Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

2018 foursomes

December 31, 2018

If you are reading this, you have successfully staved off death again, as have I. Let’s raise a glass to keeping on doing that in 2019.

Top 4 books
It’s been a year of classics. I spent most of the first half of the year reading Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, and an engrossing, exhilarating, boring experience it was too. Delighted to have done it, though. Emily Wilson’s vibrant new translation of Homer’s Odyssey brought Greek mythology to life in a way I have never experienced before. Joyce’s Ulysses was my single reading highlight of the year, the book that contains all of human life. I can’t omit these three masterpieces from a top four, but there are many contenders for the fourth place: Ann Quin? Nicholson Baker? Denis Mackail? Barbara Pym? (New discoveries all.) I think it has to be Doreen by Barbara Noble, an unheralded, Persephone-published classic about a girl evacuated from London during the Blitz. More books imminently: watch this space.

Top 4 new films
No surprises here, with three of my favourites nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and the other the winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this summer. Best of all, I thought on first acquaintance, was Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, full of tenderness and delightfully light comedy. Saiorse Ronan’s one of those actresses you’d watch doing anything, isn’t she. Martin McDonagh’s gratuitous use of slurs rankles with me somewhat in both his plays and his films, and that was also the case with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but its stark brilliance was a compensatory factor. I drowsed through Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread at the cinema, but a second viewing over Christmas confirmed its quality. I can’t resist its elusive romanticism, or Vicky Krieps. And lastly Shoplifters by Hirokazu Kore-eda, a director with a hit rate so high it’s indecent. I’ve been warmed by his films before, but never so pained as I was by the final act of this one. Another paean to family life, and a fitting memorial to Kirin Kiki, whose radiance has illuminated many films I have loved in recent years.

Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, which I saw at the Cambridge Film Festival, is my tip for 2019.

Top 4 old films
Not that old, some of these. Anyway, the standout film of the year, the one that I think back on and marvel at, is Dietrich Brüggemann’s Stations of the Cross, which tells the story of a teenage girl in a fanatically religious family in fourteen static (or mostly static) tableaux. It’s beautifully bleak, the bleakness going so far that it almost verges into black comedy territory, and one of the most arresting films about religion and the perversion of religion that I’ve seen. Also sometimes bleak but mainly life-affirming was Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning, a document of New York’s ball culture in the 1980s. Impossible not to be heartened by the warmth of the community created by its personnel, and by the brightness of the trails they blazed – in many cases all too brief. That it exists at all is a cause for rejoicing. Italian cinema tends to be a blind spot for me, but even I responded to La dolce vita – to its spectacle and its style and its episodic nature, to the glorious lightness of that café scene with Perez Prado on the jukebox, to the enigmatic conclusion. And lastly, let’s go for Tom Browne’s family drama Radiator, a film that slipped under the radar a few years ago. With beautiful performances from Daniel Cerqueira, Richard Johnson and Gemma Jones, it’s a resolutely unsentimental but achingly tender film, and very wise about the frustrations and joys of family life, and about our relationship with the past. I loved it. Missing out but also worthy of inclusion: Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy, The Lost Weekend, Brooklyn, Boyz n the Hood, The Sessions, The Swimmer, and doubtless many others.

Top 4 student
Another good year for student theatre in Cambridge, with my highlights coming early on. The Marlowe Society’s Arts Theatre takeover in January is invariably excellent, and their Romeo and Juliet was the best production of the play I’ve seen, with Harry Redding and Matilda Wickham both excellent as the lovers (it occurred to me that a small bet on Wickham to win an acting Oscar by, say, 2030 would be a smart investment), and John Tothill a marvellously bland and placatory Capulet. I kept thinking of West Side Story – the sweetness of the central relationship, particularly in the balcony scene, the ‘America’ rhythm, even the Doc-like stressed-outness of Adam Mirsky’s chain-smoking Friar Laurence. Beautifully spoken throughout by the whole cast. The ADC Theatre closed for refurbishment in the spring, and I salute whoever came up with the masterstroke of putting on Hamlet in the Round Church. Some smashing performances in the candlelight, and Polonius nearly caught fire at one point. Some great musicals from CUMTS this year, my favourites being firstly a really exciting and imaginative Assassins, with James Daly’s Balladeer, Robin Franklin’s Booth and Tom Baarda’s manic Guiteau among the high points; and The Producers, with Meg Coslett and Conor Dumbrell a perfectly matched Bialystock and Bloom, and Leo Reich breathtakingly good as Roger De Bris, his every camp movement a joy. (Amaya Holman made a big impression as Bloom’s boss Mr Marks, as she did in everything I saw her in this year, most of all in the brilliant ADC/Footlights panto. She’ll be a star.)

