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Thursday, 30 May 2013

Television Review: Life of Crime

Life of Crime is a three-part drama with the action taking place over three time periods - 1985, when Denise Woods (Hayley Atwell) first joins the force and investigates the death of a teenager; 1997, when the conviction of her killer is thrown into doubt and the present day, when the investigation is finally concluded. I wasn't overawed by this one, though I very much wanted to like it.

For a start, I thought it latched itself unnecessarily onto 'events', namely the Brixton riot of 1985 and the death of Princess Diana. It added artificiality to the plot for me, when showing the passage of time could simply be done via the medium of Denise's family. In addition, I found the direction lacking. It was too slow with far too many extended scenes that simply weren't necessary. I thought that it could've been easily transferred into a two hour drama special instead of being spread over three weeks but, I suppose, that would've toyed with the format they'd set their hearts on. What happened was that the action became diluted and the mix of the family troubles Denise experiences as a result of her headstrong nature failed to capture my attention as they should have.

I have another construction criticism which, again, could have been remedied by it being a more compact drama. By the time the 'reveal' came around I honestly couldn't recall who the killer was for a good few minutes. This was partly caused by a lack of signposts and partly by the fact the third episode recap was fundamentally useless. Finally, I felt let down in the final episode by the fact that Denise spoke to the first victim's mother in quite a touching scene and then there was no more from her - that was one aspect that deserved more exploration and it didn't get it.

I thought that Life of Crime was an interesting concept but, ultimately, it just moved too slow for me to enjoy it and by the time the third episode came around I was ambivalent about the killer. In addition, Denise isn't an easy character to like or even respect. You don't have to like a protagonist in a drama like this but you do at least have to be concerned about what happens to them and, really, I wasn't. A bit of a let-down but, as ever, this was only my opinion. I'm sure other people enjoyed it.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Classic Film Review: The Mad Miss Manton (1938)

The Mad Miss Manton is a madcap film that stars Barbara Stanwyck as Melsa Manton, a socialite known for her pranks to police. However, when she finds a dead body (and the dead body disappears) the police are angry with her for wasting their time and she enlists her group of friends to help her prove there was a body - but all doesn't go to plan. She is faced with irate police officer Lieutenant Brent (Sam Levene) and journalist Peter Ames (Henry Fonda) who quickly falls in love with her but is still all for letting the police deal with the investigation.

This film's tricky. It obviously doesn't take itself too seriously and goes for the laughs whenever it can but there is still a murder at the heart of it and one of the final scenes between Melsa and the killer seems far too dark for the ending of such a film. The murder mystery aspect is also a bit convoluted with more faces than necessary put into the picture at one point. Without proper guidance, I was a bit confused about what was going on when Melsa was shot at.

The 'group' of socialite friends Melsa assembled was possibly too large - sometimes they blended into each other and their personalities on the whole seemed far too similar. However, Levene and Fonda as Brent and Ames raised the film a little with their distinctive personalities. Levene particularly added much amusement to the film, though I was slightly sick of his predictable reactions by the time the credits rolled.

However, that's not to say that The Mad Miss Manton isn't a funny film. It is. This was my first introduction to Barbara Stanwyck and it was a relatively good one. Melsa's a strong character, dominant over those around her, with the exception of her maid Hilda (Hattie McDaniel). I also liked the twist of Melsa and her friends 'proving' something only for it to backfire. All in all, this was an enjoyable comedy, hardly ground-breaking but entertaining enough for a lazy afternoon.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Television Review: Scott & Bailey S3

The third series of the crime drama focused once more on the friendship between DC Rachel Bailey (Suranne Jones) and DC Janet Scott (Lesley Sharp). Amelia Bullmore is back as no-nonsense DCI Gill Murray, we get liberal sprinklings of Pippa Haywood as DSI Julie Dodson while Danny Miller joins the cast as DS Rob Waddington. However, the stand-out addition to the cast is guest star Nicola Walker. She's a recurring theme within this series and, unfortunately, that caused some chronology problems, despite how fantastic the storyline was.

The first episode opens with DCI Murray being strangled from behind in her car and threatened with a knife. Then we flash back to eight months earlier. The first case that the team deal with involve the corpse of Eunice Bevan whose decapitated body was found on the staircase of her home while her bedridden husband awaits rescue upstairs. The couple's daughter Helen Bartlett (Walker) is immediately a suspect and those viewers paying attention recognise her voice as the one who took Gill hostage, setting up the season-long strand. Fair enough.

However, to complicate the series chronology, episode two is rightly an episode that belonged either at the end of series two or right at the beginning of series three. Rachel is experiencing difficulties in her new marriage so we go back a few more months to see the circumstances surrounding their wedding and the accusation that Rachel incited her brother to murder. It was a storyline that needed this conclusion, yes, but not at that point. I completely understand why the decisions for the series chronology were made: they wanted a hook for the series, they wanted to establish Helen Bartlett's character as a recurring and important one. They actually trailed the series with Helen being delivered up to Gill by Rachel and Janet. It was the right decision for the storyline but possibly not for the series.

