Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Lady Sybil Branson Period Drama Quiz 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Julia McKenzie

7. Groby.

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

9. Richard the Second played by Ben Whishaw.

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Le Morte d'Arthur and More

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

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

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

Monday, November 5, 2012

Running the Estate on Empty

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

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

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

Saturday, September 22, 2012


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

1. Laurence Olivier, Timothy Dalton and Ralph Fiennes.

2. Margaret Rutherford, Gemma Jones and Anna Massey.

3. Steven Mackintosh, Dominic West and Colin Firth.

4. Freda Jackson, Judi Dench and Julie Walters.

5. Oliver Reed, Andy Serkis and Tom Hardy.

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

7. Bosco Hogan, Hugh Grant and Dan Stevens.

8. Wendy Hiller, Audrey Hepburn and Twiggy.

9. Richard Harris, Clive Owen and Bradley James.

10. Edith Evans, Maggie Smith and Sally Field.

11. Booth Conway, Andrew Scott and Jared Harris.

12. Agnes Moorehead, Fiona Shaw and Sally Hawkins.

13. Robert Redford, Toby Stephens and Tobey Maguire.

14. Vivien Leigh, Sophie Marceau and Keira Knightley.

15. Sophie Thompson, Prunella Scales and Tamsin Greig.

16. Charles Gray, Simon Callow and Mark Williams.

17. Peter Firth, Oliver Milburn and Eddie Redmayne.

18. Anne Hathaway, Olivia Williams and Sharon Horgan.

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

20. Joely Richardson, Gillian Anderson and Andrea Riseborough.

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

22. Bette Davis, Miranda Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave.

23. Felix Aylmer, Whoopi Goldberg and Stephen Fry.

24. Gracie Fields, Angela Lansbury and Julia McKenzie.

1. Heathcliff

2. Miss Prism

3. Fred, Scrooge's Nephew

4. Mistress Quickly

5. Bill Skies

6. Maid Marian

7. Edward Ferrars

8. Eliza Doolittle

9. King Arthur

10. Aunt Betsey Trotwood

11. Moriarty

12. Mrs Reed

13. Nick Carraway

14. Anna Karenina

15. Miss Bates

16. The Rev Mr Beebe

17. Angel Clare

18. Jane Austen

19. William Shakespeare

20. Wallis Simpson

21. Leopold Bloom

22. Elizabeth the First

23. The Cheshire Cat

24. Miss Marple

Not Enough Parades

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

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

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

Monday, September 17, 2012

Good Vibrations

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

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

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

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Wolf Is At The Door

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Eye on the Comedy Prize

Although the initially promising action-adventure series Sinbad is rapidly running out of ideas and originality on Sky One, all is not lost in the period drama stakes over at Sky. Not only has the network commissioned a full series of the World War One sitcom Chickens, written by and starring Joe Thomas and Simon Bird of The Inbetweeners and originally piloted by Channel Four last autumn, but the queen of British black comedy Julia Davis is currently to be seen acting in a decidedly psychotic manner, sporting an unnecessary eye patch and generally being hilarious in her new creation Hunderby on Sky Atlantic of a Monday evening. It is set in the first years of the nineteenth century, features a shipwreck, country dancing, illicit love, revealing letters that go unread and things that go bump in the night and tells the story of a young woman whose life as the new bride of a middle-aged clergyman is blighted by the memory of his beloved first wife Arabelle and the unwillingness of the devoted housekeeper Dorothy - played by Davis (pictured above) - to accept her new mistress as Arabelle's replacement.

Period drama enthusiasts will notice allusions to, amongst other classic tales, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Jane Eyre and Rebecca although Hunderby is very much its own animal, blending all different kinds of humour and allowing the viewer to become as absorbed in the Gothic melodrama as tickled by the silliness and bawdiness and the many brilliant jokes derived from tinkering around with the language of the time and its impact on our modern ears. Dorothy's insidious determination to torment her pretty young mistress may become almost unbearable to watch as the series progresses but I trust that the scenario can remain daft and raucous enough to keep matters on the right side of edgy and keep the laughs coming thick and fast. Anything on TV that includes the line "Perfect souls cannot stay long upon this earth and, although my time with Arabelle was brief, I will always relish that precious snatch" is worth sticking with, I reckon. You won't get that in Anna Karenina!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Stormy Weather

Soon to be seen in cinemas is Cheerful Weather for the Wedding. Based on the long-neglected 1932 novella by Julia Strachey, a lesser-known member of the celebrated Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists, the film stars Felicity Jones as reluctant bride Dolly Thatcham who is forced to contend with many obstacles on the March morning of her marriage to the Honourable Owen Bingham. Waylaid by her sulking admirer Joseph Patten, who lost his chance with her the previous summer, her maddeningly oblivious mother and her own misgivings, the bride-to-be struggles to reach the altar but just about manages it with a little help from her trusty bottle of rum. A barbed critique of the English middle classes, Strachey's tale of quiet despair and repressed emotions was very much based on her own experiences on returning to England from India and being parcelled out among relations following her parents' divorce, including her uncle and fellow writer Lytton. Initially dismissed by the likes of Virginia Woolf for her limited talents, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding established her as a literary force to be reckoned with. Although she failed to follow it with any great success, this early effort is a testament to her considerable skills as a storyteller.

