Saturday, 17 March 2018

Book: David Bowie: A Life by Dylan Jones - All the Young Pseuds

Nice jacket
This book should be titled ‘All the Young Pseuds’ …
I learnt more about a book’s subject in two pages of James Kaplan’s second biography of Frank Sinatra, Sinatra: The Chairman than I did in 600 of Dylan Jones’s David Bowie: A Life.

As is often the way with works like this, you find out more about the people interviewed and more about the author (who seems to have a very low opinion of celebs, as he styles them, generally, but acknowledges that Bowie did not as a rule fall into the same traps – you get the idea however that, if required to nod and smile and agree with a celeb, he would), than you do about David Bowie. Despite his low opinion, he does not have enough chutzpah to edit some of the more pointless interviews or quotes. It’s as if he set out to interview people he knew through his role as editor of GQ, rather than ask the people who knew Bowie best.

Of course it’s a pitfall of any biographic text. Kaplan has opted for completism so to compare the two is a little unfair as Jones’s book is more like a series of snapshots of certain scenes in the screenplay of Bowie’s life. Unfortunately they bear more resemblance to some holiday snaps of my childhood when a little boy managed to feature in the corner or background of all our pictures, with Bowie being the boy there by happenstance, not the focus of the image.

Aladdin Sane look
Because of Jones’s background I suppose, there’s an awful lot on fashion. Lady Gaga says that she was altered forever by the cover of Aladdin Sane. It’s clear that to her the music is secondary to the look – no real surprise there.

It’s amazing how few people (other stars, musicians, designers, photographers) can refrain from blowing their own trumpet once given the chance so we get a lot of stuff along the lines of:
‘I think he learnt that from me’/’He might have borrowed my idea but he made it his own’/’He was a bit of a magpie’.

Jayne County
Consider this from Jayne County (all I remember is that he/she had something to do with Malcolm McClaren).*
He loved my songwriting … I gave him quite a few ideas. … He loved being surrounded by talented, creative people [i.e. me].
I know he was also influenced by a few of the demos I was sending him. … He was supposed to produce an album for me but nothing ever came of that except some of my ideas began popping up on his songs. I don't think it was intentional. … It was mostly the subject matter …
Need I say more?

And this, from Kevin Armstrong about the Absolute Beginners session:
David didn’t turn up with the song fully formed and I would go so far as to say I should have by rights had a co-writing credit on the song.

People can say anything they like now that Bowie’s no longer around to refute it. Some of it may well be true.

Iman and David, so happy together
Everything is allowed the same value or credence. It seems as if little editorial control has been exercised so that the comments of someone who met Bowie on a train once are given the same weight as those of Iman or Tony Visconti.

Then there are those who speculate about why Bowie chose them as collaborators (never too shy to bang their own drum). This usually goes along these lines:
'I didn’t treat him as a star [with the rest of the paragraph typically proving they did] so he liked/respected/trusted me', 'we were kindred spirits, both originals' or 'I was a bit different and he appreciated this'.

For instance, Ivo Van Hove who worked on Lazarus claims that Bowie wanted a director who was:
A little more innovative, experimental, whatever [i.e. me].

Then there’s the depiction of the suburbs, and Bromley/Beckenham in particular, as some kind of cultural wasteland. Hanif Kureishi asserts:
The utter boredom and awfulness of the suburbs … but actually everyone had underground records, they had clothes.
So awful, despite the art clubs, free festival, etc? Despite David Bowie, Peter Frampton, Kate Bush, Siouxsie Sioux, Billy Idol, Mick Jagger, Boy George all hailing from the suburbs? But this is probably how Kureishi relates to Dylan Jones – with his focus on fashion. As if people who ‘had clothes’ were somehow artistically, culturally superior to those who either didn’t or didn’t care.

The whole thing reminds me of a girl who went to a yoga class near where I live (in Sidcup, yes you guessed it, I’m from a suburb in Kent, just like David Bowie), declaring that she was going to move to Camden because she was ‘more of a Camden girl’. I would say it takes more courage to be different in the suburbs than it does in North London. But I believe she probably strove to be different in exactly the same way as the other residents of Camden.

Siouxsie Sioux, scaredy cat
And as for Siouxsie Sioux being petrified of Chislehurst Caves and claiming that kids used to get 'caved in' there. Call yourself a punk or ‘punk icon’? Girl, I thought you’d have more balls.

