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.


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.


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.





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.


Hello everybody. Another day, another blog post in which I review four Hugh Grant movies of wildly variable quality and which, at this stage in his career, contain wildly variable amounts of Hugh Grant. Let’s start straight away with:


Hugh Grant had a weird habit of getting cast as Chopin. He first played the role in a short film named Nocturnes in 1988 which I’ve been unable to source. But apparently he did such a good job that somebody decided to cast him in a full-length movie in 1991. Also he does an accent again. Hurrah! And I’ll admit to being a bit confused by his choice to do an accent in this film because it’s set in France and virtually all the characters are French, but all of the English actors do English accents except for Hugh Grant and the guy playing Liszt. And I suppose this does indicate that they are not from the country in which the film is set but since their point of origin is wholly irrelevant for most of the time it does kind of stand out when you have George Sand, Alfred de Musset, Marie d’Agoult and Felicien Mallefille all doing really RP English accents while Liszt and Chopin attempt German and Polish respectively.

Anyway this film is basically about the relationship between George Sands and Frederic Chopin. Just as Rowing with the Wind is mostly about Mary Shelley, which was quite cool, this film is mostly about George Sand, which is also quite cool. Because George Sand was basically awesome. It’s got the usual problem biopics have in that it’s trying to spin an emotionally satisfying narrative from a bunch of stuff that just happened. This makes the end of the film in particular extremely abrupt because it just stops at the point they’re running away together to Majorca.  Which, in film language, is sort of the equivalent of them riding off into the sunset to go and live happily ever after. But which in reality was just a thing that they did that probably wasn’t very good for either of them (especially Chopin who did not respond at all well to the climate). And, indeed, I can’t really tell what the film was trying to say about Sand’s influence on Chopin, especially as regards his illness because I keep butting up against this difficult mix of cinematic convention, real world knowledge, and knowledge about the limits of my real world knowledge.

Throughout the film she’s very keen for him get out into the fresh air and do more and be more active, and he does respond positively to this (although he also keeps fainting) and I’m not sure whether I’m supposed to be interpreting this behaviour though the lens of the cinematic convention that says encouraging someone to believe in themselves and feel that they can do anything if they try is the highest possible moral good or through a more nuanced lens that recognises that Chopin was genuinely seriously physically ill (apparently scholars are now somewhat uncertain whether he had TB or cystic fibrosis). It seems odd that we’d be asked to see as romantic a set of behaviours that encourage Chopin to do things that would actively hasten his death but then I’m not actually sure if lying around on a sofa coughing prettily would extend your longevity any more than running to Majorca or getting it on with a hot cross-dressing author. Although probably it’s better for your life expectancy than fighting an actual duel.

The thing is, I actually really liked this film. As a romance, it has a pleasingly subversive dynamic and, okay, at times it’s a little bit heavy handed (there’s a scene in which Bernadette Peters’ character tells George that Chopin is a woman, and she has to pursue him as a man pursues a woman, which is problematically gendered, although, y’know, 1838) but the whole pattern of their relationship is a sequence of strongly archetypal romance beats with the gender roles twisted around. So George is first attracted to Chopin because she hears his music like she’s Eric in The Phantom of the Opera, a letter she writes is repurposed by a rival lover like in Cyrano de Bergerac and their big black moment comes when Bernadette Peters tells Chopin that Sand is only after him for a bet, like he’s the heroine of every high school drama or Regency romance ever. The film also almost leaves the door open to interpret Sand and Chopin as having a legitimately ace relationship. Once they’ve got together, she talks to him quite specifically about how hard she wants to bang him, and he’s all like well no, I don’t really do that because consumption. And she’s actually kind of fine with that, which is really cool. Of course it’s somewhat let down by the fact that seven seconds later he grabs hers, kisses her passionately and seems to be making a spirited effort to tear her clothes off. So boo. As far as I can tell they were happy to present Chopin as atypically masculine in most contexts (he faints during a duel for pity’s sake) but they stopped just short of suggesting that he didn’t bone.

I mentioned at the start of this section that Hugh Grant has been cast as Chopin more than once. And, well, you can kind of see why, can’t you? It’s an almost parodically Hugh Granty role: he’s effete, stumbling, socially hidebound, wholly unable to express his emotions and prone to nervous collapse.

Goodness of film: 4. I liked this about as much as Rowing in the Wind and for similar reasons. I really, really liked George Sand and it’s got a bunch of fantastic actors in it being fantastic. Mandy Patinkin is in it for about five seconds as one of George’s outrageously drunk ex-lovers, but he’s film-stealing fabulous. On the other hand, it has the biopic issue where it’s not hugely about anything and doesn’t go anywhere. So, yeah, solid 4.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 5. Chopin was basically the Hugh Grant of the 1830s.

Bitter Moon

1992 and 1993 were bad years for Hugh Grant, and subsequently bad times for me. In Bitter Moon he plays an Englishman named Nigel who meets an American named Oscar who has a hot wife named Mimi. For no reason that I can really understand, he takes to visiting Oscar in his cabin (Oscar is in a wheelchair) and Oscar narrates in great detail the story of his deeply fucked up and highly pornographic relationship with his much younger wife. Hugh Grant gets weirdly fixated with Oscar and Mimi but completely fails to bang either of them. Irritated by his distraction, Hugh Grant’s wife (who is Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays Fiona in Four Weddings and a Funeral and, confusingly, also plays a woman called Fiona in this movie) shows him how it’s done by fucking Mimi herself. Then Oscar shoots Mimi. Then Oscar commits suicide. Then Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas hug. Then the film ends.

What is this? I don’t even.

Hugh Grant’s role in this film is odd because he’s sort of the main character but also sort of not in it because most of the film is flashbacks in which Oscar explains his relationship with Mimi. These flashbacks are occasionally interspersed with scenes of him actually narrating the events of that relationship. Thus we are treated to sequences of Oscar telling Hugh Grant how much he enjoyed licking his wife’s clitoris, and how much it turned on him when she pissed in his face, and Hugh Grant just kind of sitting there blankly like a Hugh Grant character in a Hugh Grant film. I mean, maybe I’m in the minority here but I think if a guy asked me to his cabin for a drink and then started giving me a really detailed description of his wife’s vagina (for those of you who are interested, the description in question being: “Her pussy was a neat, discreet little cleft but as soon as the animal within was roused by my caresses it would stir, draw aside the silken curtain covering its lair and become a carnivorous flower”) I’d have made a polite excuse and left.

Although, actually, it’s not really the explicitness of the carnivorous flower speech that skeeves me out so much as the way it’s indicative of a much more problematic aspect of Oscar’s attitude to Mimi. Whenever he talks about her there’s this deliberate juxtaposition between the virginal and innocent, and the debased and insatiable. When they first meet, she is wearing white sneakers and he specifically describes her as childlike (lifehack: if you ever find yourself using the word ‘child’ when describing someone, do not fuck them) and two scenes later they’re having hot, if as yet, vanilla sex. A little while later she’s drinking milk from a bottle, then letting it spill over her boobs in a way that I think is supposed to be seductive (and possibly reminiscent of semen?) while also hitting the “innocence” and “do me” buttons as hard as it possibly can. Basically, I feel that this is a worryingly established archetype – sort of a more sexually explicit version of the manic pixie dream girl, which I’m tempted to describe as the “nymphomaniac ingenue” or more coarsely as the “naive fuckmonster.” Like that awful description of Mimi’s vagina, she’s simultaneously unworldly and rapacious, vulnerable and deadly, she knows nothing of life, or of love or of men, but she wants your big hard dick in her right now. None of which has anything to do with who this theoretical woman is as an actual person. We discover absolutely nothing about Mimi over the course of the film except for who she had sex with and in what circumstances and who she might be having sex with in the future. It’s so ridiculous it could almost be a deconstruction of that very archetype (all of her scenes are mediated through either Oscar’s perception or Nigel’s so you could make an argument that this is about two men hijacking a woman’s life story) except … it just isn’t. The film never allows Mimi to show that she has or wants to have a reality outside of that which is projected on her by Nigel, Oscar and Roman Polanski.

Goodness of film: I’m struggling here because I really want to give it a 1 but it is at least moderately competent. I mean, if you want you really want to do is wank over the idea of a child you can bang then this film does at least give you that. And, hey, I’m not going to judge what you may or may not be looking for in a movie. Still, I’m not giving this more than a 2.

Hugh Grantiness of film: Like 3? He’s in it quite a lot, and he’s doing the usual Hugh Grant thing of just kind of nodding while other people say stuff, but a lot of the action happens in flashbacks he’s not involved in. I almost want to give this film one extra Hugh Grant point for the fact it ends with his wife having sex with the woman he’s obsessed with, because that seems like a really Hugh Grant way for a film to end. But I can’t quite.

Night Train to Venice (or Train to Hell in some regions)

I honestly could not swear that I stayed awake for the whole of this movie. Not because it was boring (although it kind of was) but because if I had shut my eyes and drifted off into an over-caffeinated fever dream filled with neo Nazis and incomprehensible dialogue I do not think it could have been less coherent than this movie. I suspect, or at least hope, that Night Train to Venice was trying to achieve something genuinely unusual and artistic. I do not think it did.

I can’t even summarise the plot for you because I don’t know that it had one. Hugh Grant plays a journalist with a Scottish accent who is writing a book about neo Nazis and he gets on the Orient Express going to Venice (hence the name of the film) and then neo Nazis sneak onto the train and try to attack him and he gives a floppy disc with his book on it to a hot actress with a daughter and Malcom McDowell is wandering around possibly actually giving people nightmares and then they get to Venice and then Hugh Grant is in an accident which gives him amnesia, possibly caused by magic Malcom McDowell, and then Hugh Grant has sex with the actress, and then the actress’s daughter falls off a balcony like in the actress’s dream on the train with neo Nazis, then Hugh Grant catches her, then possibly he has his memory back maybe. The end.

Hugh Grant has been interviewed saying this was the worst film he has ever been in and I kind of agree. The thing is, I found both The Bengali Night and Bitter Moon skeevy and offensive for different (although arguably related) reasons. But at least they both succeeded in being films. Night Train to Venice is the kind of film a 2nd year undergraduate would make, having decided they don’t want to be restrained by the conventions of cinema, but having failed to learn what any of the conventions of cinema actually are.

Goodness of film: 0. Just genuinely this is not anything. This is not even so bad it’s good. It’s not even so bad it’s interesting. It doesn’t even do the thing where it’s so bad it makes you angry enough to rant about it and then people are like oh well it made you think, didn’t it? It’s just mist, noise, and Malcom McDowell in a long coat.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 2. He’s on screen most of the time but it’s not clear what he, or anyone else, is doing.

Remains of the Day

This film is actually a good film in its own right. And I appreciate that of Hugh Grant’s early canon the only films I’ve said that about have been Merchant Ivory movies. He’s kind of barely in this. He plays the old Lord’s godson who seems like a decent chap and who—spoiler—dies off-screen in the Second World War.

Remains of the Day is the melancholiest film ever. It’s so melancholy it doesn’t even allow you the catharsis of having a good cry at the end. It just leaves you with this crushing sense of futility and the unbearable lostness of the past. I’m not even sure I can even unpick the complex inter-layered strata of sadness that make up this film. It’s basically two and a bit hours of Anthony Hopkins reflecting on his regrets and the regrets of other people, occasionally punctuated by poignant reminders of missed opportunities. Nothing happens in it and so much happens in it. Very few of these things involve Hugh Grant. Although, the one thing that does, and arguably tells you everything you need to know about the film, is a sequence about six hours in (so about a third of the way into the run time) where Lord Darlington tells Anthony Hopkins that he needs to explain the facts of life to his twenty-something godson (Hugh Grant) but that he has so far failed to do so and asks Anthony Hopkins to do it in his place because he feels (somehow) that his would be less awkward. Anthony Hopkins agrees and attempts to have a conversation with Hugh Grant in which he attempts to explain the facts of life to him and also fails to do so. They make plans to continue this conversation but fail to do so. That right there is Remains of the Day in the proverbial nutshell.

Goodness of film: 5. This is actually really good. I know I’ve been a bit glib about it but that’s how I’m processing my emotions. If you enjoy feeling unrewardly sad or like Anthony Hopkins or Emma Thompson, or very small amounts of Hugh Grant, watch Remains of the Day. You can get it on Amazon.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 3. He’s not in it very much but he’s got quite a Hugh Granty role and he’s not doing a terrible accent. I think you know it’s a good Hugh Grant film when somebody tries to talk to him about sex and he responds by saying “I’ve always been more of a fish man myself.”

Aaaand that’s it. Tune in next time when we finally get to Hugh Grant movies that people have actually heard of.

PS – I’ve got a book out tomorrow. Yay!


Hello and welcome to part two of the Hugh Grantathon. This instalment will start in 1988 and end in 1990, and visit such exotic locations as Lake Geneva, Louisiana, the south of France and Glasgow. We’ve just moved out of the Colonial Years (although our first movie was actually released before The Bengali Night for those who are counting) and have moved into the, um, Doing An Accent Years. These were dark times for Hugh Grant.

