Category Archives: miscellaneous

A month of things read, things watched – January 2017

It’s hard to think straight at the moment, given I seem to be living in every pessimistic sf novel I’ve ever read.  The nightmares of my teens and twenties have all come true in the last ten days and writing this seems excessively indulgent when other things need to be attended to. At the same time, I remind myself that I do all the other things in order to carry on doing this, so it would be pointless to stop now.

So, here’s a round-up of things I read and watched in January 2017.


black-and-britishDavid Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History (2016) is linked to the recent BBC series of the same name. It’s a good basic introduction to the history of black people in the UK, if you’re new to the subject: my historical interests in the last few years have been such that I already knew something about most of the pre-20th century material (and quite a lot about Granville Sharpe and Thomas Clarkson’s anti-slavery work – I recommend Adam Hochschild’s Bury These Chains, if you want to read more), though there was enough new detail to keep me interested. I was less familiar with the late nineteenth/early twentieth-century and post-war material so that took up most of my attention. The book did show some signs of being published in a hurry – there are more editorial mistakes than I thought seemly – but it does have a decent critical apparatus. It also reminded me to buy Peter Fryer’s Staying Power, which I’ve been intending to read since forever.

the-ash-treeI’m nothing if not eclectic in my reading (actually, I’m not – it’s pretty much equal parts history, various kinds of nature writing, fiction – predominantly science fiction and fantasy, and criticism these days) so next is Oliver Rackham’s The Ash Tree (2015) one of the Little Toller Monograph series. I find these to be something of a mixed bag (Iain Sinclair’s The Black Apples of Gower was entertaining, though possibly not for any reason he intended; my favourite by far is Adam Thirlwell’s On Silbury Hill). I was eager to read this because, well, I like ash trees, but the book felt rather leaden and dully fact-heavy until, towards the end, Rackham started taking a pop at various authorities over the ash dieback crisis.

wolf-borderSarah Hall’s The Wolf Border turned out be less than I was expecting, after a promising start.  I was hoping for something a bit more wolfish than I ended up with. I did not expect to get what is, to all intents and purposes, a contemporary version of the Gothic romance of the 1970s. Hated them then, really don’t like them now, even with a fresh spin. All the really interesting stuff was going on in the novel’s interstices, where we and the protagonist could only glimpse it. As a novel about national identity, it seemed have a lot to say about pregnancy. Exquisitely written, exquisitely frustrating.

weird-and-eerieI was only dimly aware of the existence of Mark Fisher as a writer, and it took his death to draw my attention to his last book, The Weird and the Eerie, which came out last year. I’ll not say much about it now as I’m planning to reread it and write about it, but I will note that I did not expect to read a piece of work published in 2016 that was so white and so male in its critical approach. Only three texts by women were discussed, and a lot of the material discussed was old. The section on Alan Garner focused on ElidorThe Owl Service and Red Shift, as though Strandloper,  Thursbitch and Boneland, all equally pertinent to the discussion, had never been written. I’m also not sure whether Fisher realised that Yvonne Rousseau’s Murder at Hanging Rock (which he discusses in the section on Picnic at Hanging Rock, bu unforgiveably does not mention in the bibliography) was intended as spoof scholarship. And yet, there was much about the basic critical thesis that I found very useful, hence much of my irritation with the text.

loveLast but not least, I read Love Beyond Body, Space and Time: An indigenous LGBT Sci-Fi Anthology, edited by Hope Nicolson. I’ve a review of this coming up in Strange Horizons so I’ll link to that when it appears.





Chiang.jpgI also read (possibly reread) Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Lives as I was going to see Arrival and wanted to read ‘Story of Your Life’. Ted Chiang is an excellent writer of a particular kind of sf that I happen to like, so job done.




book-cover-green-knowe Other rereads were Alison Uttley’s The Country Child and A Traveller in Time, and Lucy M. Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe. I’ve never much cared for A Country Child as a story, but see now that’s because it isn’t, not really. To my adult eyes, the descriptions of landscape and country ways are beautifully done; Susan Garland remains annoyingly priggish. For that kind of thing I would rather read Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford.




We went to see both Arrival and Rogue One, both very well done. I’ve already written about Arrival  so I won’t repeat myself here. Rogue One is, in many respects, everything I missed from The Force Awakens. Diverse cast, women flying X-fighters, enough nods to the original without being overwhelmingly cloying and sentimental in its fan service, funny, sarcastic, genuinely tragic, bizarrely life-affirming. This is my favourite Star Wars film.

We also went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of The Tempest. The general view seems to be that the special effects probably work better if you’re in the theatre; they do not come over well on broadcast relay. (N.B., for anyone who has ever asked me what it’s like to have no depth perception without glasses, if you saw this play as a relay broadcast, now you know.)

Much as I have always loved Simon Russell Beale as an actor, I’m forced to the conclusion, reluctantly, that he now does Simon Russell Beale in a play rather than the character he’s playing. His Prospero was … okay, better than his god-awful Lear and the so-so Timon for the Royal National Theatre, but I’d been expecting more and I did not get it. Ariel and Caliban were far better, and that set me thinking about them as physical embodiments of the two aspects of Prospero’s character. Miranda was also rather gutsier than I’m used to, which is good, and Ferdinand was wet, as usual.

I’ve written about watching the BBC productions of The Children of Green Knowe and A Traveller in Time on DVDChildren has fared well over the years, Traveller not so much. I’m glad to have the DVD but the production has entirely lost its magic for me.

I’ve also just finished catching up on the BBC’s fourth series of Father Brown, which I continue to regard as alternative history, in a Britain where the Reformation never happened. The series bible now seems to be firmly stuck around about August 1953, though the background culture is quite clearly changing constantly. I’ve been struck in this series by the sudden influx of actors of colour, and not all of them playing villains, for a wonder. The only way to cope with the series is to entirely forget about G.K. Chesterton and think of it as Midsomer Murders in the Cotswolds, with a Catholic priest, though the last episode of the series featured John Light’s disturbing Sexy!Flambeau. The writers of this episode seemed to have some slight understanding of the complexities of the relationship between Flambeau and Father Brown, for a wonder, and it was rather enjoyable in its own funny, fuzzy way. There must surely be a spin-off series called Flambeau! any moment now.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2014) dir. Julie Taymor

On Sunday night, Midsummer’s Night, Paul Kincaid and I went to see Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the rather dream-like surroundings of an almost entirely empty auditorium in Canterbury. There were perhaps fifteen to twenty of us in a theatre that comfortably seats more than three hundred people. Given that people in Canterbury turn out in large numbers to see the live broadcasts from the Royal Shakespeare Company one might have supposed they had an appetite for Shakespeare generally, but apparently not. Maybe no one likes the play? Maybe there is some weird prohibition in Canterbury on going out on Midsummer’s Night. Or, maybe everyone has an appetite for watching the RSC do Shakespeare, but not anyone else. Indeed, I admit that when I booked the tickets I had thought we were seeing another RSC production, so was rather confused on Saturday to hear the Taymor film being trailed all over the media.

Given that Julie Taymor is best known for directing the stage production of The Lion King, I wonder if an element of snobbishness enters into this refusal to see the film. There were a couple of distinctively ‘Lion King’ moments but otherwise it hardly intruded on the production. I didn’t know Taymor had directed The Lion King so was spared this concern. Maybe the putative audience doesn’t like films of stage productions, although I don’t really know what the RSC and Royal National Theatre broadcasts are, if not films (having said which, as Paul Kincaid notes, neither the RSC or RNT filmed productions are blessed with a particular sense of the filmic, tending to rely on several fixed cameras and an over-reliance on long swooping shots to give a sense of the breadth of the production). Maybe the putative audience didn’t know, as I also didn’t, that Taymor has a long history of directing stage productions – theatre, musical and opera – and that this film is of a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream she directed in Brooklyn in 2013. All I do know is that three hundred-plus people missed out, while fifteen to twenty of us had one of the strangest and most magical cinematic/theatrical experiences I can recall.