Or then there are those who consider themselves part of a mutual appreciation society, evidenced by this from Nile Rodgers:
'He had a surprising amount of knowledge about R&B. That’s why we got on so well as he was shocked by what I knew and I was shocked by what he knew.'

Occasionally there’s a meeting of truly pretentious minds, as with Bowie and Tony Visconti:
We were talking about films that we liked, and anything that was from far away and anything that was black and white and made in France or Czechoslovakia or Germany … we had a lot in common.
As if something home-grown or in colour would have no artistic merit while everything opposite would. Again, let’s all be different in the same way.

The Three Tuns
My favourite, self-aggrandising quote comes from Mary Finnigan:
Leave it to me. I know exactly what to do, to turn this into a nice, appealing place that has actually got something in common with the prevailing zeitgeist.
Seriously, Mary? Are you sure that’s how you phrased it? Were you really that pretentious?
This is when they turned a room at The Three Tuns into the Beckenham Arts Lab. Been in The Three Tuns a number of times as I used to work nearby.

Trevor Bolder claims, perhaps disingenuously:
I don't think anyone has ever mentioned this, principally because I don't think anyone actually knows it but Bowie tried to re-form the Spiders when he’d finished the Berlin period. He rang me once in 1978 at home …
Hmm. So you say.

I hate the way Jones prefaces a quote from Martyn Ware, for some reason not included in the interview section with ‘Oh after Bowie died, everyone had a story’ as if this were a bad thing. But if he felt this way, why use the people he’s essentially criticising in his book? Martyn Ware comes across as genuine, something that can't be said of many of those quoted so I’m not sure why he was singled out here.

It’s disconcerting and a bit depressing to discover that the most poorly expressed pieces are from people who write for a living like Hanif Kureishi because their prose turns out to be very repetitive and tedious, eg,
At this stage in his life he was worried that the young people might not like his records any more. He felt insecure, and was obviously at a strange point in his life.
Kureishi seems to say most things at least twice and hardly ever bothers to try to rephrase it.

Kate Moss and David Bowie
Kate Moss (another fashion association) is as self-involved as you might expect:
The first song that really hit me was probably ‘Life on Mars?’ because I think I thought I was the girl with the mousy brown hair [she even manages to get the lyrics wrong so it’s evident she hasn’t listened to the song much]. I thought it was about me. … It touched me because I thought it was my song.
Oh the sheer arrogance.

Leee Black Childers, who I admit I’d only vaguely heard of but who Wikipedia claims: 'recorded the legacy of a theatrical cross over between rock music and gay culture’ (whatever that is) but the fact that he spells his Christian name with three ‘e’s does not endear him to me, says:
The glorious brilliant Gloria Stavers, who taught Jim Morrison to shove his cock down the side of his leather pants so it looked big and bulging. She taught him that so she was a starmaker. And then the call came from David Bowie.
I think it's possible that Jim Morrison might have had a bit more going for him than this but then I’m not a gay man.

Dylan Jones
Sure, I admit that image was very important in Bowie's career but I submit that the music itself was paramount. I'm not sure that Dylan Jones would agree.

I do give him credit for not shirking what I like to call the wilderness years when those of us who loved early to mid-area Bowie lost patience. And perhaps I’ll try to listen to some songs from albums I’d rejected except I don’t really trust the opinions of the interviewees. I’m a fan but not the sort of fan who buys/loves everything by an artist.

Not many of those quoted come out well. I’d say Bowie himself, Nick Rhodes, Elton John, Ricky Gervais (typically self-deprecating), Martyn Ware are some of the few who surface unscathed.

I did learn a few interesting facts, although these seemed to crop up incidentally, one of which is that
‘Wild Is the Wind’ was written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington not David Bowie. The other is that Mick Ronson was by all accounts a lovely guy. It’s a credit to the guy and his memory.

Page 245 should read Water Rats not Water Rat, I know this because I've been there many times; page 326 should read Noel Edmonds not Noel Edmunds. If you’re going to quote somebody, at least have the courtesy to spell their name right.

