Cutting It Fine

The Final Cut (Mike Vardy, 1995)

Following House of Cards and To Play the King, we get the third adaptation of Michael Dobbs’s Francis Urquhart trilogy.

Only Dobbs got his knickers in a twist because it dared to conceive of a dead Margaret Thatcher.

If only she were dead and buried.

By now Prime Minister Urquhart is in full Macbeth mode — with continued flashbacks to <spoiler> from part one and less often to <spoiler> from part two — suggesting he has a conscience after all. In addition to this we get Back Story of his time in Cyprus as a soldier and flashbacks to two violent deaths. This hasn’t seemed to have troubled him before, but presumably the attempt to find a settlement between Greek and Turkish Cyprus is the cause here. But clearly an era is ending and he’s looking top be provided for — a nice little earner of an insider deal.

The minnows are circling and the successors are lining up — can he fend them off as well as the relatives of the Cyprus dead? I guess if we follow the tragic structure we know what will happen, but I’m not sure I buy the mechanism of betrayal (although there’s been hints of an affair between a major and less major character). Again, Richardson carries the series as Urquhart; everyone else just reminds you of someone you’ve seen since on tv.

(Follows House of Cards and To Play the King)

A Jack for a King

To Play the King (Paul Seed, 1993)

The second in the House of Cards trilogy, with Seed’s direction marginally better and cutaways in the first or two episodes to beggars and the homeless. As before, Ian Richardson’s acting is superb and this sells the series.

Having begun the first series with dispensing of Thatcher, this begins with the crowning of a new king who I suspect is never actually named. If this were more willing to be sf — to embrace its parallel world — then they would name him and tell Michael Kitchen to stop doing a Prince Charles impression. There is Princess Charlotte, an ex-wife, although it’s not clear who it is, because it’s not the King’s ex-wife, who is blonde and has a son. Princess Charlotte, meanwhile, has a line about being warned about a car accident if she steps out of line.

So Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) is prime minister and bored and sees a new challenge in facing down the political views of the new King. The new King, meanwhile, feels he should Have His Say, at the risk of bringing the constitution to a crisis point. (As opposed to writing secret spidery letters, say.) There’s a game of cat and mouse about who stays in their seat, but we know there’s part three.

Meanwhile, Urquhart gains a new advisor, Sarah Jarding (Kitty Aldridge), a kick-ass pollster who can poll any opinion you need. And the King has an advisor or two, a gay white man David Mycroft (Nicholas Farrell) and a Black Briton Chloe Carmicahel (Rowena King). And because no one can keep it in their trousers in these dramas, affairs start even though there are elections in the offing. Are you people stupid?

Another subplot had Urquhart’s former colleague as a whip become Chairman of the party and then denied a cabinet place after the election — a similar thing having happened to Urquhart in series one. I guess this is dramatic irony, but you’d think FU would be aware of the insensitivity.

In summary, watchable but faintly ludicrous, as the bodies build up.

(Follows House of Cards and followed by The Final Cut

The Crow Bridge

“We can’t go to the police, the police are boring. Alfred Hitchcock says so”
— The Beiderbecke Affair

Stonemouth (Charles Martin, 2015)
There’s a sense of deja vu about this Iain Banks narrative — the hulking bridge, the family secret, the huge clan, sex and drugs and violence. I remember being gripped by the television adaptation of The Crow Road nearly twenty years ago and the astonishing performance by Peter Capaldi who deserves to play more great roles. In this two-part television adaptation we have a similar set of tangled relationships in a small Scottish town — at a wedding Stewart Gilmour (Christian Cooke) sees his fiancée Ellie Murston (Charlotte Spencer) kissing someone and then disappears off to a toilet cubicle for a line of coke and a shag. This understandably leads to his being chased out of town. The Murstons are a small time set of gangsters, tartan Sopranos, locked in a rivalry with Mike MacAvett (Gary Lewis), who sells fish even if he doesn’t make people sleep with them. Two years later, Stewart’s best friend Callum Murston (Samuel Robertson) has apparently committed suicide off the Stoun Bridge and Stewart ventures home for the funeral.

