Sunday, October 31, 2010

In Praise of... Christian Marclay: The Clock (exhibit at the British Art Show 2010, Nottingham - New Art Exchange)

Nottingham has currently gained quite an artistic coup: the opening exhibition of the new British Art Show 2010 BEFORE it comes to London (or anywhere else in the UK).

Spread across three venues - New Art Exchange, Nottingham Contemporary and Nottingham Castle Gallery and Museum - the show provides a snapshot of contemporary art practices (last time we ended up not wearing our own shoes).

So far, we've made it around two of the three venues (you get into the Castle for free if you visit the other two venues first: usually the Castle is a paying venue for non-Nottingham residents, and we live just outside the city limits).

Still, my highlight by a country mile is sadly a work not being exclusively shown in Nottingham (though I really hope that Nottingham residents and visitors take full advantage of it):

Christian Marclay: The Clock

Also available as a WHOPPING 720 page book, The Clock is a magnificent video installation showing... well, clocks. And watches. And time passing. All constructed from thousands of film clips --- in 'real time'. It is an utterly addictive experience -- we did approx. 11.25am to 12.15pm, and then approx 12.30-1pm. And then headed back for 4.10-4.45pm. You sit and find yourself physically Lost in Time (scroll for picture). I could have easily stayed for the day. If only the day long screening wasn't a work day...

What's annoying is that most of the reviews around focus on its current screening in London rather than the Nottingham installation. Even the Huffington Post reviews it -- but AGAIN, no mention that Nottingham is getting its fair share of the fun.

Which is a real shame because I would really like more people to take advantage of seeing this magnificent work in Nottingham while they can. Nottingham's New Art Exchange describe The Clock thus:
[Marclay's] new work, The Clock, features thousands of found film fragments of clocks, watches, and characters reacting to a particular time of day. These are edited together to create a 24 hour-long, single-channel video that is synchronised with local time. As each new clip appears a new narrative is suggested, only to be swiftly overtaken by another. Watching, we inhabit two worlds; that of fiction and that of fact, as real-time seconds fly inexorably by.

These clips from several thousand films, are structured so that the resulting artwork always conveys the correct time, minute by minute, in the time zone in which is it being exhibited. The scenes in which we see clocks or hear chimes tend to be either transitional ones suggesting the passage of time or suspenseful ones building up to dramatic action.
But to my mind, this is all just a fancy way of saying 'spot the clip!' because frankly this was the most fun I've had in ages in an art gallery.

There is a charming interview with Christian Marclay from the Economist - acknowledging both the team of assistants in his film watching, and his editing technology - but mostly I urge you to see the installation.

What I found so enchanting is that alongside the expected - indeed, essential clips - such as 'High Noon' at noon and the Robert Powell version of 'The 39 Steps' with THAT scene hanging off Big Ben...

... you also get less expected snippets such as quick glimpses of 'The Quick and the Dead' (which also has noon as a key timing point).

But there are also some nice clips from non-film sources such as John Simm as Raskolnikov pawning his watch in the TV adaptation of Crime and Punishment. Some scenes pass in a second, others are languidly included but the main feature is that time keeps passing. I would happily spend my days dipping into this fascinating work and if you see nothing else from the diverse range of artworks included in the British Art Show, make sure you see this.

Upshares CD received!

Oh bliss: the insanity that was Radio 4's PM programme slot 'Upshares, Downshares' -- with its various musical versions of the old Upstairs Downstairs theme --- lives on in CD form.

At last my CD has arrived from the BBC -- well worth £10 of amusement to anyone like me.

For those who remember the TV series, it sounded like this:

But for listeners of Radio 4's PM show with Eddie Mair, the music is now indelibly associated with the credit crunch coverage with Nils Blythe and the radio listener response to calling the slot 'Upshares Downshares' --- namely, a multitude of versions of the Sandy Faris theme. Sandy himself even joined in the fun.

Of course, not everyone approved, but frankly sometimes you just have to develop a sense of humour about it. Especially when you get a special 'BBC Radiophonic Workshop version' (Murray Gold, just redo the Doctor Who theme this way and we'll ALL be happier).

Monday, October 25, 2010

In praise of... The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger

Famed and appreciated for the heartbreaking novel 'The Time Traveller's Wife' (and less for the not as satisfying film version made from it), I nevertheless think that 'The Night Bookmobile' by Audrey Niffenegger is possibly my favourite of her works.