*Jayne County (born 1947) is an American singer, songwriter, actress and record producer whose career has spanned five decades. She was the vocalist in Wayne County & the Electric Chairs and has been known for her outrageous stage antics. She went on to become rock's first openly transgender singer.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Movie: Three Peaks (at the London Film Festival 2017)

Three Peaks
You know a film is good when you’re still talking about it several days later. So it was with Three Peaks, directed by Jan Zalbein which I saw at the London Film Festival. [Incidentally I noticed an ad for the 'Face to Face with German Film' campaign in the LFF programme but no further details were given. Is it coming to the UK?] However, I was still a little worried that the film might be a dud simply because it was a three-hander, featuring a child. Occasionally, and this is particularly true of British cinema, you get a child in a movie who cannot act at all, for instance, the kids in Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe et al.). We Brits seem to demand nothing of child actors (beyond speaking their lines in the right order) and consequently we get nothing (or less in the case of Harry Potter) while the US has a history of high expectations and correspondingly high achievers from the 1970s to the 2000s, from Tatum O'Neal in Paper Moon, Justin Henry in Kramer vs Kramer, the ubiquitous Jodie Foster, Henry Thomas in ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, through Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense and AI: Artificial Intelligence to Jacob Tremblay in Room, not to mention Dakota and Elle Fanning in almost everything else. I’m relieved to say this is not the case with Three Peaks. Arian Montgomery, who plays eight-year-old Tristan, is a revelation. Entirely believable in every scene; you immediately empathise with his stepfather Aaron’s desire to connect with him.

This film is about identity, love, parenthood, fractured families and the effect the last has on all involved. It depicts the predicament of the new man in a mother's life, illustrating how he performs the father role in all but name, depended upon, even taken for granted by the child, sharing in all the labour and reward of raising the boy and, from the opening scene, it seems, completely accepted. And we also see it from the boy’s point of view, in which Aaron is the interloper in his family, having usurped his father (whose presence is established by regular phone calls), all complicated by Tristan’s own guilt for occasionally preferring Aaron to his father.

Carrie and Jonas/Homeland
Alexander Fehling, who was very good in Homeland, in which, coincidentally, he also had to play father figure to someone else’s child, the daughter that Carrie (Claire Danes) has with Brodie (Damian Lewis) although his role is secondary to the main storyline (for more on Homeland, see secretsquirrelshorts), is the easy to identify with Aaron, who has to negotiate the tightrope of this awkward situation, in which he is asked to be a father but never be called a father, in which he plays second fiddle to the whims and wishes of a wilful and demanding but sometimes incredibly charming eight-year-old, and has to handle the pressure put upon him by Lea (played by Bérénice Bejo, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Natalie Wood) who wants to be fair to her child, his father and her new man. Aaron is frequently tripped up (dangerous on a tightrope), courted and betrayed by both.

Lea, Tristan, Aaron
The rather cosseted Tristan continually tests the boundaries, crossing the line between mischief and malice. He can be deliberately and casually affectionate and just as deliberately and casually cruel. Realising that he’s a king in his court, he wields his power accordingly, bestowing and withdrawing his trust randomly, so that poor Aaron is forever placating him in order to gain his favour, scavenging for crumbs at the table. But what the boy gives with one hand, he takes back with the other, pulling him towards him as he pushes him away. Loved and resented in equal measure, with Tristan revealing himself to be capable of minor violence, Aaron is in a quandary. Should he come down hard or brush it off? He opts to ignore it.

Aware that he holds all the cards, Tristan toys with Aaron, who’s begun to see him as his own son, and undoubtedly loves him, by calling him ‘Papa’ just to see how it feels and what the reaction will be – poor Aaron is beguiled and grateful, happily reporting it to the mother only for her to disapprove – he should have made it clear that he’s not Tristan’s father because Tristan already has a father and this might confuse him. The unfortunate Aaron is in a no-win situation here. If he had said ‘Don’t call me Papa’ I can well imagine the tantrums that might have resulted. From mother and son.

In danger
Repeatedly offered an ultimatum by Tristan, as their circumstances become more desperate, and the man's situation more precarious, Aaron, like the people who attended the film’s screening cannot conceive that a child would resort to something much more dangerous and violent in order to force a return to the status quo. It's shocking but suddenly, because of the way it's played, also totally credible.

