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Thursday, 31 May 2012

Book Review: The Group by Mary McCarthy

The Group, published in 1963, tells the story of eight graduates from Vassar College in the 1930s. Although, really, it's 'the group plus one' as there are nine female characters who dominate, one of whom wasn't in 'the group' at college. I had to refer to the book to remember all their names - Kay, Lakey, Pokey, Priss, Libby, Polly, Helena, Dottie and (the addition) Norine.

The novel begins with Kay's wedding to budding playwright, Harald. It's an odd wedding, as 'the group' acknowledges, but that sets the tone for the rest of the book. Kay's marriage starts off as unconventional and is the cornerstone of the novel; the narrative essentially follows the circle caused by Kay's marriage. I won't say anything more than that, in case I ruin the ending. After Kay's wedding we begin to flit around the other characters, first learning about Dottie's sexual relationship with a man she meets at the wedding then dipping into the scandals, jobs and living arrangements of the others. It can occasionally be difficult to keep up with who's who (and, for this, I think it requires a second reading now I've got everyone straight in my head) and the narrator who slips from character to character when it suits was a little off-putting - but I think that's more personal preference than anything else.

What I did enjoy, and what seemed to be the main observation on publication, is the openness of the narrative. Sex, contraception, homosexuality, death, breastfeeding: it's all in there and more besides. It's an honest a book as you could hope for even in the twenty-first century and is refreshing because of it. McCarthy doesn't flinch from talking about the delicate aspects of life but, due to the large cast of characters, the jumping around of the narrative can be frustrating. I was really involved with Priss's troubles about her newborn son then we jumped to Polly's story. While we do come back to Priss later, I was desperate to know what had gone on in the interim! I suppose that's the mark of good fiction, though - if you don't care about the characters when they disappear from the page then the author hasn't been doing their job properly. There were, of course, characters I preferred (Polly, Helena, Lakey) and those I was less enamoured by (Pokey, Dottie). However, what continued to surprise me was how McCarthy unpeeled characters as she went along, explaining previous behaviour and revealing character traits in a sympathetic manner. Early on, Norine explains to Helena about her marriage in a way that almost made her likeable for a few pages. Later, when we see how Norine is getting on with her life, it's with the knowledge of what had happened previously but the audience (or, at least, I) still disliked her. It's difficult to explain how McCarthy makes her reader revel in sympathetic disdain but it happens for several characters.

I liked this book for many reasons: the honesty, the detail and planning that obviously went into every chapter, the auxiliary characters who didn't just fade on the page for a start. As I said, I had issues with the breadth of it and the inevitable diluting this caused, but I can't imagine the book working as well as it did any other way. In the space of seven years we follow these women through some of the most difficult (and enduringly difficult) aspects of life. It might be set in the thirties but it still feels relevant.

It took me until the final pages to realise what I couldn't quite put my finger on about Lakey - and cemented why I liked her without quite knowing why. If you're interested in reading a novel that puts female issues unashamedly at the very heart of it then you certainly couldn't do much better than The Group.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Television Review: Lip Service S2

A few weeks ago I blogged about Lip Service and the almighty shock it had just served up in the second episode of series two. I said then that killing off Cat (Laura Fraser) would leave a gap in the form of a group linchpin and the rest of the series seemed to prove that really.

Jay (Emun Elliott), not my favourite character I admit, disappeared after dropping a line at Cat's funeral saying that he was thinking about moving to London because he couldn't stand work without her. Very admirable, yes, but I would've liked to have seen more of his grief. It was a golden opportunity to see another side of a character we'd grown used to but it was wasted in order to get him off the scene quickly. Frankie (Ruta Gedmintas), who provided much of the action (in all senses of the word) in series one disappeared soon after Cat's death. Understandable, yes, given her flight tendencies but it meant we lost three characters who had been at the heart of series one in the space of two episodes. It's very tricky to come back from that. When I think about series one of Lip Service the storylines that immediate spring to mind are Cat and Frankie's love affair and Frankie's struggle to discover her parentage - both of these obviously featured Cat and Frankie heavily but Jay was also involved. Characters who made up the bulk of the first series were suddenly gone and I personally struggled with that.

