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Belfast

21/02/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film, Belfast, opens in supremely confident style.

We are presented with sleek, full-colour images of the city as it is now – the kind of scenes that might grace a corporate promotional video. And then the camera cranes up over a wall and, suddenly, we’re back in the summer of ’69, viewing events in starkly contrasting monochrome, as children run and play happily in the streets of humble terraced houses.

Amongst them is Buddy (Jude Hill), eight years old, wielding a wooden sword and a dustbin-lid shield. But the serenity of the scene is rudely disrupted by the arrival of a gang of masked men brandishing blazing torches and Molotov cocktails, extremist Protestants come to oust the Catholics who have dared to dwell on these streets. Buddy and his family are Protestant too and have happily lived alongside their Catholic neighbours for years, but now find themselves swept up in the ensuing violence.

It’s a powerful moment as we witness Buddy’s terror, the unexpected suddenness of this sea change literally freezing him in his tracks.

Then a gentler story begins to unfold, and we witness key events through Buddy’s naïve gaze. We are introduced to his Ma (Caitriona Balfe), to the father he idolises (Jamie Dornan), to his grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hands), and to the various neighbours and acquaintances who live in his familiar neighbourhood, a world he cherishes, suddenly transformed into something ugly and unpredictable.

Buddy’s father, a joiner by trade, works away from home in England, struggling to pay off his crushing tax debts. He’s keen to leave the city of his birth, to forge a new life for the family in England – but his wife is reluctant to leave and Buddy is obsessed with staying close to the girl at school he’s fallen in love with and hopes to marry one day.

Besides, how could he even think of leaving his beloved grandparents behind?

Branagh writes and directs here and handles both crafts with consummate skill, walking with ease the perilous tightrope between affection and sentimentality. Happily, he rarely puts a foot wrong. Buddy’s formative experiences include a visit to the theatre to see A Christmas Carol (with a lovely final performance from John Sessions – to whom the film is dedicated) and regular forays to the cinema, where we see extracts from Westerns High Noon and The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance. (If a cinema showing of One Million Years BC doesn’t exactly tie-in with the year in which the film is set, well no matter. Buddy is an unreliable narrator and his memories are built on uncertain foundations.)

I love Belfast. It’s a classy production, from the vintage Van Morrison soundtrack to the brilliant performances from the supporting cast. Young Jude Hill is simply perfect as Buddy, offering up a range of emotions that challenge the abilities of veteran performers Dench and Hinds. Watch out for some delicious Easter eggs that point to Branagh’s destiny. This film is all about formative experiences, the kind that shape a young boy’s future forever.

Belfast is an absolute joy, ready to be sampled at cinemas across the UK.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Theatre Bouquets 2021

2021 was a disappointing year for theatre lovers. The venues were dark for many months and, when they finally opened again, there was an understandable tendency to go with surefire hits that had already established their ability to put bums on seats. In August, the Edinburgh Fringe – usually packed with new material – was a shadow of its former self. But, against all the odds, some playmakers still managed to make their mark, and we were able to enjoy some exciting material. Here are the standouts:

Shook – theSpaceUK

‘… a stunning piece all round: the writing, direction and performances combine to create something really powerful and yet humbling. A fascinating examination of masculinity and fatherhood.’

Screen 9 The Pleasance

‘… While this is nobody’s idea of a fun night out at The Fringe, it’s nonetheless an enervating and thought-provoking theatrical experience, not to be missed.’

The Enemy – King’s Theatre

‘… combines Ibsen’s timeless appeal with something bold and fresh. It’s almost guaranteed to get bums on seats, while simultaneously allowing playmakers a chance to experiment. Good call!’

Life is a DreamThe Lyceum

‘… what comes across so powerfully here is the magical feel of the production and the excitement of seeing something new, fresh and innovative.’

Sleeping Beauty – King’s Theatre

‘…as warm and comforting as a comfy cardy or a mug of hot chocolate – exactly what’s needed on a cold winter’s night.’

Film Bouquets 2021

It’s that time again – time to look back and select our favourite films of the past year. It’s been more difficult than usual, because of course, many of the films we saw in the early months of 2021 had to be watched on small screens at home. But we gave it our best shot. It’s probably also worth pointing out that the movies we’ve chosen are not necessarily based on their original scores, but on how much they’ve stayed with us since first viewing them.

