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

Friday, 28 June 2013

Book Review: Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell

Ruth tells the story of an inexperienced orphan who is seduced and then abandoned by a man while they are on a trip together in Wales. She is discovered on the brink of suicide by Dissenting minister Mr Benson and he and his sister decide to take Ruth and the baby she is carrying back home with them, passing her off as a young widow. She gives birth to her son, Leonard, and becomes a governess to a local family. However, the scenario eventually unravels and Ruth is forced to prove her penitence once again.

I found Ruth rather refreshing in some respects and rigidly traditional in others. The treatment of Ruth by the author and Mr and Miss Benson battles against the mid-Victorian values by accentuating the fact that she was naive and unworldly and is now wholly penitent. This image of a woman not completely condemned and allowed to try and redeem herself is a tonic when faced with a large body of Victorian fiction that rails against this kind of repentance. However, the problem then becomes that Ruth's goodness must be accentuated to the point that there is no real room for manoeuvre as far as characterisation goes. Ruth must be beyond reproach for the novel to work and that means Gaskell ultimately sacrifices a degree of believability.

None of this is to say that I didn't completely enjoy the book. I worried with it, I cried with it and I mourned with it. Some characters came and went in the early chapters but I was happy to discover that after this many of the principle characters remained the same. I was a little distracted when the viewpoint suddenly shifted from Ruth/the Bensons to Jemima Bradshaw. It felt very sudden but I finally settled into it.

There were several notable scenes within the novel which have lingered. Ruth's foray into her old home in the early chapters; Benson's trek after her when he fears she is about to destroy herself and her meeting with Bellingham on the beach, to name but three. The scenes with Leonard, too, were usually well handled, avoiding excessive emotion for the most part and so maintaining the illusion of reality.

Gaskell sketches some memorable individuals but also creates a good sense of community, particularly in the final third of the novel. Ruth evidently had a social purpose but it sacrificed surprisingly little in the way of plot to accommodate it. An excellent read for an alternative view of the 'fallen woman' in mid-Victorian fiction.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Book Review: The Innocence of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton

This first collection of Father Brown stories initially caught my eye after I watched the BBC series involving the character. Although I enjoyed it, I was pleasantly surprised to find that these stories followed an altogether different path. Each of them cover one rather compact mystery and are both interesting and evocative. We might not learn too much about Father Brown during them but his sense and talent for unravelling a mystery shine through, making him one of the best detectives I've come across, and certainly my favourite in short fiction.

This collection contains twelve short stories. The first, 'The Blue Cross', is probably the best known, although this focuses more on the detective Valentin than Father Brown himself. It actually works as an ideal introduction to the character and sets up what's to come perfectly. Valentin himself only appears in one more story but the criminal of 'The Blue Cross', Flambeau, reappears time and again, first as Brown's nemesis and then as his friend. This friendship is perhaps the one constant through the latter stories and works extremely well.

Out of these twelve stories a few lingered with me long after I had turned the page. 'The Secret Garden' is the second story featuring Valentin and comes to a dark and surprising - to me, anyway - conclusion. I also appreciated 'The Invisible Man', a story of warring lovers, because of the simplicity of the conclusion. In fact, most of these stories ended with me marvelling at the ingenuity of the author, wrapping up the obvious in the bizarre. It was a pleasure to merely read and not second-guess the outcome.

Atmospherically, my favourite story has to be 'The Sins of Prince Saradine' which begins with Brown and Flambeau on a small boat in the middle of nowhere. The vivid descriptions that haunt the beginning of this story outweigh what is still a very intelligent plot and make this the story that lingers in my mind.

I also enjoyed the difference of 'The Sign of the Broken Sword' which progressed in a manner not usual for this collection, with Father Brown piecing together the distant past instead of the present. The final story in the collection, 'The Three Tools of Death', was a fitting conclusion and one that made me eager to read the subsequent collections of Father Brown stories.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Breaking a Golden Rule

For a few years now I've had a rule that I've tried to stick to: finish one first draft before I start another. I know from a couple of projects I've abandoned (though, technically, they're just there waiting to be finished) that I can't get involved again easily. Once I step away from the characters mid-first draft it proves tricky to ingratiate myself with them again. But I'm preparing to break that rule today. I do have reasons though - if that makes it any better.

I'm away from home at the moment with nothing but my laptop and my brain. My plan was to work on the second draft of 'Liz' (see here) but I've done a fair few thousand then stopped. It's a mixture of things. First off, as I mentioned on Friday, I'm using this novel to get to grips with Scrivener. That's not a terrible thing in itself but I am finding that working without the notebook in which I wrote detailed notes on the alterations that needed to occur within every scene is very difficult. I don't think I'm prepared to work on it now only to have to iron out the creases once more when I get home.

