Skip to content

A Spoiler-Free Review of “The Last Jedi”.

lastjedi

 

VLUNK!  VLUNK!  VLUNK VLUNK VLUNK VLUNK! Pdoo pdoo pdoo pdoo!  BOOM!  BOOM! Swish swish.  Vlunk.  Whispy whispy woooh!  Whispy whispy woooh! Mywyouaarggh!  Ooooh!   Ahhhhhh!  Vhrooom!  Vhrooom vhrooom vhroooom!  Clang!

Splash!

Giddyup giddyup giddyup giddyup!  Bedoopy doopy doop bebob.  Thud.  BOOM! BOOM!  Oooh, aaaah!  Aaaah! Ohmmmmmm!  Swish!  Slice!

Eh?  Eh?  Eh?   Ahhhhh!   Oh! Oh! Awwwwww!  Oooooh!  VLUNK!

Clang!  Woooooooooaaaaargh!

Swoooooooooosh!   Smashhhhhhhhh!   Awwwwwww!  Vwummmp  Eh? Ah!

Bababa dah – dah! Bababadah! Dah! Bababdah! Dah!  Bababadah!

Etc.

Advertisements

Anyone else annoyed by the Doctor regenerating on Christmas Day?

conradbrunstrom

regeneration

Getting back to important matters…. is anyone else annoyed by the fact that The Doctor will be regenerating on Christmas Day?

As it happens, I’m not a fan of Christmas specials in any case.  With the exception of a bizarre breaking of the fourth wall in the course of The Daleks’ Master Plan back  in 1965-6, classic era Doctors did not celebrate Christmas.  Some Christmas specials have been pleasant enough, but I think it’s becoming that sort of annual obligation that’s showing a degree of strain.  How many Christmassy narratives remain to given a Whovian subversion?

But the problem with the Doctor Who Christmas Special is not just the content but the context.  Christmas Day generally involves a house full of people eating and drinking and laughing and singing and talking.  Then of course, the phone starts ringing as far flung relatives jostle for deserved attention.  A brand new Doctor…

View original post 414 more words

Poor Monster. The 1980 BBC Twelfth Night.

twelfth night

Twelfth Night is a heartwrenchlingly beautiful play full of poetry that delights the ear and yet is emotionally truthful.  Its conclusion is bitter-sweet because the people who seem most truthfully attracted to one another do not end up with one another at the end.

Were the play to eschew heteronormative convention and merely reward the true quality of loves that we have already witnessed – then Viola would marry Olivia, Antonio would marry Sebastian and Orsino would marry himself.

Heteronormative convention isn’t some sorry cop out in this instance, but a rueful acknowledgement of the world as is (or was) rather than as it might be.

This particular production is still wedded to producer Cedric Messina’s insistence on “realism”.  Although shot in a studio, Olivia’s house looks very real indeed and both indoors and out, the eye has plenty of realistic looking props to look at.

And all this realism highlights one particular problem: the non-identical boy girl twin problem.   Felicity Kendall plays Viola.  Michael Thomas plays someone much taller than Felicity Kendall but with a a Felicity Kendall haircut.  It is just possible, that with very very poor lighting, and with everyone as drunk all the time as Sir Toby is by the end of the play, that one “twin” could be mistaken for the other.  But to see every sober character onstage gawping in broad daylight at this apple cleft in twain is not convincing.  And this is where extreme realism of staging does not help.  The more stylised and/or spare the staging, the easier it is to suspend belief.   The poetry can do its work of persuading you that these obviously very different people look one and the same rather more effectively if the production is not, simultaneously, trying to persuade you that you’re in a real house in a real street.

I recall playing the role Sebastian myself, many many many years ago on the Isle of Wight with an actor playing Orsino who went on to become famous.  Viola and I were both given Kevin Keegan wigs and the illusion of twinning worked pretty well.  Our scenery was certainly not “realistic” though – which must have helped.

Of course, television allows you to get around this problem altogether by having the same actor play both Viola and Sebastian.  Joan Plowright played both parts in precisely this way in a 1969 TV version.  Oddly enough, that production had a far more obviously “theatrical” set which might have been swapped with its BBC equivalent of a decade later to some advantage.

John Gorrie’s somewhat unimaginative (Messina imposed) staging means that individual performances dominate one’s perception of this production.  We all, of course, fall in love with Felicity Kendall – she’s just dreamy.  Everybody my age had/s a crush on Felicity Kendall making dramatic criticism difficult, but the way she punctures Viola’s own tendency to self-pity with humour is just lovely.  She is matched, meanwhile, by Sinéad Cusack’s Olivia who adds a playfulness to a role that doesn’t always receive it.   Tragically, this majestic Olivia ends up having to marry the wrong person – the vague and clueless Sebastian who ambles amiably into sudden wedlock with all the “what the hell-ness” of Bruno Mars.