Promising Young Woman

‘Emerald Fennel’s debut film is fresh, funny, terrifying and compelling…. and Mulligan is perfect for the central role: one minute she’s all sweet vulnerability, the next a steely avenging angel.’

Minari

‘… gentle, lyrical and beautifully understated, yet in those lovingly crafted twists and turns lies a powerful message about the importance of family and the folly of blind ambition.’

Nomadland

‘Chloe Zhao’s extraordinary film draws a line that can be traced back to the pioneers of the Old West – or perhaps more accurately to the migrant workers of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men…’

The Father

‘… Hopkins takes his character through a range of moods and manifestations – from grandstanding showoff to sly insinuator – before delivering a final, desperate scene that is absolutely devastating.’

Another Round

‘This is a film that highlights the powerful allure of alcohol, a film that makes you understand why so many of us can’t help but dance to its tune.’

Limbo

‘Ben Sharrock has created a mesmerising, slow burn of a story, the bleakness undercut by moments of humour and genuine poignancy. The result is curiously heartwarming.’

Last Night in Soho

‘Edgar Wright swoops and soars and segues through the various unearthly set pieces with consummate skill and, while terrible things happen to Ellie, she is never allowed to be ‘the victim.’

Dune

‘After the long shutdown of the pandemic, what we need next is an epic – a big sprawling sci-fi adventure with stunning alien landscapes and awe-inducing special effects…’

The Last Duel

‘Both Damon and Driver excel as men driven by their own overbearing privilege, while Comer dazzles in every frame, clearly on the verge of becoming a major star of the big screen.’

Petite Maman

‘… relates its intimate story over just seventy-two minutes and yet, in its own muted way, it’s a magical experience, with a central premise that stays with me long after the credits have rolled.’

Dune

21/10/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

After the long shutdown of the pandemic and the recent Bond-led ‘resurrection’ of cinema, what we need next is an epic – one of those big, sprawling sci-fi adventures replete with stunning alien landscapes and awe-inducing special effects. So Dune really couldn’t come at a better time, but director Denis Villeneuve must be all too aware of the potential pitfalls. A previous attempt to put Frank Herbert’s source novel onto film – in 1984 – almost stopped David Lynch’s burgeoning career dead in its tracks. And while Lynch attempted to pack the entire contents of the book into one film, Villeneuve adds the extra gamble of shooting just the first half of the story, trusting to providence that the resulting movie will be successful enough to bring him sufficient revenue to make the second part.

The jury is still out on that but initial worldwide box office figures look promising.

It’s the year 10,191 and Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) has recently been assigned – by the Emperor of the Universe, no less – to become the fief ruler of the desert planet of Arrakis (Or Dune, as it’s sometimes known). He and the rest of House Atreides will be taking over from its previous overlords, House Harkonnen, led by the corrupt Baron Vladimir (a hideously bloated Stellan Skarsgård). Arakis is the source of spice, a mysterious substance that pretty much runs the entire solar system, so of course the Harkonnens are far from pleased about being ousted from their exalted position.

Meanwhile, Leto’s son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), has been having recurring dreams about Arakis, or – more specifically – about a young woman who lives there, Chani (Zendaya). She is one of the indigenous Fremen, who have always endured a precarious existence under the yoke of their despotic rulers. Paul begins to think that he’s destined for something important and, when he learns his friend, Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), is setting off on a preliminary reconnaissance of the planet, Paul begs to be allowed to accompany him. But he’s told he must wait until Leto and the others can go with him.

So it is not until he and the rest of House Atreides set foot on the sun-blasted sands of Arakis that they discover they are venturing into a carefully laid trap….

James Herbert’s novel has an almost messianic following and I imagine most of its readers will be pleased with what’s on offer here. Villeneuve’s direction, combined with the almost hallucinatory qualities of Greig Fraser’s cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s eerie score, makes for a memorable experience. The casting is impeccable, with Rebecca Ferguson excellent as Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica, and Josh Brolin a perfect choice as the dour warrior, Gurney Halleck. And then, of course, there are those infamous sandworms, one of the elements that really didn’t work in Lynch’s movie, but they certainly generate lots of tension here…

Villeneuve keeps everything bubbling along at a sedate pace, taking enough time to set out his stall. The world-building is beautifully done and the theme of colonialism convincingly explored. And if Paul Atreides is just another in a long list of Christ figures, a popular conceit in science fiction, well it hardly matters. Dune carries us along on a tidal wave of sensory overload until we dimly register that the first instalment is over and we’ll have to wait another year to see how things turn out for Paul.

