Revolution! … and the National Theatre of Brent

I’ve shared this before but….

The National Theatre of Brent is a theatre company of two; it is a fictional ‘troupe’ consisting of two,  the founder, Artistic Director and Chief Executive Desmond Olivier Dingle, and various assistants. Dingle is played by Patrick Barlow, and his assistant has been played by different actors over the last thirty years, including the BAFTA, Golden Globe and Emmy award-winning actor, Jim Broadbent. The National Theatre of Brent appeared on the radio and on TV and it was on TV that we first saw and enjoyed their productions.

Their productions, written by Barlow with additional material from other collaborators, is a  series of dramas about episodes in history, and profiles of ‘iconic icons’ and important episodes in history, including

  • The Charge of the Light Brigade
  • Zulu!!
  • The Black Hole of Calcutta
  • Wagner’s Ring Cycle
  • The Messiah
  • Mighty Moments from World History
  • Greatest Story Ever Told
  • Revolution!!
  • The Complete Life and Works of Shakespeare
  • Oh Dear Purcell!
  • Giant Ladies That Changed The World

They were all spoof histories, productions and programmes, the costumes were the occasional wig, shawl or cloak, the performances were purposely and hilariously like the worst amateur dramatic productions, and their were slap-stick elements with the straightest of straight faces. It was very, very clever, and very, very funny.

However, within some of the ‘dramas’, were very moving moments – we particularly loved ‘Revolution!!!’ which told the story of the events in France when the Republic was created and Louis and Marie-Antoinette met their fates. Jim Broadbent played the part of the Queen, and despite the fact he was a big man in a silly wig and mob-cap and with a flimsy shawl round his suited shoulders, he portrayed her last moments in a way which actually brought tears to my eyes… silly but true.

One of the more hilarious moments in Revolution!!! was at Versailles in the ‘pointy tree garden’. ever since then we have always called that type of topiary, pointy trees. At the National Trust property of Lytes Cary there is a splendid pointy tree garden!

Are books always best?

There are lots of answers, and different ways of answering the question of ‘are books always best’? And the answers to most of those various questions, would mostly be YES! However, what I’m pondering on is whether the original book is always better than the dramatic production – play, film, TV programme/series.

If I think of my favourite books, and compare them to a dramatised version, there are varied results:

  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – John le Carré; the TV series with Alex Guinness as George Smiley and an absolute stellar cast: stunning, stunning, stunning. The book is obviously ‘better’ because it is fuller and more complete – but there could not have been a better production… unlike the ghastly travesty of the 2011 film with Gary Oldman as Smiley. It had excellent reviews but I thought it was shocking, confusing, lacking tension, boring, dull, poorly acted (yes I know most critics would disagree with me) – I hated it
  • Pascoe and Dalziel books by Reginald Hill: there were two sets of series, one with  the comedians Hale and Pace, which was very disappointing, the second which ran for eleven series of forty-six episodes with Warren Clarke and Colin Buchanan. Although I would rate the books over the Clarke/Buchanan series every time, the TV programmes were very good, and did capture something close to how I imagine the characters. The books to me are darker, funnier, more northern, and with great and unexpected endings (especially ‘On Beulah Heights’)
  • Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow – Peter Høeg: I enjoyed the film, I thought it was good, exciting, mysterious, strange – but it was nowhere near as good as the book. The book was not only a murder mystery but explored cultural aspects of Denmark, and the situation of Inuit people.
  • The Lady In The Van – Alan Bennett: the film and the book were both amazing. I have to say they were equally good, and if I had to choose, I would edge the film into first place!
  • Hercules Poirot novels and short stories by Agatha Christie: the books have to remain in pole position; of the many actors who played the part of the famous Belgian detective, only Davids Suchet properly fills the part – he was amazing…

I do just have to step out of my list, and share the number of actors who have also played the part:

Charles Laughton
Francis L. Sullivan
Austin Trevor
Orson Welles
Harold Huber
Richard Williams
José Ferrer
Martin Gabel
Tony Randall
Albert Finney
Peter Ustinov
Ian Holm
John Moffatt
Maurice Denham
Peter Sallis
Konstantin Raikin
Alfred Molina
Robert Powell
Jason Durr
Kenneth Branagh

  • Miss Marple novels by Agatha Christie: as with Poirot, the novels far outshine the film and TV versions – in my opinion, only Joan Hickson came anywhere near the old lady deiscribed by Christie

