‘Recordings alone aren’t sufficient’ – speaking Arrival

As is customary at Paper Knife, I will be discussing the whole of the story, the whole of the film. If you want them both to be a lovely surprise when you get to them, I suggest you click away now. In the meantime, let us continue.

Arrival (2016, dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Before all else, I want to say that I enjoyed Arrival immensely. Indeed it acted so powerfully on my imagination that I dreamt a whole sub-plot for it the night I saw it, something to do with people discovering things about past situations they’d found themselves in, information that would have been helpful at the time, and now vouchsafed to them because they’d at last slipped free of the constraints of time and language.

Will Elwood wondered on Twitter whether Arrival really is an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life’, which is an interesting point, not least because my first thought, having read the story just before I saw the film, was how do you adapt a story like this, so heavily reliant on shifts in time and narrative tense, into a film? After the film, Paul Kincaid and I initially thought that Arrival could be seen as an improvisation on ‘Story of Your Life, but thinking about it some more, I wonder now if it isn’t perhaps a commentary on the difference between telling a story with words and telling a story with images. To which you would pityingly say, ‘well, obviously, because it’s a film, right?’ And it is, and you are right, but what I’m thinking about is the different ways in which words and images (sounds, too) evoke thoughts in the mind.

I have said before that I am generally not that keen on film or tv; in part this is because I don’t like the way film-makers attempt, sometimes very crudely, to manipulate my emotions. Obviously, writers do this too, but I’ve always felt that words are something I have control over – I can stop reading if it all gets too stressful – whereas images I don’t – I cannot pause the cinema film. Images are just there, projected into my mind, something I find much more difficult to filter out unless I close my eyes and stuff my fingers in my ears.

‘Story of Your Life’ and Arrival tell the same story, more or less. Odd details change – Gary Donnelly becomes Ian Donnelly, Hannah’s cause of death will be different, but essentially, the stories remain the same. It’s the emphases that are different.

One of the several reasons why I like Ted Chiang’s stories is that while they contain much in the way of ideas, on the page they are very pared down. He gives me as much as I need and no more. He is not a writer who indulges in lush description unless for a very specific reason, and if he does, I would take notice, because. Mostly, he leaves it to me, the reader, to bring my own imagination to bear, as much as I need it to, in order to fill in the gaps between the words and the sentences. I don’t want or need it on the page. It doesn’t seem like promising material for a film.

One could imagine a film-maker looking at ‘Story of Your Life’ as nothing more than a synopsis, an opportunity for the special effects department to run riot, and I don’t doubt we could think of directors who would have done just that, allowing spectacle to overwhelm all else. But, for the most part, that didn’t happen here. At the heart of ‘Story of Your Life’ is an achronological, universal language, in which everything is said simultaneously, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the things Arrival is trying to do is to explore how the film image tries to be everything simultaneously, but how the experience can differ, according to what visual memory you bring to it. OK, so this is hardly original, but too often it seems to me that locating the intertextual references in film turns into an easter-egg hunt. How smug we all feel for spotting the shop called Micklewhite’s in the Muppet Christmas Carol, knowing that Michael Caine was originally called Maurice Micklewhite. That’s an in-joke, not an intertextual reference; it’s also an artefact, and I’m thinking much more about mood.

Let’s take a few examples from Arrival, some more overt than others. If Arrival is in direct dialogue with any film, it is surely Close Encounters of the Third Kind, though I must admit I also read it in part as a riposte to or subtle reproof of some aspects of CETK, particularly the Special Edition. To begin with, while the huge space ships have shown up all over the world, the film focuses on one that has taken up station in Montana, which I do not doubt is meant to prompt us to think of the Devi’s Tower in Wyoming, the dominant image in CETK. But I’m thinking more of the moment when the helicopter sweeps over Louise Banks’ house at night, before landing in the meadow. The slanting light through the slats of the blinds, the confusion of dark and light, the distortion, the figure at the door, all echo the events when Barry is taken from his mother’s house. And are meant to – the audience is anticipating what Banks is likely to find when she opens the door, and there is the sense of relief that it’s Colonel Weber (though anyone who recalls E.T. might perhaps wonder whether authority figures should be trusted).

The shots of the house by the waterside, the child playing at the water’s edge, and the way the water moved, all made me think immediately of Solaris (and as Andrew M. Butler pointed out after the film, there is also the shot of the wheat field moving in the breeze). The reference to ‘the zone’ can’t help but invoke Stalker, but what about the quality of the stillness of the vast ship, hanging in the air. I thought then of District Nine. And surely everyone who has seen Arrival had at least one moment when they thought of 2001 and the monolith. I doubt any of this is a coincidence, any more than it is a coincidence that every film I’ve mentioned here is very specifically about attempting, or failing, to communicate with an alien group in ways that don’t simply involve trying to shoot them out of the sky.

So, what I’m suggesting here is that Villeneuve is very specifically offering a bank of references for the watcher to draw on if they so desire, his version of leaving spaces between the words. Because, one of the things that does strike me about this film is how comparatively sparse everything is on the screen. Not the space ship, perhaps, but we’ll come back to that shortly. It is as if Villeneuve has striven to put the minimum necessary on screen to actually tell the story. We see unremarkable public spaces that are in no way distinctive (the campus, the garage); they could be anywhere. Contingent spaces, like the cafeteria, could again be anywhere, and the people in them could be anywhere as well. Banks’ own house is more distinctive, but what we note mostly is how isolated it is, how impersonal, how see-through. The army camp is inevitably marked as temporary – we see it put up, and taken down. We see a hundred little reminders – in the furniture, fittings, cramped accommodation, banks of phones for the soldiers to call home – that this is not a place where people will settle. The room where Banks sleeps is small, functional, a place to lie down but not to be comfortable. The only space we ever see that actually seems to belong to someone is Banks’ study, with its book-lined walls; this is where she spends most of her time, and it’s the place she goes back to while everyone else is wondering how to deal with potential alien invasion. (It’s noticeable too that the lecture theatre is the only other place that seems in any way ‘warm’. It’s bigger than her study but it’s still a cocoon; she is prepared to keep on lecturing in the face of the arrival of aliens, no matter how few people attend.)

In all of this it seems to me that Villeneuve is giving us what we need, but no more, unless we want to bring it in ourselves. It’s the visual equivalent of saying ‘Banks’ office’ or ‘the army camp’. The camera rarely lingers; it’s always scurrying along behind Banks, on her way to somewhere else, taking no notice of her surroundings, because they do not interest her. We only really notice the surroundings when, in Montana, Ian is also present, or when Banks is with Hannah. These are the things that are important to the story. Perhaps we might see them as a visual equivalent of the passages in the story that are directly addressed to her daughter. The richer settings reflect engagement, affection.

Earlier, I excluded the space ship from my discussion on the minimalism of the settings. In Chiang’s story, the ships are simply referred to as ‘the ships’. Indeed, they’re really not important to the story except as vehicles to bring the heptapods to Earth. What’s really important are the alien devices, deposited on the ground. They’re called ‘looking glasses’ and described as being ‘semicircular […] over ten feet high and twenty feet across’. Later, it will turn out they’re made of fused silica, nothing exotic. Chiang’s description renders them as being nothing fancy, and I think that’s the point. You could imagine one, on a smaller scale, as a mirror over a mantelpiece in an ordinary house. It’s just that these are bigger.

The story doesn’t need a space ship; it’s taken as read, but the film? Well, maybe it panders to a section of the audience by including an actual space ship, but I wonder too if a twenty-foot mirror isn’t harder to explain than a space ship. And here the space ship can be used to tell us something about its inhabitants as well. What I particularly love about the space ship is its texture, which will echo, to some extent, the texture of the heptapod when we finally see it in detail. (Paul Kincaid thinks this is as part of a dream sequence; I am not so sure of that, but even if it is, the texture has clearly imprinted itself on Banks’ dream consciousness as well.) I like too how the curvilinear form resonates slightly with that curved-mirror artefact that Chiang describes. And also, and maybe this is my imagination, when it finally turns in the sky, I couldn’t help thinking of a contact lens, a huge, grey contact lens, but something else that says ‘seeing’ rather than hearing, and again picks up on something that is present in both story and film, the dichotomy between speaking and writing, and the need to utilise both in order to make contact. I could get all Derridean about this and start invoking ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’ – maybe at some point, when I’ve refreshed my memory, I will – but for now I will simply draw your attention to Colonel Weber’s impossible demand that Banks translate the alien speech from a tape recording, with no other clues at all.

Here I should back up slightly – the reference to the mirror in Chiang’s text suggests faces; something that is very noticeable in the film is the emphasis on faces. We see often them very close to, closer than I think is always necessary. Paul Kincaid notes in his own post on the film how often the film focuses on Banks’ face at certain points, but there are instances of it with other characters, and it occurred to me that these moments we are being urged, literally directed, to take note of those expressions. Why? It could be frantic telegraphing of points, yes, but I don’t think so; this film is too good for that kind of cheap manipulation. Instead, it seemed to me that Villeneuve was quietly suggesting that not only should we not be relying on words alone when it came to communicating, we can’t.

The facial thing struck me in particular because I experience tinnitus and deafness in one ear, and it turns out that I’ve been compensating for this for years by lip-reading; I really don’t like it when I can’t see the lower portion of people’s faces when they’re speaking, and that includes in films. What brought it home to me in Arrival is the scene when they first enter the space ship in hazmat gear and attempt to communicate with the aliens. It was screamingly obvious from the beginning that at least some of the team would have to eventually divest themselves of the gear in order to communicate properly, but while one might think of this in terms of showing oneself as a ‘human’, and what a human actually looks like, it is also about revealing the face, the place where communication starts with humans. Similarly, when Banks lays her hand on the screen, it’s tempting to imagine the heptapods thinking, ‘okay, now we can talk’ because she has, perhaps inadvertently, acknowledged their means of communication.

But, of course, this also links back to Colonel Weber’s inability to ‘see’ that communication isn’t simply about words, or recordings, but about bodies, faces, presences, positioning. And as it turns out, vocalisation is not actually the heptapods’ primary means of communication. In Chiang’s story, which is made of words, the emphasis is on figuring out what the heptapods are saying and what this means; by contrast, I’d say that the film is more about how they figure it out, inevitably, because it is a very visual thing. In the story, the heptapods’ writing is described first as ‘a doodle of script, vaguely cursive’; later, as they learn more, it becomes like ‘fancilful praying mantids drawn in a cursive style, all clinging to each other to form an Escheresque lattice, each slightly different in its stance’. Later, as Banks begins to appreciate the full significance of the heptapods’ written language she talks in terms of calligraphic designs, while noting that ‘No one could lay out such an intricate design at the speed needed for holding a conversation. At least, no one human could.’ And this, to my mind, is one place where the film does something the story never can – it can attempt to represent the semagrams, shown as ink coalescing in liquid, in black and white literally. The designers have opted for circular forms, with complexes of strands branching off all over the place, as if emphasising the conceptual all-at-onceness of heptapod communication. Chiang’s story has scientific diagrams, but it doesn’t, and I think can’t, ever have anything quite like this, because words don’t work like that (as I am inevitably showing here).

And there is one thing I haven’t yet raised –how much of this film is about a lack of communication. Inevitably, perhaps. It would be impossible to resist in a film about first contact, but Villeneuve is as subtle about that. Yes, later, we get the inevitable great big diplomatic tantrums, and threats of war, and it would be wrong perhaps to exclude them, in the same way that we know the military is going to attempt to function on a need-to-know basis, and close down discussion when it most needs to happen – there is something inevitably perverse about the way in which the US military always seems to try to control the flow of information in any given situation while apparently being staggeringly inept at achieving any kind of meaningful exchange. I’m sure that is a point not lost on Villeneuve.

But think back to the beginning, after we’ve seen the death of Hannah, at the point where we might still be thinking that Banks is grieving. By the end of the film, those who don’t know the story should have made the connection, and realised that first contact comes prior to the birth of Hannah, in which case, what is striking when the alien ships arrive? Yes, we note that a linguist is ignoring all the screens as she walks through the campus building, and has failed to notice everyone gravitating towards them. Yes, we note that she presses on with her lecture even though the auditorium is almost empty (you do – I’ve given that lecture, too). But what happens in that lecture theatre? People’s cell phones start ringing, with others passing on the news that the aliens arrived. Now, we could say that for the sake of professionalism, Banks has switched her phone to silence while she lectures, but for the sake of the film, let’s assume she didn’t, and that it was on ‘vibrate’. It didn’t ring before she went into the lecture theatre, it doesn’t ring while she’s in the lecture theatre. The students have to ask her to switch on the screen so they can see what’s happening. In other words, the communications specialist has no one communicating with her socially, has no one to communicate with socially. We can only speculate on what her life at the university is like; apparently, it does not involve collegiality, yet she equally obviously has nothing to do outside except gravitate back towards her university office.

By contrast, everyone one around her seems to be communicating furiously but with little effect. Screen after screen of news reports, the bank of screens communicating with specialists at the other contact sites, and yet no one can figure out what’s happening. The screens provide a handy visual reference for the compartmentalisation of information that is going on. Everyone has a question they want to ask, variations of the question Colonel Weber asks: ‘what is your purpose here?’, but it is as if everyone has suddenly forgotten the etiquette of communication. And both story and film suggest that people are surprised, outraged even, that the aliens abide by the same rules of not giving away anything. Except, of course, that they’ve given away everything if people choose to collaborate; or finally recognise that they must collaborate.

It’s here, I think, that the film seems a little weaker, presenting us with the idea of Banks seeing into the future, and saving the world from global war. The story is rather more low-key – as I said before, it’s about ‘what’, so the problem-solving is, in and of itself, sufficiently satisfying. A film needs more overt drama, I assume, so we have the sub-plot of the group of soldiers deciding to blow up the space ship, for example. I did like how this was done. It’s never discussed but is raised for the viewer through expressions, significant glances, a mention of something on the radio. I particularly liked the way it was assumed by the plotters that the aliens wouldn’t, perhaps couldn’t understand what was going on, so it was fine to bring in the explosives in plain view. Or, because they were aliens, maybe they were invisible. There’s a lot going on in just that small sequence.