A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream is not among my favourite Shakespeare plays, probably because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a production of it that tries to make any sense of what’s going on. Those I have seen have focused on the ‘lovers lost in the forest’ aspect, along with the transformation of Nick Bottom into an ass (you can invariably feel the wardrobe department salivating at the prospect of transforming a man into a talking donkey). The ‘magic’ generally seems to derive simply from the fact of there being fairies in the play in the first place, that and a bit of legerdemain with a magic flower. I’ve never seen a production that was in any way ‘magical’. Indeed, I can’t think of a single production I’ve seen that really thought about the fact that most of the play is not set in the city – that is, the place of civilisation, of social rules and polite behaviour – but in that dark Shakespearian forest that pushes up against the walls of every city state, and that is the place of first resort for those for whom the rules of polite society no longer work, the place where the law of the city does not extend, a point made by Lysander when he and Hermia decide to run away together to get married beyond the law of Athens. As for the ‘dream’ of the title, while the play’s opening has Hippolyta talk about how the four days until her marriage to Theseus will be dreamed away, the idea of the dream is usually acknowledged at the end of the play, when the four mortals marvel at the strange dreams they had while they were in the forest and then return to their city lives, but there is rarely if anything ‘dreamlike’ about the play as it unfolds.

Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an altogether different beast from any production I’ve seen before. The play opens with a gawky, badly dressed figure in white-face falling asleep on a bed in the middle of an otherwise empty stage. As the figures sleeps the bed suddenly rises from the floor, elevated by a small forest of branches. The bedsheet is fastened to lines by a team of workmen who have suddenly appeared, and the next thing the audience knows, the sheet transforms into the sky, the figure has vanished into that sky, and the bed has been cut away from its forest roots by a chainsaw. It makes perfect sense and yet no sense at all, but like so many dreams it doesn’t really matter. The white-faced figure will shortly be revealed to be Puck, so we are immediately presented with the intriguing prospect that this play, this Dream, is a fairy’s dream to begin with: ‘Lord, what fool these mortals be’. Or maybe Hippolyta is already dreaming?

This strong sense of dislocation, of detachment from the ordinary or conventional, underlines something that the previous productions I’ve seen never really seemed to grapple with, and that’s the cruelty of the play. Considering that the heart of it is supposedly the celebration of a wedding, between Duke Theseus and Hippolyta, Dream is actually incredibly dark, more like a warning about the perils of marriage than something celebratory. Consider how the formal play opens, with Egeus seeking Theseus’s support for his invocation of an ancient Athenian law which ensures that either his daughter, Hermia, will marry the man he has chosen for her, Demetrius, or she will be put to death. Hermia, in love with Lysander, has already refused Demetrius, despite her father’s insistence. Theseus, however, is bound by the law, and the best he can do, he says, is to offer her a further choice, a chaste half-death in a nunnery. Robert Langdon Lloyd’s portrayal of Egeus as a man so angry you half expect the camera lens to be spittle-flecked as he rants is startling, while Duke Theseus’s rigid adherence to the law also suggestive. He could overrule Egeus in a moment but this lack of flexibility, this unwillingness to exercise power, particularly at a point when his own life is theoretically in a state of happiness makes you begin to wonder about the nature of his own forthcoming marriage. Is it purely symbolic and dynastic? Is Theseus perhaps acutely aware that he is marrying a woman who is queen in her own right, and someone unlikely to allow him to curtail her freedoms?

And so, Lysander and Hermia make a plan to meet beyond the city walls after dark, and to make their way to Lysander’s aunt’s house, beyond the law of Athens, where they can wed. Hermia tells her best friend, Helena, who is in love with Demetrius, who has eyes only for Hermia. Hoping to win Demetrius’s favour, Helena tells him about the proposed escape, and then follows him devotedly into the forest as he sets off to murder Lysander and reclaim Hermia: ‘I am your spaniel … the more you beat me, I will fawn on you’.

And as if this weren’t enough, Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies, are in dispute over a mortal child that Oberon wants for his entourage, and he determines to teach her a lesson by bewitching her, so that she falls in love with the first thing she sees … which is of course Bottom the weaver, his head replaced by that of an ass, an embellishment of Puck’s. What better way to celebrate a marriage than by presenting us with a series of abusive relationships? Yes, there are comical moments but there is the sense too that the laughter is uneasy, as though we are being asked to consider not only the fates of these four couples but the state of our own relationships too.

On top of that, there is a constant undermining of power and authority. Egeus cannot control his daughter. Theseus cannot control his state (which may be a good thing on one level, but it would seem he cannot do anything about antiquated laws either). Oberon is subject to the carelessness of his servant, Puck. It is worth noting that here Puck is played as a variant of the fool, but here emphasising the fact of his mistake rather than the dazzling wit we expect of Shakespeare’s fools. Of the women, only Hippolyta seems not to be entangled by love. The whole story is presented as enmeshed in constraint, reflected in the costumes of the characters. Demetrius is, literally, buttoned up, as is Egeus and, to a slightly lesser extent, Theseus. Hermia wears a rather foolish little puffed dress, at variance with the steel her character will later show. At the beginning and the end, we see Puck tightly encased in clothes that don’t fit, as though he is free only when he is in the fairy world, or in a dream, where the jacket comes off and he seems more like a workman. The mechanicals are more comfortably dressed than their supposed betters. It’s almost a shock, at the end, to see them in costume for the play. Lysander is dressed languidly, while Helena is more practically dressed than Hermia, and Hippolyta’s costume pays lip service to court convention while looking as though she might hitch up those skirts and run like the wind at a moment’s notice. In the woods, the four lovers end up wandering around in their underwear, perhaps signalling the stripping away of city mores, or maybe indicating that this too is a dream.

The production scores high on magicality as well. It makes heavy use of huge white sheets onto which images are projected as they billow across the stage, to be skies, clouds, hammocks. All this is coupled with the singing of the rude elementals in elaborate arrangements of sound that reminded me a lot of Steve Reich’s work. Other than that, special effects are limited. At one point Puck flies on a wire but when the fairies fly, they are in fact being carried by stage hands dressed in black, all very reminiscent of the puppet daimons in the RNT’s production of His Dark Materials. The magical forest – and this forest does seem to come alive – is formed of staves carried by the same stage hands. It’s surprisingly effective. The only real nod to The Lion King is a brief hunt scene, with three deer in familiar headdresses being chased by a pack of children-hounds.

The acting throughout is never less than good, and on occasion goes far beyond that. As Paul Kincaid remarked, there is that brief moment of being taken aback slightly by hearing American accents when one is used to English accents but that lasts about five seconds and the next two and a half hours zoom past. The young men are pretty, as young male actors are wont to be, these days. Lilli Englert (Hermia) and Mandi Masden (Helena) seemed to me to give more visceral performances than the kind of thing I’m used to seeing from young female Shakespearian actors (with one or two honourable exceptions, such as the RSC’s Michelle Terry), which was welcome. David Harewood’s Oberon was commanding, and all the actors playing the Mechanicals were splendid (Taymor presented them as a group of New York workmen, which ought to have jarred horribly with the rest of the play but, curiously enough, didn’t, perhaps because they were so firmly anchored when everyone else was so entirely adrift).

