Saturday, 31 December 2011

Watching Black Mirror

This will contain spoilers and in particular discussion of the twists, turns and endings within the episodes. And also much rambling/ranting.

This has definitely been a series that provides food for thought that I've felt the need to digest since the last episode was broadcast a few weeks ago. So on a day where people start to make up and or start resolutions they have no hope of achieving, I'll give my thoughts on what this series has taught us about ourselves; messages that aren't as obvious as we would assume, or rather are so obvious that we dismiss them when in fact they should be ingrained into the very fibre of our being. (Yes a bit melodramatic I know. Doesn't mean it's not relevant.)

This is a series that is very obviously produced by Charlie Brooker as anyone familiar with his hilarious complaining about the world will recognise that his arguments are occasionally repeated here. It is also an extremely dark comedy, presenting us with a disturbing scenario that bears many similarities to our present world. Brooker is the master at making us laugh, squirm and learn simultaneously. However the messages do not stop the writers from creating interesting characters that you genuinely care about, even though all of the protagonists have some flaw - the PM fails in his attempts to be a strong leader, Bing is bad at social relationships (note his ignoring of a co-worker and then using her advice for him to chat up Abi) and Liam is obsessive about every factor of his life.

Allegory, fable, moral tale: these stories could easily fit into these labels if updated. This can mean that the plots are straight forward but they still remain unpredictable and gripping despite the dominating cynical message - there is a very fatalistic tone to the stories; the characters cannot escape their fate.
Anyway, the stories themselves:

News coverage as the video is leaked
The National Anthem

By far the most harrowing of the three, this is based in a contemporary world rather than a science-fiction dystopia, as the prime minister is forced into humiliating himself on television by having sex with a pig, or a princess will be murdered. Even though it is essentially a typical scenario from Brooker's various '-Wipe' shows lengthened to an hour, it still packs a punch by showing the very worst aspects of the power technology, to be specific social networking, has given to the general public. Throughout, both the government and the journalists are under threat, not from each other as they believe, but from Internet contributions from everyone else. Initially this is used to defuse the tension and create humour: as the PM is briefed on the threat, he becomes even more distressed when he is told that it had been on YouTube for hours previously.

Having already demonstrated his exceptional ability to dissect and parody modern news reporting, it comes as no surprise that the news coverage is disturbingly accurate, commenting more upon the responses of the public than from anyone of importance or authority. As the deadline looms, this footage becomes all the more worrying, climaxing in the PM's fulfilment of the act. But, correctly, the focus is not on the bestiality; what is truly upsetting is that everyone just watches, judging everyone but themselves. It is clear they don't care about the princess, they don't care about their leader's reputation: they care that they are watching him fuck a pig. This desperation for sensation is further reinforced with the 'One year later' coda. It may seem anti-climatic but it in fact crucially shows how quickly we move on from what was hyped at the time as "the most important moment in history" - it is so easy to look at the past events and laugh at what went wrong, feeling superior that we would have done better even though we were there. The benefit of hindsight has become an excuse to be smug.

Nevertheless, as well as providing a criticism on the primal desire for audiences to crave any excuse to feel better about themselves, there is also a very human story centred around the Prime Minister. Rory Kinnear is the beating heart of the piece as he is stripped off any form of protecting himself from scrutiny, whether it's his advisers, his citizens or his wife. What he is forced to undergo is distressing and then some, but it is still a sympathetic situation. It is not the act itself that is so upsetting, it's that everyone is lining up to scorn. We have all had that horribly embarresing moment that no-one will let us forget what happened, makes you constantly the punchline for jokes. It is these same people that forget why it happened, the circumstances and whether it was unavoidable: theu just remember the what even if we had no choice.

15 Million Merits takes a very different approach, going out for a full on attack on X Factor, Britain's Got Talent and it's ilk. The artificiality of the contenstant's soundbites is swiftly followed by a forced swig of Compliance before being shoved under the scrutinous eyes of the judges, hiding under the illusion of balanced opinion with names like Hope, Charity and Wealth. It is clear that Brooker and Huq enjoyed creating this grotesque parody as this is the longest of the three stories but it never feels dull, even when the opening 10 minutes or so contains almost no dialogue, simply showing us how constrained Bing and his compatriates are. We get snapshots of their world which eventually form a horrific portrait: they are contantly warned to 'Resume Viewing' if they so much as close their eyes; not watching or avoiding these shows in any way is wrong and a punishable offence.

Modern television as a whole is criticised as various popular shows are reduced to being even more ridiculous as they already are. The casual frequency of porn and sexual images in everyday shows remains a constant threat and demonstrates how women are treaed in the business: if they're not attractive, they won't linger in the memory. However these attacks are not always lingering as we are briefly shown the horrors of the programmes on offer, such as Botherguts, a clear parody of Total Wipeout, which Brooker has described in the past as 'fat people falling over'
Bing and Abi
But of course, as Brooker is keen to point out, it's all our fault really. This is a very bleak tale that shows how desperate we are for fame, even if we don't think we want it. With an audience of avatars, their reactions are exaggerated to the extent that it is obvious how important this has become for society. Even though Bing has been shown how fame corrupts and will not reward you if it can help itself, he is tempted by the complimenting judges. Their nauseating praise becomes as predictable as it does on the actual shows, but here Brooker and Huq use this for devastating effect. Just  glancing at the eyes of the judges, we know Bing is going to be swayed towards an easy life, even if it means he becomes idolized by a shard of glass.

It is interesting how there is some debate about the ending, as Bing drinks a glass of orange juice and looks out onto a group of trees. This seems like a straightforward scene, but there are some who argue that this yet another trick, it is an aritficial screen like the ones we have seen him forced to wake up surrounded by every morning. I would agree with this, as it is the greatest irony in the story: he is desperate to gain a shred of reality having spent so long surrounded by graphics and technology and is rewarded with a glass and drink, but he is still trapped, a subject to the producers of the programmes.

Liam on the edge as he tries to resist his obssession
And so the series ends with The Entire History of You, which is the only story not written in some form by Brooker - Jesse Armstrong, whose previous works included the superb 'Four Lions' which is one of the only things that I feel comes near the black comedy we have witnessed thus far in this series. It also reinforced the horrors of terrorism but also highlighted how stupid they really are. There is a notably different tone for this stroy as it combines the realism of  'Anthem' and the science-fiction of 'Merits' to create a devastating warning about technology within a simple story of a man obseesed with his own jealousy.

Armstrong is essentially tackling a sensitive subject, perfect for a twisty and frightening moral tale: memory. A fact that sticks in my head because it is so disturbing is that whenever we look back at a memory in our head, it becomes less accurate of what actually happened and just what we perceive it to be. However, in comparison to this alternative it's harmless. To be able to look back on your memories and know exactly what happened in scrutinous detail is chillingly protrayed by Toby Kebbell. There is a tragic inevitability in his actions and yet, we still care as we watch him destroy everything he loves.