… and another little deviation for the actors who have played Miss Marple:

Gracie Fields
Margaret Rutherford
Angela Lansbury
Dulcie Gray
Helen Hayes
Ita Ever
Geraldine McEwan
June Whitfield
Julia McKenzie

Why am I thinking about this… well,, over the last couple of years I have watched and enjoyed the TV series called ‘Grantchester’ based on the novels by James Runcie. I enjoy them because the village of Grantchester is just outside my home town of Cambridge, so I know it well. Also the my beloved river Cam flows through the village and is much featured in the episodes. James Runcie is a well-respected writer of factual and fictional books, a film-maker  and TV producer, and I’ve heard him interviewed several times and he seems an interesting person. I decided I would read the books on which Grantchester is based… and I have been working my way through ‘Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death’ – which is actually a collection of short stories, most of which I know from the TV programmes… Oh dear… I am finding them rather heavy going, they seem rather ponderous and long-winded, I am not exactly gripped. I will persevere, and then I will get the second novel, ‘Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night’, and see how I like that…

So to sum up:

  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – yes, the book is better by a whisker, but the TV series is superb
  • Pascoe and Dalziel – yes the books are much better than the TV series, but I still quite enjoyed them
  • Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow – yes the book is much better
  • The Lady In The Van – no, the film pipped it
  • Hercules Poirot – yes the books are better
  • Miss Marple – yes the books are better
  • Grantchester – no, so far the TV series is better

Who will win?

I’m not thinking about the election, I’m thinking about Masterchef! Tonight it is the final and it’s going to be even more tense and gripping than usual! All three of the remaining contestants are brilliant, all three have great characters and seem interesting and nice people – I don’t have a favourite, I’ll be delighted for the winner, and so sorry for the two losers. I enjoy the programme every year, but this year the chefs seem to have been a different class, far more ‘professional’ right from the early rounds, but without being flash or with fancy equipment and weird foods and combinations.

I love cooking and food, but the more I watch Masterchef (and other cookery competition programmes) the more I realise that never in a million years could I take part! I do get nervous, but I guess I could get over that, but the other aspects of my personality which would trip me up – being absent-minded and forgetful, not reading or misreading recipes – and getting a blind spot about a particular instruction or ingredient, going off in the wrong direction (and not just physically in the kitchen) so that I end up doing completely the opposite of what I’m supposed to be doing, being side-tracked by other people and not being focused, getting silly… And not being competitive!

I’m not sure what the challenge will be tonight, probably something like cooking a signature three course meal… so what would I cook?

  1. I think I might start with a chicken liver and black pudding something or another – I was tempted by the thought of a tartare, but that doesn’t involve cooking and however I might balance the ingredients, it is only chopping and mixing… maybe a chicken liver, sweetbreads and black pudding something, served with watercress and endive and some sort of sweet goo – date something maybe? Spicy date something? Spicy date and pomegranate something?
  2. so main course… I would be tempted by pigeon, but if I’ve had a meaty starter then maybe a fishy main… Herring is my favourite fish, but how to serve it so it’s posh, sophisticated and ‘fine dining’ enough, as the Masterchef judges say… so maybe brown trout, or maybe salmon trout, also known as sewin… yes that would be nice with potatoes of some description, and broad beans (I prefer them with their grey jackets on, but all ‘fine dining’ seems to involve skinning them) and asparagus, and maybe some flageolets… but would I want two lots of beans – well, I would, but would the Masterchef judges? I would serve it with a buttery, wine and seaweed sauce… maybe I’d have some nice seaweed as a vegetable too… maybe I need to rethink the whole thing!
  3. I wouldn’t have a sweet dessert I would do a cheesy something – probably a soufflé, served with a crispy something – bread or biscuit or something, some nice chutney/relish and maybe pickled walnuts…

I don’t think I would win with that menu, but I’d enjoy eating it!

 

Where is thy sting?

As well as leading several writing groups, I’m also a member of one, and as such have to write something to share with my friends on a given subject… This month’s task was ‘Death’… My immediate thoughts were ‘great! I know what I’m going to write, a story about a character…‘ However, as usual, the story which was beginning to form in my head was way beyond the thousand word limit we are meant to stick to (only so we have time to hear all the offerings!)

 Where is thy sting?

