Can you hear the people sing?

Éponine (Barks) and Marius (Redmayne)

I feel like I should begin by apologising: I’m sorry that I wasn’t excited about seeing Les Mis. To be fair, I did get all giddy when, less than an hour before the screening, I discovered that Mr Eddie Redmayne was playing Marius (and I still haven’t the faintest notion as to how that fact escaped my notice) and I was intrigued as to how the swashbuckling Hugh Jackman would fair in the emotionally demanding and physically exhausting role of Jean Valjean. However, I wasn’t consumed with anticipation at the prospect of endless grimy faces and the occasional corpse providing the basis for most of the panning shots.

I think, or rather I know, that I had preconceived ideas concerning what the film would hold. The stage show chugging along in the West End for the past few years sparked a national tour a couple of years ago and I saw the production at The Palace Theatre in Manchester. To be completely honest, I found the whole thing a little over-done, too polished – overtly professional. The constant struggle of who could out-sing who grew tiring, as did the operatic performance. I mean, considered the practicalities of singing  songs in good voice in the various unfortunate situations in Les Misérables; as a labouring slave, outside on your own (see what I did there?) in the rain or in the midst of a revolution. Wouldn’t you be too preoccupied to concentrate on your vocal vibrato or enforcing the diction of every single word?

As someone who has taken singing lessons and been musically examined for the past six years, I can’t say that I’d be too bothered about employing my diaphragm-breathing techniques if I was under fire from French soldiers clad in the finest of uniforms. I think I’d be keeping my head down. And this is why I was so utterly pleasantly surprised at this new film. The raw emotions – be them rage, sadness, loneliness, victory – were not orchestrated, as one might have expected them to have been. It seems that we may have the decision by producers to do live takes of songs as opposed to dubbing them post-production, to thank for that breath-snatching, heart-wrenching performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” by Anne Hathaway for which she has deservedly earned herself a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe and an Academy Award nomination in the same category.

Yes, Russell Crowe’s in-role singing as Javert is questionable at times, but in a way this gruffness fits his character profile. Personally I’ve always found Cosette a disappointing character (if I had the choice I’d play Éponine over Cosette any day) but Amanda Seyfried’s portrayal of her, played opposite Eddie Redmayne’s Marius was suitably simpering – the perfect representation of the “love at first sight” ideal. Samantha Barks deserves a mention as Éponine too. “On My Own” – which has forever been my favourite song from a show of classics – was executed with levels of despair leading to ultimate resignment to rival any west end lead. The raindrops blended with Bark’s tears in a scene which had the audience welling up themselves. My only real gripe would be the length; at 2 hours 37 minutes it’s a bit of a swallow-an-afternoon film, but your afternoon will be all the better for it, believe me.

Postscript: I was very flattered to have my writing published on both The Vagenda and Manchester’s Finest this week. The former is a piece about my personal experiences of having short hair entitled “Keeping it Short” and the latter a review of the current exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery “The First Cut”.

Shaken Not Stirred

Whishaw and Craig as Q and 007

Skyfall

If there’s one brand, one film franchise, one name even, that sums up the very best of British creativity and industry (and which holds no relation to anyone of a royal title or an olympian) it is Bond. James Bond. Oh the images are filling my mind and I’m making no attempt to close the flood gates; martinis, Aston Martins, sophisticated black suits. Femme fatales, incredible dresses, guns, blood, Judi Dench, gadgets, the unmistakable theme tune. Fast cars, crazy billionaires, sharks and the hairiest escapes known to man.

It is perhaps serendipitous that I first began writing this post weeks (alright, two and a bit weeks) before the amusement of the Queen’s film cameo at the opening ceremony, where Bond deservedly made the entrance of the century to the roars of 80,000 people. Serendipitous as I had the unplanned pleasure of attending The Barbican’s current exhibition “Designing 007: 50 Years Of Bond Style”. It was, quite easily, the very best I have ever attended.

It was one of those afternoons that wasn’t mapped out and jam-packed with events; my family and I were to see the double bill of the plays “South Downs” and “The Browning Version” at the Harold Pinter Theatre and then take it from there. On exiting someone suggested a leisurely stroll from the West End, down Fleet Street and up to EC2 would offer the perfect opportunity to walk off the false sense of tiredness that descends in the heat of the theatre. It was clearly meant to be as my brother, utilising the wonderful invention that is the mobile phone, booked tickets enough for the four of us as we stood outside the stage door and no sooner had the crowds descended to queue for cabs than we were marching off into the distance.

