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Thursday, 27 December 2012

A Note About the Downton Deaths (Spoilers)

In the middle of series three of Downton Abbey I was one of many shocked by the sudden death of Lady Sybil following childbirth. I'll admit I was in floods of tears, then and the following twice I watched the episode. But, following the Christmas special that saw Matthew Crawley crash his car and die on the road, I was left a bit...cold actually. Luckily, I can easily ascertain why.

Sybil's death was sudden, yes, but it was as foreshadowed during the episode as Matthew's was. We saw her loving conversations with Tom, Mary and Cora; we knew the pompous doctor was going to lead to a dead end - possibly quite literally. But this foreshadowing didn't ruin the surprise because there was always a chance she'd pull through. After all, they'd be pretty stupid or brave to kill off such a popular character so swiftly. Whereas, with Matthew, the rumours about Dan Stevens's departure had been circulating for months. It was so damn obvious that he was going to bow out - if not in the Christmas special then in the early part of series four - that the emotion was sapped from the moment. It became all about the actor while Sybil's death was all about the character. I don't seriously believe that the cast and crew couldn't have kept silent if they'd really been induced.

Perhaps the most important aspect of any character death is emotional resonance. During Sybil's actual death scene I was invested, yes, but I didn't cry. What actually set off the tears were the reactions of the staff. Once Thomas started blubbing I did too. The difficulty with Matthew's death is that we had the 'event' but no emotional resonance afterwards. Okay, we saw Mary with her baby conflicting with the harsh images of her husband lying dead but there was no moment of revelation. There may be in the opening scenes of series four and, if there is, that will make it better but the actual death will have lost much of its emotional resonance by then. I can't help feeling that the audience has been let down a bit. There is, of course, the credible chance I'm in a minority on this one.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Classic Film Review: Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (1957)

Heaven Knows, Mr Allison tells the story of Corporal Allison (Robert Mitchum), a marine who drifts to shore on a Pacific island to find that the only person there is Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr), a nun who has just buried the priest she accompanied to the island. They make plans to escape the island but these turn sour when Japanese troops turn up to make a base on the island. They are forced to seek refuge in a cave and see what happens next but the close proximity causes its own problems.

There are a few similarities in tone between this film and The African Queen (1951, reviewed here) but any notion of a love plot is complicated by Sister Angela's habit. The romantic tension between Mitchum and Kerr works a little but can't last. Essentially, we have to care about their survival and not any hope of a romantic conclusion. The film achieves this, in part, by making Cpl Allison a good, down to earth man who has no pretensions of intelligence. This role was the first of Mitchum's that I've had no problems with but it suited him perfectly. As for Kerr, her Irish accent did get a little grating at times (and some words got lost) but her best moments came as Sister Angela finally cracks while a drunk Allison is arguing with her. The veneer of calm she's managed to maintain throughout makes this moment all the more compelling.

The third star of the film is undoubtedly the setting. Beautifully directed and filmed on location, the island comes to life, playing an important role as the film progresses. Heaven Knows, Mr Allison is a decent film hampered partly by a bad title. It's worth a watch as an excellent Robert Mitchum film and as part of Deborah Kerr's catalogue of good performances.

Friday, 14 December 2012

A Classics Challenge: December Wrap Up

Well, I technically failed this challenge, reading only six classics throughout the year when the target was a minimum of seven. I think we'll blame this on Charles Dickens since the challenge ended up being 'The Charles Dickens Classics Challenge With Two Other Books Thrown In'. So what books did I manage to read as part of the challenge?

  • I started off in January with Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (review here, prompt post here). 
  • In February I took a hiatus from all other books to indulge in Bleak House which is by far my favourite Dickens novel (review here, prompt post here).
  • I think Bleak House exhausted me. I came back to the challenge in July with another Dickens book - The Old Curiosity Shop (review here, prompt post here).
  • In August I stepped away from Dickens for the first time and read Jane Austen's Emma (review here, prompt post here).
  • In September I moved onto Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge (review here, prompt post here).
  • Finally, my December read - actually started with all good intentions back in October - was another Dickens novel, Little Dorrit (review here).

Four Dickens, one Austen and one Hardy. Not too shabby for the year, especially when you look at the lengths of Bleak House and Little Dorrit. Of course, there were some books I listed on my original challenge post that didn't get a look in: Mary Barton (Gaskell), The Mill on the Floss (Eliot), A Farewell to Arms (Hemingway) and The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Sterne). That's a shame for them but, honestly, this year deserved to be dedicated to Dickens. 

If I had to pick favourites I'd say it's a tie between Bleak House and Emma. I loved the depth of the former and the humour of the latter. Two very different texts but enjoyable for different reasons. That said, I didn't dislike any of these books. If I had to pick my least favourite it would probably be Oliver Twist but that's just because I enjoyed all of the others immensely. 

I'd like to thank November's Autumn for hosting this challenge and making me push myself a little. It's been great fun and I'd urge you to go read some of the other wrap-up posts listed over here to see what other people have been reading this year. 

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Book Review: Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

Although it doesn't have the depth of Bleak House (reviewed earlier in the year here), Little Dorrit has an array of characters and subplots that are enough to make your head whirl if you let them. The title character is a young woman who was born in the Marshalsea prison and has lived her life there - with certain excursions outside of the walls to make money for her family. When, eventually, her life changes beyond belief she finds herself whisked away from not only the home she knew but the man she's come to love - Arthur Clennam.

Little Dorrit contains an impressive collection of truly Dickensian characters. For instance, there's Flora, Arthur's childhood sweetheart, who has been married and widowed and now comes complete with 'Mr F's Aunt', a batty woman who announces random things and has taken quite a dislike to Arthur for no tangible reason. Flora reminds me irresistibly of Miss Bates from Jane Austen's Emma (reviewed here) - you feel like you need a sit down after all of her appearances as she rabbits on and confuses even the most attentive reader. Other stand-out characters include the grotesque Mr Flintwinch, Arthur's mother's business partner, and the excellent Mr Pancks, a man who has been content to do 'difficult' work all his life because that's just what life is but the worm eventually turns. I have to admit, I was actually cheering when it happened. Such a Victorian 'comeuppance' but satisfying to the reader nonetheless.

On occasion, the subplots of this novel become a little blurred and take up too much time. That's a pitfall of serial publication but Dickens's prose style kept me interested throughout. Of particular amusement were the descriptions of the Circumlocution Office - a timely reminder that bureaucracy is a needless waste of resources and we'd be well advised to take the same lesson from that satirical depiction as the Victorians were encouraged to. As with most Dickens novels, the parallels between his era and ours are startling but they do focus on enduring human characteristics: people will cheat, manipulate, have a change of fortune, become jealous, fall in love and hide it for all eternity and perhaps it is those qualities which make Little Dorrit as readable today as it was in the 1850s. Add to the characterisation and plot the amusing depictions of London and, most poignantly, the depictions of the Marshalsea and you have an excellent book on your hands. This wouldn't make a good introduction to Dickens for those who haven't read any of his work before but it's certainly a good addition to the canon.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Pesky Inspiration

That'll teach me to detail all my writing projects. The post I wrote about them yesterday gave rise to an evening of rereading and pondering that, finally, this morning led to a breakthrough. Trouble is, this wasn't the one I was supposed to be working on. It wasn't even the one I had a recent 'lightbulb' moment about!

The offender is number two in the list - 'Danni'. I said yesterday that it needed 'something' and I finally figured out what it was by reading through the abandoned first draft. There was a heck of a lot of background material in there (pivotal to the central relationship) that I'd simply discarded when I changed the plot around. Well, obviously I'm not just going to lump it back in but it does give me back the character insight I was lacking in more recent drafts.

Secondly, I knew part of my central hypothesis was weak. This was already the second incarnation but roll on number three. I know exactly what to change. I don't quite know how the change will affect every little thing but I've got a good grip on the basics.

So what now? Well, I'm knee-deep in editing 'Lily' after consultation with my agent and I need to finish a draft of my current thesis chapter by Christmas (my supervisor then 'persuaded' me to take Christmas week off from it). I'm also seeing quite a bit of my nieces and nephew and there's that whole Christmas thing itself to get out of the way. Does that mean this is a project for the New Year? Looks likely. And I think I have to bump it up the priority list. 'Lily' then 'Danni'. Going to be a busy January.

Monday, 10 December 2012

In Which I Discuss All My Major Writing Projects...

