"When I'm...."

That Day It was my Dad's sixty-fourth birthday today and we heralded him with the inevitable Beatles song. I know that everyone says they can't believe how old their parents are, but really my Dad looks like he's in his early fifties and everyone expresses amazement when he actually tells them his years. I do think it's in the genes though because I apparently look like I'm mid-late twenties when (old good lord) I'll be thirty-two at the end of October. I'll actually be able to say I'm half his age. Time to update the wishlist ...

You! Wonka!

Film Although Big Fish offered some redemption after execrable Planet of the Apes remake, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is another nail in the coffin of director Tim Burton's reputation. Although it opens intriguingly and with some neat commentary on how the media descends on such competitions as the golden ticket, once Johnny Depp's misfiring Willie Wonka has appeared and the underdeveloped titular factory, the mystery and magic dissipate into a morass of computer generated effects and poor storytelling. After an opening that quite rightly focuses on Charlie and his attempts to find a golden ticket, the rest of the film oddly focuses on Wonka's broken relationship with his father and no matter how genial Christopher Lee's cameo, it's very hard to care since Willie is such an unloveable, cynically sappy construct. With only the odd neat idea which I'll not give away lest all of the enjoyment is sapped out the film, by the end you'll be wondering what the point of the whole thing was and who it's aimed at, because kids - this thing will rot your teeth. Go read the book instead.

Will you...

Elsewhere My review of Daisy Goodwin's new series Reader, I Married Him is up at Off The Telly.

Take that, old media!

Law "Google responding to Belgian newspaper's complaints about being included in Google News and the Google cache, as well as a court ruling that they remove those newspapers from their services, decided to show them who's boss and banned the newspapers outright from Google Belgium's search results." -- Inside Google

It used to be don't f**k with the mouse. Now it's don't f**k with the search engine with the misspelled name and rainbow lettering. Oddly enough, The Guardian featured an article that also talked about old media fundamentally misunderstanding the benefits of new media, this time the Universal's case against YouTube.


Sport Although I can obviously see how last night's Panorama special could rock the institution of football to its foundations, why did I spend the second half hour fixating over the moment when the voiceover and caption indicated that the undercover man was talking to on his mobile phone in January when a London bus that passed by behind him had an advert for Snakes On A Plane which wasn't released for another six months? This must have been a reconstruction of his end of the call rather than someone filming the call itself when it really happened.

More Miles to go.

TV It had been rumoured as early as last year, but now the BBC have released information about plans for a 10 year reunion episode of Amy Jenkins’ This Life - although little has been said other than the whole original cast will be returning and some plot details:

“One of the group has become a commercial success after writing a book based on their friendship and a TV production company is keen to film the group’s reunion.”

Whilst I loved the original series, I’m not entirely thrilled by the prospect, especially since it is going to be in the form of a 90-minute film rather than a new series. Part of the attraction of the show was the slow burn – like any drama series the storylines that ebbed and flowed from week to week, the sexual tension between Anna and Miles; the lack of such with Milly and Egg; and Warren (later Ferdy) stuck in the middle. Although there is something seductive in finding out what happened after the glorious finale, I can’t help but feel that whatever Jenkins has in mind can only be less thrilling that what we of a certain age all have in our collective imagination.

Over the short form, and with a reunion plotline it’ll have to work wonders not to spend much of its duration explaining how they were broken assunder. Films that have previously used this formula such as Peter’s Friends, The Big Chill and Return of the Secaucus 7 have very clearly demonstrated that this is just one of a number of reunions and that they’ve stayed in touch. This seems like the best policy here, although it’s a shame that the new episode won’t simply supply a slice of the character’s lives now rather than creating a “special event” drawing them back together.


Elsewhere I've been catching up on my Shakespeare collection lately which generally means lots of overaught acting in television studios with world famous film actors when they were still and only working the theatre. Is that really Ben Kingsley pointing manically at Patrick Stewart (both with hair) in Trevor Nunn's ITV broadcast RSC production of Anthony and Cleopatra from the late-seventies? After seeing Willard White looking uncomfortable playing Othello opposite (the not yet Sir) Ian McKellan's Iago I had to watch a dead cert and was pleased to see that Zeffirell's Hamlet was surprisingly good and worth writing about on The Hamlet Weblog.

06 Mel Gibson

Hamlet played by Mel Gibson.
Directed by Franco Zeffirelli.