What about the ones we had left? Well, I was very happy we managed to keep Ed (James Anthony Pearson), despite the death of his sister. Ed's friendship with Tess (Fiona Button) was about the one continuing aspect from series one and it was good to see that back on an even keel after his ill-advised declaration of love. It was also great to see him growing in confidence after selling his book, even if his choice of girlfriend in Nora (Sinead Keenan) was even more ill-advised than his crush on Tess. However, the scene where he broke up with Nora showed a stronger Ed than I was previously used to, and I think that all kicked off at Cat's funeral when he realised he was going to have to do without his big sister in his life.

And what about Tess herself? I still love her. Her rehearsal scenes with Nora and Hugh (Stuart McQuarrie) were gold most of the time. The perfect touch of comedy in a series that was inevitably bogged down with other things. I was a little disgruntled by the fact that her love affair at the end of series one with Fin (Lorraine Burroughs) was cut off so abruptly, though the reasoning behind their break-up was perhaps sound. However, it felt a little contrived, simply so that Tess could fall for new flatmate Lexy (Anna Skellern) and get her heart broken all over again. I doubt I'm alone in just wanting Tess to be happy. She's by far my favourite character because she's so human and, honestly, just let her find a good woman she loves please.

Sadie (Natasha O'Keeffe) was a surprise returnee from series one. I thought we'd seen the last of her when she split up with Frankie but she slotted nicely into the new flat-share with Tess and Lexy. She took over from Frankie by indulging in some antics that rivalled those of Frankie in series one - there's one scene involving the kitchen counter I can't erase from my mind however hard I try. Her position as the other woman in her relationship with Lauren (Neve McIntosh) worked better than I expected and it was good to see her barriers come down once again - although she was hurt again! Sadie certainly added something to the series and it was good to see evolving friendships between her and flatmates Tess and Lexy.

And now we come to Lexy... It's difficult to say why she failed to make the impression on me I suspect she was designed to. Her 'stalker' storyline was far too tame and much more could've been made from it. I don't think her original attraction to bereaved Sam (Heather Peace) helped me warm to her. Her discussions with Declan (Adam Sinclair), essentially 'the gay Jay', about Sam didn't make the situation any easier. In addition to which, I didn't get a spark between Lexy and Sam at all. Turning them into the couple the viewer was supposed to root for didn't work as far as I'm concerned - it just came across as way of pulling Sam back into a love affair when she was still deeply traumatised by Cat's death and the issues surrounding it. Lip Service always seems to be about sex more than anything else but the best portrayals of sex came when something deeper was involved - think Cat and Sam/Cat and Frankie in series one. What was missing from much of this series, until Sadie began to fall for Lauren, was meaningful sex.

As you can probably tell, I had mixed feelings about this series. I got the sense that it was fragmented; there were no real group scenes to draw everyone together because the group (in the form of Cat, Frankie and Jay) was no longer there. A lot was left unresolved from series one and I feel rather irritated that we spent an entire series riding Frankie's emotional rollercoaster only for her to disappear so abruptly. Equally, while the writers obviously made an effort to show Sam's grief at Cat's death (and I have no issues whatsoever with Heather Peace's excellent portrayal), the scenes at the police station also seemed to be slotted in as and when. For example, the drug deal in the final episode that the police burst in on that goes badly wrong would've been more traumatic if we'd followed the information-gathering for a few weeks and got a sense of the stakes rising. While we knew about Sam's anxiety attacks, the actual breakdown at that point could've been better planned. As with Lexy's hospital scenes, Sam's work life seemed to be a conscious effort to recapture the success of Cat's partnership with Jay and couldn't work simply because the group was so fragmented. It all comes back to that for me. It ceased to be a show about a group of friends and just became a collection of a few pairs.

