November Miscellany

Overall November has been another good month despite some bad days at the end compounded by a resurgence of back trouble. This month’s miscellany is dominated by television (and quite a bit of it bad television at that!) but that is partly because I have hived off comments on other forms to separate blogs (‘Three Courtesans’ for example), partly because there have been quite a number of programmes which at least looked interesting and partly because the pressure of LINks work has restricted my reading and writing.

Continuing my reading of Turgenev I came to his first big success A Sportsman’s Notebook (also called A Sportsman’s Sketches, Sketches from a Hunter’s Album or Notes of A Hunter!). This is a collection of linked short stories first published in 1852, though a couple of the stories were only added in a later 1874 edition. The link is the Sportsman of the title who is also the first-person narrator of the stories. The exact identity of this narrator and the extent of his correspondence with Turgenev himself remain unclear; he is a reasonably well-off landowner whose passion is hunting (although it is important to stress that there is very little actual killing in the book). He is passionately attracted to the landscape and country in which he hunts, and also fascinated by the people he meets – serfs, landowners, merchants; both these qualities would seem auto-biographical. The narrator is always with us but he does not fascinate or perplex in the way that some of Trollope’s first-person narrators in his short stories do; we never really question his reliability and he is, by and large, an agreeable companion. The very obvious interest and power of these stories lie first, and to a lesser extent, in the lengthy evocations of the beauty of the landscapes through which the hunter moves.  Max Egremont, who writes the Introduction to the Everyman edition I was reading, writes that Turgenev is the hardest of Russian writers to translate, and I do feel that something of the poetry is lost in the translation (here by Charles and Natasha Hepburn). The second and more important interest is in the descriptions of the many characters the Sportsman encounters. In the first place there are the serfs, generally miserably ill-treated. The extent to which Russian serfs were slaves is made fully clear here – they could be beaten or sold at their ‘owners’ whim, they could not marry or move without permission. Turgenev does not romanticise the Russian serf – they are often superstitious, reactionary and xenophobic. But nonetheless he is clearly outraged by the institution of serfdom and its effects. His genius is in making everyone he describes individual while at the same time never losing sight of the class conditions and constraints with which everyone is bound. This is equally true of his landowners. Turgenev’s sympathies here are always with the failures, those who have lost money or status or have been unable to discover any purpose or meaning in their lives. One of the most memorable stories,  Prince Hamlet of Shchigrovo, concerns one of the latter. The more power, status and money a landowner has the more likely they are to be a target of Turgenev’s satiric powers; while well-aimed these never attain the force or humour of Gogol. Turgenev is much happier when engaging with characters with whom he can, in one way or another, sympathise and even characters who are at first glance unpleasant often have some redeeming feature (there are exceptions to this as exemplified by the callous lover in The Rendezvous which is another of the more memorable stories). Having praised the qualities – the descriptive powers of both landscape and individuals, the social concern, the humanity – I would have to admit however, that I am not sure how many of these stories will really remain with me. The two I have mentioned certainly, and most definitely the near-surreal and extraordinary The Living Relic about a woman who lives in a state of near total paralysis (this may be an extended metaphor although that seems unlike Turgenev and the individual detail is brilliant), but I am not sure how many others I will recall in a few months. I do not know whether this is because the collection requires more than one reading or because of my personal interaction with the short story form.

