Saturday, December 30, 2006


I just turned on BBC1 (at 5.12pm on Saturday December 30th) and it was screening The Weakest Link. It's not a programme that I care for, so I switched to BBC2. And that channel was showing ... The Weakest Link. How fabulous is that? Isn't it wonderful that we cannot watch television at all without paying the BBC's licence fee and yet the BBC treats us with such contempt?

I am not of the party believing that the BBC should be funded by advertisements. If the collection of the licence fee is not to continue to be the means by which the Corporation is financed, then it should be done through a direct disbursement from taxation. But the BBC needs to pull up its socks in a big way. I mounted a comprehensive criticism of its present state in my book Common Sense – freely downloadable from the link in the right margin – but I did not therein explore very far the increasing lack of distinction between the multi-channel broadcasters' respective suites of channels.

ITV has no discernible policy for the scheduling of its four channels, save that the lack of news bulletins on ITVs 2, 3 and 4 allows for movies to be placed to start at useful junctions without worrying over much about where they might end. ITV3 shows a lot of serial drama repeats but no drama series or one-offs. (The one-off play is the great missed opportunity of the proliferation of channels, where all sorts of archived treasures could be disinterred to surprise and delight an audience that has forgotten or has never known how creative and stimulating the pre-satellite broadcast world could be). ITV2 in particular would appear to be an entirely pointless entity.

Channel 4's support channels, E4 and More4, mostly allow a pattern of repeats, sometimes with the first screening taking place on More4 and the follow-up appearing on C4, much as BBC2 carries selected repeats from BBC4 and even BBC3. Even when it was a subscription house, you never needed to worry about movies on Film4 passing you by because they always turned up sooner or later on C4 and they continue to do so. Sky Two appears to be a channel wholly dedicated to reruns, while Sky Three's schedules seem unfamiliar but contain nothing that any sane viewer might be moved to sample (eg "Monster Waves: accounts of giant walls of water that crush everything in their path" according to the Radio Times billing for today). Five Life and Five US also look like schedules of unseen material with no appeal – I can't imagine anyone I might know being drawn to a title like Pimp My Ride.

BBC3 is a closed book to me and I take as definitive the remark made of it (which I can no longer source) that, while switched to it, "you are never more than an hour and a half away from a repeat of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps" (I swear to any god you care to cite that I just glanced down at Radio Times in case that title was in view so that I could verify that I had reproduced it exactly and there it was directly under my eye, at 11.25pm today). BBC4 has become the repository of the kind of programming that used to make up BBC2. New and archive editions of the arts magazine Arena, which originated on BBC2 and became a staple of that channel, are now only to be found on BBC4. Documentaries about popular culture – often really very popular culture and presented in a patronising way, replete with 'celebrity' contributions and dramatised scenes – have become the characteristic form for BBC4, the kind of programming you might think would be perfectly marketable on BBC2 or even, not so long ago, on BBC1. There is nothing remotely demanding on BBC4 but its output is considered – by the BBC planners and presumably elsewhere – as the nearest thing television now approaches to what used to be called the highbrow. I can vouch that, 50 years ago, much more demanding fare was frequently broadcast on the BBC's only television channel, to audiences far larger than any that BBC4 might dream of today.

BBC2 is now the home of repeats of Porridge and Dad's Army, Strictly Come Dancing and Match of the Day off-shoots, Dan Cruickshank and Adam Hart-Davis, Simon Schama and Bill Oddie. It's an awful long way from the BBC2 of Michael Peacock and, in his controller phase, David Attenborough. If it can overlap an edition of The Weakest Link with an edition showing on BBC1, it really does have no separate identity left. In which case, what is the point of it?

What's more, all the terrestrial broadcasters' channels are losing audience, save at present C4, both with their terrestrial and with their Freeview satellite channels. That their schedules have sacrificed character and definition is clearly a large part of their problem. There must be a significant audience for what became known briefly in the 1980s as "quality programming" that would cleave to BBC2 if it became apparent that such programming might characteristically be found there. But as BBC2 has got down in the garbage can with everybody else, it no longer commands a loyal following, only defining itself by such viewers who have always shunned it because they thought it was elitist and fancy. Boy, are they out of date.

