Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Going domestic in East Asia

In the week that Pirates of the Caribbean opened to record business on 17,500 screens in 102 territories, it's worth noting that it isn't all going Hollywood's way. In 2006, Japan and China joined India and South Korea as major territories in which the domestic film industry managed to achieve 50% of domestic box office. If you want to know what kinds of films these industries are producing, a good starting point is Leung Wing-Fai's review of the 2007 Far East Film Festival in Udine, which we are honoured to present on the in the picture website. Fai wasn't that impressed with what was on offer, but "telling it like it is" is part of her style. What's clear is that these industries function much like other commercial industries and we need to keep track of the range of their ouputs.

2007 looks like a good year for Hollywood, but it is increasingly looking towards East Asian markets -- the Pirates franchise brought in Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun-fat for the latest instalment. The latest MPAA figures suggest that Hollywood's share of the global market has been falling. Partly this is because some territories are growing fast (e.g. Russia) and partly because the difficulties of collecting box office figures in many territories have led to an underestimation of some national totals. In 2006, MPAA quotes a global market for cinema of $25.8 billion with US on $9.49 billion and East Asia on $6.32 billion (an increase of 15% over 2005-6).

Helpless, helpless

"There is a town in North Ontario,
With dream comfort memory to spare,
And in my mind I still need a place to go,
All my changes were there."

k.d. lang sings Neil Young's words for 'Helpless' at the end of Sarah Polley's wonderful film Away From Her (a recording taken from her album of Canadian songs entitled 'Hymns of the 49th Parallel'). Young's words are powerfully suggestive of the emotions in the film and the cover of k.d. lang's album could be a still from the film.

I was certainly helpless from about twenty minutes in when I began to weep (possibly as the strains to 'Harvest Moon' started on the soundtrack) and couldn't stop throughout the rest of the film. I had approached the screening with much trepidation. Like most people my age I've had some experience of Alzheimer's disease in the family and the prospect of Julie Christie gradually deteriorating was worrying to say the least. But what I watched was a sensitive and moving story of a marriage which was not sentimental or romantic, but nevertheless optimistic.

On reflection, this is a film in which a quartet (or possibly a quintet) of women effectively help a man to come to terms with being parted from his partner of 44 years (i.e. being 'away from her'). Some of the women help with compassion, the care home manager is coldly (and irritatingly) efficient, another woman is 'plain talking'. The chief nurse is the compassionate one – but is also to the point in her criticism of him. And at the centre is Fiona (Julie Christie) devastatingly beautiful and knowing, even as her hold on memory unravels. The man, Grant (a great performance of bewilderment by the veteran Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent), worries that she may be putting on an act -- and perhaps she is because she does manage to get him to question what he has done during the marriage.

I've read some interesting reviews, including one on the Village Voice website by Ella Taylor. I haven't see too many comments about the style of the film, except to suggest that it is 'conservative'. I think it is probably a good idea for a first time director to be cautious in presenting a story, so that isn't necessarily a bad thing. The overwhelming sense is of whiteness, blankness and cold, which seems appropriate. The only visual flourish I remember is the series of cross-fades which removes the visiting relatives from the dining tables in the care home -- an appropriate and effective device.

I don't think I've read any of Alice Munro's short stories (this film is adapted from 'The Bear Came Over the Mountain'), but this reminds me of other Canadian women writers. There is something of Carol Shields and Margaret Atwood in it -- and also something older and more Nordic (perhaps it's the landscape). Fiona is supposed to be from Icelandic stock and Grant reads to her from Auden and Louis MacNeice's book 'Letters from Iceland'. Trying to research those Canadian stories I've read (and regrettably forgotten) I came across Marjorie Anderson, an academic and author whose bio explains that she is of Icelandic fisher stock from a community on Lake Winnipeg -- a background which is presumably common in Manitoba and Ontario. There is something about the landscape of Ontario , the Protestantism, the Northern European culture, that creates a tone that you just don't find in American movies. It's evident in this film (in the landscape seen through the car windows and in the "brand spanking new" facility that is Meadowdale (or similarly horrible name for a care home)). I'm nudged to think of Cronenberg films like Crash, eXistenZ and A History of Violence (filmed in Canada). Anglophone Canadian Cinema is usually 'weird' -- but in a good way! This film is simply very good. I must watch more Canadian movies and I'll certainly be looking out for Sarah Polley, who sounds rather like Jodie Foster in beginning as a child star and making it to respected indy star and now acclaimed director at 27.

