Thursday, December 20, 2012

It,s a medieval flying reindeer!

From the British Library's brilliant Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts blog.  It sounds dry but it absolutely isn't.  The front page currently includes the earliest complete bible, now available online, and the prequel to the Morte d'Arthur.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Revealed/Love and Death

Managed to get myself to Birmingham last week to see the Love and Death exhibition but found myself more diverted by Revealed: The Government Art Collection in the Gas Hall.

Lots of Birmingham's Pre-Raphaelites have been loaned to Tate Britain for their blockbuster autumn show.  In return, Tate Britain has loaned BMAG some of its Victorian masterpieces rarely seen outside London.  Prime amongst them is J W Waterhouse's The Lady of Shallott (1888).

 This really is a showstopper, worth the trip in itself.  The incredible detail of the tapestry she sits on, the shock of reeds bottom left, the mysterious distant gleam running along the hilltop top right. Spectacular.

The other paintings however are more the late Victorian excuse for pornography.  Alma-Tadema, for example, whose paintings look exactly the same as the ubiquitous prints, even down to size, Lord Leighton, and Herbert Draper's Lament for Icarus (1898).

Check out the prurient tea towel draped across Icarus's tackle whereas the pubescent nymph up front would get you a knock from the Savile police nowadays.

One unexpected bonus of the loan to London was that Ford Madox Brown's An English Autumn Afternoon has been temporarily replaced with one of George Shaw's Stations of the Cross enamels.  This wasn't included in his homecoming exhibition at the Herbert earlier this year and I really appreciated the chance to see it.

Revealed, which by rights ought to be featured on a TV arts programme (but Brum isn't exotic enough for Yentob, Bragg or Graham-Dixon), is the first ever touring exhibition drawn from the 114 year-old Government Art Collection.  In other words, the art we all own.  Some of the exhibits have been chosen by politicians - or, in Cameron's case, Mrs C - some by diplomats (a lot of this stuff decorates embassies round the world) and some by people who work in Downing Street.  There was so much to enjoy - some 250 works, everything from Elizabethan state portraits to Tracey Emin pencil sketches - but two that especially appealed to me were Cecil Stephenson's Design for the Festival of Britain (1950), chosen by Lord Mandelson, and five man-size canvases of iconic English streets commissioned from John Piper in 1949 to decorate the British Embassy in Rio de Janiero.  The one below is of Montpelier Walk in Cheltenham.

Also very unusual and well worth seeing were Government commissions of the 1953 coronation from Edward Bawden and L S Lowry.

Less successful, I have to say, was the central room where 78 works were crammed in by artist and curator Cornelia Parker in colour groups - hence the silly title, "Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain".  I hated it.  It was annoying that the works weren't labelled, so you had to look them up in the (very good) free catalogue, the Victorian salon style of covering every inch of wallspace didn't work for me, and banging a contemporary portrait of James I alongside a Chapman Brothers screenprint of a double skull and crossbones purely because both were predominantly red meant that both lost meaning - again, for me.

Love and Death continues at BMAG until January 13 and Revealed is there until February 24.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Act of Faith, Jimmy's End

Alan Moore and Mitch Jenkins' linked shorts Act of Faith and Jimmy's End are both available on You Tube.  Moore, of course, is the Northampton-based genius of the graphic novel (Watchmen, From Hell, V for Vendetta, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) who notoriously disassociates himself from the big screen versions of his work which always, inevitably, fall short of his original vision.  Now he has joined with cameraman/director Jenkins to make Show Pieces, a series of parallel short films of which these are the first two instalments.

I watched Jimmy first, then Faith, but they stand alone and can be watched either way.  They are truly beautiful in a gothic sense, and despite their brevity beautifully layered.  Faith is essentially a one-woman tour de force from Siobhan Hewett.  A rainy night in Northampton and Faith is playing games...  The final twist is genius.

Faith is also in Jimmy, a full cast piece twice the length.  It is the same rainy night and lost soul Jimmy finds shelter in a grotty pub/club.  The ambience is 1973 gone manky.  There is a pentagram on the plasterboard of the wall leading to the toilets, a fifties fag machine and an old-style reel-to-reel tape player onstage.  Is the freakish string ensemble playing or not?  Are the Bare Brides tattooed angels or predatory harpies?  Among Jimmy's fellow refugees is the world's most miserable clown who has the mighty lines - "I don't tell jokes any more.  These days I just masturbate.  And cry."

We're awaiting the star turn, Frank Metterton.  He appears in gold glam rock boots and a golden face.  It will spoil the fun to reveal who he is - but, hell, who else could he be?

This is how the Internet should be working for creatives.  Don't miss out.

Friday, December 07, 2012

The Fear

I thought The Fear, on C4, bordered on genius.  I loved the concept - echoes of Brighton Rock brought into the multicultural age of gangsterdom; the gang boss losing his grip as he rapidly loses his mind.  Full credit to Richard Cottan for the writing, although he did rather give the endgame away at the end of episode 3 - and full credit to C4 for scheduling the series over four nights, thus keeping us firmly hooked.  Even the Tricky Dicky direction worked - shaky hand-held cameras are appropriate when we're in Richie's increasingly wobbly world.

But what made this series a cut above was the acting.  Peter Mullan, rarely seen on TV, could not have been better in the lead, the ultimate hard man whose eyes, in brutal close-up, every now and then glinted panic. Richard E Grant as the sleazy doctor demonstrated yet again what a treasure he is - hard to think of anyone else who could have gone eyeball to eyeball with Mullan and not blinked.  And Anastasia Hille, was their equal as Richie's wife.  What we had here was an extended gangster movie with depth and, very unusually, compassion.


