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Monday, 30 June 2014

Pick Yourself Up...

Looking back at June, I'm a little shell-shocked. I don't quite know what happened. Ups, downs, spinning arounds; it's had it all and I don't feel any better for the variation. Several writing rejections balancing out that short story publication and more personal setbacks than you can shake a stick at. I always get a little self-reflective as we head into July (my birthday month) but June this year has just made me fearful. Will things continue to get worse? Ironically, given how much trouble I've had from it in the past, my PhD doesn't seem to be part of this bad spell. It's tricky, yes, but I'm winging my way through, I know what I'm doing and I'm getting good feedback. After all this time, I seem to be confident academically. We'll see if that lasts.

So...what next? Well, July will be as fractured as June in some respects. I'm in London for a few days for a conference and I'm sure there'll be some enforced time off around my birthday, though I'll likely spend the day chucking popcorn at my own reflection. I'm drifting from day to day, unsure of what I'm doing save for the thesis edits which I'm deliberately taking slowly in order to get right. My stress levels have mixed oddly with my apathy, meaning I spend half the time restless and the other half miserable. Completing the PhD won't fix this - the problems are too deeply rooted and far removed from academic worries. So I suppose I'm in no rush any more which, perversely, has meant I can attack the thesis with no pressure and it's therefore getting done more quickly - and accurately - than it was before.

I'm restarting my work diary (again, I last restarted it in January and lost the thread again in March). Hopefully this will give me some structure, reminding me that I am actually working and, if I can quantify that work, so much the better. I may need to go back to my old habits of a little work on something then switch - it may suit my restlessness.

If the second half of 2014 is going to be as challenging as the first, I need to prepare myself. And no one assists that more ably than Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers...

Nothing's impossible, I have found,
For when my chin is on the ground,
I pick myself up, dust myself off,
And start all over again.

Don't lose your confidence if you slip,
Be grateful for a pleasant trip,
And pick yourself up, dust yourself off
And start all over again.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Judy Garland Week: Favourite Songs

At first I thought this list would be ten songs. But that was too constricting. So I bumped it up to twenty. Then that was too constricting. Even at twenty five I've had to miss out some gems including 'I Got Rhythm', 'Just You, Just Me', 'I Am Loved', 'Carolina in the Morning' and many others. It's astounding when you look at Judy's career how many brilliant renditions of songs she produced. Before anyone starts panicking, that song was included in another list so it won't be here. A few of these I hope you'll never have heard of - I do love introducing people to gorgeous Garland songs.

25. 'Just One of Those Things'

The reason I love this one is that Judy's humour shines though, along with the story that emerges as the song progresses. I can see her performing this if I close my eyes, it's such a quintessential Garland performance, and, listening to it now, I'm chuckling to myself.

24. 'San Francisco'

Once again, it's the humour that gets me here. She practically made this a signature song and it's another one that makes me smile frequently. I particularly love her duet with Liza (when she forgets some of the words) but every version's a delight. It's one of those songs I get the impression she really enjoyed singing. 

23. 'Come Rain or Come Shine'

The arrangement of this is just luscious but, letting the bongos and Judy's voice do the majority of the work at the beginning. When it picks up, it becomes a standard brilliant rendition from Judy and the ending is magnificent.

22. 'Do It Again'

I actually prefer the slower version of this song, the one Judy sings with such yearning. It's such a delicate. The swifter version is good for toe-tapping but the emotion in this one is undeniable. 

21. 'Day In, Day Out'

The orchestration on this is gorgeous, melding perfectly with Judy's voice. It's a delight to listen to, not too heavy but it tells that story that we're all aware of - wanting someone so much that it's all you think of. As with most subjects, Judy sings it best.

20. 'Me and My Shadow'

There aren't words to describe how difficult this song is to listen to. It's Judy at her most potently heartbreaking. The little chuckle at 'we never knock because nobody's there' sums up the song. There's nothing but pain and the loneliness it evokes is palpable.

19. 'On the Sunny Side of the Street'

From loneliness to optimism. I adore the clarity of Judy's voice in this number, along with the message of the song as a whole. The little swing towards the end makes it downright perfect.

18. 'Friendly Star'

Originally in Summer Stock, with or without the context this is a gorgeous song. It's another one of those wishful numbers, of a similar vein to 'Over the Rainbow', that Judy did so brilliantly. 

17. 'Stormy Weather'

I remember thinking how good this song would be if Judy sang it - then I discovered the recording. As good as I thought it would be. If anyone can sing this song with the requisite amount of heart, it's Judy. 