Rowing With The Wind

The peculiar thing about trying to source not especially popular movies because an actor who would later become moderately famous had a bit part in them is that you tend to have to get them from slightly out-of-the-way places, or at least out-of-the-way relative to where I am. Not out-of-the-way if you live Spain, which is where I got my copy of Romando Al Viento. Perhaps more peculiarly not only did I have to source this film from Spain, but it appears to have been a legitimately Spanish film, by a Spanish film company, with a Spanish writer, director and cinematographer, released originally at a Spanish film festival. Except for some reason it was written in English and had an entirely English cast, which they seem to have dubbed into Spanish for the Spanish audience. Fortunately for me, the English language dialogue is still on the DVD.

Anyway, in this film Hugh Grant plays Byron. He is weirdly perfect as Byron, despite the fact he looks nothing like Byron. I think it might be the hair. In all of Hugh Grant’s early movies, he has really 80s hair which is fine in this context because Byron also had really 80s hair. I mean, yes, if we’re being technical probably it would be more correct to say that people in the 80s had hair influenced by a number of styles and movements, one of which was the New Romantics which was clearly inspired by the, well, Old Romantics so I suppose really the 80s had Byron hair.

This film is odd. It has the problem that most historical biopics have, which is that peoples’ lives don’t really fit neatly into pleasing narratives with instigating events, rising action, denouements and resolution. It loosely focuses on that bit that everybody knows happened but nobody knows any details about where Byron, the Shelleys and Polidori hung out by a lake somewhere and had a ghost story competition, which led to Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein, John Polidori writing The Vampire, and Byron and Shelley … I don’t know? Flaking out? Or producing something since lost to history but which I like to think was about zombies. Y’know, she walks in beauty like the night of the living dead. The Necessity of Atheism (And Eating Brains). That kind of thing.

The central conceit of the movie is basically that a bunch of bad shit happened to the Romantics (because it did) and Mary Shelley becomes convinced that it’s her fault because, in writing Frankenstein, she—in a very real sense—unleashed a monster that would doom them all. I mean, I say in “in a very real sense”. I really mean “in a totally metaphorical sense”, although the monster does pop up to be symbolic about every eighteen minutes.  Although I watched this film primarily for Hugh Grant as Byron, its focus is mainly on the Shelleys, particularly on Mary Shelley, which I liked because she tends to get left out stories about that set, despite being in many way the coolest of them. And because of the need to crowbar real history into something approaching an emotionally satisfying narrative arc, it spends a really, really long time showing us images of Shelley getting wet, thinking about water, going near water, and constantly reminding us that he can’t swim, but that this will definitely be totes okay. Because, y’know, what are the odds of him drowning off the coast of Italy any time soon, eh?

I actually think I quite enjoyed Romando Al Viento, despite in retrospect having very little sense about what it was about. I thought it was a bit unfair of them to accuse Polidori of murdering Byron’s dog (in fact, it died of rabies, during which condition Byron nursed it personally, because of course he did) but I thought it did an admirable job of creating the sense of the world as seen and inhabited by the Romantics. By which I mean, as seen and inhabited by a bunch of self-obsessed, self-destructive 19th century dilettantes. And that’s, y’know, cool.

Goodness of film: Like a 4? I think it might actually be a good film. Like it’s very what it is and I can’t decide how I could imagine a film that’s just sort of generally about the Romantics, and particularly about Mary Shelley and her emotional reaction to a bunch of things that happened in her life being any better. Also, and maybe The Bengali Night just lowered my expectations here by being shit in every conceivable way, but it looks beautiful for something filmed in 1988. It’s all continental vistas and frilly shirts in the rain. Also trivia point: this is the film on which Hugh Grant and Liz Hurley met. They would famously be a couple until 2000. And she would famously wear a dress held together with gold safety pins that became so notorious it actually has its own Wikipedia page.

Hugh Grantiness of film: Tricky one. Hugh Grant isn’t the main focus and although he is, in many ways, weirdly well cast as Byron it’s not the Hugh Grantiest of roles. I mean, he’s hardly flustered at all, although he does have massive hair to compensate. Weirdly, his 1988 turn as a careless, debauched and jaded Byron sort of anticipates the way he would re-invent himself in the late 2000s as a careless, debauched and jaded Hugh Grant. So because of that I’m giving it a 3.

The Lady and the Highwayman

Because of the difficulties I had sourcing Rowing With The Wind this was actually the first film I watched after The Bengali Night and, as such, I suspect it benefited disproportionately from the context. I mean, I’m pretty sure this was a bad film but but due to its lack of overt colonialism, and the fact Hugh Grant was actually in it quite a lot, I was basically thrilled.


Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. How amazing is this?

This is a Hugh Grant film based on a Barbara Cartland novel called Cupid Rides Pillion. In case, you can’t guess from the title of the movie, he plays either a lady or a highwayman and, spoiler, it’s the highwayman. The film opens with him saving the life of the future Charles II (Michael York, by the way, being fabulous) through a daring hat-swapping operation. And it kind of doesn’t let up from there. Within about the first twenty minutes:

Hugh’s become a highwayman

the Restoration’s happened

Hugh has nevertheless decided to go on being a highwayman because, as he later explain to the heroine, the king still has, um, need of highwaymen to deal with his enemies because a lot of the aristocracy have remained loyal to Cromwell, y’know like they were on account of how popular Cromwell was with ruling classes

he’s rescued the heroine from being molested in a carriage after her forced married to a pervy tax-collector

who he instantly kills in a duel that has every single cliched movie duel spot you could possibly want packed into about 85 seconds

like seriously, if I ever have to fight someone I’ll say I accept, but only if you stand with your back to a pile of logs tied loosely together with rope so that I can cut through them and they can go rolling all over the place. Also someone has to go through a campfire and we need something to leap over

ps, by the way, Hugh and the heroine are totally cousins. Like they have the same surname and everything.

pps their surname is Vyne and her first name is Panthea, because that is what women were called in those days

And it just goes on from there. Panthea, yes Panthea, yes that’s definitely a real name, shut up stop looking at me like that, gets her family fortune and honour restored because the tax collector she was forcibly married to was carrying it round in his moneybags the whole time because that’s how property works. And so then she’s presented at court, where Charles II is instantly all up on her and Barbara Castlemaine is sups jelez and all like imma totes gonna bring you down now. Then basically everyone gets framed for basically everything, there’s really quite a long sequence where both of them are in jail and looking sad, and Barbara Castlemaine (who is also fabulous) shows up in Hugh’s cell and is all I’ll totally get you out of here but you totally have to bang me, and he’s all like hell no Barbara Castlemaine because even though you’re clearly much cooler than the heroine and also she’s my fucking cousin I’m going to remain true to Panthea and, yes, that is her real name, why are you looking at me like that?

Anyway, good triumphs over evil because the evil effete cousin who wants to steal the Vyne family inheritance (there is always an evil effete cousin who wants to steal the family inheritance) takes Hugh’s special symbolic king ring that he was given by Charles II in the opening scene and then wears it front of Charles II and then Charles II is all like hey brah where’d you get that special symbolic king ring that I gave my closest and most trusted ally when we swapped hats back in the day and the evil effete cousin is all like I dunno, just like found it I guess, definitely didn’t steal it from my cousin who I’m trying to have murdered, and then King Charles like whaaaaat and everyone’s like whaaaat and then Hugh Grant totally gets pardoned for being a highwayman and is allowed to marry his cousin so yay. And then King Charles is like hey brah what happened to that hat I lent you and that is the actual end of the movie.

Goodness of film: 5. Shut up, fuck off, I don’t care.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 5. I know it’s not quite the archetype he usually plays because he’s meant to be dashing and shit (where ‘and shit’ in this context means ‘and other things similar to that’) rather than bumbling and shit (where ‘and shit’ in this context means ‘not very good at things’). But, having said that, if you had to pick someone to play a highwayman who continues to be a highwayman after his stated reason for being a highwayman had ceased to apply and who marries his own cousin at the end of the film and whose major achievement is swapping hats with Charles II Hugh Grant is the man you’d get to play that role.

Champagne Charlie

This one defaults to having subtitles in Danish, so either I got it from Denmark or something very peculiar is happening. Champagne Charlie doesn’t show up on the Wikipedia filmography for Hugh Grant because it was a TV movie and, as a general rule, I’m excluding TV movies because otherwise I will never be able to stop watching things with Hugh Grant in them. But I didn’t realise that until I’d bought it.

This film (or TV movie) is actually in two parts, each of which is about 90 minutes long, making it really quite a lot of Hugh Grant for your money. It’s a sweeping epic about the champagne industry, the American Civil War and facial hair. You might remember how upset I was that Hugh has a moustache in Maurice. In this film he has a moustache and does a French accent and, halfway through the second chapter, grows a beard as well. Not happy. Seriously not happy.

Anyway, I feel quite ambivalent about Champagne Charlie. On one level, it’s an enjoyable piece of bunk that has a really 80s TV vibe to it (each chapter opens with a montage of the best bits in that chapter, with a cheesy voice over going ‘Tonight on Champagne Charlie’, and by the best bits, of course, I mean any bits where somebody rides a horse, punches somebody or gets their boobs out). On another level, it’s a made for TV 80s movie set against the backdrop of the American Civil War and, well, American Civil War. I should probably emphasise that I am in no way qualified to talk about the legacy of the slave trade or Civil War on American culture or American society. But I will say that I know a lot of people quite rightly take the whole thing very seriously and I should probably point out right away that quite a large of chunk of Champagne Charlie is a lighthearted romp in which Hugh Grant falls in love with a feisty Southern belle who runs guns for the Confederacy. And, well, that’s going to be not okay for a lot of people.

The first chapter takes place almost entirely in France, and Hugh Grant does not have a moustache in it (the less said about his French accent the better). I think, being set primarily in Europe, allows the difficult Civil War stuff to be at least dealable-with (and, again, I should stress that tolerance varies and it’s completely fine if your tolerance varies) since it’s mostly about Hugh Grant dealing with his evil uncle who’s taken over his winery. And while he’s having a whirlwind romance with a woman who is quite explicitly pro-slavery it’s still very much a story set in France in which one character happens to have some objectionable views. I could have done without the scene where Hugh Grant is all so that slave labour you guys use, what’s up with that and she’s all oh no, it’s fine, my slaves are like my family, we totally care about them. But because it’s just her you can reasonably interpret that as her worldview, rather than the narrative itself minimising the impact of the slave trade.

Things get a little bit tricky in the second half, firstly because Hugh Grant grows a moustache, but also because he actually goes to America and the Civil War actually starts. And, again, I’m not in a position to judge this stuff and I do think the film makes some effort to highlight that slavery is bad and that people who defend it are, at best, misguided and, at worst, malicious. But at the same time because the film is based on a real historical incident in which a champagne salesman was mistakenly arrested for being a Confederate spy Hugh has a lot of hostile run-ins with the Union. And the film has a very strong undercurrent of oh no the beautiful white houses, and good gentile southerners versus bad thuggish Yankees. And, to be fair again, there’s a scene towards the end where the worst cast Abraham Lincoln ever (seriously, I’ve seen people cross playing on the internet doing a better Lincoln) dresses down the Evil Yankee General for being too evil, but it all has this uncomfortable “both sides” feel to it.

And (I appreciate I’m saying this a lot) while it’s not my place to talk about this stuff I do think portraying this kind of very historically emotive conflict is really difficult. Ideally you don’t want to demonise either side because even though slavery was bad if you portray the Civil War as being the Good North versus the Evil South you wind up with a one-sided narrative that creates resentment among people who feel unfairly represented. On the other hand, if you present it as being all about the Evil North versus the Good South that’s, well, problematic for some fairly obvious reasons. What I think Champagne Charlie tries to do is to be more nuanced but it does that by essentially saying (and I apologise for the fact you basically can’t talk about talking about the Civil War this way without it inviting comparisons with really contemporary American politics) that there were good and bad people on both sides. And while that sounds nuanced it’s actually only one step less simplistic than making one side the goodies and one side the baddies. I think when you have a historical conflict in which there was a deep-seated ideological difference between the sides of that conflict and one side of that deep-seated ideological difference was more out-of-step with modern values than the other side, then you have to portray the people on the more out-of-step side as being complicit in an unjust system irrespective of their other good or bad qualities. And similarly you need to acknowledge that the people on the less out-of-step side would have had their own complex motivations independent of their circumstantial alignment against a historical injustice.

Basically I think the problem with the way Champagne Charlie portrays the Civil War is that it presents the North as mostly evil but with some non-evil people, which isn’t great. And it presents the South as mostly good, with a small and unrepresentative minority of the evil sort of slave owners that give the rest a bad name. When we actually see the heroine’s planation, her slaves seem genuinely happy and to enjoy working to her, and this seems to be borne out by the fact that when Hugh Grant finally persuades her that slavery is a bad thing and she frees them all they stay working for her and fight to defend her from the Union. And, yes, this is complex, and, yes, it’s a difficult situation (after all, I’m sure that kind of thing did occasionally happen, although if it did I suspect it might have had more to do with a freed slave not having anywhere to go than their genuine desire to work on a plantation for no money) but it seems to suggest that the problem with slavery wasn’t the institution itself so much as that some people were bad slave owners. Which is, well, uncomfortable-making.