Now - episode content. I actually really enjoyed every individual episode, even though I did have issues with the overall structure. Nicola Walker's outstanding first outing as Helen Bartlett prompted a rather gushy adoration post from me but she kept up that momentum in the four episodes she appeared in, especially as things became more grisly. Another episode that was particularly affecting was episode six which focused on abuse and murder in a care home.

The relationship between Rachel and Janet fractures this series when Rachel goes into self-destruct mode once too often. This provided a nice backdrop to the final episodes. One thing I also appreciated was the remembrance of little details that are brought up throughout the series, both related to personal and professional lives. It was rewarding for long-term fans and added authenticity to the series.

Finally, some of the guest stars were fantastic. Pippa Haywood's returning character, DSI Dodson, was both intimidating and funny. There's a wonderful moment between her and Amelia Bullmore in the middle of a very gruesome crime scene that made me laugh out loud. In addition, Tracie Bennett (who I saw a few years ago in End of the Rainbow) arrives as Rachel's mother, not a character you can like but one who certainly makes your skin crawl. I'm not sure of the point of Danny Miller's arrival as the new DS. For such a good actor the part seems too small but, then again, this is a show centred on the women. Maybe he'll evolve if a fourth series is commissioned.

The niggles I have about chronology didn't detract from my enjoyment of this series. It remained the programme I looked forward to week after week and I'll keep my fingers crossed that the ratings were high enough to secure a renewal. Oh, and ITV? Don't use the ratings for the last episode to judge - that was on a Thursday instead of a Wednesday and you didn't trail it enough to be irritated by any loss in ratings.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Classic Film Review: Spellbound (1945)

Spellbound stars Ingrid Bergman as a psychiatrist who goes to great lengths to protect a patient while she works out the truth of his case. The patient (Gregory Peck) originally appears at the institution where Dr Constance Peterson (Bergman) works, masquerading as the new chief, Dr Edwardes. However, Constance soon works out that he's not who he says he is and suspects that he has something to do with the disappearance of Dr Edwardes. This is complicated by the fact that Constance has found herself immediately attracted to the patient. She conceals his location from the police then sets off to find and then cure him, uncovering the truth in the process.

This is an atmospheric Hitchcock film with a supporting cast that includes Michael Chekov as Dr Alexander Brulov and Leo G. Carroll as outgoing chief Dr Murchison. The concept of psychoanalysis is explained in sometimes clunky terms during the film but it makes a good basis for the plot. To be fully immersed in the story you may have to believe wholeheartedly in psychoanalysis but, on the other hand, it's a good film even if you're ambivalent. The short dream sequence devised by Salvador Dali is too short for my liking but certainly adds something to the film.

The beauty of this one, though, lies in the leading actors. Bergman is phenomenal, from her first moments as a calm and in control doctor through to the finale where she's fighting to save the man she loves. There are too many excellent individual scenes to mention but the climax between her and the villain takes some beating. Equally, Gregory Peck manages a role that could have become far too melodramatic very well. During his episodes, yes, the patient is unpredictable and weak but this contrasts nicely with his obvious affection towards Constance. Also excellent is Michael Chekov as the talkative Dr Brulov who lightens the tension a little with his non-stop chatter though there is more to him than that.

Of course, there are aspects of this film which were badly handled. The completely artificial ski scene was one, which could have been better handled with a director like Hitchcock. In addition, I felt that the superfluous characters who were introduced at the beginning (another doctor and a female patient) wasted a little bit of time. While they were there to set up Constance as a character, I don't think they entirely worked. However, these are small gripes. Overall, I found Spellbound to be a captivating film and one which would've cemented my love for Ingrid Bergman - if it wasn't already cemented, that is.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Classic Film Review: Lover Come Back (1961)

Lover Come Back stars Rock Hudson and Doris Day with a side-helping of Tony Randall. Jerry Webster (Hudson) works for an advertising agency and has a pretty simple way of attracting clients - liquor and pretty girls. This infuriates Carol Templeton (Day) who works for one of his competitors and doesn't like the underhand methods. During their war, Webster accidentally advertises a product that doesn't exist - 'Vip'. Of course, Carol wants the 'Vip' contract and approaches the man she thinks is the inventor to wine and dine him. But, due to a stroke of luck, Webster intercepts her visit and he's suddenly masquerading as Dr Linus Tyler while the real Tyler (Jack Kruschen) works on a formula for 'Vip'.

This is a typical Doris Day comedy which relies heavily on her already-established chemistry with Rock Hudson. It's formulaic in places, yes, but it's still enjoyable. Tony Randall as Webster's boss Pete Ramsey, a man domineered by his late father and trying to become his own man, has a few excellent moments and I particularly liked Ann B. Davis as Millie, Carol's secretary, who has a few good lines of her own.