On the subject of television I made a discovery which had the effect of making me feel like a complete idiot. We pay for the biggest package of channels which our Cable company provides, but there are so many channels that it is many years since I have sat down and scrolled through everything that is available. The only easy way of finding out what actually is available and the nature of the different packages on offer is through the internet (a socially exclusive practice which – like so many private sector ruses today – discriminates against the elderly and poor, who are the least likely to have the means and knowledge to access the net easily). Anyway it happened that I was, on someone else’s behalf, looking through these various packages and I spotted to my astonishment that we had access on our package to Sky Arts 1 and 2. Now these channels are – self-evidently – devoted to the Arts, which in the case of Sky Arts 2 in particular means Opera, Classical Concerts, Theatre and so on. And we have been paying for this for ages! On the very evening of making this ‘what a fool I’ve been’ discovery we sat down and watched a fantastic production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula which the NY Met staged earlier this year.  The plot of this opera is a particularly absurd one (which is saying a lot when one considers the absurdity of opera plots) but this matters not a jot given the glorious nature of the music. The production was based around the concept that this was somehow a rehearsal – in present-day New York – for a production of La Sonnambula. This didn’t really cohere or make a great deal of sense, but had the enormous advantage that everyone was not permanently dressed up in impressions of early 19thC Swiss ‘folk’ costumes which always look generically absurd. In any case what matters is not the plot but the music, and especially the performances and vocal abilities of the two leads – here we had Natalie Dessay as Amina and Juan Diego Florez, the new star tenor, as Elvino ; both were brilliant – wonderful voices and real acting ability. The music is all glorious – arias, choruses, duets and so on. Because I love the human voice so much I am a big fan of bel canto. But the real problem now is how on earth to fit time for watching all the similar wonders which Sky Arts 2 broadcasts into an already over-crowded life? I am almost wondering if it would have been better to have remained in my state of ignorance!

Good and bad documentaries. In the latter category falls a new BBC series, A History of Christianity presented by Diarmaid MacCulloch.  I did not have any great expectation of this series, having read one of MacCulloch’s books on the Reformation a while back and been very distinctly unimpressed. If this man is really ‘one of the world’s greatest historians’ as the BBC web-site claims, then the only possible conclusion is that the study of history is in a very bad state! Still in a world where the likes of Starkey and Schama are considered leading historians this is probably a very sane conclusion to reach. In any case A History of Christianity certainly lived down to my expectations; it was staggeringly misleading and evasive as to the historical situation of Europe in the first 5 centuries CE, it was theologically loose and inaccurate, and it presented no convincing picture or narrative. Instead MacCulloch wandered around various more or less picturesque spots attempting (always a foolish endeavour) to present direct ‘links’ between past and present, which presumably is intended to make the film ‘relevant’. Any real historical understanding or explanation of the way in which the origins or early development of Christianity might have influenced its later history was scrupulously avoided, as was any attention to the interaction of the religion with the social and political situation in which it found itself. What was most marked was the complete absence of any intellectual rigour. Overall the documentary (this was the first in a series but I shall certainly not be watching any more) managed the remarkable feat of being both patronising (explaining to the audience as if we were simpletons), while also convincing that actually there was no weight of intellectual or historical vision with which it had any right to patronise! I have never really objected to being patronised if I am clearly in the presence of someone who knows their subject intimately, has a genuine and sincere historical and intellectual vision (even if it is not my own) and argues passionately – actually if someone (and I am thinking primarily of Kenneth Clark) does this, they do not patronise because their very passion prevents this. But being patronised by the likes of MacCulloch is about as irritating as it is possible for this kind of documentary to be. Let us turn to better things. The Children Who Fought Hitler, another BBC 4 documentary, although this time a one-off screened for Remembrance Day, told the very remarkable story of three pupils of the British Memorial School and their war. The British Memorial School was founded by Old Etonians in the 1920’s to provide an education for the children of the large British workforce who were established at Ypres to create and maintain the WW1 war graves there. Obviously when the Nazis invaded and overrun Belgium in 1940 the school was closed and the children evacuated. The documentary told the story of three of these children and what they did in the war. Obviously these were among the older children – indeed the eldest, Jerry Eaton, had left in 1937 to join the RAF; his story, as an RAF pilot, while of interest was one that has been told before. Elaine Madden made an extraordinary escape to England disguised as a soldier, a disguise which was only penetrated when she descended a ladder at Dunkirk. Later she joined the Special Operations Executive and was parachuted into Belgium as part of a three-person spying/radio team. She told the story of how on one occasion she needed to transport the wireless (being caught with which would of course have meant torture and death) and was offered a lift by a Nazi officer; when he remarked that the suitcase was very heavy she said she was carrying hams and cheeses for her relatives in Brussels. The ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ element of these spellbinding contributions was emphasised by the fact that the documentary illustrated her story with clips from Carve Her Name With Pride, the 1958 movie starring Virginia McKenna telling the story of Violette Szabo. Madden’s sang-froid was obvious from the interview and she attributed her survival (one-third of all SOE operatives in Belgium were captured and killed) to a complete absence of fear. Possibly even more remarkable was the testimony of the third of the trio, Stephen Grady ; Stephen was only a teenager when the war broke out and lived just over the French border from Ypres. He and a friend tried to escape from Calais but it had fallen by the time they reached there on their bicycles; on the way home they picked up a number of guns and grenades from the supplies which the retreating British army had abandoned. He was imprisoned by the Nazis for scribbling anti-German graffiti, but on his release was both given a job (tending the graves) and recruited to the resistance by the Mayor of the French town where he lived. At 16 he became the leader of his local Resistance Cell and was involved in helping Allied airmen escape, sabotage and so on. Later in the war his role grew as the Resistance stepped up their efforts; at one point he was ordered to assassinate a Nazi officer in a neighbouring town and he had to walk into a bar, ask for this man by name and shoot him. This was really the only part of his experiences (some of which were hair-raising) which troubled him; he said it struck him as ‘not cricket’! For the rest he said that in some ways the rest of his life (and we are talking what? some 60 years) seemed short in comparison with those vivid 4 years. It was, he said, a marvellous adventure for a boy (later teenage years) of his age. In some ways this was also the impression that Elaine Madden gave. Not so the professional soldier Jerry Eaton, who was in any case far less revealing of himself than the other two. Both Elaine and Stephen obviously had what is called ‘a good war’; this sometimes seems like an oxymoron, perhaps always so to those of a pacifist tendency among whom I would include myself (not that I am by any means a total pacifist) – it is therefore salutary to be reminded that it has an experiential base. Yet there is something  melancholic about this theme too – the notion that some people’s lives can be most fully lived in situations of fear, cruelty and death. Still it was a fascinating and incredible (in the sense of the nature of some of the tales) documentary.

