Contact me at because I'm always up for a natter about anything. Well, mostly.

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!

Friday, 12 October 2012

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2012: I'm In

I may have finally lost my marbles. After abandoning my project after just a week in 2010 due to workload pressures, I took part again in 2011 even though my workload had increased. If I thought my workload was heavy last year then I was delusional. Things are even worse this time around. Amongst other things, I'm drowning in the current chapter of my thesis, I'm rewriting one novel in segments for my agent, I'm writing regularly for 2020UK and I have a new project in the pipeline (more on that next week). I really don't have time for NaNo - so why am I doing it?

Well, if there's one thing this year has taught me it's that I find it very difficult to finish a first draft without the added incentive of the NaNo deadline. I'm working on something which is around 36k at the moment and every time I try and get back into it I can't. Not because I don't want to write it but because there isn't the deadline in my head which lies that I have to finish it by a specific date or I lose. It's not that I can't set my own deadlines, it's just that when other things are pressing externally (like the PhD and the novel rewrite) they take precedence over arbitrary deadlines. I can't fool my mind into thinking something's important when it isn't. However, I have managed to fool myself into thinking NaNo is important.

It gives me a first draft. No matter that the 2011 completed draft hasn't been worked on since - I still know what needs to change about it and I'm waiting for a window in my schedule. I think it's important to get as many first drafts down as I can. If the last two years have taught me anything it's that I can't predict how much more hectic things are going to get so I need to squeeze as much in while I can.

So I'm in, despite the fact that I'm away for a few days after the 5th November and despite the fact I'll miss my usual first day spurt due to a 'Careers in Academia' session. I promise to heed the advice of friends who think I'm close to collapse and give up if necessary. I promise to listen specifically to Claire because she has a sixth sense about when I'm close to pitching myself off a cliff. I have an idea (more on that next week) and I'm raring to go. I just hope the end of November doesn't come around as quickly as it did last year.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Book Review: The Somnambulist by Essie Fox

It's a mark of how long this one has been sitting on my bookshelf that I have the hardback edition. I actually wish it was still sitting on there so I could delay the pleasure of reading it a little longer. This is the kind of book where I wanted to drink in every word and description and I heartily recommend it.

The Somnambulist focuses on Phoebe Turner, a seventeen year-old who lives with her religious mother, Maud, and her ex-actress aunt, Cissy. When tragedy strikes she finds herself taking up a job as companion to the wife of businessman Nathaniel Samuels but the relocation to his country estate stirs up secrets and creates further problems.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this novel is the submersion in Victorian society. The descriptions of Wilton's Music Hall are particularly entrancing, as are the vivid descriptions of the docks. In fact, every setting comes alive on the page. That's not to say the characters don't, although I would say that some of the most vivid characters are supporting ones. I particularly like Isaac, the senile old Jew, who we hear of several times. There is something about the description of both him and his shop which is reminiscent of Dickens at his best in Bleak House.

There are many twists and turns in this novel, some of which I anticipated and some of which were complete surprises. Fox utilises both types well, offering the reader involvement in the discovery of the secrets but still managing to surprise them more than once. She also manages to demonstrate her immersion in Victorian society without hitting the reader over the head with the research. What this creates is an atmospheric and surprising novel which stayed with me days after I'd finished it.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Classic Film Review: Lifeboat (1944)

With a story by John Steinbeck and direction by Alfred Hitchcock, Lifeboat certainly boasted the cream of creative talent. The film tells the story of a group of survivors stranded in a lifeboat after their ship is torpedoed by the Germans. Both written and set during WWII it holds some typically standard views but is no less involving for that. The main tension within the film comes from the German sailor they pull on board. They need his help but is he trying to get in their way or get them out of the Atlantic alive?

The beauty of this film lies with the direction. Only Hitchcock could have made every scene, every angle of a lifeboat feel fresh and new. It sounds like a boring film with only the one setting but you quickly forget you're watching a single boat due to the ingenious angles and use of all available space. It never becomes boring and, because of the confined space, tension is rife.

There are a few notable characters. Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) is the first character we encounter, floating in the lifeboat on her own making a film of the man swimming towards her. When John Kovac (John Hodiak) boards he's unimpressed by her grandeur and, throughout the film, she loses her camera, typewriter, mink coat and beloved diamond bracelet. Also pulled aboard are Gus Smith (William Bendix), Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), Charles 'Ritt' Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), Mrs Higgins (Heather Angel) and her baby, Stanley 'Sparks' Garrett (Hume Cronyn) and George 'Joe' Spencer' (Canada Lee), along with their German associate, Willy (Walter Slezak). All have their own little arcs and some of them are more likeable than others.