Robert Hardy is breezily confident as Belch – that poundstore Falstaff who can’t take his drink.  Ronnie Stevens is, dare I say it, rather too old for Aguecheek.  He’s the same age as Robert Hardy but looks older.  His age gives one more unnecessary reason for him to be a an unthinkable consort for Olivia and, sadly, his caperings look rather strained.

Annette Crosbie is splendidly mischievous as Maria and Robert Lindsay begins a long list of contributions to the BBC Shakespeare series with a west-country accented Fabian.  He does particularly well while trying to read out Malvolio’s letter at the end.  Feste needs to be able to sing and Trevor Peacock can certainly sing.  He was a successful songwriter in the 1960s, perhaps most famous for penning “Mrs Brown you’ve got a Lovely Daughter” for Herman’s Hermits.  He appears in the superb Jane Howell directed Henry VI plays in the 1980s where he performs both Talbot and a menacing Jack Cade.  In Twelfth Night, Peacock uses his slightly menacing and angular features to excel as Sir Topas, someone who really could command a central role in a nightmarish Spanish Inquisition movie.

Which leaves Alec McCowan as Malvolio.  Funny thing about Malvolio – although Maria refers to him as a kind of puritan – there’s really very little that’s authentically puritanical about the character.  Malvolio invokes Jove, not God, in support of his endeavours (although some attribute this to a very specific edict censoring religious oaths on stage around this period).  Malvolio’s desires are centred in this world not the next, and his fantasies of social advancement are heartfelt, elegant and, when expressed by Alec McCowan, rather moving.  Does he love Olivia or does he just love the idea of the idea of putting down Toby?  No matter – he is capable of love – his spirit is lofty – and that’s more than you can say of Toby who is – when all is said and done – an abusive arse.

Antonio is one of the greatest comparatively small parts in the whole of Shakespeare.  Maurice portrays a man love for Sebastian is unambiguous and unconditional.  No love in this play is purer, and the play concludes with us having to regard the lonely Antonio as collateral damage in a play that refuses to offer closure for everybody on stage.

 

I’ve some thoughts about some other 1978-1985 BBC Shakespeare productions.

Here is Othello:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/12/07/haply-for-i-am-welsh-the-1981-bbc-othello/

Measure for Measure:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/11/21/what-are-you-laughing-at-the-1978-bbc-measure-for-measure/

Henry VIII

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/10/20/its-not-really-about-henry-the-1979-bbc-henry-viii/

Love’s Labours Lost:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/10/15/holofernes-goodman-dull-thou-hast-spoken-no-word-all-this-while-dull-nor-understood-none-neither-sir-the-1985-bbc-loves-labours-lost/

Romeo and Juliet:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/10/05/well-susan-is-with-god-the-1978-bbc-romeo-and-juliet/

The Scottish One:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/09/27/the-1983-bbc-scottish-play-much-thats-wrong-much-thats-interesting/

Much Ado About Nothing:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/09/19/hello-darkness-my-old-friend-the-1984-bbc-much-ado-about-nothing-also-the-origins-of-dads-army/

King Lear:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/08/31/bring-your-daughter-to-the-slaughter-the-1982-bbc-king-lear/

Here is Midsummer Night’s Dream:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/08/17/the-drugs-do-work-the-1981-bbc-a-midsummer-nights-dream/

Here’s Julius Caesar:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/06/29/unkind-cuts-richard-pasco-the-1979-bbc-shakespeare-version-of-julius-caesar/

King John:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/06/18/come-hither-hubert-the-1984-bbc-production-of-king-john/

Here’s Richard II:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/06/15/telling-sad-stories-of-the-death-of-kings-the-1978-bbc-richard-ii/

The BBC Richard III could not be more unlike the BBC Richard II…

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/06/02/all-this-and-no-horses-either-the-1980s-bbc-richard-iii/

Here is Henry VI Part III

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/05/20/it-just-gets-worse-or-better-the-1980s-bbc-henry-vi-part-iii/

Henry VI. Part Two:
https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/05/14/getting-better-all-the-time-and-incidentally-much-worse-the-1980s-bbc-henry-vi-part-ii/

Henry VI, Part One:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/05/01/verfremdungseffekt-at-the-beeb-the-bbc-henry-vi-part-one/

Here’s my review of the BBC Henry V:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/04/23/on-shakespeares-birthday-cry-god-for-harry-england-and-st-george-but-not-too-loudly-the-1979-bbc-henry-v/

Here are a few more blogs musing on this old BBC project…

BBC Henry IV, Part TWO:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/04/08/and-is-old-double-dead-the-1979-bbc-henry-iv-part-ii/

