Thursday, September 22, 2016

Back from the dead blog (because I feel the need to say this even if to myself)

The Labour Party of the U.K. is in disarray.

This is not a good thing. Last year there was a lot of heated discussion between and towards Labour moderates (as they defined themselves) who were furious, outraged and despairing at the thought of letting Jeremy Corbyn on the ballot for leader. They felt this was A Bad Thing. They felt he shouldn't get on the ballot because it would be the route back to 1980s oblivion. (Why? Because they knew - ah, democracy version 5.3 - that given the structure of voting in place there was a likely chance that desperate people would/could vote in large number for something that felt less obviously like the status quo of New Labour). I - naively perhaps - believed that if the party was structurally capable and worthy of moving forward, then other candidates could make a convincing enough case to win through and maybe even accommodate some of the ideals deemed 'old left' into a newly invigorated party position. I'd always held openly that my left politics had never been accommodated well by the old boy beer and sandwiches of 1970s/80s Labour and its twenty factional Marxists and yet were equally ill at ease amidst Blair's seductive pro-business, new economy, righteous New Labour Puritans. Could this be a new centre? A New NEW Labour that reconnected with its roots and principles whilst maintaining a way of connecting to practical power?

What convinced me that it was worth making Labour open to being more radical and accommodate that alternative voice in the debate was that we'd surely proven that things had moved on in the wake of the 2008 crash and there was too much damage under the waterline caused by the aftermath of the Iraq war to pretend that we just needed a return to a new form of what was perceived as Blair Labour politics. Rightly or wrongly, candidates against Corbyn looked like so much 'haven't we had this before and didn't it go wrong on their watch?' - or worse still looked like something a quick glance could mistake for a replicant Tory policy. That those accused could do so little to defy the Red Tory label says a lot about both the failure of the policies they promoted and the toxic despair that had built up around politics generally.... The "cost of doing business" looked to have been far too high to a lot of people and they wanted, felt able now, to have a say. Democracy 5.3 had already enabled that with the £3 supporters. For the PLP to block another voice even being an option didn't look great democracy wise however much it was the party mechanism, there for a reason, and so it was sufficient MPs offered Corbyn the nominations to make the ballot. However much I liked and admired Yvette Cooper, neither she nor any of the other candidates looked especially convincing even at party level....

Then everything went crazy. Corbyn became leader. It's pointless trying to turn the clock back. That particular democratic cat of £3 supporters got out the bag. Democracy Jemima but not as some wanted to know it. Like the 2010 and 2015 elections before it, the case for the policies, for the democracy we were actually working within, wasn't made strong enough. This wasn't about being left enough, right enough, centrist enough. It was about looking inept and unconvincing. £3 people wanted a change.

We're now in a position where 'half the party' are ecstatic Corbyn supporters, delighted to find versions of their belief in the state, unions, peace, activist rights (the disabled, minorities) seemingly at the forefront of a party from which they had felt alienated in favour of business, the corporate, the higher educated, the new globalised post industry workforce. The other 'half of the party' are in despair that the chance to do good for people across society has been blown by a perceived absence of pragmatism. The 'left' has sections that look and sound deluded, nasty and violent. And some behave that way. Like divisive forces and divided peoples in a broken Yugoslavia, resentments and compromises have bubbled to the surface of Labour that had been masked by its broad church way of managing things. Anti-semitism, footholds for all manner of sectarian groupings, revellers of chaos eager for a ruck: these are present however much some may want to ignore them. Yet. The 'right' looks anti-democratic to the 'left', against the majority of the party but convinced of its democracy because 'the right' (centre, whatever, labels are near meaningless now) feels it has the high ground of being for democracy at the larger elected representative scales. Both sides are name calling, throwing words like hypocrite, destroyer, idiot around like so much confetti. There is something deeply unpleasant and rather horrifying at seeing screeds of dismissive attack on the mere concept of having a minister for peace, as if words are meaningless and that the alternative means inherently a minister of war whilst also abandoning the possibility that maybe peace is a laudable concept we should have a lot more time for pursuing. It is NOT edifying. It is disastrous to watch the party spasm and flail in this way whilst Tories destroy the country at a personal, national and global level. Some people I admire and respect are prepared to leave the Labour Party if Corbyn is re-elected leader. They hate him. I don't think that will help. Some want to stay quiet and wait out the chaos, looking to rebuild at a local level. I still don't quite in all practical senses know what that would look like in terms of action. And some are enthused about party politics for the first time in a couple of decades/ever and are being roundly lambasted as deluded cultists which I'm sure is not at all feeding a siege mentality about the worthiness of their cause.

Like the good Libran / balancer I am, I'm not great at getting off the fence. I've put a lot of stuff here in quote marks because I'm not convinced we have the right language for this. Unfortunately as much of this is about perception and feelings as it is about actuality. I am not denying broken windows, words as weapons, violence and intimidation. I'm also not denying  there is a lot of 'quick to condemn' parallel actions that would be riled against in opponents. I am by nature co-operative rather than revolutionary. Keen to see the good in all, I nevertheless lean left.

What happened? How the hell did it come to this?

"The Labour Party could only win if it moved to the centre".

"New Labour was a pro-business force - friendly with lobbyists" (and increasingly supported by corporate backers)

"New Labour discovered the great Cause on whose behalf it would henceforth make its demands: not the forgotten worker but the future - the 'postindustrial, global economy'. It was in order to 'do business' in this new realm... that they needed to reform 'entitlements' (benefits), privatise government operations, open academy schools, get tough on crime...." [see note at end on these quotes]

Who got left behind in this? Who felt left behind in this?

Unionised labour. Old industries. Those who saw the fight being abandoned regarding the role of the state in common goods - mail services, schools, health, transport, utilities - in favour of the private sector (in partnership no less, so that's worked fine) being the leading light for social change. Those on benefits or nothing. Those who remained unconvinced that the silver bullet of education (high education) was the transformation to prosperity. Those who felt war was not the answer, that armaments fed the global war machine. Those who felt the priorities of the richest were skewing everything. (Keeping in mind we have a weird sense of 'richest' almost as misaligned as our sense of class). We still don't understand averages: mean, medians and modes...

Pragmatists will claim that LOTS was done for good people at the bottom of the tree during Labours years of governmental power. But sadly, rightly, wrongly, it didn't feel that way to a lot of them and it sure as hell didn't feel that way when austerity politics kicked in under the Con-Dem coalition.  Talk of appealing to squeezed middles and aspiration felt very hollow to those left behind by much of the transformations Labour had brought and which were mocked destructively by the carelessness of Con-Dem politics.

Were these people voting anyway? Did they, had they, ever voted Labour? Had they been lost pre-Blair or post-crash? What was the EU ever doing for them anyway?

I don't know what happens next or how, if, Labour can get out of this mess. I don't know if, what, any semblance of a Labour Party will survive. I want to believe. Those against Corbyn believe *HE* is to blame. I think he's going to be a scapegoat for things that went badly wrong long before some wag suggested there be an alternative to what appeared to be identikit options on the Labour Leadership ballot. All that people can hope is that there is something of an alternative left after the dust settles.

[note on quotes. These are adapted from Thomas Franks "Listen, Liberal" on the problems of the Democratic Party in these Trumpian days.... All I've done is change DLC/Democratic Party to New Labour.]

Monday, February 16, 2015

"All is well": The Decemberists, O2 Academy, Leeds - Valentine's Day 14 February 2015

The last time we saw The Decemberists was back during endtimes of The Crane Wife tour in 2007 in Wolverhampton (in the Wulfrun Hall). It was a pleasure to see them, but marred somewhat by a poorly Colin Meloy - I expect he hasn't risked a dodgy balti again in a hurry since then.