Friday, December 29, 2006


You can get 50/1 at William Hill on no "white Christmases" before 2050. It sounds like a sure thing to me. Irving Berlin's couplet "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas/Just like the ones we used to know" was written at a time when seasonal snow was still common: it was a kind of cosy, fake nostalgia for a time that had not even yet passed. The Independent [White Christmas bets 'on way out', December 26th 2006] quotes the bookie to the effect that global warming may well cause such weather to be "consigned to the history books", however. White Christmases will indeed be something we used to know.

If you were born after the 1950s, there's a lot you won't know about cold winters. My generation was brought up before the arrival of central heating. Public buildings, institutions and very grand houses had big chunky cast-iron radiators that circulated hot water around appropriate areas but these were too unwieldy for ordinary houses. Double glazing, loft insulation and efficient draught excluders were in the future. On cold winter mornings, we were deeply reluctant to get out of bed because the bedroom would be freezing. On the windows, frost would have left intricate patterns. Unless you lived through that time, you cannot imagine the dazzling effect of this curious phenomenon, so magical that it had to be anthropomorphized: the author of this handiwork was named Jack Frost. The greatly increased warmth of modern houses killed off Jack Frost for ever.

In those days, bedrooms often had grates. If your room was above the living room, you might have a coal fire that shared the chimney with the fireplace below. Many bedrooms were fitted with gas or electric fires, but one was never allowed to keep a fire in after bedtime because of the danger that a counterpane slipping from a bed in the night might catch alight. Flame-resistant fabric was in its infancy then. So any heat that was permitted at bedtime was long since dispersed when you got up.

In my early childhood, in the late 1940s, there were still many houses without electricity. We used sometimes to visit an old friend of my grandfather's, JS Bruce, born like him in the 1870s, who lived with his unmarried daughter Alice and whose house in Kettering was illuminated by gas light. My grandfather, mother and I would sit in the drawing room with him and his daughter taking tea, I perched on a low stool in the corner, forbidden to speak unless spoken to. There would be extended pauses in the conversation, during which the longcase clock ticked remorselessly. The room would grow dim as the afternoon dwindled until Mr Bruce would direct Alice to light the gas and draw the curtains. There was also an immense heavy curtain across the door to divert the draught that whistled down the stairs from the Arctic of the upper floor. To say that the impression that remains with me of those visits is one of oppression would hardly do justice to the case. The life lived in that house would barely have changed since before the first War.

Most houses in those days drew their warmth from a coal fire in the living room, from the oven in the kitchen, perhaps from some kind of stove in the kitchen or the parlour and from an airing cupboard where what was known as "the copper" resided, providing the hot water and allowing space for bed linen and towels to be aired. Coal fires threw out rather less heat than log fires but you could still use them to toast muffins and crumpets and, if you had dogs or cats, you could be sure they would express their preference by lying on the hearth. (Some people's dogs still lived in outdoor kennels at that time). The coal would be banked down with coke or anthracite over night, "kept in" until such time as the ashes had to be cleared out and a new fire built.

If your mother took pity on your complaints that the bed was freezing, you could take a hot-water bottle to bed. I'm sure many people still do that, even in this age of electric blankets, but "a bottle" seems a most archaic object to me. I can just remember us having a stone bottle that could be filled with boiling water and used to heat up a bed but all the later ones were of rubber. There was a certain amount of lore surrounding hot-water bottles. You had to let the water go off the boil so it didn't scald the rubber. You never filled it to the lip but you needed to squeeze out the excess air. These were probably urban myths.

The milkman delivered his wares door-to-door back then, frequently so early that, by the time your mother brought in the milk bottles, their contents were frozen solid. If blue tits lived near your house, they would take advantage of this free milk, peck holes in the foil caps on the bottles and sample the delights below. The cream of a pint of full-cream milk would rise to the top and so-called "top of milk" was always the most desirable part, unless the tits had already got to it.

Fortified by a hearty cooked breakfast, you were packed off to school or to play in the snow. A proper winter is such a vivid season. Few sights are as arresting as a group or a line of trees, every tiny twig of which is picked out in snow. I am not at all surprised that the classic winter landscape is becoming more rare. Maybe the immense amount of heat pumped out by our homes – unimaginable fifty years ago – is making its own critical contribution to global warming.

This piece is not in my book, Common Sense, which you can read for free by downloading it from the link in the right sidebar.

