My crash course in popular culture

Do you ever inadvertently slip out of your comfort zone? It happened to me recently, when the BBC asked me to come to Glasgow to chat on live TV to Martha Kearney about Arbitrage, a new film starring Richard Gere as a wealthy hedge fund manager. Hedge funds plus Richard Gere? Why ever not, I thought.

Two weeks later my manager sent me a long email full of instructions. I rang him immediately to ask him what on earth all this information was for: details of an art exhibition, a feature-length documentary, a login password to the BBC’s preview website and notification that a book was about to arrive at my office. “Mrs M,” came the answer, “these are the things you have to review. You are going on The Review Show. The clue is in the title.”

At this point I went into a flat spin panic. Going to the Roy Lichtenstein retrospective at Tate Modern is a very different prospect to curling up with my iPad and Richard Gere. So I called a major art philanthropist and begged him to show me around the exhibition. He did so, throwing in a speedy teach-in on Pollock and de Kooning as well. He also bought me an art book so that I could swot up on colour and perspective.

I then tore home to barricade myself into my bedroom so that I could concentrate on watching Trashed, a feature-length documentary presented by Jeremy Irons on the threat to our environment posed by man-made waste. Twenty minutes in, by which time I was vowing only ever to buy loose vegetables, the chemical structure of dioxin was displayed on the screen so I went to find Cost Centres 2 and 3 so that they could explain the science to me, and I could educate them about the loose vegetables. CC#3 tuned out after about an hour, saying it was “too depressing”, and it is true that this is not a balanced film, being 95 per cent problem and 5 per cent possible solution (move to San Francisco and/or install an anaerobic digester).

I then read Give Me Everything You Have by James Lasdun, about his experience of being cyber-stalked. In between work commitments this took about three days. Before you appear on The Review Show, you undergo an extended telephone interview where the producer grills you on your thoughts on all the items, so you cannot get away with bluffing. As someone who has inspired not one but two parody Twitter accounts, one of which uses my photo, I have some sympathy with Lasdun, who uses the second half of the book as an extreme form of self-analysis, albeit employing exceptional prose.

And Arbitrage? I had to pause and replay when I heard Mr Gere employ the words “variation margin”, as I doubt that is a phrase in mainstream cinematic usage. My verdict? A great pizza movie or one to relax with on a plane journey, but its lack of Oscar nominations was unsurprising. (And if you have not done so, read Lucy Kellaway’s interview with the actor in last week’s FT Weekend Magazine. It tells you as much by what it doesn’t say as what it does.)

By this time culturally exhausted, I begged CC#3 to watch the final item with me, a BBC2 comedy called Heading Out. I must be the last person in the UK not to know who Sue Perkins is, so I was slightly surprised to find that the main character is a lesbian vet. No matter, CC#3 and I continued to review it; the only Awkward Moment being when I had to explain what a “booty call” is.

On the same day that The Review Show was broadcast I was also on the BBC Breakfast show commenting on the EU bonus tax (in my opinion the brain drain will not be to non-EU countries, but to non-regulated financial services firms, of which there are many) and the Lloyds Banking Group results (well done António Horta-Osório).

This was all so much more in my comfort zone than pop art and lesbian vets. Reviewing culture on TV was more nerve-racking than my PhD viva. And, rather like that, I am relieved it is behind me.

‘Mrs Moneypenny’s Careers Advice for Ambitious Women’ is out in paperback

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