Archive for the 'television' Category

RSC: The Winter’s Tale

April 26, 2021

I’ve only ever taught The Winter’s Tale twice, I think; it’s one of those rather difficult plays for a modern audience in that it clashes with our expectations of how a drama works and unfolds. Some of my regular readers may recall that I had – pre-COVID – been in the habit of attending a Shakespeare course and seeing plays at the RSC in Stratford each spring, and in 2020 was expecting to see both The Winter’s Tale and The Comedy of Errors. Now, the former play has been rehearsed and filmed under the COVID restrictions in force, and shown on BBC4. And what a treat it was: I’d lost sight of the sheer power of Shakespeare and the wonders of the RSC over the last year or so. Though it was very strange to catch an occasional glimpse of the empty seats in the auditorium during the performance, and I was also reminded of the limitations of television, in that when you are seeing a close-up shot, you cannot see what the other characters onstage are doing, and this can be very telling…

The Winter’s Tale is, alongside Othello, a very powerful play about the effects of sexual jealousy; in both plays the effect is shocking, but in The Winter’s Tale Leontes’ jealousy is completely generated within himself: there is no villain like Iago there to engender it. This makes the madness different, and puts the focus more sharply and squarely on Leontes. He was very effectively played, and I got a very strong sense of ‘it’s all about me’ from both the situation and how he developed the role.

It’s one of Shakespeare’s later plays which are sometimes grouped under the heading ‘romances’ because despite potentially tragic situations developing, Shakespeare brings about a happy ending of sorts, involving marriage. In the Tale, our credulity is stretched to the limits as the dramatist engineers a sixteen-year gap in the action in the middle of the play, and ultimately has us believe that Hermione was not dead but alive all that time, concealed by Paulina… and one of the things that struck me most powerfully in this production was that the immense emotional shock on Hermione of the entire horrific business became stunningly evident – and more effective because of TV close-up – in the final reunion scene, where her face showed the strain and she could not look at Leontes…

I said it’s a difficult play for a contemporary audience: there is an incredibly long comic scene (the longest scene in any Shakespeare play) with rustics and dancing, involving the courtship of Florizel and Perdita, which to us seems very incongruent sandwiched between the jealousy scenes and the staged reunion and happy ending. Shakespeare was giving his audiences what they were used to, and what they wanted, and, towards the end of his writing career, what was now possible in the newer types of theatre coming into existence. We may find it weird, and we just have to accept it. Here, using an almost hippy setting for the scene, and a strong female Autolycus, the RSC made it work very well.

I’ve long been impressed by what the RSC has done about inclusion in terms of its actors: gender is no longer determinant in roles, and actors with disabilities are regularly cast; in this production actors with speech disabilities took part. I suppose what I’m saying is that I briefly notice these casting choices and then I don’t, for the production is a production with all the actors together and it works, and that, surely, is what really matters. And I’m really grateful to the RSC for sharing the performance – it would have cost more than £50 for my theatre seat last year – and cheering me up immensely.

Losing the BBC?

April 4, 2021

I’m beginning to feel that it’s a generational thing, and also that it’s inevitable that the BBC as we have known it for many years is withering on the vine and will not survive much longer.

It has many enemies, particularly the Conservative party and media moloch Rupert Murdoch, and between them, they are succeeding in their long-term aim. The BBC has been weakened by political interference and political appointments and is now no longer the voice of the nation, but the voice of the government, and as such, afraid to be critical or even impartial; economically it has been on a government-imposed shoestring for many years, and had recently announced that its flagship BBC4 channel is to become ‘archive-only’ ie no new programming, only repeats.

Murdoch, possibly the most destructive and vindictive media baron ever, has always hated the BBC. His tactic is also working: he has swamped the airwaves with cheap multi-channel programming, encouraging viewers to think in terms of multiplicity of choice, which the BBC cannot match. But once there is sufficient ‘choice’ (we all need to have the choice between 400 different shampoos and conditioners, after all) especially when other companies like Disney, Netflix and Amazon follow suit, pile in and flood the market, then you can argue that people have chosen, and are paying for their TV anyway and so should not have to pay a licence fee for a state-run organisation… then it can be allowed gradually to fall to bits, as may eventually happen to the NHS as well.