All that said, I don't want to see it go. I believe that it can be steered away from this blip as Cat's death becomes more and more distant. But I will say one thing: if it is renewed then can the writers trust the characters we've come to know and love? Don't push them into square relationships when they're a circular kind of gal. Mix the indulgent sex with the other kind and don't introduce too many new characters at one point while decimating half the cast. I hope BBC3 renews it, though, and I will be watching if it does. For Tess.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Classic Film Review: Gaslight (1940)

This review relates to the British version of Gaslight, released in 1940 starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard. It's based on Patrick Hamilton's play of two years earlier and, I think, follows the plot closely, even if the name of the main character is altered. Paul Mallen (Walbrook) and his wife Bella (Wynyard) move into a house which has been unoccupied since the murder of Alice Barlow twenty years ago. They are joined in the house by servants Elizabeth (Minnie Rayner) and Nancy (Cathleen Cordell) but it soon becomes clear that this is no idyllic marriage. Bella, it seems, is losing her mind and hiding things before claiming she has no knowledge of their whereabouts. The audience is soon let in on the fact that Paul's to blame for the objects moving and that his intention is to drive his wife insane.

Gaslight is a atmospheric film. While Walbrook was very much a stereotypical villain, I enjoyed Wynyard's portrayal of Bella. However, my favourite moments came courtesy of Frank Pettingell as Rough, a former detective involved in the original murder case. His interest is piqued by the arrival of Mallen, whom he immediately identifies as the nephew of the murder victim. He attempts to discover more, partly by befriending Bella and partly by using his employee's relationship with Nancy the parlourmaid. Paul Mallen is also utilising the parlourmaid for entertainment of his own.

Knowing what's going on gives the audience an edge over Bella and it creates unbearable suspense as Paul manipulates her more and more. The final few scenes were very good, particularly as Bella uses his own manipulations against Paul. For me, though, my favourite scene was Rough charging a hoop at Bella and her dog as an excuse to make her acquaintance. I loved that scene and I can't even explain why. Pettingell's an actor I want to look out for in other films and, yes, I would like to see the MGM version of Gaslight (1944, with Angela Lansbury as Nancy) at some point in the future.

Friday, 25 May 2012

My Twitter Modes

It occurred to me last night (or, rather, in the early hours of this morning) that someone following me for the first time on Twitter may be a bit perturbed by the jumping around my Twitter feed does. Everyone has varied interests, yes, but the mechanics of Twitter mean that such eclectic personalities can seem frustrating when you followed a person for, say, political insight. So, here are a few of my 'Twitter modes', along with the approximate time of day you may want to avoid my tweets because of them...

  • Newsy/Political Mode: I have news: this one can go on all day. However, I'm a later riser these days (because I'm an nocturnal reader) and my first act when I wake between ten and eleven o'clock is to catch up on what's going on in the world. Mainly this seems to revolve around politics as my obsession grows but it can also include local news, television and film news alongside just plain odd news. 
  • Mad Political Mode: This one is usually restricted to Prime Minister's Questions on a Wednesday lunchtime, though can be replicated any time politicians are making stupid remarks to each other in the House of Commons and I happen to be watching. Can also occur if I make the mistake of watching Daily Politics, Question Time or Newsnight.
  • PhD Mode: This usually occurs on Twitter mid-afternoon, though it can feasibly take place all day depending on how interested I am in my current line of work. It can take the form of updating what I'm reading/researching that day or it can be a rant at the idiocy or perhaps genius of Wilkie Collins, Edmund Yates or nineteenth-century reviewers. It can also take the form of incoherent wailing but I think that's normal in these circumstances.
  • Blog Mode: This is a brief mode, including a little self-promoting when I've posted something new up here. 
  • Writing Mode: According to my own rules of self-restraint, this mostly takes place in the evening, any time after six is a good bet. I'll be trying to write and constantly looking to Twitter for distraction. Prepare for tweets about my word count or other random things that I choose to procrastinate with.
  • YouTube Mode: This may or may not occur late evening, depending on what sort of day I've had. It involves song lyrics that are particularly getting to me along with links to videos on YouTube. These can be anything from Bernadette Peters to ABBA to Epica to Aqua. Yep, that's eclectic. (This mode can be accompanied by a mad melancholia that requires eye-rolling on your part)
  • Reading Mode: What it says on the tin. My 'fun' reading usually kicks in after midnight and tweets about what I'm reading usually occur then. Alternatively, if I'm travelling it'll be featured during the day.
  • Train Mode: This occasional mode can be angry, humorous and bizarre. All depends on what kind of day the rail network's having.
  • Television Mode: This occurs when I manage to scrape a few hours with my father's hard-disk recorder and so may appear a bit out of date to anyone who actually watches live television. 
  • Weekend Mode: Everything goes a bit batty! I could be with family, writing all day, reading till my eyes hurt or simply going on a YouTube spree. It's a mixed bag!
I think that about covers it. If an eagle-eyed reader has spotted a mode I've missed out let me know!