I found that the film trundled along, relying on gentle humour and Day's eyebrows (which are in top form). It really starts to pick up in the last twenty minutes when Carol discovers Webster's true identity. Tony Randall, as Pete flips, is very amusing too. As ever with these types of comedy, I found the ending a little rushed and unsatisfactory - although funny - and the fact that Carol had essentially fallen in love with a man who didn't exist wasn't resolved though, to be fair, I didn't expect it to be.

Lover Come Back isn't as funny as Pillow Talk (1959) but it's pretty good. The title is also nonsensical, the vehicle for a good Doris Day song if ever there was one. She also has another song as Carol wonders whether to succumb to 'Linus's' charms - 'Should I Surrender?', a number I hadn't come across before and rather liked. This is a light-hearted comedy that has a few golden moments but it's not my favourite Day film by any stretch. Worth a watch, though, if you haven't seen it, if only to see how Day's hair can stay perfectly still for long periods of time. Also, I have to admit that Hudson with a beard looks like a different man!

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Television Review: Murder on the Home Front

Murder on the Home Front follows Molly Cooper (Tamzin Merchant) as she joins pathologist Dr Lennox Collins (Patrick Kennedy) in his investigation of a serial killer in war-torn London. The police think they've got their man but Collins is determined to use forensics to prove them wrong but the chase for the killer soon becomes dangerous for Molly. The cast also includes Emerald Fennell as photographer Issy Quennell, James Fleet as Professor Stephens and Richard Bremmer as mortuary assistant Charlie Maxton.

This is based loosely on the memoirs of Molly Lefebure, which explains where the rather odd concept came from. Molly Cooper is headstrong, amusing and a little bit stubborn but there still seems to be something lacking about the character. Stepping into a real person's shoes has that effect on some actors in this kind of role. I liked Molly but I didn't love her. Dr Collins, however, is likely to become a favourite character of mine. His approach to pathology is very modern in a time that wasn't really ready for it and his clashes with Professor Stephens are a good demonstration of that. I also adore Issy, who seems like much more of a real person than Molly does.

The plot of this was reasonably good and I certainly didn't work out the truth before the protagonists. However, my enjoyment was tempered by the unnecessary CGI and gore that looked frankly juvenile. There was no need to have ridiculous bomb effects in the background every time Collins stood in his flat with his curtains open. They looked unreal and added nothing to the overall story. If they'd spent more time making the close-up shots of bomb effects and damage appear realistic, I would've been a lot happier. Instead of focusing on character and plot, they decided to make it 'look spectacular' and, when you try that hard, you invariably fail. I personally got fair more pleasure from Charlie's occasional comments than the London aerial views that were supposed to make me gape. Equally, the excessive comic-book type gore that was used in certain scenes was irritating. I got the feeling that the series didn't quite know what it wanted to be and who its audience was.

All that said, I think this series has potential. The central characters have a good rapport and the concept is a good one. If they cut out the unnecessary CGI and focus on characters and plot then they could have a hit on their hands. I will certainly watch if they make more episodes.

Monday, 20 May 2013

The Next Two Weeks

The immediate future looks a bit hectic, as I realised last night staring at the ceiling and cataloguing what I've got to do - and what might get in the way. Things could get quite tricky quite fast.

On the PhD side of things, I need to get my third chapter fully drafted by the end of the month. I have a supervisor meeting on the 30th and by then I want a complete draft so I can make necessary corrections and enhancements over the summer. So I'm looking at perhaps another 6,000 words of analysis. And, really, I have to get that done this week because I'm not going to get much of a chance next week.

Also of importance this week is some secondary reading, which I have to neatly combine with some documentary viewing. I say 'have to' and mean it: our hard disk recorder's close to capacity and my father's going that funny colour which means that if I don't watch some stuff he's going to evict me. I've got a heap of documentaries on there but also some recent drama and too many classic films to count. So it's looking like I'm spending the days this week trying valiantly to create some space on the recorder and the evenings going loopy in my office trying to put words on the page.

Next week, things get a little more complicated. The Wakefield Drama Festival starts on Sunday 26th (preview post here). For seven consecutive nights I'll be at the theatre and, although I'm looking forward to it, I'm dreading the time it will sap. Added to which, I've got the Postgraduate Colloquium all day Tuesday, my supervisor meeting on Thursday and I'm babysitting for a few hours on Friday. The latter two I'm fairly okay with but it's the first that's causing me anxiety.

The organisation of the colloquium has been fairly fun, like trying to keep control of a bike that at first won't let you pedal then doesn't want you to apply the brakes. If I'd stuck to the organising I'd probably have been fine but I'm conscious that I need to give a few papers this year to stick to my goals for 2013. So I've written a paper called 'Edmund Yates: Rumour and the Forgotten Author' which I'm fairly happy with. The only part I'm not happy with is presenting it. My public-speaking fear has kept me awake a few nights recently. There are reasons I'm not cut out for this line of work and I suspect next Tuesday will demonstrate that. If it does, I think a new career plan is in order.