So… I’ve got to write about Death… I should write about 1000 words… hmmm…
When I was given the task, I had an idea about a character called Death – not a personification of death the thing, but a character – a person called Death, because it is an actual name; there used to be a butcher in London, round the corner from Victoria Station called Death…  And there’s the writer Wilfred De’Ath… spelt D E A T H, and the actor Charles De’Ath – but I’m not totally sure whether the pronunciation is Death, Der-Ath, Deeth… I guess if your last name is Death, you might want to disguise it, who would want to meet you, or shake hands with you, or sit down and eat a meal with you?
It’s actually not that uncommon as a surname – in 1841 there were 928 results for “Death” in the England, Wales & Scotland Census; by 1851 there were 1,024 men, women and child Deaths, and it had almost doubled by the last accessible census of 1911. There aren’t any figures readily available today, but there are a large number of Deaths in the Ipswich area and also around the Wash – with a mere smattering round Portsmouth.
I played about with this character called Death, but I couldn’t quite bring all the different strands of thought together into a narrative, especially a short story… so writing something else is the thing…
So what springs to mind…

  • ‘The American Way of Death’… a book by Jessica Mitford was published in 1963 and was an exposé of abuses in the funeral home industry in the United States… Well, I may have been to a lot of funerals, but I couldn’t write about funeral homes
  • ‘Death Becomes Her’ was a 1992 fantasy film starring Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, Goldie Hawn, and Isabella Rossellini… apparently it’s about a magic potion that promises eternal youth.
  • ‘Death in Venice’ was a short novel written by Thomas Mann, published in 1912 and made into both a film and an opera by Benjamin Britten…

Well, that doesn’t take me very far…
So what else… without being gloomy… well, in many South American countries in particular, Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead is a great day of celebration!  October 31st is All Hallows’ Eve, November 1st is All Saints’ Day, November 2nd is All Souls Day. In Mexico in particular All Souls Day, the Day of the Dead is a holiday and greatly celebrated, with visits to cemeteries by families all dressed up and often with exotic death-mask make-up, special cakes, cookies and food is eaten as a picnic around the grave and everyone has a party! Beautifully decorated sugar skulls are eaten…
But there’s only so much I can write about that, never having been to Mexico…
My favourite reading material is detective stories and police procedurals… for example, Agatha Christie:

  • Death Comes as the End
  • Death on the Nile
  • Appointment with Death
  • Death in the Clouds

…and P.D.James who attended the school I went to (not at the same time!) –

  • Death of an Expert Witness
  • A Taste for Death
  • Death in Holy Orders
  • Death Comes to Pemberley

… and the New Zealand author Dame Ngaio Marsh

  • Death in Ecstasy
  • Death in a White Tie
  • Overture to Death
  • Death at the Bar
  • Death and the Dancing Footman
  • Death at the Dolphin

…The latter rather concerns me as our local is the Dolphin!
I’m also interested in strange stories about faked deaths, which are apparently called pseudocide. This doesn’t just happen in fiction such as Reggie Perrin or Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls, but also in real life; pretend drownings is a favourite because there is a convenient lack of body.
John Stonehouse, the politician faked his own suicide by drowning ; he was discovered in Australia, unlike Lord Lucan who has never been found… but maybe he didn’t fake his own death…
John Darwin was another great death-faker – he had been a teacher and a prison officer (the two jobs have much in common) He pretended to canoe out to sea and then he disappeared; in fact he was living at home in a wardrobe…
So… Death… hmmm, I shall have to ponder on this… what can I write about?

The dusk…

I don’t watch a lot of TV, police procedurals and a few cookery shows just about sums up my viewing! I like films (and books) which have a mystery at their heart, a puzzle, so detective or investigative fiction and TV series are just my thing; when we first began to see what has come to be known as Scandi-noir over her, I was absolutely hooked.

The first one I saw was The Killing, Forbrydelsen and I remember the first episode of the first series very clearly; it had been well-advertised but I thought that despite it sounding the sort of series I might like, at twenty episodes it was just too long, I couldn’t commit that amount of time to one story. On the night it was first shown I was doing some ironing, and stood, iron in hand, flicking through the channels; I tuned in just in time for the very opening sequence of The Killing… and hour later I was still standing, iron in hand, no ironing done, absolutely hooked!