(The film was actually shot in Paris and Kitchener in Southern Ontario. My research turned up a literary genre which was new to me -- 'Southern Ontario Gothic'. This includes Munro and Atwood and also my favourite, Robertson Davies. It includes the elements I listed above and tends towards themes of moral hypocrisy according to Wikipedia. Isn't the internet wonderful? But why isn't anyone making movies based on Robertson Davies? I guess they would just be too 'weird'.)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

What's in a name?

I've rarely been so engaged by a film as I was by The Namesake. What I mean is, that I was at the same time enjoying the story and the characterisation, wishing I was in Calcutta, remembering visiting the Taj Mahal, reliving Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak films and occasionally being irritated by the American characters (and possibly cross because they seemed a little too much of a type when the central couple were so beautifully drawn).

There is something about Bengali Cinema which is irresistible and nearly always involves trains, the Ganges and the streets of Calcutta. But perhaps it is those thick black-rimmed spectacles that only Bengali intellectuals (and Buddy Holly) can wear and still look cool. All of these iconic signs are present in this film and its much the better for their inclusion -- the first section of the film is wonderful. This was my introduction to Tabu and I wish I'd seen her before. (I've subsequently realised that I have seen her before in the wonderful Tamil adaptation of Sense and Sensibility under the title Kandukondain, Kandukondain, 2000) Now that I've discovered that she is the niece of Shabana Azmi, I'll be looking out for her. Irrfan Khan as the father is also very good and I hadn't recognised him from The Warrior.

I guess on reflection that I enjoyed the American scenes between the son and his partners slightly less than those featuring the parents, but overall the story held my attention (and Zuleikha Robinson is an actor well worth keeping tabs on). I've read a couple of fairly damning reviews of Kal Penn's performance as the son and I'm afraid I'd probably agree that his character was the weakest element of the film. On a simple structural level, Mira Nair did well to handle what was almost a family saga on a limited budget and within the boundaries of quite a small and intimate film.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Zhang's Yellow Chrysanthemums

I've always associated Chrysants with Japan, so it was a surprise to see thousands of them in The Curse of the Golden Flower.

I went into this screening not knowing what to expect. I'd seen the trailer and got a sense of lukewarm reviews, but neither really prepared me for the film. I shouldn't be surprised that I was very taken with it -- after all, I've never been really disappointed with one of Zhang's films. He remains for me one of the top players in the premier league, whatever political confusions his films create.

The first task in responding to the film is to try to categorise it. Despite the use of the term by several critics, I don't think the film is a wu xia, at least not in the sense that I have understood the term. The main characters are not warriors following the code of a dedicated master and displaying 'super skills'. There are opera techniques in the fight scenes, which are choreographed on an epic scale, but not with the romantic intensity that ran through Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Instead, I think that this is melodrama/opera with clear links to European/Indian/Japanese films/theatre.

In terms of melodrama, I've never seen this use of colour in anything else (I saw a digital print and the effect of slightly different contrast and shades might mean the 35mm print looks more familiar). Zhang does it again, I guess. The music was the only problem for me. By the end of the film I'd got used to it, but earlier it just didn't seem to fit.

Above all, the film offered two pleasures I hadn't ever imagined I would see, the return of Gong Li to a Zhang Yimou film and the chance to see Li and Chow Yun-fat together. I could have done without all the thrusting bosoms, but Gong Li's wonderful face drew my attention all the time. If the film isn't really the third film in a trilogy, it might just be a return to Zhang's first trilogy (and indeed his first Gong Li trilogy). The film that Curse of the Golden Flower most reminded me of is Raise the Red Lantern. The Gong Li character is proud, haughty and independent, plotting to achieve some power for herself but finally defeated by the implacable nature of patriarchy in Imperial China, just as she was in the earlier film. No doubt the China watchers in the West and in China itself are working on readings. I did think of the Tiananman Square massacre and I could see the film as a critique of both patriarchy and the internal plotting of the ruling elite. On the other hand, Chow Yun-fat's Emperor has risen up from a relatively lowly position to assume power and he intends to keep it. Perhaps Zhang secretly wants to celebrate this? As usual the posters on the IMDB bulletin boards are claiming the film as 'communist propaganda'. You takes your choice. I want to know why I'm not getting to see the film Zhang made before this, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. UK distribs please note.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Do Mention the War . . . but differently

This is a postscript to the Ian McEwan/On Chesil Beach/Atonement blog a few weeks ago.