During the drama festival I'm not going to get much PhD work done (which is why this week is so important in that respect). I don't know what I'll do during the two days I'm actually at home that week but it might involve sleeping and, on Monday, plotting to run away.

So what are the variables? Well, apart from my paralysing fear, there's the small matter of my grandmother who has decided that my father doesn't understand her so she needs to talk to me and me alone. That's fine for a few days over the weekend but, given what I've got to do this week, it could soon become a little irritating. I'll try to hold my temper because I really don't want to upset her more but having the same conversations fifteen times a day could drive me round the twist. Also, last week we had five power cuts (including three nights where it was off overnight, leading to some fun times with the dog-that's-scared-of-the-dark). They claim the problem has been fixed but more outages could lead to some epic frustration. As with the grandmother situation, this isn't within my control but it doesn't stop the anxiety. I'm beginning to learn, very little stops the anxiety.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Book Review: The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger

The Newlyweds is a truly modern romance. It tells the story of Amina, a Bangladeshi who has met an American online and moved abroad to marry him. George is a decent man, everything she and her parents have been hoping for and Amina's intention is for her parents to finally come and live with them after she has passed her citizenship test. However, she finds it difficult to acclimatise herself to America and she discovers that George has been keeping something fairly important from her. However, she hasn't been entirely honest with him, as she realises when she returns to Bangladesh.

On one level, this book is difficult to read because of all the time it spends meandering back and forth between Amina's life now in America and her youth in Bangladesh. However, because the two locations are so different, it's easy to follow. Amina's recollections usually have a basis in what she's going through at the time so, in that sense, it's a perfectly logical book.

The descriptions of Bangladesh are one of the most outstanding aspects of the book. The humidity and the community seep from the page, making it both interesting and oddly stifling, even for the reader. Amina's location in-between cultures means that she is able to note the bizarre in both Bangladesh and America, understanding the differences and criticising them both fairly equally.

The Newlyweds certainly contains humour but I found that after reading it was the more serious scenes that lingered with me, including one - ridiculously - that we find was made up by another character. Freudenberger deals with the issues facing couples the world over including the recession, family divisions and the complexity of married life. Amina's ethnicity is thrown into this mix, creating new obstacles that aren't immediately discernible but eventually make their presence known. One of the events which make up the finale is beautifully foreshadowed throughout the novel and it is the scenes stemming from this horrible event which impacted me most forcefully.

Amina is an excellent character to follow, particularly during her return to Bangladesh. In addition, Freudenberger throws in some clever red herrings throughout meaning that the actual progression of the plot remained a mystery to me. It was a pleasure to read a book that surprised me but still made sense in terms of characterisation. If I had one criticism it was that I wanted more from these characters. I feel like she stopped as one story was ending, yes, but as a whole other one was beginning. I suppose that's the mark of a good book - one that leaves you wishing there was more.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Classic Film Review: Never a Dull Moment (1950)

Based on a book that's based on a true story, Never a Dull Moment stars Irene Dunne as Kay, a successful songwriter who falls in love with rancher Chris (Fred MacMurray). She marries him and moves from the bright lights of New York to live with him and his two daughters (played by Gigi Perreau and Natalie Wood). It's a classic fish-out-of-water tale that sees Kay struggle to adjust to life in harsh conditions and finally she is faced with the choice of the New York life she once enjoyed or life with her new family.

This film apparently won an award for being dull but, really, I found it refreshing. It was amusing and the comedy came from realistic incidents. There was little farce for the sake of farce, though it did appear once or twice. Mostly, the humorous situations came from Kay herself - losing control of a horse, battling with a dust-storm, stepping on a loose floorboard - and for that reason they were amusing. The children also added to the film instead of detracting from it and there are some good performances from the supporting cast, especially Ann Doran as Jean and Andy Devine as Orvie.

The problems with this probably stem from the fact that nothing much happens. It's very much Kay's battle to adjust and to some viewers this could indeed be boring. However, I enjoyed the light-heartedness of it and Dunne is really endearing as Kay, striking up a decent rapport with MacMurray. It might be predictable in places but Dunne's warmth shows through - particularly in the scenes with the girls - and makes it much better than the story probably deserves. The little friendship she strikes up with Jean, someone who was once touted as a potential wife for Chris, is pleasant and realistic - no backstabbing or popping poison in the tea, as Kay puts it.

There are certainly things lacking in Never a Dull Moment but it is an enjoyable family film. Although it concluded a little too quickly for my liking, it was overall a good experience.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The Right Story For Now

For the last few days (amid power cuts and ahead of a supervisor meeting for my latest PhD work) I've been a little bit dissatisfied with the story I'd decided to work on now I've finished the fifth draft of 'Danni' (check here for a list of all my major writing projects). A few weeks ago I detailed my plans for both PhD work and writing and I was going to finish the latest first draft I started ('Izzy') and go from there. That's the one I've suddenly become dissatisfied with. I love the protagonist but honestly don't think it's the right story for me to be working on at the moment. So I cast my eyes over the four first drafts that need work to decide which one I should tackle.

