Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Lady Sybil Branson Period Drama Quiz 2012

And now the end is near and so we all brace ourselves for awkward encounters with random relatives, a barage of misconceived yet well-intentioned gifts and the acceptable face of gluttony. Lets celebrate the year just gone here at the Period Drama King with the second annual compendium of headscratchers based on the previous year's period-drama delights. I'd like to take the opportunity to thank every one who has checked this here blog out in the last twelve months, particularly the ever-loyal Monarch of Mosside Road and Glasnevin's answer to Miss Jean Brodie. Merry Christmas to all who read this and here's to good times and plenty more of the past in 2013.

1. Philip Glenister, Daniel Mays, Rupert Penry-Jones, Eddie Izzard and Toby Regbo began their year searching for which famous literary location on Sky?

2. Which actress has been killed by Julian Fellowes twice in the last eighteen months?

3. Florence and the Machine wrote and sang the theme tune to a period fantasy film released in the summer. Can you name the movie and song?

4. Two movies about the life of Alfred Hitchcock were released this year, both set against the backdrop of the making of particular Hitchcock classics. Can you name both the newly-released films and the films depicted in them?

5. Madonna's W.E. (pictured above) was released in February. Why did a scene set in 1936 in which the death of a monarch is announced on the radio spark particular interest?

6. The Queen of England's encounter with James Bond was a highlight of the opening ceremony of the Olympics for many. Which actress, who appeared in all seven episodes of the BBC's Cranford amongst many other things, was the Queen's stunt double?

7. In Parade's End, what is the name of the family estate of Christopher Tietjens?

8. The King's Speech re-united Elizabeth and Mr Darcy from the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice. Which 2012 film re-united Elizabeth and Mr Darcy from the 2005 version?

9. The Hollow Crown series of Shakespeare adaptations featured the stories of three kings but which one spoke the line "let us sit on the ground and tell sad stories of the deaths of kings"?

10. Why might the Dickens character Mrs Gamp fit in at Nonnatus House?

11. Sadie and the Hotheads, Uncle Vanya, The Heiress, Mr Stink and The Sweeney are all what?

12. "Mr Brown goes off to town on the 8.21 but he comes back each evening and is ready with his gun." Name that period comedy.

13. "These days I do less. When I played that part in 1957, I was as mad in as many ways as possible. Now I know it is better to be mad in only one way." Who said this in 2012 and what part was she talking about?

1. Treasure Island. They all starred in a new Sky adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel that aired in the New Year

2. Maria Doyle Kennedy. Her characters Vera Bates in Downton Abbey and Muriel Batley in Titanic both died and both dramas were written by Fellowes.

3. The film was Snow White and the Huntsman and the song was Breath of Life.

4. Hitchcock features the making of Psycho and The Girl features the making of The Birds.

5. George the Fifth died in 1936 but the scene mistakenly refers to him as George the Third.

6. Julia McKenzie

7. Groby.

8. Keira Knightley and Mathew Macfadyen both featured in Anna Karenina.

9. Richard the Second played by Ben Whishaw.

10. Mrs Gamp was a midwife in Martin Chuzzlewitt and Nonnatus House is where the midwives live in Call the Midwife.

11. They are all other projects pursued by Downton Abbey regulars in 2012. The cast members in question are Elizabeth McGovern, Laura Carmichael, Dan Stevens, Hugh Bonneville and Allen Leech.

12. That is a line from the theme tune to Dad's Army.

13. Judi Dench on playing the part of Ophelia in Hamlet.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Le Morte d'Arthur and More

