Do many women want to be train drivers?

Hold your wine glass steady: the BBC has news for you. This week it splashed the news that train drivers in the UK are ‘overwhelmingly middle-aged white men’. The story was accompanied by a picture of a black woman driving a train – under the supervision of a white man, it might be noted – as though to signal that this glass ceiling too can be smashed. Personally I would expect train drivers to be overwhelmingly middle-aged, white and indeed male. Most of the UK is white and half of the UK is male. And the male half of the species tends to be more train-oriented. You don’t see many

Viet Thanh Nguyen: A Man of Two Faces

43 min listen

In this week’s Book Club podcast my guest is the Pulitzer prize winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose new book is the memoir A Man of Two Faces. He tells me about the value of trauma to literature, learning about his history through Hollywood, falling asleep in class… and the rotten manners of Oliver Stone.    

The curious influence of Oscar Wilde on Hollywood

The Importance of Being Earnest was NBC’s first coast-to-coast broadcast of a play in 1929. It was ideal for radio, partly because Oscar Wilde’s crisp dialogue obviated any need of facial expressions or gestures. Epigrammatic speech, as Noël Coward found, was a signifier of modernity in the 1920s. Beyond that, as Kate Hext shows, the America of Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover had a sinewy and hardy sympathy for the Anglo-French fin-de-siècle literary mode of the 1890s known as Decadence. Wilde’s philosophy of life was an antidote to corporate America, Wall Street and meddlesome neighbours For too long, Hext argues, historians have focused on the American Dream as a mercenary

Could Cameron take over the Tories?

My weekly appearance on the podcast How to Win an Election, which I do with Danny Finkelstein, Polly Mackenzie and Matt Chorley, had succeeded in avoiding embarrassment until last week when, in response to a listener’s question about politicians’ appearance, I was momentarily stuck for something to say about Keir Starmer. I should have remained stuck. Instead, what came out of my mouth, after laying into Rishi Sunak’s skinny suits and narrow ties, was the suggestion that Keir could do with losing a few pounds. Heaven knows why it attracted such attention. Labour’s Wes Streeting was quick off the mark (he is so effective) with his condemnation of my ‘fat-shaming’

How The Sopranos changed TV for ever

‘Too many characters, too many plot lines, characters who weren’t very good at their jobs, and their personal lives were a mess.’ Thus the memo to the creatives behind Hill Street Blues. ‘It was like a blueprint for what made every show successful since The Sopranos,’ Kevin Spacey giggles to Peter Biskind. ‘If the NBC executives had had their way, the road from then to now would never have been paved.’ As the quondamlead of one of that road’s biggest stones, House of Cards, Spacey can perhaps be excused his post hoc moment. Still, his big point stands. There was TV before The Sopranos and TV after The Sopranos, and

‘We are stuck like chicken feathers to tar’: Elizabeth Taylor’s description of the fabled romance

‘To begin at the beginning,’ intones Richard Burton with a voice like warm treacle at the start of the 1971 film Under Milk Wood. It’s hard to imagine an actor more obviously influenced by his own beginnings. The epigraph to this double biography is ‘The damp, dark prison of eternal love’, a line borrowed from Quentin Crisp. And if that’s an accurate assessment of Burton’s on-off-on-again relationship with the actress Elizabeth Taylor, it’s an even better summary of his childhood in Wales. Born Richard Walter Jenkins to a barmaid mother and a coal miner father (a ‘12-pints-a-day man’ who sometimes disappeared for weeks on end to drink and gamble), as

Complicated and slightly creepy: the Bogart-Bacall romance

Whenever an actor and an actress begin an affair on the soundstage they like to believe they are the new Burton and Taylor. Actually they’ll be lucky to resemble Christopher Timothy and Carol Drinkwater, who had a fling on that vet programme – and now here are Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall to live up to as well. Of their love story, William J. Mann avers: ‘It was wonderful; it was passionate; it was complicated.’ Also, it was creepy. Bacall was 19, Bogart 45. There was a ‘significant power differential between them’ when they met in 1944 during the filming of To Have and Have Not. Mann is probably pointing

Who needs Hollywood actors anyway?

