The Olympic champion on professional regrets and the joy of baggage carousels
Born in Somalia, Farah, 36, came to Britain at the age of eight. At the 2012 London Olympics, he won the 10,000m and the 5,000m; four years later, in Rio, he successfully defended both titles. In 2017, after winning his sixth World Championships gold medal, he switched to marathon events. He is running the London Marathon on Sunday, wearing the Nike Zoom X Vaporfly NEXT% shoe. He is married with four children and lives in London.
What is your earliest memory? As an eight-year-old, turning up in the UK was incredible: getting off at Heathrow and seeing the baggage moving round, getting excited about my new life.
What did you want to be when you were growing up? A mechanic when I was a little kid, and then, when I came to the UK, I wanted to play professional football.
What is your greatest fear? Seeing a snake.
What is the closest you’ve come to death? When I was a kid, travelling from Ethiopia to the UK, the plane door opened, the oxygen masks came down and the plane did an emergency landing in Egypt.
What was your most embarrassing moment? The European Indoor Championships in Birmingham , when I fell over then started running in the wrong direction.
What is your most treasured possession? My Olympic medals.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Being ruthless.
What do you most dislike about your appearance? It would have to be my toes. You know what? Actually, I like everything about myself.
If you could bring something extinct back to life, what would you choose? I wouldn’t want to mess around with nature.
Who would play you in the film of your life? Denzel Washington.
What is your most unappealing habit? Someone will text me, I’ll get excited and think about replying, but don’t. I am not being rude or disrespectful, it’s just me, I’m like a little kid.
What is your guiltiest pleasure? Sweets, like Swedish Fish.
What do you owe your parents? Everything: they gave me life and they taught me things that, at the time, I didn’t appreciate – particularly my mum.
To whom would you most like to say sorry, and why? Probably my wife, because sometimes I do crazy things.
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party? Usher, because I feel like I have no moves and I could learn a couple off him.
What is the worst job you’ve done? I have worked in McDonald’s.
What has been your biggest disappointment? Beijing 2008 – not making the Olympic final.
If you could go back in time, where would you go? To when I was 15 or 16. Just knowing that you can always come home and find Mum there cooking you food; you chill, go upstairs to play PlayStation – no responsibilities.
What do you consider your greatest achievement? Being dad to my kids and having a family.
A disgraced photographer tries to salvage his career by finding the Tiananmen Square ‘Tank Man’ in Lucy Kirkwood’s series, a strikingly intelligent balance of the personal and the political
Tank Man. I had forgotten ever hearing the phrase, used 30 years ago to describe the unidentified figure who stood in front of the tanks advancing towards Tiananmen Square the morning after the Chinese military opened fire on its own people to end the anti-government protests for human and press rights, killing hundreds, possibly thousands, of civilians.
He wasn’t the only person who did so – but he was the only one whose image was captured (by Jeff Widener) and sent around the world. It was not only the most arresting photograph of the protests, but also served as an illustration of the personal responsibility we bear to stand up to evil.
In Chimerica, a sinuous, sinewy four-part adaptation for Channel 4 by Lucy Kirkwood of her own multi-award-winning play, the picture is taken by the fictional Lee Berger (played as a young man by Ty Simpkins), marking the beginning of his career as a war photographer. We next meet him – now played by Alessandro Nivola as a pitch-perfect blend of intensity, charm and self-belief – in 2016. The world is gearing up for what it thinks will be a second Clinton presidency, just as he secures another heartstopping shot – and front page on the New York daily where he works – in Syria. A soldier stands with his gun to a woman’s head, poised to shoot her as she sits in the aftermath of a bomb with her bloodied young son on her lap. His editor Frank Sams (the mighty F Murray Abraham, wonderful, if underused) is delighted. There is talk of a Pulitzer. On the flight to his next job – getting video footage of Chinese attendees of a Beijing business fair recommending that Americans vote for Donald Trump – he meets Tess (Sophie Okonedo, also underused so far) and life is looking altogether splendid.
What follows is the slow unravelling of life as he – and in the background, the US – knows it. As Trump builds his campaign out of a collage of lies, fake news, groundless assertions and grandiose claims, Berger is forced by a journalism student to admit that his Syrian photo is doctored. And so the central question for him, for his country and for the drama becomes: how do you come back from that? Once the integrity of a man or a system has been lost, once trust is gone, is it gone for good? Can the end – getting Syria on the front page when it had customarily been buried on page 12 – justify the means? His editor appears willing to give him a chance to rebuild his reputation, but his fellow war journalist and friend Mel Kincaid (an utterly magnificent performance by Cherry Jones) roars at him: “There’s no excuse for what you did … do you know you’ve broken my fucking heart?” What might have remained an interesting, near-abstract problem is suddenly made deeply, wrenchingly real.
Berger’s – not fully convincing – solution to his problems is to set out in search of Tank Man, around whose identity rumours have swirled since 1989. His trips to Beijing bring him back in touch with his old friend Zhang Lin, who was a protester in the square and whose wife was killed in the massacre. Thirty years on, Zhang remains fundamentally lost without her and dreams/hallucinates her presence.
Tess, meanwhile, makes it clear to Berger that their relationship is “just a work thing”. Although when she reveals that she – a consultant for a credit-card company trying to break into the Chinese market – doesn’t appreciate the scale of what he’s done (“So what if things are Photoshopped? We do it all the time. It’s still saying something. It can still be true”), this doesn’t seem like quite the loss it first did.
The layers of delusion, deception and misunderstanding that matters of the heart as well as politics bring adds another strand to the exploration of the lies people tell, and upon which life turns.
It’s a strikingly intelligent drama, capturing big ideas without sacrificing story or character, and making the personal political and back again – particularly in the scenes set in China. There, the evidence of history being rewritten is everywhere, as when Berger’s young waitress has no idea that anything ever happened in Tiananmen Square, and knowledge of current affairs is severely limited in a country that has access only to government-approved websites.
It, unexpectedly and thrillingly, makes you care anew about issues that sometimes seem too large and ineffable to grapple with. It is a miracle of distillation and animation, and is available on All4 in its entirely. Run, don’t walk.
The Libertines co-frontman is 40 – an age few expected him to reach. Yet he’s back with a new band, a seaside hotel and an unorthodox approach to dog-handling
Peter Doherty arrives with a black case containing a mysterious creature called Gladys in one hand and an odd-eyed husky called Zeus in the other, a huge sore on his chin and a pork pie hat. Pork pie hat aside, you never quite know what to expect from Doherty. Last time I interviewed him, it was in a hotel room with blood on the walls , a crack pipe on his bedside table and a motorbike in the corner that he kept revving until he fell asleep on it. That was in 2005, when Doherty was 25 years old and living the rock’n’roll dream – or nightmare.
He had been kicked out of the Libertines, a band hailed as the great literary punk rockers of their day, and was surrounded by creepy acolytes, hard men and beautiful young things (he was going out with Kate Moss). His very public addiction had attracted the attention of Newsnight, and attempted interventions from June Brown (who played EastEnders’ Dot Cotton). With his new band Babyshambles, he wrote a song that summed up everything he did and didn’t believe in: Fuck Forever was perfectly ambiguous, celebrating his obsessions with sex and the transient.