Top 4 Edinburgh
I had intended to see Natalie Palamides’s Nate but chickened out at the prospect of being made to strip off against my will and went to see Gyles Brandreth instead. A middlebrow Fringe for me, then, but with some transcendent moments. Seeing Sheeps for the first time in several years in their new show Live and Loud Selfie Sex Harry Potter was an unexpectedly emotional experience for me. They’re as good as ever. Better than ever was Kieran Hodgson, his ’75 perhaps the pinnacle of his stand-up career so far, buzzing with ideas and impressions, and beyond exhilarating. The Lowry production of Nigel Slater’s Toast at the Traverse was a treat from start to finish. The mini lemon meringue pies and chocolate (not walnut) whips passed around the audience were appreciated, but the coup de théâtre was saved for the end. I don’t know if you’ve ever smelt onions being cooked in a theatre auditorium, but it is unspeakably exciting. And just before leaving I managed to catch John Tothill and Eve Delaney’s character sketch show Big Shop. What chemistry they have, and what impeccable performers they are individually. Love them.

Top 4 theatre
The year began with a very fine Sweeney Todd at the Arts Theatre by the Cambridge Operatic Society. Am-dram groups always seem to rise to the occasion for the more challenging shows in the repertoire, and this was no exception, with Matt Wilkinson as Todd and 13-year-old Ben Lewis as Toby the standouts. Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, at the Gielgud Theatre, turned out to be deserving of its critical superlatives, an overwhelming experience, gloriously busy and full of life. The gender-switched Company, also at the Gielgud, was great fun, primarily for the experience of seeing Patti LuPone up close, her every facial and vocal gesture witheringly hilarious. I also loved Gavin Spokes as Harry, and Daisy Maywood’s priestly cameo in a thrillingly staged ‘Getting Married Today’. Best of all was Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance at the Noël Coward Theatre. It’s not perfect, and the inevitable comparisons with Angels in America are mostly to its detriment, but its virtues are so many, and it made me so excited about … well, about life, I suppose. About being alive, about making a difference to things. You fall in love with its characters. Catch it while you can!

Top 4 classical
Bernstein’s MASS at the Royal Festival Hall in April was the highlight of the Bernstein centenary year, the most immersive and invigorating performance imaginable of this wacky and moving piece, not that you’d expect anything less from Marin Alsop. Paulo Szot was a super celebrant, and my brother (being in the choir) managed to sneak me into the after-show party where Bernstein’s daughter Nina addressed the performers. Special to have been there. The latest Barbican recital by Yuja Wang was another treat, especially in the suite of Rachmaninov pieces she’d assembled, and Prokofiev’s sublime 8th sonata. The encores were predictably incandescent. Would she – could she – play Bach or Schubert? I’d love to hear her do a proper Scarlatti recital. I saw her in more Prokofiev at the Proms in September with the Berlin Philharmonic and Kirill Petrenko, whose performance of the Franz Schmidt fourth symphony was transcendent, a piece I feared I might never get to hear in concert. I’m so pleased people are finally getting the point of Schmidt. And last but not least, Verdi’s Falstaff at the Royal Opera House in July. I bought a ticket in the stalls for the first time ever, an extravagance but worth every penny. An opera I am coming to love very dearly, and a vibrant cast including Bryn Terfel, Ana María Martínez and the divine Anna Prohaska. I’m thinking of returning there for Billy Budd next year.

Top 4 albums
Since you ask me for an eclectic selection of albums… I had a lovely bunch of CDs for Christmas last year, the pick of which was the Wiener Phil and Semyon Bychkov’s recording of Schmidt’s Symphony No. 2, a delightful piece I’ve enjoyed getting to know. I can’t account for why I hadn’t noticed its existence until now, but Einar Steen-Nøkleberg’s recording of Grieg’s Slåtter interspersed with the original Hardanger fiddle tunes played by Knut Buen is a joy from start to finish. The best things Grieg wrote, perhaps. Two things have taken me back to my childhood: the BnF, qu’elle soit bénie, has digitised a number of recordings of Rondes (children’s songs) recorded by Jacques Jouineau and the Maîtrise de l’O.R.T.F. in (I guess) the 1960s, that I have been enjoying to an indecent extent. And I’ve rediscovered the original London cast recording of Godspell. Has Jeremy Irons done anything better in the past 45 years than the patter section of ‘All for the Best’? Probably not.

