Review: ‘Grenfell’ by Steve McQueen, from a Semiotic Gaze

By Chris Arning

“Film is too obviously a message for one not to assume that it is coded.”(Christian Metz – the Language of Cinema)

So I’ve just been to a showing of the Grenfell film by Steve McQueen and was blown away by it. The film is a 24 minute, two second colour video which contains no dialogue or commentary. It starts with bird song faded to black then we are on board a helicopter camera panoramic shot. We move steadily over green stretches of England, punctuated by clusters of terraced houses, the occasional football field, canals and sewage tanks. Throughout we hear the unsettling noises of what sounds like industrial machinery intermingled with copter blades and this seems to take at least five minutes. It is both meditative and disturbing because we think this is meant to be about Grenfell Tower, so why are we seemingly travelling across the hinterland of England? The suburbs is where we start. The denizens of most of the houses were most likely unaffected by the tragedy unfolding in June 2017. Does this also point to the cultural and political divide that has grown in the UK over the last decade?

It is when we see Wembley Stadium with its distinctive arch and the cluster of new builds around it that we gain our bearings, realise we are in North West London we realise we are only kilometres away from the Grenfell site. As we pass over Harlesden, the sound suddenly cuts out. Whatever we are travelling in becomes a glider; we become a disembodied seeing entity. When we arrive at the building it is shocking how raw it all is. It is a charred and gutted sarcophagus supported by scaffolding. In the years since the filming, clearly the building has been covered up the way the wounds of an incinerated body would be shrouded away. This has been done for many reasons, trauma reduction but also health and safety. As local residents we have become used to the green love heart emblazoned atop the tower; a symbol of unity and remembrance for campaigners, but seeing the tower in its raw state again was very salutary.

The Drone Gaze

The value of the film is to transform our gaze – but we start with something that is just unsettling: a disembodied perspective making its way steadily, ominously across the landscape. Although filmed using helicam, it has a deliberate drone effect and this is a drone view.

As Adam Rothstein author of Drone Theory writes: “Drones at their current level of technology allow us to observe large swathes of ground for an extended period of time. CCTV and satellite imagery each have their particular advantages for different surveillance and reconnaissance tasks. But drones allow a mobile platform that can remain over the ground at a distance that minimised the targe’s awareness of the platform, while also allowing live re-targeting of the area of focus.”

Rothstein continues: “This ever present visual relationship permanently alters human perception. Drone sensor operators talk about the range of way that starting through the drone’s camera for hours on end can change a person. This vernacular technology outlines the odd technological relationship the drone allows – that of generally passive observer, but with the extreme power that constant observation gives.”

Marshal McLuhan said the medium is the message. Drone or CCTV footage is about social control. When we are looking at aerial drone views, we are usually in the realm of invigilating savannah animals, of cadastral surveys, but also of crowd surveillance and of extra judicial assassinations. The drone view privileges the power of the voyeur to surveil others. Drone footage is never particularly relaxing: there is a sense of foreboding to it – especially when accompanied by the sonic concomitants of such footage, the humming buzz or industrial white noise devoid of emotion. Drone noise intimidates populations under occupation. Military drone executions take place at a distance. Drones are therefore the epitome of the banality of evil in the technological realm. They enable heinous acts to be done with the minimal fuss, personal involvement or moral embroilment. The famous philosophical thought experiment with the trolley car demonstrates that people tend to have fewer qualms pulling the lever than pushing the man onto the train tracks.

Kensington & Chelsea councillors can’t recall at enquiry hearings if the blandishments of more aesthetically pleasing cladding options blinded them to the more critical safety considerations that should have been prioritised in refurbishing Grenfell Tower. When being cloistered away from the consequences meets asymmetric power decisions made at a distance – whether operating a drone or managing housing stock – it can have terrifying repercussions.

The drone gaze is bereft of all empathy for what it takes in, akin to the beast ‘moving its slow thighs’ in the poem The Second Coming described by WB Yeats as having a “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.”

So, the drone gaze is how we start the film with the sense of alienation and foreboding that that brings. 

The spiritual gaze

But soon we settled into a sequence which feels closer to much of Steve McQueen’s video art oeuvre. McQueen’s films contain long uninterrupted takes that build tension, emphasise a need, or track real time.