Unlike the other stories, this is a future we may wish to happen - to be able to look back on our memories with a click of a button - and so arguably packs more of a punch than the previous commentaries and exaggerations of what is wrong with modern society. By bringing it down to an emotional level, as the others have done, means that we really consider what we would do in their own situation with worrying results. It helps that the performances are so naturalistic, even when they are discussing the technology. By far the best thing about the story is the ending, which is the most ambiguous and intelligent of the series. In desperation Liam carves out the earpiece that contains his memories that have become increasingly traumatic. As he carves it out, there are fleeting flashes of memory and as he completes the deed the screen immeadiately goes black. This is not an obvious unhapy ending as Liam may well have acheived some freedom at last, but cutting to black made me think about how much our reality is based on memory and association - could we live if this was removed?

There has been a definite attack on us, the audience, throughout these stories - we feel we have the right to make important decisions, from politics to life and death. But it doesn't take a genius to look around themselves and realise how accurate it is. I admit to feeling deeply discomforted by the end of each and every episode and thus felt the need to tell my friends via Twitter, Facebook...and this. Clearly this is not going to spark an immediate revolution, but if it informs those who would rather watch a comedy-drama than Brooker ranting for half an hour, then I feel Brooker should be satisfied. Nevertheless, in it's own right, Black Mirror is a fine collection of dramas, of such diversity and innovation that isn't as common as it has been. I have to admit I've always had a soft spot for 60, 70s and 80 television for it's sheer variety within it's schedule: Doctor Who was the beating heart of this ideology with every episode being set in a completely different location and having little restraint on imagination, but around it there was the likes of Play for Today, Tales of the Unexpected, the Twilight Zone and so on. Now, there is pretty much the same show on every day or at least the same type - I honestly don't know what makes X Factor better or worse than Britain's Got Talent, or what differentiates The Only Way is Essex, Made in Chelsea or Desperate Scousewives. Admittedly it doesn't help I don;t watch these shows so is an easy target, but drama in general is susceptible to this as well: a slew of crime series trying to be innovative (The Shadow Line, Case Histories, Hidden); scabrous satirical shows telling the same jokes (Mock the Week, Have I Got News For You); even Doctor Who these days has occasionally been worryingly predictable, setting up an extravagant plot or scenario, and resolving it with gibberish technobabble.

Nevertheless I still enjoy these shows and just because they are sometimes a bit too predictable does not mean that they are inherently bad, because at least they think they are trying to be original. But it is because of writer's general aim to "play it safe" that Black Mirror seems so extraordinary - it sets out to challenge the audience. Unfortunately it is very easy for those who like Black Mirror or anything similar such as Inception to take a stance like "If you don't like this, you are stupid and incapable of understanding intelligent entertainment." These people exist: I saw a comment for a YouTube video of Irma Thomas' Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (used for powerful effect in '15 Million Merits') that said
There are two kinds of people in the world: those that have seen Black Mirror, and those who dislike this.
Wrong. There are infinite kinds of people, with different tastes and perceptions, capable of independent thought - when they are allowed to. Basically, Black Mirror is the perfect example of a show asking the audience to think; whether they liked the show or not is irrelevant, but if they are aware of how the media tries to manipulate them for their own ends, then maybe they will resist. The signs are there: the heartfelt Military Wives anthem beat X Factor to number one at Christmas. Yes, there is an argument that says this is itself manipulation, but it wasn't Nirvana, it was a group of women who miss their husbands. Emotion triumphs over commercialism, the beating heart beats away the  itching hand - that's what I see and to me, that is better than anything.

And yes, it is that good.

And yes, this whole post may seem incomprehensible but I like it that way. Just ask if confused.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Sarah Jane Adventures - A final tribute to Elisabeth Sladen

For my money this show is a far better spin-off series from 'Doctor Who' than Torchwood. Both have had poor episodes, but Torchwood's only highpoint was 'Children of Earth'; it's first two series tried too hard to be adult and ended up being juvenile, while the recent series was ploddingly dull. The Sarah Jane Adventures however is fully aware of it's children's audience and so has always been entertaining and energetic. This has also allowed it to punch above it's weight with some very thought-provoking dramas (such as The Trickster trilogy 'Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?', 'The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith' and 'The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith') and psychological horror like 'The Day of the Clown' and 'The Nightmare Man'.

The series came to a tragic end with the death of Elisabeth Sladen. As Sarah Jane Smith, she had created an enduring character that could have easily been a mere cypher. Sladen provided the character with charm and likability needed from a Doctor Who companion and had been developed in her role as leading lady. Thankfully despite her poor health, Sladen was involved in three episodes which would have been one half of the series. This feeling of unfinished business does not go away but it is still great to see Ms. Smith (and Sladen) being given one last hurrah.

The first of the three is 'Sky' which sums up everything right and wrong about the series. Both writer Phil Ford and director Ashley Way have established an inconsistent reputation, either making very interesting tales like The Day of the Clown (Ford) and Death of the Doctor (Way) , or forgettable works such as The Empty Planet, the other of the two Way had directed previously. As for Ford, well let's just say there's more misses than hits. Unfortunately this is a low point for both of them, resorting to patronising the young audience, completely forgetting that TSJA works best when it treats them intelligently. The dialogue is very clunky and far too often resorting to cliches ("That girl is going to get us into so much trouble"). The direction doesn't make these lines any better, making them sound more forced than they already are. As such this marrs the debut of Sinead Michael, playing the eponymous Sky. She shows much promise, and her innocent questions and behaviour are very endearing. But promising talent needs some nurturing and I don't see enough suggestion that Way can see beyond her 'child actor' status, often unfairly assumed to be substandard.

Thank god then that she is surrounded by experienced performers - Liz, Daniel Anthony (Clyde) and Anjli Mohindra (Rani) have played these characters for so long, they rise head and shoulders above the poor quality script to provide some form of excitement. Their scenes with Sky are also brilliant, as there is yet another interruption in their lives, bringing the best out of the youngster. The rest of the performance are great, just on the right side of over the top, and the monster is impressive but particularly threatening when invisible - footprints without a visible source is such a disconcerting image.

'The Curse of Clyde Langer' is a definite return to form, and unbelievably has the same writer and director team. As is traditional in TSJA, the brainless, action-packed opener is followed by a thoughtful tale with plenty of emotional punches. Ford crafts an upsetting tale for children in particular, having Clyde cursed by a spooky totem pole which makes everybody hate him. Ford captures that horrific childhood fear of everyone turning against you for seemingly no good reason - I am sure everyone can sympathise with Clyde's distress. It goes without saying that Anthony is fantastic at showing Clyde's desperation and especially his relationship with Ellie (Lily Loveless), a homeless youth. The comparison of situations may be very obvious but it does create some though-provoking situations.