The larger sub-plot, how Banks saves the world, reaching forward in time to memorise a phone number, stretched my willingness to believe just slightly, but if you look back at the original text, while there is no Chinese general, the text does begin to break down in such a way as to suggest that as Banks works with the heptapod language it is changing her experience of the world, moving back and forth in time. It’s subtle; I missed it the first time but it is there. In the film, though, it seems to need to be made more explicit.

And yet, having said that, it is reinforced in less immediately tangible ways. Paul Kincaid and I have disagreed slightly over the film’s opening. I thought initially it was a little deceitful in synopsising what comes later, perhaps tricking the audience into assuming that Banks is grieving rather than being crashingly lonely, only to reveal later that … The story, I realised after a second reading, is actually a circular thing. The end is the beginning – the question ‘Do you want to make a baby?’ is asked twice, once at the beginning, once at the end. There is an overlap. The film doesn’t do that, I thought, until Paul Kincaid pointed out that at the beginning of the film, in the first shot of the house’s interior, there are two wine glasses, as there are at the end of the film, when the question is asked. The overlap is, as it must be, visual.

And finally, I go back to Will Elwood’s query. Is Arrival an adaptation of ‘Story of Your Life’? And I think the answer has to be no, because it is a translation of the story. Or, if we ‘spoke’ Heptapod, there would be a frighteningly elegant semagram which would bring together words like ‘adaptation’ and ‘translation’ and ‘reworking’ as facets of a larger concept. But we are stuck with words and images and do the best we can.

Watching The Good Dinosaur

Someone recently lent me this, saying it was, and I quote, ‘a bit weird’. It certainly was.

The Good Dinosaur comes billed as the most beautiful film Pixar has ever made, and there is no denying that it looks gorgeous. Exquisite scenery, some of it so well animated you’re hard-pressed to believe it’s not cine-photography. The water in particular looks … er, watery. The mountains look as though they might have been borrowed from Peter Jackson’s extended hymn to New Zealand, although later it becomes fairly obvious that the story is using American settings (and indeed, the film’s Wikipedia entry lists a number of them, though not Monument Valley which was also clearly visible). After that come fumaroles, boiling mud pots, geysers. There were moments when I was strongly reminded of my own geological travels down the western seaboard of the USA. And that’s still not all. The realisation of the trees, plants, incidental birds, insects and small mammals is just awesome. For those old enough to remember how revolutionary the film of Watership Down was in its day, it’s the 2015 equivalent of that opening sequence showing the field of broad beans.Pixar-Good-Dinosaur-Landscape-Technology

Except that when the animators on that film introduced the main protagonists – the rabbits – they mostly still looked like rabbits. Yes, they had been slightly humanised but they were still recognisably rabbits. For The Good Dinosaur, we unsurprisingly have dinosaurs, but if you’re imagining slightly humanised Jurassic-style dinosaurs, you will be sadly disappointed. The Good Dinosaur might feature dinosaur shapes – apatosaurus, tyrannosaurus rex, pteranodon, a styracosaurus (like a triceratops but with more horns), and some velociraptors – but that is pretty much where it begins and ends. In some ways, this is inevitable. We’re dealing with Pixar, and they have a certain way of doing things. Their dinosaurs are to real dinosaurs as their character Sadness is to me, i.e. not very. There is a conceptual relationship of sorts but only of sorts. So, in the case of Arlo, the good dinosaur of the title, he might look like an apatosaurus, but his skin is cartoon-frog green, only lightly patterned, and very polished, plastic almost, while his facial expressions betray the technical director’s previous involvement with things like Monsters University, which is similarly marked by highly polished, plastic-looking characters. Or, as I couldn’t help thinking, it was as though Wallace and Gromit had been transformed into one dinosaur. Those teeth! That faintly worried expression. One half-expected someone to say ‘cracking corn, Arlo’. It might have improved things slightly if they had. The tyrannosaurus rex fared slightly better in that they were allowed to be craggy, but this was because they were ranchers rather than farmers (we’ll get to that in a moment – it’s going to be a good moment).spot and arlo

I acknowledge that I am being slightly unreasonable by expecting any verité from what is, after all, intended to be morally uplifting entertainment. One might justify this by pointing out that the plot is not remotely realistic, so why should the dinosaurs be? It’s a fair point, but nonetheless, I would contend that if you’re going to go to all the trouble of producing such realistic animation for the landscapes, you might also want to go to a little more trouble with your main characters. Alas, Pixar did not. The dinosaurs look as though they have been parachuted into an exquisite landscape by an over-zealous toy manufacturer, which is probably not so far from the truth. This is a Walt Disney film, after all. We’re not dealing with an indy film-maker, but an arm of a multi-million-dollar enterprise with a very particular view of the world it wants to push.

Now for the story. Its initial premise is alluring. Dinosaurs were not wiped out by a meteor collision. There was no K-T extinction event, just a bright light briefly zipping through the sky. Hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of years go by and dinosaurs remain on the earth. Except, somewhere along the way they have upped their evolution game and acquired the trappings of what we might consider civilisation. That is, the vegetarian apatosauruses have become farmers, growing and harvesting maize, which they then store in rock-built silos. This enables some amusing shots of apatosauruses ploughing the ground with their snouts, and using their long necks as a way of spraying water across their fields, raising probably enough corn to keep one apatosaurus in light snacks for a winter’s day, or at any rate to feed their chickens. What they subsist on the rest of the time remains unclear. Later, we will see that the tyrannosaurus rex are raising what they call ‘longhorns’, bison with enormous auroch-like horns, and herding them on the plains (though I couldn’t help noting that no mention was made of why they might be herding them, i.e. for food – the script was too busy being amused at portraying T.rex as a goodie). And everyone lives happily side by distant side (lacking only a chorus of ‘The Farmer and the Cowman Should be Friends’).Good Dinosar corn silo

This is a nonsensical model of sustainability, of course, but it isn’t intended to be believable so much as to reinforce a sense that life would have always turned out this way in the United States, be it with humans or dinosaurs. Manifest dinosaur destiny, if you like. Or, a failure of imagination, if you prefer. Either way, this is going to be a film about good old-fashioned white American values, played out in an alternative Big Country, and sure enough, much of the early part of the film focuses on Arlo, the runt of the dinosaur litter, struggling to find some way of ‘making his mark’ on the world – literally, in this case, as it involves making a muddy dinosaur footprint on the corn silo, which is pretty much at the centre of this story. Arlo is a small dinosaur, frightened of everything, in awe of his father, and determined to make him proud. When Henry, his father, puts him to guarding the silo and find out who is stealing their corn, Arlo sets to with a will, catching the miscreant, who turns out to be a very small boy, at which point Arlo baulks at killing another creature and the boy escapes. Henry insists that they track the boy and so they head off up-river as the clouds gather, a storm breaks and the father is swept away in a flash flood. Cue shot of gravestone, at which point I was seriously in WTF territory.

And cue shots of clouds. When in doubt, show some clouds. There are lots of clouds in this film, to the extent that they almost become characters in their collective right. The reason for this is apparently that the film-makers have developed a new technique for making Volumetric Clouds, that is, clouds that actually look like clouds (to the extent that the credits feature a whole section on the people who worked on the Volumetric Clouds).This is perhaps a clue to what is really going on with this film, but first, back to the plot. The apatosaurus family struggles on, trying to get the harvest in – these are homesteading dinosaurs with no near neighbours, obviously – but when Arlo discovers that the small boy is back, he chases after him, falls in the river, and floats way off downstream. Once he has recovered from this mishap he determines that he must go home, and he knows that the best way to do this is to follow the river upstream. Astonishingly, considering how many miles Arlo must have travelled in the water, considering how long it takes him to get back, the small boy is still there, and given that Arlo is utterly useless in the wild, the small boy starts to look after him.arloandspot

The small boy is represented in the soundtrack by what I would characterise as pseudo-native flute music, so one might argue that he is taking up the role of the Good Indian, but the chronology is complicated here if we assume that such evolution as has occurred (and it frankly doesn’t look like that much has, other than the plasticisation of the dinosaurs and their taking up farming as a marker of civilisation) still places humans as having come after the dinosaurs. On the other hand, there are clear views about who owns what in terms of land and produce, and the small human boy is initially regarded as vermin by the apatosauruses, so who knows. It doesn’t get much better when Arlo calls the boy Spot, pushing him into the oh-so-amusing role of pet dog (he even howls like a wolf). And yes, we are supposed to understand that Spot is far cleverer than Arlo when it comes to survival, though it’s uncertain whether we should read that as a foreshadowing of the delayed but inevitable rise of humans.arlopteranodon

Arlo and Spot make a picaresque journey through the mid-West, trying to get home, and along the way they meet all sorts of western film tropes, as well as other creatures, including the bizarre styracosaurus who prompted Arlo to call the boy Spot, after a competition to see which of them would keep him; and a small flock of pteranodons, whom Arlo mistakes for rescuers after a storm, but who are quartering the ground for displaced creatures to eat. This is possibly the most realistic moment in the film, but for the sake of the story the pteranodons become the villains of the piece.the-good-dinosaur-trexs

Arlo and Spot are rescued from this confrontation by a family of cow-punching tyrannosaurus rex, and Arlo and Spot in turn help them find their herd of longhorns, which are being rustled by velociraptors. It belatedly occurs to me that the pteranodons and velociraptors are rather more accurately represented in their appearance and behaviour than the good characters (though admittedly this is for values of accuracy that apply only to this film).The_Good_Dinosaur_velociraptors

So, finally, Arlo is almost home but has to stop and rescue Spot from the vengeful pteranodons one last time, to underline the fact that they are friends, equals, etc. (though not before he has a confrontation with the ghost of his father and makes his own choice about what to do). At this point a set of slightly better dressed humans (they have furs, and are possibly refugees from the Frozen kingdom) rock up and Spot finds himself torn between them and Arlo, until Arlo picks up an earlier theme of family and sends Spot away with them. Here family is clearly designated as ‘people who look like you’ rather than creatures with whom you have formed a bond, and we can doubtless rest assured they will teach Spot better manners and better dress sense. And if you’re thinking this seems rather like the end of Disney’s original The Jungle Book, you would be justified in thinking that, : there are a few other resonances as well, not least the similarities between the crows and the pteranodons.schlock

But after all this Arlo has come home, and finally gets to make his muddy mark on the silo. And that’s it. This entire 90 minutes of ‘did they really just do what I thought they did?’ is predicated on Arlo’s now being enough of a dinosaur to be able to mark his muddy footprint on a rock. Ninety overly-moralised minutes of my life I won’t get back again.

My initial theory, going back to the Volumetric Clouds, was that The Good Dinosaur is actually a show reel for the animators, and having read a few bits and pieces about the struggles to get the film made, I’m inclined to stick with that idea, especially as the ‘struggles’ seem to centre on the actual story … the need to find one. To me, the most successful moments of the film are when Spot and Arlo aren’t really doing anything except bouncing joyously through the landscape, a dinosaur and his boy, playing together. The scene in the prairie dog town, as they blow the prairie dogs out of their holes, is genuinely hilarious, while the encounters with fireflies are moments of wonder and beauty. But the moment the film turns to anything serious, the heavy hand of good old-fashioned Disney morality descends and the whole thing buckles and collapses under the weight of noble but misguided intention. This film may have exquisite background visuals, but it has very little else, and I am disappointed in Pixar. Admittedly, I don’t think they always get it right (Inside Out, to me, has similar problems with its story though I know many people adore it, and Up is two films bolted together, one of them tiny and exquisite, the other overly long and crudely executed) but generally they do better than this. I love the Toy Story series, Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc and especially The Incredibles. And the difference in each case is that the film has a story. Maybe they had a story first. I remain suspicious that The Good Dinosaur was nothing more than those Volumetric Clouds and all that beautifully animated water looking for a place to disport themselves.

Compare The Good Dinosaur with something like Zootropolis, which I’ve also seen recently, and it’s clear that it doesn’t matter how much great animation you have, and how many good sight gags you include, without a strong story (and Zootropolis has a very strong story indeed), you’re lost before you start. Zootropolis and The Good Dinosaur are working in similar territory, with rampant anthropomorphism and a life-affirming tale of surmounting the odds, but the script for Zootropolis has wit and verve, while the script for The Good Dinosaur limps along, rather as its main character does at various points.

The View from G21: watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Given Paul Kincaid and I were pretty much the last people left who hadn’t seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I’m assuming you’ve all seen it. If you haven’t, and care about these things, be advised I will be discussing all of it. All of it.

Princess Leia was at the cinema yesterday.

She was a very small princess, but she had a lightsabre, and her hair was perfect.

I couldn’t see what her brother was wearing but her parents seemed to be in 21st century British clothes.

I would have loved to ask her what she thought of General Leia, and of Rey, and Finn, and Kylo. And grizzled Han Solo. And bearded Luke.

For that matter, I wonder what her parents thought, given they looked about the age to have grown up with all this.

That growing up with a film or franchise seems to be important right now. I was struck a while ago by people complaining about how the new Ghostbusters would ruin their childhood because they’d watched it endlessly as children. I saw it for the first time when I was 25; it’s one of my favourite films even now, but I don’t have that kind of investment in it. I noticed people talking about the significance of Labyrinth in their childhood after David Bowie died. (I’ve never actually seen Labyrinth; perhaps I should.) And I suspect there are people who feel similarly about Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or Galaxy Quest now that Alan Rickman has gone. (You know, I completely forgot about the Harry Potter films. Seriously. I have apparently completely wiped them out of my mind.)