Now, I am a Bond fan in the way that one whiff of a royal engagement gives way to a nation of crown lovers. I’m not a hardcore Bond brainbox but I’ve always enjoyed the slick Britishness (now I’m really not making sense) of the films and delight in the intricacies of the costume design in particular. Having not watched anything Bond related for a considerable amount of time therefore, the section of my brain reserved for the very best things in life was immediately saturated with the world of espionage the moment I stepped through the double doors into the first stage of the exhibition.

The Barbican had clearly made use of someone trained in the art of creating a practical, memorable and ultimately enjoyable memorabilia exhibit fit for public consumption. The level of detail exercised across the entire display was so scrupulous that upon exiting the final of the three stages of the spectacle (which was held across three floors of The Barbican requiring tickets to be retained and stamped on entry into each new level) I glanced down at my ticket only to smile at the numbers “007”; made up of the three consecutive stamps I had received.

My personal favourite of the outfits on show was Eva Green’s glorious evening dress, worn for her role as Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. In contrast, I was appalled to discover that the ragged black dress donned by Olga Kurylenko as Bond’s accomplice Camille Montes in Quantum of Solace was in fact couture Prada and worth several thousands of pounds! On that note, was I the only one underwhelmed by Sévérine, Skyfall’s obligatory Bond girl? Without giving too much away, I like to think that her character was written without any real solidity to enforce the strong theme of the character relationship between Bond and M. Judi Dench triumphed, as did Ben Whishaw as Q who shall be returning to grace our screens in series 2 of The Hour TONIGHT on BBC2 at 9pm. I thoroughly recommend both The Hour (series 1 of which I wrote about here) and Skyfall – both are rich in glamour, espionage and good old-fashioned wit.

Ben Whishaw as Q

Q

Do Magazines Maketh The Man?

The magazine section in my local Sainsbury’s can, I find, be a minefield (metaphorically of course – unless there’s a special “celebrity” wedding edition of Hello just out). I am perpetually baffled by the categorisation of magazines; always weighing up whether I’m simply over analysing the psychology behind the situation of the publications or whether there’s an underlying sexist issue to be found lurking near the kiosk counter. For once, I’m sure the latter has happened. It turns out that Sainsbury’s have dispelled the need for a specialist “technology and gaming” section, or words to that effect anyway, in favour of lumping premier film magazine Empire and other such volumes in with the likes of Nuts and FHM.

Apparently, the “Men’s Lifestyle” banner now covers a broader spectrum of journalistic works; that is to say, not just magazines featuring girls who are paid to be photographed practically naked and whose covers are shielded from the eyes of young children and anyone else who doesn’t want surgically enhanced human flesh forced upon their retinas. How very inclusive of them. NME and Empire were but two magazines which were unfortunate enough to suffer the humiliation of being classed as such.

Not only do I feel a deep-rooted sense of annoyance bordering on anger about this, but I felt rather uncomfortable at the time when I wanted to employ my periodic flick through Empire preferably in an environment which didn’t include titles which have to have their covers censored in the form of being covered up when on display in shops. Surely Empire, the world’s leading source of film coverage, isn’t classed as a male orientated publication? I have one friend in particular – my personal knowledge fountain of all things cinematic – who would be mortified if she received raised eyebrows or disparaging looks when indulging in movie reviews in our school library as she is apt to do (I’m ransacking the uni prospectus shelves by this point, but there you are).

Granted, magazines covering a broader spectrum of interests – such as Shortlist, sister publication to the also free Stylist – are visibly geared to a male audience, although this certainly doesn’t stop me devouring it. The fact that Stylist is its female counterpart, though the two overlap in many areas, means that everybody effectively has access to the same information. In the case of Empire, however, both men and women are interested in its content and this should be recognised by the purveyors of the publication; after all, it is in their interest to market items such as magazines to their advantage to sell as many as possible. Even from a purely monetary profit it is obviously more lucrative to ensure the reading public have the optimum access to magazines across every interest and genre.

