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Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Television Review: Dancing on the Edge

Dancing on the Edge, written and directed by Steven Poliakoff, tells the story of a black jazz band trying to break through in 1930s London with the help of some aristocratic and rich friends. It boasts a splendid cast including Chiwetel Ejiofor as bandleader Louis Lester, Matthew Goode as his journalistic 'discoverer' Stanley, John Goodman as rich eccentric Mr Masterson, Anthony Head as Mr Donaldson and Janet Montgomery as Louis's love interest Sarah. It also has an excellent supporting cast including Jenna-Louise Coleman, Wunmi Mosaku, Mel Smith, Jacqueline Bisset, Sam Hoare and Caroline Quentin. However, for all the excellent names in the cast list, this failed on several points for me.

First, let's start with the positive aspects. The production was sumptuous, the colour and decadence of the Imperial Hotel, where the band first makes a splash, contrasts wonderfully with the organised squalor of Stanley's office and other locations associated with the band before their big break. Visually, Dancing on the Edge is nothing short of beautiful. Alongside the locations there are some gorgeous clothes on view and the series does a relatively good job of bringing 1930s London to life. In addition, there are some excellent characters in this piece, whose intentions you're never quite sure of over the five episodes. Most of these are handled well but a few feel incomplete.

The central problem of this series is a murder which Louis Lester finds himself involved in. He has to work out who his friends are while searching for the truth. However, the viewer is pretty much in on the secret - if you've been paying attention - and the question is always 'how' will it come to a head rather than 'who' or 'why'. This dilutes some tension. Equally, the change in singer Jessie Taylor's (Angel Coulby) from star to diva has no depth to it and rather undermines the scenes that follow it. Much more believable is her back-up singer Carla (Mosaku) who is forced to the fore and copes with it admirably.

There were other issues too. Lady Cremone's (Bisset) arc felt strangely unfulfilled and, as one of the more intriguing characters, I was disappointed by that. The romance between Stanley and Pamela (Joanna Vanderham) seemed artificial and I couldn't buy into it, though they were good characters separately. I was more on board with Louis and Sarah's relationship, though I don't think the racial aspects of that were explored half as much as they could have been, considering the era. That, too, was left on a note that didn't exactly reward the viewer for their commitment. It wasn't the type of ending I had a problem with, but their final few scenes together. Perhaps one of my main gripes, though, was the band itself: I don't think their loyalty to Louis, so integral to the finale, was demonstrated at all sufficiently. Yes, Louis was the leader but the rest of the band were woefully left out of most proceedings. This missed both the opportunity to show their relationship to Louis but, also, to show the band's rise from the perspective of someone a little lower down the food chain. They became almost obsolete through the middle episodes and that was sad in my opinion.

Ultimately, I don't think the ending rewarded viewers for their perseverance. It flicked too quickly from the climax to the aftermath. I would've liked the see the reactions of certain characters as they heard the full story but, instead, it was just shown on the pages of a magazine. We don't even know how much of the story came out, an insult to viewers if ever there was one. Dancing on the Edge was artistically beautiful, yes, but I think it sacrificed a lot in character and plot to get there. However, this wasn't the case for all characters: Chiwetel Ejiofor and Matthew Goode were given the opportunity to shine and took it. They, for me, were most certainly the highlights of this series.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Classic Film Review: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

Although Lana Turner is billed first, The Bad and the Beautiful really revolves around Kirk Douglas's character, Jonathan Shields. Shields is a floundering producer who has called upon three people he previously damaged to try and revive his career: director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), actress Georgia Lorrison (Turner) and writer James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell). They gather together and each tell their own personal stories about why they hate Shields and why they've vowed never to make another film with him. This was directed by Vincente Minnelli and is a scathing look at Hollywood and the people it attracts. What struck me was that this was essentially a male All About Eve (1950) (reviewed here): Shields, like Eve Harrington, is not afraid to stamp all over people to reach the top. That's the lesson we get from his experiences with Fred Amiel and James Lee Bartlow. The lesson from his relationship with Georgia Lorrison is altogether more complicated and provides some of the best scenes of the film.

