Thursday, December 22, 2011

Season's Greetings

And so 2011 and the first six months in the life of the Period Drama King blog are coming to an end. All that remains is to have a go at the first annual end-of-year quiz, catch all the goings-on in Downton Abbey, Satis House and 221b Baker Street over the holiday season, look forward to the many delights coming our way next year (starting with Birdsong on the Beeb in January, pictured above) and generally have a merry old Christmastime. I have been thrilled by the fledgling success of this record of my various scribblings and musings and I'd like to thank all those who have supported this enterprise particularly the academic, the vicar, the forensics expert, the coolest couple in town, the Englishwoman, the Belgian, the lawyer, the emigrant, the jester, the blonde, the teachers, the first Mrs Bates and, last but by no means least, the muslin enthusiast. All I can do in gratitude is promise that wherever people are being dramatic in a time other than our own, I shall continue to be there. Period.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Lavinia Swire Period Drama Quiz 2011

1. In the Upstairs Downstairs revival, the cook Mrs Thackeray was relieved to discover that who was to be called George?

2. What was done by firelight in 1969 and on a beach in 2011?

3. "Do you remember the game we used to play when you were a baby? On the coldest winter nights, I'd creep into your room while you were sleeping, all cuddled up in your blanket, and I'd pull it off. Do you remember? I'd pull it off and I'd say that's what God does. That's what God does." Name the mini-series.

4. Tipping the Velvet. Fingersmith. Affinity. What's next in the sequence and why?

5. What did Cary Fukanaga and Andrea Arnold both do this year?

6. The distinguished television director John Howard Davies, who died in August, first found fame as a child actor. What iconic role did he play in 1948?

7. Hattie (pictured above) was a drama based on the life of comedienne and actress Hattie Jacques and depicted, amongst other events, the making of which movie in the Carry On franchise?

8. I have wooed Fanny Brawne, befriended Charles Ryder and been obsessed with scent. Lately, I've decided that the newsreels are dead. Who am I?

9. Headmistress Sarah Burton upsets herself by reflecting on the sacrifice made by her late, lamented intended whilst Lady Mary realises that Captain Crawley has not been killed in action but is very much alive and kicking. What's the connection?

10. In which recently-released period film would you encounter the stoical Mrs Elton, her dilapidated boarding house and its colourful inhabitants?

11. The celebrated actress Margaret Tyzack, who died in June, starred as Soames's sister in the 1967 adaptation of The Forsyte Saga, as Claudius's mother in the 1976 adaptation of I, Claudius and as Verity Hunt's guardian in the 1987 adaptation of what?

12. Gloria Stuart. Judi Dench. Kate Winslet. Joan Crawford. Who is the odd one out and why?

13. If tinker was Toby Jones's Percy Alleline, tailor was Colin Firth's Bill Haydon and soldier was Ciarán Hinds's Roy Bland, who was sailor?

1. George VI on taking the British throne after his brother's abdication in 1936.

2. The naked wrestling scene in Wome in Love.

3. The Crimson Petal and the White.

4. The Night Watch. It is the latest novel by Sarah Waters to be adapted for television.

5. They both directed adaptations of novels by the Bronte sisters, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights respectively.

6. Oliver Twist.

7. Carry on Cabby.

8. Ben Whishaw.

9. Both scenes involved the singing of First World War standards, Keep the Home Fires Burning in South Riding and If You Were the Only Girl in the World in Downton Abbey.

10. The Deep Blue Sea.

11. Nemesis by Agatha Christie.

12. Joan Crawford. They all played older incarnations of characters played by Kate Winslet (in Titanic, Iris and The Reader) except for Joan Crawford who played the same character as Kate Winslet in an older version of Mildred Pierce.

13. Nobody. Sailor was not used as a codename as it was deemed to sound too similar to tailor.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Mad about the Girl

It's all about equal opportunities here at the Period Drama King blog so following on from the first look a few weeks back at Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham in Mike Newell's forthcoming movie adaptation of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, one-time Lady Dedlock Gillian Anderson returns to Dickensian territory and dons the wedding dress above in the rival miniseries set to delight BBC One viewers over three consecutive nights this Christmas season starting on the 27th of December. Dickens is not only doing wonders for Miss Anderson's bank balance but also for that of Ralph Fiennes who will not only be seen as Abel Magwitch alongside Bonham Carter on the big screen next year but will also star as the great man himself in a feature film depicting his extra-marital love affair with a young actress twenty seven years his junior named Nelly Ternan that lasted thirteen years until the day of his death.

Felicity Jones, whose breakthrough performance was as Catherine Morland in 2007's Northanger Abbey, will star as Nelly in The Invisible Woman, based on Dickens biographer Claire Tomalin's detailed examination of their secret, passionate relationship for which the novelist left his wife Catherine and risked his considerable reputation. The film, due to shoot in the spring or summer of next year, will also mark Fiennes's second foray behind the camera as director following his highly-acclaimed, soon-to-be-released, modern-day adaptation of Shakepeare's Coriolanus in which he stars alongside Gerard Butler, Jessica Chastain, Brian Cox and Vanessa Redgrave. On the subject of controversial attachments between older men and younger women, the BBC have announced The Girl, a dramatization of director Alfred Hitchcock's obsession with model Tippi Hedren whom he plucked form obscurity to star as the heroine Melanie Daniels in his classic 1963 orthonological suspense thriller The Birds. As he sculpted Tippi into the perfect Hitchcock blonde of his imagination, he became preoccupied with the impossible dream of winning the real woman’s love and his failure arguably destroyed both of their careers.

Writer Gwyneth Hughes, who previously put the regret into Jane Austen with Miss Austen Regrets, has conducted extensive interviews with Hedren herself and surviving members of Hitchcock's crew. Directed by another chronicler of the life of Miss Austen, Becoming Jane helmer Julian Jarrold, the single film will feature Toby Jones and Sienna Miller in the main roles with Imelda Staunton and Penelope Wilton as the other women in Hitchcock's life, his wife Alma and his loyal assistant Peggy Robertson respectively. Both the ballad of Charles and Nelly and the ballad of Alfred and Tippi are quite well-known in popular culture but have been under-represented on screen so I for one am very excited about both projects. It's always nice to see a new story being told rather than the same old ones about humble orphans and crazy old ladies in wedding dresses that take a shine to them. That said, I know where I'll be on December 27th and no mistake!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Prince, The Showgirl and Twee

Methinks that The Prince and the Showgirl is second only to Apocalypse Now for being as well-known for its on-set troubles as for the finished movie itself. While the world waits for somebody to write My Week with Marlon, here is a new movie about Marilyn Monroe's one and only visit to England in 1956 to make The Prince and the Showgirl during which the newlywed and most famous woman in the world did nothing but bad things for director and co-star Sir Laurence Olivier's blood pressure, went skinny-dipping in a lake and became romantically involved with the fresh-faced, young third assistant director, on his first job straight out of Oxford, named Colin Clark. Or did she.........The story is certainly a fascinating one and My Week with Marilyn presents it as an old-fashioned entertainment that is engaging and very pleasant but largely forgettable.

The film is bolstered by the stunning central performance of Michelle Williams. Faced with the ridiculously daunting task of doing justice to a star who remains as alluring now as she was in 1956, Williams's understated performance captures Norma Jean's many contradictions: her steeliness and her fragility, her pragmatism and her whimsy, her kindness and her ruthlessness. My Week with Marilyn presents a woman loved by millions for being a persona but who just wanted to be loved for the person she was, far from the dumb blonde she often portrayed. Unfortunately, the darker aspects of Monroe's life such as her increasing dependence on prescription drugs and the sycophancy of those she surrounded herself with are dealt with perfunctorily by director Simon Curtis, who seems determined for everybody and everything to be ultimately quite nice. He presents a romanticised view of not just life on a 1950s film set in Britain but also of life in 1950s Britain. Colin Clark himself is as too good to be true as the nostalgia-laden world he here inhabits.

Charismatically played by Eddie Redmayne (pictured above), Colin is agreeably sweet and gauche but a deal too wide-eyed and innocent to be believable and never once displayed the slightest hint of arrogance even when singled out to spend the eponymous week with his celebrity crush. He remained a perfect gentleman throughout the movie and the character's implausible lack of any shade of grey casts further doubt on the much-disputed veracity of his books The Prince, The Showgirl and Me and My Week with Marilyn, on which Adrian Shergold based his screenplay. The movie does feature a variety of enjoyable supporting performances particularly from Kenneth Branagh as an egotistical, authoritative Olivier. Although he never quite manages to fully embody his character in the same way Williams does, the tension and tetchiness between them is palpable. Monroe's insecurities as a celebrated movie star desperately trying to prove herself as an actress are tellingly contrasted with those of Olivier as a celebrated actor trying desperately to prove himself as a movie star. But then they are both quite nice really, aren't they? I had hoped that My Week with Marilyn would be an insightful piece of cinema but it is content to be sheer escapism.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Eaton Mess

The path continues to run anything but smoothly for Heidi Thomas's BBC revival of 1970s period drama classic Upstairs Downstairs. The second, longer series is currently filming on location in Cardiff but will not feature Dame Eileen Atkins as interfering but well-intentioned mother-in-law Lady Maude Holland or, initially, Jean Marsh as faithful housekeeper Rose Buck. Amidst rumours that she was unhappy with the direction that Thomas's scripts were taking, Dame Eileen has stepped down from her role whilst Ms Marsh is recovering from a minor stroke she suffered earlier this year and will miss the first episodes of the second series. The absence of the actresses, who were both nominated for Emmy Awards for their performances in the three-part starter that aired last Christmas, will be a major blow for UD when it returns to our screens in 2012. Hasty re-writes have been required and one hopes that the behind-the-scenes difficulties will not be evident in the up-and-coming goings-on at 165 Eaton Place.