Female orientated publications can also be described as guilty, with their plethora of fashion and beauty-saturated volumes. It could be argued, though, that this is allowable as these magazines feature almost exclusively women’s fashion and beauty and articles intended for a female audience. They could quite easily direct males with just as strong an interest in fashion to men’s magazines such as Esquire and GQ which feature a decent amount of it and male versions of Vogue, though we regrettably don’t have a British version (though that may say more about Britain than the fashion industry).

When we reach the rather murkier territories of entertainment and technology, the line is often a little blurry and can results in gender stereotyping. Nowhere is this more prevalent then on the shelves of any good newsagent. There’ll be women’s lifestyle and fashion all together, then the hobbies and interests and then the men’s lifestyle, technology and current affairs all shoved together. That’s another one; I always have to dive into a herd of men peering into gaming and computer pages to search out a copy of Total Politics which seems to be permanently hidden away from the masses, as if its content were some great secret of national importance. Indeed the politics of magazine selling strategy is certainly beyond me!

White Heat: A Tangled Web Of Revolt

1960s: L-R Jack, Charlotte, Lilly, Alan, Jay, Orla, Victor

White Heat: a piece of original British drama starring seven young actors; six of them relatively unknown and emerging from obscurity in one of the finest adaptations the BBC has produced in recent History. Spanning five decades – each of the six episodes set several years on from the previous part and with appropriate costumes, props and hairstyles to reinforce this – the series follows the trials and tribulations of seven students who have descended on London to begin their undergraduate degree courses, all aged eighteen and from an assortment of different backgrounds.

There’s Charlotte – finely acted by Claire Foy (of Little Dorrit and Upstairs Downstairs fame) who leads the gallant band of fine young thespians (both acting and character-wise) – a resolute middle-class girl from Buckinghamshire, eager to experience the freedom the Big Smoke has to offer, whom embraces the sixties as if it were up for auction to another century and revels in the liberty it affords her. There’s a particularly memorable scene in one of the early episodes in which Charlie (as she quickly becomes  known to the gang) has a stand-off with her father on the steps outside the flat after he interrupts her New Years Eve party. He showers her with insults ranging from jibes about the shortness of her dress to his disgust at her new-found smoking habit.

A deep-rooted theme of the six-part drama is women’s rights – a cause which Charlotte and fellow feminist and flatmate Lilly (Myanna Buring) campaign for in their own thrilling way by covering adverts (and sometimes people) with stickers proclaiming “this man degrades women” before being chased away by the police. Lilly, an art student, is forced to endure a battle with her none-too-impressed parents who look unfavourably on her chosen career path and would instead prefer her to return to Yorkshire to work in her auntie’s shop. She also faces personal crises with catastrophic consequences both for her and the remaining six, although these disasters are somewhat softened by the presence of Alan (Lee Ingleby), who adores her from the very first time the seven sit down for dinner in the flat.

Of all the themes White Heat encapsulates in the total six hours of its existence, it is those of feminism and rights which grabbed me most and made me sit up and listen. It is strange to see women such as Lilly and Charlotte fighting for their reproductive liberty and egalitarianism when, for many countries in the western world today, abortion is available practically on demand. It is unfathomable, at least to me, why some people (and this includes men as well) don’t use their vote after the dedication of so many lives to the cause resulted in forced feeding, imprisonment and even death. Although this thread is a little off topic, if White Heat had been set at the turn of the 20th century I can guarantee the chief aim for the female characters would have been Votes For Women.

If you’re interested in reading an actual review I can heartily recommend this article from The Guardian which presents a perhaps more balanced perspective of White Heat. All six episodes are available on iPlayer until Thursday and if you want to read up on the characters before watching you can visit the BBC’s White Heat Homepage. One final push required to beat you into viewing submission? I can reveal that all seven students are played by not one but two actors. Episode one actually begins in 2012 when the gang regroup after the death of one of them requires the flat to be cleared and sold, with the older Charlotte being played by stalwart of British acting Juliet Stevenson and Lilly by the equally formidable Lindsay Duncan. They’re performances alone make White Heat worthy of a viewing, however sceptical that viewer may be. Let me know what you think.

1970s: L-R: Jack, Alan, Charlotte, Victor, Lilly, Orla, Jay

Women Of The World…

We Can Do It!

