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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I should probably explain. 

The Setup

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

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

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

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

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

Gameplay

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

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

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

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

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

Observations and Nitpicks

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

 Sorry, I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subheadings incoming!

Big Fish

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

A Conservative Genre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Anyway

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

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

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

romancelandia

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35 Comments

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

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

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

writing

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7 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

In summary:

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

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

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

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

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

silliness

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50 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

writing

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57 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sirens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Weddings and a Funeral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Awfully Big Adventure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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:

Impromptu 

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!

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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.

Anyway.

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.

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