A surprisingly enjoyable rendition of the play, Franco Zeffirelli's film is gloriously free and easy with the text. It opens with the funeral of Hamlet Snr in which the young Dane is shown leaning over his father's coffin dropping in some of Claudius's pronouncement from Act I Scene II, dropping the first scene and appearance of the ghost entirely. Within the context of this version of the story, that works perfectly well, since in this adaptation anything extraneous to the central revenge story has been dropped, Hamlet's story being paramount (so as usual Fortinbras and the political intrigue are omitted too - although mention is made of the weakness of the state since Claudius snatched power and then spends much of his time having parties). Throughout the film, scenes and moments that are reported in the text are played out on screen, although no new words are given to the actors and characters, who without Shakespeare's wit are left to emote silently.

Film writer Kirsten Thompson believes that rather than having three acts, a typical screenplay and so film has four sections or chunks, each becoming apparent at a turning point. Once you're aware of the formulae, it can become maddening because in the average two hour film they become apparent with thudding regularity and you'll often spend some of your time (unless it's a really great film) watching for their appearance. This version of Hamlet adheres to this structure perfectly, proving that the filmmakers wanted to create a motion picture, rather than simply a filmed theatre production.

Essentially the first turning point occurs after the set up portion of a film when the lead character makes a discovery. This occurs just over half an hour into this Hamlet when the ghost advises his living son of his brother's murderous tendencies - this creates the problem for Hamlet. The next turning point is led by the acknowledgement of whatever the problem is. In this case, during The Mousetrap, Hamlet gets the proof he needed that the Ghost was telling the truth and that Claudius is guilty. The final turning point is the moment which can only inevitably lead to the climax. In this film it is tricky because that section is filled with incident, but I think it's supposed to be when Laertes challenges Hamlet to the duel therefore giving Hamlet the inevitable possibility of bringing the revenge.

Elsinore is a medieval castle, almost a ruin as though the decaying family at the heart of the story has writ large and broken through the walls. It's the image I'm sure most people have when they think of the landscape of the play although sometimes the ramparts don't quite match - this might be because filming took place at four castles (two in England, two in Scotland) as well as Shepperton Studios, but also introduces an element of the any place, of a broken history tumbling in on itself. The only bumpy moment is just after the ghost disappears after the revelation scene. For probably the only time during the film, Gibson is obviously standing on a set, a prop man possibly standing nearby with hose at the ready to keep the polystyrene stones wet.

Considering this was filmed and released at around the time of Air America and Lethal Weapon 3, when he was generally considered to be a 'star' rather than an 'actor' Mel Gibson's performance is beautifully layered and inspiring. On this occasion, Hamlet is faining madness, all the while observing Claudius, Polonius and his mother from doorways and walkways devining their intentions, always a step ahead. 'To Be Or Not To Be' is related within a mausoleum and is one of the few quiet moments when the man is allowed to be himself and contemplate his actions and the plots that are developing around him. These are not given to camera, and the only moment when the forth wall is broken, which is arguably the most effective in the whole film is after the pact that the ghosts existence will be kept secret - Gibson passively stares at the audience, bring them briefly into his world. Particularly good is the chemistry with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and this is one of the few occasions when they seem equals and you can actually believe that they are friends, old school friends, making their betrayal and Hamlet resulting reaction all the more chilling (this is obviously helped by having Michael Maloney playing Rosencrantz - he'll get a promotion in the Branagh version to Laertes).

The utter focus on Hamlet means that the other characters become supporting players to a much greater extent and unfortunately with a few exceptions, none of them really has a chance to make too much of a mark. Alan Bates is particularly blank, much of his menace reported rather than evident. I've never been a fan of Helena Bonham-Carter and although her decent into madness is all perfectly manic, her tender Ophelia simply didn't work for me - although even in the full text the character is somewhat underwritten, the really great young actresses can make it their own with a smile, a wink and some warmth in that scene she shares with Laertes. And although her already fraught appearance so early in the story was possibly a directorial decision, it fundamentally means that you're not convinced that Hamlet could love her, especially not one as regal as this. On the plus side, Ian Holm makes a predictably good Polonius and Glen Close passes the Gertrude test brilliantly. On this occasion, Hamlet really does convince that he is not mad after the death of Polonius making his and her death all the more tragic at the climax simply because she has not been able to watch her husband closely enough.