For the past week Hollywood’s film and television actors have been on strike, plunging Los Angeles’s most famous industry into chaos. Performers joined screenwriters (who have been striking since May) on the picket line after talks broke down in what has become the first simultaneous strike in more than 60 years. The strikes have attracted plenty of headlines, not least when the cast of Oppenheimer walked out of its UK premiere last week. But do we really care if studios have to shelve Fast and Furious 15, or if the latest superhero movie fails to take flight – or indeed if the entire cocaine-encrusted edifice crumbles into the Pacific Ocean? Hollywood

The bliss of Phuket’s Millionaire’s Mile

Many of my friends, stranded by the Hollywood writers’ and actors’ strikes, have temporarily given up their film projects and settled down to write that hopeless novel which they could never finish before. Those film projects were more alluring – more necessary – than the lingering novels because they at least held out the prospect of one day bringing them, the openly despised writers, to the kind of fantasy scenarios towards which they have worked all their life. For some, a timbered Elizabethan priory in Sussex; for others a tropical villa perched on a headland with a constant blue bar of sea to make the approach of death feel philosophical.

Hollywood and China: happily ever after?

32 min listen

Until a few years ago, Hollywood dominated Chinese cinemas. In the People’s Republic, Marvel’s superhero romps were the people’s favourite, with Avengers: Endgame taking in over £510 million at Chinese box offices. Hollywood is desperate to crack the Chinese market – after all, it’s a country with a fifth of the world’s population and a growing middle class. But there’s just one problem – the small issue of the Chinese Communist Party, which tightly controls the films people can see. Since the success of Avengers: Endgame, Marvel films had effectively been blacklisted until earlier this year, with other Hollywood blockbusters failing to break through either. On this episode, we’ll be

Eva Green and the death of the Hollywood diva

The HR department has killed day-to-day divadom. No longer can you tell your co-worker that her hair needs a good brush; nor can you explain to Richard from accounts that his tan brogues and shiny blue suit sting your retinas. That might upset them. People would be a lot more presentable if you could say these things, but you can’t. Nobody can.  French actress Eva Green, who starred as James Bond’s love interest in Casino Royale, seems to have escaped the great diva slap-down. She was at the High Court this week suing White Lantern Films over a $1 million fee for a film that never got made. It seems

Identity politics is in retreat in Hollywood

‘Diversity is woven into the very soul of the story.’ If those words of praise from a rave review in a left-leaning journal sound to you about as inviting as a cup of cold sick, then my advice would be to stay well clear of The Sandman. Neil Gaiman’s epic graphic novel series (launched in 1989), set in the world of dreams, was relentlessly inclusive long before it became the norm. ‘I wanted to change hearts and minds,’ Gaiman has said in an interview. ‘I had trans friends and still do, and it seemed to me that no one was putting trans characters into comics. And I had a comic.’

Dark days in Hollywood: Mercury Pictures Presents, by Anthony Marra, reviewed

Summer is a time for blockbusters and Anthony Marra has delivered the goods with Mercury Pictures Presents, a sweeping book about 1940s Hollywood, Mussolini’s Italy and America’s entry into the second world war. The action opens in the executive offices of Mercury Pictures International, a struggling film studio run by Artie and Ned Feldman, two brothers modelled on Jack and Harry Warner. It’s late summer 1941, and as well as fighting each other, the Feldmans are fighting the isolationist senators accusing Hollywood of pushing America into war. The battle to get the script for Devil’s Bargain approved is ‘shaping into a pivotal confrontation between campaigners for free speech and crusaders