Quibbles? Well, yes, and it’s one that’s becoming increasingly common. Dune has a 12A certificate, which means that some of the more violent elements of the tale have been downplayed. While I understand there’s a wish to maximise the potential audience for the film, this was never going to be another Star Wars (Dune comes from a much more po-faced universe than Obi Wan and his merry gang). So I think a 15 would be a much better fit. But I absolutely understand why it is what it is.

That said, I enjoy the film enormously and I’m sure I won’t be the only one eager for a second helping, which… all being well… will be coming to a universe near you in the not-too-distant future.

4. 6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Plough at Lupton

19/09/21

Cow Brow, Carnforth

We’ve been in Manchester for a joyful occasion – my daughter’s wedding, thanks for asking – and we’re all too aware that, after our enthusiastic celebrations of the previous night, we’ll be somewhat delicate and in poor shape for the long drive back to Edinburgh. So it seems eminently sensible to break up the journey with a relaxing stopover somewhere in the Lake District. We put out an enquiry on the Elis James and John Robins Podcast Devotee Facebook group and The Plough, just an hour’s drive out of Media City, is heartily recommended to us.

Which is why, the following morning, we find ourselves heading off the M6 in search of the place.

It’s ridiculously easy to find and turns out to be a charmingly rustic establishment, nestled invitingly amidst the greenery. Our suite – The Torsin – turns out to be positively palatial with a bathroom big enough to house the entire room where we’ve spent the previous night (The Holiday Inn, Salford Quays, whose idea of luxury is a couple of sachets of Nescafe and an ironing board). At The Plough, there’s a proper espresso machine, and the massive bathroom contains a shower, a freestanding bath and a pair of wash basins. There are cotton bathrobes, comfortable sofas and a level of design that both pleases the eye and offers supreme comfort. (Maybe I’m not mad about the dining table mounted on a bronze horse’s head, but it really is my only niggle.) What’s more, here, a fabulous breakfast is included in the price, whereas, at the Holiday Inn, mediocrity is an extra eleven pounds a head. There are even some delightful country walks beginning just a few steps from The Plough’s front door. I’m already regretting that we didn’t book in for longer.

Ah, but what of the food?

There’s many a charming location that’s let down by the standards of its cuisine – but not so here. After a couple of bracing aperitifs in the beer garden, we wander into the dining room and order our evening meals. We both go for fishy starters. There’s a splendid prawn salad served on crunchy toasted sourdough and a crab, avocado and tomato creation that’s zesty and mouthwatering. It’s a promising start.

It’s a Sunday, so we’re in the mood for a roast dinner and we both opt for the lamb. I have a few misgivings about missing out on the huge Yorkshire puddings I spot on somebody else’s table, but it turns out that they aren’t reserved just for the beefeaters in the room. The lamb is suitably succulent, the selection of vegetables nicely al dente and there’s even an accompanying bowl of cauliflower cheese. The portions, though generous, are just enough to allow me to finish everything on the plate.

We take a wee break and share a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and then, purely because we feel no place can be properly judged unless a pudding is sampled, we eventually order a sharing fondue, with doughnuts, a selection of fruits, some marshmallows and a delectable chocolate dipping sauce. We make short work of it and it provides a satisfying ending to an enjoyable meal.

So, those in need of a luxurious break in the Lake District, should look no further than The Plough. I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Edfest Bouquets 2021

Once again, it’s time to award our virtual black bouquets to the best performances we saw at this year’s Edinburgh Festival. But of course, it has been a year unlike any other. We were relieved and delighted to see the return of the Fringe, but nobody could ever claim that it was fully back. This was a shadow of its former self.

Still, that said, having fewer shows to choose from did mean that the smaller productions attracted bigger audiences than they might usually hope for – and there was something wonderful about seeing a modest student show pulling in sell-out crowds.

And we did see some brilliant stuff.

So, without further ado, we present our choice of the best shows we saw at Edfest 2021.

THEATRE

Screen 9

Piccolo Theatre’s powerful and compelling slice of verbatim drama was based on the testimonies of four survivors of the 2012 The Dark Knight Rises cinema shooting. Stark and immersive, it was ‘an enervating and thought-provoking theatrical experience, not to be missed.’