But head and shoulders above all these stands Star Wars. I didn’t see the original film when it came out in 1977, for various reasons involving a boyfriend who didn’t like sf films. I first saw it around 1980/81, in a double bill with The Empire Strikes Back. I was the last one into the cinema, because there was one seat left and I was the first person they found in the queue who was on her own (I’d married a man who didn’t like sf films).

The seat was high up at the back of the cinema, higher than I normally preferred. I don’t really remember much about either film from that viewing, except that sequence when Luke Skywalker acts as gunner while Han Solo and Chewbacca fly the shit out of the Millennium Falcon. Had I been prone to saying ‘holy shit’ in those days, I’d have probably said that. It was … awesome. (I didn’t say that in those days, either.) Never mind the carnage, I was all wow! explosions! can I do that?!?

I saw Return of the Jedi six times when it came out. At least six times. Lots of widescreen shooty-shooty but mostly, I loved it for that moment when Luke Skywalker suddenly emerged from the shadows, and hey, we were back in business again. What can I say? I was 24, went to a lot of films on my own, and was coming to the conclusion that maybe I didn’t want any longer to be married to a man who didn’t like sf films.

I didn’t watch sf films critically in those days. I consumed them like sweeties, empty calories to fill the void. I found it hard to disentangle myself from the best of them (Blade Runner. Always Blade Runner) and laughed at myself for going in when I emerged from seeing the crap ones (and if you think I’m going to admit to some of the films I saw …)

Return of the Jedi? Good, definitely. Great? Possibly. But it wasn’t Blade Runner. Nonetheless, it offered a fairy-tale narrative of redemption and renewal, and restoration. We could all get through this and find something better. It would be fine. And I’d go and see it again the following week on my afternoon off, just to convince myself again.

I skipped the prequels. Well, wouldn’t you?

And now, here I am, in a cinema, in Folkestone, married to a man who likes some sf films (the man who took me to see Ghostbusters on our very first ‘official’ date – I pretty much had to marry him eventually), and we’re about to watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s been thirty-three years since I saw a Star Wars film in the cinema. Holy shit, it’s been thirty-three years!!!

I’d got a rough idea of what to expect, from trailer snippets, from things people had written (I don’t lose sleep about spoilers, as you may know, though it turns out there was one thing I didn’t actually know; we’ll come to that later).

First impressions. It’s a Star Wars film. There’s the summary scrolling up the screen. And the music. Oh gosh, the music. This is like coming home, isn’t it? So exciting …

And then there’s this feeling that everything is all a bit … familiar? Haven’t we been here before? I mean, actually. Been. Here. Before?

Well, ok, it has changed, a little. Rather than bumping off a few innocent civilians while looking for a droid with information, let’s annihilate entire settlements, and show the annihilation in progress. ‘Plosions, space ships, storm troopers, fires, people running and screaming, shooting, ker-pow!!! Isn’t this great???

Er, I don’t know? Is it? My younger self remains silent on this issue, though I suspect she might have liked it. Especially in 3-D, had it existed in the cinema then (I mean, really existed) as her eyes were still about as good as they were likely to be and she didn’t yet wear glasses (although as she had no depth-perception even then she needed them).

Me? I’m thinking ‘holy shit!’, and not in a positive way.

And oh dear god, did they really just do that thing with the bloody handprint so you know which storm trooper to follow? Oh god, they just did.

face:palm as we also didn’t say in the old days.

I just don’t know … Actually, I do know, and am busy composing a brisk paragraph in my head about not trusting the audience, making it too easy, and so on.

A ghastly sense of inevitability begins to impinge.

I’m old, I’ve watched a lot of films in my time, including Star Wars, and it’s actually really not that difficult (mostly) to see what’s coming. Stormtrooper becomes human, decides to rescue captured pilot as ticket out. Escape from the Death Star Mk.II, in one of those cute little ships that looks like a diablo, and … whee, shooty-shooty. Apparently, my inner twenty-something is still big on the space gunnery. Which is handy, as there is going to be more of it. Yee-ha!

Wait! Why are we on Arrakis? Or Tatooine? No, they’re calling it Jakku this time. Was that a sandworm? Whatever, we are back in a marginal desert settlement-thing, allowing everyone to dress up in flowing robes, absolutely not being orientalist, no sir, look, we’ve got goggles and respirators, too, see?

Twenty-something me approves desperately of Rey. Current-me wonders why she doesn’t cover up her lower legs, as though they are magically immune to sunburn, sand burns, bugs, etc. I guess it’s for the climbing scenes.

Finn loses Poe Dameron, his new pilot, who has already lost his cat, sorry, droid (see Inside Llewyn Davis if you don’t get that one; and as Paul Kincaid points out, actually, this time the ‘cat’s lost Poe). Finn finds Rey – are two people incapable of meeting around here without another fucking firefight breaking out? Apparently, they are. Boom. More innocent bystanders shot up.

Let’s fly away. No, that ship’s just been blown up. Let’s fly away and use this ship instead. Holy shit (for real, this time), it’s the Millennium Falcon, hotly pursued by someone who looks remarkably like a remade Bombur from The Hobbit. I’m no longer entirely sure which film I am in.

But this, it turns out, this is what I am here for: this sequence as Rey flies the Millennium Falcon in, out, and upside down, across the face of Jakku, trying to escape Nazis-from-the-Antarctic, with Finn as her gunner. Because I cannot do this in my beloved Peugeot 208, not even on an empty motorway, for reasons involving gravity and traffic regulations. Young-me and current-me have bonded over the joy of watching the Millennium Falcon do handbrake turns all over hyperspace. Sigh.

The reappearance of Han Solo and Chewbacca is almost a grace note but there they are, and it’s all so … sorry, seem to have got something in my eye. Is that a speck of sentiment or is it just something that’s shaken its way out of the air duct? Despite what I might have already said about Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi, it was always about Han Solo for me. And apparently, still is. Older … much, much older … and superbly grey and grizzled.

And being weirdly meta- about the whole thing, as though he is also thinking what I’m thinking. Harrison Ford is certainly not phoning in his performance, but I’m not entirely sure he’s always in the same film as the others. It’s funny but also disconcerting, as though he is not taking it entirely seriously. And he reminds me of someone, and I still don’t know who.

Later, once they’ve got back to the resistance planet, and he and Leia are quasi-amicably bickering, I find myself thinking of Fonda and Hepburn in On Golden Pond. And I’m torn. Because on the one hand, I am thinking that it’s fabulous to have an action movie with older people in it, even if one of them is staying at home rather too much (please give her a gun, later). On the other hand, Hollywood still apparently can only account for older couples on screen by having them estranged/squabbling/testy, and I’m kind of hurt by that. I’m looking to Han and Leia to represent me on screen, and … no, it’s not entirely working, is it? Perhaps I am too old for this. I smile as Chewbacca fusses about Han putting his coat on when they’re wandering around in Antarctica, sorry, on the ice planet, looking for the First Order base, but at the same time, I am thinking that this is like being a thirteen-year-old, reading Lord of the Rings, and identifying with Strider because there is a chronic lack of active women who aren’t elves in LOTR, and not realising that this was a problem.

I see it now. Because I’m a 56-year-old woman who is identifying with a character played by a 73-year-old man, and it’s 2016. Maybe I should identify with Rey, and to some extent I do, but not enough. There seem to be a number of younger visible women – pilots, bystanders, vamps, and so on – but this film gives me, me specifically, Leia, the doctor played by Harriet Walter, possibly Phazma but who knows under that armour, and Maz Kanata, the Guinan de nos jours (also played by a woman of colour, a young woman of colour, and a lot less visible under that than Whoopi Goldberg ever was. And I haven’t got time to stop and think about the mystical person of colour shtick). It’s not a lot to go on, is it? Maybe I can pretend there’s a middle-aged mechanic on the Resistance base.

And, wait, I’m lost now … what were we shooting up in this section? As Maz’s trading post is being destroyed, I suddenly realise I’m done with seeing things explode, masonry crumble and fall, and stormtroopers fly through the air every few seconds. The attrition rate is appalling; no wonder they are constantly recruiting. I’m slightly surprised they’ve not yet taken the orc route and started breeding them, but I can see that might be a franchise too far, and anyway, it’s always a good idea not to cross the streams. Sadly, there is a lot more exploding to go; indeed, the entire film seems to be predicated on blowing things up, including planet-sized weapons. I’m going slightly deaf by this point, and my eyes are suffering from the flashes of light as another person or object goes up in flames. And that includes what is now a mere shell of a plot.

I’m getting impatient with the film, which seems to be getting impatient with itself. There’s none of this nonsense about training to be a Jedi. In this generation, Rey can lay hands on a lightsabre and immediately start hacking away at Kylo Ren with considerable aplomb. Of course, she’s used to fighting, as is Finn, and though neither was trained to skewer things they do quite well. Kylo may be trained to fight but to add to his general woes, he’s not that good at it, which is unfortunate, and to compound things, Rey is naturally ace at doing things with the Force as well. Damn. At least he’ll be in demand for his Snape impersonation.

I’m being facetious now, because, really, there is little else left to do. Other than to debate the one thing I didn’t know about. The death of Han Solo. He has to come back, right? Though given the way things have been so far … Paul did express disappointment that Han Solo didn’t cry ‘Fly, you fools’, as the Balrog got him, sorry, as he fell into the void, but I have already warned you about the dangers of crossing the streams. But seriously, does he come back? Logic demands that he must, because the logic of film franchises like this is that no one named ever really dies, unless they die, and he hasn’t died yet. Not properly. I mean: like the White Witch, you can always get them back if you really want to, and probably with more success than resurrecting her. Rather as we’re fairly sure that we’ve not see the last of Kylo Ren, might we hold out some sort of hope for the return of Han Solo? At least so he can get his revenge on Emo Kylo for stabbing him through the heart with a lightsabre (a move that is incidentally used at least once too often, taking an element of surprise out of it)? Or was that it?

I admit, after that, I lost a certain amount of interest, even when Rey goes off to find Slavoj Žižek, sorry, Luke Skywalker, who appears to have gone to ground on Skellig Michael, presumably because he can. Take that, New Zealand!

I did enjoy The Force Awakens up to a point. But only up to a point. I like that there is another Star Wars movie in the world, that includes things I enjoyed about the originals (ok, the Millennium Falcon doing handbrake turns – so sue me, I’m shallow) but I look at it now, and all I can think of is how thin, how stretched, how  like butter scraped across bread this plot is. How this film is really one long series of nods to its predecessors, with very little in the way of newness. Some adjustment of gender roles, to be sure, and some foregrounding of actors of colour, all at long last. And I will just say here that Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are both outstanding actors. Along with, Harrison Ford and Chewie, they are the most watchable things on the screen. I love the moment when, having evaded the First Order, they’re excitedly dancing around, talking over each other. I love that Rey is so good a pilot she can match Han Solo. I love the giddiness of Rey and Finn falling in love. It reminds me of …

And that’s my problem, right there. It reminds me of … well, it reminds me of things I don’t feel inclined to talk about right now, but if you knew us then, knew us well, back in the day, it reminds me of that. And that takes me back to the hurt I feel about Han and Leia. We can be reminded of, but we can’t actually be …

But back in the cinema, the film was over. Princess Leia was on her way home. She’d obviously had a good time. In the foyer there was a man with learning difficulties, bouncing up and down excitedly, asking us all if we’d enjoyed seeing the film. I enjoyed his enjoyment.

As for me, it was time to go home. I felt hammered by sound. My ears were tired, my eyes were tired, my brain was curled in a foetal ball, screaming ‘enough with the self-referentiality, already. You have ticked every single fucking box, and pleased everyone by recalling their special memory of first Star Wars. Please stop it now’.

On the plus side, there were, thank god, no Ewoks.

‘he had a remarkable gentleness and courtesy in his dealings with women’ – the Sherlock Christmas special

If you have not seen the Sherlock Christmas Special as yet, and are worried about finding out how it ends, I suggest you go and watch it before you read this. If you’re not worried, read on.

[Mrs Hudson] stood in the deepest awe of him and never dared to interfere with him, however outrageous his proceedings might seem. She was fond of him, too, for he had a remarkable gentleness and courtesy in his dealings with women. He disliked and distrusted the sex, but he was always a chivalrous opponent.

Arthur Conan Doyle – The Adventure of the Dying Detective

‘What exactly is the point of you?’ Sherlock Holmes to Mrs Hudson

Steven Moffat – His Last Vow (Sherlock, Season 3)

I mostly abandoned Sherlock at the beginning of series 2, because I found it so irritating, and at the time I had too little patience with things that irritated me to set about finding out why they irritated me. I suspected back then it might have something to do with the shows being insufficiently canonical, which probably meant that I was actually being a bit too stuffy about the whole thing, and that was the kind of self-examination I wasn’t really prepared to deal with just then.

So, new year, better attitude: I decided to watch ‘The Abominable Bride’, the Sherlock Christmas special. The premise looked intriguing and, I admit it, I was curious about the fact the show would be set in Victorian London. Foolishly, I had assumed it was a genuine one-off show, an honest-to-god Christmas special, a return to the textual taproot, so to speak. You would think I would know better than that by now, but I apparently still have much to learn about the Way of Moffat.

The first thing to recognise, perhaps, is that anything I might know, he will know better: he will know anything better than me. I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool Sherlockian by any means – I don’t possess that obsessive character quirk that appears to mark the genuine fan of anything– but I’ve read, watched and listened to the stories in various adaptations enough times to have a decent working knowledge of the canon, even if I don’t have a minutely detailed recall of every actor who has so much as sneezed in one frame of film.

However, two things in particular I have learned over the years. One is that while Sherlock Holmes may not particularly like women, as a rule he behaves well towards them and listens sympathetically to their problems. Conan Doyle states this most clearly, through his mouthpiece, John H. Watson, in ‘The Adventure of the Dying Detective’, but one sees ample evidence of this elsewhere. One might cite, for example, ‘The Adventure of the Copper Beeches’, in which Holmes several times praises the resourceful Miss Violet Hunter, who takes a post, aware that something is amiss, and takes the precaution of contacting Sherlock Holmes before leaving London. One might note his behaviour towards Mary Morstan in The Sign of the Four, or any number of other examples throughout the texts, up to and including the landlady in ‘The Adventure of the Red Circle’ or ‘The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger’. Holmes is canonically far more sympathetic than people realise.

