Review: Young, Bright and on the Right

Reading over the notes I made during Young, Bright and on the Right last night on BBC2, three points stand out, because I wrote them in capitals. One is MY GOD THEY LOOK YOUNG, the second is WHY IS HE STILL TALKING ABOUT CHEESE?, and the third is WHY ARE STUDENT JOURNALISTS ALWAYS BETTER-LOOKING THAN STUDENT POLITICIANS? The first two comprise a reasonable summary. YBAOTR was a show about two very, very young people spending a lot of time talking about things of a similar level of importance to cheese. As for the third point, ’twas ever thus.

If you didn’t watch YBAOTR – and I’d recommend you iPlayer it – it featured two members of student Conservative Associations. A ginger one, who looked a bit like Eric Morecambe (except ginger, obviously) and went to Oxford, and a blond one who went to Cambridge. Twitter was divided on who the blond one looked like, between the people who thought he might be Boris Johnson’s love-child, those who thought Draco Malfoy might really walk among us, and people who know who Mike Joslin is.

The blond one’s parents were clearly a little bemused by him – even his dad, who had such an inexplicable moustache he has no right to be bemused by anyone – while the ginger one’s mother, sister and grandfather were all so visibly, burstingly proud that their offspring had made it to Oxford that you couldn’t help but warm to them.

In many ways this show wasn’t about young Tories so much as it was about all of student politics, which are “vicious precisely because the stakes are so small”, in the words of the Kissinger quote Gemma Tumelty tweeted last night. (And let’s face it, if anyone should know it’s Gemma.) In parts, this was a sombrely-narrated documentary about the intrigue and conspiracies of a student political society. I know both Labour and Tory members for whom that would once have been the ultimate dream. When you’re nineteen, nothing that will ever happen to you in your life seems more important than whatever is happening right now.

You certainly wouldn’t know what else was happening in the world of politics from watching this show. Although it was repeatedly stated that the two of them had right-wing views, little of these were in evidence. The ginger one proudly trotted out the line that Conservatism is all about people like him, able to achieve anything despite their background – which is why you should vote Conservative if you want to improve the life chances of precisely one person from each Northern town – and the blond one didn’t much like tax or the EU. Otherwise, they were concerned solely with improving their own standing in their respective Conservative Associations: the ginger one through subterfuge and plotting things over afternoon tea, and the blond one by buying cheese. This was the most depressing part, and I don’t know whether it’s a symptom of Conservatism or just careerism. At that age you should be living life with the sound turned up – getting angry, feeling passionate, taking an interest! But these kids, it seems, really did go into politics to change the minutes of the last meeting.

The response on Twitter has been interesting. Tories were at pains to point out that these two aren’t representative of all young Conservatives, which is good or bad news depending on which other young Conservatives you’re looking at. Unhappy with how things were going for him in the Oxford University Conservative Association, the ginger one ‘exposed’ the rest of them as port-swilling racists. In Cambridge, however, when a few CUCA members tentatively suggested that it might be a tad more welcoming to hold events that weren’t in white tie, they had to stand back to avoid the windmilling arms of the blond one as he insisted on the right of societies like CUCA to exclude all the other people like him.

Both Torylets have obviously spent a short lifetime struggling to fit in. The ginger one didn’t speak until the age of five and had such severe dyslexia when he was younger that he initially found it difficult to participate at school; the blond one’s problems relating to people are evidenced by his mother’s gentle prodding, obviously not for the first time, to “make eye contact!” You can’t help wondering whether their decisions to identify with the Conservative Party at a young age, and not only to go to posh universities but to deliberately seek out the poshest fellow students to show up their own lack of poshness, are an attempt to explain away the differences between themselves and those around them. When people are always going to think you’re a bit odd – because you are, in fact a bit odd – it must be comforting to tell yourself that people just think you’re a bit odd, because you’re working-class, or a Tory.

I couldn’t help feel sorry for the blond one when it became clear that he’d been picked on a bit at school, and that – touchingly – he thought this wouldn’t have happened if he’d been able to go to public school instead.

The ginger one, on the other hand, started blubbing about how difficult it is to be an OUCA member as the son of a single parent – at the exact same moment he got into trouble with the then OUCA president for some earlier bad behaviour. And then he went to the paper and created a minor scandal that hit the national news. It’s possible that he’s a political genius. I shall be keeping a watchful eye out for him in a future shadow cabinet. One wonders if he’ll have picked up any actual views by then.

This post originally appeared on LabourList on Friday.

Retro review: The Breakfast Club

When Emerald Street offered the chance to go to a free screening of The Breakfast Club at Hulme’s Zion Arts Centre, I jumped at it, and not just because of the free wine. The Breakfast Club, like Pretty In Pink, Sixteen Candles and even Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, is one of those 80s classics that absolutely everyone has seen but that I, in fact, have not seen. Why? Well, mostly because I’m an 80s classic myself. In 1985, when this film came out, I was mostly interested in having warm milk delivered to my face.

All I knew about The Breakfast Club was: it’s about a Saturday detention; there’s a scene where they all get stoned; the soundtrack is Simple Minds’ Don’t You Forget About Me, and right at the end one of the characters punches the air while walking across a football field. Like the film’s archetypal geek Brian Johnson, I was eager to learn more.

Lesson 1: it’s hard to go back to the 80s. This is in many ways a tricky film to watch almost 30 years later. Not only is it difficult to buy Molly Ringwald as a prom queen and Emilio Estevez as anything other than a teeny tiny President of the United States (seriously – watch his face when Allison Reynolds tells him her parents ignore her. It’s like someone just told Jed Bartlet there’s been a coup in Haiti), but this, like Grease,  is one of the films that made high-school films. The stereotypes that make up this cast – the jock, the brain, the criminal, the princess and the kook, not to mention the vicious and inadequate principal – have informed the basic demographics of every fictional American high school from Stargirl to Mean Girls. The problem is, since the Kook evolved into Manic Pixie Dream Girl and we all watched the Princess get hit by a bus, the Breakfast Club characters can feel as though they’ve aged about as well as, well, Molly Ringwald’s career.

