May Miscellany

Let’s start with the best. May was a remarkable month for original television films featuring two absolute gems, and what is more gems of completely different kinds. I have already written about Compulsion (see blog of 14th May); here I turn my attention to The Unloved co-written and directed by Samantha Morton and screened on Channel 4 on 17th May. This film told the story of 11-year old Lucy – an astonishing performance by Molly Windsor – who is taken into ‘care’ following her abandonment by her mother and physical abuse from her father. While the film certainly had a strong element of the j’accuse tradition of British naturalist television pioneered by Ken Loach ( Cathy Come Homeetc.) this was in its substance and not its style which belonged to a very different school. It was extremely hard to believe as one watched that this was really a directorial debut; the visual style was stunning in its stark beauty and useof both landscape and interiors. Time and again Morton managed to convey Lucy’s smallness – in relation to buildings, to the adults andolder children in the care home. The audacity was at times extraordinary, as when Lucy, having run away from the home, comes across a deer grazing in a cemetery; to attempt, let alone triumphantly succeed with, this kind ofcinematic symbolism, so alien to the naturalist tradition which dominates British television, is remarkable. Perhaps it was precisely because Morton was making her directorial debut that she was so unconstrained by predecessors or tradition. The film proved that a burning social anger can be combined with cinematic beauty; I return to the word beauty because so many of the shots and sequences were exactly that – as Lucy walked a solitary and tiny figure in an, often desolate, urban landscape transformed by the power of the camera into powerful and haunting images. The beauty was all in the stillness, the composition – colour seemed to be drained from the screen ; the strong contrast to Compulsion where colours were continually heightened provide a kind of object lesson in the way in which colour can be used in completely different ways in film, both veryeffective but with opposite effects; the effect in Compulsion was to highlight the already heightened melodrama played out before us, in The Unloved the lack of colour emphasised the de-sensationalised way in which the sometimes appalling events were represented. This did not mean that the film failed to engage the emotions; on the contrary it was continually moving – to anger, pity, tears, and yesat times joy. The latter was chiefly engendered by Lucy’s relationship with Lauren (another wonderful performance by Lauren Socha ) an older (16) girl at the home who is herself being abused by one of the care-workers. But it was also there as a natural response to the glory of some of the cinematography. However there is no doubt that anger and sadness were the dominant emotional responses which The Unloved produced. Morton has commented that she wanted to make the film for television rather than the cinema because….

>>she thought, as in her own childhood experiences with going to the cinema, younger audiences’ might not afford the price of a cinema ticket. Thus, younger audiences’ would see this production “for free”.<<

While this is a wholly convincing and understandable argument, the film’s visual power was such that I would very much hope that at some point a cinematic release might be considered – I am convinced that it would stand up to, and indeed triumphantly succeed, in what, visually if not socially, is its natural home. Morton was abused herself as a child and taken into care, and while she has said that the film is not strictly auto-biographical it is obviously deeply infused with personal understanding and knowledge.  The Unloved is an auteur film in the very best sense of the word; a personal project executed by someone who appears to have a massive cinematic talent. Astounding.