16. 'Get Happy'

I'm sure many will think this deserves a higher ranking and maybe it does but it's tied up with connotations of Judy's split with MGM for me. Throughout Summer Stock she looks reasonably comfortable, the extra weight suiting her because it looked as though she was healthy. Knowing the crash diet she was put on to get her in shape for this number pains me and, despite it being a brilliant song, it's coloured by that.

15. 'Mean to Me'

It's probably Judy's tone throughout this song that makes me love it so much. She's playful and the melody's playful but there's a serious undertone about being led round in circles. How it marries both of these things is still a mystery to me but, with Judy's voice, you can do most things.

14. 'After You've Gone'

Originally from For Me and My Gal, this song more than stands alone and it's gorgeous. 

13. 'But Not For Me'

I think this one is just so wistful yet full of longing. Judy's young, pure voice puts it across wonderfully but it doesn't lose any of its power in later renditions.

12. 'I'm Confessin''

'Stunning' would be too simple a word to describe this one yet it's pretty much the only one I have. If I ever have the need to confess my love in future, I'm just going to play this song and let Judy say it for me. 

11. 'Judy at The Palace Medley'

Listening to Judy's collection of Capitol recordings, this was one of the ones that captivated me. The arrangement by Roger Edens is superb and the songs chosen are beautiful. 'My Man' gives me shivers and it was in this song that I first got my tantalising taste of 'I Don't Care' and I loved it. That the song ends with Judy claiming her place amongst the greats is gorgeous, particularly the lines 'And so with deep humility I stand in front you / I'm proud to play The Palace, it's like a dream come true'. And you really get the feeling it is.

10. 'Love'

I have to say, I disliked this song for a few years. I think I needed time to understand it fully and maybe you only get there with life experience. It's now become one of my favourites, early or later versions. I adore the way Judy's voice slides around, mimicking what she's singing about.

9. 'Do I Love You?'

Another one of those swinging Capitol recordings where voice mingles perfectly with orchestration. The changes in tempo and volume work brilliantly and the ending is exquisite. I can never stop myself conducting along. 

8. 'The Trolley Song'

Made famous by Meet Me in St. Louis, this is another song most identifiable with Judy and it really is one of her best. Energetic and beautiful, it never fails to make me smile.

7. 'It Never Was You'

From Judy last film, I Could Go On Singing, this is a haunting number about wanting real love and realising you haven't got it. Poignant, captivating, even heartbreaking, it is one of the highlights of Judy's career as far as I'm concerned.

6. 'I Concentrate On You'

Yet another of those brilliant Capitol pieces, this one swings and displays Judy's mature voice at its best, sliding around the scales as the song dictates. It's a gorgeous number and she concludes it in a fantastically strong manner - as usual.

5. 'Just in Time'

I believe this version of the song came from a concert recording when Judy had a sore throat or something similar. You can certainly hear that in the first half of the song but When the audience breaks out into applause I always smile. It's like Judy's bursting into life in front of me. And the little discussion with the audience at the end just seals my adoration. Of course her audiences stick with her - she's magical, sore throat or no.

4. 'I've Confessed to the Breeze'

I probably like this song so much because Judy liked it so much. Over the years, I've grown to love it, the gentle lilt of Judy's voice throughout plus the message of loving someone so much and finally telling them is a potent mixture. It's such an undervalued song that the only Judy version on YouTube is as accompaniment to a music video I made myself a few years ago in celebration of Fingersmith. Anybody adverse to lady love probably shouldn't click the video below.

3. 'How Long Has This Been Going On?'

Carnegie Hall. Wow. This is my my joint favourite song to come out of that concert, mainly because Judy's voice puts the emotion across so brilliantly. She tells this story so well that I feel as though I've lived through it every time I listen to the song. 

2. 'If Love Were All'

This Noel Coward song is one of the most beautiful Judy ever performed and is also part of the Carnegie Hall concert. Perhaps I love it so much because she conveys so much wisdom into the rendition but perhaps it's just because of the final lines she delivers so well - 'But I believe that since my life began / The most I've had is just a talent to amuse / Hi-ho, if love were all...' 

1. 'I Could Go On Singing'

A strange number one or the natural choice? Whether intentionally or not, this song characterises Judy's career for me. She gave herself to her audience, singing and singing, giving us hour after hour of beautiful recordings and films. The emotion she piles into her music is found in this one as surely as any other and it's how I chose to remember her vocally. She could go on singing and we can go on listening. That's the kind of legacy she deserves. 