But here’s my review of the BBC Henry IV Part ONE:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/03/28/the-1979-bbc-version-of-henry-iv-part-i/

And the BBC Antony and Cleopatra:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/01/23/stagy-shakespeare-on-videotape-lots-and-lots-of-lying-down-acting-in-this-1981-bbc-antony-and-cleopatra/

And the Cymbeline:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/02/20/romans-in-britain-the-bbc-cymbeline-nope-doesnt-sort-out-how-i-feel-about-cymbeline/

Not to mention a somber but intensely homoerotic Coriolanus:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/02/10/i-banish-you-the-1980s-bbc-coriolanus/

Here’s Comedy of Errors:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/02/03/the-bbc-comedy-of-errors-with-roger-daltrey-you-will-get-fooled-again/

And… All’s Well That End’s Well:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/01/13/the-1980-bbc-adaptation-of-alls-well-that-ends-well/

Helen Mirren in the BBC As You Like It:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/01/17/how-could-i-have-forgotten-that-david-prowse-darth-vader-green-cross-man-played-charles-the-wrestler-in-the-1978-bbc-adaptation-of-as-you-like-it/

The Drumpf who saved Christmas?

 

In Salt Lake City on December 4th of this year, Donald Trump announced that “Christmas was back”…

https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2017/12/04/trump_christmas_is_back_bigger_and_better_than_ever_before_and_we_say_it_now_with_pride.html

“Remember I said we’re bringing Christmas back? Christmas is back, bigger and better than ever before. We’re bringing Christmas back.”

“And we say it now with pride. Let me just say, to those here today and all across the country: Merry Christmas to everybody,” Trump said to applause. “And also, happy holidays and a great New Year. We’re going to have a great, great year.”

Because, in case, you hadn’t noticed, under the reign of the tyrannical Emperor Obama, Christmas was banned, altogether.  Anybody who mentioned the word “Christmas” was bundled into the back of a van and taken to the liberal-humanist gulag for re-education.  For eight long years, not a Christmas carol was song, nor a Christmas present purchased.  Santa was imprisoned at the North Pole praying for liberation.

But thanks to Donald Trump, those dark days are banished.  Christmas has returned.  Christians can be who they are again.  Unpersecuted.

 

Believe me – this is how some people really think.   Trump had one eye on the Alabama when he made this speech in Utah because those are the people he and Moore were relying on to come out and vote Republican.  People with a persecution complex.

Now there are places in the world where Christians are subjected to very serious persecution.  There are places where it’s physically dangerous to self identify as a Christian. Alabama is not one of those places.  And those Alabamians who complain about Christians being persecuted are not particularly concerned about actual instances of Christians under violent threat.  They are interested only in culture wars much closer to home.

Secularisation and/or multiculturalism only count as “persecution” if de-privileging counts as persecution.  Roy Moore was the champion of those who find gay marriage “threatening” – in the sense of being “de-centering”.  Trump, Moore (and the horse he road in on)  were the champions of those who manage to feel entitled and persecuted at one at the same time, and feeling entitled and persecuted at one at the same time is key to getting the measure of the political constituency that has gained ascendancy in the USA and the UK over the past couple of years.

There is no baby in the manger in the Christmas that Trump claims to have saved, just as of course – there is no God but Trump.  The Christmas that he’s interested in, and the “Christianity” that he’s invested in, is this vague feeling of threatened entitlement – a desperate need to believe that you’re better than someone proximate.  In a world where schools are crumbling and healthcare unobtainable and job security non existent, it is important for the Trumps of this world to fuel these culture wars.  A world in which diversity is celebrated and acknowledged threatens a sort of cultural level playing field – whereas many have invested a huge amount of their self esteem in believing that they occupy a higher point on a sloped playing field that affords them a privileged gaze.  The essence of this “Christianity” is a thing stripped of love or forgiveness or redemption – something which can be summarised as  – “I think I’m part of a privileged community because I proudly self identify as a  Christian but my privileges might not last much longer.”

Moore/Trump failed in Alabama, because the Trumps of this world can be defeated when ethically healthy and responsible people are motivated.  Trump will not change tack of course, and will try to find new ways to keep the right people frightened.  Christmas may have been saved this year – but this time next year will come legions of “politically correct” liberal humanists with their “Happy Holiday” agenda ready to enact inclusive policies that will constitute, in the collective imagination of the paranoid entitleds – the worst persecution visited upon Christians since the Emperor Diocletian.  Drumpf will have to save Christmas all over again.

Nah, Giles Coren, Jane Austen really is great after all – and you’re just a lazy contrarian.

corenpic

Some writers need to be defended from their foes.  Jane Austen needs to be defended from her friends, for the most part.  Giles Coren’s Times article cannot topple Jane Austen, because Jane Austen has already survived crass commodification and wrong headed appropriation – two far more serious threats to her critical appreciation and long term survival.