First posted February 15th - February 28th 1942

For the past three years, this poster has been the view I have awoken to every morning. Staring me in the face was a strong-willed woman – urging me to get up, get a move on and get out there into the world. I don’t mind saying that this poster has inspired me hugely and encouraged me daily to make a difference in the world, just as the women of Great Britain did during the Second World War. Just think of all those young girls who dropped everything to join the land army and or work in munitions factories; consolidating their efforts to give Britain a fighting chance. If they could have had such an effect, then so can we. The poster also affirms my strong belief in feminism, but it’s probably best if I leave my views on that particular subject for another post altogether! To see a visualisation of inspirational women take a look at Bollykeck’s post on the same topic.

Last Wednesday was International Women’s Day. The byline on their website reads “connecting girls, inspiring futures”. I can think of no better plan, especially as this includes providing “a common day for globally recognising and applauding women’s achievements as well as for observing and highlighting gender inequalities and issues”. I am inspired by so many women; dead and alive, fictional and real, family members, friends, teachers, writers, actors and politicians to name but a few. They all possess different qualities which I aspire to one day have myself, yet are united only because they all share the same gender. Here are the chosen few, known to all:

The Queen is the ultimate model of poise, grace, patience and hard work. She always projects positivity and never, ever, shows any degree of being tired, bored or uninterested by the people she meets or the places she visits.

Helena Bonham Carter (who has portrayed two Queens in her time!) is fearless with her fashion choices as well as being a versatile and captivating actor. Transforming from the teenage girl in Howard’s End to the kindly Mrs Bucket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to the chilling and terrifying Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter series proves her acting capabilities.

Caitlin Moran wrote an extremely good book last year. It’s called “How to be a Woman”. I’m confident that many of you will have read it. In it she professes on paper everything we have all being thinking about feminism for the last few years but have been too self-conscious to say out loud. Moran is also a journalist for The Times and her weekly column in the Times Saturday Magazine has been my weekend luncheon companion for the past six years.

Emma Watson cropped her beautiful locks short to celebrate the end of an eleven year contract by which she had agreed not to tan her skin or alter her hair whilst appearing in the Harry Potter series. The result was that she inspired many girls to do the same and take the short-hair plunge. I was in such a “GO EMMA!” mood about it that I wrote a post at the time.

Victoria Coren, as well as being a top-class journalist and presenter with a degree from Oxford is also a World Poker Champion and a member of Team PokerStars Pro, with lifetime winnings of $1.5 million. I finished her autobiography “For Richer, For Poorer – Confessions of a Player” in January and found it engaging, witty and refreshingly honest. Coren is a quirky individual who deflects negativity and instead focuses on what matters to her. I think she is incredibly cool.

Bel Rowley (The Hour) was played brilliantly, last Summer, by Romola Garai. Bel is a fifties feminist and a woman who holds a strong journalistic role at the BBC’s Lime Grove Studios in the middle of the Suez Canal crisis. Despite her ability to perform her role extremely well, she is subject to subtly sexist marks. When inquiring after Prime Minister Eden’s health, one of his Press Advisers replies “Such maternal instincts. I do think you are rather wasted in news”. She later slights his intelligence by saying to her Editor, in the adviser (Angus’) presence, “Auribus teneo lupum”, and then snapping to Angus “Look it up”. The Latin translates into English as “Take the wolf by the ears”.

Morgan Le Fay, the villain of the Legend of King Arthur of Camelot is one of the oldest records of a feminist. True, we have little or no evidence as to whether she actually existed, but she is portrayed in the printed word and on-screen as a woman who will not rest until her right to ascend to the throne of Camelot is acknowledged.

Jenny Mellor (An Education) decides against marrying a much older man who can give her all the riches she could ever want in favour of studying to gain a place at Oxford and make her own way in the world. The character of the early 1960s schoolgirl Jenny, played to perfection by Carey Mulligan, doesn’t fall into the trap of giving up on her education to be married in her teens simply because she has had a good offer of marriage and in doing so proves to herself, and everybody else, that she can be independent.

Which women inspire you and why?

Cinematography

War Horse

For me, a visit to the cinema has always been something of a treat. Only rarely do I see a film when it has just been released – with the matters of finding the time to go, finding a film I really want to see, finding the perfect companion with which to watch it and justifying the cost of the tickets all coming into play. In fact, the last film I saw in a cinema setting was Jane Eyre which I posted about the week of my seeing it in September 2011. Gosh, how time flies! This time the setting and plot were altogether very different – with War Horse being the film that hankered for my attention and which caused me to give in and make that seemingly bi-annual cinema visit. I can honestly say that I was not disappointed.