(Stop reading now if you haven't yet seen the movie)
The ending is cleverly ambiguous. At one point, I was reminded of the scene in Before the Fall (Napola) when the character runs out of options and chooses to sacrifice himself. The director realised that such an outcome might prove unpalatable to some audiences (and such it proved at the LFF, where they chose to believe in the innocence and innate goodness of the child despite all evidence to the contrary). We were allowed to come to our own conclusions. We were allowed to hope.

At the time of viewing, Three Peaks had yet to acquire a UK distributor, which is a real shame. It definitely deserves to be seen.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Movie: 12 Hours to Live (but believe me, it’ll seem longer …)

Ione Skye in Say Anything
When Ione Skye starred with John Cusack in Say Anything in 1989 (a film I missed first time around), I felt sure that she would either be discovered as an impostor and swiftly returned to whatever perfect mould she originated in, would learn how to act or would realise that acting wasn’t for her. A beautiful girl, she should perhaps have gone into modelling but no, many years later, I had the misfortune to witness her ‘talents’ once more.

Kevin Durand as Keamy in Lost
Poor Kevin Durand, an actor I had liked in the minor role of Martin Keamy in a couple of episodes of Lost. For more on Lost, see Opinion8: Must-see TV. He’s a big guy, 6’6” I believe, and is often sidelined or pigeon-holed into roles as over-sized aliens (eg in I Am Number Four, a film that also wastes Timothy Olyphant as a sidekick to an unappealing teenage hero) or mindless villains, because of his physique and never really given a chance to show what he can do. Now, finally, he gets a lead role. And what does he have to play against? A plank of wood. My sister reminds me when watching this, that someone on Freecycle (a UK website on which you can give away items you no longer need that others might find a use for or request something you need that someone else might no longer need) was asking for attractive pieces of wood and Ione Skye fits the bill. She’s so bad in this that it’s painful to watch, worse to listen to. Her voice throughout is completely affectless, evincing no emotion, no meaning. It’s all totally flat, as if she were reading the phone book. If she were a piece of music, she would be atonal. This seems to rub off on the rest of the cast. The sheriff says his lines as if he were rehearsing with someone, merely giving them their cues. Even Michael Moriarty (as Ione’s father), who I’m sure has been good in the past, can't really be bothered.

'Please, no more scenes with Ione!'
It’s not helped by a ridiculous script, which has Ione’s FBI agent (in pursuit of Kevin Durand's criminal fugitive, Lowman) at odds with her father although no reason is given while at other times we’re subjected to some horribly on the nose dialogue to explain some character’s motivation and, as if things weren’t bad enough, a series of flashbacks featuring Ione failing to render any readable emotion. What do the filmmakers have against us? It's like torture. At one point, Ione declares 'I know where he's going' but doesn't bother to tell anyone and goes after him alone. Or maybe the the other actors refused to accompany her in case it meant they would have another scene with her.

Why does Lowman (our Kevin) take the girl (Brittney Wilson does her best with this underwritten part) with him? – it's more trouble than it's worth. When asked for a reason, even he can't come up with one. There’s no plausible rationale for this so we have to assume this was done to inject (see what I’ve done here) drama and conflict in the story by sticking in (and here) a time-sensitive diabetic-needs-her-insulin thread. In fact, no explanation is given for his past misdeeds either.

12 Hours to Live
But, despite all this, Kevin Durand still manages to create a convincing character, bad but by no means all bad, sympathetic if not simpatico. Even his hostage starts to root for him a little. He acts the rest of them off the screen and does not allow himself to get distracted by the flaws in the script or the other players’ ineptitude or lack of commitment. He becomes Lowman in every mannerism, mood, movement, expression. He’s invested him with humanity. Kudos to Kevin. It’s just a shame that he gets to shine in such substandard material because his performance is so believable, so totally on point. I can only hope that any casting director can see past the entirety of this terrible film and recognise the deftness and skill of his portrayal, how he’s transformed the two-dimensional template he’s been given into a three-dimensional anti-hero.

For more on acting, see john malkovich as the 'unfathomable' gilbert osmond in 'the portrait of a lady', helmut berger as konrad in visconti's 'conversation piece' and peter quinn (rupert friend) in 'homeland' on channel 4.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Play: Wish List* by Katherine Soper at the Royal Court Upstairs

The Royal Court
* Not to be confused with either of the two Hollywood romcoms with similar titles. There's a pretty good chance that, if you liked them, you won't like this.