Way also shows more creative in his direction here, whether it's minor moments such as a lovely overlap with the roar of a monster and a car's rumble, or the activation of the curse which is a sequence that is important and creepy. The resolution does feel sentimental and slightly unclear, but the gloomy atmosphere had been so well established, I relished any form of happy ending to the depressing situation.

And finally the series is forced to end on 'The Man Who Never Was' which, as writer Gareth Roberts pointed out on Twitter, was not intended to be the series finale but the third story as it was broadcast.

Oh the irony of watching a story about a man who inexplicably glitches on the iPlayer. There was a very odd meta fictional feel to the occasional pauses as it tried to load. This did not ruin the episode, however, which matches the high expectations from the same writer/director duo (Gareth Roberts and Joss Agnew respectively) who produced the heartbreaking 'The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith'. This is more light-hearted affair but it still pulls it's fair share of punches especially it's comments on slavery by businessmen. Rather than allow for overt sentimentality or sheer horror, the script balances between the two and also benefits from an endearing performance from Dan Starkey, the new go-to monster man, with the Skullians as a whole sympathetic and endearing race of little creatures. On the other side, James Dreyfusis clearly having a ball as the villain which makes the character all the more entertaining. As well as a great physical performance from Mark Aiken as the titular character, the regulars also get a good last run-out. Clyde and Rani, and Luke and Sky make terrific double acts with both relationships going under considerable development.

While the story does have a predictable conclusion, the first episode is very intriguing with plenty of suggestion of eerie goings on. It also has Sladen at the top of her game as she demonstrates Sarah Jane's journalistic skills which had never really been examined before. Her interview with Aiken's Joseph Serf is nothing short of sublime, with terrific humour as she playfully teases information out of him. As brilliant as she is here, it only makes her shocking death all the more tragic. Not only have we seen an actress leave before her prime, we have missed a really promising season: Sky looked to be a great character, and the return of "servants of the universe" Captain and The Shopkeeper suggested some really fascinating stories to come. Ultimately nobody would say that Liz was a bad actress - her characters were always believable, Sarah Jane being the pinnacle of all of them. So important was she to the character, you could never be sure who fed into whom.

Simply my referring to her as Liz shows how much of an impact she made on her audience - her performances always felt personal and honest. We weren't just watching a character, we were watching a well-rounded and believable person. The fact that Liz's performance has no suggestion of being diminished by her illness makes her death all the more heartbreaking. It will be a long time before her loss will be bearable or forgotten. Thank you Liz, you will be forever missed.

Friday, 11 November 2011

'The Poems of Wilfred Owen' edited by Jon Stallworthy

It may seem unusual to acknowledge the importance of Wilfred Owen on this important day of respect. He was arguably one of the famous war poets in this country but rather than write poems of patriotism that could easily date, they showed the true horrors of the Front which has left a distinct impression on the image of warfare. is but the trembling of a flare
And heaven but as the highway for a shell
[Apologia pro poemate meo]
Before explaining the relevance of the poetry, I must recommend this particular collection of Owen's work. This edition collects his poems in chronological order and in case you have any doubts about the placement, Stallworthy justifies his positioning with footnotes on when Owen was meant to have wrote them. They also include suggestions of where he was when he wrote them and how it was published, with enlightening insights in how the poems developed through numerous letters and drafts. Supported with literary analysis of each poem, Stallworthy has managed to provide enough information to maintain the audience's interest without overloading them with pointless tidbits. This detail is particularly welcome when you read the poems themselves. Aware that Owen did intend to reference Keats in his early works is quite satisfying.
Being well regarded for his war poetry, it is initially quite surprising to read his early pastoral, almost idyllic sonnets. While lacking the bite and memorability of his later work, they are enjoyable reads and his version of 'The Little Mermaid' is a definite highlight with shades of darkness which became giant strokes later.
Some men sing songs of Pain and scarcely guess
Their import, for they never knew her stress.
                                               [The Poet in Pain]
Warfare was the main focus of his poetry clearly but this did not stop him commenting on other important areas. He often provided unoriginal comments on class, with the upper class treating the working class like dirt, literally in the case of 'Inspection'.

"Three soldiers hailed her. She made no return.
One was called 'Orace whom she would not greet.

In contrast, I was completely shocked by his bitter reflections on religion, particularly in relation to the war. To me, they seemed rather controversial although I'm not sure if they made that sort of impact. 'Le Christianisme' contains a very concise description of how a statue of the Virgin Mary "Smiles on for war to flatter her" as she stands amongst the ruins of a church - these sort of images are scattered in various poems but I do not assume he was anti-religious in his views. What he suggested is how the faith in humanity at the heart of Christianity has become irrelevant to the men who are forced to slaughter their fellow human beings.

His depictions of the sheer brutality of warfare do make tough reading, inverting the use of poetry as beautiful and using it to produce disturbing imagery, most famously in 'Dulce et Decorum Est', one of my all-time favourite poems. More than any other of his poems, it is completely immersive and you are there with the soldiers, watching one poor victim "guttering, choking, drowning" But as soon as we are drawn in, Owen accuses us or rather the audience at the time for believing and repeating "The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori." which roughly means "It is sweet and right to die for one's country" This disapprovement in the general public also involved their hypocritical behaviour with little or no reception for returning soldiers - 'The Send-off' most depressingly shows this attitude as they are whisked away "like wrongs hushed-up"

This disapproval of glorifying war and soldiers may seem at odds with this day where we give tribute to the soldiers who fought and died for us. Nevertheless it is because of these horrific situations that Owen describes that we should pay tribute to these soldiers. That they felt the need to put themselves through this, that they would sacrifice their lives in order for us to live which Wilfred Owen himself did, is truly honourable and is never mocked by Owen. The soldiers described in his poems are victims, thrust into a situation they are not used to and doing what they feel is best.

It seems fitting to end this post with the last written words by Owen, a preface for a potential collection of poems. As you would expect, he describes the intent of his poems more accurately and eloquently than I can:
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.

Thank you - you will never be forgotten

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Watching and Reading Much Ado About Nothing

'When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should still live till I were married.'
Just to make clear, no I regrettably have not seen the David Tennant and Catherine Tate production, but nevertheless the performance I saw in Abergavenny was still impressive. The trick to performing Shakespeare I find is focusing on clarity - chances are at least half the audience will not be familiar with the ins and outs of the play or be able to fully understand the language. In this case the ensemble company did this very well and provided an entertaining evening for all. And it is them more than Shakespeare that deserves the plaudits.