So my level of excited anticipation at getting the chance to see The Decemberists again was tempered by an awareness that we are the mercy of all manner of factors.  For a start, the best date we could make without problems with work days was Valentine's Day (would we be able to travel easily? could we get accommodation?) in Leeds, when Leeds were due to play Milwall (at home) and Sheffield were due to play Brighton (at home).  Oh joy - travelling with footie fans?

Then again, Valentine's Day, in my old alma mater city (Leeds), and with support by Serafina Steer*.  We had to be hopeful.

So what did we get?  Well, we got a range of songs from pretty much every era - albeit not stretching as far back as the earliest 'Five Songs EP' - leaving plenty of newer converted fans to no doubt scurry to the back catalogue.  There were the requisite two periods of encore with the first three song encore including a special favourite of mine "The Sporting Life"**, and the latter (after persuading Neil 'NO: the lights will go down properly again') seeing Jenny Conlee strap on the accordion (cue me screeching a gleeful 'YES!!!!').  Oh it was every bit as wonderful as I could have hoped.

Here's the setlist from Saturday 14 Feb 2015, but I'm going to run through this with recollections.

When the lights went down and Colin Meloy strode out, three-piece suited (love a vest/waistcoat + suit outfit) and under a single spotlight began "We Belong to You", the audience inhaled and swooned to this sweetly acute reflection on fandom and the symbiotic relationship between a band and its following.  Backing singers and band joined steadily to further cheers as the song climaxed and with scarce a pause for the cheers of the crowd stepped into "16 Military Wives".  Meloy is obviously feeling more confident with remembering the complex numbered lyrics and any stumbles were delightedly forgiven.  We did our la-di-da's with glee as Meloy choreographed our volume and side-to-side competition.

Inevitably, the show was centred on the new album - and it is a VERY fine album - but by mixing old (twelve) alongside the new (seven tracks) it was possible to see the continuities and also the development: the 'we had to change' logged by "We belong to you".  And performing this well, engaged with the audience, gaining requisite silence and gushing yells, they prove why we love them. Who can argue with a hurdy-gurdy playing band?  Who could refuse the pleasures of a band who can include a 9 year old 12 minute prog-rock-esque three-song-cycle ("The Island: Come and See, The Landlord's Daughter, You'll Not Feel the Drowning")?  A personal highlight was "Los Angeles I'm Yours", which was introduced as a song about a place to avoid. Cue crowd yelling 'Blackpool!' and a long exchange about the merits or otherwise of places the Portlandiers hadn't heard of - someone else suggested Scarborough which led to the usual US pronunciation hilarities of 'Scar-bo-row?'). For me it always reminds me of visiting LA and finding the Decemberists 'star' up by the Capitol Music building.

There was the expected but utterly inappropriate rowdy singing along to "The Rake's Song" - "You do KNOW it's a song about child murdering?!" - and plenty of acknowledgement of the bleakness of their narratives - "we don't really do love songs - they're always about dead people!" (Cue "Eli, The Barrow Boy" and wistful sighs from a delighted audience revelling in a non-Valentine day dedication.)

That the main set ended on their Hispanic gang drama "O Valencia!" was tear-inducing in its fabulousness - I still can't listen to the line "And her frame went limp in my arms" without tears rolling. Uproarious cheers as they depart the stage.  We want more.

Yes, encores are 'pantomime' as David Thomas calls them, but they're a welcome respite for performers and audiences. It adds a frisson to everything that comes next - you hope for your perfect culmination of the evening.  I knew what I wanted, what plenty wanted, but I also knew that on their last visit approximately 4 years previously, they HADN'T done it.

So when Neil indicated for a quick escape after the first three encore songs concluded I kept him still.  I wanted.  I needed to wait.  Strapping on the accordion - oh Jenny you have no idea how giddy my cheers were.  And the performance was every bit as shambling, audience-focused and performative as I could have hoped. Demonstrations of Chris Funk's damaged leg*** acted as the cue for the audience to SCREAM as the "jaws of a giant whale" swallowed us, the band laid down during the wait between the swallowing and the recovery, and a good proportion of the audience knew every word of the shaggy revenge tale.

"The Mariner's Revenge Song" is both the perfect introduction to The Decemberists and probably the most wonderfully baffling.  They're either going to love it or you'll spend the next 10-15 minutes trying to explain the whole thing. I could not have asked for a better ending to the day - apart from a pint of excellent scrumpy in Friends of Ham and a bag of french fries from a suitably dodgy fast food store near the dodgy nightclubs.  Perfect!

Previous praising of The Decemberists here:
- In Praise of....

Praise from elsewhere:
Stereogum - a selection of 10 great Decemberists tracks.  It isn't 'right' but it does include some fine selections

*Shamefully under appreciated by a chattering crowd. Boo.  Possibly the only downside of the night.

**On Steve Lamacq's "Good Day/Bad Day" slot in December 2011 I chose The Decemberists "The Sporting Life" to be played.  Yay!

***Injury sustained by skidding off at 15 miles an hour.  Not exactly rock and roll.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Finishing season 8 Doctor Who - dark, dark Cyberdeaths

Um, well that was DARK...

And pretty disturbing.

Anyone else deeply uncomfortable with some of the places that the finale took us to?

This is really just a holding place for some random thoughts that I will fill out as and when.  For starters though:

1) still confused if consciousness continues beyond death in the Missy Nethersphere and exactly how she captured these 'dead souls'. Part of me wants to think everything we SAW happening in the Nethersphere was a fake representation to just amuse Missy (and her faux AI companion Seb) and not really what was being 'felt' by the dead, Danny included.  So he is 'brought back' as a Cyberman but does he mention the experience of the Nethersphere?  I don't think so... but I may need to watch again.
2) following the point above, on that basis really definitely not comfortable with the whole 'don't cremate me!' or the screams of organ donors (hope that can be unpacked / clarify or I forsee a generation of non-donors, and even fuller cemeteries).
3) love the mini-misdirect of Clara as the Doctor (including her eyes in the opening credits)
4) loved the reincarnation Missy - echoes the existing history whilst adding that special Michelle Gomez touch (barking mad, or as she put it "bananas")
6) Brigadier! Awh/Nooooooooo [really ambivalent how well or if that worked.  My heart says yes, but I'm fully commit to it]
7) hugs ---- I'm a big fan of hugs, but they certainly can be a way of hiding behind a physical act.  As Clara and the Doctor proved...
8) whatever inconsistencies in tone or plot there may have been this season, surely no-one can doubt the conviction of the lead performances, especially Capaldi who excellent. I know not everyone has been convinced by the turn the character has taken, but I'm on board.  His impotent fury, and then lying to Clara, about (not) finding Gallifrey was heartbreaking.
9) Poor Danny Pink - half a character in search of real purpose, and desparate to avoid the sometimes incipient potential racism of the writers.  See the review in Doctor Who Magazine of 'the Caretaker' to see I wasn't the only one feeling a bit uncomfortable about P.E.  Echoes of that again in the plane towards  Colonel Ahmed ....
10) It's been Doctor Who!  With robots, Robin Hood, creepy simple psychological time-twisting with 'Listen', creepy plane-playing Flatline with its shrinking TARDIS, a Dalek story without a lot of Daleks, helpful trees, disturbingly rubbish but terrifying spider-things, a horrifying Mummy (with some great 1920s frocks), Victoriana and dinosaurs and the Paternoster gang, Moon-trips, cybermen, Missy, dodgy School-based shennanegins and more!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Doctor Who - reaching the halfway season point with Peter Capaldi

Well, this HAS been a bit of a turn hasn’t it? The first episode of the new series – Deep Breath – suggested some shifts, but they’ve been reinforced by the subsequent episodes in ways I hadn’t necessarily fully anticipated. It feels like there have been more deaths (certainly on-screen), even if there aren’t. The humour is still there but it is definitely different in tone. Moff also seems more actively involved in sharing scriptwriting duties (at least as far as the credits are concerned), which suggests he’s taking a different approach to that of RTD on script editing duties but nevertheless does indicate he’s wanting a bit more continuity of tone across the episodes (not sure that is entirely successful but that’s a different matter – the intention of continuity is apparent).

