Burton and Taylor – Review – BBC4

Flesh, slap, booze, Welsh poetry, a bit of tickle, shag.  Flesh, slap, booze, Welsh poetry, a bit of a tickle,shag.  Marry in riot of tabloid scandal following divorce from Eddie Fisher on set of crypto-Egyptian, eyeliner-heavy ropey film, made notorious only for its overtones of Burton / Taylor lust.  Flesh, slap, booze, Welsh poetry, a bit of a tickle, shag.  Fight.  Buy some small dogs.  Stay in Oxfordshire 12th century hotels and annoy the locals with gin-soaked misery, shouts, psychosis and general, unmitigated tomfoolery.  Diamonds.  Buy some more small dogs.  Divorce.  Then try to do some more flesh, slap, booze, Welsh poetry, a bit of a tickle, shag.  Remarry and repeat until someone falls dead drunk / falls dead/ trips over the diamonds or dogs. Such was the appearance in the public mind of the relationship of Liz “I like a man with a big rock” Diamonds Taylor and Richard “I have a voice like a big cock” Burton in the 1960s and 1970s.  BBC4 attempted to recreate the dying embers of the Burton / Taylor relationship with their dramatic retelling of the circumstances surrounding the blighted Broadway production of ‘Private Lives’ a year before Burton’s death.

“To me, their relationship is ridiculous!”  screeched Beverley, regarding Burton and Taylor,  in Mike Leigh’s production of Abigail’s Party in 1977.  “They did it in the jungle”, replies Angela, semi-reclining on the orange upholstery.

The BBC cast Dominic West in the role of Richard Burton.  He captured the ripe roundness of Burton’s vocal tone superbly, that peculiar accent that was Welsh mining village cum Stratford upon Avon cum Shakespearean in New York that seemed to pour out of Burton’s mouth with the same rich sagacity that the booze poured in.  West has also aged in the last couple of years, and got a bit sexy-jowly, which is fine by me – and fine by Liz – but looked nowhere near as ravaged and unfortunate as Burton looked at this stage.  West looks like he moisturizes.  There was something lovely and clean about his face that didn’t quite ring true.  Burton  had the complexion of a used and dried out tea bag; somewhat muddy, brownish, pitted and interesting.  West looks like what he, I imagine, is : an actor in his mid-40s, still good looking but nervously slapping on the Olay regnerist serum nightly like nobody’s business to prevent the jowly scowl from progressing further over his lucrative career.  Still, it must have been cheering for him after playing Fred West, who we can only hope is not a relation.  “Hello Lumpy,” he said, to Helena Bonham-Carter’s Taylor, who, like him, looked far too young and had taken chiselled physical slightness to a new, decidedly non-lumpy level.

Helena Bonham-Carter played Liz Taylor, and I couldn’t quite work out at first why it didn’t work.   Her performance was quite wonderful.  But whilst no one really expects anyone to actually look like Taylor,  no one looks less like Taylor in the body than Bonham-Carter.  She doesn’t carry enough flesh, her body doesn’t look like it could withstand the potent cocktails of pills, spirits and hot dogs that Taylor regularly shoved down her neck.  She looked too porcelain skinned and too aristocratic to have considered getting married eight times, let alone getting married twice to a dipsomaniac, pout-lipped Welshman who took her on a decade long shag fest.  Bonham-Carter tried, bless ‘er.  She tried to look less patrician but there’s really nothing you can do about that when you’re dealing with a fine-boned darling whose great grandfather was a Liberal Peer.  They bolstered her cleavage up and sort of stapled it to the top of her neckline so that West’s Burton could be constantly reminded of what fabulousness he was missing, but Bonham-Carter’s breasts simply lack the gravitas to carry it off.  Appropriately for a Bonham-Carter, they were Liberal Party breasts; they were simply never going to achieve a majority.  There were always two bigger parties nearby to worry about.  Some actresses get upstaged by their own breasts, Bonham-Carter was upstaged by the fact that the viewer was constantly reminded that she didn’t have enough of them.  From scene to scene, her breasts played a turgid role of ‘Are they there or aren’t they?’, where she would sometimes appear as flat as a boy and other times the poor things would be hoisted up to create a cleavage which would be wretchedly dragged about like a fairground illusion act that doesn’t quite successfully convince.  Still, it convinced him. “You’re  gorgeous,” said West’s Burton, as he smoked a fag whilst firstly trying to make her join him in exercising in loungewear before just suggesting the two of them have a shag instead.

Unfortunately, despite the stellar efforts of the two actors, and Bonham-Carter’s deliriously wonderful Taylor-drawl, they were let down by the writers.   The script was quite, quite ordinary, terribly clunky and filled with clangers of plot points.  We were reminded of biographical facts in Burton and Taylor’s life with the laziness and lack of imagination that acted like a theatrical series of bullet points.  He is recovering alcoholic.  CHECK.  She was brought up in the studio system.  CHECK.  She has a problem with learning her lines.  CHECK.  She’s irresistible and he is some sort of fanny magnet.  CHECK.  The rehearsal scenes obtained a tang of credibility, but they were ruined by a riot of scenes taking place back stage in the theatre where they were, ludicrously, attempting to perform ‘Private Lives’.  The director seemed obsessed with doors opening and closing.  The doors in the dressing rooms were playing supporting roles.    Burton would march into her dressing room and sort of flounce about and say worryingly stupid, un-Burton like things such as “They haven’t come to see a play.  They’ve come to see US play out our lives!”  as if the idea had just struck him for the first time, and she’d throw him out and slam a door, walk through another door, knock on his dressing room door and go in and close that door in his miserable, classically trained face.  Most of the time she would be arriving at the theatre late with a band of silly dogs.  In she’s going through her door – ooh – out comes Richard (DOOR) and slams things (DOOR)  and goes into her dressing room  (OPENS DOOR).  Only once did it really go off between them, and she laid into him shouting and telling him to Fuck Off whilst he pretended he didn’t want to slap her and shook until his perfect hair moved and grabbed her and shouted back.  Finally, methinks, a little drama.  Go on Richard, SLAP HER.  It’s what she wants.  And then she wants you do try to do some exercises again whilst smoking a fag before shagging her.  Only at that moment did the viewer really believe that here were too absolute nutjobs who failed to resist each other’s physical capabilities to the point of personal destruction, and whose idea of a quite night in a la Burton & Taylor Towers would involve seven bottles of Jack Daniels and a succession of revealing negligees.   The rest of the time the relationship seemed tame and the characters, dare I say it, a trifle dull.  They had glamour but no substance.  None of the words that came out of West’s mouth appeared to have any resonance with the vocabulary and tone that we have come to know from Burton’s diaries.  Bonham-Carter, as I have said, spoke her role with great technical panache, but what was the point, when it was so woefully underwritten?