The other thing I know is that Conan Doyle himself created the metafictional aspect of the Sherlock Holmes stories, with Holmes regularly making disparaging observations about Watson’s prowess as a writer. ‘The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier’ is recounted by Holmes himself in response to Watson’s urging.

For a long time he has worried me to write an experience of my own. Perhaps I have rather invited this persecution, since I have often had occasion to point out to him how superficial are his own accounts and to accuse him of pandering to popular taste instead of confining himself rigidily to facts and figures.

‘The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane’ seems to emerge from Holmes’ need to record a peculiar case at a point when Watson is not there to be his amanuensis. ‘Thus I must act as my own chronicler.’

Radio 4 took up the metafictional aspect of adapting Sherlock Holmes well before Steven Moffat came on the scene, and with much more subtlety. Those familiar with the Clive Merrison/Michael Williams Holmes and Watson productions will be aware that the fact of Watson writing about Holmes was a frequent topic of discussion in the narrative frame, and not just Holmes disparaging Watson’s flair for melodrama. Think of it more as an ongoing low-key examination of the nature of fictionality, to the point where the narrative raises some very interesting philosophical points about identity.

Cut then to ‘The Abominable Bride’, and to Una Stubbs as Mrs Hudson, complaining to Watson about the paucity of lines for her in his stories. This is actually entirely true – in the canon, Mrs Hudson is mentioned a bare 13 times, yet somehow she seems to be more present than that, a fact that has seeped into tv and radio productions, where she often has more lines than she ever did in the originals.

But then, as we have been reminded constantly, what is the point of Mrs Hudson, of Mary Morstan, Molly Hooper, and the various other women who have drifted through three series of Sherlock, other having to put up with Sherlock’s petulance and rudeness? Unlike their counterparts in Conan Doyle’s stories these women are rarely accorded respect by Sherlock Holmes, whom we must, I fear, regard as Moffat’s mouthpiece.

Moffat has been called out on this constantly over three series yet has pretty much stuck his fingers in his ears and gone la-la-la to indicate how he doesn’t mind, in between throwing tantrums whenever he feels a little too beleaguered by the fans’ failure to appreciate his ongoing wonderfulness in delivering up this amazing show. Like his creation, Moffat lacks respect; he lacks respect for a good percentage of his audience while being complicit with the other portion, who of course appreciate his laddish witticisms. But this has all been said before so I am hardly bringing anything new to the table.

I think, though, that ‘respect’, or the lack of it, is perhaps key to understanding what Moffat does, or doesn’t do, and almost the main reason why he gets up my nose so much. He may love Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation with an unreasoning nerdy joy, and that’s fine. There is a place for someone to hold all those little fragments of information in their head and trot them out for our edification as the circumstances allow. But Moffat does not respect the idea of ‘Sherlock Holmes’, and that’s a whole different thing.

And by ‘respect’, or lack of it, I don’t mean the playing fast and loose with the canon, but the manner of that playing fast and loose. It’s one thing to insert knowing references to ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ or ‘The Five Orange Pips’, and a slyer reference to ‘The Greek Interpreter’ (which I spotted immediately, so go me). It’s another thing to take the canonical figure, move it to contemporary times, and then effectively trash it simply because you can. Because it seems to me that this is what Moffat does every time he puts a woman into Sherlock and silences her or demeans her in some way.

While contemporary Sherlock Holmes has a range of skills available to him that are different to those of his nineteenth-century counterpart, he is nonetheless still Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle’s character. Except that Moffat has entirely stripped him of his humanity because he apparently doesn’t have the skill to read the deeper character. Or rather, he may think he does – because it’s all about Irene Adler, isn’t it? – but I don’t think he does. He might even argue – maybe he has and I missed it – that his Sherlock Holmes is intentionally the complete antithesis of the original – except that I don’t believe this either. Moffat’s Sherlock doesn’t seem to me to be a radical departure from the canonical figure so much as an excuse for a badly behaved Millennial to rampage around London with impunity. Or to put it another way, you don’t get to label yourself as a sociopath; that’s a job for others. And if you are going to be openly misogynistic, you’d better have a damn good reason for doing it – Irene made me do it doesn’t count.

To judge from the Christmas episode, however, it would seem that word has finally reached Moffat’s brain that women are not pleased with him. That, in fact, they are really displeased, and given they form a significant chunk of the fanbase, it has become clear to him that he must do something. The Abominable Bride could be read, therefore, as some sort of attempt to address past deficiencies, an attempt to ask oneself as writer how one could have let it get so bad. Mrs Hudson could indeed ask John H Watson why she had so few lines in his stories. Mary Morstan could find her way, heavily veiled, to 221b Baker Street to ask John Watson why the hell he hasn’t been home lately. His parlour maid could ask John Watson why he never mentions her in his stories. Poor John – everyone wants to know why he’s being so nasty to them, and of course he has no answer, because he can’t really say ‘the scriptwriter made me do it’.

Sherlock Holmes remains silent, because it is not his department. He’s got a dead body to worry about. The body of Emelia Ricoletti, who the previous afternoon blew out her brains before a large audience of bystanders, only to re-appear later the same day, armed with a shotgun, to blow two large holes through her husband. It was the Ricolettis’ wedding anniversary, Emelia was dressed in her wedding gown, and killed her husband outside a Limehouse opium den, again before witnesses, before vanishing into the fog. By the time Holmes and Watson reach the morgue, her body is lying chained down on a mortuary table, because, apparently, her fingers are smeared with blood, and someone has used that blood to write ‘You’ on the wall in rather shaky letters (see ‘rache’, in A Study in Scarlet), all of which suggests that the corpse of Emelia Ricoletti committed the murder of her husband.

Naturally, the highly rational Holmes will not have any of this. Nor will he accept any of Watson’s faintly ludicrous explanations, such as that Emelia Ricoletti has a secret twin. It is never twins, he says firmly, and indeed it never is. But as he surely knows himself, it doesn’t have to be a twin, just someone who looks similar. As in ‘The Adventure of the Copper Beeches’, say, though canonically that hasn’t happened yet, as it’s five stories after ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’, which provides the anchor for this story. Or, say, as in a story of a man who fakes his own suicide at the end of Series Two of a tv show at some point in the future.

And here I have to say that whatever else I feel about ‘The Abominable Bride’ the little nugget of actual story was gorgeously done, one of those moments when you think to yourself, ‘thank god, they do actually know what they’re doing’, even though you know you’ll inevitably be disabused of that notion a few scenes later. I assumed the sensationalism and melodrama of it all, complete with an outing for one of my favorite stage effects, Pepper’s Ghost, was a nod to the original Holmes’s regular complaint that Watson dressed up his stories with flagrant disregard for the actual facts. If so, this was, I think, far further over the top than anything Conan Doyle’s Watson could have dreamed of. I was really quite excited about it.

A string of murders follows – Holmes not unreasonably dismisses them as copycat murders – and then Mycroft directs Holmes and Watson to take on a case from one Lady Carmichael, concerned for her husband, Lord Eustace, who has received five orange pips in an envelope in the post, which apparently signifies his death. Later, he sees the Bride in the grounds of his house. Lady Carmichael has come to Holmes, asking him to protect Lord Eustace.

In directing the case to Holmes, Mycroft comments ominously that they will be battling an enemy who lurks constantly at their elbow: Watson rattles off a shopping list of nineteenth-century concerns (read Conrad’s The Secret Agent if you want a sense of London at this time), all of which Mycroft dismisses. Watching a second time, you get a very clear sense of what Mycroft is hinting at, something that both Holmes and Watson have so far failed to grasp in their various ways. Holmes has apparently failed to notice that Hooper, the surgeon at the mortuary, is in fact a woman. Watson has spotted this, and kindly lets Hooper know that he is aware, making a snide comment about the things people do to get on in the world. Our first view of the doomed Sir Eustace includes him making snide remarks about his wife’s plans for the day, assuming she will either do embroidery or visit her milliner, when clearly she has two children, a husband and a house to take care of, at the very least.

To protect Sir Eustace, Holmes and Watson stake out the house, waiting in a convenient conservatory until something happens. This is the stuff of so many of Conan Doyle’s stories – waiting under cover of dark for something to happen – but here Moffat decides to fill in the gaps by having Watson try to persuade Holmes to open up about his past. It is, of course, painful bromance stuff, and this viewer at least shared Holmes’s relief when the ‘ghost’ showed up and they could do some running around.

Perhaps the most spectacular moment comes when, as Holmes is in the house, Watson stands guard by the window they have smashed to gain entrance, and the ‘ghost’ appears behind him. We know, of course, that the ghost must be corporeal, but we might feel a certain sympathy for Watson when he legs it in search of Holmes. There was a genuine frisson of fear at that moment. I savoured it, little realising that things were about to go seriously off the rails.

Or maybe I had noticed already. Because, at this point in the proceedings, I couldn’t help noticing that, with half the show still to run, we didn’t exactly seem to be going anywhere. There was the odd detail of Holmes, Watson and Lestrade suddenly finding a note on the corpse of Sir Eustace where there had been none before. And had I seen all of Series Two and Three it might have made more sense to begin with. And what about Mycroft?

Conan Doyle’s Mycroft is described thus by Watson, when he meets him for the first time in ‘The Greek Interpreter’:

‘Mycroft Holmes was a much larger and stouter man than Sherlock. His body was absolutely corpulent, but his face, though massive, had preserved something of the sharpness of expression which was so remarkable in that of his brother. His eyes, which were of a peculiarly light, watery gray, seemed to always retain that far-away, introspective look which I had only observed in Sherlock’s when he was exerting his full powers.

‘I am glad to meet you, sir,’ said he, putting out a broad, fat hand like the flipper of a seal

Fat, yes, but not a glutton, so far as we can tell. Conan Doyle’s Holmes notes that Mycroft leads a very sedentary life, moving between his home, his work and the Diogenes Club, whereas MoffatMycroft seems to owe more to the Pythons’ Mr Creosote, revelling in his gourmandising. And Mycroft draws attention to his increasing girth when Holmes visits him again the next day, and to something else when he describes Holmes as the virus in the data, words that simply don’t belong in Victorian London. Something is not right here.

Indeed, a lot of things are not right. And I don’t just mean in terms of Moffat’s Sherlock Holmes being his usual obnoxious self, rather than being on his best Victorian behaviour. Back at the beginning, Mary Morstan receives a note which is signed ‘M’. There are two possibilities – Moriarty, who is dead, to begin with, or Mycroft, who most certainly is not (nor likely to be as he is played by Mark Gatiss, and it seems unlikely that Moffat and Gatiss will be writing out Gatiss’s character any time soon). At this stage, I can’t tell if this is Moffat attempting to misdirect us – oh my god, Mary’s conniving with Moriarty, who is not dead after all (or has Colonel Sebastian Moran been brought into play) – or whether he’s assuming we’ll assume the obvious, because, well, it’s obvious. Is he playing mind games with his audience, or is he just being an incredibly clumsy storyteller? Could it be, could it actually be that …

Given Moffat can never resist throwing the entire rack of seasonings into almost any story he writes, it’s reasonable to surmise that both Moriarty and Mycroft are involved (and for Sebastian Moran to be there too, for all I know).

And that is the last we see of Mary Morstan for over half the show. Her absence is marked chez Watson, when Watson is having trouble keeping the maid in order (it is, after all, Mary’s job to supervise the household staff, not Watson’s), but Watson himself is irritated rather than puzzled by this. It is an inconvenience rather than a cause for concern. Does this happen all the time? What a remarkably modern marriage, we might think.

So it’s hardly surprising when Moriarty, still dead, at this point, appears in Holmes’ rooms as he tries to puzzle out the business of the Abominable Bride. Hold on, let’s run that past me again. Moriarty is dead and yet here he is, large as life, not quite twice as natural as he seems to have a large hole in the back of his head …

At which point we come to realise that we are not in Victorian London, in a one-off Christmas special, as we thought, and never were, but are in fact in MoffatSherlock’s memory palace, which is of course set up to look like Conan Doyle’s Holmes’s world. And we have just been summoned back to the twenty-first century to appreciate the cleverness of all this. The sense of disappointment I felt at this moment is difficult to convey. Primarily, I felt cheated of the entertainment I had been promised, because yet again Steven Moffat had felt the inexorable desire to disappear up his own fundament and get ludicrously metafictional on his own arse, and that will always, always, always trump any instance where he might have done some good storytelling.

The clues pointing to the fact that Moffat and his creation are locked in some sort of battle to the death within an infinite regress are all there if you remember that Moffat has, essentially, only one subject, and that’s Sherlock. Or rather, as the estimable Abigail Nussbaum pointed out this afternoon on Twitter, insofar as Sherlock is a show about making a show, it is really all about Moffat’s efforts to turn Sherlock into Doctor Who. So, actually, it’s really all about Steven. Again.

We’ll come back to why Sherlock is in his dolls house, sorry, memory palace, in a moment. First, we need to go back to Victorian London and those murders, and luckily Sherlock is able to take us there. By this time we have probably accepted that we are not going to get a straightforward solution to the murders, except … wait, Sherlock surmises how it was done – with the use of a substitute dead body (never a twin), enabling Emelia to murder her husband later that night. Then Emelia herself must die, but that’s ok, because she is making a sacrifice for the cause, and has consumption so is going to die soon anyway. So that’s alright. I guess

This is me giving Moffat the side-eye for that one.