The thing is, and I should stress that I’m saying this very much from a position of privilege, I did actually quite enjoy Champagne Charlie. It’s mostly about the personal journey of Hugh Grant’s facial hair as he tries to make it in the champagne business, despite the machinations of his wicked uncle and scheming business partners, and only a very, very little bit about the Civil War. I even quite liked the feisty Confederate love interest. Again, the apologia for slavery wasn’t great, but she had enormous 80s hair and, on a more serious note, a remarkable amount of her own shit going on for a female character in an 80s movie. Often in a love story one of the characters’ life choices will intervene in a way that breaks apart the romance but it’s usually either his career or her need for an appropriate marriage. And it was really interesting to see a love story where what keeps them apart is that they both have quite specific, and in some ways quite similar, commitments to something they perceive as a family legacy and that those commitments required them to live on different continents. And I liked that in the end both of them decided that the thing they were fighting for (his family vineyards in Hugh Grant’s case and, um, her family’s right to carry on owning people in hers) was more important than the fact that they were in love with each other. And I appreciated that this choice wasn’t presented as devaluing or undermining their love.

I mean, I’d have liked it more if there’d had been less slavery. Obviously.

Goodness of film: Just because of the Civil War thing this is super super subjective, especially in the current political climate. I would give this a 4 if you are happy with a film where the heroine is basically ideologically committed to fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War and which presents this as ultimately misguided but fundamentally noble. If you are not okay with that, and I can completely see why a lot of people would not be, then it’s a 1.

Hugh Grantiness of film: Oh man. Like he’s actually proper Hugh Grant levels of incompetent in this. He falls in love with a woman who he fails to notice is a smuggler, he doesn’t realise that basically everyone in his entire life is ripping him off, he fails to bang a really hot vineyard worker, and spends the latter half of Chapter 2 dying and growing a terrible beard in a Yankee prison. Also he sometimes remembers to do a French accent, and I’m not sure if that’s worse or better than the times he doesn’t remember. I think this has to be a 3.

The Big Man (UK) / Crossing The Line (US)

Okay. You know how sometimes if a relatively small film gets released and there’s an actor in that film who gets significantly more famous later on than the film ever gets, then when they do a DVD release of the film, they big up the role of that actor even if he’s only in, like, five scenes? That’s Hugh Grant in this film.

The Big Man (or Crossing The Line) is a Liam Neeson movie about the impact of the 1984 miner’s strike on small-towns in Scotland using Glaswegian organised crime and bareknuckle boxing as a metaphor for the plight of the working class. Hugh Grant is in three scenes in which he plays a man named Gordon, who might be a doctor, and who the protagonist’s wife briefly becomes attached to when the protagonist gets drawn into the aforesaid world of bareknuckle boxing and Glaswegian organised crime.

This is actually quite a good film, in that very slow, everything is shit, everyone is using you, you cannot get out from under the man, but it’s okay because your community will more or less survive and, anyway, what other choice of have you got kind of a way. I have no idea how this film will play for an American audience. There was actually quite a big subgenre of movies about industrial decline in the Regions (which is what we call the bits of England that aren’t London and the South East). It kind of hit its peak around Brassed Off, Billie Elliott and The Full Monty and tended towards bittersweet dramedies in which laid-off industrial workers (often but not always miners) deal with disempowerment and masculine identity in a world that no longer needs them by doing something a little bit quirky, like stripping or being in a brass band. The genre had  tiny, tiny micro-revival recently with Pride which was about that and LGBTQ+ rights and the AIDs epidemic. There’s also a fairly rich vein of just super grimdark movies about poor people who lose everything and that’s it. And The Big Man / Crossing The Line sort of falls in the middle.

Basically Liam Neeson is a former pit worker who has had a spell in prison for assaulting a police office during a strike and is now coping with the fact that his community has changed unrecognisably, he relies on his wife to support him, and that, despite what stereotypes may persist about the working class, there is actually a stigma attached to having been in prison no matter how unjust the sentence. Anyway, his shitty mate, played by Billy Connolly, sets him up in a prize fight which brings him an immediate cash windfall but makes his wife walk out on him because it’s clearly dodgy as fuck. The vast majority of the middle of the film is just a very slow examination of him adjusting to his circumstances. And when you finally get to the actual fight you have these extremely mixed feelings because you obviously want Liam Neeson to win while also being aware that the fight is pointless, that his opponent is just as desperate as he is, and that basically everybody involved except for the two arseholes in suits is being exploited. This makes it quite an interesting counterpoint to the more uplifting narratives you get in films like Brassed Off and The Full Monty where people escape the restrictions of their social context. Whereas the fight in The Big Man / Crossing The Line just reaffirms it. There’s a slightly heavy-handed quote near the end where Liam Neeson’s character says “when we were kids, we used to race snails through puddles, and the one who lost got his snail stepped on” which sort of encapsulates everything the film is saying.

Anyway, Hugh Grant does not have a moustache in this film. But he does do a Scottish accent, which I think is at least more consistent than his French accent, possibly because he’s not on screen as much.

Goodness of film: 4, and I’m aware I’m going for 4s a lot here. Basically I actually think this is a good film in a very 90s movie about an 80s mine dispute way. It’s chronically unfun but everyone in it is good in it and this quite a resonant topic for those of us who are British and were alive in the late 20th century.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 2. He has multiple scenes in which he has dialogue and he delivers that dialogue adequately. But, again, this is one of those peculiar films in which he is called upon to play a character instead of playing some mannerisms under a haircut.



The story of these updates is that there are some updates that are happening right now. (Guess who’s been rewatching Parks and Rec)

Spontaneous Giveaway

So a thing that happened recently was that I lost my copy of Crush—this being one of my favourite collections, beloved to such an excessive degree that a fragment from ‘A Primer for the Small Weird Loves’ kicks off Pansies. Which is the sort of thing you have to write and ask someone for permission to do, and they can charge you for it, but in this case Richard Siken didn’t. Although my email was so delirious he probably just thought I was unwell and wanted to get as far away from me as possible. Anyway, anyway, I looked everywhere for the misplaced book, despaired, bought another one, and then found the original under my pillow. I have no idea what it was doing there—I can only assume Ducky hid it to torment me, or else I was reading in bed, and the book got shuffled under somehow.

Longish story short: I now have two copies of Crush and, as much as I love it, I only really need one. Hence the spontaneous giveaway. If you would like my spare (brand new) copy of Crush, alongside a bonus hard copy of Pansies, please do enter the Rafflecopter below. Giveaway is open internationally.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Audio Stuff

I’m super super super excited to announce that How to Bang a Billionaire is going to be released on audio, narrated by the insanely talented Joel Leslie. He’s narrated some of my favourite audiobooks, including Hemovore by Jordan Castillo Price, and can do all the voices. Yes, all of them. So basically Ardy is in safe hands. Hopefully more news about this soon.

How To Blow it with A Billionaire

So, Blow is coming out on Tuesday 12th December. I’m doing a weekly countdown teaser every Tuesday so if you follow me on one of the eighty million social media platforms I half-arsedly use please do keep an eye out for those. And I understand it’s currently available as an ARC on Netgalley so if you’re a reviewing type person you can request it over there.

As the book is in the hands of at least some readers, I’d better do my usual “buyer’s guide” spiel. Again, my purpose here isn’t to spoil the book or, uh, dissuade anyone from buying it (please buy it if you want to) but my feeling is very much that readers have a right to be informed consumers and I’d rather people knew what they were getting going in rather than discovering halfway through they were in, fact, getting something else that they wouldn’t have wanted had they known what it was.

First off, I’m afraid I have some pretty serious trigger warnings for Blow, which cover I guess discussions of sexual, physical and emotional abuse. There’s no on page depictions, nor any graphic descriptions, but it’s still a very prevalent theme. So please do take care of yourself when deciding whether or not the book is for you. If you have any specific concerns about this content (or anything really) you can email me (ajhatquicunquevultdotcom) or Mary (maryatquicunquevultdotcom) and we’ll do our best to address them.

I will say that—to me at least, but your mileage may vary—the prologue (which you’ll be able to check out just by downloading a sample of the text when the book is available) is probably the section most likely to be triggering. It’s narrated by the man Caspian was (forgive the euphemistic language I’m about to use here but I’m trying to tread a line between what is obvious from the text itself and what could conceivably constitute a spoiler) with before Nathaniel, and illuminates some of the discussions that take place later in the book. But if you were at all worried about it, I think you could read Blow without it and still have enough information to function. Which, err, is not me telling you that I opened my book with something completely irrelevant to the story, it’s just that the prologues to both Bang and Blow (and the same will go for the third book) are meant to sort of interact with the text in abstract ways that I hope readers find interesting, especially when looking back on the book they’ve just read.

I should also probably address the romancelandia elephant in the room which is the fact Blow ends with the central couple not together. I know this is a highly non-ideal situation for a lot of readers, which I totally understand. And if it’s that a deal breaker for you, then that’s okay. But I’m just going to take an opportunity now to tell you a little bit about the ending and why I chose to do it this way—not, let me make it very clear, to change your mind or convince you that you’re wrong for not wanting to read the book just yet (or at all)—but because if you are thinking that you want to come on this journey with me I want to offer you what reassures I can. I don’t know how to put this less-dramatically so I’ll just say it: but I do believe that reader trust is a sacred thing. It’s gift you give me when you pick up one of my books and I genuinely cherish it. I wouldn’t want to do anything to compromise or damage that trust.

So from my perspective (and yours may be different, and that’s okay), I don’t feel the ending of Blow is a cliff-hanger exactly. It’s a cliff-hanger in the sense that there is obviously more story to come, but the same was true of book 1 (Caspian and Ardy were, admittedly, in a better place but clearly the compromises they’d made and the peace they’d found at that point were short-term fixes to deeper issues) but not in the sense of suspense or uncertainty. There is absolutely no question about whether Ardy and Caspian will get their happy ending. It is, I promise you, 100% guaranteed.

I also did my very best to leave our Ardy in a strong place for moving forward. I mean, obviously he’s sad, but he’s not broken on the floor with his life in pieces or anything. And, to me, that’s actually important enough to risk the couple being apart at the end of the second book. Obviously romance novels centralise love and that’s a wonderful thing to do, but for me (as a reader and a writer) I don’t believe that centralising love means diminishing everything else. It’s why I try (how successfully is up to you to judge) to give my characters a world to inhabit beyond their romantic relationships: I want falling in love with someone to be part of a character’s rich, satisfying, meaningful life. Not the only thing that matters to them.

And the Arden St Ives series is a sort of combination bildom / bildungsroman (bildomsroman – and I’m going to keep that using that terrible punmanteau until it happens, dammit) so it is as necessary for him to find a place in the world where he can thrive and be valued, as figure things out with his billionaire boyfriend. Ideally, of course, he would (and will) do both. But, right now, he needs to show himself (and the reader) that he doesn’t need Caspian’s wealth, power and belief in him to succeed. He can do it on his own. And, even putting aside Ardy’s personal circumstances, it’s sort of a requirement of the genre that your protagonist proves this: after all, while you could theoretically write a book where somebody solves all their personal and circumstantial problems by dating a billionaire, that’s not really the sort of thing most people want to read.

Of course, I could have shuffled things around so that the inevitable breakup section of the bildom trilogy happened another time and didn’t leave readers slightly in the lurch but, well, I honestly believe this is the right and time place for it. I mean, most bildom trilogies I’ve read (and, oh boy, have I read a lot) have the couple break up at the end of the first book and I did play with that structure originally but I decided against it in the end. One of the problems with writing a trilogy of any genre is making book two feel relevant to the overall arc, instead of just passing time until the exciting thing you’re waiting for happens. And I can’t really say if I’ve managed to do that, but, I’ve definitely managed to avoid the situation where book two is just waiting for the couple to get back together.

Except that now begs the question: will book three be just waiting for the couple to get back together? And I answer firmly: ummmm…I hope not? There’s a teaser for book three at the end of Blow and Caspian is back on page, and in the same room as Ardy, by chapter three. They’re not fixing things at that point (that would make the end of book 2 a bit like those episodes of Alias where you’re left being all like, oh noes, the heroine is falling off a cliff in a runaway minecart that’s on fire, how can she possibly survive and next episode they’re like wait, she wasn’t in the minecart at all, and is, in fact, totally fine in Prague!) but they will be strongly present in each other’s lives. So no random extended absences of the love interest which (despite having written a couple of such sequences, eek) are not my favourite romancelandia plot arcs.

All of which is to say: if you aren’t up for the main couple not being together at the end of the second book, that’s absolutely fine. I get it. If you’re okay to stick with me, thank you from the bottom of your heart for your trust. I hope by the time you get to the end of the book two, and you see why Ardy and Caspian aren’t ready to be together, where I have left them, and how their future story is likely to unfold, you will feel that trust has not been misplaced. If you do … oh God, I’m really sorry.

Release Run Up Stuff

There’ll be various things happening as we approach release day for both audio-Bang and text-Blow, including giveaways, teasers, deleted scenes, games, Q&As and other extras. I’ll try not to saturate my feeds in an annoying way but I’ll do my best to keep folks in the loop. Obviously you can opt-in or opt-out entirely freely, though probably my infamous newsletter is the best one-stop shop for significant updates—I only send a few out of these out a year, so you won’t be spammed.

Social Media Continues To Happen

Just a reminder it’s never too late to sign up to Alexis Crossing. And apparently I have an Instagram account now? Come for the pictures of Ducky. Stay for the, um, pictures of Ducky.


