Something like a defence of Christopher Tookey, as he prepares to leave the Daily Mail

Monday September 9th 2013

Despite my complicity in maintaining a minor feud with the guy for almost four years now, I have in all honesty developed something of a cordial acquaintance with the Daily Mail‘s chief film critic Christopher Tookey over the years. Nowadays, we exchange pleasantries in queues; we namecheck each other in articles; we’re friends on Facebook.

So it was with genuine sympathy that I read this on his Facebook wall last week:

The Daily Mail has decided not to renew my contract, so from December 1st I’m suddenly, enormously available. Unless someone else offers me a job, you will have to look elsewhere for your film criticism.

(Also via his Twitter account, here.)

The news was well timed, as I’d been thinking about Tookey earlier that day after seeing Kick-Ass 2. We share a dislike for the film (a horrible, hateful exercise in, somewhat ironically, Daily Mail politics) but I was nonetheless troubled by his thoughts on the subject, and more specifically, his decision to begin his review with a gruesome personal account of a 1997 gang murder. It’s a pretty long description, but I’ll quote it here in its entirety just so it’s clear what we’re dealing with:

The murder took place just as my wife and I were dozing off in front of Newsnight. ‘They’re trying to kill me!’ a man screamed, outside our window. We opened the curtains, but the road was too dark to see much more than shadowy figures and the glint of a blade.

Other neighbours across the road saw more clearly the way the three masked men clubbed their victim with a baseball bat and knifed him repeatedly. Educated voices called out from doorways or upstairs windows. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ said one. ‘Stop that at once!’ admonished another. They sounded like Joyce Grenfell upbraiding infants for misbehaviour – but this wasn’t comedy. It was real violence, of a kind so unfamiliar that it seemed less authentic than the kind of slaughter I witness every week in the cinema.

Two neighbours cradled the victim in their arms, holding his hand and trying to comfort him as I ran out. I had phoned the police and ambulance during the few seconds he was under attack. Others had done the same.

Now, the man was visibly, audibly dying a few yards from my front door. Blood didn’t spurt out, the way it does in horror movies. It leaked. Even so, by the time I’d run to help him, his blood was already a red stream running down the pavement. 

I remember thinking: I haven’t seen so much blood since Reservoir Dogs. But this, of course, wasn’t fake blood.

At first, my neighbours and I thought the blood was coming from the man’s neck. But then one of us felt his side and that was sticky, too. The police told me later that he had been stabbed 17 times. 

The killing of Abdul Kamal Samad, a father of two from East London, was a tragedy for his family, and it took 15 years to bring even one of his attackers to justice.

That murder, which we later heard was gang-related, took place 16 years ago, but it taught me a few lasting, unexpected and disconcerting things about the relationship between real-life and movie violence.

What surprised me most was my own reaction to the murder, or rather my lack of reaction. My neighbours were visibly shaken. Some had nightmares afterwards. Others had difficulty sleeping. I was totally unaffected.

The reason is obvious. As a film critic, I routinely see the most horrible murders and most brutal killings every week.

It’s an astonishingly bold way to open a movie review, not to mention a questionable line of argument (if Tookey acknowledges that the crime was gang-related and that the person desensitised by violence was him and not the murderer, then placing the blame at the feet of movies like Kick-Ass 2 seems downright dishonest). Nonetheless, it’s a perfect example of the kind of sensationalising that’s come to define Tookey’s work for the Mail, and strongly echoes his take of the original Kick-Ass back in 2010.

In his now-infamous review, he dubbed that film ‘evil’ and accused director Matthew Vaughn of ‘re-enacting the torture and killing of a James Bulger or Damilola Taylor for laughs’. This staggeringly insensitive assertion rightly drew mockery from other writers, including a blogger at Tabloid Watch, who meticulously illustrated the irony of such a review being published in Britain’s most exploitative newspaper.

But it also resulted in a lot of Tookey’s thoughtlessness being inadvertently mirrored right back at him. In a weirdly aggressive blog for the NME, Owen Nicholls called Tookey a ‘cunt-hole’ and compared his dislike of the critic to his feelings towards ‘people who sleep with my ex-girlfriends’. He went on to make an accusation that typified the response on Twitter at the time:

“The attention that he criticises ‘Hit Girl’ for her “overly sexualised/paedophile-enticing” look says way more about Tookey than it does about anyone who enjoys Kick Ass for what it is.”

Now, whatever you thought of Kick-Ass at the time, the film was pretty upfront about its intention to sexualise its pre-teen heroine Hit-Girl. Sure, Tookey’s way of acknowledging this fact wasn’t exactly brimming with tact (“paedophiles are going to adore her”) but his point was pretty irrefutable to anyone who actually bothered to watch the movie. I mean, for fuck’s sake, this was the first promotional still they released:

By scrambling to deny that there was any sexual component to her character whatsoever, or accusing Tookey of being a closet paedophile, his attackers revealed themselves to be just as encumbered by ulterior motives as he was. You can’t take down irrational moral crusading in kind.

The Daily Mail evidently encourages this kind of polemicising, and must surely have been thrilled when the Kick-Ass incident transformed Tookey into British film criticism’s de facto villain. (Inevitably, whoever replaces him come December will be expected to upset liberals with crass references to dead children just as frequently.) So here’s hoping that his imminent departure from the paper might allow Tookey’s mostly clear-sighted critical eye to to forgo the sensationalising. And allow us not to be dragged down with him.