Having taken a look at the trailer for writer-director Donald Rice's forthcoming screen version, the approach seems to have been to downplay the melancholy and stark aspects of the source material and re-invent Cheerful Weather for the Wedding as a light-as-a-feather comedy of manners with lashings of romance. Trailers, however, can be misleading and the adaptation's merits remain to be seen. Completing the central love triangle are Harry Treadaway as Joseph and James Norton as Owen (pictured alongside Jones in the above still) and the promising supporting cast of respected British actors playing various servants, relations and wellwishers includes Barbara Flynn, Mackenzie Crook. Olly Alexander, Zoe Tapper, Julian Wadham, Kenneth Collard, Sophie Stanton, Ellie Kendrick, Fenella Woolgar and Paola Dionisotti. Also featuring is Elizabeth McGovern, adopting an English accent to play the infuriating Mrs Thatcham. Filmed way back in 2010, the promoters of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding were no doubt thrilled by the subsequent, global success of Downton Abbey, which has firmly re-established 1980s starlet McGovern in the public consciousness and, one presumes, made a small, independent British film in which she stars a much more palatable prospect for movie distributors the world over.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

New Kids on the Block

Many famous landmarks around the city of Dublin, including Trinity College, the Clancy Barracks and the Phoenix Park, have recently been transformed into dens of depravity steeped in paranoia and fear. Not the continued ill effects of the dreaded recession, dear reader, but the filming of the BBC's major new period drama series Ripper Street. The eight-parter will premiere in the autumn and, set in the East End of London in 1889 in the aftermath of the notorious Ripper murders, follows the indefatigable efforts of the unfortunate individuals charged with keeping order on the chaotic streets of Whitechapel. The cast is led by the trio pictured above, Jerome Flynn, Matthew MacFadyen and Adam Rothenberg as Detective Drake, Inspector Reid and Captain Jackson and features an array of distinguished young actors in supporting roles including Charlene McKenna, Joe Gilgun, David Dawson and MyAnna Buring as prostitutes and ne'er do-wells. The former two were recently seen in the cult hit Misfits whilst the latter two have been quite high on the period drama radar of late.

David Dawson first came to my attention in 2010 as the tenacious young Manchester writer who created Coronation Street, Tony Warren, in one of BBC Four's better based-on-true-events dramas, was very entertaining as Bazzard, the lowly clerk with theatrical aspirations, in February in the mixed bag that was Gwyneth Hughes's bicentenary stab at the unfinished Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and played Prince Hal's drinking buddy Poins for Richard Eyre in the Henry IV portion of the riveting Shakespeare season of consecutive history plays, The Hollow Crown. The highlight of my period drama year thus far, the series only became more engrossing, stirring and poignant as it went on and felt so contemporary without ever once feeling contrived that it served as a definite poke in the eye for those who believe that Shakespeare has little or no resonance for a twenty-first century audience. Although packed to the rafters with memorable performances from Ben Whishaw's pathetically deposed Richard II to Joe Armstrong rabble-rousing rebel from the North, Harry Hotspur, the standout for me was Tom Hiddleston's transformation from a feckless youth who lives for sport and pleasure in the Henry IV plays to the warrior king who bravely leads his men to victory against all the odds at Agincourt in Henry V. The Hollow Crown was unfortunately rather submerged in the schedules by a stellar summer for sport but "we few, we happy few, we band of brothers" who saw all four adaptations are unlikely to forget them any time soon.

Meanwhile, whilst her Ripper Street co-star Mr Dawson was, amongst other things, hanging with Julie Walters (what a Mistress Quickly!), Maxine Peake (what a Doll Tearsheet!) and Simon Russell Beale (and what a Falstaff!) in an Eastcheap tavern, MyAnna Buring, no slouch either, has been making a name for herself. The Swedish beauty starred as Lily in the spring in BBC Two's White Heat which detailed the highs and lows of a group of friends in London over twenty-five years from 1965 onwards and was well worth the investment of time over six episodes. Ms Buring's portrait of a tough cookie with artistic tendencies whose early ambitions are marred by personal tragedy and the harsh realities of life was particularly affecting although she is perhaps better known as a lady vampire by the name of Tanya Denari from the last two Twilight films. Not being a Twi-hard myself, I cannot personally vouch for her performances in the aforementioned franchise but I'm sure she does the best with what she's given. And in conjuction with this blog's policy of revealing ever single piece of information regarding Downton Abbey that crosses its path (based on the principle of giving the public what it wants), I should mention that she will also feature as a feisty and forward-thinking servant called Edna in the 2012 Christmas special alongside Simone Lahbib as lady's maid Wilkins. The girl's going places for sure.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Shirley Comes to Downton

Despite many an eyebrow being raised - both my own included - at the disappointing quality of the often-shambolic, war torn second series of Downton Abbey last autumn, our friends across the pond cannot seem to be able to get enough of the Abbey. Last week, it was announced that the period drama de jour has been nominated for sixteen Emmy Awards - unprecedented for a British import. This is no mean feat given the extremely stiff competition to be encountered from the likes of Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Homeland, Game of Thrones and the darling of the Emmys, Mad Men.