It occurred to me yesterday how much better I've become at completing drafts. I remember when I first started my MA we were asked what we particularly wanted to get out of the course - my answer was to finish something. Of course, an MA isn't the best place to do that (I have two unfinished projects from that year) but it provided some of the tools and my stubbornness provided the rest. My first complete manuscript actually came from my first NaNoWriMo. That idea of fighting with myself (and a certain friend, she knows who she is) was the push I needed. But since then I've morphed into a writer who likes to damn well complete first drafts when I've got them off the ground. The problem now is that I have a stack of things to redraft and precious little time to do it in.

Here's a list of my current projects that I consider 'off the ground'. There are countless others that are languishing on the top shelf of my musicals DVD bookcase glaring at me every time I want to watch The Wizard of Oz or Funny Face but we'll continue ignoring them for now or my brain really will melt from overwork. Note: I call all my novels by the name of my protagonist until I can actually come up with titles. I hate titles. That's a rant for another day.

  1. 'Lily' - The most developed of all, this was the novel I wrote and completed for my first NaNoWriMo. Since then it's gone through two and a half further drafts before I aborted the half and started afresh. I'm about 31,000 words into the fourth/fifth draft now. 
  2. 'Danni' - Apparently this has been through four drafts, though I can't remember all that pain. One thing I do know is that I just opened the first draft for a peek and spotted some characters I can't remember. That's a good thing, means I managed to change it beyond recognition but I may be at the point where the first draft will help me plot where I go next. It needs...something. I just to figure out what. The fourth draft came in at around 69,000 words. 
  3. 'Liz' - One first draft finished and I have decent plans for the second. Obviously needs beefing up a little at 55,000 words but this one did start out as a novella so... 
  4. 'Lauren' - Another NaNoWriMo victory, this time from 2011. Had a lightbulb moment about this one very recently (two days ago) so this is definitely ready for work. Again, it needs development at 54,000 words. 
  5. 'Max' - The least said about this one, the better! I didn't want to write it in the first place but I was...compelled. No doubt I'll be compelled to write the second draft too and, unfortunately, I do have some ideas about development. It needs it, coming in at 51,000 on the first draft. 
  6. 'Vic' - My most recent NaNoWriMo victory. Very short at around 51,000 words (again!) but I like this one. Definitely needs work but definitely has potential. 

When I write it out like that it almost looks impressive. Of course, there are still the more major ones that got away. 'Rosie', my first MA project, got me my highest MA mark and the first few chapters comprised of about 10,000 words. I keep meaning to go back to that and I do have a full plan. However, not the time! My second MA project, 'Freya', was the piece I used for my dissertation and is around 19,000 words long at the moment. It's a bit of a departure for me, a fantasy novel of sorts. But I have it on decent authority that it worked so I really should go back to it. A little something out of the ordinary is good for the muse - or so I just made up. 'Mervyn' is something that's been hanging around me for a few years in various forms but so far I've only got it up to 4,000 words. It deserves more and I swear I'll get back to it...some day. 

So much to do and so little time. It's probably not surprising that juggling this heap of stuff with my PhD sometimes gets a little overwhelming. But maybe that's the fun of it. I like to be challenged, at least in this way. However, I wouldn't say no to a few weeks off! I'm melting...

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

A Funny Thing Happened While Watching Black Narcissus

I've watched some cracking classic films this year (so far - it's not quite over yet and my hard disk recorder is full of them). However, along with All About Eve (1950), Indiscreet (1958), Bringing Up Baby (1938) and Monkey Business (1952), one of my favourites was Black Narcissus (1947) which starred Deborah Kerr, David Farrar and Kathleen Byron. Something happened while I was watching it that was a little bizarre but I didn't relate at the time - it's not really the kind of thing you put into a film review and I forgot to write a follow-up post about it.

Anyone who's familiar with Black Narcissus will know that it's a deeply atmospheric film with the constant sound of wind blighting the convent that sits high up in the Himalayas. Just as things were getting very interesting, I heard a squeaking coming from the kitchen. Shaken, I hit the pause button and glanced sideways. The dog was fighting with what I thought was a mouse. I yelled at her and she dropped it under the utensils trolley. There was a long moment then the thing reared up, bounced across the room making the most hideous noise and went straight into the crate of paperwork we have stored under the table.

Now, being a brave and mature girl, the first thing I did was call my father down from upstairs. I think I garbled something like - 'dog mouse will you - just get down here!'

He came downstairs, a little disgruntled because he still didn't know what I was babbling about and proceeded to have a look under the table. All the while, the television screen is fixed on a terrifyingly dark vision of a desolate convent.

It wasn't a mouse, it was a baby bird. That explained, perhaps, why the noise had been so violent (squawking not squeaking) but raised the question of how the dog had got hold of the creature in the first place. She's a docile little thing, scratches you by accident occasionally but doesn't have a vicious bone in her body. She wouldn't have pounced which means the poor thing must have fallen.

Anyway, my father took it outside and I waited a good few minutes before I put Black Narcissus back on. The rest of the film was seen with the memory of a dying squawk in my ears - it certainly added to the tension.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Classic Film Review: Kiss Them For Me (1957)

Kiss Them For Me is the tale of three decorated Navy pilots who wangle some leave in San Francisco and try to make it last as long as possible by getting some other 'war work'. Crewson (Cary Grant), McCann (Ray Walston) and Mississip (Larry Blyden) are very different men but all are likeable in their own way. They come across various characters including Alice Kratzner (Jayne Mansfield) who has vowed to kiss every member of the forces she sees and Gwinneth Livingston (Suzy Parker), an engaged woman who Crewson likes the moment he sees.

Perhaps the main problem with this film is that it can't decide what it's supposed to be. On the one hand, it's a light comedy with the boys trying to avoid going back to war but, on the other, there are some deeper moments that depict the realities of war. Case in point: while out with Gwinneth, Crewson encounters an old friend he knew who was invalided out. The man's so thin and decrepit that Crewson doesn't recognise him and only has weeks to live. This scene doesn't sit well with the amusing ones that precede it - and it's not an isolated occurrence.

I have to say, Jayne Mansfield's character got a tad grating at times, though she was better when paired with Walston's married McCann, who is hoping to win an election and is in constant contact with his wife, than with Grant's Crewson. Equally, although Suzy Parker began the film in good form, she didn't work as the woman who speedily fell in love. The aloof persona she adopted so well in the early scenes (and the reason I warmed to her) disintegrates as she's forced to indulge in a typical Hollywood romance. My favourite performance ended up coming from Ray Walston (whose next film would be the excellent South Pacific) whose likeability shone through a difficult script.

This is not an excellent film, though I suspect it suffered from being badly adapted. However, there are several amusing moments (if you want to watch it on that level) and several more serious ones (if you want to watch it on another). Some of the dialogue feels preachy and some of it gets too slangy than necessary but, overall, a decent film to waste some time with.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2012: Another Little Victory...

Well, I had a little word spurt (that sounds wrong...) in the last few days and finished ahead of schedule. Not only did I meet my NaNoWriMo target but I also finished my first draft. Yes, it's only 51,636 words but my first drafts are always very light. What matters is that it's down there on paper ready to be rewritten...when I get the chance. It has to join the queue behind the other five novels I'm redrafting, the PhD, my work for 2020UK, some paid freelancing work, babysitting duties and... Wow, okay. I'd better stop this list before I start panicking. Let's just say I have other work to do!

I've enjoyed writing this one, mainly because I've been mulling it over for much of the year so by the time November came around I was more than ready to stop thinking and write the damn thing. Nevertheless, I was worried that real life would get in the way and I stepped into some cavernous plot holes that I had to dig myself out of. It's going to make the rewrite fun but I think this one's definitely salvageable. Here are my stats for the month:

So I feel a bit like celebrating. Unfortunately, I'm lagging behind in my other work so I don't have time but here are two songs that sum up my mood.

Book Review: The Bachelor by Stella Gibbons

I noted when I read Westwood last year that I was determined to become more acquainted with Stella Gibbons. Once again, instead of reaching for the famous Cold Comfort Farm I picked up The Bachelor, a story about a well-off 'family' in wartime. This family consists of middle-aged brother and sister Kenneth and Constance Fielding, their cousin Miss Burton, the home help Vartouhi and the various guests who descend on the house, including mother and son Betty and Richard (Betty happens to be Kenneth's old flame) and the Fielding father, something of a playboy who abandoned his family years ago. Rounding out the main cast is Alicia Arkwright, a local girl who had an ill-fated love affair and may be in line for another when she catches sight of Richard (catches sight as in accidentally runs over his foot in her car).

You see, the romantic entanglements of the household are a little complex. Kenneth had his heart broken in his youth by Betty and has been ruled by his sister ever since but there's still a spark between the old sweethearts. Equally, there is a spark between Kenneth and the much-younger foreigner Vartouhi. Richard falls hard for Vartouhi himself while Alicia falls hard for Richard. To complicate matters further, the older Mr Fielding takes an interest in his son's old flame.