Back then, nobody thought Doherty was in it for the long haul. Yet, astonishingly, he is still writing and performing, making records and addicted to drugs. And – having just turned 40 – still alive. Unsurprisingly, many of his circle are not. In the intervening years, Doherty may well have become more famous for being linked to controversial deaths than for his music. Mark Blanco fell from the balcony of a flat in 2006 after rowing with people inside, at a party attended by Doherty. The coroner recorded an open verdict, ruled out suicide and ordered the Metropolitan police to reopen its investigation (in 2011, the CPS said there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone with Blanco’s death). Robyn Whitehead, who was making a film about Doherty, died after taking heroin with his friend Peter Wolfe in 2010; in May 2011, Doherty was jailed for six months after being filmed smoking crack with Whitehead days before she died. In 2015, an inquest concluded that Doherty’s friend Alan Wass died after being unlawfully injected with heroin by an acquaintance.
It is a gorgeous day. We sit outside the Walpole Bay hotel in Margate where Doherty orders a rum cocktail and sausage sandwich and unveils Gladys, which turns out to be an ancient typewriter. He types a few words, saying that he’s taking notes because he’s been duped by journalists before. The ribbon is so dry that very little prints. He is wearing a stylish checked suit that looks slept in, a salmon shirt and braces. His arms are mapped with tattoos, scars, needle marks and cigarette burns. He talks in a slightly fey, slurred manner: perhaps a consequence of the stimulants, perhaps part of the too-cool-for-school package.
For all that he infuriates, Doherty has something about him. He is charming. His insults are funny and perceptive. There is a generosity there, even though he spends the afternoon trying to flog me everything he owns. And despite his grubbiness and grey hair, he still has a fragile, boyish beauty.
Doherty’s latest album, made with his part-time band, the Puta Madres, is a likable mix of Gypsy folk-punk. In one song, Lamentable Ballad of Gascony Avenue, he sings: “I’d like a full English Brexit”. Given his obsession with William Blake, Albion and all things British, does he mean that? He looks appalled, and cites his “multinational” band. “We’d be rogered sideways if Brexit kicks in fully. We wouldn’t stand a chance. I wanna go the other way. I want to bring down borders.”
Doherty regards himself as an international socialist. He says he still objects to private property, despite the fact that the Libertines now own a hotel in Margate, the Albion Rooms, which has a recording studio and bar attached. “Carl [Barât] found this gaff and said they were not going to pay me for a certain amount of gigs and then I was going to have a sixth share,” says Doherty who has been house-sitting there. He recently moved out as the Albion Rooms prepares for paying customers, but says of the venture: “It’s been the saving of me. It was a dream having a place where I didn’t have to worry about rent for the first time. Just having a roof over my head, not having a gun to my head with the threat of eviction or: ‘You have to shag me or you’re out on your ear.’”
Did that happen a lot? “There have been certain individuals whose dark, lustful lifestyles …” He trails off. “I don’t want to be shared or passed around like a fucking tin can used as an ashtray at a party. I don’t want to be a Primrose Hill dildo.” What is a Primrose Hill dildo? “Good-looking lads who make the mistake of falling in love with people who are incapable of falling in love back.” Was he a Primrose Hill dildo? “I did a fucking good impression of one for a while.”
Anyway, that is the past. He says he has different things to focus on these days, not least promoting the career of his new girlfriend, Jade, who likes to sing.
His phone rings. “Hello Primrose Hill Dildos, Albion branch,” he answers. It’s Jade. He puts her on speaker.
“Hi, darling. I was just chatting about you and the fella asked if you were musical. Listen, we’re going to come and do a few songs.”
“D’you not want me to tidy up first?” Jade says.
“No, not for this scruffy git.” He pauses. “Put some clothes on the mannequin in the go-cart. Give her a skirt. We want to preserve her dignity.” It’s classic Doherty. He doesn’t mind me seeing the pipes and syringes, but heaven forbid I should see a naked mannequin.
Last summer, Doherty was in the news again for polishing off a Margate cafe’s famed mega-breakfast, a fry-up that costs £17.50 and contains an estimated 4,000 calories. If you manage to finish it, you get it for free. Did he do it for publicity? “No, I was starving. I was skint, so I had a go at it. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t finished it. It’s the one thing that’s made me accepted in the community here.”
He seems to have lost weight since. I ask his waist size. “Thirty-two. And you?” I tell him I’m 32-34. “Get out of it.”
“Cheeky twat,” I say. A fist flies past my face. “Don’t call me a twat!” he says, then kisses me on the forehead where he almost landed the punch. “You didn’t even flinch!” he says approvingly. “Fat cunt.”
Doherty says that it’s time to meet the missus. “I promised her fame and fortune, and I want you to tell me if you think she’s got a good voice.”
We continue on our Margate odyssey, past the Albion Rooms and the sea where he says he swims every day, towards Doherty’s flat. He talks animatedly about death. One new song, Travelling Tinker, is dedicated to Alan Wass. “He was a helluva of a fella. He always wanted us to start a band together and it was going to be called the Travelling Tinkers.”
He talks and talks, in increasingly defensive terms. “All the years I sat injecting in front of him, and he’d say: ‘Let me do it, Pete.’ Not once. Not ever. Never put a needle near him.”
There has been so much death in your life, I say. He nods, and continues as if giving evidence under caution. “I wasn’t even in the fucking country when Alan died. I saw Robyn [Whitehead] the night before, and she died in Wolfman’s bed. Mark Blanco ... well, fuck knows what happened to him.”
He certainly can’t say he wasn’t there when Blanco died. CCTV footage showed him, his then-girlfriend, Kate Russell-Pavier, and his minder, Jonathan Jeannevol, AKA Johnny Headlock, running down the road, away from the flat, while Blanco’s body lay on the pavement. Three weeks after the incident, Jeannevol voluntarily confessed to murdering Blanco. Hours later, he retracted his statement, citing stress. In 2014, Jeannevol encountered Blanco’s mother at Stratford magistrate’s court – where he was appearing on an unrelated matter – and told her: “I didn’t kill your son.”
Doherty is working himself up about newspaper coverage of these deaths. “How dare they? You can’t go round accusing people of murder.”
Did they accuse him? “Well, yeah. The Limehouse police have reopened that murder inquiry three or four times purely because of the pressure from the family. People tried to say I bribed the police. Can you believe that? It was absolutely scandalous, man; fucking outrageous to say things like that. The first time I sat down in the interview room, the policeman said to me: ‘Are you sure you want to have this as your statement because it’s so out of sync with other version of events?’” In what way? “I said there were people there who had been dead and buried for years.” Who like? “Lord Lucan.”
Zeus craps on the pavement and Doherty kicks it into the undergrowth. It heralds a change in mood. He says he is getting on much better with his parents these days. For many years, Doherty’s father, a military major, refused to talk to him because he disapproved of his lifestyle. “He’s an incredible man. He’s gone from not talking to me because of drugs to going online and looking up drug slang. He said to me: ‘Have you got your Christmas stash or are you bugging out?’ I was like: what the fuck?!” Was his father joking? “No it was a way of putting his hand out to me, reconciliation.”
Four years ago, Doherty went into rehab in Thailand, and came out announcing he had beaten his heroin and crack addictions. How long was he clean for? “Honestly? For about 10 minutes after I got back to Margate.” Because you didn’t want to stay clean? “No, because my brain thinks I enjoy it.” And what does your heart tell you? “My heart wants to know what the fuck is going on. Why am I wasting my time and money and friendship and love and energy and creativity on some grotty dessert?”
Would you like to be clean? “Yes, a part of me would. Just so I can feel things. There are so many people in my life who deserve better. It really is a mental deficiency.” Would you be more productive if you were drug-free? “I’d be a force to be reckoned with! I’d have money and self-respect and clean hands.” His fingers are filthy.