Giles Coren, however, has decided that overblown Janeite bi-centennial commemoration offers the opportunity to jump on, or kick-start, a reactive band-waggon.  Attacking someone or something that has been enduringly popular for two hundred years may or may not make you a bold iconoclast.  It may also make you a lazy attention-getting contrarian.  On the one hand, it is critically important to challenge institutions that have somehow survived for centuries.  On the other hand, there is no easier way of getting attention than by trashing the classics.

I don’t know Giles Coren’s writing.   Life is short and books are many.  As a child I loved his father’s work, which offered “humour” in its most generous and imaginative sense.  Alan Coren’s parodies informed and illuminated the very things they were parodying.

The thing about Giles Coren’s recent diatribe against Jane Austen is that it incorporates many aspects of the Austen industry that I find deeply annoying.  He loathes the 1990s Andrew Davies adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.  As it happens, so do I.  I can understand anyone being turned off Jane Austen by it.  But Coren also claims to hate Jane Austen for somehow deferring the loss of his own virginity as a teenager.  I have to say that I can speak with some authority on the subject of not having sex as a teenager.  No matter how frustrated and unhinged I may have been as a consequence, I feel very sure that I never thought of blaming Jane Austen for my celibate condition.

He declares that he can’t be bothered to read those fragmentary novels that Jane Austen cannot apparently be “bothered” to finish.  Jane Austen, incidentally, died when she was six years younger than Giles Coren is now, having written six extraordinary novels that have never been out of print.  In terms of industry and “being bothered”, Coren stands on shaky ground.

Giles Coren has a first class degree in English.  He should therefore be well aware that Jane Austen was not an “Augustan” as he asserts in his article.  He then proceeds to “demolish” Austen by means of compressed plot summary.  Apparently Austen is tedious and repetitive because her main characters get married at the end.  You can yawn away half of European literature if adherence to this literary convention is damnable.  And if you think ending your story with one or more tragic deaths is tediously repetitive you can then yawn away the other half.

Getting married is a change of life.  One form of life ends and another begins.  It’s an obvious point of narrative closure and the fact that so many novels and plays and films offer a marital conclusion only demonstrates the overwhelming logic of such conclusions.

Proudly exposing his tin ear, Coren suggests that Frankenstein (which isn’t even Mary Shelley’s best novel) is vastly superior to anything Austen wrote offering no evidence other than the undoubted fact that a fifty word plot summary of Frankenstein feels more exciting than a a fifty word plot summary of Sense and Sensibility.  

(And, incidentally, slavery and the Napoleonic wars do feature in Jane Austen’s novels, despite what Giles Coren claims.   They are part of the enabling context of events, but they also help to provoke arguments about loyalty and legitimacy that repay patient consideration.)

If compressed melodramatic incident is your definition of literature, then Jane Austen cannot satisfy it.  Jane Austen wrote about what she knew – but she knew it so clearly and recast her experiences so plausibly that she can connect with new readers historically and geographically far removed from rural Hampshire c. 1810.  In addition her “free indirect discourse” is not just some mechanical technique to be applauded supposedly by bloodless formalists like John Mullan (and I do like John Mullan – though I haven’t seen him in years).  Jane Austen’s narrative method imagines a new way in which authors and books can speak to readers, a new way of configuring the reading experience.  Austen is playful – she is forever playing games with information flow and with the nuances of description.  At the same time she is always paying compliments to her readers – allowing us to fill in certain gaps for ourselves and flattering our own powers of extrapolation.  In other words, those of us who love Jane Austen do so, in part, because she loves us first.   Hers is a generous narrative technique.  When reading Jane Austen, the appreciative reader feels tested and then vindicated, as one’s own capacity to comprehend the repressed hopes and fears of others feels increasingly enlarged and improved.

If, like Giles Coren, you claim to find such technical considerations boring, then I can only say that you must find much of what is definitionally central to literary experience boring.  If subtlety of narrative description cannot make otherwise conventional narratives of romantic disappointment and reward sing for you, if you require the stimulus of body-snatching mad scientists to carry you from page to page, then all I can say is – you’re missing out.

Coren writes as though he were forced to jump through a series of artificial hoops in order to play the game of getting a good degree, whereas now he is liberated to say what he really feels about Jane Austen.  I suspect the reverse (and this suspicion involves being very generous to Coren).  I suspect that as an undergraduate, he actually developed the patient skills of close reading and nuanced contextualised appreciation in order to get the most out of texts that have managed to offer complex delight to generations of readers.  As a columnist, however, he fakes an ignorance that is unnatural to him in order to dial in a reliably headline-grabbing little rant.