Is this any great loss? I’m in my sixties, and would argue that it is. I got a free education in classical music from Radio 3, which has given me lifelong pleasure. I’ve often felt that my annual licence-fee was worth it just for this one radio channel; there was no commercial channel in my younger days to offer classical music and the gobbets of advert-surrounded music clips that is Classic FM just doesn’t bear thinking about. There was a wealth of informative documentary programmes, excellent news coverage and analysis, and my cultural education was furthered by the wealth of international films shown late-night when I was a student – all on the BBC. So yes, I feel a debt of gratitude to the BBC, even as I see it dumbing down, and giving up on what it did so well in the past.

Is it a generational thing? Yes it is: younger generations have grown up with Sky and all the other myriad commercial channels, and consume TV very differently from the way my generation did, channel-hopping and binge-viewing in ways which were just not available way back when. And the concept of programming, ie having to watch a programme at a particular time or miss it, just doesn’t exist for them with streaming providing instant entertainment whenever. And nobody, but nobody, thinks about the environmental cost of streaming. Younger generations have no debt of gratitude to BBC children’s programming when so much cheap trashy pap for youngsters is now part of the entertainment package they pay for. Bundle TV services in with broadband and the BBC is on a hiding to nothing.

In the end, yes, these are the moans of an oldie who liked things the way they were. But, as with a good deal of the things that disappear with the passage of time, it’s the baby that gets thrown out with the bathwater that worries me. Entertainment, diversion, even education via TV should not have to be dependent on selling stuff in order to exist; everything is devalued by being reduced to this level. And in unmeasurable ways, we are all the poorer for it…

Here is the news…or not

November 23, 2020

Elsewhere you’ll find posts about my love of newspapers and my newspaper collection; recently while having a tidy-up and clear-out, I found myself looking through my collection again, and various different impressions struck me:

How much more serious and sober newspapers were in the days when they were monochrome! The message was clear: this is news, not entertainment. Almost – therefore, you can trust what you read here. I found a crumbling front page from the Daily News (founded by Charles Dickens, no less) in 1912, where the main headline speculated about what was going on at the South Pole. Had Amundsen got there? Had Scott got there? Scott’s imminent return was awaited…unless he had chosen to spend another season on the ice, continuing his research… There, you also get the sense of immediacy from the time way back when, as well as an even more poignant sense of the tragedy.

Back in those days, some newspapers did not carry news on the front page… The Times resisted up until 1968, I think. Some newspapers eschewed photographs – Le Monde did this I think well into the 1980s. There were far fewer pages: wartime restrictions and paper rationing meant that they often ran to only 4 broadsheet pages. They still managed to fit in pretty nearly everything you’d expect in a newspaper today, using space much more economically. I also looked back through some newspapers from the communist countries: again, few pages, few pictures, and most strikingly, no advertising. I found this very refreshing: the message was, here is the news, rather than, we are trying to sell you something. And yes, I know their idea of news was somewhat different from ours.

The changes creep in gradually, from the late 1970s and early 1980s onwards: more pages, more sections, as daily papers discovered the need to emulate the weekend ones. Designers took over, using white space and eventually colour to create a superficially more attractive product, with more pictures, and more ‘features’, ‘lifestyle’ content; news now occupied an ever smaller proportion of the pages. And articles, both news and commentary, became shorter, perhaps reflecting what television was doing to our attention-span?