And as far Capaldi’s Doctor? Well, I like that he’s not likable. You can see aspects of past selves in his performance, just not necessarily the likable aspects. There is definitely less fun, but that isn’t to say there’s no funny. Rob Buckley talked on his blog about the Doctor being varying degrees of a ‘dick’ (even Eight, who got little chance on screen to be one, has had many moments of dickery in his subsequent adventures in audio/print). Rob, as ever, is kinda right, but getting the balance is crucial. There is a danger of us having another super-paternalistic, self-regarding version of the Doctor again (Three and Six, I’m looking at you – even if Six has rounded out his character a little more via the Big Finish productions). Now I love all the Doctors in different ways, so this doesn’t especially unnerve me, but I can see that as a long-term strategy it could be problematic. Then again, we shouldn’t be worried about ratings…should we?

And what’s happened with Clara? Well, she’s developed more of a character this time around, and I’d be sad to see her go too soon from the dynamic, but it depends what you want from a companion / assistant / fellow traveller. There is a settling into a new Doctor travelling pattern, and this one feels potentially fruitful. She’s prepared to challenge, but she does trust the Doctor, this Doctor – is that something that is going to bite her back?

Episode 2 – Into the Dalek

It’s a dalek episode, but without really having many daleks (til the ending). And yes, it’s Dalek (Eccleston episode) re-worked*. Nevertheless, I was rather taken with the turn it took, and the soldier theme that now seems to be running through the series gets a real kick-off here with the rather magnificent Journey Blue (SHOULD HAVE BEEN TAKEN ONTO THE TARDIS!!!) and the crew of the Aristotle. Additionally, we meet former soldier turned teacher Danny Pink – who also has broader potential (and not just as Clara’s squeeze). We get more Missy mystery – and I’m saying now that I am avoiding speculation as well as spoilers, so keep your thoughts to yourselves people! There is also a definite sense of danger in the proceedings of the episode, with the repaired Rusty possibly outdoing even the other arriving daleks for destructiveness and dalekness, even if the budget could only stretch to three more daleks invading the ship… I didn’t even object to the Fantastic Voyage / The Invisible Enemy revisitation because the internal workings of the dalek were wonderfully realised.

Episode 3 – Robot of Sherwood

It’s the daftest episode so far, but come on! It combines Robin Hood and Doctor Who: what’s not to enjoy?! Besides a bunch of laughs that work especially well for those of us of local Robin Hood persuasion (“Next ….Derby!”; “What about Worksop?”) the show bristles with delightful awkwardness in how to deal with a folkloric figure. Robin Hood is not ultimately explained away as a Robot, nor as part of the ‘cunning plan’ of the Sheriff and his robot pals to distract/cheer the locals, but actually I don’t have a problem with that. The plot and dialogue desperately try to explain Robin away – the impossibility of them having landed somewhere ‘real’ given his presence (“We’re in a mini-scope!” being an understandable favourite). But it is worth drawing that distinction between ‘fictional’ and ‘folkloric’ – from such folklore bases are myths and legends developed that become more fiction than reality, and the connection to the Doctor in that respect is pertinent. A romp, obviously. Still plenty of death though.

Episode 4 – Listen

The stand-out episode so far on so many levels: scary, brain-boggling and beautifully written, Moff once again uses time-travel as a central narrative device for constructing the development of character and events. From the initial to camera monologue about things hiding, to the realisation that fears form us always; from Rupert/Danny the soldier man to the ‘origins of “never cruel, or cowardly”; from Clara’s flailing date with her fellow teacher, to the potential that there is a happiness ahead for them; from the ‘just-a-kid’ under a blanket to the avoidable-but-thrilling ankle grab… this was a weave of rewatchable pleasures. Two thumbs up from both parties on the sofa when we watched this one!

Episode 5 – Time Heist

Hustle has never been one of the shows I’ve watched; I’m aware of it, but it never clicked with me. This episode presents an enjoyable reworking of that show, but it isn’t something I’d want to see lost of in future. I did like the prosthetics work of the Teller(s) though and the head/brain sucking was suitably disturbing. Mostly, I noticed the Wizard of Oz connections: a heart for the clone boss; brain/memories back for the enhanced human; courage and capacity to be herself for the copyist. The architect (wizard) wasn’t really a surprise, but the episode mostly seemed to suffer from its proximity to the delights of ‘Listen’. Probably better to watch in isolation and out of sequence to the series.

Episode 6 – The Caretaker

Not unproblematic – race felt like an issue here** – but overall I found this worked better than the Heist episode. Not sure why though… Rubbish monster, easily defeated: not a problem. Bit baffled why a former soldier would pick up flashing bomblike objects, let alone relocate them to the school hall, but the effect of his meddling was nicely handled. I did like the nosey and annoying Courtney and her wilfully hopeful parents (not QUITE as disruptive as last year!) which harkened back to a RTD style approach to everyday characters. I also liked that the Doctor didn't try going in as a teacher again (even though he was even more rubbish at blending in then Mr "Physics, Physics, Physics" Ten).  Mostly though I liked the re-appearance of Missy with her new assistant (Chris Addison!!) dealing with the baffled dead… intriguing!  Of course I'd like an explanation for the random start to the episode - how/when will they get out of the chains?! - but otherwise an enjoyable episode.

So overall, I'm pleased.  I like the series still, and happily several who I thought may go off it have also settled to the new style of Doctor.  Hurrah for transition, for change and new directions.  Into darkness indeed.

*Which of course was itself reworked from audio – Jubilee

**Seriously, I really hope the Doctor’s elision from soldier to PE teacher for defining Danny Pink wasn’t racial stereotyping. He’s a MATHS TEACHER.  Really he is.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

And exhale... the wait is over - long live the new Doctor!

New Doctor Who: yes, I'm back!

Knock, knock?  Anybody here?

No?  Someone?  Anyone?  *DOCTOR WHO IS BACK!!!  SO AM I!!!*

Ah well.  That is the downside of getting lost on Facebook, with its snappy quick response mechanisms.  If it was possible to post from FB to here (as it is from Twitter to FB; and oh that it was as easy to post in reverse), then this place would be as full as there.

Anyway: preamble enough!!!

Well?  Did you breathe deep?  How long before you exhaled?  I started inhaling about this quite some time ago, and it was a delirious relief to finally let go of fears, and avoiding spoilers, and just revel in the new episode.

Others will give far more insightful and swift reviews than I can here - Stuart Ian Burns being just the most obvious.  What can I hope to do add blustered thought and contemplations?



Begone if you don't want them.