Monday, December 25, 2006


The rock musician, Mr Bono, is to receive a knighthood for his services to crooning and to trying to persuade governments to give financial support to poor nations (though he himself is noted for moving his arrangements to countries where there are tax advantages). As he is an Irishman by birth, the honour will be notional rather than usable, like that of (Sir) Bob Geldof. But were he in a position to flourish the title, what would he be called? Sir Bono? It is ridiculous. Would he revert to his given name and become Sir Paul Hewson?

Taking a daft name for showbiz purposes does rather leave one open to difficulty if one survives long enough to become respectable. Being British citizens, both Sting and Lulu might find themselves in a dilemma if suitably honoured. Sir Sting? Dame Lulu? Sir Gordon Sumner or Dame Marie Lawrie would do better but some of their fans would wonder who they were. Both Sir Cliff Richard and Sir Elton John have retained their showbiz names with their knighthoods, rather than becoming Sir Harry Webb and Sir Reg Dwight respectively, much as Sir Rex (actually Reg) Harrison and Dame Ninette de Valois (formerly a Wicklow girl called Edris Stannus) did before them. But all these showbiz names were honour-ready when chosen. Prince clearly never had this dilemma to consider.

Bono's theoretical problem would be greatly compounded if his guitarist were to be able to follow him into the ranks of knights – mercifully he too would be debarred from styling himself 'Sir' by virtue of Irish birth. For the humbly christened David Evans is known to rock posterity as The Edge. I always thought this was the most unbearably pretentious and self-important name in all of rock until I heard the U2 band's vocalist speak of him in an interview. With his Irish accent and pronunciation, Bono calls him "The Hedge". It's a great pity that there is no chance Mr Evans will ever be raised to a seat in the House of Lords, where he could take the title Baron The Hedge of Reason.

Please read more in my freely downloadable book, accessible from the link in the right sidebar, Common Sense.

Sunday, December 24, 2006


"There's nothing more surprising and enjoyable than getting a comment on your blog" wrote Guy Browning in The Guardian Weekend magazine the other day ('How to ... Blog' December 16th). I'm sure what he suggests is true but I really (clearly) wouldn't know.

When I worked as his producer on the television serial King of the Ghetto, the director Roy Battersby said many things that I remember and by which I remain nourished. Pertinent to the matter in hand is his description of taking home rushes (the daily unedited footage on tape) for long and detailed discussions with his family. "Christ," I thought when I first heard this, "I'll be lucky if anybody in my family even gives me any sort of indication that they watch it on transmission, let alone volunteering to put in their twopenn'orth during the process of making it".

My father who, as the saying goes, "never read a book in his life", certainly never read any of my three books published in his lifetime; or, if he did, he never told me so. My mother lived to read my novel, not a work she would ever have encountered had it not been, as it were, related to her. Her only comment was to deprecate a passing reference in the story to a man taking a shower, pulling back his foreskin and soaping the glans of his penis. It was hardly the pivotal moment of the story and I waited eagerly for her to find something in the main traffic of the plot to remark upon but she never did. While they were both alive, I published a large body of journalism which, I fondly imagine, she at least would comprehensively have read, but as to whether it ever entertained, educated or informed her, I remained unenlightened. My father used to spend a long time with his face buried in "the paper" but I never heard that he read anything that his son wrote. Maybe it was just a cover for snoozing, or avoiding issues.

Even my partner of nigh on 27 years, as voracious a reader as I know on seven continents, is not what I would venture to call forthcoming about my own stuff. If he has read my book Common Sense (freely downloadable from the link to the right of this entry) and if he reads this passing squib, I do not expect ever to discover it (but if I do, I will report back).

Why is this? Is it something about me? Is it something about writing? Some 15 years ago, I worked for a while in a bookshop. The shop manager was also a singer in the local choral society, a highly regarded body of voices that has appeared on professional recordings. Now, you understand, she was one voice among many. Even so, she manifested lasting indignation that, while working at the shop, I omitted to attend a performance by this choir, the choir needless to say playing a supporting role in which, as I say, she was but one unidentifiable voice. I thought – but did not say – "I wonder which if any of my books you have read. Books, after all, are your business as a book shop manager. And a book is a considerably more personal investment for its writer than is a performance in a choir by one of its members". I did not lay indignation on her. But I thought her own indignation was, to put it mildly, disproportionate.