It’s at this point that Holmes and Watson receive word from Mary Morstan – remember her? She has been absent for almost the entire drama so far – who has apparently tracked down the people responsible for the murders and asks for their help. She is, according to Holmes, now in mortal danger. Which is how we find ourselves in the crypt of a (very badly CGI’d) half-ruined church, witnessing a peculiar ceremony with a lot of flaming torches, Latin chant and people parading in hooded costumes. Either they’re penitentes or a hitherto unknown English branch of the Ku Klux Klan (I assume Moffat drew this from ‘The Five Orange Pips’, where the Klan was involved). Maybe Moffat has been reading up on the English folk-horror movement lately.

At which point Holmes reveals he knows exactly what is going on (and doubtless has done all along) and breaks into an impassioned explanation of how these mysterious costumed people are women who have been wronged in various ways by their menfolk and who have decided to act for themselves, murdering the men who have treated them badly. So Emelia Ricoletti, the Abominable Bride, is a symbol they can utilise. Anyone can be Emelia (I’m Emelia; no, I am) as and when needed.

So this is it. This is the culmination of all the odd comments about silent women, powerless women, Watson worrying about suffragists and overly perky housemaids. Mrs Hudson feeling overlooked, Lady Carmichael being slighted by her husband, Emelia Ricoletti murdering her no-good man, Molly Hooper having to conceal her gender in order to get the job she wants. I mean, look, it was Mary who practically solved the case by finding out where the ceremony was happening. But not to worry. Sherlock is here now, to mansplain how badly women are being treated. There, everything’s better, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

Well, what do you think?

What I did think was that this might be Moffat’s attempt to try to make amends for his past cock-ups in the feminism department. He’s acknowledged how women are so often demeaned and silenced in his stories by having everyone comment on how they are demeaned and silenced. And then, like a deus ex machina, Sherlock makes a speech – during which he demeans and silences women all over again by reminding them of how they are demeaned and silenced. That is, he speaks for them rather than letting them speak for themselves. And yes, I did notice that Mary’s investigation is conducted entirely off-screen, and we only see it at the end, when Sherlock arrives to take over. I have no idea whether or not that was intentional, but if it wasn’t, and even if it was – you begin to understand why the women are assuming the identity of the Bride and offing their annoying spousal units. (And were I Sherlock Holmes I’d lock my bedroom door at night, just in case Mrs Hudson got an idea or two.)

Nor has it escaped my attention that this is supposedly all Sherlock’s rancid drug-addled imagining anyway, so it would be very easy to dismiss the entire thing out of hand if necessary. Except that I think Moffat really believes he is using Sherlock as a feminist force for good as the laydeez get a decent crack of the whip in this show. Which is, of course, to miss the point entirely, as Moffat so very often does.

And anyway, in case we haven’t realised, all this is a distraction; a grand guignol hammer with which to crack the considerable nut of Sherlock’s ongoing affair with his beloved nemesis, Gentleman Jim Moriarty – how did he kill himself and live to fight another day. This is why Sherlock is sitting in his mental wendy house. For this he has reached back into time to exploit the death of a woman, who shot herself in order to provide other women with a way of dealing with the men who oppressed them, to scratch his unrequited urge to figure out how Moriarty did it.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you feminism the Moffat Way. Because everything must always be about Sherlock Holmes; that is, everything must always be about Steven Moffat. This is not an apology for ignoring women, mistreating them, exploiting them. Perhaps Moffat thinks he is acknowledging those concerns with his oh-so-amusing metafictional criticism, having Mrs Hudson go on strike in the name of satire, or having Mary Morstan vanish to solve the case. Perhaps he thinks he’s done a good thing by having Sherlock speak up on behalf of downtrodden women. He may think that but let’s not forget the pay-off. Mary, it turns out, was indeed summoned by Mycroft, and asked to keep an eye on Sherlock, because Mycroft worries about him. Yes, thoroughly modern Mary Morstan is effectively working as a superior sort of nursemaid. Either that or someone got hold of a box set of Elementary and knew a good idea when they saw it.

And as if this weren’t enough, at the very end we are led to believe that it was indeed all a dream. Again. Except this time it was VictorianSherlock speculating on what a future Sherlock might be like. Self-referentiality taken to its furthest extreme and all done up with a red ribbon. Plus an added side of further disrespect as he suggests calling the story the Adventure of the Monstrous Regiment. Oh, how I did not laugh.

I’ve said a couple of times recently that it seems to me that Gatiss and Moffat, despite being almost my age, continue to behave like a couple of rather clever sixth-formers, showing off their cleverness. Which is cute and excusable in sixth-formers, but rather less desirable in almost fifty-somethings. I don’t deny for a moment that they love Sherlock Holmes, and all the hopelessly geeky stuff (and yes, guys, I did notice the name Vernet written in Mycroft’s diary, below Redbeard – I know, Vernet is the name of Sherlock’s French grandmother.) but I contend again that they don’t really ‘get’ Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. That is, they cannot take the character and make something of it in the way that Brett, Merrison, Rathbone, and the writers of Elementary have done. They keep referring back to the original perhaps because they lack the confidence to make it their own, or because they simply don’t have the ideas. I mean, what is all this Moriarty/Redbeard stuff but Bad Wolf all over again? (And to be honest, the way I feel about Sherlock right now, nothing would delight me more than to discover that Moriarty has godlike powers.)

The thing is, you can only do so much standing around being amazed that you get to work on these characters you’ve loved ever since you were old enough to be aware they existed, and showing off how powerful you are because you are now in charge of their stories. Sooner or later, if the stories you are telling are shit – and they are – and you are incapable of acknowledging the existence of half the human race except as a useful peg on which to hang your half-arsed attempt to pretend you hadn’t fucked up on that point in all the other episodes – and you did fuck up, royally – you will be found out. Be you doctor, consulting detective or script-emperor, sooner or later enough people will notice you have got no clothes on. And in fact, lots of us have been noticing this for a long time.

Don’t you think Steven Moffat looks cold?

Watching Harry Price Ghost Hunter

After reading Neil Spring’s The Ghost Hunters, time to watch the ITV adaptation, Harry Price Ghost Hunter.

(Though first, because of some mysterious scheduling hiccup, I found myself watching half an episode of Jekyll and Hyde. Admittedly, I didn’t have the sound up, but I don’t think having dialogue would have helped. Seriously, what the hell was that I was watching, other than Grade One scenery-chewing and actorly gurning? )

But back to Harry Price Ghost Hunter, the new ‘one-off’ drama with ‘pilot’ written all over it. Actually, it really wasn’t bad. I could probably watch a whole series if it maintained the standard of last night’s episode. It was very spooky and atmospheric while all the time playing with ideas of how we maintain rationality, accept fraud and deception, and a slew of other things, and did all of them well enough to be interesting.

Like his historical counterpart, this Harry Price is a ghost-hunter, determined to find a rational explanation for everything if at all possible. Like his historical counterpart, he is interested in using scientific apparatus to record temperature and movement, to take photographs, and so on. He does the research too. Unlike the real Harry Price, at least so far as we know, the fictional Price comes with a lot of emotional baggage. In the novel Spring tried to give his Harry emotional baggage by having him conceal the fact that he was a) married, and b) running a paper-bag supply business. In reality, Price apparently made no big secret of either, though he did allegedly fudge details of his birth and upbringing to make himself seem a bit grander than he actually was.

Fictional Harry Price, however, has a wife who was incarcerated in a mental asylum by her family, and also started out life as a medium himself, deceiving people himself before moving on to debunking paranormal phenomena. The story opens with a young man accosting him on his own doorstep, thanking him for making clear the meaning of being at peace and then shooting himself tidily in the head, to join his dead brother. Unsurprisingly, this puts a bit of a crimp in Harry’s work but then he is asked to investigate an alleged haunting at a large house, formerly a work house but now the private home of a prospective parliamentary candidate and his wife. The wife has been troubled by strange dreams and occurrences; most recently, she found herself naked in a street with no recollection as to how she came to be there. Her husband and his political mentor are very anxious to have the problem solved so as not to cause problems for the PPC’s burgeoning career.

And so we see Price go to work, eliminating the impossible to see what’s left. So far, so Sherlock Holmes. On Price’s first visit to the house, to meet the PPC and his wife, strange things happen. The servants bells ring although the wires have been cut (a detail lifted straight from the investigation of the Borley Rectory haunting) and a canary sings in an empty room even though it apparently should only sing when there is someone there. According to the PPC’s wife, she often has a feeling there are people around her when she is on her own, and she finds herself in places with no clear idea how she got there. Subsequently, when Price wanders through the cellars of the house, he discovers a mysterious chemical spilling from a bottle, and a pile of rotting apples (the presence of the chemical again echoes the investigation of Borley Rectory, when Rev. Smith describes finding a bottle of sugar of lead in the cellar when he arrived – lead acetate, a poison, but a sweet-tasting one). There is also a photograph of the children from the workhouse.

So, at this stage, the story could go one of several ways – a genuine haunting, or attempted murder (perhaps by the husband, eager to get rid of a wife who might be getting in the way of his political prospects, either by his own design or at the insistence of his repellent political advisor). Or the wife could be faking it because she hates living in the house, hates politics, or she is genuinely ill. Given the way that children seem to feature in the haunting, there is also the possibility that she has lost a child, or wants a child. Interestingly, her husband refuses to get medical treatment for her, because he is concerned that she will be locked away, something he feels would be wrong.

Price begins to pursue these different lines of enquiry, with the help of Sarah Grey, the house maid, who is initially assigned to act as his driver (she drove ambulances during the war) but quickly reveals herself to be sharp-witted, observant, a good researcher. It is she who ferrets out the story of the child murdered at the workhouse, drowned by another inmate. Price, meanwhile, has his associate , Albert Ogoro, ‘practitioner’ of some kind of African magic by night, fully-trained chemist by day, analyse the chemicals. Ogoro also assists in the first night of investigation, helpfully planting a device in the piano to make it play on its own. He is entirely pragmatic about his dual life as fake magician and chemist. As he explains to Sarah Grey, the hen he apparently sacrifices remains alive, but the people who attend his ceremonies are anyway so desperate that if what he does offers them comfort of some sort, is it so very wrong?

His approach is in stark contrast to Price’s mission to denounce and debunk the fakery: we see him break up a medium’s performance on stage, trying to explain to people what is really going on, showing them how it is faked, but to no avail. As the master of ceremonies suggests later, is it because Price himself has lost someone (the audience of course knows that it probably is – we might recall Harry Houdini at this point, who spent much of his life debunking mediums after he realised that they could not put him in contact with his dead mother). All this is significant in turn because Sarah Grey’s mother is a regular attendee at séances and public displays, spending money she does not have on tickets, seeking some sort of closure after her husband’s death. Whether Sarah Grey herself believes is less clear – her anxieties remain financial. The point, though, is that what the novel tried so very hard to convey is here placed firmly in context with a few well-chosen scenes, and done with considerably greater sympathy for those who are being deceived, and indeed those deceiving them.

But back to the case in hand. The chemist Ogoro has identified the chemicals that Price found (not arsenic, as I’d thought, and they go to great pains to say that it is not arsenic that lies at the heart of this) and something is clearly amiss. By this time, the young reporter Vernon Wall, the man who in real life broke the story of Borley Rectory, has turned up; he and Price seem to have some sort of history anyway, and Price persuades him to look into the background of Goodwin, the candidate, and in particular why he left his previous constituency. Which eventually leads them to the River Thames, a narrow boat, and a meeting with a young man who turns out to have been Grace Goodwin’s lover. And there was a pregnancy; the baby should be three months old. Needless to say, there is no sign of a baby.

By this time, it would be fair to say that the plot is not so much convoluted as a tiny bit over-extended and starting to flag, but we are fast heading towards a denouement. As has been clear all along, it was the husband, but the question is, what was he doing. Early in the story, it’s mentioned that his father was a chemist, and that he in turn studied chemistry for a while. It turns out he was making a crude form of barbiturate, with which to dose his wife, having discovered her infidelity. This caused her hallucinations, and meant that she miscarried the child, and afterwards, she suffered from terrifying withdrawal symptoms. Price, Ogoro and Sarah Grey intervene as Goodwin is in the throes of attempting to drown his wife.

But this is where the drama introduces an odd little twist. Goodwin had previously attacked Sarah Grey and left her unconscious on the floor. When she wakes, she can see the figure of a child pointing up the stairs; it’s a figure that has appeared a number of times, and that we’re led to suppose is exclusively Mrs Goodwin’s hallucination. Indeed, as Goodwin drowns his wife, she sees the figure of a child below her in the bath tub, reaching up. And yes, of course it’s a piece of sensationalism, but rather nicely done (certainly in comparison to some things, like the soundtrack, which was extremely noisy). Price’s whole schtick in real life was to attempt to eliminate the impossible, but he claimed to be open to the fact that possibly, just possibly, some people were psychic, and maybe some ghosts were real. Here, the audience is invited to wonder.

The whole thing is tidily closed down with Price doing a private sitting for Sarah Grey’s mother, to reassure her. Things are looking up for Price, and he might need an assistant. The resourceful Sarah Grey is clearly the person for the job. And yes, I would actually like this series to happen, at least if it keeps to this sort of standard of storytelling. It’s not surprising, particularly, but it was effective.

I’m writing this, of course, primarily because I’m interested in how the book became a tv drama, what was saved, what was discarded. As I predicted, practically everything except the names went. A little of the story of Grey’s parents was retained; watered down, one might argue, rendered simplistic and perhaps a little sentimental, but at the same time, I liked the fact that it engaged sympathetically with the fact that people wanted comfort after the War, wanted to know what had happened to their lost relations and so on. The drama catches the dilemma rather better, I think, than the novel, perhaps because the novel was unwilling to address the broader implications of what the mediums were doing. There is a point in the drama when Price mentions a doctor in Vienna; it’s an oblique hint that for many people mediums were the therapists they needed but which were not yet available to them. Which is not to say that we should regard mediums as a necessary part of the grieving or healing process – some were downright sharks, feeding on misery, but removing them would not eliminate the need. The real point being made, perhaps, is how much deception is good, and how much bad.

