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!