Performers do seem to think that they are entitled to a remarkable degree of reassurance. All the actors I have known over the years – quite a few – have expected me AS A MATTER OF COURSE (I don't want to shout but I have yet to find how to access italics on this blogsite) to make the effort to witness their performances, however paltry the role in however humdrum the telly serial or play above a pub, however fugitive the advertisement or inaccessible the regional rep production. I think to myself: "Here I am forcing myself to watch an episode of The Bill that I would really rather not bother with for one scene towards the end but to how much trouble does this actor put himself in order to read all or any of my exquisitely honed pieces of journalism? Does it even occur to him that to seek my pieces out would be an appropriately equivalent gesture?"

I have been hugely gratified by the volume of downloading that my book has attracted. Of course, in one's fantasy version, one anticipates THOUSANDS of downloads so that, after just a week or two, one can tell the sceptical publishing editors who thought one was "too intellectual" for their market (ha!) that one has attracted sufficient readers that, were they paying, one would be in the best seller list. (Well, dear reader, unless you pass the word as assiduously as I hope you might, this will not be achieved for all that the download has exceeded my expectations). But I really wish I had a better idea of what response the stuff has wrought. Instructively enough, with the odd bright exception, the initial feedback came from writers of one kind or another, not least the aforementioned Mr Battersby, an auteur manque if ever there was one (as well as italics, I have still to find accents here). They KNOW that writers need quite as much reassurance as performers do. I don't want to bleat but I do wish everybody understood that.

So please, if anything in this blog or the associated book touches any chord at all for you, either positively or negatively, do take a few moments and a deep breath to say so. It makes far more sense to me than an uninterpretable digit on a visitor counter. And do have a cool yule.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


[Like its two immediate predecessors, this is a new piece, not to be found in my book which is freely downloadable by clicking the Common Sense link in the right-hand sidebar ... ]

So, how indeed can sex workers be protected? Suffolk Constabulary, confronted by an unprecedented series of murders of women prostitutes, have been taking some stick for "not doing enough", whatever that may be, to keep the women safe. In their turn, police spokesmen have begun to sound a touch exasperated that prostitutes are still out alone at night in a land that sounds faintly absurd to anyone who has vainly sought an edible evening meal in the town: "the red-light district of Ipswich".

Those women still working the Ipswich streets say they simply can't afford not to. You can see their dilemma, whether it be to feed a drug habit or to feed fatherless children. Like any other parent, they are under the cosh of capitalism's high season and its central obligation: to give the kids a fabulous (i.e. expensive) Christmas. If anything is still sacred to this season of the year, it is the spending of money. If the shops don't have "a good Christmas", then evidently no one else can have one either. Those long-lost yule traditions – carol-singing, a good long walk, non-electrical decorations, parlour games, exchanging family news – cost nothing. They have been replaced by the shopping spree, the blow-out, the hi-tech goods, the 24-hour television and the doubling of the power bill on lights all over the house. It's particularly tough for an unskilled mother who is the sole breadwinner.

But if a red-light district is policed, it will die. The johns will move out and look elsewhere. It is in the nature of casual and anonymous sexual encounters that they take place in the shadows. Al fresco group sex aside (and that is less rarefied than you might think), anyone partaking of a furtive sexual encounter does it on a one-to-one basis, not with the possibility of other people seeing. And that requires a high degree of trust on both sides concerning the unspoken rules. Anyone – be they hunter or hunted, looking for cash or just looking to get their rocks off – steps into this world knowing that it carries risks. If there's someone out there who has no compunction about killing cold-bloodedly or beating up or passing a sexually-transmitted disease or just robbing, it's easy enough to abuse that trust. As one who has gone out "cruising" in his time – looking for a quick encounter with another guy – I know that the undertone of danger and unpredictability is part of the experience. For some, it's the most important part. No one wants to end up beaten to a pulp with his underpants round his ankles, but the constant need to be watchful and intuitive about strangers and situations adds a piquancy to the quest.

Many of the women working the Ipswich streets will no doubt hate the life – a far higher proportion, I submit, than that of the gay men who haunt the town's cruising grounds. That they find themselves obliged to pursue a desperate course is compounded by the present danger. What's more, the punters must have substantially dwindled in number. Any man out looking for a biddable woman is liable to make himself a murder suspect. Only the really determined are going to run the gamut of police patrols and alerted prostitutes (who are perhaps carrying weapons for self-protection), not to mention the raggle-taggle army of the media.