The plot is fairly simple: a group of soldiers return from war to stay in the home of Leonardo, where some of them fall in love with his female family and servants. But as Shakespeare himself wrote, although not in this play, "the course of true love never did run smooth"

The recent convention of abridging Shakespeare's plays may mean there are few productions that contain the whole text, but it does make them more approachable - the quality is still up for debate. As Mark Lawson brought up in his interview with Tennant and Tate, lines like 'if I do not love her, I am a Jew' cannot be used in modern productions. The only possible exception is if, like Gilliam with Faust, a director chose to set the play in Nazi Germany - hardly likely to be a successful combination with any comedies, never mind Shakespeare's.

While the play contains many witty one-liners and fiery dialogue within Beatrice and Benedick's arguments, they did not provoke near as many laughs as the physical comedy from the actors, particularly when both Beatrice and Benedick are tricked into thinking they are in love with each other. Hiding behind increasingly ludicrous items and an attempted cat imitation were exaggerated to the right extent to bring the audience to hysteria. The lines usually only produced laughs through the fantastic timing and inflections used by the actors, such as one instant when a bitter Claudio bitterly talks to 'BeneDICK'

As such when reading the play, the wordplay is more humorous and benefits from being able to take time to understand the language. It also provides detail for the characters and plot, although in this case little more is needed. What is most striking is the similarities and differences in the experiences. The moments of exposition are tedious in both versions, particularly when Hero's fake death is planned - a dramatic contrivance that is near impossible to overcome. However the production did successufully manage at least one major diversion from the text. Claudio, lover of Hero, is tricked into thinking she cheats on him by Don John. Unlike in the script, the production showed the deception on stage. The only piece of dialogue was when the trickster cried to his lover, "You are my Hero" with Claudio's heartbreak being portrayed through some impressive acting. While it was tragic when I first watched it, it is simply stunning knowing that it's an insert.

I am generally of the opinion that seeing a performance of Shakespeare's plays, whether on film or stage, is the best possible way to gain an appreciation of the text; if it is designed to be performed, it is ridiculous to only judge it on a literate level. I genuinely feel Shakespeare was primarily a fantastic entertainer but this was the first time I saw a full-length performance - an area I aim to rectify in time. This relatively low-key production of a mostly lesser-known play leaves me desperate for more.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Reading 'Emma' by Jane Austen

As she was writing 'Emma' Austen may have had little idea that this would be the last novel published in her lifetime, but she was certain about one thing: "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like." She undeniably succeeded - the best thing about Emma is that she is such a caricature. She feels she has a right to interfere with people's lives and is always right. Even when she is shown the catastrophic consequences of her actions, she still doesn't learn. Unfortunately this means when Austen gives her a happy ending, it feels both anti-climatic and, in want of a better word, undeserving. She is not deliberately mean and she clearly has the best intentions, but Austen's biased favour for her character does mean Emma is intolerable at times.

However the overall tone is one of frivolity, well for the 19th Century anyway, which allows for some forgiveness for the melodramatic aspects of the novel. The characters are all lively and make many humorous quips. Indeed, it is in the dialogue that Austen is at her finest. Each character has a distinct way of speaking, which writers often find difficult to achieve. Miss Bates' babble in particular stands out, often filling a whole page on absolutely nothing; by far my favourite character. This is probably because all the rest are generally snobs, albeit entertaining ones. There are many of them, and almost all of them have their own sub-story. As such this means that it is sometimes difficult to keep track of the more minor characters, but they are usually not very involved in the plot. And there is the major fault I have - the plot.

I have already expressed my disappointment with the ending, but actually it doesn't feel like an ending. The whole story is just a series of events, based around the social occassions of the village. As such if you have no investment in the characters, the novel will become unbearable. As with any social occassion, there is much organisation required and Austen spends far too much time explaining the meticulous preparations. Even though the events themselves are of some interest, like when you know the secrets to a trick, they lose the initial impact. The romances between the characters are also drawn out a bit too much, which is a shame: particularly as when the characters discuss these relationships, Austen's flair for dialogue provides some biting commentary and luscious imagery,

To Austen's credit, she doesn't openly state, as narrator, 'Aren't these characters ridiculous?'; she simply shows us their attitudes and behavior, and allow us to draw our own conclusions. Personally, I enjoyed it's light touch and lack of overarching drama. As my first Austen, it wasn't too overwhelming but I did feel that because of when it was written (1816), it's lightness feels excessive nowadays and uses more words than perhaps seems necessary to tell the story.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Watching and Reading 'Jane Eyre'

Novels with a classic status which were written in the 19th century are assumed to be of a high quality and worthy literature. The undeniable difference of writing style can jar with a modern audience, as they will be more aware of the ideas and themes that the novel created. So the concept of the unreliable narrator and the mad woman in the attic (pretty much the only thing that made me want to read the novel) cause less of a shock then when originally published. So is 'Jane Eyre' still worth reading, and what impact has the recent film adaption made on it's popularity?
 Jane is a child who is constantly mistreated and misunderstood by adults. Then at 18, she enters the household of Mr Rochester and encounters a very different kind of gentleman. Despite being a very simple story, the novel is not an easy read and does take a long time to get through. But as with all these period novels the length is justified by creating well-rounded characters. They all have a distinct personality that prevents confusion, and as such easily allows the reader to either loathe them (such as Jane's adopted family as a child or John Rivers, a later guardian) or love them (her aid Mrs. Fairfax and Jane's childhood friend Helen). However it is clear from their first meeting that the focus of the story and our emotional involvement is with Jane and Mr. Rochester.

By having Jane narrate the story, we are allowed an insight into two seemingly impenetrable characters. Apart from with Mr. Rochester, her relationships with the other characters rarely allow her to release her emotions and thoughts, due to her low social status. They do not expect great things from her or any sense of humanity; she is just a governess, a servant, a woman. But neither does she appreciate being patronised or insulted; she has a strong personality and force of will, which only the reader and Mr Rochester are aware of. On the other hand, Mr Rochester is impenetrable because everyone wants to know and understand him but he chooses not to - except for 'plain' Jane.

It is very difficult not to be enraptured by their blossoming romance, especially if like me you are a sucker for that type of thing. It is possible to take a completely different reading and claim that their relationship is mostly based on tension, particularly with the mood swings and secrets of Mr Rochester. However this tension is often read as merely the romance being left unstated by the characters, which you wouldn't know was there if Jane didn't suggest it in her narration.

 While this is relatively unclear in the novel, the recent film adaption captured it perfectly. Like the book, by far the best thing about the film is the performances by Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender in the lead roles. For some peculiar reason, I had never imagined Jane with a Yorkshire accent, but Wasikowska was so fluent that it seemed natural and makes perfect sense, emphasising her separation to the rigid higher members of society. Throughout you are completely devoted to her character's plight, especially as we are introduced to her fleeing from the house of Rochester - a brave move but very effectively allows the story to feel fresh to those who already know the story, and provides a dramatic start for new comers.