Now a couple of movies. I actually saw and wrote about these before I had even seen The Unloved which is just as well for them as I would have been far harsher if they were up in comparison! First The Duchess (2008) directed by Saul Dibb which is loosely based on Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire(1757-1806). I knew that I was likely to have some problems with this film as I never managed more than a couple of chapters of Foreman’s book and such proved to be the case; these problems of course revolve around thefilm as history, a subject on which I tend towards strong views and havewritten before. Is it possible to divorce this reaction from the movie as whole? As a large part of its’ project was to draw parallels between Georgiana and her remote descendant Diana Spencer it certainly should be. But these parallels in fact turned out to be another part of the film’s problems, particularly for Keira Knightley in the central role, who’s over-the-top performance may have had much to do withthe fact that she was instructed to play Diana as well as Georgiana (this is pure surmise but it just seemed to me that at certain times the performance tended towards a Diana impersonation). The obvious ‘three in a marriage’ parallel will be inescapable to anyone with evena passing knowledge of Diana’s marital history. Returning to the movie itself it told the story of Georgiana’s ill-fated marriage to the 5th Duke of Devonshire, her acclamation as a leading figure in Whig political and social circles and herlove affair with Charles Grey.  This relatively simple plot was, I suppose, related in a competent enough fashion, though without any particular sparks or eclat (certainly Knightley and Dominic Cooper playing Grey hardly suggested a grand passion for each other – far better were the scenes with the Duke – and in many ways Ralph Fiennes stole the movie which cannot have been intended). But it worked well enough. The problems came with the attempt at larger implications. At one level these can be said to have succeeded – the miserable position of women in 18thC society was certainly conveyed.  This though hardly came as a surprise to me! It is the historical setting beyond this however where the problems really come and I think they arise from the fact that Foreman (and this is based on the brief comments from her in one of the DVD extras) really buys into a version of history which was Georgiana’s own, as recorded in her diary, where a small number of members of the elite shape events. The utter falsity of such a position was in fact shown with supreme clarity during her own lifetime just across the Channel – but of the events of 1789 and thereafter no mention is made. Basically the movie buys into its own mythology – Georgiana just wasn’t as important as either she or Foreman think she is. This is not a matter of gender – individuals just aren’t. Of course they play important roles but never in the circumstances of their choosing. The great historical movies manage somehow to convey something of great historical events and transitions while at the same time offering us charismatic individuals whether good or bad, tragic or comic; here even Fox and Sheridan, both accorded cameo roles, were a little dull. Visually the film was gently, but hardly overwhelmingly, pleasing; how could it not be when many of the interiors were Adam, including the magnificent entrance hall at Kedleston – one of my own favourites (I was however very amused when in another of the extras the location manager talked about John Adams interiors! did he imagine that the second President moonlighted as a British architect? shows that these extras aren’t subject to much copy-editing I suppose!).

Something much stranger next. Margot at the Wedding starred Nicole Kidman playing  the eponymous writer Margot,  who with her son visits her younger sister Pauline, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh just before the latter’s marriage to Malcolm, played by Jack Black. Things then fall apart as secrets are exposed and virtually everyone behaves with varying degrees of badness; the relationships of the sisters, of Margot and her son, of Pauline and Malcolm, of Margot and her husband who briefly turns up, of Pauline and her weird neighbours, of Margot and a putative lover, all disintegrate and are then restored more or less. The performances were all good, especially that of Zane Pais as Margot’s unfortunate son Claude, the drama always involving, the situations interesting, but somehow at the end of it I felt that the whole was less than the sum of the parts. Perhaps this was inevitable given the fractured, bitty approach but the lack of an over-arching message meant the film had in the end something of a hollow centre. I suspect that this would have been filled had it been more visually satisfying but the direction was of that kind which  would probably be described by its adherents as actor-centred but leaves the viewer with little pleasure. The film certainly gave a portrait of the cruelties of both family and social life as the characters inflicted pain on each other ; yet it was also at moments striving for comedy as is indicated by the presence of Black. Perhaps the central problem was not the lack of visual flair but the fact that in the end I didn’t care very much about any of the characters – in a perverse way this connects with my comments on Happy-go-Lucky (see blog A burst of Leigh May 6th); where in that case I failed to fully appreciate the film’s optimism because of my lack of sympathy with the central character, here I failed to engage emotionally with the pain and cruelties because again I did not identify with strongly with any of the characters. It may well be that this is a gender influenced view as the adult male characters were either really unpleasant or marginal. Still Margot at the Wedding is definitely worth seeing, if only for the performances, but not a movie I would wish to view again.