Friday, November 30, 2012

Iraq War novel wins first book prize

It comes as no great surprise that US Iraq war veteran Kevin Powers has won the Guardian first book award for The Yellow Birds.  The cynical view is that it was always going to win because harrowing accounts of an unpopular (some would say unjust) war are sexy with the media pack.  The more contemplative among us might counter by saying this is what young authors should be writing about.  I say, well done Kevin Powers.  I'll certainly be buying your book.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Secret State

I am really enjoying Channel 4's political conspiracy thriller on Wednesday nights.  All the pre-publicity insisted it was a remake of the C4's legendary 1980s version of Chris Mullin's novel A Very British Coup but it has nothing whatever to do with it - Chris himself says as much - and by inferring it's somehow second hand or recycled they have sorely undersold Robert Jones's wholly original take. Officially, the take is that it's 'inspired by' the Mullins.  It is equally inspired by Edge of Darkness (TV original, not the awful movie) and Tony Scott's Enemy of the State.

Coup was a comedy, an insider's satire with deliberately exaggerated characters.  State is distinctly short on laughs, beginning with a cataclysmic explosion at what I take to be a Teesside petro-chemical works.


There can surely be no doubt who the PM is meant to be, especially when you meet his predecessor, and neither of them were even MPs when Coup was published in 1982.  This makes it great fun wondering who everyone else in the divided cabinet is meant to be.  That said, Charles Dance's Chief Whip is wholly fictitious - we've never had a Chief Whip that effective.  The cast is great, top to bottom.  Gabriel Byrne is genius casting, I would forgive Gina McKee more or less anything after her splendid turn in Hebburn (and there is nothing to forgive here), Rupert Graves, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Nicholas Farrell and Lia Williams, who I haven't seen for a while, magnificent as the Head of MI5.

What would Channel 4 do, they asked, without thousands of hours of Big Brother to stuff the schedules?  This is what they do!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Alvaro Laura

I was to pointed to the website for this fabulous graphic artist from Spain.

The above is my current favourite - look how he's done the reflections - but his imagery for Alfa Romeo is just as stunning, and as for his series inspired by the film of Quadrophenia...

Sunday, November 11, 2012


I have been hugely enjoying Jason Cook's BBC2 sitcom Hebburn but it fell prey to a mid-series slump with episode 4 this week.  Predictable plot, no twist worth speaking of, dominated by the grotesques.  The only gem this episode was a cameo from Arthur Bostrum, the 'gid moaning' policeman from 'Allo 'Allo.

The problem might be the incestuous premise.  Jason Cook comes from Hebburn and plays feckless loser Ramsey, named after his bessy mate and fellow stand-up Chris Ramsey who plays protagonist Jack, who was originally called Jason.  Another problem is that Ramsey, albeit entirely credible, is neither particularly likeable in the role or sufficiently victim to his character foibles.

On the other hand, the stroke of casting genius which overrides all other shortcomings is shown above - Vic Reeves, appearing under his real name of Jim Moir, and Gina McKee as Jack's parents.  Who knew McKee had such a beautiful comic gift?  Who could have dreamt that Jim/Vic turns out to be the best straight man since the young, pre-BBC Ernie Wise?

Here's hoping Hebburn recovers next week.  The omens are good.  It's Jack's (second) stag night and his dad has been warned off the booze.

Meanwhile, over on Channel 4, season two of Homeland has recovered from an over-elaborate start.  It was tough going to episode 5 but boy did that come alive with English actor Rupert Friend's turn as the best 'bad cop' interrogator since Russell Crowe dangled the lawyer out of the skyscraper window in LA Confidential.

Now we have the series paradigm back.  In series one it was 'Is he or isn't he a terrorist?'  For series 2 the question is, 'Is he or isn't he a double agent?'  Can't wait for episode 6 tonight!

Friday, November 09, 2012

Guardian first book award shortlist

Feisty selection for this year's award.

First up and very likely winner is Kevin Powers' novel The Yellow Birds, suggested by his military service in Iraq.  A second American contender is The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, sadly not an imaginative take on the world of magistrate and author Henry Fielding but yet another baseball novel of little interest to non-fans.  Kerry Hudson, from Scotland, is the third listed novelist with her splendidly-titled Tony Hogan Brought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma.

Two non-fiction books complete the shortlist: Sandstorm, an account of the Libyan revolution by Lindsey Hilsum, and Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a firsthand study of life in a Mumbai slum by Katherine Boo.

I fancy it's a bloodless contest between Iraq and Libya.  We'll find out on November 29.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Crime Writers' Association - the complete daggers 2012

We now have the full list of CWA Dagger winners for 2012.  These are announced in two batches - in July and October.  I have no idea why.  Anyway, here is the list in full.

Diamond (lifetime achievement):  Frederick Forsyth.  Surely no one can argue with that.
Gold: Gene Kerrigan, The Rage
Steel (thriller): Charles Cumming, A Foreign Country
John Creasy New Blood: A Land More Kind than Home, Wiley Cash
International: The Potter's Field, Andrea Camilleri
Non-Fiction: The Eleventh Day (9/11), Anthony Summers & Robbyn Swan.  Summers previously won back in 1980 for Conspiracy, which is probably the best non-American analysis of the JFK assassination.
Dagger in the Library:  Steve Mosby.  This is an interesting award, given for a body of work by someone about to break through to the big time and nominated by library users.  Previous winners include Alexander McCall Smith (2004) and Mo Hayder (2011), which I suggest indicates just how close Mosby is to becoming a huge bestseller.
Debut: Beached, Sandy Gingras
Ellis Peters Historical Fiction: Icelight, Aly Moore

I am sure I will happily read all the above but I have to say the one that really caught my eye was the Aly Moore.  Set in 1947 - dirty doings in MI5 - it's a must-read.