Shook

Twisted Corner’s production of Samuel Bailey’s affecting play was handled with aplomb by director, Rebecca Morgan and featured memorable performances as three young offenders attempted to get to grips with parenting classes. ‘Powerful and yet humbling – a fascinating examination of masculinity and fatherhood.’

Wish List

Katherine Soper’s play detailed the travails of a young woman, trying to care for her housebound older brother whilst also attempting to earn a wage by packing goods in an Amazon warehouse. This engaging four-hander, performed by actors from Edinburgh Napier University, showed ‘the extraordinary resilience of everyday people.’

Myra’s Story

Fionna Hewitt-Twamley’s knockout performance in Brian Foster’s engaging monologue made this one of the festival’s biggest hits, playing to sellout audiences. It was wonderful too to see that it had partnered with two Edinburgh homelessness charities. Twamley delivered her heartbreaking tale ‘with wit and aplomb.’

COMEDY

Skank

Clementine Bogg-Hargrove’s wry look at millennial life, based on her own experiences, was charming and off-beat. Though it was mostly very, VERY funny, it had some tender moments too. Cleverly directed by Hargroves and Zoey Barnes, this was an excellent example of ‘art doing what art is meant to do.’

Myra Dubois: Dead Funny

No Fringe is complete without a decent drag act and Myra Dubois was exactly what was required. Providing the oration for her own funeral (why not?), the Yorkshire Diva interacted (or more accurately, picked on) people who sat too near the stage and the result was ‘silly and audacious, eliciting helpless laughter.’

The Importance of Being… Earnest?

Director Simon Paris offered us a radical interpretation of the classic Oscar Wilde play, where certain members of the cast (including Ernest) were missing and members of the audience cajoled into taking their place. ‘Roistering, good-natured stuff, fast, frenetic and farcical. A truly interactive experience.’

SPECIAL MENTIONS

On Your Bike

This sprightly musical from Cambridge University’s Musical Theatre Society, written by Joe Venable and Ben James, was all about food delivery riders for… ahem… Eatseroo. All the right ingredients were in evidence. ‘Fabulous voices, upbeat zesty songs, humour and tenderness.’

Cameron Cook: It All

There’s always room on the Fringe for a true eccentric, and Cameron Cook was a perfect example. While it’s hard to define, this was a mesmerising piece, as Cook sang, danced, mimed and performed poetry, whilst inhabiting what seemed like a huge cast of characters. At times it felt like ‘the services of an exorcist might be required.’

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield

Cruella

02/05/21

Cineworld

When Disney announced this release, my anticipation barely registered on the ‘need to see’ scale. I mean, ho hum, how good can an origin story for a two-dimensional Disney character be, anyway?

The answer is: very good indeed. It only takes ten minutes or so to convince me that this is, in fact, a brilliant notion – and indeed, Cruella is genuinely the most fun I’ve had in a cinema since the reopening of these hallowed portals (admittedly, it’s only been a few weeks). While it might not fully explain why a seemingly lovely woman would turn into a puppy-hating psychopath, it’s nonetheless an absolute delight from start to finish, featuring eye-popping haute couture, a superb ensemble cast and all backed up by a soundtrack of stone cold 60s classics from the Stones to the Zombies. What’s not to like?

Our story begins in the 1950s, with the birth of Estella Miller, a child with shockingly distinctive hair. It’s not long before she’s grown a bit and is making a name for herself at school – as a cocksure, arrogant rebel with total self-belief. She never fails to fuel the ire of her teachers and fellow pupils. Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) harbours a burning ambition. She longs to be a fashion designer just like her idol, the infamous Baroness (Emma Thompson). Estella also has a dark side – a character her Mother, Catherine (Emily Beecham), calls ‘Cruella,’ and who she insists must be kept hidden from the world. However, when her daughter is thrown out of yet another school, Catherine resolves to take her to London where she’ll have a chance of achieving the career she longs for. But the two of them must first make a brief stop en route…

Then, in a bizarre twist of fate – one that I really can’t give away – Estella is orphaned and she falls in with a couple of artful dodgers, who introduce her to a life of crime in the big city and who also provide her with some much-needed companionship. Before very long (the film seems to hurtle along at a breathless pace), it’s the swinging 60s. Estella has grown up to be Emma Stone and her friends Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) have somehow managed to wangle her at job at Liberty’s of London… okay, so she’s only cleaning toilets, but you have to start from the bottom, right?

