January 2010 Miscellany

A substantial change to the way in which my life is organised, and especially the time I have available, took place this month when, to my considerable surprise, I was elected Chairperson of the Birmingham LINk (an organisation which seeks to improve the provision of Health and Social Care in Birmingham). I now have to devote considerable amounts of time to this, to a much greater degree than I have done in the past (and that had been steadily increasing). It is now going to be the case that a day without a meeting is an exception rather than the reverse. I have absolutely no idea how this is going to work out in terms of my Mental Health but it is very clear that I will have much less time to devote to my ‘intellectual life’, my reading and writing. In particular my participation in the Yahoo lists to which I belong is going to suffer further. This is a loss to me. As I have remarked before I am not sure whether or not this change in direction is a ‘good thing’. Only time will tell. Even keeping up with this blog is going to be more difficult than it was before.  

Continuing with Turgenev I came to his 1850 novella Diary of A Superfluous Man. In 67 pages Turgenev presents the story of Chulakturin, a 30-year old very minor landowner. The ‘diary’ covers the period from March 20th to April 1st with a final paratextual ‘editorial note’ which records that Chulakturin finally expires on the night of 1st/2nd April. Chulakturin’s life, as it appears in his diary, has certainly not been especially eventful. He has happy memories of his early childhood, or at least of the countryside in which he grew up, which is lyrically described. His father was an alcoholic but dear to him, and his death when Chulakturin was 10 was a tragedy for him; not only in terms of loss, but  because his mother, a very correct but cold woman, was left with a pile of debt and forced to sell nearly all the family land and move to Moscow. Chulakturin has never been able to ‘fit in’ ; he feels that the core of his existence has been superfluity. The one major event of his life, with which the vast majority of the diary is preoccupied, was falling in love with Liza, the daughter of an official in a miserable provincial town. His love was not reciprocated and Liza fell in love with a visiting Prince from St Petersburg, with whom Chulakturin fights a duel. The only result is that Liza hates him and continues to do so even when the Prince abandons her. In his introduction David Patterson talks of the Superfluous Man’s antecedents (apparently traces of him are to be found in Goethe’s Werther, in Lermontov, in Pushkin – all ‘profound influences’ on Turgenev), and also his successors among whom Patterson names Kafka and Camus. In fact as I have just been reading Sartre’s Nauseahttps://movingtoyshop.wordpress.com/2009/12/30/some-very-short-introductions/ ) it was Antoine Roquentin of whom Chulakturin to some extent reminded me. Quite early on Chulakturin writes, àpropos of his mother’s expression in death, ‘Yes, it must be good, so very good, to be free at last of the tormenting consciousness of life, free of the persistent and troubled sensations of existence’. But in fact it is the differences from Nausea which are of paramount importance. In the first place, Chulakturin’s definition of existence is bound up first and foremost with other people, with the society in which he is unable to fit and by which he feels rejected, and it is this which he is happy to leave behind; Roquentin on the other hand is overwhelmed by the natural world and its utter indifference to both humanity in general and him in particular. For Chulakturin by contrast the natural world is his only source of pleasure. Secondly, Chulakturin is a far more likeable character than Roquentin; this is not to say either that he is wholly admirable, or that he presents himself as such – far from it. But in his melancholic embrace of his coming death there is certainly something moving; I was sorry to lose his company. But perhaps this is a mere function of the third conclusion which is simply that Turgenev is a great novelist where Sartre is not! (of course Sartre has very different strengths which Turgenev would not have started to aspire to). The most extraordinary thing about Diary of A Superfluous Man is that though shot through with melancholy, both for Chulakturin himself and really for every other character other than the Prince, though to some extent satirical of both Chulakturin himself and every other character, the book is still, finally, positive. Thus the dramatic last line ‘I die…Live on, ye who yet live’, which should be absurdly melodramatic, somehow works perfectly.  Certainly it does not suggest that human existence is full of pleasure and enjoyment : rather it is an acceptance of the fact that ‘life will go on’ but somehow Turgenev manages to raise this beyond the level of cliché and give the line real meaning and resonance.          

