Wednesday 28 February 2018


Of course the major fuss about Darkest Hour is Gary Oldman's performance as Winston Churchill, which is the hot favourite for an Oscar in a couple of days. Darkest Hour is the latest in a series of films about the early days of the Second World War; given Britain's impending exit from the European Union, this retrospection (while the 100th anniversary of the Great War was in progress) is telling. And you could easily look back to 2002's The Gathering Storm as a precursor to this cycle, and to Albert Finney's performance as the benchmark for future Churchills. Because Gathering Storm was made by HBO and BBC for television, Finney wasn't eligible for an Oscar (he did win a TV Bafta and an Emmy).

Oldman's Churchill contrasts with Brian Cox's in another Oscar-eligible film, Churchill. Where Cox lets his own rough edges give Churchill more bite (and makes his self-doubt, which is the movie's theme, that much more telling), the reason Oldman's performance is the odds-on Oscar winner is that it plays so much against his persona as an actor. It is not that his Churchill is a remarkable interpretation, but that it is a bravura force of acting to convince us that an actor who played Sid Vicious or Lee Harvey Oswald can convince against physical type.

And this Oldman does, which is why an Oscar would be deserved. Whether his Churchill is, well, Churchillian, is another matter. Not least the drift into a northern accent (listen to his final words in the film—like the narration of a Hovis advert). He works by accentuating some gestures, particularly of jaw, and by overall bearing, but he also is sometimes seeking to present a kinder, gentler Churchill. This of course is partly down to scripting, and the way the film-makers want to present a softer-centered Winston—this is the charming but self-obsessed Churchill with a touch of the Boris Johnson's about him, especially in his scenes with Kirsten Scott Thomas, although, since she is his wife, perhaps not so Boris. The film sticks to what have become generally accepted tropes of Churchill at war: the young secretary who 'tames' the curmudgeon (Lily James, looking beatific as Churchill recites his speeches accurately) and the requisite King's Speech meetings with King George, which end in friendship and respect. Ben Mendelsohn as George VI is one of a number of actors helped by their casting for their physical resemblance to their characters, and Mendelsohn does not fall back on the speech impediment as he conveys his own resolve to battle on (by staying in London, not evacuating). By contrast, Samuel West is instantly recognisable as Anthony Eden, not because he looks like Eden but because he has a superficial attractiveness and charm and, of course, a moustache.

Churchill's winning over the King (as opposed to George's great friendship with Halifax) is interesting in another sense, because the film creates a fictional trip for Churchill on the underground, one stop to Westminster, which the filmmakers turn into the longest one stop imaginable. The reason is to let the common people, including a West Indian man and a child, express their admiration, and convince Churchill not to sue for peace with Germany. We know he did not need that sort of convincing, and we know he never, ever, got into the underground, not ever, but it is as if Joe Wright has to convince a contemporary audience that Churchill was a real man of the people as much as a man of the King (it is just those Tory toffs who can't abide his pushiness, which the film implies he gets from his American mother, bless them).

But the film, like Brexit, is less about Europe than about the Tory party and their resistance to Churchill's leadership. The key figure here is Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) another case of remarkable physical resemblance and played very well as a cross between Jacob Rees-Mogg and John Redwood. There has been some criticism of the film for taking small liberties with the whole question of Chamberlain's successor, but in general it gets the basic tenor correct and cannot be faulted for sometimes dramatising it with face to face scenes that didn't actually happen. If anything, it slights the support for Churchill within the Tory party (see, for example, Lynne Olson's Troublesome Young Men, which sometimes gets a bit too American touristy, but tells the tale of the young Tory rebels who backed Churchill—and note too Halifax's own memoirs, which were notoriously less than forthright).

The key scenes involve Chamberlain poised to cue the Tory benches to support Churchill's speeches, or not. In the first instance, their silence is deafening, and immediately brings to mind the current Brexit situation, and the fact that it is another case of the Conservative party putting its own squabbles well ahead of the good of the country. Ronald Pickup makes the most of a dying Chamberlain, and in reality these are the film's best scenes, within Parliament, shot to reflect an almost timeless history as well as a smoke-filled room in which deals must be done. A darkest debate, if not hour, and brilliantly shot by Bruno Delbonnel.