Okay, so I've struck that second draft off the list of things to do. However, I'm still in the middle of a first draft of another story ('Izzy') so why don't I just continue with that? It's sitting comfortably at just over 32,000 words but, again, there are aspects to the story I've got written down at home and I don't want to wing it at this point because I'd added logic to the plot progression. That doesn't always happen in my first drafts so I want to make the most of it. (Incidentally, the progression to this one was not written in a nice notebook; it was scrawled on a scrap piece of paper while in Costa so I hope it doesn't go a'wandering.) Aside from the notes issue, I'm not sure I can access that protagonist in my brain at the moment. She's, erm, potent and requires my full attention. But my attention has been drawn elsewhere.

A while ago now I got another idea that I made a brief note about and aimed to return to in about August or whenever I finished 'Izzy'. But having no real ability to continue with 'Liz' or 'Izzy' at the moment I turned my mind back to it yesterday. The initial situation has taken hold. I have no idea what happens after the second chapter but that's how I like it. Me and Kathy and ready to go...


Friday, 21 June 2013

Getting to Grips With Scrivener

On a whim I first downloaded the trial version of Scrivener then purchased the full licence last week. It wasn't a complete whim - I'd read Emma Darwin's post on why she's been converted to Scrivener and a lot of what she said appealed to me. At the moment I work from paper copies for my second drafts onwards and it's cumbersome. It limits where I work and I also need the grounding system of notes without having half a dozen Word documents open. I can't focus like that so I thought Scrivener might be a solution. My intention from the start was never to use it for first drafts - I like my trusty Word document for that and the idea of there being things I 'should' do or 'need to' do in the way of planning would mean a first draft would never get written.

So far I'm treading cautiously. One of the best things about Scrivener is the ability to plan as you go along. The way I've got it set up at the moment is that I have the first draft of the novel on the right hand down in a slightly slimmer panel then on the left I have the scene I'm currently working on. From the left hand panel I skip to the character notes and general theme notes that I've started to make sure everything seems consistent. My real problem in this respect is that I keep accidentally changing the right hand panel than the left!

To be honest, I think I've tried to use Scrivener on a rather odd project. It only has three parts (or three chapters) with tens of scenes involved in each. It was the way the novel fell when I first started writing it and it fits for the story I'm trying to tell. What that means, though, is that my chapter 'corkboard' is looking very packed and my chapter drop-down is stretching on and on.

I'll slowly get used to it I suppose. I'm not regretting buying it; just regretting the time I'll have to spend reading the manual. However, on present information, I think it will end up working for me. I just need to learn what it does - and what I want from it. I'll keep you updated on my progress!

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Classic Film Review: Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Murder on the Orient Express boasts an all-star cast in one of Agatha Christie's most-loved stories. Albert Finney stars as Hercule Poirot, the famous detective who is called unexpectedly back to London and so ends up on a train he wasn't supposed to be on. He encounters Ratchett (Richard Widmark) who is concerned about his own safety but Poirot declines to become involved. A few hours later Ratchett is killed, a fact discovered the next morning. While clues begin popping up, Poirot interviews his fellow passengers and an incredible story begins to emerge.

To give a cast run-down this film stars Lauren Bacall as Mrs Hubbard, Ingrid Bergman as Greta, Sean Connery as Colonel Abuthnot, John Gielgud as Beddoes, Wendy Hiller as Princess Dragomiroff, Vanessa Redgrave as as Mary Debenham and Michael York as Count Andrenyi. For me, the stand-out performance comes from Ingrid Bergman who captured me from her first few seconds - though that happens with most things I see her in. Utterly outstanding, getting better with age. Also, John Gielgud was outstanding but, again, that was expected. Really, though, every cast member puts in an excellent performance. Outside of the huge names, my favourite performance came from Jean-Pierre Cassel as Pierre, who actually brought me to tears.

I'm not sure Finney is my favourite Poirot (I grew quite attached to Peter Ustinov in Death on the Nile) but he certainly plays the part well. He accepts the quirks of the character and jumps straight into them and, for the most part, his interactions with the suspects are spot on. He is sublime in the final revelation scene and his interactions with characters there were perfect. The end of the film more than lived up to its potential.

What about the minor flaws? Well, I thought that rather too much time was spent getting the Orient Express moving, although I did appreciate the attention to detail in the first few minutes. However, after that I thought the pace worked well and every actor played their parts wonderfully. A good use of music throughout added to the effect but mainly this story requires actors immersing themselves into their characters. They managed that and therefore it was a complete success.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Classic Film Review: Star of Midnight (1935)

Star of Midnight stars William Powell as lawyer Clay 'Dal' Dalzell. He's approached by Tim Winthrop (Leslie Fenton) whose girlfriend went missing in Chicago a year ago. Dal agrees to try and find her but when a journalist is shot in his apartment just before giving Dal a vital clue, he realises the case may be more complex than he thought. Helping him out is the woman who insists she's going to marry him - Donna Mantin (Ginger Rogers).