Peter Lely allegories at the Courtauld

Found this on the Courtauld blog (one of my faves) and found it fascinating.  I especially like the way the curator has chosen to focus on one main painting, The Concert, thereby using the limited time available to go into some worthwhile detail.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Good Cop (final episode) & Homeland S2 (first episode)

Thanks to football's international break, we finally got to see the fourth and final episode of Stephen Butchard's compelling psychological thriller cum police procedural last night.

The scheduled showing was of course cancelled because it was only two days after the ambush and murder of two women police officers in Manchester.  The suggestion was that a police woman was similarly shot in Good Cop.  But it turns out that she suffered bruises, scrapes and a black eye in completely different circumstances.  And, naturally, the perp got exactly what was coming to him.  Still, the BBC was in a no-win situation and probably made the right decision.

Fortunately the delay wasn't so long that we forgot the nuances of what had gone before.  I sat down to watch feeling it was a pity that we were only ever likely to have these four eps.  Sav couldn't get away scot-free so there was going to have to be some sort of terminal closure. I simply couldn't envisage how to leave a way open for a second series.  But Butchard could.  Oh yes.  He even managed to leave the main revenge storyline unresolved (one of the gang still walking around) and add to the pressure on his protagonist (innocent party caught in the crossfire).  Definitely one of the best cop shows of recent times.  Pushing the boundaries.  Subverting the genre.  I look forward to the second series.

I'd also been looking forward to Homeland Season 2, which launched in the UK on Channel 4 last Sunday.  I was hugely disappointed.  Same old, same old - like every other mainstream US drama series.  The traitor's now running for even higher office.  The CIA's head honcho still couldn't detect a fart in a box.  And of course the first person he calls on in an emergency is bi-polar Carrie who, fresh from Electro-Convulsive brain zap, is now a fully fledged inspirational teacher.  Frankly, I was so bored I found myself yearning for the ad breaks.  Because Season 1 was so brilliant, I'll give it another shot tonight.  If I nod off, though, that's it for me.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Killing Them Softly

Andrew Dominick's pitch-black gangster comedy is George V Higgin's 1974 novel Cogan's Trade updated to 2007-8.  On TVs in the background (only ever directly alluded to in the climactic scene) the financial insitutions of the western world crumble under the weight of their corporate corruption.  Senator Obama stands as a beacon of hope when we in 2012 know the promise came to nothing and he ended up just plain hopeless.  In what turns out to be New Orleans (I never realised this whilst watching the movie) criminal commerce crashes when Markie Trattman's game is heisted for the second time.  Silly Markie (Ray Liotta) has let it be known that he organised the first heist.  Now it's happened again everyone knows Markie must be responsible.  But he isn't.  Squirrel Amato has sent into two hopeless losers, Frankie and Russell, to do the deed in the sure and certain knowledge that Markie will take the heat.  Those in charge of such matters need a person of repute to restore order.  Enter the underworld version of Obama, Jackie Cogan.  He's Brad Pitt.  He's even prettier than Obama.  And just as Obama presents himself as a reincarnated Jack Kennedy, Cogan too has an esteemed progenitor, the legendary enforcer Dillon, glimpsed, in the briefest of a cameos, in the form of living legend Sam Shepard.

The broadest comedy concerns Australian loser Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) and his absurd dognapping project.  The scenes of this thread are also the only ones to be set in the wide outdoors in broad sunny daylight.  Everything else is set indoors or at night and is kept close and tight.  Even key plot developments like the removal from the scene of Mickey (James Gandolfini) and Dillon are simply announced not shown.  The focus is on the handful of principals, any one of whom must be a possible nominee for Best Supporting Actor.  Gandolfini is mesmerising, Scoot McNairy luminous as the hapless Frankie, Richard Jenkins pitch-perfect as the mob apparatchik who liaises with Cogan.

Pitt is great but we have long known that he is the finest pretty-boy actor of his generation.  He produced Killing Them Softly and it is a mark of his maturity that he is willing to play second fiddle to so many scene-stealers.  But make no mistake - Pitt's quiet, controlled performance is the glue that holds this movie together.  Without his restraint we would be in constant danger of straying into Jason Statham territory.  With Pitt as his pivot-point, Dominick unleashes some jaw-dropping visual effects (the extra-extreme-super-slo-mo of Markie's demise, the stoned miasma in the middle of which Russell lets drop the fatal flaw that unravels Squirrel's masterplan) all set against an uber-Tarantino ironically iconic soundtrack (respectively Love Letters Straight From Your Heart and the Velvet's mighty Heroin.)

It's a genre film of a genre book.  It never claims to be anything else.  Indeed Dominick gets added impact from riffing on genre tropes and references.  Gandolfini is inescapably Tony Soprano, brought in to off Squirrel, who is beautifully played by Vincent Curatola, who played Tony's nemesis from New York Johnny Sack.  Gandolfini and Pitt enjoyed long rolling conversations in The Mexican (a personal favourite).  And Ray Liotta is and will forever be the sweatiest of Goodfellas.

Already a cult classic.  Definitely not for the squeamish.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Parade's End/Good Cop/Lilyhammer

The first tranch of big new autumn dramas on the BBC is coming to its end.  Parade's End concluded last night with the best episode of a serial that became better with every episode.  Thinking about it - and certainly in last night's episode - this was because it became increasingly focused on the three principals, Christopher, Sylvia and Valentine.