In parts this book is hilarious. Meek Miss Burton has a voice in her head labelled The Usurper who passes internal comment on what's going on, particularly in relation to her heavy-handed cousin, Connie. Miss Burton is probably the nicest character in the book and, being separate from all the love affairs, she is somebody to anchor onto. Although the war is ostensibly the reason for all these characters converging  Sunglades, it doesn't impact the house much as Connie has determined it won't. Connie is a recognisable 'type' - an intellectual woman who believes she knows best in everything. In a way, all the characters are recognisable types but that doesn't make the novel boring.

There are some genuinely funny pieces of dialogue in The Bachelor. It's an unpretentious satire about love and human nature. Although Vartouhi's speech gets a little irritating after a while, that's really my only criticism of a wonderful book.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Classic Film Review: The Prince and the Showgirl (1957)

The Prince and the Showgirl is, naturally, quite a fantastical film. The regent of a fictional country, Grandduke Charles (Laurence Olivier), comes to Britain for the coronation in 1911. He has one free evening in the capital and decides to see a show at the Coconut Girl Club. He takes a shine to Elsie (Marilyn Monroe) and invites her up to the embassy for a little supper. Once Elsie realises exactly what he wants from this intimate supper she tries to escape but foreign officer employee, Northbrook (Richard Wattis), persuades her to stay. The next day she overhears a conversation between the regent's son, king-in-waiting Nicolas (Jeremy Spenser) and someone he is plotting an uprising with. Of course, she sets about trying to reconcile father and son and suddenly finds herself at the coronation courtesy of the Dowager (Sybil Thorndike).

This is a rather complicated film with some over-long scenes and fragments of dialogue that don't work particularly well with the assembled cast. Taken individually, Olivier is tolerable as the regent while Monroe puts in a very inconsistent performance as Elsie. There are moments which seem specifically tailored to recapture her innocent hilarity of earlier roles but the pieces just don't seem to fit together on this one. There are some genuinely funny moments involving Monroe, though the overall effect of her charm is diluted. Thorndike is, however, superb as the Dowager and I think Richard Wattis as the dry (and very English) representative of the foreign office stole the film for me.

Implausible plots are fine if the film has enough charm to carry it off. For me, The Prince and the Showgirl failed on this point. It seemed more preoccupied with showing off the London scenery than anything else - hence the long monotonous scene of Elsie staring at the ceiling of Westminster Abbey while the coronation was going on. There was no chemistry between Olivier and Monroe that I could see, though there was definitely a spark of something else there! All in all, a passable film but not one I'd actively go out of my way to rewatch.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Blogging NaNoWrimo 2012: Trotting Towards Victory

Do you remember that moment in Mary Poppins when Mary finds herself racing a carousel horse and all the other riders just pull up and let them pass? Well, my plot has just done the same thing: pulled up and let me pass. It's given me the insight I needed into the last five chapters (and that elusive ending) and is now hanging back to allow me to hurry on in peace.

I'm actually ahead! Last night I finished on 43,002 words when I should've been on 41,666. Things are going so well that I'm almost scared to commit that thought to print. After all, it's when you're least expecting it that your hard drive fails or your characters run off to join the circus. I must back up my work and chain my characters up till Friday.

It's looking likely that my novel will finish just over the 50,000 mark as my first drafts usually do. Nevertheless, even if it goes a little over, I'm determined to finish this first draft by the end of November goes.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Blogging NaNoWrimo 2012: Inching Closer

Well, I'm still behind! That said, I'm inching a little closer to where I'm supposed to be. I finished writing last night at 33,120 when I should've been at a round 35,000 (that sounds a hell of a lot better than 'I'm at 33,120 today and should really be at 36,666'). I still need to write 1,876 words a day to catch up but since I'm physically forcing myself to stay at the computer until I've reached at least 2,000 words on any given evening I'm fairly confident - so long as I can keep it up.

There are a couple of things that could get in the way of success though. After a positive meeting with my supervisor I've got a rather large task to complete before our next meeting. I could viably leave it until after NaNo but the danger with that is that the enthusiasm I've somehow managed to muster will disappear. So doing both things at the same time is necessary (and could possibly drive me further round the twist than I already am).

The second problem is a practical plot consideration. I've got the next two and a half chapters planned and these contain some pretty important scenes (yes, I'm killing my characters, it's very therapeutic) but I still have no sense of an ending. I've been floating along towards this indefinable ending, which I know is a capital offence in NaNo planning terms, hoping that the idea would come to me along the way. It needs to be dramatic and my characters don't seem inclined to want - or be able to deal with - a neat happy ending so I'm a bit lost.

We'll see what happens. I'd say the next two and a half chapters will take me close to the 40,000 mark. Once I'm over that mark I'll start believing I can make it to the end. I honestly don't remember it being this difficult last year!

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Classic Film Review: All About Eve (1950)

Occasionally a film is so universally praised that you think it can't possibly live up to expectation: All About Eve is one of those films and it certainly lived up to the hype. It tells the story of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), an aspiring actress who worms her way into the life of popular actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis) and her friends. Although she is welcomed as a fan and becomes Margo's assistant, it soon becomes apparent that she has her own agenda and is willing to do anything to achieve her goals.

The cast for this one is absolutely perfect. Apart from Baxter and Davis, you've got George Sanders as theatre critic Addison DeWitt, Celeste Holm as Karen Richards, wife to Hugh Marlowe's playwright Lloyd Richards and Gary Merrill as Margo's lover Bill. On the periphery you've got the wonderful Thelma Ritter as Margo's employee Birdie and a brief appearance by Marilyn Monroe as Miss Casswell. None of them put a foot wrong and there are some terrifically tense senses. There are three worthy of particular note. Firstly, there is Margo's meltdown in the theatre when she finds out that Eve has been appointed as her understudy is very emotional, as she manages to alienate everyone and is left sobbing on the set of a bedroom. Secondly, Karen's confrontation with Eve in the bathroom of a restaurant where the former realises just what lengths Eve will go to for her own way. Finally, the scene between Eve and Addison where he explains that he knows all about her brims with tension. Those are perhaps my three favourite scenes but they don't stand out from what is a very coherent and consistent whole.

Assisting an excellent cast is a fantastic script which never feels laboured. In addition, the use of music in the background of specific scenes is wonderfully effective without pummelling you with the subtext. For instance, after Karen and Eve's confrontation at the restaurant 'That Old Black Magic' plays in the background and 'Stormy Weather' is used at Bill's birthday party when Margo disappears upstairs. All instances of music are subtle enough to be accidental but they add to the atmosphere of the film as a whole.

It's difficult to find anything bad to say about this one. If I was to nitpick I'd say that the introductory voice-over by George Sanders perhaps lingers too long but every word of it is useful and adds to what comes after. There are no extraneous scenes or dialogue and no deviations from character. All About Eve deserved every Oscar nomination and win it received, although I can't help wishing that Celeste Holm had picked up the gong in the 'Best Supporting Actress' category. 

Truly a classic and, although long, one which seems to end too soon. 

Monday, 19 November 2012

Classic Film Review: Flying Down to Rio (1933)

Flying Down to Rio is notable for being the first screen pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Although they only have relatively minor roles in this, their portion of the dance number 'Carioca' is exquisite: no wonder they went on to become one of the most famous dance partnerships of all time. However, the plot itself revolves around band leader Roger Bond (Gene Raymond) who has a habit of getting his band sacked when he gets involved with yet another woman. This time around it's Belinha De Rezende (Dolores del Rio) who is already engaged to another man. When Bond gets a new job down in Rio, he flies Belinha down there in his plane, only to find themselves stranded on what they think is a desert island. They do finally get to Rio but the situation becomes more complicated when they do.

This is definitely a comedy with music rather than a musical comedy. It only has a few songs, the most memorable of which I've already mentioned. The dance number are, however, dizzying with numerous bodies involved and some interesting camera angles. The highlight of the film is probably the aerial spectacular towards the end when dancing girls perch on the wings of small planes to advertise the band (a nefarious subplot involving some Greeks requires this). Although the scene is absolutely implausible, it is entertaining to watch, especially with Rogers's part in proceedings.