Paul Gilroy writes of this section in the programme notes: “a soundless camera wheels around the damaged structure. The vertiginous movement of orbiting that fixed point induces nausea as viewers are pulled into the gyre. We move in close still and the animated geometry of the broken building disorders perception. The rotary motion becomes hypnotic and, as this monument to loss begins to transmit its own traumatising rhythm, we start to see the interior of the scaffolded structure”.

Like a massive aerial lathe, the ‘coptercam’ hones our reverence for the stricken object with its every rotation.

A reviewer put it like this: “McQueen likes to linger. And he is much less likely to use flashy camerawork or editing techniques to manipulate the viewer. Instead, he wants one to marinate in the moment…To frame it in a way to draw attention to what’s actually happening. Look at this. Look at this. Look at this.” I know I’m looking.”

This was forensic scrutiny but the camera also sacralised the space for the moments we were invited to stay in it – so it was also a guided visit and chance for a harsh, confronting contemplation.

The gaze undoubtedly deepened many viewers’ appreciation of a devastating trauma. We see the tattered exoskeleton with beams and girders still hanging off it and blackened interiors. The helicopter comes disturbingly close to the building and lingers upon facets of the upper parts of the structure. We are mesmerised by the visual spectacle. For my part, before long I passed into a form of meditative reverie, devoting my attention to every cell. I tried to sympathetically imagine in each cell the suffering though I knew I never could know the enormity of it. All I could do was murmur a mantra, may all beings be happy, and free from suffering. It was harrowing viewing, it became hard to watch eventually and admit I welled up at one point.

The invitation to contemplate was excruciating but also moving. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, monks and adepts of meditation visit burial grounds to remember the dead and muse on impermanence and get in touch with their own mortality. Grenfell Tower and the deceased are honoured here as such.

Cinematographic Tribute

As the cam repeatedly spins is where the power of the film really begins for me because the circumambulation of the building has huge significance. Beyond the forensic vista it provides into the guts of the structure to reveal a full picture of the devastation, there is a reverence. Circumambulation has a strong spiritual significance. In Islam, pilgrims to Mecca circumambulate the black stone Ka’aba, to demonstrate a unity of faith. I do not know whether the symbolism was deliberate but the resemblance was not lost on me. As someone who is affiliated with Buddhism I know that you pay tribute to the passing of a spiritual person by walking around a stupa or burial mound. This is how the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, said he wanted to be honoured. I have myself done this at a memorial for a deceased friend. Of course, being Steve McQueen, all this is implicit. There is no overt sentiment in the shooting of the film. It was very stark. Indeed, the beauty of the film to my mind is the way it combines intense focus on the rapid destruction of a whole living ecosystem while at the same time displaying a tender monument to the dignity of those who keep pushing for justice, to keep the memory of the dearly departed alive. This is a McQueen hallmark:

“He inserts moments that are Deleuzian time-images, disrupting expectations, pausing the conventional narrative progression and in the process implicating the viewer in the content. The features, for this reason, function as unique hybrids between the time-image and the moving image.”

For me, the greatness of this simple film was precisely the way it subtly oscillates between the technologized, minatory gaze of the drone – the tool of surveillance and death – and a more sympathetic and reverential, human gaze; still harsh but with the transmutation of spiritual wrath confined to spiritual beings and suffused with knowledge and empathy for the monumental importance of what happened here. The omniscient gaze of a God consciousness. McQueen achieves this collision of gazes toggling between these two views aesthetically through skilful use of camera work and manipulation of sound. The dignified circumambulation is the cinematic equivalent of the Grenfell silent walks that were initially organised monthly and are now held 11 days before Christmas and on the anniversary of the disaster.

The silent dénouement

The end of the film is poignant and beautiful. Unexpectedly, the director breaks the silence and brings the ambient noise back. We hear the ingress of a Hammersmith and City line train into Latimer Road. The everyday hustle and bustle around the Lancaster West Estate rushes back. This is a place where I have a close friend; which houses the Aldridge Academy where I have volunteered many times at a homeless shelter, and the Kensington Leisure Centre where I swim every week in the shadow of the tower. In other words, life goes on – this is a reminder that those closest to the deceased have to deal with a crushing attrition; calls for justice in the face of implacable systems of law, government and media that long ago stopped responding to demands for justice for the crime. This is a visual protest against the enormous condescension of the British establishment in the face of a horrendous atrocity.