The terribly irritating thing was this:  Elizabeth Taylor was 51 when she and Burton decided to try ‘Private Lives’ on the stage.  This was a great opportunity to cast a 50 something actress in a strong, iconic role.  And yet, with the depressing predictability of television casting, we ended up with an actress who has just turned 40.   I would have loved to see (despite the lack of facial similarity) Cherie Lunghi play this role, or Julianne Moore.  Or someone – anyone – born before Burton and Taylor made ‘Cleopatra’.

This relationship captured the imagination and sense of glamour of many tabloid readers of the press in the 1960s and 1970s – the madnesses, the apparent sexual intensity, the drunken void that each of them came to fall into.  Why then was this depiction of Burton and Taylor so banal, so ordinary?   Could we really believe that this Taylor was the woman Burton wrote of as being “beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography”? This drama was stupidly restrained; we wanted some truth, some spit and crazy theatrical sawdust, some fury and fierce awfulness, a lot more stupidity, shouting and sex.  But it was as if they turned all the lights off and decided to illuminate nothing.  This screenplay of Burton & Taylor made Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie look like a fun couple to spend an evening with, and you know how unrelentingly boring they are.  A shame, because there is a great and terribly interesting tale to be told about these two.  This, however, was not it.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  The blog here is updated every other Thursday, so we shall see you on August 15th. Thank you! 

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Murder on the Home Front

In the last couple of weeks, this robust two parter has been one of ITV’s real winners.  Usually scoring own goals, ITV occasionally flips the BBC-drama bias coin and presents the nation with some of its fruitiest and well-paced dramas.  Whilst viewing figures will determine whether Murder on The Home Front gets commissioned for a full 6 or 8 part series, it surely deserves to be granted this on technical merit alone.

Ingredients : One male socially awkward, scientifically brilliant pathologist. One startling ingenue female with sparkling eyes and a 1942 lipline.  Three dead corpses, one comical mortuary assistant, and a war.  Mix.  Add powdered egg.  Serve to sounds of Home Service and distant bombs dropping on Ealing.   The two parter was based on the memoirs of the astonishingly named Molly Lefebure, whose name I have avoided pronouncing all week so that I do not get it wrong.  Molly Lefebure was an assistant to the Home Office pathologist during the war, was integral in the foundations of the National Health Service and seemed to become a specialist in Romantic poetry after the war.  But the sparkiness of her writing, the feel of blood, passion and interest is evidenced by her wartime memoir, “Evidence For The Crown”.  As a writer, she appeared never more alive than when she was witnessing the cutting open of dead people.  She died in February this year, before she had a chance to see her work brought to the small screen.  It’s feistier than Foyles War and has a sort of sexy knowingness about it; amongst the drab taupes and mud greens that make up the torpor of 1940s interior design there is a smattering of sexual chemistry between our two lead characters, permeated by dance hall cigarette smoke and lousy, lousy air raids.  The final section of the second part went a bit Foyles War meets The Third Man, showing our characters defying Polish murderers by running through a series of suffocating, filthy empty tube tunnels around Aldwych Station, but the technical and artistic standard of the drama holds well.

The premise seemed rather 1880s to me.  In the Conan Doyle detective stories of Sherlock Holmes there is frequently a level of marked suspicion from Inspector Lestrade and his contemporaries at the Yard and occasionally even Watson.  Holmes is a forensic thinker, an independent detective, unmarked and unfettered by the police force heirarchy.  Most of his time is spent trying to convince Lestrade of his methods, which illustrate how he is concerned by nothing other than logical scientific and observational data. He is that most new of new things a detective – the breed that had been suddenly foisted upon the Metropolitan Police Force in the 1840s.  What is alarming is that a whole hundred years later our pathologist is having to defend his similarly brilliant forensic methods.  He does this with remarkable flair.  He cuts into a dead woman’s foot, which his female sidekick taps away on a manual Underwood typewriter in a lemon coloured blouse and war chic cardie.  The war wins, however.  An interesting plot point towards the end evidences just how much is at stake nationally and what must be sacrificed for the common good.

The war was a gift for street criminals of many hues.   Frankie Fraser described the Second World War as the “Golden age of breaking and entering”.  It was so much simpler.  The blackout, coupled with anxieties and absent mindedness brought about by the preoccupation with imminent fear and loss, rendered people forgetful.  Doors were frequently left unlocked, the windows and various members of the populace both appeared not strongly hinged.  Lungeing out to rob provided a cloak of darkness.   When the war began, any prison inmate with less than three months to serve was released.  For borstal boys, those who had completed only six months were granted freedom to leave and enrol in compulsory conscription.   In addition to this rise of criminals in the services and the streets, the police force became weakened by members of the force joining up.  War provided a series of controlled disguises.  It was relatively easy to dress up as an ARP (Air Raid Protection) Warden and encourage neighbours to instantly trust you.   It became a standard ruse for thieves to dress themselves up in this costume and break into shops during a raid.  Often members of the public would kindly help them to load their car up with valuables they’d stolen.   When the Cafe de Paris was hit during an attack in 1941, looters were seen dragging rings and jewellery from the West End nightbirds who had been dancing on the floor an hour earlier.  All in all, the crime rate increased by 57% between 1939 and 1945 in Britain.

