ve never encountered the mechanic myself so I’m honestly not certain), I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong to feel that. On the other hand, if you feel it’s kind of cool that there’s nothing stopping you from setting your character card to the side that shows a tall person with short hair and no obvious breasts wearing a suit, and declaring that your character nevertheless identifies as a heterosexual woman, then I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong to feel that either. 

Once you’ve chosen your colour and your gender, you pick three Traits out of five options. These traits will have little coloured arrows pointing up or down, each one corresponding to one of six (somewhat clinically named) “personality dimensions” (Discipline, Curiosity, Extroversion, Sensitivity, Gentleness and Sincerity). Your choices during the game will cause you to place either positive or negative “personality tokens” on these “dimensions”, and your overall Satisfaction (this is a game mechanical term) in the relationship will depend in part on how well your relationship reflects your Traits. So if you are a manipulative workaholic, you’ll want to have positive Diligence, but strongly negative Sincerity, while if you’re fun-loving but jealous you’ll want to have positive scores in Extroversion and Sensitivity. Your Traits are hidden from the other player—a key part of the gameplay is getting a sense for what your partner’s personality might actually be like and whether you’re really compatible. 

You then pick one Occupation out of three options. Your job has a relatively minor mechanical effect – it will put one personality token either for or against one of the personality aspects—so for example a Royal Heir has a negative point in Discipline, a Criminal has a negative point in Sincerity, a Wedding Planner has a positive point in Sensitivity and so on. In all the times I’ve played the game so far, I’ve always chosen my occupation for coolness value rather than for the points (why would you not pick Royal Heir if you had the choice). 

Finally, you draw five Feature cards. These are noticeable, external features (whereas Traits are aspects of your personality) and as such they’re not kept secret. The big twist, though, is that you don’t choose your own Features, you choose the Features of your partner. Maybe you really liked his nerdy glasses? Or were really drawn to their broad shoulders? Or perhaps (and this is a real option) you just really, really dug her body odour? The Features you choose let you customise your partner’s Personality Tokens, meaning you can improve the chances of getting a relationship that matches your Traits. Although you might also just want to design somebody who you genuinely think would be cool to be in a relationship with. 

Gameplay

The game has a fairly simple play cycle. You pick a scenario, which tells you how many acts you will play, how many scenes are in each act, and what decks you will draw your scene cards from. From there, players take it in turns to play a Scene from their hand, and then one or other player chooses what happens in that scene, gaining or losing Satisfaction and placing Personality Tokens depending on their choices or the choices of their partner. You can gain Satisfaction if your choices are compatible (which isn’t always the same as making the same choice) and you can lose Satisfaction if your choices are incompatible. There are also some Scenes that just always make you lose Satisfaction (like the “Stupid Fight” scene), some more complicated types of scenes (like Secrets, which don’t go into play immediately, but have different effects depending on whether or not they get revealed) and some scenes that modify or react to other scenes (like a hasty retraction or a weekend in a log cabin). 

It’s all very impressionistic—I send you flowers, we win a trip to Italy, we have a fight over nothing, you randomly get amnesia, that kind of thing—but it comes together to give a remarkably clear sense of what your relationship is like. You find yourself saying things like “I can’t believe that I defended you to my mother, and now it turns out you’re already married!” or (with a bit more detachment) “you know, at the start of this relationship I thought you were a jerk while I was basically a nice person, but I’ve just realised that I’ve actually been a horrendously manipulative arsehole this whole time”. 

Either the great strength or great weakness of Fog of Love, depending on how you approach it, is that it doesn’t really have any set goals. It’s almost more a roleplaying game than a board game. At the start of the game, characters are dealt a hand of Destiny cards (all initially the same) representing ways your character might hope or believe that the relationship could play out. Some are positive (“Love Team” or “Equal Partnership”), some less so (“Dominance” or “Heartbreaker”) or bittersweet (“Honourable Exit”). As the game progresses, each player will discard down to exactly two of these Destinies and, at the end of the game, will choose one to be their Final Destiny. In the final reckoning, your Personality Dimensions and Satisfaction are all added up and compared to the requirements of the Destiny card. If they match, you achieve your Destiny, if they don’t, you don’t. 

But there’s nothing in the game that especially tells you that achieving your Destiny means that you “win”. Indeed it frequently stresses the opposite—the point of the game is to explore the relationship between the characters. Sure it’s nice if you wind up with the partnership of equals that you were both working towards, and it’s good to know that the fictional people you’ve been simultaneously rooting for and messing with for the past hour will go on to be happy. But there’s also something weirdly satisfying about getting to the end of the relationship and realising that because I was going for an Equal Partnership and you were going for Unconditional Love that you will ultimately be happy because I have everything I want, while I will always feel that something is slightly wrong and will never be truly settled in a relationship with somebody who always puts my needs above their own. 

I’m sure there are some people who will find all of this mechanical vagueness positively infuriating. What, after all, is the point of this complex system of tracking a half-dozen different aspects of your relationship plus the individual satisfaction of both parties, if there’s not actually any mechanical incentive to care about any of it? And that’s a valid criticism from a certain perspective. Although taken to its most logical extreme you could make the same complaint against any game—there is nothing intrinsic to Chess that requires you to prefer that you checkmate your opponent rather than that your opponent checkmate you, after all. Perhaps the best way to think about all of the Traits and Occupations and Features and Destinies is as a set of very loose improv promts. I mean yes, you could view your starting Trait choice of “jealous manipulative workaholic” as just giving you a shopping list of Personality Tokens to collect over the course of the game—and if you’re having trouble working out how to make decisions “match the symbols on your traits” is a good fallback—but really the game is set up with the assumption that you should just try to, y’know, act like a jealous, manipulative workaholic. 

Observations and Nitpicks

One of the things I often find fascinating in games is when elements with no mechanical consequences whatosever completely change your perspective of the experience. The interesting thing about Fog of Love is that it’s built almost entirely of elements with no mechanical consequences. Your character’s gender—for example—has no impact on gameplay that I have yet discovered, but the same bundle of characteristics and even the same scenes suggest something very different when you’re playing through them from the perspective of a dude called Chet rather than a woman called Althea. Your occupation puts a single personality token on the board, but it completely skews the way you play your character. The prince of a small European country just doesn’t have the same kind of story as a plucky cat burglar or a driven politician. The game is excellent at making you engage with it on its own terms, to think as much about what will lead to a desirable outcome for the whole story of your relationship about what makes the little points sliders go up or down. 

I will say that some of its features aren’t entirely satisfying from a mechanical perspective, and others aren’t entirely satisfying from a narrative perspective. The game’s core system of using “scene” cards to frame events within your relationship is strong, but the refinements that are built into that—Secrets that don’t come into play at once, minor scenes that can be spent in response to existing scenes, scenes that shuffle other scenes into the deck and so on—sometimes feel a little under-developed. While the game is mostly a sandbox or a set of improvisational toys, it has just enough structure built into it that you can become tempted to pursue mechanical goals, but that attempt is almost always futile. You can’t really try to reveal your partner’s secrets or overcome your more antisocial personality traits—you’ll either get a card that does that or you won’t—and If you start going too hard after the little coloured arrows, you’ll find yourself thinking “crap, I really need to get more greens in my hand” rather than “I am making an effort to be a kinder and gentler person and persuade my partner to be the same”, which dents the illusion somewhat. 

Narratively, something that struck me early on is that there’s very little incentive to change your character’s personality Traits other than a concern that you won’t get enough points in them. If you’re cynical, manipulative and narrow-minded, and your partner happens not to be going for kind, innocent or adventurous, then you can just carry on pursuing your cynical, manipulative, narrow-minded ways without it in at all impinging on your future happiness. And I’ll admit that part of me likes that there isn’t quite the same set of normative value judgements you might ordinarily associate with a romantic comedy, where the immutable laws of Hollywood state that some types of person are inherently broken and that their only hope of happiness is that somebody will come along to change them. I do actually appreciate that in FoL an insecure flirtatious workaholic doesn’t have to stop being either insecure, flirtatious or a workaholic to find love. And maybe—thinking about it—there’s value in a story that’s about two fundamentally flawed people who find acceptance in each other, even if that ultimately comes about because they happened to pick Traits that didn’t overlap. In many ways this is another example of the fascinating effects of the game’s non-mechanical coding. Just as there is absolutely nothing in the game’s rules that says the blue player is the boy, or that setting your character card to the side that shows the petite silhouette with long hair and boobs means that your character identifies as female, so there is nothing that says it is more desirable for your character to be kind, just and secure rather than a jealous irresponsible hypocrite. And ironically because the “positive” and “negative” coded personality traits are mechanically equivalent, I’ve often come to the end of a game and felt that the “just” “kind” “adventurous” person was way more of a cynical manipulative douchebag than the “manipulative”, “cynical”, “narrow-minded” one. 

A secondary niggle I have with the game’s mechanics is that because there are only six different “personality dimensions” with positive or negative options for each, there are only twelve ways that any given Trait or Choice can code mechanically. But there are well more than twelve Trait cards. They are partly differentiated because some traits require you to only care about the distribution of your own Personality Tokens, while others require you to care about your partner’s as well. And this actually leads to some rather clever and nuanced distinctions: a “greedy” person needs to have a personal total of three negative points in Sincerity, but doesn’t at all care if their partner is ragingly sincere. A “manipulative” person, by contrast, seeks not only to behave insincerely themselves, but to actively undermine the sincerity of their partner. You get similar pairs with things like “down to earth” (“I am not curious, but don’t mind if you are”) vs “narrow minded” (“I am not curious, and you won’t be either”), and so on. 

The problem here is that because you do have an (admittedly weak) incentive to pursue personality tokens that match your character’s personality, you’ll tend to pick the choices that give you the points you need, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect the kind of personality you’re trying to portray. A manipulative person and a pretentious person, or a cynical person and a cocky person, or a spiritual person and a person with a profound sense of justice don’t necessarily act the same way. And I should stress that this is a very minor niggle, about as far from deal-breaking as you can possibly get, but just sometimes it jolts you out of the experience when—for example—your partner asks if you’ll convert to their religion, and you realise that saying you will causes you to lose Sincerity even though you feel it’s exactly the sort of thing that your character—a wide-eyed innocent committed to finding happiness though Unconditional Love (both of which specifically require Sincerity to work)—would do. You get similar issues with the changes in satisfaction that come from a particular set of choices. You lose satisfaction for agreeing to lie for your partner, even if you’re a cynical manipulative criminal. 

Conclusions

Fog of Love is really hard to talk about because even by the standards of quirky and unusual games like T.I.M.E. Stories it’s genuinely unique. I’ve never played a game like it and there will probably never be another game like it, because its whole structure is single-mindedly dedicated to its core purpose of recreating the romantic comedy experience in a board game and, despite the one or two gripes I mention above, it basically nails it.

I’ll often try to end my board game reviews by addressing explicitly how I think the game will work for three groups of people: non-gamers or causal gamers, families, and couples (in the “two player” sense rather than necessarily in the “romantic partners” sense).

I’ll start with the obvious one. Fog of Love is explicitly designed as a two player game, so it’s a fundamentally satisfying two-player experience. If you’re looking for something to play with your partner or with the one friend you can reliably get to come over and play boardgames, it’s a really good pick. Obviously you do need to make sure that whoever you play it with is the sort of person you’re happy sort-of-roleplaying through a romantic relationship with, so that’s something you have to take into account. I don’t think that there’s any realistic probability of the fake, movie-level relationship drama in Fog of Love leading to real-life relationship drama (although it does make you consider some interesting questions about real life relationships, like whether it’s really a good thing to be with somebody who cares more about you than they do about themselves, or how you should react when your partner gets amnesia, quits being a massage therapist to become the Crown Prince of Ruritania, and then tells you that they’re really sixteen) but chances are not everybody you know is going to be comfortable spending ninety minutes basically just pretending that they’re going out with you. So, y’know, think about that.

