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Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Classic Film Review: Funny Lady (1975)

The sequel to Funny Girl (1968), Funny Lady continues the story of Fanny Brice (Barbra Streisand) and depicts her relationship with showman Billy Rose (James Caan) following her divorce from Nicky Arnstein (Omar Sharif). During the Depression she struggles to find work but she and Rose work together, reigniting her career and teaching him a few things in the process. The film also stars Roddy McDowall as Bobby Moore.

Given how wonderful Funny Girl is, this sequel was always going to struggle. However, for me, it does a good job in many respects. Streisand's portrayal of Brice as someone matured by her experiences with Arnstein is compelling, as are the scenes where she accepts that she still loves him. Perhaps the best scene of the film comes when Brice is ruminating on her relationship with Rose while singing 'Isn't This Better?' As an acceptance that a marriage/friendship that works is more useful than a passionate love, it's a poignant moment. I also enjoyed the big numbers, especially 'Let's Hear it For Me' and 'How Lucky Can You Get'. Like the original film, Funny Lady switches gear between comedy and tragedy rapidly, and manages to pull it off.

James Caan as Billy Rose works very well. His interactions with Streisand before their marriage are brilliant and snippy, especially when he believes he knows best. For example, the catastrophic opening night which has scenery crashing everywhere and Brice trapped in her dressing room is comedic gold. The chemistry works in that it has to be one-sided - Rose adores her but Brice is still in love with Arnstein. It was also good that Sharif returned to hover in the background of this film. He was a link to the first film along with the brief appearances by their daughter, and I like that sort of grounding. Actually, I was a little disappointed that Brice's mother didn't make a small appearance since she was a memorable part of Funny Girl.

Ultimately, this is a bittersweet love story that showcases Streisand's talents and, as far as sequels go, it's a pretty good one.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Book Review: The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse by Piu Marie Eatwell

If the title of this book sounds baffling, it's nothing compared to the true story it relates. In 1897 a widow called Anna Maria Druce applied for permission to exhume her father-in-law's body. She claimed that Druce, a furniture dealer, had really been the alter-ego of the 5th Duke of Portland, an eccentric man who was reclusive in nature and delighted in tunnelling under his country estate. Mrs Druce claimed that the Duke had faked the death of Druce in 1864 and that the coffin would be found empty. This kicked off one of the most intriguing cases of the late Victorian era which captured the public's imagination and rivals the best tales contemporary novelists had to offer.

Although this is a riveting story to start with, it needs someone of Eatwell's talents to bring the disparate strands together. It may start with Anna Maria Druce but that's far from the end of the case and Eatwell does an excellent job of juggling the various aspects of it. The book is split into three 'acts' - 'Burial', 'Resurrection' and 'Revelation', a partitioning that works well for the most part. For me, the intrigue didn't disintegrate at all throughout the book - while one mystery might be 'solved' there were still things to be explored, creating layers of intrigue that lasted until the final pages.

Eatwell's research is exemplary and she's been fortunate enough to have been granted access to some very interesting things, which she relates towards the end of the book. Equally, her knowledge of the major and minor players in the tale is excellent and she shares just enough relevant information without the narrative becoming swamped. Her ability to recreate the atmosphere of late-Victorian London is also brilliant. This isn't a dry book that simply recounts facts but an engrossing one which attempts to put you in the shoes of the major players. When a writer does this successfully they can bring history to life and Eatwell is one such writer.

Ultimately, this is a thrilling non-fiction book which will appeal to fans of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and other high-quality works of that type. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was sad that the rollercoaster ride of the 'Druce-Portland' case had to end, though not, I'm sure, as sad as some of the protagonists.

A review copy of this book was given to me in exchange for an impartial review.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Book Review: Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth

The inspiration for the hit television series, this is the first of Jennifer Worth's books about her experiences as a midwife in 1950s London. Written in episodic chapters, this is an engrossing memoir that is informative, moving and amusing in places.

One of Worth's strengths is the ability to explain without being condescending. Yes, by the very nature of the subject matter, things do get a little gory at times, but this tempered by moments of sheer beauty. Worth manages to conjure up her youthful self brilliantly and isn't afraid to highlight her own inexperience, naivety and, occasionally, prejudice.

The tales in this book have been used to a greater or lesser extent in the television adaptation. Even so, I heartily recommend reading the book for the subtle differences that are sometimes more enjoyable for being true. Perhaps my favourite of these is Worth's recounting of how involved Sister Julienne got in trying to encourage handyman Fred's pig-breeding activities. I laughed out loud, partly from the situation that ensues and partly due to Worth's expert recounting of it.

Several tales in this book span multiple chapters, maintaining the compact feeling of the book while allowing expansion on the stories of certain people. The story of a young woman coerced into prostitution is particularly dark, fitting into a wider analysis of the trade in East London at that time. Equally, the case of Mrs Jenkins and her experiences in the workhouse is heartbreaking.

