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Sunday, 29 May 2011

Wakefield Drama Festival 2011

This may be quite a niche post but I thought I'd blog of my experiences in the last week as I attended the Wakefield Drama Festival 2011 at Theatre Royal Wakefield. The premise of the festival was pretty simple: seven plays in seven nights. Simple yet terrifying I'd imagine - for all involved. At the end of every performance the adjudicator gave his verdict and picked his winners at the end of the week.

Sunday - One Fiona, Two

This was a farce. Don't worry, it was meant to be. That said, I'm not certain I enjoyed it. The story was essentially that of Martyn, a thriller writer who owns a hotel on a Greek island and who has a lot of affairs with women called Fiona and learns something of a lesson. This was only the second production of the play and the writer and director also played a small role in the piece.

There were some excellent performances, but they were mainly from the secondary cast. One woman in particular, Rozi Afferson playing Bunty was magnificent. It's not often you can tell from the very first moment two characters appear on stage together that one has something of an unrequited love for the other one. Equally, there aren't many actresses who can pull off drunkenness with believability and make it downright hilarious. Then there was the recovery from the alcohol during a scene with barely any dialogue. It was pure genius: crisps dropping all over the place, being swept up and replaced on the table; peanuts being doused in Alka-Seltzer then drained; po-pourri being mistaken for Bombay mix. That scene was honestly worth the entry fee alone.

However, I did have some major reservations about the rest of it, some of which were picked up by the adjudicator. The pace wasn't speedy enough for a farce. Momentum slipped away just as it should have been building and this wasn't helped by strange performances from several of the leads. I say 'strange' because I fully believe they were playing the roles as written but it just didn't work well enough for me. The lead actor was miscast, I believe. I know he was supposed to be an unlikeable cad but he missed the moments of humanity which could have made him at least understandable as a character. His comedic value was overdone and a lighter touch would've helped the play as a whole. The base material was decent but it could do with some external input, and maybe some fresh faces in certain roles. As one final criticism (which the adjudicator shared), the set was full of doors and was perfect for a farce. However, the set wobbled more than Crossroads and I don't think that was intentional.

Monday - Blood Brothers

It's worth pointing out this was the play and not the musical. As such, I was a little apprehensive about how the drama would successfully take the place of the songs. I needn't have worried. This was an excellent performance. For anyone unfamiliar with the plot, it can be summed up easily enough: a downtrodden woman gives one of her twins to her infertile employer. The two boys meet and become friends, despite their class differences, though they are torn apart by their differences and their love for the same woman.

I had very few criticisms of the acting in this one. Even the bit parts of the policewoman and the milkman were amusing and well-cast. The two mothers, Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons, were delicately played and understated when necessary. As for the boys, I was very impressed by two grown-up men playing the roles of seven then fourteen year-olds with apparent ease. It was something which could easily have looked ridiculous but the actors drew you into the personalities rather than the striking physical discrepancy between an adult and a boy. Equally, Poppy-Jo Lumley playing Linda managed the transition from child to woman to mother with ease. I can't fault the interpretation of any of the characters.

A couple of things which the adjudicator picked up on (which I agreed with) were the sometimes strained use of the minimal set and the disaster surrounding the gunshot at the end of the play. Firstly, the permanent set consisted of a table, two chairs and a sideboard which weren't constantly used. Occasionally, when characters sat at the table it boxed the action into two tight a corner. Secondly, the sound effect as the gun went off in the last scene was too strong and helped invoke laughter in the audience. That was a terrible occurrence because the scene up until then had been emotionally charged and brilliantly acted. It diluted the effects of the climax a little.

One thing I feel I must pick up on is the adjudicator's statement that the play feels dated. Admittedly, there are sections which jar but, overall, I found the play as relevant today as it was thirty years ago. After all, the themes of recession, class, social mobility, jealousy and anger resonate as deeply in contemporary society. I honestly think that it's a play with an active lesson and I thoroughly enjoyed watching it.

Tuesday - The Bronte Boy

I used this play as one of my excuses to go to the Wakefield Drama Festival this year. It's no secret on this blog that I'm a nineteenth-century nerd but that could've left me massively disappointed with the offering from Encore Theatre. Fortunately, the actual content of the play was extraordinary and the delivery matched it. The play tells the tale of Branwell Bronte, the brother of the famous sisters who never quite reached his potential and died before his siblings. It was written by a local author and the script was phenomenal. It isn't easy to make Victorian dialogue interesting to the modern audience but a combination of a great script and accomplished actors made that criticism obsolete.