Thank you, Judy. So much.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Judy Garland Week: Favourite Films

I'll freely admit that I haven't seen as many Judy films as I should've done. It's a case of waiting for them to come around on television or waiting until I have money enough to buy decent versions. I'd rather wait and watch them properly than watch inferior versions on the internet that would cause my lethargic connection to buckle. So, naturally, there may be better films that I haven't seen yet. But these five are my current favourites.

5. A Star is Born

Although a wonderful film, parts of it are very hard to watch. The famous scene breakdown scene is so intense and raw that you need a sit down after watching it. The interplay between Judy and Mason is brilliant and the musical performances are perfect. Plus, who can forget those closing moments?

4. For Me and My Gal

Judy is at her most vibrant in this film but it's also one with serious undertones. The first time I watched it, even not knowing what was going to happen, the sight of Jo sending her brother off to war set me off crying, and it frequently still does. The partnership of Judy and Gene Kelly should've spawned more films but the three we have are gems. For Me and My Gal marries drama with charm and a good mix of songs - certainly one of her best MGM pieces. 

3. The Harvey Girls

I often state that The Harvey Girls is my favourite film and, in some ways, it is but I thought I'd try and be a little objective with this list. My attachment to The Harvey Girls stems from the first time I saw and adored it and the reasons are, alongside Judy, Angela Lansbury, Marjorie Main and Virginia O'Brien. As far as Judy goes, this film is delightful. She fits the role perfectly, throwing in the right amount of humour and squaring up to Angela Lansbury in some beautiful scenes. The stand-outs for me are the 'hold up' scene where Susan retrieves the meat stolen from the Harvey House and the fight scene where Susan tries in vain to throw a punch. I've already covered my favourite song from The Harvey Girls earlier in the week but special mention has to go to the 'Round and Round and Round' because it pairs Judy with Ray Bolger.

2. I Could Go On Singing

I've only had the good fortune of seeing this once but it made such an impression on me. Judy's last film, crammed full of raw emotion and a couple of musical numbers that blow your socks off. I remember crying at the end, in awe of the role, Judy's talent and the fact that this was the cinematic culmination of it. Well worth a watch.

1. The Wizard of Oz

Again, how could this not be number one? The first Judy film I ever saw and it's one of my go-to films when I'm ill or in need of comfort. Watching Dorothy fly through the sky to Oz is a comfort blanket and it never gets old. How can a film from 1939 be as brilliant today as it was then? The answer is in the portrayal of the protagonist and it's only right that this is Judy's signature role. 

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Judy Garland Week: Favourite Film Performances

Looking at Judy's film career, there are numerous song performances in films that stand out. Picking just five is a tricky task but, again, I've chosen ones that mean something to me personally. Of the ones I've excluded from this list, some will find their way into the large list of song favourites on Friday. Others miss both lists just because there are too many of them to choose from. For instance, I adore her rendition of 'Easter Parade' with Fred Astaire but there's no room for it. Similarly, 'Better Luck Next Time' from that same film is captivating and 'Have Yourself a Merry Christmas' breaks my heart every time. I'm beginning to think I needed a larger list! However, here are five of my favourites from Judy's film career...

5. 'On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe' from The Harvey Girls

It may seem strange to select a number that Judy only appears in half of but, boy, what a half. This production number centres on the disembarkation of the women into the town of Sandrock. Judy emerges last and is utterly captivating. Perhaps what I love most are the little touches between her and Ray Bolger. It's sweet and a nice reunion film for them. Unfortunately, the only clip I could find only shows Judy's half of the song and it's in black and white! 

4. 'The Man That Got Away' from A Star is Born

What can be said about this one? It's a stunning song with Judy perhaps at the height of her vocal powers (though I change my mind weekly about that) and this rendition ebbs and flows perfectly. You live a lifetime in a song and that little wink at the end... Wow. 

3. 'I Don't Care' from In the Good Old Summertime

This jolly little number is full of energy and the message behind it is probably why I adore it so much. However, seeing her dance that silly little dance and swing round the pole always makes me smile. From one her lesser-known films - and one where she's so very, very funny - this is a gem.

2. 'For Me and My Gal' from For Me and My Gal

I heard a shortened version of the song long before I watched the film, which half-prepared me for how much I'd enjoy the number but not quite. Judy and Gene singing and dancing together is something particularly special and this song epitomises their shared brilliance. (Though see down below for a little bonus number that I also wanted to share...)