I notice the name of his son Astile tattooed on his neck. Astile, whose mother is singer Lisa Moorish, is now 16. Doherty also has a seven-year-old daughter with the South African model Lindi Hingston. I ask him how close he is to his children. “I don’t want to talk about that,” he says. Earlier on, he had said how proud he was of Barât. I asked why. “Because he’s dedicated himself to his family. His two boys are his life.”
At home, we are greeted by Jade and Narco, an alaskan malamud. Jade is in her mid-20s, warm and friendly. She hands me a bottle of beer, Doherty gets his guitar and they sing Love’s Signed DC. “My soul belongs to the dealer / He keeps my mind as well / I play the part of the leecher / No one cares for me.”
He tells me that Jade didn’t have a clue who he was when they met. “She doesn’t even know who the Smiths are!” Does he like that she hadn’t heard of him? “It’s essential these days, so people can judge you on who you really are. They don’t have their mind made up.”
On the walls of the flat are scrawled messages, quotes, blood paintings, vintage posters and hand-drawn profiles of people’s faces. Sure enough, the mannequin is now respectably dressed. I admire a vintage poster of an Olivetti typewriter. “D’you want to buy it?” Doherty asks.
He draws the curtains and tells me to stand against the wall. “Don’t move!” he orders. I shut my eyes and prepare for the worst. He gets out a yellow marker and draws around my head. “See!” a delighted Doherty says. He announces that I am the latest exhibit in his portrait gallery.
I ask him why Narco is so-called. He looks sheepish. “When she was a puppy it was my dream for her to fetch my pipe for me.” His crack pipe? “Yes.” And did she? “Well, let’s just say we’re halfway there. She does go and find it. She just doesn’t bring it to me.”
While Doherty disappears briefly, I ask Jade what the best thing is about him. “His soul, his inner self.” And the worst? “Probably his disbelief in himself. I think if he could love himself as much as I do ...”
Doherty’s manager, Jai Stanley, arrives. Stanley was at school with Doherty near Coventry. He is down to earth, practical and doesn’t touch drugs. They are about to set off on a tour of Europe. What was Doherty like as a schoolboy? “Utterly brilliant. He got top grades in everything. He was very similar to today apart from the obvious one that we all wish was different.” Drugs? “Yes.”
Doherty has been packing his bags. He returns, and asks whether I want to buy the tunic hanging on the wall. Are you desperate for money? “In my own sweet way I’m quite a superficial person,” he says. “I feel a lot better when I’ve got a bit of cash on me.”
Doherty kisses Jade goodbye, and tells me he’ll give me a lift back to the hotel where his publicist has been waiting. He, Zeus and I squeeze into the front of the van.
I ask him whether he’s surprised to still be here. Well, he says, we were supposed to be back at the hotel a while ago. No, I say, are you surprised to still be here?
“Surprised isn’t the right word. I do feel a little blessed.” Were there times you thought you wouldn’t be, or didn’t want to be here? “There have been desperate times when I’ve thought, just give me peace, but very, very rarely.’’
It’s so interesting, I say: many people would assume that someone who has led such a self-destructive life has a death wish. He looks staggered. “I’ve never wanted to top myself. I’m blindingly optimistic. Ravingly optimistic.”
Genuinely? He looks at me with utter sincerity. “I gee people up around me. They always think I’m ill or dying because I’m out with the pipe. But I love it. I love life. I squeeze everything I can out of the day. I mourn every passing fucking dawn. I love that time when the light cracks over Margate, man, and I’m down on the beach with my dogs or my girl or my guitar. Glorious. Glorious. GLORIOUS!” He smiles blissfully, and he really does look in love with life.
Last year, Cannes did not cover itself in glory. Yes, there were some wonderful films (Zama, Happy as Lazzaro), but there was also a pronounced lack of buzz and awards glory – due largely to the Netflix spat meaning the likes of Roma went elsewhere.
This impasse is still present, so no Netflix films this year either. Already announced are Rocketman, the Elton John biopic, and opening-night zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die. Here are 20 key titles we expect to feature in Thursday’s official programme announcement.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
About as dead cert as it gets, provided Tarantino finishes it in time. QT has amassed a big name cast – DiCaprio, Pitt, Margot Robbie – for a 60s-set thriller set against the backdrop of the Manson murders, focusing on an actor and stuntman trying to reinvigorate their careers.
Pain and Glory
The new one from Spanish maestro Pedro Almodóvar is billed as the director’s answer to Fellini’s self-referential masterwork 8½. Longterm collaborator Antonio Banderas plays a sixtysomething film-maker looking back over his life; another longterm collaborator, Penelope Cruz, puts in an appearance as his mum, Jacinta. It’s already been released in Spain, to middling reviews, but that’s not likely to deter Cannes’ perennial auteur worship.
It looks like a swift return to Cannes for the winner of last year’s Palme d’Or, Hirokazu Kore-eda, with the path made even smoother with a French-language film starring Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche. They play a movie-star mother and scriptwriter daughter whose relationship disintegrates after the latter publishes a no-holds-barred memoir.
Against All Enemies
Since Clouds of Sils Maria, Kristen Stewart has been a Cannes fixture, so her biopic of Jean Seberg – herself a French cinema icon since A Bout de Souffle – is primed for a slot. Directed by Benedict Andrews, this focuses on Seberg’s harassment by the FBI.
Director James Gray has been a long-term favoured son of Cannes, and will be even more so since Lost City of Z made him a Hollywood player of sorts. This mid-budget sci-fi stars Brad Pitt as a soldier on a space mission to find his lost father, a renegade scientist. It’s due for general release during the festival, so could well feature in the first few days.
A Hidden Life
Terrence Malick still maintains a near-impenetrable veil over the status of his films, so there’s no way of knowing if the (as ever) long-gestating project will be done in time . A drama about the Austrian anti-Nazi conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter who was executed in 1943, the festival will bend over backwards if there’s a chance of it getting in.
Sorry We Missed You
Rumours of Ken Loach’s retirement have clearly been exaggerated. The two-time Palme winner could be back in Cannes with his latest, a gig-economy drama about a delivery driver (played by Kris Hitchen) trying to keep head above water. Loach’s regular partner Paul Laverty scripts.
Reviews of the Dardenne brothers’ last film, The Unknown Girl, were uncharacteristically middling, but as Cannes fixtures they are sure to be up for consideration. Their subject here is radicalisation: a Belgian teen plans to kill his teacher after succumbing to religious extremism.
Matthias and Maxime
Francophone Canadian director Xavier Dolan returns to his Montreal roots with what is described as an “homage to the family dramas of the 90s”, with Dolan featuring on screen alongside his Mommy star Anne Dorval.
Bong Joon-ho’s last film, Okja, was one of the triggers for Cannes’ Netflix row, but since the streaming giant is not involved with this one, there should be no barrier to the festival selecting it. Parasite is a creepy-looking thriller about a hard-up family who infiltrates another, richer one; Song Kang-ho (Snowpiercer, The Host) stars.
True History of the Kelly Gang
Justin Kurzel’s last film, Assassin’s Creed, was a blip in a thus far faultless career. His next, an adaptation of the Peter Carey novel, looks like a wise return to the Aussie true-crime scene he so brilliantly mined in debut Snowtown. George MacKay is Ned; Russell Crowe, Nicholas Hoult and The Babadook’s Essie Davies support.
Aquarius director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s new one stars Jonny Mars and Sonia Braga and tells of a documentarian travelling to the heart of Brazil. But the locals aren’t quite what they seem and may harbour dangerous secrets. Given that Udo Kier is also in the cast, horrific acts likely await.
