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!