The third series has been confirmed for September and I feel it my duty to mention that details have emerged about what us millions of devotees can expect - better pacing and characterisation, here's hoping! Beginning in the spring of 1920 and ending at Christmas in 1921, the latest run of eight episodes will feature a marriage, a birth and a death, plots involving the fight for Irish independence, Catholicism and potential financial ruin for the beleaguered Crawleys and the much-anticipated guest appearance of Shirley Mac Laine as Lord Grantham's mother-in-law Martha (pictured above).

The always-entertaining MacLaine recently attended a press conference in Los Angeles with some of her fellow cast members during which Hugh Bonneville revealed a T-shirt bearing the slogan FREE THE DOWNTON ONE much to the delight of his co-star and sometime Mr Bates, Brendan Coyle. Meanwhile, when asked if she had ever met Dame Maggie Smith before filming sparring scenes with her at the start of 2012 for Downton, reincarnation enthusiast MacLaine merely said "We were lovers in a previous life!" Maggie was not available for comment.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Legend of the Seas on Sky

There is, as I have reported on this very blog over the last few months, a festival of delights to look forward to on both the big and small screens in the autumn, period drama-wise. September will herald the return - and hopefully the return to form - of Downton Abbey. Martha Levinson will arrive in the first episode of the third series for her granddaughter Mary's wedding to Matthew, now that his spine has re-aligned, and is set to put the cat among the pigeons as only a brash and blunt American can in a drama by Julian Fellowes. Alongside Shirley MacLaine as Martha, new cast members will include Ed Speelers and Matt Milne as newbie footmen Jimmy and Alfred and Charles Edwards as a suitor to the unlucky-in-love Lady Edith. I predict good things for season three but, just in case Downton continues on its slippery slope, hopes must surely be high over on BBC2 for Tom Stoppard's take on women's suffrage, life in the trenches and the Roaring Twenties with his adaptation of Ford Maddox Ford's Parade's End tetralogy of novels starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall. Meanwhile, at a cinema near you this fall will be many promising literary adaptations including Anna Karenina, Great Expectations, Romeo and Juliet, Les Miserables and Cheerful Weather for the Wedding (more of that anon).

Summer is, alas, never a great time for period drama enthusiasts although a new programme on Sky  pricked my interest last weekend. Their lavish new fantasy adventure Sinbad began last Sunday with a thoroughly entertaining season opener and is set to fit the bill as fun and undemanding escapism for the next twelve weeks. Very much influenced by the BBC's global success story Merlin, it goes back to the beginning with a famous mythological hero, is set in The Past and features veiled figures muttering in alleys about a return to the old ways. We first meet Sinbad the Sailor of Arabian Nights renown as a cheeky chap knocking around Basra sometime in The Past, making mischief and harbouring not a jot of desire to set sail when he unwittingly brings about the death of his sensible older brother, changing the course of his life forever. A gypsy curse is placed on him by his exasperated grandmother that sees him cast out from his carefree existence to drift the seven seas and atone for his misdeeds so he stows away on a ship manned by a motley crew of mysterious and madcap seafarers and his adventures begin.

Featuring more CGI sea monsters and cliches about the Middle East than you can shake a stick at, Sinbad is boosted by an abundance of energy, quirky characters and a charismatic central performance from newcomer Elliot Knight (pictured above) alongside an acclaimed supporting cast that includes Elliot Cowan, Dimitri Leonidas, Naveen Andrews, Orla Brady, Evanna Lynch, Sophie Okonedo and a rare screen performance from Dame Janet Suzman, having a good time as the curse-happy Granny and no doubt supplementing her income from her latest book of theatre criticism, Not Hamlet - Meditations on the Frail Position of Women in Drama, which, although undoubtedly an absorbing read, is hardly, one suspects, troubling Fifty Shades of Grey on the bestseller lists.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

In A World of Fantasy

Romances, espionage thrillers, war epics and, increasingly, sitcoms are all genres that often find themselves intertwined with the business of this blog but perhaps the genre most closely related to the period drama is fantasy. Following swiftly on the designer heels of Charlize Theron playing Snow White's evil stepmother as a sort of demented trophy wife refusing to yield to the passage of time in Rupert Sanders's disappointingly haphazard yet moderately inventive version of the classic fairytale, a villainous Angelina Jolie will star in Maleficient. Telling the legend of Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of the sorceress who curses the young princess with a debilitating dose of narcolepsy, the live-action movie from Oscar-winning production designer Richard Stromberg and Walt Disney Pictures will feature Elle Fanning as Aurora alongside Miranda Richardson as Queen Ulla, Maleficient's aunt with a strong dislike for her niece. Will this version suggest that her hostile relations are the reason for Maleficient's fondness for malice? What about personal responsibility, Disney? Harry Potter's hateful aunt kept him in a cupboard for ten years and he didn't go to the bad!! Anywho, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton and Juno Temple will play Sleeping Beauty's fairy guardians Flittle, Knotgrass and Thistletwit in the film which is due for release in spring 2014.