Kelly Reichardt’s latest is the story of a cook for a gang of fur trappers in 1820s Oregon – niche for most; standard issue for the Meek’s Cutoff and Old Joy director. This one also involves a trip to China and back again, as our heroes team up with a refugee. No big stars are attached, but this still looks like essential and singular film-making.
Discreet and humane domestic dramatist Ira Sachs’s latest film is a family vacation saga set in Sintra, Portugal and starring Isabelle Huppert, alongside Brendan Gleeson, Marisa Tomei, Greg Kinnear and Jérémie Renier. Sachs is overdue a breakthrough; his first film shot outside the US might just be the one to do it.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Tomboy and Girlhood director Céline Sciamma looks all but certain to return to the Croisette with this intense, 18th-century romance between a painter and the woman she is commissioned to paint for a wedding portrait, starring longtime muse Adele Haenel. The inferno isn’t just metaphorical; IMDb’s scant cast list includes “Woman near fire”.
Dormant for five years, Jessica Hausner returns with a promisingly topical – and faintly Lanthimos-ish – sci-fi featuring Ben Whishaw, Emily Beecham, Lindsay Duncan and Kerry Fox. “A genetically engineered plant scatters its seeds and seems to cause uncanny changes on living creatures,” runs the blurb. “The afflicted appear strange, as if they were replaced – especially for those who are close to them.” Ooh-er.
Matt Damon returns to space for this work/life balance drama about a female astronaut (Eva Green) who learns her one-year mission is approaching faster than anticipated. Matt Dillon also features in the latest from young Cannes darling Alice Winocour.
Leos Carax’s first film since Kylie-featuring work of genius Holy Motors stars Adam Driver as a standup and Michelle Williams as his – dead – opera-singer wife. Their two-year-old has “surprising gifts” apparently, which we’re interpreting as quasi-supernatural powers, rather than a random selection from Poundsaver.
Clammy-handed anticipation surrounds the second feature from Hereditary director Ari Aster. This one has Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor heading off to join Will Poulter at a special Scandinavian Wicker Man-style festival that looks like a less relaxing holiday than anticipated.
Remember Benh Zeitlin? All the way back in 2012, Beasts of the Southern Wild catapulted him to the top of the film-makers to watch list, only for him to deliver … nothing. Belatedly, he’s back, with the Montserrat-set story of a young girl who is kidnapped and taken to a destructive ecosystem where mystical pollen breaks the relationship between ageing and time.
We’ve finally learned who made it out alive – and the line we’ve all been waiting for. But was the final instalment really as satisfying as the critics said?
• This article contains nothing but spoilers about Avengers: Endgame
It doesn’t matter if you love or loathe superhero films. The Marvelexperiment, with its enormous tentpoles of interlocking stories dominating the international release calendar, has altered cinema forever. Naysayers may consider it a stranglehold, but fans celebrate the dominance of this once low art form. No longer, they say, will we be embarrassed to read comic books on the bus!
This is, for better or worse, a significant change in our culture. To undo it, one would need six Infinity Stones and a pocket full of Pym particles to stop Kevin Feige becoming Marvel Studios’ president of production. But only a team as brave and noble as Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, the Avengers, could do it.
Twenty-two films. Eleven years. Three hours and one minute. Fifty per cent of all living creatures. There are a lot of big numbers tossed around with this one and we’ll be talking about it for a long time. For now though, let’s stick with five points.
Cap is worthy
In Avengers: Age of Ultron, the gang is hanging out at HQ and eyeing Thor’s hammer. Clint Barton, Tony Stark, Rhodey and Bruce Banner all try to lift Mjölnir and, of course, they can’t. Then Steve Rogers, Captain America, gives it a try (and it’s shot from below, so even his forearms look musclebound.) He can’t do it either, but it does budge a smidge. Enough so that, for a second, Thor looks worried.
“Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor” is inscribed on it. Well, only Thor should possess the power of Thor, right?
Mjölnir is destroyed by Hela in Thor: Ragnarok but thanks to Endgame’s use of time travel, pudgy, beer-swilling Thor is able to yank the hammer away from Asgard and bring it to the present.
In the battle against Thanos, we get perhaps the greatest fan moment in all of the films. With the chips way down, and Thanos about to slice Thor in two with the Asgardian King’s axe Stormbreaker, Mjölnir flies across the screen and into Captain America’s hands. “I knew it!” shouts Thor. And we did too.
In the comics, Steve Rogers has lifted Mjölnir now and again (see The Mighty Thor #390 from 1988 for the first time) so to finallysee it in the heat of a movie battle is especially gratifying.
Say the line, Steve!
But not as gratifying as what comes next. Fans will argue forever about which of these two moments are the most epic. There is no correct answer.
The Avengers are on the ropes. They’ve undone Thanos’ finger-click but the fight isn’t over. The still-bad Nebula from the past has snuck in to the present and brought the Mad Titan and his evil hordes to Avengers HQ. My God, Rocket Raccoon nearly drowns! Our noble heroes fight, but it looks like they’ll need a miracle to survive. And then, the portals open and
all our friends from Wakanda to Bleecker Street are there for the brawl. And finally, after a decade of waiting, Steve Rogers takes a deep breath and says “Avengers assemble!”
To non-fans this may seem like a silly point. “Avengers assemble!” has been the team’s battle cry since Avengers #10 in 1964. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, it lookslike Steve Rogers is about to say it at the very end, but the music blurts in and the screen cuts to black. (That was director Joss Whedon trolling us.) The UK title of the first Avengers film is even called Avengers Assemble. It may only be six syllables but they pack a punch.
Not ash dead, really dead
We knew not everyone would make it out of Avengers: Endgame alive. It’s sad to see Tony Stark go, but, in my opinion, not that sad to see Robert Downey Jr depart. Not that he isn’t great, but it’s time to move on, to make some room, and his snarky wisenheimer cool-guy act becomes a little less dignified as he ages. He also dies in the most noble way possible, saving every single living thing in the Universe. Can’t top that.
More upsetting and confusing is the loss of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. No one predicted this because Marvel has announced a Black Widow film. So now we’ll know a fate worst than death: another prequel.
Steve Rogers not only didn’t die, he lived his best life with his beloved Peggy Carter and let the natural order of things take over. But short of more time travel, we won’t be seeing Chris Evans again. This is less of a surprise, because Evans already said goodbye to the franchise on Twitter. However, we nerds still have our guards up from when Simon Pegg lied to us and said Benedict Cumberbatch is not playing Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness, so forgive us if we’re not so trusting.
It’s been five years
When Ant-Man re-emerges from the quantum realm thanks to a scurrying rat, he awakens to a world that’s been in mourning for five years. When he embraces his now-teen daughter who thought she’d lost him, it is quite a touching scene.
When the rest of the world is restored by the Avengers’ successful time-heist, Peter Parker reports that, to them, the gap felt quick. After Tony Stark’s death, a recording he made saluting the team’s anticipated success mentions the world rebuilding itself.
Of course, the question is, how many people came back from the click, went home to their spouses and said “uh, who is this four year old that looks like you and not me?” Avengers: Endgame includes a group therapy scene led by Captain America with common folk having difficulty moving on. But not everyone had that difficulty, I’m sure. There’s a lot left undiscussed.
A globalist’s perspective
Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang looks at Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers in his Captain America suit and, negating Tony Starks’ fashion criticism, salutes his hero and says “that’s America’s ass.” Later, Rogers fights a version of himself in the past (take that Back to the Future) and realises Lang is right. It isAmerica’s ass.
But they are both wrong. Chris Evans, don’t let your posterior be undersold. You have the world’s ass. And if any of you disagree you are not worthy to hold it.