In other words, he earns his bread by pretending to be lazier and stupider than he really is.  This is a truly melancholy condition, one which almost feels tragi-comic enough to form the basis for a supporting character in a Jane Austen novel.

On The Loose. 41 Seconds of Laurel and Hardy

conradbrunstrom

As a Laurel and Hardy completist, I’m obligated to watch films where Stan and Ollie only make cameo appearances.

On the Loose (1931) is a good example.

Is it worth sitting through an obscure 1930s short just because you know Laurel and Hardy are going to show up at the very end?  Yes it is.  Of course it is.

The movie stars Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts, who made a sequence of comedies together in the early 30s.  Thelma Todd worked extensively with the Marx Brothers as well as Laurel and Hardy.  She was found dead in her car of carbon monoxide poisoning in 1936 at the age of just 29.  ZaSu Pitt,  who played the nervous, awkward character in this double act, lived long enough to be given a cameo in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963).

What’s the film like?  On the Loose?  Well…

View original post 568 more words

“I’m all about God”. The Divine Comedy at the Olympia Theatre.

hannon

Neil Hannon does not always wear his irreligion lightly.  He will not leave God alone, whether or not any god or goddess chooses to leave Neil Hannon alone.

Our visit to The Divine Comedy was a very very very delayed 20 year anniversary present for us.  The Divine Comedy was our first gig together and now it’s our most recent.  We’ve come home with The Divine Comedy.  Of course, there is no more romantic night out than a Divine Comedy gig.  It would be confusing and confused to call it “nostalgic” occasion though.  Neil Hannon has always been so saturated with nostalgia that this date night with Neil Hannon was not more nostalgic than our first night out with Neil Hannon.  He was doing sepia-toned retrospection before he had much to retrospect upon, and was (quite rightly) drawing on larger and longer cultural sources for his Epimethean moments.  Our anniversary outing was, however, a vindication of being still together and finding we’re still standing – just as Neil Hannon is still standing.  Though he’s also sitting, jumping, and lying down for much of the evening.

Pugwash were on first, and very friendly and engaging they were too, airing their new singles “The Perfect Summer” and “What Are You Like?” as well as marking the sad anniversary of John Lennon’s moida (they said it just like that – “moida” – recalling the intro to Hart to Hart) with an innovative re-imagining of “Oh Yoko” – perhaps one of Lennon’s least covered songs.  Heartfelt and subversive, the performance set a certain tone for the main event.

The years have been fairly kind to Neil Hannon, I thought, when he finally bounded on stage.  He’s as skinny as Frank Sinatra as a young man but at an age at which Frank Sinatra was no longer skinny.  The Olympia Theatre is, quite simply, the prettiest theatre in Dublin – its interior resembling a deliciously iced cake – and Neil Hannon is an old hand at complimenting this prettiness – basking in its beauty and knowing how to pose properly in its pretty space.

And in some ways Neil Hannon has finally grown into a character he’s been playing for decades.  His most recent songs fit neatly alongside his old songs, while his 1990s classics are now sung with a sense of earned entitlement.  He’s been becoming more like Alfie for a very long time now, but at least now, the period of gestation seems adequate to the transformation.  I was particularly struck by the performance of “The Plough” which felt like a bildingroman in the first person and which also achieved the singular effect of fooling you into thinking the song is much longer than it is without that being a bad thing at all.

He remains a superb actor.  The band plays the theme tune from The Godfather while he carefully pours them all drinks.  The band plays on while he runs offstage to dress up as Napoleon Bonaparte.  His rendition of “The Summerhouse” concludes with him flat on his back and his head upside down to the audience.  These are and are gimmicks.  They are part of the comedy that needs to frame the divine – the irony that frames and legitimises romanticism.  We are freed to sob because we know we’re allowed to snigger.

Tosh Flood is an authentic guitar god incidentally, and an authentic stage presence in his own right.  No matter how inventively louche Neil Hannon was -part of me had one eye on him to see what he was going to do next.  He might explode into action any moment – and of course did, frequently.

His version of “Where do you go to my lovely?” by Peter Sarstedt was very faithful and had everyone swaying together, but Neil Hannon was unable to purge my nagging moral reservations about the song (“How dare you be rich – having once been poor?”).   I was more struck by some of his most recent songs – “Catherine the Great” and “Napoleon Complex”, which convinced me on first listening that I’d only have to hear them a few times before they would start to sound like old songs.

We were on our feet, all of us in the stalls anyway, by the final quarter of the show.  This was just as well – because “At the Indie Disco” features a lengthy re-imagining of “Blue Monday” by New Order and stompiness was in order.

