Saturday, March 31, 2012

Death of John Arden

John Arden, one of the original Angry Young Men and for me the most enduring, died on Wednesday, aged 81. 

Osborne has dated horribly, Pinter became fixated with his own eminence; Wesker's plays still find relevance and audiences but only in revival.  Arden, however, continued writing and developing to the end.  The last radio play of his I heard was about email fraud - Scam (2007). 

I am a radio drama academic and, unlike the other AYM, Arden began and finished on radio.  Anyone who wants to know how far you can push the radio form should lay hands on The Bagman, or the Impromptu of Muswell Hill (1970).  In the mid-50s BBC radio was probably the only way for a non-London, non-Oxbridge dramatist to announce himself (Arden was born in Barnsley and studied in Edinburgh) and his first success was the radio play, never published, The Life of Man (1956).  When he walked away from the London theatre in protest over the RSC's deplorable handling of The Island of the Mighty (1972) his radio work helped to subsidise his community theatre projects.  Pearl (1978), one of the greatest and most important British radio plays, can be read as a transposition of the Island of the Mighty debacle to 16th century England.  Arden later began writing novels, with greater success than any other dramatist of his era.  Silence Among the Weapons (1982) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Many critics blame Arden's life and literature partnership with Margaretta D'Arcy for what they see as his decline.  In terms of classical theatre they may have a point but I would stoutly defend her role in developing their collaborative political theatre.  Workhouse Donkey, Live Like Pigs, The Happy Haven and Waters of Babylon are political plays held back in their day by proscenium staging for the London arts set.  There are two places to go from there - into myth or parable, or off the beaten track - and Arden did both.  Only Edward Bond comes close to matching him in the former, only John McGrath in the latter.  The Non-Stop Connolly Show (1975), about the 1916 martyr, was the Arden/D'Arcy inspiration to my generation of drama students.

Arden's literary-dramatic voice was one of those that simply cannot be silenced or even constrained.  It bursts forth and finds a form that is equally effective on the page or on the stage.  With Arden the writing is the drama, the idea is the image.

As a measure of his importance, consider this: Serjeant Musgrave's Dance was on the secondary school English Literature curriculum as early as 1970, barely ten years after it was written.  None of Arden's contemporaries managed anything like that.

Arden was never knighted or given the Nobel Prize (he might not have accepted either).  He was never granted a restrospective.  Perhaps the RSC or the National or even the dear old BBC could do something about that...

Friday, March 30, 2012

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Orwell Prize longlist announced

The long list for this year's Orwell Prize was announced yesterday.

The nominees in books are: Rodric Braithwaite, Afgansty; Sherad Cowper-Coles, Cables from Kabul; Siddhartha Deb, The Beautiful and the Damned; Misha Glenny, Dark Market; Toby Harnden, Dead Men Risen; Robin Harris, The Conservatives: a History; Christopher Hitchens, Arguably; Gavin Knight, Hood Rat; Anatol Lieven, Pakistan; Julia Lovell, The Opium War; Caroline Moorehead, A Train in Winter; Douglas Murray, Bloody Sunday; Richard Lloyd Parry, People Who Eat Darkness; Sonia Purnell, Just Boris; Jeffrey Sachs, The Price of Civilization; Lucy Siegle, To Die For; Christopher Turner, Adventures in the Orgasmatron and Conor Woodman, Unfair Trade.

Understandably, several books reflect Britain's ongoing misadventures in the East.  The late Hitchens will win if the press has anything to do with it, but the Turner should win at least win a prize for best title.

Established in 1994 by Sir Bernard Crick, the Orwell Prize is the most prestigious award for British political writing.  It has always honoured books and journalists, and added blogs in 2009.

Shortlists in April, awards end of May.

In memoriam - Adrienne Rich

The groundbreaking American feminist poet Adrienne Rich has passed at the age of 82.  Her work, of course, will be her memorial.  This is "The Feminine Mystique" (1963):

You, once a belle in Shreveport,
with henna-colored hair, skin like a peachbud,
still have your dresses copied from that time. ...
Your mind now, mouldering like wedding-cake,
heavy with useless experience, rich
with suspicion, rumor, fantasy,
crumbling to pieces under the knife-edge
of mere fact.

There is an excellent in-depth obituary by Margalit Fox on the New York Times website.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


The Titanic does not have a great TV history.  Lew Grade's ambitious Raise the Titanic was said to have sunk ATV circa 1980.  Now ITV has gone large with Lord Julian Fellowes of Downton's multi-viewpoint four-parter.

Yes, that's right - multiviewpoint, that rarely-successful literary device that every generation (since at least Wilkie Collins and The Moonstone (1868)) thinks it has invented for itself.

In this instance, though, it may yet be the saving of the series.  Certainly it is the only aspect that will keep me watching.  The first episode, inevitably, focused on the toffs.  It was great to see Linus Roache, so rarely glimpsed on British TV and really very slick, and to speculate if David Calder's beard was homegrown or hooked on over the ears.  But there was nothing new here.  Some of the characterisation was pitiful (Celia Imrie's role, for example) and the special effects risible. 