Note perfect, I thought; an episode in stark hues. I shivered at the shadows in Cersei’s throne room – a brief glimpse of her misery at what she’s lost. Bran too is cold, seeing through all petty motivations and secrets like a medieval Professor X. The Night King is leaving those symbols for a reason. He wants something. What’s his motive: to freeze the world and fill it with the undead?
There’s more to it than that; perhaps Sam (with his few stolen books) will discover it. The tensions among the living will not be resolved except through death. This is a theme of the entire series: even when the danger is obvious, there will be those who have an eye to the future rather than putting all their energies into defeating the danger. It is those characters, I hope, who will realise their error as they die. Simon M Hunter, 50, teacher, China
‘Little dead Ned was seriously creepy’
It felt like a big crowd-pleasing piece of fan fiction. I don’t mean that sneeringly – it was an episode of reunions. I loved the Jon/Arya reunion and Arya’s loyalty to her sister. I liked Theon saving Yara meaning that a boring, ridiculous Euron/ Yara plot was avoided. I thought little dead Ned was seriously creepy. I liked how Sam’s anger informed the way he told all to Jon. The teenage girl in me loves Jon and Dany, inconvenient incest aside. I’d have rather had an unshowy but emotionally satisfying clandestine meet-up than the dragon race, that looked great but felt like HBO flashing the budget. It felt off after the end of last season and I worry they’re creating artificial conflict and writing it as ‘mad queen’ v ‘rightful king’ like they did with the Starks last year. Jane, solicitor, London
‘Tyrion has just become a bit of a paperweight’
Is Jon really the rightful king? When joining the Night’s Watch you give up all claim to land and titles so ... But then he did die and come back, which ended his watch. Does that reinstate his claim? I’d hate to be the lawyer that has to figure all that out. It’s all academic though, Jon doesn’t want to be king and I think it’ll all be solved by next episode. The big disappointment over the last season and this episode is that Tyrion has just become a bit of a paperweight. When even Sansa is just there like: “Wtf are you on about you fool,” you know you’ve got problems. Shame to see where his character has ended up. All in all an okay episode. Almost disappointing really considering there’s so few left and this one didn’t really do much new, but kinda just put everything where we knew it was going. Cropolite
‘Loved it but I was always going to’
Loved it, but then again I was always going to. The last moment was excellent, and I really enjoyed the sheer volume of awkwardness they managed to wring out of many of the reunions. The Night King’s patterns and symbols have been a part of the show since the very first scene. We saw them again at the Fist of the First Men with the horses’ heads, and were reminded of them last year at the dragonglass caves with Jon and Dany. It’s just how they roll. sarahfin
‘Jaime and Bran. Enough said’
It did not break as much ground as I expected. Did the long wait and the hype raise our expectations as big as the Wall? I think so. The opening scene was well set. However as it progressed it sometimes fell flat. Cersei was wonderfully cunning as usual. Daenerys seems to be having opposition from all sides. Poor Tyrion seemed to be at a loss for words while Sansa has certainly learned a lot. Arya and Gendry seemed to be forced into flirting. And the Night King did all of that? Seems to be a waste of time when you have a dragon and a huge army of the dead with you. Still the episode as a whole feels like a prelude to something bigger, better and horrifying. Oh. And the end. Jaime and Bran. Enough said. Abraham Eapen John, 27, doctor, India
‘Game of Thrones is at its best when characters are talking in rooms’
I loved it. As much as Game of Thrones has become about the spectacle, the budget and enormous battles, when it is at its best is when characters are talking in rooms. It’s the political positioning and standoffs that made me fall in love with the show in the first place. Well, this episode had plenty of talking (and other things, Cersei).
It was always going to be a difficult episode; the expectation and hype for this season, the necessity to pull off huge emotional moments that fans have been waiting for without simply giving them lip service – I think they surpassed these and more (that look between Bran and Jaime). All I can think is that final art installation by the Night King is a reminder that a lot of characters that we’ve invested time to care about are going to die in a very short space of time. Jonny, 30, teacher, Manchester
‘Bran was oh-so-untactful and hilarious’
It was an OK episode. I wasn’t expecting greatness, as a lot of it was always going to be all the inevitable reunions and getting all the characters where they needed to be. What if it wasn’t Cersei who ordered Bronn to kill the Brothers Lannister? What if it was Qyburn acting of his own volition, doing ‘what needed to be done’ as he suspected Cersei wouldn’t want Jaime dead? Can’t take credit for this as it was my partner’s suggestion, but to me it would make a lot of sense. And if Bronn succeeds in killing Jaime, and Cersei were to find out Qyburn was behind it ... buh-bye, Maester Frankenstein.
The dragon riding scene was fun, if a little silly, but I love seeing the dragons at any opportunity. I was kind of expecting them to see the army of the dead/Night King during their flight and was a bit surprised/disappointed they didn’t. Bran with his oh-so-tactful “BTW YOUR DRAGON IS A WIGHT NOW SOZ” was hilarious. Though I felt that moment didn’t do the reveal of undead Viserion justice – I guess they are saving that for when he turns up. And that little boy, undead and on fire and screaming. Seven hells. I will never sleep again. Tormund’s line cracked me up though: “I’ve always had blue eyes!” malevoisine
‘No one is going to have a happy ending’
Fantastic start to this series. Loved the Stark reunions and the rest – Arya/Gendry/The Hound, Sansa and Tyrion and that wonderful Jaime/Bran ending. You gotta love The North too though – I so want Drogon to slap them all with one swish of his tail. The Dead are on their way, Jon did what he had to do to give the Northerners a fighting chance and they’re all utterly ungrateful, throwing so much shade Jon and Danny’s way. They all needed to have seen that poor Umber boy! Sam’s scenes stood out for me – a great way to set up telling Jon the truth about his lineage and just how much of a difference a more benevolent King he is to Danny’s uncompromising Queen.
I like how the Greyjoy stories were set up and wrapped up too. Theon choosing to go to (and dying at?) Winterfell seemed inevitable. Looks like Yara will defeat Euron to set up a safe space [on the Iron Islands] after the Winterfell battle, maybe. Cersei sending Bronn to kill her brothers – as ever she’s got her priorities right! Oh yeah, she’s so very dead! No one is going to have a happy ending (maybe Sam and Gilly) but a few will have their redemption. Great to see Edd join up with Tormund (I’ve always had blue eyes) and Beric. Also – I love the dragons but where is Ghost? So much to delve into and only five episodes left! Can’t wait. Jennifer, 49, librarian assistant, Cambridge
‘A really weak episode’
A really weak episode all in all. Attempts at humour were forced and a lot of the dialogue early in the episode felt really awkward. Got better nearer to the end where there were juicier bits involving Jon’s parents, the scene with Dany and Sam, the White Walker screaming kid thing and then the Jaime/Bran face-off. A pretty bad episode with some interesting bits at the end to set up the main parts of this season. Luke, 20, student, Newcastle
‘The most gruesome and chilling scene of the show’
It was pretty much what I expected. A slow starter that gave us a bit of time to remember where everyone is and what they are up to, while also shining some light on past rivalries (the Hound and Arya, Bran and Jaime). I was weirdly tense throughout the whole episode. Overall I enjoyed it. I’m glad they went a more subtle route of telling us the Night King and his army are marching south – though the symbolic death of the Umber kid was up there with some of the most gruesome and chilling scenes of the show. Nods to religion will always creep me out. Jamie Sugrue, 24, student, Dublin, Ireland
‘The dragon ride felt very Aladdin’
I loved it. A lot of the criticisms levelled at season 7 were to do with the pacing being ramped up to 11. This felt a bit more steady and measured, while still managing to have four or five ‘big’ moments in it. I’m glad that Jon knows about his lineage this early in the season, which sets up the conflicts of interest nicely for the rest of the season. My only criticism would be that the dragon ride felt very Aladdin and corny. Hopefully now that he knows he’s banged his aunt this won’t be a regular occurrence (you never know with this show though). Special shoutout to Samwell Tarly (well, John Bradley) for being able to perfectly convey fury, grief, and respect all in one go. However with no major characters dying, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the next episode is due to dispense of a much-loved character or five. Also, Ned Umber. Ned Bloody Umber. Ben, 31, digital advertising freelancer, Manchester
The remains of indigenous people from all over the world have ended up in various British institutions. Why do their descendants have so much trouble getting them returned?