Staying with WW2 we had the fascinating film Into The Storm. This was actually a kind of sequel to The Gathering Storm (2002), similarly a BBC-HBO co-production, which dealt with Churchill’s ‘wilderness years’ in the 1930s; Into the Storm unsurprisingly followed into the years 1940-45. A major disjuncture between the two is that in the first Churchill and Clemmie were played by Albert Finney and Vanessa Redgrave, whereas here we had Brendan Gleeson and Janet McTeer. As all of these performances were of a towering nature this had no effect on the quality. Into the Storm is in many ways a far more difficult film to make since the events which it covers are so well-known. In an attempt to circumvent this problem the story was told largely in flash-back from the time of Churchill’s ‘holiday’ in France during the 1945 Election campaign. The positive side of this device was that it enabled the film to show just how impossible Churchill was to live with as a private man – moody, irascible, bullying – and the sheer saintliness of Clemmie in bearing with this. It also enabled a ‘happy’ ending later when, following the election defeat and with Churchill despondent,  the fact of the couple’s reconciliation provides an upbeat conclusion. The various flashbacks to the events of the War themselves followed a more traditional narrative as was dictated by the necessities of the ‘story’ – Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, ‘we shall fight them on the beaches’, ‘never in the course of human history’, Roosevelt, Stalin and so on. Despite this the film in general found interesting and new ways of conveying this material and making it fresh again. This was particularly so in relation to the speeches and the way in which short scenes were provided to epitomise some of the events – Churchill meeting with some fighter pilots or again, very movingly, a one to one confrontation with an individual badly scarred pilot. Least successful were the relationships with Roosevelt and Stalin, although the scene at one of the dinners with Stalin where the toasts became more and more surreal was very funny (incidentally Adrian Scarborough was, as ever, wonderful as Churchill’s camp valet/dresser – I can never help calling him Quiggin though from his performance in that role in the TV adaptation of Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time – in this Stalin scene he was dumfounded when Stalin toasted him and he was expected to reply – he managed to come out with ‘to Marshal Stalin who is much nicer than I expected him to be’!). However the really important political developments (the emergence of the US/USSR duopoly and disappearance of Britain as a World Power) although alluded to were not really made clear enough. They were taken as part of Churchill’s personal disillusionment and sense of failure rather than as objective truths. Despite these failings Into The Storm was a fine and moving effort, distinguished by a tremendous central performance (Gleeson’s Emmy was well-deserved) which would be well-worth watching again, preferably in conjunction with The Gathering Storm.