Some of the early tension comes via Mrs Higgins. It's clear when she's pulled aboard that her baby isn't at all well and the scenes which follow that are traumatic. Equally as harrowing is the realisation that Gus has developed gangrene in his injured leg and that the only way to ensure he at least gets a chance at life is amputation. Gus is by far one of the most likeable characters, a man completely in love but worried that he'll lose her if he's at all injured. All of the characters contribute to the plot but, for me, it was Gus who held it together and what happens to him is horrific.

I won't reveal the various ups and downs (quite literally) of the lifeboat but I will say that this is a film which surprised me. Tallulah Bankhead was a better leading lady than I could have imagined and, while her chemistry with John Hodiak wasn't sizzling, it wasn't completely out of the realm of possibility. My favourite performance in this though was probably Hume Cronyn as Sparks. Along with Gus, Sparks provides some of the heart for the film and he's a likeable man you really want to survive.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Television Review: Parade's End

I was told before I started watching this that if I persevered past the first episode then I'd enjoy it. That advice was sound, though I can't help thinking that isn't the way to draw viewers to a five part series. While I understand the need to frame the story correctly, I think much of what was covered in the first fragmented episode could have been inserted elsewhere in the form of flashbacks (which we got anyway) so that the first episode didn't become a mess of confusing images. It set up back-story, yes, but at the expense of front-story.

To briefly surmise: Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch) married Sylvia (Rebecca Hall) when he discovered she was pregnant, despite not being certain that the baby was his. That act sums up his whole demeanour - he is a noble man, often misrepresented and a product of the past on a collision course with the future. Although he falls in love with Valentine Wallop (Adelaide Clemens) he clings on to the remnants of his marriage even while Sylvia indulges in affairs and stays with him only to make him suffer. She is a thoroughly despicable character with few - if any - redeeming features. It's a mark of how well Rebecca Hall portrays her that I detest the character and not the actress.

WWI is an integral aspect of this story. Tietjens shuns protection in order to go into the trenches, struggling with memory loss and shell shock after his first return from the trenches. We see more when he goes back, experiencing the destruction and pointlessness through Tietjens eyes. There are a few bitter comic moments as orders are given and rescinded and the establishment proves itself to be the incompetent force that history depicts. These are grim moments of humour but in an adaptation as heavy as this I'll take whatever I can get.

I don't mean to say that it wasn't a good adaptation of a good original story by Ford Madox Ford. It is very forceful in places, dramatic in others and emotional when the cap fits. It has an excellent supporting cast including Roger Allam as General Campion, Rupert Everett as Mark Tietjens and Miranda Richardson as Mrs Wannop. There is also a spectacular performance from Rufus Sewell as Reverend Duchemin, a mad vicar who perturbs both other characters and the audience.

There is a lot crammed into five hours: war, suffrage, marriage, infidelity, deceit and misunderstandings. As a consequence, it is very heavy and requires attention. That said, if you make it past the first episode then there are some exquisite scenes to enjoy. The period detail is wonderful and it is beautifully shot and presented. There are a few particular scenes which stick in my head. The first is when Christopher and Valentine get lost in the fog and spend the night looking for the way home. It's beautifully set-up and executed and sets the tone for their romance. Secondly, there is a quiet little scene when Christopher is showing his son, Michael, the well at the family estate. It's a touching little moment, although I can't really explain why.

All in all, I'd recommend persevering with this, though don't expect an easy ride.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

A Favourite Song - Elaine Paige

I have many songs I would call 'favourites'. There's my iTunes playlist called 'Musical Favs Etc' which has 762 songs on it. I could apparently get through 1.7 days listening to nothing but my 'favourites'. Nevertheless, some songs are just downright beautiful and I have to listen to the lyrics over and over again. I'm thinking of 'Vincent' by Don McLean and 'Waterloo Sunset' by The Kinks, both of which make the hairs of the back of my neck stand up. But there's another one obsessing me at the moment. I've been entranced by it since Sarah Kennedy played it on her old Radio 2 morning show (happy days, I miss Sarah) then I remember Elaine Paige herself being encouraged to play it on her own Radio 2 show. For a major West End star, Elaine is notoriously reluctant to play her own songs but I could happily listen to this one on a loop - as I did last night.