In November 2011, Ned David travelled the 8,500 miles (13,700km) from his home on Thursday Island, off the tip of Queensland, Australia, to the Natural History Museum in London. He was on a mission to collect the bones of his ancestors. The material included skulls, a jawbone and other fragments from the Torres Strait archipelago, collected by Europeans in the 19th century as scientific specimens and anthropological curios. The museum had agreed that the remains should be given back to their “originating community”, and it was finally time to take them home.
A private ceremony was held – David is reluctant to share the details with outsiders – and afterwards he and his fellow islanders went back to their hotel. But the mood wasn’t celebratory. “Mate,” he says, “it was sombre with a capital ‘S’. There was sort of this eerie feeling after all the hoo-ha and the media, and whatever. We sat around and no one spoke. I think it took a long time to realise the significance of what we had done.”
The handover had followed a consultation in which islanders were asked what they wanted to do about body parts that were sitting in collections on the other side of the world. Feelings ran high. “It’s probably one of those rare exercises we have done as a nation in which we were in total agreement with each other,” says David, who chairs the Gur A Baradharaw Kod, or Torres Strait Sea and Land council. “As one elder said: ‘How would you feel knowing that one of your family members is in some strange place and, more importantly, hasn’t been afforded the right burial?’ That has an impact on the psyche of a group.”
The islanders aren’t alone in their campaign to reclaim human remains from European museums. On 20 March this year, more than 150 years after they were cut from the corpse of the Ethiopian emperor Tewodros II by a British soldier, two locks of hair were returned by the National Army Museum in London after a request from Addis Ababa. A few days later, Norway’s King Harald V and Queen Sonja signed an agreement to repatriate thousands of artefacts, including a number of skulls, to the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island. And in April, German institutions will conduct their largest ever transfer of remains to Australia, involving 53 items from five sites in Munich, Stuttgart and Berlin. This follows a “joint declaration on the handling of colonial collections” by ministers from all 16 German states, which argued that human material “does not belong” behind glass.
These moves are dramatic, but in a sense, they represent the easier side of the restitution question. As the Greek president, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, reminded us recently – when he called the British Museum a “murky prison” holding the Parthenon marbles as “trophies” – art and artefacts have traditionally generated greater controversy. This week, the British secretary of state for culture, Jeremy Wright, ruled out any change in the law to allow national museums to return objects to their countries of origin.
In contrast, the moral case for giving back body parts, many taken without regard to the feelings of indigenous people who at the time were judged to be less than human, is harder to dispute. They are frequently in storage rather than on public display, and often of limited scientific interest. A 2,000-year-old piece of sculpture that pulls in the crowds is more difficult to give up.
Even so, says Sarah Morton, a lecturer in heritage at Bath Spa University, there has been a change in the way restitution is seen. “There’s more thinking about collections from the point of view of how things were acquired and the circumstances they were taken in,” she says. “People are addressing the colonial foundations of museums and challenging that.” She mentions the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which makes a point of its engagement with indigenous peoples. In 2018, it hosted the Museum Ethnographers Group annual conference, which had the theme of “decolonising the museum in practice”. For many institutions in the UK, Morton says: “It’s now about asking: how do we work with the communities these objects or remains came from? They may want them back, or they may be quite happy for them to stay in the museum and to work with the museum. But the ‘we’ve got them, they’re ours, we can do what we want’ position is starting to be untenable.”
That view is echoed by Janet Dugdale, executive director at National Museums Liverpool, which includes the city’s World Museum, home to 40,000 objects of ethnographic significance including 10,000 from Africa and 6,000 from Oceania. “Thirty years ago, museums would probably be saying: ‘They’re in our collection, we own them and it’s really important that they’re here in this country for people to research and understand them.’” There was also the anxiety – that has not entirely dissipated – about a domino effect. “The fear was: if you let one thing go, does that mean everything’s going to leave? And, of course, that doesn’t happen.” The process of deciding what to ask for, and gathering supporting evidence, is hugely labour-intensive for indigenous communities and even national governments, so a torrent of claims is unlikely. Calls for restitution are nevertheless part of a modern museum’s workload. “We absolutely acknowledge where our collections are from,” says Dugdale. “And if you do that, you have to be open to having some different conversations. But it’s not going to be the case that suddenly all museums are going to be denuded of everything. That’s just not realistic.”
As far as human remains are concerned, the shift in thinking may have come earlier to Britain than elsewhere in Europe. In 2000, the British and Australian prime ministers, Tony Blair and John Howard, issued a joint statement pledging to increase repatriation to Australian indigenous communities, the source of so much human material in UK museums. “In doing this,” it said, “the governments recognise the special connection that indigenous people have with ancestral remains, particularly where there are living descendants.”
But a piece of the jigsaw was missing. Under English law, national museums were banned from permanently giving up anything in their collections, except under very specific circumstances. Change came from an unexpected quarter: a scandal at Alder Hey children’s hospital in Liverpool, which had stored organs taken from dead children without their parents’ consent, prompted a legislative overhaul. In 2004, the Human Tissue Act was passed. It included a clause stating that national museums had the power to transfer human remains less than 1,000 years old out of their collections “if it appears to them to be appropriate to do so for any reason”. It was this act that allowed the Natural History Museum to return the Torres Strait Islander bones, and the World Museum to give a skull to representatives of the Ngarrindjeri people of South Australia in 2009.
Yet there are still hurdles to overcome. Even success stories don’t come entirely without friction. According to Ned David, a Natural History Museum staff member raised the possibility of joint custody over the Torres Strait remains. “They sent one of their guys out to talk to us … he asked a couple of questions around the idea of shared rights, and I said: ‘I can’t see how you would think that I would even entertain that – I mean … which human being on this planet would want to share one of their family members? This is not some kind of object or property.’” For its part, the museum states that “it was always made clear that the return of these remains was unconditional, and we are not aware of these discussions”.
In other cases, claims can fall foul of a museum’s own rules on restitution. In March 1819, a group of British furriers trekked up the frozen Exploits River in Newfoundland to find native Beothuk people whom they suspected of having stolen fish and other supplies. They came upon an encampment, surprising its inhabitants, who tried to flee. One of them, Demasduit, unable to run in the snow, was said to have turned and bared her breasts – to show her attackers she was a nursing mother. Her husband, Nonosabusut, was stabbed to death by the furriers with a bayonet while he tried to defend her. Demasduit survived and was taken to the city of St John’s, where she died of tuberculosis. She was buried next to her husband. Within a generation, the Beothuk had been wiped out.
At some point in the 1820s, the skulls of this tragic couple were disinterred and taken to Edinburgh, ending up in the National Museum of Scotland. Misel Joe, a modern-day Mi’kmaq chief whose lands are near those of the Beothuk, has been calling for Demasduit’s return since 2012, but came up against the museum’s human remains policy, which says the claim must be supported by a national government. In 2015, he visited the museum and was allowed to perform a purification ceremony over the skulls, which were not on public display. He told CBC at the time: “Maybe what I need to do is go and dig up [Robert] Burns … maybe that will open somebody’s eyes … I mean, what’s the difference in me going to dig up Burns and bringing him back to study in Newfoundland than them taking the remains of our people to study for all these years?”
