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Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Classic Film Review: An Inspector Calls (1954)

Based on the J.B. Priestley play, An Inspector Calls stars Alastair Sim as Inspector Poole, a mysterious detective who intrudes on a well-respected family in 1912 to inform them of the death of a poor girl. It transpires that all of the family knew the girl in some form or another, leading to secrets spilling out and the younger members of the family becoming convinced that things are irreparably altered for them. The film also stars Arthur Young as Mr Birling, Olga Lindo as Mrs Birling, Eileen Moore as Shelia, Bryan Forbes as Eric, Brian Worth as Gerald Croft and Jane Wenham as Eva Smith.

This is a brilliantly successful adaptation of the play which, while remaining faithful to the text, intersperses the dialogue with flashbacks to alter the location somewhat. It's a trade-off - you sacrifice watching the reactions of the characters for a little variety in setting - but it works. It assists what is otherwise a very static piece of writing to become a very good piece of cinema.

This was my first experience of Alastair Sim in a dramatic role and, actually, I'm wondering if he was wasted in all those comedies. He inhabits the character of the inspector so thoroughly that I won't be able to think of the role again without linking him to it. Sinister yet congenial, it's a fantastic performance that is easily the highlight of the film. That isn't to say, however, that the other actors are inferior. I particularly enjoyed Bryan Forbes as Eric, who has to run through a lot of emotions during his time on screen, and Eileen Moore as Shelia.

There are niggles, of course. Some of the flashbacks went on a little too long and the music jarred at times. Even so, this is an excellent adaptation of an excellent play, definitely worthy of a viewing.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Emotion Overload

The novel rewrite I'm working on at the moment is a tricky one. Of course, I didn't realise it was a tricky one until I got about 10,000 words into it. That was about the moment when I understood the mood I was going to have to get into it in order to make this story work properly. It needed resonance, emotional power. I've got through six drafts with this one but I knew there was something missing. It could be that I just didn't want to go to the place it took me to, but now I don't have much of a choice. Because, after all, if something is this painful to write then some good must be coming out of it, one way or another.

One of the central themes of this novel is rejection, which works on several levels. It's a dual timeline narrative and to say my protagonist is damaged in the front story would be an understatement. However, it took this draft for me to realise how damaged she is in the back story too. I suppose this is what happens when you spend five years with a character - it's a slow process of revealing the layers and reaching the core. The fact that I finished the first draft of this novel in June 2010 is scary, but it's one of those I'm determined to work on until I'm happy with it. As with all my novel drafts, even if I don't get them published, I want something that I'm eager to read every now and then.

As ever, I took refuge in music to work out what's going on with my protagonist. There are a couple of songs that fit where I'm heading with this story and how she reaches the end she does. One of those is 'Reason to Believe', my favourite version of which is by the wonderful Bobby Darin.

"If I gave you time to change my mind,
I'd find a way and I'd leave the past behind,
Knowing that you lied straight-faced while I cried,
Still I'd look to find a reason to believe..."

The other song, unsurprisingly, comes from one of my favourite musical scores, with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. It's one of the most gut-wrenching songs I've ever heard and Bernadette Peters makes you feel every spasm of pain. In the end, the conclusion my protagonist comes to is that, once anger fades, the emotion it was concealing still remains. Because time heals everything except...

I'd better get back to work. If I don't finish this rewrite soon I'm going to be a wreck.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Classic Film Review: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

The Manchurian Candidate stars Laurence Harvey as Raymond Shaw, a former Korean POW who has been brainwashed into becoming a political assassin. On his return from combat, he was awarded the highest military honour available, something his mother Mrs Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury) and Senator John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory) are pleased to shout from the rooftops. They're waging a war against potential communists in positions of power, though Eleanor is very much the driving force. The trouble is, Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) is having flashbacks of his POW experience with Raymond Shaw where he seems to recall Shaw killing two members of the team and casts doubt on the heroic feats that gained Shaw his medal. Marco feels like he's going mad but a chance encounter convinces him he's right. From then on, his aim is to work out what's going on with Shaw and how he can stop it. This film also stars Janet Leigh as Eugenie Rose Chaney, a woman Marco meets on a train heading to New York.