Even the process of planning a fitting memorial, undertaken by bereaved and local residents has been subjected to myopic control by the government a further indignity. As Tom, editor of Urban Dandy writes: “There must be no fait accompli regarding the way we, as a community and as a nation, honour the victims of Grenfell. The site must never become a reflection of establishment control; devoid of imagination and empathy, a symbol of class war and indifference.”

It is precisely this indifference the film is designed to shake us out of. Estrangement – a term identified by the Russian formalists to name the way we are shaken out of our sleep walking. All the best art works recalibrate our senses through estrangement. It is an antidote to complacency and indifference. A quote from Paul Gilroy in the film programme seems apposite: “The implicit obscenity of the Grenfell fire has been made to look normal, to appear routine. We have been habituated to that blankness and are encouraged to imagine that there can be no alternatives to this particular way of organising human life and calculating its minimal transient value”

Everyone involved with the Grenfell Inquiry should be forced to watch this amazing film. TS Eliot winning poet Roger Robinson writes in a tribute in his 2019 collection Portable Paradise:


The building burned,

so the council blamed the contractors

who shredded all the papers;

so the contractors blamed

health and safety for passing

all the required tests;

so the prime ministers

came, saw and left,

and talked to no one

and shook no-one’s hand

meanwhile its tenants are left

to grieve in sterile hotels,

with nothing to bury but ash,

and survivors walk up like zombies

trying not to look up

at the charred gravestone.

people still cry

nobody took the blame.

We cannot really talk about this film without mentioning trauma. We CoProduce organised an event in June 2019 with Dr Gabor Maté in order to invite local residents to explore their trauma in the aftermath of the fire. From an article in Urban Dandy:  “Trauma from a huge-scale disaster starts to manifest two years after an event; it is what we carry inside ourselves. So many local people had filled the vacuum left by the council and national government; mindful of those who had lost everything, or everyone, the trauma was suppressed but easily triggered.”

This reflects the breadth and depth of the PTSD across North Kensington. Of course, the healing needs to happen but the impacted communities do not want this event to be brushed under the carpet. Grenfell United continue to campaign to prevent another atrocity elsewhere, while in the absence of any sustained media interest, local campaigners struggle against the council as it returns to its pre-fire policies, shielded by a formidable PR budget. This sedulously stunning film coming before the Government Inquiry will publish its findings, reminds us that our anger as local residents at the continuing impunity was, and is, righteous, and the 72 lives needlessly lost are being grieved as keenly every day.

Chris Arning, 2023

BIBLIOGRAPHY (unfinished)

The Drone Theory – Adam Rothstein

The Language of Cinema – Christian Metz

The Auteur Theory: Steve McQueen – Paolo’s film blog

Portable Paradise – Roger Robinson

Grenfell: Programme – Paul Gilroy

Urban Dandy (blogs, multiple) – Thomas Charles

Celebrating The Charnel Ground: Notes on Death and Meditation – Stephen Butterfield

Images from Serpentine Galleries



Grayson Perry – Descent of Man Review

Picture from Penguin Books


The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry is not a forensic study of its subject and so doesn’t lend itself to a particularly academic review. However, it introduces a couple of phrases to the lexicon that are well worth contemplation.

The book is premised on the notion that ‘upgrading’ men to improve their ‘adaptability’ to the modern world would be of huge benefit to men, women and the planet. Grayson Perry’s premise is well understood, and his opinions which fill the book are intelligent and apt.

Ample ink is spent pointing out male domination of various aspects of human affairs, something of a stream of consciousness, sprinkled with empathy for the position of men in 2018 and heavy dollops of ridicule of boorish male behaviour. Perry is knowledgeable without going the extra mile, and as a result The Descent of Man is as valid a review of masculinity as any well-intentioned and considered opinion on the subject. Continue reading

Review: Matt Okine at Soho Theatre

Matt Okine MR 3 LR


At first glance, it is difficult to imagine Matt Okine having the discipline and drive to rise in the early hours for three straight years to host a national radio breakfast show. His easy style and unflustered lyricism belie what must be a fierce work ethic and creative urge. But this is what Okine does: laziness is his mask, the lie that he uses to present his truth.

