Noble Shit


"Wind and words" forms part of a speech given by Aemon Targaryen in Game Of Thrones. In six lines he covers honour, love, duty, glory and tragedy, which just about wraps up everything that earlier mythical heroes said before him. Odysseus, Robin Hood, Kibuka, Momotaro, M’Boi... icons have been around forever, but the prevalence of fable and legend in recent film and TV dramas indicates that demand for period bravura is accelerating as the century progresses.

What began in cinemas with A Knight’s Tale and Lord Of The Rings has since turned into a torrent of honour that includes Van Helsing, The Chronicles Of Narnia, 300, Immortals, Assassin’s Creed and King Arthur. On TV we’ve had Merlin, Game Of Thrones, Vikings, Atlantis, Into The Badlands, The Shannara Chronicles, Knightfall, Britannia and Troy. And that’s without even mentioning the renaissance of comic superheroes: their costumes may be sleeker but their stories advance the same classical, lofty ideals.

Audiences clearly love the old-style ethics which characterise these productions, the template for which remains the same regardless of the plot being set in the past or the future. They love not just the translation of moral high ground into antiquated languages, but also the weaponry, the grand interiors (palace, cave, arena) and the facial hair.

I personally don’t need any ancient warriors in my life, and much prefer some local social realism from Sally Wainwright or some clever dick cruelty from Aaron Sorkin. I quite enjoyed Armando Iannucci’s sweary re-imagining of Russia’s antiheroes in The Death Of Stalin, but it made me cringe to watch David Morrissey effin’ and blindin’ in a fur cape as he led the Roman army through a green-screen Celtic Britain. Not that all actors get the costume they've dreamed of since boyhood: Daniel Kaluuya self-deprecatingly admitted to dismay when he realised that his zinc breastplate would be hidden underneath a poncho for most of his Black Panther screen time.

These narratives are what I call Noble Shit. Their didactic messages are rendered in archaic forms, all the better to dupe us into thinking that not much has changed since our ancestors made and disobeyed the rules. Look! they say: evil people, righteous people, scheming people. Even in the olde-worlde future of sci-fi Noble Shit, there’s a formatted tension between right and wrong that feels medieval.

Penalties for greed, wrath, envy and pride are always imminent. (Completing the papal jackpot with sloth, gluttony and lust doesn’t really fulfil a modern director’s remit, which is to perpetually turn the camera towards muscle, beauty and sex.) But in real life, the black-hearted are not reliably punished, and I don’t like phoney happy endings.

I’m also quickly bored by an overly masculine quotient. I’m not calling for the rewriting of history as herstory, but I do find that dramas have more texture and authenticity where females have been scripted in. The recent pursuit of diversity may have upped the number of ethnic faces on screen, but most blockbusters still fail the Bechdel Test. This equation is based on the number of times that two female characters speak to each other about something other than a man. Black Panther passes the test, The Death of Stalin does not.

The fact that one is fiction and the other is (more or less) non-fiction might indicate that the industry is at least aiming for a better on-screen gender ratio - but can we only appreciate the problems of our civilisation by looking at those of imaginary ones? You can’t give the Soviet dictator’s Central Committee a female contingent that it didn’t have, but you can still tell a true story from a variety of viewpoints.

Perhaps it’s more to do with why decency and virtue are gaining added purchase when given fantasy settings. Is it due to us having reached zero belief in our own leaders? I certainly don’t have any political heroes. Obama was the most achingly sophisticated and intelligent of presidents, but a belligerent Congress simply went for his elegant throat. There may be goodness in the Corbyn credo but it’s not riveting enough to stay up all night for.

Maybe the everyday heroes ­- who jump into dangerous situations and then find themselves on an ITV line-up shaking Jason Manford’s hand - don’t have enough continual audacity to be inspiring. Or is it just that primitive jewellery on the arms of men, and swords in the hands of women (usually fit women) can only be acceptable within an escapist romp?

For me, it’s dull because it’s fake. When storytelling needs a full orchestral soundtrack to work, I find myself resenting the steer rather than emoting. When it also needs elves, dragons, witches, ghosts, druids, rubrics and amulets, I’m off to bed.