December is shaping up to be quite the busy month for period dramas this year with Call the Midwife and Downton Abbey both being promoted as the jewels in the crown of the Christmas Day schedules on BBC1 and ITV1 in the UK respectively. The former will feature an abandoned baby on the steps on Nonnatus House, Miranda Hart's hapless Chummy organising a Nativity play and an old vagrant lady touching the lives of the nuns and nurses while the later will, unlike last year's festive special, not be set at Christmas but during a Crawley family holiday in the Scottish Highlands. With the servants back in Downton at a loose end it seems Mrs Patmore indulges in a spot of romance and, judging by the trailer, Anna may have had to do a lot of letting out of Lady Mary's dresses since we've seen her last........ Also, coming to a climax this Christmas after five autumns on the Beeb is the hugely popular children's magical adventure series Merlin, which is not by any means ending on a whimper but, to this blogger's mind, the best series yet. Rather ropey and unsophisticated entertainment when it first aired in 2008, the average episode of Merlin is now much more exciting and emotionally engaging than the likes of Sinbad and Doctor Who. Personal recent highlights have included a genuinely creepy installment featuring the vengeful spectre of the old king returning from beyond the veil to punish his son for bad life choices and Merlin, still hiding his true self from the oblivious king, dressing up in drag in order to perform a spell in plain sight.

It is, all told, probably the right decision to quit while the going is good because just like any long-running series it has a formula and one would hate for the formula to become completely exhausted before time is called in Camelot. How many more times can Merlin be summoned to a cave by a mysterious old woman to be told that it is his destiny to protect Arthur from bitter sister Morgana only for the supposed evil genius Morgana's plans to fizzle out once again sending her and her big hair off in a huff? And, even accepting that this version of the Arthurian legend re-invents the once and future king as a dumb blonde, surely even he would have cottoned on by now that his servant Merlin is doing more for him on a weekly basis than simply washing his drawers. The real masterstroke of Merlin is Colin Morgan's performance as the eponymous sorcerer, at times hilarious and at times heartbreakingly sad, which suggests a homoerotic subtext which has sparked many a colourful conversation in student houses and internet forums over the years but is never too knowing for its own good. With visions of Arthur's death haunting Merlin at night and the faithful dragon with the voice of John Hurt ailing, the sense of doom has been nicely foreshadowed and the two-part finale should be one to watch. However Merlin ends up when the credits rolls on the final episode, Morgan (pictured above) has undoubtedly a bright future ahead of him.

Merlin has not only helped to launch the careers of Morgan and other series regulars Bradley James and Katie McGrath but also Holliday Grainger who made an early guest appearance in the first series and is now going from strength to strength career-wise playing Lucrezia Borgia in HBO's The Borgias and giving a memorably touching performance as Estella in the latest big-screen Great Expectations, more than holding her own opposite the reliably charismatic Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham. The film itself is a not-entirely-successful mixed bag but does have its charms and screenwriter David Nicholls knows what he is doing and it is a better version than the bleak BBC miniseries we saw last Christmas. Its potential as the period drama film of the season has been unceremoniously eroded by ecstatic early reviews for the long-awaited movie adaptation of the mega-musical Les Miserables which frustratingly does not open this side of the pond until January 11th 2012. Other potential period delights to be enjoyed in the coming weeks include the first film in the The Hobbit trilogy, Loving Miss Hatto, a BBC1 TV film written by Victoria Wood about a strange case of artistic fraud involving an elderly classical pianist, the launch of Ripper Street, the dark thriller about life in London in the time of Jack the Ripper also on BBC1, an ITV adaptation of a Frances Hodgson Burnett story called The Making of a Lady starring Joanna Lumley and, last but not least, the second annual period drama quiz to be published on this blog presently. Amn't I good?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Running the Estate on Empty

I've championed Downton Abbey on this blog and in real life to the very best of my ability but just as I needed to accept a few years back that the mighty The Simpsons just wasn't funny any more, it would seem churlish to deny any longer that Downton, which concluded its third series on ITV in the UK last night, has past the point of no return in terms of declining quality. It is increasingly being dismissed by other disillusioned Downtonians with terms such as "pure soap" and "Corrie with costumes." Period dramas are my bread and butter, dear reader, yet I do occasionally stray into other televisual territories (and not just The Simpsons either) and as I sat watching the extended final episode it occurred to me that Downton's problems lie much deeper than having the odd ludicrous storyline. Miss O Brien and Mr Barrow, for example, were once as thick as thieves and she is not altogether without a heart so during this season's campaign against him would she really have been as heartless and vindictive as she was and would the ever-efficient O Brien really have spent so many episodes arching her eyebrows before carrying out her nefarious plan? You wouldn't find such inconsistent characterisation and uneven pacing in the average episode of Coronation Street, I believe. And at least when soap opera characters have murder in mind they use picture frames and frying pans; they don't knead arsenic into pastry.