The Australian is much decorated and lauded for his acting and stand up, and is a serious all-rounder: he presents a cookery programme on TV and raps as part of Boilermakers. Okine’s success sees him sell out comedy shows wherever he performs and now he is back in London at Soho Theatre, ostensibly talking career changes, but there is much more simmering under the surface in his show ‘We Made You’.

The opening night at Soho saw Okine in full flow for a full hour. This was a comedian who delivers with clarity and panache. Virtually non-stop, the intensity of his performance was complemented by his laid-back style, giving him an authentic edge, sympathetic and apparently very real.

There was a conspicuous lack of confrontation during Okine’s hour on stage, with any aggression reserved for rants at potatoes, crabs and other sources of nourishment and irritation – food being his favourite subject. His charming, disarming ease with the audience meant the Soho Theatre was quickly relaxed, with plenty of laughing out loud, while Okine kept an emotional distance, never quite straying in to vulnerability, although he hinted at pain throughout the hour.

Matt Okine’s light touch works as a layer above an undercurrent of tension. He expressed a struggle between the real person and the personality adapting to the modern world and its absurdities. The silliness of mainstream popular culture formed the basis of Okine’s act: exotic crisp flavours, eight-hour binges on TV cookery programmes, social media and the rest. All this was done without criticism, Okine being the passive and innocent consumer, with the effect of him being far funnier than any comedian attempting to intellectually deconstruct consumer culture.

Okine occasionally juxtaposed his light-hearted observations with revelations of his inadequacies and insecurities: body image, hair loss, ethnic identity and facing his contradictory relationship with his father. What can you say and what can’t you say? Again, the tension between being authentic and adapting to modern life, with the mask of a media savvy, successful 30 something.

There is something of the nihilist in Okine. Or perhaps it is that he reveals a strange western digital age mass nihilism in which we have so little control over our lives and environments that we sink into the minutiae of our particular preferences and irritations as a way of avoiding the facts of our mortality and the moral bankruptcy and degradations of consumer society.

Whatever, he’s very funny, a natural, and this show is highly recommended.

See Matt Okine: We Made You, at Soho Theatre, London until 29th August.


By Tom Charles @tomhcharles

Electric Breakfast

Venue: Electric Diner, Portobello Road

Meal: Breakfast



It’s 11.45am on a Tuesday in March and I’ve just come back to Portobello after moving some things into a Brentford storage unit.

Heavy work, so you’d think a full English carb fest was on my mind. Not so, here’s why…

…So, we get to the door of the Electric Diner on Portobello Road, only to be greeted by our regular (Antonio Banderas looking) waiter.  I may have appeared a bit rude as I zipped past him fully aware of the clock ticking away on our 50% local discount deal as it fast approached 12.00. I rushed past into the ready and waiting waitress. “Will you still honour the discount as it’s not yet 12 O’ clock”?  I said in a half couldn’t care less way, without revealing the fact that her answer was a remote control to push an invisible button to send me away or make me stay, just like a puppet”. ” If you order before 12.00 it’ll be fine”. She said. You’ve never seen a person sit down so quickly.


It was about 11:52 when my guest: sweet Juliet ordered her poached eggs on toast with  avocado and a bit a lemon on the side, accompanied by a pot of mint tea to kill the chill. Note below, the avocado’s succulence. Continue reading

‘WE ARE’ ….at The Ugly Duck


After months of planning, The Kitchen Table Collective, who previously gave us 1x Tab Breakfast, poached egg, no mushroom 1x sides, sausage: New Stories from the Tabernacle, have expressed a touching and thought provoking exhibition through the eyes of immigrants.  The incredibly diverse quintet of Artists including Emma Mudgway, Claire Tipy and Alexia Villard successfully gave us a very personal look at the alien experience in the UK through their art.  ‘We Are’ can be seen today at The Ugly Duck Gallery at 47-49 Tanner Street in Tower Bridge.