The set-up: 'Like An Image Passing By' uses the tune of ABBA's 'My Love, My Life' (itself a gorgeous song about losing love) and was used in the English version of a musical for children based on ABBA songs. I don't much care about the context of the song - it works perfectly well alone. This is a song of failure and loss but Elaine Paige puts so much emotion into it that it damn near breaks my heart every time.

I know it is too late,
From this moment time and tide will not wait.
Yet I was master of my fate,
Being the ruling queen,
I never wanted a change of scene.

Like an image passing by, I see my life,
In the twinkling of an eye, my lonely life,
And at this my darkest hour, fading like a flower,
Beauty is bound to die.

From the present to the past, I see my life,
Catching up with me at last, my empty life.
Now the hourglass is turning, 
And in my eyes are burning,
Tears I should have cried long ago,
Now I'll cry forever.

Now, it's my turn to sleep,
Oh, how true that beauty's only skin deep.
I was wrong, thinking I could keep,
Everything in my hand,
Knowing my castle was built on sand.

Like an image passing by, I see my life,
In the twinkling of an eye, my lonely life,
And at this my darkest hour, fading like a flower,
Beauty is bound to die.

From the present to the past, I see my life,
Catching up with me at last, my empty life.
Now the hourglass is turning, 
And in my eyes are burning,
Tears I should have cried long ago,
Now I'll cry forever.

Now I'll cry forever. 

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Book Review: The Scourging Angel by Benedict Gummer

Benedict Gummer's lengthy book examines the UK before, during and after the Black Death of the fourteenth century. Utilising an array of sources, Gummer builds up a thorough picture of the political and social contexts of a world very similar to our own but also very different.

The amount of detail in this book is astounding. As well as hypothesising about the probable path of the disease in England, Gummer also looks at the probable route in Scotland and Ireland - of course, this involves an in-depth analysis of the tensions between those countries and England. He also zones in on specific places in the country where detailed information was available for mortality rates (via parish records of tenancies and such). These village or town snapshots allow the plague to become more than just a sweeping disease as they show the real human effects and the consequent knock-on effects of the pestilence.

One of the central protagonists in this narrative is naturally the king of the period - Edward III. In relating the effects of the plague, Gummer also documents a sovereign somewhat successful in battle against France but flawed in other ways. The ruling classes in general are looked at in detail - both the ones who reacted well to the pestilence and those who reacted badly. The intricacies of the feudal system are well-explained by Gummer, with particular attention being paid to those which seem so alien to modern readers.

I have to say, my favourite sections of this exceptional book are those which examine the effects on - and recovery of - Ireland in this period. The plague, added to English-Irish tensions, creates a fascinating dynamic. Equally, the discussions of architecture (amid the deaths of some pioneering masons) is extremely interesting. At first I was surprised how much of the book is devoted to the after-effects of the disease but this is actually very important, showing the fundamental changes that occurred during the late fourteenth century, some a result of the plague and some not. What Gummer achieves in this book is an accessible history only occasionally bogged down by the sheer amount of detail. The immersion in his subject is evidenced not only by the extensive bibliography but by the lengthy notes section. This book is primarily a history of the Black Death but it is also a history of the UK in the fourteenth century. I bought it for the former but have found my interest piqued by the latter.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Book Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

I was certainly late to the party with The Handmaid's Tale. Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel imagines a dystopian future where strict Christian values have taken over and women, amongst others, are the major casualties. The protagonist, Offred, is the handmaid of the title, a fertile woman who has been put in the house of an important couple to have a baby for them. Slowly, via her monologue, we learn about her present and the past which created it, ending with a look at the future.

Atwood creates a potent world which is recognisable as our own but fundamentally different. She refrains from describing the world, allowing Offred to reveal it slowly. While this is effective, there was a sense for me that very little actually happened in the first third of the novel. This isn't to say that it wasn't interesting, just that an awful lot had to be set up before things 'out of the ordinary' could occur. However, Atwood's strong prose goes a long way towards making that irrelevant. One thing which irritated me personally were the varying chapter lengths cut up by subtitles. While I understood the significance of them, at times it felt like the flow was completely interrupted and I found it difficult to get back into the story. This was probably deliberate but it jarred on me occasionally.

The Handmaid's Tale is as relevant a novel now as it was in 1985. The thought occurred to me time and again while reading it and, for that reason alone, it's certainly worth reading. It's a social commentary about women, traditional values and religion which are all topics still prevalent in US politics and beyond. Not a disappointing novel by any stretch of the imagination but one that makes for uncomfortable reading throughout.