I suppose the revelation for people who hadn't already appreciated the depth of their talents would be the brilliance of both Angela Lansbury and Frank Sinatra. Lansbury certainly should've won the Oscar for her supporting performance that easily steals the film. The way the character develops from an enthusiastic mother to master manipulator is a brilliant evolution that feels completely natural thanks to Lansbury's subtle performance. The best scene of the film easily belongs to her, though I won't ruin it for those unfamiliar with the plot. Frank Sinatra, too, puts in a stellar performance as the tortured Marco who then drags himself back together to try and stop the assassination attempt. As a dramatic actor, Sinatra is often overlooked but his roles in this film and in From Here to Eternity (1953, reviewed here) are proof that he was more than just a musical star.

I did have a few niggles with The Manchurian Candidate, though I understood the reasoning behind them. The flashback scenes where Shaw explains how his relationship with Jocelyn Jordan (Leslie Parrish) began and ended feels a little shoehorned in but, since the character becomes important very quickly, it was a necessary evil, and also allowed for another riveting Lansbury scene. Equally, Janet Leigh was monstrously over-billed, and I say that as someone who adores her in every role, regardless of the quality of the film. Her performance was excellent, yes, but her role was a small one.

Overall, this is another film that deserves all the praise. It's long but the last half an hour is a lesson in how to ramp up tension and keep it there. A fantastic film that is an intricate as it is suspenseful.

Monday, 16 February 2015

A Fresh Approach

Now that I'm in that scary limbo between thesis submission and viva I decided that a little shake up of my daily plans was in order. I've just been muddling through for the last year or so, trying to do everything all at once and getting snowed under with it all. It was only when I allowed myself the novelty of a weekend off that I realised there are better ways to split my time for the moment. I won't like it, on account of it feeling like I'm doing too little on certain days, but I'll try to stick to it where I can.

So I've got various irons in the fire as far as work goes. I'm researching several academic papers that I think I can set my mind to drafting now the thesis is gone; I've got a steady stream of short stories that I'm writing, rewriting, editing and submitting; I've got two blogs to keep ticking over; I'm hoping to stand for election in the locals in May for Yorkshire First (I forgot to mention that over here, see my other blog for details); and, of course, I have those pesky novels in various stages of rewriting. If I don't break it up a bit then I'm liable to feel more overwhelmed than I do just looking at that list. We're probably looking at something like this:

  • An admin day - Time spent on catching up with blog posts, typing up short stories ready for editing, sorting out submissions.
  • An academic day - Work on those papers I've got in mind, one at least is ready to be written straight away.
  • A short story day - For the actual writing and editing of short stories, which will entail me going to the library because that's definitely an out of office task. 
  • Two novel days - To work on whatever novel I'm beavering away on at the time. 
  • Evenings - Fan fiction or other relaxing activity that is probably not work.
  • Weekends - I can work, if I want, or I can write fan fiction or I can read. I don't have much of a social life but who needs one when you've got books? 

I know myself well enough to say that Mondays will probably be my admin day unless there's something pressing to be done in the other categories. We'll see how it goes, of course, and I might go back to muddling through very quickly. Anyway, it's worth a shot.

Here's Snowdrop with my thesis, to brighten up a dreary Monday...

Friday, 13 February 2015

Book Review: Four Stories by Alan Bennett

Four Stories compiles 'The Laying on of Hands', 'The Clothes They Stood Up In', 'Father! Father! Burning Bright' and 'The Lady in the Van' in one collection. All display Bennett's trademark humour and skills of observation whilst looking at vastly different situations. 'The Laying on of Hands' takes place at the funeral of a masseur who seemed to have some very famous clients (including the presiding vicar), all of whom are a bit concerned about his cause of death. 'The Clothes They Stood Up In' tells the story of a couple who come home from the opera to find their flat has been stripped of everything from the curtain rings and light fittings up. 'Father! Father! Burning Bright' is about a school teacher who goes to see his dying father while 'The Lady in the Van' is the true story of the woman who ended up living on Alan Bennett's drive (and you have no idea how much I'm looking forward to seeing Maggie Smith take on that role in the near future).

I thought I enjoyed the first piece in this collection, then I read the second and enjoyed it more. I wasn't as keen on the third piece but the final one easily became my favourite and left me laughing in the early hours of the morning. Firstly, 'The Laying on of Hands' is a brilliantly witty analysis of modern culture with some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments. Both the images of celebrity and religion which Bennett depicts in this story are recognisable and there are numerous asides that showcase Bennett's peculiarly British humour.