Miss Temple is a young lady from London whose name you may not recognise but who has starred in many movies since her debut as Cate Blanchett's daughter in 2006's Notes on a Scandal. Since then, she has been seen in an eclectic mix of British period dramas like Atonement and Glorious 39, small-scale American indie films Greenberg and Kaboom and major blockbusters The Three Musketeers and, this summer, The Dark Knight Rises. Her performance in the forthcoming Batman movie coupled with her much-publicised role as trailer-trash innocent Dottie in the controversy magnet Killer Joe will do wonders for her profile and be music to the ears of the producers of Girls' Night Out, in which Temple will appear as Princess Margaret. From a screenplay by Trevor de Silva, the period drama is set on VE Day in 1945 and will imagine that Margaret and her big sister left the palace to celebrate their country's victory with ordinary Londoners on that historic night and encountered danger and romance along the way. When one considers that that particular family's lives have decidedly not been short on exciting incident as they stand, it does seem somewhat pointless to present this embroidered fantasy to cinemagoers although the Period Drama King blog will reserve judgement.

Coincidentally, although probably not that coincidentally considering the phenomenal success of The King's Speech eighteen months ago, the current British monarch's parents will feature prominently in another imminent period drama release. Hyde Park on Hudson tells of a weekend that Bertie and Elizabeth spent in 1939 with the American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor at the country retreat in upstage New York which gives the film its title. The historically and politically significant visit is hampered by clashes of culture but FDR, given the looming threat of war, is determined to form an alliance between the two nations. The comedy drama, directed by Roger Michell of 1995's Persuasion, is told from the perspective of the president's devoted cousin Margaret Stuckley and stars Laura Linney as Margaret, Bill Murray and Olivia Williams as the Roosevelts and Samuel West and Olivia Colman as the Windsors. Also in the film are Blake Ritson, who interestingly played Bertie's brother the Dule of Kent in the ill-fated Upstairs Downstairs revival, and the one-and-only Eleanor Bron. Another 1960s icon who is rarely seen on screen nowadays is Dame Diana Rigg, although pictures emerged this week (one of which is above) of the Dame on the set of Doctor Who with series regulars Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman. In another period drama-fantasy crossover. she is filming a guest role in an episode written by Mark Gatiss, set in Victorian times and also starring her daughter Rachael Stirling. BBC, how I love thee!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Death and the Madame

It seems that the entire creative team behind the forthcoming movie adaptation of the fantastically popular stage musical Les Miserables are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. No sooner had the teaser trailer for the December release, which is still being filmed at Pinewood Studios in London, been posted on this here interweb than the musical theatre blogs were alive with the sound of dissent, the central complaint from many of the bloggers being that the director Tom Hooper was daring to create a cinematic experience rather than imitate the stage show. If Les Miserables were to remain slavishly devoted to its theatrical origins it might pacify some but would almost surely alienate many, many more. Although the task of re-imagining The Glums for the big screen as a Christmas crowdpleaser for the masses has undoubtedly led to many a headache in the production office, the trailer suggests to me that our beloved Les Mis (I have been known to hear the people sing on many an occasion myself) is in safe hands and is certainly not being attempted on a shoestring budget. The rouge for the lovely ladies alone must have cost a pretty penny!

Emile Zola, fellow Frenchman and literary contemporary of Les Miserables's Victor Hugo, will also soon return to the big screen with a promising new adaptation of his 1873 psychological thriller Therese Raquin. Following the affairs of an unfortunate menage a trois, debut director Charlie Stratton's treatment of the classic tale features Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister to Mary-Kate and Ashley, as the eponymous heroine who, after being cajoled into marrying her sickly cousin Camille by her conniving aunt, finds herself falling desperately in love with Camille's charming best friend Laurent and escaping her unhappy life as Madame Raquin by murdering her other half. The tangled web of deceit and obsession will be woven by a stellar cast of Brits and Americans including Tom Felton as Camille, Oscar Isaac as Laurent, Jessica Lange (pictured above) as the aunt, Matt Lucas, Mackenzie Crook and Shirley Henderson. Before getting her tragic heroine groove on for Therese Raquin, Olsen filmed a role in Kill Your Darlings, the story of an early encounter in 1944 between the great poets of America's beat generation. Starring Felton's one-time Harry Potter nemesis Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Huston, the latest member of a slightly more salubrious acting dynasty than Miss Olsen, as Jack Kerouac, Kill Your Darlings should coincide nicely with the release of an adaptation of Kerouac's masterpiece On The Road.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Carry On Nurse

The impressively versatile Saoirse Ronan has played a vampire, an alien, a borrower, two assassins and a dead girl after garnering an Oscar nomination for her stunningly good breakthrough performance as the troubled and troublesome young Bryony in 2007's Atonement (pictured above alongside James McAvoy). Despite rumours of her starring in Ridley Scott's version of Robin Hood and the upcoming Effie and Anna Karenina, however, she has not opted to return to a period drama role since then. That's all set to change in the near future as amidst the glitz, glamour and controversies of the annual Cannes Film Festival this week, it was announced that she will lead the cast in a new big-screen adaptation of Vera Brittain's hugely influential memoir on life as a young British woman during the First World War entitled Testament of Youth. Brittain was left utterly disillusioned by her horrific experiences volunteering as a nurse in many war-torn areas of Europe and by the personal loss and devastation she suffered between 1914 and 1918. Hailed as a major text in the history of both the pacifist and feminist movements, the 1933 bestseller was previously adapted in 1979 as a BBC television miniseries starring Cheryl Campbell as Brittain.