This leads to the next group I like to consider, which is families. And … yeah this is going to be one where mileage varies hugely. As ever, I don’t have kids, but I think that I might be a bit weirded out by a game where I had to pretend I was dating my imaginary ten-year-old. The game also includes a very small amount of very slightly adult content. Not much, there’s a scene where one of you suggests watching an erotic movie, and there might be one or two more with content on that level (the scene decks are large and I don’t think we’ve seen more than half of any of them). It’s certainly “romantic comedy” level rather than “adult film” level but, as always, comfort levels are going to vary wildly with that kind of thing.

The final group of people I like to think about when I review games are non-gamers, or casual gamers, or non-obsessively-nerdy-four-thousand-word-blog-post-writing gamers. And here I’m going to ponder for a bit. Apologies in advance. I think it’s easy to assume that what puts non-gamers off of hobby-style gaming is the complexity—all the fiddly counters and dice and rules and attacks of opportunity. But I’m not actually sure that’s completely true. After all, people do complicated things all the time. A lot of very, very popular very, very mainstream hobbies are extremely complicated if you get even the tiniest bit interested in them. Look at baking. I mean, why do you need to have more than two types of sugar? How can there even be more than two types of sugar? And people have trouble with the difference between High Elves and Wood Elves. I ask you.

 Sorry, I digress.

Point being, there’s a tendency for gamers to assume that what puts non-gamers off of gaming is all the scary intimidating rules stuff. And perhaps I’m being oversensitive, but I sometimes suspect that this assumption is a bit, well, patronising. It seems grounded in the idea that nerds are intrinsically better at dealing with difficult things than non-nerds. And anecdotally, I’ve known just as many people who were put off D&D by the fact that the game doesn’t have an obvious objective or a clear  winner as by all the levels, classes, and spell slots.

This isn’t to say that I would discourage non-gamers or new gamers from trying Fog of Love. It’s mechanically clean, easy to understand, and has a really neat system where the decks of cards come in a preselected order with tutorial rules mixed in, so the game basically walks you through your first game step by step. It is actually accessible in that regard, and it probably will appeal to people who aren’t super into fiddly counters or who prefer stories about kissing to stories about stabbing. But the structure is unusual, and I’m not totally convinced that everybody will buy into it. It’s a great game, and does exactly what it sets out to do. But as a way to convince people who are sceptical about board gaming to give board gaming a try, I’m not totally certain that “we’re two people who are in a relationship, and we’re going to make a bunch of choices that affect sort of what our relationship is like, and it might end happily or sadly and either way it’s okay because it’s really about the journey and the story” might be a bit of a tough sell.

Just very, very quickly (because I’m aware that this conclusion is getting really long) I’d also just add that there are only four scenarios in the main box, and the first one is basically a tutorial and you don’t really get to play the full game until scenario three. But I should stress that this isn’t like T.I.M.E. Stories or Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. Each scenario is a framework for you to riff around, and so each one is eminently replayable.

tl;dr Fog of Love is like nothing else. It bills itself as “Romantic Comedy as a Board Game” and while that tagline might sound either uninspired or hokey, it at least has the virtue of being completely accurate. It’s a board game that actually makes you feel like you’re improvising a romcom. And that’s really cool. It’s definitely worth checking out if you are even a little bit interested.

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Quick edit: So, in this post I talk about the lack of LGBTQ+ and POC representation in the historical romance category in the RITAs, but it’s been pointed out to me that I may inadvertently have created the impression that there is nobody out there writing historical romance with LGBTQ+ or POC protagonist. It wasn’t my intention to create that impression, and that is very much not the case. There are many excellent writers of historical romance fiction writing about diverse voices, both LGBTQ+ and POC, who I would personally love to see better represented in the RITAs.

So around this time of year I’ll usually do a blog post about the RITAs, although as is typical for my blog posts I’m going to start off talking about the RITAs and then spiral out to talk about a whole bunch of tangentially related things. As ever, I should start the post by congratulating everyone who has been nominated, and saying how happy I am to see an increasing number of LGBTQ+ stories garnering nominations.

I’m going to be talking a bit about representation in the RITAs in this post, with particular reference to the historical category, and it’s hard to discuss these kinds of issues without inadvertently either shitting on or apologising for the awards and the people who have been nominated for them. In particular, I’m going to look at the tendency for books nominated in the historical category to overwhelmingly feature white, heterosexual, affluent protagonists from a very small part of the world and a very narrow band of history (because this is something I’ve seen some discussion of on Twitter) and I’m going give some thought to why historicals might trend that way and what it might mean if they do. I in no way intend this to disparage or detract from the achievements of the actual nominees (either this year or any other).

Jackie Horne over at Romance Novels for Feminists ran some numbers on the LGBTQ+ and POC rep in this year’s nominees and noted a small but definite increase in representation in both areas across the RITAs a whole. And, obviously, these are small number statistics—for example there are 4 finalists in YA romance, of which 1 was written by a POC so depending on how you look at it that’s either 1 (not good) or 25% (actually pretty good, at least relative to the average). When you’re dealing with a large number of small groups, each of which probably contains between 0 and 2 of whatever it is you’re trying to evaluate, you’re naturally going to see quite a lot of 0s. Of the 12 categories Jackie ran the numbers for (and she herself notes they are not exact, as trying to identify the racial identity of authors and characters is problematic in both senses of the word), 8 have 0 authors of colour, 4-6 have 0 protagonists of colour (depending on what you think about Sheik romances and how you identify the ethnicity of a character in a fantasy world), and 7 have 0 queer protagonists. So in virtually every case at least half the categories have no representation of the kind under discussion. And if we’re being super mathematical about it if we assume that those three kinds of representation are independent and random (which they almost certainly aren’t but it makes the numbers easier to work with) you would expect roughly 1 category in every 8 to come up with 0s across the board. And, in fact, that’s almost exactly what we see. Of 12 categories, 2 have no queer protagonists, no authors of colour, and no protagonists of colour.

The thing is, those 2 categories happen to be historical long and romance with religious/spiritual elements (what used to be inspirational) and, while that could be a coincidence, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that if you had to predict which categories would be least likely to include queer or POC representation those are probably the categories you’d pick. I’ve also had a look back at previous nominations and those categories have historically tended to be the ones that were least likely to include LGBTQ+ or POC characters or authors. For the record, I’m not going to touch romance with religious/spiritual elements in this post because it’s not really a subgenre I have much insight into or standing to talk about. But I do want to look at historicals and think about why it might be that this particular subgenre seems to skew so much in favour of a particular kind of story about a particular kind of person.

Subheadings incoming!

Big Fish

Perhaps the simplest structural explanation for why the nominees of the historical categories tend to be particular kinds of people writing particular kinds of books is that quite often they’re actually the same people. And I should stress I don’t mean that as a criticism—these people get nominated year on year because they write great books—but if you have a small number of big names in a relatively small subgenre (there are usually about 5 nominees in historical long compared to about 10 in contemp or about 8 in paranormal) it’s natural that those people will dominate the awards scene. Of this year’s 5 nominees in historical long, 2 have already won RITAs, and 1 has been previously nominated. Of last year’s 4 nominees, 2 were previous winners and multiple-time nominees. And a similar pattern repeats as you look back. And, obviously, it’s not intrinsically wrong for an award for being good at something to be consistently awarded to people who are good at that thing, but it does make it hard for new voices to compete.

A Conservative Genre

Ironically, this subheading sounds like quite a good name for a historical romance. When the question of why you don’t get more LGBTQ+ or POC representation in historicals arises, one of the lines that often gets brought out (either resignedly or apologetically) is “well, historical is one of the most conservative genres.” And, in one way, that’s a reasonable assertion, and sort of ties back to the previous point about the nominations being dominated by a small group of authors who are already popular—not to suggest that these authors are themselves necessarily conservative people or that they necessarily write conservative books, but small-c conservatism is almost definitionally about liking things you already know you like. And while I don’t want to get into the whole question of whether the market for diverse romances is as big as or bigger than publishers often think it is (especially in particular subgenres which are seen as “conservative”) it does follow that if there is a perception of historical romance as a conservative subgenre that will lead to fewer diverse voices within historical romance and that will in turn lead to less representation and, potentially, less acknowledgement of the diverse voices that do nevertheless exist.

Having said that, within the specific context of the RITAs the question of what it means for historical to be a “conservative genre” is rather more interesting. It’s true that judges get to opt out of … I think (I’m sorry, I can’t quite remember) … 2 categories. But since there are 12 categories  I can’t imagine there being that much self-selection amongst RITA judges, especially along the conservatism versus liberalism axis as it relates to those particular genres. I mean, I could see very progressive judges self-selecting out of romances with religious/spiritual elements because they might (not unreasonably) think it likely that they wouldn’t be able to engage with those books on their own terms. And I could imagine very conservative judges self-selecting out of erotic for essentially the same reason. But I just don’t think that even the trendiest and most liberal of RITA judges would specifically avoid historicals. In fact, I can see it going the other way—my trendy liberal experience of my trendy liberal friends is that we’re quite interested in history and historical representation, and are keen to support progressive voices within traditionally conservative media. So I guess what I’m saying is, even if the average reader of historical romance is more conservative than the average reader of contemporary or paranormal romance (and I am no way suggesting that this is really the case) I can’t really see that the mechanisms of the RITA judging process leading to the average judge of a historical novel in the RITAs being more conservative than the average judge of a contemporary novel.

Which leads to something really interesting. Because what I can see is the possibility of the average RITA judge assessing historical romance by a more conservative standards than the standards by which they would judge a contemporary or a paranormal or a romantic suspense. And it’s actually this that I think I want to talk most about because it’s the line of thinking that led me to most inspect my own perceptions and preconceptions.

I’m now going to take a brief digression to talk about Friends.

So No-one Told You Life Was Gonna Be This Way

There was a big kerfuffle on the internet recently about “millennials” watching Friends and getting all judgemental about it. I’d say that this was a storm in a teacup but it wasn’t even that—it was sort of a light breeze in a shot glass. As far as I can tell, some people in their late 20s and early 30s watched or re-watched Friends, and wrote some Tweets along the lines of “hey, this is more racist and homophobic than I remember it being” and then some other people in their late 30s or early 40s lost their fucking minds because some slightly younger people had dared to be critical of a fondly remembered feature of their childhood.  I confess that I am framing this incident in a not-entirely unbiased manner.

The reason this is relevant (and I promise it will become relevant) is that it got me thinking , by the usual needlessly circuitous process by which things get me thinking, about our perception of history.

I suspect (and this suspicion is based partly on things people have explicitly said in public, so it’s fairly well-grounded) that one of the problems people have with diverse characters in historical fiction in general but historical romance in particular is that portraying POCs or LGBTQ+ people in a historical setting as having lives which aren’t unmitigatedly shitty from wall to wall feels “unrealistic.” And even if people will accept the idea of a lovestory with a queer or POC protagonist having an uncomplicatedly happy ending some people believe that including that kind of character in a historical narrative feels forced. We see a black guy in a book set in 19th century London and we think “oh they just did that out of political correctness”. You have two lesbians who live together openly in the Regency and we think “there’s no way that could ever have actually happened”. Except, of course, there were tonnes of black people in 19th century London and there were real examples of lesbians openly cohabiting in the Regency. It’s just that we haven’t built those stories into our perception of history.