War is perfect for a crime drama.  We have seen how crime rates ballooned statistically, and the drama – well, that comes from the rest of the war.  Murder on The Home Front picks up not only on the rationed austerity and physical uncertainties of surviving blitzkrieg, but also on the heightened reality – the hyperreality – of life lived in a dark fired through only by searchlights, a life danced before you’re bombed out of it, a life of secret Nazis hiding in Balham boarding houses, of disruption, perversion and suspicion.  For reasons that are not entirely clear, The Observer shat all over this.  Didn’t like it at all.  But we don’t care, because Matthew Sweet (a fave here at Bluebird Towers) championed it in The Telegraph.  Aren’t the summer television schedules ripe for a clever, funny (although not gleeful) sharp and twisted drama?  It certainly is.  Of equal importance is that fact that here the female sidekick, played brilliantly by Tamzin Merchant, may currently be the only example of that fabulous archetype, the fast talking dame, currently on our screens.  This archetype is, at least, a welcome refreshing antidote to the cluster of preoccupied, shallow, stupified fools currently parading orange shins on TOWIE and similar.    Murder On the Home Front certainly deserves a commission for a full series.  If it doesn’t get one I’ll eat my gas mask.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, so our next update will be June 6th.  Thank you!

BBC TV will remain at Television Centre

An awful lot of terribly sentimental bon voyages have been directed at TVC (Television Centre) since news of the building’s demise was made public with the sale to Stanhope Plc in 2012.  An awful lot of crap has been said as well.  One of the most important aspects of the first world class television studio, Television Centre, was its separateness.  A television programme could be realised from its inception in the booze raddled brain of a wonderful imagination in the BBC bar, all the way to final broadcast without going outside.  It was its own organic microcosm.  No one is going to argue that the work that emerged from the ‘Doughnut’ wasn’t unparalleled, or that it wasn’t the BBC at its absolute finest.  We all loved it.  No one minded that Television Centre has spent the last 20 years looking decidedly old hat, that its 1960s windows, so full of bomb-proof glass and New Elizabethan promise, now look like the old-fashioned tired windows of a shopping centre.

But, wait.  Too often the reporting around this closure of Television Centre has been inaccurate.  Either that, or for the BBC, the story changed.  In October 2007, when horror struck into the heart of every BBC soft southerner employee when they were told they may have to move to Salford, the BBC confirmed that they would completely sell the building and that ‘This is a full scale disposal of BBC Television Centre and we won’t be leasing it back.”  Horror images filled the minds of people who love the BBC.  It is a 14 acre prime West London site.   For multiple use, it will contain retail, commercial and entertainment units.  However, back in 2007, a leading commercial property agent, who according to the Reuter’s website, refused to be named, pointed out that the building would have an increased value if it had a government backed tenant in it at the time of sale, who chose to pay a long lease.  (The article is called ‘BBC shuns headquarter sale-and-leaseback’ over at Reuters, if you want to read).

Perhaps the BBC took note of whoever this nameless commercial agent was.  The BBC is, after all, a government backed tenant.  When Stanhope Plc purchased the building last year for £200million, it was as a long leasehold.  Stanhope have in effect entered into a partnership with the BBC and the Corporation will continue to have a presence on site.  Not only will Stanhope own the building, but the BBC will be leasing back, (renting out) its own former space.   Do note, that the long leasehold only has been sold, meaning that the BBC maintain control of the freehold.   In 2014 parts of the BBC will move back in again.  BBC Worldwide will take up residence there as will a hearty collection of post production offices and facilities. The BBC will also benefit from a undisclosed percentage of the building’s complete profits.

This is what is known as a “sale and leaseback”.  It is when a company needs to sell its assets, but engineers to maintain access to those assets at the same time. “Sale and leaseback” contains tax advantages too, as monthly rental payments are off-set as an expense.   Any broadcasting corporation worth its licence fee paying salt requires constant cash injections, in its efforts to modernise, to develop and to keep on top of the game.  The BBC needs money.  The only thing it has is assets and the one time it does something eminently sensible by arranging a sale and leaseback the whole twitter world of actors and producers and directors go completely bonkers.  Oh, they all chorus!  How could they!  What idiots!  Selling our darling television centre.  Some quite intelligent people over on Twitter have gone barmy over this, because they haven’t really read the story, and they don’t seem to understand what will happen.  Stage 4 and Stage 5 will revert to BBC offices, with Stage 6 becoming the anchor home for BBC Worldwide. Studio 1 has fully listed status.  ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ will return to Studio 1 in 2015, whilst Studios 2 and 3 will also be leased back by the BBC. When they finally open, it will be after a vast cash injection from the evil, naughty, broadcasting killers – Stanhope Plc – who bought the place.  The studio galleries will be updated, there will be new dressing rooms, better green rooms and a brand new rack of production offices for 1,380 employees. Of TVC’s 14 acres, 130,000 sq ft has been separated out as studio space.  In other words, much of the BBC’s light entertainment and gameshow output will be based at Television Centre just as it always was.  And before critics point out that there is no room for drama, might I remind you that the last drama to be shot there was actually ‘The House of Elliot’ which closed its cloche-hatted doors in 1994.  The BBC drama output mostly comes from The Media Centre, a little further down Wood Lane.

Over at BBC Blogs, Anna Mallett produced an article the day the Madness concert was aired, outlining the future of the creative world at BBC TV Centre, because ‘some people think we’re leaving Television Centre’.  Perhaps the publicity material on this has been so woeful that no one realised?  Or perhaps the BBC chanced its arm, hanging on in there with Stanhope Plc until the pens were ready to sign the contract before demanding a revision of the deal?  But why has no one written about this?  Why are – and I can see that most of you are – readers looking surprised?  How could we not know this, and instead endure luvvie barrages on Twitter casting the BBC in the role of enemy?  Why are newspaper reports so damn stupid and inaccurate?  Do people enjoy being mawkish about the idea of the BBC leaving Wood Lane?  And why have a clutchload of well known writers and performers gone for the absolute jugular on this by casting the property company as the caustic, destructive, money-clutching force in this War of Art, when it is the same property company which is enabling the BBC to have a public profile, security and future at Television Centre ?

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, so the next update will be Thursday April 11th.  We hope to see you then.

Parade’s End

I thought it wouldn’t end.  I thought I would have to still be watching this series when I was 90, dribbling into my barley soup, watching whether the strangely chinless Cumberbunch would get his schoolmistress girlfriend at last, watching whilst Sir Peter Hall’s daughter continued to terrorise Benny Cumberbunch into bizarre sexual submissiveness over a stately home’s billiards table.    The only other parade I’d seen before this one was the one they do at 6.20 nightly at Disneyworld and which is followed by a light show and children vomiting from eating too many ice creams.  I would have preferred that to this.  I would have preferred anything to this.