Initially I became worried that the depth of the character would not be explored. It's innovative structure means it glosses over, perhaps too quickly, her school days. While the focus on the major set-pieces are captivating (the death of a friend, her punishment by her 'headmaster') we gain no sense of how important this environment was to her development, making her departure seem rushed and unmotivated. Nevertheless this approach pays off when the story ups a notch with the introduction of Rochester in a breathtaking Gothic sequence. By focusing on the major set pieces of the novel, with character development in between, the film provides the story with brevity that hopefully will pique the audience's interest in the novel, which provides a more detailed exploration of the characters.

The real highlights though are when the themes of the book are visualised on screen. They both explore the idea of humanity in nature, and how Jane in particular cannot resist what feels natural to her, rather than what is expected from her. While this is referenced in the book through Jane's inner conflict, the film actually places her in the middle of wilderness and moors - the images naturally recalling those depicted in 'Wuthering Heights by Charlotte's sister, Emily.

I could spend far more time describing the similarities between those two novels, but it's all been done before. Even though I prefer 'Heights' for it's unashamed Gothic darkness and ferocity, I did enjoy 'Jane Eyre' despite it's relatively lighter tone. It is well worth reading and deserve it's classic status purely through producing two captivating characters involved in a timeless and enduring romantic relationship.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Watching 'Hidden' - Episode 1. Thursday 6th October

In rcent years, it has struck me that the mystery/spy genre has undergone a transformation. Partly this is because I have only in the last few years taken a interest in it, but these were relatively straightforward mystery stories such as Jonathan Creek and Agatha Christie's novels. While these are both terrific, recent examples on TV and film I've seen have made much more of an effort to provide style with the substance. Both 'Case Histories', starring (Hello to) Jason Issacs as Jackson Brodie, and 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' (which I will discuss in more detail sometime soon) had gripping plots fantastically intertwined with interesting characters and dynamic direction. It is with some earnest that 'Hidden' tries to achieve a similar outcome.

Phillip Glenister stars as Harry Venn, a detective / private eye sort of character, who is trying to move on from the tragic death of his brother some years ago. Only for a mysterious figure or two suggesting a different outcome, but this information requires some legwork from Venn, guaranteed to get him into trouble. And this is only scratching the surface. There has been some sort of unspoken revolution recently, where the audience is expected to have some intelligence and are more willing to watch programmes that don't necessarily follow a linear style, and the fragmented style has produced some remarkable productions.

Unfortunately not in this case. I found this a mess of ideas, which are all interesting in their own right. The mystery story runs parallel with an attempt at social commentary, with a coalition on the point of collapse as London is filled with rioters. I have no problem with having different stories playing out along side each other, but neither kept me gripped. By trying to do too much, it ends up doing very little of anything. The detective story is riddled with cliches and even Harry's personal background failed to strike new ground - having a relationship with his ex-wife while failing to control his son. This should be dramatic but fails to rise above mediocre. 'Case Histories' was also susceptible to a stereotypical dysfunctioning family, but the conviction of the performances and strength of the writing there made them intriguing. Compare the two put-upon receptionists: CH's was sarcastic and lively woman who actually challenges Jackson's authority, while in 'Hidden' he is a bland and annoying caricature who leaves little impression on the viewer.

Phillip Glenister succeeds in shrugging off the overbearing Gene Hunt from 'Life on Mars' and 'Ashes to Ashes' that made him memorable. He is clearly playing a different character, but a far less interesting one. Try as he might, he aroused no interest in me and I found myself caring litle about his difficult encounters. And then there's the political subplot that seems like it's come from a completely different show. I was very dissapointed with this as the mystery is still of some interest, if badly under developed. No matter how inventive the direction and visuals, if the story isn't up to scratch, I'm not interested.

16th October: In addition I attempted to watch episode 2 earlier and found that it was much the same as before, with little development that was of any interest. It says a lot when even David Suchet cannot tempt me to continue.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Nebulous Series 1

1. Night of the Vegetarians                                  2. The Loverly Invasion
3. The Dust Has Landed                        4. Madness is A Strange Colour
5. The Coincidence Machine              6. The Man Who Polished The Sun

There is always something about Mark Gatiss' work that feels old-fashioned, whether it is pastiche (Crooked House, his take on M. R. James-like stories) or tribute (A History of Horror, a fascinating exploration of his favourite eras of horror films). As such it is not surprising that in his Doctor Who stories, there is a definite feel that he is attempting to recapture the 'classic' magic the show had - where storytelling and scares was the main focus rather than the spectacle now deemed necessary in modern television. Gatiss' loving fan loyalty to the show has been well documented within his numerous Who books, audios and television stories to such an extent that even he parodies his near-obsessiveness in this terrifying but hilarious sketch.

Nevertheless, Gatiss got involved with one more Who-related project, which ended up as Nebulous. A blatant parody of many aspects of the old series of Doctor Who, it is occasionally difficult to try and judge it on it's own terms. So that is what I hav tried to do and unfortunately it means that it's not as fun as it could and, perhaps, should have been.

First of all, it is very silly. Really silly. But knowingly so, which makes all the difference. Not only does the script constantly laugh at it's own plot, the cast give very exaggerated performances, with Rosie Cavaliero and writer Graham Duff terrifically and successfully fulfilling the sterotypical love interest and smart-arse involvingly. Gatiss in the starring role is brilliantly deadpan, refusing to camp up too much the technobabble and ridiculous observations ("I refused to listen to my brain or my eyes or the facts") The numerous guest apperances also get the tone spot on with David Warner being his usual brilliant self in unsual circumstances, as well as the three aliens in 'The Loverly Invasion' including a subdued Nicholas Briggs - a rare sight much appreciated.

So on a performance level it succeeds, so why the dissapointment? It's so determined to parody the science-fiction that nothing else is really that involving. There are very good jokes within and I laughed enough to leave me happy when it finished. yet ask me the plots and I'd struggle. They aren't complicated but they're just not that interesting. It is primarily a comedy rather than science fiction, which doesn't stop it adressing interesting ideas such as the titular 'The Coincidence Machine' But when it's strength is in jokes about the rubbish side of old sci-fi, attempts at comedy about the ridiculous characters' relationships don't really work.