The outstanding actor was Kathryn Hunter, as Puck. She is known for a particularly physical style of performance and her Puck was agile and yet so strangely angular, and curiously still for someone who can allegedly put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes. It’ always tempting to think of Puck as a slim young child-figure, whereas this Puck is a creature of experience, tempered with puzzlement by the behaviour of mortals. She was extraordinary.

And having said that, I have certain reservations about the production. White Theseus, black Hippolyta (the Amazon queen, of course), and in contrast black Oberon (with a little Lion King gold paint for that extra exotic touch), white (icy white) Titania: I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to be reading from this. It is traditional for Theseus/Oberon and Titania/Hippolyta to be played by the same actors – was this version supposed to suggest a muddling of tradition, suggest something about the characters’ hidden natures. More problematic to me was the presentation of Helena by an African-American woman, dressed in sober Sunday church-going costume, talking about how she had always been Hermia’s friend, and then trailing after Demetrius, representing herself as his dog. It is Helena, after all, who has the speech about feeling less than her friend, not looking as beautiful, and Helena who believes herself to be mocked when both men claim to love her. And Helena who only gets her man because he remains bewitched. It was hard not to read some sort of sub-text into this, though for the life of me I couldn’t work out whether Taymor had made a deliberate choice here. One is forced to assume that David Harewood’s costume of baggy trousers, bare chest, body paint, all overtly exotic, was. Perhaps the intention was that I should, the next day, be thinking over that in my mind.

And yet, having said all that, I think about this production and weigh it against the two RSC productions I’ve seen recently: Love’s Labour’s Lost, Love’s Labour’s Won, and I know which of the three is the best. The RSC productions had fine actors but the actual look of the plays was so dull. There was little sense of energy or excitement about them. They felt very staid and conventional by comparison with A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

So, while I may have messed up when I made my bookings, I think on the whole it was a fortunate error, and a midsummer night well spent.

Offered without (much) comment …

It’s that time of year when newspapers resort to cheap filler by asking the literati what they’ll be reading on holiday. The Independent offered its list (much of which was, in fairness, quite interesting, bar the usual odd bits of self-promotion), and included this gem from Margaret Drabble (a novelist for whom I have very little time, anyway, and less so now).

I’ll be reading Owen Sheers’s new novel, I Saw a Man, despite the extremely boring and irrelevant discussions about genre fiction that are accompanying its publication. It’s said to be a page-turner, but no harm in that, and he has an excellent track record in other fields, so I’m looking forward to it. I read Ishiguro’s Buried Giant as soon as it came out, and although I don’t read much fantasy fiction, I loved his ogres as much as he does and felt very sorry for them. I can see the genre problem, though – I wouldn’t have read this book had it not been by him. And, for intellectual ballast, I shall catch up with Helen Small’sThe Value of the Humanities, a book which we shall be needing as the new government revamps its education policies. She always has fine, balanced and persuasive arguments, and how we need them now.

It’s not even the comments about genre that irritate me, given I’m perennially tired with them too, yet still feel the need to try to redress the balance.

No, it’s the sheer disdain the piece exudes, even for these novels she’s supposedly keen to read.

‘It’s said to be a page-turner, but no harm in that, and he has an excellent track record in other fields’. So that’s all right, then. I was worried there for a moment.

Or: ‘I can see the genre problem, though – I wouldn’t have read this book had it not been by him.’ But, but, but, I thought she didn’t care about ‘extremely boring and irrelevant discussions about genre fiction’, yet they would have stopped her reading the novel if it hadn’t been by Ishiguro.

And then, the killer … ‘for intellectual ballast’. It’s hard to feel warmth towards a novelist who appears to think so little of novels.

Six weeks later …

Back on Shrove Tuesday, I decided to post every day during Lent. Not because I have a religious affiliation of any sort but because Lent provides a useful discipline for doing things, and this year I wanted to do something positive rather than giving something up. (I mostly find giving things up rather easy to do, and that doesn’t seem to be the point.) I didn’t say anything because I believe such projects should just be got on with. I’m not sure if anyone has actually noticed what I was doing.

I had hoped to write more in the way of original material but things conspired, as usual, so I instead mined my extensive archive of reviews. By that,  I mean everything I have as a computer file; there’s at least twice as much again in hard copy, which I discovered yesterday will have to be typed up by hand at some point as my scanner can’t copy with the poor print quality.

So, what did this exercise prove? Nothing, really, other than that I had a lot of reviews to put online, and I managed to republish one every day for six weeks. One article I wrote inexplicably caught the public fancy, and another review got a lot of attention when the author tweeted its location. That’s about it, really.

I’m hoping to keep to a more regular schedule of publishing material on Tuesdays and Fridays from here on, unless something is urgent. But we’ll see.

Watching Much Ado About Nothing (RSC)

After seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company’s stunning Love’s Labours Lost on screen in Canterbury last month, we went back to the Gulbenkian last night for its ‘companion piece’, Love’s Labours Won, a.k.a Much Ado About Nothing.

After Christopher Luscombe’s rather fumbled attempt last time to explain why the two plays might be – might be – related to one another, last night Gregory Doran was wheeled in to cheerfully explain that he was ‘no scholar’ before trotting out some rather tenuous evidence to suggest that Much Ado was also known as Love’s Labours Won. I was left with the vaguest feeling they were really doing all this so that they could use the hashtags #rsclost and #rscwon, but don’t mind me.

Luscombe did also rather unguardedly comment that the theatre company had asked him to set the two plays in World War I (presumably with a nod to relevant anniversaries). Clearly, he’s been only too delighted to comply, but I do find myself wishing that he had at least decided to attempt to subvert the suggestion somewhat rather than simply setting about it with quite such gusto. As I noted last time, with Love’s Labours Lost, good as it was there was still a sense of it having been forced into its setting, particularly at the end, when the young men, rather than sequestering themselves as the play requires, suddenly all march off to war.

With Much Ado About Nothing (I’m sorry, I cannot call it Love’s Labours Won – it just feels wrong), the WWI setting makes a little more sense in that as the play opens the men are returning from a battle. Thus, in Luscombe’s version, we see them returning to the same country house that was the setting for Love’s Labours Lost, but now converted into a hospital for officers, with Leonato’s daughter Hero (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) as a nurse, and his niece, Beatrice (Michelle Terry), as Sister, and Leonato (David Horovitch) himself in uniform, running the place.

As the play is set late in 1918, the country house is getting ready for Christmas, so there are decorations including a Christmas tree, and the emphasis is on getting back to normal and having fun. claudioClaudio (Tunji Kasim) has fallen in love with Hero and appeals to his lord to help him woo and win her. Don Pedro (John Hodgkinson, who played Don Armado last time, but really shone this time round) readily agrees, and the stage is set for a Christmas wedding. Ah, how lovely. Meanwhile, Don Pedro wagers that before the house party is over, he will have ensured that Beatrice and Benedick (Edward Bennett, who played Berowne last time around) fall in love. As we know, they are famously antagonistic towards one another, for reasons that are never quite clear other than that there are hints of a previous love affair. Or, as I sometimes think, maybe they just like arguing with each other.Don pedro

As Luscombe puts it, this is a play that is filled with examples of odd behaviour. Here, he is referring to Don John (Sam Alexander, formerly the King of Navarre),  Don JohnDon Pedro’s brother, who sets out to discredit Hero and stop the wedding, and to Dogberry (the exceptional Nick Haverson, who played Costard last time). Don John is the only soldier shown as having a visible injury, while Dogberry displays a formidable array of twitches to go with his legendary malapropisms. Luscombe’s contention is that by setting the play at the end of World War I, it’s possible to account for this strange behaviour through the psychological effects of being in the war, and I don’t doubt one can. On the other hand, I do wonder whether this isn’t rather too pat and convenient an explanation. I have a slight sense with both of Luscombe’s productions that, lush as they are, delightful as they are, as filled with music and dancing as they are, they aren’t terribly taxing. dogberryWell, maybe Love’s Labours Lost isn’t a terribly taxing play to begin with, but watching Much Ado this time around, I was struck by how dark it is, how really dark and strange. To push that aside with the suggestion that it’s time for fun and, oh, by the way, shellshock, seems a little bit too easy. Having said that, Sam Alexander imbued Don John with a controlled malevolence beyond anything that Luscombe’s conception might have asked for, while Haverson’s Dogberry was distressed, and distressing as he struggled to express himself. (I would love to see Sam Alexander play Iago, based on his Don John.)