Series three did have its moments although they weren't those that had been heralded by the publicity people. New characters were basically rehashes of previous ones such as new footmen Alfred who was dopey but meant well (á la the late William) and Jimmy who was vain and had his eye to the main chance (á la his biggest fan Thomas). Shirley MacLaine acquitted herself well as Cora's mother Martha Levinson although her character as written by Julian Fellowes was never really a match for Maggie Smith's indomitable dowager. The wedding of Mary and Matthew was sweet but perfunctory and Fellowes seemed to struggle to know what to do with the newlyweds now that the will-they-won't-they conundrum has been resolved. And Downton was once more at risk of ruin until a series of unlikely incidents involving a will, a letter and Daisy meant that it wasn't anymore in surely the most irritating of this year's storylines. So people call Downton ridiculous and they have every right to although occasionally gold is struck and the viewers glimpse what the series could be if the storytelling wasn't so lazy and predictable. The standout episodes featured the untimely death of Lady Sybil during childbirth and her mother's struggle to come to terms with the tragedy and the part her husband unwittingly played in the sorry affair. The estrangement was subsequently wrapped up far too neatly and Lady Cora returned to simpering and telling O Brien that that was all for the moment, for shame.

If the stories had been more absorbing throughout the series, perhaps the politics of Downton Abbey would not be so worrying. As ever, unruly and ignorant working class characters who simply couldn't be reasoned with needed to be taken in hand by better-educated people with a greater social standing so that the best friend of the late Vera Bates was outsmarted by Lord Grantham's fancy-schmancy lawyer from London just as the Crawley family's connections got the better of Vera herself last series. And for all his abhorrence of the British aristocracy and his convictions that they were emblematic of the worst excesses of the oppressive empire, one-time rebel, now manager of the Downton Abbey estate Branson was wholeheartedly embracing life with the in-laws and excelling at cricket by last night's episode. Allen Leech as Branson did his best to make the contradictions of his character believable and indeed special mention must be given to Hugh Bonneville as well who, I calculated, is tasked with speaking more lines that nobody would ever say in real life ever than anybody else in the cast by a writer who is much more comfortable writing for mature ladies than men of any age. So what does the future hold? Ethel's off to live near her son, good for her. Can I come too, Ethel? I won't do a Mrs Crawley and mention your career as a prostitute at the drop of a hat. I promise. Please let me come. Unlucky-in-love Edith is about to embark on a storyline with a newspaper editor married to a lunatic (pictured with Edith above) that is so cliched I can't bare it. Please Ethel. I'm no Mrs Patmore but I know my way around a kitchen. Please. All the bright young things in the cast are going to do a Jessica Brown Findlay soon and be tempted by exciting and lucrative offers elsewhere and I doubt Maggie will hang around indefinitely either so there'll be little left before long. Please Ethel. For the love of God, let me come. Please.

Saturday, September 22, 2012


The nights are drawing in and soon, global warming permitting, Jack Frost may be nipping at our noses. So gather your dearest companions beside a roaring fire and, with a nice cup of Rosie Lee at everyone's disposable, play a period drama parlour game to knock the cobwebs off and to keep the company entertained for literally minutes. Alternatively, you could be by yourself and playing the game could serve to briefly distract you from your crippling loneliness and stave off more sinister thoughts. If only Miss Havisham (pictured above in the guise of Helena Bonham Carter) had been fond of period drama parlour games and a frequenter of the Period Drama King blog, things mightn't have turned out so fiery. The aim of the game is to figure out which period drama character connects a trio of well-known actors so it'll do to think of historical dramas, legendary tales and classic novels and plays that have been seen quite a few times on the big and small screens. For example if the question was Martita Hunt, Charlotte Rampling and Helena Bonham Carter, the answer would be the aforementioned Miss Havisham. That's all there is to it so good luck and enjoy!