I knew I was going to enjoy this film because Rogers was in it but I wasn't expecting to become as absorbed in the plot as I did. It's a good whodunnit and, although I had my suspicions, I was kept guessing until the final minutes. The supporting cast is very good, including J. Farrell MacDonald as Inspector Doremus and Vivian Oakland as Jerry Classon, but far and away the best support comes from Gene Lockhart as Dal's butler Horatio Swayne. He's a delight to watch, especially in his little conspiracies with Rodgers.

Powell and Rogers work well together, sparking off each other to an extent. I was happy to root for their relationship, which isn't always the case in this era for me. Rogers gets her fair share of zinger lines but her strength, as ever, stems from her facial expressions and reactions. She can steal a scene by simply being in the background. Then again, so can Powell so they're in competition in this film.

I won't say too much about the plot but it certainly captured my interest and I enjoyed this film immensely. Recommended for any fan of 30s mysteries but particularly for fans of Ginger Rogers.


Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Book Review: A Woman Unknown by Frances Brody

This is another book I was drawn to because of the cover. I bought it not knowing it was the fourth in a series or that it was set in Yorkshire. I therefore got a very pleasant surprise when I opened the front cover. Finding good period mysteries set outside the capital is rather difficult but A Woman Unknown introduced me to a new series that specialises in it. I have to admit to getting very excited when the heroine hopped on a train to Wakefield Opera House and wandered a little around my home town in 1923.

So - the story! Kate Shackleton is a private investigator who is approached by Cyril Fitzpatrick because his wife, Deirdre, is acting strangely. He's chosen Kate because her partner, Sykes, caught Deirdre shoplifting previously and let her off. But Deirdre's 'secret' is that she is spending (non-sexual) nights in hotels with married men who are providing their wives with grounds for divorce. Unfortunately, on one occasion Deirdre wakes up next to a dead man and flees.

Everett Runcie isn't short of enemies. His wife, Philippa, is divorcing him and moving back to America; his long-term mistress, Caroline, may be put out when she doesn't feature in his plans and he's not proving the best asset to the family firm either. But who killed him? From investigating a person acting strangely, Kate suddenly finds herself searching for a missing woman while skirting around the edges of a murder investigation chaired by her ex-boyfriend.

With some mysteries I like to guess ahead but with this one I just allowed the tale to take me. The fluid, readable style of Brody made for an enjoyable ride. And I was relieved to discover that, although there are references to previous books, it's not necessary to have read them in order to understand and enjoy this one.  Of course, I did have a few criticisms, primarily that the narrator switches at different chapters with no discernible pattern. It can be a little disorientating at times but, really, that's a gripe. The book was very enjoyable and I will certainly be going back to learn about Kate Shackleton from the very beginning.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Television Review: The Fall

I knew we were in for trouble when I heard that The Fall had been recommissioned for a second series. My fervent hope was that the first series would at least tie up its loose ends and a second series would focus on another case. No such luck. I was left feeling cheated by an ending designed to thwart the audience which also had the misfortune of making one of the protagonists seem the slightest bit dim. Not really appropriate for a character who has gracefully pursued the serial killer up until this point. But let's start with the positive aspects.

The Fall tells the story of a serial killer in Northern Ireland. Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) has been brought over from the MET to investigate one death but she quickly links another to it and soon another body turns up. Unlike most serial killer dramas, though, the audience knows that Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan) is the killer and we follow him as he stalks his victims whilst still maintaining his job as a bereavement counsellor and being a good husband and father. 

I had no issues with the slow, almost torturous, pace of the main plot. It felt realistic and toyed with the emotions of the audience, particularly in the first episode when we get very involved in the life of lawyer Sarah Kay (Laura Donnelly). Showing Paul's relationship with his wife, Sally Ann (Bronagh Waugh), and his daughter, Olivia (Sarah Beattie), infiltrated us into the life of this serial killer remarkably well. There were many excellent scenes, even a few amusing ones, strange as that sounds. The dialogue was also wonderfully written for the most part, slow and thought-provoking. Up until the final few minutes of the final episode I was content with the way the plot had progressed. 

Something I wasn't as happy with were the superfluous subplots. I realise they were trying to establish a team environment, and throw in some typically Irish problems too, but it detracted rather than added to the overall effect. I honestly didn't care who shot the policeman and why there were foreign prostitutes being beaten up or the fact that another police officer blew his brains out - it had absolutely nothing to do with the main story, which was the reason I was watching, and those loose ends weren't tied up either. Fair enough if they planned another series (though I'm not sure if 'planned' is the correct word given how they almost tied up the main plot then unravelled it rapidly) but, still, they needed to give me a reason to care. Ultimately, there were too many characters floating around in a five-hour drama for me to care about. The core of Gibson, Jim Burns (John Lynch), Danielle Ferrington (Niamh McGrady), Spector and his family and the family of Sarah Kay was enough to keep the viewer's attention. More than that was pushing it and I think it showed. 