Ironically, these developments came along at the time when newspapers themselves were becoming far less ‘relevant’ to more and more people, because the news was on the TV and the radio; these developments may have been intended to arrest the decline of print, but it is now evident that they have singularly failed, when you consider, for instance, a newspaper like the Daily Express that once enjoyed the largest circulation in the land, now a pitiable shadow of its former self, currently selling fewer copies per day than The Guardian or The Times did in their heyday…

It was inevitable, once the internet arrived; the vast infrastructure that distributed tonnes of print around the land overnight was no longer needed; a far more up-to-date news service is now available at the breakfast table than ever dropped through the letter-box. And yet, I am convinced, in many ways we are the poorer for the changes that have taken place over the past half-century. I think we are less clear about what news is, we are less clear about the distinction between news and opinion, and we are less well-informed that we used to be, in spite of, or perhaps because of those changes.

Jane Austen: Pride & Prejudice

June 24, 2020

4154mFOeD9L._AC_UY218_     Lockdown entertainment has been a little thin on the ground as far as we are concerned, and so we seized the opportunity to re-enjoy the famous BBC-TV production of Pride and Prejudice which was repeated over six weeks recently. It remains a superb adaptation of the novel which has stood the test of time, a tribute to the skills of Andrew Davies’ screenplay, and yet, it is just that – an adaptation – and it sent me back to re-read the novel itself, which I hadn’t done for quite a number of years, with a view both to evaluating Davies’ skill and detecting what he inevitably had to strip away to get Austen’s novel down to six fifty-minute episodes.

He retains as much of her dialogue as possible; this shows. And what we inevitably lose is Austen’s narrative style, in particular the difference between actual speech and Austen’s particular variety of reported speech, which at once feels like we’re inside the speaker’s mind or consciousness, but upon closer reflection makes us notice that Austen is actually commenting and shaping our response to the character and events. There are places where you have to recreate the dialogue yourself, to imagine actual words, from the slanted account Austen is actually giving of a conversation… this is very subtle and very clever, and easy to miss completely if you read too quickly, without reflecting.

Jane Austen was a good deal funnier than I remembered, and there was so much more depth and detail in the key conversations between Elizabeth and Jane, and between Elizabeth and her friend Charlotte Lucas. It became evident that the crucial development of Elizabeth, her coming slowly and maturely to greater self-knowledge and self-understanding cannot possibly be articulated on screen, and yet is perhaps the most important strand of the story. It is presented through her thoughts, whereas the similar growth in self-awareness of Darcy is revealed in dialogue, conversation between the two of them.

Then there is the difference between a novel, written to be read, consumed, enjoyed at one’s own pace, and a television adaptation, to be shown as a continuous episode (yes, I know you can pause and come back and rewind and all that stuff, but it isn’t the same!). There is a greater intensity of emotion and feeling which comes from reading the story, no matter how skilful an adaptation is for the small screen. You can pause and reflect, flip back to an earlier conversation, have a discussion with someone else about the situation…

I found myself looking out for and noticing small things as I read. There is the ‘will she get her man or not?’ which is paralleled in both Jane’s and Elizabeth’s stories, a trope which is brought to perfection in the later novel Persuasion. There is the cynical question, is it Darcy or Pemberley that Elizabeth falls in love with? This time, I felt convinced that it was Darcy at Pemberley, on his own home territory that she falls in love with. The place makes the man: Darcy is a fish out of water in other settings, along with other faults which Elizabeth clearly enumerates. Had she wanted to, surely Jane Austen could have had a character we liked less than Elizabeth fall in love with a place rather than a person, but it’s not what happens here… at least that’s my opinion this time around.

Proposals are done privately in Austen’s novels: we don’t hear Bingley put the question, nor Darcy. The happy outcome is reported, obviously, but this will not do for television, so dialogue (and a kiss) has to be scripted, and this is where screen adaptations inevitably (but briefly) fall down for me.

A final note: I was much more aware, this time around, of Mrs Gardiner as the matchmaker though her conversations with Darcy when Elizabeth is not around – subtly done. And ironical, in that it’s Mrs Bennet’s sister who helps to bring about what she herself singularly fails to do, her daughter’s happiness. There’s always something new in a Jane Austen novel, even at the n-th reading!