1. 'Over the Rainbow' from The Wizard of Oz

How could this not be number one? It's not only the song that triggered my love affair with Judy but also the one that captivated millions across the world. Whenever you think of Judy you have to think of her as Dorothy and this song never, ever gets old.

(Bonus - 'Portland Fancy' from Summer Stock)

I just love this dance a lot...

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Judy Garland Week: Favourite Duets

It would be very easy for me to concoct a list of my twenty favourite Garland duets. Narrowing it down to five was rather difficult and there are some missing that will probably be seen as gaping holes to some fans. But these five touched me and I've got fond memories of them.

5. 'You're So Right For Me' with Mickey Rooney

Rooney appearing on The Judy Garland Show produced this magical number that not only shows off their evidently close friendship but also Judy's undiminished dancing skills (I love it when she kicks her shoes off prior to the dance). The energy and love in this number is undeniable and it makes me smile every time.

4. 'Walkin' My Baby Back Home' with Bing Crosby

This may only be short but it's gorgeous. I love the way Judy and Bing's voices work together in all their duets and this one allows you to visualise the scene through the words alone, and the impish smile Judy puts into the lyrics. 

3. 'Chicago' with Liza Minnelli

The Palladium concert recording is rightly considered one of the highlights of Judy's career and I think this song pretty much sums up its brilliance. Watching Judy sing while Liza dances is just wonderful, and the fun they both seem to be having on stage with each other is fantastic to watch. Their energy's infectious - I never get away from this song without a smile.

2. 'Friendship Duet' with Ethel Merman

This number was the one that spurred me on to listen to more of Judy's later work. The energy in this medley is unbelievable and I love the fact that Judy loses it during 'You're Just in Love' and gets straight back into the song. As she says, when they're singing together, what can go wrong? Nothing you can't fix. 

1. 'You've Got Me Where You Want Me' with Bing Crosby

Another unusual choice for number one? Maybe. But, as I said before, Judy and Bing together are magical and this song holds a special place in my heart as one of the first that made me sit up and pay attention to Judy the singer as opposed to Dorothy Gale. It's probably no coincidence that it was recorded in 1945, at the pinnacle of her MGM years, and it betrays all the affection and humour in her voice that she showed off so brilliantly in Meet Me in St. Louis and The Harvey Girls. There are so many gorgeous duets with Bing including the amusing 'Connecticut', 'Something to Remember You By', 'You're Just in Love' and 'People Will Say We're in Love' but this, for me, is one of their best.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Judy Garland Week: Favourite Performances on The Judy Garland Show

Those hours of The Judy Garland Show are a goldmine for Garland fans. I can spend hours on YouTube going from one song to another and, occasionally, discovering one I'd missed the last time around. While it's infinitely sad the show was cancelled so soon, I'm just grateful it existed at all. There are performances of songs on there that just blow me away. Of course, the duets are probably the most famous and, it's true, the collaborations with Barbra Streisand, Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, Bobby Darin, Tony Bennett and the hilarious one with Martha Raye remain some of the most engaging Judy performances available. However, this list is about Judy's solo performances and these are some of my favourites...

5. 'Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries'

On top of the jolliness of the message of the song itself, Judy's interpretation adds a new layer of wisdom. It's jolly, yes, but there's a nice undercurrent of experience in there. The way she pulls off the final note is brilliant and, to be honest, I can't resist when she tells me to wiggle my ears...

4. 'Seventy Six Trombones'

My first experience of this one was audio with no video. I liked it enough listening to it but seeing the video more than reaffirmed it. I love the outfit, I love the little dance, I love how energetic she gets with the song. But, too, there's the little touch of poignancy when she's talking about her leading the band which brings up memories of MGM and those Rooney films. 

3. 'You're Nearer'

This song, though it's about loving someone so much that they're always with you, manages to infuse a glimpse of a wish that they weren't in there too. Love's a double-edged sword when Judy sings about it. 

2. 'By Myself'

I think this was one of the songs that sealed my switch from a fan of the 'youthful' Garland to the 'wiser' one. I heard it first on the album of Capitol recordings then saw her perform it in I Could Go on Singing. In this version on The Judy Garland Show, she melds the conflicting emotions perfectly. At the beginning the battle is evident as she tries to argue with herself, alternating between acceptance and defiance. Then, after the tempo shift, defiance takes over - with some slips. This is a woman telling herself what she's going to do, bringing herself round to the idea in song. If ever there was a blueprint for acting a story via a song, Judy wins it with this one.