It is unusual for me to see something in which I am not aware of who the lead role is played by – but War Horse was one such  film. Jeremy Irivine plays Albert “Albie” (to his friends) Narracott who forms a close bond with a horse he names Joey – bought by his father to plough the land on the family farm despite the colt not being  a shire horse. As many of you will know, Albie and Joey are separated when war breaks out – only to be finally re-united at the very end of the story. Obviously the large chunk I’ve neglected to comment on contains all the nitty gritty scenes of the First World War in action, with some superb acting by two of my favourite actors – Benedict Cumberbatch (yes, he of that coat two summers ago!) and Tom Hiddleston.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that Mr Spielberg – hats off to him – had kept remarkably close to the original novel by the renowned children’s author Michael Morpurgo, which I feel really kept the morals which are a strong theme throughout the tale grounded. Hope, trust, loyalty, solidarity and courage. I actually had the privilege of hearing Mr Morpurgo speak, two years ago, about his experiences of being an author and about the inspiration behind his works. The two hours I spent in his presence were two of the most insightful, inspiring and valuable of my life and many of the things he said have stayed with me since.

I feel it is testament to his great skill as a writer that only a very small number of changes were made when transferring his novel from a manuscript onto the big screen. The result is a modern masterpiece – the kind of truly successful collaboration which only occurs when two people come together with the same goals and the vision of creating something powerful, and in this case visually stunning and quite spectacular. In contrast, I’m saddened to say that I was disappointed with another film which had been critically acclaimed for it being one of the best of the year.

The adaptation of John Le Carré’s 20th Century Classic “Tinker Tailor Solider Spy” although faultless from a cinematographic point of view just wasn’t made with its audience in mind. Even when putting aside its one great fault – the difficult to follow plot line which left myself and around 85% confused about twenty minutes in (and this is a two-hour film we’re talking about) – I felt that its creators had, with their target clientèle in mind, made it too high brow for their own good. It is a great shame, especially as the likes of Colin Firth, Gary Oldman and Benedict Cumberbatch all contribute to making the cast list, after Harry Potter, Britain’s best in a while and definitely best male cast.

Compared to War Horse, Tinker Tailor offered little or no opportunity or hook to draw the audience into making an affinity with one or any of the characters. Also, the distinctly Cold War feel and the lack of emotions in the film (somewhat similar to my views on “Never Let Me Go” – if you’ve seen it you’ll probably get my gist about the characters feeling very different from the world in which they lived) made it an even less inviting tale to embrace. I think for me the main problem was that, as I did when I went to see True Grit last year, I walked into Tinker Tailor thinking it was going to be the best film I had ever seen, and it wasn’t.

I blame the media hype which whips up a frenzy of copy gushing with praise for every film released – making it increasingly difficult to separate the real ‘not to be missed’ films from the three star titles. One of my perhaps easier to keep resolutions was to get out to the cinema more this year and appreciate decent film-making. I think so far I’m not doing too badly and hope to add “The Woman in Black” onto my list of “viewed” films next weekend. If anyone has seen it please let me know your thoughts so I know what I’m in for!

The Diary of a Film-goer

I knew this would happen. I knew that once I was back in a daily 9-5 routine my blogging schedule would be scrapped in favour of meeting work deadlines and all of the other commitments that September never fails to bring. September has flashed by startlingly quickly and I can’t believe I haven’t posted since the fourteenth. I love writing (not that I’ve ever mentioned that before) and I am determined to make a special effort to keep posting regularly, so here we begin…

Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre

Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre

There aren’t many people who would be willing to go to an early morning showing at the cinema, especially not on a Saturday, a fact which a good friend and I discovered this past weekend on an excursion to see the new film adaptation of Jane Eyre. I can tell you from experience that if you are willing, early mornings are by far the best times to visit the cinema, and here’s why:

  • You can usually obtain some variation of an ‘early bird’ ticket which is cheaper than your standard ‘peak’ time one.
  • Rarely will there be more than ten people watching the same film as you are at that time of day – we were the first people in and so had the pick of the seats – which should equate to their being less chance of being disturbed whilst enjoying the film.
  • Due to the earliness of you showing the only people who will be willing to drag themselves from their beds to the cinema on a Saturday morning will be the hardcore film-goers, the type of people who abhor others who munch popcorn all the way through the film because they are their to enjoy the showing and not listen to somebody else’s munching during the climactic scene of the film.
  • You leave with the knowledge that you have already had your fill of ‘culture’ for the day and it isn’t yet lunchtime.
Judi Dench and Mia Wasikowska