His Dark Materials – the TV series

December 28, 2019

I’ve just finished watching the first series, so it’s time for a few reflections on how well the BBC and its collaborators have done with the first volume of Pullman’s trilogy. After the dire film The Golden Compass – of which my DVD has mysteriously lost itself – the bar was pretty low.

It’s a complex novel, both in terms of ideas and setting: Pullman makes his readers work reasonably hard, and it’s worth it. What the makers of the TV series threw out right from the start were the quaint alternative names – perhaps Victorian-sounding – for all sorts of objects and ideas. I hadn’t realised this initially, and on reflection I thought it was a pity, because in the novels it was one of the things that underlined the idea of Lyra’s Oxford and her world being a parallel universe that had evolved slightly differently from our own…

What I didn’t like: there was a lack of clarity, right until the final episode, as to what the aims of the Magisterium were, and who the Authority was, and quite a lot of vagueness about Dust. These are some of the complex ideas Pullman wanted his readers to be wrestling with, and obviously it’s easier to present them in the pages of a novel: it doesn’t make for very gripping television, and so there were clunky sections at various points where necessary information was dumped rather crudely to enable viewers to get with the plot… However, I was very pleased to see that no punches were pulled in that final episode, about the nature of Dust and its link to the awful Christian concept of original sin, and its malign effects on our society.

I also didn’t feel that daemons got a big enough look in. Perhaps it was very expensive and difficult technically to render them (I don’t know) but only the major characters seemed to be accompanied by theirs whereas everyone has one in Lyra’s world. However, the idea that a person can be separated from their daemon in a number of different ways, was clearly established.

There was far more that I admired than disliked, however. I thought the casting had been brilliantly done, especially shown in the complex and shifting relationship between Lyra and Mrs Coulter, her mother. I was also impressed by the multiracial nature of the casting and felt somewhat guilty that in my imagining of the novels as I had first read them, I had visualised all the characters as white… truly, stereotypes and conditioning run very deep. The sets, and the use of locations, were both superb throughout, I thought, and Lyra’s Oxford was a pretty good representation of an alternative universe.

The adaptation was really well done – it seems to have had Pullman’s imprimatur – and there were times when I was astonished, and reminded just how brilliantly a visual medium can telescope and replace many pages of textual description and explanation when it’s carefully and subtly done. Interweaving strands from both Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife was clever, and worked well, with the idea of both Lyra and Will moving into another universe in the closing moments of the final episode promising much for the next series, which I await eagerly.

For a number of reasons I wasn’t able to watch the episodes as they were transmitted, and, whilst not exactly bingeing to catch up, did find myself enjoying being able to watch a couple of episodes at a time back-to-back. I’m sure some will find aspects they did not like, and be far more critical than I have been. I cannot imagine the books better translated to the screen: I thought the series was truly marvellous.

Corn in Egypt…

November 17, 2019

For some unfathomable reason, you wait ages for something decent to watch on TV – no, I’m not a streamer, except for catch-up TV – and then two all-time favourites come along at once. For me this has happened recently with the arrival on the BBC of The Name of the Rose and His Dark Materials. Neither has finished yet, so immediate reactions only for the moment, and more detail later.

The European co-production of Umberto Eco’s best-selling novel The Name of the Rose is definitely over-the-top. It’s one of my top novels of all time for its combination of detective story with astonishing erudition and philosophy, and so I have very high expectations. I was initially shocked when the film of the book, with Sean Connery in the lead role, first came out, but grew to like it, in spite of its limitations: Connery was extremely effective as William of Baskerville, the settings were stunning and the basic detective plot was well-presented, though obviously in a two-hour film all the philosophical and religious subtlety largely went by the board.

We now get an eight-part series, some six and a half hours. The set of the monastery I’m afraid I find tacky: the appearance from the exterior is of a cheap polystyrene model. The casting is superb, especially of the monks and inquisitors, a combination of unworldly weirdness and the sinister. William of Baskerville is again supremely effective, as he needs to be. More of the complexity of the novel’s plot is retained, there is more of the religious debate of mediaeval times, and the library is particularly well-created, and although I’d have liked less gloom and half-light throughout the production, I can see that this reflects those times well.