  • I was distracted before the show started by the credits on Tumble.  Blinked at the spelling of the Series Editor Andrew Cartmell.  No, not that one...
  • The palette of filming is noticeably different.  Creamy, brown, darker than the green/blue tinge of especially Ten and Eleven - it also felt more filmic.  Was that down to Ben Wheatley (director)?  It wasn't just the Victorian setting.
  • The dinosaur really wasn't the star of the show, poor thing.  It was beautiful though. I'm ignoring criticism of the effects budget and I'll just say, she looked great, better than I hoped.  What can I say: I'm still scarred from the hilarity of 'THAT tank' from Robot.  Barfing the TARDIS was a nice touch.
  • Titles: like the clock motifs.  Actually less critical than others have been of the new version of the music (I like there is a touch more electronica to it).  Needs refining though I think.  Still better than the Gavascon titles before the colouring darkened in those final Pond episodes.
  • TBH, Capaldi's Doctor had me at "Shoosh" to Strax.  By the time he was in the TARDIS talking Clara around to staying, I was really excited.  Keep it up, because I am so up for this series working.
  • Scottish.  Love it.  Independent eyebrows vote that this Doctor is a defiant character and not to be trifled with by anyone.  He's not anyone's boyfriend (and that includes Missy).  Michelle Gomez made a brief but startling appearance.  Speculation is everywhere on this Miss... as you can guess.
  • Lots of cross-references back to past tropes from Moffat and RTD: clockwork droids, why THAT face, the momentary Scottish accent from Clara jarring...
  • Yes, the Paternoster gang bring the LOLZ, even if the gender politics are sometimes iffy (at least Moff is being more self-reflexive about the issues).  Yes, Jenny is a maid even in private.  Still that exchange of oxygen a kiss. You have to love a series bringing to the mainstream a lesbian couple where one party is a lizard.  The complainants against 'Howard the Duck' for inter-species sex would be blowing fuses.
  • The sequence with Clara and Madame Vastra was great - no wonder Jenny whooped.  And the veil disappeared.
  • Someone definitely watched mid-1970s Doctor Who ahead of this episode.  Violence (semi-seen), implied violence and gruesome shudders abounded.  Good.  More please.  I keep trying to not think too hard about the skin balloon... *YUK*
  • The restaurant scene was sublime.  Great exchange and fine settings.  Creepy.  Again - more please.

  • Loved it when Clara's hand was taken.  Like we ever doubted it.  (But we did, a little, didn't we?  As we should.)
  • Capaldi seems to be channelling Tom Baker most of all, which feels like a very fan-favourite tack to adopt in light of all the criticism ahead of his performance, but I did like the allusion to Colin Baker ("whether you like it or not").  That retrospectively Colin Baker's Big Finish performances have made his a more supported incarnation seems apt to reference.  Like saying, 'you'll come around eventually, and I'm not sure how much I care in the meantime'.
  • I'm torn about the cameo: I can see why it was felt to be needed, but it also felt out of kilter with the episode's intentions.  I couldn't help but be swept by the appearance of a timey-whimey phone call of reassurance - awh - but it felt too deliberate and calculating to really work.  Still got a touch of grit in my eye.
  • Aside from the episode itself, watch the Doctor Who Confidential Extra.  If only for the moment when Capaldi does the obligatory read-through introduction of himself (after initially trying to duck out of it with a casual "you know who I am".  Take two provides: "I'm Peter Capaldi, and I am The Doctor".  Cue delighted cheers and a head-in-hands moment of seeming embarrassment that equally looks like "Oh My God, I can't believe I've actually got to say that!"
So a fine start: not a perfect episode (could have been a bit shorter, maybe an hour?), but in its favour I didn't even think to look at the time once during the episode.  

Then again Capaldi didn't need to do much to convince me.  Interestingly it was a long-time Who fan friend of mine who was REALLY unconvinced about his casting, having not taken to him in anything else previously - unlike me and H who have long loved and admired his quirky intensity and actorly flex across roles.  Needless to say, PC's love for DW and the long build-up over the summer led to last night creating a maelstrom of emotional reaction coming down in favour of the new guy.  Yay.  Furthermore, H exhaled in relief at having a Doctor she didn't fancy.  I think viewers will always LOVE the Doctor in different ways.  It is what he is.  Not human, but wearing a human face.  Can he ever be what we want him to be?  It depends: but he will always be what we need.

Long live the Doctor!

Friday, May 30, 2014

The first time as tragedy; the second as farce: time-shifting 'Arden of Faversham' - Swan Theatre, RSC Friday 23 May 2014

Polly Findlay's new RSC production of the anonymous Renaissance play 'Arden of Faversham' shifts it from its usual 16th Century setting to a loosely 'modern' period.  Certainly, both Findlay (as director) and Zoe Svendsen (as dramaturg) are keen to emphasise contemporary parallels between the commodification of land, people and property then and now, and the shift of housewives from makers to consumers.  This time-shifting from the late 1500s to a modern but non-specific present day moment, seems to have thrown some reviewers, as if mentally adjusting from the outer gothic frames of the Swan theatre to a stage filled with the clutter of mass packaging for the contemporary consumer age (and fashions to match) makes the play text incomprehensible.  I'd argue that it is actually pretty easy to overlook lines that (rightly, for the 16th Century) make London feel a world away, since whatever London's proximity is now in terms of communications and travel, the capital can still feel a world away from provincial business and domestic life.  

Grumbly Michael Billington, didn't like the period shift at all. Personally, I feel a period setting in Elizabethan costume would likely appear similarly artificial.  Nevertheless, there are elements that feel as if they are overstating realisations about 'capitalism for beginners'.  Arden's business is the distribution of tacky ornaments, not least an endless supply of marineki neko, the gold Japanese beckoning cats, symbolic of prosperous good fortune (oh irony when a wall of them is unveiled after Arden is killed). Arden's employees are engaged in drudgery: endless, pointless, mechanised processes carried out by humans for no particular purpose of adding anything to the product, experience or success of anyone (except Arden himself).  Work sucks; bosses are narcissistic and greedy; everyone wants a prosperous and more convenient life: we get it, with bright flashy clothes to ram the point home.

Former butcher-boy Mosby and Arden's wife

But don't be deceived: what the play lacks in subtlety (in its production setting or the prose - no Shakespeare is this) or indeed length (it is a sprightly 1 hour 40, with no interval) it more than makes up for with some wonderfully portrayed supporting characters and a healthy infusion of verve and wit. 

The tale may ostensibly be about businessman Arden (Ian Redford), his unfaithful wife Alice (Sharon Small), and her lover Mosby (Keir Charles), but the Arden employees Michael (Ian Bonar) and Mosby's sister Susan (Elspeth Brodie) - a hapless, servile, near-silent figure who regularly haunts the stage and production - keep getting our attention even as the play heads towards the inevitable murder of the titular character.  The tragedy is not really about Arden, for all that he meets an undignified death as the disposable body of capitalism: a domestic murder for domestic reasons.  Arguably, it is not even about the vivacious, capricious wife Alice, who all too late realises the enormity of her actions and choices.  Rather it is Susan and a would-be husband Michael that intrigue.  

Susan: hidden, at the edges

Produced as part of the 'Roaring Girls' season at the RSC, the publicity has been all around Small as Alice Arden.  She certainly roars - with laughter, with lust, with anger and murderous desire.  But it is the mouse that doesn't roar who I keep thinking about: Susan.  Her brother Mosby tries to match her one way: with oily poisoner painter Clarke (Christopher Middleton).  Her mistress, Alice Arden, meanwhile promises her to Arden employee Michael.  Neither Mosby nor Alice seem especially concerned to consider Susan's own preferences, and it doesn't seem to bother either prospective husband much, with both Clarke and Michael careless as to whether Susan may have a role to play in her choice of 'owner'.  Michael is at least ambivalent in how he is drawn into the murderous plotting: he doesn't really want to get involved but his desire to match with Susan becomes blinded and complicit to the actions of those around him.  That Susan is condemned and put to death alongside more active and duplicitous participants in the murder of Arden is perhaps the real tragedy of the play.*

Despite that tragedy, the production does make good use of some of the underlying elements of farce in the text, including the (not-so-original) bungling hitmen Black Will and Shakebag, ably brought to life by Jay Simpson and Tony Jayawardena.