I’d forgotten until last night that Much Ado is another of those plays in which the death of a young woman is faked in order to achieve retribution and reconciliation. heroAfter Claudio denounces Hero at the altar, she is whisked away by her family, and hidden, but not before Leonato’s speech about the awfulness of daughters. It’s not precisely ‘sharper than a serpent’s tooth’ territory but it struck me for the first time that there is a resonance with certain elements of The Merchant of Venice.

The story comes out, finally, when Borachio (Chris Nayak), Don John’s servant, is overheard boasting about his master’s wickedness, and is ‘comprehended’ by the night watch and brought before Leonato. BorachioAfter Claudio has been suitably contrite at Hero’s tomb, he agrees to marry her cousin as penance, as you do, only to find to his delight that she is Hero. And everyone lives happily after, including Beatrice and Benedick. Except I find myself wondering what that means in their case. The relief of no longer having to put on a front when they are really crazy about each other? Or the struggle of having to really get to know one another after years of verbal sparring? Never mind, double wedding!

As you may have gathered already, I’m a great admirer of both Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry. Their Berowne/Rosaline in Love’s Labours Lost was wonderful, but there was always the danger that in doing Benedick/Beatrice, this would just be a reprise of the earlier roles, but a bit older – which is indeed what Luscombe seemed to be suggesting the roles are. benedick2I thought Bennett and Terry did better than that, though. They caught a certain weariness in the two characters (I saw something similar in the Wanamaker/Russell Beale pairing a few years ago, though that relied more on them being chronologically older). Here, you feel sympathy for the two of them, surrounded by people constantly joking or nagging them about not being married, to the point where they give in if only to shut everyone up. They already have a strong if somewhat complicated relationship, if only people would stop butting in, but they won’t.

beatriceOne can’t help wondering what sort of marriage this is going to be. The familiar theme throughout is that for strong-minded people marriage is a trap of sorts, but eventually even Beatrice and Benedick must succumb. Luscombe would, I’m sure, argue that the setting allows Beatrice to be a New Woman, and thus things will be different (he signals this by frequently showing Beatrice wearing trousers). On the other hand, given Luscombe explained in his interview that women got the vote in 1918 I’m not sure I trust his grip on history (universal suffrage did not occur until 1928 – in 1918, a limited number of women over 30 were given the right to vote, and women won the right to be elected to Parliament, but that is not the same; as an unmarried woman it would be unlikely that Beatrice would have had the right to vote at that point, though marriage might have permitted that).

dancingIf Luscombe’s approach to the play generally is a bit broad-brush for my taste, what he does excel at is set-pieces, like the dances, and intricate business. benedickWhen Benedick is concealed behind the arras, listening to the others discuss Beatrice’s love for him, Bennett performs an extraordinary series of very funny antics, and then does it all over again, hidden behind the Christmas tree on the other side of the room. The scene involving the constables and the interrogation is set in a very crowded kitchen; when the sexton comes to leave, he can’t because he is hemmed in by people, at which point all the characters pick up the chairs and table, revolve through 720 degrees and find themselves right back where they were before. It was clever and funny (though, I have to say, best appreciated by the birds-eye camera shot), and clearly an acknowledgement of something Luscombe said in an earlier interview, that thanks to the wonders of the stage at Stratford, actors would not have to carry furniture on and off with them. kitchenOther incidents include Don Pedro’s proposal to Beatrice, which Hodgkinson and Terry turned into a horribly poignant little moment (though, again, best appreciated by the close-up camera – I couldn’t help feeling a lot of this production was framed more for the camera than the audience).

Actually, that is the trouble with these two productions. I keep being left with this nagging feeling that the cast are so much better than the director. (Talking with Paul Kincaid just now, he suggested that Luscombe might be an actors’ director rather than a production’s director, which is a much neater way of saying what I’ve been strugglng towards for the last thousand words.) Luscombe praised the ensemble acting, and rightly so. It’s been a long while since I saw an ensemble that works so well together. Even the so-called minor parts are very rich. I’d love to see what this looked like stripped of all the fripperies, because I suspect it would still work because of the quality of the acting. They are comfortable in their roles but not complacent. And they know how to connect with the audience. Bennett in particular is adept at running with an audience’s response. Last night, someone snorted at Benedick’s awful poetry, and Bennett paused, smiled, turned towards the snorter, and began reading the poem again.benedick3

So, splendid performance, but I’m hoping that Doran et al stop fannying around with the companion pieces routine fairly soon. Also, much as I’m looking forward to The Merchant of Venice, Henry V (hoping that Alex Hassell has something to pull out of the bag after his rather lacklustre Prince Hal) and to Hugh Quarshie’s Othello, which I hope and strongly suspect will be a thing of wonder (I’m still scarred by doing Othello for A-level, and by a truly dreadful production starring Ben Kingsley and Niamh Cusack), I’m hoping that they will get beyond the crowd-pleasers and money-pullers before I get too old to drive to Canterbury. I have still never seen Cymbeline, Titus Andronicus, King John and Henry VIII, and would quite like to before I die.

In which I express my disapproval of BBC Radio 4’s Chain Reaction – with statistics

This is a rant. I don’t rant very often but right now I’m in the mood for it.

Last night, in the second episode of the tenth series of BBC Radio 4’s Chain Reaction, in which mainly comedians interview people they admire, mostly other comedians, and the next week the interviewee becomes the interviewer, Reece Shearsmith interviewed Bob Mortimer. In fact, they seemed to spend way, way too much time talking about Mortimer’s comedy partner, Vic Reeves. So you’ll never guess who Bob Mortimer has chosen to interview next week. I joked to Paul Kincaid before the episode that he’d choose Reeves. I’m so sorry I said that.

I rarely listen to Chain Reaction any more. Partly, it’s because great comedians, or for that matter, even indifferent comedians, don’t always make good interviewers. As a result, the end result is often cringingly embarrassing (last night’s programme was just one more tired rehearsal of stories we’ve heard far too many times before, and I already want to string hazard tape round next week’s episode).

The other reason I rarely listen to Chain Reaction is this: out of nine complete series (8 x 6 episodes, 1 x 4 episodes) and the three episodes so far broadcast or announced of the tenth series, so far involving 65 people, 9 of the interviewers/interviewees have been women. That’s one seventh of the participants. Here’s a link to the episode guide so you can see who’s been on.

Here’s a few more statistics.

Out of nine complete series, on four occasions the chain has started with a woman interviewer, each of whom interviewed a man. For two of those series, the interviewer was the only woman who appeared in the series. On one occasion the male first interviewer chose a woman (Jeremy Front chose his writing partner, his sister Rebecca).

On four occasions within a series, a man has chosen a woman (Front chose Front, Richard Wilson chose Arabella Weir, for the last episode of a series; Ade Edmondson chose Ruby Wax (who chose Harry Shearer); Tim Minchin chose Caitlin Moran, who in turn chose Jennifer Saunders – thus making her the only woman to choose a woman). Two of those choices by men occurred in one series (Front and Edmondson), thus making Series 8 the only that has ever exhibited anything like gender parity.