There truly wasn't a stand-out performance in this piece: they were all equally outstanding. As Branwell, Warwick St. John delicately made us care about a character who was destroying himself and negatively influencing the lives of those around him. His first scene with Asadour Guzelian as Patrick Bronte was emotionally charged and set the tone for the entire play. Equally, his final scene was haunting as he reads aloud letters that characterise what he sees as his failed existence. The actresses playing the sisters were all fantastic and I wouldn't like to single any of them out above the others.

The problems of the play stemmed from technical, not artistic issues. There were noticeable lighting errors (or just bizarre choices) and the table centre stage was cumbersome at times, alienating characters and limiting where the action could take place. Several scenes were pushed to the far of the stage as they alternated with action taking place in the centre. A combination of lighting problems, sound effect issues and a straight-on angle caused problems for some in the audience. However, none of the technical problems ruined the overall effect of the play for me. It was powerful and it was haunting. An exceptional night of the festival.

Wednesday - The Moonbather

This was a Last of the Summer Wine script, written by the wonderful Roy Clarke. As such, it was impeccable and couldn't really fail. The audience went with a set idea of what they were going to get and I'm pretty sure they got it. I was in hysterics throughout and began choking during the last scene because I'd been laughing so much.

The trickiest part of this play was presenting characters people knew vividly without impersonating the famous actors. I think it also expected you to go with knowledge of the series. If you'd taken a foreign friend or someone who'd been living in a bunker for the last forty years they might not have enjoyed it as much as someone familiar with the programme. There were titters of recognition as each character appeared on stage and a certain knowledge of what was to come. That said, the actors did a tremendous job of portraying their characters. Paul Haley was Compo, no question. Nora Batty was there with her curlers and Cleggy was as stuttering as anxious as I'd expect him to be. If I have one criticism of the cast it would be that it was a little too large, but that stems from the adaptation and a desire to please the audience more than anything else. One scene wonders Wally, Sid and Marina could certainly have been eliminated but the sense of community and fond feeling they inspired was possibly worth their inclusion.

The set was the most detailed of the week and yet so apt. Most of the action takes place in Cleggy's living room which is furnished just as you'd expect Normal Clegg to furnish his living room. It was intricate and detailed. A black curtain came down in front of the house for scenes involving other characters and this was very neatly done. The set complimented the action and gave it a sense of the 'real', even as the play itself descended into pure farce. It didn't pretend to be more than it was: it was a funny night out that certainly gave the audience an enjoyable time.

Thursday - Warrant for a Deed of Blood

This was the one I was looking forward to the most. In fact, this was the entire reason I decided to go to the festival in the first place. The story was based on the true story of Constance Kent, the Road murderer. This investigation was covered in-depth in Kate Summerscale's fantastic book, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. I went into this anticipating a lot, because the source material was sensational and I didn't see how they could go wrong. But, on several levels, they did.

The logical place to start, so I thought, was with the murder itself. Instead they introduced the puzzles leading up to the murder beforehand, with the discovery of the body actually happening between acts one and two. This disappointed me on several levels: firstly, I think far too much time was sent documenting what could easily have been shown in flashbacks (as happened for a fair part of act two anyway); secondly, I felt cheated that we as an audience had been denied the discovery of the body, mainly because, despite the tension at the end of act one, there was no confirmation a crime would occur. If you didn't have knowledge of the case beforehand you might've struggled with the sudden leap from irritating child to dead one. Equally, if you had knowledge of the case you may have found yourself frustrated with the presentation - both structurally speaking and in terms of the cast.