1. Laurence Olivier, Timothy Dalton and Ralph Fiennes.

2. Margaret Rutherford, Gemma Jones and Anna Massey.

3. Steven Mackintosh, Dominic West and Colin Firth.

4. Freda Jackson, Judi Dench and Julie Walters.

5. Oliver Reed, Andy Serkis and Tom Hardy.

6. Olivia de Havilland, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Cate Blanchett.

7. Bosco Hogan, Hugh Grant and Dan Stevens.

8. Wendy Hiller, Audrey Hepburn and Twiggy.

9. Richard Harris, Clive Owen and Bradley James.

10. Edith Evans, Maggie Smith and Sally Field.

11. Booth Conway, Andrew Scott and Jared Harris.

12. Agnes Moorehead, Fiona Shaw and Sally Hawkins.

13. Robert Redford, Toby Stephens and Tobey Maguire.

14. Vivien Leigh, Sophie Marceau and Keira Knightley.

15. Sophie Thompson, Prunella Scales and Tamsin Greig.

16. Charles Gray, Simon Callow and Mark Williams.

17. Peter Firth, Oliver Milburn and Eddie Redmayne.

18. Anne Hathaway, Olivia Williams and Sharon Horgan.

19. Joseph Fiennes, Dean Lennox Kelly and Rafe Spall.

20. Joely Richardson, Gillian Anderson and Andrea Riseborough.

21. Milo O Shea, David Suchet and Stephen Rea.

22. Bette Davis, Miranda Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave.

23. Felix Aylmer, Whoopi Goldberg and Stephen Fry.

24. Gracie Fields, Angela Lansbury and Julia McKenzie.

1. Heathcliff

2. Miss Prism

3. Fred, Scrooge's Nephew

4. Mistress Quickly

5. Bill Skies

6. Maid Marian

7. Edward Ferrars

8. Eliza Doolittle

9. King Arthur

10. Aunt Betsey Trotwood

11. Moriarty

12. Mrs Reed

13. Nick Carraway

14. Anna Karenina

15. Miss Bates

16. The Rev Mr Beebe

17. Angel Clare

18. Jane Austen

19. William Shakespeare

20. Wallis Simpson

21. Leopold Bloom

22. Elizabeth the First

23. The Cheshire Cat

24. Miss Marple

Not Enough Parades

Tom Stoppard has been busy of late and the great man, well into his eighth decade at this stage, is not at all opting for an easy life it seems. He condescended the tragic tale of doomed Russian lady Anna Karenina as best he could into a two-hour script and Joe Wright's sumptuous yet pretentious finished product can be seen in cinemas. Beware that Keira Knightley's face makes contortions that faces don't make in real life although I'm not an expert on nineteenth century Russia and things may have been different then. She tries her best. In other Stoppard news, Parade's End last night finished airing on BBC Two in the UK and will soon make its debut on HBO before being rolled out all over the world in the sure and certain hope of attracting Downton Abbey's millions of devotees from Maine to Spain. Downton Abbey it ain't, however. Stoppard has adapted Ford Madox Ford's four often impenetrable Modernist novels Some Do Not......., No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up and Last Post, first published separately and later collectively as Parade's End, which are greatly admired but rarely read.

The five-part miniseries was impeccable in many ways and Stoppard's dialogue was often beautiful to listen to and beautifully delivered but the story felt rushed at crucial moments as the fascinating love triangle between the unhappily married Mr and Mrs Tietjens and young Miss Wannop reached its unpredictable conclusion against the backdrop of a grim exploration of World War One. It was five hours in length which is nowadays considered rather luxurious for a period drama on this lavish scale featuring a vast array of supporting characters and as many scenes in the muddy trenches as at swanky society soirees; in the 1980s it would have been seven hours at the very least,  I reckon, but that's the way we live now and there doesn't seem to be any going back. Parade's End really could have done with more time to unfold because, although often very witty and directed with a wry eye by Susanna White, it was not just an entertaining spectacle in the Downton tradition. It was properly challenging fare, not only because of its unsentimental approach to many of the issues in Britain in the 1910s such as the suffragette movement and the war itself but because every aspect of the story was imbued with shades of grey.