Four series have featured no women whatsoever, and there has as yet been no woman in Series 10.

From the fact that no fewer than four series have begun with a woman, who then turns out to be the only woman in the series, it seems that someone somewhere in the production team may have recognised the need to include some women, and has attempted to redress the balance, but appears to lack even the faintest glimmer of an idea that the whole premise of the format may be just ever-so-slightly flawed. Similarly, they seem to be blissfully unaware of just how badly flawed the format is, given that quite apart from how few women have appeared, all of the 65 people appearing so far do seem to be, to use former BBC Director-General Greg Dyke’s own words, ‘hideously white’.

It’s also fantastically cosy and unimaginative. Front interviews his writing partner Front, who then interviews her co-star, Chris Addison. Bob chooses Vic – of course he does. And they’re usually well-established comedians interviewing even better-established comedians. If it has to be about comedians, where are the Sarah Millicans, the Shappi Korsandis, John Finnemores and Paul Sinhas, not to mention the Tom Wrigglesworths, Francesca Martinezes and Lloyd Langfords, to name but a few of my favourites (though if they’ve had the sense not to get involved, well done them).

The trouble is, the format invites this inward-turning. Select a comedian to choose a hero, they’re likely to choose a comedian, who chooses a comedian. There are rarely break-outs. Catherine Tate chose David Tennant – ah, bless. Stewart Lee chose Alan Moore, who chose Brian Eno, and sadly that was the end of that series. Eddie Izzard chose Alastair Campbell, who promptly chose Alistair McGowan, who chose Simon Callow, and again the series ended. In fairness to Chris Addison, after being selected by his co-star he then chose Derren Brown, whose interview of Tim Minchin I recall being not bad, perhaps because he makes a living talking to people rather than at them. Which led to Caitlin Moran and Jennifer Saunders, but this really is the exception.

And I’m not even sure this format actually set out to be about comedians. The strapline for the first series was “Series in which public figures choose others to interview”. Here, I fear the BBC’s definition of ‘public figure’ and mine are somewhat at variance with one another. By beginning with Jenny Eclair, the die was immediately cast. By series 4, it had become “Chat show in which one week’s interviewee becomes the following week’s interviewer”. But given all bar one initial interviewer has been a comedian (I presume Terry Christian was chosen because he is apparently the butt of so many jokes from a generation of comedians) it’s difficult to imagine it being about anything but comedians now. (It’s always rather sobering to recall that once upon a time The News Quiz competitors were mainly actual working journalists rather than comedians. Now, the journalists are very much in the minority, and have to be remarkably sharp-witted to survive on there, having to be more comedians than journalists in fact.)

The point, of course, is that if you ask people to choose a hero to interview, you can’t then dictate to them about that hero’s gender, skin colour, or anything else. On the other hand, after nine and a half series, you might then want to grasp the cluebat that has been placed before you, clearly labelled, and can the show because it is so clearly lacking in any kind of diversity whatsoever.

While we’re about it, another sausage-fest is The Infinite Monkey Cage. It’s been criticised before and I’m told that women do appear regularly, though it seems that every time I turn on, it’s Cox and Ince, two people I otherwise quite like, and regard as being reasonably intelligent, larking around with their male mates like they’re still in the sixth-form common room at a boys-only grammar school. I have skimmed down the episode guide on the BBC website, and while it doesn’t list contributors with any degree of thoroughness, I find it telling that a woman isn’t actually mentioned at all until Series 5, and then it’s a comedian rather than a scientist. They don’t mention a woman who’s a scientist until Series 7.

What to do? Well, one can complain to the BBC, and people do. Indeed, I am sure I have complained about The Infinite Monkey Cage, so it’s probably time to complain about Chain Reaction too. One can turn off, and I do, though it’s hardly going to change things when there is clearly an audience for this kind of thing even if I’ve withdrawn my attention.

What really astonishes me, though, is that even now, after the endless controversies about the lack of diversity on BBC radio and tv, about the ageism, the sexism, the ableism, that no one in BBCland pauses to consider that maybe, just maybe, something needs to be done about certain programmes, like not recommissioning them.

Actually, I lied. It doesn’t astonish me at all. But I am very, very disappointed.

P.S. I got in touch with Radio 4’s Feedback programme on Friday, so we’ll see what happens.

P.P.S As it turned out, Feedback did nothing, possibly because they were marking the Head of Comedy’s departure after seventeen years, so maybe criticising something the HoC presumably signed off would have looked bad. On the other hand, and slightly to my surprise, I must admit, Vic Reeves chose Olivia Coleman. Who she will choose, we can only wait and see.

Reading while sleeping

From Orfeo (2014) by Richard Powers, an amazing description of reading while on the verge of falling asleep.

  He took up the open book, and once again, for another night, he trained his mind to settle in and read. It took some time to build up a rhythm. The sense of concentrated elsewhere filled him with that primal pleasure: seeing through another’s eyes. But after some paragraphs, a clause swerved and slid him sideways into a drift, a soft passage several pages on, in the middle of the right-hand page, a sense-rich description of a man and woman walking down a street in Boston on a July night, reprised, in misty da capo, again and yet once more, his eyes making their closed circuit, hitting the right margin’s guardrail, looping back around and trying the line again, tracking along the circuit of text, slowing then slipping down the stripped cogway of slick subordinate clauses, retrying the sequence until his dimming sight again found traction — the man, the woman, a moment of regretful truth along the esplanade — before snagging and starting the fuzzy looping climb all over again.

At last, after who knows how many round trips, he jerked awake. And the words on the page, before Els’s now-focused but disbelieving eyes, marshaled like troops on a parade ground and solidified, only to reveal no man, no woman, no night, no Boston, no exchange of intimate insight, but merely a Bulgarian writer describing the secret will of crowds.

He put down the book, shut off the light, and settled his head deeper into the pillow. As soon as the room went dark, he came wide awake. The floorboards snapped and blasted like an exchange of gunfire, and the furnace shuddered like a great engine of war.

Sweet Smoke of Rhetoric – Watching Love’s Labours Lost

Back to the Gulbenkian Cinema in Canterbury recently for the latest live broadcast from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. This time it was to see Love’s Labours Lost, directed by Chris Luscombe. Paul Kincaid and I saw a production of this years ago, with Kenneth Branagh as the King of Navarre and Roger Rees as Berowne. We liked it a lot more than the Hamlet in that same season, with Rees as Hamlet and Branagh as Laertes (though Branagh was outstanding).

This time the production is being presented in tandem with Much Ado About Nothing, rechristened Love’s Labours Won, because there is some idea that Much Ado might have been called this, or subtitled this, or something – Luscombe was a little vague on the subject when interviewed. Mostly, I think it just provides a convenient excuse to bracket together two plays in which a very articulate man spars with a very articulate woman, and they finally marry. Probably. In particular, I think Luscombe is working backwards from the fact that Much Ado is set in the aftermath of a war, thus allowing him to set Love’s Labours Lost during the long Edwardian afternoon, just before the outbreak of World War One. This creates an awkwardness in the production that I’ll come to later.

As is usual with a live relay, there was an introductory film before the play began. I still don’t understand why both the RSC and the RNT think this is necessary, given that the actual theatre audience is allowed to do its own thing, but of the two, I still feel the RSC handles it better, mostly avoiding patronising the audience. Except this time, for reasons that elude me, they seemed to be terribly, terribly anxious to reassure the relay audience in case they found the language too difficult to get into immediately. (I guess we assume the theatre audience isn’t going to have such problems.) So, several actors queued up, one after another, to explain to us how to cope with listening to actual Shakespearian English. Apparently, we just let it wash over us and after a few minutes we’ll get the hang of it. So there you have it: protip from real actors.