This brings us back to the Friends thing. My feelings on representation in Friends went through a bunch of loops and iterations. And, ultimately, I do come down on the side of “well, it was the 90s” which is sort of a deliberately double-edged statement in that, on the one hand, I think it’s important not to judge historical periods (and, fuck, it’s depressing to me that the 90s is a historical period) by modern standards but, on the other hand, we need to recognise that acknowledging how far we’ve come since then means revising how we feel about how we were back then. I think a lot of the backlash against those millennials who dared criticise a show from the 90s was rooted in this weird doublethink of people simultaneously wanting to say “it was a long time ago and things have changed” while also still sort of wanting to hold up their 90s selves as paragons of progressive values. Basically, we feel really feel uncomfortable having liked something that was (arguably) racist and so we jump through a lot of hoops to convince ourselves that not only was it not racist, but that also aren’t the people who are calling it racist the real racists. Sorry, I digressed within my digression.

Anyway, on part of my journey to it-was-the-90s-dom, I went down a weird tangent of imagining would it would be like if I was a person in the 22nd century and my perception of 20th century New York was based on the cultural artefacts that came out of mainstream media at the time. And this was partly just a silly speculative exercise but, when you get right down to it, that’s a huge how part of how our perception of history works. My ideas about life in 19th century England come from Austen, Dickens and, perhaps more importantly, the BBC adaptions of Austen and Dickens I watched when I was fourteen, and have very little to do with actual historical scholarship. For that matter, a lot of my knowledge about the Middle Ages, Elizabethan England, the Regency and the First World War comes from Blackadder. And I think the weird thing is because most of us aren’t historians we honestly forget how much of what we believe about the past comes from fictionalised portrayals of it.

Anyway anyway, the spurious analogy that links these two utterly unrelated concepts together is this: if I was a 22nd century reader whose ideas about 20th century New York had come from watching Friends I would have no idea that people of colour were a significant element of the demographics of the city at that time. If I then read a romance novel set in Brooklyn in the 1990s and it had a black protagonist (we’re assuming I live in slightly dystopian 22nd century where our attitudes to race haven’t moved on, like, at all) I would feel that it was a really forced effort to insert diversity into a historical era in which, from my perspective, diversity just wasn’t a thing. 22nd century me might feel similarly about a story set against the backdrop of the Notting Hill carnival, which would radically conflict with the image of 20th century London that I derived from the film Notting Hill.

I mention this because, as I get older, I do become increasingly aware of how flawed and how limited my perception of even comparatively recent bits of history, even the history of my own country, are. Because, the thing is, I do understand the instinct that says “but there just weren’t black people back then”. Even though I know on a rational level that pretty much all historical societies have been far more diverse than we imagine them being I, like most people, am so inculcated in narratives which exclude marginalised people from history that I have to consciously remind myself that those narratives emerge from a particular cultural context and are not just the “right” way to talk about historical periods. To put it another way, the culture, and set of cultural biases, that one is used to feel neutral, and so deviation from them feels artificial. But the only really artificial thing is that feeling of artificiality. It’s like when people complain about the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in stories that aren’t explicitly about LGBTQ+ issues. There’s this perception that making a character LGBTQ+ is an active decision while making them straight isn’t and that you should make the active decision only if required to. But, actually, the choice make a character straight, or male, or white is as active a decision as the choice them LGBTQ+ or female or a POC. And it’s a mistake to assume one of those choices is “political” when the other isn’t.

To put it yet another way, in my country where Dukes are actually a thing, there are a grand total of 30 (6 members of the Royal family, 24 others), and while the amount of Duchies in the Kingdom has varied a bit over the years, this number has remained relatively stable.  By contrast, although I don’t have access to hard census data for the 19th century, Google reliably informs me that there were 2,651,939 people in London in 1851. And, if we take the extremely conservative estimate that only 0.1% of them were people of colour, that means that in the mid-19th century there were 2650 POCs in London compared to about 30 Dukes in the whole country. So, from a certain perspective, a historical romance about a person of colour set in England in the mid-19th century is 88.3% times more plausible than one about a Duke. But because we’re used to seeing stories about Dukes in the 19th century and we aren’t used to seeing stories about people who aren’t white or heterosexual in the 19th century,  stories about the absolutely tiny number of high ranking members of the landed aristocracy seem natural and normal to us while stories about the proportionally much larger number of marginalised people living in England at the time feel implausible or disorientating, even though they’re actually more reflective of the lives of real people.

So Anyway

As ever this is where I get to the end to the end of a 3000 word blog post and realise I haven’t really got a conclusion per se. Because obviously I’m not actually suggesting we should stop reading, writing or enjoying books about Dukes or, for that matter, white heterosexuals. But I do think we should ask ourselves whether, when we think about historical romance, we are unconsciously thinking about too narrow a definition of history.  Taking a step back, it is incredibly strange that our perception of historical romance is so dominated by Dukes in the Regency which, in context, means that it is dominated by 30 people between the years 1811 and 1820. And, again, I should stress that I love Regencies and I’m fine with Dukes, but focusing all of our attention on so narrow a group necessarily excludes people who are often already systematically excluded by traditional historical narratives. And, of course, it is not the job of historical romance writers to fix broader cultural issues, and the way in which societies elide the historical presence of marginalised people is a massive cultural issue. But we do, I think, have a responsibility to be aware that the parts of history we choose to celebrate and magnify are within our control, both as individuals and as a community.

I could be way off base here but my perception is, especially in the 21st century, marginalised voices don’t become marginalised because people actively set out to exclude them. They become marginalised because when we think about romance or history or, well, anything we fill in a whole bunch of blanks without even knowing we’re doing it. When we sit down to write or read or review or judge a historical story we bring with us our awareness of every other historical story we’ve been told and we often lose sight of the fact that those stories were not actually representative of the world as it is or history as it was.

Ultimately I don’t know for certain why historical romance (long) was one of the only two RITA categories to include no POC authors, no POC protagonists, and no LGBTQ+ protagonists. But I think it’s got a lot to do with the fact that we’ve spent centuries telling ourselves that “history” is only about the exploits of a tiny number of wealthy men from European countries. And while I’m absolutely not saying we shouldn’t continue to produce and enjoy those kinds of stories, I also feel that we will be richer as a community and a culture if we learn to celebrate a broader range of narratives.

romancelandia
35 Comments

For those who get their news from my blog rather than from Twitter, please be aware that I’ve recently withdrawn my books from Riptide Publishing. What this means in practice is that, for a short while, any titles previously distributed via Riptide (which is to say, anything that doesn’t have the word billionaire in the title) will be unavailable for purchase. I am working to make these titles available again as soon as possible, but it’ll take a little while to handle the logistics of it. I’m afraid I can’t give you an exact timetable but I’ll be starting with the shorter books first, hopefully for obvious reasons.

The only thing I’m still on the fence about is what to do with Sand and Ruin and Gold. While I’m a great believer that, in fiction, length is not an indicator of value I have always been aware that its original list price of $2.99 was a lot for longish short story. I am, however, very fond of it as a piece of work and would like for it to be available so I’m thinking about making it a free download, either here on the website, or for newsletter subscribers.

Otherwise, I’m working as fast as I can and I’m really sorry for the disruption and the inconvenience. Watch his space for more updates.

writing
6 Comments

I’ve come into possession of … wait … that sounds unnecessarily dodgy … my publisher has kindly given me some audiocodes for How To Bang A Billionaire, narrated by Joel Leslie who is, frankly, amazing.

Something I found kind of challenging (in an interesting way) when he was preparing to do his thing with the book (and you can read about his approach from the man directly here) was that he asked me a bunch of questions about the characters, including what animal I thought they’d be. Needless to say, I spent an unnecessarily long time thinking about it, and this is what I came up with:

  • Arden St Ives: squirrel—lively, fluffy and feisty.
  • Caspian Hart: stag—proud, strong, dangerous but not actually predatory.
  • Eleanor ‘Ellery’ Hart: hedgehog – fiercely self-protecting.
  • Nik Whatever The Heck His Surname Is: golden Labrador – loyal, athletic and loveable.
  • Justin Bellerose: mongoose – I DON’T KNOW WHY, BUT IT JUST FEELS RIGHT.
  • Nathaniel Priest: white tiger because they always strike me as smug motherfuckers. Basically, they’re tigers who know they’re better than you.
  • Lancaster Steyne: boa constrictor.
  • George Chase: Anna Chancellor if she was an ocelot.

Special bonus round: Ardy’s mum (hummingbird), Hazel (honeybadger), Rabbie (brown bear), Weird Owen (gerenuk), Poppy Carrie (Andalusian horse), Trudy Hart (swan), Finesilver (lionfish), Dame Frances (boar).

Anyway, if you would like to win a copy of the audiobook of How To Bang A Billionaire (downloadable from audiobooks.com, giveaway open internationally) you can do so by either

  • entering ye standard Rafflecopter here, from which two winners will be selected at random
  • telling me which animal your favourite character from the book would be and why. You can leave me a comment here, email me at ajh(at)quicunquevult(dot)com, Tweet me, Facebook me or otherwise social media me in whatever fashion you fancy. And from these I will pick the awesome-est until I’ve run out of codes.

In summary:

The giveaway will run until next Monday (5th March). And, um, here are some of the super lovely things people are saying about Joel:

Joel Leslie does a wonderful job with the narration for this book. Arden is the heart of this series and Leslie captures him just perfectly. (Joyfully Jay)

What can I say about Joel Leslie that has not been said before? Stellar performance, check; brilliant execution, check; brilliant performance, check. (Open Skye Book Reviews)

He’s also done How To Blow It With A Billionaire and that’s available on iTunes.

Also other places, like audiobooks.com, koboaudible.com, and audible.co.uk.

silliness
50 Comments

I’m currently suffering with a godawful flu – which has impeded even my ability to watch terrible Hugh Grant films. But normal service will resume soon enough, I’m sure.

I’m also aware I’ve left things up in the air a bit when it comes to my various projects, so here’s a State of the Hall update.

The first is a bit complicated because it relates to my non-writing life. Basically, midway through last year my day job changed pretty substantially and became a lot of more demanding. This is mostly really exciting, because I’m fortunate enough to love my day job about as much as I love my writing job, but it took me longer than I thought it would to adapt my writing around my new schedule.

The most direct impact of this is, as a few people have already noticed, the publication date of Ardy III (provisionally titled, How To Belong With A Billionaire) has been pushed back to late 2018. I know this is really frustrating, especially because the second book ended where it did, and I’m really sorry. But the book is definitely coming! And I can’t wait to give Ardy and Caspian their much-deserved HEA.

Something that has also been impacted, although I don’t think it will affect readers quite so explicitly is that some time last year I announced a queer m/f Regency trilogy, which I was very excited about. Unfortunately, due to the day job thing, I fell behind on the delivery date for it and the schedule no longer worked for the publisher – so that’s on the back burner for the foreseeable. It’s a book I really enjoyed writing so I do hope to come back to it at some point in the future, but I’m having to manage my commitments a lot more carefully moving forward.

I’ve also had a few queries about Nettlefield. Basically, 2016 and 2017 were just such shitty years in terms of, well, everything (Alan Rickman and Carrie Fisher died for God’s sake) that I didn’t really want to put out a sad book. Well, I mean it’s not sad exctly, but it’s quite bittersweet. And I just don’t think this is a time for bittersweet. So I’m afraid that’s also back burnered until, well, something changes.

Finally, though, here is something awesome.  When I first started writing back in … yikes … 2014 … I used to split my output pretty evenly between queer contemporary romance and, um, shall we say weirder offerings? With one thing and another, things shifted heavily towards romance, so something i really wanted to do in 2017 was redress the balance a bit. Aaaaaand I’m happy to be able to say that is happening!