Originally published in the Guardian Review, it tells a magical and moving tale about reading and life and living and death.

Everything you could want really.

Thanks to coverage on the World Service, I've now discovered this gem has finally been published (thanks for nothing the rest of you!).

So you can now buy the shiny visual treasure that is The Night Bookmobile.

Truly a thing of great beauty: and worth getting hold of from somewhere like Gosh!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Theatre Review: Hamlet @ Crucible Sheffield Saturday 16 October 2010

It is perhaps more than a little unfortunate that timing meant I saw this production a comparable two years on from seeing Tennant's storming performance at Stratford.

But I'll try and shy away from direct comparisons at the moment and try and assess the production on it's own terms, even though pretty much no one else has... The Telegraph even begins it's sub-heading "In comparison with David Tennant..."

So what did the Crucible production give us? Well, Simm is very watchable - boyishly attractive (though I know not to everyone's taste) and I'm not sure it's ever possible to produce a really BAD Hamlet. There is too much to appreciate in the text and the plot to feel disappointed at spending time with this play.

Additionally, this was clearly an audience that was much less familiar with the play text than is often possible after so many Hamlets have graced our stages and screens. This was most noticeable in the end scenes when Gertrude *SPOILER* drinks the cup of poison (apologies: I'm assuming you know this!). Both Helen and I noted that the extremity of reaction - truly horrified gasps at what she was doing - was nowadays pretty unusual to experience, but was actually rather refreshing. If this production got in some newcomers to Shakespeare and to Hamlet, then that's no mean feat after so many others have crossed the public sphere, and has to be a positive. Certainly I really enjoyed being part of such freshly felt audience emotions.

I also liked the wintry setting, a chilly, austere - almost barren set, with a balcony area that allowed characters to look down onto the rest of the stage. Occasional snow added to the chill, for this was definitely not a Hamlet for excessive emotions (Though I'll tackle Nettles performances as Claudius and Ghost later).

Mostly I liked Simm's performance - a bit over-crisp in pitch at times (diction isn't everything), but he was an interestingly irked Prince nonetheless. Simm does a neat turn in malevolent smiles and bewilderment and there are flashes of these scattered through the play, most especially around his supposed friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, those faithless pals from University. Simm was also particularly good in the 'get thee to a nunnery' scene where his inability to disguise the love he felt/once felt for Ophelia is touching - a portrayal that captures his desire to get her away from him, if she knows what's good for her. It was noted by Kate Bassett in the Independent at least:
"John Simm's Hamlet is most touching in his tenderness towards Michelle Dockery's Ophelia, kissing her as if forgiving her paternally enforced aloofness without a second thought. "
Unfortunately, for me, Michelle Dockery - freshly in people's mind's from Downton Abbey (which I haven't been watching) - wasn't the most convincing Ophelia. She was suitably fragile, but perhaps too flat in her emotions to my mind. Still, she carried off some lovely outfits.

That doesn't sound good, does it? I don't want to be too harsh on her, because getting the balance of madness and youthful affection for both family and Hamlet is no easy task and it's probably one of the roles hardest to pull off because it gives so little to do in the normal range of emotional expression. But Dockery's lack of expressiveness occasionally undermined some of Simm's better work in the play.

Because as good as a Hamlet needs to be, the role can stand or fall on what else - who else - is around him. Because what Hamlet depends on is the relationships that are established, demolished, undermined, destroyed around him.

Why else would we care how harshly Hamlet acts towards Ophelia if we can't believe in the idea that once he DID love her? There's an early moment in the production, after Claudius makes his obsequious claim of possession on Gertrude, his new-ish Queen, when the guests depart to leave Hamlet alone --- here, Ophelia hesitates, both she and Hamlet in anticipation of spending time together, but she is disappointedly forced away by her father Polonius. (Hugh Ross is fast-speaking Polonius, verbose but not distracted: a dutiful royal servant with strict ideas of propriety). And Hamlet looks far more broken by this abandonment than by the revelation of his uncle's callous murder of his father. It suggests there could have been a far more emotional Hamlet here than we are eventually allowed, and I think the fault lies less with Simm's Shakespearean inexperience than in the rest of the casting.