It's certainly a more satisfying film than Churchill, and Cox's performance in that film, while perhaps getting Churchill with more overall accuracy, suffers from the strange characterisation he's forced to enact, in which Montgomery's weaknesses are transferred to him. Oldman's ability as an actor is something that has gone overlooked by many for many years, because he's lacked the flashy roles, though not the convincing character parts (often as villains) such as in The Contender or Leon. But his Churchill is very much of a piece with his Beethoven or his George Smiley, both parts where he gets an essence of characters he would not commonly be thought his to play. That alone makes Darkest Hour worth viewing.

Wednesday 14 February 2018


Because today is Valentine's Day, and because I was tinkering with this poem last week while I was in Minneapolis, I thought I'd post it now. It was written, pretty much as is absent the tinkering, in February 1987, during and just after a Jan Garbarek concert at Logan Hall in London. The title comes from a tune off Garbarek's album It's OK To Listen To The Gray Voice, in which all the song titles are lines from poems by Tomas Transtromer. So it is a poem based on a song based on a poem.

It was published, titled '...Forgetfulness' later in 1987 along with two other poems, as issue 89 of Infolio, published in Cambridge, the group called 'Solo Trio'. It then appeared by itself in the Montreal magazine Shadowplay in May of 1992. It all seems a long time ago. I decided in Minnesota to revert to the full title. The changes are small but I think telling. It was written for Theresa, two years too late.


A few more sides
of the crystal slide into
         if every feeling for you
turned to stone I would be
frozen, all alone for
         almost ever

somethings are never
what they seem
to me
and never learned
                                  it's like
the past two years have been
a dream
                my heart, locked in
a cell that only waking
can unlock, awaits

its own long day, the last
one done
& while I sleep I know
what disappears is gone

I never know the cost or
know what more
there is to tell
about the past or
what I have lost
                             or I can say.

Friday 9 February 2018


It was a great Super Bowl, but you knew that already. Back in the day, when I was writing Friday Morning Tight End, I would do a wrap-up of the Super Bowl, analysing why I picked it right or wrong (more often wrong). But now as my column is simply predictions, I thought I'd share a few thoughts on the game with you here.

I did get the Super Bowl pick wrong, though if you read my column last week you'll see I tried very hard to pick the Eagles. In the end I switched to the Pats, and seriously, with two minutes left and New England down five I didn't really doubt they'd pull off another comeback, and I'd be right both on picking them outright and picking the Eagles plus 5.5 points as a best bet.

This season my picks were better than last year's in the regular season: 173-83 or 67.6%. It took a while for the season to fall into place, but between weeks 7 and 16, before the black hole that is week 17, I went 114-35. 173 right would have placed me sixth on the list at nfl pickwatch, ahead of everybody at ESPN, NFL Network, CBC or MMQB. Last year I improved in the playoffs to 10-1; this year I slipped to 6-5. That left me overall at 179-88 on the season (67%) compared with 178-87-2 (67.2%) in 2016. At least I'm consistent! However in the 13 seasons I have picked every one of the 267 games a year for nfluk, I have been only 5-8 picking the Super Bowl! I'm like the Vikings or the Bills.

Once again, I was lucky enough to be in the BBC booth with Mark Chapman, Osi Umeniyora, and Jason Bell. I wish you could hear the conversations as the game goes on, because it's both fun and instructive. I usually forget which things I said on air and which ones just to to guys, but early on I remarked that this was like watching Texas Tech play Baylor: a wide open offensive shootout. The absorption of college spread and option concepts into the NFL game is fully upon us when you can see both teams going empty on multiple downs. And interestingly, the one thing about the game that seemed most predictable, that the Eagles' front four would bedevil the Pats' O line, didn't come true, but what was fascinating was the way Jim Schwartz covered the Pats. Man coverage on Rob Gronkowski usually fell to Corey Graham, who was signed as a free agent after Buffalo released him; he'd played with Ronald Darby and for Schwartz in Buffalo, but you may remember him for his interception for the Ravens in the Super Bowl win over Denver. Graham is one of many sharp free-agent acquisitions by Eagles' GM Howie Roseman. I've often thought the relative failure of the Chip Kelly era in Philly was due less to lack of coaching skill and more to lack of acumen in the front office, from which he had forced Roseman out. When you looked at the 'how they were built' charts for the two Super Bowl teams, you saw a very close parallel in the way both the Eagles and Pats had rebuilt in the past two seasons, with astute and mostly bargain free agency signings.

Graham's coverage was Gronkowski wasn't simple. When Gronk attacked the middle of the field, the Eagles were often showing a cover-two look, but it would quickly morph into something like a cover-1 robber: one safety stepping up to take away the lead to Gronk, the other playing coverage deep. Also putting Graham on Gronk also left Malcolm Jenkins free to shadow the running backs: note James White's receiving role was severely limited. Tactically, that more than made up for the Pats' ability to neutralise the Eagles' front four.