Cheryl Campbell was recently seen as Lady Browne, objecting most strongly to her nursing daughter Chummy's decision to train as a midwife in London's grimy yet chirpy East End, as featured in the Beeb's Sunday evening mega-hit Call the Midwife. Luckily for the well-intentioned Chummy, who'd led a sheltered life of horse-riding and Princess Margaret, Call the Midwife's East End was populated by salt-of-the-earth types who were willing to give her a chance and, in the case of one besotted bobby, take her up the aisle. Although a tad too rose-tinted at times, the series is charming and Miranda Hart's fish-out-of-water Chummy struck such a chord with audiences and critics that she's been nominated for a Supporting Actress BAFTA at tomorrow night's television ceremony. Perhaps she'll emulate the success of her on-screen mother who won in the Best Actress category for Testament of Youth but given that she's up against such heavyweight talents as Anna Chancellor for The Hour and the Smithster for Downton Abbey, it could go any way!

Now that Upstairs Downstairs has faced the music and danced off our screens for good, Call the Midwife is the great mainstream period drama hope at the British Broadcasting Corporation, who have commissioned not just an extended second series which I previously mentioned on this very blog but also a feature-length Christmas special. Although babies and the festive season go together quite nicely, I doubt that Call the Midwife at Christmas would be put so front and centre in the schedules if not for Downton Abbey's huge success on Christmas Day last year. The Downton effect continues to be felt not just at the headquarters of rival broadcasters but at ITV itself where The Bletchley Circle has become the latest of many period projects to get the green light in recent months. Starring Anna Maxwell Martin, Julie Graham, Rachael Stirling and Sophie Rundle and written by Guy Burt, the murder mystery mini-series follows four women, whose brilliant work at top security HQ Bletchley Park during World War II helped break codes used by the German military, as they reunite in the 1950s to consider crucial evidence in the unsolved murders of two of their colleagues which has recently to light........... Sounds good. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

A Few Good Men

Glenn Close has garnered much publicity and an Oscar nomination for her starring role as an Englishwoman in late-nineteenth century Dublin who lives her life as a man waiting tables in an upmarket Dublin hotel and patiently storing her money underneath the floorboards of her attic bedroom until the day she can buy a tobacco shop and live independently. Life, as it invariably does, complicates matters somewhat when her secret is discovered by a man hired to paint the hotel's pantry called Hubert Page who is also, it transpires, a woman masquerading as a man. Meeting Hubert and discovering the happiness she has found for herself suggests to Albert that her singular existence does not necessarily condemn her to a life of loneliness and she finds herself drawn to vivacious young maid Helen Dawes, who is not unattached herself having fallen for the dashing yet feckless hotel handyman Joe. Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we decide to live our lives as a member of the opposite sex...........

Close, who has wanted to play this part on the big screen for thirty years, produced the movie, handpicked the talented director Rodrigo Garcia, co-wrote the screenplay with novelist John Banville, provided the lyrics for the beautiful theme song sung by Sinéad O Connor and presumably baked the biscuits for the tea break on set. Playing A. Nobbs is undoubtedly a challenge for an actress and although she conveys Albert's curious mixture of childlike innocence and steely determination brilliantly, the character's motivations remain troublingly obscure throughout the film and we never really get to know Nobbs all that well. Janet McTeer's Hubert is a very engaging creation, however, unpredictable and surly yet kind and loving and evidently a graduate from the school of hard knocks, as are many of the supporting characters in this admirably unsentimental film. As the various staff members and guests, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Brenda Fricker, Antonia Campbell Hughes, Brendan Gleeson, Serena Brabazon, Phyllida Law and Mark Williams are all excellent although it is Pauline Collins as vicious Mrs Baker, the proprietress of Morrison's Hotel, who makes a lasting impression. For their part, Mia Wasikowska and Aaron Johnson's touching performances as Helen and Joe are undermined by their hopelessly unconvincing Irish accents.

Albert Nobbs is tellingly reminiscent of John Huston''s 1987 treatment of James Joyce's iconic story The Dead with its melancholy tone and its scenes of lavish parties attended by people living disappointed and unfulfilled lives while the snow falls outside. The film is rich in social detail and particularly strong on the lot of women and the class system without labouring either point although religion and politics seem strangely absent from conversations being held in Dublin in 1898. There is, in short, much to enjoy in Albert Nobbs but the main problem is, sadly, Albert Nobbs herself. At one point, a baffled character wonders why Albert lives her life as she does. I've sat through the movie and liked it but I'm damned if I know!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Heidi's Highs and Lows

And so the axe has fallen on the BBC's troubled revival of Upstairs Downstairs after a mere nine episodes over two series. Viewers were unimpressed by the second series and switched off in their millions leaving the powers that be with no choice but to close the doors of 165 Eaton Place and leave those of us who kept watching until the bitter end wondering what was is store for the Hollands and their servants as World War Two began. Downton Abbey is mentioned in every article I've read since this announcement was made last week suggesting that Team UP was ultimately trounced by Team DA in the battle for the hearts and minds of period drama enthusiasts in the UK and worldwide. Although this is a lazy over-simplification to my mind, it is almost certain that those who had become accustomed to the instantly-recognisable broad characters and melodramatic, undemanding storytelling of Julian Fellowes found little to interest them in Heidi Thomas's re-imagining of the 1970s classic which was an altogether subtler yet needlessly convoluted, rather humourless and far less entertaining affair.