1. 'Too Late Now'

Perhaps I'm just being difficult, picking a lesser-known performance as my favourite here but 'Too Late Now' is another one of those songs that tell a tricky story. Once again, there's the tinge of 'why' in the interpretation but, ultimately, she accepts that's it's a good thing. Aside from being a gentle, gorgeous little song, I adore this performance for the way Judy sings the last few lines, with a twist of knowledge and satisfaction. Stunning.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Announcing Judy Garland Week

Garland fans will be well aware that June is Judy's month. She was born on 10th June 1922 and died on the 22nd June 1969. So this June I thought I'd do something that I've been meaning to do for a while - celebrate some of my favourite performances in various categories. I could talk about Judy about as long as she could go on singing so this is a win-win. Here's the schedule for the week:

  • Monday - Favourite Performances from The Judy Garland Show
  • Tuesday - Favourite Duets
  • Wednesday - Favourite Film Performances
  • Thursday - Favourite Films
  • Friday - Favourite Songs

Note that no song will make an appearance in two lists so don't get too outraged when a particular song doesn't make the Friday list!

My love affair with Judy obviously began with The Wizard of Oz and a couple of other films. But I really became acquainted with her voice when I picked up a double album in Woolies. It was 'youthful' Judy and I was captivated, particularly by her duets with Gene Kelly and Bing Crosby. However, I was a little reticent about listening to 'wiser' Judy. It took discovering some YouTube clips of The Judy Garland Show - and one duet in particular - before I bit the bullet and picked up a collection of her Capitol recordings. I never looked back.

I hope next week will prove to be as enjoyable to other Judy fans as it will be to me. Please feel free to comment and share your own favourites. I'm sure there'll be lots of dissent but I'm choosing the songs that speak to me. I could go on till the cows come home... 

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Back to Pen and Paper

Back in the good old days when I was writing fan fiction regularly, I was never without a spiral bound notebook in my bag. I had a bag just the right size to accommodate it and when that started letting in water it took some doing to find another one of the perfect size. It couldn't curl the edges or squash the bottom, you understand. I cherished my notebooks.

As time went on, things changed. I can pinpoint why. I stopped working on one particular

story in longhand in 2005/2006. I was at Lincoln and dealing with the illness of two grandparents along with studies, making stupid decisions about my personal life and generally mucking things up. I lost traction on the story and, though I continued writing a couple of thousand words on it every so often, I didn't write them longhand then copy them up. It wasn't a conscious decision to stop using the notebook, it just sort of happened.

Fast forward eight or nine years (and insert a *whoa* at that length of time).

These days, I have plenty of notebooks but they're all fancy ones. They all hold plans, characterisation notes or editing gripes. Most of them belong to one particular project, others have a few bits and pieces in them that I'm trying to make sense of. There's only one 'basic' notebook and that's the one I bought a few months ago, specifically to work on short stories.

Generally, I've neglected the short form because I figured I wasn't any good at it. But my publication in Ariadne's Thread (see here) gave me a little more confidence. Quite obviously, I'm not going to get any short stories published if I don't write and refine them. But sitting at the computer won't get it done. There's already so much to be working on up here. If I ever get a break from PhD work, all I really want to do is work on that mountain of novel drafts I've got stacked up or the script ideas that are exciting me. Short stories come at the bottom of the pile.

Which is why I made a conscious decision to start writing longhand again. This way, I've always got a notebook with a story in my bag. There's always something on-going so there's something to think about and work through while I'm doing other stuff. It's proved particularly useful on train journeys where I stare out of the window and pretend I'm working which, I think, is an improvement on looking out of the window and pretending I'm reading. The writing one is easier to pull off.

So we'll see where this leads. Maybe nowhere. But at least I'm writing daily again, even if that goes against the creed of 'year of the thesis'.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Classic Film Review: Rooster Cogburn (1975)

Rooster Cogburn stars John Wayne as the title character, a marshal who has his badge taken away because the criminals in his area seem to end up dead and not in prison. He's given it back on the proviso that he can catch Hawk (Richard Jordan), the leader of a gang who have stolen explosives to blow up a bank, and bring him back alive. Rooster sets off after them, coming across a settlement that the men have ransacked. Eula Goodnight (Katharine Hepburn), a preacher's daughter, is mourning the death of her father at their hands and she and Wolf (Richard Romancito) are taken along with Rooster so he can leave them somewhere safe. Eula has no intention of letting that happen - she and Wolf go with Rooster to catch the men responsible for murdering her father and friends.