Offensively, the audacity of the Philly Special play call was probably the signature moment of the game. I had no doubt Doug Pederson would go for it on fourth and goal at the one, and couldn't understand why Cris Collinsworth was making it seem such a strange call. Remember the Eagles in the last minute of the first half against Minnesota; remember too the Jags kneeling out that final minute with a four-point lead over the Pats. You don't beat New England by being conservative. That they scored running a similar play to the pass Tom Brady could not catch was indeed audacious. It also reminded me of the Brady-Wes Welker miss in the second loss to the Giants: a completion to the wide open receiver seals the game for the Pats. It seemed like a bad omen. After the Super Bowl ex-supervisor of refs Mike Pereira came alive from the Fox COMMAND CENTER, probably to reinforce the idea NBC had no former ref to give commentary on referring decisions: he said the Eagles were definitely in an illegal formation on the Philly special, but that it was a 'judgement call'. Now the story in the game was that Jeffrey checked to make sure he was on the line, and the line judge told them he was, even though he was two yards back.

The problem is not the receiver and the line of scrimmage, the problem is the officials allow players to align with the player inside them. I have complained about this with Andy Reid teams in particular, but the Eagles and their tackles too. If for example the tackle aligns his inside front toe with the guard's outside heel, the tackle can be two yards off the line of scrimmage. I believe the line judge saw Jeffrey aligned with Lane Johnson's back leg and thus told him he was OK, even though he was almost two and half yards off the line of scrimmage. It made no difference on this play, actually, as no one assumed Johnson was eligible. But allowing tackles to line up so far off the line of scrimmage gives them at least a one step advantage over pass rushers, and shouldn't be allowed.
The key to the Patriots' bend-but-don't-break defense is being able to get stops on third downs: knowing what the offense needs to do and likes to do in those situations is a key. But the Eagles were a team living on third and longs and converting them regularly—not just against the Pats and not just with Nick Foles at QB. This is where they beat the Pats, beating them at situational football.

At one point in the second half, I said to the guys 'all it is going to take is one stop', and of course the Eagles got that stop on the Brandon Graham strip sack. But part of the reason we were in that situation was that the Pats had, in effect, been stopped twice on successive drives in the first half. First when Brandin Cooks couldn't convert a third and two on his sweep and Rodney McLeod power-bombed him. The Pats then missed the short field goal on fourth and one at the eight. I wasn't surprised Bill Belichick eschewed going for it, and decided to tie the game at three, but the bad snap killed them, and the Eagles' willing to go for it on fourth and one would stand in contrast.

I was reminded or haunted by the Giants another time. Maybe it was standing next to Osi in the booth. The Eagles launched their only punt on the next drive, and the Pats then failed on third and fourth and five at the Eagles' 35. Perhaps bothered by the previous miss of the chippie, Belichick eschewed a 52 yard field goal, which reminded me of his passing from a similar distance in the 2007 loss to the Giants; Gostkowski had mis-hit a kickoff previously and it was as if he were being punished. The fourth down pass to Gronk went incomplete, but I wondered even if taking a delay penalty and punting might have been preferable.

The Pats missed their chance for a stop early in the second half when Johnson Bademosi couldn't tackle Nelson Agholor on a crossing route on third down and six. This was the effect of Belichick's benching Malcolm Butler. The knock-on effect wasn't just Eric Rowe starting outside: I'm not sure Butler would have made a better play on the TD to Alshon Jeffrey. But it took Rowe and his long arms out of the middle of the field, and it left the Pats in big nickle on third downs, with Patrick Chung having to cover wideouts. When they went to dime it brought safety Jordan Richards in, and he's so awful in coverage (Clement's 55 yard catch being an example) Bademosi eventually took his spot. What no one noted was that New England's number four corner, Jonathan Jones, was on IR: Jones is their quickest DB, and his absence pushed Bademosi into that fourth spot. Butler's benching pushed Bademosi up higher. There was a point when I thought whatever Butler was being punished for, he was clearly upset, and he was on the sidelines, and it might have been a moment to tell him to make up for his mistakes on the field.

Again, I flashed back to a previous Super Bowl, when Butler made that great play on Jerome Kearse and Kearse made the great catch which preceded Butler's goal-line pick. If you recall Duron Harmon's pick in this game, think back and you'll see Harmon jump over Kearse while the ball was still loose--not making a play on the receiver. This time, in almost the same spot on the field, the ball popped up, and Harmon made the play. 