The tv Sarah Grey is a more sympathetic character than her novel counterpart; more likeable though sharp-tongued and not necessarily impressed with Price. She’s willing to spar with him and certainly doesn’t worship him. There is a certain amount of needling him about his perceptions of a woman’s capabilities. She takes the initiative on a number of occasions; the camera doesn’t always follow her but we see the end results and they are acknowledged as her work. This is no coup de foudre but more a meeting of two people with a formidable array of skills between them. Cara Theobald positions Grey as Price’s equal throughout, in a very crisp piece of acting.

And yet, the story focuses on Harry Price, proving the point that I made yesterday; that the main reason the novel doesn’t work because it stays so firmly within Sarah Grey’s head, when she is pretty much the least interesting person in the story. Rafe Spall’s Price is rather more attractive, inevitably, than his real-life counterpart, and he did the job well enough. My problem was that he kept reminding me of someone else; it took me ages to realise he looked terribly like Samuel West, and I couldn’t help thinking that this was what Sherlock might look like if Samuel West had played Benedict Cumberbatch playing Holmes. Having said which, there is more than a hint of Elementary about the whole thing. One wonders whether the real-life Price was quite so beset with doubts as his fictional counterpart, but without that doubt there would be little in the way of a story, other than the producing of a solution

But hey, it was fun, which is more than can be said for the novel.

(And to make life even more exciting, the programme was bracketed by trails for something called Houdini and Doyle. Together they fight … I have no idea, but I think I may have to watch it.)

Reading The Ghost Hunters by Neil Spring

Earlier this year, I decided I was going to stop reviewing bad books on Paper Knife, because bad books are legion, and I could be doing something more constructive with my writing time. Also, I had begun to suspect myself of enjoying that kind of reviewing rather too much, not least because it is so easy to do, if not entirely rewarding (like the empty calories of sugar – a quick hit but not very sustaining). As it turned out, I didn’t write a lot during the second half of 2015 anyway, and most of that was about theatrical productions. And now, as the year comes to a close, I’m once again about to write a review of a bad book. Have I learned nothing? Perhaps not, but one thing I’ve realised during my blogging hiatus is that sometimes one must bear witness to a book because it is bad. And Neil Spring’s The Ghost Hunters turns out to be a novel that demands my attention.

The Ghost Hunters was published in 2013 but I had no idea it even existed until it began popping up all over my social media outlets a couple of weeks ago. This turned out to be because the novel had been adapted for tv, to be broadcast over Christmas. But having looked at the novel I was slightly surprised I hadn’t noticed it sooner, given its topic – Harry Price’s investigation of the haunting of Borley Rectory. And that interested me because, as a ten-year-old, I had avidly, read Price’s books about the haunting, both of them, several times. They were gripping stories, filled with ghostly nuns, ghostly carriages, and inexplicable phenomena, not to mention a lot of old-school hints on how one might set about investigating a haunting. Good stuff for kids with a taste for the supernatural. Later, older, wiser, much more sceptical, I would learn that it was probable that Price had faked some of the incidents himself. Later still, and by this time remotely unsurprised, I would find that Marianne Foyster, the focus of many of the later events, had also faked a lot of stuff. At which point the case became interesting all over again because, while I might not any longer believe unquestioningly in ghosts, I had become interested in why people did believe, and the lengths to which they would go to convince themselves and others of their existence.

On top of all this, there’s no denying that Harry Price was a fascinating character: like Harry Houdini, a debunker of mediums and others claiming to engage with the spirit world; a skilled magician who used this knowledge to uncover others’ trickery. What is interesting too about Price is that he seemed to want to believe, if only he could find the genuine article in among the fraud and trickery, whereas other groups of researchers seemed to work from the assumption that everyone was genuine until shown to be otherwise. Price began working at a time when there was huge interest in spiritualism, fuelled in part by the terrible loss of life caused by the First World War. Arthur Conan Doyle had moved from scepticism to outright belief in an afterlife, as a result of losses within his own family. Although the two men were initially friendly, he would become antagonistic towards Price as a result of his activities.

How, you might ask yourself, could this not be the stuff of novels? How, indeed, and yet Neil Spring has taken this rich topic and turned it into something that is at best staggeringly dull, and at worst just plain inept. The question is, how has he managed this remarkable feat, give that a novel about Harry Price and the haunting of Borley Rectory should theoretically have massive potential? I mean, just think about it: fiercely driven man, ambitious, with huge ego, eager to make his mark, who may or may not have been rather secretive about his own early life, determined to expose fraud in others; who investigates a woman who herself has a rather shadowy past, and all this set against a background of immense anxiety about what happens to the mind after death but also of rapidly developing new forms of communication. How could all this go so wrong?

If there is one moment in which The Ghost Hunters conclusively begins to go wrong it’s in Spring’s decision to tell the story from the point of view of Sarah Grey, a young woman who becomes Price’s personal assistant, works for him for many years, and among other things accompanies him to Borley Rectory during his early investigations. In fact, I’m not even sure that the problem lies so much in the creation of Sarah Grey in particular as in Spring’s inability to create a character, period. For it is noticeable that The Ghost Hunters is in fact not one novel but two; and that Sarah Grey has two roles within the novel. The first novel is a recounting of events in Price’s life as a researcher, his encounters with the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle, his debunkings of various mediums, his work at Borley, and so forth. All this is well documented and easily told. Here, Grey functions as Spring’s narrative mouthpiece, parroting information to keep the reader up to speed. Spring is clearly comfortable with information. Apparently, he spent three years researching the novel (and indeed, obligingly provides footnotes for events within each chapter, just in case the reader might be uncertain. This does, on occasion, lead to unexpected moments of revelation – for example, I had not realised that Robert Aickman, that Robert Aickman, was an investigator at Borley. However, I have the distinct impression that Spring doesn’t realise the significance of the R.F. Aickman whose report he briefly quotes from.)

The second novel is Sarah Grey’s own story. Literally her own story, the story she tells, about herself and about Price. A young woman, living with her widowed mother, in somewhat straitened circumstances since the death of her father, a barrister, during World War One, Grey is, in common with many in post-war London, somewhat adrift. It’s difficult to get a sense of who she is exactly. She works – or has worked – but while she is anxious about money, about supporting her mother, about keeping the house going, there is nonetheless no real sense of urgency in her search for employment in London. Instead, the two women struggle on in genteel faux-poverty. Sarah’s mother is coping with her grief at the loss of her husband by going to séances, something that Sarah, seemingly a rationalist, does not approve of. However, she finds herself coerced into attending a lecture at which Harry Price talks about his work, exposing fraudulent mediums, and about the establishment of his National Laboratory of Psychical Research. Grey is impressed by Price, goes looking for him, finds her way to his private office, where he surprises her, and promptly offers her a job as his assistant, as you do. And after a little to-ing and fro-ing, she decides she will do just that.

And here is one of the great failures of the novel: Spring cannot communicate in any shape, size or form, the fascination that Price seems to hold for Grey. This is not some great coup de foudre – Grey is far too decorous and virginal a character for that – but neither is it a meeting of minds. Although Grey will enjoy her work and become rather good at it, at least according to her account, one never has the sense that she is totally immersed in it. The problem is that the attraction is inexplicable only in that Spring does not know how to communicate an inexplicable attraction. Grey never questions it, not properly, mainly because Spring doesn’t question it either; because, as a writer, he doesn’t know how to question it. It doesn’t help that he has decided to use a first-person narrative viewpoint. While this works well enough in those portions of the novel where Grey is called on to describe Price’s actions, it fails miserably when she accounts for her own.

Now, one might argue that as a first-person narrator she is, almost by definition, unreliable; this much is true, but for me the problem is that she isn’t actually interesting in her unreliability, and an unreliable narrator needs to catch the reader’s sympathy and/or interest in some way. As a reader I might laugh at her adoration of Harry Price while accepting its sincerity within the frame of the novel, but I’d expect to see some foundation for that unquestioning admiration. Yet, try as I might, I can find nothing in this novel that seems plausible. It is as though Spring has decided that this is how she will be, so this is how she is.

This is not to say that Spring doesn’t make an attempt at providing some sort of accommodating back story. We are led to believe, for example, that Sarah may be suppressing memories concerning her father. He died a hero, we are told, though the family turns out to be in dire straits because of his mismanagement of the family finances. How he might have mismanaged them becomes plain only much later. Sarah gradually retrieves odd memories – a stranger who comes to the door, her father crouched over a trunk of letters, crying. We could argue that she sees something of her father in Price, turning to him because she is in need of a father-figure after losing her father, but that doesn’t seem right either. And Sarah’s mother is behaving more and more strangely. She insists on getting up early, to meet the post, and opens all the letters herself, including Sarah’s. Later, we will learn that she has also been intercepting Sarah’s letters. She forbids Sarah to go into what was her father’s room; later, we will find her constantly scrubbing out the room, insisting that it is mouldy.

This strand of the story is given its head after Grey ceases to work for Price, for reasons that remain unclear for most of the novel. The rationality of her investigative work is replaced by a superstitious conviction that she herself is being haunted, by a dark woman, by a mysterious medallion taken from Borley, and by a series of mysterious scratching noises in the walls between her mother’s room and her own bedroom. We’re led to believe that Price’s investigations have released something evil from Borley, which has found its way into the world through the people who have visited the place.

There is one straightforward way to account for all this, and that is to read it as an externalisation of Grey’s guilt, and also her mother’s knowledge about her father. Swiftly unpacked, it turns out that the father was having an affair, and that the woman’s husband had found out. His death was in fact suicide. Grey, it turns out, went to bed with Price during a particularly fraught night of mysterious happenings at Borley, and became pregnant. She had the child in secret and didn’t tell Price that he was the father. The child was hidden away in another part of the country and adopted. All this comes out conveniently, right at the end of the novel, almost as though Spring had suddenly realised himself. I think the withholding of this information is supposed to be a highlight, a grand revelation. Instead, it feels more as though the author has either been unduly manipulative, or literally been making it up as he goes along.

Also, we are supposed to believe that Grey comes to recognise that there really are dark forces out there, that some manifestations are indeed genuine. And yet Spring is utterly maladroit in handling all of this; he’s clearly not comfortable with writing about heightened emotions, and would much rather scuttle back as fast as he can to describing Price’s career, because he does at least know what he’s doing with that, as it is so thoroughly documented. He doesn’t have to imagine any of it. Certainly, he doesn’t have to imagine Harry Price, which is a pity as I would dearly have liked to know what was going on in Price’s mind for much of the novel, rather than having Grey stand between me and him, telling me how wonderful Price was. Yet the one thing we do not have access to is the contents of Harry Price’s mind.

Now, it may be that I simply came to this novel with unreasonable expectations. I am not, I admit, a huge fan of novels about historical characters because I often feel very uneasy about the way that fiction ascribes to them thoughts, actions, motives they may not have had. On the other hand, I can also see that there are moments when fiction is the only tool one can employ in attempting to account for people’s behaviour (for all sorts of reasons, some of them surprisingly practical),and based on what I knew about Borley, a novel seemed like a useful way of approaching the matter. That is not what I got.

And fine, that might not be what Spring set out to do. Having said that, I’m really not sure what Spring did set out to do. What he definitely did, however, was to create probably the most unconvincing female character I think I’ve ever read. I keep asking myself, what in god’s name possessed him to use the first-person narrative viewpoint when he clearly has no idea how to construct a female character, any character for that matter. There is something so painful about his presentation of the inner thoughts of Sarah Grey it’s almost too embarrassing at times to read them. No subtlety, no depth, no sense of someone breaking under the strain of dealing with a sick mother, with personal guilt, with very odd experiences, just generalised flailing and wibble which stands in for emotional content.

Then again, given the clumsy construction of the novel generally, perhaps I really should not be so surprised. At every level, this novel feels one draft shy of being truly finished. Some of the dialogue is truly jejune; the kind of thing I’m accustomed to seeing in work by inexperienced, unpublished writers. The narrative generally feels like the writer is running a marathon he hasn’t really trained for, collapsing momentarily with relief as each major goal in the race is finally attained. It’s baggy, unnecessarily convoluted, and much of the latter part of it (pretty much everything post-Borley) seems irrelevant. Indeed, the strangest thing is that the novel is not one but three first-person viewpoint narratives, linked chronologically, to bring us to Grey’s long-lost son, who finally learns that his mother is alive, and in need of his help. Why, we don’t know. I do note that Spring’s second novel is set in Wales, but there seems to be no connection. (The Watchers focuses on a series of alleged UFO sightings in West Wales in the 1970s, the so-called Dyfed Triangle, another well-documented case. I begin to sense a pattern here.)

But here’s the interesting thing. As I said at the beginning, this novel has been adapted for television (it’s on tonight, in fact). I joked to Paul Kincaid that, given the quality of it, I’d not be remotely surprised to learn that they’d kept the characters and lost everything else, When I looked at the listings write-up, this seems to be to some extent the case. Or, at any rate, this one-off drama is not about Borley Rectory but about an alleged haunting of a house in Finchley, with Sarah Grey recast as a housemaid who helps Harry Price solve the case. My best guess at this stage is that they have taken the story of Grey’s mother and father from the novel and made that the basis of the ‘haunting’.

And that is why I read The Ghost Hunters. Because someone adapted it for tv, and I was curious. I wasn’t expecting a huge amount from it, but neither was I expecting to be quite so disappointed by it. I feel a little sad for Spring that the novel was published in this state. Whether another draft would have fixed it, I don’t know, but it’s clear it was bought because it was mediocre but could be filleted for names and a few details of plot, and turned into something else altogether. One can only hope that it’s going to be better.

Archive: Reading The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor,

This review originally appeared in Interzone 259 (July-August 2015).