There were several scenes in which we had a crude mask effect of people strolling the deck on one half and footage of the sea on the other.  As for the key moment - striking the iceberg, which will obviously feature in every episode, it looked like a pond yacht had bumped up against a particularly grubby snow cone.  Honestly, the effects were nowhere near the quality of the fifty-year-old, black-and-white Night to Remember, which for me remains the only engrossing treatment of the subject.  I saw it again about two years ago and was happily surprised at how well it held up.

In the unseemly wake of James Cameron's horrid blockbuster this Titanic seemed especially small with remarkably few people aboard.

For all these criticisms, it was watchable throughout, but for me everything depends on something new turning up next week - there's a potentially interesting subplot involving the wondrous Lyndsey Marshal and the always compelling Lee Ross of which I have hopes.  Otherwise, I'm off.

Monday, March 26, 2012

"Luck" runs out of the same

In depth consideration of why Luck (HBO/Sky Atlantic) didn't turn out to be particularly lucky by David Stubbs on the Guardian website.

For me, this was his key paragraph:

"Even without the dead horses, Luck would have counted as a high-profile flop, and from a broadcaster whose opening screen burst of white noise is usually a guarantee of high quality. Was this a case of ageing film stars and established directors looking for a piece of that prestigious HBO action, and bringing little more than the cumbersome weight of their own reputations? Reporter Buzz Bissinger, writing for the Daily Beast, accused Milch and Mann of being "obsessed with perfection on its own terms"; somehow, in Luck, this perfectionism backfired. Difficult and downbeat, lost in a self-indulgent fog of obfuscation, the show (which finished last night) grandly demanded infinite patience from the viewer, rather than grabbing them from the start. Scenes of intrigue were set (cliche alert here), around tables in near total darkness, not so much atmospheric as suggestive of a power cut. The dialogue was often inaudible, while Nolte's geezerish turn as horse owner Walter Smith was marred by his unintelligibility, as if he lost the roof of his mouth in the great tornado of 1936."

I continue to watch but I skip through the bits involving jockeys with bizarre accents and it's really only the presence of Michael Gambon that keeps me going.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Harry Clarke, book illustrator, genius of glass

I love book illustration and have become fascinated by modern stained glass, so I was held spellbound by the documentary, Harry Clarke - Darkness in Light (John J Doherty, Camel Productions, Dublin, 2003).

I cannot believe this is the first I have heard of Clarke (1899-1931).  Is it because he was Irish, or because he died young, or simply because he was saddled with such a prosaic name?  Certainly, I want - need - to see as much of his work as I possibly can.

OK, maybe the illustations are a little bit Beardsley, a tad Dulac, but the stained glass...  Is there anything equal to this?  If so, someone let me know.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Englebert for Eurovish!

Well, at least it's a proper song, unlike the usual pathetic self-mocking post-ironic send-up which no one else in Europe gets.  You never know, Enge might just win.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Turner v Claude

Turner is one of the best-known and best-loved British artists.  Claude Lorrain (1604-82) has almost entirely lost favour here, although our museums and galleries are stuffed end and side with his work.  Turner, in the second part of his career, realised that photo-realism was finished and pushed his art increasingly towards the abstract.  Claude made a huge amount of money over many decades painting super-realistic scenes which very few people from France or the British Isles were ever likely to see for themselves, which was fortunate as they didn't exist in reality.  In the first half of his career Turner made a fortune from pastoral idylls created in the manner of Claude which were turned into the bestselling prints of the day.  The same prints today, proportionately as a slice of the average income, are worth less than they were at the time.  Turner's late paintings, on the other hand, are virtually priceless.

Turner left 1000 works to the National Gallery in his will.  They never managed to show them properly and ultimately gave them to the Tate, now Tate Britain.  The fashionistas and macaronis who decked their country seats with Claudes, also tended to bequeath them to public galleries when fashions changed.

The Ashmolean in Oxford has only just finished a substantial three-month exhibition of Claude, yet four weeks later the National Gallery is wasting space on Turner Inspired: in the Light of Claude, which runs until June.  The following is from their press release:

"Turner admired Claude most of all the Old Masters and enthused about the quality of light in the artist’s Italian landscapes. On his death, Turner left the National Gallery ‘Dido building Carthage’ and ‘Sun rising through Vapour: Fishermen cleaning and selling Fish’ in his will on condition that they were hung between two pictures by Claude, which he named as ‘The Seaport’ (‘Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba’) and ‘The Mill’ (‘Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca’). This exhibition brings together other closely related works by both artists, many of which share the same theme, giving visitors a chance to appreciate fully the enormous influence Claude’s mastery of light and landscape had on Turner from his formative years until the end of his life.