'The Clothes They Stood Up In' explores the upheaval caused by this wholesale burglary and the way it forces Mr and Mrs Ransome to adjust, which the latter does with more success. I particularly enjoyed her connecting with the places in her vicinity which she had never contemplated visiting before. I also appreciated the resolutions of the tale and found it a very compact and fulfilling story that nevertheless says a great deal.

I think my problem with 'Father! Father! Burning Bright' was that it just didn't seem to have the same flow the others have. Quite often I got disorientated about who was saying what and where, possibly symptomatic of its roots in visual drama. Also, I disliked pretty much every character and didn't care much about them, the honourable exception being Aunty Kitty.

'The Lady in the Van' is easily my favourite piece, told with understated Bennett humour and all the more enjoyable (as cruel as that sounds) for being true. It's full of little incidents that create a grotesque picture of life inside and outside that van with Bennett's postscript adding some fascinating notes about her life and history.

All in all, this was a pretty good collection, and I'll definitely be reading three of the stories again.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Book Review: A Medal for Murder by Frances Brody

A Medal for Murder is the second book in the series of 1920s detective novels centred around the character of Kate Shackleton (of which I've read books one and four already). This one begins with Kate and her partner Jim being hired to investigate a robbery at a pawn-shop which could prove embarrassing for both the owner and his clients. She combines a trip to Harrogate to watch an amateur production of Anna and the Five Towns with delivering the news of the theft to one of the clients, but she finds the house doesn't exist. More pressingly, as she leaves the theatre later that night she stumbles over the dead body of local car salesman Mr Milner. The leading lady of the play has gone missing and a ransom note delivered and Kate soon finds herself tangled in a web of deceit that goes back to the Boer War.

As with the other books in this series, I enjoyed A Medal for Murder. I think what I especially like is the location, unsurprisingly enough. I adore being taken through Yorkshire in the 1920s and Brody is excellent at evoking both the time and place. Kate Shackleton is a very good protagonist to take us on the tour too, with a forward-thinking attitude that captures the essence of the era whilst still appealing to a modern reader.

The murder mystery itself was cleverly constructed and, though I knew the main suspects couldn't be the killer, I couldn't put my finger on who it was until Kate herself did. As with the other two novels, I enjoyed the ride and the amusing asides littered throughout the narrative. Brody's good at developing self-centred characters and there are some crackers in this novel. However, it also asks some powerful questions about guilt and responsibility, ending up ambivalent about punishment in more than one strand of the plot. That's something I noted in Dying in the Wool too and I appreciate the indecision - it makes the series feel very human.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Classic Film Review: A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

A Matter of Life and Death tells the story of flyer Peter Carter (David Niven), a man who knows he's heading for death as his plane is going down and he has no parachute. He reports his situation to June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator, and they spend a few moments talking before he bails out of the plane. Unfortunately, the conductor (Marius Goring) sent to escort him to heaven loses him in the fog and Carter finds himself instead on the beach where he reunites with June. When asked, he refuses to meekly carry on his journey to heaven and appeals against the date of his death. In the 'real' world Dr Reeves (Roger Livesey) tries to save him from the hallucinations but the matter will only be solved after the appeal.

Needless to say, this film certainly deserves its reputation. It's witty, intelligent and both lovingly acted and directed. David Niven, one of the most reliable leading men of the era for me, is excellent, never too melodramatic in a film that could easily stray too far along that spectrum. Equally, Kim Hunter is beautifully reserved as June, creating a love story that the audience wants to see succeed. In fact, perhaps the word to describe this film is 'quiet', though I mean it in the best possible sense. It's quietly wonderful and delicately assembled.

The use of black and white for the heaven sequences and vivid colour for the rest is an inspired decision, particularly when, towards the end, we then get the crossover between the two. The film also uses silence effectively when the conductor appears and freezes everything. Probably my favourite scene was between Carter and the conductor as they sit on the heavenly escalator discussing potential counsels for the defence, primarily because of the dialogue. You can see this film as an easy fantasy and enjoy it that way or you can really immerse yourself in the dialogue and live every word and historical reference.

Unquestionably, this is a film I'll watch again at some point - and no doubt more than once. A classic deserving of the title.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Classic Film Review: How the West Was Won (1962)

How the West Was Won is an epic Western focusing on three generations of the same family. As well as three tremendous directors, it boasts a phenomenal cast: Carroll Baker, Lee. J. Cobb, Henry Fonda, Carolyn Jones, Karl Malden, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, Eli Wallach, John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Walter Brennan, Agnes Moorhead, Harry Morgan, Thelma Ritter and Russ Tamblyn. Oh, and it's narrated by Spencer Tracy.