For example, Colin Tierney, last seen by me as the alternately chill and passionate Ejlert Loevborg in the touring production of Hedda Gabler, here makes for a rather chill Horatio as well. There are a few moments where he comes across as a wry model of what perhaps Hamlet would want in a sibling - smart, observant, willing to be there for him - but a lot of the time you can't quite see what either party get from the friendship. Whilst the duplicitous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can be forgivably false in their level of friendship with Hamlet, it is surely crucial that Horatio is demonstrably emotionally committed to Hamlet --- confused as to whether to believe in the madness for sure, but nevertheless loving and trusting in his old friend's dilemma. Here, Horatio seems almost on a par with R&G for presenting a level of friendship that baffles why Hamlet would ever spend time with this person, let alone that they would come to offer comfort and remain to support Hamlet through his madness AND bring him back from near murder in England back to court.

So again, whilst there are sparks of something more interesting underneath, the lack of an emotional core to the relationship damages the production.

The show yesterday wasn't helped by a Laertes that sounded as if poor James Loye had a frightful dose of flu (if his voice lasts out the final work, I hope he gets a good rest after that). Still, it was a lively sword-fight. And Barbara Flynn is sexy and maternal as Gertrude in her closet scene with Hamlet, and it is a solid reliable performance from her overall: certainly she conveys a suitably mortified fury at Hamlet's accusation that she's too old to be interested in sex. But she does not seem wounded enough by Hamlet's mourning, his distance. Again, one would not want the play to be pitched too much as melodrama, but this IS a drama of heightened events and as such there does need to be some sense of emotions.

And the real problem for the play is that the one person who DOES bring heightened emotions is John Nettles as Old Hamlet and Claudius. He plays both roles with villainous relish and lascivious venom, bringing to the ghost of Old Hamlet a rasping anger (I'll ignore less charitable accusations of asthmatic wheezing) and to Claudius a hands-on grotesque delight in having captured his brother's wife and his power. This is a sour Claudius whose movements bring a little too much of the pantomime to mind -- Abanazar in Aladdin anyone?

Still, there is a perverse cruelty in Claudius that brings a nice edge to the play, but it isn't quite enough to compensate for the grimaces and shoulder shuffles as he revels in the pleasures acquired by being the usurping brother.

So overall this is an interesting but not entirely convincing Hamlet. It works, but not quite, and not as well as one might hope. With more time to settle down, and a slightly different tone to a few of the performances, this could have been far more enlightening of the endless nuances the play can offer. A 4/5 mark if I'm feeling generous, but realistically 3.5. Nevertheless worth seeing.

Friday, October 15, 2010

How not to start Friday -- water mains burst cuts off 17,000 homes


Cloud gets up: groan goes the taps.

No water.

Us and around 17,000 other homes it seems without water on this chilly Friday autumn morning.

Richard McRae on Facebook has some photographs of the incident.

By about 1pm, it seems as if water was being restored according to Severn Trent:
Burst water main, Nottingham – Friday 15th October, 1pm.

Central Networks has now secured the electricity main and we are able to make the repairs to the burst water main on Ilkeston Road in Nottingham. We will continue to work closely with Central Networks on site.

We have bought water into the areas affected using an alternative network of pipes, which means approximately 13,000 properties now have their water supply restored. Some of these properties may experience temporary poor pressure.

We are continuing to deliver bottled water to our vulnerable customers and we will have two tankers with tap bars parked in the car park at Bramcote Leisure Centre from 2pm, for customers to use if they wish.

We would like to apologise to our customers in the Bramcote, Stapleford and Toton areas of Nottingham who have been affected by this loss of water supply and to those that are still without water. We’d like to thank our customers for their patience while we carry out the necessary repairs.

Unfortunately, Ilkeston Road continues to be closed at the junction with Coventry Lane whilst we carry out the repairs.

From Severn Trent Water

Though, interestingly, HLW on the other side of Stapleford has had no problem with water at all - perhaps I should have gone over there for my shower...

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Birthday walk and stripes

Especially for fans of stripes, here's some pics of Neil and I out for a walk on my birthday on Sunday.

Cloud striding up the hill.

Rullsenberg pausing on the hill.

Neil in his Billy Bragg Marmite t-shirt.

I got a bit hot --- so off came the coat and cardigan!

And here are my new stripes: courtesy of lovely Chrissie.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Film Recommendation - Skeletons

Skeletons - a FABULOUSLY quirky and yet moving British film.