At the risk of sounding like the sort of prick who keeps coming up with anecdotes about how terribly quirky and unconventional he is I should probably explain the thought process that got me started on the project I’m starting (or, more accurately, about to start blogging about having actually started it a couple of weeks ago).

I’ve been watching quite a lot of Pointless recently. For those unfamiliar with the show, it’s a British daytime quiz programme presented by Alexander Armstrong (the urbane-est man in the world) and Richard Osman (the tallest man in quizzing or possibly the quizziest man in tallness) in which pairs of contestants compete to get the lowest score possible by finding the answers that other people couldn’t. On one episode of this show, an clue on a round the theme of which I can no longer remember involved the phrase “… who wrote the poem Funeral Blues”. And I was surprised to discover that only about fourteen of the hundred people asked got the answer WH Auden. The reason I was surprised that so few people knew this, despite the fact that Auden isn’t exactly at Taylor Swift levels of popularity these days, is that Funeral Blues did quite specifically feature in the classic 1994 Britflick Four Weddings and Funeral.

This led to my having a really strong desire to watch Four Weddings and Funeral, which I did. And this led to my having a really strong desire to watch, um, every film that Hugh Grant has ever made. I’m not sure quite why I had this reaction because Four Weddings and a Funeral isn’t actually a very good film. In fact, thinking about it, that’s probably why I had such a reaction. Because, Four Weddings, and indeed Hugh Grant, sort of embody this peculiar idealised England of the late-Major / early-Blair years that I somehow have a tremendous nostalgia for while also being aware that it almost certainly never existed.

Also: I just really like doing pointless shit that nobody else cares about. Which might also explain why I’m so very invested in a quiz show that is literally called Pointless.

It turns out that because Hugh Grant began his career in the early 1980s, hilariously billed as ‘Hughie Grant’ in 1982 Oxford University produced dramedy called Privileged a lot of his, for what of a better term, juvenilia is actually quite difficult to access. We get very used to the idea that everything that’s ever produced pops up instantly on Amazon or Netflix, or illegally on Youtube, but that simply wasn’t the case 35 years ago.

As a result my excursion into the Grant canon has necessarily been restricted to those titles I can actually source. This means I’m having to start with the 1987 movie, Maurice, and will need to skip some shorts, some straight-to-TV movies, and some other things you just plain can’t find any more. Because Hugh Grant’s entire filmography crosses four decades I’m not getting through the whole thing in one sitting (also, I may not get through the whole thing at all, you might have noticed I’m notorious flaky).

This instalment, which I am loosely dubbing The Colonial Years, will stretch from 1987 to 1988 (Jesus fuck, he was in a lot of things in the late 80s) and cover the films Maurice, White Mischief, Lair of the White Worm, and The Bengali Night. For those who are paying attention, this means I’m skipping over two of his 1988 outings, those being Rowing With the Wind in which he played Lord Byron (though I am still trying to source this because Hugh Grant playing Byron must be the best thing ever) and The Dawning, in which he plays a bloke called Harry, but which unfortunately appears only to be available as a Region 1 DVD. For those of you who are disgustingly young, DVDs are an entertainment medium from the past, and regions were an ill-fated attempt by their manufacturers to control international distribution.

Anyway, let’s get going. Because Hugh Grant won’t watch himself.


Happily, this project starts off with a film that is actually genuinely good (this state of affairs does not last long). Maurice is, of all things, a Merchant Ivory adaptation of EM Forster’s book of the same name, which he wrote between 1913 and 1914, but which was not released until 1971 after his death on account of how it was super gay. It’s not considered one of his best novels, partly because it’s probably not, but partly because it’s just uncomplicatedly romantic, essentially ending with the gay protagonist, and his gay partner, sailing off to America, where they live happily-ever-after as gay lumberjacks. I read somewhere (but I can’t remember where so I might just be making it up) that Forster did write an epilogue in which Maurice’s sister shows up in America and is all like “ooh, we’re so disgusted by how gay you are, you big gay” and he’s all like “whatevs” and goes back to being a gay lumberjack, but Forster felt that even that undermined the thing he was trying to do, which was write a gay lovestory without any sort of social or personal compromise. I mean, unless you count going off to be a lumberjack in America as a personal or social compromise, but even that has this sort of Eden vibe.

Anyway, Maurice the film is actually fairly close to the book. Hugh Grant does not play Maurice – he’s not going to get the starring role in anything until The Bengali Night and that—spoiler—isn’t going to be a triumph. He’s cast as Clive Durham, Maurice’s first love, who he meets at University, and with whom he has as intense, long-lasting but ultimately platonic relationship. Clive is a bit of a difficult character, both in the movie and the book, because he’s very close to occupying the treacherous bisexual role. There’s basically always a character in that type of story (and the ‘young man is gay at Oxford before the Great War’ is a surprisingly well-populated subgenre in British fiction) who is involved with the protagonist at University, always has a delicate, artistic temperament, and two, five or twenty years later shows up having completely divorced himself that part of his life and settled down into a miserable sham of a marriage with a ruthless social climber.

In the book, things are very much from Maurice’s point of view so we never really get a sense of why Clive is the way he is—you can read a lot of self-loathing out of the text, but it’s hard to really understand where his sudden emotional breakdown and subsequent decision to be totes straight now comes from. I presume this is because Maurice himself doesn’t really understand. In the movie, Clive’s nervous collapse is specifically contextualised against the background of an old Oxford friend being imprisoned and sentenced to hard labour for gross indecency, which sort of makes him a bit more sympathetic. It means we aren’t being asked to condemn him simply for being with a woman in later life (which, in this sort of story, often gets presented as a betrayal in and of itself, which is uncomfortable and biphobic). Instead, it commits the film more strongly to an interpretation in which whatever Clive’s identity is he consciously decides to protect himself by living the most conventional life he can. Part of this, apparently, involves growing a moustache. I’m not sure I was ready to see Hugh Grant with a moustache. As much as I enjoyed this film, and I do actually think it is a good film, I’m not sure any of my memories of it will remain untainted by the fact it contains Hugh Grant with a moustache.

Even if you are not trying to watch the complete canon of Hugh Grant (and, let’s be honest, who would do that) this film is genuinely watchable. And for a gay love story filmed in the 80s based on a book written before the First World War it’s surprisingly sincere. Apparently, it had a pretty troubled production, and Merchant Ivory got quite a lot of shit for putting out a gay romantic film in which neither the protagonist, nor his partner, ends up dead or in prison. I mean, it’s 2017 and in a lot of mainstream culture we still are only just getting to the point where you can have a gay love story that’s basically just told the same way as a straight love story. And here’s Merchant Ivory doing it in 1987. There’s kissing, and soft focus 80s movie sex scenes, and I honestly don’t know how they got away with it. Maybe everyone was just too distracted by the fact the film also includes Hugh Grant with a moustache.

I’m going to rate these films by goodness of film and Hugh Grantiness of film.

Maurice gets 5 out 5 for goodness in that it’s actually really good and not even in a “for 1987 way”. I mean, you have to like Merchant Ivory movies but, if you do, you’ll really enjoy it.

It gets 4 out of 5 for Hugh Grantiness because he’s quite a major character and he’s quite Hugh Granty (in that he plays a posh English bloke who went to Oxbridge, he’s hesitant about things, and spends a lot of time lying around looking pretty with big blue eyes). I couldn’t decide whether the film should gain a point or lose point for the moustache so you may treat this as either a 5 or a 3 depending on how much the idea of Hugh Grant with facial hair terrifies you.

White Mischief

Hugh Grant’s second 1987 outing is White Mischief. First of all, this film gets a +1 bonus to its Hugh Grantiness rating for the fact Hugh Grant plays a character who is actually called Hugh. According to the Wikipedia filmography for Hugh Grant, the Hugh in question is Hugh Cholmondeley, the 3rd Baron Delamere, who was an extremely influential figure in the colonial history of Kenya. He was active in recruiting settlers to East Africa, helped to found the so-called Happy Valley set (around whose antics the film revolves), coined the term ‘white hunter’, and was a pioneer of the dairy industry. He also, however, had been dead for ten years at the time the film was set, and not in a ‘tragically young in a hunting accident’ kind of way. In a ‘he was born in 1870 and the film is set in 1941’ kind of way. All of which makes casting the 28 year old Hugh Grant in the role a little bit of an odd choice, especially since the rest of the film is actually quite historically accurate. And, given that, Mr Grant’s character is just credited as ‘Hugh’ in the actual movie, I think it’s probable that it was just a different guy who happened to be called Hugh. Sorry Wikipedia.

In any case, I watched the whole of this film, even though Hugh Grant was only in it for 85 seconds, saying goodbye to Diana Broughton (the feisty blonde woman who the film is mostly about). It’s also got Charles Dance and John Hurt in it, and is kind fascinating in a deeply colonialist sort of way. It’s based around a real group of decadent expats who lived in a  place called Happy Valley in Kenya, who basically spent all their time getting off their faces, and fucking each other. And the plot, such it is, revolves around a very real incident in which one of their number (Charles Dance) was murdered by a party or parties whose identity or identities remain unknown to this day. Quite why we should give a fuck, I’m not entirely sure. I mean, I guess it was Tywin Lannister, but this is group of people who, in 1941, instead of fighting to stop Hitler were banging and taking smack on land that they stole from the native Kenyans (I’m aware that his oversimplifies the complex history of the British colonial presence in East Africa). It’s one of two films on this list that are based on true stories, and in the case of both the true stories they are based on are slightly more interesting than the movie.

Goodness of film. Two or two and a half, maybe? Like it’s fine. And you get to see Charles Dance dancing which is worth it just for the opportunity to shout “Charles Dancing” at the screen. Also, because of what I suspect was the writer’s / director’s inability to imagine anything more decadent than putting on the clothing of the opposite sex there’s a scene in which all of the characters (except, randomly, the heroine who they presumably thought—incorrectly—would be less hot in a suit) attend a cross-dressing party, which means you get to see a bunch of quite famous British actors in really half-hearted drag. And it’s sort of fabulous, especially Charles Dance who is sporting a slinky black number and actual pearls. And, like the moustache in Maurice, I couldn’t decide whether I should give it plus 1 or minus 1 for the dialogue, which is stilted in a way that I think requires a genuine talent to produce. I’m not sure I ever heard two characters say sequential sentences that actually connected to each other. It’s all “pass the sugar darling” “do you think the rain will come soon” “I’m so terribly terribly bored.”

Hugh Grantiness of film: 1.5, including the plus 1 for Hugh playing a character called Hugh. Seriously, he’s in it for, like, one scene. And he barely even gets flustered at anything.

Lair of the White Worm

For those keeping track,  Lair of the White Worm comes after The Dawning and before Rowing in the Wind, neither of which I was able to acquire. The Lair of the White Worm, however, is available online through Amazon. Interestingly you can buy it and rent it for the same amount money. That should tell you something about the film. The other thing that should tell you something about the film is the reason you seem to be able to access it via Amazon streaming service is that it is now being distributed by Starz. It is a very, very, Starzy film.

Lair of the White Worm makes you feel like you’re watching an episode of MST3K even though you are not watching an episode of MSTK3K. The film features Hugh Grant, as Lord James d’Ampton, the sole surviving heir of the d’Ampton family, which has been cursed since time immemorial (or since, like 800AD or something) by the legend of the d’Ampton worm. I’d say it’s a cheap ripoff of the Lambton Worm, except it’s not really a ripoff, it’s fairly explicitly the same thing, just they changed the first letter of the guy’s name for no reason, which annoys me way more than it should. There’s even a folksong about the Lambton Worm which they put verbatim into the film, except they randomly do a rock version of it and change all the Ls to Ds so it fits the name of Hugh Grant’s character, instead of the name that it actually had and would have been a perfectly acceptable name for Hugh Grant’s character in the first place. Like, did they think people wouldn’t realise he was an aristocrat if he didn’t have a d’ in his name. And what the hell kind of name is d’Ampton anyway? Does it mean he’s from Ampton? Where the fuck is Ampton?

Although the worm is named after his family, Hugh Grant is, at best, the co-star of this film, an accolade he shares with, of all people, Peter Capaldi, who plays a archeologist by the name of Angus Flint. It is, of course, always really hard to see Peter Capaldi in anything without expecting him to go off on a massive Malcom Tucker-like sweary rant at the slightest provocation. Which makes it super disconcerting to see him as a mild mannered archeologist with exceptionally fluffy hair.

I think there was a law in the 1980s that all horror films had to start with an archeologist digging up an unconvincing-looking skeleton. That is how this film starts. It builds a sense of mystery for approximately 12 seconds before Amanda Donohoe shows up as sexy lady in sunglasses and a headscarf who is definitely an evil snake cultist and proceeds to demonstrate this to the audience by immediately popping fangs and spitting poison all over a crucifix. The action of the film, if it can be called action, revolves around Capaldi and Grant ineffectively trying to solve the mystery of the d’Ampton worm, mostly by looking in a cave they already know is empty, while Donohoe (whose character is called Lady Sylvia Marsh, because that’s obviously what you’d be called if you secretly worshipped a snake god and didn’t want anyone to know about it) goes around trying to fuck and/or murder basically anything that moves and crowbarring increasingly heavy-handed snake imagery into every interaction she has with anyone. This reaches its zenith (or nadir, depending on how you feel about this kind of thing) in the scene where she sexily picks up a naive young man on the road and invites him back to her house so he can get out of the rain. We then cut to a scene in which they are playing Snakes & Ladders (oh d’you see), and she has apparently, at some point, got changed into a black PVC lingerie and thigh highs ensemble. I think this sequence might actually have been more incongruous than Hugh Grant with a moustache. And that is saying a lot.