There are distinct sections in this film and it's rather difficult to review in light of all the separate bits. I will say that I enjoyed the opening parts with parents played by Karl Malden and Agnes Moorhead and the daughters played by Carroll Baker and Debbie Reynolds, the first of whom captures mountain man James Stewart and the second toys with Robert Preston before entrapping Gregory Peck. This is one of those films where it's much easier to refer to people by their actor name because it's a film where characters are symbols, the means by which we live through outlaws, white water, civil war, the railroad and Indian battles. The only character who lasts the film out is Lily (Debbie Reynolds), but even she only appears in three of the five sections. It makes latching onto character difficult, though Thelma Ritter makes an impact as a woman in search of a husband and Jimmy Stewart, despite being too old for his part, is as enjoyable as ever.

That said, it's certainly a film that merits watching at least once for what it depicts. It feels like an amalgamation of every Western every filmed and including some of the heavyweights of the genre certainly helps its credentials. There are some spectacular sequences including the white water scene in the first section and a brilliant train battle towards the end. Ultimately, these scenes are more memorable than any of the characters and, more memorable than even those, is the overarching ideal of the West that comes across via Spencer Tracy's narration.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Classic Film Review: Tom Thumb (1958)

An adaptation of the famous fairy tale, Tom Thumb stars Russ Tamblyn as the boy no bigger than a thumb whose existence is granted as a wish to Jonathan (Bernard Miles) and Anne (Jessie Matthews) by the Forest Queen (June Thorburn). While Tom falls into trouble with villains Ivan (Terry-Thomas) and Antony (Peter Sellers), the Forest Queen is also faced with the fact she wants to become human to be with Woody (Alan Young), but is he worthy of her love after he loses Tom?

I'm sure I must've seen this when I was younger but all the detail had passed me by so I came to it fresh. Russ Tamblyn is phenomenal, both in acrobatic ability and charm. He's so perfect for the role that I honestly can't imagine anyone else playing it with such energy. The rest of the cast is equally as enjoyable, Terry-Thomas and Peter Sellers in fairly typical roles for them and hamming it up something rotten. I enjoyed the interplay between June Thorburn and Alan Young and, really, every minor role was brilliantly cast.

This is a very flamboyant, colourful film and it has two centrepiece musical numbers - 'Tom Thumb's Tune' and 'Talented Shoes', both of which are extremely catchy and likely to torment you for days. The first is Tom's greeting by the toys in his room which showcases Tamblyn's athletic ability wonderfully and the second is a number in the town square with - you've guessed it - talented dancing shoes. If I have one niggle with this film it's that the scene in the villains' lair went on a little too long but it was funny enough and gave a little tension to the finale. The special effects are not at all shabby for 1958, not spectacular by any means but in keeping with the story as a whole and thoroughly enjoyable.

Definitely one I'd rewatch - and perhaps with my father too since he came in the room for two minutes and stayed for half the film!

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Book Review: The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices by Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens

The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices is a humorous narrative of the walking tour Collins and Dickens undertook in 1857 and was originally published in Household Words. Collins becomes Thomas Idle (truly idle) and Dickens becomes Francis Goodchild (laboriously idle). It's split into five parts - the first covers their mountainous walk and Idle's ankle injury, the second follows on from that and includes a ghost story penned by Collins, the third comprises Thomas Idle essentially explaining why he's idle, the fourth includes a very disturbing tale penned by Dickens that frightened me in broad daylight, while the final portion is set at Doncaster during Race-Week.

Separately, these two are brilliant; together they're even better. I spent so much time chuckling at this book, quite a bit of it in public too. The interplay between the two characters is wonderful, particularly during the fourth number, and the exaggerated personas are excellent throughout. The recounting of Idle's accident in the first part sets the bar high for the rest of the book and it certainly delivers.

Both the ghost stories are creepy enough, and definitely memorable. While the one penned by Collins has one real moment of creepiness though, the one by Dickens is more malignant and was both enjoyable to read and incredibly unsettling.