Recently, my amazing agent sold my queer fantasy novel to an equally amazing editor at Ace. The book is provisionally titled The Affair of the Mysterious Letter (though I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that hasn’t had its name changed before publication) and it’s probably best summed up as: bisexual lady Holmes and puritan trans Watson solve crimes in a weird fantasy city. It’s not really very much like anything I’ve written previously, because it tilts much more towards fantasy than Prosperity or even Kate Kane. But if you were into the way I went about building the worlds in those books, then you might enjoy this too.  I mean, the book is completely mad, but it’s also a joy to write, I think it’s in super good hands and I can’t wait to share it with you.

As ever, if you have any questions or concerns, by all means throw them at me in the comments.

Otherwise, all that remains to be said, I think is: OMG YAY.

writing
57 Comments

Happy new year! I shall start 2018 as I mean to continue it by composing a blog post that has nothing to do with writing. My original plan was for this to be a summary of the various games I have played over the Xmas period, giving a quick description and critique of each, with some recommendations at the end. Turned out it didn’t quite work that way, partly because we bailed on the latest T.I.M.E. Stories expansion after realising it was, um, really really explicitly based on the murder of Sharon Tate by the Manson family in a way that felt creepy and exploitative, and partly because we got completely sucked into FFG’s new collaborative narrative game thingy Legacy of Dragonholt.

Legacy of Dragonholt is set in Fantasy Flight Games’ increasingly over-populated Runebound universe, where it shares shelf-space with such tiles as Descent, Battlelore (the new version) and, of course, Runebound. The setting is a weird mix of very specific and very generic, and the various games that exist within it only partly feel like they meaningfully take place in the same world. They share some common themes—the towns always have the same names, magic is always worked using specific items called runes that you literally carry around and technically anyone can use, orcs are one of the good guy races (and a deeply spiritual people etc.), and there’s some historical shit with dragons, but there are peculiar little details that seem game specific, like the “good” army in Battlelore is clearly all human, even though the Baronies in Runebound are very cosmopolitan, there’s a recurring low-level villain called Splig the Goblin King but the game seems inconsistent about whether goblins are even a thing, and isn’t it a bit odd to make orcs this noble warrior race but keep goblins as generic low-level enemies you fight? Also Legacy of Dragonholt has cat people in it and I’m pretty sure none of the other game have cat people in them. And, to be fair, it’s probably to the credit of the series that these things even stand out to me because, if it was just a totally generic fantasy world, I wouldn’t especially care but there’s just enough of an identifiably Runebound feel in Runebound that things that don’t fit that feel are jarring.

Anyway, Legacy of Dragonholt is kind of like a Fighting Fantasy novel except it’s designed to be played with multiple players and it’s kind of like Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, except that it’s nothing like Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. What it’s most like is a really free form D&D campaign that is being DMed by some books. It starts with you (where “you” means whichever humans are playing the game, plus a gnome called Mariam and an orc called Braxton) travelling through a forest with one of those slightly forgettable fantasy woodland names like Ever-something or Even-something en route to the tiny village of Dragonholt. You have been summoned to this village by a letter from your old friend Celyse. This letter is a charming physrep and contains deliberate misspellings that conceal a coded message (this is not a spoiler, this is made really explicit in the first paragraph). There’s something really comforting about the opening. You’re immediately given a very accessible description of very generic fantasy scenario and you get a cool thing to look at and a little bit of a puzzle to solve. The actual coded message itself is about the least useful piece of information that could possibly be communicated to you by a former adventuring companion now working for the ruling family of a small village (it amounts to barely more than ‘something bad is happening’) but it’s just … honestly nice to sit there with a physrep spelling out words and planning your journey through the Ever-whatever forest.

Perhaps the most helpful thing I can say about Legacy of Dragonholt at this point is that it’s really useful to have the right set of expectations going in because there were a number of things I initially found jarring but eventually worked out are kind of the whole point. For example, because the structure is  superficially similar to that of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective I think I went in expecting the game to primarily revolve around doing quests, which you would do sequentially and with the village section being the equivalent of a briefing / debriefing. In fact, the reverse is true as, in retrospect, should have been obvious from the fact that all six quest booklets put together are still probably not quite as big as the village book. By a similar token, I was a bit thrown with the very first adventure (To New Roads) because I had assumed that the journey through Eveningwear Forest would be a relatively short scene that led to a wider adventure either in or around Dragonholt. When, in fact, To New Roads is just you going to Dragonholt and the adventure in Dragonholt is, well, everything else that happens in Dragonholt. So I spent about the first dozen or so paragraphs of the introductory quest thinking “why is there so much time here dedicated to chatting with this random orc, we hardly seem to have got anywhere, isn’t there supposed to be an adventure attached to this” when actually the quest booklet was just a convenient way of organising the bits of narrative that make up your journey to the village. You talk to NPCs, you get attacked by bandits, you climb up a cliff, you see a magic tree and find a wooden badger. That’s kind of it. But those are all sort of equally important and prepare you for the sort of thing you’ll spend most of your time in Dragonholt doing.

The final thing I found slightly surprising about the introductory quest was that it was really, really PG. There are a couple of almost jarring moments where, for example, Mariam the gnome alchemist throws a cloud of acidic gas at a bandit and it specifically dissolves the bandit’s shield causing them to run away, rather than harming the bandit at all. It even ends with you reaching Dragonholt and settling down in The Swan (Mariam’s aunt’s inn which will be your base of operations for the rest of the campaign) where you are rewarded for your efforts with a nice glass of milk. And I should stress that I have no problem with PG. I actually quite like PG because I’m heartily sick of things trying to prove how mature, valuable and worthy they are by being gratuitously nasty (just a reminder: we played this directly after abandoning a game that turned out to be poorly translated Charles Manson fanfic). That said, the PGness is sometimes a bit uneven, although maybe this wouldn’t have jarred with me if I hadn’t had to make such a conscious adjustment at the beginning. Most of the time, the game has a fairly Saturday morning cartoon approach to violence, with people falling over or getting trapped under things or running away comically because you’ve done something impressive and/or scary. But then you very occasionally get things like people getting explicitly chopped in half—and it’s never graphic but when you’re used to fight scenes sometimes being stretched a little to avoid actually describing the consequences of violence it’s a bit odd. I’m also pretty sure there’s a bit in the middle where a child can be murdered in front of you which is, y’know, dark. And, actually, you can make a reasonable case that this is a strength of the text in that there’s a tendency to assume that PG things can’t have dark themes and that it has to be “no-one ever gets hurt and good always triumphs” or “blood and bosoms and everything’s bad forever” so it’s quite interesting to see a story which does shy away from, example, describing the realistic consequences of throwing a bottle of acid at somebody but doesn’t shy away from the consequences of grief and trauma and spending too much time shopping when you should have been rescuing somebody.

To New Roads also serves as an introduction to the core mechanics of game which is fairly standard Choose Your Own Adventure fare (to fight the dragon turn to 24, to hug the dragon turn to 17) but with a skill system attached, allowing for character customisation. When you create your character you pick a race (which, in our play through, came up only once and required you to be a gnome, which none of us were), a class (which is never specifically referenced but gives you access to some skills) and then some more skills. This is very system light, remarkably flexible, and positively encourages you to do things that would be severely punished in a more traditional RPG. For example, I decided to play an Orcish bard as sort of joke, which meant I took brawling, endurance, athletics, empathy and performance. In any other system this would have made me a terrible bard and a terrible fighter, because I didn’t have enough people skills to be good at barding, or enough combat skills to be good fighting. But I actually rolled along fine, doing a bit a punching, a bit of singing, and a bit of getting people to talk about their feelings.

This was basically possible because of the way the game handles skills. Periodically, the text will ask you if you have a skill or not, and most of the time if you do, good things happen, if you don’t bad things happen. I mean, I say bad things and good things, but the difference is usually one of degrees, rather than one of category. It’s not like the most extreme of the old Fighting Fantasy novels where if you have a green gem you win and get a magic sword, and if you don’t you die instantly. This mostly works pretty well, although it has the usual problem you get with this type of game, where you sometimes have to guess a bit as to what skill goes with what option (is climbing this wall going to be athletics or agility or can I use either, can I use persuasion or reasoning to talk this person down or does it have to be empathy). But because the results are never especially punishing, even if you make a poor choice, it means you usually feel supported no matter how you decide to approach a problem. And the game is quite good at signalling when you’re about to do something obviously demanding / foolhardy like stepping between an child and an arrow, or charging headlong down a dragon’s throat (both of which I may or may not have tried).

The game is designed with the assumption that there’ll be a party of more than one player. Or rather it’s designed with the assumption that this will be a possibility but I honestly can’t tell what it assumes the default mode to be. There’s an initially unintuitive mechanic whereby each player has a token in front of them and every time you have to make a choice during an adventure (choice is kind of a game mechanical term here – a choice is something where you get multiple red boxes to pick from) only one player gets to make it. That player then flips their token over to indicate they can’t act again until everyone has gone. This system seems partly intended to make sure everybody gets their time in these spotlight, which is cool, but perhaps more importantly it’s a very slight way of balancing the inherent advantages of larger parties. Legacy of Dragonholt seems to follow the basically CRPG rule that it’s always best to take the option that uses a skill and a bigger party means more skills are covered which in turn means you’re less likely to lose stamina (and also you’ll have more stamina between you) so while our little group was initially confused by this “you can only do a thing if everyone else has also done a thing” system I think we eventually realised that it was necessary to stop the game becoming a little bit trivial and to make sure that everyone actually got to do something.

That said, I do feel like it would have worked better if you only flipped your token on decisions requiring skills, rather than on largely inconsequential decisions about which staircase to follow or which gnome to talk to. When the tokens work, you find yourself confronted with a locked door and realise that you can’t pick the lock because the player with the thief skills has just disarmed a trap and so a different player has to try to open the door, but that’s okay because that player gets to do something, and the thief has already done a thiefy thing that felt thiefy. When it doesn’t work is when you come to a locked door and you cant pick the lock because the player with the thief skills had to flip their token in order to “make the choice” to turn left at the last corridor. And, to be fair, this sort of thing doesn’t happen that often, but it happens just often enough that it’s noticeable and a bit irritating. We found ourselves sometimes having really meta conversations where we’d say things like “okay, I think if we go this way we’re going to have to sneak up on some people, so I should be the one who makes the decision to take the route that uses the sneaking, because I don’t have the sneaking skills and that way you’ll be free to use your sneaking skills at the next decision point.” And that’s just not a fun way to engage with the game. And maybe we took that too seriously but the trouble is, the only thing worse than not being able to do the thing you’re supposed to be good at is not being able to do the thing you’re supposed to be good at for completely arbitrary reasons.

Once you’ve finished To New Roads, the game opens out massively. You get a map of a village to explore and a big book of cool things that can happen to you in the village, but you’re given basically no guidance about what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re sort of told there’s an odd jobs board by the village hall and obviously you’ve got the letter from Celyse, but other than that a surprising amount of the gameplay is just wandering around town having lovely conversations with lovely villagers, occasionally partaking in lovely festivals and, in our case, completely failing to get with a lovely gnome. Side note: one of the peculiarities of the game’s sort of single player sort of multiplayer vibe is that there seem to be a couple of romance options in the game and you track progress along those plotlines the same way you plot everything else by marking coded “story points” on the back of the book, but the game doesn’t seem much to care which character does the romancing, so you can only progress your gnome romance if somebody in your party has flirted with the gnome at some point but the person who has flirted with the gnome does not have to be the same on any given occasion. So we wound up with a very liberal arc in which a male orc, a male dwarf and a female elf simultaneously pursued a polyamorous relationship with a female gnome.