In fact, the historical context which had so hobbled the first two episodes became increasingly broadbrush as it became more important.  I have no idea which battle Christopher was blown up in and it absolutely doesn't matter.  Perhaps this is the essence of what Stoppard brought to his dramatisation.  The focus on character also ensured the director had fewer opportunities to remind us of her presence - only one awful prismatic effect last night, hammering home the eternal triangle dilemma in case we hadn't figured it out for herself.  The director will win prizes because the industry loves that sort of thing.  So will Tom and rightly so.  But I hope none of the leading actors are overlooked come gong time.  All three have staked claims for stardom.  Likewise some of the supporting cast have seized their chance to develop the second half of their careers - Miranda Richardson and Janet McTeer especially.  And I have never seen Roger Allam, an actor I admire greatly, give a better performance.

Flawed but brilliant - a game-changer in the overcrowded field of Edwardian toff drama and a fine reminder of what the BBC does best.

The Good Cop should also have concluded this week but the final climactic episode was pulled because of sensitivities surrounding the brutal assassination of two female police officers in Manchester.  Understandable - probably inevitable - but not good news for the producers.  Given the hoo-hah about the case, and the launch of major new shows next week, it might be some time before the finale gets seen, by which time it will have lost all its impetus.  A shame, pure bad luck.  This was another series that lived up to its promise.

Meanwhile, over on BBC4, we have Lilyhammer.  Steven Van Zandt as Frankie the Fixer Tagliano who choses relocation to Lillehammer - because he liked the look of the place from watching the Winter Olympics on TV - when he enters the Federal Witness Protection Program.

Lilyhammer (no idea why it's not Lillehammer) is interesting in so many ways.  It's a Norwegian idea, created by Anne Bjornstad and Eilif Skodvin, albeit Little Stevie also gets a writing credit, presumably for Frankie's mobster dialogue, and premiered first on Norwegian TV.  It is also the first original series from Netflix, the internet streaming company who will shortly be reviving Arrested Development.

The show's good fun - not The Sopranos but a fish-out-of-water comedy drama with strong performances from Van Zandt and his Norwegian supporting cast.  We all knew the Norwegians could be noir but who knew they could also be funny in two languages?

I love the way BBC4 is opening out the TV drama world.  More strength to their elbow.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Bletchley Circle

ITV's latest nostalgia-driven detective drama is The Bletchley Circle (Thursday 9pm).  It's a neat idea - a group of women who broke German codes during the war, reunite nine years later to find a serial killer operating on London's long-since smashed up overground rail system.

It has a cast to die for, including Julie Graham, Rachel Stirling and Anna Maxwell Martin, and a smart grown-up script by Guy Burt.  It's a single story over three hour-long episodes, which is something of a creative haul, so I hope Burt can maintain the standard he's set himself.

Meanwhile, at the same time over on BBC1, Good Cop has developed into a standout series.  There's one over-arching storyline, of course, but different B-stories every week.  For a nervous moment last night I thought Episode 3 was going to end the same way the previous two had.  But it didn't, quite, and that was a very clever twist.  Sue Tully improved the directing standards greatly, too.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Booker Prize Shortlist

The excitement builds.  Where once there were twelve, only six remain.  Back on July 26 I predicted the survivors would be Hilary Mantel, Deborah Levy, Rachel Joyce, Michael Frayn, Jeet Thayil and Ned Beauman.  Well I was half right...

The last writers standing are:

I don't think Mantel will win with the follow-up to the last winner-but-one.  I have a sneaking fancy for Self.  We'll find out on October 16.

Ford Madox Ford

For those, as I am, still glued to BBC2's dramatisation of Parade's End (I thought the 3rd episode was very nearly flawless - if only the director could resist those hard-of-thinking flashbacks), the New Statesman has an excellent article about author Ford by his biographer Max Saunders.  Find it here.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Parade's End - ep 2

The BBC2 autumn blockbuster, which is apparently doing very well in its Friday night slot, settled into its groove this week.  Only two miniscule flashbacks to interrupt the novelistic flow, one pointless and already forgotten, the other (the almost kiss in the fog) beautiful and moving.

But this is fundamentally an acting show.  Cumberbatch maintained his standard but it was Rebecca Hall's turn to shine gloriously this week as the wife who cannot understand why her husband won't sleep with her.  Adelaide Clemens was marvellous again and had a brilliant three-handed scene with Anne Marie Duff and Rufus Sewell - the obscenity spouting vicar has managed to get through the Bishop's visit without disgracing himself, but the moment the Bish is out the door he rips off his wife's devil-spawned brassiere.  Actually the scene with the Bish was just as good - the manic gleam in Sewell's eye when the Bish mentioned his 'organ' was priceless.

I don't know why the slashing of the Rokeby Venus had to be shoehorned in ... for context perhaps, in case we had forgotten what happened in 1914?  But the shot of Stephen Graham's character getting a gong from HRH more than compensated.

Good Cop

Good Cop is BBC1's latest cop show with a twist.  It's a good twist - other cops have drink, drugs or marital problems, some are on the take, but John Paul Rocksavage (ludicrous name to handicap your protagonist with) has killed a crim (the always brilliant Stephen Graham, on especially good form here) and, worse, another psycho hoodlum (Stephen Walters) seems to know.

There was a lot of pre-comment in the higher grade press that it was just another cop show.  Admittedly it stars Warren Brown, as do most other BBC policiers, and it has godawful advert-style direction (Sam Miller), but actually I think writer Stephen Butchard has come up with a concept that has legs.  I will certainly be watching ep 2 because I genuinely want to know what happens next.

It was good to see Mark Womack, albeit doing his usual shtick, and the legendary Michael Angelis as JP's dad (disappointinly a mere Robert Rocksavage).