The performances from all the major players along with Walter Pigeon as Shields's assistant and Gloria Grahame as Bartlow's wife are excellent. There are a few moments with Turner, particularly the car scene, which feel over-acted but she compensates for them in others, specifically the apartment scene when Shields is waiting for Georgia when she gets home drunk and their major confrontation scene at the end of her segment when the argument with Shields takes on a more sinister feeling, exposing layers to his character the viewer hasn't encountered before.

This being a Minnelli piece, the direction is superb with small touches throughout that add to the overall effect. It's a film that treads on thin ice, depicting the industry as vicious and those who inhabit the world as either innocents waiting to be torn to shreds or ruthless people waiting to do the shredding. There are also a couple of interesting scenes involving Douglas and Turner where the former is teaching the latter how to act and to hold an audience. It's little parts like that which make this film so captivating.

This is an exceptionally good film, though I still maintain the leading credit belongs to Douglas. It's the movie behind the movies and, as such, merits a watch for any film fan of the classic era. Beside which, it toys with the audience, bluffing about where it's going to go next. I have to say, though, that Shields gets steadily worse and, unfortunately, it's difficult to turn your head away.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Classic Film Review: They Knew What They Wanted (1940)

They Knew What They Wanted stars Charles Laughton as farmer Tony Patucci who meets waitress Amy (Carole Lombard) in San Francisco and falls instantly in love. However, he isn't very good with words so he asks his employee Joe (William Gargan) to write to her under his name. Amy agrees to leave San Francisco after seeing a picture of Joe and thinking it's Tony. This causes problems when she arrives but what causes more problems is the spark between Joe and Amy, which the latter is more inclined to ignore than face.

This is an odd one. I think I chose a bad film for my first Charles Laughton experience because it's a terrible role - what's meant to be lovable and bumbling comes across as irritating at best. On top of the drawling Italian accent there is the problem of the character referring to himself constantly in the third person. It stopped being amusing after the first few minutes and any childlike qualities the farmer had were certainly not part of his charm. It comes to something when you're rooting for the bad guy to get the girl but that's what I found myself doing at times. The infantile qualities of the character meant that it was hard to believe in Tony's relationship with Amy. Her relationship with Joe, however, was far more believable.

Lombard is certainly the highlight of the film. It's difficult to take your eyes off her when she's on the screen, especially in some of the later scenes where she's trying to hold it together whilst all the time feeling terrible about what she's done. Previously, I've only seen her in comedy so this was a delightful film in that it allowed me to see what a fantastic dramatic actress she could be. William Gargan is also fairly good as Joe, having two dialogue scenes with Father McKee (Frank Fay) first and then, later, the doctor (Harry Carey) which were quite impressive. However, I was disappointed that there was no 'end' scene with Joe and Father McKee which would've been interesting to see following their earlier encounter. To hear about that meeting without actually seeing it felt like a bit of a let-down.

Really, this film should've been so much more than it was. After all, there are some mature themes bandied about here - pregnancy out of wedlock, seduction, forgiveness - but they all fade under the heavy hand of Laughton in this particular role. Lombard may sparkle but, really, that says little about the quality of the film. There are some humorous lines but, I'll admit, I didn't find my heart strings wrung by the oafish Tony Patucci one bit.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Book Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

Like most people, I seem to have neglected Anne Bronte. I'm in the middle of reading Juliet Barker's mammoth The Brontes and so decided to take a break and read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I'll admit that I wasn't expecting much. What actually happened was me realizing that I perhaps preferred this to both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

The novel is essentially a letter from Gilbert Markham to his brother-in-law. The first section focuses on Gilbert's attendance on a new addition to the area, the mysterious tenant of the title, a Mrs Graham. She has a small son, Arthur, and is little reluctant to ingratiate herself in local affairs. Gilbert falls in love with her, though there are rumours that she's conducting a relationship with his friend, Frederick Lawrence. Helen eventually gives him a manuscript which explains her unhappy marriage to a drunkard and adulterer. Since I don't want to spoil the finale, I'll stop there.

What's striking about this novel is the portrayal of Helen Graham (Helen Huntingdon). To a modern reader, perhaps, her firmness in abandoning her husband (and, of course, taking her son with her) is unremarkable and expected but taken in the context of the period it's nothing short of astounding. What's more, Bronte never really suggests that Helen's in the wrong. Her portrayal of the degenerate husband is unflinchingly honest. There is one section in particular where Huntingdon and his friends really push the boundaries of respectability while staying at the Huntingdon home, Grassdale. The sustained scene of debauchery sticks in my memory as probably the most powerful in the book.