We are here until the afternoon collecting great thoughts and insights to see what it feels like to be an immigrant.


We’re going in.



Claire Tipy and Sarah Tilotta’s collaboration, ‘Where Do You Think I Was Born’, seen in motion. Each actor contributed their own heartfelt monologue and drew us totally in. Continue reading

Jackson’s Way: The Christmas Top-Up Power Seminar!


(c) Alex Brenner, no usage without credit; Jackson's Way Christmas Top-up @ BAC (_DSC4940).jpg
Photo by Alex Brenner, Jason’s Way Christmas Top-Up @ BAC

2004 Edinburgh Comedy Award winner Will Adamsdale plays spoof American life coach and motivational speaker Chris John Jackson in his offbeat and genuinely madcap show Jackson’s Way: The Christmas Top-up Power Seminar!

The show takes the form of a life coaching session which begins with a Jackson voiceover urging the audience to, Feel the energy in the room! And Harness their thoughts and feelings! As well as other assorted life-coaching bromides. Adamsdale makes good use of en vogue Mindfulness terminology about being present and litters it with the mediated language of modern warfare, Drone strike! Boots on the Ground and Tailspin are all used, to create a bizarre yet chillingly realistic motivational-speak lexicon

White trainer-wearing, chino-sporting, ear-piece donning Jackson finally emerges to the melodies of Coldplay, I forget which song, but does it really matter? He instantly starts banging on about the Jackson’s Way and Jactions, which are pointless tasks done for absolutely no reason at all, except they are pointless. E.g. picking up a discarded cup and finding another one exactly the same and swapping them over. Jackson calls this Trash Exchange. The show bounces along in Jackson’s illogical and wholly demented ‘way’, with excellent and ludicrous audience participation involving clapping, rhyming words that can’t rhyme, staring at a wall and trying to move the floor. Jackson produces nonsensical graphs and images to explain what he’s trying to achieve, which is never really clear, and the performance ends with him revealing his messiah complex as he places himself as the baby Jesus and then God in a nativity scene made out of junk that Jackson calls The Team.

(c) Alex Brenner, no usage without credit; Jackson's Way Christmas Top-up @ BAC (_D3C0187).jpg

Photo by Alex Brenner, Jason’s Way Christmas Top-Up @ BAC

Adamsdale’s frenetic energy and sharp-eyed satirical observations of the motivational speaking world keep this performance bundling along nicely. His likeable character is made more agreeable as he appears to be suffering from the delusion that his crackpot ‘way’ works, when in reality he’s actually in the grip of PTSD or other forms of mental illness shown through his irregular flashbacks and allusions to a rather painful past.

Like all good theatre, and comedy for that matter, the spotlight, although centred on the shambolic Jackson, in fact, shines a light on the audience and therefore the world we live in. Why is it that so many life coaches, motivational speakers, faith healers, psychics and televangelists become so successful? What is it about us collectively that puts some of these people on a pedestal and bows down in reverence to their way of doing things?

I suspect it has always been so. People’s lives are hard, they are unfulfilled and it’s easy to look for a ‘method’ of doing things in order to be richer, better looking, more successful, and happier. And in a culture where happiness is traded on material gain and in a system where we’re consistently told we’re free to go out and get what we want and that if we’re unhappy then it’s our own fault…and then the benchmark for ‘happy’ is set ridiculously high; big houses, expensive cars, perfect kids, fine clothes, lots of holidays, lots of parties, lots of friends, then it’s no wonder people will up look to any charlatan with any shady idea of how to help us. The con then becomes very lucrative.

Jackson’s Way is an amusing riot of a show, not to everyone’s tastes, and occasionally falling flat, it does however have more triumphs than stinkers and is well worth an hour of anyone’s time. Achieve!


Jackson’s Way: The Christmas Top-up Power Seminar is on at Battersea Arts Centre until the 12th December. Bookings here.


Bradley Russell.

Measure For Measure (In the Wake of the Paris Attacks)




Ivanno Jeremiah & Zubin Varla in Measure for Measure at the Young Vic. Photo by Keith Pattison.