I settled on 'Liz'. In my description of this in my list of writing projects I said: One first draft finished and I have decent plans for the second. Obviously needs beefing up a little at 55,000 words but this one did start out as a novella so... Turns out those 'decent plans' are a bit more complete than I gave myself credit for. Once I finally located my notebook (it was hiding, I swear it was) I realised that I'd done more work on this last summer than I remembered.

All I thought I'd done was map the main changes that needed to occur and write just over 2000 words of the second draft before giving up to rewrite 'Lily'. Apparently not. I have a scene-by-scene breakdown of the changes and enhancements that need to be made in every scene. It was like walking into a sweet shop with a penny in my pocket and seeing a shiny pound coin on the floor waiting for me to spend it. I can't believe I'd forgotten all these notes. Well, actually, I can since my memory's turning into a short-stay car park as far as important facts are concerned.

Anyhow, I added a few hundred words to this novel last night and I'm excited about it. I think I've found the project I should be working on at the moment and, power cuts permitting, I'll carry on with it as best I can. Of course, I do have to adhere to my PhD schedule, finish organising and give a paper at a colloquium, deal with my declining grandmother and - perhaps - take some time out at the end of July to celebrate my birthday. All looking a little packed again, isn't it? Definitely time to consider tapping my troubles away...

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Preview: Wakefield Drama Festival 2013

In under two weeks I'll be attending the Wakefield Drama Festival for the third time. I reviewed my experiences in 2011 and 2012 but this year I thought it would be interesting to look ahead and see what I've got to look forward to. Seven different plays over seven nights (26th May - 1st June) always brings out an eclectic bunch of plays and this year is no different.

On Sunday 26th May Bonkers Theatrical, Kettering perform Behind Closed Doors by Janet Shaw, which explores the engagement of two university students and the domestic violence which permeates both of their families despite their differences. It apparently has 'comedy and tragedy in equal measure'.

On Monday 27th May Gainsborough Theatre Company perform Shakers by John Godber and Jane Thornton. It explores the lives of four waitresses in a cocktail bar which 'is worse than hell'.

On Tuesday 28th May St Austin's Players perform Hobson's Choice by Harold Brighouse. A comedy set in 1915, it tells the story of a widower struggling to control his daughters who work in his shoe shop, a problem that becomes more acute when one of them marries his best cobbler and decide to set up a rival business.

On Wednesday 29th May Trinity Players, Barnsley perform Side Effects by Eric Chappell. This is a comedy with such a description that it's best to just quote it: 'Frank Cook has been booked into a private nursing home, by his wife June, for a week's respite. Whilst there, he encounters the Reverend Paul Latimer who is recovering from a heart transplant and whose odd behaviour is beginning to alarm his wife, Sarah. The young, attractive Tracey might provide the answer. She is convinced that the vicar's new heart belonged to her recently deceased lover Melvin - a fairground 'wall of death' rider!'

On Thursday 30th May Wakefield Little Theatre perform Without Fear or Favour by Reece Andrews. Written by a retired police officer, this play looks at the reality of policing in suburban West Yorkshire in the 1970s.

On Friday 31st May The Yorkshireman Company perform The Grocer's Daughter by Mary Creasey and Jack Land Noble. A 'one woman comedy' set in Grimethorpe, it deals with Connie as she packs away her life before closing the shop for good. 

Finally, on Saturday 1st June Halifax Thespians perform Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman. Containing strong language and adult themes, this is another one where I'll just quote the description: 'A riveting psychological thriller set in a country whose people have just wrestled power from a punishing regime of dictatorship in order to establish a democracy. But, what makes a decent society and who, if anyone, should be held to account for past failures?'

So there you go, that's the week in full. From the descriptions, I'm looking forward to The Grocer's Daughter and Death and the Maiden most but I expect the entire week to be enjoyable as it has been for the last two years.

Tickets for the individual shows are £12. A three night pass costs £30 and a seven night pass costs only £49 which works out at £7 a show. I should say thank you to the theatre for not raising this price, keeping the theatre affordable. I think the festival is a wonderful opportunity for people to see the different types of play that the Theatre Royal Wakefield offers and I wouldn't be going back for the third year in a row if it wasn't both great fun and value for money. Watch for my review at the end of the week!