Upstairs Downstairs was not without its merits, however, and I was as impressed as ever by Heidi Thomas's gift for dialogue and the attention to period detail in the scripts. While Mrs Bates was anachronistically adopting the phrase "As if!" to rebuke her estranged husband in Downton Abbey, the characters in Upstairs Downstairs - although fatally not that engaging - read Agatha Christie's Murder is Easy, talked about Errol Flynn and Olivia deHavilland and danced to the Lambeth Walk as though they were actually living in the late 1930s. Ms Thomas (pictured on the left above with the ladies of Cranford) must be very disappointment by the ultimate failure of her passion project but while she's coming to terms with the news and chalking it all up to experience, she can at least be comforted by the Downton-rivalling success she experienced at the start of the year with BBC's Call the Midwife, her adaptation of Jennifer Worth's memoirs based on her experiences as a newly-qualified midwife in the poverty-stricken East End of London in the 1950s.

It is difficult for broadcasters to break new ground when dramatizing the past but Call the Midwife is not based on a world-famous novel and does not feature villagers pulling together in times of strife or, indeed, members of the British aristocracy and their servants. Thomas's characteristic skill at combining grit and heart in the stories she writes for the screen, abundantly evident in the superb Cranford, has proven to be Call the Midwife's masterstroke. What with preparing for the expanded second series and writing the book for a proposed Broadway revival of the musical Gigi, she may not have all that much time to reflect on the one that got away.

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Touch of Class

By the time the final episode of ITV's lavish four-part miniseries Titanic came to be broadcast last night in many countries around the world to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the luxury liner, I dare say that the majority of us were feeling all Titaniced-out. Not only was the coverage of the centenary in all sectors of the media extensive to say the least ("As it's Titanic week, we check out this season's nautical fashions....." - oh dear!) but each episode of the drama, as written by Julian Fellowes, had brought us to that fateful Sunday evening when the ship collided with the iceberg only to revert to the beginning of the voyage the previous Wednesday but from the perspective of different characters at the start of the following episode. Many have claimed, including the show's distinguished producer Nigel Stafford-Clark, that this unconventional approach is the reason that viewers in the UK switched off in their millions from week to week. I think the flaw in the concept is more that nearly every one of those characters seems as obsessed with class conflict as the writer who brings them to life.

One of the most enduringly fascinating and mysterious events in recent human history is the Titanic disaster and yet episode one was almost entirely preoccupied with the fictional Lady Manton's disgust at having to sit at the same dining table as people whose money was earned and not inherited including the American silent movie star Dorothy Gibson. The great moral lesson Lady Manton had learned by the end of series was that if she could bring herself to apologise to the obliging Miss Gibson she wouldn't in fact burst into flames. Lady Manton's rebellious daughter was all about women's suffrage while her snooty lady's maid Watson was up to no good with her jewellery box, plot points which inevitably lead to suspicions that the Downton Abbey creator was merely phoning it in. Given that there was no shortage of colourful personalities on board the Titanic in actual fact, the questions remains why Fellowes chose to populate his script with so many fictional people. Many of us know that Molly Browne was unsinkable and that Charles Lightoller, flirting with Dorothy Gibson above, was the highest-ranking officer to survive but only true Titanoraks would know the fates of the likes of Harry Widener, Jack Thayer, Bessie Allison, Madame Aubart and the Countess of Rothes surely?!

All of the characters I listed above travel first class in the series. Fellowes's script is not all that interested in the working class and the hundreds of steerage passengers, whose chance to create a better life for themselves in the States away from poverty and deprivation was cruelly snatched away on that fateful night, are represented by the Maloney family from Belfast who are down-on-their-luck yet are personally acquainted with the ship's designer, Thomas Andrews. Meanwhile, Irish lawyer John Batley and his wife Muriel sit in second class squabbling endlessly about his employer, Lord Manton, as the stairs that lead to first class are guarded more heavily than the gates of Valhalla by working-class stewards who, as Fellowes is as keen as ever to tell us, were as protective of the class system as the lords and ladies of the aristocracy. By the third episode, the suffragette daughter, Mrs Maloney and a chirpy Cockney stewardess had all indulged in improbably fast-moving romances and by this stage, although never less than entertaining, Titanic was also becoming tiresome, insubstantial and faintly ridiculous.