When the Canadian government did get behind him in 2017, the request failed again because it proposed housing them in a provincial rather than a national museum. In January this year, an agreement was reached to relocate the remains to the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, 900 miles from Newfoundland. Joe says he hopes they can one day be moved closer to their former resting place.
The British Museum’s returns policy starts from a presumption “that the … collection should remain intact”. Since the passing of the Human Tissue Act, it has returned two cremation ash bundles to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, and nine human bone fragments to Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum. But it has refused to hand over seven preserved Māori tattooed heads, as well as the skulls of two named individuals from the Torres Strait island that had been decorated for use in divination (none of these items are on public display). Ned David was one of the signatories to the Torres Strait request, and is still furious. “Bloody bastards, mate, they are just bastards. They are the most … I can’t say anything good about them, man. They’re just, well, they’re the BM I guess, no one tells them what to do, eh? There’s not an ounce of humanity in that friggin’ group, I tell you.
“I’ve sort of taken a break from thinking about this stuff because it really got me down. It knocked me for six. I think basically they said that we had lost connection with those remains. They’re bloody thieves, they stole it, they nicked it. There’s no way in the world they have any right to hold on to those remains.” He sighs and says: “I just went from zero to 100 then, sorry.”
The museum’s minutes show that, rather than any concern over a “lost connection” to the skulls, the problem was instead that there was no evidence they had been intended for burial or “mortuary disposal”. Instead, the board believed they were “traded as objects of power by Torres Straits Islanders, and served in their negotiations with Europeans”. In other words, they were exchanged fairly and squarely, not robbed from a grave or taken from unsuspecting relatives.
Jonathan Mazower, a campaigner with Survival International, which has intervened on behalf of indigenous people to halt the auction of objects of spiritual significance, isn’t convinced. “I think for these items that were collected during the colonial era, you can’t imagine that people were in a genuine position to give their free consent in a way we would think adequately met the definition of the term.”
What would a humane policy look like to him? “Museums should commit themselves to the return of objects if the people who own them want them back. And where they are human remains, they should treat them as those of people who have died recently and simply honour the wishes of their descendants. It’s impossible to think that if the boot were on the other foot, and they were remains of western people who were held in foreign museums, that we’d be happy to see them either on display or just in a box or cupboard.”
For David, 53, there is no question of giving up, although has begun to wonder whether he will live to see the end of a process he helped start. “I’ve just got to get some of my energy back to take the fight on again,” he says. “It’s not over by a long shot.”
It felt like a greatest hits episode, with brothel scenes, incest and reunions galore ... but with only five episodes left, where was the urgency?
Warning: this article contains spoilers for episode one, season eight of Game of Thrones
Viewers coming to the very last season of Game of Thrones expecting a feast of action will have found instead a selection of morsels, though all were tasty, and filling, in their own way. With only six episodes in the entire run, this first hour was relatively sedate, as much as Game of Thrones ever can be, and there was not as much urgency as might have been expected. No major characters met a gruesome end and the battle between the living and the dead remains a pressing but background concern.
Perhaps they spent all the budget on Jon Snow’s inevitable and lengthy dragon ride, which surely sets up an imminent theme park spin-off. Jon and Daenerys’s romantic return was touching, if we suspend the knowledge that they are aunt and nephew for a moment – and we were only allowed to do so for a moment – and we haven’t seen Jon crack one of his painfully reluctant smiles in a long time, though the Hollywood flourish of the waterfall smooch was truly corny. But, if there was one consistent theme of the episode, then it was hope punctured by bleak reality, or more accurately, by Winterfell’s number one buzzkill, Bran, on hand to brood, and ruin everyone’s fun.
The hints were there in Sansa’s ice-cold reception to her potential new sister-in-law (or cousin-in-law, perhaps?), which has already spawned an epidemic of memes, but Bran was truly the one chosen to make everything seem as terrible as it really is. As Jon returns to Winterfell, with Dany beside him, Bran pipes up that there is no time for warm welcomes. When Samwell is pleased to be in the same place as Jon again – a reunion slightly deflated by Dany letting him know that oops, she fried his family – Bran informs Sam that now might be a good time to let Jon know he’s in love with his own aunt, though that particular aspect of his medieval DNA test results didn’t seem to bother him as much as I thought it might. The message is that time is of the essence, and there is no time left for pleasantries.
Dragon rides and the occasional axe-or-arrow-in-the-eye aside, there was a distinct lack of bombastic action, but nevertheless, this felt like a greatest hits kind of episode, a best-of that played to the crowd. Pity the poor actors who had been used to filming in sunnier climes, but the Winterfell reunions were lovely, particularly for Arya. Her scene with Jon was perfect, with its gallows humour about how often she has used Needle (“Once or twice”); she calmly held her own against The Hound; and her flirting with Gendry was sweet, which is not a word Arya often invites, what with her all-consuming bloodthirsty insistence on murderous revenge. There was space, even, for sexposition to make a comeback, which may make it a greatest tits episode. It’s been a while since Game of Thrones fell back on its old habit of having things explained in brothels by naked women, but it’s the last season, so, to borrow from Justin Timberlake, they’re bring sex scenes back.
In the heavy doom of the impending apocalypse, there was a surprising amount of humour. I appreciated that the very first lines were Tyrion making a gag about Lord Varys’ (lack of) balls, and Cersei’s campy descent into absolute humanity-crushing villain, welcoming the collapse of The Wall and griping about her lack of elephants, was perhaps more of a hoot than intended, though I suspect all are aware of the over-the-top power she commands in just one sip of wine.
Any moments of levity, however, were convincingly wiped away with the Night King’s latest evil flourish, his spectacularly horrific octo-antics, which seem to identify him as a serial killer from a Scandi-noir detective drama from about 10 years ago. I’ll never look at a Catherine wheel in the same way again. But of course, it had to end as Game of Thrones began, with Jaime and Bran, supposedly now on the same side, sharing a look. Bran, surely, has plenty more buzzes to kill yet.
In the late 1970s, a small group of art students at Leeds University created a pivotal hotbed of radical post-punk. Gang of Four’s jerky-punky-funky music would influence bands as diverse as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Massive Attack. Together with the jaggedly romantic Mekons and the slightly lesser-known Delta 5 (and, initially, the early Scritti Politti, who formed at the polytechnic), they established a blueprint of fiery, political, community and DIY-based creativity that reverberates through the city’s music scene to this day.
“Some nights I’d watch Gang of Four and think, ‘I’m watching the best band in the world’,” original Mekons guitarist Kevin Lycett remembers over a green tea in the Fenton, the pub where the scene once congregated. “‘And they’re my mates. How on earth is this happening among people I get pissed with?’”
Leeds already had a countercultural underground in the 70s, including housing co-ops, the alternative Leeds Other Paper and radical tutors in both colleges’ art departments, one of whom (the University of Leeds professor Tim Clark) had been in the European revolutionary alliance the Situationist International.
Punk provided the trigger to put this into music. After Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill obtained a grant subsidy to visit New York art galleries, he rocked up at CBGB as the New York music scene was erupting. “I was surprised to find myself with Joey Ramone to my left and John Cale to my right, and chatting with them,” he remembers. “I saw the Jam play there and spoke with Paul Weller. Everyone seemed dead normal. When I came back, I thought: ‘We’ve got to start a band.’”