Whilst Jean Marsh is due to return as the Holland household's right-hand woman at some stage, series two will begin with Lady Maude's funeral and the arrival of Alex Kingston as her much-younger sister and straight-talking spinster, Dr Blanche Mottershead. Other new additions to the cast include Laura Haddock as nursery maid and dark-secret harbourer Beryl Ballard, Michael Landes as American multi-millionaire Caspar Landry who takes a shine to the lady of the house and Kenneth Cranham as Sergeant Allworth who answers an emergency call at the famous London address. Ed Stoppard as Sir Hallam, Keeley Hawes as Lady Agnes, Little Dorrit herself Claire Foy as the troublesome Lady Persie, Anne Reid as cook Mrs Thackeray, Adrian Scarborough as butler Mr Pritchard, Nico Mirallegro as footman Johnny Proude and Neil Jackson as chauffeur Harry Spargo (pictured above on the job) will all feature once again as the dark days of World War Two are fast approaching. One hopes that the return of the return of Upstairs Downstairs can step out of a certain shadow and make a bigger impact than it did last year. It is strange to see such a cultural phenomenon being referred to as "a bit like Downton Abbey!"

A Mystery No Longer

2010 was a worrying year for the millions of fans the world over who delight at the announcement of a new Agatha Christie adaptation. One would be inclined to suppose that the enduringly popular Mrs Christie and the continued success of her Miss Marple and Poirot stories on television would unquestionably manage to secure her and them continued prominence despite current economic difficulties at ITV. It was, however, decidedly touch and go for the last eighteen months as to whether the fastidious Belgian played by David Suchet and the unassuming spinster played by Julia McKenzie would return for further sleuthing any time soon.

The period settings of both Poirot and Marple make them a great deal more expensive to produce than other popular murder mysteries on the network such as Lewis, A Touch of Frost and Midsomer Murders and period drama is often the first casualty when recession starts to bite. In early 2009, a miniseries based on EM Forster's A Passage to India starring Gemma Jones, Sally Hawkins, Matthew Macfadyen and Laurence Fox was abandoned at the eleventh hour due to its unavoidable costliness. And although people complain bitterly about their enjoyment of Downton Abbey being hampered more than ever this year by an unprecedented number of advertisements, the truth is that the future of the Abbey does not depend on Lady Cora's millions as we have been led to believe but on the money paid to ITV for advertising space during its broadcast. One hopes that a line will be drawn before the Dowager Countess begins extolling the virtues of a good life assurance policy to her granddaughters at dinner!

Happily, ITV announced last week that new episodes of Marple and Poirot will be filmed and will begin to broadcast in 2012. The excellent Julia McKenzie will star in an adaptation of the last remaining Miss Marple novel yet to be filmed for the series, A Caribbean Mystery, and she will also find herself shoehorned into two other Christie novels, Endless Night and The Seven Dials Mystery. This shoehorning policy allows audiences to enjoy stories that may otherwise not be adapted at all but Miss Marple's appearance can sometimes seem forced and unconvincing and undermine the original tale. The Seven Dials Mystery is a sequel to The Secret of Chimneys which was filmed for the last series of Marple so expect more from Dervla Kirwan's Bundle and company.

The very exciting news is that, with the commissioning of this latest series of Poirot, David Suchet's ambition to film all seventy of Agatha Christie's Poirot short stories and novels will soon be realised and deservedly so, in my humble opinion. It is a feat never before achieved and unlikely to be achieved again. The swansong season will feature adaptations of The Big Four, The Labours of Hercules, Dead Man's Folly, Elephants Can Remember and Curtain, the very final case in which the ailing Hercule returns with a dear companion to the scene of his first investigation. Suchet, who first starred in the role twenty-two years ago, will be joined by various veterans of the series playing des amis de Poirot including Philip Jackson as Inspector Japp, Hugh Fraser as Captain Hastings and Zoe Wanamaker as Ariadne Oliver (pictured with Suchet above). One suspects that, as the jaunty theme tune fades away for the final time, there will not be a dry eye in millions of houses around the world.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Young Hearts Run Free

Much has been made in the media of arthouse aficionado Andrea Arnold's decision to depict Heathcliff as a black man in her intensely original adaptation of Emily Bronte's durable classic Wuthering Heights. In truth, this latest version achieves levels of innovation that usually allude adaptations of such well-known novels, not through going back to black with "the dark-skinned gypsy in aspect" but through some other, less-publicised decisions made by Arnold and her co-screenwriter Olivia Hetreed. This film is as preoccupied with Heathcliff and his adoptive sister Cathy Earnshaw in their adolescence as in their adulthood and investigates with wit, insight and vital energy the formative period of their indestructible and ultimately destructive attachment to each other. As Cathy and Heathcliff wander about on the wild and windy Yorkshire moors, they seek solace in each other, they amuse each other, they excite each other, they delight each other and they awaken in each other feelings of sexual desire, beautifully captured in their youthful intensity.

Arnold employs any number of arthouse flourishes to tell this tale afresh and period drama enthusiasts may find much of 2011's Wuthering Heights objectionable. Bronte's eloquent characters speak little here and when they do, it is with a decidedly contemporary turn of phrase, more "Are you OK?" than "I am Heathcliff!" The film is also unrelenting bleak as it bamboozles the viewer with images of death, decay and destruction although Bronte's Yorkshire was hardly as singing, all dancing to be fair. The characterisation of the grown-up Heathcliff is radical, opting for a psychologically astute meditation on cruelty and personal responsibility. How else will a man, who was savagely branded on his back as a slave during childhood and mercilessly beaten for the colour of his skin, react when confronted with thwarted ambitions but savagely and mercilessly?

For all its merits, Wuthering Heights tries too much to feel contemporary and ultimately undermines certain key aspects of Cathy and Heathcliff's story as a result. Cathy's decision, for example, to abandon Heathcliff in favour of another man with better prospects is completely unbelievable in the context of this film and the entire second half featuring the grown-up lovers, who are no longer free-spirited and uninhibited but self-conscious and contained as they take tea in drawing-rooms, sits very uncomfortably with Arnold's hand-held, naturalistic style. The wildness of the first half is so wonderfully served by Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave's earthy performances as the young Cathy and Heathcliff that, despite their best efforts, Kaya Scodelario and James Howson struggle in the drab second half to escape the indelible impression made by their younger counterparts.

Andrea Arnold must be commended for crafting a beautiful film (kudos also to cinematographer Robbie Ryan) with some truly haunting moments (my favourite being a fireside rendition by Young Cathy of the tragic folk ballad of doomed love Barbara Allen eerily foreshadowing the heartbreak and loss to come) and for managing to defamiliarise a classic. However, this new Wuthering Heights is, even on its own terms, often unconvincing.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Before The Parade Passes By

Hot on the heels of the announcement that Sir Tom Stoppard is working on a stage adaptation of his Oscar-winning screenplay for Shakespeare in Love is news that the same Sir's passion project of a five-part television miniseries based on Ford Madox Ford's celebrated Parade's End tetralogy is currently filming in London. A co-production between HBO and BBC Two and adapted from Ford's novels Some Do Not, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up and Last Post, Parade's End follows the fortunes of English aristocrat and government statistician Christopher Tietjens, his beautiful but wilful socialite wife Sylvia and Valentine Wannop, a young suffragette with whom he falls in love, from the twilight years of the Edwardian era to the end of the First World War. Downton Abbey goes to town, perhaps?