And then her talents come to the attention of The Baroness herself and Estella’s life takes a massive step up. Now she is being called upon to create a whole series of stunning designs for the The Baroness’s fashion house, designs that her new employer is only too happy to take all the credit for.

But how long before the dark persona hidden inside this ambitious young woman comes clawing her way back to the surface, intent on grabbing the limelight for herself?

What ensues is a delicious war between Cruella and The Baroness. Stone is effortlessly cool both as Cruella and as her slightly more subdued other half, handling an upper crust English accent with aplomb and looking like she’s setting the screen ablaze with the merest smirk. Thompson is wonderfully evil, making Meryl Streep’s turn in the inferior The Devil Wears Prada (a film that Cruella shares some DNA with) look positively cuddly by comparison. Thompson is also very funny in the role.

As the decade hurtles towards the 70s, so the fashions become ever more trashy (bin lorry chic anyone?) and the cinematic jukebox offers us the likes of The Clash and ELO. Seriously, you’ll be dancing in your seat. All we need is a big, brash conclusion and, happily, director Craig Gillespie dutifully gives us one, pulling all the final strands together in great style.

Oh, and don’t get up too soon. There’s a gentle post-credits coda that features a sly nod to Disney’s 1961 original.

I really had the lowest possible expectations for Cruella, but I’m happy to admit that I was wrong.

This film is a blast.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Nomadland

01/05/21

Disney+

In more usual circumstances, we’d have viewed all the Oscar contenders well before the night of the announcement. In these chastened times, our earliest opportunity to watch 2021’s ‘Best Film’ winner is to catch it on Disney+, the night after its release onto the mighty mouse’s streaming service. As ever we find ourselves longing for a bigger screen, but Nomadland is the kind of film that transcends such considerations. It’s an absolute joy, and in my opinion, fully worthy of its win.

It’s winter 2011 and Fern (Frances McDormand) loses her job after the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada, shuts down, due to the recession. Sixty-one years of age and recently widowed, Fern can’t afford to pay rent on a property, so she seizes upon the only option left to her. She packs up a few belongings into her little van and hits the road, looking for whatever temporary work she can get hold of along the way. She first finds a job at an Amazon fulfilment centre through the Christmas break, packing gifts for delivery, where she makes friends with fellow-worker, Linda (Linda May).

Linda tells her about a desert rendezvous in Arizona, run by a man called Bob Wells (like most of the supporting actors in this film, Bob plays himself). Longing for sunnier climes, Fern makes her way South when the Amazon work dries up and learns that are many others in her situation – elderly people who, through no fault of their own, have been cast adrift and abandoned by society. Now they are obliged to work like University students on a break, taking whatever menial work they can find – packing gifts, farming sugar beet, waiting-on in burger bars and cafes – and doing it without complaint.

Fern drifts calmly through the process, taking it all in her stride – and as she travels, the beauties of the ever-changing American landscape are revealed in a painterly style that wouldn’t look out of place in a Terrence Malick movie. Fern is a beguiling character, plucky, indomitable and self-contained. When somebody says that they’ve heard she is homeless, she replies with evident pride. ‘Oh no, I’m not homeless. Just houseless.’

Writer/director Chloé Zhao’s extraordinary film draws a line that can be traced back to the pioneers of the Old West – or perhaps, more accurately, to the migrant workers of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I have despaired of America recently, but this film serves to remind me that so many of its inhabitants have qualities to be admired – it’s just the political system that governs them that should be condemned for treating them so shoddily. And yet, unusually, this is also a film that has no real villains; indeed, pretty much everyone Fern encounters treats her respectfully, offering her help, support and comradeship.

For a time she falls in with fellow wanderer, Dave (David Strathairn), and the two of them seem to be a good fit – but when he’s offered a way out of his situation, he’d be a fool not to take it. Wouldn’t he?

Calm, thoughtful and inspiring, Nomadland is a timely reminder that we need to value the right things in life. Like the pieces of crockery Fern carries with her, gifted to her by her late father, they are just things. Once broken, they become meaningless. Perhaps they always were. Zhao’s ultimate message seems to be that the qualities we carry within us through life are more important than the baggage we acquire along the way.

And if I’m in danger of sounding like a talking fridge magnet here, please don’t be put off.