Silent Bob and Jay

These two present violent slapstick and murderous intent thwarted by fog, timing and choices but mostly by general incompetence.  Indeed, the oleaginous Clarke is far more disturbing than they are, as it seems even Clarke's own flesh rebels against his exploits with poison and paint (rashes across his skin, gloved hands, hair and flesh that drips with contamination). By contrast the seemingly 'professional' killers - Will and Shakebag - are perpetually in more danger from each other than they can cause to others, even before the first significant head injury by unintended crowbar enters the action.  By the time the 'tragic' murder of Arden takes place, we're well prepared for the farcical raising of his body in one of his own delivery boxes above the dining table, to drop warm blood to a wine glass below.

Overall, this is a production worth seeing, short enough to be enjoyable and very well performed.  Perhaps its key problem is the baggage it comes with of being a 16th century 'true crime dramatisation'.  Taken on its own terms, this is a time-shifted tragedy whose farce makes it modern.

* The play is usually described as a 'revenge tragedy'.  But it isn't the revenge of wife or Arden as husband that defines the play.  Rather, the person who gets their revenge is a minor character: Mistress Reede.  She curses Arden to die for the "plot of ground that thou detains from me ... there be butchered by thy dearest friends".  The lands of the Abbey of Faversham from which she was evicted prove to be Arden's undoing. The play started with his discontent at having acquired the lands when his wife is adulterously in love with Mosby.  It ends with those same lands granting Mistress Reede her revenge, off stage and unnoticed.  A very strange revenge tragedy...

Friday, May 02, 2014

"Make vile things precious": psychotic laughter, villainy and ageing - King Lear @ NTLive, National Theatre broadcast 1 May 2014

In recent years I've seen three pretty big productions of King Lear - the first was Jacobi's at the intimate Donmar Warehouse (with the 'restart the scene' moment on the NTLive Broadcast); the second was the electric live experience of seeing Pryce's version at the Almeida; and then there's this BIG production starring the incredible Simon Russell Beale on the Olivier theatre stage from National Theatre, again seen via NTLive.

Beale is an angry dictator of a father and King, with the initial carving of the kingdom based on declarations of love in front of a massed audience of the king's supporters.  No wonder he's royally foul when Cordelia refuses to play along.  But the setting of making a microphoned demand for filial affection in front of others also gives context to Goneril's acquiescence to the display and Regan's scathing upping of the ante in her gushingly flirty embrace on Lear's lap (she's clearly been playing this game for years, with her combination of suppressed disdain and wilful playfulness as the coy sexually focused middle sister). These older siblings have learnt to give what is required.

Cordelia does not, cannot, perhaps by virtue of her having been the most beloved of Lear's three daughters (and what of their mothers?) I have to say that this was the first production where I felt any kind of real connection to Cordelia - it's a pretty limited role and of the three portrayals I've recently seen I'd possibly say it was the most rounded  (the problems being inherent to the part not the actress playing it).  All credit to Olivia Vinall, whose performance actually felt moving. (The reuniting of Lear and Cordelia near the end - apologies for the spoilers people - actually moved me to tears: partly through Beale's conveying of Lear's flashes of lucidity from amidst his madness, and partly through her heartbroken temporary pleasure at the recognition he shows her).

I know others will have come because of SRB (who is pretty damn fine), but I'll admit the really big draw for me was Anna Maxwell Martin as the venal Regan, whose psychotic giggles were simultaneously flirtatious, manipulative, and sadistic in tone. I've been following AMM since I saw her in The Coast of Utopia alongside Douglas Henshall back in 2002, before she even did His Dark Materials at the National in 2003 (a work that brought her to prominence in theatre, along with Cabaret in 2006, and ahead of Bleak House in 2005 which brought her television presence to the fore). She is, frankly, on all kinds of levels, breathtaking. She strikes me as having the same intensity and beauty in her acting as Lyndsay Duncan has always conveyed (this isn't just about physical beauty, though both are astonishingly women, but as much about the internalised truth of a character, whether good or evil, that each can convey).

Her foil here is a chilly Goneril played by Kate Fleetwood, lacking some of the energy that Gina McKee brought to the Domnar production, or the hinted at abusive relationship from Zoe Waites in the Almeida version, but a fine performance nonetheless.

Beale's performance has been largely praised - and it's large performance in so many ways, especially in the early scenes where his anger is that of a bulldog who has been in charge of the house for many years, increasingly wayward in his behaviour and vicious in his responses.  He storms and shouts across the stage, irritably barking and biting those around him.  His shaven head lends him a Stalin-like appearance, but at least it stops him looking too much like 'Santa Claus' (as he notes in the interval documentary, a fine short study of the production's approach to the play'). As the play progresses and Lear's faculties fail, he becomes more stooped, shaky, haunted and hunted.  He is increasingly distracted, experiencing hallucinations, regressing to childhood and adopting the tell-tale signs of sexual inappropriateness and lost inhibitions, often scarcely aware of his actions (he is aghast with horror as he sees a dead body in the scenes just before the Interval*).  For all his diminished state of mind - and the sag of his undergarments even makes it seem as if he loses physical weight as contrasted to the belted fitted military garb of his initial scenes - this is a monumental Lear.  The investigation that Beale undertook to understand the despair of Lear certainly seems to pay off, for Lear's moments of lucidity feel increasingly heartbreaking as anyone who has seen first hand the combination of symptoms associated with dementia and Parkinson's will attest. "O let me be not mad".

Elsewhere there are other fine performances, only occasionally overshadowed (or undermined) by slightly excessive set design or staging decisions.  I don't think anyone doubts Adrian Scarborough makes a fine Fool but he and Beale didn't need to ascend the mighty hilltop with thunderbolts and lightening (very very frightening me).  There are a LOT of bloody bodies on stage by the end (meaning Regan has to shuffle in her death-throws out of the way of the action).  Poor Tom's performance is properly - albeit briefly - naked ("Poor Tom's a-cold" indeed), which could have felt awkward but actually worked very well with Tom Brooke bringing stronger pathos to the scenes once he becomes Poor Tom than to those he has as the hapless brother  Edgar to bastard Edmund. Much as I like Sam Troughton and have found him capable of strong performances, his was a less convincing one as the vile and villainous Edmund, but I think that was as much down to direction and costume as anything else.  He resembled an ageing school boy in his suit more than a wily, manipulative seducer of both older sisters and of the pliable suspicions of his father.  Troughton seemed to lack appropriate heft (though not physically) and the necessarily conspiratorial asides were unfortunately stagily presented with on-glasses/off-glasses direction.  A shame, as I've been very convinced by previous Edmunds.

Elsewhere Stanley Townsend makes for a generous Kent, supportive of Cordelia right through, whilst Stephen Boxer's slight frame gave Gloucester the air of a semi-valued privy counsellor as civil servant to the ruler; as ever it is a role that comes into its own once he is blinded (a scene that always shocks and which created paroxysms of delight from Regan who clearly 'got off' on the whole torture thing, despite what happens to her husband Cornwall in the process).  Albany remains a cuckolded sap, though honestly this Edmund didn't feel like a threat - but nevertheless Richard Clothier invests this husband with enough sense to feel that he understands what has happened by the end (and his tangential part in it).

Overall, it is a strong but resolutely 4 star performance (as has been a recurring response in most reviews) - magnificent in so many respects and yet lacking something crucial to bring the rating up to a full five star value. Very much worth seeing with some exquisite performances and moments, but not the full-force it could be.  

* No intended spoilers here, but it explains a hole in the narrative that has bugged audiences and readers for centuries.  Marvellously well done I thought.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

100 Heroes of the University of Nottingham - centenary of the Students' Union

Saturday night was the exhibition opening event to celebrate 100 Heroes - the centenary of Nottingham's Student Union.

Students and alumni were invited alongside staff to nominate students, staff, and societies who they felt had made a significant contribution to the 100 years of the University and to its students. Somewhere between 700-800 individuals and groups were nominated.

