The City and the City

Published On April 24, 2018 | By James Bacon | Books, Film TV & Theatre

I went to the City and the City preview followed by question and answer session, nearly a month ago now, and of course waited, I wanted to describe how impressed I was, how captivated and taken with the first episode, but I was worried I would spoil it for you, so I waited until it had a chance to air on the BBC. Set yourself some time aside, the four episode series is available until the 27th of May on the BBC iPlayer, and it is a great adaptation of China Miévilles ‘City and the City’ novel, a real blinder!

Having seen the first part of The City and City at this special screening, I thought it was phenomenally good television, fantastically well imagined and beautifully crafted to do justice to the original work of one of our most interesting novels, and to entertain intellectually and emotionally. I loved it. Rarely have I seen adaptations that can capture the essence of the original, and indeed adjust it subtlety for the television viewer, adding sufficiently to enhance the inherent drama.

The BFI, Mammoth Screenings and BBC2 co-ordinated the special evening where insight and focus was all about the television adaptation. Marcus Prince the TV programmer for the BFI introduced the night and spoke of the brilliance of the work; China’s literature was compared, quite correctly to the work of George Orwell and Phillip K. Dick. BBC2 controller Patrick Holland spoke of how this drama was special for the channel. How it dealt with the other, but not just feared but that it also could bring destruction and how the Ideological landscape was so well portrayed.

‘China is here tonight’ said Patrick and you could feel a tingle of electric ripple through the crowd. Patrick continued that it was relevant as forces that impact us today and now side by side and on top of each other, layer and layer of control and fear on the citizens mattered. I was pleased to hear from the BBC man that there was ‘Exceptional direction’ apparently any concern I had was not needed and indeed, I wondered if I didn’t even need to to worry about how I’d think of it myself.

I smiled.

We got to see a teaser, and then the first episode.

For those of you who have not seen the TV series version yet, spoilers now follow. I would humbly suggest you fire up the Auntie Beeb iPlayer, and watch it, four hours of brilliance, before reading any further.


This is a great bit of television. The first thing is that there has been a subtle yet important change to the story. Our protagonist Tyador Borlú from Beszel has a wife. This is a crucial shift, and suddenly makes the personal aspect and character all the more important, which I think is what is needed for a televisual story of this nature. The prose was beautifully clinical in its positioning allowing one to observe, yet here with the flat screen in the room, being dragged dramatically in closer, is a vibrant and clever change that really works. The interweaving then of the Katrynia character, who so beautifully juxtaposes her husband Berlú fantastically played by Lara Pulver is a fine addition.

Cameras are shifted out of focus, so one cannot see the other side of the city, the camera work is really good, and at times, the effect of lights, reflections and tones are crucial. Indeed the opening credits show the two cities side by side, so different, sterile sharp blue neon and halogen-lit modern city with towering structures of glass and concrete of Ul Quma compared with the more Victorian higgledy-piggledy lower set, older less brutally planned, yellow-lit, diverse city that is Baszel, with its classic eastern style TV tower a sole needle in the air.

Like many crime dramas we have a voice-over; exposition is vital no doubt, to help the viewer settle into this unusual world, and indeed, how does one explain the complex idea that is the City and the City on a screen as opposed to the novel. The differences between the cities are brilliantly acute, vehicles are a great starting point, and the soviet-feeling older Ladas and more boxy, less stylish cars contrast with the Audis, Mercedes and other modern, sleek vehicles.

Clothing and colours are important. Yellow is common in Baszel, as are browns and natural colours, while in Al Choma red is a popular and frequent colour. The feeling of a time shift between the cities adds to the disconnect between them, although this is purely about culture and style and where a place is.

Music features as we learn about ‘Breach’ and I repeatedly felt the music was an important asset to the production. Dominik Scherrer having done an excellent job. Temple of Light with its very heavy and low sounds darkly conveying electronically, although with a deeper feel what is to come. While the haunting sound of A Third city, Hidden, the harp and vocals beautfifully represent the mystical of the third city. The titles of the tracks, there are eighteen on the soundtrack, are just as good as the music, Like a Melnacholy Owl and Cultural Imperialsim is Dead, giving further depth to the sound.

There is a great sense of humour between Dhillon and Morrissey, as they build the traditional police procedural relationship of senior and junior officer, although Dhillon does a very good job of fighting against the obvious stereotype, and is really quite sharp in her dialogue and speedy retorts, great timing and a sense of comic pace is clearly evident in a natural and fluid way.

There are moments of brutality and it doesn’t hide the fact that this is a crime story and the story develops at quite a prompt pace in the first episode. There is an incredible amount of gentle visuals, suffice to hint at a given direction, but never go far enough to make it resemble something we can grab, sufficient to give the message, but with out referencing a specific.

Examples of this would be the True Citizens, who have cross-like tattoos, boots, tight haircuts and a moustached older Major who is himself well spoken and likely the next Mayor as their political voice, boot boys, in the style of many fascist organisations, and indeed the Germanic-styled Drindl like dress of the women involved wear, all hints, the Soviet style military clothing and helmets of Ul Quma, the Black modern armed police style of the Ul Choma Militsya, and we see food that seems to be mix of Jewish and Persian although, that could just be the given restaurant.

The modernity of Ul Qoma is at such a contrast with Baszel, that it all sticks out quite so, but that modernity, the clinical is also quite sterile, indeed it is quite the police state, cleansed of problems, of unificationists, a deeper and darker totalitarianism underpinning the facade. Everywhere is under a control of a higher order, of Breach, where viewing or seeing from one City to another will bring down a dreadful consequence, beyond the control of politicians and police. Added to this complexity is a third place, secret and rumoured, a further layer of overseeing control, that some believe vehemently in, and others dispel as crazy talk. This is a lovely moment for viewers as they also feel the beliefs of characters they trust are the right ones, and indeed they may be, but the whole concept of the City and the City is fantastical, so why is this story in a story already quite beyond what we consider rational, believed irrational. Beautiful.