Moving back to television we have the third series of George Gently a detective series starring Martin Shaw and set in the early 60’s. The story of this production is a little remarkable; Alan Hunter wrote 46 mysteries all featuring Inspector George Gently between 1944 and 1999 (which is a remarkable record in itself). I have read a couple and they were entertaining enough but unmemorable (ie: I can’t really remember them!) and certainly not good enough to send me out on a quest to find the other 44 (of course with thatnumber it may be that some are a lot better than others, that a certain period of his writing is better or worse). The books are set in East Anglia (the first is actually called The Norwich Poems). Anyway in 2007 the BBC shot a pilot called George Gently based on the book Gently Go Man (1961) with Gently played by Martin Shaw and the setting relocated to the North-East (Northumberland and Durham). I thought it was much like the books – entertaining enough but unmemorable and didn’t bother when they made anothercouple for the first ‘series’. However on Sunday they showed the first of the second series which will comprise 4 episodes; this first one was called Gently and The Innocents and was really very good. It was about child abuse (I don’t think that’s much of a spoiler – any mystery fan would guess it a mile off!) and normally I groan when this subject occurs (in either book or TV) because it has been done so often, and often so badly and is so often a matter of stereotypes. Here however the writer (the wonderful Peter Flannery of Our Friends in the Northand The Devils Whore– one of the best British TV writers working today) really used the sixties setting – as a period when child abuse first started to emerge into the public light ; in a great line someone asked Gently if he knew what paedophilia meant? Well of course today such a question would be absurd, like asking if you know what cheese means. But then I suppose it was a new word. Anyway I won’t say more but it was a really excellent production which now makes me wish I hadn’t missed series one. It has obviously proved moderately popular (drew 6 million on Sunday which is pretty good these days) and the incremental progression (1 to 2 to 4) suggests it could have a lot of life.It has been suggested that the adaptations don’t now bear much relation to the books but that is probably quite a good thing (without starting me on my hobby-horse about faithfulness) – see Martin Edwards’ blog on the subject at and relateddiscussion. The mystery is why this second series is so much better given that Flannerywas also responsible for the pilot. Is it that he took a time to find his feet, or that he has now been given more licence? Whatever the case the second episode in the series which featured abortion and its illegality was nearly as good as the first; so an almost wholly forgotten fictional detective is reborn in a new and now quite exciting guise; the third and fourth episodes centred on racism and the 1964 Election respectively – that on racism was especially effective and interesting. If in future anyone ever needs an example of an adaptation being superior to its literary source it will be a simple matter of referring them to George Gently.

