fri 25/09/2020

Worried About the Boy, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Worried About the Boy, BBC Two

Worried About the Boy, BBC Two

A fresh approach to the rock biopic which ends where these stories usually begin

“Just drop the wisecracks for one minute, will you!” snaps George Alan O'Dowd’s father, played with craggy authority by Francis Magee. And he has a point. The snide remarks and oh-so-gay repartee come so thick and fast in this BBC drama that it is hard to see writer Tony Basgallop’s screenplay as a realistic recreation of the world of Steve Strange, Marilyn, Culture Club drummer Jon Moss and our George. When this waspish crowd fire coruscating dialogue at one another it's as if they are channelling Quentin Crisp, Oscar Wilde, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams.

We all know that our George is capable of supplying the tabloids with the odd memorable soundbite, but Steve Strange? I certainly don’t recall him having an ounce of the edgy wit, character and charisma that Marc Warren’s engaging performance grants him. But this of course is a work of drama not a documentary, and the story it tells is messy, fragmented and full of false starts, just as real life often is.

We first meet the future Boy George (played by newcomer Douglas Booth) living in a London squat in 1980. He’s already spectacularly dressed and immaculately made-up; it’s just that he hasn’t yet worked out that simply being isn’t enough to bring him fame and riches. And there will follow many changes of frocks and hairstyles - not to mention a series of doomed love affairs ending in mascara-massacring tears - before he realises he needs to form a band.

In regard to George’s doomed love affairs, his plight is best summed up by his pal Marilyn (played by Freddie Fox) when he says, “Gay men think you’re too much. And you’re what straight men think a gay man should look like.” But fortunately, just when all this gender confusion begins to get wearing - from a dramatic perspective at least - we are thrown forward to 1986 when our now drug-addled granny’s favourite is arrested for heroin possession. This change to a more sombre key allows Booth to bring more emotional resonance to his occasionally uncannily accurate portrayal of George. I was reminded at times by both this performance, and the film as a whole, of Cillian Murphy in Neil Jordan’s excellent 2006 film Breakfast on Pluto. Suddenly it becomes possible to empathise more with a character who can no longer simply rely on a wisecrack in order to navigate an emotional or domestic crisis.

From then on the drama jumps between the almost monochrome scenes in which George is pestered by the usual bunch of porcine tabloid hacks and snappers outside his Hampstead home, and his rather haphazard (and therefore completely credible) journey to becoming one of the UK’s biggest-selling artists of the 1980s. There’s an amusing appearance by Mark Gatiss as the recently deceased Malcolm McLaren. Gatiss has the unenviable task of playing a person who seemed to play a theatrically stylised version of himself in everyday life anyway, but he pulls it off with aplomb. Then there’s the amusing semi-appearance of David Bowie who is only glimpsed as a hand which Steve Strange bows down before in order to kiss, when the Thin White Duke turns up unexpectedly at the Blitz Club in order to recruit dancers for his “Ashes to Ashes” video.

But what is most impressive about this 90-minute drama is how it manages to circumvent so many of the clichés common to the rock biopic. Although there is clearly some intention on the writer’s part to explain the Culture Club singer’s addiction as a result of his troubled love life, this point is by no means laboured. George is certainly not portrayed as simply a victim of circumstance. The fact that he's from a tough working-class background, and is more than capable of looking after himself, is clearly illustrated by a couple of fight scenes (although it hardly seems credible that after one of these punch-ups, George is self-possessed enough to say, “How’s it feel to have your arse kicked by a fairy?” as if he is some gay action hero).

The film ends as Culture Club’s career takes off, with an authentic-looking (to this non-fan anyway) recreation of a Top of the Pops performance of “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” complete with that grainy VHS patina. But satisfyingly this faux-TOTP footage is juxtaposed to a starker, more ambiguous shot of the 1986 version of George braving the media mob outside his house, thus sparing us the feel-good ending that this kind of film so often foists upon us.

The genuine Top of the Pops performance of “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me”

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