I genuinely have no idea why they were so anxious. Yes, there are words that aren’t in common use at present (a costard is an apple, and also means head, so there is a play on words that might just sail past a contemporary audience), but it really doesn’t matter. I’m fairly sure everyone got most of the jokes, as they did seem to laugh a lot. Perhaps it is that as the play is in part about the ‘sweet smoke of rhetoric’, the distraction that words can offer, someone was worried that the point would be lost, but people have been happily performing Shakespeare in various versions for umpteen years without an artistic crisis ensuing, and I saw no sign of it in the theatre or the cinema.

Loves-Labours-Lost-2014-1-541x361Having said all that, there was a certain awkwardness about the play’s first scene, as the King (Sam Alexander), Berowne (the mesmerising Edward Bennett), Longaville (William Belchambers) and Dumaine (Tunji Kasim) swear their earnest and absurd oath to spend three years away from the society of women, immersing themselves in study. Also, all women must be kept at a mile’s remove from their court, just in case. Berowne, who is the most grounded in the everyday world, is rightly very sceptical about all this, but is finally persuaded to swear the oath anyway.Loves-Labours-Lost-2014-6-361x541

I still don’t know quite what it was that didn’t gel for me in this scene, though I wonder if it was the setting, the Edwardian country house, which didn’t quite lend itself to young men making ridiculous promises about pursuing a scholarly life. Or, simply, that the boring oath bit has to be got out of the way before the characters start having fun. Or possibly, the ensemble isn’t entirely comfortable with the formality of this scene. It is noticeable later, in the rooftop confession scene, as each admits to being in love, that they worked so much better as a group. It was, though, a fleeting thing. By the next scene the production was in full swing, and after that it was a real delight, right to the very last scene.Loves-Labours-Lost-2014-2-361x541

The first casualty of the King’s insistence that women keep their distance is Costard, the jester, who is caught talking to Jaquenetta (Emma Manton), a serving maid. For reasons that we presume make sense to the King if no one else, he is delivered into the care of Don Armado, a Spanish gentleman resident at the court, who is also attracted to Jaquenetta’s charms. Don Armado’s brilliant idea is to have Costard deliver a letter to Jaquenetta on his behalf. Clearly this cannot end well.

Meanwhile, an embassy arrives from the King of France and, would you believe it, he has sent the French princess (Leah Whitaker) as his ambassador, along with her ladies-in-waiting. Such larks. What is the King of Navarre to do about all this? This is, of course, precisely the kind of problem that Berowne originally raised before signing the oath himself. It makes the observer wonder what kind of king Navarre actually is that he can so easily decide to seclude himself and his followers, without any apparent regard to the necessity of dealing with matters of state.

All this suggests that Navarre and his followers, with the possible exception of Berowne, have lived rather sheltered lives. The Edwardian setting underlines that sense of going from boarding school to college to a sheltered and privileged existence within the court, without any need to pay much attention to the outside world. The Edwardian setting also hints, perhaps a little heavy-handedly, at what is to come, as their collective innocence is shattered by the events of the war. But for now, we watch them one by one fall in love with the Princess and her ladies. Berowne is first, falling for the Princess’s chief lady-in-waiting, Rosaline (Michelle Terry), his outspoken female equivalent. As the story unfolds, of all the relationships that develop, one feels this is the one that might last. They are both well-educated, sharp-witted, alive to the broader world, and their sparring is that of two people testing each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Loves-Labours-Lost-2014-9-541x361One has the sense, though, that the Princess of France is rather cleverer and better educated than Navarre. She understands the demands of life at court, she understands the power she has and how to use it. She is surrounded by clever, witty people, but she also understands that she has the power to cut them off at a moment’s notice if she so desires. Her court is a much more formal affair for all its studied informality. Boyet, her aide-de-camp (Jamie Newall), can go so far, but only so far, and the Princess can insist that the women swap the favours presented to them by the men, in order to deceive them when they visit in disguise. By contrast, Navarre’s court is rather more informal. Don Armado lives at court partly because everyone finds him so amusing (and he is delightfully portrayed by John Hodgkinson), but partly too because Navarre has some idea that they will all benefit from his knowledge, even though his speeches are always wonders of flowery declamation. It is Berowne who several times insists on plain speaking, having recognised that flowery language will only take you so far. And it is the women who complain about the length of the men’s love letters.

Loves-Labours-Lost-2014-12-541x361Of Navarre’s own court, we see Moth, the footman and confidant of Don Armado (played by Peter McGovern, who sings as beautifully as he acts), Dull the Constable (an understated comic turn by Chris McCalphy, Loves-Labours-Lost-2014-14-361x541who has an exquisite little dance of his own when no one is looking), David Horovitch as Holofernes (lots of amusing grammar jokes as befits a schoolmaster) and Timothy Wheatley as Sir Nathaniel, the priest. It feels like it has always been a court of old men and young men, with women in subsidiary roles as servants ( apart from Jaquenetta, there are assorted kitchen and parlour maids who appear as required, and despite the ban on women). Also, there is Costard the fool, here acting as the gardener, in a delicious performance by Nick Haverson, especially as he ponders the comparative worth of an emolument and a remuneration.Loves-Labours-Lost-2014-4-361x541

The rest of the story is a little messy. Berowne, the first to acknowledge that he has fallen in love, sends a letter to Rosaline via Costard – who, apparently being illiterate (though I wonder, given that he is the fool, and it is tempting to read this as a deliberate act) gives the wrong letters to the wrong people, thus leading to merry confusion, increased by the fact that of course Jaquenetta is also illiterate so has to have someone else read her letter to her. And of course, it turns out that the other friends are also in love. Luscombe sets the scene of this revelation on the roof, where each man has gone to be alone while he ponders his circumstances. Thus we have them all hiding behind chimneys and pillars as each successive person appears. It’s a lovely piece of farce, and I think the moment where, to them at least, the emotion becomes real.

But there are also lots of jolly japes. Luscombe determined that his production should have lots of music, so the music director, Nigel Hess, has created lots of musical interludes, many of them including Moth, singing about love’s distractions. The Masque of the Nine Worthies is quite stunning, with its cast of servants as a corps de ballet, waving kitchen implements around. Having said that, possibly the best set-piece is when the lovers visit the Princess’s camp disguised as Muscovites, and sing and dance. It begins to feel like we’ve slid into country-house am-dram or an end-of-the-pier show. It’s all huge fun and very entertaining.

But then we get to the point where the Princess learns that her father is dead, and that she is now Queen and must return home. This is the point at which responsibility intrudes once again. It’s been a pleasant interlude but there is work to be done. Except, of course, that the King of Navarre and his friends are stuck with the absurd oath they swore and which they have done nothing but foreswear during the course of the play. As the now Queen of France points out, how on earth can she and her ladies expect to accept their marriage pledges when they don’t seem able to keep their word about anything else. In turn each lady lays conditions on returning their love, all of them contingent on the men keeping an oath for a year and a day. Of the four, it is Rosaline who sets the most complex task, asking Berowne not to cloister himself but to go out into the world, to speak to people, using his verbal dexterity to make the dying happy. It’s an odd request, but one he nonetheless undertakes to carry out.

