“The devil’s greatest trick was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

As regular readers will know, I’m not a fan of Big Tobacco. To say the least. The heinous shitheads who push their deadly and addictive product around the globe under the cover of marketing glamour and the illusion of free choice make me sick. When I think of the contrast between the images of freedom, individuality and rebellion that tobacco companies push and the stark reality of a smoker’s slow and painful death from lung cancer, the infamous quote from The Usual Suspects by way of Charles Baudelaire that I used as the title of this blog springs to mind.

However, while Phillip Morris, BAT, etc may have partly succeeded in convincing (some) smokers that Big Tobacco isn’t evil incarnate, reading the other day about the cigarette counterfeiters who are bootlegging big brands, I don’t think ‘Little Tobacco’ will manage to pull off the same trick. The idea that, to turn a profit, people would create and flog cigarettes filled with human shit, dead flies, rat droppings, mould and asbestos is thoroughly depressing. As is the reality that, to save themselves a few quid, people would smoke them. But, the Guardian article is either badly researched or badly written or both, because after the sensationalist headline, there’s no reference to these grim ingredients and no hard facts. Which makes the cynical conspiracy theorist side of me begin to wonder if it’s part of a government smear to put people off buying cheap B&H and ensure they keep getting their grubby hands on their vital fag tax blood money.

Who knows for sure, but one fact is indisputable. Whether smokers are buying cheap knock-offs or ‘real’ cigarettes, the product they’re lighting up and inhaling into their lungs is full of shit. That may be actual human shit or synthetic, poisonous, big brand shit that’s far more toxic; we’re talking degrees of mentalism here – whichever it is, it’ll kill them. The massive con of smoking goes on: the £114 million lost to fake fags is a drop in the ocean to Big Tobacco – Phillip Morris alone makes around £27 billion profit per year. These are sobering and depressing facts but, on the upside, smoking rates in Australia are down and plain packaging is having a tangible effect. Those stats cheers me up, as does the fact that we have more anti-smoking creative work coming soon, which I think will have a big impact. Watch this space…

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There are no easy answers

A little while ago, looking for a new TV series to watch, I came across a recommendation for the show Sons of Anarchy. Various people online described it as being like ‘The Sopranos set within the world of motorbike gangs’. Which sounded excellent and right up my alley so I bought a couple of seasons’ worth of DVDs and settled in for the ride. Sadly, this ended up being a big mistake.

On first glance, there are commonalities between the two shows: both revolve around the lives of a group of men living outside the law in contemporary America; both have troubled leaders, problems with rival gangs and issues with in-fighting. However, the similarities end abruptly there. While The Sopranos is a dark and poignant drama of Shakepearean depth and complexity, Sons of Anarchy is wall-to-wall cliché, a Disney version of what gang life might be like.

As I sat through Sons of Anarchy with an ever-decreasing lack of interest, I started to wonder how two shows that on paper – well, in internet summaries – sound fairly alike, could be so utterly different. And while many of the things done extremely well in The Sopranos are done badly in Sons of Anarchy – casting, acting, music choices, cinematography – the key point of difference is the writing. Or, more specifically, story. While the trials and tribulations of Tony Soprano and his mates bounce between exhilarating, mundane and poignant, the SoA biker gang live a cartoon lifestyle, an ongoing merry-go-round of implausible all-action high drama somewhere between The Dukes of Hazard and The A-Team.

The Sopranos centres around complex characters trying to keep their heads above water, attempting to live out their lives with some balance of joy, honour and dignity. They battle with the tragi-comic conundrums of their lives, eke out little victories and their moral dilemmas resonate profoundly across multiple series. Tony bestrides the whole thing like a grumpy colossus with his hard-won street wisdom and downbeat philosophical asides. (My personal favourite: “They say every day’s a gift, but why does it always have to be a pair of socks?”). Just as in life itself, there’s no black and white and morality is subjective.

In his infamous screenwriting guide Story, Robert McKee says, “Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.” When writers opt for predictable plots and obvious answers, their stories may work briefly as escapism or light entertainment. But they’ll never touch us in the way we’re touched when we’re confronted in fictional worlds by stories closely approximating the truth.

When stories ring true, when they search hard for hidden insights and difficult truths, when they hold up a mirror to the existential frustration of being alive, when they – as McKee says – take life itself as their raw material, they move us in deep and emotionally compelling ways. Be it Tony Soprano’s grizzled intelligence, the black humour of David Brent or Rusty Cohle’s deeply complex ennui, when great writers make difficult decisions and win the war on cliché, the result is stories that resonate because they acknowledge a timeless human truth: there are never any easy answers. Bada bing!