And I do appreciate “lovely” doesn’t necessarily sound like the sexiest adjective to use in conjunction with a fantasy game experience, but actually the loveliness is really important, because it makes you super, super invested in the world and the NPCs. There’s a lot of really important little details here, like the way that when you wake up every morning or come home every evening there’s always this loving description of the delicious food that the gnome we tried to get with had made for everybody. And it’s always comforting and homey and makes you really want to eat blueberries and griddle cakes in a cheerful fantasy inn. And all of this makes you genuinely engage with the world as a real place, instead of a collection of game mechanics. On several occasions we took fundamentally sub-optimal decisions for emotional reasons (for example we took a doll to an adorable dwarvish child instead of going to train our skills and nearly missed out on one of the game’s quests because, instead of hanging out in taverns, looking for rumours we were picking apples, going to weddings, and delivering love letters), but were completely happy with the outcomes regardless.

One of the things I found cleverest about the game was the way in which it would reward your decisions with things that were commensurate with the decisions you made. One of the problems with a lot of games with RPG elements is that taking particular actions gives you very generic rewards (like experience points) which are useful to you even if you’re not interested in the things that give you those rewards in the first place. Legacy of Dragonholt very much doesn’t do that. If you’re interested in the dwarven child your primary reward is getting to spend more time with the dwarven child, and not a new sword. If you decide to follow the rumour about the tomb where the guy with the magic frostrune is buried your reward is a magic frostrune not experience points which you can spend on getting better at flirting with gnomes. Even our failed attempt to lure a middle-aged gnome lady into a menage-a-quatre feels like it failed because we didn’t spend enough time going to her inn to talk to her, not because we didn’t kill enough goblins. I mean, make enough goblins fall over.

Essentially, the best way to engage with the game is to allow yourself to react emotionally rather than second guessing and min-maxing. This becomes especially important where quests are concerned. If you’ve played any CRPGs you’ll probably be very used to the convention that when somebody comes up to you and says, for example, “help my son has been kidnapped” what this really means is that you can go shopping, sleep for eight hours, take a different quest that takes you to a totally different kingdom, come back, go to the market again, sell all the stuff you looted from that other quest you did, sleep for another eight hours, cast some healing heals, sleep for yet another eight hours to get your healing spells back, then at last saunter off to do Operation Child Rescue and everyone will act as if you’ve just left that minute. Legacy of Dragonholt very much does not work like this. While some quests (for example, the ones that involve mines that have been infested by goblins since time immemorial or mythical frostrunes in long abandoned crypts) really will just sit there while you do other things because, well, it’s clear from context that they’ve been sitting there for centuries others (like kidnapped children and attacking dragons) really won’t. I think probably the best thing I can say about the time critical quests in Legacy of Dragonholt is that I don’t know how difficult they are. We managed to bring both of them to what looked an awful lot like the optimal conclusion but it always felt down to the wire, and on both occasions we had to do some really desperate shit (cf previous comments re dragon throat), which we did because we cared enough about the world and the people in it that we didn’t want to see what happened if we failed. Although we did actually check in one case to see what would have happen if we failed and, dude, it was really sad.

If you look at reviews of this game online, a sizeable percentage of them will be people freaking out over its “political agenda”. And this, well, this gets really complicated. I mean, in some ways it’s not complicated at all. There’s quite a lot of women, LGBTQ+ people and people who clearly aren’t white in this game. That, from my perspective, is broadly a good thing. From other people’s perspective that is broadly a bad thing. And there’s an extent to which there’s no middle ground here. I think I’m particularly troubled by the way “political agenda” tends to get used as a pejorative in this kind of context because, while I could stand here and say “the game doesn’t have a political agenda, what are you talking about, it just happens to have LGBTQ+ people in it”, that’s not an entirely helpful line of argument. The fact is that where we are right now culturally putting LGBTQ+ people (and POCs and women) in things that they don’t “have” to be is making a conscious political statement. And it’s a political statement I agree with, and think needs to be made, because that statement basically boils down to “these people exist and are people”. And if we’re accepting that putting marginalised people in things they don’t “have” to be in is a conscious political statement, I think we should probably also admit that not putting marginalised people in things they don’t “have” to be in is also a political statement, although often an unconscious one. Because, actually, writing a fantasy world that unthinkingly reflects the cultural prejudices of the real world is as much a political act as writing one that challenges them.

The thing is, the “right-on” style of representation in Legacy of Dragonholt is of a very specific type and even if you aren’t the sort of person who objects on principle to a fantasy world having same sex marriage or female soldiers, the particular ways in which its “right-on-ness” manifests aren’t going to work for everybody. Speaking very very personally, I really loved how many women, queer people and incidental POCs were in it, but found its handling trans issues kind of dodgy. I fully respect that everyone’s mileage is going to vary on all of this. If I had to characterise Legacy of Dragonholt’s attitude to marginalised identities in general it basically goes with the assumption that they are not only equivalent to but interchangeable with non-marginalised identities, which I suspect will read as either really empowering or really problematic depending on who you are and what your perspective is. So, for example, one of the subplots that we got most invested in was that Mariam and Braxton (the gnome and orc who are with you from the first adventure) are strongly implied to be in a relationship at the start and, within about two days of your arrival in the village, they actually announce their engagement, and everybody is overjoyed and it’s just adorable, and you get to go a lovely orc-gnome lesbian wedding, which game mechanically, and I think in real life, we spent more time on than we did saving a village from a dragon.

And the problem is that this is more complicated than it seems, and it’s sort of a problem that that’s a problem, because it shouldn’t be complicated but it actually kind of still is. Basically, our (mixed identity) group loved it. We appreciated the fact it was normalising, we’d actively invested in those characters so we genuinely cared about their relationship, and it just, well, really worked for all of us. All of which said, I can see that some people might feel that it’s harmless to an almost harmful degree. Weirdly, for something that’s about two women getting married, it’s inescapably heteronormative. The gnome is flamboyant, playful and kind of girly while the orc is tough and taciturn and even her name doesn’t entirely code feminine. The wedding is obviously run through a light fantasy filter but it exactly fits the traditional heterosexual paradigm of what a wedding should be like. And the thing is, a lot of same sex weddings fit this paradigm, and there is something affirming and validating about recognising that same sex relationships can access the same rituals and fulfil the same social functions as opposite sex relationships. But at the same time there are people who still feel excluded by those rituals and who may feel frustrated that a marginalised identity is, arguably, reduced to a heartwarming trope. And I should reiterate that this is not at all how any of the members of our group felt about Mariam and Braxton but I think it’s important to acknowledge that there’s a very good chance of other people feeling differently.

An even more, and I’m aware I’ve said I’ve complicated a lot, but complicated aspect of the very, very non-threatening lesbians in the very very PG game is that it throws light on some quite deep seated differences in what people think is appropriate for what age groups. Which is to say, that while there are some people who just hate the idea of gays in fantasy, there are others who would be fine with it but don’t think it’s suitable in a game with an “otherwise” kid-friendly tone. I think there are a reasonable number of people who, although they are generally okay with the idea that LGBQ+ people exist and sometimes appear in things, file them in their head alongside cancer, street crime and tax returns as things best not shared with children. And this, again, is where the charges of the game having a “political agenda” become really problematic, because it is absolutely political to write a game that could work really well for a family audience and put a very explicit (in the sense of “written about on page” not in the sense of “bonking”) homosexual relationship in a prominent position.

Obviously I’m not going to speak for the designer but I assume that part of the intent was to signal to a potentially young audience that it’s normal to be LGBTQ+ identified. And I think it’s the normalisation that some people believe is a step too far. One of the things I’ve noticed and have been generally pleased about over the last several decades of vaguely paying to social justice stuff is that we’ve moved further and further away from talking about “tolerance”. Because, let’s face it, tolerance is an awful concept. It’s predicated on the assumption that the majority way of life is the correct one, but if some people aren’t able to live up to society’s standards we should try not to hold it against them. I think we’re genuinely getting to a point where we can stop trying to convince people that it’s wrong to be actively mean to each other on the basis of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality and so on, and start talking instead about actually accepting that there multiple valid ways to be a human. I think the thing is that a lot of people who are willing to go as far as tolerance get really upset if you ask them to go further. To put it another way, I suspect the people who have a problem with the “political” content in Legacy of Dragonholt as regards their children would be fine with a story aimed at teaching young kids not to be homophobic, but balk at the idea that kids should be taught that marrying a member of your own sex should be seen as equivalently valid to marrying a member of the opposite sex.

I mentioned at the start of this section that I wasn’t wild about the game’s handling of trans issues. I should, of course, massively stress that I am not qualified to talk about this, but I wanted to give people a quick run down because I think it could potentially be triggering or upsetting. I should also stress that I absolutely think the game has its heart in the right place – for example, one of the steps in character generation specifically references giving your character a gender identity rather than a gender, and one of the pre-generated sample characters on the FFG website is explicitly a trans woman. There’s also a genderqueer elf who, admittedly, seems mostly to be there as Prince tribute, but they are appropriately pronouned and that’s just a thing. To speculate wildly for a moment, I suspect that the issue that writer had (I should mention that Legacy of Dragonholt seems to have had a single writer than a team of designers) was wanting to include trans people to show that trans people are a part of that world, and not having a really good idea of how to do it, especially in such a truncated medium. This was probably especially difficult because the game is designed around the assumption that there’s basically no real world prejudice (although some people are mean about orcs and dwarves) which means that sort of by definition a transgender person in that world will in virtually all situations be treated exactly like a cisgender person—making it very hard to signal to the reader/player that they exist at all.

Unfortunately, the ways that the game chooses to signal that one of the characters is transgender (that I’ve found at least) are:

  1. seeing Hunter (the man who runs one of the pubs with his wife) leaving the apothecary, you have the option to ask Mariam why he is there (which is sort of a nosy question anyway, but in these games you just instinctively ask the more specific question first) at which point she informs you that he’s there buying a particular herb which, it becomes fairly clear is the magic equivalent of testosterone—after which she’s embarrassed she told you, and swears you to secrecy.
  2. talking to Hunter about how he met his wife, during which she mentions she was comically surprised “when she took his clothes off”, having had their meetcute fighting some ogres together

With my principle of charity hat on I can see where both of these are coming from, and how they sort of fit into the broader fantasy of a world where these kinds of issues just aren’t issues. I mean, almost everyone you meet seems to be bisexual, although having said that it might be more accurate, and perhaps more illuminating, to say that nobody you meet gives any indication that this is a world where gender is a factor in attraction at all. Which sort of has the same problem of being either normalising or erasing depending on how you look at it. The thing is, both of these scenes include quite specific elements that, from my understanding, a lot of trans people I know get really explicitly upset by.

In the first scene, where to begin. Mariam just randomly outs Hunter because you asked a casual question (and, okay, this is a world where it’s not a big deal, but she also swears you to secrecy) and also, even leaving identity politics aside, this is medical information as well. And, even if, you live in a world where it’s socially acceptable to talk about people’s non cis-normative gender identities I can’t imagine that it’s acceptable to talk about what medications they’re taking. It also ties into the really problematic tendency that cisgendered people have to over-focus on the physical and medical aspects of transgender people. Which is just not a way to behave about anybody else’s body. The second one, similarly, places an uncomfortable amount of emphasis on Hunter’s body. And I can see that, within the very specific fantasy of a world where all of these things are absolute non-issues, a story about picking up a hot guy in the woods, taking him home and getting his clothes off, only to discover that his body was not that of a cisgendered man, is nothing more than a cute, slightly romantic anecdote. But, the thing is, I really don’t think we’re in a place culturally where that works because our dominant narrative is still, well, really transphobic. And until we are far further away than we currently are from trans identity being treated as a plot twist, a betrayal or a mechanism for cis people to demonstrate virtue I just don’t think you can tell a story like this and not bring a whole lot of baggage with you.

And, once more, I should stress that this is all very subjective, I don’t have standing to talk about this, and mileage varies massively. I just wanted to flag it up because I’m very aware that this would be really upsetting for some people.