"‘Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude’ is the most in-depth examination to date of Turner’s experience of Claude’s art and includes oils, watercolours and sketchbooks. It also introduces visitors to the story of the Turner Bequest and its importance in the history of the National Gallery, with the final room of the show exhibiting archive material dedicated to this relationship."

OK, there is a tenuous relationship.  Turner's Caernarvon Castle, painted when he was 23 (above), is loosely evocative of bits of Claude's aforementioned Seaport (1648), below.  But it's thin - pitifully thin.   

Personally I think they are pushing their luck, charging £12 to see Turners which the great man bequeathed to the nation and Claudes which most people ignore for free.

Must see movie from Norway

Just as I finished reading Jo Nesbo's book, I saw that the movie version is released in the UK on April 6.  As the trailer shows, it's a Norwegian movie with subtitles.  To me, this is an attraction, to the proprietors of provincial multiplexes it isn't, so I guess I will have to wait for the DVD release.

For more on the book, including an opinion contrary to mine, see my book blog.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Two adult TV sitcoms

Two genius sitcoms currently on BBC digital channels.  Pramface on BBC3 and Lowdown across on BBC4.

Chris Reddy's script for Pramface is able to get the maximum laughs out of the situation without ever trivialising the serious subject of teenage pregnancy.  One major asset is that he has been allowed a large number of recurring characters, which means that every conceivable angle can be explored.  He has also been blessed with a casting director of pure genius.  We have familiar faces, like Angus Deayton and Anna Chancellor, we have what might be called cult actors, like Ben Crompton from Ideal and Bronagh Gallagher from Pulp Fiction.  But, most impressively, we have four cracking young actors: Scarlett Alice Johnson and Sean Michael Verey as the star-crossed lovers, Dylan Edwards and Yasmin Paige (above) as Jamie's schoolmates.

Meanwhile, over on BBC 4 we have the seriously offbeat Lowdown, set in the feotid world of Aussie tabloid journalism.
Adam Zwar, who stars and co-created the show with his wife, also starred and co-created (with Jason Gann) the wonderful Wilfred.  His part was taken by Elijah Wood for the US remake.

In some ways Lowdown's appeal is synchonicity.  Not only is the scabrous scandal sheet losing money hand over first but - oh yes - it's called The Sun on Sunday.  Geoffrey Rush, no less, takes off-the-wall narration to new levels and the Editor, a long way from the Rebekah Brookses of this world and much, much funnier than Andy Coulson, is ...

... the marvellous Kim Gyngell.  Now that's what I call a hangdog expression.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Two adult TV dramas from America

Two complex and compelling TV dramas from America throw British efforts into stark relief.  We make anodyne heritage dramas like Downton Abbey and the revived Upstairs, Downstairs (is anyone actually watching this?) whereas HBO's Luck, showing over here on Sky Atlantic, and Showtime's Homeland (C4) are adult, contemporary, and concerned with truly uncomfortable issues.  Both shows feature top talent, onscreen and off.  A proportion of that talent is British - the sort of talent that wouldn't be seen dead Upstairs in Downtown.

Luck, from David Milch and Michael Mann, features Dustin Hoffman, who has been waiting since the Millennium for a role this good, and Nick Nolte, who looks great, oozes gravitas, but is frankly incomprehensible.  The setting is the racetrack, the theme corruption - or perhaps, can honour be achieved by manipulating the corrupt? - and plays dramatic riffs on the American fascination with hard core gambling.  The look of Luck is sumptuous, probably the best visuals of horse racing ever filmed.  The British talent is the grossly undervalued Ian Hart, who plays an unlikely American lothario and whose accent certainly sounds right to me - unlike the American actress essaying an Irish accent which is just hideous.  It's a typical HBO slow-burner, but I am already hooked.

Damian Lewis stars in Homeland as US Marine Sgt Brody.  He does his patented back-of-the-throat American whisper, but he's been doing this for so long that he might as well be American.  Anyway, isn't that what an English public school education is for - to equip posh boys like Damian and Dominic West to succeed on US PPV?  Poor old David Harewood fares less well, mainly because he has to compete with the marvellous Mandy Patinkin in too many of his scenes.  Claire Danes is a revelation as the bi-polar CIA operative they have to try and control.

A drama about delusion, conviction, patriotism and faith, Homeland is based on an Israeli original, called Hatufim.  I'm guessing the issues were even more cutting edge in the original, to the extent that I hope a UK channel shows it.  The omens are good as Sky Arts 1 has just started showing Be Tipul, the Israeli original of In Treatment.

Both Luck and Homeland have been commissioned for second seasons, which is great news.

Meantime, the best drama currently on offer from native UK TV is the second season of ITV1's Kidnap and Ransom, with Britain's answer to Mandy Patinkin, Trevor Eve, who matures like a fine cognac.

Eve excepted, the best thing Kidnap and Ransom has going for it is that its creator, Brit Patrick Harbinson, learnt his trade on US staples like Law and Order.  It shows.