I’ve watched other things since, the magnificent Bron/Broen/The Bridge, Wallander, Borgen (not exactly crime, but very dark in places)Trapped, Unit One… and more. I’m very excited because The Bridge and Trapped are filming new series!

While looking through TV series on BBC iplayer, to see what else I could watch, late at night when I’ve finished writing, I came across Hinterland/Y Gwyll what has been described as Welsh noir.  It didn’t take more than a few minutes into the first episode to become hooked on that too! it has all the characteristics of the Scandi tv I like, great acting, great filming, subtle use of light and sound, intriguing stories (each episode is a complete story although there is a common and continuing thread of mystery running through.

Y Gwill, the Welsh title is from what I understand a very evocative title meaning dusk or gloom or twilight; Hinterland actually means  ‘remote areas of land, away from the coast or the banks of major rivers’ and figuratively ‘lying beyond what is visible or known’. Hinterland is the English-language version of a Welsh police drama,originally broadcast on S4C in Welsh. It is filmed in Welsh, then filmed exactly the same in English – even in the English version some scenes are in Welsh with subtitles.

The main character is Detective Chief Inspector Tom Mathias and the actor playing this part is Richard Harrington; the other characters who feature throughout the three series are  Detective Inspector Mared Rhys played by Mali Harries,  Alex Harries as Detective Constable Lloyd Elis, Hannah Daniel as Detective Sergeant Siân Owen and Aneirin Hughes who is the enigmatic and dangerous Chief Superintendent Brian Prosser.

I watched the first two series retrospectively, now the third series is being broadcast on the BBC and here is a link:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03sgfbz

Pie in the Sky

I don’t watch much TV, but late at night, when I’ve finished my writing for the day, I often watch things on catch-up, or on the various channels which offer repeats of old series. At the moment I’m watching ‘Pie in the Sky’ which is a very gentle police procedural, starring Richard Griffiths as a detective who owns a restaurant – ‘Pie in the Sky’ of course! he wants to retire from the police on concentrate on cooking marvellous food, but he is forever being drawn back to solve cases, which he does in the eccentric way TV cops do!

It was first broadcast from 1994-97, and ran for five series of a total of forty episodes. As well as Griffiths as Henry Crabbe, there were other regulars as you might imagine, Maggie Steed as his wife, Malcolm Sinclair as the Assistant Chief Constable, Bella Enahoro as Crabbe’s sergeant, Nick Raggett as Leon Henderson a supplier and odd job man, Ashley Russell as the waiter, Samantha Janus as the waitress and Joe Duttine as the other chef. If you look down the list of other actors who appeared over the years there is just about every famous TV name of the 1990’s and 2000’s.

It is as I said, a very gentle drama, not much violence and any there is toned down compared to the gory stuff shown in similar shows now. The phrase pie in the sky, which means unrealistic desires or ambitions, came from the early part of the twentieth century, apparently made up by a song writer and radical Joe Hill’s in his song The Preacher and the Slave. However it only came into general use thirty or so years later.

 

Silent, eloquent gestures

I knew the poet Henry Reed for his verse, mainly the wonderful ‘Naming of Parts’, a very different sort of war poem from what we usually think of. However, I was surprised to learn he only published one volume of verse, although more was published after his death in 1986. He was born in Birmingham in 1914, and went to the university of his birth city where his BA thesis was on Thomas Hardy.

He became a teacher and served in naval intelligence during the war, moving to the BBC in 1946. I didn’t realise that he wrote a series of humorous plays about Hilda Tablet, is a fictitious “twelve-tone composer” who invented the equally fictitious ‘musique concrète renforcée’ – reinforced concrete music!

These plays were broadcast in the 1950’s and had what might be called a stellar cast:

  • Hugh Burden – Herbert Reeve
  • Mary O’Farrell – Hilda Tablet
  • Marjorie Westbury – Elsa Strauss
  • Carleton Hobbs – Stephen Shewin
  • Deryck Guyler – General Gland
  • …and – Denis Quilley, Leonard Sachs, Michael Flanders, Norman Shelley and Rose Hill
  • Hilda’s music – Donald Swann
  • producer – Douglas Cleverdon.

‘The character ‘Herbert Reeve’ was given the name as so often Henry Reed was mistaken for Sir Herbert Read (art historian and poet, 1893 – 1968)

So here is Henry, not Herbert, Reed, not Read’s poem:

Naming of Parts

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.

Henry Reed