It's difficult to say too much about a book that's only 130 pages long. I will say, as a side point, that the Hesperus Press edition is beautiful and compact. I love their books for those reasons and I was delighted to find The Lazy Tour in such a neat little package. Highly recommended to any fans of Collins and Dickens and, most especially, to fans of both.

This book was read as part of the 'TBR' reading challenge, details here.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Book Review: Felix Holt, the Radical by George Eliot

Felix Holt, the Radical tells the story of political upheaval around the time of the Reform Act in a provincial town. Harold Transome returns from years living abroad to claim his estate and also to stand for election as a Radical, rejecting his Tory roots. At the same time, Felix Holt returns home and sets about working hard in poverty when he could be something better. Felix befriends the Dissenting minster, Rev. Lyon but initially has something of a tetchy relationship with his daughter, Esther Lyon. However, as the election approaches, secrets begin spilling out and both Harold and Felix find themselves in difficult situations.

I've struggled with Eliot in the past but I really enjoyed this book once I got into it. It seemed to take a little while to get going, but once all the main players were in place it was a smooth read. Of the major secrets in the novel, one is obvious from the start, giving a colour to every interaction between certain characters that one of them is completely unaware of. In addition, I adored the interplay between Felix and Esther. Their sparring conversations in the early part of the novel are certainly one of the highlights, as are their slow realisations that they don't dislike each other as much as they think they do. Also, while Rev. Lyon irritated me a little in his opening few chapters, he develops quite well as the nature of his relationship with his daughter changes.

The riot scenes which Felix gets himself involved in are extremely evocative without being a litany of what every individual was doing at any given time. While the outcome of the riot is, perhaps, a foregone conclusion, Eliot's representation of both it and Felix is delicate and well-handled. The riot, along with the scene preceding it where Felix and Esther are skirting around the issue of their love are two of my favourite scenes in the novel, though I did also enjoy the court and prison scenes. I suppose that suggests that the best portions of the book come towards the end and that may well be the case.

There were some things about the book that grated slightly. I didn't like how long it took to get going, as mentioned above. I also found Eliot's segues into the mind of random voters (whilst completely understandable) a little tiresome. I found I was trying to keep names in my head that were only going to pop up once or twice again and for very little purpose. However, the milieu Eliot was trying to create certainly comes across on the page so I suppose that's a victory.

Ultimately, I enjoyed Felix Holt, the Radical for the characterisation of a few - Felix, Esther, Rev. Lyon and Mrs Transome - and some splendid scenes. I may have been at last converted to a 'proper' Eliot fan.

This book was read as part of the 'Victorian Bingo' reading challenge, details here.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

A Smidgen of Success

January was another one of those months where I felt as though I'd been dangling from the roof of a hyperactive carousel. Spinning around with the world all topsy-turvy gets old and I've definitely been doing it for long enough. I had some bright spots with a friend and my nieces but, really, I was happy to see the month coming to an end. Then the final few days threw up a couple of surprises.

On Friday I found out a short story has been accepted for publication in April. I'll post more of the details closer to the time but the jolt I got from that was excellent and I'm very proud of the story.

While deliriously happy about that, I got something of another shock. Late Saturday night I learned that I'd won first prize in the Literary Journalism Competition organised by Dickens Journals Online. That was one of those delightful moments where I opened up the page, scanned the list of runners-up and commended entries and allowed myself a moment of disappointment before actually lifting my eyes a bit. Then, quite naturally, I ran downstairs to get my poor father to check I wasn't seeing things. He thought the house was burning down. Again, I'm really proud of the story and I'll let you know when it's available on the DJO website to read. Incidentally, if you're unfamiliar with them, they host digital copies of Household Words and All the Year Round and they're a brilliant resource for academics and nineteenth-century book lovers alike. It's one of those sites you can fall into and come out three days later dazed and talking like Mr Dickens himself - well worth a look.

One of my goals for 2015 was to have a little more success with my short stories to build on the start I made last year. I think we can tick that box already.

I'm floating back down to earth now but I wish I could bottle that euphoria. As ever, the first thing I did when I got the news was burst into an appropriate song - 'It's a Hit!' from Merrily We Roll Along seemed like the perfect choice and it's been stuck in my head since Friday. As the ever-wise Charley sings:

Success is like failure, 
It's how you perceive it,
It's what you do with it, 
Not how you achieve it,
And I can't believe it's a hit!

And, if Sondheim doesn't float your boat, try a little Judy and Barbra...