Meanwhile, most of the future Mekons saw the Sex Pistols at LeedsPolytechnic. “They were fucking awful,” says Lycett with a chuckle, “but they had an amazing attitude. I came away thinking: ‘We can do this.’ I’d never felt that way about anything before.”
DIY came through necessity. Gang of Four (GO4) initially rehearsed in the university’s film society, which adjoined the Fenton. When they nipped to the pub, their friends picked up their instruments and called themselves Mekons. GO4 were soon fed up of paying pubs for use of their PA, so they built their own. Gill remembers turning an old wardrobe into bass cabinets with vocalist Jon King, “and all of us having a whip round to buy an ex-RAF amplifier”.
“It was an amazing time for anyone to step up and express themselves,” remembers Ros Allen, who was initially in the Mekons and then formed Delta 5. “Fanzines, posters, indie labels or bands. You didn’t need to be a trained musician to make music – there was suspicion and derision if you were.”
For Mekons guitarist Jon Langford, London punk was “business-oriented, major-label and about being outrageous. But in the north we didn’t feel a part of that. There was a licence to do what we wanted.” The goal was something more communal than the capital’s elites. “At early gigs we would literally give our instruments to the audience,” Lycett says. “We learned very quickly that this was a bad idea.”
The environment fed the music. Gill borrowed a title from a feminist pamphlet he picked up locally for the GO4 song Why Theory? (which asked: “We all have opinions. Where do they come from?”) and the quartet distilled Marxist critique into jagged, three-minute pop songs. Mekons songs – like those of Manchester’s Buzzcocks – rejected the traditional pop male persona for something less masculine, more vulnerable. Allen reveals how Delta 5’s cocktail of punk and funk was fuelled by “drinking ourselves silly at the Heaven and Hell nightclub, where Sylvester’s Mighty Real was a favourite floor-filler”.
The Leeds scene rejected the male-dominated ethos of the era, with the bands featuring a mix of men and women in their line-ups. Lycett believes this wasn’t a conscious decision but a natural evolution of the scene. “Women were as active as men, and nobody blinked an eye,” he says. “The Mekons always had women in the group, but there were still massive obstacles if you were a woman active in music in those days.”
“There was an acceptance of difference,” says Allen. “I’d come from an all-girls high school where we were encouraged to be high achievers, and my parents gave me the same encouragement, so I never felt unequal because of my gender and was drawn to similar, independent women. Bethan [Peters, bass] had a Honda 500 and Emma, another friend of ours, had a motorbike, too. I never liked being told how I was supposed to feel or behave.”
A pivotal local promoter, John Keenan (who is still promoting today), gave all the bands their chance, and a support slot with the Rezillos led to the Mekons being spotted by the new Edinburgh indie label Fast Product. The band’s debut single was inspired by another late-night Leeds haunt, the long-demolished Terry’s All-Time, a 24-hour cafe on Woodhouse Street. When the police raided, the band hid in the loos, so they sang Never Been in a Riot (“I was always in the toilet”) in riposte to the Clash’s White Riot, which they saw as macho posturing.
“Rough Trade refused to stock it because we were ‘too primitive’,” Langford says. “Too primitive for punk! But then John Peel played it and NME made it single of the week.” Fast Product also released GO4’s Damaged Goods EP. Both bands later joined major labels, but when GO4 became the first unsigned band on the cover of NME, they sent tremors through the record industry and the Fenton post-punk scene was catapulted to national attention.
Today, with its wood and tiles and punk soundtrack, the pub-hub close to campus is almost as it was; Gill observes that the jukebox has moved rooms. “Pre-mobile phones, you’d have to go where you knew people would be,” Mekons singer Tom Greenhalgh explains, remembering “intense political debates and insane hedonism”, and legendary scene characters such as Barry the Badge. “A huge gay guy covered in badges from Armley Socialist Worker’s party. He was rock-hard, but then he could just grab you, snog you and stick his tongue down your throat.”
Today’s city centre, with its swish shopping centres and homogenous chains, is unrecognisable. When Gill looks at old GO4 photos he thinks “it looks like we’ve been parachuted into the Somme”. The Yorkshire Ripper’s murderous activities in the late 70s imposed a virtual curfew for young women. “He cracked a friend of ours in the jaw with a hammer outside the Skyrack, but she got up running,” remembers Langford. “She survived, thank God.” What Langford describes as a “weird solidarity where people – especially women – would walk home in groups” culminated in the Reclaim the Night marches, which the Mekons sang about.
National Front skinheads populated several city-centre pubs, including the Scarborough Taps, today a salubrious gastropub. Allen witnessed goose-stepping in the F Club punk venue and was called a “communist witch” outside. Jon King marched against the NF and was struck by a police truncheon. Greenhalgh was assaulted with a fire extinguisher and the Mekons were sieg-heiled when they were supporting punk band 999.
One night the Fenton was attacked. “I think they thought: ‘There’s a load of weirdos and anarchists there and we’re going to hurt them’,” says Lycett. “Somebody picked up a beer glass and threw it across the room and it hit Dick, a political activist. Everyone got up and we chased them down the street. After a short running battle, it was over, but it was shocking, because this was the only place we had.”
The community felt emboldened by the emergence of the city’s Rock Against Racism group, which put gigs on in the now-demolished Roots club in Chapeltown, uniting black and white, punk and reggae. “RAR was enormously important in Leeds,” Gill says, “both as a platform for bands and a banner people could rally round.”
For Greenhalgh, the 1981 Carnival Against the Nazis in Potternewton Park, headlined by the Specials when Ghost Town was at No 1, was “a pivotal moment, a cultural mix of the West Indian community, Asians, left and locals”. Langford remembers seeing “kids who had been into nasty Nazi shit, thinking ‘this is great’ and having a great time. Everyone really did rock against racism.”
By then, the Ripper had been caught and the scene was changing, with newer bands such as the proto-goth Sisters of Mercy or the vibrant Girls At Our Best!, whose guitarist-turned Leeds College of Music tutor Jez Pritchard recalls “wanting to be more colourful, less serious than Gang of Four. They inspired us, but in the opposite direction”. Manchester-born Gill left his adopted city in 1982. “I feel lucky to have been there,” he says. “When I moved to London, there suddenly wasn’t a Fenton. I was suddenly adrift in this mega metropolis.”
Today, the guitarist is the only original member in Gang of Four and Lycett is the only (ex-)Mekon left in Leeds. But both bands have new albums – Happy Now and Deserted respectively – and new acts carry their DNA.
“The DIY ethos is very obvious here,” says Sarah Statham, who arrived from Manchester, played guitar in Esper Scout, runs the label/gigs community Bomb the Twist and currently plays in Fig by Four and Crake. “You can hire the Fenton or wherever for £40 and do a poster. In Manchester, competitive promoters killed the vibe.” Her bandmate Rebecca Jane says that when Statham sent her a Delta 5 track she thought: “This band’s got two bassists and they’re both women. How did I not know who they are?”
“Leeds is a small city but big enough to have lots of cultural connections, so the underground functions really well,” says Alice Nutter, the former Chumbawamba singer-turned-scriptwriter who herself was “hugely influenced” by the Mekons and GO4. Today, the non-profit Brudenell Social Club serves the city’s leftfield and for Nutter, venues such as the collectively run Chunk and worker’s co-op Wharf Chambers “feel really countercultural and open to politics”. The latter is on Wharf Street, where the GO4 and Mekons shared rehearsal space in 1979.
“Someone attacked us there one night with a dustbin,” says Langford. “I much prefer playing there now.”