Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The carcrash that is Spooks

Continue to wade my way through Andrew Motion's biography of Keats, verrrryyyyyy slowly, but thoroughly because I am stopping along the way with my old Penguin edition of the complete Keats to read early sonnets and Endymion, so no new books up for review at all. Perhaps a burst of activity in Nov, who can say, but I shouldn't think life will lighten up until all the references and university entrance palaver is out of the way.

In the meantime, I did start watching Stephen Fry and Simon Schama on the USofA, part of my great America fetish. Schama's programme is genuinely provocative and interesting, although of course, I'd have liked him to be a little less careful with his judgements and a bit more provocative with his commentary. But I am unhinged by overexposure to the Daily Show and Huffington Post, so what do I know? Stephen Fry's romp around the US in a black taxi is great - it's a bit like the way Americans do Europe - three seconds in North Dakota, a whole minute for some meander in the Mississippi in the company of a man who was a dead ringer for an Islamic terrorist given big bushy beardiness (BTW, I swear when I am Emperor of the Universe and Evil Overlord of all Dominions, I'm going to ban beards - they have always looked like homes for bacteria and strange fungal growths. I will entertain petitions for beards that are either so neat as to be unobtrusive or champion ZZ Top type beards, but 98% beards will be for the big shave).

And now I'm brought to my latest two televisual addictions: Little Dorrit, in same useful, user-friendly format as Bleak House, half hour on Thursday and Sunday, and of course, the diabolically appalling Spooks.

I've always thought of Spooks as shark-jumpy, from the end of Season 1 where MacFadyen has his girlfriend and her daughter trapped in a house with an exploding laptop, and yanno that everyone will escape the cliffhanger - but then the writers will get you with a much worse death for your favourite characters at the end of an early ep in the series. And it was ever thus, with the dispatch of Rupert Penry Jones, oops, sorry, Adam Carter, it's just the drama and writing are so implausible that I can never forget that the actors are actually actors and that Rupert Penry Jones is having to say these absolutely ridiculous things e.g. about how his grandfather had half his back shot away on the Somme so we aren't going to bow to terrorists demanding that we cancel Remembrance Sunday....eh?

Anyway, last night, RPJ bought the farm, but fortunately, hot guy role has been taken over by Richard Armitage, aka Guy of Gisborne, and bonus, he took off his top to reveal muscular glorification with Blake tattoed on his midriff. I am not sure how or why the tattoist in the Russian prison where Guy - sorry, Richard, sorry, Lucas North had spent the last 8 years (ahem conveniently skipping 9/11 and all previous series of Spooks) had access to a Blake print, but there it was on his chest, along with cobblers like Dum Spiro Spero and wiggly squirls on his back and arms. Anyway for those of you who missed it, Armitage has quite the upper body.

You can see that unlike previous series of Spooks, where they had Tom/Matthew MacFadyen walking into the sea and Danny the cool black guy having his brains blown out, I am no longer remotely upset by the death of key characters. I just like to know how they are going to get rid of them, and RPJ had let slip the suggestion that he might be leaving the series, so I knew sticky end would surely follow. The bad news is that despite having a full funeral the stupid blonde woman who RPJ/Adam was having an on-off thing with is back, behaving more stupidly than ever... in Russia undercover (ermmmm, MI5 don't do abroad, but that's only a slight technical hitch) using her mobile, then having a detailed practical chat over mobile in back of London cab - how bloody un-undercover is that? She did do a cool thing of kicking the s*@t out of a big bald bloke who was theoretically an Ivan following her, then straddling him with her crotch in his face and a ballpoint pen to his left eye so she could nick his carkeys.