Buy it.

See it.

Love it.

Two 'psychic cleaners' get caught up in a missing person investigation.

No summary can do justice to this lovely film.


"The author Jasper Fforde has said that he's yet to find the right person to tackle a film of one of his Thursday Next books. I think he and Whitfield need to have a talk." (courtesy of Neil)

Single Father -- first thoughts

I didn't sleep last night.

Neither did Cloud.

I'm not sure if this was related to anything we did/ate/watched yesterday, but either way I didn't sleep.

So frankly I feel TRASHED.

But still: a hour of David Tennant being lovely, and romantic, and frustrated and weeping - worthwhile in my books.

The ratings were... okay, given Downton Abbey held firm and it was a competitive slot for attention from largely the same sort of audience.

But I think that Tim Dowling (incredibly - he's normally a bit glib for my liking) taps into the sharpest nerve for this drama: whether you can commit to such emotionally draining material.

For all sorts of reasons, various people I know watching Single Father found it hard. Frankly, I pretty much lost the plot only a few minutes in when Rita's lips move as she falls from her bicycle in her horrific and fatal collision with a police car, and Tennant - busy at his photography studio - (randomly, simultaneously) says "I love you too", out loud and to the bafflement of himself and those being photographed. That may have struck Tom Sutcliffe as melodramatic, but for me it worked.

If anything, the worst element of the whole piece - heightening melodrama in the worst possible way - was the music.

Blimey, made the worst of Murray Gold in Doctor Who seem positively subtle in his underscoring.

I wasn't the only one disturbed by the music:
The horrible background music, sort of sub-rock desperately trying to sound expressive, frogmarched you unceremoniously to whichever point of the emotional compass the director had decided he was trying to convey in each scene.
And again on the music:
However, quite a bit of the action was marred by blaring intrusive music, which obscured bits of dialogue and distracted from the measured direction and performances.
Anyway, by the end of the show I had a splitting headache from trying too hard not to cry. I should have just crumpled as Tennant so expertly portrayed.

At least it would have come without an over-done music score.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

I'm 44 you know!

Birthdays hey? Still: I've had a weekend of culture (a play - 12th Night; a Spanish film - The Night of Sunflowers) and music (more than I can calculate!)

And tonight...


My phone will be off.

Don't even THINK about it!

Friday, October 08, 2010

42 Day and 'Single Father' starts: nice of them to notice my forthcoming birthday

Nice isn't it, that the whole world* is counting down to my birthday on 10.10.10 aka 42 Day.

Almost a pity I'm not actually turning either 10 or 42.

Clue: Unfortunately, my age is also not a number between those two either...


Still, at least I know my birthday brings me a treat - the lovely BBC will start broadcasting 'Single Father' on Sunday 10 October. Ah, lovely Mr Tennant. What a nice present.

*I could be exaggerating there a little...

Friday, October 01, 2010

The long and the short of Television Series Dramas: a Medium Rob debate

Medium Rob's Question of the Week has spawned an extensive debate about the differences and merits of US vs UK television drama series formats.

One of the examples much quoted in the discussions has been Buffy - a series which long-term readers will know is close to my heart, not least because it was the impetus to the name I adopted here. Willow Rosenberg: shy and kooky, emotional and tough; when addicted, she is dangerous, but she's smart and cool ("nerds are still in, right?") and a redhead. Lisa Rullsenberg isn't a natural redhead, but she's a redhead by temperament and adoption. I HEART Willow.

ANYWAY: Buffy started as a mid-season replacement of 12 episodes and eventually ran for 7 series. A mighty 144 episodes. Were they all of equal quality? Don't be ridiculous. But for me, I can find something good, wonderful, true, emotional, and/or funny in every episode. Even 'Beer Bad'.(1)

As Rob rightly notes, even 'filler' episodes contributed value -

Didn't they explore the characters or move on story arcs a bit, something you might not want to do in other episodes because it would have diluted their focus?
Why was this possible? And is it related to the length of series?

My suspicion is that the writing, directing, scheduling and broadcast structure of American TV works differently to in the UK.

In the UK, work isn't ongoing DURING broadcast - leastways, not for the current season. Things may be in flux until filming happens, with writing and changes and new scripts being brought in etc (the RTD seat-of-pants DW 2005 season strategy) ... but things tend to be - special effects aside - 'in the can' by the time the series starts to air. This is probably a chicken and egg thing: because UK series are generally shorter, they tend to be 'done' before broadcast; because US series are longer, things will unfold and change over the course of a season whilst it is still being made.