The press and broadcast coverage seems to me to be simply bizarre. Why do bulletin editors think they are serving a useful function by sending their anchors to Ipswich night after night to go over and over the same bare facts and the same obvious and routine observations? Any half-intelligent viewer could do as good a job from his armchair without setting foot in Suffolk. Anyone who does enter Ipswich is certain to be "interviewed" by a researcher and, provided she says something wholly banal ("yes, it's very worrying"), she's bound to get on air. It all builds up a miasma of worry and concern to no purpose, a sort of vicarious dread, designed, I guess, to drive us off the streets and in front of the telly.

If there are further casualties and even then there are prostitutes still working the streets, the police will surely consider imposing a curfew on any women going out after, say, 9.00pm. I have a pre-emptive suggestion. In a situation like this, it is not women who are the problem. It is men. If anyone should be confined indoors during certain hours of darkness, it should be men.

But the sex workers won't thank the police for any controls on their or their customers' movements. After all, it's only one john who is wreaking havoc. I would imagine that market forces have by now heavily raised the rates to make up the short fall in punters. Whatever the danger, the working girls still need to work. Police, media and others visiting this underworld for a short period tend to forget that such danger has always been the context in which that market conducts itself.

Sunday, December 10, 2006


Like the previous entry, this is new stuff, not extracted from the book Common Sense, which you can download for nothing by clicking on the link in the right hand margin ...

I was in London last week, catching up with old friends, new shows and some Christmas shopping (though I much prefer to do the latter in Bath these days). Choosing what to see in town on a short visit is fraught with the danger of disappointment. You have to follow your nose and hope for the best. And what you see is inevitably dictated by the critical consensus as well as by the shape of the time you have. I specifically chose to visit last week so that I could be sure to get to the musical Caroline, or Change at the Lyttelton, picking up day seats at the box office first thing on the day of the performance. Being in the National Theatre's repertoire, the show isn't always available. Everything else I saw in town fell into place around that centrepiece.

Now, I greatly admire Tony Kushner's work and my interest in his first musical (as lyricist and book writer) was inevitably sharpened by the plaudits it has received and by its winning an Evening Standard award the other day. And Kushner's wish "to explore the civil rights movement, race relations, African-Americans and southern Jews in the early 1960s" (programme note) appealed to me strongly.

But how was it? Well, there's a helluva lot to like in the show. It's very nicely staged and it has a terrific cast, led by a really wonderful performance by Tonya Pinkins as the eponym. On the night I and my friend were there, the three young boys (the roles have alternate players) were particularly accomplished, much more convincing as Americans than English child actors usually manage. It seems perverse, however, to cast in a (grown-up) role that requires a minimum of acting but a great deal of clarinet-playing an actor who has to mime the instrument.

The downside is uppermost, though. The score is not strong. It's through-composed and it rarely resolves into a discrete number. Towards the end, Anna Francolini's somewhat one-noted stepmother had a sequence that actually rhymed and began to shape into something like a song, at which point the show came closest to being Sondheimesque and musically interesting. Elsewhere, the discursive score made the plot appear to meander. That flavour was compounded by the show's worst flaw: everything – every scene, every sequence, every aria and piece of recitative – was just too long. You wanted to call out "ok, we get it already, move on". As a result, the show feels thin. With a more demanding director or producer, the whole story it tells could easily have made for a first act, leaving a second to take up the implications and run a lot further with them.

A highly-praised movie that left me a great deal colder than Caroline was Borat. The Guardian's film critic, usually the hardest to please of the current crop of reviewers (unless the movie in question is at least 25 years old), named Borat as one of his top five films of the year – as the list wasn't alphabetical and he put it first, it may well have been his topmost film of the year. I suspect he will come to revise that opinion. Just in terms of simple film-making, Borat is far from notable. A film of the year ought to display a bit of craft, let alone a bit of art. (The same critic cited as one of his movie moments of the year "Penelope Cruz singing her heart out in Volver" and, as Cruz is patently dubbed, you fall to wondering if Mr Bradshaw has given very much thought to his list).