Stiff upper lip maestros Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall are playing Christopher and Sylvia and are joined by young Australian actress Adelaide Clemens as Valentine and a stellar supporting cast including Geoffrey Palmer, Jack Huston, Claire Higgins, Freddie Fox, Miranda Richardson, Stephen Graham, Roger Allam, Rupert Everett, Jamie Parker, Steven Robertson, Janet McTeer and Anne-Marie Duff, I do hope Miss Duff is having as much fun on set with fellow Terence Rattigan enthusiast Benedict Cumberbatch as she is having in the above still on stage in London in Rattigan's Cause Celebre earlier this year. Parade's End is being directed by by period drama stalwart Susanna White (2005's Bleak House and 2006's Jane Eyre are amongst her credits), returning to television after last year's Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang. One suspects that Parade's End will feature more scenes of muddy trenches and less scenes of pigs synchronised swimming. We'll see!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Seeing Double

The old saying about waiting a lifetime for a bus to come along only for two to come along at once does not just apply to public transport, it seems, but increasingly to period dramas also. Above is a newly-released picture of Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham in Mike Newell's Great Expectations movie which is currently filming in London from a script by One Day's David Nicholls. The film looks set to be a lavish affair and will also feature Bonham Carter's Harry Potter co-stars Ralph Fiennes as Abel Magwitch, Robbie Coltrane as Mr Jaggers and Jessie Cave (the late Lavender Brown) as Biddy alongside War Horse's Jeremy Irvine as Pip and The Borgias's Holliday Grainger as Estella. The supporting cast also includes Jason Flemying as Joe Gargery, Sally Hawkins as Mrs Joe, Olly Alexander as Herbert Pocket, Ewen Bremner as Wemmick and Tamzin Outhwaite as Molly. As previously reported on this blog, Gillian Anderson will appear as the jilted lady of Satis House alongside another all-star cast in the BBC's latest three-part adaptation of the Dickens favourite this Christmas and will become the youngest actress to have played the role, narrowly beating the Bonham Carter by two years.

The latest Great Expectations adaptations will bookend a year of celebrations marking two hundred years since Charles Dickens first shuffled onto this mortal coil. 2012 also marks the centenary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in April 1912 and two television series will chronicle the life and times of the doomed luxury liner. As Maria Doyle Kennedy told me back in September, ITV's Titanic is written by Julian Fellowes will feature his characteristic multi-character storytelling and span the social spectrum with a mixture of fictional and real-life passengers. Titanic: Blood and Steel, an Italian/Irish co-production currently filming in Dublin, takes an altogether different approach spanning the socially tumultuous fifteen-year period from 1897 to 1912 in which the ship was conceived, designed and built and Belfast. The international cast features Neve Campbell, Martin McCann, Kate O Toole, Kevin Zegers, Sir Derek Jacobi, Gray O Brien, Charlotte Bradley and Sex and the City's Mr Big, Chris Noth alongside Liam Cunningham and Joely Richardson as legendary politicians and trade-union activists Jim Larkin and Countess Markievicz. Given that Titanic: Blood and Steel leaves off where Titanic begins, perhaps the series will compliment each other nicely when they surface in the spring.

Monday, November 7, 2011

There Is A War On, You Know!

The second series of the hugely successful period drama Downton Abbey, which finished last night on ITV, strove earnestly to depict the horrors and hardship of life in Britain and on the battlefields during the Great War of 1914 to 1918. The most conspicuous wartime struggle was, however, that of series creator and writer Julian Fellowes and the creative team behind Downton who never quite managed to achieve the balance between being informative about a fascinating period of history and being hugely entertaining, a balance which greatly contributed to the resounding success of series one.

This year's episodes were so cluttered with white feathers, court marshals, shell shock, food rationing, conscription, convalescence, disfigurements, bereavements, widows' pensions and ladies working the land that few stories had sufficient time to develop satisfactorily and many remained unengaging. And although the trenches were impressively re-created, the scenes on the Somme ultimately seemed rather redundant as the most effective moments were those back at the Abbey with the various much-loved characters coming to terms with what the war had done to them.

All in all, the second series of Downton Abbey was afflicted with such a bad case of Difficult Second Season Syndrome that not even the collective powers of Major Clarkson, Nurse Crawley Mrs Crawley and Corporal Barrow could have seen it right. Much like poor traumatised Mr Lang, it tried to do too much too soon and unable to cope with the weight of responsibility, bungled about rather hopelessly allowing only occasional glimpses of its vast capabilities. Some many have sniggered in the corner, as above. Thanks heavens for the millions of Lavinia Swires the world over who were willing to patiently and lovingly see it through its worst bouts of incompetent pacing, jarring characterisation and tedious predictability to something resembling its past glory.

Promisingly, last night's series finale was rather excellent and satisfying viewing for those who have been kept waiting a great deal too long for the resolution of will-they-won't-they romances between Bates and Anna, Sybil and Branson and Cousin Matthew and Lady Mary. Much was left to be settled and here's hoping it will be settled not with more plot developments that lack conviction (did anyone buy into the supposed estrangement between Lord and Lady Grantham?) but with more beautifully judged moments of heartbreak and loss (deathbeds become Downton, they really do!) and many more moments with the Dowager Countess grappling to come to terms with modern technology.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Return from the Shadows

Guy Ritchie is currently in post production on the sequel to his 2009 box-office smash hit Sherlock Holmes. Daft as a brush but rollicking good fun nonetheless, the movie garnered much critical acclaim for Robert Downey Jr's robust comic turn as Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic detective. Somewhat of an action hero in Ritchie and Downey Jr's hand, this was indeed Holmes as he had never been seen before. Downey Jr was joined by Jude Law as his beleaguered sidekick Dr Watson and both actors will reprise their roles in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows alongside The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo herself, Swedish actress Noomi Rapace as mysterious medium Sim. Aren't they always mysterious, these movie mediums? The trio (pictured above) face off against Holmes's great nemesis, only alluded to in the first film, Moriarty, played by Jared Harris. Another new face, Stephen Fry as Holmes's sharp-as-a-tack big brother Mycroft, will feature alongside returnees Kelly Reilly as Watson's fiancee Mary, Eddie Marsan as Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, Geraldine James as landlady Mrs Hudson and Rachel McAdams as femme fatale Irene Adler.

Judging by the trailer, A Game of Shadows will no doubt be another action-packed romp. The shenanigans on a train look particularly intriguing. The first film just about succeeded but one hopes that story is not sacrificed on the altar of CGI spectacle when the sequel opens in cinemas around the world just before Christmas. Meanwhile, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat's modern-day re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes, the BBC's Sherlock, will follow hard on its heels in the New Year with adaptations of three of most famous Sherlock stories, The Reichenbach Fall, The Hound of the Baskervilles and A Scandal in Bohemia. The ingenious series, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes, Martin Freeman as Dr Watson, Rupert Graves as Inspector Lestrade, Una Stubbs as Mrs Hudson, Gatiss as Mycroft, Andrew Scott as Moriarty and Lara Pulver as Irene Adler, is in many ways closer to the spirit of the original creation than the Hollywood version, despite the latter's lavish Victorian sets.

Lavish Victorian sets are currently under construction by the BBC for their recently-announced eight-part drama series Ripper Street. Taking place in 1889, the intense drama will examine life in Whitechapel in the aftermath of the horrific crimes committed by one Jack the Ripper. Written by Richard Warlow of Waking the Dead fame, Ripper Street explores the lives of characters trying to recover from the Ripper's legacy, from crimes that have not only irretrievably altered their lives, but the very fabric of their city. At the drama's heart, detectives from the notorious H Division - the police precinct from hell, by all accounts - try to bring a little light into the dark world they inhabit. One suspects that it will not occupy the time slot vacated by the recently-axed Lark Rise to Candleford when it hits our screens next year. Just a hunch!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Heaven Knows Anne's Miserable Now

In the above still are Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway singing to each other as David Frost and Richard Nixon in a Frost/Nixon sketch at the 2009 Academy Awards. It seems that Jackman and Hathaway will soon be singing together again but in a much less light-hearted manner in the long-awaited movie adaptation of Boubil and Schonberg's musical mega-hit Les Miserables, based on the classic French novel by Victor Hugo. It was this week confirmed that Hathaway has signed on to appear as down-on-her-luck factory worker Fantine alongside Jackman as one-time convict, now respectable factory owner and mayor Jean Valjean who takes pity of her and poignantly promises her on her deathbed to rescue her daughter from the cruel Thernadiers and care for her as though she was his own. He is thwarted at every turn, however, by obsessive police chief Javert who refuses to forget the past and accept that Valjean is a reformed character. Both Javert and Valjean also become embroiled in political instability in nineteenth-century Paris as a group of idealistic students mount barricades and fight for the emancipation of the Proletariat, all the while singing some lovely songs it has to be said.

After much speculation, Russell Crowe has been announced as Jackman's dogged pursuer. The only other confirmed cast member at this stage is Helena Bonham Carter as the thoroughly unpleasant Madame Thernadier. Bonham Carter's Alice in Wonderland co-star Hathaway will sing the iconic I Dreamed a Dream in the movie to be directed by The King Speech's Tom Hooper. Theatre impresario Cameron Mackintosh will produce the film version of the musical that he first staged twenty-six years ago to a critical thrashing. It subsequently transpired that misery loves company and it has been running in London and in various locations around the globe ever since. The truth is, however, that other long-delayed movie versions of musical classics such as Evita and The Phantom of the Opera have underperformed significantly. Hooper, based on the evidence of The King's Speech, seems a good choice of director to me as any adaptation of Les Miserables will have to successfully intertwine the epic moments of public outrage and defiance with the more intimate moments of personal heartbreak and sacrifice. We can all hear the people sing and judge for ourselves when Les Miserables is released in cinemas on 7th December 2012.

Charles Dickens: A Comedy Roast

Plans to celebrate the bi-centenary of Charles Dickens's birth next year continue apace at the British Broadcasting Corporation. Following announcements of new adaptations of Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, BBC Radio 4's acclaimed comedy series inspired by the many novels of the great man, Bleak Expectations, is to be adapted for television this Christmas as The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff by writer Mark Evans. It seems to me very fitting that such a project be greenlit at a time when we reflect on Dickens's vast contribution as he himself was an merciless satirist of various aspects of Victorian life and one would like to think that he would be able to appreciate a well-made parody of the various tropes and conventions of his own oevure. The series, beginning with a Christmas special and continuing with three further episodes in the New Year, will no doubt feature youthful indiscretions, unscrupulous individuals with flamboyant names, selfish parents, patient wives and many a reversal of fortune.

The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff tells the tale of one Jedrington Secret-Past, the up-standing family man and owner of The Old Shop of Stuff, Victorian London's most successful purveyor of miscellaneous odd things. We will follow Jedrington's various misadventures including being incarcerated by the evil lawyer Malifax Skulkingworm in London's infamous prison The Skint on the eve of Christmas until he can repay a mysterious and vast debt, teaming up with seemingly charming business partner Harmswell Grimstone and discovering that his wife Conceptiva has a secret past that is even darker than his own. Starring Robert Webb as Jedrington, Katherine Parkinson as Conceptiva, Stephen Fry as Skulkingworm and Tim McInnerney as Grimstone, the impressive ensemble cast also includes David Mitchell (pictured above with comedy partner Webb in a Poirot skit from their sketch series), Sarah Hadland, Celia Imrie, Pauline McLynn, Kevin Eldon, Derek Griffiths and Johnny Vegas. What larks, eh?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Trouble and Strife

Not since Janet Leigh misguidedly checked into the isolated motel in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho has a Mrs Bates struck such a sinister screen presence. Arriving unexpectedly at Downton Abbey in last Sunday's second series premiere, it soon became apparent that the devious Vera Bates does not share the sentiment of wishing nothing but the best for her ex. She'd barely finished her cup of tea in Mrs Hughes's sitting-room before blackmailing her way back into the life her estranged husband, the honourable valet Bates. They promptly went back to London leaving head housemaid Anna utterly devastated but one suspects that we have by no means seen the last of Bates or, indeed, his manipulative missus.

Taking on the role of greedy silverware enthusiast Vera is the distinguished actress and singer Maria Doyle Kennedy, whose eclectic screen appearances since starring in The Commitments twenty years ago include everything from an adaptation of August Strindberg's Miss Julie to the classic Eoin McLove episode of Father Ted. Recognized the world over for her award-winning role of Katherine of Aragon in The Tudors, she is not just acting up a storm in the period drama of the moment but has also taken roles in two other highly anticipated period projects, ITV's Titanic miniseries written by Julian Fellowes and Rodrigo Garcia's Albert Nobbs starring Glenn Close. I recently caught up with Maria, a friend to this blog from a previous life, in advance of her Downton debut and I asked her all about her recent period drama experiences:

Downton Abbey was a huge hit when it premiered last autumn. How aware were you of the Downton phenomenon before being approached to appear in the series? I had no idea whatsoever of Downton's popularity before being asked to read for it. My agent filled me in after I had been offered the part. I was given the box set of Season 1 to catch up and it all made perfect sense once I'd seen it! Compelling isn't it?!

Your character Vera Bates was described by her mother-in-law as “a nasty piece of work” in the first series. Do you think that this is a fair assessment?
Oh dear, I think it's more than Vera's mother-in-law who will think she's a nasty bit of work after episode 1 of the new series airs. Vera has a lot of venom, that's for sure, but perhaps not totally unjustified.........

It seems that the character of Bates has really struck a chord with audiences because he is very much an Everyman figure, an essentially decent person with a past of which he is not altogether proud doing his best to move on and lead a good life. Does Vera’s arrival in Downton signify his past coming back to haunt him?
That is definitely what Vera means for Bates, his past coming back at him, previously unhappy situations he thought he had left behind that he has to acknowledge once more.

There is a sense from Brendan Coyle’s performance as Bates that he feels very guilty about his past treatment of his wife and that she is very much his Achilles’ heel. How much is this in evidence in your scenes together?
It felt immediately that there was a very strong connection between Bates and his ex-wife. She, more than anyone, knows how to push his buttons. It's painfully clear that they share a long history and it seemed to Brendan and I as we did the scenes that what was destructive about them at this point had probably once been expressed through passion.

Many viewers are keen to see the progression of the blossoming romance between Bates and head housemaid Anna. Given that Vera’s arrival is very much a spanner in the works, do you expect that Vera will come to occupy a villainous status to rival that of lady’s maid O’ Brien or will the viewers sympathise with Vera?
Everybody wants to see Bates and Anna make it and I think I have just become a notorious villain........always the most fun to play those parts though!

Was it at all intimidating to join the cast of such a well-established and popular show and to be working alongside British acting royalty like Penelope Wilton and Dame Maggie Smith?
It was absolutely thrilling to be part of a read-through with such a distinguished cast. I was close to fainting when I got to shake hands with both Penelope Wilton and Maggie Smith, both of whom I have watched with huge admiration from afar. They couldn't have been more gracious or welcoming.

You went straight from your stint on Downton Abbey to the Titanic miniseries that has also been written by Julian Fellowes. Can you tell me a little bit about the part you play and what it was like filming on a purpose-built set in Hungary?
Titanic is due for release next year to mark the 100th Anniversary of the tragedy. I was, once again - lucky me - surrounded by a stellar cast including Toby Jones (who plays my husband), Linus Roache, Geraldine Somerville, Celia Imrie.......what a joy to work with these folks. The irony of filming in a landlocked country was not lost on me but the sets were amazing. I'm looking forward to seeing it.

You also recently filmed a role in another period drama, Rodrigo Garcia’s film of Albert Nobbs alongside Glenn Close. Did you enjoy that experience?
I agreed to that part just to be near to Glenn Close and watch her work. I think she's fantastic and I learned from my observation - she is all about the detail!

PERIOD DRAMA TOP FIVE - Not-So-Villainous-After-All Villains

This month's Period Drama Top Five concerns those characters whom we regard in a very different light by the time the particular drama in which they feature has worked its way to a conclusion. Some we are extremely suspicious of, some are shrouded in mystery and some we utterly despise but by the time the credits roll, they have either redeemed themselves or else misunderstandings have been explained and the said characters absolved of all sin. Below are my much-deliberated-over choices in no particular order. SPOILER ALERT:

1. Grace Poole in Jane Eyre
Surely the fall guy to end all fall guys, Grace Poole is suspected of all sorts of nefarious deeds including violent outbursts, committing arson and having an annoying laugh before it is revealed that all she's been doing is her best to earn a crust under strange and unusual circumstances. She perhaps over-indulges in the demon drink on occasion but taking charge of the highly-strung first Mrs Rochester whilst simultaneously keeping her presence at Thornfield Hall a secret for the sake of her master is no walk in the park.

2. Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice
Darcy's callous treatment of poor, unfortunate Mr Wickham and his active role in perhaps ruining forever the happiness of her most-beloved sister both play a significant role in Elizabeth Bennett reaching the conclusion that Fitzwilliam Darcy is the last man in the world that she could ever be prevailed upon to marry, despite all those thousands a year. Once it is revealed that he has been misrepresented by the cad Wickham and acted misguidedly but with the best of intentions in respect of Lizzie's sister, Mr Darcy's greatest flaw seems ultimately to be social awkwardness and that is something that us period drama fanatics are hardly in a position to criticise too harshly.

3. Charlotte Bartlett in A Room with A View
The archetypal frustrated spinster and poster girl for English repression, joyless Cousin Charlotte stalks the streets of Florence as if she'd rather be anywhere but there and is openly disdainful of the working-class Emersons. Mortified when she spots a growing attraction between her charge Lucy Honeychurch and young George Emerson, Charlotte strongly advises Lucy not to pursue such an undesirable connection. Ultimately, however, she realises that they love each other passionately and does not stand in the way of them experiencing a sort of happiness that she has never had. Indeed, she orchestrates their reunion in her own little Charlotte-esque way.

4. Abel Magwitch in Great Expectations
You know how it is. You can't take five minutes away from your slap-happy sister to visit your parents' grave on Christmas Eve without a convict turning you upside down, threatening to cut your liver out and demanding you bring him some vittles. Well, young Pip's tolerance of such an imposition is richly rewarded when years later the said convict Abel Magwitch selflessly orchestrates the boy's rise from his humble circumstances to great expectations. It is also revealed that the kindly Abel wasn't all that bad to begin with but fell in with a bad crowd behind the bike sheds or, at least, the Victorian equivalent.

5. Lady Macbeth in Macbeth
This is potentially the most controversial entry on the list. Lady Macbeth is a reprehensible individual in many ways who appears to have not a modicum of guilt or shame about using every trick in the book to convince the hen-pecked Thane of Cawdor to commit a bit of regicide, as in the above still from Roman Polanski's 1971 adaptation starring Francesca Annis and Jon Finch. The iconic sleepwalking scene in Act Five, however, tells a different tale and although she undoubtedly behaves badly, it is hard not to sympathise with the wretched queen as she torments herself with washing her hands over and over again and laments that they will ne'er be clean. We've all had a "What have I done, sweet Jesus what have I done?" moment or two surely!

Shaken, Stirred and In Need of Therapy

Originally published in 1974 and originally adapted in 1979 as a seven-hour BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness, John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has been hailed as a classic of the spy genre and its references and themes have entered the realms of popular culture. The complex novel about retired operative George Smiley being called upon to flush out a Soviet mole that has inveigled his way to the upper echelons of the British secret service is not without its flaws, however. At certain points in le Carré's work, the convoluted plot becomes almost indecipherable and the storytelling repetitive and ponderous. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson of Let The Right One In fame and writers Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O Connor skilfully avoid these pitfalls in their enthralling and absorbing new big-screen adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which achieves an admirably coherent narrative structure without ever over-simplifying matters of international espionage.

Gary Oldman gives a stunning central performance as Smiley, a man whose calm and unassuming exterior belies his formidable intellect. He goes about discovering the one who is threatening to destabilise the Circus, the organisation that has been his life's work and for which he has sacrificed a great deal, quietly and patiently but with an unmistakable steel and determination. Oldman subtly captures the contradictions in Smiley's personality. Although an old-fashioned gentleman, he has moments of ruthlessness and rage as the truth about the Soviet mole slowly but surely unfolds before our eyes. The journey to discovery takes the audience not just to early 1970s London but to Istanbul, Budapest, Paris, Oxford and a public school in the English countryside. This, however, is most definitely not the world of James Bond with dry martinis and a girl in every port. Perhaps the film's greatest achievement is its deconstruction of the myth of the glamorous spy, which is one of the main themes in many of le Carré's books.

Shot in muted grey colours and with a creeping sense of unease from the very start, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is populated by disillusioned and alienated people living broken half-lives. This is particularly evident in Mark Strong's heartbreaking turn as Jim Prideaux who is forced to leave the Circus after a top-secret assignment in Budapest, that lies at the heart of the mystery of the Soviet mole, goes disastrously wrong. Prideaux is a life-long outsider for whom becoming a spy meant a sense of belonging and community and yet he ultimately discovers that it is unwise to trust in those for whom betrayal, deceit and duplicity are all in a day's work. The excellent supporting cast of Kathy Burke, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Stephen Graham and John Hurt play Circus employees at various levels who, having dedicated their lives to ensuring the safety of millions, ultimately reveal themselves to be sad and lonely figures who find coping with real life quite a burden. And the Circus ultimately reveals itself to be much like any other workplace where the workers constantly complain about not getting paid enough for the work they do and have embarrassing drunken encounters at the Christmas do.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Boyfriend Material

For all its supposed innovation, the most successful moment of the new big-screen treatment of Jane Eyre, directed by Cary Fukunaga from a screenplay by Moira Buffini, is strikingly reminiscent of a moment in David Lean's 1948 Oliver Twist. Taking place at the very start of this re-structured version of the classic story, the arresting sequence in which Jane Eyre frantically flees her home of Thornfield Hall and wanders despairingly on the moors culminates in our defeated heroine being taken in by kindly clergyman St John Rivers and his dutiful sisters. As she rests and recuperates, she begins thinking back on the events that led her to be wandering aimlessly in the wilderness. Although this is a clever and novel way to present this much-told tale, the film's insistence on jumping back and forth from Jane's memories of her unhappy childhood to her time living at the Rivers cottage soon becomes irritating. Things only settle down when Jane, now eighteen, travels to take up the position of governess at the aforementioned Thornfield Hall. That is rather a sign of things to come as this handsome yet patchy adaptation over-emphasises Jane's relationship with the brooding owner of Thornfield Mr Rochester at the expense of Charlotte Bronte's proto-feminist theme of a young woman striving to assert her independence in a restrictive society. Jane's relationship with Rochester is of course a very important part of her journey but it should not be the be all and the end all.

The story of Jane Eyre has aged so well largely because of its attractive central character whose determination, self-possession and resilience in the face of extraordinary adversity are as appealing now as they were in 1847 if not more so. Unfortunately, as romance blossoms between servant and master during a series of fireside conversations, this Jane Eyre behaves passively and obediently. She does not impress Rochester with her depth of understanding and compassion during their discussion of how her young French pupil Adele came to be his ward because this discussion does not take place. She does not take it upon herself to investigate the mysterious goings-on at Thornfield and draw her own conclusions because that Gothic element is sidelined and the character of Grace Poole, who lays at the heart of the mystery, appears only fleetingly. The scene in which Jane temporarily leaves Thornfield and comes face to face with her cruel aunt Mrs Reed years after she abandoned the girl to her fate at a sinister charitable school is a very significant moment for our heroine. Here, it is treated in a frustratingly perfunctory manner as though it is of little importance besides setting up a later plot revelation. Consequently, this Jane Eyre is difficult to sympathise with.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the promising young Australian actress Mia Wasikowska struggles in the role of Jane. Although she looks right, she comes across as petulant and whiny particularly in the scenes in which Jane is asserting herself. Michael Fassbender fares much better as Rochester but both portrayals suffer from an unfortunate tendency to drift from Received Pronunciation to a broad Yorkshire accent often in the same scene. The best performances come from the supporting cast of Jamie Bell as St John Rivers, Sally Hawkins as Mrs Reed and particularly Judi Dench as jittery Thornfield housekeeper Mrs Fairfax, who is by turns funny and touching and also somewhat compensates for the film's complete lack of atmosphere by conveying a distinct sense of unease. There is great chemistry between Wasikowska and Fassbender, vital for a film that increasingly treats the sequences in which Jane and Rochester are not on screen together as a waste of time. This treatment of Jane Eyre is undoubtedly passionate but falls short in many others areas. Reader, she marries him but she doesn't do all that much else!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

For Whom The Bell Tolls

The muted reception that greeted the BBC's The Hour, a period drama based in the production office of a pioneering current affairs television programme in late 1950s London, is in some ways the fault of the broadcaster itself. The promotional material for the show, such as the above still featuring the main cast, emphasised the office politics and stylishness of The Hour in an apparent effort to nurture the misconception, cultivated by the media ever since the series was announced, that The Hour was the "British Mad Men." It is, in fact, a very different animal with a dark and complex conspiracy at the heart of the story. Reaction was not helped by the fact that the uncovering of a conspiracy involving international espionage and Soviet moles at the BBC, although very absorbing and well-sustained throughout the series, at times strayed into the realms of the ridiculous and undermined what was otherwise a painstakingly believable re-creation of a fascinating period in recent history.

Now that the first series has finished, the question remains why the writer and creator of the series Abi Morgan felt the need to include the conspiracy element when there are so many other interesting aspects to the story including government censorship at the BBC, the responsibility of the media in reporting on world crises, the role of women in the late 1950s workplace and the absorbing love triangle between the three main characters, bright-spark young journalists Bel Rowley and Freddie Lyon and privileged anchorman Hector Madden. Bel and and her working-class best friend Freddie, engagingly played by Romola Garai and Ben Whishaw, are both outsiders desperately trying to prove themselves to the stiflingly conservative top brass as they set about making their programme The Hour a hit. Both reveal spades of vulnerability behind their brittle and arrogant exteriors while Hector, in a nuanced performance by Dominic West, constantly struggles with maintaining his integrity as a journalist and simultaneously creating the right impression after he is drafted in to front The Hour as a favour to his well-connected

The Hour's main strength is its seamless incorporation of period details and cultural and historical references into the characterisation and narrative. For example, the playful dynamic between Bel and Freddie is established from the very start as they refer to each other as James and Miss Monnypenny. Debutante balls, wartime evacuation, sham society marriages and the rampant discrimination of immigrants are all touched on while the Suez Crisis takes centre stage and proves challenging material for the fledgling news programmes and its staff. Abi Morgan must also be praised for subverting many cliches in her script. The M16 operative Mr Kish (Burn Gorman) seems to be a sinister loner but is later revealed to have a wife and two young children in the suburbs while Hector's wife Marnie, although undeniably a spoilt Daddy's girl (Oona Chaplin), displays reserves of steeliness and determination to rival those of career girl Bel. Elsewhere, it is a testament to Anna Chancellor's skill as an actress that she manages to keep her hardened, whisky-soaked, middle-aged foreign correspondent Lix Storm on the right side of caricature. There was a great deal to enjoy about The Hour and, as a second series has been commissioned, I do hope that it will in future focus on the business of reporting the news and leave the spying to the other James and Miss Monnypenny.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Drood Conclusion

Matthew Rhys, the Welsh actor who plays a brother in American TV series Brothers and Sisters, will return to Britain to star in the second Dickens adaptation announced as part of the BBC's celebrations of the great man's birth. Rhys will appear in the central role of pronvincial choirmaster John Jasper in the dark tale of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, to be directed by Diarmuid Lawrence, who knows exactly what he's doing having recently worked on the excellent Emma, South Riding and Little Dorrit adaptations. John Jasper is a troubled man who has spent his life in the stifling and claustrophobic cathedral town of Cloisterham in a state of frustrated ambition and has become addicted to opium in an attempt to still his ennui and expand his horizons. The opium is fracturing his mind, however, so that even as his soul reaches for the sublime in his music, his darker self has conceived a murderous hatred of his nephew Edwin Drood who, he believes, stands between him and the lovely Rosa. When Edwin disappears under mysterious circumstances, the audience will discover exactly how far Jasper is willing to go to attain the object of his desire.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood was Dickens's final novel and left half-finished at the time of his death. Therefore, Gwyneth Hughes, who imagined Jane Austen's later years to critical acclaim in Miss Austen Regrets, was challenged with writing a suitable conclusion to this intriguing psychological thriller. It was an offer too good to refuse, according to Hughes: "The tragedy of the erotically obsessed cathedral choirmaster, John Jasper, throbs with sexual menace, murder and opium addiction. But alongside his story runs a brilliant small-town social comedy which is often laugh-out-loud funny. After all, this is Dickens, the great emotional extremist, and master of the rollercoaster ride. It's just the most enormous fun." Edwin will be played by Freddie Fox, soon to be seen in The Three Musketeers on the big screen, with Tamzin Merchant, soon to be seen in Jane Eyre on the big screen, as Rosa. The various resident of Cloisterham will be brought to life by Rory Kinnear, Ian McNeice, Ellie Haddington, Sacha Dhawan, David Dawson, Julia McKenzie, Ron Cook, Janet Dale and Dickens regular Alun Armstrong.

The Ruskins Are Coming

All has been rather quiet on Emma Thompson front of late. The second Nanny McPhee movie was released over a year and a half ago and surely her ten seconds in the final Harry Potter didn't take up too much of her time! It seems that Miss Thompson and Greg Wise, her husband and one-time Willoughby, have been hard at work on a screenplay based on the life of Euphemia Gray, pictured above. Effie, which is due to start filming in October under the direction of Richard Laxton, will tell the fascinating story of renowned art critic John Ruskin's disastrous relationship with a young girl he marries, who eventually leaves him when she falls in love with his protege, the pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Milais. Something of a cause celebre in 1850s London, Effie was granted an annulment from Ruskin for his alleged inability to consummate their marriage.

The love triangle was recently chronicled in the 2009 BBC dramatisation of the lives of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Desperate Romantics. Tom Hollander, usually unlucky-in-love in period pieces, starred as Ruskin with the roles of Effie and Milais touchingly played by Zoe Tapper and Samuel Barnett. In this new film version, Wise himself will play Ruskin with Tom Sturridge as his love rival Milais. The illustrious supporting cast includes Julie Walters and Derek Jacobi as Ruskin's parents, Edward Fox as patron of the Royal Academy and Ruskin's detractor, Sir Charles Eastlake and Thompson as Effie's confidante and caretaker, Lady Eastlake. The coveted role of Effie, once considered a toss-up between Carey Mulligan and Saoirse Ronan, will be played by American teenager Dakota Fanning. Now seventeen and hoping make the tricky transition from child star to grown-up actress, Fanning will first finish shooting another British movie, Now is Good, before getting her Victorian groove on. Meanwhile, Mulligan and Ronan are going back in time themselves for Baz Luhrmann's new film of The Great Gatsby and Joe Wright's new film of Anna Karenina respectively.

Bright Lights, Big City

Lark Rise to Candleford ran for four hugely popular series from 2008 to 2011 but am I the only one that could never bring himself to fully embrace Bill Gallagher's adaptation of Flora Thompson's late-nineteenth century memoir? More Heartbeat than Cranford, it soon became apparent when it first appeared on our screens that this was period drama at its least innovative and most nostalgic. So it proved as the worst thing to befall the residents of Lark Rise and Candleford on any given episode was that the postman's bicycle would sometimes suffer a puncture before he finished his rounds. Someone usually found a pump and order was restored. The still above was typical of the Lark Rise philosophy that was touched on most weeks: well, we are poor lass but at least we've got each other! The truth is that the production values were so lavish that nobody ever looked all that poor. Still, Lark Rise seemed to tick many people's boxes when it came to Sunday-evening, comfort-food television.

Gallagher has moved on to pastures new and is currently adapting the Emile Zola novel Au Bonheur des Dames as The Ladies' Paradise for television. It tells the story of Denise, a girl from the sticks who, made homeless by the death of her father and with nothing to live on but her wits, moves to a bustling northern city and finds herself a job working in the city's glittering new department store. Denise is excited by her glamorous new life as society is waking up to the joys and temptations of shopping. Behind the dazzling facade of the store, however, she finds a world of intrigues, affairs and shopfloor power struggles. Although set during the same period as Lark Rise and following the same multi-character structure, the BBC announced the series, filming next summer for transmission in early 2013, as being "sexy" and "post-watershed." This seems to be somewhat of a departure for Gallagher but what would Miss Lane say?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Countdown to Downton

The second series of Downton Abbey is nearly upon us! Although the good people at Downton are keeping fairly schtum about what's to come, I have managed to gleam fourteen facts about the return of the Crawleys and company so as to whet the insatiable appetites of my fellow Downton die-hards. The war can't come soon enough, frankly! The wait will be over when the period drama de jour returns to British television on the 18th of August:

1. The second series begins in 1916, two years after the end of the first. The Great War is in full swing and Matthew Crawley and Thomas are away fighting for king and country.

2. Secretarial wannabe Gwen has left her position at Downton Abbey for pastures and typewriters new.

3. Having parted ways at the end of the first series, Lady Mary and Matthew are now stepping out with powerful newspaper proprietor Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen) and middle-class daughter of a London solicitor Miss Lavinia Swire (Zoe Boyle) respectively.

4. At the request of Mrs Crawley, the abbey is being used as a convalescent home for wounded soldiers. This development leads to friction between Mrs Crawley and Lady Crawley.

5. One of the convalescing soldiers becomes romantically involved with one of the Crawley sisters.

6. Robert's sister Lady Rosamund returns to Downton and is as determined as ever to interfere in the lives of her nieces.

7. Lady Sybil's inevitable decision to train as a nurse is met with surprising support by her grandmother, the Dowager Countess.

8. The troublesome Ethel Parks arrives at the start of the second series as a new housemaid. She is played by Amy Nuttall.

9. Cal McAninch joins the cast as a valet named Lang. It has yet to be revealed whether he replaces Bates or Moseley or attends to a new character, possibly Sir Richard.

10. Silverware enthusiast Mrs Vera Bates (Maria Doyle Kennedy) arrives in Downton determined to ruin her husband's blossoming relationship with Anna.

11. Consumed with guilt after orchestrating her mistress's miscarriage in series one, O' Brien is still no ray of sunshine but has become fiercely protective of Lady Cora.

12. Mrs Hughes must come to the aid of one of the younger female members of staff when she finds herself in "a very modern kind of trouble."

13. The eight-part second series will conclude with armistice being declared in 1918.

14. The series will be followed by a Christmas special featuring period drama regulars Nigel Havers and Sharon Small.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tragedy Tomorrow, Comedy Tonight

The rarest of rarities in the world of period dramas is coming the way of those with access to Britain's Channel 4 this Friday at 10.30 pm - a period comedy. Riding high on the massive success of the big-screen spin-off from their cult comedy The Inbetweeners, Joe Thomas and Simon Bird will be seen in a comedy pilot entitled Chickens. Together with their fellow comedy performer and old pal from their Cambridge Footlights days, Jonny Sweet, they have written and star in a comedy that follows the misadventures of a trio of young men that have stayed at home in Kent while their contemporaries are fighting it out on Flanders field. A sitcom set during World War One is a very bold prospect but this tale of lovable losers who are irredeemably hopeless with the female of the species is not entirely new ground for Thomas and Bird who played Simon and Will in The Inbetweeners to great acclaim. In that particular show, their social awkwardness let them down whilst in Chickens, their perceived cowardice inspires the scorn of the womenfolk in their home town of Rittle-on-Sea.

Jonny Sweet's Bert seems to be the most lilly-livered of the trio whereas Joe Thomas's George is a conscientious objector and Simon Bird's Cecil is a willing recruit whom the army has rejected on account of his flat feet! This could be absolutely brilliant if the programme-makers can pull off the tricky balancing act of delicately handling the material so as not to offend whilst simultaneously ensuring it's irreverent enough to be properly funny. Joe Thomas says that it's about time that this particular approach was taken with a period piece: "Most period drama is so earnest. A lot of it is about making yourself take seriously things you wouldn't normally. You would not usually care about the various romances of some landed gentleman. Well, we are trying to make something that actually is serious less so." Curiously, a period film with a very similar theme is about to start shooting in Britain.

Private Peaceful is based on a children's novel by Michael Morpurgo, he of War Horse fame, and tells the story of the Peaceful brothers from rural Devon who enlist to fight in World War One. Charlie and Tommo are plunged into a nightmare that tests their steadfast loyalty to each other when one of them is accused of cowardice and subsequently court marshalled. Skins alumnus Jack O' Connell and George MacKay, who played Kit in 2007's The Old Curiosity Shop, will star as the Peaceful brothers and Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths and Alexandra Roach will feature in supporting roles. Irish director Pat O' Connor, no stranger to period dramas having made Circle of Friends and Dancing at Lughnasa, will take the helm. The British army's practice of shooting perceived cowards during the Great War is not often examined and Morpurgo was praised for his sensitive handling of the subject when the novel was first released in 1982. His works are currently being re-appraised now that the stage adaptation of War Horse has been such a massive success in the West End and on Broadway. Steven Speilberg's film version of War Horse is to be released before the end of the year, no doubt as Oscar fodder!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Life Imitating Art Imitating Life

Noel Coward was undoubtedly one the major figures in British theatre in the early twentieth century and, yet, the experience of watching a Noel Coward play is often strangely unsatisfying. Once the many witty lines have been digested, admired and taken out of the equation, his plays can reveal themselves to be staggeringly shallow enterprises. The best and most-frequently revived of his plays are characterised by particularly clever creative conceits. Blithe Spirit has the earnest and good-natured medium Madame Arcati, who is deeply affronted by the slightest suggestion that she is a charlatan. Private Lives has the lovers Elliot and Amanda, who cannot bear to be separated from each other almost as much as they cannot bear to be together. And Hay Fever, now playing at Dublin's Gate Theatre, has the eccentric Bliss family, who live life as if it is one of the ridiculous melodramas in which mother Judith, a recently-retired actress, has spent much of her life appearing.

Unwaveringly bohemian, Judith and husband David, son Simon and daughter Sorrel have not the slightest regard for emotional moderation and determinedly rejoice in the more dramatic and colourful aspects of life while simply ignoring its mundanities. Much hilarity ensues in this very funny play when it transpires that each family member has invited somebody down to the country for the weekend. The abrupt reception that all four receive from the hassled housekeeper Clara is merely the tip of the iceberg for bumbling diplomat Richard Greathem, vague flapper Jackie Coryton, devious socialite Myra Arundel and Sandy Tyrell, a young man besotted by Judith. Over the course of the weekend, the bemused quartet must contend with various bouts of unbridled passion and hysteria from their increasingly-unhinged hosts.

The Blisses are not short of the self-absorption, self-indulgence and self-regard that one typically encounters in Noel Coward's characters and their histrionics could potentially be more irritating than endearing. Happily, Ingrid Craigie, Stephen Brennan, Marty Rea and Beth Cooke strike all the right notes as Judith, David, Simon and Sorrel in Patrick Mason's elegant and sophisticated production. Craigie (pictured above with Stephen Swift as the admiring Sandy) is outstanding as the matriarch and her inability to live her life as anything other than one of the beautifully-tragic heroines she played for so many years on stage is quite touching, as is her affectionate family's willingness to facilitate her. Also particularly impressive is Marty Rea whose Simon dresses as a matador for dinner, spends much of his time enthusiastically drawing naked ladies and is much more his mother's natural successor than the marginally-more measured and self-aware Sorrel.

Meanwhile, Coward gives the four guests very little to do other than stand around looking aghast at their hosts' uncouth behaviour. The male guests are virtually indistinguishable from each other and an extended sequence in which Jackie and Sandy valiantly attempt to cure a case of hiccoughs strikes one as the work of a playwright who worried that his his third act was a bit too short. Although Myra's attempts to make mischief by seducing David and her ensuing frustration when both he and his wife are happy to play along are very entertaining, a miscast Jade Yourell is far too short, sweet and young to convince as a world-weary "vampire." Stephen Swift and Kathy-Rose O Brien do well enough with the under-written roles of Sandy and Jackie but Mark O Halloran's exaggerated movements about the stage as Richard are jarringly excessive. Barbara Brennan must be praised for squeezing every drop of vitality she possibly can from the meagre material she is given as Clara, Judith's one-time dresser who now looks after the family to the best of her abilities.

At one point during Hay Fever, Myra accuses the Blisses of being "artificial to the point of lunacy." Whilst over-seeing the on-stage hijinks with flair, Mason also manages to convey in this production the artificiality of the theatrical experience. Craigie's Judith sashays to the very front of the stage and looks straight at us as she delivers a speech on the wonderful feeling she gets from an audience while various cast members pull the curtain across the stage in between acts suggesting that we the audience are ourselves complicit in the artificial lunacy. After all, are not most plays as jam-packed with implausibilities and heightened emotions as an average evening with Judith and company? It's only when people are not complicit and must unwittingly engage with such things that they are compelled to book themselves on the first train back to London!

Hay Fever continues at the Gate Theatre in Dublin until the 24th of September.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Come Spy With Me

Gary Oldman is pictured above as George Smiley in the forthcoming big-screen adaptation of John le Carré's classic spy novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The story revolves around espionage veteran Smiley as he coaxed out of retirement during the Cold War paranoia of the late 1960s to flush out a Soviet mole that has found his way into the upper echelons of MI6. The character of Smiley was previously played by Alec Guinness in a highly-regarded television adaptation in 1979. Oldman has spoken about Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as his return to "proper, grown-up acting" after spending many years playing Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films and Commissioner Gordon in the Batman films. He may, however, find himself in another franchise with this latest project as advance reviews have been incandescent with praise and it is based on the first of trilogy of novels detailing Smiley's exploits, the others being The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley's People.

This new version of le Carré's tale also marks Kathy Burke's return to acting after almost ten years in retirement. Burke says that her decision was largely motivated by the opportunity to work with the Swedish director Tomas Alfredson whose 2008 vampire chiller Let the Right One In is one of the most celebrated horror movies of the last decade and a personal favourite of hers. She will play retired MI6 operative Connie Sachs whose encyclopedic knowledge of the Soviet regime is of great assistance to her old colleague as he sets about flushing out the mole. Real-life old friends Oldman and Burke are joined in the exceptionally starry cast by Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Hurt, Roger Llloyd-Pack, Colin Firth and Ciarán Hinds.

Two weeks after Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy's release on the 16th of Septemeber, Ciarán Hinds carries on spying with the release of The Debt. Directed by Shakespeare in Love's John Madden, this espionage thriller is set at the same time as TTSS and tells the story three Mossad agents played by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington who undertake an incredibly dangerous yet ultimately successful mission to track down a Nazi war criminal in East Berlin. Thirty years later, the venerated trio, now played by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds, must deal with shocking revelations about what really happened all those years ago......... The ubiquitous Hinds will also be seen in February in the ghostly The Woman in Black with Daniel Radcliffe, as mentioned recently on this blog. The intensely creepy trailer for the film was released yesterday and features a young girl with a disconcertingly American accent speaking the following tantalising lines -

During afternoon tea there's a shift in the air,
A bone-trembling chill that tells you she's there.
There are those that believe that the whole town is cursed
But the house in the marsh is by far the worst
What she wants is unknown but she always comes back,
The spectre of darkness, the woman in black.

A Farewell to Wands

A few weeks ago on this blog, I pondered the future careers of the juvenile leads of the Harry Potter franchise. Now that the summer which has been rather dominated by the much-anticipated release and colossal success of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 draws to a close, let's turn our attention to the many distinguished members of the acting profession and period drama stalwarts who have supported and thwarted Harry and company in their many endeavours over the past ten years on screen. The Half-Blood Prince himself, Alan Rickman, suggests that acting in a Harry Potter film is a very particular phenomenon: "Jo Rowling lays out a very sure road map. There's what's right and what's wrong. They are rules to playing it and once you live inside those rules, in many ways it plays itself because the situations are so strong and her grasp of her narrative is so iron-clad that it's not so much what you chose to do as not disobeying it."

Although certain cast members such as Rickman had rather meaty roles, you may have missed the brief appearances of many, many others if you're one to blink regularly. Never did so many leading lights have so little to do. Much of their screen time was spent standing in the background reacting to things. The above still from the last movie is a case in point. Miriam Margolyes, Gemma Jones, Jim Broadbent and David Bradley as Professor Sprout, Madam Pomfrey, Professor Slughorn and Mr. Filch react as it seems as though the boy wizard's luck has finally run out, putting a dampener on the end-of-term Hogwarts staff do due to be held the following night! In all seriousness, this series of films has done wonders for the British film industry and is fondly referred to amongst thespians as the Harry Potter Pension Scheme, allowing them not only to inhabit a richly-realised fantasy world complete with wands and outlandish outfits but to spend their time away from said world at other more creatively challenging albeit less financially lucrative pursuits.