Some briefer notes to finish. The BBC have been running a ‘Poetry Season’ ; while highly commendable in itself,  the programmes themselves, or those I have seen, have been of, at best, a variable quality. Much too much time has been spent on ill-advised attempts at populism, demonstrated at worst in a really awful programme presented by Griff Rhys Jones on Why Poetry Matters. This was dumbing-down of the worst kind because it operates on the assumption that people are incapable of anything intellectually challenging and therefore pretends that the subject (whether it be poetry, history, art, theology, music etc. etc.) is in fact not intellectually challenging, thereby utterly altering the subject and reducing it to something worthless; at least Andrew Motion made a strong counter-argument when he said that poetry, like other things of value in life, is hard and people should ‘get over it’ (incidentally it is worth observing that that this is precisely what ‘dumbing-down’ consists of; it is often misapplied by cultural and social snobs to forms of entertainment which they happen to dislike such as talent shows like American Idol or Britain’s Got Talent. As these never had an intellectual pretensions to start with to talk of ‘dumbing-down’ in connection with  them is absurd. Dumbing-down occurs when a complex subject is deemed too ‘difficult’ for ‘us’ and is therefore presented in simplified, popularised, pabulum forms.) Further examples of populism were given in programmes where Simon  Schama and Armando Iannucci eulogised Donne and Milton respectively ; both opened by wandering round London asking people whether they had heard of Milton or Donne – an utterly pointless exercise. However the programmes diverged after that; I was soon far too irritated by Schama’s utterly unwarranted arrogance and historical inaccuracy to proceed further (while Isaiah Berlin, about whom I struggling to write a separate blog makes me feel like an intellectual pigmy, Schama has the opposite effect – perhaps I should be grateful to him for this? in fairness Donne is not a poet I like – he is of course a great favourite of right-wingers – Schama himself, Dorothy Sayers and Schama’s chief witness John Carey ). While I disagreed with Iannucci’s analysis (it was extremely light-weight on politics and history and absurdly dismissive of theology) he did have some interesting interviews, including a man who had gone blind and best of all Moazzam Begg, the released Guantanemo prisoner who revealed that many of the Guantanemo prisoners had turned to the composition of poetry – Begg was articulate, poised and humane – astonishing considering the appalling ordeal which he has undergone. Better than either of these however was Ian Hislop’s entertaining romp through the history of the Poet Laureateship – gems included his discussion of the various 18thC nonentities who took the post. Best of all so far though has been a series entitled  A Poet’s Guide to Britain presented by Owen Sheers which has looked at specific poems in the context of the poet’s lives and the places they lived. These short (half hour) programmes have been the only ones to attempt to actually use television because they have taken us to the actual locations which were the specific inspirations for the poems discussed; this has added to the viewer’s understanding. The ones I have caught so far have been on Sylvia Plath (Yorkshire), George Mackay Brown (the Orkneys) and Lynette Roberts (Llanbyri). I regret that I had never even heard of the latter before now – another ignored and overlooked woman poet – but she wrote one book of poems published in 1944 based on her war years spent in the small Welsh village of Llanbyri. Unfortunately I can’t even find any Internet texts of the poem Sheers discussed to reproduce. This series has showed that television can present poetry in a way which adds to and informs our understanding.

The above did not turn out to be that brief! However I will note a wonderful concert – the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) under new conductor Andris Nelson playing Mahler’s Resurrection(2nd Symphony) – music of transcendent power and glory superbly played andsung. Because I understand very little about music I can’t write much about it, but I know that Mahler moves me at a deep emotional level. Nelson is a charismatic andobviously inspiring conductor – a vibrant physical presence at times almost hurling himself around the podium. Next in the ‘events’ category comes a production of Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money at the Birmingham Rep. As the last few visits to the theatre have all been, in one way or another, a little disappointing I was reaching that stage where I was wondering whether I had ‘gone off’ theatre, whether it had lost its power to excite, move, challenge me; Serious Money completely restored my faith. I don’t want to talk about the text as I intend to read the play – which demands to be read – and write about it then, but just as a  theatrical experience this was exuberant and heady – production, design, cast were all excellent and the play did everything good theatre should (excite, move, challenge). Finally lets just note that, incredibly, Adam Lambert did not win American Idol which is a testament to deep-seated homophobia in American society (as none but a congenital idiot could argue that he was 10 times more talented than the winner) – this result would not have occurred in Britain which for once gives one a certain pride (and relief that I live in a secular society) ; meanwhile Susan Boyle did not win Britain’s Got Talent but in fairness to ourselves the winners – a black street dance group – were first probably just as talented as Boyle, albeit in a different sphere, and secondly, overwhelmingly young black men.

Finally this summary is a little late because I lost the last week of May to depression; a bout which came on withreal suddenness as they tend to. The most unfortunate thing about this is, apart from the usual misfortune of losing another week or so of my life, that it co-incided with a period of glorious weather – real warmth, unbroken sun. Depression in such weather is additionally dispiriting because,  on those occasions when I do feel capable of leaving the house I am acutely aware that the warmth of the sun, the blue of the sky, the green of the trees, the smell of new mown-grass  awake no pleasure whatever in me. Depression deprives me not only of all physical energy andintellectual capability but also of the capacity for sensual pleasure. This is no new reflection for me but as I get older I become aware that the periods of such weather left for my life-time diminish with every season and year. Well at least the good weather has lasted for a while and I can now go and sit in the garden andread with pleasure.