Anyway, the innocent young man meets a sticky end when Lady Sylvia Marsh gives him a poison blowjob and drowns him a hot tub, a transaction she is forced to expedite because she needs to go to the door (I seem to recall still in the aforesaid thigh highs and lingerie get-up) in order to greet Hugh Grant who has come to her house for, I think, basically no good reason. At which point, Lady Sylvia skilfully deflects his suspicions by engaging in ostensibly seductive dialogue that goes something like: Oh I’m all alone, Oh I’m so scared of snakes, Gosh snakes really fascinate me, you know what I really like? Snakes? Do you want to play some Snakes & Ladders. No, I hate snakes. You’re right, that does make my previous comments about Snakes & Ladders a bit peculiar, oh you’re leaving, I don’t suppose you fancy a poison blowjob?

It actually gets worse from there. It turns out that Lady Sylvia is maybe possibly some sort of immortal or something? And that all of the other characters might be the reincarnation of someone. Reincarnations of who? We don’t know, they never really say. Although one of the characters does keep having flashbacks to, um, nuns with their boobs out, covered in blood. Because something something conflict between christianity and paganism something something ancient snake god temple something something boobs. I did mention this was distributed by Starz, right?

The whole film obviously ends with the sexy sexy snake lady trying to sacrifice sexy sexy nun flashbacks lady to her giant snake god and winding up getting fed to her own giant snake god because of course she does. Seriously, that’s why we don’t worship giant snake gods. It’s basically the equivalent of setting up a table in a pro-wrestling match. No-one is going through that table except you. The final confrontation is particularly odd because Hugh Grant’s character is still in the empty hole trying to smoke out the giant snake and according to a conversation he has afterwards with Malcom Tucker that smoking out somehow allowed them to beat the snake god but in the scene it’s not clear at all that it’s having any affect whatsoever. Perhaps even more bizarrely the snake god is ultimately destroyed because Peter Capaldi’s mild mannered archeologist character has a hand grenade with him that has not previously been mentioned at all. So presumably he just goes around with a hand grenade all the time – I guess in case he might need to dislodge a particularly stubborn rock formation.

Oh, also there’s this thing where sometimes if the sexy snake lady bites you you turn into kind of a snake vampire. And as well as having the obligatory 80s horror movie beginning where you dig up skeleton this movie also has the obligatory 80s horror movie ending where you discover that the good guys have been turned into vampires/werewolves/body-snatchers already. Also there’s this dream sequence where Hugh Grant is on a plane and the sexy snake lady is a stewardess and she’s trying to either seduce or murder him or possibly both and he’s holding a pencil which seems to represent his erection. What is this? I don’t even.

Very briefly, in case this incoherent and rambling summary has inspired you to watch Lair of the White Worm (and if the sort of film this film definitely is is the sort of film that you like then you should absolutely watch it) I should mention that it does get quite explicitly rapey at points. There’s some fairly specific ancient fertility god stuff towards the end which is handled with as much sensitivity as you’d expect from everything else in the movie. So if you really like schlocky 80s horror movies but find sexual violence off-putting maybe give this one a miss.

Goodness of film: Like 1 or like 5 but basically nothing in between. It’s a terrible, cheesy, 80s monster flick about a sexy monster lady that sexes people to death brackets one of those people is Hugh Grant close brackets. You know if you want to watch that film.

Hugh Grantiness of film: I would say about 3. He’s got quite a major role, and he plays a bumbling aristocrat, which is basically Hugh Grant’s entire career. Also, he and Capaldi are the only people who can do anything with the atrocious 80s horror movie dialogue – in Grant’s case, I suspect this is because he always sounds like he’s forgotten his lines anyway. I think I’m only giving it a 3 rather than a 5 because he spends quite a lot of the movie in hole and because the eightiesieness and Starziness almost blot out the Hugh Grantiness.

The Bengali Night

Oh dear me. This is the second colonial era film that Hugh Grant appeared in between 1987 and 1988 and, like White Mischief, the story it’s based on is slightly more interesting than the film itself. What’s even more interesting than that is the actual true story behind the not-actually-particularly-true story that the book the film is based on is based on. Basically, The Bengali Night is a terrible film. The only version you can get has terrible picture quality, terrible sound quality, and every single English actor in it looks like they give zero fucks. Hugh Grant can’t even be bothered to give his character a consistent accent.

But, on top of that, it’s just really, really, really skeevy. Potted summary: white European man in his mid-to-late twenties goes to India, fucks 16 year-old girl. It’s based on a book, the plot summary of which is: white European man in his mid-to-late twenties goes to India, fucks 16 year-old girl, then randomly goes up a mountain and fucks a blonde woman. The actual story on which the book is based goes something more like this: white Romanian man goes to India, stays with Indian man, has intense and probably romantic relationship with Indian man’s sixteen-year-old daughter who is already a well-regarded poet and writer in her own right, Indian man asks him to leave, sixteen-year-old goes on to have successful and fulfilling life in India as a wife, a mother, political activist and well-respected intellectual, Indian woman discovers later in life that white Romanian man has written book in which he claims he fucked her when he didn’t, Indian woman is not happy about this. White European director makes film based on White European man’s book. Indian woman is even less happy. Film stars Hugh Grant. Not a career highlight.

So, yeah. Everything about this is fucked up. The film and the context surrounding the film is this vortex of colonialism that is sickly fascinating if you come from a position of sufficient privilege to be sickly fascinated by it rather than just fucking bored and sad. Skipping over the fact that the film itself is a classic “white man goes to hot country and is awesome and bangs a hot babe because of how awesome he is and she’s stifled by her society because her society is objectively worse than western society and her family freak out because reverse racism and shit and certainly not because a guy in his twenties is attempting to fuck their underaged daughter so white man is driven out, everything ends catastrophically because non-white people are not capable of surviving without their white saviour” narrative the meta-text around the film is basically that again. Only worse.

Some bits of the story are actually true in that the author really did live in India, really did live with an Indian man and his family, and really did, arguably, actually fall in love with the Indian’s man daughter. In a weird way, what’s possibly skeeviest about the story is that the skeeviest bits are made up. And, obviously, this is a tricky one because, from a certain point of view it’s better for a bad thing not to have happened but, well, it takes a really special kind of dickhead to lie in a way that makes him sound even more like a dickhead.

To put some actual names on these characters, the white European man in question is called Mircea Eliade and the Indian woman is called Maitreyi Devi, and both of them wrote books about the relationship they had when she was sixteen and he was twenty-something. This is often presented as a kind of “he said she said” but since her book was written only in direct response to his book I’m inclined to assume that her account is the more reliable one. The two elements of The Bengali Night that I found most troubling were the fact that a white European man seemed to be using India as his personal sex party and that the moment the white European man left, Maitreyi’s parents beat her up, locked her in a cellar and then I think possibly died or something? (In the film their fate is relayed to Hugh Grant’s character by a third party about thirty seconds before the credits roll after he’s had the obligatory white man dip in the Ganges). According to her account, neither of these things happened, which suggests that not only did did Mr Eliade live a life that was quite similar to a stereotypical racist and colonial narrative he then wrote about it in a way that made it even more like a stereotypical racist and colonial narrative than it actually was.

I mean, ultimately, The Bengali Night is a 1988 film based on a semi-autobiographical novel from 1933. There was no way it was ever going to have a nuanced portrayal of India or one that treated its Indian characters as real humans with real internal lives. But I think the fact that the girl in the story grew up to be an actual adult woman who had the resources and wherewithal to object to the way she had been portrayed forces us to confront quite how skeevy and de-humanising the whole thing is.  The film taken in conjunction with the background information on the film that I looked up as part of this project leaves you with the deeply discomforting impression that the author/narrator/Hugh Grant character clearly doesn’t particularly think of Maitreyi (Gayatri in the film) as a real human being. But, worse, that he obviously doesn’t realise this.

The whole thing gives the impression of having been written by someone who believes himself to have a profound love and respect for India and the Indian people while also treating the whole place like it’s basically a giant theme park. Perhaps the thing that most encapsulates this is that when he wrote the original book (which was always intended to be at least partly fictional) Eliade changed his own name (Hugh Grant’s character in the film is called Allan) but didn’t change hers. And while I’m aware that one should not too easily read symbolism into small gestures or unconscious errors surely nothing signals that you don’t really think of someone as real quite as much as writing a fictionalised account of an event in which you still use their full actual name. Especially when you realise that Maitreyi Devi was kind of a big deal. She was a philanthropist, an activist, a writer, a poet and a philosopher. But in the book and the film she’s just this sixteen-year-old girl whose only meaningful achievement was falling in love with a white guy. And it clearly didn’t occur to Eliade that she would ever be anything else.


Goodness of film: 0. It’s colonialist and boring.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 2. I mean, it is Hugh Grant playing a slightly confused European man, which is, again, the only job he’s allowed. But he genuinely can’t seem to decide what accent he’s doing (if I’m being charitable, I might suggest he’s deliberately trying to signal which language his character is speaking by which accent he does, so he speaks with something approaching a France accent around the characters who I think who are supposed to be French, and an English accent around the Indian characters to whom I think he’s supposed to be speaking in English but mostly it’s just confusing) and, well, not even Hugh Grant could imbue a role like this with anything approaching grace or charm.

I’m really glad that the next movie on the list is based on a Barbara Cartland novel and Hugh Grant plays a highwayman.


So a couple of weeks ago now I wrote a post about my initial thoughts on the BBC serial killer drama Rellik. I basically didn’t rate it, but I found it the right level of fascinating-slash-irritating that I carried on watching it.

This article is going to include a lot of spoilers for Rellik, including giving away the identity of the killer, and the details of the ending. I don’t really expect that to be an issue for anybody, since my recommendation in the previous article was that the show wasn’t especially worth watching and having finished the show I haven’t actually changed my mind.

But I almost did.

I decided to write a follow-up article at the end of Episode 5, when the identity of the killer was finally revealed and I was able, for about the space of a week, to convince myself that the show was actually a smart and savvy deconstruction of the tropes of the serial killer genre. Spoiler, it wasn’t. But I thought it might be worth talking a bit about why I thought it might be.

Just to get everybody up to speed, because honestly my original post didn’t actually include much in the way of plot summary (being mostly concerned with describing the structure of the show and inventing insulting nicknames for the main characters), the premise of Rellik is this:

We follow DCI Gabriel Markham (the guy I consistently referred to as Detective Manpain, Acidburns McWhinyguts, and similar) and his partner DI Elaine Shepard as they attempt to track down a serial killer who leaves their victims displayed in public playgrounds, their faces burned off with acid, their fingertips severed and their other identifying marks removed. We start watching with the death of the pair’s most promising suspect, a mentally ill man named Steven Mills who is shot in a botched arrest attempt. Then we spool backwards through other significant developments in the case – the mysterious fire in the police station that destroys a laptop which might have contained vital evidence, the many interviews between the police and the obviously dodgy psychiatrist Isaac Taylor, and so on. The mid-season climax (as it were – this is a British show we’re talking about, so the series is six episodes) comes in episode four, when we finally see the attack in which DCI Markham was scarred with acid.

The fifth episode shows us the events that led up to that attack, and brings the whole case to the beginning, finally revealing that the killer (the rellik?) is none other than DI Shepard, who has played DCI Markham and the audience for fools this whole time. I sort of meta-spoilered myself for this reveal. I watched the last three episodes of Rellik with half an eye on other things because it – well – because I didn’t really like it very much. I was flicking between the show and reviews of the show on the internets, and I noticed that reviews were saying that the identity of the killer got revealed at the end of episode five, at which point I put about forty seconds of thought into working out who the killer could be, at which point it was pretty obvious.

I’m going to go into a bit more detail about this. I should add that towards the end there will be trigger warnings for child abuse.

Clues and Twists and That

So here are the forty-seconds-worth of thoughts I had when I noticed that we’d be getting the reveal about the killer in episode five.

I’d already basically ruled out all of the most obvious suspects (like creepy Isaac Taylor and all of the people the detectives suspected) for basic TV reasons. I was also about 50/50 on whether the fact that the killer had been able to destroy evidence in police custody and ambush Gabriel outside a police safehouse that only he and Elaine knew he was going to would turn out to be actual clues to the identity of the killer or just things the writers lost track of in pursuit of dramatic events to put in earlier episodes. This is why I only worked out that Elaine was going to be the killer when I found out that we were finding out the killer’s identity in episode five. I couldn’t quite believe that the writers would put something as obvious as “the killer attacks Gabriel at the precise place he arranged to meet Elaine, and then Elaine shows up on that exact spot mere moments later just as the killer whose height and build matches hers very closely disappears” unless it was either a legit clue or a deliberate fakeout. And since there was no indication that we were supposed to be suspecting Elaine at that point, I figured she was probably the serial killer. And I was right.