In the last month, the writer Sir Tom Stoppard, has had four new parts added to his name by Deed Poll.  Every time his name is mentioned in print or in film relating to Parade’s Bend his name is “Sir Tom Stoppard EnglandsGreatestLivingPlaywright”, in case we mistake him for England’s greatest plumber or England’s worst midwife.  During BBC promos for Parade’s Bend he grew another name “Sir Tom Stoppard UndoubtedlyEngland’sGreatestLivingPlaywright”, you know – just in case we needed convincing.   Presumably next time Heartbreak House is on stage it will be by “Bernard Shaw England’sGreatestDeadestPlaywright”, or not, because of course, Shaw was from Ireland.  Sir Tom Stoppard should actually be TheFormerCzechoslavakia’sGreatestLivingPlaywright if we’re splitting nationalist hairs.  But we’re not.  We are being made to sit in front of “The Thinking Woman’s Downton” on BBC2 for five Friday nights and watch this pile of crap, the entire series of Parade’s End, which I prefer to call “There’s Seven Hours of My Life I’ll Never Get Back, Sir Tom”.

It started well enough.  Brave, noble and sentimental Torytastic Christopher is forced into a shotgun marriage, where the bullet is unlikely to have been fired by his pistol, by a pantomime villainess hussy in 1911.  The historical facts for the summer of 1911 (Lloyd George requesting 400 new Liberal peers etc) were hammered home with such violence and frequency it was almost the equivalent of the cast marching across the shot with large neon signs saying “It’s June 1911, peasants”.   It was quite fun for the first thirty minutes.  But it was like copying a recipe note-from-note from the lovely Nigella.  In goes the savoy cabbage, the garlic-infused oil and the necessary organic extras but something in the end result is wrong.  And try as you might you can’t work out what the wrongness really is.  Well, Parade’s End was a bit like that.  A well-made but ultimately disastrous beouf bourgignon, a bad Eggs Benedict Cumberbatch. 

The terrifying, posh, crypto-Catholic slattern wife Sylvia was played by Rebecca Hall and mostly she was very good but sometimes her performance was pitched wrong.  It was as if the method advised a slow roast at 140 degrees for four hours and instead she was rammed in at 220 degrees for a 45 minute boil-off.   I wonder if she was the character chosen to desperately inject some energy into the thing.  I spent the first three episodes trying to work out whether she was being directed badly, or whether she was acting badly.  Rebecca Hall is usually a very strong, watchable actress who throws frequent “convincers” around for her character.  This is the diamond standard for an actor – that we are lulled into a sense of belief in what they say by a steadfast succession of performance “convincers”.  Rebecca Hall has always been a magnificent convincer.  But in Parade’s End her performance was out of context and her characterization remained unresolved.  Is it the adaptation or the novel itself that makes Sylvia  Edwardian literature’s answer to Cruella de Vil?  Having not read the novel (and frankly after this am not inspired to) I couldn’t be sure, but the script had certainly done a disservice to Hall’s technical ability. 

I wondered if the producer was trying to kill her career with one, great, Edwardian stroke.  I wonder if that bit where she stood at the top of the stairs in the fifth episode pretending she had a great big ball of cancer about her so Benny Cumberbund wouldn’t then sleep with the schoolma’am while a nation hollered at the television “Go on, throw yourself down the stairs, DIE you oafish cow DIE” was what Sir Tom StoppardEngland’sGreatestLiving Playwright intended. 

The camera had served to make this attractive and seductive looking actress just look plain with a really big mouth.  The critics, however, saw it differently, because this is BBC2’s high drama offering of the series and only a prole would fail to be enhanced by its lush langourousness, right?  The critics wet their pants over PE but their excitement was a little overwrought.  You know damn well that if there had been a Poliakoff in the offering the same week they’d have been wetting their critical pants over that instead. 

I’ve no doubt that Sir Tom Stoppard is a great playwright, but his adaptation of another man’s work stuck in the throat like an underdone steamed pudding.   The editors really screwed up the pace of the thing.   Each episode was only one hour but felt like about five and a half.  A dramatic scene should be measured, but never mannered.   Parade’s End was strangulated by it’s own heightened manner, and occasionally upstaged by its majesterial location filming.  Cumberbatch went a long way to pulling it back to some kind of reality, with his performance of unrealised passion and unexpressed emotion which was pitched quite beautifully, but even he looked like a man being made to row upstream against an oncoming tide of crapness.  The love interest, Miss Wannop, who I thought due to Cumberbatch’s over-stiff upper lip, was called Miss Wallop for the first three episodes, was miscast and struggled to negotiate her way through 1911 with a haircut from 1928.   The problem is that heavy art does not good art make.  And, by the way, what family produces one son who looks dashing like Rupert Everett and then another son with the disgruntled cabbage patch doll face of Cumberbatch?  You’d presume there’d been a mix-up in the delivery room, wouldn’t you?

The problem here is that far too frequently pedantic and over-indulgent film-making is misdiagnosed as good drama.  There are characteristics – often arbitarily connected ones – that make up the bonafide British BBC drama.  Among them are:  long, lingering location shots, period dress, a buttoned up, distinctly English central character, a whimsical and slightly child-like love interest, all of which comes from a novel that is both big and old (so it must be good), you can also add in a dash of provincial humour and some horses.  And voila – a nostalgic and slow-moving piece  which I feel asleep three times whilst watching.     Eventually, I stopped caring whether Cumberbund and Wallop were ever going to get it on, so obsessed was I with attempting to jam knitting needles in my ears every time Anne Marie Duff spoke in a hysterical Glaswegian accent.  The pace was all off.  The camera frequently cut to reactions that should have been shown three seconds earlier.   Someone tried to include a funny scene about a telephone at some point.  Then there was another scene when we were all encouraged to laugh whilst Rupert Everett said some naughty words.  Eventually the whole series got wedged in First World War quagmire, appeared to unceremoniously sink in the mud, and left only Roger Allam’s false moustache floating on top of it like a beleagured and embittered flag of surrender.