And here, at last, is my one genuine niggle with the production. Although within the play the friends agree to carry out their oaths and remain genuinely cloistered for a year, within this production it suddenly becomes a matter of going off to war (because of course, Edwardian setting, World War One pending, the beauteous youth of England about to go to its slaughter in the fields of France). While the final stages of the plot are unravelling the foursome suddenly turn up in military uniform, take their leave and march off to war, leaving the rest of the company to sing with patriotic fervour.Loves-Labours-Lost-2014-21-541x361

And it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever (especially not when you consider just how many of those footmen, gardeners and other male servants will also go off to war and not come back – World War One brought about massive social changes). And that’s the problem with this production. It’s been entertaining, and it looked lovely but now historical events are ineptly co-opted to make a specious point and set up the next production. We have no sense that the young and beautiful Moth will probably die in the barbed wire as he goes over the top, or that Dumaine and Longafield may be horribly maimed, or shell-shocked, or that Costard may heroically save his master’s life though get a lesser medal as a result because he was not a commissioned officer. Don Armado will have one of those odd wars in which he probably spies for whoever is willing to take him on. Berowne is the one most likely to come back (if only to be Benedict in the next production, as unsurprisingly the same actor does) but he will be much changed as a result. I can see what Luscombe is getting at but it’s like tapping a crystal glass for attention with a sword rather than a knife, and accidentally slicing off the thing you’ve created.

But that apart, I thoroughly enjoyed the production, and am particularly looking forward to seeing what Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry make of Much Ado About Nothing, which I’m seeing next month.

Whistle …

I meant to write about this at the time the episode appeared but never got round to it. So, belatedly, and just for the record, I am reviewing the 31st October 2014 episode of Doctors.

It’s called ‘Whistle …’ It was broadcast at Hallowe’en. I’m a great admirer of the work of M.R. James. You can see where this commentary is coming from.

The question is, as someone I talked to at the time noted, how do you smuggle a story by M.R. James into an episode of a soap opera? The answer is that you remove a character from their normal milieu – in this instance, Dr Al Haskey is off for a beer-drinking weekend with his friend the Rev. James Montague, known to his friends as Monty (Montague Rhodes James was called ‘Monty’ by his friends.)

As I’m not a regular viewer of Doctors, I don’t know much about Al Haskey, but he’s large, a messy dresser, with ‘social awkwardness’ written all over him. He seems to interact well enough with his colleagues, though in a ‘man child with decided opinions’ sort of way. Those opinions – in this instance, about the supernatural, ghosts, life beyond death – will lie at the heart of this episode. And there is a woman who says goodbye to him when he sets off but I can’t quite figure out their relationship. There is clearly affection tempered with a sort of amused mothering exasperation (and no, please don’t tell me; I don’t need to know, honest). And something oddly apprehensive about them, as though he doesn’t do this kind of thing that often, as though he might get lost in the world.

They both glance up at the trees, him as he gets into the car, her as he drives away. The trees, I’m here to tell you are ash trees. Those who know their James canon will recognise the significance of this. Those who don’t, won’t, but trust me, it’s the first indicator that the makers of this programme are very familiar with the James oeuvre.

We’re then treated to a shot of a woman  making up a couple of beds, laying especial emphasis on the bed linen – anyone familiar with the story of ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, my Lad’ will immediately recognise this foreshadowing reference. And then we see Al arriving at a small country pub, the Globe, with a really rather strange inn sign – a dancing skeleton playing on a pipe.

It’s not a very welcoming sort of pub. Al manages to put his foot in it every which way. The locals stop talking as he walks in (odd if they take overnight guests), the landlord is forbidding, and the barmaid seems to be expecting something of him, but what is not clear. (I’m reminded here of endless horror stories where the stranger’s function is either to rescue the maiden, or to impregnate her and bring fresh blood to the local gene pool.) Others, like the elderly man sitting in the corner, are watchful. The booking has been mixed up so Al and Monty are sharing a room, and then, to top it off, Monty rings up to say he’s going to be delayed.

There is a sense already that Al doesn’t really like being on his own, among strangers. You might be thinking of Jonathan Miller’s adaptation of ‘Oh Whistle’ and his portrayal of Professor Parkin as a social maladept. It’s not so pronounced in this, or at any rate my sense is that Al is a talker, who runs into difficulties when people don’t understand his jokes and references, which can be obscure or offensive if you don’t know where he’s coming from – there’s still a flavour of clever adolescent college kid about him – whereas Parkin was unable to communicate even if he wanted to. (And this in itself is at variance with James’s original story, in which Parkin is only too articulate and decided in his views – which is why he seems to clash so often with his colleagues.) Nonetheless, there are links between the two plays.

In his room, Al is bothered by the tapping of tree branches against the window. You get to guess what kind of tree it is (see ‘The Ash Tree’). He’s clearly unsettled by Monty’s absence but determined to make the best of it. Given he’s not a solitary person, there’s probably a sense of relief when the old man – the Colonel, it turns out (and another reference to ‘Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’ – strikes up a conversation. In the course of this, we learn from the barmaid that the Templar preceptory, the reason Monty wanted to be in Hordernwick, is haunted. In the original story, the place is Burnstow (based on Felixstowe), but this name again signals a homage to the Miller adaptation as Professor Parkin was memorably played by Michael Hordern. ‘You’ll know’, she says enigmatically, when Al suggests that ghosts are nothing more than natural sounds – insomniac mice, he suggests.

Then, back in his room – more trees tapping on windows – during the course of a telephone conversation with Monty, during which Monty reveals he can’t get there at all. Al’s laptop seems to malfunction. Instead of a document we see a picture which will turn out to be of the old Templar preceptory, and something dark suddenly looming into the screen. It reminds me very much of the Nigel Kneale adaptation of The Woman in Black, and the terrifying moment when the Woman appears at the bottom of Arthur Kipps’ bed and leans in closer and closer (this is still the single most terrifying moment I can think of in modern tv ghost story adaptations). On the other hand, this also seems to me to indirectly reference both ‘The Mezzotint’ and ‘The Haunted Dolls House’, with their use of other framing media to tell a story, quite apart from being a literal ghost in the machine.

After lunch, and still at a loose end, Al takes himself off to visit the tiny brewery, the reason for his visit to this place, only to find it closed. Eventually, he finds himself in the vicinity of the ruined church, pretty much the only thing left for him to see. To me, it is as though everyone and everything is conspiring to get him to that place. He has to go there. It’s spooky – there is a strong wind soughing through the ash trees. As he turns to leave, he trips over something, digs it out of the ground with his pen knife, and then discards it. He also, accidentally, discards his mobile.

Back at the hotel, he falls into conversation with the Colonel again while the barmaid hovers around. The strange atmosphere is really palpable now. The barmaid seems to be expecting something to happen; the same ‘locals’ have been in the bar for hours now, and one has the sense that the Colonel is orchestrating something. But what? The Colonel tells Al how the Templars who had lived in Hordernwick had returned to their mother church in France, only to be executed. The Colonel would have it that their spirits then returned to Hordernwick. Al the arch rationalist refuses to believe in the survival of the spirit beyond the death of the body.

Having realised he’s lost his phone, Al retraces his steps, notices the piece of metal again and this time picks it up and takes it with him. Back at the hotel, in his room, he keeps looking at the other bed but then turns his attention to the metal object. He cleans it up, finds it’s a whistle (a very clean and modern-looking whistle, I have to say), reads the writing – Quis est iste qui venit … Who Is This Who Is Coming? – and like so many before him, blows the whistle. In the original, it is the window that suddenly blows open but here it is the door (the most recent previous adaptation makes rather more play of the door in the story).