I was most impressed by the acting of older members of the cast. Sue Murray as Sarah Cox was phenomenal. I almost forgave the fact that there were some entirely inappropriate songs in the piece because she was the one singing them. Equally, the actors playing Dr Stapleton, Samuel Kent and Elizabeth Gough approached their parts in the right manner. However, the children, Constance and William, were either miswritten or misinterpreted by the actors. They seemed to act a lot younger than they actually were and the hereditary madness, a vital component of the story, was expressed in chaotic and frantic scenes. Anyone who has read anything relating to Constance Kent will know that she was seen at the time as being reserved and thoughtful with bouts of anger. This misinterpretation, on whatever level it occurred, presented me with the major fault of the play: the names could easily have been changed and it made an entirely new piece because the majority of what was seen was conjecture from the time and sensationalism. The case itself was sensational and didn't need the enhancement of the rumours. A couple of other things I would add are, firstly, that there was a musician on stage who did add to the mood very effectively at times. However, he got in the way. He was clearly visible from the left side of the theatre, meaning that some of the monologues were diluted by the fact this musician was grinning over at the side. Finally, the use of a puppet and a woman controlling it to represent Saville seemed an odd way of demonstrating his tittle-tattling. While it was well done for what it was, I don't think it was necessary to the piece.

Friday - Men of the World

I was quite dubious about this, mainly due to the small cast and the idea that the three actors would be impersonating characters from a coach holiday. I thought it would be difficult to follow and seem rather contrived. Well, it wasn't difficult to follow at all, the sparse garments adorned by every separate character were differentiation enough. Perhaps it did seem contrived, but it was supposed to. The audience could suspend their disbelief because the characters themselves felt so real - even when it was a bloke with a beard wearing a headscarf. The writing was perfect and the three actors pulling off multiple parts were phenomenal.

There were too many little characters to go through them all. However, the three bus drivers framing and telling the story were Larry, Stick and Frank (female). Larry was due to retire after the journey they proceed to tell us about but he didn't. What the rest of the play explains is why he couldn't, and it captures the relationships between the drivers perfectly. There's a moment towards the end of act two when the tension that has been brewing between Larry and Stick throughout boils over into a shouting match that was perfectly pitched. I fully believed the anger between the two men because it had been fantastically foreshadowed. Then again, it was a John Godber script so I'm not surprised at the quality of the writing. Out of all the plays this week, this was the one that I could have stayed watching for hours more. I felt extremely comfortable with the characters, as though I'd been mates with them for years.

The set was sparse, with all character equipment being kept in three boxes behind the drivers' seats. They didn't distract and meant the actors didn't constantly disappear off-stage to change character. The lighting was used successfully to segregate the action but the music was the exceptional part of the staging for me. It was used to fill interludes as one character became another and it always tried to fit perfectly with what was going on. We got excerpts from The King and I and Sister Act along with standards such as 'Show Me The Way To Go Home' and a little Chopin. All in all, the music added to the play, rather than distracted from it. A thoroughly enjoyable evening to take your mind from any troubles.

Saturday - Glorious

This told the true tale of Florence Foster Jenkins, the worst opera singer in the world. Knowing the script was written by the fabulous Peter Quilter (of End of the Rainbow fame) made me sure I was in for a fantastic evening. Quilter has an extremely delicate way of mixing the comic with the poignant and that shone through in this remarkable performance.

The set was used effectively, a nice apartment setting for the opening scene which set the tone for the whole piece. The adjudicator commented at the end that there were more stage-hands helping with the changes than actors. It all worked, though, especially given that while the changes were taking place a newscast giving a flavour of the period blared over the speakers. I also couldn't fault the acting tonight. They got laughs when necessary but there was always a sense of the pain underneath, especially in the case of pianist, Cosme McMoon played by Steve Williams, whose grimaces deserved their own award. The company was actually from Bristol, the furthest afield by far of any companies this week. It was certainly worth them making the journey. That was a play I'm never going to forget and one I wouldn't hesitate seeing again if the opportunity arose.


This week was certainly one heck of an experience for me. It was intense, informative and, for the most part, highly enjoyable. I'd like to thank the staff at the theatre for being so helpful and accommodating all week and for putting on some excellent food after each performance for the week-long pass holders. I'd also like to thank the woman who gave me a lift home on Friday night (and I'm afraid whose name I never caught) and give a wave to @YorkshireLawMan who I ended up sat next to on Friday. It was bizarre sitting down and having someone ask if I'm Lucy, having been tweeting at each other for several months.