It's remarkable, given the age of the two stars (both were born in 1907 so were 68 at the time this was released), the amount of energy this film exudes. At no point do you get the impression you're watching an old Katharine Hepburn as she shoots and rides her way through the country. It's quite evident that she and Wayne enjoyed making this film and their back and forth, quips and comments, are a joy to watch. Of course there are comparisons to be made with Hepburn's The African Queen (1951, reviewed here), and there are similarities, though The African Queen remains the superior article. However, Rooster Cogburn still occupies a prime space in Hepburn's later filmography and is thoroughly enjoyable.

I have to say, Westerns aren't my forte and I think it was the presence of Hepburn and Wayne that made this one so good from my perspective. However, the characterisation and portrayal of Rooster is good and several bit characters also make an impression. One person I wasn't sure about was Richard Jordan as villain Hawk. For me, he wasn't balanced enough. He often switches from calm to angry in a disjointed way which, while expressing his volatility, doesn't feel normal.

There are a couple of memorable scenes, most notably the rapids (another similarity with The African Queen) and the shoot-out in the woods where Eula shows off her shooting prowess. There are also some nice, quiet scenes between the leads, the best of these coming when Rooster gives Eula a massage. This is a gorgeous little film, worth watching for any Hepburn fan, even those who aren't too sure about Westerns.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Classic Film Review: Annie Oakley (1935)

Annie Oakley stars Barbara Stanwyck as the title character, an expert shooter plucked out of obscurity and made into a star. She takes a shine to fellow shooter Toby Walker (Preston Foster) but their agent Jeff Hogarth (Melvyn Douglas) also has his eye on her. While Annie and Toby's relationship flourishes in secret, he intervenes in a scuffle which may have lasting consequences, both for his future with Annie and his career. The film also stars Moroni Olsen as Buffalo Bill and Pert Kelton as Vera Delmar, an old associate of Toby Walker's.

This is certainly a romanticised biography but Stanwyck is more enjoyable as Annie than I had expected. Occasionally, the switches between her rough charm and wise ways are a little jarring and the film is heavy handed in showing her early 'benevolence' to Toby but, on the whole, Stanwyck inhabits the part reasonably well. Preston Foster as Walker is equally enjoyable. My only previous experience of him was in The Harvey Girls (1946) and it was nice to see him in a leading role that did justice to his screen persona. As for the rest of the cast, there are a lot of small parts that make the film feel less artificial although, despite enjoying Pert Kelton, I couldn't really work out the point of her character.

For a 1935 film, it still looks very good. The speeded-up fight scenes obviously feel dated but the Wild West showman scenes are probably as enjoyable to watch now as they would've been to their original audience. The choreography and planning is astounding and some of the horse stunts are brilliant. Perhaps what lets the film down most are the racial slurs which slide between demeaning and interrogatory. There are moments when you do glimpse an argument against racism but at other points it indulges in racism stereotypes. Some of them are meant to be taken lightly and almost work - Chief Sitting Bull (Chief Thunderbird) trying to camouflage himself on a street in full headdress for instance - but others just don't. However, as products of contemporary attitudes, they can be overlooked.

Overall, Annie Oakley is a good film, not great but enjoyable by any standard. Barbara Stanwyck certainly tries to get into the role and, in the end, the nice little relationship that develops between her and Foster is what keeps the film going.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Book Review: The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable by Carol Baxter

The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable recounts the real-life arrest of Quaker John Tawell, arrested on New Year's Day 1845 with assistance from the electric telegraph system that ran from Slough to London. However, the title is really only something for the writer to hang their hat on. This may have been the first case assisted by the telegraph wires, yes, but it is a fascinating one even disregarding that.

Tawell converted to Quakerism and spent a lot of time trying to fit in but marriage to an outsider didn't help his case. There's a lot in this book on Quaker rules and regulations - as they were at the beginning of the nineteenth century - and it makes for fascinating reading for those of us who hadn't really looked into it before. While some of Tawell's frustrations can be linked to these rules, his conviction for fraud (while trying to hide behind his uniform) demonstrates Tawell's tenuous grip on morality. The pages about his transportation to Australia are excellent and don't feel at all superfluous.

The murder Tawell is accused of is the poisoning of single mother Sarah Hart. Baxter's research is fantastic and her lucid narrative style almost puts you in the house at the time of the murder. She also knows when to flick back and forth between aspects of the story, ensuring that the reader is both interested in what's being told and intrigued about what she will return to. The atmosphere she recreates later in the prison is stifling and ridiculously realistic.