There is some funny dialogue in this one, mainly provided by Astaire and Rogers. It's light and frothy, although I was genuinely surprised by the ending because it seemed to be heading in a different direction. The middle of the film is a little loose and silly but it never professes to be anything else. A nice way to while away an afternoon, if only for the Fred and Ginger scenes.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2012: Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

I had a couple of flat days as far as NaNo was concerned. I hit a plot minefield and realised that I had to think a lot further ahead than I had been doing and I didn't really have the capability to do that. Nevertheless, I scratched out a plan for the next three chapters and plodded along to a Leeds write-in yesterday afternoon. Perhaps it was the necessity to avoid eye-contact with other people (because I sure as hell didn't know what to say to them) but I got over two thousand words written in about an hour and a half. My inner editor was screaming at me to stop but I just kept going. Who cares if this chapter is heading for double the length of any of the others? At this point I'll take what I can get and a little bolstering to my word count courtesy of an old woman and her vintage bath mat can't do any harm.

However, I hit another snag when I got home and tried to continue writing. My motivation is sadly lacking. In Nero I had ample opportunity to listen to other people typing and it spurred me on to beat them. I have a rather competitive streak and, although NaNo is essentially a battle against yourself, being able to pit myself against other people really seems to help (even though the two people I spoke to had word counts above 35k and made me insanely jealous with them!). If I need that battle to write, along with the encouragement of Nero peppermint tea and ginger biscuits, then I'm really done for this year: my budget doesn't stretch to travel to Leeds and expensive coffee-shop afternoons.

So what do I do? Well, my stubborn streak has always been bigger than my sensible one. I don't like giving up, I don't like leaving tasks half done. What was the point of starting something if you're just going to quit? The story I've got is a reasonable one (or it will be after a few rounds of edits) and it's one I've wanted to tell for quite a few months now. If I put it aside I'll invariably come back to it later and then I'll berate myself for not finishing NaNo when I have the chance.

I'm still behind where I should be. As I write this my word count stands at 25,456 and I should be at 30,000 by the end of the day. However, when you break the figures down, it doesn't look too terrible: I only have to write 1,888 words a day to pass the target. It looks manageable in those terms, doesn't it?

I suppose the question is, can I justify giving up at this stage?

You know what? I can't. No matter that I have some serious aunt duties tomorrow or a PhD supervisory meeting on Tuesday or that my grandmother's finally losing her marbles and calling us every hour to ask if it's Wednesday yet. Why be bored when you could be busy as hell?

Friday, 16 November 2012

Story: Mr Guppy's Wedding Day

A while ago I entered a competition to celebrate the bicentenary of Charles Dickens. The brief was to write a short story or poem inspired by the great man and his work. Although my entry was unsuccessful, I thought I'd share it with you in honour of Dickens's 200th birthday (and a few months!). I took Bleak House as my starting point and the somewhat hilarious character of Mr Guppy. Enjoy...

Mr Guppy’s Wedding Day

Mr William Guppy sat perfectly still, listening for footsteps outside his chamber whilst simultaneously praying none would be heard. He drew his pocket watch to compare the time with the old unreliable clock propped up beside the door. One false move, he always thought, and the contraption would come crashing to the floor. In a fire, perhaps, it would disintegrate completely and block his passage of escape. He’d be left to perish in his bed, no more to love and be loved. For Mr William Guppy was loved, as miraculous as the fact may appear to the world and indeed himself.

It had been four years since his admittance to the roll of attorneys, four years since he took possession of that wonderful little house in Lambeth – six rooms, exclusive of kitchens. He had hoped at the time... Well, he had hoped and his hopes were dashed once more and that was that. He took possession of the house at Lambeth with his mother and Tony Jobling in attendance and had lived a quiet life forthwith.

Then, quite unexpectedly so it felt to him at the time, his mother was no longer with them.

He noticed her absence at the breakfast table that morning with irritation. He had an important engagement that evening which he wished to inform her of so that she wouldn’t raise the alarm around the neighbourhood when he failed to return home on time. It had happened more than once, gaining him something of an unsavoury reputation in the neighbourhood. He resented the inference that he was his mother’s son, even if he undoubtedly was.

After breakfasting alone, he proceeded to his mother’s room. It was the dankest, darkest portion of the house, thus ascribed to her because she failed to desire anything better. In recent months it had become rather fragrant too, due to her reluctance to allow the servants access. The only visitor permitted was Mr William Guppy himself and, as a consequence, he possessed the second key. He used it this morning, dismissing the coldness that settled around the region of his neck as nothing more than a draught from the unstable roof over this part of the house. He must really speak to someone about that.

The room was still. Mr Guppy returned the key to his pocket and gazed around the room, expecting to see his mother in her accustomed moth-eaten armchair beside the window. But the curtains were drawn and the chair was empty. The light that filtered through from the sunlit corridor illuminated what Mr Guppy could only describe as a lump in the bed. A lump emitting a faint odour and a lump with an arm hanging from it.

He had waited quietly with the corpse until the undertaker arrived. His hands fixed in his lap, he tried to acknowledge the fact of the deceased. After all, it was difficult to comprehend the loss of someone who had wholeheartedly believed in him. Although her mental faculties were much diminished in recent years, she still recalled the fact she believed in him.

‘I don’t care for anyone who doesn’t care for my William,’ she would say a dozen times a day. He tired of hearing it – but only occasionally.

‘Yes, Mother,’ he would respond with a courteous smile. The smile had become strained in recent years as business faltered and times grew grimmer but, just as she believed in him, he believed in the power of her words. What else did he have to believe in at any rate?

And now she was gone from him. It was difficult, that he would concede. Yes, that he would concede to anyone who cared to know.

A pale face appeared around the door frame, anxious and extremely welcome in the gloom. ‘Mr Guppy, I just had to come the moment I heard.’

It was the daughter of a lesser client of his, a merchant who obstinately believed he was always right. Good for Mr Guppy, bad for him. But what was his name? Mr Guppy couldn’t grasp it in his present state.

‘It’s Sarah Nutworthy, Mr Guppy,’ she said, stepping further into the room. ‘Mr Nutworthy’s daughter, sir, of Nutworthy’s Shipping.’

‘Of course,’ he answered with an attempt at a smile ‘Permit me a moment of weak memory, Miss Nutworthy, please forgive me.’

‘But I wouldn’t expect less,’ Miss Nutworthy returned, entering the room fully. Apart from her pale face she brought with her a demure blue dress – of the pale variety – and a handful of letters. She held these out to Mr Guppy. ‘Mr Jobling asked me to deliver these. He thinks some of them may be important.’

Mr Guppy looked but hadn’t the stomach to handle them.

‘My sentiments exactly,’ said Miss Nutworthy, tossing them onto the bedside table, beside the corpse now covered with a sheet. ‘There is little business important at a time of tragedy.’

Raising his eyes to her, Mr Guppy asked, ‘Do you really think so, Miss Nutworthy?’

‘But of course. My mother – God rest her soul – almost put a halt to my father’s company at the time of her death.’

‘Ah, I’d forgotten your father was a widower,’ he said.

‘He remarried, sir,’ she replied.

‘Perhaps that explains my forgetfulness, eh, Sarah?’ he answered before recognising his impudence. ‘I mean Miss Nutworthy, naturally. Permit me a moment of impropriety if you would.’

‘I would permit you as much as you desire, Mr Guppy, sir,’ she said, bowing her head as a blush appeared on her pale cheeks. It was the most illuminated he’d ever recalled seeing her – and in the presence of a corpse as well. His eyes flickered back to his mother, but only briefly.

‘Would you really, Miss Nutworthy?’ he asked.

‘But of course.’

Once more his gaze rested on his mother’s blue arm dangling from under the sheet – he hadn’t trusted himself to touch it – and then he looked back to his guest. He was on his feet within a moment, swaying only slightly with delayed shock.

‘Permit me, Miss Nutworthy, to offer you some tea if I may. I am being a truly terrible host.’

This time she only nodded, taking his arm as they left the room.

‘How is it,’ he questioned as they descended the staircase, ‘that you come to visit me alone?’

‘But I don’t,’ she answered with a sweet smile. ‘My father will take tea with us.’

From that moment forth, Mr Guppy had found himself swept towards marriage. He proposed himself, of course, but only after repeated hints from the intimidating Mr Nutworthy. It was impractical, his prospective father-in-law said, to expect a girl still of attractive age to be escorted around the park with a man who did not intend to marry her. Mr Guppy, to whom these occasional walks had become a beacon of solace, wholeheartedly agreed. As a consequence, he found himself engaged to be married.

After that it had all moved rather swiftly. He could barely recall a time when he wasn’t engaged to be married to Miss Sarah Nutworthy. His days – when not taken up with business matters – were spent with Mr Nutworthy and his wife discussing the finer points of married life. It occurred to Mr Guppy once or twice that the present Mrs Nutworthy was hardly a model wife but as there was no blood relation between herself and Sarah he had hopes of Sarah becoming a wonderful spouse.