Joseph Quinn and Erin Doherty
I cannot commend this highly enough. Affecting, involving, authentic. The script (Katherine Soper's debut, it won the 2015 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting), the playing, are so close to real life, that you don’t feel like you’re watching someone act at all, you feel like you’re watching someone be. The dialogue has all the cadences of natural speech. There’s no staginess, no showpiece monologues, no extra words, unlike The Pitchfork Disney, which I saw a couple of nights before, a play that touches on similar subjects (brother/sister dynamic, [co-]dependence, mental health problems) but is an actorly piece using shock tactics (and admittedly some humour and sexual innuendo), requiring the actors to deliver lengthy monologues to express their strange foibles and predilections. Wish List shocks profoundly, simply, without verbose explanations.

Dead ordinary and all the better for it
Tamsin is a whole character (a person not an ideal or a symbol). She’s painfully real, not given to any particular eloquence, which is not so say that there’s nothing eloquent in the play. The entirety of the play – the performances, writing, staging – add up to an everyday eloquence.  Her battle with the benefits system on behalf of a brother who's practically house-bound by severe OCD is familiar to any of us who've ever had to wrangle with the bureaucracy of any imperfect system, whether it's a hospital, a council or simply Southeastern's Delay/Repay form. We rail at the hoops we have to jump through. Tamsin is heart-breakingly disappointed by her brother’s failures to help himself (and so the both of them) but ultimately reacts with patience and tolerance (greeted by the exasperated sighs of the ladies near us in the audience) in the face of each setback.

Kudos to the rest of the cast who are all superb: Shaquille Ali-Yebuah, Aleksandar Mikic and Joseph Quinn. 

Playwright Katherine Soper
Fresh, intimate, personal but also universal. In fact, there's a theory that the more personal something is the more universal it is. Tamsin’s dilemma is conveyed brilliantly. The Meatloaf sequence is exquisite, touching, amusing, embarrassing, ultimately uplifting, a beautifully underplayed tour de force from Erin Doherty. She holds this together, her frustration articulated in a confused pause, an excited rush of words, a defeated glance.

I sometimes leave the theatre feeling a little cheated, feeling that the actors did their best with a substandard script. Not so with Wish List. It’s the real deal. Even better than Rachel De-lahay's The Westbridge. The writing is tremendous. If you only see one play this year, see this one.  If you only ever see one play, see this one. And go listen to 'I Would Do Anything for Love'. Right now.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Has The X Factor Officially Lost the Plot?

Looking a little blurry and I don't blame them

I must admit to voting with my remote. I did this another year too, the year that both Kerrianne Covell, whose incredible version of I Know You Won't was far superior even to Carrie Underwood’s, and Melanie McCabe, whose rendition of Titanium was absolutely flawless, were put out at judges' houses but this year everybody who had real singing talent and likeability was rejected before the live shows (bar Matt Terry). I was gutted. Can only imagine how disappointed they were.

The initial blame falls on the other judges (not Simon Cowell) who, you have to assume as a joke, vote against Simon to ensure there are what can perhaps most charitably be termed ‘novelty acts’ at bootcamp. Then, audience reaction, whether good or bad, if voluble enough, might count. Naturally they want high viewing figures and they might think having these acts who could be considered ‘fun’ will attract these but, in doing so, the programme makers have lost sight of the fact that this isn’t Britain’s Got Talent and have turned the show into a joke. There were plenty of beautiful voices at bootcamp, even as far as judges’ houses. And then, in one fell swoop, none.

Then there’s the likeability quotient. It seems that the judges cannot discern this and so leave out the people who have engaging personalities and come across well, such as Samantha Atkinson, Christian Burrows, James Hughes. Here's my assessment of their decisions, only mentioning the mistakes.

Overs – Sharon Osborne
We lost:
Samantha Atkinson, whose performance of Adele’s When We Were Young was outstanding, heartfelt and better than the original and the talented Janet Grogan (both of them on their second attempts).

We kept:
Honey G. I’m sure she’s good at something but it’s not singing.
Saara Alto. Even Sharon can't remember where she comes from. She can sing but is merely a belter, and also slightly frightening. Whether it’s the language barrier or what, I don't know, she comes across as enormously ambitious but otherwise insincere. Sharon even recognises there’s a ‘disconnect’, which there certainly wasn’t with Samantha and Janet.
Relley C. I loved her last time but this time she's been shouty and off key.