Collision  (ITV) was another of those 5-part dramas spread across Monday to Friday an hour at a time, in the manner of Criminal Justice (see ) ; the disadvantage of this format is that it is a big commitment which makes doing anything else in the evening difficult. However unlike Criminal Justice I did not feel after watching Collision that I had wholly wasted my time. This is not to say that it was brilliant; the direction and camera-work were merely average which alone would debar me from awarding this accolade. However it was a cleverly conceived bit of writing by Anthony Horowitz, the writer who was, again, the motive force behind the production. The idea was a simple one – a number of vehicles are involved in a road accident and we then follow the story of the investigation into the accident and the individual narratives of those involved – each of whom had a story to tell. These stories included people-smuggling, whistle-blowing and murder. The lead police investigator was dealing with his own demons as his wife had been killed and his daughter confined to a wheelchair in a car accident a year previously. To provide contrast Horowitz bought in a romance with the story of a very wealthy man who is involved in the crash, taken to a cafe which is acting as a temporary first-aid station and meets a waitress who is being pressured into a marriage she does not want (I call this story the Lucy Jordan story after the Marianne Faithfull song because when he asks her out for a drink anywhere she suggests the top of the Eiffel Tower – ‘she’ll never ride through Paris’ etc.). Inevitably some of the stories were more successful than others; the whistle-blowing/industrial espionage one was perhaps weakest, being predictable and nothing which has not been seen before. In some ways the best was the story of the man who caused the accident by swerving; we were led to believe – very gently and in line with our expectations of such story-lines in current television (and mystery fiction) – that he was a paedophile (he had securely locked files on his computer): in the end it emerged that he was in fact a Trekkie and the locked files were ‘illegal’ downloads of parts of the latest film! He had swerved because a wasp had got in his car and distracted him. The series ending with a sequence showing everyone driving along normally with no wasp and no crash, was presumably intended to demonstrate – in perhaps rather a heavy-handed way – that we are not really in control of events. Horowitz’s skill was in tying these stories together and providing a dramatic narrative impetus which rarely flagged; this was above all a triumph of construction, which perhaps in some ways prevented any deeper meanings or interest emerging. The shaggy dog nature of the Trekkie story was probably the best example of this and demonstrated Horowitz’s skill and control best.

Enid, shown on BBC4, was a biopic remarkable in two aspects; the first was a great virtuoso performance by Helena Bonham-Carter as Enid Blyton (rather obviously the subject) and the second was its almost complete failure in every other direction. As a biopic this was a complete hatchet-job – Blyton was shown as a woman with a callous disregard for almost all around her – her mother, brothers, first husband and, most cruelly and most damningly, her own children. I have no idea as to the extent to which all or any of this was true – presumably it is based at least in part on research and the recall of those involved, notably the children. Everything we were shown was partial – so we were not shown any reason why Blyton might have wished to get away from her home and mother as soon as possible, her first husband (played by Matthew MacFadyen) is portrayed as a long-suffering saint. Even therefore as a portrait of an individual woman it struck one as biased and compromised. However this is very far from the central problems. After all the only reason why this biopic has been made is because Blyton was a fabulously successful (and fabulously prolific) children’s author who brought happiness and escape to millions. The questions which then surely should have been centrally posed by this film were – what was the nature of her appeal? and how did she achieve this success?. Now in relation to the first I appreciate that it can be hard to demonstrate a writer’s appeal. Enid is actually part of a series entitled ‘Women We Loved’ of whom the other two subjects are to be Gracie Fields and Margot Fonteyn – now with a singer and dancer it will be fairly easy to show just why they were so loved (show them or a very good impersonator singing or dancing!); naturally it is harder with a writer. But it is absolutely essential that you think hard and come up with a solution. Here we had Blyton or a rather silly, semi-parodic voice-over reading her own works, which given their nature tend to sound pretty foolish out of context. Even I (and I have the imaginative capacity of a gnat) can suggest one possible scenario where you had a child in a dysfunctional family, subject to being beaten (as would have been common when she was writing her books), reading a Blyton book and escaping the misery of their lives (this would have had the important added benefit of starting to examine why books which are resolutely upper middle-class transcended class boundaries if you made the child working-class). At least an approach like this would move beyond the silly parodies we were shown and start to explain why Blyton is an important figure (and why indeed the film was being made).