Top 4 comedy
Mixed media, as the artists would have it. I made a pilgrimage to Norwich to see Count Arthur Strong, and for sheer fun it couldn’t be beaten. What a virtuoso he is, a genius of the wrong-word school of comedy. I’ve come rather late to the party, and hope it won’t be the last time I see him live. The comedy podcast of the year, among stiff competition, is Julia Davis and Vicki Pepperdine’s gleefully obscene Dear Joan and Jericha, for a second series of which next year I am keeping my fingers firmly crossed. I never write about TV in these posts, but there were two series on Channel 4 that I fell in love with: Jamie Demetriou and Robert Popper’s Stath Lets Flats, a slow but sure burner, which I would love to see return; and the second series of Will Sharpe’s Flowers, desperately sad and beautiful. He does things with comedy I haven’t seen people do before.

See ya round.

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Grand Tour #21 – Poland. The Stranger / Maria Kuncewiczowa

September 27, 2017

I was very into Polish stuff in my teens, mostly because of Chopin’s piano music and Polański’s Knife in the Water and Kieślowski’s Dekalog (which I’m currently re/watching, as it happens), and the rousing Polish national anthem (which I still revere), as a result of which obsession I taught myself elementary Polish. Nowadays most of the vocab’s gone (‘I’d like some cheese’ is about my limit, though I put it into Google Translate and it came out as ‘She will ask the cheese’, so even that phrase I may be wrong about), but my pronunciation’s pretty solid, and my spelling too. In her own presence I once had to write out the name of someone called Drzazdzewska, and she was appropriately amazed and told me it was the first time anyone had ever done it.

The Stranger (Cudzoziemka) is a 1936 novel by Maria Kuncewiczowa (1895-1989), now out of print. I read the translation by B.W.A. Massey, which on account of his having given us a copy on its publication in 1945 was the only Polish novel in the library, or at any rate the only one I was interested in reading (take that, Stanisław Lem). The translation reads fluently, but has the familiar quirk of everyone’s name being Englishified, so that (for instance) the protagonist Róża is rendered as Rose. I can’t work out all of the characters’ authentic Polish names online, and the accents are a faff to paste in, so please forgive me for using their tidied-up names here.

One nice thing about reading obscure books that no one in the English-speaking world has ever heard of, let alone read, is that you don’t know what to expect. The Stranger turns out to be a psychological study. Rose is a stranger in several senses, most specifically a woman out of place: out of place in Russia because of her Polish ancestry, out of place in Poland (where she now lives) because of her Russian upbringing. Today she is a stranger in the home of her daughter Martie (Marta), but Martie isn’t there. Rose is irritated at Martie’s absence, and at the behaviour of Martie’s young son Zbyszek, and at Martie’s careless treatment of a table that is a family heirloom. There isn’t much that doesn’t irritate Rose. Her semi-estranged husband Adam turns up, then her highly-strung son Wladys (Ladislas), both of whom she treats with coldness, and finally Martie.

The narrative is divided between this one day and the past, perhaps the past as recalled by Rose. She remembers her own childhood, her youthful romances (‘the sufferings of men stimulated her like alcohol’) and her great lost love, Michael. Then, as they arrive in sequence at Martie’s house, each family member’s past relationship with Rose is rehearsed, Kuncewiczowa adeptly juggling past and present.

I came to think of the book as an exercise in the limits of sympathy. How far can the reader sympathise with Rose? Most of the time, not very far. The closest character to her I’ve encountered elsewhere is Arrested Development‘s booze-soaked matriarch Lucille Bluth. The two share an emotional coldness, and a brazen manipulative streak. You’d cast someone glacial to play her in a film, probably Gene Tierney. The villainy in The Stranger isn’t really played for laughs, but it could be.