And the inevitable encore consists of “Sunrise”, “Songs of Love” and of  course “Tonight We Fly” – the song that must conclude any and every Divine Comedy gig – just as it did 20 years ago.

Part of Neil Hannon’s moral authority has always come from his ability to accommodate fits of giggles.  And as he permitted himself a necessary spurt of contempt for the vicious idiocies of hard Brexit, he knew he could do so, because the exploring the silliness of love and the absurdities of transcendental hubris are what humans should be doing when they’re not killing one another.  From their inception in the 1990s, The Divine Comedy have always been a sort of peace dividend.  There’s nothing funny about a hard border, but there’s a kind of holy laughter that you get when borders crash down.  Or are averted.

Was Milton an Atheist?

On Milton’s birthday

conradbrunstrom

milton

Then thou thy regal Scepter shalt lay by,
For regal Scepter then no more shall need,
God shall be All in All.

Paradise Lost

Was Milton, the greatest religious poet in the English language, also the most important atheist poet in the English language?

In this quote from Book III of Paradise Lost, God the Father, whose determination to condemn Adam in the past tense for something he has yet to do has led to rhythmic and syntactical confusion, finally gets his groove back when describing his own annihilation.

Unlike Dante who is prepared to concentrate Godhead as a subjective rush, a blinding flash of light and love, Milton loves talk.  And he makes God talk.  Speech, particularly in an uninflected language like English, entails linear thinking, linear progression.  This is unconvincing when attempting to justify a being who supposedly transcends Time itself.  The highly heterodox and probable Arian…

View original post 465 more words

“Haply, for I am Welsh”: the 1981 BBC Othello.

othello

 

Whisper it softly – within comparatively living memory, a white guy played Othello on television.  Apparently, James Earl Jones had been originally approached to perform the role in Jonathan Miller’s 1981 production, but Equity insisted that all roles in this BBC Shakespeare series be performed by British actors.  Shamefully, it was determined that there were no black actors in Britain in 1981 with sufficient stature to play the role – and so it was given to Anthony Hopkins.

In his own defense, Jonathan Miller was able to reference the fact that there is legitimate disagreement regarding the scope of meanings that the word “moor” could accommodate in the early modern period.  An English audience in the first decade of the seventeenth-century might use the word to describe someone from sub-Saharan Africa or someone from the near east.  There were no rigid nineteenth-century pseudo-scientific racial categories to refer to -and instead there was a promiscuous collection of broadly phobic adjectives attached to different degrees of “darkness”.

And so Anthony Hopkins becomes a bit darker – without “blacking up” like Larry Olivier’s notorious 1960s Othello.  But is he meant to be representing someone from the Arabian peninsula?  Or North Africa?  Or further east…  ?

It seems not.

For Anthony Hopkins looks like the thing that he surely is – a Welshman who has overslept in a tanning salon.  There are pasty faced families from Swansea who have spent two weeks in Cyprus and come home darker than Anthony Hopkins’ Othello.  Tom Jones on stage in Vegas looks darker than Anthony Hopkins in Othello.  And our sense of Othello being in any sense racially  “different” from his Venetian companions is communicated less by his vaguely swarthy appearance than his own rich Welsh accent, an accent shared by nobody else on stage.

In other words, this is not a “blackface” performance, because it’s not clear that Hopkins is trying to impersonate any “race” other than his own.

Hopkins’ own Welsh accent serves Othello’s most poetic speeches very well.  This performance evokes a sense of the Stratford man interbreeding with Dylan Thomas.  Hopkins lingers over certain words and phrases in quite original ways that revivify some of the more stale and oft quoted fragments of verse.   And so, far from attempting a racial impersonation, Hopkins uses Othello as an opportunity to come home as an actor.

However, I think a larger opportunity was lost here.  The play could have been mounted without shoving Hopkins under a sun lamp at all but by replacing every instance of the word “black” with the word “Welsh”.  Let Hopkins’ play himself and let the self that he plays illustrate the bigotry that poisons the unequal relations between the nations of North West Europe.  He’s a Welshman that the Anglos find useful, but who will be made to feel foreign as soon as he outlives his usefulness.

As Othello descends into madness, his appearance becomes more ludicrous – his hair madder.  And this is fine.  Sexual jealousy is, after all, a state bereft of any dignity – a condition that is all the more agonising for being absurd.  Hopkins is never too proud or too stuffy to smudge the utter degradation that Othello undergoes.  The play is, after all, all the more tragic for being – simultaneously – a bedroom farce.