Continuing another reading ‘theme’ I read Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 (1979). Apparently this was the first of Churchill’s plays to win really wide acclaim. One can see why this is so and yet, paradoxically, it has lasted less well than the others I have read. In addition of all the plays I have read so far this is the one which loses most by being read rather than seen. The play’s subject is sexual relationships : the first Act is set in British colonial Africa in the 19thC and centres around Clive (a suitably imperial name) and his family and acquaintances. It would be an enormous and fruitless task to describe all the characters and the ways they are played, but crucially his wife Betty has to be played by a man and his young son Edward by a woman. In the second Act we meet some of the same characters (Edward and Betty for instance) but in contemporary (late 70’s) London and only 25 years have passed. In the Introduction Churchill explains that this play partially emerged from company (Joint Stock Theatre Group) discussions and ‘when the company talked about their childhoods and the attitudes to sex and marriage that they had been given when they were young, everyone felt that they had received very conventional, almost Victorian expectations and that they had made great changes and discoveries in their lifetimes’. The characters in the second Act are played by the same cast as the first Act ‘doubling up’; however the doubling is not straightforward. Churchill says that there are a number of possible models but her preferred ones see the actor who was Betty(1) become Edward(2) and the actress who was Edward(1) become Betty (2). In addition Clive, who hardly appears in Act 2, should become a very young girl. The effect of these doubling combinations would only become evident when watching the play on stage and are missed in reading, so much of the play’s richness is lost. However even taking this into account I feel the play has dated somewhat in two ways. First there is a certain epater le bourgeois edge to the play which would probably not work so well now as the shock value of the plays exploration of sexuality – gay, lesbian and straight – has diminished. But much more interestingly this is a very optimistic drama (far more so than any other Churchill I have read to date) in which the human potential for happiness unlocked by the throwing off of a linked imperialist/colonialist repressive patriarchy is celebrated. Certainly it is not presented as unproblematic or as without cost but at root there is definitely something of the celebration. Today we might now watch and recapture that as a certain historical mood but I think we would not tend to feel it in the same way. It is of course good to be reminded of this history and its importance and we are all too inclined to forget it. But on the one hand the play’s assumption that this was a battle won has proved unfounded (and probably the assumption was a somewhat Anglo-centric and metropolitan one – I am not sure the battle was as clearly won in Yorkshire let alone Kansas!) and there has certainly be a fightback of the forces of both imperialism and patriarchy (now disguised and modified as ‘family values’). But it would also be necessary to admit that liberation has proved to bring its own problems. This is not to say that one would still not revel in the play’s celebratory aspect and revel in its final defeat of Clive, but nonetheless I think it would be viewed as now, in its own, way historical – a fact which would bring in a nostalgic regret for the era of the second Act which would not have been present when it was first performed. The whirligig of history has not put Clive back in charge but he has certainly not been so definitively killed as the play suggested and hoped for.   

 Movies. Watchmen (directed by Zack Snyder : 2009) of which I had high hopes proved a big disappointment. Based on Alan Moore’s graphic novel, this is a revisionist take on the superhero genre set in an alternate America of the 1980’s where Nixon was never thrown out of office but rather overturned the Constitution, and is now serving his fourth term. Yes there were some amusing satiric points – at least one of the Watchmen was a psychopathic right-wing extremist; but as a whole the film was a pretentious mess. It aspired to profundity which it certainly never attained, and the direction was distinctly uninspired. Give me a straight (or camp) super-hero movie any day. The X-Men movies with their metaphors about difference are far more profound (not that that is saying much), but more importantly the message they carry, however simplistically, is a worthwhile one. And camp is just fun.  