There’s a fleeting shot of a running figure out near the church and then we cut to the bar, where a thoroughly unnerved Al is having a late-night drink when the Colonel appears. Now he tells Al a story from his soldiering days, about the young soldiers trying to whistle up dust devils, and a soldier vanishing. Overhead, there’s a thump and when the two men go upstairs, they find the covers on the spare bed disturbed. The Colonel also sees the whistle and is concerned as to whether Al blew it. He tells Al that the Templars sold the whistles to pilgrims. To blow on one would be to summon assistance, the inference being that Al has also summoned something …

Rather like the original Parkins, Al then has a series of dreams in which he is being from the church by a figure swathed in grey cloth, like grave wrappings. This sequence is particularly interesting as it quite clearly brings together not only the original adaptation of Oh Whistle, in which the hapless Parkin dreams of being pursued by something cloth-like but indefinable, but also the 1970s adaptation of ‘A Warning to the Curious’, in which Paxton is pursued by what we are supposed to believe is William Ager. Even now, I can never quite untangle the two stories in my mind, and although the two adaptations are quite different, there is a certain similarity about the spectres that haunt them. And this version of Whistle seems very much to partake of the aesthetic of ‘A Warning’ with the church mound in the trees reminiscent of the barrow among the trees on the headland.

As to the ghost in this version, there is nothing left to the imagination at all. There’s little in the way of special effects. The ghost is mostly very solid, clearly someone swathed in a grey bed cover but it’s done incredibly well. The very solidity of the ghost becomes a virtue. The spectre is smack in the middle of the screen, very clearly visible, not at all imagined, particularly when it is at Al’s throat in the bedroom. There’s no face of crumpled linen, as per the story, but neither is there a disappointing dancing sheet, as per the Miller adaptation, just this figure rising up from the other bed. There is nothing psychological about this spectre at all. It’s real, and it’s chasing Al. And it is absolutely terrifying.

We know of course how this is going to end, and the Colonel is along in good time to rescue Al. The interesting thing is next day, when Al wakes up, to find that everything has changed. The landlord looks different, the bar maid looks different, while the Colonel, who also looks slightly different, shows no signs of recognising Al at all. Outside, even the pub sign is different. At which point we seem to have moved once again from a Jamesian milieu to something closer to other 1970s adaptations of ghost stories, or a particularly second-rate horror film.

There is no denying it was a bit of a hodge-podge of references in places but it was good fun at the same time. I caught an interview online (now alas taken down) with the episode’s director, in which he acknowledged the influence of Lawrence Gordon Clark’s seminal adaptations of M.R. James’s ghost stories for the BBC, including ‘A Warning to the Curious’. There was also a very interesting clip showing how the production team devised the ‘ghost’. Constrained by a very limited budget for special effects, it was, as I said earlier, mostly a man in a grey cloak, but while I was thinking about Clark’s tv ghosts, the production team was thinking ‘what’s the scariest thing any of us has ever seen? Ah yes, the Dementors in Harry Potter’. Though having looked at illustrations of the Dementors online (look, I got bored going to the annual Harry Potter film about three films in, so I haven’t seen them), I have to disagree.

I did also wonder what the Doctors audience would have made of this episode, but apparently the show has a history of doing this kind of thing, so it’s by no means unusual. However, it has not tempted me to start watching the series, just in case.

Watching A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly (film, 2006, Richard Linklater)

Paul March-Russell was showing this to his science-fiction module students, last week, and kindly invited Paul Kincaid and myself to sit in on the session.

The first thing that struck me about the film, apart from its being in rotoscope, and I’ll come back to that shortly, is that the story seems to inhabit very familiar Dickian territory. The film is dominated by paranoia: the paranoia of the individuals, especially those taking drugs, and more especially those taking Substance D; though it is difficult not to feel paranoid anyway when so much of daily life is under scrutiny by the state through cctv and other forms of surveillance.

There is also the paranoia of the state itself, manifest in the way in which the identities of police undercover agents are routinely concealed from one another, supposedly to avoid corruption in investigations. To achieve this, they wear what are called scramble suits; some sort of chameleon camouflage which registers an ever-shifting display of facial and physical features and clothing on the suit’s fabric. ascannerdarkly 4

The scramble suits provide a useful visual metaphor for the fragmentation of society generally, but also of the individual: the inner and the outer selves, and the ways in which they mesh and don’t mesh. Or, alternatively, one might argue that the scramble suit turns the wearer inside out. The uncertainty of daily experience is expressed in the constant churn of fragments of physical appearance. More than once, during the film, we see Bob Arctor, aka Agent Fred, almost crouching inside the tent of his scramble suit, surrounded by but utterly divorced from his external appearance, all this overlaid with an internal monologue which suggests that he is adrift in more ways than one.a-scanner-darkly1

And just in case we might be missing the point here, this disconnection is emphasised by the use of rotoscope, which turns conventional filmed action into something that looks more like animation. Features become blurred and indistinct, roughly sketched, although the physical movement of the characters remains mostly clear. If you like, the whole film is a scramble suit. We know that somewhere inside there are actors portraying characters (and as Paul March-Russell pointed out, it’s a team of actors who have all had their own highly visible problems with drug addiction, as if to lend the work an extra verisimilitude).

(Here I should say I’ve not yet read the novel, so I don’t know how close the film and novel run to one another – though I think it is perhaps indicative that the film’s ending draws on the novel’s afterword.)

The story takes up ideas familiar from other Dick novels – indeed, there are a lot of resonances with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the novel I know best. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is Agent Fred, an undercover narcotics investigator who is trying to discover who is behind the supply of Substance D. In the course of his work, he has met Donna (Winona Ryder), a drug dealer, and he thinks she may lead him to people higher up the supply chain. Also living in Bob’s rundown home are two other Substance D addicts, Barris (Robert Downey, Jr), frighteningly articulate, spewing out conspiracy theories by the score, and Luckman (Woody Harrelson), barely articulate, almost Barris’s alter-ego. What is also clear is that Arctor himself has become an addict during the course of his investigation.

As the film unfolds, we become aware that for Arctor it is as though there are also two parallel presents, one in which he is living his current life, surrounded by squalor, and the other, in which he has a wife and family. We’re led to suppose that Arctor as drug addict is the real existence – though what is existence? – while the other is a dream. There is though that sense of doubling-up which reminds me of the moment in Androids when Deckard stumbles into the alternative police precinct building, and his yearning for a different life.

There are other similarities, too. During the course of the film we see Agent Fred undergoing a series of tests which reveal that as a result of his addiction to Substance D the two sides of his brain have become uncoupled from one another so he is, in effect, in competition with himself, a doubled personality. (I especially liked the way the two hemispheres of his brain were represented as two testers, talking across one another.) Which of course further throws into question the nature of what we’re watching.

One of the stranger moments comes when Agent Fred is asked to investigate Arctor, whose house has been fitted with covert surveillance devices, though it later turns out that the authorities are really after Barris, and the whole thing is a kind of set-up. a scannerdarkly 3My sense is that becoming an observer of his own life – voyeur as much as surveillance agent – pushes Arctor over some ill-defined boundary. Not long after this he’s removed from the case because of his addiction and inability to do his job, and committed to the care of New-Path, a rehabilitation facility.

As it turns out when Arctor is shipped off to their farm to work, New-Path seems also to be responsible for the production of Substance D, a tricksy little piece of moebius plotting that struck me as very Dickian. But then, it seems that Arctor’s days as a narcotics agent might also not be over, as he secretes a flower in his shoe, to take to his ‘friends’ as evidence, so even at the end we’re still not quite sure whether Arctor ever completely lost himself or is dissembling.a scanner darkly2

I wasn’t too sure about the film when I first started watching it but by the end I found myself wanting to watch it again, because it is so extraordinarily complex, and so visually dense. Even pulling out a few stills to illustrate this, I keep seeing things I missed along the way. I’m curious too to see how the novel and film engage with one another. (Much as I love the ‘look’ of Bladerunner, when it comes to the story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep seems to me to be far more interesting as a narrative.)