It seemed to me that, for a knockdown comedy, Borat was fatally unfunny. Humour is a matter of taste ... up to a point. What is deemed funny can be analysed without the comic essence of it being washed away. The relentless misogyny and anti-Semitism of Borat's character is supposed to be forgivable because a) it's so hilarious and b) Borat's creator Sacha Baron Cohen is Jewish (though not female). Intriguingly enough, there is also a good deal of homo-erotically orientated humour that is rather less broad and (mock-)offensive. It seems clear enough to me that Cohen's natural audience is one made up of male adolescents who relish being "grossed out". A friend who loved it – male, gay, Jewish, 59 – and who, unlike me, saw it with a full evening audience (I reserve my London evenings for the theatre) reports that his loudly appreciative fellows were of all ages and both sexes. I think that just goes to show that we are all lads now.

One of the aspects of the movie that most repulsed me was that I believed hardly any of it. Documentary has always been a dissembling form, artifice masquerading as unmediated actuality. I sensed that almost everything here was a put-up job. It is quite funny (and poetic) that the ghastly, mouthy frat boys who are suing Twentieth Century Fox for the way they are portrayed are the ones who evidently least needed to be provoked into expressing their stupid views by Borat. In their sequence he is unusually withdrawn, letting them hang themselves. Clearly some of the other participants were conned into appearing in a different vehicle from the one they were led to expect and I find myself sympathising with them. Did they sign a release before or after filming? Never mind that most of them are dumb-ass rednecks and absurd evangelists. (Indeed, the attitudes of some of Borat's victims are capable of more than one reading. In Sight & Sound, Ali Jaafar's review describes "a dinner party of white Southern respectables who leave the moment Borat's guest is revealed to be black" but I would submit that it is rather her patent function as a prostitute that precipitates the exodus).

Generally the people whose advice Borat seeks treat him with a lot more grace and decency than he treats them. A woman to whom Borat goes for guidance in etiquette maintains her dignity with exquisite poise, despite everything Cohen throws at her, not least photographs of his "son" brandishing his cock. If you laugh at this sequence, what is it that you are laughing at? That Borat does something "shocking"? Well, it doesn't work. The woman is too dignified to give him the satisfaction of outrage; rather, she plays a completely straight bat. Is that funny? At whose expense?

From Jonathan Routh to Noel Edmonds to Dennis Pennis, there is something deeply repellent about hoax television, the whipping up of an audience's scorn against some innocent stooge. Only Chris Morris, a truly radical and subversive broadcaster, manages to turn hoaxing into a usefully political weapon and he uses it against those who richly deserve to be publicly pilloried (eg Gary Lineker). All the others, not least Cohen, are simply exercising gratuitous cruelty. I hope somebody is collecting the off-cuts of those moments where it goes grotesquely wrong and backfires. Borat just about gets through it at television length. As a feature, his material is stretched pitifully thin – the naked wrestling with his obese manager is the work of a man with no jokes left to tell – and its lack of structure (how much of it has anything remotely of the television report about it?) makes it look lame and indisciplined. And yes, it's a big box office hit. Well, so was Chuck Norris once. I don't think that means it's any good.

I saw a play and a movie, both by the same suddenly emerging writer and featuring the same increasingly dazzling actor. Both do something profoundly resonant and riveting with an event from recent British history, managing to crystallize in a most engaging and persuasive way a sense of irrevocable change in the socio-political landscape. I saw the movie back to back with Borat: odd that both were documentary-dramas about a British institution whose origins lie in other lands (well, I suppose Borat is as likely to be a British institution as Dame Edna Everage). Have you guessed the other movie yet? Well, it was The Queen. And what a deftly paced, delicately handled work it is, both by writer Peter Morgan and by director Stephen Frears. I know it wins its spurs as a feast of acting – Dame Helen Mirren is certainly unmatchable as Her Majesty – but you don't get acting this good unless it is underpinned by a richly textured script and controlled by an acute and watchful director. The miracle is that everyone emerges really very sympathetically, with the exception (no surprise, though) of the Duke of Edinburgh. I've never before felt quite so clearly the real potential (unrealised so far in the real world) of "New Labour", nor the importance of maintaining the traditions that hang about the House of Windsor. The careful, carefully inexplicit confrontation of these two forces and their never-stated accommodation is touched in with triumphant skill. There's not a false note or a wasted line in the whole film. It's the most enthralling broad-brush portrait of the English class balance since Gosford Park. And you only have to begin to ponder the bear-traps that such a project has confidently avoided to see how really remarkable it is.