If the complete absence of an explanation of her impact and importance was one fatal flaw, this was compounded by the fact that the examination of the second question – how she achieved her success? how she came to write the books she did? – was probably among the more pathetic attempts that have been made to explain and assess a writer’s technical and imaginative gifts. In the first place there was a generalised and simplistic intermingling of her personal and writing life. Now this fault (so much for post-Structuralism! :)) is by far from confined to women writers – films, and indeed documentaries, about Byron for instance often exhibit the same failing. But in the case of women writers it seems almost universal. This is not to deny that I disbelieve in making biographical connections between life and work, but to wholly subsume the work in the life devalues the work, and in particular fails entirely to deal with the technical aspect of writing. Surely even the most determined of those who believe with simple faith in the relationship would be willing to admit that expertise in chapter construction or narrative technique are fairly unrelated to character or biography? The effect of this is to downplay the skill, the craft, the art of the writers and the women concerned. Now it must be admitted that in the case of Blyton (as with her contemporary Agatha Christie) you do have to move past their own self-deprecation and down-playing of their own gifts, which were shown here in the form (which I presume was accurate) of replies she gave to a BBC interviewer along the lines that writing was simple and one just sits down and does it. This is obvious nonsense objectively, as if it was as simple as that the world would be full of writers selling hundreds of millions of books! But it should also be pretty blindingly obvious from our historical viewpoint that this was a cloaking device which women have felt necessary to adopt to protect them from accusations of being clever, intelligent, creative and so on which were (and still to some degree are – see the fate of the caricaturing of the brilliant woman who led her team to victory on last year’s University Challenge) held to be socially and culturally undesirable for women (in somewhat ironic fairness it should be said that there have also been some men who adopted this pose to protect a version of macho masculinity – but this was a result of their own, stupid, choice and not socially imposed as in the case of women). So the intelligent biographer and questioner has to show the historical roots for the author’s self-denial of their own ability, and move beyond that to seek sources for both their technical and imaginative abilities. This Enid completely and signally failed even to seriously attempt, let alone achieve (and I do recognise that achieving answers is going to be hard, and probably only ever partial – but that is no excuse for not trying). Really in terms of the biopic of a woman writer Enid set some kind of template for everything that such a film should not be (with almost unbelievable irony the programme referred at the end to a particular part  BBC website as a source for more information on Blyton  – if one goes there one finds both interviews and a fine documentary ( ) discussing, with views both pro and con, Blyton and her work and attempting to answer the central questions I have raised! As this archive exists one has to ask what on earth was the point of spending sparse resources on this film?).