The Nineteenth Century essayist, poet and literary critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise of Shakespeare. He once said of The Bard;

‘Shakespeare knew the human mind, and its most minute and intimate workings, and he never introduces a word, or a thought, in vain or out of place.’

I was reminded of Coleridge’s acclaim as I sat watching The Young Vic’s production of Measure for Measure last week. Even as Coleridge battled crippling opium addiction and debilitating episodes of self-doubt in life, he found joy and freedom in the world created by Shakespeare. He discovered a liberty from his own weak will, and a license to suspend his disbelief in order that he whole-heartedly enter into the dramatic world of the play unfolding before him. He said that incredible or fanciful work would break this spell and bring the ludic performance crashing down and that one must be able to give themselves over completely to the drama. And the writer he identified as the illusionist dramatist par excellence and most suited to this task was, of course, Shakespeare.

There were moments between Angelo and Isabella, Claudio and Isabella, The Duke Vincentio and Pompey et al, when discussions centred on the nature of human virtue, clemency and spiritual and corporal corruption, at such times it was as if I was watching and hearing a divine puppeteer interweaving all the thoughts and feelings of humanity, mixing the conflict between self-preservation and empathy, expounding the collision of desire and morality and underpinning all with a firm and sure depth psychology. Watching Shakespeare at these moments is a special kind of poetry, one that may grant the audience access to an exquisite divinity beyond their normal everyday human experience.

Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production of Measure for Measure is a rampant, cut-down, boisterous affair. The play moves along at a blazing comic pace, but as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, it never moves too far from the darkness at its centre. Vienna is a city overflowing with brothels, pimps and scoundrels. The Duke Vincentio tells his advisors he’s leaving the city and then disguises himself as a friar and stays within the city walls. He leaves Angelo in charge, an unbending guardian of morality who instantly closes all the city’s brothels and sentences Claudio to death for the act of fornication with Juliet, whom he has made pregnant. Isabella learns of her brother Claudio’s punishment and goes to Angelo to beg for clemency. During the course of their meeting the morally incorruptible Angelo begins to feel lust and desire for Isabella and tells her he will spare Claudio’s life if she should yield to him her virginity. Isabella then goes to see Claudio, tells him of Angelo’s advances and expects that he will face death with dignity. Claudio begs his sister to give herself up to Angelo to save his life, and she refuses as she doesn’t want to sacrifice her immortality, or Claudio’s in the afterlife.

Hill-Gibbins’ and Miriam Buether’s radical exuberant production and design gives us swirling images of blow-up dolls representing the vice and corruption of Vienna, a Kardashian-style sex-tape of Claudio and Juliet, and dazzling camerawork, backgrounded behind closed doors, to show us the dark, ever existing underbelly of a city crawling with debasement and debauchery behind its moral veneer. I’m a fan of this seemingly, de rigour use of camerawork, as it compellingly captures and enhances human emotion, intensity and intimacy. The cast is uniformly strong, with Paul Ready’s cloying, convincing, bureaucratic Angelo and Tom Edden’s turn as an evasive New York Jewish gangster-pimp Pompey, complete with spectacles, suit and baseball cap, my personal favourites.

This thoroughly enjoyable and vivacious production ends with a startling image of The Duke, played by Zubin Varla, not only telling Isabella of his intentions to marry her, but lining up the entire cast of the play in couples, in a desperately awkward and dreadful tableau. This creates a striking image, although the characters may be saved from hell, are they any better off in the strange, mixed-up relationships and marriages they end up in, where they may succeed or fail, and advance through life in an utterly muddled human procession?