However, I thoroughly enjoyed The Fall for the main story and, yes, I probably will watch the second series, even if I'm disappointed with how slow they had to make Gibson in the final minutes to facilitate one. 


Thursday, 13 June 2013

Classic Film Review: Curtain Call (1940)

Curtain Call tells the story of a naive playwright, Helen Middleton (Barbara Read), who is offered the chance to have her play put on by producer and director team Geoffrey Crandall (Donald MacBride) and Donald Avery (Alan Mowbray). But little does she realise that Crandall and Avery have picked her play because it was the worst one that has crossed their paths and they need a bad vehicle to force their star actress Charlotte Morley (Helen Vinson) into altering her stance on her new contract. When she thinks it's a wonderful script, though, Crandall tasks Avery to romance Helen in order to get her permission for changes to the script but that might drive Avery to an early grave.

This is a short film and reasonably entertaining, even if the writer in me didn't appreciate the jokes at Helen's expense. At the beginning of the film her writing ambitions are ridiculed by her family and occasional boyfriend Ted (John Archer) but instead of correcting her beliefs about her work they just allow her to go through with her humiliation. On a personal level, this touched me a bit.

However, there are some amusing moments, mostly coming when Avery tries to keep up with a younger woman. Also worth a mention is Smitty (Leona Maricle), Crandall's secretary, who has her fair share of good lines throughout.

All in all, this is an odd little film. I'm not sure any of the leads work well together but there are enough amusing moments to hold attention throughout this one. It spawned a sequel based on Crandall and Avery's attempts to get money out of an old woman (yes, the plots seemed to inspire Mel Brooks). I'll be getting to Footlight Fever (1941) in due course.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Problems Pertaining to Sleep

It's probably a mark of my evolving mental state that the way I try and coax myself towards sleep has altered in the last few years. I didn't used to have too much trouble sleeping. I was fine in my first two years at undergraduate level but perhaps my problems started when I moved into a fifteen-person house in my third year. Certainly, my sleeping pattern altered then to what it has become once more - absolutely uncontrollable. I've held three different jobs since then which required forcing myself to function on very little sleep but being my own boss at the moment means I sleep from about three am to eleven am. It almost works. Almost.

I used to get myself to sleep by following a set of feet walking along the pavement (yes, this probably has a lot to do with my childhood exposure to The Bill). It worked for quite a while but recently I've hit a bit of a snag. Probably since I began my PhD I've struggled to switch off on a night. The feet didn't seem to be working any more. So here's the new thing - I imagine I'm cycling on a bike up a hill. Except, well, actually, it's not a real bike but a stationary one from a gym floor.

That says a lot, doesn't it? I'm parked on a hill on a stationary bike pedalling fruitlessly. Amazingly, this is the thought that is getting me to sleep every night... That's even more alarming, isn't it?

Monday, 10 June 2013

Downloading Classics onto Kindle

I went on a bit of a splurge the other night. Conscious that I'm spending three weeks in Birmingham, I went onto Amazon and downloading a heap of free classics for my Kindle, which is one of the best presents I've ever received. Unfortunately, those added to what I already have on there have equated to something of a mountain. So if anyone has any suggestions for which of the following long list I should read I'd be grateful! These are all books I haven't read before, illustrating some gigantic holes in my education. (List in no particular order!)

