Hit & Run: Beauty and brains

Wednesday 08 April 2009 00:00

Helena Bonham Carter continues to defy our expectations. In the mid-Eighties, when she first emerged on screen in tasteful, decorous Merchant-Ivory films and as the doomed monarch in Lady Jane, she came across as the quintessential "English rose", one of those shrinking aristocratic ingenues who used to appear in British movies in the Thirties and Forties, before retiring to the shires to start a family. She was pretty, well-spoken and just the actress to call upon whenever a director embarked on some EM Forster or Henry James adaptation.

Bonham Carter, though, has long since left the cloistered world of British heritage cinema behind. When contemplating her extraordinarily varied career, it is worth remembering her forebears. Not only is she the great-granddaughter of Herbert Asquith, the British Prime Minister whose drinking habits earned him the name "squiffy", she is also the grandniece of British filmmaker Anthony "Puffin" Asquith, whose career in cinema was almost as extravagantly offbeat as her own. ("Puffin" Asquith was an ardent trade unionist who, belying his upper class background, always dressed on film sets in a blue boilersuit and who directed by far and away the best screen version of The Importance Of Being Earnest.)

As her screen career has progressed, she has continually wrong-footed observers. Perhaps the most startling transformation was as Marla Singer in David Fincher's Fight Club – a spiky-haired, chain-smoking, blue-collar femme fatale who looked as if she would be more at home with Siouxie and the Banshees than with James Ivory. Her noisy sex scenes in squalid bedrooms apartments with Brad Pitt ("I haven't been fucked like that since grade school...") were light years from Edwardian England.

In her partner Tim Burton's Planet Of The Apes, she played (very sympathetically) a monkey with a humanitarian streak. (It's a testament to the sincerity of her performance that when she sighs "It's disgusting the way we treat humans," we take her words at face value.)

Her subsequent roles in Burton's movies and as Bellatrix Lestrange have suggested a taste for gothic extravagance - a Morticia Addams-like relish for playing ghoulish oddballs. And she is soon to be seen as Serena Kogan, "a very bad person", in Terminator: Salvation. Stills released this week show her with half her face seemingly shaven off and her brain tissue visible. The fact that her hair is blonde and she is wearing make-up adds to the jarring effect of her appearance.

But Bonham Carter's current enthusiasm for playing Grand Guignol villainesses shouldn't blind us to her skill and subtlety in more understated character roles. She's soon to be seen as Enid Blyton in a new BBC biopic. All the evidence is that this will be played fairly "straight" – she is unlikely to be portraying the celebrated children's author as a deranged harpie with a grudge against kids.

Her career is now at the opposite pole from where it started. Bonham Carter has so successfully reinvented herself that it would be genuinely surprising if she was to frock up again in a stately costume adaptation of the Merchant Ivory variety. Not since Elsa Lanchester coiffed up and had the electric shock treatment in The Bride Of Frankenstein in the Thirties has a British actress's career taken quite such a wayward and colourful course. Geoffrey Macnab

Porridge FM

Electric Radio Brixton is the best station you'll never hear – unless you're a guest of Her Majesty. On Monday it was announced that Brixton prison's internal radio station, available only to the prisoners on their in-cell television sets, is up for four Sony Awards – the radio equivalent of the Baftas.

So what does a prison's playlist sound like? "Jailhouse Rock"? Queen's "I Want to Break Free"? "Living in a Box" by Living in a Box? Titter ye not. Among Electric Radio's nominations were the interview award, for a young prisoner's encounter with former MP and Belmarsh inmate Jonathan Aitken; the speech award, for "Prisoners' Voices", which gives jailbirds a chance to discuss issues relevant to their lives inside; and the community award, for "Sound Fix", a series of short spots on drug or alcohol abuse. Tim Walker

My other car is a Ford Fiesta

So, the Ford Fiesta (1976-present) has been Britain's top-selling car for the past five months, powering ahead in a market that has hit the skids.

Its critics say sales of 10 million prove only that the Fiesta does "lots of things quite well". I won't hear a word of it. OK, so my burgundy Mk2 Fiesta was essentially a go-kart with a roof. Its 1.1 litre engine took days to reach 70mph (when the steering wheel juddered like a jackhammer) you had to work the brake like a foot pump, the manual choke was temperamental and the registration ended, unfortunately for a 17-year-old boy, with the letters PUF. But whether I was terrifying schoolmates or pulling doughnuts on farmers' fields, it never failed to thrill.

She met a tragic end, the victim of rust, but I kept the rear-view mirror so I could look back on halcyon days of burnt rubber and B-roads. Simon Usborne

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