On the other hand my expectations of Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric (2009) were not that high because I am not, as regular readers will know, a fan of naturalism and therefore Loach’s directorial style, despite the very considerable appeal of his politics, is not one that appeals. In fact this was something of a treat and is certainly my favourite Loach film. It tells the story of Eric, a postman whose life is a complete mess as the movie opens; he lives with his two out-of-control step-sons in a tip, he is still in love with his first wife Lily whom he abandoned when having a mental breakdown 20 years before, and he is just unable to cope with day-to-day existence. Then he is visited by the apparition of Eric Cantona and very slowly, with many reverses, he puts his life back together. When I say apparition it is of course Cantona himself who appears and ‘acts’ in the film, but he is of course not ‘really’ there. So we have the very weird juxtaposition of Loach’s ultra-naturalism with the fantastic. There were still times when I wanted to scream at the television ‘oh show some visual/cinematic  imagination’, but the story was compelling and involving and lifted beyond itself by this supernatural aspect. So very, very oddly two contradictory things which I normally dislike – naturalism and the supernatural – blended together to form a film which really worked for me. That he pulled this off is an enormous tribute to Loach. And the politics are, as ever, spot on: the way in which football has been taken over by the rich and working people excluded, and vitally the power of solidarity and mass action, here given wonderful form at the climax when coachloads of Eric’s friends don Cantona masks and invade the house of a gangster. The acting was as usual exemplary; I would single out John Henshaw (from the wonderful Early Doors) and Cantona himself was utterly believable as — well Cantona (not probably as easy as it sounds). All in all a real and very unexpected treat.               

I also finally got around to watching La Vie En Rose  (2007 directed by Oliver Dahan) the much feted bio-pic of Edith Piaf. Although boasting a wonderful central performance by Marion Cotillard as Piaf, I found this film something of a disappointment. I think there were two major reasons for this. In the first place the film was very self-consciously an ‘attempt to get behind the legend’. There is nothing wrong with this approach in itself, though I am always wary when it is made so obvious and seems to assume a mantle of moral and artistic superiority; there is nothing intrinsically wrong or inferior about a different, hagiographic, approach. Truth comes in many guises. However there is a requirement with even this ‘realist’ approach that you show the nature of the legend and the reasons for it (unless of course you are claiming that it is in fact wholly legendary and has no basis in fact – which in this case would be absurd and the movie does not attempt for one instant to do). In particular the film failed to explain, perhaps because it was made for a French audience for whom such explanation would be unnecessary, exactly why Piaf was such a central figure for France and her connection to the French people (the whole of the war years and her still somewhat controversial role therein were skipped over). The second failing was structural in the film’s use of time-shifts. I have nothing against time-shifts; indeed if anything I enjoy them for their own sake. But when one feels they are wholly gratuitous and add nothing to the explication or understanding of the subject, they become after a little while jarring and annoying. Cinematically there was nothing of any great interest here.  

As  far as television is concerned one major event was the latest in Suchet’s Poirot series – Three Act Tragedy. I wrote about this on my mystery blog but will reproduce my remarks here as it was major television as well as mystery event.                    

David Suchet as Poirot


  “While I do not note every new Suchet Poirot production, the adaptation of Three Act Tragedy (2010)  demands attention and consideration. I think it may well be the best of the Suchet Poirots, which is a very large claim, and an excellent piece of television drama  in its own right. Both direction (by Ashley Pearce) and script (by Nick Dear) are very fine and the acting of Suchet himself and Martin Shaw, superb. The following analysis will contain spoilers.                 