Thursday, August 30, 2012

CWA Crime Thriller Awards

The shortlists have been announced for this year's Crime Writers' Association Awards.  There are film and TV awards too, but I am concentrating here on the actual writing awards.

The Bestseller Dagger award is between Jo Nesbo, Ann Cleves, Kathy Reichs, Anthony Horowitz - all of them well known - and Stuart MacBride, who I hadn't heard of.  MacBride writes Tartan Noir set in Aberdeen and has the best writer's website I've yet come across.  Check out the innocent-sounding online short stories.  He's on my list of must-reads.

The CWA Gold Dagger nominees are Chris Womersley for his 1919 Australian story Bereft, M R Hall for The Flight, N J Cooper for Vengeance in Mind and Gene Kerrigan for his Dublin-based policier The Rage.  I've read Cooper's Karen Taylor series before and found nothing exceptional, The Flight is about a plane crash (unsurprisingly) and is probably not for me.  Bereft sounds interesting but it is the Kerrigan that appeals most strongly.  He is a previous nominee.

The Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, for thrillers, is contested by Megan Abbott, for her highschool thriller Dare Me, Robert Harris for his financial thriller The Fear Index, Neal Stephenson for his digital age as dystopia novel Reamde, and Charles Cumming for A Foriegn Country, which is also up for the Bloody Scotland award (see below).

Finally - my favourite - the John Creasey New Blood Dagger for first time crime writers.  The nominees are Ewart Horton, Good People, introducing a maverick Welsh copper; Wiley Cash for A Land More Than Home, set in the North Carolina bible belt; Tanya Byrne for Heart-Shaped Bruise, the personal journals of a female Young Offender; and Tom Wright for What Dies in Summer in which two teenage boys in Texas discover the dead body of a teenage girl.  All four sound fascinating.  However Cash was also longlisted for the Gold Dagger, which I guess makes him a strong favourite, no doubt deservedly.

Winners to be revealed on October 18, televised as usual on ITV3.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

James Russell: Remembering Eric Ravilious (1903-42)

James Russell: Remembering Eric Ravilious (1903-42): Eric Ravilious, Hurricanes in Flight, 1942 (DACS/Artist's Estate) On 2nd September 1942 Eric Ravilious disappeared, along with four Brit...

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Murder Joint Enterprise

Well, the BBC certainly knows how to mark a Bank Holiday.  Pick of the weekend's viewing was unquestionably Murder: Joint Enterprise on BBC2 on Sunday night.

The pre-publicity, such as it was, was centered on director Birger Larsen, who has previously directed Wallander, The Killing and Those Who Kill.  This original drama, written by Robert Jones, creator of the seminal The Cops, was set in true Nordic Noir territory, that is to say Nottingham.  (You might think it's bleak in downtown Copenhagen but I've been there and it's nothing compared to central Nottingham.)

A girl has been beaten to death.  Her sister is in the flat with her; the sister calls 999.  One-legged ex-soldier Stefan is picked up driving the sister's car and wearing a bloodstained shirt.  Open and shut case?  Not by a long shot.

The vast majority of the action was spoken straight to camera by the principles, a difficult device to pull off but it all depends on the actors.  The cast here were superb.
Karla Crome as Coleen, the sister
Joe Dempsie as Stefan
and Stephen Dillane as Coleen's super slick QC
Otherwise we relied on CCTV - and how brilliantly gleeful was Robert Pugh as the world's most hardbitten DI when he had the footage from the sleazy boozer enhanced.
Only at the very end, when justice had done its thing, did we discover in straightforward action what really happened that night.  Beautifully done and original in all respects.
I found an interesting interview with Birger Larsen in The Telegraph.  Worth checking out.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Jacobson at 70

The Feral Beast in today's Independent on Sunday recycles a great joke from Howard Jacobson, presiding patriarch of the English comic novel, who turned seventy yesterday.

"The best advice I heard was on the radio, listening to the late Kingsley Amis.  One: as soon as you hav e finished a novel, start another.  Two: if your manuscript is rejected, always retype the first page.  It doesn't do to have coffee stains on it when you submit it elsewhere."

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Parade's End

A couple of sticky weeks after the Olympics ended, the autumn season on TV is finally getting underway.  BBC2's opening blockbuster is Tom Stoppard's five part dramatisation of Ford Madox Ford's four novel sequence, Parade's End.

Ford, of course, is never done on TV.  In the rather smug "documentary" that accompanied Episode 1 the most recent BBC dramatisation of Parade's End was so old, Judi Dench was the 18 year-old Valentine.  The other worrying thing was that scene chosen from the antique was much better than the same interminable scene in the Stoppard version.

The scripts have been kicking around for some years, apparently, no doubt consigned to the back burner in face of ITV1's enormous success with Downton Abbey.  It may be this which made me wonder if the scripts had been somewhat overworked.  All the backstory stuff, all of it concocted by Stoppard and much of it unnecessary, seemed stilted and a little indulgent.  The direction didn't help - the scene of Christopher and Valentine on a horse-drawn carriage in the fog was laughably amateur.  This was a pity because, for me at least, the drama only got underway when Valentine (Adelaide Clemens) made her appearance.

So much for the criticisms.  Parade's End has nothing to fear from comparisons with Downton.  The latter is glossy soap opera and whilst everyone I know watched series 1, I know nobody who watched series 2 and cannot imagine anyone still persisting with the works of Lord Fellowes after the appalling TitanticParade's End on the other hand is proper big-issue drama - a man who relentlessly does his duty despite being cuckolded, captivated and forced to pander to the whims of completely useless politicians.