Judi Dench and Mia Wasikowska

The film itself was excellent – really enjoyable despite many ups and downs and circumstances that seemed to change within seconds! Directed by Cary Fukunaga and adapted as a screenplay by Moira Buffini from the Charlotte Brontë novel the running time of 120 minutes was a feast for the eyes, the ears and the heart. Mia Wasikowska – known predominantly for her starring role of Alice in Tim Burton’s animated version of the classic Lewis Carrol novel in 2010 – plays Jane to Michael Fassbender’s Rochester, and both are supported plot-wise by Judi Dench’s Mrs Fairfax – a kindly, ageing housekeeper who gives companionship to the lonely Jane.

When Bertha – the mad, confined-to-the-attic wife of Rochester – first appeared, my instant reaction was that she was being played by Helene Bonham-Carter, in possibly her most wild role yet, and this is the woman who has played the Queen of Hearts (as in “OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!”) and a Death Eater. Indeed. Alas, it was not to be as the casting director had evidently been searching for a HBC lookalike and found her in the form of Italian actress Valentina Cervi. The costumes were superb and the attention to detail of lace-collars which appeared to have been painstakingly constructed was  so very creditable.

Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender

Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender

If you get a chance, go and see it. It’s quite long (though in a good way) and there comes a point when you think they’re going to wrap it all up but in reality there’s still twenty minutes to go(!) but the landscapes, the costumes, the cast and the incredible script really are something to sit back, relax and enjoy. For another blogger’s perspective do have a read of Kate’s post about her perception of the film. On a tedious link (that being period drama!) has anybody been watching Downton Abbey? The new series is as lavish as I hoped it would be, despite WW1 being in full swing, and the only downside is the ridiculous amount of advertising breaks and their length which is what can be expected of channels such as ITV. Downton is one of the few non-BBC programmes I watch and I yearn for the show to be a BBC-made programme so as to allow me uninterrupted viewing of what is arguably one of the best programmes of our time!

Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre

Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska

Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska

Great British Drama: Downton Abbey

The Crawley Sisters

The Maids of Downton

Apologies if the post title came across just a little too BBCish for your liking, but those three words are true to form if you cast a surreptitious eye over the television schedule for the coming months. Recently on the blog I’ve begun musing on other aspects of life apart from fashion, so forgive me if this post isn’t to your taste, but I really do appreciate decent television, especially if it involves fine acting and mouth-watering costumes. In my humble opinion, the BBC really do always come out on top drama-wise; maybe they just have the nack of finding the right script-writers and casting directors, or maybe I just favour their channels more due to the (thankful) lack of advertising breaks. However, there is one non-BBC programme I have fallen for so let’s kick of my first ‘Great British Drama’ post with that…

ITV’s Downton Abbey was always going to be a hit, a fact I already knew when I wrote my costume study of the first series post last October. Not many 7-episode period dramas can claim a (reportedly) six million pound budget and an exceptional cast and since its début last Autumn it has been labelled as “Gosford Park the second time around, only better”. The cast list certainly speaks for itself with Maggie Smith,  Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Jim Carter, Brendan Coyle,  Michelle Dockery, Joanne Frogatt and Dan Stevens to name but a few.

Even if you didn’t watch the first series that is no reason not to jump on the bandwagon now, especially once you’ve read my very brief synopsis: aristocratic family, The Crawleys – no it doesn’t sound exceptionally elite but we’ll live and let live –  reside in a huge stately home, Downton Abbey, and are painfully out-staffed by their array of maids, footmen, valets, butler and housekeeper. One of the main themes of the first series is the attempts to marry off eldest Crawley daughter, Lady Mary, to ensure that Downton will have an heir.

But that isn’t it, oh no. The tale of life upstairs and downstairs are weaved together making the show as much about the staff as their employers. Maggie Smith provides many entertaining on-screen moments – usually when she is baffled by a ‘modern’ concept. The moment when she demanded to be told, “The weekend?  What is a weekend?” was priceless. If you need even more persuading read seven reasons why series two of  Downton Abbey will be even better than series one – I implore you not to laugh!  The new eight-part series begins on on Sunday September 18th at 9pm on ITV1.