I said I was fed up with the same middle-class characters and their wartime lives, but I am very interested in 1940s Britain, perhaps more about the Home Front than the battlefield these days. If the battles/theatres of operation are less well known, however, I can get very involved.

I was greatly looking forward to Sarah Waters' The Night Watch. I'd found Fingersmith interesting and enjoyable, but not totally gripping. The Night Watch promised to be about the kinds of characters and experiences that intrigue me. I did have problems reading it -- simply finding long periods when I could concentrate. Unfortunately, because of its reverse narrative structure, this meant I didn't really appreciate what she was trying to do in structural terms. However, unlike with the McEwan (and unlike several of Amazon's reviewers) I did find the characters interesting and there were many times when I was both emotionally involved and intellectually challenged to understand the conditions in wartime London. The abortion scene was realistic and moving to the extent that I was looking for the literary equivalent of watching the cinema screen with my hands over my eyes -- unfortunately there is no equivalent of just listening to the soundtrack, so I had to skip a few pages. Waters lists all her research sources and what a fascinating list it is. The highest praise I can think of is to say that the abortion scene shocked me as much as the one in the film version of Alfie (1965) and that the general evocation of London in the 1940s was as vivid as in the contemporary 1940s novels of Nigel Balchin such as A Sort of Traitors (1949) and in particular the film adaptation of The Small Back Room (book 1945). I got hints of Iris Murdoch's Under The Net (1954) (the sequence by the Thames) and of Orwell's 1930s novels such as Coming Up For Air or Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Of course, when I looked at those novels again, the style was completely different, but they all painted the same kinds of pictures in my imagination.

My partner's book club also discussed The Night Watch and someone suggested that it would be the perfect book to read again. I must remember that and go back to it when I can do it justice.

As for other theatres of war, I've just finished Jo Nesbo's The Redbreast, a Norwegian thriller with a plot involving an elderly fascist assassin who as a 20 year-old had been in the Norwegian division of the Waffen SS fighting on the Eastern Front in 1943-4. The extent of Norwegian collaboration with the Nazis and the involvement of young fascists in the fighting was a revelation to me and sent me off to learn more about similar units from other countries. I'd known vaguely about this, but not in this kind of detail or with this kind of interpretation (i.e. again a complex and humanist account, suggesting a range of motivations for joining the German army). This also tied in with my growing awareness of the history of fascism and Nazi sympathisers in Sweden courtesy of Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander crime thrillers/detective/procedurals. Film adaptations of these novels would be good, but I guess they are more likely to be made for Swedish/Norwegian television. Thinking I must research this, I discovered a link to Slavoj Zizek's website to find a typically infuriating but fascinating critique of Mankell's work.

Draft A Level Film and Media specs for 2008

What should we all make of the draft specs of the ‘new’ A Levels? The new specs presumably have to be similar enough to what went before to give teachers and students confidence that they will still have currency. On this basis, it's about fitting six existing units into four, the main reason for the re-write being a concern about the amount of testing.

I’m going to assume that A Levels still have a purpose, despite the fact that they were originally devised to be taken by a small percentage of school leavers attempting university entrance. Now they are taken by a large percentage of school leavers in a rather different university recruitment context. Here are some possible objectives for an A Level spec:

1. to provide a test of the specific skills, knowledge and understanding acquired by a potential candidate for a specific university degree, i.e. in this case media, film or cultural studies (or possibly a more vocationally orientated production degree);

2. to provide a more general test of candidate abilities in relation to further study or employment, i.e. intellectual skills, transferable skills, study skills etc.;

3. to contribute to a young persons general educational development and social understanding, i.e. the concept of a ‘well-rounded’ liberal education.

I’m going to look at each spec in broad terms evaluating it in relation to these objectives. I don’t teach any of the existing specs, but I do produce teaching and learning materials and work with teachers and students on specific topics.

WJEC A Level Film
This spec seems to me to be well thought out, clearly structured and overall a coherent curriculum offer. It can claim to cover each of the three objectives. Impressively, it includes a wide range of syllabus material that would prepare students for a film studies degree. It offers a range of assessment activities that allow practical work, independent study, coursework and exams with enough time to develop arguments in essays. Overall the A Level looks as though it will stretch able students whilst providing a fair challenge for all students appropriately recruited.

It includes a range of options to select from and compulsory sections at A2 which will introduce students to a broader perspective on cultural life and contribute to general educational and cultural objectives.