It is a pity that the series lost half its audience by last night, in the UK anyhow, because the final episode was intensely gripping and immensely moving as the ship foundered and the desperate scramble to survive was played out. Many of the personal dramas were brought to a crisis but the main strength was in showing how human beings handle the sudden realisation of impending death with acts of extraordinary kindness, heartbreaking sacrifices and touching reconciliations. Two standout moments for me were when Mr Maloney cradled his terrified young daughter in his arms and lovingly bathed her in calm and reassurance and when Watson reads a revealing letter written to her by her male counterpart, the unassuming valet Barnes, and breaks down crying. The impeccable cast and production values ensured that the events of that evening were never undermined or exploited in a fantastic hour of television made all the more engaging by having gotten to know these characters over four weeks and all the more resonant given the date of broadcast. This incredibly sad story should never be forgotten and neither should the bravery shown on that night to remember.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Tolstoy on a String

Some intriguing details have recently emerged about the latest cinema outing for one of the most enduring tragic heroines of classic Russian literature, Anna Karenina. Directed by period drama aficionado Joe Wright based on Tom Stoppard's adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's novel, the film will feature Wright's frequent leading lady Keira Knightley, pictured above in the title role of the married socialite who embarks on a dangerous affair with a dashing young aristocrat in 1870s Moscow. Wright has claimed that his approach to Anna Karenina and his decision to embrace the theatricality of the piece has been heavily influenced by his upbringing surrounded by strings, sets and marionettes in the world-famous Little Angel Puppet Theatre, which is being run to this very day by his mother Lyndie in Islington, North London. It remains to be seen how this "influence" will eventually manifest itself when the film hits our screens in September.

Keira Knightley's previous performances for Wright as Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennett and Atonement's Cecilia Tallis have been the most acclaimed of her career thus far and Anna Karenina will mark her return to leading roles following stints treading the boards in London's West End and a spate of supporting roles in low-key movies. She will be joined by Jude Law playing against type as her cuckolded husband Alexei Karenin and young Aaron Johnson of Kick Ass and Nowhere Boy fame as her lover Count Vronsky. Bringing to life a whole host of countesses, princesses, army officers, civil servants and impoverished dreamers is an impressive supporting cast including Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson, Ruth Wilson, Alexandra Roach, Holliday Grainger, Eros Vlahos, Michelle Dockery, Domhnall Gleeson and Thomas Howes. Meanwhile, Howes's Downton Abbey alter ego, the late footman William, is soon to be joined in the great sprawling country estate in the sky. It was announced last week that season three of Downton will feature the death of a prominent character. With the war of independence all kicking off in Ireland, my money's on Branson.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Channel Shopping

Do you remember, dear reader, that I mentioned on this very blog quite a few months ago the commissioning of a companion piece to that hugely popular menace of diabetics everywhere, Lark Rise to Candleford? The Ladies' Paradise will be written by the same chap, one Bill Gallagher, and it will be set at the same time, the late nineteenth century. It transposes the action, however, to an industrial city where the residents are all agog about the imminent opening of a department store - whatever that is! Well, news has now reached this blogger that ITV, in the coincidence to end all coincidences, is also launching a period drama set in a department store. While The Ladies' Paradise is still at the pre-production stage, ITV's Mr Selfridge is scheduled to start filming this month and will, consequently, be the first of the two dramas to hit our television screens. Now what does that remind me of?!

One must grumble. Mr Selfridge, based on the book Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge and telling the story of how flamboyant American entrepreneur Harry Sefridge came to open a lavish store on London's Oxford Street, does sound very promising. The drama is set in 1909, at a time when women were revelling in a new sense of freedom and modernity. Harry wanted to indulge, empower and celebrate these women and earn a few bob in the process - penchants for showgirls, gambling and living life very much in the fast lane do not come cheap, after all! The ten-part series is the brainchild of Andrew Davies, a man who needs no introduction to bona fide period drama enthusiasts, and will feature Emmy Award-winning Entourage star Jeremy Piven in the title role alongside Coronation Street star Katherine Kelly, currently delighting audiences on stage at London's National Theatre in She Stoops to Conquer (pictured above), as alluring socialite Lady Mae whose society connections prove invaluable to Harry as he embarks on building his empire. Mr Selfridge's philosophy was that shopping should be as seductive and pleasurable an experience as sex - a notion that will no doubt feature on the promotional material when the series begins in early 2013.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Brush Up Your Shakespeare

While the world and his wife celebrate the life and works of Charles Dickens for the year that's in it, another great wordsmith has been occupying the minds of many period dramatists of late and may be set to have a very prosperous 2012 indeed. As the centrepiece of London's Cultural Olympiad this summer, BBC Two has assembled a who's who of Shakespearian interpreters to bring to the small screen the great man's tetralogy of plays detailing the lives of three successive English kings. Hugely celebrated theatre directors Rupert Goold, Richard Eyre and Thea Sharrock will direct Ben Whishaw (regally pictured above), Jeremy Irons and Tom Hiddleston in the title roles of Richard II, Henry IV - Parts 1 and 2 and Prince Hal/Henry V respectively. The admirably ambitious project will feature an exhaustively Harry Potter-esque happy breed of familiar faces including David Suchet, John Hurt, Reece Shearsmith, Iain Glen, Alun Armstrong, Lindsay Duncan, David Morrisey, David Bradley, Niamh Cusack, Maxine Peake, Richard Griffiths, Paterson Joseph, Tom Hughes, Harry Haddon Paten, Tom Goodman-Hill, Michelle Dockery, Clemence Poesy and Patrick Stewart with Rory Kinnear, Julie Walters and Simon Russell Beale appearing as the iconic characters of Bolingbroke, Mistress Quickly and Falstaff.