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Blog North Event

This is my rather belated recap of the Blog North event on 12th May, postponed due to my week in Birmingham. There's something about writing important posts that requires me sat at my desk with a peculiar thinking-face on - so here I am.

I was fortunate enough to receive a free place on the event which involved trips to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and The Hepworth Wakefield. As a person of limited means at the moment, it would've been difficult for me to gather money together to go to something when I had no idea what it would be like. Luckily, I can now recommend the experience to others so it was definitely worth it.

The day started off with a online writing workshop at the YSP in a nice converted hayloft. Complimented with cookies and a beverage it was a nice gentle start to the day which sparked some creativity in me at least. The group was a varied one, quite a lot of women but a nice broad age range. After the workshop we were given a tour of the current indoor exhibition at the YSP - the sculptor Joan Miró. I'll be perfectly honest here - I'd hadn't heard of him before seeing the itinerary for the day so I had no idea what to expect. I was very struck by the first piece we came across in the exhibition, though I haven't been able to locate a picture online because I can't remember the name of it! Nonetheless, Miró surprised me from the start. His work frequently contains everyday objects and this first one had quite a few common objects including a pitchfork and a towel. Throughout the exhibition we saw items scaled up from their everyday size and other things that just felt plain odd such as 'Fleeing Young Girl' which is a pair of mannequin legs topped with what looks like a stop-tap. While the objects together initially look rather ridiculous, I grew to appreciate Miró's toying with expectation as we proceeded around the exhibition. Our tour guide (I can't remember her name but she had a sore throat and did a very good job despite that) was certainly enthusiastic about her subject and that enthusiasm seemed to rub off on me a little. I came away from the tour with the desire to see the exhibition again and pay more attention to works we didn't have time to look at as a group. As well as that, I've since purchased a book (below) on Miró's life and work - I'll be delving into that before I go again. The exhibition's on for the rest of this year and a beautiful summer afternoon at the park doesn't seem so much of a chore.

We broke for lunch (I grabbed a gorgeous tuna salad wrap from the cafe) then reconvened for the second workshop of the day. This one focused on how to review art and was especially useful to me. On this blog I've only dabbled in reviewing things and a lot of my issues seemed to be replicated within the group - we were unsure of language, afraid of looking silly, aware that we found something unappealing but couldn't really describe why. I made a lot of notes during this workshop and hopefully I'll refer to them in the future. I certainly came away from it with a sense that I shouldn't be afraid of reviewing art any more, if that's what I want to do. I also shouldn't be afraid of having an opinion - as with literature if you don't like something you're allowed to say so provided you can give some semblance of a reason.

We got on the coach to The Hepworth Wakefield after this. I've been before but enjoyed it much more the second time around. This was possibly due again to the enthusiasm of our guides there. It helped that the gallery had just welcomed its 500,000th visitor early that day - there was a sense of giddiness about the place that was quite appealing. Since this visit, incidentally, the gallery has celebrated its first birthday and has been shortlisted for the Art Fund Prize, which it's tipped to win. The walk around the gallery was pleasant enough, though my feet were hurting by this time. Following this, we returned downstairs and talked to each other (otherwise known as 'networking' but I hate that word).

So what did I get out of the day? I learned not to be scared of writing about things I may like. I learned that there are plenty of other bloggers in this region who enjoy similar things to me. I've grasped hold of a new artist that I want to know more about and I learned to appreciate the gallery on my own doorstep a little more. And I had a mean tuna salad wrap. Good day all in all.

Monday, 21 May 2012

The Syndicate - Thoughts (Spoilers)

This isn't so much a review as me musing aloud. I enjoyed The Syndicate, the BBC drama about five winners of the lottery who find the money changes their lives in ways they never expected. When I heard it had been renewed I was happy - then I read the fine print. The second series will focus on a new set of characters.