The usual oddities abound for cameo spotters. Nathaniel Parker, tv's Inspector Lynley plays Laertes looking surprisingly like Leonard Nimoy. Amongst the players and unheralded is Pete Postlethwaite and if you've ever wondered what Christopher Fairbank who played Moxey in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet would look like in a dress and a red wig, here's your chance. Reynaldo is played by one of the ultimate character faces Vernon Dobtcheff whose been everything from a scientist in Doctor Who (The War Games) to a butler during Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. A veteran too of many a Eurosoup production, I last remember seeing him ironically as the manager of the Shakespeare & Co bookshop in Richard Linklater's Paris based romance Before Sunset.

Roundly ignored

TV "To be honest with you, to begin with, never had a show been so roundly ignored. When it was first broadcast, there was no advertising - but that was actually part of the brilliance of it. Nowadays, Channel 4 have these huge billboards in Vauxhall. I can see why they do it, but I don?t know about you, sometimes that makes me much more resistant to watching a show. ?Don?t fucking tell me what to watch. If I find it, I find it. If I don?t, I don?t?." -- Jack Davenport on the return of This Life as quoted by Graham at the Off The Telly blog.


Journalism The Enquirer editor, Robert Waterhouse, has posted a statement:
"Very sadly, after just 21 issues, we have been forced to suspend publication of The Enquirer because the funding package we were negotiating with regional venture capital funds fell apart at the last moment. The company is now in administration. There may yet be a rescue bid. Let?s just hope something transpires."
Fingers crossed.

No More Enquirer

Journalism According to Yankunian there will not be a final edition of The North West Enquirer out tomorrow which is a shame. One of their journalists emailed after reading my comments and said:
"It's deeply depressing as a journalist. Just for once, there was a chance to write the kind of copy you actually wanted to, knowing that there was an appreciative (and growing) readership who loved the paper and wanted it to succeed as much as you did. Unlike most newspapers, there were no favourites being bumped up into positions of authority, no hierarchy (the MD sat next to the subs), no hidden agendas and a real feeling of excitement, especially as most of us had given up secure jobs to try to help Bob and Nick's vision become a reality. There's still a place for such a paper, however I fear if one of the big regional publishers were to take it on it would become all of the things that we all detest about their titles. One (excellent) profile writer told me yesterday that it was the first time in years that he'd felt a thrill at working in journalism. Yes, there are many lessons to be learned, but it's a very black day for us all."
It certainly is and it's funny how even after just five months it'll leave such a void.


Journalism Just read that The North West Enquirer is folding and going out of print and I'm really depressed about it. This was a paper that tried to bring something new and vibrant to current affairs in the region, providing a much wider expansive view on issues that effected all of us. Its arts and political coverage were particularly strong, always intelligent but accessible often introducing stories that often didn't receive the recongition it deserved elsewhere. No word yet on whether there will be a farewell issue this week or if last Thursdays was the swansong. Such a shame [via].

Reader, I Married Him.

TV Another Off The Telly uplift.

Reader, I Married Him

Tuesday, September 19, 2006 by Stuart Ian Burns

One of the criticisms of the documentaries that accompanied the BBC’s Big Read event was that, in places, the autobiography of the celebrity advocates overshadowed the books they were championing. Reader, I Married Him takes a similar approach to an entire literary genre, the romantic novel, but finds a much clearer middle ground as Daisy Goodwin attempts to convince the viewer the books she loves are worthy of attention without resorting to reconstructions of desolate nights in student bedsits or dressing up in bodices.

Goodwin is a beguiling presenter; although previously seen on screen most prominently fronting the Essential Poems series (linking films of celebrities acting out verses), she’s perhaps best known as a poet and in the television industry as a producer or editor of the British version of The Apprentice and Channel 4 property shows such as Grand Designs and Property Ladder. Like Sarah Beeny, she has the rare ability of keeping the audience’s attention without resorting to shouting – her low, slightly sensuous delivery perfectly gauged considering the subject matter.

Her interview style is infectious, reacting to answers in a pleasingly natural way, the best moments occurring when Goodwin genuinely appears to be learning something new about her subject at the same time as her audience (bringing to mind Michael Wood or Mark Moskowitz, director of the seminal film about discovering books, The Stone Reader). Her giggling during Jilly Cooper’s revelations regarding the difficulty in writing sex scenes as she knocks on in age being one treasure. She also seems to have a genuinely open mind – whilst visiting the Mills & Boon offices there is real surprise in discovering the steamy content of the books, who the readership is and how much they’re prepared to pay for their fix. Attending a writing class, she tries her hand at penning a “typical” passage from one of these novels and is self deprecating about the results, the flirty young woman meeting the shepherd.