Meanwhile, it is an observation trite but true to declare that everything is better with Bob Hoskins in it.  I saw this production when it was first broadcast and it was Hoskins not Hopkins who lodged in my memory, though Hoskins and Hopkins play well off each other.  (They share some great scenes in Oliver Stone’s Nixon where Hoskins is a Iagoish J .Edgar Hoover to Hopins’ fragile and tragic Nixon.)  Hoskins’ Iago is funny and engaging and projects a superficial yet compelling innocence.  The skill with which this Iago “forces” Othello to extort Iago’s suspicions from him is largely a consequence of a kind of naive charisma, dare I say “cuteness” that Hoskins discovers and exploits in the role.   And when Hoskins’ exclaims “I hate the moor” when completely alone, the intensity of this emotion is both obtrusive and completely convincing.

Penelope Wilton’s Desdemona seems very very English and prim, which may represent an attempt to illustrate quite how strange mixed-race (Anglo-Welsh) marriages appear within a casually phobic imagination.  If her Desdemona is eclipsed by Rosemary Leach’s spirited Emilia, then this eclipse reflects every single production of Othello I’ve ever seen.  Emilia is, quite simply, a much better role than Desdemona.

John Barron (forever frozen in the collective consciousness of a generation as “CJ” from The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin) plays the Duke of Venice – a Doge who didn’t get where he is today without knowing how to patronise talented Welshmen in an absolute emergency.

Also look out for Tony Steedman as Montano whom you’ll struggle to place for a while before triumphantly remembering that he played So-Crates in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.  Joseph O’Conor is awkwardly cast as Lodovico, despite being of an age which makes nonsense of many of the references to him made by other characters.

There are some nicely innovative bits of filmed staging.  Desdemona’s final dying words to Emilia are seen in a mirror while the camera focuses on Othello standing aghast and staring at the bed.  Earlier in the play, a dialogue between Iago and Cassio regarding Bianca is almost inaudible to the audience, reflecting Othello’s own inability to gather the exchange with any accuracy.  Costumes are fairly austere, in defiance of the vague but prevalent assumption that Venetians are supposed to be colourful bunch.

The play ends with Bob Hoskins’ maniacal laughter as he is dragged away.  Whatever punishment is inflicted upon this Iago, he clearly thinks it was all worth while.

I’ve some thoughts about some of the other 1978-1985 BBC Shakespeares….

Like Measure for Measure:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/11/21/what-are-you-laughing-at-the-1978-bbc-measure-for-measure/

Henry VIII

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/10/20/its-not-really-about-henry-the-1979-bbc-henry-viii/

 

Love’s Labours Lost:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/10/15/holofernes-goodman-dull-thou-hast-spoken-no-word-all-this-while-dull-nor-understood-none-neither-sir-the-1985-bbc-loves-labours-lost/

Romeo and Juliet:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/10/05/well-susan-is-with-god-the-1978-bbc-romeo-and-juliet/

The Scottish One:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/09/27/the-1983-bbc-scottish-play-much-thats-wrong-much-thats-interesting/

Much Ado About Nothing:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/09/19/hello-darkness-my-old-friend-the-1984-bbc-much-ado-about-nothing-also-the-origins-of-dads-army/

King Lear:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/08/31/bring-your-daughter-to-the-slaughter-the-1982-bbc-king-lear/

Here is Midsummer Night’s Dream:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/08/17/the-drugs-do-work-the-1981-bbc-a-midsummer-nights-dream/

Here’s Julius Caesar:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/06/29/unkind-cuts-richard-pasco-the-1979-bbc-shakespeare-version-of-julius-caesar/

King John:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/06/18/come-hither-hubert-the-1984-bbc-production-of-king-john/

Here’s Richard II:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/06/15/telling-sad-stories-of-the-death-of-kings-the-1978-bbc-richard-ii/

The BBC Richard III could not be more unlike the BBC Richard II…

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/06/02/all-this-and-no-horses-either-the-1980s-bbc-richard-iii/

Here is Henry VI Part III

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/05/20/it-just-gets-worse-or-better-the-1980s-bbc-henry-vi-part-iii/

Henry VI. Part Two:
https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/05/14/getting-better-all-the-time-and-incidentally-much-worse-the-1980s-bbc-henry-vi-part-ii/

Henry VI, Part One:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/05/01/verfremdungseffekt-at-the-beeb-the-bbc-henry-vi-part-one/

Here’s my review of the BBC Henry V:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/04/23/on-shakespeares-birthday-cry-god-for-harry-england-and-st-george-but-not-too-loudly-the-1979-bbc-henry-v/

Here are a few more blogs musing on this old BBC project…

BBC Henry IV, Part TWO:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/04/08/and-is-old-double-dead-the-1979-bbc-henry-iv-part-ii/

But here’s my review of the BBC Henry IV Part ONE:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/03/28/the-1979-bbc-version-of-henry-iv-part-i/

And the BBC Antony and Cleopatra:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/01/23/stagy-shakespeare-on-videotape-lots-and-lots-of-lying-down-acting-in-this-1981-bbc-antony-and-cleopatra/