I have now gone on to watch the whole series and loved it.

Following the first episode, the writer Toni Grisoni along with actors David Morrissey and Mandeep Dhillon and Mammoth productions Preethi Mavahalii were joined by Gayelene Gould from the BFI on stage to engage about the production.

David Morrissey said he was very pleased to hear it. And I know what he means the music is an important part to this TV series, I was rather impressed by it. He spoke about how he felt the special effects were blended so seamlessly and beautifully and this made perfect sense to me. The simple shifting into and out of focus of the other city perfectly occludes and mirrors what one can imagine is the learned method of unseeing the other city. Morrissey went on to talk about being a huge fan of China’s work, although noting that it was a such a complex read.

Toni spoke about how he didn’t think you could go it, and when Mammoth asked if he wanted to adapt it, how it took a long time to get it together and it was tricky to get right, how it was one thing in prose and another in TV. He discussed how the element of unhearing and unseeing as if it were two universes but a learned behaviour, was important and how Borlú chooses to see and not see. He felt that Beszél was a crumbling multi-cultured city.

Toni explained that China had allowed them to adapt the story, and how Toni took ownership with the invention of Katrynia, and how China would read different versions of the scripts, although not all, as there were thousands of changes, and how throughout he was generous and supportive. Amazingly then, it was put to China, who was in the audience, indeed the BFI missed a trick not having him on stage, as the whole audience shifted to listen closely, to his words.

China explained that he worked to keep a respectful distance from quite early on. That he recognised that it would have been a nightmare to be a possessive writer. He was very interested and happy to chip in and ultimately clear the decision of writer and director. He went on to explain how it had been extremely moving watching the adaptation both on paper and on set. How it hugely increased his respect for actors and watching actors doing their thing was something that

he could have watched all day. The actors getting into it in different ways.

When asked about how it was, visually, he was particularly pleased with Beszel, although noted to much amusement that there were some pronunciation differences.

Mandeep Dhillon, who plays Constable Corwi of the Beszel Policzai, said that when she read the script, she thought it was amazing. Confusing but amazing. Auditioned and got the part and that the filming was fun and brilliant and so different to what she’d done which was comedy. In fairness, she brought a subtle comedic timing to some parts, and is brilliant in this. Mandeep didn’t want to think about it while filming and didn’t want to read the book and didn’t want to watch any of Tony’s work as it would put her off, and took it day by day.

There was some talk then from Toni about the accessibility to the audience, about how one parcels the exposition, and is it a continual voice over. He said it was important to test it and tested it, and didn’t imagine the audience as one thing and didn’t imagine they are dumber than you were.

Just a you get to the grips of two cities then there is a third one and the wife adding to the story.

Toni spoke of a special filter on the lens, and different techniques to get the filming right. The filming took place in Liverpool and Manchester, and this seemed to cause some amusement, I suspect as perhaps the views of those cities are quite subjective from a Londoner’s view point, but Toni went on to explain how both cities were cheek by jowl with modern architecture and then old Victorian and Edwardian architecture. How indeed in one place how it was all glass on one side and Victorian on the other in Manchester. This made sense to me, having walked around both cities.

The level of detail and research seems to have been considerable. While accentuating current elements, how we ignore people or situations at our feet, how commuters step over someone when they collapse how social strata, location and status all impact who we meet and speak to are realities that are stretched here in a different way, showing a similar but very different perspective.

The talk continued and afterwards, as I exited, I did think about how London can be two cities, the Paddington of Sheldon Square with tall glass apartments and offices, and the coffee shops and expensive bars, and the open air amphitheatre, and the posh Marks and Spencers restaurant that astounds people in Paddington Basin, around the corner from the kebab shop and my favourite Lebanese in London, and all not a mile away from the charred remains of Grenfell Tower.

How standing on one Paddington platform, I can look left and see forty year old diesel trains noisily jostling under power to head west with equally old carriages later in the night, while on another a shiny and new Hitachi Class 800 silently and swiftly hums away and accelerates with a powerful silent, modern swiftness.

When I read the book, I would conjecture that the two cities were somewhere in the Balkans, or part of what was once the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where the East and West met, although where religions and cultures met more importantly. Of course the city that one might be drawn to the most linear meeting of East and West is Berlin, and this city was mentioned in the evening. Berlin is a good example, having been fortunate to visit it as a schoolboy in 1990, I was able to weave in-between torn down segments of the Wall on the western side, while DDR soldiers still patrolled the Eastern side, where my Passport was stamped with an amazing purple and green stamp, and where the differences were so acute, the bight lights and modernity of the Kurfuerstendamm juxtaposed with the harsh Soviet brutal greyness on the Eastern side, that was truly a City and a City and although there was no intersection, there must have been a huge amount of willing denial imposed upon people. All the same people. All Berliners.

This is one of the key messages of the book, how we create our own borders, how we exclude people, and how irrational that can be, looking past it, denying humanity, willing to ignore it, to unknow it, to accept it doesn’t exist, burned away, with a certainty that Winston Smith so ably demonstrated, crushed physically and mentally by authority.

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About The Author

James Bacon

James Bacon is a train Driver working in London but originally from Dublin. He also loves comics, theatre, history and books, runs conventions, writes about these activities and has edited a Hugo-winning Fanzine.

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