As Joanna Trollope, Erica James and Celia Breyfield offered their opinions, some of which were oddly defensive (“I don’t write romantic novels,” said Breyfield in this documentary about romantic fiction), none really captured the essence of why the genre is so popular past the expected “it’s a bit of escapism”. The public squirming at a lurid sex scene during an author’s reading was hardly balanced out by a critic explaining that Catherine Cookson was pleased she’d treated one of her books as a serious piece of literature.

More refreshingly, the documentary attempted to treat all of this fiction on a level playing field, giving as much attention to those Mills & Boon as the classics. Two fans were seen enthusing over boxes full of books, salivating and giggling as they read the cover blurbs and the variety of different stories and product lines were revealed. This was perhaps the most interesting revelation to anyone who assumed these things were all the same.

If there was a problem, it was that even though the documentary had been billed as a passionate argument for romantic fiction, and although there was certainly much conviction, it lacked a through narrative and couldn’t quite decide the audience it was aiming for – someone in the apparent 40% of people who are already in the readership, or doubters who see a pink cover on the shelves and buy the latest football biography instead. By attempting to find a middle ground the programme lacked focus. Whilst the former will no doubt be excited to be able to put faces to the names of the authors whose novels are stacked high on supermarket shelves, the latter (of which I count myself) were left to wonder why such work had garnered a large readership in the first place.

The primary omission was in regard to the content of the books, the nuts and bolts of what to expect from the genre. Whilst the second and third programmes will concentrate on the romantic hero and heroine, this opening edition was long on experts and readers expressing the emotions and feelings they glean from the novels, but short on mentions of particular characters or situations. This might have been an editorial decision because of the sheer size of the genre, but some pointers on what to expect might have been useful. There were fragments; in one section there was some talk of how romance has crossed over into crime fiction or is smuggled into war novels.

But for something that was supposed to be challenging the received expectation of what the plotlines in these novels are about, the non-40% will still be left with the girl meets boy, complication, boy falls for girl model, when the few tantalising tidbits that did creep through suggested stories that are far more complicated than that.

Precious little could be found on the history of the genre. Although the popularity of Mills & Boon amongst war widows during the 1920s was expanded upon, the roots of the stories and key early texts could only be glimpsed on book jackets in passing. The title of the series wasn’t even explained – a web search reveals it’s from Jane Eyre, something fans might be aware of but confused this layman. Hopefully this will be extrapolated upon in future episodes.

There were also disappointing lurches into conventionality and cliché – the clip from Little Britain to help illustrate who Barbara Cartland was when a perfectly good and revealing interview between the author and Melvyn Bragg seemed to tell that story perfectly well. The first reading crept up from Bridget Jones’s Diary, which was inevitably followed up with a clip from the film; and oh look lots of extracts too from the Andrew Davies television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (oddly crosscut with comments from Deborah Moggach, credited as screenwriter for the recent Working Title film version).

Another niggle was an apparent two tier approach to contributions. Whilst writers and journalists, actors and screenwriters or “the names” appeared in full screen, members of the public, the life models and students were given a tinier amount of screen space with a giant black border around them as though their opinion was less important.

One of the more bizarre passages involved Goodwin taking a science test to see if romantic fiction could actively calm her during two stressful days at work. On each day she took a saliva sample before and after an hour of either work or sitting back and reading a novel and these were later taken to a university laboratory to see if on the second day her stress hormones had decreased. Without warning, the viewers suddenly found themselves in an episode of Horizon and Goodwin’s voiceover descended into a stream of technobabble during one of the only moments when she actually seemed slightly unsure of what she was saying – and inevitably neither did we.

Unsurprisingly, the test proved that yes, indeed reading romantic fiction during that hour did show that her stress was reduced – although the likelihood of this was increased because she revealed that she’d actually fallen asleep! Problematically however, the science wasn’t questioned and although this was no doubt supposed to be a bit of fun, it had the effect of derailing the proceedings, and this viewer wondered if the same result might have happened if Goodwin had been reading any kind of fiction, simply because she wasn’t y’know, working and in fact having a break. The contribution from a psychoanalyst didn’t really seem to give too many answers either.

The programme was far more comfortable and perhaps most engaging in the section dealing with the marketing of the books. Time was spent at a jacket meeting at Harper Collins as the experts discussed, for the benefit of the cameras, the relative merits of cover ideas and how they change depending upon the author and the market. This was juxtaposed with a reader assessing covers in a branch of Waterstones, pulling books off the shelves and explaining how certain visuals such as the colour red and a beach will attract her rather than a colour photo of the author grinning out from the dust jacket.