Coming soon, press office information about these series (previous posts about them in brackets)…

Upstairs Downstairs, Sherlock and The Hour!

Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery

Jessica Brown-Findlay as Lady Sybil

Highclere - The Set of Downton Abbey

Bowing Out Gracefully – August Inspiration

This Was My Summer

This Was My Summer

Well it appears that this is it. Tomorrow we wave goodbye to August and with it the last remnants of the Summer. Without wanting to launch into a lengthy post about the transition from Summer to Autumn again (but if for some reason you are inclined towards that sort of blogging take a look at my last post) I simply want to talk about the things that for me, have made Summer, Summer…

First and foremost I have enjoyed the sun. No, we haven’t had much, but what we have had I’ve walked in, swum in and ultimately, revelled in. Summer wouldn’t be Summer without sun – something which Rosalind touched on saying that the element of the Summer she would miss most was reading outside in the sun. Summer is the time of the year when I myself read the most – a combination of longer holiday time and feeling relaxed and in the mood to sit and read and read until I’ve had my fill. When you’ve really got into a book, time is irrelevant – that’s why Summer holidays are the best time for them! But it’s not just books – being able to read the paper over a leisurely breakfast or lounge on the sofa flicking through the September editions of magazines is yet another, thoroughly enjoyable and leisurely pursuit.

So far I’ve finished How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran (but I’m sure you’ll be hearing my opinion of that in a future post) and With Your Crooked Heart by Helen Dunmore. I’m currently wading into the first chapters of Roger Deakin’s Waterlog and am already finding it highly enjoyable – both his excellent descriptions and manner of storytelling are extremely compelling and next in line is Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie. Another book I’m looking forward to settling down with is supermodel Alek Wek’s autobiography. Having read interviews with her in which she described her incredible journey from her native Sudan to the UK where she has become an international supermodel and one of the most recognisable faces in fashion. I found the book whilst perusing in the sale section of my local independent bookshop for just £1.99. A bargain if I ever saw one! I’ll be sure to let you know my thoughts once I’ve finished it.

How To Be A Woman

Continuing the cultural theme I’ve seen no less than two amateur dramatic productions whilst on holiday and have thoroughly enjoyed them both. There’s nothing like the excitement of watching enthusiastic performers burst into an infectious song as the lights go down and the sheer amount of time and energy that go into such performances is unbelievable. In my opinion live theatre can never be overrated – be it in the West End or a Church hall. I had the pleasure of attending one such production last night and even now I’m still singing the repeated two lines of the title song! As regards to events happening further afield I’ve been keeping up with all the goings on at the Edinburgh Literary Festival (follow them here on Twitter and try taking part in their daily #UnboundEd challenge) and have promised myself that one day I will be there – definitely as a paying spectator but one can dream of frequenting it as an author/writer!

The BBC have produced some excellent television over the past month or two including The Hour (lengthier post about that here) and Page Eight. I was delighted to read (in The Guardian I think) that The Hour has been recommissioned for a second six-part series next year in which Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai and Dominic West will all reappear. You can read all about it yourselves on the BBC Press Office site .

Freddie and Bel - The Hour

In other news I got to have a play with a Canon 500d the other day and was instantly hooked. I’m really hoping to acquire a DSLR in the near future so if anyone has any suggestions I’d be really grateful if you could leave a comment. I marked the end of Summer with the purchase of a knitted aran cardigan from an independent woollen jumper shop. It’s made from plum coloured aran wool with lots of cable knit pattern and I absolutely cannot wait to wear it. Oh and in case anyone was wondering, I checked with the shop-seller where the garments were all made and she told me that they are all sent from the factory in Leicester where they are made, a fact which I later double checked on the website. New, unworn, ethically made, guilt free clothes. Why can’t they all be like that?

The Hour Is Upon Us

Bel in Blue

Romola Garai As Bel Rowley

In the words of William Shakespeare:

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

This line from Macbeth, or The Scottish Play to any actors out there, may seem sorrowful and somewhat pessimistic, but there is an element of truth in hidden within it – that in the grand scale of human existence a single life represents an actor upon a stage, who in his hour in the limelight is known and applauded by his contemporaries, but is soon forgotten once he has departed from view. The old adage, “Out of sight, out of mind” appears to ring true, but there is also a moral in there, or more than one depending on how you look at it. The message about making the most of your life is the more obvious of the two, which, for me, was reinforced on stumbling across this quote from Charles Darwin: “A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life”. Reading it I felt immediately humbled and instantly regretted every moment I had ever wasted because I would never be able to reclaim it.