In all honesty, I understand why but I'm still very disappointed. It took me until the second episode and the portrayal of Denise (Lorraine Bruce) in-depth to actually come to like the programme. The first episode really didn't chime with me much at all but I stuck with it, primarily because I'm always complaining that channels don't give shows enough time to prove themselves before axing them. I was rewarded by excellent characterisation in Denise, Leanne (Joanna Page) and, when he grew a backbone, Stuart (Matthew McNulty). The truth is, I spent five hours with these characters and I'm not sure I'm happy leaving them where we did. Okay, Jamie (Matthew Lewis) is dead but will we never learn what happens to Leanne and her daughter and whether Stuart will chase after a relationship with Leanne when/if his legal issues are sorted out? It feels like a terrible place to deliberately leave a set of characters.

For that reason alone, I don't think I'll watch the second series. I don't want to invest time in characters when I know their storylines are likely to be left as unresolved as Stuart and company. It's different when a show is axed or characters are forced to leave for, say, actor commitments (see Lip Service!). That's beyond the control of the programme creators. However, a rejuvenation of a show with fresh characters is very much the choice of the creators. And that irritates me in this instance.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Book Review: The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller

I bought this book simply because I like the film. I'd read a few bad things about it but decided it was far better to try it out for myself. While it sparkled in parts, the sensation of being dictated to - rather than becoming immersed in a love story - was all too present.

The Bridges of Madison County tells the brief love story of married Francesca Johnson and photographer Robert Kincaid. They meet while Robert is in Iowa taking pictures of, yep, local bridges and embark on a very swift affair. Francesca is reawakened by her experiences with Robert but her responsibilities continue to bite.

My main issue with this book was that the characters, particularly Robert, became vessels for the author. When they become mouthpieces for ideas then they cease to be plausible characters and I think that's what happened here. Occasionally, you had several pages of dialogue banging on one drum without being intertwined with narrative or action. The effect of this was essentially to bring me out of the book and make me aware I was reading a creation rather than a truth. That could work for some readers but not me.

That isn't to say there weren't good aspects to this book. The small town atmosphere was expertly invoked and the scene where Francesca sees Robert drive away for the last time was gripping and emotional. However, it's notable that neither of these plus-points relied on dialogue. I think the book excelled when it stopped being aware of itself as a book. I didn't find it a particularly enjoyable novel but I do still appreciate the screen version and how it turned a mediocre book into a much better film.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Regrets? I've Had a Few...

Regrets are a funny thing. In hindsight things can be so much clearer and you can believe that if you only took path B instead of path A everything would've been perfect. Well, perhaps not perfect but at least better. The truth is, life is packed with so many little twisty turns and choices that you can't really say for certain where you'd be if you'd taken path B and not A. The only thing you can be (mostly) sure about is where you are.

Whoever you are today is comprised from all those little paths you took, even the ones that seemed minuscule at the time. For instance, listening to somebody calling my name for once and not ignoring anything outside my own bubble led to one of my most enduring friendships - and the only one to survive leaving university. I can't say for certain what would've happened if I'd kept on walking but I can hazard a guess that I would've stayed in my shell for a lot longer, maybe not had the courage to do some of the things I managed to talk myself into in later years. One little moment but so important.

When I look back there are things I regret but mostly they're things I couldn't have done anything to change. They were out of my control. A few weren't, however, and I take full responsibility for the screwing-up portion of proceedings there. But do you know what I regret most? Not asking things, never opening my mouth at potentially the wrong moment in case it caused waves. Unfortunately, this is an integral aspect of my personality. Not matter what I do, I can't change the fundamentals. I'm always going to be a scared, shy and over-anxious person. That's a combination of who I naturally am and the choices I've made along the way. No matter how I wish I wasn't that person it's still a challenge to do anything out of the ordinary for me and it always will be. I'm always going to refrain from asking questions and I'm always going to regret it later.

But what's a girl to do? Better to regret it than try to be someone I'm not. Even if, in the process, I know I'm not being true to myself. It's certainly a conundrum...

If I could pick my personality, however, this song would be a good start:

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Classic Film Review: The Mirror Crack'd (1980)

I came to this film unacquainted with the book involved (and, to my shame, Agatha Christie books in general). That meant I had no idea of the plot and therefore could guess at the culprit. My suspicions proved somewhat correct, although the actual motive was a surprise. There were enough twists and turns to keep me interested and enough star power - I felt - to keep anyone watching.