My main gripe is with the changes: a whole new plot-stand developed to incorporate romantic and sexual interest, with two comely females roaming the landscape and one of then entwining Adso, William’s novice, at far too great a length. Partly this is also to develop the background of the heretical uprisings of those times and add a bit more blood and guts, but the producers have taken liberties with Eco’s briefer, more subtle and more sordid presentation of the temptations of the flesh. Equally, I have no recollection of a dubious past for Adso and his potential to be a spy from the original novel. I had been tempted to give up after the first couple of episodes but didn’t, after it seemed to be getting into its stride, and will see it through to the end.

The long-awaited series of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials has begun very well for me, apart from the surfeit of generic sludgy mood-music, which seems to be the current fashion with TV producers. The original film of the first novel, with its clunky American title, was reasonable but eminently forgettable (I’ve actually managed to lose my copy of the DVD). Here we are instantly transported into the parallel universe, and rapidly encounter the several strands of the plot, although the fiendish Mrs Coulter is saved for the second half of the first episode. The setting is utterly convincing and the daemons are really done very well. I admired the way, too, that the multiracial and multicultural casting seemed so natural, and was momentarily taken aback not to have realised this potential when reading and listening to the original novels.

Lyra is really good: there’s the naturalness of a child on the verge of adolescence that I imagined might be very hard for an actor to capture. Lord Asriel was much more swashbuckling than the novel had suggested to me, and that also worked very well.

I’m not yet sure about the pace of the production, having only seen the first episode, which was very hectic, fast-moving, action-packed as a way to get the series off to a good start; my recollection of the novel was of a rather slower world than our own, but I recognise that all sorts of things shape our initial impressions of texts, which, once grounded, are hard to shake off. I’m certainly looking forward to the rest. One doubt I have, and which I can’t pronounce on, not being a child, is how accessible this production will be to children or adolescents: I think one of Pullman’s greatest achievements with the novels was his appeal to both younger and older readers…

Jeremy Brett is Sherlock Holmes

February 11, 2018

Back in the mid-1980s, in my first real teaching post, I shared with my inspirational head of department a love of Sherlock Holmes, and so when the dramatisations of the stories produced by Granada TV and starring the great Jeremy Brett were televised, we had a field day, dissecting each episode in the staffroom the morning after.

I have had the entire collection on DVD for a long time now, and every now and then have a short binge, re-visiting episodes I’d forgotten, and recently did this again; Brett is still stunningly good – none of your cucumber-patches for me! – as are the productions. And they are the real Holmes canon, even if some of the stories are just a little embroidered for television. Given that they fitted quite easily into thirty-minute radio adaptations in my childhood, that is inevitable.

The TV versions are leisurely, often involving lengthy and complex flashbacks to set the scene for the story, generally remaining pretty close to the originals – embroidery is not alteration – and the production values were sumptuous, often with expensive location filming for the stories not actually set in the heart of Victorian London.

What is so good about Jeremy Brett as Holmes? He looks distant, austere, emotionally cold, as Holmes is in the stories, and therefore is an excellent foil for the more human (and humane) Watson. Costume, and the Baker Street setting, which seems pretty convincing to me, adds to the effect. And when Holmes is in one of his many disguises, the visual medium of television is able to surprise as well as to convince. Brett’s voice is cut-glass dry, mannered, and suitably distant, his intonation demonstrating curiosity but not empathy, his dry laugh indicating not shared humour but superiority. He is a master of the look, and his mannered, sometimes florid, sometimes abrupt gestures work well: everything contributes to the overall effect.