Frost Nixon is no less an achievement. After his Tony Blair in The Queen (already familiar from Peter Morgan's television script The Deal), Michael Sheen transforms himself into a plausible, never guyed David Frost. Morgan's stage play is about far more than just the television interview with former President Richard Nixon. As Queen Elizabeth II had to bend to public expectation of an expression of her family's loss of the Princess of Wales, so Nixon had to be drawn into an acknowledgment of wrong-doing in the Watergate Scandal. In both cases, accessibility and accountability are seen becoming watchwords of the age. With an almost scientific skill, Morgan teases out the process of nudging Nixon into a place from which he cannot retreat. His director Michael Grandage realizes his blueprint impeccably. This is a major work. And what a time Peter Morgan is having. Along with his Longford script for Channel 4, he has conquered all three non-musical dramatic mediums this year.

Beside it, Caryl Churchill's Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? seems a little anemic. I adore a lot of Churchill – Top Girls, Cloud Nine and Serious Money of course – but she drives me nuts at other times. I loved the Marx Brothers madness of Heart's Desire but couldn't stand the remorseless logic of its companion piece Blue Kettle. Drunk Enough shares an irritating tic with another of her brief works, A Number, in that the characters continually interrupt each other but she doesn't write through the interruption, leaving it impossible to play without appearing stutteringly artificial. The new piece is very schematic – two men who are having an affair are rather explicitly The American and The British positions on foreign policy – and it felt too naked for me, so that there wasn't any human interest in what passed between them, only a kind of cerebral admiration for an exercise. I wish Churchill would renew her interest in and feel for character. Writing out of anger is all very fine but righteousness is not necessarily very compelling. Serious Money had rage to burn but it had a vivid theatricality too.

And then there was my dose of sex. Attitude magazine hails Shortbus as "alongside Brokeback Mountain the most important gay film of the year", though in truth it is pan-sexual, certainly not limited to gay voyeurism. And Time Out swoons: "how not to love a film that features an 'orgasmic superhero' called Shabbas Goy, a guy having 'The Star-Spangled Banner' sung up his ass and a drag queen with a megaphone?" Shortbus is a lot more engaging than John Cameron Mitchell's previous cinematic essay in the leisure hours of (sexually) driven New Yorkers, the mad and relentless Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but if it's what passes these days as a "sweetly romantic" movie (Attitude again), then give me Michael Powell's I Know Where I'm Going! any day. What it is – let's not mince words here – is porn. I have seen plenty of the recent movies, many of them of French origin, that feature unsimulated sex – Virginie Despertes Coralie's Baise-moi, Gaspar Noë's Seul contre tous and Irreversible, Patrice Chereau's Intimacy, though not Michael Winterbottom's Nine Songs (you can have too much of a good thing) – and I don't think any of them can claim to be other than porn. Porn with a degree of story and character and even occasional humour certainly, but no less porn for all that. People will get the DVD of Shortbus for jacking off purposes. Only the truly unhinged do that with sweetly romantic movies.

The mâitresse d' of the back room that gives Shortbus its title is Justin Bond, aka Kiki of Kiki & Herb who have also been in London lately. I didn't catch their show, Christmas Happens ("show business has destroyed them but they cannot live without it" says a flyer), but the gay friend I mentioned before told me that he has seen them in New York and that they're the sort of indulgent act that gives stoners a bad name. After Bond's performance in Shortbus, I certainly wouldn't have rushed to see Kiki & Herb. In the grand tradition of drag gagsters, he's not even worth mentioning.

Finally (though first in my actual chronology of viewings) was Paul Andrew Williams' London to Brighton, which makes Brighton Rock look like Mary Poppins. It's a low-life melodrama that is unremittingly horrible from beginning to end but it's a superb piece of no-budget movie-making by a real film-maker who will surely go on to make a string of masterpieces. In purely cinematic terms of old-fashioned craft – cutting, framing, structure, pace, placing of the camera, character-through-dialogue, directing of performances – it leaves Borat and Shortbus looking shoddy and unimaginative, which is largely what they are. In twenty years' time, all being well, it is Paul Andrew Williams whose career will mean something.