The approach adopted makes use of set topics from which centres and students must choose. Such topic lists are always contentious, especially when they include lists of focus films. I will avoid the temptation to argue against specific inclusions of films or film movements etc. Instead, I simply argue that there is one problem I have with the intellectual basis of the spec. and one with its structure.

I’m not happy with the overall approach to what the spec calls ‘national cinema’. To discuss American and British Cinema in terms of ‘national cinemas’ risks confusion for students. There is something called ‘British Cinema’ and that can be related to ideas about ‘National Cinema’ often discussed previously in terms of different European cinema movements. However, the British film industry is inextricably linked to Hollywood, which is not a ‘national cinema’ as such (in the same way that ‘Bollywood’ is not the national cinema of India as the spec. suggests in the A2 unit, FM4). The spec. does offer students the chance to explore British Cinema as well as American independent cinema, but I think the placing of these studies in the overall structure is problematic. The questions about British and American film are mostly located in AS. I think their complexity suggests that they should be in A2.

The other side of the coin to the British/American debate is the location of ‘other film cultures’ (I want to avoid the term ‘World Cinema’ as used in the spec.) only in A2. In this sense, the spec. fails to take the opportunities to introduce AS students to a more diverse range of films. I think it would be possible to study films from other cultures alongside British/American films at AS. One of my main objectives in cinema-based education each year is to screen non-American films to AS students and engage in work on narrative and genre. Because of the structure of the Film Studies AS/A2, these events are generally restricted to AS Media students, who don’t appear to have major problems dealing with subtitled films. Events using Lola rennt, Tsotsi, Ringu and À la folie pas du tout have been amongst the most successful I have delivered. At the same time, I am faced with audiences of A2 Media students tackling ‘Contemporary British Cinema’ alongside AS Film students grappling with the same concepts. I suggest that, although Film Studies is a well structured spec. overall, the emphasis on British Cinema and ‘other cinemas’ could be looked at again.

I can see there is an argument to focus on British Cinema in AS because of the wish to study representation issues at AS and using a British film might make this more accessible. However, I think it could be argued that representation issues covering, for example, youth, cultural diversity, urban living, crime and punishment, war etc. could be studied using a range of films from Europe, East Asia, Africa etc. as well as a British film. I also note that the Film Studies spec. attempts to engage students in study at AS of historical periods of film production in Britain and North America. Is this actually more accessible than cross-cultural study? I’m certainly not arguing against historical study, but it could be more focused on A2.

AS Film is taken by a larger number of students than A2 Film. I think it is more important to introduce the AS cohort to a more diverse range of films than it is to explore the complexities of the British film industry and its relationship with Hollywood. I think this may point to the need for more consideration about the relationship between A Level Film and A Level Media Studies. I’m impressed by the way that Film Studies, as an A Level, attempts to keep a breadth of approach which matches the best of Film Studies at HE. However, at AS, I’m less sure what the spec. offers to a student who does not intend to take Film at A2. I have some similar doubts about AS Media, but I recognise that this might be for different reasons. As far as film is concerned, I think AS as an introduction to studying ‘film as film’ (i.e. as distinct from the way films might have been present in earlier school work) should include an emphasis on the diversity of approaches different filmmakers in different cultures take towards telling stories and representing ideas, emotions and cultural experiences.

AQA Media Studies
The requirement to move to four units has had a noticeable effect on the AQA spec. It has lost some of the feel of a ‘text-centred’ spec., which downplayed industry/institution, audience and production work. This is, I think, for the good and it feels like a more modern spec. and one which bears a little more relationship to media studies in HE.

The ‘organising principle’ in the spec. has now been redefined in terms of ‘technologies’ or ‘platforms’. Students are required to study and to produce texts associated with ‘broadcast’ ‘e-media’ or ‘print’. This enables the spec. to focus more attention on what is happening in terms of changes in both production practice and audience use of the media. However, the actual definition is rather confused. A better definition might be based on institutional differences, such as films, TV series on DVD, games etc. sold for long-term use vs interactive, ‘live’, frequently broadcast and updated programming etc. (in simple language, ‘long-term’ and ‘short-term’ use). The spec does require ‘cross-media’ work which might allow the useful study of something like the music magazine Kerrang!, which exists as a print, web and broadcast (radio and TV) brand.