My personal choice for play of the week would've been The Bronte Boy. It was fresh, written by a local writer and was suitably haunting. In the end, Glorious took both the audience award and the first prize from the adjudicator. I believe Men of the World took second while The Moonbather took third but I'll correct myself if I'm wrong. It has been a very long week! But I did enjoy it and I know that they smashed the box office record for attendance during the festival in this, it's eleventh year. I'm hoping next year they can rival that and I hope I'll be there to watch.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Book Review: 31 Bond Street by Ellen Horan

It's with a little trepidation that I write this review. After all, the book is actually very good in many important ways. However, I just couldn't feel the enthusiasm for it that I wanted to.

31 Bond Street draws on the real-life murder of Dr Harvey Burdell in New York in 1857. Horan's focus is on Henry Clinton, the lawyer who takes on the case of housekeeper, Emma Cunningham, when she is arrested and charged with the murder. The action is split between the court case and the events leading up to the murder, meaning that there are several principle characters over the course of the book.

Horan's ingenuity is evident in the invocation of the New York setting, detailed at just the right level of specific, and the use of the chapters set prior to the murder. She unravels the mess of Burdell's life in the past as she shows Henry Clinton's efforts to save his client in the present. This certainly prevents the court proceedings from becoming stale, as something revealed in a flashback chapter directly influences the way the reader approaches the following chapters. However, one criticism I have of the structure is the book is that it doesn't start consistently from the beginning of the book. While I understand the need to immerse the reader in the murder and detail Henry Clinton getting involved in the case, when the novel does settle down to a structure which draws on the past to influence the perception of the present, I found myself a little disorientated. However, this could easily have been a personal reaction, because the chapters were well-labelled and you're aware of where you are in the narrative timeline.

I suppose my main criticism of the novel stems from the Daily Mail review excerpt quoted on the cover which suggests that it's a book for those who enjoyed The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale. I don't think it is. Summerscale documents a murder in an analytical but very readable manner. Horan reproduces the fact of the Burdell murder and uses several real-life figures from the case to tell her tale. However, she creates several characters and alters the timing of the marriage of Henry Clinton in order to give him a wife to complement him and assist him. The extent of her fictional liberties are explained in an author's note towards the end, but I think if I'd gone into the book knowing about them it would've made my reading experience a lot more enjoyable. By comparing the novel with The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, the front cover conveys something which the book can't live up to because it wasn't trying to. Horan takes a mysterious case and makes a story out of it. If she'd framed it completely as a work of fiction, it would've been a fantastic read. As it was, the blend between historical fact and fiction didn't sit well with me.

I will say, though, that Horan's depiction of her invented characters was exceptional. Looking back at the end, I'd noticed that two of the characters I'd felt most affinity with were fictional inventions - Clinton's wife, Elisabeth, and Burdell's driver, Samuel. Those two were fully-fleshed out and a joy to read about. I'm not sure if Horan struggled to paste personalities onto real-life people but I certainly came out of the book with a stronger sense of who the fictional Elisabeth Clinton was than her real-life husband.

All in all, I failed to enjoy this book because I went into it with different expectations. Try reading the author's note before you get started and you might have a completely different experience.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

I Love A Piano

As part of the process of moving my grandmother into her new sheltered accommodation flat (I type, withholding my growl) we've inherited various items of furniture which we've crammed with difficulty into our tiny house. Two new bookcases (never going to turn up my nose at those), a very dapper bureau and my grandfather's piano. Now, it was his piano but he never played. Consequently, I think of it as my grandmother's piano. Although I was told from an early age that it was to be mine. I don't think I believed her until it turned up on my doorstep.

I never learned to play, at least I didn't try seriously. I never had lessons (I played flute instead) and didn't spend too much time around there when my mum was alive as family relations were... fraught with difficulty. And that's putting it mildly. When I was at college I sort of tried to learn but my time at my grandparents' house was mainly spent using their kitchen table for the purposes of writing in little A5 wired notebooks. Some of my most idyllic Sundays were spent at that table, a light breeze coming in through the back door, cups of tea as regularly as I'd like in my koala mug and Elaine Paige on Sunday filtering from the radio. I did make an effort to play a little though and, consequently, I'd got some easy beginner books: a very simplistic Disney book and Easy to Play Abba and the showtunes one in the same series.