As a book Three Act Tragedy is a typically brilliant piece of Christie plotting ,but cannot be counted among her greatest for the interesting reason that the motive, comparatively rarely for Christie, is love and she is not particularly good at conveying that. The adaptation solved this by giving the story an additional twist; it made Poirot and Charles Cartwright (Martin Shaw) old friends. To briefly recap the story. Poirot is staying with Sir Charles Cartwright, a renowned theatrical knight (of somewhat hammy propensities) in Cornwall. At a dinner party the local vicar drinks a cocktail and dies, but nothing is found in his glass and death is ruled as being from natural causes. Poirot himself does not believe it was murder, as he does not see how the vicar could have been picked out given that he selected from a tray of identical drinks. Then Sir Bartholomew Strange a prominent psychiatrist (or ‘nerve specialist’) is murdered in similar circumstances at his own house at a dinner party with an almost identical group of guests – the only absentees are Poirot and Cartwright. Cartwright enlists Poirot’s help in tracking down the murderer, suspicion falling on Strange’s new butler Ellis, who disappeared leaving only some blackmailing letters. Cutting through a good deal of investigation, in the course of which Cartwright proposes to and is accepted by ‘Egg’ Lytton-Gore, the much younger girl he loves, Poirot finally reaches a solution – it was Cartwright who committed the murders, he was Ellis (playing a part) and the murder of the vicar was a dress rehearsal ; it did not matter which of the guests died  apart from Egg, whom Cartwright gave a cocktail to, or Strange who never drank them. This conclusion makes space for the book’s splendid last paragraph where Poirot discusses the case with his sidekick Satterthwaite; the latter realises with horror that he might have been posioned, Poirot replies that there is a much worse possibility – it might have been him!                    

In terms of faithfulness the adaptation dropped Satterthwaite and one of the guests (neither of whom are in the least way important) but otherwise made only very minor changes to the plot. However it made a decisive emotional shift by making Poirot and Cartwright old and good friends; part of the process of Suchet’s humanisation of Poirot, which has been going on for a very long time. The production was centred around a theatrical conceit. Thus the film began with a shot of a theatre, both victims faces in death were finally picked out by a spotlight, the denouement took place in the same theatre in which the film began. Like all the Poirots it was of course magnificently mounted and staged, but here some inventive and interesting camera-work and editing techniques were thrown into the mix. The exhumation of the vicar was particularly effective using clunking and loud sound and slow motion to bring home the reality of this procedure; in fact it had never really struck me before just what a grisly business this must be. The acting was all good but at the heart of the film (I say film but I am of course using this as shorthand for ‘television drama production’ which is the accurate and correct title but I am too lazy to type) lay the performances of Suchet and Shaw. The importance of Marin Shaw was not only that he is an exceedingly good actor, but that the aura which he brings (for British television audiences at least) is that of fundamental honesty, as seen in his most recent roles as Judge John Deed and Inspector George Gently. The production therefore used his theatrical persona to mislead those who were not familiar the story. However the real strength of his performance was that he managed to pull off the idea that he was always to some extent giving a dramatic performance, that this was part of the character’s nature; doing this without just appearing to be giving a bad performance is a difficult trick. Suchet was especially magnificent. I suppose we now tend to take for granted the immensity of his achievement as Poirot. He has given this figure, who frankly is really something a semi-comic cardboard cutout in the books, a persona, a gravitas, a profundity which has evolved and almost imperceptibly taken shape as the years and productions have gone on. Here it was to be seen in its full magnificent flowering.      All of these things came together in the dénouement, which was a real climax and high-point. The cast of suspects gather in the theatre in the belief that they are going to see a dress rehearsal of one of their number’s plays. Instead the curtain rises and forward steps – Poirot; indulging his taste for the theatrical. Cut. The suspects are gathered in chairs on the stage with Poirot in the spotlight. Rather than follow his traditional practise of laying false leads and accusations he plays the scene very straight; it is a duel between him and Cartwright. And it is clear that he is speaking with deep sadness and a sense of betrayal as well as anger. When all is explained and evidence produced (Cartwright needed to murder Strange because he was the only person who knew that Cartwright had a wife who was immurred in an asylum and from whom he could not therefore get a divorce) Poirot declares – referring back to an earlier quote from Cartwright – ‘your revels now are ended’ – emphasising once again theatricality. Cartwright steps forward and gives his performance – ‘I did it for love’ – which manages to be both theatrical and sincere (we have no idea where the boundaries lie) before leaving the theatre for the last time. Finally the rest of the cast depart and after the dialogue with Muriel Wills about the possibility of either of them having drunk the poison (she standing in here for Satterthwaite on the book) we are left with Poirot alone on stage – and the camera pulls around so ends on his back staring out into an empty theatre. This entire scene was riveting – of course as exposition of a brilliant Christie plot, but also emotionally due to the strength of Suchet and Shaw’s performances, and technically due to the excellence of script, conception and execution.     