Christopher Tietjens, the self-proclaimed last Tory, is a virtuous and principled man slowly realising that he has become a ridiculous anachronism with half of London society gossiping about his chaste friendship with idealistic Valentine Wannop, not believing for a second that he would remain faithful to his cruel and manipulative wife Sylvia. Meanwhile, Sylvia is not an unsympathetic villain but rather her own worst enemy, lashing out at her passive husband in a vain attempt at provoking him into action but rather alienating him further. And Valentine realises throughout the course of the war and her interactions with her beloved Christopher that life is not at all as simple as she thought it was when she first boldly announced herself into his world. My allegiances changed frequently while watching Parade's End and I was charmed, frustrated and perplexed in equal measure by the troubled trio of Christopher Sylvia and Valentine, played flawlessly by Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall and Adelaide Clemens. All the actors were first-rate, in fact, with a special mention for Anne-Marie Duff (pictured above) as Valentine's friend Edith Duchemin, whose outward kindness and concern for others masked a callous self-interest which slowly revealed itself. Much like Edith, Parade's End was a deceptive piece of work that specialised in defying expectations. What you first saw was frequently not what you were ultimately getting. If only we had been allowed to get a bit more of it. Mustn't grumble.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Good Vibrations

After garnering many plaudits and consecutive Olivier Awards for two very different stage roles in London, young actress de jour Sheridan Smith, previously best-known for her roles in BBC sitcoms The Royle Family, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and Gavin and Stacey, is currently on the crest of a wave, professionally speaking. She is following her West End performances as chirpy sorority sweetheart turned Harvard graduate Elle Woods in musical hit Legally Blonde: The Musical and as the heartbroken wife of an RAF pilot in World War Two in Terence Rattigan's Flare Path with a season in the Old Vic as Ibsen's troubled and troubling anti-heroine Hedda Gabler. While tormenting old ladies and vulnerable alcoholics eight times a week for the next two months, Miss Smith will also be giving Meg Ryan a run for her money in UK cinemas from Friday 21st September in Hysteria as a saucy housemaid by the name of Molly the Lolly who is a willing participant in the experiments of the pioneering doctor who sought to cure female hysteria in late Victorian London and inadvertently invented the vibrator.

It is a curious true story and one that is not widely known but a very welcome addition to the period drama canon based on its premise alone and its comedic approach should serve as a nice counterpoint to David Cronenberg's intense drama of medical breakthroughs and sexual frustration, A Dangerous Method - yes, the one with all the spanking. Hugh Dancy (pictured with Smith above) plays the central role of Dr. Mortimer Granville in Hysteria alongside Maggie Gyllenhaal as Charlotte Dalrymple, the obligatory suffragette who takes his fancy, perfecting the English accent she more than ably pulled off in Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang two years ago. Also featuring in the impressive cast that director Tanya Wexler has assembled are Rupert Everett, Felicty Jones, Anna Chancellor, Georgie Glen, Ashley Jensen, Jonathan Pryce and Gemma Jones. The Duchess herself, Gemma Jones, is currently filming this year's BBC One Christmas period treat, a new version of the 1938 Hitchcock classic with the enduringly brilliant premise The Lady Vanishes. Returning to the 1936 source novel, The World Spins by Ethel Lina White, the wonderfully named Tuppence Middleton will feature as Irene Carr, a young lady of independent means who, after striking up conversation with an excitable old lady on a train on her way back from holidaying in Central Europe, is perplexed to later discover that this Miss Froy is nowhere to be found on the train and that her fellow travellers have no knowledge of her existence.