The piano was in the house about a week and a half before I actually lifted the lid and considered playing the thing. I'd been viewing it as some sort of bulky ornament. But I gathered my music from the broken stool (a hinge has been broken as long as I can remember) and sat down. Would I remember anything? I wasn't too concerned about treble clef notes as my flute days drummed those into me mercilessly but I'd taught myself bass clef and I didn't think it had stuck. Turned out it had. I know what I'm supposed to be playing. That doesn't mean I play it, mind you, but I know what I'm supposed to be doing.

I've played an hour every day this week. It's a slow, painful, halting process but the rudiments of music are trickling back to me. I'm sticking to fairly slow songs at the moment - 'Bella Notte' from Lady and the Tramp, 'Once Upon a Dream' from Sleeping Beauty. I can sort of play 'Don't Cry For Me, Argentina' but today I got frustrated because I was receiving texts from two people and couldn't get to the end of the damn song! However, the Abba songbook is proving to be the most amusing at this point. The only song I can play in its entirety is 'Hasta Mañana', a beautiful song that I believe was the B-side to 'Waterloo'. However, the version I've got has the left hand changing from treble to bass to treble etc etc. And me? I can play it almost perfectly. Throw in a complication or two and I'm good to go apparently.

I do hope I keep up with this. I don't have much of a life outside of the PhD and writing my little heart out. I've also dusted off my flute and may even get back to playing that. A fresh start maybe?

I'll leave you with a little Judy Garland and Fred Astaire, just because I couldn't resist the title of this post and you deserve the song for getting to the end.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Pet Names

To avoid any confusion, I'm talking about 'names for pets' in this post. Not 'pet names' such as 'snuggles', 'cuddles', 'arsenic', and 'bulldozer'. That's a whole different category and one that could make everyone feel rather nauseous. No, I've been thinking a lot lately about animal names and their relationship to fiction: how do you decide what to call your pets and, more importantly, how do characters?

So far in my novel drafts I've only included one pet. There's an excellent piece of advice in some book somewhere that warns writers not to include animals without an exceptional reason. They can be self-indulgent little things that do nothing apart from hold up your plot and, when you forget about them, can leave the reader wondering where the fluffy kitten is and whether you did actually leave it in the burning building. The cat in my novel serves a few purposes, or at least I believe she does. I may be being self-indulgent. But Meg gives my protagonist something to get up for in the morning, she gives her something to talk to, and she serves to illuminate aspects of character by her preference for certain characters over others. As a cat person, I have to say that a cat's opinion can occasionally sway me in something like that. Yes... I know.

But why the name Meg? Well, my protagonist found the cat as a stray and gave her a human name to make her part of her hitherto single-person family. The old saying goes that if you give a cat a human name it becomes more human in your eyes. Now, I don't know what our pet names say about us as a family.

My cat, who unfortunately died last week, was called Stalin. Her sister, who passed away a few months ago was called Vlad. These cats were originally my sister's but part of her agreement to get them dictated my mother should have a say in the names. And she was kind of into her history. I have to say, whereas Vlad was a softie, Stal lived up to her name on some occasions. But not as much as the first cat I remember - Beast. Now, she was a stray and a very violent scrappy cat. I was scratched more than I care to remember when I was younger by that darling. She had a particularly amusing game of hanging around on the kitchen country ready to leap onto the back of our poor, unsuspecting doggy. She was originally called (embarrassing moment coming up) Icolbit, because a child who shall remain nameless couldn't speak and wanted her to come over 'a little bit'. However, 'Beast' was a much more appropriate name for her.

We've had two dogs in my lifetime. Paddy, probably a whippet crossed with something it really shouldn't have been crossed with, was a rescue dog. The first day we got him he ran from the house into the middle of a busy road because he was scared. I'm not sure the car helped his fear much. However, one metal plate later and he was perfectly happy. He still shook at anything, even a raised voice, but he was the most docile, friendly dog you could encounter. When he died my mother was heartbroken, and made the decision to go check out a puppy next door to one of my aunts the very same day. So we ended up with Rosie, a Cairn crossed with a Westie... we think. She's highly excitable and we're currently having some problems with her because she misses Stalin terribly. Once Beast died she became attached to Vlad and when Vlad died she latched onto Stal. She's now lost and confused and thinks we're going to leave her every time we leave the dining room. Rosie was my name choice, and not for very pleasant reasons either. There was a stuck-up girl I hated at school, part of a set who loved the look of themselves in a mirror. Naming my dog after one of them seemed to be the ultimate revenge at the time. Ahem. I promise I have grown up since then.