For more information and to book tickets please visit their website

Book Review: The Matchmaker by Stella Gibbons

The Matchmaker is my third foray into Gibbons's fiction (after Westwood and The Bachelor). This tells the story of Alda Lucie-Browne who, with her three daughters, is awaiting her husband's decommission from the army in a small run-down cottage in the country. Her neighbours include Mr Waite, a chicken farmer, and Mr and Mrs Hoadley who own a nearby farm and supply their milk. The three workers at the farm at two Italian prisoners who live in the nearby camp - Fabrio and Emilio - and Land Girl Sylvia. Rounding out the group is Jean, Alda's old friend, who comes to stay following the death of her father. Alda gets it into her head that Jean would be perfect for Mr Waite (because Jean needs a husband and he needs a wife really) and that Sylvia and Fabrio should marry. She sets around engineering the matches but her calculations don't always prove effective.

I enjoyed this book as much I did the others. Alda is a difficult character to appreciate, meddlesome as she is, but other characters are far easier to relate to. Jean, desperate for a love affair and flirting with religion, became my favourite as she decides on one course, changes her mind then changes her mind again. Sylvia is a complex character, a wannabe actress who doesn't really stand a hope, and manages to repel Fabrio when she's herself and accidentally ensnare him during a visit to another village.

Gibbons's writing style - serious with touches of amusement hidden in almost every line - perfectly accentuates the flaws in each character. Her descriptions of Alda's two elder daughters Louise and Jenny show their differences beautifully without them becoming tedious characters. Fabrio also has the potential to be irritating but his evolution from uninterested in Sylvia to besotted by her mitigates the effects of his romantic personality.

I'm discovering, however, that when I reach the end of a Gibbons book I'm strangely unsatisfied by the finale. This may be because I've lived with the characters and am disappointed to leave them at all. But the ending of The Matchmaker ignored one of the confrontations I wanted to see - that between Alda and Jean - in favour of a 'wrap-up' chapter focused on Alda and then another one focused on Fabrio. I felt somewhat miffed that we skipped a few years then said a swift goodbye to the characters. Still, I don't think this detracted from the book as a whole. There are some memorable characters in this one, as with Gibbons's other novels, and some wonderful observations that had me giggling aloud.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Classic Film Review: Experiment Perilous (1944)

Experiment Perilous stars George Brent as Dr. Huntington Bailey, a man who becomes embroiled in the Bederaux family and suspects murder at the heart of it. He first becomes acquainted with Cissie (Olive Blakeney) during a difficult train journey and she lets slip that she's kept a secret diary about her brother, Nick Bederaux's (Paul Lukas), life. However, she doesn't want to return to his house in New York so she asks Bailey to arrange her a room at his hotel and send her luggage on. He parts from her but later learns that she died soon after her arrival at her brother's home. He visits the house and encounters Bederaux and his nervous wife Allida (Hedy Lamarr). He also finds Cissie's notes on her brother mixed up with his own luggage and finds himself on a quest to discover the truth behind Nick Bederaux.

As a mystery this works quite well. Paul Lukas shows the various sides to Bederaux without much villainous flourish and Hedy Lamarr's portrayal of the anxious Allida is contrasted neatly in flashbacks to how she was in her earlier days with Nick. However, whilst Bailey's attempts to free Allida are understandable, I didn't at all buy the whirlwind romance that has the hardy doctor essentially fall in love at first sight. It felt like an unnecessary strand of plot, though perhaps it was just hugely undeveloped. 

In addition, I felt a little betrayed by the progression of the plot. Cissie was an integral character for the first fifteen minutes of the film and, really, her suspicious death was the most interesting aspect for me. I thought this was swiftly passed over later during the confrontation between Bailey and Bederaux and unjustifiably so. The romance between Allida and Bailey becomes the centre of the plot and dilutes the effect of the confrontation scene somewhat. 

That said, Hedy Lamarr put in an excellent performance, particularly in the flashback scenes without Brent. He was also good but, together, the story seemed to falter. There was one scene, however, which stays in my mind as the most intelligent scene of the film. Bailey is visiting his sculptor friend Clag (Albert Dekker) and they discuss Bederaux while Bailey walks about the studio of half completed heads. If more of the film had been employed in such ways I would've enjoyed it more. As it was, though, I found it to be a tense little mystery, though one that relies too heavily on romance as its solution. 

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Classic Film Review: A Man For All Seasons (1966)

A Man For All Seasons tells the true story of Sir Thomas More who stood up to King Henry VIII following the split from Rome and eventually lost his life for his principles. It stars Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More, Wendy Hiller as Alice More, Susannah York as Margaret More, Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey, Leo McKern as Cromwell and John Hurt as Rich.

This film deserves its reputation as a powerful and enthralling work. Paul Scofield delivers a stunning central performance. It's difficult to pick out particular scenes as especially worthy of merit but the courtroom drama towards the end of the film was compelling. Scofield embraces the character so completely that he becomes More and adds an authenticity to the role which I doubt would have been present with another actor.

The rest of the cast is almost as captivating. Leo McKern makes an excellent Cromwell while John Hurt's performance as the traitorous Rich is equally as good. Although Orson Welles is only in the film comparatively briefly, his Wolsey is certainly one to remember. Nigel Davenport as the Duke of Norfolk and Corin Redgrave as Will Roper are also worthy of praise. That said, there's no cast member large or small who makes this film weaker in any sense.