Only the last episode dragged PE out from the muddy quagmire of  ponderousness.  As the war ended, a sense of energy infused the piece and it became distinctly more watchable, but it’s a shame that some of our greatest actors weren’t given slightly more to work with.  The difficulty with PE is it doesn’t seem that much actually, you know, HAPPENS.   I wonder if only in England, the great book’s subject matter, would a work in which so little happens pass muster.  After watching Parade’s End it makes everyone on Strictly Come Dancing look as if they are on crack and having the most amazing, glittering exciting time.  Which they probably are. 

I know what you’re thinking of course : “Two weeks of television reviews??  I thought she was supposed to be a city chronicler?  What is she – housebound?!”  Well, yes,  I am.  But this evening I’m off to a panel conversation at The Bishopsgate Institute on the 1980s featuring Robert Elms and Gary “I was sponsored by Silvrikin Hairspray” Kemp talking about 1980s music and military fashions which I shall comment on next week.  So there.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

I say, have you done something jolly with your hair? Downton Abbey : Series 3.

This is my favourite time of year in London.  You can smell the shavings from the points of newly-shorn pencils as the City hunkers down in back to school mode.  It’s time to take our accounts to our accountant to prepare for the dreaded HMRC payment in January.  It’s time to cook meats infused with ginger and autumnal scents.  It’s time to watch the fading light of the early autumn evenings – the most beautiful of the year in England – and turn to the comfort of Britain’s most successful export since Charlie Chaplin decided to take up a vaudeville touring post and head west.  It’s time for Downton Abbey, Series Three.

The Downton effect is an extraordinary one.   In his book The Edwardians, Roy Hattersley points out that the national religion of the English wasn’t Christianity, it was organised sports.  Now the national religion of the English appears to be Downton, where we watch Edwardians taking part in organised inheritance debates and sumptuous 12 course dinners with newly-related Irish chauffeurs.  I doubt we have lived through anything quite like it.  Downton is all.  Downton has permeated us.  Downton is everywhere.  My brother,  a The Sopranos / Robert de Niro sort of man, now answers his home telephone with “Good afternoon, Downton Abbey”.  The Downton App was launched last week for iPads where, for the sum of £4.99, you can take an interactive tour of the Abbey, and click on beautifully drawn rooms for character breakdowns, cast interviews, vintage style photographs and historical information. 

I have noticed that in the last week a vast amount of traffic for The London Bluebird has now started coming from Canada.  I would like to welcome the Canadians with a friendly Hello.  And the Americans too.  In order to ensure that they continue to visit the site, I’ll tell them everything that happened in the 90 minute special of Upstairs Downton Series 3, because those in the colonies have to wait another year.  Before that, I need you to gather round whilst I tell you about one of my latest obsessions. 

The thing is this : in order to spice up the day job with a little Edwardian frivolity, I take turns in taking on different Downton characters whilst answering the office phone.   It’s a harmless habit that really gets results : Pretending to be Lord Grantham to a cold caller trying to sell me PPI and saying : “Now, look here, my good man.  I must inform you that we have no need for such rag tag business here.  Good day.” is so much more effective than saying “piss off” and putting the phone down.   Lady Edith’s voice expresses a surprisingly authoritarian character, whose arch vowels won’t take any nonsense from anyone, and which belong to a woman who cannot physically afford to not see the truth.  Lady Sybil is hopeless – a simpering, sibilant voice that suggests swooning at the next availability opportunity.  Lady Mary sounds like a Martian with psychotic tendencies.  The most terrifying voice of all which is guaranteed to put the fear into those chasing payment or promising recruitment offers is that of Mrs Patmore, the cook, the woman who could knock a man out at twenty paces by hurling a well-aimed scone. 

Upstairs Downton started Series Three pack full of glaring reminders of what had taken place in Series 2.  This was wise : Series 2 ended during the most debauched period of Christmas Day (somewhere after Only Fools & Horses and shortly before a champagne-drenched viewing of Spinal Tap) so most of the country was too inebriated to remember the snowscene proposal that Mary & Matthew finally got stuck into after two series of flirting.  The vaulted turrets of Downton Abbey breathed a sigh of relief slightly earlier in the series when Matthew had informed Carson, the butler, that, despite the fact the Great War had paralysed him from the manly chest down and he was wheeling around the ancestral halls in a wheelchair, he could feel a “tingle”.   In Downton World, this was a good tingle, for Matthew must convincingly sex things up to continue the Grantham generations through the ages and stop Downton becoming a theme park in the 1960s or being handed over to the National Trust.  Bad tingles in Downton World usually happen to the ladies : one maid servant had a tingle and produced an illegitimate son who then tried to be purchased by its irate grandparents and Lady Mary’s unfortunate tingle led to Lady Cora having to assist moving a dead Turk in a duvet down the corridor. 

Series Three opened with a wedding rehearsal and general High Church jollities.  It is 1920, and no time has been wasted in raiding The House of Elliot’s wardrobe collection.  The ladies sigh into cloche hats.  Edith does something jolly with her hair, which is immediately noticed by Sir Anthony Strallen, the one-armed bandit who she follows around like a sick duck.  Downstairs though, it’s still about 1891 as O’Brien and Thomas continue to wield their resentment and unrelentingly Northern misery around the servants quarters, in a way that tells us they won’t be Charlestonning in to the 1920s.  Not when there’s pins and knives to metaphorically stab into their fellow workers. 

“I have to go to London,” said Lord Grantham, resplendent in a green silk dressing gown.

“I have been to London,” said Lord Grantham, having gone up to town and back again in one day, thereby becoming, as Thomas suggests “completely exhausted, mi’ lord”. 

As if travelling at high speed on a railway train with poor people is not enough to completely destabilize him, he has been dealt the massive blow that Cora’s fortune is gone because he invested it is some silly Canadian railways.  (Is this why the Canadians are following the blog? Is this their revenge for us withholding Downton from their screens for a whole year?)  The money is gone.  Cora is unabashed and bleakly continues her slightly simple acting style which involves occasionally bleating and wiggling her botox.  Whilst Lord Grantham comes to terms with the massive loss of family money, Matthew, The Wettest Man in West Yorkshire, accidentally comes by a great thumping wad of the stuff.  Great heaving dollops of moolah has landed, unceremoniously, in his stolid, middle class lap.  Mary is jubilant – Matthew’s money can save the family.  But Matthew insists on some gentleman’s code of nobility that says you should not take money from the dead father of the woman you pretended to love when you were in a wheelchair and then who died a horrible influenza death.  Mary is irate on hearing such tosh and instantly tells Matthew he is batting for the wrong side, or not on their side – or something about sides. 