The Book of Phoenix
Nnedi Okorafor, Hodder & Stoughton, 232pp

The Book of Phoenix is a prequel to Nnedi Okorafor’s World Fantasy Award-winning Who Fears Death. As the title suggests, it is the story of Phoenix, ‘mixed, grown and finally birthed’ in Tower 7 on Manhattan, two years old but an accelerated organism with the body of a forty-year-old woman. She is able to read a substantial book in a couple of minutes, plants grow unusually fast when in her presence, and her body’s temperature has begun to soar. Later, she will discover other unusual abilities. Phoenix, as she finally comes to realise, is an experiment, in a building filled with other genetic experiments, many of which have gone horribly wrong. Her ultimate purpose will be to become a weapon. And yet, to begin with, not realising that anything is out of the ordinary, Phoenix is happy enough with her life. Things change after the death of her only friend, Saeed, when she realises that her home is in fact a prison, and determines to escape from Tower 7.

Her account of her experiences we hear from Phoenix herself, but in a roundabout way. Indeed, for all that the novel is ostensibly about Phoenix, the reader is well advised to also pay attention to that Book in the story’s title, for this is also a novel about storytelling. Phoenix’s own story is embedded within another narrative, set further in the future, in which an old man, Sunuteel, caught in a storm in the desert, discovers a cache of old computers. The computers were hidden by the Okeke, of whom Sunuteel is a descendant, at a time when things began to go wrong on earth: ‘just before Ani [the earth goddess] turned her attention back to the earth’. The Book of Phoenix downloads itself onto Sunuteel’s ‘portable’, and he listens to it while he sits out the storm, a storm which seems itself to be something to do with the spirit of Phoenix.

It’s not too much of a stretch, I think, to see this cave as some sort of repository for latter-day Dead Sea Scrolls, the computers hidden in haste and then left, their stories untold; the very title, The Book of Phoenix, suggests a flavour of the biblical, while much of Who Fears Death hinges on interpretations of the mysterious Great Book. As for Sunuteel, he is a recorder and a reciter, a man who speaks many dialects of Okeke, as well as a number of other languages. This in turn suggests that it is no accident that he has been brought to this cave at this time. We are also dealing with a character who proudly carries a copy of Roland Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’ on his portable, although Barthes’ perception that ‘the author enters into his own death, writing begins’ will be vigorously challenged during the novel. The point being made is that once written, a story lives. It can be rewritten, yes, but the story itself also persists. And persistence and endurance are very much at the heart of this novel.

Alongside Phoenix’s own persistence in understanding how she came into being, disentangling her true story from the lies told to her by the managers of Tower 7 and its sister towers in other US cities, we are also led to understand that Phoenix’s own story has shaped the world that Sunuteel now lives in. However changed they might be, stories about her have lasted. Sunuteel is better qualified than anyone else to see the truth of this, however terrifying this may be to him, in a future shaped by Phoenix’s actions.

The intricate storytelling forms that frame The Book of Phoenix, as well as the recognition of the need that everyone’s stories should be heard, may seem strange to those who prefer their genre neat, but frankly, that is their problem, not the author’s. Quite apart from drawing on traditional storytelling forms, and peopling her world with characters who are emphatically not white, Okorafor delivers a searing (almost literally so in places) commentary on big pharma, experimentation on human beings, the theft and misuse of genetic material, globalisation, companies that function way beyond the law, and all of this from the point of view of the people who are routinely on the receiving end, the people who struggle to maintain their humanity in the face of the appalling violence regularly inflicted on them. This makes for hard reading at times but it’s rewarding work.

Archive: Reading Tamaruq by E.J. Swift

It’s been a while since I posted any of my Interzone reviews, so it’s time to catch up. This review originally appeared in Interzone 258 (May-June 2015).

E.J. Swift, Del Rey, 432pp

E.J Swift’s Osiris (2012) portrayed a society whose rulers apparently gloried in their own insularity, while concealing a truly shocking secret. This inward-turning was reflected in the novel’s intricately wrought prose, which seemed to physically resist the reader’s attempts to engage, as well as in the claustrophobic imagery Swift used. The divide between the haves – the ruling elite of Osiris – and the have-nots, the refugees who had arrived there in the wake of one ecological catastrophe too many – was enacted in the division of the city into quarters, but manifest too in the relationship between Adelaide Rechnov, daughter of an elite family, and Vikram Bai, an activist from the other side of the city.

Cataveiro (2014) ejected us into the outside world, with its dizzyingly open spaces, more freedom than the average Osirian could ever imagine. Again, the writing reflected this in images that seemed almost to burn the eyes, they were so bright. And yet, as the reader quickly came to realise, the world beyond Osiris had precisely the same set of problems, only writ much larger, its protagonists more anonymous, hiding behind intermediaries. Because Osiris was, of course, always a microcosm of that outside world.

Cataveiro explored this from several perspectives. Vikram, only survivor of an Osirian expedition to Patagonia, found himself on the run from the Patagonian authorities, eager to make political capital out of his arrival, and befriended by Taeo Ybanez, hoping to use Vikram as a way to facilitate his own return to Antarctica. Through their eyes the reader saw life as it was experienced by most of Patagonia’s inhabitants – brutal and repressive. And yet, knowing there was a world beyond the immediate provided perhaps a little more room for hope, even though there was often little to choose between life in the western quarter of Osiris and in the slums of Cataveiro.

Ramona Callejas, self-taught pilot and cartographer, had all the space in the world, but was obliged to protect her freedom to fly by making maps for the authorities. Yet her intense scrutiny of the landscape was also directed towards protecting those communities she encountered on her journeys, and trying to protect her people as best she could. Eventually, she discovered that people were being kidnapped and taken north, including her own mother. This prompted her to follow the people traffickers, hoping to rescue her mother and find out what was happening.

Having shifted from the microscopic focus of Osiris to the wide-angle lens of Cataveiro, it is perhaps unsurprising that Tamaruq, the final volume of the Osiris Project, takes a different narrative approach again. Necessary, too, given that there are now so many different perspectives in play, so many ‘voices’ clamouring to be heard. Vikram is even more interesting to the authorities now that he has survived, inexplicably, redfleur, the Ebola-like disease ravaging the world. Ramona has found her way onto a cargo ship where the abductees are being held. And, Adelaide Rechnov has survived near-drowning and intense psychological distress, only to find herself in the hands of the would-be revolutionaries. More unexpectedly, she has finally realised that she can indeed find common cause with them.

This time the novel is a-flutter with pieces of information, from sources of all kinds. Alongside the narratives of Ramona, Vikram and Adelaide, there are extracts from correspondence and radio messages, as well as lengthy extracts from the journal kept by a researcher into redfleur, working at Tamaruq, a research station in the Alaskan desert. This last is discovered by Ramona when she breaches the station’s security, finds out what is actually going on there, and uncovers a link to Osiris. It’s tempting to suppose we’re seeing the story from the point of view of the enigmatic Alaskan, whose presence formed the core of Cataveiro and, it seems likely, will perform a similar function in this novel. If the others are hesitantly recovering knowledge, the Alaskan, cybernetically enhanced, and an inveterate gatherer of information, already seems to know the answer to what is going on, and is now merely seeking confirmation. By ensuring that the various protagonists at last find their ways back to Osiris, she is in a position to orchestrate the final confrontation between the various world powers, the city’s rulers and the downtrodden inhabitants of the western quarter. This is a particularly shocking moment of uncertainty in a novel which has perhaps set us up to hope that there might finally be a happy ending. Which is not to say that there isn’t, but it is not necessarily what one might expect.

If the plot seems messy, this is not because of a lack of control in Swift’s writing. Instead, we are witnessing the messiness of real life turned into fiction. The problem, if there is one, is people, who decline to perform as narrative genre expectation demands they should. Instead human concerns drive the storytelling. This has been emphasised throughout the series, as p people react against being treated as mere gaming pieces. If Adelaide could not see actual human beings until it was almost too late, Ramona, by contrast, has been acutely aware of every individual she has met in her travels, and of the personal consequences of decisions taken elsewhere. Vikram, self-contained as he is, has survived by caring about people en masse , but in the end, he also realises that it must be about the individual.

Striking too is the way in which the reader can never see the entire story at once. At the beginning of Osiris Adelaide assumed her brother Axel had been murdered or kidnapped, abandoning her search for an explanation only when something more compelling came along. And here too we are left with fragments of story, things that are not neatly tied off. This might be indicative of the narrative overflowing the trilogy, but Swift seems to be suggesting instead that some stories must inevitably be overwhelmed by others. This is how we survive, in spite of everything.

Watching Hamlet (dir. Turner, 2015)

We have all been waiting for Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, haven’t we? Haven’t we? Well, I don’t know. It’s the kind of role he should be thinking about, given where he is in his career, and there is no denying that a Cumberbatch Hamlet would be highly bankable. And there’s the rub. This production was always going to be an event rather than a production of Hamlet.

The tickets sold out in seconds. There were endless press nights, and much complaining from the production team that the press had reviewed the production during the preview nights). Worst of all, apparently, the director had moved the ‘To be’ speech to the beginning of the play, until critical outcry caused it to be moved back to its customary place.

I saw the play as a National Theatre live broadcast at the Gulbenkian cinema in Canterbury, and even this was an event, with both cinema and theatre pressed into service for a simultaneous showing. In fact, according to the person fronting the live broadcast from the Barbican, not only was the play on stage but every cinema in the complex was also broadcasting it, as well as it being broadcast worldwide. We were part of an EVENT.

And after all this, was it worth the fuss?

Yes. And, alas, no.

The short version is that Benedict Cumberbatch, much as I expected he would be, is a very good Hamlet. Unfortunately, he is stuck in an appalling production of Hamlet.

The long version? Well, where to begin?

There are two reviews in The Guardian of what I suppose I must call ‘the Cumberbatch Hamlet’, one of the theatrical production, one of the worldwide screening. Between them they encapsulate everything that seemed to me to be bad about this production. The first review pretty much nails my experience of watching it as a theatrical production. The second one pretty much explains all the reasons why I really didn’t want to be watching it as a theatrical production on screen.

My theatre posts endlessly wrestle with this conundrum of how one produces a cinematic experience that ‘faithfully’ recreates the sense of a theatrical performance, because I do realise that not everyone watching on screen wants what I want. I’m aware that some of my criticisms undoubtedly emerge from the fact that I really miss live theatre. Watching a performance on screen, while it can be good, just isn’t the same for me. Or, rather, in some respects, it’s so much better it’s really not like being at the theatre at all. I want to be in the theatre.

I’ve been watching Royal Shakespeare Company broadcasts, live and recorded, for the last couple of years, and they do a very decent job of conveying the sense of being at the theatre. Critically, they never lose sight of the fact that there is an audience present. I always feel that I’m watching a theatrical production, with occasional nods to the fact that I am seeing it from a slightly different perspective.

The Royal National Theatre follows a different philosophy, in that their broadcasts mostly seem to want to eliminate the audience altogether. We might see them briefly at the beginning, but once the play begins, they exist only as laughter or applause. The RNT’s productions seem to be staged with more of an eye as to how they will look like on camera. This isn’t a crime per se, but it seems to me to lose sight of the fact that even at the cinema I’m expecting to see a play, on a stage. I anyway think the RNT does best with more contemporary works – my favourite of the things I’ve seen on screen from there (Frankenstein not withstanding) is Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, which had a very plain staging and was simply filmed. There was no theatrical or cinematic fussiness and I could concentrate on the words and acting.

I’m not clear what the relationship is between the RNT and Sonia Friedman Productions, the company that staged this new Hamlet, but the screened version was produced under the aegis of NT Live. Consequently, I don’t know who made choices about camera angles and so forth, but for the purposes of this discussion I am going to assume that Lyndsey Turner, director of the play, was involved to some extent in things like camera positioning for the broadcasting, and that the play was originally designed with the understanding that it would be filmed and broadcast.

Because the first thing I need to say about the Cumberbatch Hamlet is that it’s impossible to ignore the play’s staging, even for a moment, during the performance. That might sound odd, because surely the whole point of a play is that it is a thing constructed to be performed on a stage? But there is staging and there is stagey, and this production falls heavily into the latter category. I remember someone once telling me that actors hate it when the curtain goes up and the audience applauds the set, because it has already shifted the audience’s focus away from the actors. While that doesn’t actually happen in this production, I nonetheless had a strong sense throughout the broadcast that I was being invited to mentally applaud the set. The staging (and for the purposes of this discussion I include set, business, lighting and music) was the dominant presence throughout, and it frequently got in the way of the actors.

Remember the decision to situate ‘To be or not to be’ at the beginning of the play? I could put together an argument that surely Shakespeare and his contemporaries were constantly shuffling around chunks of play, trying to get the right effect, so it’s not a problem for a contemporary director to do the same. It is an argument that would work in certain more experimental settings, like the Royal Court, but not, I think, on a ‘West End’ stage, which is, like it or not, a fairly conservative arena, where people are paying for a certain thing, and expect to get it.

It’s obvious looking at the shape of the production as it now is that Turner wanted to emphasise a point about Hamlet’s state of mind. The play begins, not on the battlements of Elsinore as is traditional, but in a room somewhere in the castle. The room is empty but for a few packing cases, and Hamlet is listening to an old record on a portable record player. This is, we are led to believe, all that is left to him of his father, who has of course recently died. inserting the ‘To be’ speech here was presumably intended to emphasise this point. Without it, the opening is very weak, but neither can I see what placing it here would achieve other than to emphasise something that will become clear anyway, that Hamlet is moody and introspective. Perhaps Turner wanted to head off the ‘mad or not’ dichotomy, but I’m not convinced it would have worked.