My initial reaction to Angelo’s lack of tolerance for the business of prostitution and sex was to think how antiquated that attitude has become in the modern world. Sitting in a diverse cosmopolitan audience in a multicultural London, it’s easy to forget the patrician attitudes and intolerance that exist in other cities and regions. However, the ingenious presence on stage of a couple of dozen male and female blow-up dolls at times piled-high, at others waded through by the cast, and then thrown in discarded fashion upstage, started to put me in mind of a slaughter, the Holocaust perhaps? But then I settled on the fanatical nature of those purporting to represent Islam and calling themselves Islamic State. Intolerance to human desire isn’t antiquated or out-dated, it is a very real and evil threat. The next night that threat would be foregrounded once again in the shocking pictures and stories pushed in a vile centrifuge from the blood-soaked streets of Paris. Intolerance of people trying to live free lives, people in bars and cafes, enjoying rock concerts, massacred by those, identified over four hundred years ago by Shakespeare, who deign to impose their dogmatic views and calcified opinions on innocent citizens. Therefore, once again Shakespeare proves his genius. This thoroughly pagan Elizabethan playwright always manages to remain relevant and timeless in all ages, and how does he manage this? Because, as Coleridge had it, he knew the minutest and most intimate workings of the human mind. And no matter how much we may progress, technologically and scientifically, no matter how much we innovate and evolve, we are still Shakespeare’s humans; coiled and contradictory, floored and mistaken, emotional and desirous.


The Company of Measure for Measure at the Young Vic. Photo by Keith Pattison


By Bradley Russell for Urban Dandy

Why John Steed is the Greatest TV Character

Tribute to a unique Dandy


Patrick Macnee, who played John Steed in the hit 1960s and 70s British cold war / spy / sci-fi programme The Avengers, passed away in Los Angeles aged 93.

Macnee’s long career was varied and distinguished, but it was as Steed that he played a commanding role in the quirkiest, campest, sexiest and most irreverent British programme ever made.

The programme’s creators, upon casting Macnee in the role, allowed the actor to portray the character as he saw fit. This meant that Macnee, a veteran of the Second World War, rejected the plan for Steed to carry a gun, despite the show starting out as a relatively conventional cold war drama.

Reflecting on being told he would have to use a gun, Macnee told the AP in 1997: “I’ve been in World War II for five years and I’ve seen most of my friends blown to bits and I’m not going to carry a gun.’ They said: ‘What are you going to carry?’ I thought frantically and said: ‘An umbrella.’”

This moment of clarity meant that Steed became a secret agent like no other, welcoming assailants in to his home by opening a decanter of Brandy, and rather than the cruder forms of violence he would knock them out with his bowler hat, and once even tickled an enemy agent in to submission.

As Steed, Macnee was never anything less than graceful.


Co-starring our local heroine Honor Blackman, the early Avengers series were filmed for live TV. With the programme’s charm and Hollywood calibre storylines, Blackman became a star in James Bond and was replaced in The Avengers by Diana Rigg. Rigg and Macnee provided the best of the Avengers’ double acts, with Mrs Peel way ahead of Steed in intellect and physical prowess.


But Macnee remained the Avengers’ mainstay, his humorous one-liners, ability to be enigmatic, mischievous and brilliant in equal measure and his tongue-in-cheek portrayal of a British establishment figure maintained the show’s unique appeal.

With only two television channels in Britain at the time, The Avengers’ viewing figures were well over 10 million during its peak. Rigg also became a star of 007, and was replaced by Linda Thorson as the younger, greener, cuddlier Tara King.


By now in glorious colour for the American networks, Steed took on a more paternal role as Miss King’s mentor. Viewing figures declined, but the storylines remained the best and most accessible of their time.

Reprised in the 1970s with Joanna Lumley as Purdey in the much edgier New Avengers, the enduring appeal of Steed and Macnee was back again. And when C4 showed re-runs of the colour Rigg and Thorson seasons in the mid-90s, a new generation got The Avengers.

A true original and a dapper gentleman, Patrick Macnee was much closer to the Wildean dandy than today’s urban dandy. But this is a broad church and Steed will live on as an honorary urban dandy blessed with incredible warmth and wit.


Daniel Patrick Macnee, February 1922 – 25 June 2015

By Tom Charles, who has five tropical fish, for Urban Dandy

Hang – Review

The Royal Court, Jerwood Theatre Downstairs until 18th July 2015


What is the theatre for? To entertain? To educate? To question? When these three facets align in a work, the impression left by it, can cause us to question our own perspective of a thing far more deeply than we thought previously possible.

debbie tucker green (all lower-case) has, in her latest play, hang, sought to position victimhood centre stage and write a bold and impassioned piece, reminding us of the red-hot anger, savage bitterness and unbridled hatred that can curdle in the hearts of victims of violent crime.

hang begins with three characters, all unnamed, arriving in a sterile and nondescript room. Two of the three are dressed in the ubiquitous office uniform, white shirts without ties, of some agency or other, whose job, it soon becomes clear, is to facilitate the punishment of an unnamed criminal. The third character, and centre of the play, is the victim of that criminal whose violent act has destroyed her life and the lives of her family. The victim has been called to this place so she can make a decision on a fitting punishment for the unseen perpetrator.