Mrs Nutworthy’s relish to dispose of her stepdaughter was evident to all who cared to notice it. Mr Guppy noticed it but thought it impudent to discuss his potential mother-in-law with anyone at all. He had never imagined there was so much to getting married. But today was the end of one passage of his life. A death had led into marriage but Mr Guppy still couldn’t fathom how it had happened so quickly.

The dreaded footsteps outside his chamber arrived. He expected the knock to be hard and fast but it was soft, dainty even. A nettle settled in the pit of his stomach.

‘Come in, Mr Jobling,’ he called, though he knew it was not he.

In entered Mrs Nutworthy, as young and spritely as her husband was old and curmudgeonous. Beneath the fluttering eyelashes there rested a woman as sharp as the day was long. He knew it and she knew that he knew it, yet the pretence between the two of them continued.

Mr Guppy rose to greet her. ‘My dear Mrs Nutworthy, what’s wrong?’

‘Why should something be wrong?’ she asked.

He checked his pocket watch again. ‘I would’ve thought you’d be helping Sarah with her...her preparations.

I suppose there are preparations?’

She chuckled mirthlessly. ‘There are, Mr Guppy, there are. But I’m afraid Sarah’s not making them.’

As his heart leapt, he managed to look perplexed. ‘Can I enquire why not?’

‘What do you know of a woman’s heart, Mr Guppy?’

‘Astoundingly little, madam,’ he replied.

‘Do you know there are women who feign love to one while harbouring designs on another?’ she persisted.

‘I have heard of such creatures.’

‘Sarah is one of them,’ Mrs Nutworthy said with a sad flourish of her hand. ‘I admit that I was perhaps too eager for her to marry you, Mr Guppy. You seem a trustworthy gentleman, not as handsome as one would like but you do have to take what you can find when a girl gets to Sarah’s age.’

He stretched his lips into a smile. ‘Quite.’

‘This morning, however, I discovered her exceptionally upset. When I coaxed the truth out of her, it seems she’s in love – I use the term loosely – with a draper’s boy from Peckham.’

‘Is that so?’ he asked with semi-interest.

‘It is, Mr Guppy.’

‘I see.’

Mrs Nutworthy left a decent pause before adding, ‘I do apologise for the expense of the wedding and the household alterations. You have mine and Mr Nutworthy’s sincerest regard.’

‘Where is the kind gentleman?’ he questioned, mainly because he thought he should.

‘Comforting his daughter I don’t doubt.’ A spasm of discomfort shot across the woman’s face, quickly hidden by her hand. ‘I shan’t keep you further,’ she went on. ‘I am only sorry the marriage could not be brought about.’

‘It is my deepest regret that it could not be,’ he said with as much sincerity as he could muster.

He escorted her to the door, intent on seeing the last Nutworthy out of his home once and for all. Alas, on the threshold was another member of that family – the kind Mr Nutworthy himself. He was flushed, obviously out of breath, and carrying a note in the hand unoccupied by his umbrella.

‘Mr Guppy, sir, ignore my wife. That’s it, old chap, look at me, not at her. Whatever she has told you, I find it within my power to retract.’

‘Retract, sir?’ His very heart was hurting now.

‘Retract indeed! I’ve had it out with Sarah, all this draper’s boy nonsense. It’s an infatuation, not like the bond you share. At length she agreed. The marriage will go ahead and all this silly bickering can be put down to wedding nerves, eh?’

Mr Guppy attempted to exchange a look of horror with the dear Mrs Nutworthy. Unfortunately, that lady’s features were contorted with delight.

‘The marriage goes ahead!’ she exclaimed.

‘Indeed it does, with all the arrangement just as before.’ Mr Nutworthy tapped Mr Guppy on the shoulder with his umbrella. ‘Do you know what she said, old chap?’

Mr Guppy looked up, unable to remember where or who he was. ‘Said, sir?’

‘When I said she’d marry you, Guppy, she said, ‘but of course’ as if it were never in doubt.’

‘Never in doubt, sir,’ Mr Guppy repeated. ‘I’d wager not.’

Read my review of Bleak House here

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Television Review: The Paradise

Although this series was based on a book by Zola, I'm treating it as an isolated drama series since I haven't read the book for comparison. The Paradise tells the story of a country girl who joins the staff of a prestigious department store. Denise (Joanna Vanderham) has come to work for her uncle, Edmund (Peter Wight) but finds his shop across the street from the department store desolate and unable to support her. Starting work in Ladieswear under the withering gaze of Miss Audrey (Sarah Lancashire) she faces animosity from colleague, Clara (Sonya Cassidy), but Denise is full of ideas, some of which capture the attention of owner, John Moray (Emun Elliott). There is a spark between them but Moray is in the process of wooing Katherine Glendenning (Elaine Cassidy), the daughter of Lord Glendenning (Patrick Malahide), although the spectre of his late wife troubles him on a daily basis.

In all honesty, I found the first episode a little disjointed and difficult to watch. That's a sticking point with many dramas and the introduction of Denise to the world of the department store was much less effective than her immersion in it in later episodes. Characters who seemed like cardboard cut-outs in the first episode are fleshed out much more as the series progresses, notably Miss Audrey and the impassive clerk, Jonas (David Hayman). There is enough in the later episodes for me to recommend persevering with this - if you're a fan of period drama, of course.

The sets and costumes seemed perfect, most of the dialogue was in keeping with the period. Denise's accent was a little all over the place at first and, given the fluctuations, I never managed to accurately pinpoint where she was supposed to be from. One of the most enjoyable aspects of this series was perhaps the use of some excellent younger actors who are going to be in many, many things to come. Some of them were already familiar to me - Emun Elliott (Lip Service), Elaine Cassidy and Stephen Wight as Sam (both Fingersmith), Matthew McNulty (The Syndicate) - but Joanna Vanderham and Ruby Bentall as Pauline were both new faces to me.

As the series progresses there are some surprises and some predictable twists, enough of the former to make the latter bearable. I particularly enjoyed the finale, but primarily for the resolution of Miss Audrey's own storyline as much as anything else. The series was left open enough for the BBC to renew it and I hope they do, although I remain a little puzzled by their scheduling. The Paradise was not a midweek offering - it's typical Sunday night entertainment which would've fared better in that slot than I suspect it did on Tuesday nights. While I realise that the schedulers were probably trying to avoid a Downton Abbey clash, pushing The Paradise back until perhaps next year would've ensured it got the audience it deserved. If it returns, I'd like to see it on a Sunday evening where it belongs.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Book Review: The Maul and the Pear Tree by P.D. James and T.A. Critchley

This book, originally published in 1971, chronicles the real-life case of the Ratcliffe Murders of 1811 where two families were barbarously murdered in London's East End. The bare facts of the case were already familiar to me: seven victims brutally killed, a nationwide panic followed by the arrest of a sailor, John Williams, who later killed himself.  One of the most grisly parts of the famous murder case occurred afterwards, though, as Williams's corpse was paraded through the streets of London along with the murder weapons.

The central hypothesis of this book is that Williams was wrongly accused. To get to that point we're treated to a step-by-step account of the murders and investigation, pieced together as well as it can be by two writers looking at the case after a 160 year gap. The first necessity of this book is to create early nineteenth-century London in the mind of the reader and this is accomplished very well in the opening chapters, though the murders are kept in sight at all times. James and Critchley give enough information for the location to be vivid but without detracting from the case at hand. Their conversational yet analytic style makes this an easy book to read, even though it becomes extremely gruesome in parts. The macabre fascination with the brutality of these killings has lingered on through the decades, making it as compelling a mystery now as it was in 1811.

With the distance of time, however, the case can be looked at objectively. The police investigation is critiqued, along with the actions of individuals, building up as complete a body of evidence as possible for the authors to analyse. This, of course, takes much of the book. I have to admit that I was eager to get to the arguments in favour of Williams's innocence but you have to read the book carefully for the conclusions to make sense. However, they do make sense, with James and Critchley giving a plausible hypothesis for what really happened in 1811.

This is an extremely readable book which steers away from too many passages of dry, contemporary evidence in favour of a prose style which informs the reader of the evidence without boring them. When newspaper reports, letters and Hansard transcripts are used they are valuable to the book as a whole. This prevents it from becoming a stale list of he said/she said and gives James and Critchley more freedom to present the work in an accessible style. A thoroughly compelling, if grisly, account of a fascinating murder investigation.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2012: Barely On Track

Well, my little 'holiday', if you can call it that, was a bit of a mixed bag as far as writing went. I had a couple of days of excellent productivity (2750 and 2500 words) but they were making up for the days I wrote a little but not a lot. It was a good job I'd built a little cushion into my plan or I'd be lagging too far behind to make catching up a viable option. As it happened, I managed to persevere yesterday, writing 2500 words and bringing my word count up to what it should've been last night - 20,000 words.