Porters, cleaners and support staff were recognised alongside academic subject tutors who have gone the extra mile; clubs and societies, and the individuals who have worked on their behalf,  for all kinds of activities from the geeky to the physically sporty were picked out for their efforts; the first woman student union president, those who fought for the university charter, and those donated land to the University (Sir Jesse Boot, ta) were acknowledged for their efforts of leadership and championing of the University.

There was a spectacular cake commemorating the Crop-Up Gallery collective - a student run curatorial group set up by a recent graduate, Charlotte Hopson during her final year as a UG student.  Crop-Up designed and put together the whole exhibition and the exhibits around Portland, with Crop-Up participants tweeting their activities across the run-up to the event and the evening itself. Sadly, there were only crumbs left of the cake by the time we got back to the room!

And there was me. Because despite having only been at the university in a working role for 10 years, I'd been nominated and then selected as one of the 100 in the 'Unsung Heroes' category.


I did know before the final selections were made that I'd had at least one nomination, as one of my ex-students emailed me and said he'd put me forward.  Shucks. (What was lovely was that he came along to the event with his girlfriend and we got to have a nice chat).  Then about a week ago, after I'd found out I'd been chosen, another former student contacted me forwarding the email she'd had confirming that her nomination - me - had been selected.  Double shucks. But it was only on the night itself, seeing the rolling display of winning heroes with some of the nomination statements that I realised I'd also been nominated by another former student, an international PhD student I'd worked with a few years ago. Treble shucks.

Anyway, Neil and I had a lovely evening.  A chance to dress up, I'm never going to turn that away!

Of course in some respects, it was about less about me than the whole collection of people that were being praised. For example, it was nice to talk to Professor Martyn Poliakoff (yes he is related to writer and director Stephen Poliakoff - brother), so a huge thanks to Neil for making Poliakoff's choice of tie (a classic chemistry prof tie) the starting point for a brief introduction and conversation.  Well known on You Tube for his contributions to the Periodic Table videos, It was a lovely little chat and he was utterly charming in the way that someone who looks like this exactly would be.

It was also pleasing to see some of those I work with getting (more) recognition.  These included the lovely Gaby for instance - picked out as one of those noted in the alumni press release for the event. Alongside Gaby, her husband Nick was also nominated, along with one of our Mental Health Advisers Claire (who really should have had a nomination on her own, alongside her colleague Farrah), and a couple of other professors I've worked with in the past in supporting students (the excellent Professors Liz Sockett and Hamish Forbes, who were very kind in saying how pleased they were I'd been nominated).  Overall, lots of really worthy people were identified but you can always pick out more.

For myself, I'd have loved to have seen nominations come to fruition for:
  • Dr. Carole East - one of the kindest colleagues one could wish to have, who has supported me through tears of all kinds over the last 10 years.  Her thoroughly deserved doctorate is merely the icing on the cake to her hard work and genuine caring attitude.
  • Dr Richard King - Emeritus Professor in American and Canadian Studies, Richard was a core part of the team who welcomed me into the American Studies department when I started my PhD.  Yes, Professor Douglas Tallack was the one who offered me the place to study; yes, Professor Sharon Monteith was the first to laugh with me at my massive bags I needed to carry as I travelled across the midlands to start my studying.  But it was certainly Richard who provided intellectually supportive and continuously gracious conversation to me whenever I seemed to need it most.  His encouragement was really important, and he was a beacon of southern charm that we all adored.
  • Professor Celeste-Marie Bernier - friend, chosen sister, fellow PhD student, a star of academia and an all-round marvellous person.  Celeste is one of the most hard-working academics I know: she puts in hours that would drain lesser-mortals and is firm, fair and intellectually challenging in a model that follows the example of Richard King in the best way possible.  She supported me through my final stages of completing my PhD and has been rightfully recognised by her students as a wonderful tutor and vibrant lecturer.  She's been on a major sabbatical for these past couple of years so maybe wasn't at the forefront of students minds recently, but she definitely should have been recognised.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

"Anon, anon" - reflections and reminiscences on Henry IV Part I (RSC, Stratford upon Avon Thursday 20th March 2014)

Framing comment: My O level Shakespeare text was "Henry IV part I", which means it has a special place in my heart and memories (even though  the tape recording we were regularly subjected to at school was less than wonderful, with a Hotspur who had more accents than Russell Crowe was accused of having in Robin Hood).

We'll be seeing Part II later in the season, but for now I wanted to immerse myself in Part I, attempting to rid my mind of the experience of seeing this play at the Globe a few seasons ago with the marvellous Roger Allam as a memorable Falstaff.  I don't think I'll ever quite move Allam from my mind, but Sher is such a fine actor that he nevertheless takes the role on with glee and gusto.

The RSC under Greg Doran take a conventional medieval staging for Henry IV Part I, and bring a wonderful cast to the production with fine echoes for those who saw the earlier Richard II.  Indeed, the opening scene with King Bolingbroke, penitent and praying for forgiveness for his regicidal actions, is even haunted by the ghost of Richard. (I felt sorry for the actor who had to don Tennant's white robe and a wig to figure his presence from gloomy shadows on the balcony over the stage to Jasper Britton's still-shaken Henry IV).

Although we saw an early preview (first preview was 18 March), it already felt very polished as RSC productions usually do.  Sir Anthony Sher is clearly having a whale of a time, grizzling joyously as Sir John Falstaff.  He shakes effectively from the drink; he clearly adores Hal; and he is so in love with life that all his errant ways are but means to survive another day for drinking.  His deception is not malice - he believes his lies even as they run away from him ("A hundred upon poor four of us").

It is the interaction between Harry Monmouth (Prince Hal, wonderfully played by Alex Hassell) and merry Jack Falstaff that drives the force of the play as the Prince moves from his embedded life of wastrel indulgence and humour to bravery on the battlefield against his changeling 'brother-at-arms', the fiery Hotspur, Harry Percy.  Falstaff remains present throughout this shift and Hal cannot quite abandon his adoration of his alternative father figure, even as Falstaff blatently lies about killing Hotspur and feigning his own death.  Yet we know from early on that things will turn, as prefigured by the wonderful Act 2 scene 4. Both Hal and Falstaff play at being the King and exchange on the actions and merits of Hal's behaviour and the company he keeps: it is a comic and dangerous impersonation of the King that turns its humour on its head in two simple phrases: "I do.  I will."  Moreover, Hal has already let the audience in on his secret self (the soliloquy at the end of scene Act 1 scene 2), a self that he knows will willingly abandon his friends and bawdy life.  He will banish "plump Jack".  We know, eventually, he does.

But in the meantime, we have one of the Shakespearean plays that is most playful with genres, switching eagerly between history to tragedy to comedy.  There are battles, references back to the murder of Richard, deaths amongst the families (for so many are interrelated back through the bloodlines from King Edward III), but there are also the aforementioned mockeries of Kingship and courtly power, demonstrations of cowardice, bawdy associations and much drinking of sack.

For those who delight in ensemble performance, we have several casting reiterations from Richard II, that echo and re-employ actors to fine effect.  These include resurrected Antony Byrne, previously Mowbray, who comes back as Worcester, who does not take the King's advice to make peace and instead leads "three knights... a noble earl and many a creature a else" to their deaths in the culminating battle of the play,  Sean Chapman reappears as Northumberland, father to a maniacal Hotspur (Trevor White), with the latter all growed up from the feisty naif figure who appeared in Richard II (when played by Edmund Wiseman) into a positively unhinged warrior with a wife he doesn't quite deserve (Lady Kate Percy, played with considerable vigour by Jennifer Kirby).  Sam Marks, a finely sycophantic Bushy in Richard II, also reappears here, as foil to Prince Hal in the form of Poins, the transitional friend between the life that Hal appears to live (the sack-soaked clockless days with Falstaff, with the cries of "anon, anon" from hapless Francis) and the life of court and valour that as Prince Henry he will instinctively re-take by the end of the play.