This was the first series of three and while I will listen to the other series if they are broadcast, this is not a series I am desperate to hear again. Truly a show to listen to if your ready for a silly, light-hearted half hour or more, but not a lot else.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Reading 'Our Country's Good' by Timberlake Wertenbaker (The Importance of Appearances)

The most remarkable thing about the play is not just that it was purely created from a workshop of actors, using research and their talents to form a brilliant play. It is how this doesn't matter; if you did not know it's origins, you would assume this was just a standard play. Because of it's origins, it gains a unique style. While multi-roling is not uncommon in theatre, the play is about theatre and uses multi-roling in a very specific way. If you look at the original cast list, it is worth noting which actor played each role. For example, concited Wisehammer and  Governor Arthur Phillip, both played by Ron Cook, are arguably the most thoughtful characters in the play even though one is a convict and the other in charge of the colony. Lesley Sharp as , Reverend Johnson, and convicts Meg Long and Mary Brenham is able to explore three different views of sex and, in the case of Mary, how love can change someone. With this technique, the similarites and contrasts provoke interesting viewing

When reading the play though, it is not necessary to imagine multi-roling actors; having them as indivdual characters does not lessen the message that theatre can be a form of redemption. Neither does it remove the shock of the opening scene of convicts being flogged and missing home. It is clear from the start then, who we are meant to feel sympathetic for. The play continues in this blatant way, with simplistic plot and characterisation -  set in the 1780s, a group of convicts sent to Australia try to stage a play, despite some reluctance from officers and themselves. The class differences between the officers and the convicts is so clear, that it easily allows the reader to see the different attitudes towards the treatment of criminals; re-education or punishment? This is not as clear cut an argument as you might suppose, even if Wertenbaker is clearly in favour of the former. Neither argument is completely disproved, but the bias is obvious and so we are inclined to agree with the author, and rightly so.

 The officers may be mainly caricatures, of which many are present in Act One, Scene 6 (The Authorities Discuss the Merits of Theatre) but as such work brilliantly as a contrast to the more developed prisoners. By
The Methuen Drama: Student Edition
that contains
eyeopening revelations
about the origins of the play

having the officers sound so similar, all speaking with formal and complex vocabulary, allows the numerous and different voices of the convicts to become more distinctive especially when they talk to each other:
Phillip: Why wouldn't you say any of this before?
Liz: Because it wouldn't have mattered.
Phillip: Speaking the truth?
Liz: Speaking
This is a crucial moment on many levels, most notably because we realise that what Liz says is true. When we see the convicts at their best i.e. as decent human beings, it is when they are interacting with each other and rehearsing 'The Recruiting Officer' The fact that they are willing to perform in the play shows that they clearly have some confidence. Yet as Berkoff said "Naturalism is what you do when you don't know anything else" So perhaps it is not surprising that they soon improve their acting ability as they continue to rehearse. They also act as great moments to see character arcs and developments. As they spend more time on the play their true self comes out, as they realise how pretending to be someone else shows you who you really are - Liz is less judgemental, Wisehammer becomes more impressed by the power of words and Mary is more willing to embrace her love for Ralph.

Ralph, a lowly officer, is the protagonist of the play and so is by far the most believable and complex character. His first scene is dully observing the flogging of a convict but by the end of the play is passionately encouraging his new-found actors to give it their all on opening night. This intially sounds like a positive change in character, and yet in the period this would be seen as a lowly official sinking even lower in social status, hence the comment from the bigoted Major Ross of the second lieutenant: "He wants to be promoted to convict." This is a peculiar juxtaposition, but considering the prejudiced attitude of the officers and the more liberal convicts, this statement is not as fatuous as it first appears.
"And we, this colony of a few hundred will be watching this together, for a few hours we will no longer be despised prisoners and hated gaolers" (p. 20)
We, the audience, meet the demands expected from the officers when they become the audience for the convicts' play - we forget that they are criminals and become interested in their character and personality. Their actions and reasons for being at the colony is not important to us (only in terms of the plot) it is what they do with the time given to them. As we witness the prejudicial and arrogant attitudes of the officers, and the brutality this brings, we support their attempts at rebellion and suffer with them as they are duly punished, especially at the dramatic ending to Act 2 Scene 5. It is not unlikely that Wertenbaker herself shared this emotion when she went to see a play run by prisoners within their environment, an experience that has a clear impact upon the themes and general plot of the play, which are also referenced from the various letters she received from some of the performing prisoners.

A simple play which is very easy to read and well worth trying to see a performance of. I saw a college production of it and was very impressed by the complex issues discussed within this straightforward story. As a drama student, I perhaps appreciated the message about the benefits of theatre more than most. Nevertheless the historical context and the fact that it is based on a true event and real people is more than enough to keep the reader engaged.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

My Laziest Post Yet

I would review the latest series of Torchwood but 1) I can't remember most of it because it all took so long (What actually happened in Episode 2 that mattered at all?) and 2) it was so disappointing I don't feel it even merits a well thoguht-out review.

All I'll say is that after the incredible Children of Earth, I really wanted to like this and despite some fantastic ideas, plot twists and characterisation, it was all swamped by far too much padding. This would have made a cracking 5 parter (as CoE was) but presumably the thought process went "Well if it's double the length, we'll get double the quality" A theory very easily proven wrong. While I forgave the first episode's slowness for being desgined to set-up the ongoing plot threads, the plot's dragging of feet became increasingly irksome, so even when the plot finally kicked into gear in the final two episodes, it was too little too late. Oh and I hated Rex as well.

However my ranting has been more eloquently explained in this terrific article, that basically says everything that I felt when watching the show. It isn't often when your exact thoughts are captured by another in finer prose than I have, so here you go:

A better review than the one you've just read

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Nineteen Ninety-Four (An Orwellian sitcom)

1. Work is Freedom                     2. Freedom is Choice
3. Choice is Progress                     4. Progress is Power
5. Power is Happiness                     6. Happiness is Work

I love 1984. One of my all time favourite books, it never fails to shock me and make me see the world in a completely different way. Nevertheless, the domineering bureaucracy of the Party is ripe for parody and has been numerous times in the past. However, nobody does cynicism like the British and certainly the best of them are involved in this radio show. Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie form part of the ensemble with the splendid Robert Lindsey taking the lead role of Edward Wilson.

Interestingly enough, the show is far more Orwellian than it is a sitcom. The bewildering situations Edward finds himself in are largely played for laughs but there is a definite dark undercurrent, particularly in 'Power is Happiness' as Edward's lucky break causes him to become disturbingly psychotic. The blase reactions of the population to their clear mistreatment is also just as worrying - when radical changes occur, reactions range from "Oh well" to "Hasn't it always been like that?" (I am of course paraphrasing, the scriptwriters are far more witty)

Despite the gloomy setting and storyline, the cast clearly have great fun playing literal caricatures, people who only seem to care about themselves. As a consequence, except for Edward, I don't really care about the characters. They are entertaining in their own ridiculous way but their fate in this world is of little interest. There is much investment to be made, though, in Edward's plight. The most human character in the show, Lindsey does very well with a character who is often bewildered or boldly pretending to know what he's doing. His exasperations are simultaneously amusing and pitiful, with his screams of "I want to go home" towards the end of 'Freedom is Choice' being suitably dramatic and upsetting.