This was the bit where I almost decided that the show was being subversive. Serial Killer shows have a tendency to devolve into a Battle of the Geniuses: the detective is a super genius brilliant detective whose super genius brilliant detectiving can be thwarted only by a serial killer who is even more super genius brilliant. TV serial killers quite often seem to have literal superpowers – part of the reason I wasn’t sure whether tracking the detective to a definitionally secure location that only one person knew he was going to or starting fire in a police evidence locker were supposed to point to the killer being a police insider is that those are the sorts of things TV shows often assume that serial killers can just do. Red John in The Mentalist is an especially egregious example of this phenomenon – by the time I quit watching he had demonstrated so much reach and influence that the only person he could turn out to be and still have things make sense was “actually God, like literally”.

Once it was revealed that DCI Markham had failed to identify the killer despite the fact that he was not only having sex with her, but had actually arranged to meet her for sex at the police safehouse outside which he was attacked (and had done this at sufficiently short notice that there was definitely no way anybody else could possibly have been expecting him to go there) I thought for a moment that the show was trying to deliberately challenge the “genius vs genius” stereotype. I thought that the reverse format had been chosen quite cleverly so that the audience would start the show assuming that they would be watching the story of a smart, dedicated cop diligently pursuing a serial killer and be surprised and challenged by the realisation that they had instead been watching the story of a selfish, narcissistic dickhead of a cop fucking up a murder investigation because he’s a prick and bad at his job.

This interpretation was (in my brief window of thinking the show might turn out to be good) reinforced by the strange way that Gabriel’s character develops over the course of the show. Because we watch the action unfold backwards, we see Gabriel’s character develop backwards as well. But what’s weird is that the further back in time we go, and the less time Gabriel has spent hunting down this mysterious unstoppable serial killer, the more starts to act like a cop who’s cracking under the strain of a high-pressure criminal investigation. In the first episode Gabriel, although scarred, is basically a pretty decent cop. He tries to talk Mills down, and is only prevented from succeeding because Mills goes for his phone and the snipers (who Gabriel never asked for in the first place) overreact. And afterwards he’s introspective and thinks carefully about the case and tries to evaluate clues in order to work out who the murderer might be.

Then we go back 24 hours and he’s intimidating suspects, driving the wrong way up motorways and yelling at people. A couple of days before that he’s punching clubgoers. When we see what he was like before the acid attack, it turns out he was even worse, using police safehouses as his personal shag pad, freaking out at press conferences, and beating up barmen and banging their girlfriends. Backwards-in-time Gabriel seems to have the emotional arc that the detectives in these kinds of shows normally have forwards in time, starting out calmly and rationally seeking the public good and ending up freaking out at his family and jumping at shadows. By the end we see way, way, way more scenes of Gabriel arguing with his wife, trying to have sex with random women, or needlessly harassing people than we do of him actually trying to solve the serial murders he’s purportedly investigating. The people around him are just as bad – we see them playing pranks on each other, being homophobic at each other, and ill-advisedly proposing marriage to one another, but we never see them actually trying to solve the crimes.

When they revealed that Gabriel had literally had his dick inside the killer and not noticed, I really thought that they might be building to an ending in which the twist wasn’t so much “you thought Elaine was a good guy but really she’s a bad guy” as “you thought Gabriel was the hero but really he’s a shitty cop and the reason they didn’t catch the killer isn’t that the killer was hard to catch, it’s that this entire police department is clearly miserably ineffective.” Which would have been amazing.

That wasn’t how it ended.

Forget it, Gabriel, it’s the Salvia Unit

The last episode of Rellik abandons the reverse chronological format and adopts a much more conventional “linear narrative with flashbacks” structure. I’m honestly torn about this. On the one hand, telling a satisfying story backwards is clearly difficult, and you have to cheat a little to make it work (even Memento has forwards bits). On the other hand, having watched the whole of Rellik, it feels a lot like you could basically watch episode one, then jump straight to episode six and miss out on basically nothing. All you get in episodes 2-5 is information about false leads that the incompetent investigators ran after and personal melodrama stuff that basically doesn’t lead anywhere or add up to anything.

Perhaps the most damning indication that the last four episodes of reverse-order mayhem haven’t really achieved anything is that one of the first things we see in Episode 6 is a series of flashbacks from Elaine’s perspective showing how she got to the point of being a serial killer. In the first episode Markham muses about how we could understand crime better if we could go back to where things began, and he’s sort of right, but this flashback sequence highlights quite how little connection there is between this core concept about the origins of seemingly inexplicable things and the central plot device of showing us the investigation in reverse chronological order. Because it’s pretty clear that if we want to understand anything that happens in the show, we need to go back to well before the show even started. You don’t learn anything by following the investigation backwards, you learn stuff by being told – through entirely non-diegetic means – about things that happened twenty years ago. The unspooling through the investigation tells you nothing, because the police never came remotely close to investigating the right things.

I’ve described about six different things in this show as perfectly encapsulating everything that is wrong with it. I’m going to add a seventh now.

In an early scene of the sixth episode we see that Elaine has now abducted the creepy psychiatrist Isaac Taylor (whose partner had been her first victim) and is in the process of trying to frame him for the murders (why she feels the need to do this when the police are clearly nowhere near suspecting her I have no idea). During this sequence, she asks if he recognises her and, when he says he does not, she hints to him that her name is an anagram. She then reveals that her real name is Helena Parides.

I am … I am fairly sure that we have never heard the name Helena Parides before.

A lot is made of how confusing it is to follow the plot of Rellik on account of its being told backwards, but the truth is that it’s hard to follow the plot of Rellik because it doesn’t make a lick of sense, and because so much effort gets put into creating scenarios that will lead to a cool revelation when you go back in time, there isn’t room to actually establish long term setups and payoffs. I couldn’t absolutely swear that we never once get a reference to a Helena Parides anywhere in the series (I wasn’t engaged enough to keep track of every minor detail), but the internet is really good at following this kind of thing, and I’m sure I would have noticed if “who is Helena Parides?” was a recurring mystery. I mean I’ve read articles with recaps of most episodes, including those “10 questions from episode 4” type lists that fixate on exactly these kinds of tiny details. Helena Parides, if she was mentioned, was not on the community’s radar.

Which is good in some ways, because fandom fucking loves an anagram, and if “who is Helena Parides” had been a major question in the show, the fact that it was an anagram of “Elaine Shepard” would have been worked out in minutes. Indeed, I wonder if that was part of the reason the writers were so cagey about dropping the name in the first place – fear of giving away a surprise. But if so, they made a classic rookie error. An audience can only be surprised by something if it runs contrary to their expectations, and it can only be contrary to their expectations if they have some expectations to begin with. Discovering that Elaine Shepard was really Helena Parides would have been shocking if we’d had any idea who Helena Parides was, or indeed if we’d been more than peripherally aware that a person named Helena Parides existed at all.

It’s sort of as if we’d got to the end of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Tom Riddle had revealed that his full name was an anagram of I AM LORD VOLDEMORT … but we’d never actually heard the name Voldemort before.

Of course the whole Elaine Shepard/Helena Parides thing has a couple of points in common with the Tom Riddle/Lord Voldemort thing. And they’re points that you can more or less get away with in a children’s book about wizards and very much can’t get away with in a mature thriller series about a serial killer. Firstly, there’s the fact that both names only work because they contain essentially made up elements to account for the spare letters. “Marvolo” isn’t a real name, JK Rowling invented it so that Voldemort’s very mundane Muggle name would link up with his ah-do-you-see-it-literally-means-fly-from-death Wizard name. Similarly “Parides” isn’t an actual surname, it’s the Latin name of a butterfly. It also makes her sound vaguely Mediterranean, which is weird because her dad and mum both look like “Shepard” fits them as a name far better than “Parides”. Essentially it looks a lot like they came up with the name “Elaine Shepard” first, then decided that it would be cool for it to be an anagram afterwards.

Of course the second point here is rather more pertinent, which is that picking a pseudonym that is an anagram of your real name just feels … a bit naff? I mean it’s fine if you’re an actual supervillain in a children’s book, not so much if you want me to take you seriously as the antagonist of a gritty thriller for grownups. And before you write in, yes some real serial killers have used wordplay, but not in quite that way. For example the BTK killer sent letters to the police using the name Bill Thomas Killman, but then he was just using a pseudonym that hinted at a different pseudonym. He wasn’t using an anagram of his real actual name that the police could immediately use to catch him (he left that in MSWord documents he hadn’t deleted properly).

The anagram thing makes particularly little sense because it’s fairly clear that Elaine had largely suppressed the memories of the traumatic experiences that led to her going all serial killer until a chance encounter with one of the people responsible for her childhood abuse brought everything back to her (more on this later, it is problematic in about nine different ways). The arc the show seems to be asking us to accept is one in which young Helena Parides, after witnessing her father murdering her mother is committed to a psychiatric facility at which she is further abused then, as an adult, tries to put everything behind her by changing her name to … an anagram of her original name? Was she actively trying to set things up for a cool reveal in later life? I mean I get that there’s no single right way to handle a traumatic experience but that just seems weird.

And I suppose we’ve now got to the point where we can’t avoid talking about Elaine/Helena’s background, how it connects to Gabriel’s background, and why it can seriously go fuck itself.

So for reasons that are never entirely made clear, young Helena Parides’ father stabs her mother to death with a broken bottle in front of her. As a result of this, she is committed to a psychiatric facility called the Salvia unit, which is run by Creepy Isaac Taylor and his partner Dead Jonas Borner (the acid killer’s first victim – and incidentally I am childishly amused that if you google for “Jonas Borner” you get “did you mean Jonas Boner”). Here she is systematically and repeatedly raped by at least one member of the staff, and this is covered up by Taylor and Borner, who give her electroconvulsive therapy in order to make her forget about it (I’m not completely certain that this is how ECT actually works).

At the same time Helena is incarcerated in the Salvia unit, a young rookie cop by the name of Gabriel Markham and his partner Edward Benton (later the superintendent in charge of overseeing Gabriel’s hopelessly incompetent investigation into the acid killer case) receive a 999 call from the Salvia unit. They are told by the receptionist that it was probably just a false alarm because sometimes the inmates get hold of telephones and call the police on them, but the cops ask if they can look around anyway. And the receptionist is fine with this. Because apparently Taylor and Borner are willing to electrocute the brain of a ten-year-old girl to cover up the abuses going on at their hospital, but are perfectly happy to let cops walk around anywhere they like? So like basically everybody else in the show they’re both amoral and incompetent?

Anyway, Gabriel hears crying, and walks in to literally find Helena in the process of being raped by an orderly (listed in the credits as “Salvia Unit, Evil Orderly” which is … not the most nuanced way of describing the abuses of power that can take place in closed communities without external scrutiny). The orderly rushes at Gabriel, who shoves him sideways, causing him to crack his head on a radiator and instantly die. Y’know. Like always happens.

We then see Gabriel outside, and we realise that this is the traumatic past experience that led to the collapse of Garbriel’s marriage, his drinking, drugs and philandering, and general descent into narcissistic fuckholery.

Because obviously what’s really important about the systematic and repeated rape of a ten-year-old girl by the employees of an institution that had an obligation to protect and care for her is the emotional impact it has on the policeman who witnesses a tiny fraction of it.

Anyway, the flashback ends with Helena giving Gabriel this weird grateful/creepy/yearning look that basically says “I’m going to get totally obsessed with you and start murdering people when I grow up.”

Then we cut back to the present day, and Gabriel finally works out that Elaine was the girl from the Salvia unit, that everything really is all about him and his manpain, and that if they want to catch Elaine they will have to go back to the ruins of the spooky abandoned psychiatric institution so that it can all end where it began.

Which would, again, be way more satisfying if we’d had more than the slightest inkling that Helena Parides, the Salvia Unit, or Gabriel’s past experiences were remotely significant to the plot. Which we didn’t. Because we were too busy watching supporting characters dressing up as chickens.

To go back to the “it’s like [other thing x] without [thing that makes other thing x work]”, it’s basically like if you took the film Chinatown, made the final scene into a big fight in Chinatown where everything gets set on fire, and then systematically removed all references to Chinatown in the rest of the script so that people wouldn’t guess where the final showdown was going to happen.

Rambling Towards a Conclusion

 Annoyingly, I suspect I will once again find that the most helpful thing I can say about Rellik is “it is exactly like you would expect it to be, given that it is called Rellik.” Which is to say, approximately 78% less clever than it thinks it is.

 I think the thing that most bugs me about the show is that people still persist in talking as if it’s the structure that made it difficult to follow, rather than the fact that the plot just legitimately did not make sense. It feels like a classic Emperor’s New Clothes situation – there seems to be this feeling out there that the reason the viewing public didn’t like Rellik was that it was too smart for them, when actually they were, by and large, too smart for it.

 The show persistently fails to keep track of its own plot, consistently has characters act in irrational ways, and consistently has major plot points that only make sense if the characters are deliberately self-sabotaging.

 In the last episode, Gabriel intuits that all of the victims of the acid killer are associated with the Salvia unit. But he has made no effort to identify any of the victims except Borner. And yes, the point of burning their faces off with acid is to make identification harder, but surely you’d still try. Otherwise the cops just feel like those Stormtroopers in the first Star Wars movie who decide that the droids they’re looking for couldn’t possibly be inside a locked building. It’s like they look at the bodies and go “welp, the killer didn’t want these people identified, so we should probably respect that, y’know.”