There's a reason that this book is a best-seller and has been adapted into a hugely successful television series. Quite simply, it's well-written and heartfelt and I'm looking forward to reading the next book very soon.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Whoa? Whoa

I think, after the last few days, the word I'm looking for is definitely 'whoa'.

The big news is that on Friday I passed my viva with minor corrections. The extra-special viva playlist obviously worked. It contains all my magic powers and if I ever go anywhere without it I'll lose my doctorate... Fortunate that my headphones are surgically attached to my skull then, isn't it?

Five minutes before my viva I was having a major wobble and, unsurprisingly, music dragged me through it. These two songs got me in the lift and through the door. Betty Blue Eyes and Merrily We Roll Along - who'd have thunk?

Thanks to everyone for helping me on Friday, especially my dad, Sal, Claire and my brilliant supervisor. A few drinks were in order and, to celebrate, I even had a pink cocktail. This is me, said cocktail and Edmund, my present from Sal:

So after all that excitement on Friday, I was wondering why I'd agreed to read a short story out at the Jackanory event on Saturday. The piece I regaled them with was 'Shredded Timbers', my prize-winning story from a few months ago. I think the reading went well though, I have to say, I was still a little bit bemused from the day before!

However, the twists and turns of life may have thrown something else in my path. Let's just say that if I was looking for the reason why I made the rather silly decision to attend Jackanory the day after my viva, I found it. As ever, Sondheim says it best...

"We're opening doors, singing, "Here we are!"
We're filling up days on a dime.
That faraway shore's looking not too far.
We're following every star,
There's not enough time!"

Friday, 24 April 2015

What's In a Playlist?

Me and music is one of those long-lasting affections. It'll outlast all my relationships, mean more to me than most things in this world and keep me going through troubled times. Usually, it perks me up, reminds me that there's something worth carrying on for. In compiling this playlist - designed to keep me positive - I had to dispense with many songs I consider favourites because they're so sad. You'd expect there to be more Judy here, for instance, but Judy invariably breaks my heart.

So here is my extra special playlist, split into categories. I realised pretty quickly that anything connected to Jerry Herman and Stephen Sondheim needed to be in its own categories. Those two masters of the musical have a lot to answer for. My adoration of Merrily We Roll Along, in particular, is on display.

Classic Musicals 

'A Step in the Right Direction' - Bedknobs and Broomsticks
'Finale' - Call Me Madam
'Cactus Time in Arizona' - Girl Crazy
'Processional' - The Sound of Music
'Golden Ticket' - Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
'If My Friends Could See Me Now' - Sweet Charity
'Portobella Road' - Bedknobs and Broomsticks
'Substitutiary Locomotion' - Bedknobs and Broomsticks
'The Turnable Song' - Something in the Wind
'Put On a Happy Face' - Bye Bye Birdie
'Rosie' - Bye Bye Birdie
'It's a Lovely Day Today' - Call Me Madam
'That's Entertainment' - The Bandwagon
'Pick Yourself Up' - Swing Time
'Moses' - Singin' in the Rain
'One Brick At a Time' - Barnum
'If I Ruled the World' - Pickwick
'Thank You Very Much' - Scrooge
'Stereophonic Sound' - Silk Stockings
'Come Follow the Band' - Barnum
'The Colours of My Life Reprise' - Barnum
'Museum Song' - Barnum
'Out There' - Barnum
'I Like Your Style' - Barnum
'On How to Be Lovely' - Funny Face
'No Way to Stop It' - The Sound of Music
'Leave It to the Ladies' - Blitz
'Down the Lane' - Blitz
'The Roses of Success' - Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
'I Don't Care' - In the Good Old Summertime
'Ten Minutes Ago' - Cinderella
'Impossible' - Cinderella
'Join the Circus' - Barnum

Herman and Sondheim

'A Parade in Town' - Anyone Can Whistle
'Open a New Window' - Mame
'That's How Young I Feel' - Mame
'Suffragette March' - Mrs Santa Claus
'Whistle' - Mrs Santa Claus
'Bosom Buddies' - Mame
'Put On Your Sunday Clothes' - Hello, Dolly!
'Before the Parade Passes By' - Hello, Dolly!
'Some People' - Gypsy
'Mame' - Mame
'Chin Up, Ladies' - Milk and Honey
'Side by Side'/'What Would We Do Without You' - Company
'I Am What I Am' - La Cage aux Folles
'Something's Coming' - West Side Story
'Everybody Says Don't' - Anyone Can Whistle
'Just Go to the Movies' - A Day in Hollywood
'It's a Hit' - Merrily We Roll Along
'Tap Your Troubles Away' - Mack and Mabel
'Someone Woke Up' - Do I Hear a Waltz?
'Do I Hear a Waltz?' - Do I Hear a Waltz?
'Overture' - Merrily We Roll Along
'Now You Know' - Merrily We Roll Along
'Old Friends' - Merrily We Roll Along
'The Hills of Tomorrow'/'Merrily We Roll Along' - Merrily We Roll Along
'Our Time' - Merrily We Roll Along
'Opening Doors' - Merrily We Roll Along
'Ever After' - Into the Woods