There are a couple of niggles, as with any novel. Essentially, we have to get to know two circles of friends and this proved especially tricky for me when we came back from Helen's diaries to Gilbert's own narrative. Remembering the intricacies of those relationships took me a little while. Equally, the final few chapters felt a little fragmented because of the events taking place over a period of time and involving several quick changes in the circumstances of the protagonists. That said, I'm nit-picking, trying to find fault with a novel I really enjoyed. It gave me food for thought but also managed to surprise me with its honesty. Not a lesser novel at all but a thoroughly excellent one. I'm not surprised Charlotte refused to have it reprinted after Anne's death!

Monday, 18 February 2013

Oops, I Did It Again...

There's a nice line in my '...Onwards to 2013' blog post which I was determined to actually stick to. It was simply this: "In addition, I'll try and resist adding new first drafts to my pot (excluding NaNoWriMo)." My logic was sound. After all, I've got six novels in varying stages of redrafting already written. What I need to spend this year on - alongside my PhD, of course - is redeveloping those to make them fit for human consumption. I was going to allow myself a NaNoWriMo novel because one first draft in a year might just satisfy me.

Might. I should've known not. You see, I got a brilliant idea last week. This amazing character just popped into my head unbidden and, naturally, I can't let her leave. That would be rude, amongst other things. So I started writing on Friday. A chapter a night means I now have three chapters coming to just over 5,200 words. Not bad for a weekend when I was supposed to be doing nothing and relaxing.

My problem is, as part of my maximising productivity drive (see here) I need to focus on one thing at a time. Unfortunately, the next week has already been earmarked for my PhD studies. I have a supervisor meeting on Tuesday so my plan for today was a read-through of my chapter and also some secondary reading I've had on my shelves for a few weeks. Then Sheffield on Tuesday and, after that, who knows? I have a feeling my supervisor will suggest I put this chapter aside for a few months and start my next. That means Wednesday through to Friday could be devoted to rereading Edmund Yates's The Silent Witness and going through some fresh secondary material picked up at the library on Tuesday.

As for the week after, I've promised my agent a revised version of novel one ('Lily') by the end of the month. That rather ties me up a little, doesn't it?

I suppose I just have to hope that the enthusiasm for this idea doesn't die out rapidly. I don't think it will, to be honest, and it needs a few weeks to percolate properly. While I have the next few chapters mapped out in my head I don't have an ending to work towards yet, and that's my preferred method of working. This may work to my advantage. And, perhaps, a few chapters may be slyly written in the interim.

So, a week on the PhD and a week on the novel editing... Easy. Roll on March!

Monday, 11 February 2013

Chapters & EBooks

I read a blog post last week that intrigued me a little. It discussed whether eBooks need chapters or whether the electronic form has made them somewhat redundant. The blog by Lily White LeFevre can be found in full here but this is one of the key paragraphs: "I can see good reasons for dividing some works into chapters.  Novels which are heavily episodic, novels which are told from multiple points of view, novels which have a lot of strong breaks between scenes instead of soft transitions—chapter breaks (even, I grudgingly admit, cliffhangers) still make sense for these types of books.  But a typical story?  One with several scenes per chapter, no single event the chapter is built around, and no discernible internal denouement to break up the story?  I am not sure there is still a point to using chapters, other than tradition." Hmm, makes sense I suppose but I'm still not sold.

I'm reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall at the moment and discovering I'm still very much a chapters girl. Despite the temptation of putting down my Kindle at any point, I still always read chapters in their entirety when I get the choice. Obviously, if someone yells for me or I'm on a train I have to pause mid-chapter but that happens just as often with printed books. I like the closure of chapters and I like reading the book the way the author intended. I always have a good reason when I'm writing to insert my chapter breaks where I do and I suspect that's the same for most writers. Equally, as a reader I find a chapter break tells me when to breathe within a story. For instance, I stopped reading the other night just as Gilbert Markham discovered something unpalatable about the object of his affections. I loved leaving the story there to come back to the next morning. It was a marker whereby Anne Bronte told me that was a good place to leave the book if I needed to. And it was. LeFevre freely admits that she doesn't like cliffhangers but, unfortunately, I do. To me, they're an essential part of both reading and writing. Not for every chapter, of course, but they are excellent tools to be utilised where appropriate.