Obviously he is taking a risk but the Murstons’ lieutenant Powell (Brian Gleeson) says it’ll be okay, as long he’s gone after the funeral, pays his respects to the Don (Peter Mullan) and keeps away from Ellie. Well, one out of three isn’t bad and without those two there wouldn’t be a plot. Stewart had received a video message from Callum on his mobile before his death and local police officer, old school friend Dougie (Ncuti Gatwa) suggests there is something fishy about the autopsy. Which of the family secrets is the one that either led to Callum being offed or killing himself? And do people really send video messages rather than leave voicemails?

I have to confess that from early on I latched onto gay best friend Ferg (Chris Fulton), who has engaged in shenanigans with a number of people in the town and wondered whether the not-quite-impossible love triangle of Callum-Stewart-Ferg had become possible in Stewart’s absence. The gay gangster is a trope, after all, and usually does not end well. (That might amount to a spoiler, of course. Or a bluff. Or a double bluff.) The plot itself bluffs us and counter bluffs, as it should, with a few moments of ambiguity left for us to question.

Hanging over all of this is the bridge, not quite a refugee from another Banks novel, but quite clearly CGId in, imposed onto the Scottish landscape. Whilst on the one hand let us marvel that tv can do such a thing, on the other it doesn’t seem quite real (in part because we know it isn’t real) and there’s a sense of irreality over the whole. Our Tartan noir has given us Rebus, Brookmyre, Trainspotting, but the contemporary rural Scotland has been Balamory and Hamish Macbeth and Monarch of the Glen. There are a few throwaway lines about Scottish heritage and Presbyterianism, but I can’t quite see the turf wars of the New Jersey bois.

It works because of an extraordinary performance from Mullan as Don — and Banks was clearly winking at us with that name — and a lesser extent from Gleeson. Mullan can do the hardman, but you can see the restrained sorrow and anger at the same time, you can believe there could be a moment of extraordinary violence, you can believe he has the pair of balls he does. If his two surviving sons — referred to as the Chuckle Brothers, and that too must be a trope — were a quarter as hard, then he could put a bid in for Glasgow.

And so Stewart can be menaced but —

— and here we run into the two flaws in the adaptation.

I need to do some thinking about first person or intradiegetic narration. Such a narrator can only tell us what they’ve seen and if, therefore, they die… Well, okay, it’s still possible to narrate whilst drowned in a swimming pool, but not often. But Stewart seems likely to be escaping, er, Scot free, because he’s narrating — although it might not be clear when he’s narrating from. We can only see what Stewart sees — although there are two moments I recall in the first episode where this is broken away from. In the second half of the second episode, even more so. Of course, Blade Runner (1982) is more interesting (if not necessarily better) than the Director’s and Final Cuts because of that narration which gives Deckard ownership of the film and the replicants’ viewpoints. In a novel, it’s easier to mix viewpoints (and Banks does, of course — see Complicity, say); film and tv tends to go for narrow or omniscient. To my mind, the mix is inelegant.

The second flaw is I don’t think Martin can handle those action scenes. I watched the programme on iPlayer and there was something wrong with the streaming as Stewart was chased around the town. Even so, I think there was some slow motion. Indeed, the second episode had a few aspirations to pop video — but it had a great soundtrack so I can see the temptation. But the Chuckle Brothers (who were there in a different guise in Pride) weren’t quite convincing. Stewart was going to have the shit beaten out of him unless he was rescued.

And don’t forget, it has been carefully established that there is a cop in town, who is an old friend of Stewart’s.

I said, don’t forget, it has been carefully established that there is a cop in town, who is an old friend of Stewart’s.

Ah, apparently the script writer did. Or Banks did.

At some point, you go to the police, don’t you?

Spoilers!

I need to read the novel to see whether Banks handles the climax any better. On the one hand, there’s an emotional tug at the heart strings that feels awkward but there’s a move to consolation. It has a choice of two endings: consolation or melodrama. I’m not convinced it picked the right option. I think the Banks of The Wasp Factory would have picked differently.