What are the benefits of a longer season? Simply, more time. This can be both a blessing and a curse depending on the writing set-up. With a long series you are forced to develop longer, more complex and layered narratives. That isn't to say short series cannot do that, but there will be inevitable limitations of what you can do in 3 hours (essentially a 'play' structure) and in 13 hours or 22 hours (allowing for ads: a topic I'll pick up in a moment).

I always say to students, think about how LONG this has to be before you start gathering too much. Tailor at least some of your research or development of the narrative you want to tell to the length required: because writing something shorter that contains the same breadth as something longer --- and doing it justice (getting depth) --- is bloody hard and most writers can't make it work. Something has to give: detail, clarity of structure, range of materials covered, context.

So it simply becomes impossible for most TV writers to make something that is intended to be 6 episodes work over 22 episodes without a substantial re-think. So substantial that it can barely be the same thing. Being Human was the example given by Craig Grannell and it seems a fair point. It isn't that you can't make a good series on a similar premise but the shape makes the dynamic different: it also generates a different audience relationship.

There was a good battle in the comments between SK and Rob about the role of advertising and channels in the US (that is, differences with the subscription model). The thing is the UK is different from HBO etc, even if both have a lack of 'need' for ads. It's always interesting to see how UK TV transfers to the US (when the eps need cutting, restructuring; when the ad breaks appear and for how long). By and large, home-grown UK drama builds itself for its environment - whatever that may be.

In the US, the stretched out runs of mainstream coast-to-coast channels, with re-runs, season-breaks - not forgetting the sweeps process of course - all both generate and respond to audiences dipping in and out of long-running, attractive narratives.

And sweeps play a vital role for many TV series in the US. Almost without fail, I've picked up when a US series airing in the UK was hitting a sweeps point in its narrative (besides the obvious 'heading to season finale' thing).

So what can work about a shorter series? Punch. Focus. Attention to a smaller range of detail. That won't necessarily mean a smaller story, but it fits the shape given.

What happens when the shape changes? Well, sometimes you can end up with The Bill, which has probably tried as many formats as Doctor Who over the years (and not all successfully - in both programme's cases).

Rob remarks that
...Paul Abbott's argument isn't about quality - and the latest series of Shameless have been 16 episodes a throw, remember, so clearly he knows a thing about maintaining a certain degree of quality in long running shows. It's about familiarity.
Unfortunately, my response to that would be 'and is Shameless as good as when it started?' (2)

ANYWAY: what I'm saying is that I don't mind WHICH model is used as long as it works for what is being done (narratively). The shape itself doesn't have to be a problem as long as narratively the format works for whatever it is. Torchwood was a bit batty, and patchy, too often uncertain of its audience or purpose, but 13-eps in its first two seasons was fine by me. Restructured to 5 -- and screened appropriately (over 5 nights) -- it was a revelation of brilliance.

Some things are just a narrative that works perfectly over 6 episodes. Some want, need, should have 13. Or 21. Should we dismiss the usefulness of commissioning longer series? Not if that is what the great narrative a TV writer proposes deserves. Besides, has no-one ever heard of cancelled series? And a cancelled series doesn't have to mean it doesn't work - look at how Firefly revived sufficiently to generate a MOVIE for goodness sake from its cancelled/DVD sales.

Anyway - those are my thoughts.

(1) FYI I just howled with laughter reading this gem about Beer Bad from Wikipedia.
This plot was written with the plan to take advantage of funds from the Office of National Drug Control Policy available to shows that promoted an anti-drug message.[8] Funding was rejected for the episode because "[d]rugs were an issue, but ... [it] was otherworldly nonsense, very abstract and not like real-life kids taking drugs. Viewers wouldn't make the link to [the ONDCP's] message."[9]

(2) Mind, I have never really subscribed to the 'OMG-Shameless-is-BRILLIANT!' brigade. Not funny. Not weirdly heart-warming. Even if Abbott is writing from personal observation/experience as his starting point (though that was quite some way back now - Shameless has been running since 2004), the show has long since become a comfortable form of pornography about working-class life.

If people are bothered, I can probably expect some abuse about those remarks.