Hector, Bel and Freddie

Hector (West), Freddie (Whishaw) and Bel (Garai)

The second, however, can be interpreted as Shakespeare’s way of reminding us that if we want to be remembered we should live our lives in a manner that enables us to make a difference – however big or small. That could mean anything from painstakingly researching and discovering a drug that cures a serious disease to campaigning for women’s rights in countries which have oppressive regimes. We shouldn’t sit back and relax and let everyone else get on with it whilst we watch and comment on their progress – we should be a part of it. Don’t think I’m preaching – I’m not suggesting that everyone resigns from their jobs and jumps straight on a plane to East Africa to help aid workers (although that would be an extremely admirable thing to do) – because it isn’t or everyone and I accept that.

It doesn’t mean that you can’t help someone, somewhere though. Even just donating unwanted household items to a good cause or buying Christmas cards whereby all of the proceeds go to charity can improve someone’s quality of life. If anyone ever asks me what I think the meaning of life is I say this: “to make a difference”. World affairs are in a very bad state indeed at the minute – from the violence in Libya to the East African famine and the terrible Norwegian shootings and bombing. The human race needs to pull together – we all need each other to get through this.

The Shakespeare quote seemed a perfect way for me to describe the way I don’t want the fortunes of the current BBC Drama series ‘The Hour’  to pan out. It may seem rather dramatic for me to have to quote Shakespeare to make known that I don’t want ‘The Hour’ to be a one series wonder, but considering the state of television at the moment and how momentous an occasion it is when a well thought out series with a quick, witty script and a strong cast comes along (not to mention highly commendable costuming skills), I think I’m allowed to go a bit over the top.

Romola Garai as Bel Rowley

Romola Garai as Bel Rowley

Although I may seem to be stating the obvious by saying it, the series feels really very British. From the superbly convincing backdrop of the BBC Lime Grove studios to the witty exchanges between the characters and the 1950s silhouette of London being the centre of everything – the theatre, engagement parties, government rulings, mysterious murders – you name it, it was happening in London in the fifties.

Having a cast who can merge together to form something both appealing and believable whilst maintaining the strength of the characters they are playing is a huge part of succesful drama. Romola Garai and Ben Whishaw demonstrate this to perfection with their portrayals of producer Bel Rowley and reporter Freddie Lyon – best friends, confidantes and soulmates. Neither of them could continue without the other, a fact which, deep down, they both know. Nevertheless, Bel’s attraction to ‘The Hour’ frontman Hector Madden (played superbly  by Dominic West) – a Cambridge graduate from a distinguished family with just the right amount of charm – leaves Freddie confused at what she sees in him and sad that she does not feel the same way about him as he does about her. Their relationship has a certain ambiguity which leaves the viewer thinking “Will they, won’t they?” at the end of each episode and willing them to address the unclear-ness of it.

'The Hour' Team

'The Hour' Team

Aside from inter-character relations the scenery, props and dialogue can be lingered over with both a forlorn feeling that back then the world seemed so much more exciting, but also a wave of gladness that in 2011 a woman can become a television producer without having to be told by a government official that her “maternal instincts” mean she’s “wasted in news” and that on trying to decode a crossword we would be able to google “brightstone”. For me, the costumes were an instant lure to show and I haven’t at all been disappointed – you only need to look at the images of the cast I selected for this post to appreciate the attention to detail in them.

I am not a person who watches much television, always being either too busy to or non-plussed by the shoddy array of programmes that are being shown at prime viewing time, but when something like ‘The Hour’ comes along it reminds us all that the BBC do have the ability to create decent dramas that people will actually want to watch, rather than them being something to sit in front of because there’s nothing else on. Sherlock was one of these (and thankfully still is after the first series was repeated on the BBC over the past three works and a second series has been filmed to be broadcast in 2012), as was the political comedy/drama The Thick Of It. The only time of the year when we seem to have a case of there being too much watchable television around is Christmas. Surely if the BBC can do it then they can do it all year round?

'The Hour' Full Cast

'The Hour' Full Cast