Out of the six novels I've drafted (see here for details) only one of them doesn't include traditional chapters 'Liz' is a novel separated into three parts and has scenes within which alternate between my two viewpoint characters. This originally started out as a novella and since I had no clue on final length I just allowed the scene-then-swap structure to take charge. The two 'breaks' in the narrative document huge changes. Would that be disconcerting to a reader of the print copy, to see only three chapters within what is currently a 55,000 word book? Possibly. And probably, like LeFevre suggests, this would be much easier for a reader of an eBook to deal with. The scene breaks would provide all the 'pauses' necessary for a short novel.

There. I seem to be talking myself round to her point of view but the fact still remains that I rely on chapters. I dislike books that don't have them - in both print and eBook forms - and I do think that if you're going to dispense with chapters then at least have a good reason for doing so. From a cursory glance at some self-published eBooks it's easy to see that some authors think the new form just gives them the opportunity to break all the 'rules'. One thing that really irritates me is the lack of consideration to the reader in some cases. After all, the one speaker per line 'rule' is there to help the reader differentiate speakers and not have to tap back three pages to try and figure out who's talking now. Of course, some authors would say that distinctive characterisation means you should be able to tell who's talking. Yes, you should but I find those to be exceptional cases. For the most part, some markers are necessary. I read a book that was part of a series around Christmas which mangled this 'rule' (not consistently either, which felt bizarre). While the book was fairly entertaining, I don't feel like I can put myself through the chore of reading the next in the series.

I suppose what it comes down to is that the 'rules' are there to help the reader, not the author. I may be an anomaly as far as chapters and speaking rules go, perhaps they aren't as important as my gut tells me. But I would find it difficult to write without them. I'd love to hear other views on this - am I in the minority?

Thursday, 7 February 2013

I Said Love - Or Did I?

There's a wonderful little song in Robert and Elizabeth called 'I Said Love' which, as the title suggests, is Robert Browning affirming his feelings to Elizabeth Barrett via the helpful medium of song. It's a gorgeous little number, here are some of the lyrics:

"I said love, and I mean love
Let's be clear from the start
Something very strange has happened
Happened here, in my heart

Friendship can be quite delightful
Having friends is very nice
But my dear friend I must warn you
Merely friendship won't suffice..."

Good in it's way - and I do adore it - but perhaps a little too on-topic. I've been thinking a lot lately about how my characters admit they love each other. Most of the time it feels too contrived, as though the words have to be so irritatingly bland just to get it over with. Centuries of literature, music and film have rather dulled the meaning somewhat. So I'm trying to persuade my characters to say it without saying it. Donald O'Connor offers a good example of what I mean in Call Me Madam as he woos a princess played by Vera-Ellen:

The last few seconds and Donald's 'I'll shut up, your highness' make me giggle every time. But this is less about my love for the great dancer and more about my lack of love That scene's a perfect example of how to say it without actually saying it. Of course, this is Hollywood and the words are spoken later but do they have to be?

I feel like my characters roll their eyes at me when I force such hackneyed words into their mouths. Something that is massively helpful in 'showing' love is The Emotion Thesaurus, a wonderful little book that's all about conveying character emotions in realistic ways. The 'love' entry is very interesting, particularly the 'cues of suppressed love' - my characters utilise those quite often! It's proof that emotions are better off bubbling beneath the surface than being articulated every other scene. 

Now I just need to remember that. When I want to say love I should say something else. Maybe if I do need to spell it out then it isn't love in the first place... 

Although, sometimes, you do need to be told. I mean, sometimes you're just completely oblivious and Ethel Merman needs to give you a nudge:

"You don't need analysing
It is not so surprising
That you feel very strange but nice
Your heart goes pitter-patter
I know just what's the matter
Because I've been there once or twice
Put your head on my shoulder
You need someone who's older
A rubdown with a velvet glove
There is nothing you can take
To relieve that pleasant ache
You're not sick
You're just in love."