I don't want to spoil any more of the details of this fascinating case so I'll leave it there. However, I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book, particularly the meticulous research and the complete immersion in Tawell's life that it results in. I'll definitely read more by Baxter in the future.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Classic Film Review: They Won't Believe Me (1947)

They Won't Believe Me is a film noir which stars Robert Young as Larry Ballantyne. When the film opens, Larry is on trial for the murder of his mistress Verna (Susan Hayward). He recounts to the jury his version of events, beginning with his relationship with his first mistress Janice (Jane Greer) and the way his wife Gretta (Rita Johnson) reacted to that. Larry's tale is unbelievable but his life hinges on it. Will the jury believe his version of events?

I wasn't expecting to enjoy this as much as I did. My first experience of Robert Young was in The Bride Walks Out (1936, reviewed here) and it was good to see him in a markedly different role. He gives a subtle performance as Larry - there's often a lot more going on in his face than you might originally notice. The scenes in the hospital, particularly, are demonstrative of that. Out of the three women, my favourite performance came from the relatively unknown Rita Johnson as Gretta Ballantyne. She simultaneously shows that she needs Larry's love desperately while manipulating him with her wealth. The most sympathetic woman of the three is supposed to be Janice, but even this is tricky because she planned to run away with Larry at one point. Janice's presence in the courtroom - and her status as a witness - necessitates her importance in the film as a whole and, in that sense, the character works. She also assists in showing a different side to Larry at the beginning of the film and the contrast between his relationship with her and his relationship with Verna is fascinating.

Ultimately, Larry suffers because he's unwilling to give up Gretta's money but he can't face a life on a lonely ranch with her. He's a selfish man but events do spiral out of his control in the end. However, sympathy for him has to be tempered by what he would've done if he'd had to - maybe he deserved to be on trial.

The Won't Believe Me is a suspenseful film that doesn't really seem to dip much. The last five minutes, especially, are brilliant with two twists that I didn't see coming. Overall, an excellent film.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Television Review: Happy Valley

I wanted to write this as soon as I'd seen the finale but time didn't permit. In hindsight, I'm glad I let my thoughts percolate for a little while - I've realised that the series as a whole was better than I thought a week ago. For those unfamiliar with the show, here's the gist. Happy Valley stars Sarah Lancashire as Sgt Catherine Cawood, a woman juggling her job with her dysfunctional home life. Her ex-heroin addict sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran) lives with her, as does grandson Ryan (Rhys Connah). He was the product of rape and his mother killed herself soon after his birth. Catherine's decision to look after Ryan led to the breakdown of her marriage and her relationship with her son. The other story in this is Kevin Weatherill's (Steve Pemberton). Having asked his boss, Nevison Gallagher (George Costigan) for a raise and been rejected, he makes the mistake of suggesting to a drug dealer than they should kidnap Gallagher's daughter and demand a ransom. This all starts to go pear-shaped rather quickly, especially when one of the men involved in the abduction turns out to be Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), the man who raped Catherine's daughter...

It's difficult to articulate how superb a series this was. Any programme that makes you simultaneously long for the next episode and dread it in equal measure has to be doing something right. Sally Wainwright created a little simmering cauldron through a perfect script, brilliant casting and plain old twists and turns. It proved to be compelling viewing, especially from episode three onwards. The satirical title may have masked the viciousness of what was to come but you weren't in the dark for long.

Sarah Lancashire, rather predictably, was absolutely amazing. I saw plenty of comments surprised at that fact but, really, although the role is drastically different to her portrayal of Caroline in Last Tango in Halifax, that's the place to look for proof of her ability. Equally, the rest of the cast was excellent, even those who only appeared in a few episodes (see Karl Davies's performance in the final episode as Catherine's son for evidence there). For me, though, one of the best performances came from Siobhan Finneran as Clare. Steadfast with an air of fragility, I was getting really concerned about her towards the end of the series, having so much thrown at her.

Happy Valley was said to be too violent and it's certainly not easy viewing. Two episodes in particular will have you closing your eyes. However, it's something to be said that it doesn't trivialise violence. It shows it in all its horrible detail, finally dispelling the myth that people who are beaten badly get straight back up and bounce back. If anything is damaging to society, it's the view that violence doesn't leave physical or emotional scars. I think Happy Valley altered that with some haunting scenes that left me sleepless for nights afterwards.

Best series of the year? Definitely. Good luck to everyone trying to top this.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Short Story Publication - To Catch a Fly

Some of you may be interested in the latest issue of Ariadne's Thread (Issue 11, Spring 2014) which has a short story in from yours truly. It also has plenty of other stuff in there too, including some great poetry. I'd recommend buying it for the two poems by Armando Halpern alone. 'Carlo Crivelli, Virgin and Child' and 'Back From the Labyrinth' are engrossing, evocative pieces and I've reread them several times already. 