Released in 1980, The Mirror Crack'd stared Angela Lansbury in her only outing as Miss Marple alongside Hollywood luminaries Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis and Kim Novak. It tells the story of a Hollywood crew descending on St. Mary Mead to shoot a film. It marks the return of Marina Gregg (Taylor) to the screen following a nervous breakdown. Her devoted husband Jason Rudd (Hudson) is the director trying to keep things running smoothly but this proves difficult when co-star Lola Brewster (Novak) arrives with her husband and producer Marty Fenn (Curtis). At the village fete a local woman drinks a cocktail intended for Marina and promptly drops dead. Cue the arrival of Scotland Yard's Inspector Craddock (also Miss Marple's nephew) to investigate the murder.

Lansbury made a good Marple, basing her representation on my other favourite in the part, Geraldine McEwan. That said, because of Lansbury's future as Jessica Fletcher, my vision of her was probably marred. I do wonder whether more Marple mysteries would've been made with Lansbury had Murder, She Wrote not come along but I'm more than happy with the way things turned out. The rest of the cast was excellent, in particular Geraldine Chaplin as production assistant Ella. Rock Hudson turned in a good performance, reaffirming the liking for him I've had since first watching his movies with Doris Day. Oh, and there's an excellent line in the film about Doris Day where the camera shifts straight back to Hudson - I like that kind of nod! Elizabeth Taylor's Marina was better in some places than others but I did believe in her. I struggled with Novak, primarily because I've struggled with her in the past. I'm not sure what it is but I can't bring myself to like the actress or appreciate the parts she portrays, at least the ones I've seen so far.

However, this was a reasonable slice of entertainment. The village scenes were nicely shot while the supporting characters within in the village were given more time than was appropriate given that this turned out to be a one-off. Worth a watch if only to see Angela Lansbury during her transformation from Eglantine Price (Bedknobs and Broomsticks) to Jessica Fletcher.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Fielding Questions From Children

I was spending some time with my eight year-old niece on Saturday. We'd gone into town to get some belated birthday presents for her and then we were playing games on the Wii and generally looking stupid in the living room. Now, the living room doubles as my office. The desk's piled high with PhD materials, I've got three novel manuscripts in clear folders hanging around and notes all over. Growing bored of the Wii, she picked up the nearest thing and asked what it was.

Fortunately for me, she hadn't picked up one of the novels. That would've been tricky to explain in a few words. No, she'd picked up a notebook open at a page with a short play plan sketched out. So I told her it was a short play. She asked what it was about! I started off as vague as I could - it's about two women who meet on a railway platform when the trains are running late. She seemed to gaze at me expectantly so I added that one of them was upset. Of course, she then asked why. I got as close to the truth as I could - I said she'd lost someone she cares about. Then I distracted her with something else before she asked me who that was! The truth is, the woman had lost her son in an accident and I didn't want to explain that concept to an eight year-old if I could help it.

How upfront should you be with children when it comes to discussing what you're writing? Even more everyday than that, how you do explain to a child something they see on the news or overhear you talking about? I never know whether I'm doing the right thing when I speak to my niece as honestly as I can. I get the feeling that she (and probably a lot of kids) know when they're being either lied to or mollycoddled. They ask questions for a reason - they want to know the answers. If you can't give them the full answer then I suppose they deserve at least the PG answer. These are the things that you need to learn as an aunt as well as a parent - and I'm a little behind in my lessons.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Television Review: Scott & Bailey S2

I had fairly positive thoughts about series one of Scott & Bailey with some caveats. However, I think the second series really got the balance between work and home right with some intriguing crimes and good acting all round. This time we had eight episode instead of six, which was an improvement though it still felt very short.

Janet Scott's (Lesley Sharp) personal life hit a new level of complex as she threw her husband out and pursued a fling with colleague, Andy. However, this soon turned sour when she ended it and he became a little obsessive. Meanwhile, Rachel Bailey (Suranne Jones) had a tumultuous time as her jailbird brother appeared on the scene along with an old boyfriend and the man accused of trying to have her killed at the end of S1 is let off due to insufficient evidence. If you add that to DCI Gill Murray's (Amelia Bullmore) difficulties with her cheating ex-husband you have a pretty wide spectrum of personal problems to look at. Surprisingly, though, they still found time to solve crimes.