Anyway, Spooks was well up to its customary standard of being beyond the collapse of the Twin Towers in its use of Willing Suspension of Disbelief, but I will be there like a panting hart to watch the second in the series tonight. But I'm getting perilously close to not wishing to spend my previous TV hours on a programme which has me howling at the screen every 3 seconds: "No, that couldn't happen, that just couldn't happen, arrrrghghghg give me a bloody break."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Tennant's Hamlet

On Tuesday night, I saw Tennant doing Hamlet, and it was the most exhilarating of performances - although he couldn't have done it without the others. The cast was terrific, and I do think it is a landmark Hamlet, although what with Toby Stephens and Ben Wishaw around, there are plenty of major contenders for the Hamlet of the Noughties.

I've seen some great Hamlets - Jonathan Pryce in 1982, Branagh in 1992, Andrew Mallett in 1996 on the Great Wall of China, Simon Russell Beale in 2000. But Tennant was something else. It was like watching quicksilver, swift, elusive, allusive, rich, and utterly, totally enthralling.

The role is so absorbing, the word-play so dazzling, the imagery so vivid and the predicament so much the predicament of all of us poor puny humans. Not all of us are Macbeth or Lear, military men at their peak, or aged kings like Lear. But all of us have some moment when we are faced with terrible revelations, decisions, consequences, however it happens, all of us must lose a father, as Claudius so callously suggests in Act 1, and all of us have that moment when we are rendered rogues and peasant slaves for our failures.

Tennant's Hamlet left me wanting to be Horatio, and I have to say I thought Horatio was a gift in the casting, as were Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius and Penny Downie as Gertrude. The closet scene has lingered with me. I sat there tense and horrified, but now, the memory of Gertrude holding her beloved son as though she could by holding him somehow put them both back together again, shattered and distraught as they were, brings tears to my eyes. Patrick Stewart was not a bravado Claudius - he was avuncular but with this terrible, cold concealed cruelty that emerged when he saw Gertrude pick up the cup and ordered her not to drink. Then when she gazes at him, understanding fully what he has planned, he watches frozen, almost visibly convincing himself that he was better off without her. His own death was eerily unhurried.

Time was very clearly delineated throughout, the set was magnificent, but the night was Tennant's, the text was delivered sharp and clear so that meaning was layered and intertwined and everything seemed to me lucid, accessible and true.

Denmark became so real a place of mirrors and smoke, so subtle, the roar of the sea suggested, surrounding this prison with terrors of the deep.

It was one of those nights of theatrical magic, inspirational, rich, unforgettable, the three hours traffic of the stage passing too swiftly. The memory will be green with me for years - I think of moments of the play and the scene unfolds before me in my mind's eye. It's easy with an all-singing-all-dancing-all-sci-fi version of Hamlet like this to forget the hand at the tiller, but Doran's Hamlet is absolutely riveting, and I wish I could see it again and again and again.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Hank and John, and the Nerdfighters

Last year, I was hooked by the Vlogbrothers, Hank and John Green who live in the middle of nowhere (OK Missoula, Montana, that's the middle of nowhere to a Neuhaus-chomping victory chimp swinging through the capital of Old Europe). They are a pair of bespectacled nerdfighter brothers who decided to communicate only via vlog for 2007, and whoopee, they have reprised themselves for a month because of some bet/deal/punishment decided by their nerdfighter followers. Huzzah.

It is hard to work out which one talks faster, but they are worth checking out for Hank's Numa Numa dance, and for their Obama Llama Duck song featuring George Bush as duck (sometimes sitting) and John's upside down waste-paper basket practice, oh, and by the way, his new book Paper Town comes out in six days. I've not read any of John Green's books, but they are recommended by my former pupil Naomi Rea, whose judgement I mostly trust where books are concerned except for her inexplicable addiction to Twilight and the subsequent stupendously stinky novels of major Mormon Stephanie Meyer featuring uber-Mary-Sue Bella and the gorgeous vampire Edward Cullen who sparkles (for more on his sparkliness also check out that other blogger of genius, Cleolinda). Goodness, that sentence was hard to reach the end of.

