Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ironic insight from A Secret Alchemy

"Yes, it's the end of Richard III, when all in the kingdom - for a Tudor playwright - is set to rights. One of the things I'll be fighting against is our Shakespeare-shaped vision of the times, though he was so much nearer those times than I am. For him the War of the Cousins was a not-so-distant past that he was refashioning; old men could tell the tales [...] If you take the plays as history, then they're wrong. They lie, if you like, in the cause of a story that grips us still. So how did it look to their grandfathers themselves, not a gripping tale or a propaganda lie, but a life, as it was lived, day after month after year? That's what I want to know, the history I want to write. My refashioning is another kind of tale, I hope and believe, though my historian's conscience will always be the ruler of my storyteller's desires.

"It sounds so dry, so puritanical. So dead. How can I bring them alive, yet have a clear scholarly conscience?"

Emma Darwin, A Secret Alchemy, [pb] Headline, London 2009 pp 112-3

Very insightful - and a lot better written than much else of the novel. I really enjoyed that phrase "day after month after year". Unfortunately, Darwin's own research is demonstrably sketchy and/or wrong. Groby near Northampton? And she has mistaken Astley for Anstey. Kind of leaves throbbing big question marks over anything else she advances as 'fact'.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Summertime blues

Like the economy, TV drama is beginning to emerge from the darkest of days (June). Like the media-spawned recession and swine flu, it hasn't actually been as bad as we feared.

The Bill has dropped an episode a week, moved to 9pm and gone HD. That is to say, the photography has gone HD for no apparent reason (it's not like the show was ever known for the scenery) but the acting and writing is as analogue as ever. On its way out, methinks. Likewise the latest ITV Monday night romcom, Monday Monday, has gone the way of all ITV romcoms, head-first down the toilet. And yet there is, against all odds, quality drama on ITV in August, Barry "The Vice" Simner's Single-Handed, a masterclass in how to build tension before unleashing a truly jaw-dropping twist. The bad news for ITV is that this is a two-year-old RTE production. Still, small mercies...

BBC's Desperate Romantics, the lives and loves of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, looked ghastly in the endless previews but turned out to be huge fun. We're halfway through the run as I write and I like it more each week.

Taking the Flak, also on BBC2, has hardly been promoted at all, and yet is half-an-hour well spent. Effectively an update on the adventures of Damian in Drop the Dead Donkey, it uses the technology of 24 hr rolling news to great comic effect, has a nice mix of established names and newcomers and cleverly ropes in cameos from more expensive actors (Mackenzie Crook) and real BBC media megastars (John Humphreys). Fun extras on the red button, too.

Tru Blood, now showing on FX before going terrestrial on C4, is also a major hit with witty scripts by Alan "American Beauty" Ball, bags of gratuitous sex, fabulous casting (solving the mystery of whatever happened to NY-LON's Stephen Moyer) and the greatest titles/music sequence since NYPD Blue.

But the sleeper summer hit to end all sleeper summer hits has to be BBC4's Getting On. A cinema verite sitcom set in an NHS geriatric ward, written by the three actresses involved, one of whom is Jo Brand - how can this possibly have been any good? Because it was sheer genius: compassionate, tragic, pin-point accuracy in deflating the culture of pretension which is eating through public service like a runaway cancer, and screamingly funny. Just three eps, which may have been the secret of its success in that it wasn't spread too thin. The director was Peter Capaldi, which makes four geniuses creatively involved (and Ricky Grover was pretty damn good, too).

Whatever happened to the working class voice?

From writer Dreda Say Mitchell's brilliant piece in today's Independent:

The difference between negative representations of the middle class and working class in the arts and media is fairly simple. All of middle-class life is available in our media and public life, so depictions of the down side are balanced by the positive.

But the British working class is only called on to occasionally perform their circus act as the people you wouldn't want living next door. And what is especially depressing for those of us who actually grew up on council estates is that these circus acts are usually done by middle-class artists under the handle, "giving a voice to" or "depicting the reality of". Because, of course, the working class doesn't actually have a voice of its own or least not one that anybody can be bothered to go out and find.

Even a generation ago, things were very different. That great generation of working-class artists that came to prominence in the 1960s were still at work. Harold Pinter was writing plays, Keith Waterhouse was writing novels, Galton and Simpson wrote comedy drama that was as good as Beckett and a lot funnier.

Barrie Keeffe, now best remembered for The Long Good Friday, wrote a series of television plays on working-class themes in the 1970s that were subversive and incendiary. But if Dennis Potter turned up at a TV station in 2009, they'd probably put a security guard's uniform on him and tell him to keep the riff-raff out.

There are obvious reasons why this isn't good news for our arts and media, and also some that are less obvious. The obvious one is that our culture is a lot poorer and becomes dangerously unbalanced when only part of the population has a voice. The less obvious one is that these representations affect the attitudes and decision-making of the people who run this country.
Most members of the "progressive" middle class are signed up to the idea that it would be a good thing if a few more working-class youngsters appeared in the professions, the arts and politics.
But, as someone who has attended a fair few meetings in her time, I've often been struck by the subtext. It goes: "Of course we're trying to do our best for these awful people but, be honest, would you want one of them as your doctor, lawyer or MP? I mean, have you seen Shameless?"

It's still the case that most of those with their hands on the levers of power in this country come from the same classes as they did in the 1950s. They also know as much about the life of those who don't come from those classes as they did in the 1950s, and this is true whether they call themselves "conservative" or "progressive".

Absolutely 100% spot-on - and likely to get much, much worse.