So I'm technically on track but it doesn't feel like it. I only have two more chapters planned and the ones after that are going to be extremely complex. Not only am I juggling an overarching storyline and my romance plot, my 'little' characters have sprouted wings and are trying to take over the novel. Keeping up with them is proving difficult. Above all, I need to get my next three chapters planned but that involves thinking about how the consequences of these developing strands are going to affect the rest of the novel. I have to work out who's going to, erm, die and who isn't. I have one definite but I'm growing far too attached to the rest.

Actually, as I've been typing this I've had another good idea. Well, I think it's a good idea. At this point I'll take any idea going: good, bad or somewhere in the middle.I just need to collect them and keep going. I'll feel better once I'm over the halfway point. It's all downhill from there.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Some Victoria Wood Optimism

I'm an enormous Victoria Wood fan. I completely 'get' her comedy. Her humour is my kind of humour and I can watch her stuff on repeat without getting bored (I wrote about this years ago here). But while I love her comedy I often feel her serious work's overlooked. Anybody who watched her in Housewife, 49 will know what I mean but it goes deeper than that. While there are plenty of laughs in dinnerladies there are also some poignant moments. The one I'll always remember is from the second series when Stan has just lost his father and writes a poem about him. I actually recited that poem in a presentation on grief I had to do because it mixed the funny with the heartbreaking.

One of my favourite songs at the moment is a Victoria Wood oldie that I've only just really discovered. It's not in her usual vein of laugh-out-loud comedic songs but it's a nice poignant number that basically tells you to take a chance in life and not to miss your opportunities when they arrive. Some of the lyrics are too relevant to my own life to comment on really. It's advice I wish I could take but perhaps it's easier said than done. I suppose that at least my characters will be well-informed and ready to do what I'm incapable of. Isn't that what characters are for anyway?

(Note: Video's a little sticky but audio's fine)

Three o’clock and still awake,
Winding back each dumb mistake. 
Every slip replayed,
Words not said, moves not made.

Five o’clock the sky comes grey,
Another wash, another day, 
Just another life, it’s true,
But particularly yours, particularly you.

If you have a dream, go with it,
Feel the slightest hint, go with it. 
What is there to lose?
Do you dare, dare to choose?

I have wasted years behaving
In a way I thought was proper, 
And it’s hard to do.
No-one cared, no-one knew.

Bus to work, paper shop,
Will it alter, will it stop? 
Take the time to feel,
Is this for you? Is this for real?

Horoscope, your new campaign,
Oh, I'm not so bad, I can’t complain, 
But you do feel bad somehow,
Particularly here, particularly now.

You can struggle on believing,
Other people have the answers. 
Even if they do,
It couldn’t help, it wouldn’t help you.

You may feel there’s more to follow,
Some eternal life, I don’t feel that. 
All there is is now.
You can’t choose when. You can choose how.

If you have a dream, go with it,
Feel the slightest breeze, then follow, 
Follow all the way,
Save yourself from just another day.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Television Review: Homefront

This six-part series tells the story of four women with connections to the army who struggle with the realities of this harsh life while trying to hold things together at home. Claire Marshbrook (Claire Skinner) is about to marry Major Pete Bartham (Greg Wise) but is finding it difficult to adjust to life as potential stepmother to a teenage girl with her own mind and her own son is causing problems as he tries to fit in. Louise Mancetta (Nicola Stephenson) finds out that her husband Corporal Joe Mancetta (Warren Brown) has been seeing someone else whilst away on tour and is faced with the decision of whether to try and salvage their marriage for the sake of their two daughters or to cut her losses. Tasha Raveley (Antonia Thomas) faces her worst nightmare in episode one when her husband is killed in Afghanistan, leaving her with a young son to bring up. Rounding off the quartet is Tasha's mother-in-law, Paula Raveley (Clare Higgins), an ex-army wife herself who now has to deal with the loss of her youngest son.

There's no denying that Homefront stands up as a piece of drama. It has all the ingredients - death, extra marital affairs, family meltdown - and a top-notch cast who make their characters utterly believable. I think a special mention has to go to George Costigan as Howard Raveley, Paula's husband and the dead soldier's father. He portrayed a grieving yet stoical father perfectly and his scenes throughout the series were some of the most touching. I have to say, though, that I found some of the storyline progressions predictable. I'm not sure if this was a product of lax writing in some respects or whether the signposts were just too clear. Knowing what's coming is not always a bad thing but surprise is also pivotal in a drama like this, and there was only one utterly unpredictable moment through the six episodes which had me genuinely uncertain which way it would go and that was a Joe/Louise moment in episode five. A drama should have more suspense than that.

Nevertheless, this was an enjoyable series. However, the nature of the programme means that if there's a second series there will have to be some potentially irritating character reversals. If there isn't another series then I think it was rounded off rather nicely.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2012: Decent Start

The good news so far is that I'm exceeding my daily target, despite what life seems intent on throwing at me. My daily average (including the fact that I haven't written anything yet today) stands at 1,888 but I'm getting at least 2,000 words done each day. That even included the night I was babysitting for two gorgeous three year-olds who wanted to go to bed as much as I wanted to leap around the garden in a bunny costume (that's not much, in case you're confused). However, there's a hitch: I'm going away for a few days. While I am going to be 'permitted' to write, I don't envision it going down particularly well. There will be a battle of wills and, me being me, I'll capitulate for an easy life. That could lead to some serious catching up next week. Hmm...maybe for once I'll hold my ground.

So how are my characters behaving? Well, I've got two female protagonists and the quiet, shy one has suddenly turned a little mouthy when she's riled. I think she might be channelling me on that one. Whether she's supposed to is a different story, although that's definitely a second-draft problem. At the moment they're both talking to me so that's all good. I'll start panicking when they stop.

The story's progressing nicely. I've written five and a half chapters (alternating viewpoints) and I've got chapter outlines until chapter ten. If I try and get too far ahead then I lose my way and, in all honesty, I'm a little vague on the detail after chapter ten. I've had to do a little medical research and that needs to factor in from chapter eleven onwards. Also, my large array of characters are being a little unruly. One of them suggested another twist in a subplot and it's a decent suggestion - working that in before chapter ten finishes. Keeping this many characters under control is as difficult as I thought it would be.

Onwards past 10,000 words!

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Classic Film Review: Cloak and Dagger (1946)

Cloak and Dagger stars Gary Cooper as Professor Alvah Jesper, a scientist who is recruited by the allied secret service to find out what stage the Germans are at with their development of a nuclear bomb. Jesper is sent to see Dr Lodor (Helene Thimig) in Switzerland after she has escaped from German control. However, she is then kidnapped and killed during a rescue attempt. Jesper's attention turns to a colleague of Lodor's, Dr Polda (Vladimir Sokoloff), who is trapped in Italy forced to help the Germans who have his daughter in detention. Jesper and the secret service set out to free both him and his daughter.

Now, if it sounds convoluted that's because it really is. The plot is haphazard and by the time you realise the point of the film is to rescue Polda and his daughter you've already got through most of the film. It goes to a lot of trouble to set up Dr Loder as the person in need of rescue then turns it upside down. While this could be considered a good twist, what it actually does is muddy what is already a disjointed film.

Jesper is an unusual hero for a film like this. He isn't in control of anything, he's the scientist constantly led by the secret service and their agents. Although there are a couple of 'exciting' moments, he is never the driving force behind the narrative. His conversion from scientist to helpful operative never really works for me. Neither does his romance with Gina (Lilli Palmer), an operative who helps him once he's in Italy. Palmer herself is as sublime as ever in one of her early roles but proves to be one of the only things I liked about the film.

Hammy death scenes, convoluted plot and an unheroic hero - not the best WWII film I've seen by far.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Classic Film Review: Millions Like Us (1943)

Millions Like Us focuses on Celia Crowson (Patricia Roc), the put-upon housekeeper of her father, sister and sister-in-law who is called up to work in a factory during the war. At least, that's what the film turns out to be about. At the beginning it's difficult to tell. In a bid to make the film appeal to the widest audience (the 'millions' like them), it has a rather haphazard beginning, with no real guidance on who the main character's supposed to be. Two of these characters, Tom (John Boxer) and Elsie (Valentine Dunn), are barely mentioned again. There is some consistency with Celia's father, Jim (Moore Marriott, who I enjoyed greatly in his brief appearance in The History of Mr Polly (1949)), and her sister, Phyllis (Joy Shelton), but the amount of screen time they have in the first portion of the film is no way matched in the second.