This really is a very special film.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Penguin Bloom

29/03/21

Netflix

The lockdown rolls relentlessly on, and we’re reduced to seeking out those films which, in normal times, we’d steer well clear of. Penguin Bloom is one such feature, sporting as it does a storyline that threatens to be a little too saccharine for comfort. The fact that it turns out to be a true story and – as a series of genuine photographs over the end credits proudly attests – sticks very closely to what actually happened, helps no end. So does director Glendyn Ivin’s ability to stay just the right side of mawkishness throughout. Whenever things threaten to tip over into the land of treacle, Ivin offers us a nasty flashback or a vitriolic outburst, just to make sure we appreciate the very real tragedy of the tale.

Sam Bloom (Naomi Watts) and her husband, Cameron (Andrew Lincoln, making a decent fist of an Australian accent) live a carefree existence in an idyllic home somewhere in Australia, with their three sons. Cameron is a photographer by trade and Sam, when not making her own honey, is a keen surfer. But everything changes irrevocably on a family holiday to Thailand, when oldest son Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston) discovers a secluded roof garden above their hotel and leads his mother up there to take in the scenery.

However, a dodgy bit of building work quickly puts paid to all the fun and games, as Sam takes a horrific fall from the roof and winds up with a damaged spine, paralysed from the waist down.

Once back home, despite everybody’s best efforts, she fails to come to terms with her situation and, all too understandably, begins to descend into depression. Then Noah discovers a fledgling magpie that has fallen from its nest and persuades his parents to let him bring her into the house. He promptly dubs the bird Penguin (Peng for short) and it isn’t long before the creature has become a vital member of the Bloom family. Sam is at first resistant to Peng’s feathery charms, but as time moves on, she warms to her – and of course, as she works towards helping Peng to learn to fly, so Sam manages to spread her own wings…

See, that does sound horribly sentimental, doesn’t it? And perhaps, if I’m honest, there is a streak of that in here, but what the heck, this actually happened and maybe I need to cut the Blooms some slack. If there is a problem with the movie, it’s one of continuity. Peng looks markedly different in just about every shot, but as the credits eventually reveal, ten individual birds played the title role, so perhaps it isn’t exactly surprising: and, let’s face it, CGI birds never really convince, no matter how much cash you throw at them. And these stunt magpies, if rumour is to be believed, actually work for birdseed. Oh and before I forget, Sam’s mother Jan, is played by Jacki Weaver, who actually does have some authority here (see what I did there?).

Ultimately, Penguin Bloom turns out to be an agreeable way to spend an hour or so and, until cinemas finally reopen their doors, we’re going to have to keep sifting through the bowels of our streaming services in a never-ending quest to find agreeable ways for movie fans to pass their time.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Death to 2020

27/12/20

Netflix

I had thought that the hideous happenings of 2020 could never make me laugh.

I was wrong.

Charlie Brooker’s cunningly constructed mockumentary takes a long hard look at the events of this momentous year, and gleefully eviscerates them in his familiar no-holds-barred fashion. (You could argue that he’s been a little too hasty in releasing it with a few days still to go, but hey, it can’t get any worse. Can it?)

Death to 2020 takes me from wincing and cringing to laughing-out-loud time and time again. It’s the comedy equivalent of riding a roller coaster. For once, this is far less of a one-man project than we’ve come to expect from Brooker. There are no fewer than twenty writers attached to this project, and it would seem their best efforts have been cherry-picked. This is essentially a month-by-month retelling of everything that went down in the year 2020, but all viewed from a slightly skewed perspective. It works, big time.

Brooker has also enlisted considerable star-power for this special. Samuel L Jackson is Dash Bracket, focusing his ironic comments on the rise and fall of a certain Mr Trump. Hugh Grant (never funnier) is Tennyson Foss, a historian who can’t seem to differentiate between genuine history and random events from Game of Thrones. Lisa Kudrow is brilliant as Trump spokesperson Jeanetta Grace Susan, unashamedly denying the president’s heinous actions even as they unfold on video, right in front of her eyes. And Tracey Ullman is rather too convincing as Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Charlie Brooker event without the presence of Diane Morgan, and she’s here too, as Gemma Nerrick, a woman so odious that lockdown has actually worked in her favour, a viewer so overdosed on daytime TV she’s constantly muddling real events and the soaps she’s addicted to.

Of course, some will argue that we shouldn’t be laughing at the horror-show in which we’re all so inextricably mired, but I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to. Chances are, you will to.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney