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.

The Seven Day Itch

With the recent release of the final Harry Potter film, a brace of young actors suddenly find themselves unemployed for the first time in ten years. It remains to be seen whether the majority of them will pursue acting, pursue an entirely different career or merely stay at home hugging their cash. I reckon that Rupert Grint, Tom Felton, Matthew Lewis, Evanna Lynch and Jessie Cave, better known to millions the world over as Ron Weasley, Draco Malfoy, Neville Longbottom, Luna Lovegood and Lavender Brown, have huge potential to do well not just on screen but also treading the boards. That leaves Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson, the two most consistently criticised performers in the Harry Potter series, although I thought that they both coped exceptionally well as Harry and Hermione in the dramatically challenging two-part finale. Whilst Daniel currently re-invents himself on Broadway to much critical acclaim as a song-and-dance merchant in How To Succeed in Business without Really Trying, our first opportunity to judge whether or not Emma can muster enough charisma to carve out a post-Potter career for herself comes this autumn in My Week with Marilyn.

The film is based on the memoir of the same name by Colin Clark, a recent Oxford graduate who in 1956 managed to secure himself a job as an on-set assistant on the troubled production of The Prince and the Showgirl. His parents had called in a favour from their friend and the film's director and leading man, one Laurence Olivier, and Clark found himself befriending the movie's vulnerable and isolated star attraction, Miss Marilyn Monroe and he ended up escorting the American abroad around England for the eponymous week. Tony Award winner and Angel Clare to Gemma Arterton's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Eddie Redmayne plays Clark with Michelle Williams (pictured above in a still from the movie) as his travelling companion. Williams has spoken candidly of her initial reticence at portraying such an iconic screen star on screen but was ultimately persuaded to do so by screenwriter Adrian Hodges and director Simon Curtis, both of whom are best known for their television work on projects such as Charles II: The Power and the Passion and The Sally Lockhart Mysteries and Cranford and 1999's David Copperfield respectively.

Redmayne and Williams are joined in the cast by a host of famous faces playing a host of famous faces. They include Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier, Julia Ormond as Vivien Leigh, Dougray Scott as Arthur Miller, Dominic Cooper as Monroe photographer Milton Greene and Dame Judi Dench as The Prince and the Showgirl co-star Dame Sybil Thorndike. Emma Watson will feature in a supporting role as a costume assistant called Lucy who catches the eye of the young Clark. Also to be seen in the film is Watson's Harry Potter co-star and one-time Madam Hooch, Zoe Wanamaker as Marilyn Monroe's acting coach Paula Strasberg, whose strong association with the Method style of acting greatly irked the traditional Olivier and added to the animosity between himself and his on-screen showgirl. My Week with Marilyn promises to be an endlessly fascinating account of time spent with a group of enduringly popular personalities.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Expecting the Expected

Helena Bonham Carter, pictured above at the London premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 last week, is no doubt beside herself with joy having signed up to spend an entire movie wearing a decaying wedding dress. She will play Miss Havisham in director Mike Newell's big-screen adaptation of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, to be released in 2012 to coincide with the bi-centenary of the great man's birth. The screenplay for the movie, which will begin filming in the autumn, has been written by a great admirer of the literary classic, David Nicholls. Nicholls, whose much-loved novel One Day features a quote from Great Expectations as its preface, impressively adapted Tess of the D'Urbervilles for the BBC in 2008.

Coincidentally, that indefatigable champion of the period drama also has an adaptation of the rags-to-riches adventures of one Philip Pirrip currently in the works. It will air on BBC 1 at Christmas in order to kick off their own year of riotous celebrations. Both versions seem to be keen to breath new life into the much-adapted tale by casting actresses significantly younger than is traditional as the manipulative Miss Havisham. Gillian Anderson will stalk the hallways of Satis House for writer Sarah Phelps's Great Expectations for the BBC. She will be joined in the production, currently filming under the direction of Brian Kirk, by Douglas Booth as Pip, David Suchet as Jaggers, Mark Addy as Uncle Pumblechook, Paul Ritter as Wemmick, Harry Lloyd as Herbert Pocket, Vanessa Kirby as Estella, Claire Rushbrook as Mrs Joe and Ray Winstone as Abel Magwitch.

I am a big fan of Great Expectations but it seems to me that a better way to mark the bi-centenary year would be to shed light on some of the more obscure novels in the Dickens canon. It is, after all, only twelve years since Pip and company last delighted audiences on Britain's national broadcaster. I would be appalled if the familiarity of this wonderful story, however inventive the adaptation, began breeding contempt or indifference amongst telly viewers. Writer and period drama royalty Andrew Davies recently criticised the BBC for not assisting him in the continuation of his quest to bring some of Dickens's lesser-known works to greater recognition. He had hoped to follow 2005's Bleak House and 2008's Little Dorrit with a similarly lengthy exploration of Dombey and Son. The BBC instead asked him for yet another version of David Copperfield, which was also last adapted twelve years ago. I'm baffled by this lack of faith in Davies because Bleak House and Little Dorrit were huges hits on both sides of the Atlantic and proved that, even in the seemingly cosy world of television period drama, risks can pay huge dividends!

A Room Without A View

Here's a curious one. In April, a new BBC4 adaptation of John Braine's ground-breaking 1957 novel Room at the Top was pulled from the schedules due to "a potential contractual issue" just a couple of days before its advertised broadcast. It was to be one the main attractions of the channel's much-heralded Modern Love season, which examined changing British attitudes towards love and sex throughout the 20th century and also included a new version of D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love. The novel, which was at the time of its release a significant addition to the newly-emerging trend in "angry young men" social realism, was originally adapted into a successful Oscar-winning film in 1959 directed by Jack Clayton.

It follows the fortunes of a recently demobbed young social climber named Joe Lampton who leaves his impoverished background in a Yorkshire factory town in the late 1940s for an office job in more illustrious surroundings. There, he falls in with the local amateur dramatic society and falls for its leading light, the much-older desperate housewife Alice Aisgill. The two-part 2011 adaptation stars Maxine Peake and Matthew McNulty, pictured above, as Alice and Joe. Mr McNulty, interviewed as recently as last week, said that he is hopeful that the drama will air at some stage but that negoitiations are still taking place.

The question remains how an institution, which is no stranger to the odd literary adaptation, was caught out by a third party contacting it with a copyright claim when he/she heard of this new Room at the Top. The BBC, it seems, bought the rights to the novel from Braine's widow in good faith. According to culture vulture Mark Lawson, writing in The Guardian when the kerfuffle first began, securing rights is a trickier business than it might appear to be. "In the case of novels and stage plays being adapted for TV" he says "numerous options may be sold on a particular property over time, relating to different time periods and media, with the additional complication that rights holders may die, fold or be taken over. So the chain of control can become very complex. Such confusion is particularly common in the case of creative people who led messy lives and allowed their affairs to fall into a chaotic state." When put in those terms, it seems surprising that these issues do not arise more often!

I do hope that a deal can be reached as advanced word on Room at the Top was very good indeed. This unusual case, initially embarrassing for the BBC, may ultimately prove to be a blessing in disguise. It has attracted considerable attention from sources as diverse as established newspapers and fledgling blogs and I would be surprised if this is not reflected in the ratings!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Here Comes the Midwife

Funny lady de jour Miranda Hart, pictured above, is currently filming her first period role in the BBC adapatation of Jennifer Worth's popular Call the Midwife trilogy of memoirs, which detailed her life as a young midwife in the East End of London in the 1950s. "A moving, intimate, funny and, above all, true-to-life account" of the midwife's lot has been promised. The writer Heidi Thomas worked closely with Ms. Worth on the scripts for the six-part series before her death earlier this year. Hart will be joined in the cast by bonnet enthusiasts Pam Ferris, Judy Parfitt and Jenny Agutter. Newcomer Jessica Raine will play the lead role of the young Jenny who leaves home and goes to live with a community of nuns and fellow trainee midwives.

Also taking her first television role is Bryony Hannah, who was stunning as the manipulative schoolgirl spelling trouble for schoolmistresses Elizabeth Moss and Keira Knightley in the London revival of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour earlier this year. I think that this casting is very good news as is the commissioning of the series itself. It is very difficut to break new ground period drama-wise and the midwife has never taken centre-stage before to my recollection. The most substantial role for a midwife that I can recall is Old Sally in Oliver Twist who delivers young Mr Twist and then promptly steals the locket from around his recently-deceased mother's neck. Sally's death-bed confession does ultimately lead to unlocking the truth of the title character's mysterious beginnings yet this seems a poor showing for a profession that is, after all, necessary for our very existence.........well, our safe arrival anyhow!

Ms. Thomas, no slouch when it comes to adaptations, is also currently working on the second series of the revived Upstairs, Downstairs. Somewhat overshadowed by the runaway success of Downton Abbey, Upstairs, Downstairs was nevertheless well worth a look last Christmas. As a writer, she is very good at period detail and social commentary but she does have an unfortunate tendency to pepper her writings with levels of sentimentality that would make the residents of both Lark Rise and Candleford blush! And with babies added to the mix, this new series could potentially be capable of inducing type 2 diabetes. On the other hand, it may be as excellent as Thomas's crowning glory thus far, her 2007 adapatation of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford. All will be revealed on BBC One in early 2012 when Call the Midwife will make its debut. So, does the idea of a period series about midwifery tickle your fancy?

Causing a Stir with Nobbs On!

Glenn Close will soon be seen on the big screen as she has never been seen before in an adaptation of the short story The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs by celebrated Irish writer George Moore. The curious tale of an Englishwoman who has to disguise herself as a man in order to make an independent life for herself in nighteenth-century Ireland is very close to Ms. Close's heart. She originally starred as the eponymous hero/heroine in a stage version of the story in the 1980s. She has adapted it for the screen with Booker Prize winner John Banville and is also a producer on the film simply titled Albert Nobbs.

Filming began in and around Dublin in December 2010 after financial concerns caused the production to be postponed from the early summer. This move meant that original stars Orlando Bloom and Amanda Seyfried were forced to withdraw due to scheduling conflicts. The postponement may ultimately prove a blessing in disguise as the underwhelming Bloom and Seyfried were replaced by bright young things Aaron Johnson and Mia Wasikowska, who is pictured above with Close in a scene from Albert Nobbs. Wasikowska will also be seen later this year in the title role of the latest screen adaptation of Jane Eyre alongside Michael Fassbender as Mr Rochester and Judi Dench as Mrs Fairfax. American director Cary Fukunaga's take on Charlotte Bronte's timeless classic was enthusiastically received by critics when given a limited release across the pond in March.

Albert Nobbs itself has been the cause of much excitement and it was announced this week that the movie, directed by Rodrigo Garcia, has secured a distributor in the United States, no mean feat even with it being a Glenn Close vehicle. Indeed, Ms. Close, currently appearing in her Emmy Award-winning role in American cable drama Damages, has only featured sporadically on the big screen in the past ten years. The supporting cast is an impressive mixture of homegrown and British talent including Brenda Fricker, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Janet McTeer, Brendan Gleeson, Mark Williams and Pauline Collins. I for one am really looking forward to this singular period film. How about you?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Bringing Home the Bacon

What reasons are there to rejoice at the presence in the West End of a musical about a pig? Well, the occasion does give lazy writers the opportunity to indulge in a barrage of porcine puns such as bringing home the bacon, (I regret nothing!) the like of which have not been known since the release some thirteen years ago of Babe: Pig in the City. Aside from that, it ably demonstrates that stage adaptations of well-known movies are not always a cynical and creaking dirth of creativity. Indeed, the 1984 British dark comedy A Private Function has been radically reworked as Betty Blue Eyes. A Private Function, a bleak and biting satire of late 1940s rural England, is not an altogether obvious choice to be adapted into a musical comedy. As written by Alan Bennett, the film is an examination of post-war discontent in small-town Yorkshire as austerity Britain and food rationing are attempting to thwart the titular celebration for the marriage of Princess Elizabeth to Philip Mountbatten. The team behind Betty Blue Eyes, including renowned impresario Cameron Mackintosh have done stunningly well in staying satirical and faithful to Bennett's hilarious scenario whilst adding some hijinks, hysterics and heart along the way.

Gilbert and Joyce Chilvers, a mild-mannered chiropodist and his socially ambitious wife, are constantly thwarted in their attempts to rise the ranks and gain for themselves some much-deserved standing in the local community by the disdainful Dr. Swaby and his town council cronies. Stumbling upon their scheme of breeding an illegal pig to be killed and eaten at the private function, Gilbert, goaded by his ruthless wife, steals the pig, affectionately known as Betty. Much mayhem ensues as the Chilvers family try and cope with their unorthodox house-guest and her unruly bowels. Throw into the mix a psychotically dedicated meat inspector on the hunt for Betty and Joyce's bewildered mother who reckons that the house's newly-acquired stench may be emanating from her!

This is a truly original tale and its re-invention as a stage musical allows the creative team to well and truly let loose and explore the more wildly eccentric and cartooinsh elements of the story as well examining the Chilvers' relationship and back story and developing them into much more sympathetic protagonists. For fans of the film, there are plenty of unexpected twists and turns but be assured that the inventiveness on display here, while contributing to an altogether more upbeat experience, does not undermine the central narrative which is essentially Macbeth with a pig! The memorably witty songs, by lyricist Anthony Drewe and composer George Stiles, are an unadulterated treat and I cannot praise the production itself highly enough. Director Richard Eyre effortlessly balances the epic with the intimate. Tender moments between husband and wife, played masterfully by T.V. favourites Reece Shearsmith and Sarah Lancashire, are not dwarfed by the wartime bombing of a ball-room or some elaborate fantasy sequences. An honourable mention also for the colourful supporting turns of Jack Edwards as Betty's best friend, Adrian Scarborough as the deranged inspector and Ann Emery as the irascible Mother Dear.

I reckon that Betty Blue Eyes is as entertaining a night in the theatre as one could wish for but it seems to me that chief among its achievements is that it serves as a towering defence of the controversial art of stage adaptation. This charming musical effortlessly demonstrates that stage adaptation can be a thoroughly worthwhile enterprise and is capable of reaping many riches. I, for one, will never have eyes for any other pig! It's safe to safe that I heartily reccommend going to see Betty Blue Eyes, which is playing at the Novello Theatre in the heart of London's West End until January. Have you recently taken a trip to London's theatre district? What did you see and what did you reckon to it? Do let me know. If it's not set in the past, I won't grumble. I'll just keep calm and carry on!

Death of a Stalwart

Anna Massey, whose death at the age of 73 was announced yesterday, has been one of the most prolific performers in British period dramas for more than thirty years. A reliably charismatic on-screen presence, Ms. Massey was often cast in the role of the aunt or the housekeeper. Most recently she was seen as Mrs Bedwin in Oliver Twist, Mrs D'Urberville in Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Miss Stanbury in He Knew He Was Right, all for the BBC. She also starred as Aunt Norris in Mansfield Park in 1982 and as Mrs Danvers in Rebecca in 1979. She re-created her Olivier Award-winning role as the frustrated Miss Prism for the National Theatre in London in Oliver Parker's 2002 film adaptation The Importance of Being Earnest.

Ms. Massey won a BAFTA for her portrayl of the lonely spinster Edith Hope in the 1986 television adaptation of Anita Brookner's Booker Prize-winning novel Hotel du Lac. So passionate was she about the project and playing the role that she helped finance the production with her own money. Aside from her many television roles, she regularly appeared on stage. Her stage debut was in 1955 when she played the title role in William Douglas-Home's The Reluctant Debutante in the West End and later on Broadway. Her most recent stage role was as Elizabeth 1 opposite Isabelle Huppert in Schiller's Mary Stuart in 1996, also for the National Theatre.

An intriguing facet to Ms. Massey's career was her involvement between 1960 and 1972 in three films which were not initially successful but which gained considerably in reputation in subsequent years. In 1960, she played Helen in Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, pictured above, a film which was so reviled on its initial release that it effectively brought Powell's illustrious career to a screeching halt. The tale of a serial killer who films his victims' deaths was seen as perverse but has since been hailed as a masterpiece by, amongst others, Martin Scorcese. She also played the teacher Miss Elvira in Otto Preminger's intensely odd Bunny Lake is Missing in 1965 and the barmaid Babs in Alfred Hitchcock's 1972 shocker Frenzy. The scene in which she is being unwittingly led through the bustling London streets to her death is revered as a classic Hitchcockian moment of suspense.

I was always delighted to see Anna Massey's name in the credits. For an actress who was often called upon to play a similar type of role, she never phoned it in. She utterly convinced in the moment whether being imperious and authorative or gentle and kind, whether wielding a knife or drying a tear. She carried quality in her pocket. Please drop me a line and let me know for what role you will best remember the late, great Anna Massey.

Welcome to my blog, ladies and gentlemen!

Hello everybody! As a welcoming present (thank you muchly for clicking my way) here is a preview shot from the second series of UTV's mega-hit Downton Abbey. I thought t'was appropriate to start with Downton as the period drama resurgence and period drama enthusiasts have much to thank it for, I reckon. Not since Colin Firth's wet britches in 1995 has a TV period drama had such a high profile. Will Downton's runaway success lead to many more similar commissionings? Here's hoping!There are a few bits and bobs on the way which I shall discuss here soon.

In the meantime, the above shot shows Emmerdale alumnus and West End regular Amy Nuttall as new housemaid Ethel. I take it that she's there to fill the gaping, ginger-maid hole left by Rose Leslie's Gwen who was due to leave at the end of the first series to begin life as a secretary, despite many being of the opinion that she was getting above herself. Another new character being introduced in series two is Bates's wayward, silver-stealing first wife Vera. No doubt that will put the cat among the pigeons between himself and Anna. Vera, described by Bates's mother as "a nasty piece of work" but then you know what mothers-in-law can be like, will be played by Ireland's own Maria Doyle Kennedy.

Further news is that the second series will begin two years after Hugh Bonneville's life-changing announcement at the end of series one. 1916 and Downton Abbey is being used as a convalescent home for wounded soldiers. No doubt that one of the Crawley sisters will catch the eye of the injured and lame. Let's hope it's poor old Edith! Mary has her on-off with her cousin Matthew and Sybil has her on-off with her chaffeur Branson. Edith, whose middle-child syndrome was getting rather chronic when last we saw her, deserves her time in the sun, I reckon. This year there will be eight episodes and a Christmas special. Are people excited for its return? Can September not come soon enough? Please leave a comment and let me know..............