Anyway, I should probably wrap this up because I’ve written nearly six thousand words about an adventure game for fourteen year olds. I normally try to conclude my game reviews by talking specifically about whether I recommend them for couples or families. We played Legacy of Dragonholt with three, but I’m sure it would work fine with two (it’s designed to be playable solo as well) and, actually, with two I think the action passing mechanic would be a lot less faffy.

As for families, as always I don’t have a massively clear idea of what the hypothetical ten year old really likes in a game, but I could see this working really well if your kids are in that quite narrow window where they’re old enough that they can pay attention to a reasonable amount of text but not so old that they wouldn’t be caught dead playing a fantasy roleplaying game with their parents. It divides itself up quite nicely into playable chunks, in that it’s fairly easy to stop at the start or end of an adventure, the beginning or end of a day, or during codified chapter breaks. It contains a lot of very young-person friendly LGBTQ+ content, which you could reasonably see as a positive or a negative depending on your perspective and your politics. Obviously there’s some fantasy violence, which is kind of Disney level in that it runs to spectrum from “you hit someone and they fall over comically” to “trampled to death by wildebeest”. There is one very upsetting thing that can happen but which isn’t handled graphically in the moment, and which, from the bits of cheat-reading I’ve done, seems to be dealt with sensitively afterwards.

It does cost about £50 in UK monies, which is a little bit more than some people think it should cost. It’s a Fantasy Flight game which means it has fantastic production values but the things that are being fantastically produced are maps and cards and pamphlets not miniatures, so if you feel that you need to get a lot of actual stuff for your money you might be slightly disappointed. Having said that, I do think it’s more replayable than similar book-in-a-box games because it definitely has a non-linear story (within reason) and, while I wouldn’t want to play it again right away, I’d actually be quite interested to come back to Dragonholt in six months to a year with some fresh characters and see how the village is different if you approach it differently. Also, in terms of your actual entertainment budget, it kept three of us pretty much rapt every night for a week, which is about £3.50 per person per night. Which makes it better value for money than it seems but obviously this depends on how many people you play it with, for how long, and how much you like it.

In summary: I really loved this. It’s like the least edgy thing ever, but I found that super refreshing.

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So it’s a week before Xmas and so, therefore, obviously the best time to review four more Hugh Grant movies. And in some kind of seasonal miracle we’ve actually reached the films that people have heard of that are good. Well, ish.

Sirens

Wow, this film contains a lot of boobs. It includes Tara Fitzgerald’s boobs, Portia de Rossi’s boobs, Elle Macpherson’s boobs, and so some other boobs that have kind of blurred a bit because there are just so many boobs.

Anyway. Hugh Grant plays a repressed English clergyman (I mean, he actually plays a repressed English clergyman as opposed to all his other films were he just might as well be playing a repressed English clergyman) who is dispatched by his diocese to confront an artist whose works are at risk of being withdrawn from a local exhibition on account of all the boobs they’ve got in them. The premise is already quite odd. Either the church is hosting an exhibition to which they’ve randomly invited the kind of artist whose paintings are always full of boobs and are now surprised that his paintings are full of boobs even though his paintings are always full of boobs.  Or else somebody else is hosting an exhibition to which they’ve invited this artist whose paintings are always full of boobs, have been surprised at quite how full of boobs some of the paintings are and have unaccountably called upon church to intervene. I think there’s an implication that one of the paintings is explicitly blasphemous because it shows a naked woman being crucified (because female sexuality oh d’you see) but this still doesn’t really explain how we came to either one of these scenarios. If it’s a specifically church sponsored exhibition why invite the boob-centric artist with the explicitly pagan leanings in the first place? If it’s not, why do you care, and why are you getting Father Hugh to sort it out? Basically the whole thing is a paper-thin premise to get Hugh Grant being Hugh Grant at Sam Neill while Tara Fitzgerald has a sexual awakening with the help of some nude Australians.

I actually quite enjoyed Sirens. I don’t quite know why. I think, and maybe I’m only justifying the sheer amount of time I spent watching naked women frolic in a billabong, but I feel like the film has a weirdly mature level of self-awareness about its weirdly adolescent approach to sexuality. I mean, on one level the film’s core thesis is “yay boobs” and Hugh Grant’s character is presented as a terrible stick-in-the-mud for not sharing its “let me get my hands on your mammary glands” philosophy. But on another there’s an interesting parallelism between Hugh Grant’s clergyman and Sam Neill’s artist in that they both basically spend all of their time talking abstractly about life while the artists’ models and, eventually, Hugh Grant’s wife are actually going out and living it. There’s a bit where Sam Neill’s character very openly admits that he himself is something of a wallflower and that the reason he stays in an isolated house in the Bush painting pictures of naked women is that he’s afraid to go out and live his principles. And I think that’s quite an unusual way to portray that kind of character because normally libertine artists are presented as super cool iconoclasts who are living wild and painting hard.

Of course this contrast between the detached, hypocritical, emotionally cowardly male characters and the liberated, sensual, getting-their-boobs-out-all-the-time female characters is a little bit essentialist and does, unhelpfully, reinforce Sam Neill’s character’s over-simplistic line of neo-Pagan waffle about how female sexuality is all primal and natural and shit and it’s only the bad patriarchal church that has kept it in line (this is not true, they had sexism in Rome, and women couldn’t vote in ancient Athens). But it does at least mean that (in some ways like Rowing With the Wind and Impromptu) the film places an interesting emphasis on its female characters. In many ways the protagonist of the film is Tara Fitzgerald, in her role as the clergyman’s wife who gradually discovers that bonking is fun.

Again, I don’t talk about disability issues much on this blog because I have zero standing but there’s a recurring subplot in which most of the women in the film have the hots for an attractive blind farmhand. And I think this meant parallel the Ulysses myth where he can only survive the sirens because he deafens himself but it still comes across as a bit creepy and kind of fetishistic. There’s a particularly difficult bit where Tara Fitzgerald, having had her own sexual awakening with the large donged blind man, enables Portia de Rossi to have a sexual awakening too by tricking her into tricking him into thinking that she (Portia de Rossi) is, in fact, her (Tara Fitzgerald). Let’s just be super clear here: getting someone to have sex with you by making them think you are someone else is still rape, even you are Portia de Rossi and they are a hot dude with a big dick.

Goodness of film: I feel I should give this a 3 on merit but terms of actual enjoyment enjoyment I think it might be a 4. I mean, it’s not a good film in many ways but I think the thing is that I can’t see how it could be better without being a fundamentally different movie and, as we know, I respond positively to things that are what they are.

Hugh Grantiness of film: This has to be 5. He plays a repressed clergyman who has difficulty talking to his wife about sex which leads her to go and have sex with somebody else. This is the patient zero of Hugh Grant roles.

Four Weddings and a Funeral

This one is really difficult to talk about for roughly the same reason (albeit on a different scale) that’s it’s difficult to talk about Shakespeare or Elvis. The idea of Four Weddings and Funeral is just so much bigger than the film itself that I’m just not sure it’s possible to have an objective opinion about it. I mean, this film basically embodies what it was supposed to mean to be English in the 90s. Unfortunately a significant proportion of the things it was supposed to mean to be English in the 90s were white, middle class, ambiguously Oxbridge educated, and primarily metropolitan but with charming stopovers in quaint villages. And I think that might be the biggest part of what’s making my reactions to Four Weddings so complicated.

I seem to recall that when I watched this film 20 years ago I accepted it pretty much thinkingly as a delightful, if quirky, portrayal of what English life is like.  The England of Four Weddings is the England of Hugh Grant saying “fuck” on a village green. It’s meeting a free-spirited American lady in a Tudor pub. It’s two steps down the road from and ten minutes more up-to-date than Downton Abbey. It’s a world in which you’re allowed to say “shit” as long as you also say “gosh”. (And, for what it’s worth, I did a little bit of background Googling while I was writing this and, while I intended that line to be a glib synopsis of the film’s style it is, in fact, actually true that the two most repeated words in the script are “fuck” and “splendid”.) It’s perfectly pitched to seem comforting and familiar to people who are slightly more progressive and urban than its characters, and titillating and a little bit shocking to people who are slightly less progressive and more urban. But as someone whose life is as close to that archetype as its basically possible to get without actually being a cartoon character I’m just awkwardly aware that the England it presents is basically a myth. And, in a post-Brexit reality, I’m especially conscious that it’s a myth that 52% of my peers were so keen to inhabit that they voted for cultural and economic disaster.

Because, let’s not beat about the bush, this idealised version of England to which we are all sort of supposed to aspire is one in which everyone is white and no-one is working class, and you’re only allowed to be gay if no-one mentions it and at least one of you winds up dead.

So, yeah. Re-watching Four Weddings was the thing that kicked off this whole Hugh Grant experiment in the first place but, I’ll be honest, I didn’t much enjoy it. The pacing is really weird because it literally takes place at or in the immediate vicinity of four weddings and one funeral so we only get glimpses of these people’s lives. Which I know is sort of the point but, again, I’m troubled by the extent to which we are assumed to be able to fill in the details from our own preconceptions about the nature of Englishness. I mean, you know nothing about Hugh Grant’s character (whose name is Charles for what it’s worth) except he occasionally wears glasses and has been in some relationships with some women. Andie McDowell’s character (Carrie, although it took me a moment to remember that) fares even worse in that she’s just a human female from America. And, again, everything we need to know about her we are supposed to intuit from the fact she is American and, therefore, not English. And, therefore, embodies everything that is different from but complementary to the narrowly defined concept of Englishness which we are, again, supposed to project onto the rest of the characters on the basis of our shared cultural assumptions.

And I do, on some level, understand that this is clever storytelling. At the final wedding, where we discover that Charles is marrying Duckface,you basically know the whole arc of that relationship based on one conversation where she calls Charles a serial monogamist and in which he’s rude to her. But you can only fill in the details of that story because you can make a whole bunch of assumptions about who these people are, but those assumptions exclude huge chunks of British society who, twenty years later on, I’m well-aware exist. I mean, for fuck’s sake, the film contains more members of the landed aristocracy than people from a BME background.

And, to be fair, it’s probably not totally appropriate of me to be looking at Four Weddings with my 2017 eyes on. Again, my peripheral Googling suggests that quite a lot of people at the time actually found it quite subversive. Because, actually, Charles isn’t a traditional romance hero, the idea that you could say “fuck” and “splendid” in the same script was novel two decades ago, he doesn’t, in fact, wind up married to Carrie, and the film takes its same-sex relationship about as seriously as it was possible to take a same-sex relationship in a mainstream movie un 1994. I’ve been really dismissive about the “kill the gay” arc but I do read it as a well-meaning attempt to affirm the validity of John Hannah and Simon Callow’s relationship. Essentially if you’re not allowed to depict love then the loss of love is the next best thing (see A Single Man). So, actually, although I watch the film today and think “gosh (and I’m aware it’s ironic I’m using the word gosh here) this film is nothing but a bunch of godawful stereotypes about Englishness” there’s an extent to which these things became godawful stereotypes about Englishness because of this film. It’s a little bit like going back and watching the original Psycho where every shot looks really cliched because people have been ripping it off for fifty years.