Also, all these actors should be forever grateful to the Harry Potter films for providing a wealth of material for the all-important chat-show anecdote. How about Helena Bonham Carter inadvertently rupturing accident-prone Neville Longbottom's eardrum with her wand, Julie Walters being terrified of the pigeons at King's Cross Station whilst wearing Mrs Weasley's birdseed-padded dress and cardigan combo or Michael Gambon having to avail of a beard protector as he chowed down on bangers and mash in the canteen at lunchtime? Surely the like of those stories would liven up any interview about the latest Rattigan revival or Austen adaptation or at least provide some levity and whimsy. So long Harry old chum! The new series of The One Show will be better for you having been with us.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

PERIOD DRAMA TOP FIVE - It'll-Never-Work Romances

Have you ever found yourself screaming at the screen as two people decide to embark on life's journey together when they should really not be doing anything of the kind? We know that it's doomed before they even take the vow but they don't - that's the trouble! Here are (in my opinion and in no particular order) the five most mermorable such occasions. SPOILER ALERT:

1. Mr. Edward Ferrars and Miss Lucy Steele

Obligation is not a solid foundation for a long and happy marriage yet the ever-honourable Mr. Ferrars feels it his duty to make good on his misguided promise to marry Miss Steele after a youthful dalliance many years before he meets one Eleanor Dashwood in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Fortunately, circumstances conspire against this particular Ferrars/Steele union without Edward having to kick her unceremoniously to the kerb in favour of Eleanor. He remains a nice guy, downtrodden Eleanor gets a break and Lucy bags herself the wealthy younger brother. Cha ching!

2. Mr David Copperfield and Miss Dora Spenlow

First love can be wonderfully exhilirating but, as Charles Dickens' David Copperfield chronicled, youthful infatuation and being in love with being in love are not solid foundations for a long and successful partnership. David Copperfield is not a liar, cheat or cad but he is naive and does not appreciate that spoilt little rich girl Dora cannot cope very well with the rigours of being the wife of a young man of much more slender means than those to which she is accustomed. Her health declines, their relationship sours and they both realise that life is not always a turn around the park!

3. Heathcliff and Isabella Linton

Revenge is a dish best served as far away from a marriage licence as possible as Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights testifies. Marrying the sister of the man who has married the only woman that you have ever or will ever love does keep it all in the family but rather strains family ties. Brother and sister become estranged, the love of your life comes to resent you even more and all the hurt and misery you cause is ultimately of small consolation to you. In conclusion, it's a thoroughly bad idea with the potential of ruining many lives and disturbing the housekeeper's routine.

4. Simon Doyle and Linnet Ridgeway

In Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile, ridiculously wealthy American heiress Linnet takes a fancy to the handsome, down-on-his-luck fiance of her old school friend. He is seduced by her beauty and her extravagant lifestyle and before long they've married and booked a cruise on the Nile for the honeymoon. Money, glamour and a pretty face are all well and good but they cannot hope to compete with a deep and meaningful connection between two people and, when Simon's former fiancee and soul mate refuses to accept her reversal of fortunate in the love stakes, it can only mean one thing - murder on the starboard side...........

5. Titania and Bottom

People who find themselves romantically entangled can learn a lot from the previous four scenarios, I feel. As pictured above, however, our fifth couple come together in particularly unusual circumstances. Bottom and Titania enjoy a night together in A Midsummer Night's Dream but once his head is transformed back into that of a human and not an ass and once her love potion has worn off, I really can't see a sustainable future for the queen of the fairies and the amateur dramatist. Maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm a cynic!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Fellowes of Fortune

It has been a very good year for Julian Fellowes. Since creating Downton Abbey, which has become a massive hit around the world and was last week nominated for ten Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, he has seen several of his long-in-gestation projects greenlighted. Among them are his screenplay for a new cinema adaptation of Romeo and Juliet starring Hailee Steinfeld (Oscar nominee this year for the Coen Brothers' True Grit) and Douglas Booth (currently filming his role as Pip in the BBC's Great Expectations) as the tragic teens and Holly Hunter as Juliet chatterbox of a nurse. Also, his adaptation of Crooked House, one of Agatha Christie's most-celebrated novels not to feature the knit-happy spinster or the Belgian dandy and her personal favourite from her extensive oevure, will be filmed for the silver screen later this year.

Currently filming in Hungary is his epic mini-series for ITV set aboard the ill-fated Titanic which will air in April 2012 to coincide with the centenary of the great tragedy. Anyone familiar with Downton Abbey will be well aware that the Titanic and its sinking played a significant role in the very first episode. Fellowes has admitted a particular fascination with the doomed luxury liner and said that, apart from a large country house in the early part of the 20th century, it is one of the few environments where one could reasonably encounter people of every class and creed co-existing together. The production will feature an extensive cast of familiar faces playing a mixture of fictional passengers and real-life personalities who took the maiden voyage, among them the millionaire tycoon JJ Astor, silent movie star Dorothy Gibson and the unsinkable Molly Bloom. Getting wet are Linus Roache, Celia Imrie, Lee Ross, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Peter McDonald, Sylvestra le Touzel, Sophie Winkleman, Geraldine Sommerville, James Wilby and Toby Jones.

And, all the while, production is well underway on a second eight-episode series of Downton Abbey plus a Christmas special with guest stars Nigel Havers and Sharon Small. Many cannot wait until September rolls around and, yet, the Abbey did suffer somewhat of a backlash last year for what was perceived to be a rose-tinted re-imaginging of the golden days of the British aristocracy. I do love the show and yet I don't think that the backlash was entirely without justification. Fellowes is known as a member of the Establishment who moves among the upper eschelons of society and is indeed pictured above attending Royal Ascot. He himself is a Conservative peer, his wife is a lady-in-waiting to Princess Michael of Kent and his son is called Peregrine! Fellowes has claimed that all of the above facts have fuelled the liberal factions of the media in their distrust of Downton and their denouncement of the series as right-wing propaganda.

Fellowes responds to these accusations by saying that the upper classes have for too long been portrayed in film and television as merely snobs and idiots who treated their servants with, at best, disdain and, at worst, unbridled cruelty. It is Fellowes' belief that this is a dangerous falsehood as many lords and ladies of the manor felt a duty of care towards those in their employment and respected their contribution as being vital to the efficient functioning of their priveleged lifestyle. And yet, some scenes in the first series of Downton Abbey did stretch credulity somewhat in their depiction of the warmth, kindness and compassion shown by the Crawleys to their staff. Perhaps this aspect would have been perfectly acceptable if it had felt more balanced but nobody above stairs came close to matching the wretchedness and repulsiveness of lady's maid O Brien and first footman Thomas. They were unapologetically portrayed as villians with little attention paid to how this dasdardly duo had become so hateful, spiteful and bitter.

This was my only major reservation and one that I hope is addressed sooner rather than later. If Fellowes can manage to curb his unbridled enthusiasm for the British aristcracy somewhat, then I don't see why Downton Abbey won't run and run..........

The Haunting of Rebecca Hall

The rarest of rare things is to come our way in the coming months with the release of BBC Films' highly-anticipated feature The Awakening. It is a period film that has been written directly for the screen. Not only that but it is also a supernatural tale of things that tend to go bump in the night. This debut feature film from writer/director Nick Murphy is set in England in 1921 where the widespread devastation of World War 1 has led many bereaved souls to seek solace in spiritualism.

Rising star Rebecca Hall (pictured above in a scene from the film) takes centre stage as Florence Cathcart, a young woman who, herself haunted by the untimely death of her fiance, has dedicated her life to debunking supernatural claims and exposing the truth behind so-called ghostly sightings. She is steadfast in her conviction that the dead are incapable of contacting the living until she is called to investigate mysterious happenings at an elite boys' school. Her methodical and rational approach crumbles in the face of a chilling specteral encounter.

Extra layers of creepiness can always be relied upon when children are added into the mix. This sounds like much more than a cynical rehash of The Turn of the Screw, however. The post-war setting should add emotional depth and poignancy and the sister-doing-it-for-herself protagonist sounds much more promising than the screaming, hysterical women seen all too often in this sort of fare. Joining Hall for a healthy dose of the heebie jeebies are Dominic West, Imelda Staunton, Lucy Cohu, John Shrapnel and Shaun Dooley.

Dooley, seen earlier this year as Mr Holly in the BBC's South Riding, will soon be seen in another period ghost tale, The Woman in Black. Adapted from Susan Hill's novel by Jane Goldman, the film will star Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps, a young, widowed solicitor who travels to a remote village to settle a deceased client's affairs only to be greeted by the ghost of a scorned young woman bent on revenge. That's all you need when away from home! Directed by James Watkins and featuring Janet McTeer, Ciaran Hinds and Liz White in the title role, The Woman in Black will hopefully curdle the blood and not prove a damp squib.