Meanwhile Lady Sybil is attempting to bring her husband on side, which is tricky bearing in mind the hullaballoo she brought on herself by running away to Dublin with him in the first place.  Branson the chauffeur is now brother-in-law Tom but, dash it all, the fellow doesn’t even own a dinner suit and keeps shouting about Ireland over the starters at the dinner table.  In some bizarre drug attempt, some posh fruit calls Larry slips the 1920 equivalent of Rohypnol into Branson’s drink.  This makes Branson get drunk and rail about Ireland and Home Rule which is incredibly out of character.   Eventually he is carted off to bed in disgrace, Matthew saving him by asking him to be his best man at the wedding, although Branson is so off his face on Rohypnol he probably doesn’t remember this the next day.  Several people most probably violated him in the night (including Carson the butler) and he hasn’t a clue.   Lady Edith continues her pathological and puzzling sexual pursuit of Sir Anthony Strallen.  Anna, hearing that Shirley MacLaine is about to turn up, legs it to prison to visit her husband to convince him of her plans to turn Miss Marple in order to release him.  Mr Bates struggles with a peculiarly underwritten role and sits there nodding. 

Shirley MacLaine does turn up, in her much vaulted, much publicised role as Martha Levinson, Cora’s mother, but she forgot to pack her facial muscles when she boarded the Mauretania.  She slips out of a gorgeous Rolls Royce with a performance low on energy and high on red lipstick.  Her lines often call for a raised satirical eyebrow, but our Martha’s had some sort of stroke so cannot move her face.  Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess does a lot of English disapproval and bitchy asides before brother-in-law Branson the chauffeur decides the whole ShirleyGate thing is just too much and checks in to the local pub.  He didn’t marry “up” the social scale just so he could tear pheasants with Warren Beatty’s sister.  Lady Cora attempts to smooth over the political disaster of chauffeur-at-table by tasking him with answering odd questions about Irish horticulturalism, as if he is Dublin’s answer to Monty Don.  Mary is upset at dinner due to Wet Matthew failing to hand over his moolah.  This delights Lady Edith who, having a face that breaks mirrors, secretly despises her sister, and probably makes wax models of Mary and then burns them in the dining room fire.  Lady Sybil seems to have developed laryngitis, a frumpy bob and a pregnancy in that order, and spends a lot of time fretting over whether her husband will ever fit in, failing to notice he has performed the worst dining room faux pas since Mrs Patmore put salt on the meringues because she was so blind she couldn’t tell it wasn’t caster sugar.

Branson redeems himself in trying to convince Matthew not to be so stupid, and plays a hand in attempting a reconciliation with Mary the night before the wedding, thereby ensuring Series Three shifts from a series of pre-marital disagreements between Mary and Matthew to a series of marital ones, which will be occasionally hijacked by Matthew’s mother, the irritating Isobel Crawley.  She is only at home when tending deep wounds of infantrymen from the front and attempting to supercede Lady Cora as Director of Operations at Downton Abbey.  If the Dowager Countess as mother-in-law would make any sturdy American baulk, then the parsimonious and interfering Isobel Crawley will test Lady Mary’s patience more than Sir Richard Carlyle did in Series Two, when he behaved like a mean chav whilst out on a partridge shoot. 

Lord Grantham has found the answer to his financial distress – hard liquor.

“I say, mother, would you like to try one of these new fangled cocktails?”  he chirrups at her, clearly 7 mojitos to the wind and only another 3 mojitos away from embarrassing all and sundry by attempting air guitar to Genesis in the drawing room.  He glances at the camera with a look in his eye that says “Yes, viewers.  This is the 1920s.”  The Dowager Countess is appalled. 

Lady Cora’s delusion regarding her husband flushing her money down the toilet knows no bounds.  Her resolve to carry on and just have a good party of the wedding stinks of burying one’s aristocratic head in the sand.  Perhaps there is more to her motives than meets the eye, however, as she had earlier reminded her husband that she is an American and has a gun, thereby hinting at what might happen to Lord Grantham the next time he is discovered snogging a maid in the wine closet.

Then they all go off and celebrate Rosh Hashanah.

No, of course they don’t.

They roll out of bed the next morning, Mary deigns to dress for her wedding looking like Frankenstein’s bride of death, puts up with her mother’s icky advice that married love really is rather “terrific” once one gets the hang of it, and turns up to the church.  But there unfortunately, the first episode draws to a close as they stand at the altar, ready to be married in the High Anglican tradition, so I leave it up to your fetid, disgusting minds to work out once and for all whether Mary and Michael finally get to consummate two series of will-they-won’t-they that has pushed the ratings up like nobody’s business. 

The hullaballoo of Downton has less to do with them and more to do with us.  Brideshead Revisited rocked onto our old-fashioned analogue televisions in 1981, when Britain was in the midst of a huge recession, and where a summer not only featured a Royal Wedding but also urban riots.  Today in Britain, we’ve come out of a long and artificially suspended boom, and collapsed into a long, stagnant economic pile of poo.  Our comfort is drawn from the old world, from the stately home, from the sense of an England that is not altogether lost, because it was never truly owned by any of us in the first place.  This is an England of debentures, of investitures, of entails to inherited wealth, of dressing in silks and satins for supper, an England whose structure and beaded and be-jeweled prettiness we are happy to concern ourselves with until the view out of our own early 21st century window changes.  When the economic spirit lifts, when 1 in 4 young Londoners and not unemployed, when you don’t have to produce 25 and a half years of income proof in order to get your mortgage offer accepted, and when the most positive thing that happens to us in our day is not that, like Lady Edith, we merely do something jolly with our hair, I guarantee you won’t see Downton for toffee.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