Hamlet is summoned to attend his mother’s marriage to his uncle, at which point, in a grand theatrical gesture, the backdrop is whisked away and we are transported to the cavernous hall of a very grand country house, with a staircase to one side, a balcony along the back of a stage, a doorway opening into a corridor and another doorway which seems to lead out to a porch. All the world’s a stage, but in this instance, it seems that Elsinore itself is intended to be the stage and contain the outside world within it. On those occasions when the action moved theoretically ‘outdoors’ it seemed more as if the outside world had irrupted into the world of Elsinore. This is most evident at the point when the players come to the castle and perform The Murder of Gonzago for the court. They perform first within a tiny theatre, like a toy, brought into the entrance hall, and then the Player King, in his role as Gonzago, steps down into the court audience, which itself sits among off-stage scenery, to sleep in an orchard composed of leafy twigs and dried flowers set in musical instruments (no, I don’t know why either. Improvisation?). Hamlet himself steps out of the audience to take on the role of the murderer. All of this is clearly intended to in some way blur boundaries, but I found it rather awkward.

However, what really did strike me about this production was how focused it was on the threat of war. In the other productions I’ve seen, the presence of Young Fortinbras on the borders has been a vague thing, rumbling away in the background as the Denmarks try to work out what to do with their problem child. Here, the implication seems to be that Hamlet’s behaviour is really very, very vexing, as he’s getting in the way of this war they’re trying to deal with. This might be an interesting way to examine Hamlet’s story, but in this instance I couldn’t help feeling it had emerged from the staging decisions rather than the other way round.

So, while the stage is filled with the various accoutrements of a war office – desks, telephones, maps, flocks of secretaries dressed in tailored serge or khaki, everyone clutching files or making notes, Claudius and Polonius in sashes to show their status, Gertrude in a vaguely Eva Peron hairdo, Hamlet appears in the middle of this in a toy soldier uniform, with a drum, marching up and down on the table. Later, he sits in a toy fort, surrounded by almost life-size toy soldiers, pretending to fire off his rifle at all and sundry. It’s a credit to Benedict Cumberbatch that he actually makes this seem entirely reasonable at that point – he’s a good physical actor, and has excellent comic timing – but OK, we get the point: toy fort, toy theatre, Hamlet is reverting to childhood and acting up because his mum has remarried barely two months after his dad died, and he’s not getting enough attention.

For the life of me, I still can’t work out why all the doors and windows had to be blown in at the end of the first part, when Claudius has decided that something had to be done about Hamlet once and for all. The stage is left covered in paper soot and fake rubble, which remains in the second half. I presume this is to indicate that any chance of family unity, and by implication Denmark’s own sovereignty, has now failed, but it’s all a bit Fall of the House of Usher. Not so much something being rotten in the state of Denmark as a complete architectural failure in search of a restoration project, with Young Fortinbras finally arriving to preside over everything like Kevin McCloud.

You will note too that the review of the screening praises the way in which the characters seem so tiny on the stage, as if to suggest ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. They kill us for their sport’ (wrong play, but you take my point). I grant you it’s been maybe fifteen years since I saw a play at the Barbican but my recollection is that the stage, while sufficiently capacious to accommodate Henry V’s surprisingly substantial army and a rainstorm in the production I saw (Branagh’s Henry V in 1985), is nowhere near as cavernous as the screening seems to indicate, while the auditorium, although large, was fairly intimate in atmosphere. Even in the cheap seats I never felt I was as far from the stage as the filming seemed to suggest one could be. So, again, I find myself wondering exactly what it is the theatre audience saw. To me, it seemed less that the screened version was making a point (and presumably a point that the theatre audience would not be experiencing) as that the cast appeared to be rattling around in an unfeasibly large space, which is odd when Hamlet is, to my mind, a fairly intimate sort of play, very interior. And if that is the case, why was I given this entirely different experience of the play from the audience in the theatre that night (this strikes me as a very Cameronian interpretation of ‘all in this together’. I suppose I could argue I was being compensated for having to see the play as a cinema goer, but it sits badly with my idea of what I thought I would be seeing).

Which leads me in turn to consider something else that particularly struck me about the on-screen staging. I entirely lost track of where the audience was in relation to the stage. To me, the balcony and staircase that dominated the stage was at the back of it, with the long corridor down which the rubble cascaded, up which Ophelia climbs once she has resolved to drown herself, at the side. Yet this makes no sense if the seated audience is to see Ophelia vanish from the stage, which means that I must have been ‘watching’ a good portion of the play from an angle not available to the audience, effectively from the wings. The implication seems to be that the balcony was set at a slight angle across the stage, but even so, it still suggests that what I saw is nowhere near what the audience in the theatre saw. Plus, if the stage was as enormous as the broadcast suggests, I got the benefit of many, many close-ups of Cumberbatch in a way that the theatre audience never could. So, lucky me, I guess, and poor theatre audience.

The inescapable conclusion of all this is that it was never intended to be a theatrical production in the proper sense of the word but was constructed from the outset as a thing to be filmed. Which is very different, I’d argue, from filming a theatrical production to turn into a film (see Julie Traymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is unequivocally a film, based on a theatrical production, and never pretending to be anything other than that). This might explain some of the other things that made me unhappy, not the least being the sound design, which emphasised every significant moment with huge crashing chords, and the lighting design, which performed a visual equivalent. Very little was left to the imagination. Much was elaborately signalled. And yet, every now and then there would be a delicious little moment, purely theatrical, such as when Hamlet’s father’s ghost descends into the grave; I’d spotted someone flipping up the trap door under the cover of dark, but it looked for all the world as though he was simply vanishing through the floor. The groundlings would have loved it. I certainly did, and it was probably the simplest special effect on display all night.

At other times, I found myself wondering about such things as how Hamlet would stab Polonius behind the arras when both arras and sharp pointy weapons were distinctly lacking. As it turned out, the curtains of the toy theatre were pressed into unconvincing service as the arras and even as I’d wondered about the dagger, my eye drifted to the display of weaponry on the wall, and it became obvious – the reverse Chekov principle, so to speak. However, given that the play appeared to be set in Upper Romanovia, it did make a nonsense of the last act: Claudius’s sudden desire, in the midst of ruin and gunfire, to see Hamlet and Laertes fight a demonstration duel with foils seems bizarre. One could almost see an unvoiced WTF? forming on Cumberbatch’s face as he considered the proposal.

The one thing I can’t speak to as it’s been so long since I read it is how much Turner has moved the script around. ‘To be or not to be’ was restored to something approaching its customary place, but as I noted earlier the play no longer begins with the sighting of Hamlet Senior’s ghost, and it really does feel wrong. We also thought some of the other speeches had been moved around or edited. I know this happens all the time and we don’t really notice, but there was in this instance something oddly breathless about the play. Events frequently arrived suddenly and unexpectedly; neither of us was convinced that the grave-digging scene was quite as we’d seen it before, and the whole of the second half seemed generally very perfunctory, especially the final collective death scene, with bodies dropping like ninepins. Perhaps Turner wanted to avoid the long, drawn-out savouring of Hamlet’s death but something was indeed rotten in the state of Denmark by this point.

Having myself now done the unforgiveable and devoted over two thousand words to the play’s staging even before talking about the actors, let’s turn to them. Front and centre, Benedict Cumberbatch. Actually, the one thing that is so very, very good about Cumberbatch is his sense of timing. We can talk about the energy and physicality of his performance as Hamlet, but it’s really all about the timing. He brightens the play every time he is on the stage.

I’m trying to avoid falling into the trap of designating his Hamlet as mad or feigning madness, as has been the habit. Neither is, I think, appropriate in this case. Cumberbatch’s is a very confused Hamlet, and that’s not entirely down to having to fight his way out of a very confused staging. I found myself thinking that in this instance, here is a man who has not been allowed to mourn properly. It’s been barely two months since his father died, he’s been dragged back from university to find himself attending a wedding with added funeral, he’s surrounded by people telling him to brace up because there is war imminent. There is no room here for him to process his own feelings. He throws tantrums, yes; he lashes out, undoubtedly. He’s surrounded by people exhorting him to get on with life, and life is defined as war.

The problem here, of course, is that Hamlet seems not to be that interested in war, or in politics. You wonder, in a way, why Claudius didn’t just let him go back to his studies. Hamlet seems here to be less concerned about the usurpation of his kingdom, more about the usurpation of his mother’s bed, but even that I didn’t find convincing. Mostly, he seemed to want to be on his own.to grieve. And this, perhaps is the problem at the heart of this production. Turner can’t seem to reconcile the exteriority of war – the excitement of uniforms and noise filling the stage – with Hamlet’s necessary interiority. The latter is frequently lost to the big gesture.

Both Gertrude and Claudius seem to enjoy the imminence of war, as though it gave them purpose even though they’re revealed to be politically inept – because obviously, the thing you do when you have secured an assurance that Young Fortinbras isn’t going to war with you is to then let him march through your lands on his way to an irrelevant skirmish somewhere else. What the elder Hamlet would have done about it, had he lived, I’m not sure – he makes his appearances in a rotting military costume, which might be a clue, and perhaps also an explanation for why the younger Hamlet dresses himself up as a red-coated soldier. But given that that Claudius and Gertrude favour a more modern style of battle dress, one wonders if the production is pointing at a theoretical clash – old school versus modern military methods. If so, it doesn’t really come to anything. The fact that Claudius has effectively usurped Hamlet’s position as king is addressed only obliquely, when Hamlet, in The Murder of Gonzago, assumes a coat on the back of which is painted ‘King’.

Of course, one might argue that Young Fortinbras’s refusal to obey his uncle, Old Fortinbras, stands also as a reproach to Young Hamlet, as is the readiness of the populace to proclaim Laertes king, but this is never really explored. Perhaps the strongest moment comes when Hamlet, on his way to the ship to England, passes through Young Fortinbras’s camp, and it suddenly dawns on him what’s happening. At this point he seems to decide that he has been focusing on the wrong thing, and it’s time to go back and save his country from his family. It is, of course, already far too late but in the fencing match we get a glimpse of that Hamlet, the dashing young man who might have been king. At the same time, would that Hamlet have even given in to Claudius’s command that he fight Laertes.

I can’t say I warmed to either Ciaran Hinds’ Claudius or Anastasia Hille’s Gertrude, at least not in the first part of the play. Hinds seemed somewhat out of place, as though he had stumbled in from a film about gangsters, while Hille was performing generic hard-faced practical bitch. Things began to improve at the point where Hamlet observes his uncle’s soliloquy and debates whether to kill him there and then. The scene was genuinely powerful, perhaps because it was stripped of flummery and focused instead on two people acting their socks off. In the second part, confronted with Ophelia’s madness, both Hinds and Hille seemed genuinely moved but unable to adequately respond. Again, I think, because it’s impossible to do anything other than to take this sequence straight, without gimmicks (well, until the crashing chords at the end, to tell us this is a dramatic moment – no shit). It did strike me, though, when Gertrude talks about having imagined that Hamlet and Ophelia would marry that you really never would have guessed in the first part of the play. OK, partly it is that everyone is telling Ophelia that this relationship won’t work, can’t be allowed to work – in this production Laertes is more unsympathetic as a character than I recall seeing before – but neither has there been the remotest hint of an indication from anyone who isn’t Hamlet that this might have been on the cards.

And Ophelia, let us talk of Ophelia, and Sian Brooke’s storming performance, the best thing in the play after Cumberbatch himself. Actually, better than Cumberbatch. The presentation of Ophelia is the one genuinely interesting thing about this production. This is no dalliance that turns sour because Hamlet is either feigning madness or genuinely ill. From the first moment we see Ophelia she is nervous, twitchy, her speech stumbling; she finds it hard to meet anyone’s gaze. In fact, Ophelia constantly carries a camera and photographs everything, as if only through the camera’s lens can she actually see the world. It stands as a shield between her and the world. She has no job as war looms (unlike Gertrude, and the other court women). The fact that she has no autonomy, no purpose other than to make a marriage of some sort is heavily underlined. She would, in another world, be a war photographer, or reporter but clearly no one is going to allow her to do anything other than stay home and play the piano. In her ‘mad’ scene, she will drag a huge trunk down the stairs; after she’s gone, Gertrude will open it and see huge piles of photographs. It’s hard not to read that trunk as a coffin in which Ophelia has buried her creativity and her hopes for the future.

Instead, she is constantly lectured to by men – Laertes, Polonius, Claudius, and Hamlet himself. I’d never really noticed this before but it is painfully evident here. If we assume that Hamlet was her only hope of escaping her overbearing family, for values of escape, his ‘get thee to a nunnery’ is a bitter rejection. In which case, I suppose we are to read Ophelia’s suicide as a means of taking control of her life. And it is about taking control. Brooke’s mad scene is heart-breaking – not a word I use lightly – and the most powerful piece of acting in the entire production. You see the moment when she makes a decision, when she knows what she has to do, and the determination with which she marches up the hill of rubble towards the light, towards the outdoors, away from Elsinore is just extraordinary. It’s at that moment you might just begin to reassess the production.

But so much else is unsatisfactory. Jim Norton’s Polonius never really rises above caricature. Now, I know one might argue that Polonius is nothing but a caricature but Oliver Ford Davies showed that it is entirely possible to produce a Polonius who is a little fussy, a little annoying, a little too fond of dispensing good advice, but who is trying to do his best for his daughter, and for his king, no matter how misplaced his ideas. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s Laertes was dull, and Leo Bill’s Horatio seemed to have little to do except turn up at intervals, looking worried. I’d always seen Horatio as the one person holding Hamlet together, however imperfectly, but here, Horatio’s role seemed negligible. I forget who said to me that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Matthew Steer and Rudi Dharmalingam) were portrayed as Hamlet’s hobbit sidekicks, but sadly, they were spot on. Karl Johnson, on the other hand, showed how to make sufficient of comparatively little, in a lovely cameo as the Grave Digger, marrying the spiritual and the prosaic, as he digs a grave, listens to the radio, throws skulls casually across the stage, pretends a leg bone is a microphone.

So, while it may have been an event, I’m not convinced that this production of Hamlet was great theatre. Indeed, had I paid to see it at the Barbican, I would have considered myself to have been robbed. Cumberbatch is a pleasingly complex Hamlet, but I think the production itself is a bit of a mess. It’s not structured in such a way as to give the actors a reasonable chance. Cumberbatch and Brooke shine, but the others struggle to make much of an impact.