What is charming about this production is that it does not appear that the cast/audience are forever waiting on Falstaff to reappear (although Sher is delightful and clearly appreciated by the ensemble cast).  Everyone holds their poise, even as Hotspur runs around the stage twitching for a fight, even as he finds he forgets the map that will mark out his borders of power (which of course he rails against).  At the centre of the play is the now quieted King, the Bolingbroke who took the crown from Richard's cousinly hand, who longs for a son who would live up to the bold actions of himself or at least that of rival Northumberland and his fearless son Hotspur.  But in the end, King Henry IV comes to realise that there is more to his seemingly errant son than wasted days of sack and whores alongside merry Jack, and that a Hotspur for a son is no gift at all as the latter rages to his death near pointlessly.  Of course we all love Falstaff's wit and self-delusion, but we also know that forces of power will move on and past him, that his beloved Hal will throw off his "loose behaviour" and shine far better as a son to the King, and that honour - that "mere scutcheon" - will come to the fore.

I'm looking forward to seeing Part II (which I am far less familiar with as a play, something I always like because I like not having too many preconceptions), not least to see more of Paola Dionisotti as Mistress Quickly, but also to watch Oliver Ford Davies, always an excellent actor, taking up the role of Shallow.  I'm also looking forward to seeing upcoming Elliot Barnes-Worrell more as Hal's brother Prince John. But that is for a later date.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Apologies and something sweet

Gah - I had such plans.

Then Sherlock took over.

And there was Richard II at the Barbican (along with a backstage tour and a gloriously unexpected if fleeting collision with a certain cast member and his plaited hair on the stairwell).

And then there is life, and work, and choir, and all the usual.

So as recompense, here is a sweet video from The Big Bang Theory.  I know it's a bit love/hate for people, but we're rather fond in our house and this is a bit lovely.

Will try and do better...

Saturday, January 04, 2014

TV review: Sherlock Series 3 'The Empty Hearse'

They sure know how to make us wait.  After Sherlock series one positively snuck onto the radar in summer 2010 leaving everyone breathless in front of Moriarty in the swimming pool (no, not for those reasons fan-ficcers), it took til January 2012 before it came back and brought us Irene Adler and THAT FALL (not the one Eddie Mair so wittily tormented us about on Thursday*), and then they made us wait another two years till New Year's Day 2014 for some kind of resolution.

Worth the wait?  Hell yeah.  It was worth anxiously waiting for the screening dates for both the USA and UK (oh the uproar that the USA might get the show before the UK, or even that they should know their own screening dates before the UK did).  But oh wasn't it glorious when we saw the hearse announcing 1 January as the (predictable, but til then unrevealed) screening date for the start of season 3**.

The opening three minutes of 'The Empty Hearse' alone are worth watching (though you'd be deeply confused if you stopped there), not least because whilst those opening minutes draw on the mini-episode prequel - Many Happy Returns - you don't have to have watched the prequel to get the episode.

OBVIOUSLY, beyond this point, here lay SPOILERS.... (though I will try and keep to a minimum)









Anyway: back to the opening minutes: throwing a curveball to the audience and we lapped it up.  The improbable yet daringly plausible, fan-pleasing, DerrenBrown-organised explanation for how Sherlock fell to his death and survived was breathtaking in its audacity and fan-poking.  It led into an 85 minute romp that rather felt like a trope-a-thon of fan-fic that Mark Gatiss couldn't resist clocking up:

  • The unrequited love heroine getting her snog (the adorable Molly Hooper - Louise Brealey)?  Check. (And she even got a proper, actual kiss - albeit on the cheek, before coming over with her own actual boyfriend "I've moved on" who embodied everything physically that BC could muster).
  • Bondage?  Check, as despite the long wig and unshaven face, speaking Serbian, you just knew, even before the analysing of the torturer's home life.  Oh and throw in a little adoration of the Cumberbatch body, muscular stripped physique. When the torturer exited, you just knew that the person in the corner - the unseen character - would be the ticket home. Pleading with a character who's gone off-grid to come back? Check.  
  • Moriarty and Holmes throwing a dummy off the roof before leaning in for a snog? Check. (Could have done without the fan-fic stereotypes, but they can be there for a reason.  Hilarious though to see Anderson, the loathsome forensics crime scene analyst, who hated and doubted Sherlock from the get-go, turn into theory-spouting believer).  And the snogging?  As Doctor Who explored "Is there a lot of that?" "It does start to happen".
  • The dissatisfaction with the canon's explanation/resolution of a problem? Check, check, check - certain sections will remain unconvinced they've been told the truth about Holmes' fall and resurrection.

It was some of the little details that were amongst the most pleasing: Cloud was most delighted with the step-down of the quality of eatery as Watson lost his temper with the re-emergent Holmes.  The dinner starts, with Watson's plan to get engaged to Mary***, at a high-end waiters-in-tails restaurant; after Watson attempts to beat and strangle Holmes the setting drops to a moderate Mediterranean-style restaurant; and following further violence, culminates in even being thrown out of a kebab take-away caff after a nutting.

It was hard to not also love the appearance of ma and pa Cumberbatch (Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton) as the Holmes' boys parents.  This also provided a nice touch and a glaring reminder to the cross-over Doctor Who fanbase that ma C was in stories across the first three decades of the show's history.

As for the 'threat', the crime of the narrative, well it was as disposable as it needed to be.  Almost a Maguffin. And whilst the bonfire rescue was tense, we knew (surely we knew) there would be no demise.  Didn't we? Could we be so sure in the wake of the fall from the roof, those final seconds of season 2, that had thrown us all into a tailspin?

Amidst such fan-pleasing pleasures, it would be easy to lose sight of the fact that this is a drama, written, directed, filmed and acted by some very brilliant people.  Freeman especially continues to impress as Watson, who can swallow silently, hard and conveying a variety of emotions without saying anything.

Ultimately it was a confection of delights, a go-with-the-ride immersion in London and Sherlockology.  Welcome home Holmes.  We have missed you.

* Dry Mr Mair did his usual trick of tantilising the listeners to Radio 4 PM with the idea that he'd "reveal the truth about 'that fall' on New's Year's Day", only to play the clip of Nigel Pargetter falling from the roof in The Archers.  "The truth?  He died."

** It was an accident of circumstance (not planning) that we happened to be in London on the day that fans had been advised we should 'keep a look-out in and around the centre of London'.  It took me a few seconds at the crossing by Big Ben/Palace of Westminster as a car approached the junction to process that it was a hearse - and then as it passed..."OH MY GOD, it's the Sherlock Hearse!!!!  1 January 2014!!!! YAY!!!!!!"  I may have been a bit excited.

*** Mary played by Freeman's real life partner Amanda Abbington is great.

Friday, January 03, 2014

The Vault: Doctor Who book review

It is pretty beautiful it has to be said.  I had been picking this up and considering it since it was released and resisted admirably.

Very glad I did, as it turned up as a very delightful Christmas present and as soon as I picked it up - wrapped - I felt the heft, the shape, and just KNEW what it was even before opening it!

The Vault is like a treasure trove of Doctor Who memorabilia and objects from the show's history up to date.  The images capture scripts, memos, toys, props, clothes, stills, designs... everything you could want to peek at and more.

The SFX review has very nice images illustrating sample pages but the glossy gorgeousness can't really be stated - it has to be experienced.

I'd like to visit the Doctor Who Museum though...