And the Cymbeline:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/02/20/romans-in-britain-the-bbc-cymbeline-nope-doesnt-sort-out-how-i-feel-about-cymbeline/

Not to mention a somber but intensely homoerotic Coriolanus:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/02/10/i-banish-you-the-1980s-bbc-coriolanus/

Here’s Comedy of Errors:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/02/03/the-bbc-comedy-of-errors-with-roger-daltrey-you-will-get-fooled-again/

And… All’s Well That End’s Well:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/01/13/the-1980-bbc-adaptation-of-alls-well-that-ends-well/

Helen Mirren in the BBC As You Like It:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/01/17/how-could-i-have-forgotten-that-david-prowse-darth-vader-green-cross-man-played-charles-the-wrestler-in-the-1978-bbc-adaptation-of-as-you-like-it/

I think Christine Keeler’s passing makes us all miss 1963 all the more. Ever those of us who weren’t there.

CKeeler1

 

I really do.  And doesn’t she look so very thoughtful, so mysterious and so very very naked sitting the wrong way on this chair?  She’s the shape of things to come.

1963 was Philip Larkin’s “Annus Mirabilis” of course, as he overindulged his “grumpy old man bemused by the freedoms of youth” persona.  (Many sad old gits have pretended to have complex and interesting romantic lives – Larkin had a complex and interesting romantic life while pretending to be a sad old git.)   Larkin’s memorable lines mock the clichés of an over-hyped zeitgeist even as they celebrate them.

Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty-three

(which was rather late for me) –

Between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban

And the Beatles first LP.

 

Up to then there’d only been

A sort of bargaining.

A wrangle for the ring.

A shame that started at sixteen

And spread to everything.

 

Then all at once the quarrel sank:

Everyone felt the same

And every life became

A brilliant breaking of the bank,

A quite unloseable game.

 

So life was never better than

In nineteen sixty-three

(Though just too late for me) –

Between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban

And the Beatles’ first LP.

 

Sexual intercourse did not “begin” in 1963 – as many people born before 1964 will testify.  However, a delicious sense that its terms and conditions had somehow evaporated in a fit of giggles at some ludicrously specific historical moment is a fantasy too delightful to die.

This same year that was too late for Philip Larkin was perhaps slightly early for Paul Muldoon, in his coming of age poem that explicitly evokes the world of Christine Keeler.

PROFUMO

My mother had slapped a month-long news embargo
on his very name. The inhalation
of my first, damp
menthol fag behind the Junior Common Room.

The violet-scented Thirteenth Birthday card
to which I would affix a stamp
with the Queen’s head upside down, swalk,
and post to Frances Hagan.

The spontaneously-combustible News of the World
under my mother’s cushion
as she shifted from ham to snobbish ham;

‘Haven’t I told you, time and time again,
that you and she are chalk
and cheese? Away and read Masefield’s “Cargoes.”’

 

In this loosely conceived sonnet, Muldoon manages to squeeze sexual awakening with the political division and frustration.  Frances Hagan’s family, one imagines, are used to putting stamps on letters the right way up.  Incidentally, even when I was a child, Masefield’s “Cargoes” was just about the most anthologised poem there was and schools were full of battered poetry books that announced it.  It was the first poem most children learned to chant – the alpha and omega of many folks’ lyrical experience.

The narrator’s mother literally sits on the Profumo story, trying to smother it – not unlike the British establishment.  This kind of repression is (as Foucauld would say) productive – generating fresh discourses of sex within an admonitory idiom.

What I think we love about 1963 (though a bit too early for me) is a sense of the 1960s in bud rather than in bloom – the sense of a repressive old order that is less terrifying than comic and inefficient.  What we miss from 1963 is not the Age of Aquarius but a sort of Age of Innocence, in which even satire was young and fresh faced.

At the cemetery gates of 1963, it is not Keats and Yeats who are on your side but a team consisting of Lady Chatterley, Christine Keeler, Doctor Who, and John Lennon – who tells the Royal Variety Performance audience to “rattle their jewelry” along with “Twist and Shout”.  And, incidentally, wouldn’t that be the greatest ensemble super hero movie cast of all time?

The year is so well preserved and documented that even those of us who weren’t born feel we were there and have a right to feel nostalgic for it.  Perhaps we’re not nostalgic just for that zeitgeist, but for zeitgests in general – and we’re somehow aware that perhaps the twenty-first century is too complex, too eclectic, too cynical and too cruel to permit the indulgence of any more “all at once”s – any more “unloseable game”s.

Oh, and this nostalgic feeling I get when I see the Christine Keeler picture reminds me of feeling desperate for Billy Liar (Tom Courtney)  to get on that train.