My own story, 'To Catch a Fly', is one that I wrote years ago following an experience with my late maternal grandmother. I rewrote it with a burst of inspiration last year, changing the tense and the overall situation without diminishing the truth at the heart of it. In some ways, it's a very personal story and, in that sense, it's wonderful that it's my first writing success in years. 

If you want to buy a copy of this issue, it's available directly from their website and you can purchase via PayPal. I should go into a spiel here about supporting small literary magazines but I'm sure we all know the challenges they face and support where we can so I'll leave it at that. 

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Classic Film Review: Lady on a Train (1945)

Lady on a Train tells the story of Nikki Collins (Deanna Durbin), a woman travelling to New York to spend Christmas with her aunt who witnesses a murder in a property just before the train gets into Grand Central. When she goes to the police they think she's wasting their time so she tries to enlist the help of her favourite mystery writer, Wayne Morgan (David Bruce). However, he's perturbed by the attention so she has to set about investigating the matter herself. By accident, she ends up masquerading as the dead man's nightclub-singer lover which brings her into contact with the household and, in particular, his nephews Jonathan (Ralph Bellamy) and Arnold (Dan Duryea). Has she put herself in danger? Rounding out the cast is the excellent Edward Everett Horton as Nikki's chaperone in New York.

This is an absolutely brilliant film. I saw it described in another review as 'screwball noir' and that certainly fits. It doesn't take itself too seriously, there's always something going wrong for Nikki's investigation but there are some real moments of tension and suspense. I'm not sure how it manages to mix the two up so superbly but it does.

Deanna Durbin evidently relished the part. She brings warmth and energy to the role and bounces off everyone in sight. Her interactions with David Bruce as Wayne when she follows him into a movie theatre to try and get his help are nothing short of hilarious. There are plenty of little moments throughout where she makes her mark and, of course, there are the requisite songs, including a beautiful version of 'Silent Night'. However, the scene that had me in stitches was the 'shush, I'm a chair' scene. Pure gold. The rest of the cast is great too, though special mention goes out to Edward Everett Horton for being the loser in every scene he's in.

The identity of the murderer was neatly obscured by the conspiracy around it. I didn't try too hard to work it out though - I was enjoying the ride too much. Definitely recommended and Deanna Durbin has been added to my list of favourites, rather belatedly, I know.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Book Review: Restless by William Boyd

In 1976 single-mother Ruth is startled to find out that her mother was a British spy during WWII. Eva Delectorskaya tells her daughter the truth about her recruitment and involvement with Lucas Romer, her handler, with the intention of drawing her daughter into the one final assignment she needs to complete. The story is a dual time frame one with Eva's story being written as a manuscript.

I tried hard to enjoy this one but I'm afraid, for the most part, I couldn't. What threw me on every single point of view switch was the skewed way the story was told. If you're dealing with a written manuscript given by a mother to her daughter to read, you'd expect it to be in first-person, wouldn't you? No, it's in third so that Ruth's front-story can be in third person when, really, I don't see any real reason it needs to be. This jarred throughout. Equally, Ruth's own story is rather pointless. Her numerous interactions with people, her pupils etc, are redundant and offer nothing to the plot. The only interactions that are useful are those with her supervisor and colleague that end up aiding the 'real' plot. To be honest, this could easily have been a frame story with Eva's story taking up the bulk of the middle section and Ruth's experiences being condensed into the conclusion where the spy strand is finally wrapped up. As a dual time-frame story, it doesn't work and Ruth is a flat, boring character but perhaps this is just in comparison to her mother.

Eva's story, with the exception of the third-person mess, is much more successful. It simmers, exploding at several points, and it was intriguing to witness the spy tricks she put into practice. My complaint about this is that the preparation takes a long time from recruitment to actual danger but, again, this was an overall structural problem. The tension in the last quarter of the spy narrative made up for the glacial speed of the rest. It was only when I hit this point that I stopped thinking about the niggles I had in terms of structure and began enjoying the anxiety of the plot.

I fully concede this was probably a matter of personal preference. I prefer more characterisation - even in thrillers - and once I'd realised how irritating the viewpoint problem was to me it was difficult to shake it off. I do wonder if there's something profound I'm missing, having looked at all the glowing reviews, but I'll just chalk it up to bad experience and say this was a book I didn't get on with.