At its darkest moments Rose’s behaviour verges on the murderous. While the infant Martie is seriously ill with diphtheria, she considers withholding the girl’s medication and letting her die, then on administering the life-saving digitalis she paints herself as Martie’s saviour. Is this sociopathy, or is it severe depression? The key to Rose’s erratic behaviour, to her fractious relationships with others, may be the death in childhood of her younger son Kazio (not a keyboard, it’s a diminutive of Casimir; he’s also called Kaziuczek). On the tenth anniversary of Kazio’s death, Rose and Adam visit his grave:

When she found herself at home, Rose soon forgot her husband. Wladys embraced her perfunctorily in memory of his dead brother. He had not been able to go to the cemetery, because of a problem in mathematics which he could not neglect, since it was the year before his leaving examination. With his whole heart he desired to pass this examination. The date of it seemed to him to be a gateway through which he would enter his own independent world. Rose felt this aloofness in the embrace of her adolescent son, and her longing for Kazio returned more bitterly than ever before.

You can see how little moments like this can poison a relationship, and you understand the motivations of each character, the tactless son desperate to emancipate himself from the controlling mother, the mother unable to entertain anything but grief, and resentful of those who fail to express it as deeply as she does (though you sense she’d resent them just as much either way).

Another of Rose’s many disappointments has to do with music, and music is central to the book, as it was to Kuncewiczowa, a music student herself and later a singer. Rose studies the violin, but her career never takes off, and for the rest of her life music is a source of equal pleasure and pain, her inability to play the Brahms violin concerto a particular torture to her. A comical episode has Rose singing Schumann’s ‘Ich grolle nicht’ at the piano, a song that climaxes on a high A she is unable to reach. ‘Why is Granny screaming like that, Mamma?’ ask the children. (She also sings ‘Er, der herrlichste von allen’, one of Schumann’s most passionate love songs, to Wladys. Way to fuck up your son, lady, I thought.)

The text of Heine’s poem ‘Ich grolle nicht’ is printed as an epigraph at the start of the novel. It’s a perverse poem for a perverse character. ‘I bear no grudge, even when my heart is breaking,’ claims the poet deludedly, and really there can’t be many people who bear grudges more readily than Rose; but today something has changed. A visit to a doctor who has advised Rose, among other things, ‘nicht immer so grollen’, has jogged memories of her lost love and prompted her to mend her ways. Though she remains bad-tempered, she seems sincere in this intention, and suddenly self-aware. Prompted by her self-castigation to praise her for having raised her children, Adam is met with the rebuke: ‘My good honest man, did I bring them up? Did I not rather hinder them from being human beings?’ There is a sense, particularly in a conversation with Martie, of Rose trying, however belatedly, to lay old ghosts to rest.

There are moments when the melo part prevails over the drama, but by and large I found the psychology convincing, and was moved by the portrait of this complicated and pitiable human being, and by Kuncewiczowa’s compassion generally. A book worth seeking out.

Ten random books

May 31, 2017

Courtesy of Simon, another getting-to-know-you exercise, the gist of this one being that you pick at random from your shelves or (more likely, in my case) piles ten books, and write a bit about them. Well, lookee here.

1. The Witch and the Holiday Club / Margaret Stuart Barry

I’m going through a Simon and the Witch phase at present. The BBC adaptation by Valerie Georgeson was my most beloved programme when I was about six, and I am belatedly reading the eight books. Most of them I have sourced from Cambridge University Library (finally proving its worth after several fruitless centuries), but the BBC tie-in editions I wanted my own copies of. Elizabeth Spriggs on the cover, squee! I also bought a copy of Joan Sims’ autobiography. What superb actresses they were. How I love them.

2. The Norman Conquests / Alan Ayckbourn

The sort of book one likes to have handy in case of emergency, not that I open it very often. This trilogy of plays was my introduction to Ayckbourn, twelve or so years ago, and their ingenuity and fun are enduring. Perhaps it’s because of Norman that I became an Assistant Librarian. But probably not.

3. Anybody: Poems / Ari Banias

A present I received for Christmas and read in March. Some lovely writing.

And the tree is a television
where the president appears in the form of a finch
(‘The Feeling’)

4. Transgender History / Susan Stryker

A birthday present last year from my brother. He knows what I like (because it was on my Amazon wish list). And I will definitely read it one day.

5. The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and Their Battles With America / Joseph Berger

Staying in a largely Hasidic Jewish area of Brooklyn for a week last year made me curious about the lives of Hasidim, and this book looked interesting. I haven’t read it yet.

6. Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories / Robert Walser

I saw a pile of copies of this book in McNally Jackson and fell in love with it. I couldn’t afford it at that moment, but bought it on my return to the UK. It consists of fragments – ‘Some dwell on childish or transient topics – carousels, the latest hairstyles, an ekphrasis of the illustrations in a picture book – others on the grand themes of nature, art, and love.’ (Publisher description.) I love and covet these NYRB editions, and I expect one day I’ll read it.

7. The Book of Daniel / E.L. Doctorow

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

Whenever anyone trots out the old question about what the best opening line is, I think of that sentence, from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. I’m sure I hadn’t heard of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg when I read it, but they later turned into a fascination. This novel inspired by their story is a book I bought as long ago as 2008, but I will finally read it soon because it ties in neatly with Tony Kushner’s brilliant Angels in America, which I’m going to see in a couple of months at the National Theatre.

8. Four English Comedies

The four comedies in question being Volpone, The Way of the World, She Stoops to Conquer and The School for Scandal, of which I’ve read the first and third. I used to love these 1990s-era Penguin Classics editions, the colour-coded spines, the larger-than-usual format. The first copy of Pride and Prejudice I read was in the same edition, with a red stripe along the top. I don’t remember She Stoops to Conquer one bit, but I know I enjoyed Volpone. Maybe it had some jokes in.

9. The Girls, Vol. 1 / Henry de Montherlant

The encapsulation of a recurring theme: I bought this beautiful two-volume set dirt cheap on eBay in about 2003, and I haven’t opened it yet, put off, possibly, by its reputation as a repository of misogyny. Still, the bright orange and pink are nice, and there are other Montherlant books (the homoerotic ones) that I have read and loved. Perhaps next year’s reading project, Proustathon aside, should be to resist buying books where possible until I’ve made inroads into those I own. I tried that once before, in 2011: I ended up buying 24 books that year, of which I have to date read only 12.

10. Harrison Birtwistle: Wild Tracks / Fiona Maddocks

A perk of being a librarian is that there’s some scope for buying books you yourself want to read. This ‘conversation diary’ is one such book, though it fitted neatly into our collection or I wouldn’t have chanced it. On first impression it appears immensely approachable. Opening a page at random, you find Birtwistle and Maddocks playing ‘horse, bird, muffin’.

Beethoven is the horse. So Mozart’s the bird and Brahms is the muffin … I think Stockhausen is the muffin and Boulez is the horse. [and so on]

Do post your own!

I remember 2

August 8, 2015

I remember going to a children’s concert at Jackdaws in Great Elm and the programme giving the name of one piece as ‘Vaginia Reel’.

***

I remember the happiness of going to National Trust properties and, against the odds, not being bored, perhaps because of the shop or the tea room.

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I remember playing the word COON in a Scrabble game because I’d got it mixed up with ‘coot’, and sensing from the grown-ups’ reactions that I’d done something wrong, though no one said anything.

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I remember feeling inhibited about waving my arms when we sang hateful evangelical songs in school like ‘We are climbing Jesus’ ladder’.

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I remember feeling embarrassed by my unbroken singing voice.

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I remember the sickly smell of breakfast in Barry: pineapple juice and Weetabix.

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I remember D saying confidentially to me that there was someone in the changing room with awful BO and my suspecting that it was me. Perhaps he was trying to be diplomatic. He wasn’t an academic boy, but he was kind, like Piggy in Lord of the Flies.

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I remember seeing a comma butterfly in Welshmill Park on an inset day.

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I remember stroking my tortoiseshell butterfly until its wings fell off and all that remained was the abdomen.

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I remember the summer when I went down the road to the petrol station to buy a 500ml bottle of Sprite and the lid was a special one that meant I won a free bottle of Sprite and it happened several times in a row so the people on the checkout began to get suspicious.

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I remember Tiger Tokens.

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I remember reading The Great Gatsby and picturing the gas station as the one at the bottom of Weymouth Road.

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I remember a boy shouting ‘Queer’ at me from a window, and realising he’d only shouted it because I happened to be there, but also half thinking, How does he know?

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I remember Miss Davies showing us Blackadder the Third in class to explain about rotten boroughs.

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I remember getting shyer as I got older.

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I remember feeling absolutely indifferent to cars.

Tortoiseshell, July 2015