Celia meets new pilot Fred (Gordon Jackson) when he's touring the factory that helps make the components in the fighter planes he uses. To say that this romance is a fundamental part of the plot it takes some time to emerge but there are some amusing scenes of awkward dialogue when it does. There is also a subplot of a romance between factory foreman, Charlie (Eric Portman) and hoity-toity worker, Jenny (Anne Crawford), which works far better as a subplot than any of the family scenes. In addition, there's the marvellous Megs Jenkins (also of The History of Mr Polly and Indiscreet (1958)) who I can't fail to enjoy in any role. As Gwen she lightens up some of the drearier, intentional and otherwise, moments of the film and was certainly my highlight.

Perhaps the problem with Millions Like Us is that it was a film about war made during the war. The propaganda scenes are numerous and it stifles what could have been an interesting story with tangents that in no way add to the narrative as a whole. It was developed in a way to please the war office and their recruitment rather than as a story in its own right. With a few adjustments this could've been a good film but it ended up being a mediocre piece of propaganda with a couple of plus points. The failure to foreground the protagonist didn't help one bit.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2012: Planning Failure

By this time I was supposed to have at least half of my novel planned. I was supposed to sit back, content to know that for the first two weeks I wasn't going to crash and burn because I knew where I was going. So much for that idea.

I have two chapters planned. Two. Given that my chapters generally come in between 2000 and 2500 words that's...not a lot planned. And, considering that my chapters will alternate viewpoints in this one I only have one chapter per viewpoint. Not ready. Really not ready.

In my defence, it has been a rather odd week. Writing 14000 words on another project over five days may have taken the wind out of my NaNo sails a little, not to mention the fact that I've been duelling with my PhD this week in more spectacular terms than usual. I could continue making excuses but it's not even making me feel better at this point so I'll stop. What matters is that I fix the problem. Today I have the weekly torture session (sorry, meal) with my grandmother, who delighted me the other morning by waking me up in the early hours with an 'urgent' phone call (I told her it couldn't be urgent while it was still dark outside - I was right in that case). Tomorrow I may be attending the Leeds kick-off party. This depends on whether I can drag myself out of bed and whether I chicken out at the last minute, both real obstacles. On Tuesday I have a supervisor meeting in Sheffield and on Wednesday I think I'll still be recovering from that. And on Thursday, apart from the whole starting NaNo thing, I have a careers seminar in Sheffield. It's not looking altogether positive but I knew that when I first signed up this year.

I've either got to quit or get on with it. And I'm stubborn. So I guess I know what I'm doing.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Classic Film Review: The Hindenburg (1975)

The Hindenburg focuses on the 1937 disaster when a Zeppelin exploded at it was coming in to land after a trip from Germany to America. Though the cause of the disaster has never been conclusively proven, this film takes the lead of earlier books and highlights the sabotage theory. Of course, this is the most film-friendly of all theories and, really, is the only one suitable to a film of this length. The sabotage plot keeps the audience watching, making the piece more than a long preamble into a large explosion.

The film focuses on Colonel Franz Ritter (George C. Scott) who tries to track down the saboteur before the airship reaches America. There are many suspects, due to the political climate of the day, but the one he focuses on is Boerth (William Atherton), a crew member with a suspect woman in his life. I feel that the scriptwriters missed a trick with the representation of Boerth - if the purpose of the narrative was to keep us guessing about the identity of the saboteur then they failed with several long looks between Boerth and his lover before the flight. The audience is taken out of any investigative plot when the smarter thing to do may have been to have simply to have the viewer floating along with Ritter and following his path step by step.

George C. Scott is one of the best things about this film. He injects humanity into what could have been a very cardboard character and his scenes opposite Anne Bancroft (as the Countess) sparkle. Some of Bancroft's scenes without Scott seem laboured but that's due to a combination of factors, not least the fact that she was partly a fictional creation and that the dialogue often dipped below an acceptable level. This affected much of the cast - using a strange amalgamation of fact and fiction constrained some of the actors and, I suspect, the scriptwriters.

The star of the film is undoubtedly the airship itself. Stunningly recreated, the interior feels both expansive and claustrophobic as it crosses the Atlantic. The final scenes are a combination of real-life footage taken on the day and film footage featuring the characters we've come to know on the journey. As a consequence of using the real-life footage, the final minutes of the film switch to black and white. This is slightly jarring at first but done for understandable reasons. The explosion and crash scenes are the most absorbing of the film, wonderfully edited together to give a coherent look at the actual disaster.

The film ends with the voice-over of Herbert Morrison who was covering the landing of the ship and ended up giving a live eye-witness account of the disaster as it happened. This, combined with a partial breakdown of the dead, serves to make the last few minutes sobering. Unusually for me, I allowed the credits to run until the end, still in a state of shock. Although this film is sensationalistic and the theory it conveys is far-fetched, the actual crash still retains the horror of the event. Worth watching simply for the last fifteen minutes but not a terrible film overall.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Surprising Myself

I've mentioned several times about a first draft I've been battling with since about March (here and here). I'd abandoned it the last time around 36k when I realised I needed to concentrate on other things and couldn't justify the time it would take to plot the next sections, let alone write them. Well, on Friday I decided to open the document whilst watching Harry Potter: The Deathly Hallows Pt2 and see what happened. It turned out quite a lot.

Two thousand words on Friday, over three and a half thousand on Saturday (in the midst of what turned out to be a hellish night of babysitting), over two thousand on Sunday, thirteen hundred on Monday and then last night I churned out five and a half thousand words to bring the whole thing to an end. It put my first draft word count at 50,855 words which is fairly standard for my first drafts. They always bulk up dramatically during the second draft.

I'm not quite sure what happened in the last five days. Actually, there are a few possible reasons. Firstly, to say I'm running away from my PhD at the moment would be an understatement. I'm trying and trying but not getting very far, spending most of my days glaring at my computer screen and contemplating a sudden change of profession. No wonder that my 'evening' work has taken over in my head. And, secondly, I'm grown up enough to know that my PhD isn't the only thing I'm trying to escape from. I suppose now I've finished this draft I'll have to stop procrastinating and deal with stuff. Though, may I say, hanging around with my characters is much more enjoyable than the real world at the moment.

So this first draft will be printed and stuck in a clear folder with the other four novels I have in various states of revision (yes, I'm a little psychotic about how I store them, it has to be a clear folder for reasons I don't even know). I do have a slight reservation though - I'm taking part in NaNoWriMo again this year and I hope I haven't burnt myself out of words in the last few days.

Oh, and there is the other issue of my traffic light system: I've completed an amber task while the two red ones are still outstanding. So outstanding that they're somewhere in the North Sea and I'm running towards Cornwall. Can't help thinking I'm doing this productivity thing wrong...

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Classic Film Review: The Towering Inferno (1974)

This famous disaster film probably needs no introduction: an exceedingly large building catches fire putting lots of people in grave danger. The Towering Inferno alternates between epic spectacle and mediocre characterisation and dialogue - with a few exceptions.

Because of the scale of this disaster we're introduced briefly to numerous people. Chief amongst them is architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) whose effective but costly plans for the building have been ignored in favour of cheaper options by Jim Duncan (William Holden) and his son-in-law Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain). Doug is also embroiled in a secret love affair with Susan (Faye Dunaway) but they're not the only ones keeping secrets - Danny Bigelow (Robert Wagner) has been sleeping with his secretary Lorrie (Susan Flannery) and they've decided to turn the phones off for a little peace and quiet while conman resident Harlee Claiborne (Fred Astaire) has been planning to work his magic on Lisolette (Jennifer Jones) but when disaster strikes she's worried about saving the children of a deaf woman who she fears hasn't heard the alarm go off. There are many other characters we're introduced to during the course of the film but the most important of those unmentioned so far is Chief Mike O'Hallorhan (Steve McQueen) who has to coordinate the rescue attempts and an increasingly volatile situation.

It's difficult to care about most of the characters in this film because we're only fleetingly introduced to them. At one point I was more bothered about a cat being saved than most of the humans. Unsurprisingly, one of those I had most affection for was the conman played by Fred Astaire - he added a little charm to the opening sections and proved that even if he was past his dancing days he could still make a walk look musical. His love interest, Lisolette, is the character I think the audience takes to most. Her efforts to save a pair of children then combat her own fears to try and get to safety provide some of the most tension-ridden moments of the film. Because, although the spectacle of disaster films can enjoyable, tension must come out of caring for characters and what happens to them. That wasn't present far too often in this film.