Boys – Nicole Scherzinger
First of all I have to say I love Nicole as a judge. She’s a breath of fresh air, unafraid to express her opinion in alternative ways.
We lost:
James Hughes who stunned us with an awe-inspiring I'd Rather Go Blind.

Nate Simpson. His first audition when he sang A Change Is Gonna Come was incredible.

Christian Burrows. He might not have been the best singer but he was extremely likeable and able to invest his delivery with real emotion.
We kept:
Freddie Parker. His voice was ok but he had a little rich boy air that probably didn't appeal to the audience, which is possibly why he didn't last long.
Ryan Lawrie. No voice at all nor any discernible personality but has the requisite silly hair of a popstar these days. Nicole herself had already put him out once, which was the right decision.

Girls – Simon Cowell
We lost:
Kayleigh Marie Morgan, whose version of ‘With You’ was really touching and whose voice has a lovely tone.

We kept:
Samantha Lavery. Commendable of her to go without her make-up but she’s yet another belter. Pretty certainly but not really ready.
Gifty Louise Agyeman. She also seems to have taken to shouting a lot and often sounds out of tune.
Emily Middlemas. She made no impression on me at all.

Groups – Louis Walsh
Louis’s always made bad decisions. Anyone remember Wagner? But this year, he was worse than usual.
We lost:
All the girl groups who were better singers and performers than anyone he did put through.
We kept:
Bratavio. They were funny but they weren't singers.

The result of all this is that I haven't watched any of the live shows this year because I really couldn't stand to hear the acts (a friend watched so I caught some of them but often had to leave the room). Of course, it's all subjective and I'm sure all the acts have fans but I wonder if there are other people out there like me.  I always used to enjoy a Saturday night of X Factor but now I'll either be going out or taking out a DVD instead. I'm sure many of you are thinking 'Get a life', and you'd have a point but I was so annoyed that people who had real talent were denied the opportunity to reach a larger audience. For another blogger's thoughts on The X Factor, see here.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Sunday Times Interview with Viggo Mortensen: Broadsheet or Loose Women?

Viggo Mortensen on Times magazine cover
I read an interview with Viggo Mortensen in the Sunday Times supplement and immediately realised the reason for his somewhat queasy smile on the cover. He looks like he’s trying to smile while someone pulls his fingernails out. Charlotte Edwardes sets about this actor who takes his work seriously as if she were on Loose Women ribaldly joking with Peter Andre.

First, she feels the need to bone up on (cue giggles from Ms Edwardes – this is her level) his films so is evidently unacquainted with them – though how you could miss some of them I don't know. All she’s gleaned from her research though is the fact that he ‘gets his kit off’ a lot. She hasn’t recognised his integrity or commitment. It’s obvious that he’s completely bemused by her gambit, perhaps believing that a paper like this might send someone who had some interest in or understanding of his oeuvre rather than a frivolous girl who’s preoccupied with things that are irrelevant to him and I venture, the rest of us.

She could have talked a little more about his choice of roles – from A Walk on the Moon (with Diane Lane), a personal favourite of mine, through The Lord of the Rings (perfectly cast as Aragorn) to the Cormac McCarthy tale, The Road, his rapport with animals, his co-stars, his other talents but no, she went through and counted how many films he took his clothes off in and asked why so many, as if this were his decision and had nothing to do with the nature of the film, the character, the director, the story. As if he were this rampant exhibitionist who just couldn’t resist stripping off.

The article is even billed on the Contents page as: ‘Viggo Mortensen, 57, tells Charlotte Edwardes why nudity is no big deal’ as if this is what he chose to discuss. The tagline has 'his roles require nudity with unusual regularity' and the cover calls him 'Hollywood's hottest silver fox', a description that I'm sure must leave him cold.

When she finally does broach the subject of his ‘Method’ approach, how, if his character didn’t get a chance to wash, he wouldn’t either, the asinine question that results is ‘Is he really quite smelly?’ I’m sure he must find her shallow, ignorant, maybe even insulting.