The acting, by-and-large, is of the highest order.  Benedict Cumberbatch was born to play Christopher just as Rebecca Hall is perfect for his bitch of a wife.  Adelaide Clemens is truly beautiful - her role in the drama will surely develop and let us see her acting skills.  There are wondrous cameos - Miranda Richardson as Valentine's pushy mother, an unrecognisable Rufus Sewell as an insane vicar spouting obscenities over breakfast, Anne-Marie Duff totally unrecognisable as his wife, and Stephen Graham (yes, Boardwalk Empire's Al Capone/This is England's resident psycho) as a careerist civil servant.  Rupert Everett and Jack Huston (also of Boardwalk) could have phoned in their contributions to episode 1 but no doubt have greater challenges ahead.

There has been a token effort to contextualise the action which apparently becomes heavier-handed in future episodes - does anyone actually need World War 1 and the suffragettes contextualising? - but as Sir Tom pointed out in the aforementioned "documentary", "I'm happy to say the Titanic doesn't figure in my story."  A dig at the aforementioned Lord Fellowes?  Not half, and I forgave Sir Tom his crappy sex scenes in light of it.

All in all, it's a co-production with HBO and it shows.  Don't know why it's on Friday, not usually a drama night, but I don't suppose it matters in the age of timeshift consumption.  It has to be compulsory viewing for those of us who love drama and literature.

Will it inspire me to go out and read the original books?  Probably not to start with.  I might warm up with the single-volume Good Soldier.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Roger Wood's Biblioblog: The Chemistry of Tears - Peter Carey

I have copied this across from my biblioblog [Roger Wood's Biblioblog: The Chemistry of Tears - Peter Carey: ] because this is where I charted my first forays into Carey's world.

"What a brilliant artist Peter Carey is. Not only can he do different voices and literary styles (compare Parrot and Olivier, Jack Maggs and History of the Kelly Gang) but his structure, the framework on which his story hangs, can be dazzling. Here, the structure is as cunningly wrought as the automaton which brings together Henry in the 1850s and Catherine in 2010.

"Henry has convinced himself that the only way he can save his consumptive young son is to commission him a clockwork duck of the utmost ingenuity. To do so, he has to travel to Germany, home of the cuckoo clock. He describes his experiences there in a series of journals. The journals are read 160 years later by Catherine, a horological conservator, who has been given the task of restoring Henry's automaton to take her mind of the sudden death of her longterm lover.

"The writing styles of our two narrators are distinct but they are linked early on by shared personal tragedy and loss of love. Embroidered through the narrative is the unfolding ecological tragedy of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico (hence the choice of 2010) and the mid-Victorian parallel of the onset of the industrial revolution and its effect on both landscape and craftsmanship. And to round it all off, a highly amusing twist (which Carey has been dropping hints about all along) concerning the wunderkind Carl.

"Not one word wasted ... [and] a perfectly crafted ending, sufficient unto the purpose and no flummery."

Monday, August 13, 2012

Bloody Scotland nominees

The shortlist for the inaugural Bloody Scotland Scottish Crime Book of the Year award has been announced.  The nominees for the £3000 prize are:
  • A Foreign Country, Charles Cumming: Also listed for the CWA Steel Dagger award, this is a spy thriller which ends up in North Africa.
  • Dead Men and Broken Hearts, Craig Russell: Russell is really interesting.  He writes thrillers set in Hamburg, one of which has just been dramatised for German TV (yes please, BBC4!), and the Lennox series, of which this is one, set in 1950s Glasgow.
  • Gods and Beasts, Denise Mina: The third of Mina's series featuring Glasgow Detective Sergeant Alex Morrow.  There's a great review of it by Mike Stafford here.
  • The Lewis Man, Peter May:  May is another super-prolific writer of crime and thrillers.  This is the second in his Lewis trilogy (the island, not the tedious ITV 'tec), following on from The Blackhouse.  Oddly enough, it has already won the 10,000 euro Readers' Prize of Le Telegramme newspaper in France.  Nice one.
  • Prague Fatale, Philip Kerr: the eighth of Kerr's Bernie Gunther series, which don't run chronologically.  The last one I read (A Quiet Flame, 2008) was set in Buenos Aires in 1950; this, however, is set in 1941 at Heydrich's country pad.
  • Redemption, Will Jordan: Another spy thriller, this time featuring a British army veteran turned CIA spook.

An interesting list, chosen from a longlist of forty, so we can confident all six have something special about them.  Personally, I don't go much on generic spy thrillers.  I am already a big fan of Kerr and Mina and am keen to discover the Lewis trilogy.  I suspect the battle for the prize is between Mina and May but Craig Russell is the one I'm hitting the bookshops for when I'm in the city later this week.  He sounds exactly like my kind of writer.

To be eligible for the competition the writer has to be born in Scotland, live in Scotland, or set her/his novel there.  Let's face it, this has to be the eve of a new golden age for Scottish crime fiction, given that it shares so many tropes with Nordic Noir.  Denise Mina is actually working on a graphic adaptation of the Steig Larsson trilogy!
The winner will be announced September 16.  Full details here.  I strongly recommend you also follow the links through the short story competition and guidance on how to write one.  It makes many interesting points.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Booker Prize Longlist

Longlisted candidates for the 2012 Man Booker Prize were announced last night.  They are: Nicola Barker, The Yips; Ned Beauman, The Teleportation Accident; Andre Brink, Philida; Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists; Michael Frayn, Skios; Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry; Deborah Levy, Swimming Home and other stories; Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies; Alison Moore, The Lighthouse; Will Self, Umbrella; Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis, and Sam Thompson, Communion Town.

