Creative Sensemaker

A stylish cinema with tables and chairs outside

A rundown of the week’s cultural moments, books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

By Matt d’Ancona    Friday 25 September, 2020   Long read

Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media. If, like me, you believe there’s a line from the Godfather movies to suit every occasion, then I hope you’ll agree that the spirit of the week is best captured by Michael Corleone’s famous outburst in the third film: ‘Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in!’

Almost literally, in this case. Since June, the UK has notionally been relaxing lockdown restrictions, which was tentatively good news for the culture sector and those who love the arts. But on Tuesday, Boris Johnson slammed on the brakes, tightened the rules once more, limited social contact, and urged those who could work from home to do so again. It seems a very long time since the press was breathlessly celebrating ‘Lockdown Freedom’ and ‘The End of Hibernation’.

So this (again) is a profoundly perilous hour for the arts, as many theatres, movie houses and galleries that were gradually resuming business are forced to scale back their plans – or put them on hold entirely. 

Which is why, unusually, we kick off this week’s Creative Sensemaker, not with a lead item on a movie, or an exhibition, or a landmark book, or an intriguing artistic trend, but a call to action.  

According to the government’s own statistics, the pre-lockdown creative industries contributed almost £13m to the UK economy per hour. They are integral to our global reputation, as well as an intrinsically marvellous feature of national life.

Be in no doubt of the stakes, and how many venues are (again) facing closure. About 400,000 jobs are at risk. That independent cinema you love; your local gallery; that theatre above a pub that puts on crazy operas; your favourite niche bookshop – they will all need help from the Treasury to get them through the winter and beyond. But they will also need your support.

So, if you can afford to, here’s what you can do:

If you’ve booked tickets and performances that now have to be cancelled (and some will be), don’t ask for a refund. Your movie house or theatre needs your cash now more than ever.
Subscribe to a theatre, gallery, museum, or cinema chain (Picturehouse, Curzon, or – best of all – your local independent movie house). Signing up doesn’t just provide much-needed cash, it is the best evidence on business plans of future consumer commitment.
Donate to charities – the Theatre Artists Fund set up by Sam Mendes and Netflix, which is helping truly desperate theatre workers and arts freelancers, and has already raised £3.5m. Arts Emergency gives tremendous support to young marginalised people keen to work in the creative industries. The Equity Benevolent Fund – with the championship of actress Michelle Collins – has launched an initiative to help entertainment industry workers.

Loving the arts – and supporting them – is part of what distinguishes a citizen from a consumer. So, please help out if you can.

Meanwhile, here are our weekly recommendations:
A man sits on a porch outside a house in America


Barking Dogs Never Bite (cinemas, VOD)
A welcome rerelease, after 20 years, for Bong Joon-ho’s first movie – a very dark comedy about an unemployed scholar driven to distraction by the barking of a dog in his apartment block. Funny, bleak and full of social observation: the earliest work of the director who would go on to conquer the world with Parasite.

Norman Mailer: The American (VOD)
Joseph Mantegna’s short documentary is a terrific introduction to an author, political maverick and hell-raiser, who has fallen out of fashion. But he was, without question, one of the great American writers of the second half of the 20th century. By the end of the film you’ll wish that Mailer, who died in 2007, was still around to hold forth on the pandemic, social media and (especially) the presidential election. (If you want a good starter guide to his writings, try Penguin’s excellent anthology Mind Of An Outlaw: Selected Essays).

I Am Shakespeare (The Henry Green Story) (Amazon Prime Video)
Stephen Dest’s extraordinary documentary is essentially a monologue: the story of a 19-year-old African-American, Henry Green, living a dual life in New Haven, Connecticut. He is a talented actor of huge promise, but also embroiled in the street-by-street warfare of the gangs. What makes the film so compelling – apart from the terrible act of violence at its heart – is Green’s refusal to choose between his two identities: the ‘Renegade’ and ‘Shakespeare’. He cannot and will not renounce either, and he accepts the price of that defiant honesty.

Louis Theroux (BBC iPlayer)
From Jimmy Savile to the Westboro Baptist Church via extreme cosmetic surgery, the far right and swingers’ clubs, Theroux has built up an amazing body of work over the past two decades. As we hunker down for autumn, this back catalogue of more than 50 films is a rich feast – generously seasoned with weirdness.
Two books on a grey background
A yellow book cover on a grey background


No Rules Rules: Netflix And The Culture Of Reinvention by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer 
Just as Zoom has colonised the world of work during the pandemic, so Netflix has tightened the grip of streaming on entertainment consumption (though it has also made mistakes – losing many subscribers over Cuties, a French film about 11-year-old girls). This book explores the inner culture of a company, cofounded by Hastings, that behaves like a sports team, rather than a family, and prizes innovation over efficiency. Though it has been categorised as a business book, No Rules Rules is really about the way we live now – and who wins in a landscape of permanent disruption and volatility.

Sweet Dreams: From Club Culture To Style Culture, The Story Of The New Romantics by Dylan Jones
In his definitive biography of David Bowie, Dylan Jones (Editor-in-Chief of British GQ, for which, full disclosure, I am a contributing editor) secured his position as the UK’s most important chronicler of post-war pop culture. This oral history of the New Romantic era – the Blitz, Duran Duran, Boy George, Steve Strange, Spandau Ballet and post-punk hedonism – is rich in detail and insight. It also demonstrates how influential the aesthetic and sounds of the early 1980s remain today. 

Diary Of An MP’s Wife: Inside And Outside Power by Sasha Swire 
Like the first volume of Alan Clark’s diaries in 1993, Sasha Swire’s book has shown that the most revealing chroniclers of a political era are not necessarily its most senior figures (her husband Hugo was a Minister of State in the government of his fellow Etonian and friend, David Cameron). This is the best account to date – waspish and unrepentant – of the social infrastructure that underpinned the Cameron era; illustrating the eternal truth that, in the end, all regimes are gangs, with everything that that implies.
A woman and her reflection on a black background
A black and white photo of two men facing each other


Heaven & Hell by Ava Max
For all the sneering of indie purists, perfect pop – in the great tradition of ABBA, Britney Spears and early Spice Girls – is one of the hardest genres to nail. In her debut studio album, Albanian-American Ava Max stakes her claim to a place in that glitterball pantheon with this slice of dance-floor optimism. Catchy, confident, and pure escapism from the realities of 2020.

Bach, St John Passion by Bach Collegium Japan
Masaaki Suzuki’s 30-year-old ensemble was in Cologne in March when COVID-19 cut short its tour. Resourcefully, its members decided to record St John Passion instead – going to extraordinary lengths to observe social-distancing rules that meant that only a limited number of performers could be recorded at a time. The result is a miracle of creative resilience.

Yuuuu by Busta Rhymes and Anderson .Paak
The second single from Busta Rhymes’ forthcoming album (his first for eight years) is a no-nonsense head-to-head by two old-school rappers, featuring Rhymes’ trademark combination of hypnotising beat and gravelly vocals. Best track of the moment.
A woman sitting outside in regal clothing


Tantra – The British Museum, London (24 September to 24 January)
A deeply imaginative exploration of an ancient divine philosophy, rooted in the power of the feminine, from South Asia in the sixth century to 1960s counter-culture. Book tickets here.

Cindy Sherman At The Fondation – the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris (23 September to 3 January)
An important show that brings together 170 of Sherman’s works, and dramatises her feminist fascination with role-play, self-portraiture and objectification. Book here.

Do let us know what cultural treats you are enjoying and send your recommendations to

Stay safe – and please help, if you can, to save the arts in an hour of great difficulty.

Best wishes
Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
Tortoise Media
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