Modern Musicals

'Human Again' - Beauty and the Beast
'Just Around the Corner' - The Addams Family
'Where Did We Go Wrong' - The Addams Family
'Walk Through the Fire' - Buffy the Vampire Slayer
'This Is My Life' - Bad Girls: The Musical
'Once We Were Kings' - Billy Elliot
'This is the Moment' - Jekyll and Hyde
'I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do' - Mamma Mia!
'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life' - Spamalot
'Bruce' - Matilda
'When I Grow Up' - Matilda
'One Normal Night' - The Addams Family
'One' - A Chorus Line
'Who's That Boy?' - Soho Cinders
'Steal the Pig' - Betty Blue Eyes
'Another Little Victory' - Betty Blue Eyes
'A Star is Born' - Hercules
'Nobody' - Betty Blue Eyes
'Anything Can Happen' - Mary Poppins
'Naughty' - Matilda
'You Can't Stop the Beat' - Hairspray
'Finale B' - Rent
'When I Find My Baby' - Sister Act
'Raise Your Voice' - Sister Act
'Sunday Morning Fever' - Sister Act
'Spread the Love Around' - Sister Act
'Come So Far (Got So Far to Go)' - Hairspray 
'You Shall Go to the Ball' - Soho Cinders
'Long As I'm Here With You' - Thoroughly Modern Millie
'How the Other Half Lives' - Thoroughly Modern Millie
'For Now' - Avenue Q

Jazz, Easy Listening Etc

'Take a Look' - Alison Jiear
'Don't Fence Me In' - The Andrews Sisters and Bing Crosby
'In the Mood' - Bette Midler
'Zing a Little Zong' - Bing Crosby
'Walkin' My Baby Back Home' - Bing Crosby and Judy Garland
'Don't Rain On My Parade' - Bobby Darin
'Taking the World By Storm' - Bonnie Langford
'I'm On My Way' - The Cliff Adams Singers
'High Hopes' - Doris Day
'Something's Gotta Give' - Ella Fitzgerald
'I've Gotta Be Me' - Glee Cast
'The Way You Look Tonight'/'You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile' - Glee Cast
'In the Mood' - Glenn Miller
'American Patrol' - Glenn Miller
'Five Little Miles From San Berdoo' - Jane Russell
'I Concentrate On You' - Judy Garland
'Just in Time' - Judy Garland
'Who Cares?' - Judy Garland
'You've Got Me Where You Want Me' - Judy Garland and Bing Crosby
'New York, New York' - Liza Minnelli
'Hello, Dolly' - Liza Minnelli and Judy Garland
'Chicago' - Liza Minnelli and Judy Garland
'Gonna Build a Mountain' - Matt Monroe
'Dearie' - Ray Bolger and Ethel Merman
'Hey, Look Me Over' - Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby

Bits & Bobs

'That's Me' - ABBA
'We Didn't Start the Fire' - Billy Joel
'You May Be Right' - Billy Joel
'Birdhouse in Your Soul' - Kristin Chenoweth and Ellen Greene

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

This Saturday: Jackanory at Mocca Moocho

You may be interested in an event which I'm appearing at this Saturday (25th April) in Wakefield.

Several writers will be reading their work at Mocca Moocho from 3:00pm to 5:00pm. My slot's expected to be about 3:40, but why not come for the whole thing? That cafe does some of the best hot chocolate I've ever tasted, even if it is almost summer now. Full details of the event can be found on Facebook here.

What I'm reading is still up for debate. I was hoping to read something new, but with my viva the day before I may be pushing my luck. Anyway, I'm looking forward to it and I hope to see some of you there on Saturday.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Classic Film Review: The Red Pony (1949)

The Red Pony stars Peter Miles as Tom, a rancher's son who longs for a pony. When he's given one, however, he learns sharp lessons about responsibility and pain. The cast also features Myrna Loy as Alice Tiflin, Shepperd Strudwick as Fred Tiflin, Robert Mitchum as farmhand Billy Buck and Louis Calhern as Grandfather with a brief appearance from Margaret Hamilton as a schoolteacher. Also watch out for an eight year old Beau Bridges as one of Tom's friends. Based on an episodic novella by John Steinbeck, the screenplay was also written by him.

This is a gentle film where, really, very little happens. It hinges on Tom and, fortunately, Peter Miles does a very good job as the boy. Rather surprisingly - for me anyway - Robert Mitchum has a good rapport with Miles, making their scenes together some of the best of the film. While I enjoyed Mitchum, Loy and Calhern, it felt as though they were all bigger than their parts. The same couldn't be said for Shepperd Strudwick, who feels tacked on as an afterthought, both in terms of character and actor.

It does a very good job of grounding the story in its time and location and it's delicately shot. There are moments which feel a little outlandish - Tom imagining leading an army on the way to school, for instance - and it's fairly obvious from the outset that disaster's going to strike. If you don't have a high tolerance for films with child leads then you won't like this one. However, as part of Robert Mitchum's filmography, I found it fascinating. Probably not one I'll watch again, but I'm glad I saw it.