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.