We've had an array of animals in my family. Maud, a grey long-eared rabbit; Norman, a brown and white rat; Noel and Liam, my brother's budgies. Plus an assortment of mice, rabbits and fish whose names escape me. But, for the most part, they were all part of the family - that is, they were named as if they were part of the family.

I know that including pets in fiction should be avoided if they're just going to be an issue of cuteness and irritation to the reader. But think of Fang in the Harry Potter series: whenever Hagrid was in his hut I wanted to know where the dog was because he was a vivid character in my mind. He helped define Hagrid. Where would Count Fosco be in The Woman in White without his assortment of mice and birds? The attention he pays to them highlights a peculiar edge to his character. And, in the world of television, where would Martin Crane be without his dog, Eddie? Animals can help define and shape character as much as they can annoy the audience by their constant interruptions. The key as a writer is to know when you're indulging yourself and when you're indulging the requirements of the plot or scene.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Television Review: Case Sensitive

As a devotee of Sophie Hannah's books (as demonstrated by the reviews on this blog) I was both excited and worried by the fact that ITV were going to adapt one of her books for screen. I was more perplexed when I found it was The Point of Rescue, the third in the series. My notion has always been start from the beginning. I was especially concerned that the personal relationship between Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse, an integral part of the novels, would be - for want of a better phrase - buggered up. On that score, at least, I was wrong.

It just so happens that, of all Hannah's novels, The Point of Rescue was the one I remembered least about. That meant that in some respects I was able to enjoy the plot as if I was a complete novice. And the plot works, albeit it a little differently to the books. A major difference is that the books are narrated in alternating chapters - one police, one victim etc. Television's a medium where viewers can discern much more than their reading counterparts. That forced a little reorganisation as far as narrative method was concerned, but I certainly think it worked.

The cast was outstanding, both the police and public. I have to say, I was quite worried about how they would transfer the antagonistic and annoying character of DC Simon Waterhouse onto screen without altering him into something unrecognisable. Fortunately, Darren Boyd is a genius. I wasn't too sure at first but pretty soon I was convinced that the fidgeting, abrupt and slightly dim (in certain respects) man on the screen was Simon Waterhouse. And that is some accomplishment. DS Charlie Zailer was equally as well cast. I can't put into words how many differing little character facets Olivia Williams managed to demonstrate in the two hours of the programme. Cold, caring, uncomfortable, slightly-less-uncomfortable. I don't think they could have cast two better leads.

I was equally impressed by the supporting cast. I do think if I'd gone into it with absolutely no background knowledge I would've enjoyed it nonetheless. As it was, I found myself pleasantly surprised as to how easily the transfer from page to screen had worked. I heard the ratings were between four and five million, not bad considering the competition was John Simm drama, Exile. Williams confirmed that she's signed on if ITV decide to commission more and I seriously hope they consider it. I think they've got a leading pair with some excellent chemistry and some great material to work with from Hannah's books.

Read an interview with Olivia Williams here.

Read an interview with Darren Boyd here.

Monday, 9 May 2011

The Mileage of Longing

As anyone who follows me on Twitter will be aware of, I'm currently going through one of my periodic binges on excellent television. This time, it's American sitcom, Frasier, which I hope many people still remember fondly. It told the story of radio shrink, Frasier Crane, as he returned to Seattle to start a new job. His father, Martin, moved in with him, along with English physical therapist, Daphne Moon. And, quite often, his brother, Niles, dropped in to visit. From their very first encounter, it was clear Niles was entranced by Daphne, something which later developed into a strong love.

The comedic value of that attraction was massive. There were some notable episodes which played on it: the series one episode, 'A Midwinter Night's Dream', in which Niles and Daphne are trapped by a storm at his house:

Another favourite of mine is the series three episode, 'Moon Dance'. Daphne helps Niles learn how to dance and eventually ends up accompanying him to the event after his partner cancels. Martin has warned Niles that he'll say something he'll regret in the heat of the moment. Niles duly does this, only for Daphne to surprise everyone by declaring her love as well. For a blissful few seconds both Niles and the audience are ecstatic, only for Daphne to joke that they had everyone fooled:

By series six producers had decided to end the audience's agony. During this series there were several hints Niles and Daphne would get together, despite Daphne accepting a proposal from someone else. Series seven saw Niles start a relationship with someone else, only for Daphne to finally learn how he felt about her for six years. As will occasionally happen, she finds herself suddenly attracted to him too. We get the happy ending, despite Niles marrying someone else and Daphne preparing to walk down the aisle with her fiancée. They start series eight as a couple, in a move which altered the dynamic of the show considerably.