On a visual level, The Towering Inferno is a joy to watch. It fails on an emotional level with some terrible dialogue and bizarre decisions to move the plot along. The set-up feels as though it takes too long, especially given that the time doesn't really endear the 'important' characters to the audience, and then the time between the fire starting and actually taking hold is also too long. In the midst of this there was supposed to be character tension but that really didn't work for me. Nevertheless, I enjoyed watching this as a disaster film with some excellent stunts and moments, although it isn't one I'll be eager to revisit in the future - if I do it'll be purely for Fred Astaire and Jennifer Jones (and the cat).

Friday, 19 October 2012

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2012: Trying Something New

So my idea this year is one which has been percolating for a good few months. But it is a little of a departure for me. While it still has a love story at the heart of it, it's mainlyan ensemble story. Thirteen mini character profiles is far beyond my usual core cast. Last year I had seven characters who I considered central to the story (though, in true NaNo fashion, another one became very important halfway through when I realised my tension was slipping). Thirteen is a new high for me and I'm a little concerned about whether I can juggle them properly. But - and there's always a but - the numbers are necessary for this story.

I've moved out of my comfort zone of the city into a village. That shift is also necessary for this particular story to work. Altering the character dynamic is going to be tricky but I'm lucky in one respect - I found myself writing character tensions into my profiles. I particularly like my vicar's wife, Celia, and her sworn enemy, Joyce. I can't wait to see how that's going to play out.

That's the fun of NaNo - I really have no idea how it'll all work out. I know the big overarching plot but the impact on the villagers? No idea as yet. I don't even know if my love story will succeed. Though I do have some serious issues giving characters unhappy endings, one of my current projects will definitely have that since there's no way love can survive. I've no idea where this will leave my NaNo project but I suppose I'll find out when I get there. If I get there. No, when I get there. Certainly can't go into this with my pessimistic head on.

So my characters are assembled. That's phase one of making NaNo a plausible prospect complete. Next: plan my first few chapters. Possibly more than a few. Preparation is everything this year.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Classic Film Review: Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Anatomy of a Murder stars James Stewart as Paul Biegler, a lawyer defending Lieutenant Manion (Ben Gazzara) who killed the man accused of raping his wife, Laura (Lee Remick). Working alongside Biegler are his good friend and associate Parnell Emmett McCarthy (Arthur O'Connell) and his secretary Maida Rutledge (Eve Arden). Using the defence of temporary insanity, Biegler tries to untie the knots of secrecy around the murderer and his victim.

This film feels very authentic. Something which adds to this authenticity is the casting of real-life lawyer Joseph N. Welch as Judge Weaver. The tension in this one builds solely from the courtroom scenes - there are no flashbacks of the rape or murder leaving the viewer trying to separate the truth from the lies. Stewart excels as Biegler but, really, all the cast are brilliant, right down to the little dog who becomes important in the trial. There is a definite rapport between Stewart and O'Connell, something which adds a subplot to a film which is very heavy on occasion. I can understand why it may have caused offence on first release in 1959 - a pivotal point in the trial is an undergarment which is discussed in open court. In addition, there are other details about the rape revealed which make uncomfortable viewing now, never mind in 1959.

I wasn't wholly convinced by the performance of Lee Remick as Laura, although it did add to the doubt around the whole situation. There were moments of real intensity such as when she recounts to Biegler the details of the rape but a couple of her scenes feel too false in such a realistic film. This was the straightest role I've seen Eve Arden in to date and she was fantastic, providing a couple of laughs to ease the tension as the film progressed - I particularly liked Maida's comment that Biegler couldn't sack her until he'd paid her. Arden really was excellent but, then, I haven't found a performance of hers I didn't like. This one was just a little more serious than some of the others, proving that she wasn't simply a wise-cracker.

Although a little long at 160 minutes, Anatomy of a Murder is a psychological triumph. Watch out for the cameo by Duke Ellington who also provides the soundtrack because, of course, Paul Biegler is a jazz-loving lawyer. There are some memorable specific scenes in this one but perhaps the extended courtroom drama is memorable all on its own.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Television Review: Mrs Biggs

This mini-series focuses on Charmian (Sheridan Smith), the wife of infamous train robber Ronnie Biggs (Daniel Mays). By focusing on Mrs Biggs, the programme gets away with showing the Great Train Robbery and Biggs's dodges around the law as he escapes from prison and ends up eventually in South America. However, while it sometimes seems as though Charmian is simply the veil used to show the adventures of her husband, she is actually a fascinating person in her own right.

Sheridan Smith puts in an excellent performance as Charmian through all her ups and downs. Whilst she is a strong woman, she wobbles occasionally and, even when she doesn't, there is still anxiety there. Smith's portrayal is both sympathetic and uncomplimentary where necessary. Alongside her, Daniel Mays puts in the performance of his career (and I've seen him in a few things) and Adrian Scarborough and Caroline Goodall as Charmian's parents are stellar additions to the cast. However, one aspect of this story which makes it difficult to follow is the scope of it. There are many, many people who flit in and out with the only real mainstays being Charmian and Ronnie. Keeping up with who's who is occasionally difficult, but that's an unfortunate side-effect of telling such a story. One thing that can be said, however, is that the cast are excellent without exception.

The twists within this programme are numerous and the producers make clear that they fabricated or enhanced some scenes for dramatic effect. Nevertheless, the piece holds together very well - any fabrication isn't immediately obvious as it sometimes is in such cases (see my review of the 1941 film Blossoms in the Dust for an example of that). There are some truly moving moments which Smith pulls off beautifully but there are a couple of salacious scenes in the final instalment which, I felt, weren't really necessary and disrupted the overall tone. However, as a piece of entertainment this mini-series certainly works. Some of the jumps in time leave the viewer disorientated for a short time but Charmian is an excellent central character and works to ground the viewer in whatever the current situation is. Would I have liked to see more of her in the gaps between the 'events' depicted? Yes, but that probably wouldn't have been very exciting.

All in all, a good drama series with a stunning central performance from Sheridan Smith.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Book Review: A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin

A Secret Alchemy focuses on the turbulent Wars of the Roses, specifically two members of the same family: Elizabeth Woodville, at first a woman embarking on her first marriage then later Queen alongside Edward IV, and Anthony, her brother, who is walking to his death. In modern England, Una Pryor has travelled over from Australia to sort out the last remnants of her British life and a combination of her past and her fascination with the Woodvilles leads her on a pilgrimage of her own which could unlock the mystery of the Princes in the Tower.

Inevitably, a novel with this scope is difficult to summarise. It can also be difficult to get into because of the switching viewpoints and the many plot strands. However, once you're acquainted with the characters it becomes much easier and I certainly didn't want to put it down. There are necessary time jumps in the narrative of Elizabeth as she progresses through her extraordinary life from supporter of the House of Lancaster to Queen of the Yorkist King. Some of her scenes are distinctly memorable, particularly some of her final ones. Darwin effectively brings Elizabeth to life, partly through her descriptions and partly through the use of Una in the present day.

Flashbacks are utilised well in this novel, both for Una and Anthony. They speed up the latter's sections which could be in danger of sounds repetitive as he undertakes the journey to his death. Importantly, though, the flashbacks always link in - there is always a trigger. In Anthony's case they gradually reveal vital bits of history while in Una's they usually offer emotional responses to the surprises she's encountering on her visit in England.

I enjoyed this book immensely once I got into the swing of it, although I have to say that my interest was hooked primarily by Elizabeth and Anthony themselves. The whole novel hangs together very well and Darwin manages to recreate a world that is both distant and familiar. I particularly enjoyed the mini-history lessons scattered throughout Una's sections which always had a point. Overall, I'd definitely recommend this one to fans of history and historical fiction.

Monday, 15 October 2012

My New Project

I don't how many of you are aware of Valancourt Books. They are an American publisher who specialise in reprinting rare classics in cheap, scholarly editions. Some of the novels they have brought back into paperback include works by Arthur Conan Doyle, J.S. Le Fanu and Frances Trollope. Their full list of authors covered can be found here.

Anyway, to the point. I suggested that they may want to look at Edmund Yates (the subject of my thesis, as regular visitors to this blog will know) and, miraculously, they asked me if I'd be interested in editing the novel I suggested (Black Sheep) and providing the introduction etc. Of course, I said yes. I'm not an idiot.

So it's going to be a fair bit of work but I'm looking forward to seeing a paperback copy of Black Sheep on my shelf somewhere in the future. The fact that it will have my name attached is a glorious side-effect. Yates doesn't deserve to be quite as forgotten as he has been and I think I'm right in saying that Black Sheep is his best novel. A mixture of murder, manipulation and love - a pure sensation novel and all the better for it.

You can take a look at their forthcoming titles page and I'm there!