On my radar: Jonathan Coe’s cultural highlights

The comic novelist on the genius of jazz organist Barbara Dennerlein, Spike Milligan’s Puckoon and his love of Munich

Born in Birmingham in 1961, Jonathan Coe studied at Cambridge and received a PhD in English literature from Warwick University, where he taught poetry. He published his first novel in 1987, gaining prominence with the 1994 Thatcher-era satire What a Carve Up!. He has won a number of awards including the 2005 Samuel Johnson prize, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2012. Coe’s Middle England (2018), hailed as the “first great Brexit novel”, won the Costa novel award this month.

1. Film
Dolemite Is My Name (dir Craig Brewer, 2019)

Eddie Murphy, Keegan-Michael Key and Wesley Snipes in Dolemite Is My Name.
Eddie Murphy, Keegan-Michael Key and Wesley Snipes in Dolemite Is My Name. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Amid the deluge of DVDs that arrive through the post in December if you’re a Bafta voter, I slotted this one into the machine not expecting very much. It seemed a long time since Eddie Murphy had made a good film, after all. But this is a terrifically warm and funny comedy, written by the writers of Ed Wood and telling a very similar (true) story: how a cult comedian of the mid-70s gathered a bunch of friends together to make a terrible blaxploitation comedy-thriller that somehow became a success against the odds. It also, along the way, manages to throw light on the origins of rap.

2. Music
Barbara Dennerlein: Studio Konzert for Headphones

Jazz organist Barbara Dennerlein.
‘Viscerally exciting’: jazz organist Barbara Dennerlein. Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns

Why isn’t Barbara Dennerlein one of the most famous musicians in the world? Maybe because her instrument, the Hammond organ, is considered kitsch and unfashionable by some. But in the hands of a master (mistress in this case) it can be viscerally exciting. This short album consists of four duets with the drummer Marcel Gustke, but it sounds like a trio, because once you’ve grown used to the precision and energy of Dennerlein’s soloing, you have to remember she’s also playing all the elaborate bass parts with her feet. A genius.

3. Bookshop
Déjà Lu (Cascais, Portugal)

Déjà Lu in Cascais, Portugal.
Déjà Lu in Cascais, Portugal. Photograph: Expresso.pt/José Fernandes

This beautiful charity bookshop is part of the Cidadela art district, a complex of buildings housed in a 17th-century fortress in the chic resort town of Cascais, a few miles up the coast from Lisbon. Here you find the presidential palace, a restaurant, some boutique shops, galleries and studios and a five-star hotel – where I was lucky enough to be housed for two months last year as writer-in-residence, funded by the Dom Luis Foundation. Finding a central role for culture in a commercial space like this seems a quintessentially European project. I wonder if there will be many equivalents in Brexit Britain.

Puckoon the book by Spike Milligan . Penguin
Photograph: Penguin

4. Radio
Puckoon (Radio 4)

Available on BBC Sounds for a few more days, Ian Billings’s adaptation of the Spike Milligan novel jolted me back to my teenage years, when I thought this was the greatest and funniest book ever written. The dialogues between hero Dan Milligan and his author, Spike, were the first examples of meta-fiction I’d ever encountered. In this version, Ed Byrne makes the perfect Dan and his tone of squeaky indignation on glimpsing his own white, pipe-cleaner legs, turning to the author and demanding: “Did you write these legs?” always cracks me up.

5. Place

The Eisbachwelle, an artificial surfing spot in Munich.
The Eisbachwelle, an artificial surfing spot in Munich. Photograph: Juriaan Wossink/Alamy Stock Photo

After making a few trips here as research for my new novel, this is rapidly becoming one of my favourite European cities. It’s not brimful of look-at-me tourist attractions but I love its quiet, slightly formal elegance. The Eisbachwelle, an artificial surfing spot at one of the entrances to the Englischer Garten, is perhaps its most surprising feature, but my favourite building (natürlich) is the gracious 18th-century Literaturhaus in Salvatorplatz, another example of a city placing culture at the very centre of its daily civic life.

6. TV
Call My Agent! (Netflix)

Juliette Binoche on stage at Cannes in Call My Agent.
Juliette Binoche on stage at Cannes in Call My Agent. Photograph: France 2/Netflix

Tired of “dark” comedy, the comedy of excruciating awkwardness and embarrassment? Tired of “must-see” Netflix series that always seem to start with the discovery of a mutilated female body? Call My Agent! (Dix Pour Cent to give it the original French title) is the antidote to all of that. Perhaps best described as a comic soap opera, it’s centred on the work of a Parisian film agency and doesn’t just get you involved in the lives of its flawed, lovable staff but also treats you to brilliant, self-parodying cameos from the likes of Isabelle Adjani, Béatrice Dalle and Juliette Binoche. I can’t wait for season four, which I’m told is coming soon.


Jonathan Coe

The GuardianTramp

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