I can report nothing else on the book/movie front: we are trying to finish House season 3 before the boxed set of House season 4 is issued in OE, I am in the middle of several books and at the end of none of them, and the only movie I've seen recently was Run Fat Boy Run, a mildly amusing romcom with Simon Pegg and Hank Azaria. I found watching Azaria odd, because of course I know him as the voice of Apu and Chief Wiggum among others, not as some really quite pectorally moulded individual with a face that could only be American. It was a bit like watching my mother-in-law lapdancing. RFBR is also directed by David Schwimmer.

What were these two icons of US tv doing messing around with a low-budget Brit romcom? Saving grace (as always) was Dylan Moran doing one of his louche turns again. Anyway, it did get me through a couple of exercise sessions and I may watch it again while doing tedious bumps and thumps because I have watched so much MTV during my exercise sessions that I have seen every video about 50m times. In fact, if I had been paid a euro for every time I've seen the sodding Foo Fighters singing Best of You, I could step in and sort out the Icelandic banking crisis. Don't get me started on Slipknot and Queens of the Stone Age who continue to vie with the Pussycat Dolls for my vote for most repellent music videos ever conceived.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Dragonfly Pool

Eva Ibbotson has never let me down - I'm sad that she's now writing exclusively for the children's market, but her writing remains lucid, generous, warm-hearted and humane. The Dragonfly Pool harks back to the children's books of an earlier time, the Ruritanian romances of Anthony Hope, Frances Hodgson Burnett's Lost Prince and Violet Needham's books set in a fin-de-siecle zone somewhere east of Vienna. The brave, bright and sympathetic heroine, Tally Hamilton, has a strong moral code which leads her bizarrely to Bergania, a neutral fictional country that does its best to stand up against Hitler, and entangles her with the Royal Family of Bergania. There is a chase, there are villains of every stripe from the out and out evil to those who are simply utterly and entirely self-centred. Good more or less triumphs, the wicked more or less pay for their sins and the plot hangs together well for me, although as always with Ibbotson's books, I always wish they were longer for the elegance and gentle, witty style that she has perfected over the last 30 or so years of writing.

Ibbotson's stand-out books for me remain Countess Below Stairs, Magic Flutes and Company of Swans, all of which enlivened a rather difficult winter in Aberdeen that I remember for a cold so extreme that I spent quite a lot of time in both the University Library and the central city library, intermittently studying phonetics, sociolinguistics and more cheeringly, Renaissance Scots literature. Later she published The Morning Gift, which has become my favourite of her romances. There is a pattern - not a formula, but a pattern - to her novels. The heroine is always very much an ingenue, and good to her core. Good, not in a goody-two-shoes kind of way, but in a passionate and morally not always particularly easy kind of way, the kind of good that understands sacrifice and struggling for what one believes is right. The heroes are formidably intelligent and often self-made and staggeringly rich. They may be blinded by superficiality at the start of the novel, or even trapped not by blindness but by necessity into quite terrible matches, but they see the light and they are led to it by the heroines. There is always a rich cast of supporting characters with quirks and foibles that make them at once maddening and lovable, but also quite unique. And then there are the villains. There are quite often horrible, nasty evil people, like the leader of the Gestapo thugs in Dragonfly Pool, but also there are quite terrible, awful, banal, narcissists whose great wickedness is their self-centredness and almost unwitting cruelty.

Ibbotson writes a world of extremes, like Dickens or Austen, because extremes are more amusing, but there is a core of fundamental truth in her world - the good do not always entirely triumph, the wicked are not always, and in fact not usually, fully routed, but the triumph at the end of the novel is not so much love conquering all, as moral rectitude triumphing. Selfishness, self-centredness, these may continue in the characters who exhibit them, but our good guys, and this is more explicit in the children's books, enjoy a moral victory that is far more satisfying and true than perhaps glibber writers might manage. All this and careful, neat, high-quality prose that never talks down to the reader of any age. If you haven't read any Ibbotson before, go forth and devour. A writer to comfort the soul.