Just as 1984 did, 'Nineteen Ninety-Four' makes some unintentional predictions - video calls, statistics used as fact no matter how ludicrous and the absolute dominance of commercialism. Indeed, the world of both the novel and the radio programme do bear striking similarities and their protagonists follow similar journeys. Even the classic ending of 1984 is replicated although not to such a devastating effect; there's even a suggestion of a happy ending. Comparisons though are generally unnecessary between the hard-hitting novel and the flawed sitcom. The plot isn't quite as clear as it could've been and it's best moments are when it focuses on the sheer absurdity of this world. The cast show great diversity in their vocal range, making each character unique although there are too many of them and the various substories don't always work. Yet there are plenty of good one-liners and surreal uses of futuristic technology (serving machines have their own personalities and their own guidance councillors) that helps define the show as basically what 1984 would have been like had Orwell decided to write it as a comedy. But not as good as Terry Gillaim's Brazil.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Newsjack (A prime example of British cynicism)

A new series has just arrived and there are notable changes this time around, but first why it was so brilliant before.

In it's basic form, Newsjack is a satirical sketch show, with each sketch inspired by current events. What makes it stand out though is that many of the sketches and one-liners have been written by the audience, submitted a few days before airing. This format is not original, having been used with considerable success in Rob Shearman's Chain Gang, where the audience decided where the story went after every episode. This style of writing naturally lends both shows a surreal quality where anything is possible, which both shows provide enthusiastically.

Indeed Newsjack often defies it's satirical jokes for cheap gags like David Wallliams' swimming for charity again and again, but such running jokes are knowing enough to work without being too tiresome. At the heart of these call-backs is the 'host' / 'presenter' for want of a better term, which in the past belonged to Miles Jupp. Best known for his role in Rev, Jupp wowed me from the first time I heard him, a strange mix of playful tone and straight delivery that made me roar with laughter even if the material wasn't always consistently strong. I loved Rev as well and his growing appearances on various panel shows have made his growing reputation possibly a valid reason to leave the show. (This is pure speculation, I have no idea what prompted the change, if you do know I'd be interested)

As such he was replaced by Justin Edwards, who provides a different dynamic to the show. It is not quite as harsh and more light-hearted, which I'm still unsure of yet. Edwards is a fine comedian in his own right and as I've only heard the first episode, it's clearly early days. The show still makes me laugh with it's sheer absurdity though due to the origins not all the sketches work as well. However the "Jack-App", previously known as "Vox Pops" still works brilliantly, essentially a collection of one liners that can be brilliantly incisive. When it's sharp, it's dangerous, but the show is generally good fun and well worth a listen - a worthy sister to The News Quiz and it's ilk.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Maddrim Media (An endless stream of imagination)

It is unusual to talk about a YouTube channel as a source of fantastic short films but this is a very unique channel. Unusually incorporating an ensemble cast and crew present in nearly every video, Maddrim are full of enthusiastic youths with ambitious ideas. With their small scale abilities, naturally these don't all work and their more quirky attempts border on irritating and cringe worthy. 

Their best work is when, as the best creative minds do, they use their lack of resources to the best possible advantage. Simple shots of images tell a very powerful story, best seen in 'The Note'. It's best if you go in knowing nothing, but you can perhaps guess the subject from the title. Interestingly enough, these attempts are when their work is their most serious. 'Masks' is their calling card video, recommended by notable film critic Mark Kermode, after the company showed some of their films at the Shetland Film Festival he runs. An incredibly powerful piece of work, masks are used in the most alienating possible way that leaves you breathless. Yet their creativity does come through in their comedy also. Pork n Beans is innocuous fare but with a brilliant use of live-stop-motion.

They are also spot on in their parodies, whether it is superheroes (Stallion Head), soap operas (Autumn Leaves) or documentaries (Crystal Math) While the videos are obviously amateurish, there is enough enthusiasm and energy from everyone to keep you interested and faithful. Every video is entertaining in their own way, and their ideas are always imaginative and take basic premises to creative conclusions.

While I want them to be more artistic and exploit their creativity with their limitations, every time I see a video that is more obviously amateurish, I appreciate their other works all the more. Furthermore I'm become more reassured that in the future they will be fantastic film makers - I for one can't wait.

Personal favourites:

Monday, 19 September 2011

Reading 'It's Only a Movie: Reel Adventures of a Film Obsessive' by Mark Kermode

 For the life of me I cannot recall why I chose to listen to Kermode and Mayo's Film Review Show. All I can guess was I had reached the age where film was of actual interest to me rather than just something I like watching, both of which it remains. It was summer or at least a holiday. It was a Friday, sometime between 2pm and 4pm. That's all I can recall of my motives. What I definitely know is I've never looked back.

Entertaining and enlightening, Mark Kermode's film knowledge is clearly limitless but he isn't a bore, at least not often. The number of references and mini-reviews available within these 300 odd pages is impressive and usually irrelevant. However far from distracting, this is very much Kermode's style as the book is essentially his voice transcribed and made slightly more comprehensible.

A self-admitted fictional autobiography, there is no guarantee the anecdotes Kermode tells are 100% accurate. In a strikingly post-modern sequence, he takes a break from writing the book to watch a film to check he remembered a scene correctly! And this is on the low-key end of absurdity. Some of the stories sound far-fetched but there is something strikingly honest about his story telling. Say what you like about his opinions and reviews, he knows how to keep an audience entertained.

In the least back-handed way possible, the book is very easy to read. As I say he manages to capture his own voice perfectly (not as easy as you may think) and his casual tone makes it feel you personally are being told this extraordinary story by an old friend. Literary it ain't, incisive criticism isn't here either despite his previous reputation and his latest book ('The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex') seems to be in that vein also. This is just a fine diversion that left me laughing to myself for a few hours and left me thoroughly entertained, with a smidgen more insight into the peculiar world of Mark Kermode.

Still prefer the original cover though:

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Fear on Four / The Man in Black (Modern Horror Anthology)

I will say right now I am incredibly squeamish about excessive gore. If it's surrounded in atmosphere, I can handle it but gore just for the sake of it makes me feel sick and does not scare me. As such I have a natural aversion to horror films, purely because I fear that they will just be this scenario on repeat. Nevertheless I have respect for the genre. For every Saw that I want to avoid, there's something that sounds interesting like A Nightmare on Elm Street but it is that visceral quality that puts me off, which I fear will remove any sense of enjoyment I hope to gain. Naturally this conflict has caused me to be a happy viewer of psychological horror, purely because it's scares and disturbances are purely in the mind of the viewer, tricking us into thinking we've seen more than we have. As such I believe horror is most frightening (rather than sickening) in this style, which can best seen and heard in radio and literature.