 Then there’s the fact that Gabriel never bothers to consider that the killer consistently demonstrates specific knowledge of police procedures, and access to police resources including safe houses and evidence rooms.

 Then there’s the fact that the reason the killer needed to access the evidence room in the first place is that the laptop Gabriel took from Creepy Isaac Taylor contained archival footage of his interviews with young Helena Parides, and she was concerned that Gabriel would recognise her on them. Just to clarify, those interviews took place twenty years ago. And they were evidence of Gabriel’s complicity in the abuses that got the Salvia unit closed down. Yet he apparently kept copies of them anyway, even after starting a new practice. And didn’t keep them on an external drive or a separate server, but actually on his personal laptop. For twenty years.

 I mean, maybe I’m just a technophile, but I’m pretty sure I’ve owned more than one laptop since 1997. So did Isaac carefully sit down every time he bought a new work PC and say “hold on, better make sure I safely transfer over those videos that prove I covered up for a rapist, wouldn’t want to lose them at any time in the next two decades”?

 Then again, since Taylor had, in fact, done this, Elaine’s instincts were at least correct. But maybe it just took one to know one, because a core assumption of the show’s criminology seems to be that criminals always make video recordings that prove they’re guilty of crimes that could otherwise in no way be traced back to them. Which is presumably why Elaine videoed Steven Mills killing the last victim, even though the existence of such a video made it obvious that he was being coerced and could only ever have made it less likely that he would have been convicted for the crimes for which she was presumably trying to frame him.

 So … so yeah. That’s Rellik.

 The internet talks a lot about how confusing it is. But the truth is that it’s not so much “confusing” as, well, “blah.”


So, having recently shared the story of Peanut (a love story across time, space, death and reality), let me tell you about Barold.

Barold is … well. He’s generally considered one of the ugliest villagers available in Animal Crossing. And given he’s kind of a bear with a neckbeard … it’s … okay, I don’t want to judge, but it’s not a good look, dude. Also, in my game, he randomly asked me for a T-shirt and the only thing I was willing to squander on Barold was this unfortunate pastel item with a creepy pink elephant face on it. So now he’s wearing that unremittingly. And looks, there’s no way of putting this nicely, like he spends all day in a basement, arguing on the internet and complaining about SJWs ruining the world.

Now I have discovered the power of Animal Crossing Amiibo cards, I keep meaning to ask him to move out. And keep failing to do so. Because he was one of my first villagers. And sometimes when life deals you a sex offending bear with a neckbeard you … make lemonade? Look, I guess I somehow got fond of him. He’s not Peanut, don’t get me wrong, but he’s no Paula either. Also if I make two bears move out of my village, people are going to think I’m a bear racist.

Part of the reason I’m having trouble getting rid of Barold is that he can be unexpectedly sweet. A totally (as far as I can tell) pointless feature of Animal Crossing is that you can write letters to your villagers, and send them gifts, a process that does actually entail laboriously tapping out a message to a creepy bear with your 3DS stylus like the saddest human being imaginable. Anyway, the other day, Barold was like “Hey, M, look at this” and he showed me a letter  I’d sent him way back when. And it was, frankly, really embarrassing because the letter said something like “I can’t believe I’m writing a letter to a fake bear in a computer game. You look creepy but I guess I like you” and also it was a frankly unnecessary reminder that I’d written real words to a fake bear. “This is first the letter you ever sent me,” went on Barold, blinking at me through his broad coverage neckbeard. “I’ll treasure it.”

Which … got me thinking about letters. Now, I’m not actually one of these “oh ah the lost art of letter writing” type people. I like communication to be as technological effective as possible and there’s no reason that emails can’t be like letters, if you treat them as more discursive and less logistical.

Except. Except.

Letters are kind of nice, aren’t they?

And I honestly can’t remember the last time I received one (I mean, that wasn’t a bill, a pizza flyer or a notification of works from National Rail) or sent one. There’s definitely part of me that resists the whole letter-writing thing as profoundly unnecessary. But there’s another part of me that is drawn to it precisely because it is unnecessary. Not in a OATLAOLW way but just because unnecessary things accumulate their own meanings.

All of which is to say, I’m embarking on an, um, letter-writing project. The basic idea goes like this:

If you would like to receive a letter from me (hand-written, old school style, on pretty paper, the whole works) then you can sign up to … well… I’m calling it Alexis Crossing. Because I thought that was cute. Obviously you’ll have to trust with me a name and address,  which might be a deal breaker for some people, and that’s totally cool.

I’ve designed a really quick form that asks for the relevant information, as well as inviting you to ask me a question (any question, doesn’t have to be about me or anything like that) and—optionally—tell me something (again, this doesn’t have to be a deeply personal revelation about your soul, although it can be if you like).

Then, I’ll pick randomly from the list, drop you an alert to say to keep an eye on the post (and make sure you haven’t moved house or whatever) and send you a letter.

I can’t tell, at this point, if this is cool or weird. And I definitely don’t expect you to come up to me in fifty years and pull a Barold.

But yes, in summary. If you would like a random letter with hard-to-read handwriting, probably on unicorn paper, from me click here to sign up.

I’m going to run this pretty much continuously until I get bored or everyone else does, so you can sign up whenever. My planned timetable is one letter a month but in the unlikely event of demand outstripping supply I can speed things up.

Oh, I should also say, there are no geographical limitations here. If you can get mail, I’m good to send it.

And, while I remember, in the next couple of days I’ll be sending out a newsletter, which will include a free download of My Last Husband, a short story in which I attempt to do horror.

Although, honestly, it’s more like mildly unpleasant, this is me we’re talking about. My idea of horror is not being able to find a matching sock or someone putting tea in the microwave.

But err, sign up if you haven’t already and it’s a thing you’re interested in.

And loooooooook at the cover.

Ah, you came. I’m so glad. Give me your hand—why look at this, you still have paint beneath your fingernails. Oh, don’t apologise. It’s charming. Would you care for champagne? It’s a very special vintage, from a walled vineyard near Chouilly in the Cote de Blancs. Do you like it? Such a heavy sweetness, don’t you think? Like butter and gold. I can take you out there, if you want. It’s quite a wonder: the same land, held by the same family for nearly five hundred years. Though, of course, it’s mine now.



There are few things I find more compelling than a fascinating premise disappointingly executed. I was overjoyed to discover, nearly two decades ago, that somebody had come up with the excellent idea of making an intense spy thriller shot entirely in real time, with each episode unfolding over the course of an hour and each following directly on from the next. I was somewhat let down when I actually watched the first series of 24 and realised that it was basically a completely ordinary spy thriller, with completely ordinary spy thriller pacing, which made no concessions whatsoever to the implications or limitations of its gimmick. I mean seriously, it takes more than two minutes to drive across LA in rush hour traffic.

You know what else would be a cool idea for a thriller – a hunt for a serial killer shot backwards, so you end with the suspect being caught and then each episode comes before the last. After all, the way a murder mystery normally works is that you begin with the exciting bit (the death) and then the detective carefully pieces together the evidence, effectively taking you back in time to the start of the whole affair, why not take that idea and turn it into a framing device?

Turns out there are a whole lot of reasons why not.

Enter Rellik, the BBC’s new thriller series which, with its grey-and-brown palette, grisly crimes and moody protagonist, seems to be aiming for a slice of the scandi-noir market (viewers apparently can’t get enough of slightly grumpy people solving slightly horrible crimes in gloomy bits of Europe) but winds up reading far more as farce than as tragedy. I mean it probably isn’t a good sign when three episodes into your very serious thriller, the Radio Times (for international readers, that’s a popular UK Television listings magazine) is running articles with titles like Is Rellik Supposed to be Funny?

Also, you’ve probably already noticed that the title of the show, Rellik, is Killer spelled backwards. This … this really should set your expectations for what the show is like.

Before I go any further, because the show is shot in reverse (periodically the action pauses and we see things rapidly spool backwards until we restart with a caption saying something like “12 hours and 8 minutes earlier”) talking about timing is going to be a nightmare. I’m going to use the convention of referring to the timeline as experienced by the characters (where the beginning is first and the ending is last) as diegetic and the timeline experienced by the viewers (where the ending is first and the beginning is last) as narrative. I expect this to be slightly clearer than mud, but only slightly.

The Bad Beginning

Not all of these subheadings will come from Lemony Snicket titles but, well, I wanted to start at the beginning, and a lot of the issues I have with the show are evident from the outset, so it just sort of fit.

I’d love to say that Rellik starts strongly. And it almost does. Okay, it almost-almost does. Okay, it gets within throwing distance of almost does. Almost. We open with a man in a hoodie, his face horribly scarred as if by acid, going into a petrol station (I think? Some kind of late night shop – it’s honestly not a massively memorable sequence) and buying something or being intimidating to the owner or … seriously my recollection is vague. We catch a fragment of a news report about how a serial killer who burns people’s faces off with acid has been killed in a police shootout. Then we see mysterious hoodie man digging through a grave with his bare hands, and finding some kind of prescription bottle which seems to contain an SD card, and looking at the camera like something significant has happened. Then we spool backwards and OMG Plot Twist! He is actually a police detective trying to catch a serial killer!

This so nearly works. We hit all the right beats – we are presented with a mysterious situation, then we spool back and we get new information which at once clarifies and challenges. We learn who the strange man was, but also learn that he is not who we expect. It’s actually pretty … pretty okay? For about nine minutes.

Then we get the (narratively) next and (diegetically) previous part of the story. We see our acid-scarred stranger (actually a policeman) facing off against the suspected serial killer who we know from the news report from narratively-earlier-diegetically-later will be killed in this very confrontation. The suspect is obviously distressed, and obviously about as dangerous as a raspberry muffin. Never the less, when he reaches into his pocket for his phone, the police snipers who … who apparently always come along when they pick up suspects in high profile cases? I guess? Anyway, the police snipers shoot him dead. Then we cut to the investigating officers celebrating the end of their serial killer hunt because the guy they shot was definitely the right guy and definitely not an unarmed mentally ill man who was set up by the real killer, while Broody McScarredface sits in a corner and angsts to his much younger, much more attractive, much more female partner who he is obviously banging and who is obviously going to turn out to have had a tragic and abusive backstory that he is uneasy because he’s not sure that the unarmed and clearly harmless mentally ill man they just gunned down for no reason was actually the cold, calculating serial killer they were after. She tries to reassure him, but he’s all “no, I’m sure we MISSED SOMETHING, probably in the PAST back during all the OTHER STUFF THAT HAPPENED which you’re TOTALLY GOING TO SEE IN FUTURE EPISODES.”

Indeed there’s a lot of setting-up-its-theme in episode one (as well there might be). There’s a scene about halfway through were Gloomy McAcidburns looks through his grimy, grimdark car window at one of those guys who non-consensually wash windscreens at traffic lights and pontificates about how if we could just understand that guy’s past and what had brought him to his current situation, everything would be much better and the police would be better at policing and all that. This speech, in which Herr Whiny von Bangshispartner notices that the windscreen-washer is probably also a heroin addict, and wonders what led to his addiction, pretty much sums up what’s wrong with the narrative structure of Rellik.

This is going to need a new subheading.

Memento and Her Sisters

The classic told-backwards story is Memento, but the “six days earlier” episode is actually kind of a staple of serial fiction, both drama and comedy. It usually works, but I think the ingredients that make it work aren’t present (and to an extent can’t be present) in Rellik.

In both Memento and the six-days-earlier story the hook is “how did we get here”. It relies on the story opening with a scenario sufficiently outlandish that the audience genuinely wants to watch on to find out what the hell is going on and how it could possibly make sense. In Memento the entire setup is bizarre, with Guy Pearce’s character (Leonard) – all tattoos and mantras and poorly understood medical conditions – presenting a mystery for us to solve in and of himself. We start with Leonard shooting Teddy and Teddy taunting him with how little he knows about himself, and the film invites us to find out why Leonard shoots Teddy, and what Teddy was talking about. In the “six days earlier” episode of an established series, we will either open with something self-consciously wacky (if the series is comedic) or with a scene in which characters we already know well are behaving in a way we know to be out of character. And again, we will want to know how we got there.

Rellik offers us neither of those hooks. It is an original series, with no establishing framework to let us know what the characters’ lives were like before the events that we are now watching play out, so when Scarsy O’Sadface starts acting in a grossly unprofessional way (abducting and intimidating witnesses, breaking into houses without a warrant, banging his hot partner) we aren’t intrigued about how he got to where he is, we just assume that he was always kind of a shitty cop. As for the other style of backwards story hook, the scenario so strange that you really want to find out what led up to it, well the show could have offered us that. But it didn’t. After the first scene, in which we learn that the strange scarred man is a policeman hunting an acid-themed serial killer, there isn’t really any intrigue left. When we see the confrontation that leads to the obviously innocent suspect getting shot dead, we aren’t left wondering what could possibly have brought us to this point. Because while it’s sad and violent, it’s a completely pedestrian scenario. The police think this guy is a dangerous serial killer, a firearms officer misinterprets a non-threatening gesture as a violent one, and a guy gets shot. We really can fill in the blanks for ourselves.