The magic of black and white films

He is a rich English lord with a very large house and his wife is a beautiful American with a mid-Atlantic accent. The lord is portrayed by Herbert Marshall, a screen idol of the 1930s and 1940s, his wife by Norma Shearer, a Hollywood superstar whose eyes alone enslaved men and whose figure caused me sleepless nights as a schoolboy, if you know what I mean. Then there is a suitor, Robert Montgomery, the patrician American heartthrob, who plays a rich drunken playboy who pursues Norma. But he does it with class and elegance, without a trace of toxic masculinity, a modern feminist broadside that didn’t exist among the upper

Hollywood loves to self mythologise

Hollywood can appear self-satisfied and insular at the best of times, but it’s been a rough few months even by Tinseltown standards. Judging by the slew of trailers that have dropped in recent weeks, this season in cinema land will centre on only one thing: biopics. From Madonna and Marilyn Monroe to Elvis (and even Hillary Rodham Clinton) it’s time for a barrage of films in which big stars play bigger stars – in return for your adoration.  Hollywood’s fixation on global fame might not be entirely new – Ben Kingsley’s turn in Gandhi is about to reach its 40th birthday, incidentally – but there’s no getting away from the

Ten films starring comedians

The news that Dave Chappelle has the unwelcome distinction of being the second big-name stand-up comic to be attacked on stage this year has the worrying signs of a possible trend. The first of course was when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock after the comedian made a tasteless joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair (or lack of it) at the 2022 Academy Awards. There is an odd twist of fate about these confrontations though. Back in 1996, Jada Pinkett (as was) played Carla Purty in the remake of Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor. In one scene, she watches with tears of laughter in her eyes as boyfriend Buddy Love (Eddie Murphy) mounts

The art of the witty riposte

One hundred or so years ago, a down-in-the-dumps Joseph Roth wrote to Stefan Zweig: ‘The barbarians have taken over.’ Later on, Zweig committed suicide and Roth drank himself to death. They were both talented writers depressed about the state of the world. Reading their correspondence last week I had to laugh. Neither Roth nor Zweig had experienced Hollywood, and obviously would have died much earlier if they had done so. Which brings me to what everyone is still talking about, how a trained seal smacked another seal half its size during the Academy Awards. It was done in order to protect his wife from the barbs of the smaller one,

Oscars diary: a jaw-dropping night

Oscar week is intense – and it’s been a while since it’s been as intense. The red carpet is full of eager paparazzi and interviewers waiting for a photo opportunity or a quotable gaffe. My husband and I went to a couple of parties, but the most coveted is the Vanity Fair Oscar viewing dinner at the Annenberg Center. About 100 people are invited by editor Radhika Jones, and we were delighted to be among the chosen few. The ceremony was long and snoozy, and people were scrolling down their phones for entertainment when suddenly one of the most celebrated actors in Tinseltown, Will Smith, rushed to the stage and

Could today’s Hollywood stars have made it in ancient Greece?

The Oscar frenzy spent, it is worth reflecting on how easy writers and actors have it these days. The ancient Greeks invented our idea of acted drama, and the conventions were tough. Here are the main ones. In myth-based tragedies, for example, all the speaking parts – young and old, male and female – were played, and occasionally sung too, by only three fully masked male actors (one play had 11 speaking parts – work that out!). There was also a ‘chorus’ – 12 or 15 actors, all masked, singing and dancing in unison between episodes, though the leader could converse with the main characters. Of low social status, they

Will Smith’s slap was a triumph

Will Smith’s straight arm slap of Chris Rock at the Oscars was, for my money, the most interesting event ever to have transpired at any awards show in history. It pips even my previous favourite, which was when Jarvis Cocker ran onstage during the 1996 Brits to reveal his buttocks in protest at Michael Jackson’s ludicrously overblown performance of Earth Song. Did Rock ask to be attacked for humiliating Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith, on account of her alopecia? Yes, of course. But that was the point. The joke was predicated entirely on the comic getting away with saying the unsayable – a formulation of words intended to be deeply provocative