Don't get me wrong, I'm no fan of pretentious luvvies bleating on about their craft but this whole approach seems disrespectful and if this is representative of respectable journalism these days, it’s very depressing. I appreciate that everyone is dumbing down as education standards plummet but for some reason I didn’t expect it of the Sunday Times quite yet. Congratulations, guys, you’re ahead of the game. It reminds me of an episode of The One Show, the one and only time I watched it, when the idiot presenters thought it would be hilarious to interview Elvis Costello while wearing huge versions of his original glasses. What’s he going to be remembered for – his songwriting and singing talent or his glasses? No contest as far as these twerps were concerned. They thought it was hilarious.

Mortensen as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings

Thursday, 21 July 2016

TV Series: Versailles on BBC2

Louis XIV in front of his palace at Versailles
Found myself seduced by the trailer and the incredibly apposite choice of an Adam and the Ants song, 'Kings of the Wild Frontier' ('A new royal family, a wild nobility'), a song that still sounds so fresh and alive. It made me think that the series creators, Simon Mirren (Helen's nephew) and David Wolstencroft, might have an interesting slant on their subject matter.

Gorgeous interior, pretty cast, great hair
'Appearance is everything' (Louis XIV)
Many have compared Versailles unfavourably with Wolf Hall. I found the latter turgid in the extreme, in plot, dialogue, character, action. Its whole ambience was drab and dark and I was left thinking that there was no budget for anything but obscure interiors, whereas Versailles is like a glitterball, its many bright facets attracting my attention: its undeniably pretty cast, the sumptuous costumes, magnificent settings and the stunning, beautifully crafted opening credit sequence, which has deservedly won awards, with its perfect marriage of images, music, typeface (just the way the title comes together makes my heart beat a little faster) - every time it comes on I have to turn the volume up. Every time. Louis XIV is often shown being dressed by his entourage, occasionally seeming mesmerised by his own reflection. But the whole shebang is an essay in grandiloquence, worthy of Louis himself, with the first season reportedly costing £20 million.

Then there's the adroit characterisation and fantastic acting from the leads (George Blagden, one minute masterful, the next vulnerable, plus he can sashay in a sash, as Louis XIV; Alexander Vlahos as his petulant brother, Philippe; and Evan Williams's turn as the saucy, mischief-making Chevalier). So I agree that Versailles is no Wolf Hall. And all the better for that. It's way more engaging and much more fun.

Mark Rylance in Wolf Hall
Where Wolf Hall had the lugubrious, dour (or badly constipated) Mark Rylance barely altering his expression throughout (watch it for yourself), in Versailles, Louis XIV's face is never the same, each subtle nuance of emotion registered in a sometimes infinitesimal alteration, only fleetingly visible. Blagden conveys more in one scene than Rylance did in a whole series, from a demure tilt of the head to a melancholy glance, a forgiving smile to a sudden rousing of rage.

Louis looks down
And then up, prettily
'You haven’t seen the shoes'

'Are you with me, brother?'
The dynamic between him and Philippe is complex and intriguing. They strike sparks off each other, their exchanges flare up like fireworks and are as suddenly extinguished but come replete with arch looks and sometimes not-so-subtle innuendo about exposed flanks and well-timed thrusts. More of a seesaw than a power struggle as they peacock around the court, with Philippe, when rebuked for his excessive expenditure, retorting: 'You build your palace. I wear my clothes.' And called to account for his shoes in particular, he explains 'You haven’t seen the shoes.' Even when he's sent to war, there's time to agonise over his outfit: 'How does one dress for war?'

Conflict is rife as both brothers are imperious, impetuous and believe they're entitled to behave as they like, which often translates as badly (Louis is obliged to consider his position longer because he's King, as he's fond of reminding everyone although mostly to no avail). He randomly wields his power like an omnipotent toddler. Louis' affair with Philippe's wife doesn't help. Then there's the war, the striking builders (it's France after all), the discontented nobility, the whingeing mistresses, mysterious masked conspirators, not to mention the seditious machinations of Chevalier. Poor Louis. He feels benighted and doesn't know who to trust.

To top it all, his wife has given birth to a black baby. She has a pet blackamoor. This exchange follows:
Doctor: There is an explanation.
Louis, icily sardonic: I cannot wait to hear it.
Doctor: ... He gave her a look of such force that it served to corrupt the royal womb with darkness.
Louis, icily sardonic again: It must have been a very penetrating look.