In a good non-chronological narrative, the diegetically-earlier-narratively-later scenes provide information and context that genuinely illuminates the diegetically-later-narratively-earlier scenes. We understand better why a character reacts a particular way in a particular situation because we understand more about their past experiences; a question that has hitherto troubled us is resolved with a revelation that is surprising but satisfying. The thing is, these kinds of narratives are much harder to put together than it seems, and are probably even harder to put together if you restrict yourself to what you might call a hard reverse structure (that is, strictly showing events backwards, rather than doing as – say – Memento does and playing a portion of the narrative forwards in order to provide context, or embedding the story within a wider series that follows a more conventional chronology).

Every time Rellik spools backwards, we find out a bit more about either the main story about the acid killer, or one of the show’s rather-too-many, rather-too-inconsequential side plots. The problem is that the things we find out are almost always either completely unsurprising, or pointlessly out of left field. Often within the same plotline.

So for example in the first episode, we start (after the grave scene) with Detective Philanderer del Manpain facing off against the obviously completely innocent suspect, who gets shot. The (narratively) next scene shows the events that led up to the confrontation. Which were “they said they had evidence that the guy was a serial killer” and “they thought he had a gun”. Which – um – is sort of what I’d assume the events leading up to that confrontation were. So all that’s happened is that a completely straightforward story about the police incorrectly identifying an unarmed and innocent man as a dangerous multiple murderer gets told in an unhelpfully nontraditional order, for no actual benefit.

Then at the end of the episode we discover that the reason that there was evidence linking Obviously Innocent Guy to the murder was because he had actually committed the murder, but that he had been forced to do it at gunpoint by a mysterious shadowy figure who, by the way, also filmed the whole thing for some reason? And then somebody, possibly innocent guy or possibly somebody else, came back to the crime scene and took the SD card out of the camera on which mysterious spooky person inexplicably filmed the murder they forced somebody else to do, and we are left to draw the inference that this is the SD card that Inspector Mopesalot finds in the first scene. But we also know that whatever consequences may come about as a result of the existence of that SD card, they’re going to have to happen (diegetically) after the events of the first episode, and therefore that they will on no account ever come up over the course of the series. And not only will everything else that happens in the series precede this scene, but we will be following Detective Protagonist, not Obviously Innocent Guy, and we know that Detective Protagonist did not know about this event, or presumably any of the interactions between innocent guy and mysterious spooky individual that led up to it.

Watching Rellik is basically watching an aggressively miserable detective be bad at his job, in reverse chronological order.


The faint praise with which Rellik is often damned is that maintaining a sense of mystery and tension in a story when you already know how that story will end is sufficiently difficult that, like a dog walking on its hind legs, we should be impressed not that it is done well, but that it is done at all.

Which would be a fair point, if it weren’t for the existence of Columbo.

Columbo ran for ten seasons spanning three decades, kept a loyal audience, and won 13 Emmys despite the fact that it was a detective show whose whole gimmick was that you actually saw who committed the murder in the opening scene.

There’s a sort of received wisdom that “playing along at home” is a big part of the appeal of detective fiction, and it’s probably half true – Agatha Christie notoriously had to make her plots ever more byzantine (or, less charitably, absurd) in order to meet the demands of an audience who wanted ever more baffling cases to sink their teeth into. But for a lot of readers (and even more so for a lot of viewers) it’s much less important than it seems. We usually aren’t out to beat the detective – that’s a competition in which neither side can really play fair, since the detective can easily withhold information from the audience (as Holmes does), while the audience can access metatextual clues that the detective can’t (in at lest 90% of TV detective shows, the killer is the first person they interview who isn’t a suspect). In fact perhaps a better way to put it is that playing along at home is a big part of the appeal of detective fiction, but that the key word is “along” – we aren’t trying to one-up the detective, or to shortcut the investigation with our real-world knowledge, we’re trying to spot the same clues the detective spots, and to work out how the detective will put them together. The detective is one part guide, one part surrogate.

That’s why Columbo remains fun to watch even though you already know who the killer is. You aren’t trying to guess who the murderer is, you’re trying to guess how Columbo will work out who the murderer is, or how he will trap the murderer into giving themselves away.

This is also part of what makes Rellik so unsatisfying. You can’t follow the case alongside Detectives Scaryface and Sexypants, because you’re following their investigation backwards, so as you come to understand more about the situation, they come to understand less of it.

Although actually, it’s even worse than that. As the show progresses (narratively) forward, you learn more about the investigation that led to the final confrontation with Obviously Innocent Guy, and while much of what you learn would never have been known to the police (suspects are also viewpoint characters, so you get to concretely find out who carried out at least two killings by episode four) much of it would have. In a successful non-linear narrative, the narratively early scenes are intriguing but don’t make much sense, and the narratively late scenes provide much-needed context that answers the questions you previously had about the beginning. Rillek does almost the opposite. The opening is completely comprehensible – botched arrest leads to death of suspect who is suspected for perfectly sensible reasons. But as the story progresses and we discover what happened (diegetically) earlier in the investigation, it makes less sense rather than more that Detective Badatpolicework would ever have considered Obviously Innocent Guy a viable suspect.

When we see the confrontation it is a little bit implausible that the police would think Obviously Innocent Guy was a threat. He’s tiny, twitchy, and terrified (to be fair, frightened men with guns are dangerous, but he also had no visible weapon). Just over the course of that first episode, it only gets less plausible. We hear that they have “incontrovertible evidence” that he’s the killer, but that “incontrovertible evidence” is “fingerprints at the crime scene”. And yes, on TV fingerprints are basically magic but even if we ignore the fact that fingerprints are unreliable and assume that they really do constitute evidence that he was 100% definitely at the scene, that’s not at all the same as evidence that he was 100% definitely responsible for that and a half-dozen other murders. Certainly that and an unconfirmed report of a gunshot don’t seem to be undeniable evidence that Obviously Innocent Guy is so definitely guilty and dangerous as to warrant the full sniper treatment.

Then we go a bit further back, and we discover that less than twenty hours before Obviously Innocent Guy gets tragically shot dead by plot snipers, Detective Offtherails had not only never heard of him, but was firmly convinced that the killer was somebody completely different. Like, completely different. As in Obviously Innocent Guy is a skinny white guy with a ratty beard and a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and the previous suspect was a black woman with acid scars of her own and a previous conviction for melting a guy’s face off.

I mean, I don’t want to be essentialist or anything, but are we really expected to invest in a detective who had so little idea about who the killer was that he thought it was equally likely for them to be a black woman in her twenties or a white man in his forties? I mean I’m sure Criminal Minds wasn’t 100% accurate but surely he had some kind of profile? Surely he had narrowed the pool of suspects down at least a little bit? I mean from what we can tell, Detective Seriouslywhydosomanyhotwomenwanttobonethisguy was actually physically attacked by the real killer. I know it was a traumatic experience, but did he really come away from the encounter with “well it was probably either a man or a woman and might have had some kind of height or weight or possibly both.” I mean if we’d got to episode four and discovered that Gabriel (sorry, that’s his real name, I should have mentioned that earlier) spent a week convinced that the acid killer was actually forty squirrels in a trenchcoat, I would not be surprised at all.

In episode two we discover that at one point a laptop, which was vital evidence in the investigation, was destroyed in a mysterious fire inside a police evidence room. He takes this as evidence that Acid Scars Woman is definitely the killer, even though he has no indication that she would have any ability whatsoever to start a fire inside a secure police station. She’s a resolutely working class woman with severe mental health issues and seemingly no friends, family, contacts or support network, why does he think that she’s capable of pulling off this mafia-boss level evidence tampering? Why, when Obviously Innocent Guy shows up and wipes Acid Scars Woman off of his mental radar entirely, does he once again not think to ask himself “would this man have been capable of destroying evidence in police custody?”

Part of the pleasure of a mystery is following the detective’s reasoning. This is somewhat difficult in Rellik, because the detective seems to actually be incapable of following his own.

Mysteries, Thrillers, and Intrigue

Of course you could reasonably argue that Rellik doesn’t have to function as a mystery because it’s really more of a thriller. It’s not about finding out who the acid killer is, it’s about exciting action scenes, sexy sex scenes (in theory, although basically Gabriel and his partner spend a lot of time having what I’ve taken to calling “Sad Police Sex”) and emotionally charged argument scenes.

Which would be fine. But none of that benefits from being shot in reverse order.

I don’t want to overgeneralise, but I find it very hard to think of any reason to shoot a story backwards except to specifically preserve a sense of mystery. Detective fiction is a broad genre, and sometimes a story can be unfairly maligned because a reviewer reads a thriller as if it were a mystery or a whodunnit as if it were an action adventure. Rellik doesn’t stand up as a mystery because nothing about its setup is remotely mysterious – we know the moment we see Gabriel’s acid scars that he will have got them in a confrontation with the acid killer (seriously the clue is in the name), we know the moment we see Obviously Innocent Guy get shot in the chest that he’s not the real murderer, we know the moment Gabriel and his wife argue about his affair, and he talks about the “terrible thing” his wife did and how she “lied to him” that he’s not his daughter’s real father. So when these things come out, it isn’t a shock or a surprise, it’s just the confirmation of something we already know. So the only tension that can remain is from wondering what the consequences of these events might be, but we also know that we aren’t going to see the consequences of the events, or that we have already seen them, because the show is telling us its story backwards, even though the kind of story it is telling us is the kind of story that in no way benefits from being told backwards.

The show’s many subplots are a good example of this. Several times an episode we’ll have a scene of one of the members of Gabriel’s team doing something unrelated to the investigation – announcing an engagement, being a victim of homophobic bullying, finding a dead pig in their house, something like that. Then later in the episode we will see something that gives more context to the event, which might change our understanding of it, or might not, but either way it won’t make much difference because we already know that the (narratively) first time we were introduced to that plotline is the (diegetically) last time it will come up, so we know that there will be no consequences.

For example, in episode two we have three little vignettes about the relationship between one of the detectives and the receptionist in the police station. In scene one the detective reveals that she and the receptionist are engaged (and do you see, the detective is the woman and the receptionist is the man, take that your hidebound expectations), saying that she “wasn’t supposed to make a scene” but felt she had to. Then we see the receptionist quietly asking her to marry him in the canteen, saying he “doesn’t want to make a scene”. Then, shock twist, we see the receptionist telling a colleague that he’s going to dump the detective but is worried that she’ll “make a scene”, and then just as he’s about to do it, she tells him she’s pregnant. And that’s the last we see of that arc. And okay, it’s sort of an alright story. But not only did that story not benefit from being told backwards, the show didn’t particularly benefit from its being told at all.

Basically the whole thing is presented in a very impressionistic way, which seems to be the only way that it can cope with its framing device. But this makes everything feel very disconnected and consequenceless. Which is sort of a problem for a narrative that’s supposed to be about the ultimate causes of things.

Episode three opens with the protagonist dragging his unconscious daughter out of a skeevy nightclub. Now we already know that she is fine, because we have seen her in (narratively) earlier episodes. We also pretty much know that she was in the nightclub voluntarily, because in those episodes she has been grounded for this specific act of teenage rebellion. We even know, or at least strongly suspect that she is specifically acting out because she has found out about her father’s affair with his partner. So straight from the off we know why she’s there, how she got there, how she got out, and that she’ll definitely be fine. This makes the rest of the episode, in which we see Gabriel searching for his missing daughter, and find out that yes, she heard her parents arguing about her father’s affair and yes, that was what made her go out and do the bad drugs at the bad drugs party, feel spectacularly pointless. There’s no tension, because we already know how it is going to end, and there is no mystery, because we already know how it began. All the show can do is fill in blanks that the audience has already filled in for itself.


Rellik has a fascinating premise. It’s just that the show doesn’t seem to have thought through the way that premise would impact its narrative. I don’t think it’s as simple as just taking a regular thriller plot and putting the scenes in reverse order (that would probably have been more interesting, but much harder to follow). Or rather, I think within individual episodes, that seems to be what’s happening (which is why episode three feels so hollow – it seems to be taking a perfectly satisfying story about Gabriel’s daughter finding out about his affair and endangering herself as a consequence, and putting it into reverse order in a way that makes it actively less engaging) but the individual episodes seem to have the opposite issue – they feel like they were only ever imagined in reverse order, with very little indication that, for example, the first episode (the one with the death of Obviously Innocent Guy) was written with the awareness that Gabriel should know about all of the things that would happen in narratively-later-diegetically-earlier episodes.

In a this sense, the show does strangely manage to produce a satisfying sense of progression. As we get closer to the end of the series, Gabriel actually seems to have a better handle on the mystery than he did in previous episodes, despite the fact that he should actually know less. I’ve only watched the first three episodes so far, but our back-in-time story does seem to be building to a climactic confrontation with the real killer. The fact that this will essentially frame everything Gabriel did afterwards as a massive failure of judgement with fatal consequences might even wind up being quite cool – after all he is clearly traumatised by his experience and probably isn’t thinking straight, and I can almost get behind that as a dark central irony.

But only almost.

And while I’ve written well over 4000 words about the show now, I suspect that there is little I can say about Rellik that sums it up better than this: it’s a show about a policeman hunting a killer, told backwards, and the title is the word “killer” spelled backwards. And the show is exactly like you would expect that show to be.