sun 16/06/2024

theASHtray: Walliams on Dahl, Gill vs Beard, and a new (old) play by Eugene O'Neill | reviews, news & interviews

theASHtray: Walliams on Dahl, Gill vs. Beard, and a new (old) play by Eugene O'Neill

theASHtray: Walliams on Dahl, Gill vs. Beard, and a new (old) play by Eugene O'Neill

Yeah butt, no butt: our columnist sifts through the fag-ends of the cultural week

Are you sitting comfortably? And if so, why? - David Walliams channels Roald Dahl

There’s something in the water at the commissioning editors’ local, I think, resulting, of late, in a rash of rather good arts-n-culture biopics. This week, it was the turn of Roald Dahl, the Big Friendly Giant who made an absolute shit-load of cash telling really not-very-bedtime stories to young children.

Our host for the evening – the channelling medium, more accurately – was David Walliams, comedian, campo supremo, and sometime quaffer of the Thames (oh, and he may have mentioned something about writing children’s books of his own). Walliams is not a world-beating comic talent, and watching him reading Dahl extracts to kids you realise pretty quickly that everything he had to offer was covered in the first series of Little Britain. Truth be told, he’s not that great at being the straight man either (so to speak), and while some moments of The Genius of Roald Dahl had a freshness born of his not being used to the walk-and-talk documentary narrator’s role (his genuine surprise – shared by many, I’d imagine – at Dahl’s famous “shed” being actually quite a substantial outbuilding, for example), other moments (his commiseration over the “harrowing” death of Dahl’s daughter) were partially scripted in the clumsiest way.

What he is good at is being David Walliams, and for once this I-am-my-subject approach paid off: certainly, I think Dahl would have been tickled by the idea of an occasional transvestite reading his stories to children from the confines of a gigantic purple armchair. So if you can't spare the time to read Donald Sturrock’s superb biography of the man who put the Child Catcher into Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, then at least carve out an hour to watch Walliams’ fittingly eccentric high-speed rendition.


When Mary Beard cried foul! first thing last Sunday, and sicced the little blue birds of Twitter on Mr Adrian Anthony Gill, I naturally dashed to the letterbox to retrieve my Sunday Times Culture and see what all the fuss was about. Nothing really, as it transpired. Sure, Gill had been unflattering about the host of Meet the Romans – saying, more particularly, that she might perhaps consider an alternative side-line in radio broadcasting – but given that he’d only expended a couple of paragraphs on the matter (more than he invests in some of the restaurants he’s ostensibly critiquing), it didn’t exactly feel like an all-out declaration of war. Besides, this is the sort of thing you expect from AA Gill – a guy who, in any case, Professor Beard cannot have assumed to be one of her core constituents.  

Beard’s vociferous rebuttal, however – made with her feminist intellectual’s mortarboard on, you understand, and bringing to bear decades of world-class classical education and training on Gill’s unreconstituted misogyny – struck a less-than-Ciceronian note, voiced though it was through that most august organ of cerebral public discourse, the Femail pull-out of the Daily Mail

Far be it from me to accuse the professor of making a mountain out of a mole-hair, but this was a shame, since – the question of looks aside (and who at the Beeb decided a face-off between Beard and Bettany Divine Women Hughes would probably wriggle through unnoticed?) – Gill’s analysis was basically, and obviously, wrong. Meet the Romans was – is – good, and does exactly what it says on the tin, rescuing the world of the ancients from Time Team and the sanitised parochia of the Cambridge Latin Course, neither of which would have informed me that the Latin jargon for constipation was “mulione sedes”, or “you’re sitting on a mule-driver.” Which, actually, is exactly the sort of detail you'd have thought Gill would love.


For some time now, I’ve been thinking there ought to be an Oscars-style film-poster awards ceremony, celebrating the quiet but crucial excellence of the images that advertise The Ides of March, Fear and Loathing…, or The English Patient.

Certainly, there should be the opposite: an awards night for the most egregiously misleading film posters, by way of a deterrent to film-producers who decide to sex up their product or re-wire it for a more or less sympathetic market. I’m on what our American friends would call a bit of a war-film “jag” at the moment, and notwithstanding my prized Sri Lankan copy (sic) of Schindler’s List (the sleeve of which – I swear I am not making this up – offers out-takes and production info from The Wedding Singer), I’d say this was an area in which misadvertising was frankly unethical. Apocalypse Now tells you it’s about going up the big river (and not getting off the boat); Charlie Wilson’s War tells you it’s about sleazy Washington chancers; Redacted tells you it’s about what happens, in war, to the truth. Before the Fall, though (Napola, in German), a good, thoughtful and multi-award-winning 2004 film about the 12-year Reich’s elite Nazi training academies, shows – on the case of the British DVD, anyway – a split screen comprising a fire-fight behind an over-turned lorry and an Iwo Jima-type posed shot of soldiers under a bomber-filled sky. Neither of these scenes is within spitting distance of being in the film, and given that Before the Fall is to “war movies” what Dead Poets Society is to a Kenneth Branagh Shakespeare, this is just flat-out disinformation. I shall be writing to TESCO to demand my three quid back.


Out now (well, on the 30th), a new play by Eugene O’Neill… written, and indeed performed, all the way back in 1920. Exorcism: A Play in One Act (uh-oh!) is an obviously autobiographical effort from a fledgling writer, based on his botched suicide in a grubby rooming house in Manhattan: essentially, a sketch for pretty much everything that O’Neill would later go on to produce. The press release suggests that the four-time Pulitzer-winning playwright withdrew the work “because it was too revealing of his own demons”, but a more likely reason was because it was not much good.

Rather pleasingly, given that the play features a man trying to escape from the wreckage of a relationship, this long-lost play has only resurfaced because O’Neill’s second wife refused to hand back the one remaining typescript after their divorce (and later gave it to somebody who knew somebody who sold it to Yale). But given that the author didn’t actually wish to see the work published – and rightly, as Edward Albee’s foreword openly concludes! – prepare yourself for much debate about the ethics of posthumous publishing, bitching about Max Brod, and the likelihood of a Radio 3 reading of Exorcism any day soon. 

Who at the Beeb decided a face-off between Mary Beard and Bettany 'Divine Women' Hughes would probably wriggle through unnoticed?

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