Goodness of film: I actually can’t answer this one. It’s obviously funny and charming and loads of people love it. But, in retrospect, I really, really didn’t. It made me uncomfortable in a lot of weird ways and I found the central relationship between Charles and Carrie genuinely a bit unsatisfying. I mean, they have two conversations and neither of them have any actual personality. Also I find the way the film treats Duckface really unpleasant, and I think maybe I always did. I mean basically Charles treats her horribly throughout, culminating in actually leaving her at the actual altar, and we’re supposed to forgive this in the name of the twu wuv he supposedly has for a woman with whom he’s spoken three times in five years.  So … I don’t know? Like 2 if you’re me? 4 if you’re basically anyone else.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 4. Okay, hear me out on this. Yes, this is the Hugh Grant role which made Hugh Grant Hugh Grant. The thing is, Hugh Grant at his Hugh Grantiest is bumbling and awkward but in a way that either obviously stems from a place of damage or repression and is bad for him and everyone around him (see Sirens, Bitter Moon) or represents a sincere unwillingness to hurt others that makes him endearing if ineffectual (see Notting Hill, Impromptu, The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill And Came Down A Mountain). In Four Weddings he’s sort of the first but treated like the second. That is, his social uncertainty mostly manifests in his being a dick to people who are more vulnerable than he is (like Duckface and even Fiona, whose feelings he’s spent more than a decade ignoring) but somehow we’re still supposed to find him sweet and harmless. Fuck off Charles. Splendid.

PS – This was Ducky’s favourite movie because it contained a character called Duckface. She considers it problematic that Duckface was not, in fact, played by duck but considers it a step in the right direction.

An Awfully Big Adventure

This film reminded me that Hugh Grant is actually quite good at the part of his job that involves being an actor as well as the part of his job that involves being Hugh Grant.

An Awfully Big Adventure is weird, fascinating and painfully oblique. It’s based on a novel of the same name, which I haven’t read so no help there, but one of the first things that struck me about the film was that it had an almost novel-like commitment to viewpoint. The protagonist of the movie is a young, aspiring actress named Stella who becomes involved with a thoroughly seedy theatrical company run by the equally seedy Meredith Potter (Hugh Grant) with whom she falls instantly and problematically in love.

In a book it is relatively easy to tell a story from within a particular person’s worldview because, even with third person narration, everything that is communicated to the reader can be filtered through that person’s perception. Achieving the same affect in film is much harder unless you rely on gimmicks like literally only showing what the protagonists sees, liberal use of hallucinations or dream sequences, or else include non-diegetic elements like voice over. Yet somehow the whole of An Awfully Big Adventure is coloured by the perspective and ignorance of a sixteen year old Liverpudlian ingenue shortly after the second world war. And what’s even more impressive is that the film never really lies to you, it just withholds exactly enough context (either because Stella is herself unaware of it or because it is so integral to her that she is not conscious of it) to keep you constantly re-evaluating your interpretations. Even much of what you take for granted about Stella is eventually revealed to be something else entirely.

All of which said, I can sort of see why people haven’t warmed to this film because watching it is a little bit like doing homework. Weirdly enough, the closest analogies I can think of are the 2011 production of Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, which nothing is revealed except thorough interference and which I am capable of following only because I’ve watched it about about six times and because I’m also very familiar with the book, and the British satirical dramedy The Thick Of It, in which, again, a lot of complex political stuff gets decided in circuitous sweary conversations that only make sense when you look back the end of the episode and unpick everything that happened in it. But I really like this kind of thing—not I hasten to add because I’m spectacularly skilled interpreter of texts, but because I really enjoy puzzles.

The title of An Awfully Big Adventure is, obviously, an allusion to Peter Pan and, Jesus Fucking Christ, does that metaphor do a lot of heavy lifting. I mean, I don’t even know where to begin. At the most basic level, Stella feels like she’s having an adventure but really she’s on a sort of promethean descent into the underworld, and she’s also growing up, and the quote itself is about death, and is from a book about a boy who wouldn’t grow up, and the reason he wouldn’t grow up is because he was a metaphor for the author’s dead brother and the whole of Peter Pan is basically about JM Barrie navigating his response to his mother’s response to his brother’s death, and the film is all about how people respond to other people’s responses to their loss and trauma, either from the war, or from other events in their lives. And on top of that Peter Pan is about the dangers and the pleasures of sexuality and Stella experiences a sexual awakening as part of the story, which—spoiler—resonates strongly with the fact that, in traditional theatrical productions, the roles of Captain Hook and Mr Darling are played by the same actor. Meredith himself seems to be trapped in an eternal adolescence, seeking the hearts and, um, other bits of the young and vulnerable, and collecting about him his own cadre of lost boys. And … yeah. It goes on and on and on.

Side note: I’m pretty sure that at this point I’ve seen more things about people putting on productions of Peter Pan in which the symbolism of the play is ironically resonant with the lives of the actors than I have seen actual productions of Peter Pan. 

Just in case this has made anyone want to watch the film I should add that it goes to some incredibly dark and potentially triggering places. There’s a fairly explicit sexual relationship between a sixteen-year-old girl and a middle-aged man, and, yes, the middle-aged man is Alan Rickman, but that doesn’t actually make it less skeevy. There’s an incest angle. There’s suicide. There’s emotional abuse. It’s also just really, really sad. But in a fascinating way if this is the sort of thing you’re fascinated by.

Goodness of film: This is like the opposite of Four Weddings in that I love it, but most other people really don’t. I mean, I’ve genuinely thought about this film, on and off, ever since I’ve watched it, and I kind of think it probably isn’t going to leave me alone ever. Because of that I want to give it a 5. But I suspect for a lot people it will be a 2.

Hugh Grantiness of film: This is a difficult one because he has a major role and is very good in that role but, unusually, that role is not Hugh Grant. I mean, there’s even a scene where he’s covered in vomit, holding forth about interpretations of Peter Pan. He seems vulnerable but not in the bumbling way we know and, um, know. He’s cruel and unpleasant and selfish, but weirdly compelling with it. He also wears a monocle (but thankfully not a moustache). I’m giving this a 4 because it’s Hugh Grant at his best, if his least typical.

The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down a Mountain

Reviewing Hugh Grant’s filmography one might be forgiven for assuming that in the 1990s the British only made movies about the war or the Regions or, occasionally, weddings and/or funerals. This one is about the war and the Regions. Set in a small village in Wales, The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down a Mountain (hereinafter abbreviated to the much more convenient TEWWUAHBCDAM) uses the deceptively quirky story of a community that builds a 20ft mound of earth atop a local hill in order to push it over the limit at which it would be classified as a mountain on a ordnance survey map to explore the ways in which the First World War in particular, and loss in general, impacts small communities.

I can’t tell if it’s just because I watched it on a winter’s afternoon under a duvet but I cried a lot. As such I’m not entirely confident it in my ability to objectively evaluate it.

It’s based on a story the writer/director was told about the hill above the village where he grew up and it’s shot through with a sense of real love for Wales, the Welsh mountains, and at least a version of Welsh cultural identity. This does, perhaps, make it slightly problematic that film seems to contain basically no Welsh actors. Hugh Grant is Hugh Grant (although he does at least play an Englishman), the most prominent member of the village community, the lecherous, chancer of a publican known locally as Morgan the Goat is played by Colm Meaney (who is, of course, a. Irish and b. from the 24th century), and Hugh Grant’s love interest is Tara Fitzgerald (who also plays his wife in Sirens and is very, very English). To be fair, the local reverend is a fairly prominent character and is played by a legit Welshman (the late Kenneth Griffith, who also appears in Four Weddings and a Funeral, in which he’s credited as ‘mad old man’ – he’s the guy who, when Charles says, ‘I’m Charles’ responds with “What are you talking about? Charles has been dead for years.’) but I’m never quite confident identifying which marginalised groups it is and is not okay to have played on TV by people who are not members of those marginalised groups. And obviously this gets tricky and I’m not trying to minimise the experience of the marginalised people who it’s definitely not okay to have portrayed by actors who aren’t members of those groups but I do think it’s worth mentioning occasionally that the Welsh actually did get treated spectacularly shittily by the English for literally centuries, and the fact that we still don’t really acknowledge that is really problematic.

Like there’s a throwaway line in the British sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf where a character says “Broadcast on all known frequencies and in all known languages, including Welsh” and the joke here is that Welsh isn’t really seen as a proper language. Except a large part of the reason Welsh isn’t seen as a proper language is because not a lot of people speak it and a large of reason not a lot of people speak it is because the English spent two hundred years trying to deliberately exterminate it. Even in this film the fact that the two English guys can’t pronounce the name of mountain (Ffynnon Garw)is a recurring joke. And while I think the joke is supposed to be that the two Englishmen who are here to judge this place understand it so little that they can’t even say its name correctly there’s a whole wider cultural context of laughing at how silly and unpronounceable Welsh place names are which makes it quite hard to read that unambiguously.

On one level I’m very conscious that that this film is basically telling the six millionth iteration of one of the default moving stories of British cinema. If it’s not “working class man does unusual thing to support family after pits close” it’s “small rural community does seemingly pointless thing in order to signify their togetherness and solidarity.” The thing is it’s a really well done version of that story. The horny publican and the pious reverend ultimately recognise in each other the same need to repair their war-damaged community. The guy with shellshock earns a measure of peace by applying the knowledge he gained in the trenches to achieve something hopeful rather than destructive. The repressed Englishman played by Hugh Grant comes to terms with his experiences in the war through this honestly somewhat lightly sketched relationship with Tara Fitzgerald and his less lightly sketched relationship with the Welsh landscape. The community ultimately comes together to process their grief and discover that they can literally move mountains. Awww.

The film is a strange mix of quite heavy-handed and extremely deft. There’s a narrator who occasionally makes quite specific speeches about Welsh heritage and the Welsh mountain and what the Welsh mountains mean to Wales, but at the same time there are lots of subtler bits, like the way a mound of earth on a hillside suddenly becomes a trench in Ypres through the eyes of  man with shellshock, and the way war time experiences are depicted in absences and silences  and the restless search for meaning in the ones who are left behind. A tiny thing I really liked is that there’s a refrain throughout the film, in which initially the publican and later Tara Fitzgerald persuade people to help with the mad plan to build a mountain with the line “do you want me to have to say this failed because of you” which, although it’s used for a frivolous and ultimately positive purpose, is also hauntingly reminiscent of those manipulative propaganda posters from the First World War, where there’s a man in slippers by the fire with his judgmental children looking up at him going “What did you do in the Great War, daddy?”

Goodness of film: I think it’s probably a generous 4. Like I’m aware it’s basically a slightly twee, slightly manipulative happy-sad movie about community and shit. But it happens to really personally push my buttons and it’s my blog so 4.

Hugh Grantiness of film: This is a 5. It’s the Hugh Grant character that I thought I remembered him being in Four Weddings but he actually wasn’t. He’s a man imprisoned by his own niceness and secret wartime pain. Also there’s a bit where he says “I’m going to blush” and then he actually blushes and this blew my mind because, oh my gosh, how do you that? Actors they’re so clever. I should also mention that he wears a sequence of endearingly silly outfits including but not limited to a sowester, and shorts with knee socks.

And that it’s for this instalment. I should also say that Mary and I are going on a brief social media holiday over the Xmas and New Year period – which means I’ll be a bit sporadic, although there might be additional Hugh Grant updates because I have literally nothing else to do. As ever you can reach me at ajhatquincunquevultdotcom and mary at maryatquicunquevultdotcom. Happy holidays for everyone for whom that’s a thing.

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This is the closest I’m ever going to get to a topical blog post about a current news story and, while I’m aware that there’s some quite significant politics stuff happening in America right now, what I actually want to talk about is the Netflix original movie, A Christmas Prince, and Netflix’s ill thought out Tweet about it. For those who’ve missed this particular story, Netflix appear to have done a series of Tweets about user data (which is already something companies have to be really careful about) and one of the Tweets read: “To the 53 people who’ve watched A Christmas Prince every day for the past 18 days: Who hurt you?”

Now, in a vacuum I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using interesting bits of user data for marketing purposes. It’s anonymised, it sometimes throws up fun quirky factoids, and, if presented non-judgmentally, the fact that a small but non-trivial number of people have watched a particular movie every single day is an intriguing observation. The thing is, it wasn’t exactly presented non-judgementally and that makes it feel very different, especially, I suspect, if you are one of the 53 people who have basically just been called pathetic in public by a company with whom they have a business relationship. It’s kind of the equivalent of … well … this is going to be a tortured example but bear with me.