I was also puzzled by the absence of Dwight Allen. I saw him on only one offensive play, going in motion in order to pass block, but I wondered, especially after Cooks' concussion, if two tight ends might have been an option (not that the Pats' offense was misfiring). I'd also thought we'd see more two and three tight end sets from the Eagles, but of course with Butler out, the wide receivers got more play. And I would not be surprised if the success of the Pats' offense was a major factor in their last minute 180 on keeping Josh McDaniels around.

If there were one play Brady might want back, it would be on first down from the 9 after the failed kickoff reverse. Chris Hogan was open on the sidelines 30 yards up field, and Brady just misfired on the pass. A completion stops the clock and puts them near the 40. It was interesting to watch New England give up on Gostkowski's short kickoffs, because the Eagles were getting returns out to the 25, and settle for touchbacks. New England had taken the touchbacks previously: the reverse was not well executed, partly because the coverage got to Lewis so quickly there wasn't room for a good lateral. Just as the Eagles' offense took away the third-down advantage from the Pats, they won the battle of special teams as well. The fact that the Patriots ran up 600 yards and 33 points on the league's best or second-best defense was a win for their offense, but they lost two of the other three phases.

It was also strange that the two TD catches that were reviewed took so long to be decided (although the second one did add precious time for the Eagles' D line to catch their breath!). Corey Clement's catch (a perfectly thrown ball from Foles) was to me a catch, but the way he let the ball slide across his belly from right hand to left is precisely the loss of 'control' while 'going to the ground' that the league had ruled incomplete all season long. This is frustrating, but you could just see the replay official thinking, or being reminded, not to take yet another TD away from a Patriots' opponent, because the league clearly fixes games for the Pats, as the Brady suspension proved last year. I think much of the problem would be solved if the league would simply change the definition from 'control' to 'possession': you can lose control of the ball but still maintain possession of it, which was exactly what Clement had done.

Why the Ertz TD was reviewed at such length was a puzzle. How man steps with the ball, or movements of it, do you have to make before the league considers you transformed into a runner? Again, the rule and interpretation could be simplified: by going back to the old catch rule of possession with both feet down. Sure that would lead to more fumbles, and half the time the NFL has no idea who actually recovered the fumble before the pile began, and sure that could lead to fewer scores, but really, less is more, and as we know the NFL feels more is always better, so less is thus better. Got it?

Anyway, a pass interference call on the Hail Mary would have made things really interesting, right?

BTW, if you'd like to see more football columns during the off-season, let me know, OK? Thanks for reading, watching, and supporting. It's appreciated.

Wednesday 7 February 2018


I read Cheap Shot on the flight to Minneapolis for Super Bowl LII, and considering the plot revolves around a New England Patriots' player whom Spencer is hired to protect/keep out of trouble, it seemed appropriate.

The trouble, of course, finds star linebacker Kinjo Heywood, in a way both unexpected and more severe than we might expect when his son is kidnapped. Immediately Spenser is in his usual wisecracking trouble with the head of security for the Pats, with Heywood's agent, his business manager/brother, and the FBI, all of whom want him off the case. And it's a complicated case, going back to a nightclub shooting in New York a couple of years before, which may have involved Heywood's crew. It's as if Ray Lewis had come back to play for Bill Belichick.

I've reviewed Ace Atkins' Spenser before, you can link to that here, and he gets the tone of the Parker novels better than any of the others I've read who've been carrying on with the characters. Like Lullaby, the main villain remains off-stage for most of the book, and in some ways we wonder if at least one of the sub-plots has been overlooked in the end. It was a complicated web which Atkins wove around the star player, which reflects perfectly the world of high-paid athletes in a violent, short-career sport.

One problem with the first-person narration is trying to fill out characters so we understand, not necssarily them, but their effect on others. In this case, Heywood's second-wife seems sketchily drawn, and what we see of her leads us to wonder exactly what Heywood sees in her. While it's obvious what Hawk sees in Heywood's first wife, and long-time readers might feel disappointed not to see Hawk tamed at last.

Atkins does with Spenser what Parker did: build fast moving stories that centre on personalities, and Cheap Shot is another good example. Even if the Patriots did lose the Super Bowl without Heywood.

Robert B Parker's Cheap Shot by Ace Atkins
No Exit Press, £8.99, ISBN 9781843444497 

NOTE; This review will also appear at Crime Time (