  1. Felix Holt - George Eliot
  2. The Lost Girl - D.H. Lawrence 
  3. The Cloister and the Hearth - Charles Reade
  4. The Return - Walter de la Mare
  5. Witch Stories - Eliza Lynn Linton
  6. The Ghost Pirates - William Hope Hodgson
  7. A Lady of Quality - Frances Hodgson Burnett
  8. Mathilda - Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
  9. Camilla - Fanny Burney
  10. The Innocence of Father Brown - G.K. Chesterton
  11. The Wisdom of Father Brown - G.K. Chesterton
  12. Ethan Frome - Edith Wharton
  13. The Europeans - Henry James
  14. Evelina - Fanny Burney
  15. A Sicilian Romance - Ann Radcliffe
  16. Dombey and Son - Charles Dickens
  17. Washington Square - Henry James
  18. Moon and Sixpence - W. Somerset Maugham 
  19. Our Mutual Friend - Charles Dickens 
  20. King Solomon's Mines - Henry Rider Haggard
  21. Sons and Lovers - D.H. Lawrence
  22. Nicholas Nickleby - Charles Dickens
  23. Cranford - Elizabeth Gaskell
  24. Persuasion - Jane Austen
  25. Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
  26. Verner's Pride - Ellen Wood
  27. The Odd Women - George Gissing
  28. New Grub Street - George Gissing
  29. Ruth - Elizabeth Gaskell
  30. The Mystery of the Boule Cabinet - Burton E. Stevenson
  31. The Angel of Terror - Edgar Wallace
  32. The Mystery of a Hansom Cab - Fergus Hume
  33. The Bartlett Mystery - Louis Tracy
  34. The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault - Charles Perrault
  35. The Leavenworth Case - Anna Katharine Green
  36. The Virginians - William Thackeray
  37. The Man - Bram Stoker
  38. Lair of the White Worm - Bram Stoker
  39. Two on a Tower - Thomas Hardy
  40. Under the Greenwood Tree - Thomas Hardy
  41. The Trumpet-Major - Thomas Hardy
  42. The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid - Thomas Hardy
  43. A Pair of Blue Eyes - Thomas Hardy
  44. The Woodlanders - Thomas Hardy
  45. The Return of the Native - Thomas Hardy
  46. Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
  47. The Professor - Charlotte Bronte
  48. Agnes Grey - Anne Bronte
  49. Villette - Charlotte Bronte
  50. Antonina - Wilkie Collins
  51. A Rogue's Life - Wilkie Collins
  52. The New Magdalen - Wilkie Collins
  53. The Two Destinies - Wilkie Collins
  54. The Fallen Leaves - Wilkie Collins
  55. The Black Robe - Wilkie Collins
  56. Heart and Science - Wilkie Collins
  57. "I Say No" - Wilkie Collins
  58. The Evil Genius - Wilkie Collins
  59. Guilty River - Wilkie Collins
  60. The Legacy of Cain - Wilkie Collins
  61. Blind Love - Wilkie Collins
  62. Les Miserable - Victor Hugo
  63. The Lovels of Arden - Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  64. Birds of Prey - Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  65. Henry Dunbar - Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  66. John Marchmont's Legacy - Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  67. Fenton's Quest - Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  68. Charlotte's Inheritance - Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  69. Run to Earth - Mary Elizabeth Braddon 

Friday, 7 June 2013

Television Review: Case Histories S2

In all honesty, I could've done with a handy recap at the beginning of the first episode of this three-part series. The first series aired in the summer of 2011 (reviewed here) and I was a bit confused about how things ended between Jackson Brodie (Jason Issacs) and police officer Louise Monroe (Amanda Abbington) and it took me quite a while to reacclimatise to their relationship. Instead of three two-hour arcs, this series had three hour-and-a-half episodes. I still can't decide whether this was a good decision or not - occasionally things felt a little packed but, yes, there was still enough brooding shots of Brodie so it probably worked out.

The three individual episodes worked individually and continuity was usually good (though what happened to the dog?!). It'll be no surprise to readers of this blog that my favourite episode turned out to be the first one, guest starring Victoria Wood as an ex-police officer who basically abducts a girl whose mother treats her like rubbish. It's a typical Brodie scenario - he knows that doing the legal thing is not necessarily doing the right thing.

The second episode focuses on Brodie's investigation into a man whose fiancé believes is acting strangely and leads accidentally to a murder investigation. Brodie's daughter, Marlee, also comes to live with him for a little bit, adding a new dimension to both the case he's undertaken and his complex relationships with women.

Finally, the third episode focuses on Brodie's investigation on behalf of the son of a woman who was dragged from the river years ago along with his return to a despised business associate who calls in a favour to find his daughter. The two cases, along with the complexities of his personal life, occasionally made this one a little disjointed and the ending certainly came too soon.

Overall, I enjoyed this series immensely. Good use of the Edinburgh landscape and it wasn't all as grim as the nature of his cases suggests - just watch him trying to deliver a baby. I do wonder, however, where they're planning on going next with Jackson and Louise - while I realise it's impossible for Brodie to be given a happy ending, I think that where they are now closes doors rather than opens them. If another series is made I'll be interested to see how that develops. And, yes, I want another series. Jackson Brodie is the latest in a long line of flawed heroes with inner demons and is arguably one of the best.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Book Review: The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins by William Clarke

This biography, written by someone married to a descendant of Collins, attempts to decode the author's tangled personal life and get as close to the truth as possible. It's a book of remarkable accuracy, piecing together what we definitely do know about Collins's life with what can be assumed about his two 'families'. In a very readable book, Clarke examines the evidence, makes assumptions where necessary and comes up with a plausible trajectory for Collins's life.