In terms of literature, I adore Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King. While both use a certain amount of body horror, they both make the reader uneasy mostly through a disturbing atmosphere. 'The Tell-Tale Heart' shows us a murder, but through the murderers eyes we are also witness to the mind of a madman or, more worryingly, a man completely sane. King of course notably said "Naturally, I'll try to terrify you first, and if that doesn't work, I'll try to horrify you, and if I can't make it there, I'll try to gross you out" but so far I have never failed to see one of his works fail to do all three, in my view the most notable being 'Pet Semetary' and 'The Shining' However books are not particularly relentless and if it gets too much, the reader can stop without ruining the flow of the story.

Not so with radio. You are effectively trapped. The only way to lessen the impact is turning the sound off but 1) you're more than likely to miss an important plot point and 2) there's no way you can know when the scary part has stopped.

Enter The Man in Black. Seemingly a typical horror anthology, it's tone is as much Twilight Zone than anything else. While it often adapts old horror stories ('The Beast with Five Fingers', 'The Monkey's Paw') the highlights are the original stories, varying from revenge stories and full-on horror. Currently repeated on Radio 4extra, Fear on Four's stories are frightening and gripping with spectacular performances and creative writing. Almost stealing the show though is Edward de Souza, adopting the Serling-esque role of introducing and concluding the story. His voice creeps along the edge of sultry and terrifying. Addressing the audience in this context must never be underestimated and de Souza genuinely tries to involve the audience in the events no matter how fantastical the story. It says a lot that even when he reads the credits, a shiver occasionally creeps down my spine.

Thankfully, the show has since made a return in recent years fully acknowledging the importance of the character, perfected by de Souza and previously Valentine Dyall whose version is rarely repeated, by re-naming it The Man in Black. Horror aficionado Mark Gatiss takes this role with both hands and plenty of relish. Anyone aware of his work knows how much he adores horror and he gives a suitably chilling performance, drawing the reader in before unleashing an almighty twist in the tale. These stories are more notably of the time, examining the cliches of modern life we feel we know so well with frightening results. Two thugs robbing an old man's flat and a rap contest are the basis for some mind-bending and deeply disturbing stories. The latter also demonstrates the shows manipulation of the audio format, as does another story based around scientific experiments with sound. Occasionally the stories can be predictable but the resolutions are always unnerving, designed to leave the listener shivering for a good few hours/days/weeks after broadcast.

Whether it's repeats of the old show or brand new stories, the format does not tire and always gives a few decent shocks. 6pms on a Sunday on Radio 4extra currently hold a slot for Fear on Four with hopefully a new series of The Man in Black on the way - this is old-fashioned storytelling with a timeless quality. Enjoy and beware...

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Seeing 'The Seagull Effect' (Wednesday 14th September 2011, The Courtyard, Hereford)

A love story...a meteorological examination on the little decisions we make...a reconstruction of devastation...
All of these are encapsulated in one hour by 5 extraordinarily imaginative young performers accompanied by impressive projections, lighting and props. Mostly an ensemble peace, two simple stories are played out over the course of the one day in 1987 when Michael Fish got it famously wrong - the Great Storm of 1987, one of the worst the country has ever had. We are told retrospectively of a prospective meteorologist going for a job interview explaining the science behind the cause of the hurricane, how it (initially) failed to be detected and how people coped during the ensuing days of catastrophe. Unfortunately Grace Chapman struggles with the large amount of statistics and facts she has to communicate and her monotone delivery does make the information slightly less interesting then it was. Fortunately the cast perform incredible visualisations of the origins of the weather forecast system that very easily communicate a very complicated idea.

Meanwhile a minor love story is played out during the storm and as love is want to do, barely acknowledges the tragedy of the world around it . The awkward comedy is played realistically by Alex Kearley-Sheirs and Kate Stanley and while their story is somewhat predictable, the characters are so likable you get drawn in. Yet again I will say they are all fantastic physical performers and both a tasteful love scene and the two drifting apart (both making good use of a bed) are incredibly powerful.

In the end though this is an ensemble piece. According to their Twitter feed an injury to one of the cast meant a re-blocking with one less performer, not that you could tell. There are spectacular sequences as the hurricane grows in strength and destruction is raged upon Britain - simply using handfuls of leaves and violent body movements is enough to show how frightening these moments were. Even simple scenes of telephone calls and travelling on buses leave an impression on the audience. Needless to say, the audience were thrilled and laughing, with an applause that didn't want to end. If possible try and see this show or at least see this splendid company who I have no doubt will go on to further success and rightly so.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Wilfred (Mainstream Surrealism)

'Wilfred' is one of the many fantastic things that as soon as you try to sum up the basic premise, it sounds too extraordinary to try to watch and understand on a basic level. Basically Ryan (Elijah Wood) has a neighbour (Fiona Gubelmann) who he naturally is attracted to. However after he attempts to commit suicide, he has the bizarre ability to see her dog Wilfred, not as the dog everyone else sees, but as a man (Jason Gann) dressed in a dog costume, which is doomed to be imitated at any fancy dress party.

Well I warned you. What is most peculiar abut this set up is how it is used for essentially a basic buddies-getting-into-scrapes sitcom. Considering it's ridiculously short running time of just over 20 minutes (no doubt due to American adverts) this was a sensible move. None of the plots outstay their welcome and through their simplicity allows the characters to develop and revel in the absurdity of it all. While Wood plays a terrific straight man, it is Gann who completely steals the show, although considering he is the titular character this is perhaps not surprising. Even more so considering he's been playing the character since it began in it's original Australian format. While there is plenty of crude humour to find in a swearing, drug-taking talking dog, the best jokes are when we see Gann's physical talent in convincingly being a dog. Watching him chase his tail and running into the sea screaming "It's a pelican" are hilarious but surprisingly capture what it looks like dogs in such situations are desperate to say. I know that sounds bizarre but to be honest, you can't discuss this show with much rational thought, hence why I'm reviewing it...

Now from the premise, you would assume that Wilfred in human form doesn't actually exist and is just a figment of Ryan's imagination. Well the programme doesn't deny this but also greatly enjoys toying with the viewer of whether this is actually the case. The morals that Wilfred gives Ryan clearly chime with this idea, but the coarse explanation from Gann's rough Australian tones prevent these moments being too heavy-handed. And yet there is a distinct sense that most of what Wilfred does could only occur in the form of a human . Like Ryan we do not expect explanations for his action  but that won't stop us theorising.

This attitude is perfectly encapsulated in the closing moments of the latest episode 'Respect' as Wilfred flips into admitting if he was the cause of the events or not. The fact that these regular epilogues usually involve one or both taking drugs adds to the insecurity of reality. Whether by the end of the series there will be an answer I'm not sure, but I highly doubt that even the creators know the truth if there is any.

I say all this and yet like the best comedy and surrealism, trying to analyse and explain it's magnificence fails in comparison to the real thing. It's on tonight, 10.30pm, BBC 3. Go with it or don't, either way you will be completely baffled by this implacable show.