#7: THE DUVET DAY FILM — MAGIC BEYOND WORDS: THE J.K. ROWLING STORY
I WRITE THIS post-holiday, slumped under a dog on the sofa, mainlining tea. When you read this you will, in all likelihood, be pyjama-top deep in post-christmas gloom, blood thick with Brie chugging slowly through your arteries. It’s probably raining outside, or you may be off sick with a January cold, diseased tissues strewn across the living-room floor. In any of these eventualities, I prescribe an urgent screening of a low-quality made-for-tv movie, ideally Magic
Beyond Words: The J.K. Rowling Story, a woefully unknown classic of the genre.
This, as the name makes abundantly clear, is a biopic of the world’s most famous living writer. In the first two minutes alone, we learn that Joanne Rowling has a supportive (if unconvincingly Scottish) fiancé, but still wishes her dead mum was here. She has written a book called Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone (thank you, Leicester Square premiere crowdmember holding book, perfectly still, to camera), and she’s now very famous after years as a nobody. We then dissolve into misty flashbacks of childhood larks with a broomstick, and Joanne at her school desk, where — from her daydreaming POV — we see a classmate wearing round, metal-rimmed specs while her teacher suggests that if only she’d just concentrate, she might seriously consider a literary career. All this is seen hilariously through the faintly Dickensian lens of an American writer and director (at one point, we see Rowling sitting in front of some stock footage of bucolic idyll, ostensibly on a train to London, when a sage cockney nana in a tabard chirps by with a trolley-full of liver and tripe). The whole thing is about as taxing as a two-piece jigsaw.
In my view, Magic Beyond Words happens to be the greatest TV movie (The Room of the small screen, if you will), but the genre is truly a spoil of riches. Their effect is as much anaesthetic as entertainment. Found daily on Channel 5 or fourth-tier cable channels, these are pedestrian melodramas acted competently by the likes of Lindsay Wagner, Brian Dennehy, Powers Boothe or someone out of thirtysomething. Accessible 24/7, they wrap around you like a knitted shawl on a cold day, and demand not even the slightest effort — every last subplot, dream sequence and meaningful look is signposted like a fire exit in a care home. The plot, linear and simple, is arranged in an arc one could have drawn around a protractor. One need not think when watching a made-for-tv movie, only consume it like strained soup, perhaps taking a short nap in the middle without consequence — especially if, as is common, the film is based on a familiar, invariably unauthorised, true story — maybe the life of Karen Carpenter, the backstage horrors of The Jackson 5, the dastardly acts of Joey Buttafuoco, the untold story of Adolf Hitler (spoiler: it has been told).
My worry is that made-for-tv movies are a dying genre. The truly authentic examples I find on my Sky menu are almost all made over five years ago. Nowadays big, credible movie stars are hoovering up telly work, thanks to high-quality subscription channels with global audiences and bottomless budgets. Gentle, clichéd, predictable and comforting, TV movies reduce cortisol, relax the synapses and give viewers a weirdly compelling excuse to do sweet bugger all.
J.K. Rowling (Poppy Montgomery) wonders whether she’ll ever make it.