Clarke chooses to start the book with Collins's will and then back-pedal to his parents to 'start' the story as it were. This allows for a certain amount of intrigue over the familial situation and the problems with the bequests to creep in before he turns to examine Collins's father. The chapters covering William Collins and Wilkie's childhood are more interesting than I expected them to be and I very much enjoyed the chapter covering the family's visit to Italy. I suppose one of my criticisms, though, is that it took a while to get to the 'good bits' - the relationships with Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd that shaped his life. However, Collins's early life shaped his reactions to events later on. The book is crafted to give a whole view of the man and it fulfils its objectives.

For Dickens fans, there's a chapter devoted to his relationship with Collins, covering the reason for them drifting apart as well. Then the investigative work begins as Collins's relationships with Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd are pieced together from what evidence there is. It hardly builds up a complete picture of his life - he was far too secretive for that - but it's a compelling picture nonetheless.

Perhaps my favourite chapters are the ones which cover his trip to America in 1873 and, just before that, the details of his stage successes, which I knew very little about. While this book only briefly mentions the plots of the novels, it takes an interest in the stage shows which, of course, involved Collins the man and not just Collins the author.

This book is a must for anybody wanting to unravel the mysteries of Collins's personal life. I also appreciated the look at the lives of both 'families' after he had died, including the inheritance problems. Would recommend for anyone interested in one of the most secretive and yet open authors of the nineteenth century.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Classic Film Review: Two Tickets to Broadway (1951)

Two Tickets to Broadway stars Tony Martin as disillusioned singer Dan Carter who wants to leave his unsuccessful career and return to Denver a failure. His decision coincides with the arrival in New York of Nancy Peterson (Janet Leigh), a small town girl who wants to try and make it on Broadway. Carter's agent, Lew Conway (Eddie Bracken) casts around for a way of keeping his star and decides to trick him into believing he has a television contract for him to appear on The Bob Crosby Show with Nancy and the other three girls on his books - Joyce (Ann Miller), Foxy (Barbara Lawrence) and Conway's fiancĂ©, Hannah (Gloria DeHaven). But what will happen when the 'contract' doesn't come good?

The only thing stopping this film being a success is the leading man. Tony Martin was a wonderful singer but he was not a born actor. Most of his scenes come across as bland and uninspiring and I think that's why this film is relatively unknown today. The rest of the cast is, however, brilliant. Janet Leigh is wonderful as the inexperienced Nancy and her interactions with the rest of the girls are always warm and amusing. Speaking of the girls, the first time we meet them they have just been on a job that sunk - quite literally. They were doing a show on a boat that went down, leaving them stranded when their agent didn't come through with any money for them to survive on.

There are some memorable moments in this film though, unfortunately, none of them include Martin. The dance number with Leigh, Miller, Lawrence and DeHaven - 'The Worry Bird' - is beautiful, showing off the best of Ann Miller's tap dancing and the girls do work well together. Equally, Bob Crosy's number, 'Let's Make Comparisons', is funny, having him lament alongside a statue of his brother. Watch out for Ann Miller struggle to get off an exercise bike in one piece and Eddie Bracken essentially try to take over a bus. Bracken is a massively underrated comic actor but I love him in everything I've seen him in. Working opposite Gloria DeHaven, predominately, he is at his best in this film as the devious Lew Conway. The number I enjoyed most in this film was the one he shared with DeHaven - 'Baby, You'll Never Be Sorry'. I am also a fan of Janet Leigh's voice, natural and slightly gravelly as it is.

Overall, if I take Martin out of the equation, I thoroughly enjoyed this film. Put him back in and you get an unbelievable romance and lead character but, on the plus side, he does have a beautiful voice. I'd still recommend this film because it has some gorgeous moments and with Busby Berkley and Howard Hughes on board it has some excellent credentials.


Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Classic Film Review: Sing and Like it (1934)

Sing and Like It is a comedy starring Nat Pendleton as mob boss T. Fenny Silvester. His girlfriend Ruby (Pert Kelton) wants him to put her in a Broadway show but he doesn't want her on the stage. However, when he hears amateur singer Annie Snodgrass (Zasu Pitts) singing 'Your Mother' he immediately wants to put her in a show. The trouble is, Annie is a terrible singer and the only person who likes her is Silvester. He takes her to the top producer in the city, Adam Frink (Edward Everett Horton), who despairs as his show turns upside down thanks to Silvester's interference. In addition, Annie's boyfriend Oswald (John Qualen), who only wants a nice house and 36,000 tomato plants is disgruntled.

For me, this was a very underwhelming film. It couldn't work out what it wanted to be with gangland violence sitting uneasily alongside comedy, though that may be modern sensibilities talking. Neither did I find the plot at all compelling. What saved it from complete obscurity were a few golden performances. The ever-dependable Edward Everett Horton puts in an excellent performance as the harassed producer while Ned Sparks as Toots McGuire raised a few smiles from me with throwaway lines. However, the stand-out performance for me was Pert Kelton as Ruby. With excellent deadpan delivery and a deviousness to the character which made her stand out from her mostly wooden compatriots, she was the one aspect of this film that I wholeheartedly enjoyed.