Lesson 2: it sucks to be a woman in this film. The reasons for this constitute spoilers, so if you are one of the other seven people in the world who haven’t seen The Breakfast Club and you think you might want to, don’t click here. Otherwise, go right ahead.

Lesson 3: it is a beautiful thing of 80s wonder. The dialogue is dramatic. The soundtrack is both rocky and synth-poppy. (Don’t You Forget About Me itself stayed in the UK singles chart for two years. I’m listening to it right now. RAIN KEEPS FALLING, RAIN KEEPS FALLING). The dancing is Clonetastic. The hair is beautiful and plentiful. The bad guy is Dwayne T. Robinson from Die Hard. The opening credits are a quote from David Bowie. This film couldn’t be any more 80s if it featured Thatcher playing with a Rubik’s Cube.

And it’s all the better for that. Imagine if they remade The Breakfast Club today. Jennifer Lawrence playing the Kook and Michael Cera playing Brian the Brain would be all well and good…but you know full well Robert Pattinson would play John Bender. Maybe the 80s weren’t so bad.

Why it sucks to be a woman in The Breakfast Club (spoilers alert)

If you don’t count Brian the Brain’s pushy mom, there are two women in The Breakfast Club: Claire the Princess and Allison the Kook. The three main male characters all land in detention for doing Very Bad (and therefore Interesting) Things – taping someone’s arse cheeks together, bringing a gun to school, generally being a criminal. Claire, meanwhile, is being punished for the princessly transgression of cutting class to go shopping. And Allison? Allison didn’t do anything at all. She turned up for the detention because she had nothing better to do on a Saturday. That’s how little effort the writers put into her back-story.

Still, at least both girls get a happy ending – right? Er…sort of. Allison gets a make-over, and then she gets the wrestler guy. That’s it. That’s pretty much the culmination of her narrative arc. Mascara and a nice blouse, and a bloke who wouldn’t look at her – literally – until she put on mascara and a nice blouse.

Cracked have pointed out that this is just one example of the Grease/She’s All That phenomenon, whereby young viewers are encouraged to believe that changing their entire demeanour and personality is both a) as easy as getting a new hairdo and b) essential if you want success, happiness and That Guy/Girl.

Claire, of course, has never had any trouble Getting The Guy, so at the end of this film naturally she gets The Bad Guy. (Not the guy from Die Hard. The other bad guy.) Not only is the happiness to be found with a character who has sustained a constant stream of nasty, misogynist abuse towards Claire throughout the film somewhat suspect, but according to, once again, those folks at Cracked (they’re always right), it won’t even last.

Poor Claire. Still, at least she can dance.

Being Elmo review

Not just any old fly on the wall – Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey is what happens when a behind-the-scenes documentary meets The Muppets, with a quick squirt of Hairspray for good measure.

The story of how shy little Kevin Clash, growing up in 60s Baltimore, became hooked on Sesame Street as soon as it appeared on his TV screen – with a racially diverse cast and a set that looked like a street he might know – is so like the story of Walter, the Muppet inexplicably born to a human family, that you can’t help wondering if it inspired the (disappointing) 2012 movie.

It’s not only Kevin’s story but that of the Muppets themselves, and their iconic creators, Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and the lesser-known Kermit Love. (Have two more awesome names than Kevin Clash and Kermit Love ever appeared in a single review? What’s more, get this – Jim Henson had already named his froggy friend before he ever met Kermit Love. It was a complete coincidence. I’m not making this up, have a look at Muppet Wiki if you don’t believe me.)

The glimpses behind the scenes of Sesame Street revealed just how much effort went, and still goes into, its creation. It is a delight to see how entirely seriously the puppeteers take their craft: right from Clash’s frustration as a child that he couldn’t get the right fabric for a seamless puppet face, through his detailed-to-the-point-of-nitpicking – and yet still gratefully received – tutelage on the set of French Sesame Street, to the awestruck ten-year-old Clash wannabe who makes puppets out of sleeves and plastic spoons for eyes and can’t contain his excitement on his tour of the Muppet Workshop.

But beyond the puppetry, Sesame Street is a serious business. In The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the complex research process used to test every detail of Sesame Street before it ever made it to air – and it is still an intensively vetted, tested, focus-grouped piece of television. Clash recounts the process that led up to the formation of today’s Elmo: diva-ish puppetteer Richard Hunt tired of the red Muppet’s original caveman-like persona, and Clash observed the kids his mom took care of to come up with a new character trait.

The resulting character is a three-year-old who loves everything and everyone unconditionally and demonstrably – and, like the most well-behaved of toddlers, is universally loved back. Being Elmo‘s moving scenes are those showing children sharing a hug and a (for some of them rare) happy moment with Elmo.

Elmo is a celebrity, and Clash is too – before this film, there was also a book; and before that there was enough Elmo memorabilia to stuff a Snuffleupagus. But one little girl might not be such an Elmo fan.

Having clearly missed out on a lot of his daughter’s life while he was making other people’s children happy, Clash takes over her ‘sweet sixteen’ with a video of celebrity messages and an Elmo-topped cake. Following some pretty cringeworthy clips from the day she was born, you have to wonder whether she might have preferred the day to be more about her.

But this is the only discordant note in an otherwise lighthearted story. A heartwarming and genuinely interesting film – you’d be a Muppet not to see it.

Being Elmo is on tonight at the Cornerhouse.