The spec. now requires production work at both AS and A2. Again, improvement, but I think there is quite a bit to do to consider what this means alongside the Applied A Level. Many students who might look at this A Level, should probably be advised to look at the Applied instead. The production briefs outlined in the spec. look rather confusing and for me display all the worst aspects of A Level assessment. The concept of a £30 million ‘hybrid genre’ movie part-funded by lottery movie is frankly ludicrous and its sad to see the ‘trailer’ brief included again. There doesn’t seem to be any balance between this and the web design and print briefs (more like journalism brief). This needs much more work to be viable.

Overall. I think the spec offers a possible introduction to media studies at HE and a range of student activities which might contribute to general education as well as being attractive to students. The assessment framework is rather weak, I think. Exams are very short. 90 mins was barely long enough for one of three units at AS. But for an A2 exam? OK, students will have 45 mins for one question, but 15 mins for each of three questions relating to an unseen stimulus (this is the MEST3 paper)? Compared to WJEC Film Studies this does not seem to offer the same kind of examination of essay writing skills. It may well be that MEST4 with its Critical Research Paper demanding a 2000 word essay is designed to counter this argument. Perhaps it will, but I wonder about HE recruiters, who are already worried about what students have actually learned in a Media Studies A Level and might want more evidence.

This spec also falls down in comparison with Film Studies in terms of the ‘broader perspective’. There is no listing of preferred study texts in the media studies spec., but also no encouragement to go beyond the ‘mainstream’ media that are easily accessible in the UK. The word ‘global’ or ‘international’ does not figure anywhere in the spec. Len Masterman once mocked me for my habit of searching specs via pdf files for certain words, but this strikes me as important. The Audio-Visual industry is one of the most important generators of wealth and cultural values in all developed economies and especially in Europe. This spec is failing to take the opportunity to introduce students to globalisation debates and cultural diversity. It also misses out on the possibilities of linking to new language teaching initiatives (Indian, Chinese, Spanish media perhaps?) If I were selecting between specs., this would be my main reason for not choosing this one.

OCR Media Studies
Since OCR already had two production units and had already made a move towards ‘new media’ and towards a higher profile for audience and institution work, the changes from six to four units do not look so dramatic. In general terms, although the question of similarity to and relationship with the Applied A Level are much the same as with AQA, the OCR spec seems to me more coherent and more confident in how it handles both the set production briefs and the overall approach to production work.

The assessment schedule with its 2 hour exam for two questions at AS (with 30 minutes viewing/note-taking time) and a similar 2 hour exam for what is effectively two questions (i.e. two linked questions about production work and one about a media debate) at A2 looks much better balanced than AQA’s. The decision to organise options by ‘media industry’ (i.e. film. newspapers, gaming etc.) means that there is a risk that issues of convergence etc. might be missed, but I’m reasonably confident that the detail in the specification, the guidance offered and the way in which different media forms are linked through production tasks will mean this doesn’t happen.

The synoptic unit 4 (G324) in A2 has been described to me as ‘challenging’ and I think it may well prove to be so, but it seems to me to have been well written in terms of topics from which candidates will chose specific media debates. This spec. does offer the opportunity to study ‘Global Media’ or ‘Media and Collective Identity’ as well as other topics, all of which should broaden student experience of media activity.

In summary, I think that this spec. offers the potential for both a good general and subject specific preparation for further study and, with appropriate selections of topics/briefs, a broadening experience. But that selection is important. My concerns about the existing OCR spec has always been that it is possible to make very ‘conservative’ choices of topics in AS and A2 which could lead to a narrow view of the media. Oddly, I think the restriction to four units in the new spec may actually mean that the narrow view is less possible. However, much will depend on the inservice training that teachers receive. I can’t help feeling that the OCR spec looks like being for the more adventurous teacher.

WJEC Media Studies
I’m much less familiar with the existing WJEC spec., so perhaps my comments on the new spec are more objective. I am aware of the reputation of this spec. in its earlier forms and therefore I’m not surprised by how it has turned out. At first glance, it is much simpler in presentation with far less detail in the spec. and less prescribed choice of topics. This does mean that sometimes it feels like a more old-fashioned approach. Again the organising principle is ‘media industries and there is a requirement in the synoptic unit to work on the products of three different industries.

I’m not very impressed with the two units which focus on production. They are quite basic in terms of setting out briefs and seem to focus on quite long/substantial evaluations. They don’t suggest anything silly, but also don’t encourage much adventure.