The Hour Has Come

As London slakes its thirst on the first of many summer spritzers, don’t you think our cool, balmy evenings suit the outrageously sexy The Hour on Beeb 2?  I do.  Essentially, The Hour had me with it’s era-faithful hairstyles, structured 1950s and air of noble broadcasting intent, and I even managed to get away from the fact that Dominic West has a neck that makes him look like a toad.  For Mr West is aware – exuberantly aware – that he is rather Hot Stuff.  He minces his eyebrows about quizzically, looks out of that oddly craggy face and leers out of the television as if to say “Ladies – Get a load of what I’ve got, you lucky lucky minxes.”  Strangely, I cannot find him attractive.  I think he’s borderline sinister, but in a way that suits The Hour.  His is the public face of this fictional news show set in the late 1950s and broadcast from the imitation White City building of “Lime Grove”.   In this week’s instalment he had Romola Garai in her vintage seamed stockings on what looked like an extremely uncomfortable settee.  In fact, Romola Garai’s flat in The Hour doesn’t so much look like a flat as a annex book lock-up round the back of Senate House Library.  Still, there was Mr D West, smirking and slurping his way through the scene in order to distract us from the dreary municipal – looking surroundings.  But we know, don’t we, that D West’s character is Bad News.  He’s probably going to break Romola Garai’s post war, rationed little heart by Week 5 and leave her weeping in a 1950s headscarf whilst nursing the very first English cappucino.

The show has thrown me into a vintage quandary.  I was so disappointed to miss the Vintage event at the South Bank last weekend (a repeat of what happened at Goodwood last August) as it would have been an ideal opportunity to whip out the gravy browning, roll my hair into bangs and find out just what ladies did in the 1950s to make their tits look like missiles.  Unfortunately, I wound up in another country.  The Hour is an education.  Everything is bolstered and strapped and contained within clean lines.  The millinery is presented in beautifully classic style.   Set against a Egypt-tastic back drop of the Suez Crisis, it also features a grand performance by Anna Chancellor in mannish white shirts, who gets to smoke fags, look rueful, drink whisky out of beige coffee cups and sidle about pouting and barking out historically-vital pieces of information, such as “They’ve set fire to the central square!”  “We need you to radio in on Thursday – all day, do you hear?”, “The French are getting testy.”

Somewhere there is a spy.  A great big fat one.  This being the late 1950s it has to be a Russian.  Or a Czech.  Or Lucille Ball.  The phrase that sums up the 1950s is more You Never Felt More Paranoid, rather than You Never Had It So Good, although D West was having it rather good last night. The furtive World Service BBC worker of no particular Eastern European heritage who has been creepily oozing around the sidelines since Episode 1 played more of a central role last night.  Well, a central stairwell role, anyway, as he lost a peculiar struggle in a stairwell last night with a man who weighs about 8 stone.  His opponent was Featherweight Freddy Lyons, sidekick to Romola’s character, Bel, who is clearly daft in love with her and doomed to misery, as no one can ever overawe the potency of D “Toad” West once he gets himself going (poop poop).  Featherweight Freddy’s grammar school integrity and almost-innocent, wide-eyed application to his craft is partnered with a habit of using newspaper cut outs of gruesome going’s on as wallpaper in the house where he lives with his father in an unknown London suburb.

Personally, my money for the spy is on Anna Chancellor.  All that hanging around the Lime Grove studios on Saturdays in red lipliner?  Surely that could only mean an assignation with one of Russia’s fruitiest cunning villains.  Last night’s episode featured a really bad excuse – apparently old Duckface was at work as she was “early for supper with a dreadful Great Aunt…” and had nothing better to do.  You don’t allow Great Aunts to take you out for supper.  It’s too terrifying.  Anyway, most of my great aunts are now unavailable to dine as they are dead.

Someone else who is dead is Terence Rattigan.  But you wouldn’t know that he is dead because he is basically everywhere.  In one of those eerie zeitgeist moments, something in the upper-middle class pinched emotions of Rattigan’s world has struck a very loud chord with an entirely new generation of theatregoers in the last 18 months.  For about twenty years there were no Rattigan plays on at all, now the West End is swimming with them.  The tide shows no sign of going out either.  BBC4 hopped on this 1950s bandwagon this week by chucking Benedict Cumberbatch in a three quarter length coat and sending him moodily strolling about Soho (Why?) whilst telling us the story of Rattigan’s life and career, from nerve-wrenching opening nights at The Criterion through to money, adulation and fame, on to hosting grand parties at his Ascot manor, and out the other side into drunkenness, Rattigan a forgotten, maligned and sick man.   This was excellently told.  I knew very little about Rattigan, beyond the genuinely superb plays, and the nicest thing about Cumberbatch is that he is very personable, i.e. not at all like an actor.   He is also very articulate and modest,i.e. not like an actor.  Benny Cumberbund and T Rattigan were both Harrow alumni so it was dead glam.

What was noticeable was the archive trawl.  Televised plays of Rattigan’s work from the 1970s and 1980s, complete with bendy sets and 1980s pale brown Habitat sofas masquerading as 1930s Brighton chaise longues, were a real revelation, and a horrible reminder that the BBC doesn’t film plays anymore to televise them, because they’re a bunch of lily-livered pussies who think we are all too stupid to want to watch them.   The recent Old Vic production of Rattigan’s Cause Celebre was brilliantly done on Radio 4 (complete with resplendent gin and tonic ice chinks) but no one would be brave enough to put it on the television.  Oh, and please PLEASE can we have a full viewing of the version of Cause Celebre they did show a slither of, which seemed to come from the back end of the 1980s?  With Helen Mirren swooning over the young David Morrissey as if her eyes would fall out?  Something for gentlemen in that scene, and something for the ladies.  Double bubble.

Benny Bumbercund was of course in the recent NT production of After the Dance which could also be called After the Dance I did Frankenstein and stuff and SO much in demand I went to do Sherlock.  A televised version of that after the interesting Rattigan documentary would have been delightful.  Instead, we got this hackneyed 1985-ish version of it, with terribly sound editing, absolutely no David Morrissey, and Anton Rodgers playing a dipsomaniac fruitloop (I preferred him in that thing set in Pinner called May to December where he dated a gym mistress).  If BBC4 isn’t prepared to televise plays I don’t know who is.   The universality of Rattigan’s work means they continue to have resonance and ballast to engage with the modern televisual audience.  Systematically, television undermines and underestimates our intelligence, until, eventually, we shall all be forced to watch Teletubbies on a 24 hour loop.  We have some of the best plays ever written and no one televises them.  Something tells me that back at the fictional Lime Grove studios of The Hour of the late 1950s not filming our own plays would have been unthinkable.