What ensues is a tense and strained situation, at times bleakly funny and at others, harrowingly painful, where the victim, played with great force and twitching anxiety by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, tries to disclose the effects of this violence on her life and the lives of her family. The comedy and pathos of the piece often comes from the inability of the agency employees to abandon their protocol and stifling codes, which act only to distance them from the feelings and frustrations of the victim.

Photo from

The drama of the piece simmers nicely as information is released to us in a slow and steady trickle, keeping us hooked, line by line, as to what’s coming next. Unfortunately, the iron resolve of Jean-Baptistes character as to what her decision will be leaves the play slightly underpowered and causes the all-important final dramatic-hit to be a smidge underdone. It would’ve been more compelling to see the victim struggle more with her decision, and therefore awaken those thoughts and feelings in the audience as well.

Having said that, the writing is at times tremendously skilful, tucker green has an expert’s ear for the intonations, glitches and inflections that pepper people’s speech in nervous situations, and she makes full use of stuttering unresolved sentences, repetitions and the small talk that attempts to cover that nervousness.

Jean-Baptiste’s powerful performance was matched adroitly by Claire Rushbrook and Shane Zara, in their roles as the agency employees.

By putting victimhood centre stage at The Royal Court, this thought-provoking, entertaining play also manages to leave a strong impression and opens up profound questions as to how we treat and think of what it means to be a victim.


Bradley Russell.  

Saved @The Lyric Theatre 4*

Brace yourself for one hell of a ride.  Banned, prosecuted and vilified when premiered in the ‘60s Edward Bond’s “Saved”, is the first previously-banned production to leave me short of breath. This production is certain to offend although the sum of this work extends far beyond any shock-value.

Micheal Feast and Morgan Watkins: photoTristram Kenton for The Guardian

An apt selection in today’s economic climate, “Saved” paints an uncompromising picture of modern city living – deprived and depraved. In a society short of work and money resentment simmers, anger is turned inward and, once boiling, the very weakest in society is victimised.

Watkins and Lia Saville in “Saved”

From a drab family in which nary is a word passes between husband and wife springs only daughter Pam (Lia Saville): promiscuous, needy and masochistic. A lascivious encounter with Len (Morgan Watkins) turns to romance, the hollow promise of better times, and he becomes entrenched as the lodger in this strange household. As romance sours Pam rejects Len’s devotion falling amorous of his dismissive mate Fred (Calum Callaghan).  A baby ensues that is neglected, unnamed and studiously ignored. In one deeply disturbing scene, foreshadowing worse to come, the baby wails inconsolably as a heedless Pam coldly preens for a date.  Fred’s callous nature becomes clear as he abandons Pam for nights out with his hooligan mates.  Len stands by Pam throughout becoming her punching-bag unwilling to remove himself from this situation.

When the ultimate depravity occurs in the park and the baby is attacked we see how Len is incapable of extricating himself and how responsibility extends beyond the aggressors. With only a brief internment for the accused life continues with little change. Despite being the only character to strive for some shred of decency Len in particular is powerless to disentangle himself from this quagmire of his own making.

Calum Callaghan as Fred

Sean Holmes’ production sends a chilling message that the society portrayed is one for which all are responsible. His stellar cast deliver unshakeable performances; alongside the doggedly loyal Len, the flinty Pam and cruel Fred shine the mother and father team brilliantly portrayed by Susan Brown and Michael Feast.

It is unclear in the final sequence as Len mends a chair and Pam thumbs the Radio Times if redemption will be found yet, as clearly as the words unspoken, if anyone is to be “Saved” it is not by silent acceptance.

Until 05 November 2011

Lyric Hammersmith
Lyric Square, King Street
London, UK, W6 0QL