The episode that sticks most in my memory involved a racist attack. Aside from the good portrayals all round one moment struck me: when the family learned the truth about the attack there was silence. That scene summed up the best aspects of this programme and the confidence of the producers who recognise that silence is an integral part of television. Equally, the scripts were strong and the setting was absorbed seamlessly into the series.

I found series two to be an improvement in many ways. The friendship between Janet and Rachel was much more established by this point and I particularly liked the episode that took Rachel and Gill away to visit a murderer without Janet. The dynamic was altered along with the way an investigation proceeds with two volatile personalities working on it. The crime investigations felt a little more complex, frequently leading the viewer (and officers) on wild goose chases. I rarely put my money on the right candidate. Finally, a special mention has to go to guest star Pippa Haywood. I love that woman and at the moment she seems to pop up in most things I watch.

Since Scott & Bailey has been nominated for a Bafta I think a renewal is definitely on the cards. You won't find me arguing with that.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Book Review: Sensation Stories by Wilkie Collins

This collection contains ten stories that were originally printed in various periodical publications including Household Words and Bentley's Miscellany. Most of them have been out of print for a century and many of them are very enjoyable. The introduction offers something of a crash course in Wilkie Collins for the uninitiated but I jumped straight into the stories.

A couple are notable for their reliance on supernatural elements. 'The Last Stage Coachman' is an eerie tale of a way of life lost while 'The Clergyman's Confession' builds to a supernatural climax that doesn't feel out of place in the collection. The most well-known story of the book is probably, I would guess, 'A Terribly Strange Bed'. I've certainly come across references to it within my studies and it really is a startling tale about a gambler who stays in a rather unique bed. 'The Diary of Anne Rodway' is an excellent depiction of a woman mourning the loss of her best friend. She refuses to accept a verdict of accidental death and tracks down the man responsible. Dickens apparently loved this story which is recommendation enough.

'Nine O'Clock' is an odd French Revolution piece which combines clairvoyance with more traditional themes. 'The Fourth Poor Traveller' is a nice little detective story which didn't make too much of an impression on me whereas 'The Dream Woman' stuck in my mind for some time after reading it. It involves a dream prophecy of a woman with a knife and shouldn't be read last thing at night! 'A Marriage Tragedy' is probably one of the most developed and intricate pieces, following a widow through the eyes of her servant as she remarries. 'Who Is The Thief?' is another detective story but a humorous one while 'Love's Random Shot' is an odd story about a married man who falls in love with a woman of dubious character. This last story in the collection is the least accomplished of the lot and seems a bizarre choice to conclude the collection on.

However, anyone interested in Wilkie Collins and his fiction could do worse than giving this a go. Some of the stories are gems and all have his distinct trademark style, occasionally tongue-in-cheek but always detailed.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

That Lip Service Shock (Spoilers)

I feel a little guilty. At around the fifteen-minute mark of Lip Service series two, episode two I paused and let rip a monologue about how much I hated Cat as a character and where I thought things would go next. I predicted a long, drawn-out affair with Frankie that would eventually culminate in her leaving Sam only to be abandoned by Frankie again. I thought I knew where it was going. Then BANG. Quite literally. Cat steps out into the road without looking and gets hit by a car in one of the most shocking scenes I can recall watching on television. I'd managed to avoid spoilers and had absolutely no idea what was about to happen. It was one of those moments when I just stared at the television, unable to believe what had just occurred on the screen. In fact, I felt pretty much like all the characters did on learning of her death.

Afterwards, I composed myself and read Harriet Braun's blog on the episode that I'd deliberately avoided beforehand. It helped me to understand why she'd chosen to end Cat's story so abruptly: actress Laura Fraser had commitments elsewhere and, leaving series two aside, probably wouldn't be able to appear in any future episodes. With that in mind, I can fully understand why she chose the death option. After all, it was completely unexpected (every reaction I've heard about involves a jaw hanging open) and it gives some sort of finality to the storyline which wouldn't have been possible had Cat just, say, got a job somewhere else and moved. If she had done that, we'd have lost another main character as well with either Frankie or Sam going with her long-term. In that situation, it would've been a betrayal of the fans to have anything else but a happy ending and a goodbye. But would it be plausible - given all we've learned about Cat - that she'd do anything so conclusive as make a decision like that? She'd be tortured about leaving, not only leaving her friends and family but the place she lives and the job she's worked hard at. Maybe that would be a betrayal of the character. So what do you do? You kill her.