The website handily provides a picture of the books elegantly piled:

The next stage is to reduce this to a shortlist of six, to be announced on September 11.  My guess would be Mantel (because she's won before), Levy (because of the subject matter), Frayn (for longevity exceeding even that of last year's winner, Julian Barnes), Thayil and Beauman (both adding variety to the mix) and a wild card, possibly Rachel Joyce.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

From the Illustrators Lounge - Daniel Egneus

The Illustrators Lounge is a blog I visit daily without fail (see side panel).  I love it.  Today, though, I have to share the featured artist, Daniel Egneus.  Check out his website - and add the Lounge to your favourites.

First Night of the Proms

This year's Proms got underway last night with a cursory nod to the Olympics, in that four English conductors 'passed the baton' in a reference to the Team GB men's relay team, except of course that the conductors won.  The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus stayed where they were all night in what was possibly an homage to Britain's middle distance runners.

Anyhow, the evening of English got under way with the premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's cracking curtain-raiser Cannon Fever, a forensic test for brass-players and percussionists.  I thought it was stunning.

Sir Roger Norrington then gave us a very personal rendition of Elgar's Cockaigne Overture.  Norrington favours the sweetly lyrical; personally I could have done with a little more contrast, especially approaching the climax.

Highlight of the night, undoubtedly, was Delius's Sea Drift, his setting of the Walt Whitman poem, the bulk of it sung by the mighty Bryn Terfel with lustrous interpolations from the Chorus.  Sir Mark Elder conducted, creating a kind of throbbing seascape, haunting, moving, electrical.  This was musical impression at its best, a stunning reminder that the key influences on the maturing Delius were not English, nor German, nor even European, but the sounds of the American South.  I adored it.

Martyn Brabbins brought real swing to Sir Michael Tippett's Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles (1948), something of a curiosity but great fun with its nods to bred-in-the-bone English tropes like Crimond and The Floral Dance.  I was roused by a clip of the composer himself conducting the Leicestershire Schools Orchestra back in 1968.  Back then this junior LSO was a major draw, a leader in the field.  Now all the County Council sponsors is members' expenses.  Its cultural spend is virtually nil.

Dud of the night, however, was the closing piece, Elgar's Coronation Ode (1902 and 1911).  All I could think was, who wrote these awful clunking lyrics?  Kings and wings and things.  Alfred Austin?  The Great McGonagall?  No: turns out it was A C Benson, who should be revolving in his grave with shame.  Benson, more successfully, penned the words of Land of Hope and Glory, which got an ill-judged reprise in the Ode.  Evidently Elgar felt obliged to bang out his greatest hit on every national occasion, an Edwardian precursor of poor old Paul McCartney and the albatross that is Hey, Jude.   I felt so sorry for Sarah Connolly (below), who did such a great job of Rule Britannia a couple of years ago in her Nelson outfit, and who last night drew the short straw and had to sing the bowdlerised version of Land and Hope.

All in all, though, a fascinating and eclectic start to a much anticipated season.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Sebastian Barry wins Walter Scott

To no one's great surprise, Sebastian Barry's On Canaan's Side has been awarded the 2012 Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction published in 2011.  I was interested to discover that the prize is directly sponsored by the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, rather than some portable phone company or hedge fund, and that their definition of a historical novel is one set sixty or more years ago.  Useful info.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Jet Black TV Crime Drama - Braquo 2 and Line of Duty

As one unbelievably noir series ends another one begins.  Earlier this week I caught up with the final episode of Braquo Saison 2 on FX and plunged head-first into the murky world of Line of Duty on BBC2.

Because it's on FX, Braquo has never received the mainstream attention lavished on BBC4's Nordic imports or the French SpiralBraquo is every bit their equal.  Season 1 was incredibly dark.  Could they go darker for Season 2?  Surely not?  Oh yes they can, with knobs on.

Season 2 starts in the very second Season 1 ended.  Eddy's team is disgraced, demoted and generally humiliated; Caplan himself is in the slammer.  Then a team of renegade soldiers from France's shameful Angolan involvement hijack a monster haul of gold from the Eastern European Mafia and Eddy is offered a lifeline to redemption.

If you think Jean-Hughes Anglade as Caplan looks hard (above), check out Colonel Gautier and his oppo (below):

For Season 2 Olivier Marchal, creator and writer of Season 1, brought in Abdel Raouf Dafri, writer of Mesrine and Un Prophete.  Boy, did that pay off.  The out-of-the-blue final twist of Season 2 was worth his fee in itself and set us up perfectly for Season 3, which also has Dafri and Anglade back in harness.

Can't wait.

Line of Duty begins with a disastrous armed police raid on a dingy London flat in which an innocent man is mistakenly shot and killed whilst, literally, holding the baby.  Only Steve Arnott refuses to take part in the official police cover-up and for his pains is dumped in the hated Anti-Corruption Unit headed by the zealous Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar, as good as I've seen him this side of the Millennium).  Arnott's first target is DCI Tony Gates (Lennie James) whose elite unit turns in unfeasibly high clear-up rates via a process known as laddering with which I was previously unfamiliar.

Jed Mercurio, one of TV's best writers, is also the producer on Line of Duty.  The actual producer, not the vanity Executive Producer.  Thus we are not treated to flashy cutting and long, langorous exteriors by some adman turned director who wants to break into movies.  Thus we are permitted time to develop complex storylines and to enjoy fine actors practising their craft.  I've already praised Dunbar; James is truly extraordinary, Gina McKee both seductive and spellbinding, and Vicky McClure is just as good here as she was in the various This is England projects.  Paul Higgins - Malcolm Tucker's less affable sidekick in The Thick of It - is brilliant cast against type as Gates' fast-tracked bean-counting boss and we all know the legendary Neil Morrissey is here for much more than comic relief.