I do worry that ‘institution’ as a concept seems less clearly present in the AS spec than in the other two, but encouragingly ‘global’ issues do get a mention in A2. Overall, the lack of detailed prescription puts more onus on the teacher. Good teachers should have no problem constructing quality courses. On the other hand, this isn’t a very exciting or challenging spec. It looks a ‘safer’ bet than the AQA but not as challenging as the OCR spec. This is surprising when considered alongside WJEC’s Film Studies, which as indicated above, I think is carefully constructed to introduce (at least potentially) all the main elements of a degree course.

Assessment for this spec. is much more ‘rigorous’ with two 2 and a half hour exams. With three questions per paper, this gives more than 45 mins per question at A2 (AS has an unseen stimulus, but only as a print extract). I did note however, that there seems to be some flexibility in writing evaluations for production work with discursive essays, illustrated reports, PowerPoints and blogs allowed.

Overview summary of all four specs
The specs have very similar structures and similar assessment instruments, but the presentation of specification content, the amount of prescription and the emphasis on certain areas of subject content varies quite considerably. I suspect that the specs will have different appeals for both students and teachers. If I were recruiting students for HE, I would be happiest to take successful students from either WJEC Film or OCR Media, but I would be concerned about students who just scraped though these qualifications as I would wonder what they had really learned. I’ve suggested that WJEC Media looks a safe bet for the average student, but I’m worried about the AQA spec. Will it actually work and from the viewpoint of wanting students to be introduced to a diversity of media texts and practices will it deliver.

Finally, all three of the Media Studies specs have moved closer to the Applied A Level (when will that move from three to two?). I think it’s time the four media specs were looked at together (what is QCA actually doing about this?). There is also the ‘Moving Image Arts’ A Level spec from CCEA in Northern Ireland? So far this has only been piloted in England in three centres, but according to the microsite for the qualification, the draft spec. for the pilot (which is a 4 unit spec) will be modified to allow a wider offer through centres from 2008. So, there will be five specs to consider plus the Creative and Media Specialised Diploma in 2008. (Of course, you could decide to do the BTEC National Diploma -- tried and trusted and no doubt still around if enough people want it!)

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Royal coverage

I'm hoping that Ségolène Royal wins in the French presidential election. I confess that I know little about her, but two things encourage my support. Firstly what I know about Sarkozy makes me feel extremely concerned about another rightwing leader getting into power. I haven't forgotten his description of the youth in les banlieues as 'scum'. Secondly, Blair wants him to win. This tells you everything you need to know really. A Labour Prime Minister wants Sarkozy to win -- no doubt as 'one of us' -- in preference to the Socialist Party candidate.

The point of this rant is simply to mark the observation that we know very little about French politics here in the UK. A very good article by Peter Wilby in the Grauniad on Monday discussed the poor coverage of the French election in the UK press. Wilby's main point is that because UK journalists are so ignorant about France, they find it difficult to report the election, not least because they can't find ways to present the candidates in familar formula stories based on the personality politics that are their daily diet. Wilby reports that the Sunday Express attempted to portray the contest as 'Madame Blair' vs 'Monsieur Maggie', which is not only silly, but completely wrong. Wilby also scores a bullseye with his comment that the 'free market liberals' who masquerade as political commentators in the UK can't understand how the French economy keeps going. "It must be unsustainable", they cry, trying to ignore the fact that decent public transport and a properly-funded health service are things that voters might want. (I'm not suggesting that there aren't problems with high unemployment in France, especially youth unemployment, but the UK critics are simply incapable of understanding what the arguments are.)

As a result of this, the coverage has been limited in the UK press, especially in the tabloids. Without juicy stories about sexual shenanigans and whether the candidates have taken drugs, nobody can think of an angle. Ironically, the Grauniad on Wednesday did raise the question of what had happened to Sarkozy's wife, who has not been seen during the campaign. I also noticed some coverage of
Ségolène Royal which simply stated that she is not married to her longtime partner François Hollande, but that the couple have brought up four children, one of whom, 21 year-old Thomas is helping his mother in her campaign. Given that Labour has suffered from the rather wimpish performance of some of its 'Blair babes' and that Blair has treated some of the more experienced women in the party pretty badly, I'm surprised that there isn't much more interest in Ms Royal in the UK (and indeed in Angela Merkel, even if she is a Christian Democrat). Where is our next female socialist leader?

As a postscript, it was intriguing to see that 23 million are reported to have watched the 2 hour presidential debate on French TV. I wonder when a UK politician ever got an audience of 23 million?