Miss Froy is played by old period drama reliable and Doc Martin regular Selina Cadell alongside the aforementioned Gemma Jones, Stephanie Cole, Keeley Hawes, Pip Torrens, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Alex Jennings and Tom Hughes as a dashing young man who comes to Irene's rescue and helps her to solve the mystery of the vanishing lady. Tom was most recently seen killing poor old deposed monarch Ben Whishaw in a cave in Richard II on television. It's been a very good year for period drama on the BBC so far in fact. Their next great big hope for glory is The Paradise, set in a late Victorian department store and beginning on Tuesday 25th September on BBC One although I've seen previews and am yet to be convinced that it has the potential for mass appeal. The Beeb has wisely decided not to put it up against the third season of Downton, which began in earnest last night, and the Tuesday night slot may prove a masterstroke in attracting Downton fanatics during the midweek lull. Distraction is the key because for all Downton's faults, I'm still dying to find out what happens next and it's hard to get out of your head at times. I'm not worried about the estate being ruined any time soon though. ITV will wring the Abbey dry before the Crawleys are left in peace away from eighteen million prying eyes of a Sunday and, with such a massive hit on their hands, who can blame them?

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Wolf Is At The Door

Henry the Eighth, his many unfortunate wives and his flame-haired daughter are never far from the period drama consciousness although there has not been much from the Tudors of late. Just as 2009's very fine Emma with Romola Garai exhausted the Jane Austen adaptation route for a while, a spate of Tudor-themed TV dramas and movies that reached their peak five years ago meant that we were all a bit Tudored out after a fashion. Cate Blanchett returned to the role that made her name with Elizabeth: The Golden Age although frankly she either shouldn't have bothered or else should have waited around for a better script. Also Helen Mirren gave her Liz One to great acclaim for Channel Four shortly before famously winning every award she was eligible for as Liz Two.

Meanwhile, The Virgin Queen with Anne-Marie Duff starring as Elizabeth between the ages of seventeen and seventy and getting jiggy with a before-he-was-famous Tom Hardy as Robert Dudley was admirably ambitious and the soundtrack featuring The Mediaeval Babes was brilliant but the effect of seeing her Majesty age from episode to episode was hampered by hopelessly unconvincing prosthetics and Duff's own stubbornly youthful face. Also, the perennially gruff Ray Winstone beheaded Helena Bonham Carter and Emily Blunt for ITV and Jonathan Rhys Meyers tried his best in the same role over four years for Showtime in America although better English accents have oft been heard in primary school productions of Oliver! And the least said about The Other Boleyn Girl with Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson, the soonest mended.

The story needs a different perspective before a return to our screens for Henry and company can be greeted with any sort of enthusiam. Well, BBC Two head honcho Janice Hadlow recently announced at the annual television festival in Edinburgh that Hilary Mantel's much-loved, Booker Prize-winning doorstep of a novel Wolf Hall is to be adapted in six parts and broadcast on the channel next year. Wolf Hall catapulted Mantel to household name status after more than thirty years as a novelist with her painstakingly-researched chronicling of the eventful reign of Henry the Eighth through the eyes of his chief adviser, poltical manipulator and all-round fixer Thomas Cromwell, a lesser-known figure from the Tudor court who dominated Henry's life after both Cardinal Wolsley and Thomas More fell from grace.

The much-anticipated sequel Bring Up the Bodies arrived in bookshops before the summer and continued where Wolf Hall left off with particular focus on the bloody downfall of Anne Boleyn and its impact on Cromwell's career. Cromwell's own spectacular fall from grace will be featured in a third and concluding novel and all three parts of the trilogy could find themselves on screen if Wolf Hall proves a hit. A six-part period piece is a huge commitment in these straightened times although viewers do love all things Tudor. Halfway through Parade's End on BBC Two, I'm wishing Tom Stoppard had been given more screen time to let Ford Madox Ford's story and characters develop at a less breathless pace. The telly version of Wolf Hall is being written by Peter Straughan, pictured above, who won a BAFTA earlier this year for his sterling work adapting Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with his late wife Bridget O Connor who, according to Straughan's heartfelt acceptance speech, "wrote all the good bits."