On the whole, this is a cheap film with a cheap plot and it shows. It revolves around the recurring song of 'Your Mother' which grows irritating by the end of the film. In addition, the comedy isn't all that funny - even the bits that are supposed to be groan-aloud funny - and it comes across as a filler film that has very few good attributes. What I gained from this was a vision of Pert Kelton when she was young (having only seen her in The Music Man (1962) and, wow, what a vision.


Monday, 3 June 2013

Wakefield Drama Festival 2013

This was my third consecutive festival, having attended and reviewed all seven shows in 2011 and 2012. Last year was dominated by a couple of grim and heavy plays while this year was much more about the comedy. It worked on one level but the scheduling was hampered by companies dropping out. I think this impacted the shape of the week, though there were a few excellent productions contained within it.

Sunday - Behind Closed Doors

This play, set in the 1980s, tells the story of Sandra (Emma Legg) and Tarquin (Jonathan Cook) who meet at university and come from very different families. Both of their mothers, though, are victims of domestic violence. The play is therefore a fairly dark one but there are some humorous moments throughout which lighten the mood. Pearl (Jane Walker) and Eddie Heptinstall (Alan Galway) are the more obvious couple of the piece - he's a binman who is handy with his fists when things aren't going his way. Meanwhile, Vernon Pollock (Lester Cooke) is a successful businessman who has exacting standards of perfection which his wife, Harriet (Leisa Cooke), could never live up to. Pearl invents a fantasy man, Thomas (Seb Goss), to cope while Harriet drinks but matters come to a head when the families meet.

The contrasting representations of domestic violence worked well and Alan Galway provided some much-needed light-relief as Eddie, a character we can understand even while he does horrible things. Lester Cooke had a more difficult job with Vernon and I think it showed. On the female side, Jane Walker's accent wasn't quite there but I have nothing but admiration for Leisa Cooke, an understated performance when it needed to be. I'd say that some of the cast were definitely stronger than others. There were some lighting decisions which I didn't agree with and the bottle of 'vodka' that was spilled at the end detracted my attention from the action as I watched it float down the stage. However, overall, this was a compelling piece of theatre, a little heavy to start the week on, perhaps, but well acted and reasonably well put together.

Monday - Playhouse Creatures

Kismet Theatre Company jumped in at very short notice to perform this play that they've done before but in a very different theatre. The transition caused some problems but, considering they'd only had a week to prepare it was an extremely good production. Set during the Restoration, Playhouse Creatures shows a group of actresses through their highs and lows, including the notorious Nell Gwynn (Emma French). There are two other young actresses, Mrs Farley (Dawn Cowan) and Mrs Marshall (Kerry Greenwood), and one stately actress, Mrs Betterton (Jeanne Bain), who has been in the theatre for far longer. Rounding out the cast is Doll Common (Paddy Johnson), stage hand and general cynic.

I think the play suffers from being a little episodic but, that said, there are some wonderful little moments within it. The concept allows the actresses to transform themselves into various stage roles and the Cleopatra is particularly entertaining. It's an excellent period piece, accessible to modern audiences but still with the taint of Restoration London on the dialogue. There were excellent costumes in this and, though I was initially disappointed with the limited set, the three boards they used to distinguish the bits of stage action worked well.

There are a couple of things I particularly enjoyed about this production. Firstly, Emma French was an excellent Nell and she and Paddy Johnson carried the piece. Jeanne Bain's Mrs Betterton had some wonderful scenes, especially her final ones and she was the character I felt for most. However, she also provided the 'clock' method of acting that had people in stitches. Despite Nell Gwynn and Doll Common (and a rather horrible abortion scene), that 'clock' is the thing I'll remember most vividly.

Tuesday - Hobson's Choice

Henry Horatio Hobson (Keith Lowe) owns a boot-shop which is run primarily by his three daughters, the bulk of the shop work being taken on by his eldest, most capable daughter, Maggie (Liz Brooks). When he tells her she's past marrying age she retaliates by taking up with her father's best cobbler, William (John de Tute), taking trade from him and arranging things for her sisters while she's at it. Unfortunately, this leaves Henry isolated but will he back down or remain obstinate?

This was excellent, utterly hilarious with some fantastic performances thrown in. Liz Brooks's deadpan delivery made her a favourite with the audience and the first time we see her - when she's manipulating one of her sisters' suitors into buying a pair of boots when, really, he just came in to see her sister - sets up the rest of the play. Equally, John de Tute's hunched portrayal of the cowardly William is beautiful, enhanced by his transformation at the end of the play. The other actors were very good, yes, but these two stole the show for me. (They took home the 'Best Actress' and 'Best Actor' awards at the end of the week, rather proving my point.)