Meanwhile, the oft-filmed tale of the star-crossed lovers who, let's just say never get around to shopping for the first home together in the greater Verona area, will be back on the big screen before the year is out. Adapted by another one of Maggie Smith's favourite writers, Julian Fellowes, Romeo and Juliet is currently being filmed on location in Italy by Italy's own Carlo Carlei. It will bring the timeless tragedy back to 16th century basics, more Zefferelli than Luhrmann and feature an exciting mixture of acclaimed acting veterans and acclaimed bright young things in the cast. Fresh from the Gargery forge, Great Expectations's Douglas Booth will star as Romeo alongside the Oscar-nominated American actress from True Grit, Hailee Steinfeld as Juliet with Gossip Girl's Ed Westwick as Tybalt, Let Me In's Kodi Smit-McPhee as Benvolio and Christian Cooke as Romeo's BFF Mercuitio. Lesley Manville will fuss as The Nurse, Paul Giamatti will garden as Friar Laurence, Damian Lewis and Natasha McElhone will be cold and distance as Juliet's parents and Stellan Skarsgard will try in vain to uphold the peace as The Prince. I welcome the project wholeheartedly although it will be difficult for folks from my generation to listen to the Queen Mab speech without expecting a flamboyant rendition of Young Hearts Run Free to follow in rapid succession.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Happy 200th Birthday Charlie!

"That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day." - Great Expectations, 1861.

In A League On Her Own

Samantha Barks is a young woman of great expectations. The above photograph is of a rather extraordinary night in the 21 year-old musical performer's life. Since she came third in the BBC's search for a young woman to play Nancy in a revival of Lionel Bart's Oliver! in 2008, Miss Barks has been seen consistently on stage in London most notably as downtrodden street urchin Eponine in concerts at the O2 arena to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Les Miserables. Last Tuesday, she was playing the role of Nancy in a U.K. tour of Oliver! in Manchester when legendary theatre impressario and the man behind the Les Mis phenomenon, Cameron Mackintosh, joined the company on stage to surprise the recently-resurrected tart with a heart with the news that she has been cast as Eponine in the much-anticipated big-screen adaptation of Les Miserables. Quite a coup!

Given the extreme star wattage to be found elsewhere in the cast, it was presumed that the coveted role (Eponine does sing On My Own, after all) would be awarded to a Hollywood starlet, the latest name in the frame being that of country superstar and wannabe actress Taylor Swift. This is a rather charming underdog story and Mackintosh, who is producing the movie, and the director Tom Hooper must be commended for opting for Samantha Barks who, despite being a relative unknown, has already proven herself in the role. She will now enter a revolution-torn love triangle with the man of the moment, Birdsong's Eddie Redmayne as Marius and Mamma Mia's Amanda Seyfried as Cosette, who will arrive in London in the coming weeks straight from filming the title role in a biopic of the notorious 1970s porn star Linda Lovelace. Eponine's neglectful parents, the odious Monsieur and Madame Thernadier, will be played by Sweeney Todd's Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter.

Meanwhile, the exciting international cast of Anne Hathaway as Fantine, Hugh Jackman as Valjean, Russell Crowe as Javert and Broadway and Gossip Girl star Aaron Tveit as Enjolras will be joined by the original stage Valjean and Eponine, Colm Wilkinson and Frances Ruffelle, in cameo roles as the kindly Bishop of Digne and "a fabulous whore" - respectively!

Friday, February 3, 2012

The MacLaine Game

Cynicism and period dramas are strange bedfellows and, consequently, I avoid the former as much as is humanly possible in my bloggings about the latter. My admiration for the likes of Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs would surely crumble, dear reader, under the weight of a jaded, facetious approach to Sunday night viewing. The anachronistically impressive teeth alone would be the cause of much consternation. It happens occasionally, however, that one cannot help but feel somewhat dismayed by certain goings-on. It has been suggested in the British press that ITV deliberately announced the casting of Shirely MacLaine in Downton Abbey's third series on Monday evening to upstage the BBC's press launch for the second series of Upstairs Downstairs, a still from which is shown above, which took place that afternoon.

Sure enough, all entertainment outlets were the next day buzzing with the undeniably exciting news of the Oscar-winning UFO enthusiast's forthcoming appearance as Martha Levinson, Lady Cora's brash American mother while tales of Jean Marsh's determination to recover from a stroke and heart attack to return to housekeeping duties in 165 Eaton Place and of a lesbian storyline featuring newcomers Emilia Fox and Alex Kingston, both discussed at the press launch, were decidedly thin on the ground. It is a pretty poor showing from the Downton camp if such allegations are founded and it is difficult to understand why ITV chose to make such a headline-grabbing announcement on that day at that time of day if not to undermine Heidi Thomas's 1930s-set revival of the classic series, which has been foundering under the behemoth triumph of its Edwardian equivalent.

It seems to me that the dirty tactics are hardly necessary and that ITV and Team DA have served to undermine the constant protestations from series creator and writer Julian Fellowes that there is plenty of room for both shows to flourish and co-exist in perfect harmony. The right honourable Matthew Crawley would be appalled at the skulduggery. He really would!