My concerns now seem to be shared by a lot of Lip Service fans across the web. For starters, Cat was integral to the show. She was involved in relationships with both Sam and Frankie, she was good friends with Tess, she worked with Jay and Ed was her brother. Her death risks fragmenting that group completely. Equally, her death has to be dealt with. She left a hell of a lot unresolved so how much of series two is going to be spent dwelling on that? If the most important character in your show remains a corpse then you're in trouble. I don't think the new characters already introduced (notably Lexy who wants to jump into bed with Cat's bereaved partner) have made much of an impression and, though there are two more to come in the next episode, it feels very much like starting over again and getting to know a host of new people without any warning.

You see that I'm a bit conflicted. I freely admit to disliking Cat's indecisive and ultimately selfish nature but I can't deny she was the show linchpin. I don't know what happens next and perhaps that's a good thing but generally I like some idea of direction.

Just a couple of notes on the episode itself. I think everybody involved acted their socks off. I've seen various comments praising Phyllis Logan (of Downton Abbey fame) and her performance as Cat's mother and I have to agree with them. Equally, although there's been some debate about Tess and Ed's reaction at the news, I think the shock of the characters was all too evident. Ed cried when he spoke at the funeral and I think that was true to the character and the situation - it only began to sink in then. Heather Peace was outstanding throughout but the episode arc did feel rushed in places. One notable omission was Jay learning of Cat's death and I would've given a lot to see his reaction.

I will be watching for the rest of the series but I'll echo the words a few people mentioned over on Harriet Braun's blog: I really hope that this grief-stricken series doesn't affect the chances of a series three renewal. I want me some more Tess. And more and more...

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

More Doggy Troubles

The anxiety issues that the dog's been struggling with for the last year seemed to be on the mend. Aside from one blip with a power cut in March, she's been fine as long as we leave the light on for her overnight. For whatever reason, last night all that changed. I left her at around half-past one and came up to bed to read. I started to settle down around half-past two. Just as I was drifting to sleep, something disturbed me. I heard pacing and then the noise I was dreading - our little terrier charging herself at the dining room door.

My first thought was that the bulb had blown but when I got down there the light was on and she was pacing the room, absolutely petrified. I was calm. I know by now what to do when things get this bad. It involves a little deception on my part: I put the television on and leave her with the voices all night. Either she thinks I'm coming back down and so is reassured or the noise masks whatever spooks her. Whatever the reason, she settled after that. I'm aware, however, that I subjected her to the shipping forecast at some point and I do apologise for that. I left a note for my father telling him to leave the television on when he went to work to allow me to catch a few more hours of rest. I went back to bed but found I was shaking and about to be violently ill from the effects of what had happened downstairs. It probably took two hours before I dropped into a restless sleep, always listening out for her whimpering or pacing. I woke up at seven and had a garbled conversation with my father about the situation then slept a little bit more. Right now, she's still got the television tuned to Radio 4 and the light on: not sure I should risk winding us both up more.

I hate not knowing the cause of something. Sometimes I wonder if she's picking up on our anxiety. Last night in particular we were quite concerned about my grandmother, who answered the phone crying yesterday. It's hardly the first time we've encountered her in that state but it was heartbreaking nonetheless. It's funny that Rosie (the terrier) seems to mimic my grandmother, without ever seeing her. If my grandmother is going through a particularly bad time then so does Rosie. She could be getting to that point via me. Certainly, I was pacing the dining room myself before I went to read last night. Everything was piling up on me - grandmother situation included. However, why kick off nearly two hours after I went upstairs? It doesn't make sense.

Perhaps something in the house or garden spooked her. It could've been the automatic air freshener, the carbon monoxide alarm, the tap that's been a little loose over the last few days. All logical explanations, I suppose, but in my sleep-deprived state (and having read a few Wilkie Collins short stories before bed) I favoured a more supernatural approach. Hence why I couldn't sleep.

Now I'm coiled up as tightly as the dog herself. This could make for an interesting week.