Beautifully filmed, it invokes Tudor England marvellously, from the splendour of the palace to the idyll of More's home in Chelsea. The opening scenes with a messenger being dispatched and rowing along the river roots the audience in an England that is both recognisable and distant. It may be hard for a modern viewer to understand the devout religious belief which is the cornerstone of More's story but the idea of a man holding firm to his principles, whatever the cost, resonates throughout the ages. It also shines a light on those willing to sacrifice their beliefs in order to save their lives and further their careers, another lesson for modern audiences.

All aspects considered, this is an excellent film, the most realistic and engrossing of any I've seen focused on the Tudor era. It wholeheartedly deserved the clutch of Oscars and BAFTAs it won.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Television Review: The Village

The Village aims to tell the story of a single village throughout the twentieth century. This first series covers on the years 1914-1920 and we focus on the Middleton family - John (John Simm), Grace (Maxine Peake) and their sons, Joe (Nico Mirallegro) and Bert (Bill Jones). Other villagers of importance include the rich Allingham family, vicar's daughter Martha Lane (Charlie Murphy) and schoolteacher Gerard Eyre (Matt Stokoe).

One of main criticisms of this programme is that it is unfailingly grim. In the course of six episodes we had the outbreak of war, shell-shock, alleged desertion, rape by a doctor, suicide, mutilated cows, sick babies, dead children and Spanish flu. Those are only the ones I can remember off the top of my head. However, despite the dreariness, it's difficult to stop watching because it's so brilliantly acted. Maxine Peake has already established herself as one of Britain's most versatile actresses and her performance as Grace merely reiterates that. John Simm is excellent as John, an alcoholic who finds God but is still incredibly difficult to like. Bill Jones deserves praise as young Bert while Nico Mirallegro was heartbreaking in some of his final scenes as Joe. Equally the rest of the cast worked well, especially Juliet Stevenson as Clem Allingham and Augustus Prew as George Allingham.

One aspect of the series irritated me, however. The first five episodes take place over the course of two years but between the fifth and the sixth episode there is a four year jump. This was probably for continuity reasons (they wanted to introduce the next incarnation of Bert before the second series) but it jarred incredibly for me. All the emotion at the end of episode five was left unresolved and, frankly, I think we needed an episode just afterwards to deal with some of that. The cast were certainly up to it so why not? My guess is that apart from the Bert issue they wanted to resolve the war in the first series. Nevertheless, I did get the sensation while watching the sixth episode that I was viewing the first episode of the second series - the viewer was trying to catch-up far too much and scenes which would have been interesting to see (George's successful wooing of Martha, for instance) were ignored. For me, the series lost a little emotional resonance due to this choice.

Will I watch series two? Yes, because I'm invested in a few characters and occasionally there is a scene of absolute brilliance. However, I know several people who have had enough of the bleak atmosphere. I can't say I blame them but this is probably more historically accurate than most programmes set in this era. Finally, it's worth noting that the use of the Peak District scenery is excellent and the score for the series is beautiful. From the opening strains over the first episode I knew I'd carry on watching for the music alone.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Classic Film Review: Irene (1940)

Irene stars Anna Neagle as the outspoken Irish girl of the title in this musical comedy romance. When we first meet her she's living with her grandmother (May Robson) and working as an upholsterer's assistant. While at the home of the wealthy Mrs Vincent (Billie Burke) she meets a friend of the family, Don Marshall (Ray Milland), who is instantly attracted to her. He gets her a job as a model for 'Madame Lucy', the designer who is actually Don himself. She attends a ball at the Vincent home and is an instant success, resulting in Don and Bob Vincent (Alan Marshal) starting to compete for her. She is assumed to be the niece of a very prestigious O'Dare and doesn't contradict the assumption, leading to a riot of publicity and excitement for the previously-unknown Irene. But who does she want to marry?

Anna Neagle essentially plays two roles in this film - the real Irene O'Dare and the mythical one she creates by accident. Of course, it's Don who fell in love with the real one and with him, she admits, she can be herself. Ray Milland does a good job as Don while Alan Marshal seems a little bland as Bob but, then, he's meant to be. There are some excellent supporting performances, notably from May Robson and the magnificent Billie Burke, but watch out as well for Roland Young as Mr Smith, with an 'i' not a 'y', and Arthur Treacher as the butler.

The plot's a little fantastical but that's to be expected from an adaptation of a state show from 1919. However, the songs are very well integrated into the action. The primary theme music comes from the gorgeous 'Alice Blue Gown' which is repeated at various points in the story, once beautifully performed in a dance by Neagle and Milland. It also forms the centrepiece of a 'Moviebone News' segment.