Instantly hooked.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Roger Wood's Biblioblog: Morality Play - Barry Unsworth

Shameful though it is, it took Unsworth's recent death (see below) to remind me to check out his work. I scanned through the list and this one leapt out at me. It's medieval, which I like, and it's about drama, just like my PhD. I acquired a copy, jumped in - and was immediately blown away with how well Unsworth writes. He doesn't lay on the history research with the proverbial trowel, yet there are things here even I didn't know about. Did medieval players really have a lexicon of hand gestures with which to express emotion? I genuinely don't know but if they didn't they should have and it sounds absolutely convincing in this text. It is also a murder mystery with a paedophile serial killer on the loose in County Durham. But that's not what Morality Play is about. Unsurprisingly, it's about morality and the moral code of the age, which is obviously different to ours.

Most of all, though, this is high literature, plainly but beautifully written with the editorial control of a true master. It might only be 188 pages long but there is no way this novel is slight.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Peter Duggan's wonderful Artoons

A Tweet from Guardian Art & Design (@Gdnartanddesign) led me to this wickedly pretension-busting series.  The one above is the latest, which I loved because I have something of an obsession with the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait (Carola Hicks' book is currently on my bedside table).  The Jarman/Caravaggio one is very funny, too.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Barry Unsworth

From Martin Childs' Independent obituary of Booker Prize winner Barry Unsworth, who died last Tuesday:

"In an interview with The Independent about Sacred Hunger, two years after Margaret Thatcher had left office, Unsworth made the connection anout his allegorical stories explicit.  'As I wrote I began to see more strongly that there were inescapable analogies,' Unsworth explained.  'You couldn't really live through the Eighties without feeling how crass and distasteful some of the economic doctrines were.  The slave trade is a perfect model for that kind of total devotion to the profit motive without reckoning the human consequences.'"

Unsworth was a world citizen who died in Perugia, but he was born in a County Durham mining village in 1930.  You can tell.

Sacred Hunger won the Booker back in 1992.  It was the last joint winner, with Ondaatje's The English Patient.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

June 2012 - Art History News - by Bendor Grosvenor

June 2012 - Art History News - by Bendor Grosvenor

Fascinating discovery of celebrated 18th century international transvestite, the Chevalier d'Eon, who evidently got less convincing as he grew older.  Discovered by Philip Mould and purchased by the National Gallery.  Now on display, this has to be a must-see the next time I'm in London.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

TV Drama Update

Earlier this year I blogged about the bumper crop of international drama series hitting our TV screens here in the UK.  Luck (HBO/Sky Atlantic) has been and gone and died.  Homeland (Showtime/C4), which began so stunningly, fizzled out at the end, though Claire Dane's performance as Carrie Mathison may well be the best performance by an actress ever on mainstream TV.  When you compare it with the original, Gideon Raff's Hatufim, now showing here on Sky Arts 1 as Prisoners of War, you realise the extent to which the Americans soaped it up.  Of course in Israel the stakes are somewhat higher - these prisoners were held for seventeen years - but the dramaturgy is so much better: the sister of the one who died interacts with him as a 'ghost', the wife who caused a scandal by remarrying married the prisoner's brother and is now living with the returnee as man and wife.  Really, this is very superior material.  I am hooked.

The Bridge on BBC4 maintained its quality to the very end.  Sofia Helin was superb as the ADHD Saga - it has been a good spring for actresses - and Kim Bodnia was pretty damn good as Martin.  Currenly filling the Scandinavian slot on Saturday night is Sebastian Bergman with one of the Swedish Wallanders, Rolf Lassgard, as a criminal profiler with what may be an Oedipus Complex and a penchant for the younger ladies.  Bergman's breakdown on returning to his dead mother's house was an acting tour de force.  The revelation for me, though, was Tomas Laustiola as CID chief Torkel Hoglund (the one with the gun in the image below).  The hardest copper since Jim Taggart.

Meanwhile, Mad Men plods away on Sky Atlantic without me, I'm afraid.  I tried, I really did, but I no longer care.

On the home front, the second series of ITV's Scott & Bailey was a lot better than the first, mainly because Amelia Bullmore's DCI Murray stepped forward to fill the void that is Lesley Sharp.  The standout British drama has to be Paul Abbot's awkwardly-name Hit & Miss for Sky 1.  Essentially the Gallagher kids from Shameless are bequeathed to gender-transitioning hit-person Mia.  Chloe Sevigny's nude scenes are extraordinary - a very brave performance.

Madeline Miller wins Orange Prize for Fiction

American author Madeline Miller last night won the final Orange Prize for fiction for The Song of Achilles.  She says this debut novel took ten years to write, in which case it is either horribly overwritten, which I doubt, or a work of genius, which I strongly suspect it might be.  It is defintely on my want list.  This is the synopsis:

  • Greece in the age of Heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to Phthia to live in the shadow of King Peleus and his strong, beautiful son, Achilles. By all rights their paths should never cross, but Achilles takes the shamed prince as his friend, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something far deeper — despite the displeasure of Achilles’s mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But then word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus journeys with Achilles to Troy, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.
The Orange Prize was founded in 1996 to promote fiction written by women in English.  It is a fine and honorable institution, but now, apparently, Orange would rather associate itself with movies.  Hopefully the prize will continue under a new sponsor.  Contemporary literature will be poorer without it.

Tom Mallin (1927-1977)

I've just been writing about Tom Mallin over on my bibiloblog (Best Radio Plays of 1978).  The first half of Mallin's career was as an artist and sculptor, before breaking into drama at the age of 43 with the stage play Curtains.  I found the above linocut image on his memorial website and really liked it.