The second in this ‘Women we Loved’ series was Gracie, and we were here concerned with the singer Gracie Fields. If Enid was a hatchet job Gracie veered towards the other biopic extreme of hagiography. Once again it was graced by an extraordinary central performance, this time by Jane Horrocks in the central role – Horrocks with her vocal impersonation skills was of course ideally cast here. The film was really centred on what happened to Fields in the war. In the early stages of the war she sang to the troops in France, but when Italy entered the war her Italian husband was threatened with internment. To avoid this, and to raise money, Gracie set out to tour Canada while her husband went to Hollywood. Quite suddenly she became subject to vicious attack in the British press and from being the incredibly popular ‘our Gracie’ became a hate figure in the UK – a hate which extended to Canada. This placed enormous stress on both her personally and on the marriage. However she survived and the film ended in traditional biopic style with the triumphant return concert at the London Palladium (although the closing text noted that she never really regained her pre-War popularity). This highly conventional ending device was certainly effective, as it almost invariably is, and the film as a whole was pleasant enough. It lacked however any real weight or depth. The issue of those famous Britons who avoided the war – for whatever reason – by leaving for America (Auden is another classic example) is a complicated one which still stirs deep emotions. Certainly the film demonstrated how good Fields’ motives were and the reasons for her actions, but it is always important to be very specific about times and dates with this material – as presented she left before Nazi bombing really got into its stride but surely she would have been made aware of what was happening? It must have been very hard for those under daily bombardment to take an objective or reasoned view of those who appeared to have fled to the other side of the Atlantic. The film, in its aim at being wholly on Fields’ ‘side’ neglected these issues. While not objectionable in the way that Enid was Gracie failed to convince.

The third and final film in the series, Margot, concerned itself with Margot Fonteyn and was just as unsatisfactory as the other two. In this case however the reason for dissatisfaction came from the fact that much of the film concerned itself with her relationship to her husband Tito de Arias a Panamanian politician and ‘revolutionary’ according to the film. In what sense he was a revolutionary it is extremely hard to gauge – he was in fact the Panamanian ambassador to London and while he was certainly involved in coup attempts a brief web-search makes no mention of any ideological reasons for this. It seems unlikely to me that a committed socialist or communist would launch their coup attempts from an ambassadorial position! Quite apart from the film’s vagueness in this area it certainly portrayed de Arias as a very unpleasant man – a cruel leech, using Fonteyn’s money while constantly undermining her and deriding her art, not to mention his constant philandering. The problem in narrative terms was that it was inexplicable how they every got together in the first place and we were never shown this. The other lynchpin of the film was Fonteyn’s relationship with Nureyev who was also portrayed as pretty unpleasant. In fact everyone was pretty unpleasant other than Fonteyn herself. And, despite another strong central performance – this time by Anne-Marie Duff – one never really got much impression about her either. I feel  that this film, to a greater extent than the other two, was really grappling, or trying to grapple, with important questions about the relationship of the artist’s work, their art, to their life but in narrative and explanatory terms it was a mess.

A somewhat disheartening feature of all three films (and both Enid and Margot were written by women) is that none of them really examined gender issues, in terms of what it meant for the three characters as women trying to make their way as a writer, singer and dancer respectively. In a series entitled ‘Women we Loved’ one might have hoped that this would feature somewhere on the agenda. This presumably is a part of the general retreat from and disavowal of feminism – it was as if the films were terrified of being labelled ‘feminist’ rather than, as should have been, seizing a wonderful opportunity to examine precisely those questions from a feminist viewpoint.  Overall this series, despite three terrific central performances, was a great disappointment which proves that great acting alone cannot sustain productions where the writing and direction is so lacking.

One thought on “November Miscellany

  1. ellenandjim

    Just thought I’d say hello as I’m up this evening and remark how lucky you are to have this sort of TV. We just have basic cable, but I don’t think we have access to British TV through our pay channels on cable either. I’ve got into a very good book on TV, and mostly it’s British TV: TV Drama in Transition: forms, values, and cultural change by Robin Nelson. He goes into how TV has been transformed in the last 20 years by 1) the reality that it’s not a matter of a whole family sitting in front of a single or at most two TVs where there are at most 4-5 channels available, but individuals of the family sitting at different stations chosing precisely what they can find out of 100!; 2) the extraordinary growth of computer technologies and uses of sophisticated filmic techniques for TV shows, especially at the “high quality” end (dramas, documentaries); and 3) a seachange in what can be presented on TV sexually and about family life.

    Your blog shows instances of what he is talking about. And I’m not making it up or exaggerating when I say in those cases where he brings in US TV it’s always inferior or non-existent (when it comes to dealing with serious political issues). We have PBS around the country, but it’s as cowardly as Obama (he doesn’t say that, I just did).


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