Poo on my Clothes

Fear not, dear readers.  That is not a command.  After all, I don’t know you that well.  And I really think that sort of thing must be between mutually understanding adults of the grown-up variety.  Above tis a reference to the 3 part mini series called Filth, which was introduced by the History man of the hour, Dan Snow.  I’m not sure why they keep producing Dan Snow.  Perhaps they think he is posh totty, if you like your men with pointy noises, rower’s shoulders and a receding hairline.  Either way, we are clearly stuck with him.  And he is good – although on the episode of Filth dealing with the shit of London’s own medieval quagmires, not a story about the police force which I had expected, he appeared to be struggling with a heavy cold.

Either that or the noxious fumes of poop had blocked his sinuses.  For this was a show that reeked of squelches and faeces-filled bogs, that farted and shat it’s way into describing the ingredients of a common or garden 14th century London street (urine, animal entrails, peasants’ shoes, human poos).  Never have I been so grateful that we didn’t have smell-o-vision.  The ideal audience for Filth would have been a 12 year old, short-sighted boy whose idea of a good hobby is holding a live gerbil over a bunsen burner, and who luxuriates in the awfulness of the nastiness of poo.    Then why was it put on at 9pm at night?  Fools.   First of all, Dan put on his terribly smart “wellies” and marched up and down on a lot of poo as if his History PhD depended on it.  “That smell,” he boomed, as he approached a mound of the stuff, “is basically poo particles in the air attacking my nose!”.  Then he marched into Cross Nest Sewage Works looking as shocked and gentlemanly as possible.  “What is this place?!”  he laments, sounding close to tears, to Jill Sterry, a no-nonsense woman in the sewage work’s employ who has a countenance that suggests she has stared out many a shit in her time.

Dan investigated a pipe full of really horrible crap-related stuff.  “The last thing I want to do is spray it all over myself…..”  Indeed.  “Here it comes!  Like Mr Whippy!”  Well, Dan, I bet you’ve had dates like that before.  Anyway, it was more like Mr Shitty, as Dan excitedly filled up another jar with what appeared to be poo ectoplasm.  The scriptwriters chose an unfortunate choice of words when it was Dan’s turn to investigate poo-dealings, as he said the answers were “deep within the bowels of London’s Metropolitan Archive”.  After poo research (poosearch?)  he sits in a library and talked about a lady called Alice Wade.  I shudder to think of the sewage awfulness that came out of Alice Wade.  It must have beena disgusting and depraved thing, because D Snow had to put on latex white gloves like gynaecologists wear for a cervical sweep before he could pick up the piece of paper to read about it.  Apparently, Alice Wade “didn’t really want to pipe her waste into the streets.”  Oh Alice, cheers.  That’s big of you.  Anyway, the fate of Alice “The Crapper” Wade was nothing compared with feckless Richard , who, at some point in the 1370s, sat on his home-made latrine, only for it to collapse.  Richard “dropped into his own excrement and drowned”.  D Snow referred to this as an “unfortunate accident”.  No, DS.  An unfortunate accident is leaving your quiche in the oven for too long, or ordering polenta when one really wanted the cheesecake.  Dying by inhaling your own poo is nothing short of a medieval, 14th century toilet tragedy, my friend.

D Snow did do very well however.  Even when he had to decapitate a dead pig.  Not that that put him off, of course.  He is not faint hearted.  “I’ll never eat pork again…..” he said, “……in the same way.”  Blimey, ladies, he’s hardcore.  Anyone who can hold a warm, still-palpitating cluster of dead pig’s entrails in his hand and still only think of when he’s next going to eat the rest of the pig with a bit of sage and onion has a heroically strong constitution.   Even when a naked medieval bottom hoved into view and farted at the camera in a reconstruction of Ebbgate Lane – an enormous medieval latrine that now probably sits (sorry, squits) on the site of Whistler in Liverpool Street, or Pret A Manger at Tower Hill – D snow held his dignity together with the Cambridge tones of his voiceover.  These latrines were particularly badly planned, explained DS.  Although they “kept their own walls clean” an intrinsic part of the latrines design was shitting on nearby pedestrians.  The squalor and inability of London to contain itself was alarming.  Basically, I am surprised the city has not melted away, reduced into liquid nothingness by the volume of medieval sewage.  London was predominantly built on stone and wood and human crap.  Much of it may be under our feet now.  I thought my shoes smelt odd.Next I have to catch up on the Paris and New York episode, but London came first, as it always does in herewith bloggery.  I don’t mind if we see more of Dan Snow.  I am particularly fond of his double acts with his father, for those of you who remember my irate Blitz entry on this blog some time ago – https://thelondonbluebird.wordpress.com/2010/09/16/the-bomber-will-always-get-through/  and as the powers that be at the BBC seem to have thrust him upon us as the Boffin of the Hour than I am pleased to welcome him into my living room.

The overwhelming sense I got from this programme was how civilized and clean and wonderful our modern lives in London truly are.  Every morning, the city of ours rolls out of beds, coughs up some city-sputum, and hails a new day.  By the time we poke our ungrateful noses over the top of the duvet, the well-oiled machine that is London has been at work for three or four hours, flushing through water pipes, warming up stations, refuelling tube trains, and cleaning our buses and workstations.  People like to have a bit of a moan about London – the uncivilized aspect of it, the fuel, the pestilence, the dirt. Veer away from them, my friends, for they are as full of shit as Alice “The Crapper” Wade.  When it comes to cleanliness, no city is better than us at clearing up shit at miraculous rates.  And if you don’t believe me, check out the steaming piles of horse droppings on the Mall on Royal Wedding Day, when London will be covered with bits of the Household Cavalry’s nervous bowels (and that’s just the riders).  I just hope the Duke of Edinburgh can contain himself.  Needless to say, by 8am on Saturday morning they’d have swept up all the Royal defecation they can find, and the Mall will gleam again, as rose-pink and fragrant as a baby’s bottom.  Perhaps we are so good at clearing up shits because we’ve had so much practice at doing it.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.