When I did some reading up on the series and on Brett, I was not surprised to discover how seriously he took the role, completely immersing himself in it, and pondering for ages how, exactly, to portray the character in each episode. Here was an actor not just performing a role as his career and bread-and-butter called for, but someone genuinely in love with the character, eliding his personality with the role. Sadly it is perhaps true that Brett’s own mental and physical illnesses actually helped him in developing the perfect portrayal of Conan Doyle’s most famous character – Holmes was not a man of healthy habits as you know – and it is a great loss that he died before being able to complete the canon. Nevertheless he left versions of forty-one of the sixty stories and novels, which isn’t bad, and this breadth of achievement also helps make him, for this reader and viewer at least, the archetypal and only Sherlock Holmes.

From page to screen

May 31, 2016

I suppose I’ve always been a purist when it comes to adapting a novel for television or the cinema: a book is a book for a reason, and converting it into something else – a play, a film, a TV series – always loses something. However, there are also times when something is gained…

Other forms (I’ll write more fully about significant form in a future post) add a visual element to something that was originally written to appear in print. It’s important to understand how it replaces a space that existed for the imagination to work in when we are reading: we visualise characters and places as we read, often working from our stock of memories of all the people we have ever met and the places we have been to. Thus, when we see a film after having read the book, we may feel that the casting or setting jars with what our imagination had created for us originally. Equally, if we watch a film or television adaptation first and then go on to read the book, our imagination may well be constrained by what we have seen. I do think that it’s important to allow free rein to the imagination, especially in a child’s formative years: if it’s fully developed, it will always be there; it’s a valuable and necessary part of us in so many ways.

Although adaptations add visual elements (which are often powerful and moving), they usually also necessitate trimming or cutting of much material that’s in the original text. Logically, if it takes us a total of, say, twelve hours spread over a few days to read a novel, then to turn it into a two-hour film inevitably means losing something, even though the visual elements are clearly a short-cut and substitute for many pages of written description. Even the first TV adaptation of War and Peace in the early 1970s, which lasted twenty hours (!) had to lose a great deal of Tolstoy‘s masterpiece.

So decisions are made, and can outrage us if we have read the book first and we feel that vital elements have been cut, or even worse, changed, for the sake of – what, exactly? a series suited to the US market, perhaps? However, if we come to the text after the film, we may well be enlightened by the richness of what the author offers us in the original.

What gets cut? Characterisation and location are relatively easy to do with visual support; action has the advantage of looking good on screen and keeping the viewer engaged; visual elements can create atmosphere very effectively indeed. What often suffers are the broader themes and ideas which a writer may have spent a good deal of time on: these may be lost, and their absence contribute to a more lightweight and superficial visual experience.

Things are added, too – and these are the kind of things that really jar for me. Examples: the marvellous adaptation of Jane Austen‘s Persuasion which works beautifully until the very end when the hero and heroine were instructed to kiss – for goodness’ sake! for the US audience. The adaptation of Mansfield Park where we were shown Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram in bed committing adultery. Colin Firth’s pool plunge and wet t-shirt moment. I could go on, but you get the idea, I hope. And please don’t tell me it’s all about making something relevant for a modern audience…

I have come across very good translations from book to film. I’ll cite the original TV adaptation of War and Peace again, because it was a masterpiece of its time; the early 1970s adaptation of Sartre‘s Roads to Freedom trilogy which many of my generation remember with great fondness, but which seems to have been lost forever; the TV adaptation of Middlemarch which did its best with a doorstopper of a novel; Volker Schlondorff‘s film of GrassThe Tin Drum, which, although only the first half of this epic novel, was stunningly faithful to the original.

Horrors include most adaptations of GCSE set books turned into theatre by companies desperate to milk the school market for cash, such as stage versions of To Kill A Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men.

Lastly, it occurred to me that science fiction comes off pretty well in the cinema, and I’m wondering why – perhaps it’s partly because of its emphasis on spectacle and imagination rather than ideas (gross oversimplification here, I know) but films such as Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey certainly managed to enhance their original novels, and I’m looking forward to seeing the series of The Man in the High Castle at some point…

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