One of the most delightful aspects of this film comes from the sudden break into colour as Irene descends the stairs in her beautiful blue gown. The rest of the ball takes place in colour but then the grey dawn appears and things are back to normal. I have to say, I was a little disappointed the finale didn't merit a little colour explosion too. In fact, I was also disappointed that we didn't get a nice 'reveal' sequence when Mrs Vincent finds out that her potential daughter-in-law is not related to a countess after all. Given the wonderful performance of Billie Burke throughout, and accentuated in the final minutes, I would've liked to have seen that.

All in all, though, this is a light, frothy film that had me humming and smiling along (and singing 'Alice Blue Gown' for hours afterwards). Watch for the final scenes between Mr Smith and the butler alone.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Classic Film Review: The Lady Vanishes (1979)

Although it has many flaws, The Lady Vanishes still remains an enjoyable film, not to be taken too seriously with some amusing performances. Based on the novel The Wheel Turns by Ethel Lina White and the 1938 Hitchcock film, this version too self-conscious and hammy on occasion but, having neither seen the original film nor read the book, I can't really comment on comparisons.

Cybil Shepherd stars as Amanda, an American woman heading to England to marry for the fourth time. She makes a spectacle of herself in the hotel the night before her departure, leading to a hangover. Once on the train, the kindly Miss Froy (Angela Lansbury) looks after her and takes her for a cup of tea. They return to the carriage and Amanda falls asleep. But when she wakes up Miss Froy is gone and the other occupants of the carriage swear that she never existed. Amanda refuses to give up, enlisting the help of photographer Robert (Elliot Gould) and Dr. Hartz (Herbert Lom) to help her prove her case but things get stranger as the journey continues.

Apart from Angela Lansbury - who puts in a typically understated performance - the stars of this film are Arthur Lowe and Ian Carmichael as Charters and Caldicott, two British cricket-obsessives who are desperate to get home to England and find out the score of the test match. They provide some of the most memorable lines of the film and I cared more about their survival than Amanda and Robert's.

This a light mystery and an opportunity for Cybil Shepherd to be seen in a very nice dress for ninety minutes. Gould seems more suited in his role, mocking himself constantly, whilst Shepherd becomes shrill and too melodramatic, even for this film. It's not a spectacular piece by any stretch of the imagination but there are some good moments, mostly related to cricket and tea.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Bomb Girls Cancellation (Spoilers)

Bear with me. I don't usually get militant when shows I love are cancelled but, having watched the Bomb Girls S2 finale, in the knowledge that it may be the last time I see those characters, I bypassed upset and got angry. For those unfamiliar with the show, it tells the story of a group of women in a munitions factory in Toronto during World War II. It concluded its second series this week but last week it was announced that it's been cancelled. They have said there'll be a two-hour television movie next year to wrap up loose ends but, one, fans don't entirely believe them and, two, this deserves another series and not a tie-up movie.

I wrote in my email to Global as soon as I learned about the prospect of cancellation: Bomb Girls has a global appeal. It's a well-written show centred around women, and some very interesting women at that. It's sad that in 2013 this should still feel like a novelty but it does! To encounter four leading characters as different as Betty, Kate, Gladys and Lorna was wonderful for me and all credit to the writing team and the actors for that. I stand by those words. But not only is it a programme about strong women, it's about an important aspect of the war that hasn't been delved into properly. It's gold and that's why fans have come out fighting to save it.

I have to admit, like many fans there is one particular character I'm eager to save: Betty McRae. Like all of them, she is complex and brilliantly acted but her storyline over the two series has undoubtedly appealed to - and probably helped - lots of women all around the globe. Ali Liebert has been outstanding in every scene, but she shone especially in the finale. And all I can think at the moment is that it can't end like that. I mean, they've left Betty languishing in prison covering for the woman she loves. Yes, I predicted such a thing happening but that's only because I know these characters and I love these characters.

I've chuckled with these characters, I've been haunted by them. There's an industrial accident in series one that was one of the most traumatic scenes I've ever watched and I still think about it. Nor did the writers shy away from showing the repercussions of that accident in some of the most touching scenes I've seen on television in years. That's another thing I love about this team - they don't forget a thing because they know the viewer won't. Betty McRae fans found that out the hard way in the finale.

There are suggestions that the television network didn't treat the show right, budging it around the schedules in an effort to lower the ratings. And, some cynics have said, that the reason they have promised a movie is so that no other Canadian network picks the show up. THIS IS THE WRONG WAY TO TREAT YOUR AUDIENCES.

Bomb Girls still has potential. It has an outstanding cast and an outstanding production team. It's been nominated for awards and, as this fan backlash has demonstrated, it is intensely popular where people have heard of it. Below is the petition and some further reading. Signing the petition will only take a moment and there is a precedent in Canada for these type of campaigns working. So, please, donate a minute of your time and you'll have my eternal gratitude. 

Gladys and Lorna quoted Churchill on El Alamein in the final moments of the series finale: "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." Every Bomb Girls fan is hoping this proves prophetic. 


Toronto Standard Article

The Globe and Mail Article

Huffington Post Article