Thursday, January 02, 2014

A song for the day - Meditative Music

How apt that there should be a meditative journey to illustrate this meditative song - Micah P Hinson's "The Day Texas Sank to the Bottom of the Sea".  A soaring organ this time rather than strings, but the same effect.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

That end of Christmas TV review (2013)

Let's take these in order of broadcast even though they weren't necessarily watched in order.

Raised by Wolves
Caitlin Moran is awesome and always has been.  Her book 'How to be a Woman' is by turns hilarious, painful and angry.  If you can cope with the language (typically Moran-esque) then do read it.  It sits on the shelf alongside the equally wonderful Hadley Freeman's 'Be Awesome', which is another book that is hilarious, painful and angry.  Both should be recommended reading for any young woman who can cope with the swearing.

Anyway, all that is by extension a way in to discussing the pilot episode of a fictionalised drama by the Moran sisters Caitlin and Caroline about growing up in Wolverhampton - updated to the present day.  If anything that settng is actually its only downfall, as it makes it too much like Shameless for people who hated Shameless (me and he), when it could have been the equivalent of 'Everybody Hates Chris'.  But then again, Moran is nothing if not against faux-nostalgia, so why not update things? The two leads - the equivalent of Caitlin and her elder sister - are brilliant, the other kids in the large family are suitably adorable/kooky, and mum (played by versatile Rebekah Staton) uses 'David Cameron' as a swear-word.  Brilliant.  Okay, it was WEIRD seeing Inspector Japp from Poirot turn up as weed-smoking Grampy, but hey...

Worth a commission, but more Wolverhampton please. (Actresses Helen Monks and Alexa Davies are far left and right, with the Moran sisters in the centre of the image)

Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor
As we were out on Christmas Day(and what a wonderful day it was!), there was a frantic drive to make it back in time for this and we made it by the skin of our skin.  The second that the TV went on and came to life, that was the second that the voice-over and episode started.  Cutting a bit fine.  Rather like the episode.

It would be hard to top the excess of emotions that came with the 50th anniversary episode (The Day of the Doctor), or even the season finale earlier in the summer (The Name of the Doctor), so this episode - carrying the weight as it did of being both Christmas episode and Matt Smith's farewell to the role AND being lumbered with a 'how-will-they-resolve-the-regeneration-problem?' - was always destined to be weighed down with more expectations than could reasonably be managed.  Tennant got two hours of farewell and got to leave on New Year's Day so he didn't have to have his departure carry the same weight as a 'jolly' Christmas episode.

As it was, the episode still managed to be lovely and charming and thrilling, just not in the proportions it probably should have been.  The Christmas bits were charming - even the madness of recognisable actors in blink and miss roles - and the Town called Christmas looked beautiful.  Moffat tied up a good number of the threads marked 'Later' - Silents, cracks, the Question - and Smith got a stunning farewell speech and a moment with Amy. Stuart quoted it:
His final speech is sheer poetry, good enough to put in an upmarket Christmas cracker. Here it is in full. “It’s started. I can’t stop it now, this is just the reset. A whole new regeneration cycle. Taking a bit longer. Just breaking it in. It all just disappears doesn’t it, everything you are gone in a moment like breath on a mirror? Any moment now, he’s a comin’ … The Doctor …. And I always will be. But times change and so must I. Amelia! The first face this face saw. We all change when you think about it. We are all different people all through our lives and that’s ok, you gotta keep moving so long as you remember all the people that you used to be. I will not forget one line of this. Not one day. I swear. I will always remember when the Doctor was me.” Then his actual final line. “Hey.” Sob again.

There were funny moments in 'The Time of the Doctor' (yes, damn me, I did chuckle at the naked/clothes bit, but not half as much as the line about Ten being vain) but the episode was undeniably unbalanced in trying to juggle Christmas with the end of the Doctor.  It just felt.. rushed, pushed, cramped... it needed space to breathe.  It needed BUDGET not just in terms of money - though what was spent, looked well-spent - but also time within the schedule.  (I've forgotten where I read it, but someone repeatedly kept reminding us, 'budget, budget, budget'.)

What saved it?  Re-watching helps enormously.  Like several broadcasts that could charm enough first time around but benefit from the extra thoughtfulness of re-watching, this is a grower.  The love and mixed emotions of first time around glow brighter with each re-watch. But there was already so much there to love and cherish. Well, Matt Smith was pretty damn awesome, and not just when he was pretending that Caitlin Blackwood hadn't inevitably grown up a damn lot since being Amelia four years ago and he was having to fantasise about another young actress with red hair being the 'first face he ever saw'.  Nice touch to have grown-up Amy back though for one last goodnight for the Raggedy Man. Smith also aged well, bringing a Hartnell-esque presence to the final days of the Doctor protecting Christmas.

Jenna Coleman had to do a lot with little - and a turkey, and being reminded again that "the Doctor always lies" - and had to cope with having a rather wonderful gran and a difficult pairing of (not)dad and step-mother. But she did it well and I really want her to stay around a while with the new incomer (if only in the hope that Idris/TARDIS doesn't throw a complete hissy at not having anyone who knows how to fly her around). Orla Brady - beautiful, delectable Natasha Tem (an alt River Song - see Allyn Gibson's comment after Stuart's review) for the end of Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen's days) - brought her usual grace, elegance and mischief to the proceedings and proves again why she is gorgeous in everything (the angel housekeeper Mrs Sheringham in Eternal Law, a lovely guilt pleasure from last year, and especially as Peter Bishop's mother Elizabeth in Fringe). And that's before we get to weeping angels in the snow, a wooden cyberman, Handles the talking cabbage, Daleks being taken down in a flame of semi-controlled regenerative energy, and children's drawings.  Phew.... and breathe...

So, there was a lot to take in, at the end of this Doctor's time, and a lot of emotion to be caught and distilled.  In the end, it was what we probably needed to expect with some glorious extras to sweeten the pill.  Raggedy Man, Goodnight.

Downton Abbey - Christmas Special
What can I say?  Mother-in-law had coped with me harassing us home in time (just) for Doctor Who, so we let her watch Downton.  We have never watched Downton before.  We almost certainly won't again.  But 1923 is a VERY good year for frocks and hats and the narrative was sufficiently self-contained (with some 'you-couldn't-avoid-knowing-that' stuff) to be watchable for a pair of novices like Neil and I.

Did I mention I like the clothes?

Death Comes to Pemberley
I think that in some ways Pride and Prejudice and Zombies did greater justice to Austenesque writing, but this was an enjoyable period romp/murder mystery with a suitably utterly irksome Lydia (Jenna Coleman, paired again with Matthew Goode from Dancing on the Edge, one of the year's broadcasting highlights).  Of course, one key reason for me and Neil watching was to as ever worship at the feet of adorable Anna Maxwell Martin.  She made a wonderful older Lizzie Bennet, and Matthew Rhys a dark Darcy (he also made a fine John Jasper in the Edwin Drood adaptation of early 2012). Pemberley divided opinions apparently.  A shame, I think, as I rather agree with the Telegraph reviewer Sarah Crompton:
They weren’t Austen’s creations, they weren’t the characters conjured up by PD James – and they certainly weren’t Ehle and Firth. But they stayed in my mind as the credits rolled, as honourable incarnations of a great literary couple.

The Thirteenth Tale
Hokum.  But superior hokum in the style of Virginia Andrews.  Great cast - the thankfully ubiquitous Olivia Coleman (may she keep being everywhere when she's this good) and the once again flame-haired Vanessa Redgrave.  Lucy Mangan does a good non-spoilery review which captures the insane twisty tale which waved flags at its explanation from relatively early on.  Who cares?  It was very watchable.

I suspect that all of these will turn up on Masterpiece (which seems to be co-credited on just about everything these days!) if it hasn't already been broadcast - Doctor Who breaks records now in the USA, even if it is just on BBC America.

Enjoy and happy new year!