KFC (at least in this country) used to do a meal called the “Boneless Banquet For One”. It was basically a KFC value meal in which none of the chicken had bones because not everyone likes chicken with bones. But the name was not terribly well received and probably not terribly well thought out. Because, let’s face it, going into a KFC and asking for the Boneless Banquet For One is about the most humiliating thing you can do in a KFC. And I did actually see stand-up comedians do jokes in which they pointed out what a terrible name Boneless Banquet For One was, and speculated about the kind of sad pathetic life you might have to have to consider ordering such an item in the world’s largest fried chicken franchise.

The thing is, KFC never Tweeted from their corporate account: “53 people have bought a Boneless Banquet For One every day for the last 18 days. Get a life guys.”

Because surely day 1 of marketing 101 is “don’t equate using the product that you make and sell with being a loser”. I mean, I really can’t believe I’m having to explain that to a large, multi-national corporation.

Now obviously the difference between KFC and Netflix is that KFC has a very small menu of food offerings, each of which they take personal responsibility for, whereas Netflix has a massive menu of entertainment offerings, most of which are provided by third parties. So I can absolutely see how Chad the Social Media Wonk, in order to keep up with his punishing daily Tweet quota, decided he could construct a pithy observation based upon the surprising datum that 53 people had watched a particular cheesy movie every day for the best part of a month.

There are, however, two problems with this. The first is that Chad seems to have forgotten that the anonymised data around which he was constructing his witticism wasn’t just numbers. It represented actual people who subscribed to his company’s service and, especially given that 53 is a very small and specific number, when he Tweeted about that group of people every single one of them would have known who they were and known that he was taking the piss out of them directly. Again, I shouldn’t have to explain to a multinational corporation why that’s a bad idea. The second problem with Chad’s tweet is the one that bothers me more (because, frankly, Netflix being crap at business isn’t really my problem) and that’s that Chad did a very poor job of examining the assumptions he was making about who the 53 people who watched A Christmas Prince every day for 18 days were and what their lives were like.

If you’ve not already seen it (and I would generally have said “go watch it, it’s fabulous” but obviously the context makes that recommendation difficult because I’d essentially be encouraging you to reward a corporation for being dicks to its customers) A Christmas Prince is a self-consciously cheesy movie about a young American girl who goes to a fictional European country and falls in love with their wayward but misunderstood Prince. It’s basically a Harlequin but on screen. I watched it the day it came out and I really enjoyed it because it’s fun and light-hearted and Christmassy and uplifting and nice. It is exactly what you think it is and exactly what it intends to be, and I admire things that are like that. Do be aware, there’s disabled child in it and, while I’m in no way qualified to talk about disability issues, I would say that its handling of her experiences is well-intentioned but probably over-simplistic and she does basically exist to allow the heroine to demonstrate her warm heart and free spirit, which isn’t great. If that’s a deal breaker for you, then I completely get that.

And, as it happens, I’ve only watched A Christmas Prince once. Partly because I’m busy watching every movie Hugh Grant has ever made and there are only so many hours in a day. And partly because, yes, I personally didn’t particularly feel the need to watch the same film every day for 18 days. But I think can think of about ten different reasons why you might and none of these reasons involve someone having “hurt you” with all of the skeeviness that implies.

Basically Chad’s Tweet (and I should sincerely apologise to people called Chad) pretty much encapsulates everything that’s wrong with the way the rest of world views romance, and especially romance readers. It does not admit of any reason for engaging with an uncomplicatedly happy love story that isn’t rooted in fundamental psychological dysfunction. And, obviously, I’m reading quite a lot into literally three words here, but just that phrase “who hurt you” carries so much problematic and problematically gendered baggage about, well, everything. It suggests that people who watch and enjoy that film are lonely and sad. It suggests that the reason they are lonely and sad is because someone has made them lonely and sad. While it does not specifically use any gendered language it is also not the sort of phrase you would use if you were talking to a dude. At least not if you were talking to a dude about his habit of watching schmaltzy movies (you’d tell him to man up or grow a pair or point out he’d never get laid that way—all of which also problematic, but in a different way).  Maybe I’m projecting but in the same way that a tweet about how some people have watched the new Star Wars movie every day for the last 18 days followed by a comment about how they should get out of their mom’s basement would be playing into a very specific stereotype about people who like Star Wars, so this Tweet seems to play into a very specific stereotype about people who like romance. Which everyone is already so familiar with that I won’t do it the dignity of articulating it.

At the start of this post I said I could think of at least ten reasons why a person might have watched A Christmas Prince every day for the last 18 days, none of which are “because that person is a sad loser” which is what Netflix seems to be implying (again, it seems to be implying this about its own paying customers, what the fuck Netflix). Now I kind of pulled this number out my arse but because I basically never bluff let’s see if I can actually get to ten:

  1. You are a godawful hipster. Having reamed Netflix for using disparaging language I’ve probably made a bad start here, but let me stress that I’m using the term ‘godawful hipster’ affectionately and speaking as someone who identifies as a godawful hipster myself (for fuck’s sake, my user icon is a top hat). I can absolutely see somebody just really liking the idea of watching the same cheesy Christmas movie every day between now and Christmas. You can make a ritual of it. You can MST3K it. You can livetweet it or do a series of Tumblr posts or even just text your ironic observations to your equally hipstery friends. I’m starting with this suggestion because Chad’s original Tweet seems to imply that people who’ve watched this film a lot are emotionally invested in it to an extent that suggests deep seated psychological problems and I wanted to point out that that the group of people most likely to watch the same cheesy movie way more than is normal are actually the group who are least likely to be emotionally invested in it.
  2. You are an actual child or you have an actual child. Children are legitimately different from adults. A small child will quite happily watch the same film every day for a month and not even think that’s unusual. A Christmas Prince is a sweet family movie with an adorable kid in it. I’d bet pretty good money that a good proportion those 53 people who’ve watched the film every day the last 18 days have done so at the request of their children.
  3. Backgrounding part 1: work. Okay maybe this is just me but I’m sure it’s not. I hope it’s not. Anyway, I like to have stuff on in the background while I do routine work. Obviously not if it’s not something where I have to concentrate really hard and especially not if it’s something that I have to engage with creatively but if I’m washing up, or putting data on a spreadsheet, or filing or ironing I like to have something on in the background that isn’t music and that I don’t have to pay too much attention to. This will almost always be either a really formulaic TV show (terrible police procedurals are the best thing because you just get to look up every 20 minutes and they’ll fill you in on what all the clues have been) or something I’ve seen before. I wouldn’t personally use A Christmas Prince for this purpose because it’s got too many princes and not enough murders but that is purely a style choice.
  4. Backgrounding part 2: exercise. You’d have to be a lot fitter than me for this to work but a huge number of people like to have something to watch or listen to while they’re exercising. And because having a ritual genuinely helps with someone you have to do every day it’s really useful if it’s the same sort of thing. Now obviously this movie is about an hour and a half long so you’d have to have quite a serious regime (or else be one of those people who cardios for ages) but I can completely see that A Christmas Prince would be a great thing to watch while trying to hit your daily step count.
  5. Backgrounding part 3: holiday admin. There are loads of things related to the holiday season that are or can be soul-crushingly tedious. Maybe you have to write out a hundred Christmas cards. Maybe you have to wrap presents for a massive extended family. If you’re doing that kind of thing it can be really easy to lose track of why you’re doing it, and having a totally unironic, totally sincere romantic Christmas movie on in the background is a really good way to keep yourself in the holiday spirit while you’re doing the fundamentally not very festive bits of your festive celebration.
  6. You just fucking love Christmas. I wouldn’t choose to watch A Christmas Prince every day during the Christmas season. I do, however, start eating mince pies in October and I’m pretty sure I’d watch A Muppet’s Christmas Carol every day if I thought I could get away with it because the muppets are great. Some people really like to intensely engage with Christmas as a thing. For some people that’s for religious reasons, for some people it’s cultural, for some people it reminds them of the best part of their childhood, for some it’s trying to make up for the worst part. People have their seasonal rituals. Some people listen to Christmas music, some people wear Christmas jumpers, some people might choose to watch the same Christmas movies every day just as a way of getting themselves hyped up for a season that can otherwise be genuinely quite draining.
  7. The real world is kind of shit right now. Again, I’m not going to talk about contemporary politics on this blog but, um, if you’re at all bothered by transgender people being excluded from the military, or it apparently being okay to be a neo-Nazi now, or all the sexual harassment stuff, or if you, y’know, aren’t too wild about the possibility of nuclear war then maybe an escapist film about a nice American lady who marries as nice, ambiguously European Prince is what you really need to be watching to unwind in the evenings. Escapism is not a dirty word. Sometimes escapism is incredibly valuable.
  8. Your kid/spouse/sibling/mate from university is in it or helped make it and you are really, really proud of them. I’ll admit I put this category in mostly as a joke and because, I’ll be honest, ten was bit ambitious and I’m running low on ideas but, actually, just to get super mathsy for a bit there’s quite an interesting point to be made here about selection bias. Because we’re not talking about randomly selected Netflix users here. Obviously any random person with a Netflix account is so vanishingly unlikely to have a personal connection to any given thing they watch that it isn’t even worth considering. But we’re talking specifically about the 53 people who have watched this film more than any others. I’ve had quick look on IMDB and there are 20 people with name roles in this film. Between them and their families there must be at least 53 people who are directly personally connected to it and some of those may well have decided to watch the film every day, either because they’re super pleased their friend is in a movie, or because their kid doesn’t live at home anymore and they miss them, or because they (perhaps correctly or perhaps incorrectly) believe that by watching the film every day they will improve its ratings, thereby increasing the chances that their friend/sibling/spouse/child will get work in future.
  9. You find that this particular movie helps you sleep. Again, this a ritual thing. It really does help to regulate your sleeping patterns if you do the same sort of thing before you go to bed every night. I know some people who listen to the same music, I know some people who listen to the same audiobook or a small range of audiobooks, I know people who read the same book or the same sort of book. It’s eminently plausible that A Christmas Prince, being a light, engaging, unthreatening movie with no explosions and very little yelling, does this job for some people.
  10. You’re sharing an account. This is a little bit naughty but it’s possible that the accounts on which this film have been watched every day are, in fact, being used by multiple people (people who may also fall independently into any of the categories listed above). I could quite easily see an eighteen person book group where one person says “hey, have you seen this awesome movie on Netflix” and everybody else says “I’d like to watch that but I haven’t got Netflix and I don’t want to get it for just one film” and so they pass a password around for eighteen days. And thus the film gets watched 18 times but no individual person watches it more than once or twice. Again, not super plausible. But, again, we’re talking about 53 people out of millions. The reasons for implausible behaviours are almost always themselves implausible.
  11. Special bonus reason: somebody did, in fact, hurt you. Because, you know what? This is a nice movie. I mean, it’s not exactly the most progressive film in the world. The only representation in the entire film is that the heroine has one friend who is black and one friend who, I think, we’re supposed to believe is gay based solely on his beard and his sass. But basically it’s a happy story about two nice people who fall in love in a fundamentally unrealistic environment. And apart from the two comically evil antagonists, every single other character is kind and warm and supportive and loving. So, yes, maybe for some of the people who have watched this film it it’s because their wife has just left them or their boyfriend has just cheated on them or their child has just died and they’re looking for something to make them feel happy because they don’t currently feel happy. And, you know what, fuck you Netflix for turning that into something shitty.

PS – I have a book out today. If you read it, I’ll think you’re cool.

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