I'm probably not the only one who thinks the most magical aspects of the Daphne/Niles relationship occurred while they were apart. Aside from the merits of the earlier years, when Niles pined silently after her, I'm extremely attached to series seven. From the very next episode after Daphne has discovered how Niles feels about her, she begins to alter her perception of him and starts to look at him in a different way. In a half-an-hour comedy where the spotlight is on another character there isn't much space devoted to the on-going trials of the ensemble cast. That said, the writers and Jane Leeves (playing Daphne) pulled it off magnificently. With little moments scattered throughout series seven, the audience were as involved in Daphne's realisation as they had been in Niles's adoration over the previous six years.

The Frasier producers seemed to have realised they'd pushed the unrequited love boat as far as it could go. It was a key ingredient of the show and I know people who think it suffered for losing the will-they-won't-they strand. But it had to happen. They had to get together. You can't build the expectations of your audience up for years then betray them. This sense of longing can offer immense mileage to a writer, whether you're writing fiction, scripts or anything else, but you have to be careful to resolve the tension before interest diminishes. Soaps are one medium where you can milk this kind of thing too much. For every wonderful Olivia/Natalia storyline (from American soap, Guiding Light, now sadly defunct) there is an Ashley/Bernice (Emmerdale, quite a few years ago now). The beauty of the former was that it switched from longing to fulfilment at just the right time. The viewer had been able to follow both Olivia and Natalia's emotional journey's and jumped when they jumped. However, the problem with the Emmerdale storyline was that the couple couldn't last. They were too different. Once they were together the producers didn't know what to do with them and so the character of Bernice eventually left.

I love my will-they-won't-they dramas. Currently I'm hoping for Rita and Norris to settle into happy retirement strangling each other in Coronation Street. Or what about Sean and Vicky in American import The Event? The tension there is beyond belief! As a fan of Downton Abbey I was screaming at the screen for Bates to admit how he felt about Anna all through the first series and it's one of my motivating factors for watching series two later this year.

Let's face it, if love makes the world go round, longing from a distance certainly makes it a more interesting ride. Anybody else have some excellent will-they-won't-they shows for me to get hooked on?

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Book Review: The Love of Good Women by Isabel Miller

I came across this book after Brighton Blogger reviewed it back in February for the LGBT Reading Challenge 2011 (which is what I'm reviewing it for now!). I liked the idea of the book so much that I ordered it immediately. Although it wasn't completely what I was expecting I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Isabel Miller was the pseudonym used by Alma Routsong, an American born in 1924. The Love of Good Women was first published in 1986 and tells the story of Gertrude and Milly, women married to two brothers, Earl and Barney respectively. It's set as WWII is wrapping up and essentially follows Gertrude as she unexpectedly finds independence from her domineering husband. That journey takes her to a factory where she makes friends along with her own money. The story is a typical belated coming-of-age narrative, but the one thing that really set it apart for me was Miller's tremendous use of dialogue.

Gertrude and Milly came alive for me through the dialogue. I realise that's how fiction should work but I was surprised by the ease of slipping into 1940s American speech for me. Occasionally it jars but I think it's supposed to. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Gertrude and her factory friends and the way all the characters sounded unique and yet not unrealistic. Miller's narrative method is very specific, focusing on individual scenes and details which add depth to the overall piece. The book is only a few hundred pages long but I felt as though I'd lived with the characters for much longer than that. It's split into three books, one from Milly's perspective sandwiched in between two from Gertrude's, and has a foreword and postscript from Milly.

On the very first page, Miller had me, as Milly expresses something most people, gay or straight, can relate to: "But Milly had learned to get the good of love, the wonderful leap and sweetness in the chest during the little while when it wasn't committably insane to hope." Come on... who doesn't relate?

Amazon page for The Love of Good Women is here.

I read this for the LGBT Reading Challenge 2011 (see sidebar for details).