The set was carefully planned and wonderfully executed, very detailed and appropriate. Overall, this was a beautiful production, appreciated by the audience and obviously enjoyed by the actors themselves.

Wednesday - Side Effects

I had high hopes for this one. Set in a convalescent home, it tells the story of the cantankerous Frank (Ray Taylor), booked in for respite, alongside the Reverend Paul Latimer (Peter Horner). The vicar has been given a new heart and is acting very strangely, particularly around the mysterious Tracey (Esther Dyson). Paul's wife, Sarah (Karen Slater), is alarmed by her husband's behaviour while Frank's wife, June (Sally Davies), is irritated by her husband's enjoyment of the situation.

However, this production didn't do the script justice. Written by the man behind Rising Damp you could almost imagine it needed an overblown central character with more presence than this production offered. I think he needed to be far more despicable, creating more of a surface for other characters to bounce off. This worked to an excellent with June, his wife, who had some of the best lines of the night and delivered them well. However, the laughs were thin on the ground because, for some reason, the piece seemed to lack conflict and pace. It seemed too leisurely when there was far more anger in the writing than was displayed on the stage.

Thursday - Without Fear or Favour

Set in a Yorkshire police station in the 70s, this tells the story of a group of officers and support staff in the run-up to Christmas and the closure of their station. Very much an ensemble piece, this has a large cast which occasionally makes it difficult to keep track of who's who. This became less of a problem and there are some very memorable characters within the piece and some fantastic moments.

It's difficult to summarise the plot of this one so I'll just have to say it's hilariously funny with some poignant moments in it and the twist just after the interval definitely surprised me. Every one of the actors brought something individual to their roles but my favourites were Hayley Harris as WPC Margaret Ward, who managed to keep my attention in scenes that weren't about her due to subtleties of movement, Rob Atkinson as DC Malcolm Skidmore, a thoroughly believable performance, and Gail Rogers in her brief role as dementia sufferer Agnes Parrish.

The detail in the set and the script were excellent and I was glad to be part of an audience that appreciated every line of dialogue and every little look. Definitely one of the highlights of the week.

Friday - The Grocer's Daughter

This one-woman play stars Mary Creasey as Connie, a shopkeeper reminiscing as she packs up her things to leave. I went into this with a few distinct advantages to most people my age - I grew up watching and enjoying repeats of Coronation Street from the 70s on Granada Plus, I've had an obsession with Victoria Wood-type Northern humour since my mid-teens and I've watched a fair amount of old films so I understood more of the references than I might have otherwise. I can imagine without these advantages I would've found the piece a bit incomprehensible.

As it was, I enjoyed it for the most part. Most of the characters Creasey transforms herself into are amusing, though they are difficult to recall individually afterwards. I wasn't really keen on the songs she threw in but they did alter the pace somewhat. One decision I was uncertain about was the melancholy end to the first act - while that particularly story is one that resonated with me, it was an odd way to leave the audience for the interval. All in all, this was a good play; better, I suspect, if you're over a certain age. Full credit to Mary Creasey for what must have been an exhausting show.

Saturday - Death and the Maiden

This is a heavy play and, as such, I'm not sure it was the best work to conclude the week, especially after a schedule packed with comedy. It tells the story of Paulina Salas (Julie Johnston), a woman who was captured and tortured years ago. She now lives, still troubled by her experiences, with her husband Gerardo (Andy Rea). One night a man arrives on their doorstep who she becomes convinced was one of her captors. But is Roberto (Mike Bellenie) innocent or guilty and does it matter?

I struggled with this one. Although I initially liked the set - furniture covered with sheets, high windows at the back and a little veranda area - it became a little cumbersome as time went on and characters were travelling between the living room and the veranda. In addition, the piece felt overblown sometimes and too underplayed at others - I'm not sure they got the balance right. It's a difficult play to convey and I don't think the ambition of the company paid off this time. While there were a few stand-out moments, overall, I found this one difficult to warm to which, in all fairness, may have been a result of the dark subject matter.

Conclusion

I think this year was marked by two phenomenal local productions - Hobson's Choice and Without Fear or Favour - which, between them, took home 11 out of the 12 awards (the only one they missed was the one they couldn't possibly win - third place!). I came out of Hobson's Choice convinced it was the play of the week and, though Without Fear or Favour briefly shook my resolve, I couldn't help but cast my vote for it in the 'Audience Award'. I hope other companies don't think this was a Wakefield whitewash - it just so happened that this year the local companies excelled themselves.

All I can say is that St. Austin's Players and Wakefield Little Theatre thoroughly deserved their accolades this year. In addition, I enjoyed Playhouse Creatures and it was a worthy recipient of the award for third place. It was certainly a year of diverse plays - some worked, some didn't. Everyone involved should feel proud and congratulations to the winners.