 Three Act Tragedy is a magnificent piece of television drama; it is in my view the best of the Poirot series to date (which is, as I have said before, a very large claim) and demonstrates once again the near miraculous nature of Suchet’s work in turning such a two-dimensional character into a three-dimensional one. In so doing he provides new insights into Christie’s work in terms of both its strengths and limitations. Sometimes the adaptations fail and point up a book’s strengths; sometimes, as here, they triumphantly succeed and point up a particular book’s weakness.”         

In terms of other television the month was a disappointment. I will quickly note a couple of programme on Winnie Mandela. As with Enid Blyton in December we had here a middling television drama  (Mrs Mandela written and directed by Michael Samuels) succeeded by a very good documentary. Whatever the qualities of the drama (and it had a few) it was hard to see why resources had been spent on it when such a splendid alternative lay to hand. Dan Snow’s four part ‘history’ of the British Navy, Empire of The Seas was completely barmy and yet beguiling. As history this was absurd; near parody. The programme’s thesis – although that term is in itself ridiculous when used here – seemed to be that every major event in English history over the past 500  years was mainly caused by the Navy including both the English and Industrial Revolutions. To call it airbrushing would be grossly euphemistic; even press-ganging was explained away and events like the Spithead Mutiny were of course entirely overlooked. The programmes rhetoric was right-wing, imperialist and jingoistic. And yet for all this I could not dislike it; on the contrary I found it enjoyable. The reasons for this lie partly in the self-evident absurdity of the claims, but much more in the fact that Snow unlike other contemporary television historians, never really takes himself seriously, patronises or assumes superiority. He is just a little boy having a wonderful time sailing various boats around pleasant locations. And in amongst the absurdity there were one or two facts of interest.      

It has occurred to me that I have never written about radio. This is both odd – because actually I spend a considerable amount of time listening to radio but it is nearly always as background when doing things around the house or driving : my pretty invariable choice is 5Live, the BBC’s main news station – but also predictable because I am mostly a visual rather than an aural person; if driven to a choice sight would always come before hearing. Thus I don’t really ‘do’ audio books. I wish I did and would like to but they are not high on the priority list. However three radio events of very different natures came to my attention this month. First on the Citizen Kane companion DVD there were the recordings of War of the Worlds and The Happy Prince. It so happens that I had never actually heard the legendary former before and never heard at all of the latter. In fact they were much the best things about this DVD. Both were utterly brilliant: captivating, engrossing, wonderfully conceived and executed. I wonder if radio has really ever got better than this in the succeeding 50 years? Nothing I have heard would suggest so but then I don’t know much about radio! Perhaps Welles really did reach the boundaries and limits of the medium as a distinct art-form and it does not have much else to offer? This of course is not to say that it is not immensely important and valuable in other ways – to present drama, information, news, sport, poetry, discussion etc.. – but in all such cases it is in fact merely a relay point for some other event (the play, the news event, the sporting match, the concert etc..) ; with War of the Worlds the original text was irrelevant – it is as a specifically radio ‘text’ that it counts. Turning however to radio as a relaying medium I heard a fascinating appearance by James Ellroy on Desert Island Discs – what a carefully constructed persona the man presents; I found myself thinking this might be how Byron would have played with his public persona in a radio context had he been alive today! Also I discovered – long, long after the event as is my wont – the existence of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time archive (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qykl) ; here one can go and look up erudite, informative and fascinating discussions on a vast range of topics.     

One concert to report on. Ian Bostridge singing Schubert lieder accompanied on piano by Antonio Pappano.  Bostridge really is an extraordinary performer (we saw him last year in Britten). Here he sang these lieder for well over an hour with no score or script. The range of emotional expression was terrific; from the near comic to the profoundly sad. Having said which, and while certainly very much enjoying the concert, I did not connect emotionally with the music at a fundamental level in the way I do with Mahler lieder for instance. My classical music tastes are certainly shifting and I think this is probably further evidence of this.      


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