We learned that Tesco say that on average a sleeve must attract a potential reader in three to five seconds which demonstrates why author names and titles in big lettering and simple, symbolic pictures are currently in vogue. Headline Books are rebranding the (out of copyright) works of Jane Austen with such covers and accompanying blurbs that highlight the romance (two Asda checkout workers were shown reading these and trying to guess the author), something that Moggach described as vulgar but as the Headline spokesman explained most current editions look like academic textbooks (well apart from the film tie-ins) and if they bring the classics to a new audience that can only be a good thing – something Goodwin appeared to agree with.

Despite the niggles, this was still a very appealing documentary even if by the closing moments the non-40% might not be entirely convinced to drop their “books about guns” and try something with a female point-of-view. One of the inherent problems with this type of programme is that the thesis is stretched out over a number of weeks and episodes and there needs to be enough to hook the viewer in until the end. But admittedly, on this occasion with Goodwin as a guide most of the work was done. Perhaps, however, it would have been better to concentrate more on enthusing about the key titles, particularly the modern classics of the genre, rather than shoehorning in so many gimmicks.


Obituary "It?s been one of the great pleasures of my life to meet many of my writer heroes, people such as Terrance Dicks and Murray Smith, and in some cases work with them. It?s with great regret that I note that, on August 25th., one of my absolute favourites passed away. Joseph Stefano was eighty four, and died of a heart attack in Thousand Oaks, California. It was a weird sort of shock to realise that, had I known where he lived, in the last week of his life I was in a position to visit him. The various obituaries mostly focus on his script for Psycho, but good as that is, I think his masterpieces lie elsewhere." -- Paul Cornell on one of his writing heroes.


Communications Think you're paying too much for your mobile? Look at this ...

Not the ultimate

About I've been puzzling for a week for a witty repost to the Wired article by attempting to use their methodology for this thing. Here's the best I could come up with ...
feeling listless: Um ... maybe ...
I'm sure you could think of something better.

Red Hot Hope

Film I've just returned from The Hope Street Festival, a day long event featuring farmers market, exhibitions, crafts and music. One of the delights was the chance to see a selection of MGM and Warner Bros. cartoons on the big screen at the Philharmonic Hall. The auditorium was filled with families and kids pleasingly captivated by these films, some of which were made over sixty-years ago. Even with babies crying it was still fun to have just a little taste of what it must have been like all those years ago seeing them as part of the Friday night cinema programme in the big city screens of America.

For the interested, here are some of the things that were shown..

Magical Maestro
Red Hot Riding Hood
A Corny Concerto
Mouse in Manhatten
Draftee Daffy
The Cat Concerto

I didn't actually look at the list before going in so that I could be surprised by what I saw. Most of the prints were bashed to pieces, which scratches and dirt all over the place, but this made the hair gag in Magical Maestro even funnier because when the singer finally pulls it from the frame it had looked like a real fault.

I knew there was going to be trouble when Red Hot Riding Hood flashed up on screen. I'd never seen this but knew its reputation. The short begins as a simple retelling of the fairy story, until the three main characters, Red, the Wolf and Grandma go on strike until they get a say in this plot:
"The annoyed narrator cedes to their demands and starts the story again in a dramatically different arrangement. Now, the story is set in a contemporary urban setting where Red is a sexy adult nightclub entertainer, the Wolf is a debonair skirt chaser, and Grandma is an oversexed man-chaser."
Where there had been laughs (even during the marginally racist Magical Maestro), whole entire families sat stony faced and some, including the group in front of me, got up and walked out. It's a gentle reminder that when originally produced, these shorts were not made y'know for kids. The story reaches a crescendo when:
"It features the wolf getting away from Grandma and returning to the nightclub. There, disgusted with women because of the experience he had with Grandma, he proclaims that he will kill himself before he looks at another babe. When Red comes back out, the wolf, true to his word, blows his brains out. His ghost then gets back up and continues with the same catcalling as he did when he first saw Red."
But most of these films were fairly subversive choices; in Draftee Daffy the duck does everything he can to avoid getting a draft letter for World War II until he actually blows himself up, finds himself in the pit of hell and is still handed the letter.

Thrilling subversive stuff for lunch time on a Sunday at the Phil...