4 thoughts on “May Miscellany

  1. ellenandjim

    A beautiful rich review. So much poured on so suddenly. You make me pea-green with envy over British TV. Had we any of this, my TV would not go off. I have read why British TV continues to turn out excellent shows; the difference is there is no place in American TV which is not utterly subject to the large profit motive except for PBS which is subject to the norms of congress people.

    What did I not know? Anything about Samantha Morton beyond her extraordinary acting talent. If I get to see her again, I will watch her in a different spirit. I’ll keep an eye out for _Margot at the Wedding_. What I’ve noticed about the Austen films is most of them erase utterly her ambivalent & at times highly critical stance towards the family. I begin to give up that any film will tell truths about social life in the social venue of a movehouse. We did for a short time have half hour documentaries on PBS for poets; they are gone now. I had never thought that Donne was the darling of conservatives. He need not be, but it is true he was resurrected in the 20s and 30s by a group of new critics all enormously hostile to setting poetry in its social and historical context. I’ve read about American Idol and there was an article in the Nation about Adam Lambert as acting out the traumas of US society. I look forward to your writing about _Serioius Money_.

    Nick, I know why I express distraught states, panic, anxiety, searing anger. I can’t write about them for then I’d be accused of not accepting what others suffer too and accept and I can’t describe the individuals responsible for they are still here. I fight it the only way I know how which is to hold my mind to books and writing and where else do I have an opportunity to write but here on the Net (on blogs, listservs, to friends.).


  2. nick2209

    Many thanks Ellen. I suppose I give a grotesquely distorted view of British television because I only write about programmes which are either good or interest me in some way. There is an enormous amount which holds no interest for me and no doubt much of it is dross. American television can do fantastic things too – my admiration for The West Wing for instance is absolutely unbounded. My guess would be that there is slightly more licence (though probably much reduced) in the UK to make left-field one-off films – of which both The Unloved and Compulsion were examples. Certainly we don’t seem to ever see any examples of really good American ‘tele-movies’ as one might call them. I like certain British mystery series because of my love of the genre. Period adaptations are a special case about which you know much more than I. But in terms of series outside these parameters really good UK ones are very few and far between – certainly nothing remotely near the quality of the West Wing. A question of money certainly but also writing I suspect.

    Anyway I can assure you there would be large periods of time when you would not want the televsion on here as much as in the US! :).

  3. Dear Nick,

    I had not know Samantha Morton’s background until the other day when I couldn’t find this blog again. I realize I didn’t quite understand your review as you didn’t retell the story and assumed I knew the background. Well, now I did get it. I can be dumb, and I wrote about the blog no WWTTA. I need material there you see and the Austen/translation summer has been a flop as only two of us post.

    I sent you a copy of what I put there, but add here for the sake of your blog:

    I read the wikipedia article on Morton and discovered that far from a privileged background as many of the fine actors who go to the Royal Academy actually have (e.g., Emma Thompson, daughter of Eric), she was abandoned by her parents when she was very young, and spent a miserable hard growing up in institutions:

    Many who have seen her act may perhaps agree with me that she is a powerful actress, and I think it’s signficant to note that she was turned down by the prestigious schools with the right connections to TV. She didn’t have the class background or social connections herself. Apparently drive, power, and talent and the openness of popular TV gave her a start. I don’t know which film I most admire her in; recently I saw her in the 1997 Jane Eyre with Ciarhan Hinds, very powerful the pair of them.

    Anyway she’s getting on, and (as Thompson said), this is a real problem for women as directors want young women they want to go to bed with for their stars, and (putting me in mind of Julie Delpy) she’s going into directing, and she moved to the rich tradition of documentaries (I suppose others have seen Cathy come home and others), and did this _Unloved_.


  4. nick2209

    Many thanks Ellen – I should have done this research on Morton ; she is a very impressive character (to say the least).

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