Vlahos is superb as Philippe, who does an awful lot of stomping in and storming out like a teenager in a tantrum, even on a coach trip - we're not talking Ebdons - appearing at the window to ask 'Are we there yet? I'm bored.' But he is steadfastly loyal to his brother, despite the latter continually playing the King card every time they argue. And Louis can depend on him, when beset by nightmares or inadequacy, crying out 'Make them go away.' Philippe takes charge, merely commanding 'Leave us.' It's as easy as that.

Boy on boy tongue action
'It's all about sex' ...
As my English teacher (Mr Wells) was wont to say. In Versailles, there's not exactly a homoerotic subtext. Everything else is subtext to the homoeroticism. The relationship between Philippe and Chevalier is fascinating, its chemistry so palpable that it's spawned a number of inventive YouTube tributes. Plus, it's the first series to depict realistic kissing between men - yes, truly (better than Queer as Folk). There's some defiant cross-dressing and I'm sure Conchita would approve. Philippe seems determined to provoke a reaction but when he gets one, turns, let's say 'aggressive' although 'murderous' might be more apt, so we're left wondering if this was his original aim - to be given an excuse to vent his fury.

Louis: Have you lost your mind?
The court is decadent, Louis is promiscuous. Philippe is bi. Chevalier is easy. It's possible to extrapolate innuendo from relatively harmless-sounding dialogue. Louis is conversing with a friend from his youth. They admire his mistress-in-waiting (with Louis flattery will get you everywhere and she's wise to this) and Louis warns: 'She you do not touch' then 'I have a position in mind for you' and we have to wonder if he's suggesting a threesome.

Louis maintains 'A little death is good for you', a reference to orgasm (cf John Donne, William Shakespeare) and he certainly abides by this creed. Culture creeps in now and then.

Sophie (Maddison Jaizani)
Maddison Jaizani has fun as Sophie, the teenage girl in court, unwittingly being groomed by her Mother for a role as the King's mistress. She's more eye candy for Louis's wandering eye to feast upon. Thus far he hasn't noticed her, even though she looks like a young Liz Taylor. Oh and a special mention to Anna Brewster for her performance as Mme DeMontespan - she has the best lines.

So, are there too many sex scenes? It is racy and raunchy but that reflects the real relationships in the court, ramped up for the purposes of the drama. And a little controversy can't really hurt. But, let's face it, it's British TV, it ain't that explicit.

Which filter should I use?
The past reimagined via the present
It's a vision of the past tempered by a lens from the present. There's evidence of a postmodern self-awareness in a shot of the ever fashion-conscious Philippe checking himself out in a mirror before he begins his battle charge. It looks, deliberately I'm sure, exactly as if he were taking a selfie.

So, what's the caveat?
The dialogue is sometimes rather clunky and plain wrong. Here are some toe-curling examples:
Chevalier is described as 'beyond reproach' . Beyond reproach is the exact opposite of what Chevalier is. The writers mean 'beyond the pale'.
A visiting royal declares 'Versailles is more beautiful than I can imagine.' I think he must mean 'than I could have imagined.'
'Do you have my back?'
Then there's the use of modern-day vernacular such as 'Are you with me, brother? Do you have my back?', which reminds me of that line from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, 'Must you walk in back of me?' or the faut pas in Titanic when Kate Winslet gives someone the finger.  Some of it is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but there's a general tendency to sacrifice authenticity for a quick quip. George Blagden shows a particular talent for delivering some of the dodgier lines, such as 'That's a lot of shit' when he sees a cartload of manure. He still  manages to emerge regal. Anyway, I volunteer to do a quick read-through of the script to avoid at least the first kind of mistake.

Then, not all the actors are as convincing as the leads. I won't mention names.

The series doesn't purport to be a history documentary but a drama derived from history or historical facts. As such, it's more than a tongue-in-cheek romp but less than an adaptation. It would suffer in comparison to Poldark, which derives from Winston Graham's brilliant novels (never short of wit themselves and intelligently scripted to retain the power of the original) and should never be reduced, as the press seems determined to do, to a showcase for Aidan Turner's physique (appealing as it is) because the writing, acting and visualisation are all superb.

But, for all that, Versailles is involving, beautifully realised and incredibly watchable, with irresistible tableaux and curiously appealing characters. I won't be missing an episode.

For more on George Blagden, see This Week's Passion on Vikings.