Elsewhere I've reviewed tonight's Doctor Who.

something happened

something happened, originally uploaded by jovike.

Pretty much sums up my experience of the England match. I suspect the Twitter version of this was more entertaining than sitting through the real thing. I'm going to enjoy not watching the World Cup [via].

Extract from Jennifer's Body (2009)

A generally disappointing and derivative teen horror film, especially considering it's from the keyboard of Diablo Cody who always struck me as far less generic in her ability to gather pop culture references, Jennifer's Body does nevertheless have one good Hamlet related joke, delivered with excellent timing by Megan Fox (surprisingly) as the titular, not exactly bright, main character. She is addressing a possible date:
Hi, Colin.
Can I borrow
your English homework again?
I forgot to read Hamlet.
Is he gonna fuck his mom?

(clearly unimpressed)
No I don't ... I don't think so.

Letters: When Hamlet Met Juliet

Keith has emailed with news of what sounds like a rather fantastic theatrical experiment:

I've been reading your Hamlet weblog again recently - I guess your review of Tennant's Hamlet pricked my interest in the blog again and I've been enjoying all the posts since then.

It occurs to me that I should draw your attention to the existence of a play called "Romeo & Hamlet", which I saw at GayFest NYC when I was in New York recently. Now the premise (and the fact it was presented at a LGBT Festival) sounds like some kind of literary fan fiction and, in a sense, it is - but it's all really well executed. It takes the text from Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet and mashes them together, basically - to form a play where Juliet flirts with Hamlet and his is distracted by the entrance of Romeo.

My friend Rob has review it here: http://www.robwillreview.com/?p=4548

The play does a really great job of putting certain lines from each play in a thoroughly new context. For instance, Hamlet's "what a piece of work is man" speech is partly in reaction to Romeo's "But soft, what light through yonder window breaks" moment.

It's difficult to know how far high concept queered texts will travel, though I think the play is smart and funny enough to have a life outside of New York - it was actually written by two Canadians, so it's already travelled a little. I thought you should know it exists, just in case you hear the name floating around - because I think it would make a great blog post, if you were ever able to see it. Trust me, it's much smarter than its high concept conceit makes it sound - I honestly thought the show would just be making fun and bare no resemblance to the Bard at all, but the show actually works not because it's a mash up but because it respects it sources so well.

Keep up the good work at The Hamlet Weblog!

Judging by that linked review it really does sound like an intelligent treatment -- the Ophelia/Tybalt mash-up especially. Thanks Keith!

When Romeo Met Juliet met the red button. Updated. Breaking News!

Shakespeare Breaking News! The full production for When Romeo Met Juliet has been moved to Saturday night, 12/6/2010 at 9:40 on the red button after the final episode . Yes, because of the football. 'Twas forever thus. The last five minutes of one clashes with the first five minutes of the other, but hopefully that'll just be countdown material.
TV I've lost track of the various fan clubs, but gentlemen and ladies ...

Piper Perabo and Anne Dudek in an Alias knock-off? When's the dvd out? [via]

definite article

Elsewhere I've reviewed a seventeen year old Hamlet instruction video.

I can appreciate that this blog has been neglected this past few days. I've been on holiday this week and with the flat to myself as well, I've taken my annual "hermitage" week where I simply spend some time alone generally doing just one thing. In previous years I've watched lots of Shakespeare, or Hitchcock and this week, it's been Hamlet, seven productions in fact, five audio, one blu-ray and the aforementioned instructional video.

I'll be posting reviews of it all to The Hamlet Weblog over the coming days. I will admit to a certain level of fatigue. With this kind of repetition, hearing the same three or four hours worth of text read over and over in roughly the same manner its impossible not to and it's certainly underscored for me what it must be like to work in a theatre listening to an extended season. At one point I was shouting with delight when a random musical instrument was deployed.

Yet, by reading some criticism in conjunction, I do feel like I've gained a better understanding of the play. As you'll read over there in the coming days, I can now see that for all the arcane language, Shakespeare was writing in a style that often seems four hundred years ahead of its time; the play within a play and how it fits into the structure of the story and Hamlet's character is positively post-modern and that the prince's so-called indecision really does have method in it.

Anyway, to offer a rare interjection of process, I'll still be posting reviews over there into next week with the usual links here. I know that it would be just as easy for me to cross post the whole thing here, but I quite like the idea of having a personal blogging network, or at the very least, these pockets of myself strewn across the web with this blog as the hub. Plus I'd hate for The Hamlet Weblog to lose its definite article after all these years.

25 Brad Yates

Hamlet played by Brad Yates.
Directed by Ned Rogers.

I’ve talked before about the methods that have been used to try and introduce Hamlet to audiences which might not necessarily have been in contact with the play or Shakespeare or even theatre before.  From my own experience, my preference would be to offer up a very good production – the RSC with Tennant, the Branagh film and throw the viewer right in.  But I appreciate that for some, three or four hours of blank verse can be daunting prospect so they want begin with something shorter and sharper to take the edge off.

That’s what Telemedia Productions had in mind in 1993 when they produced a small selection of tutorial videos covering four tragedies – Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet.  As they suggest on the inlay to the video “Everyone should be familiar with the timeless works of Williams Shakespeare.  Now with Understanding Shakespeare, everyone can!”  It’s a worthy mission, the only problem is that they pretty much fail.  In almost every respect.

The video is initially introduced by William Shakespeare, or a genial American accented lookalike:

Mister Shakespeare offers some random biographical particulars about himself (including a very detailed Curriculum Vitae for his father) then a short synopsis of Hamlet using stills from the ensuing dramatic reconstruction.  This is then followed by a shortened version of Act 1, Scene 1, the Ghost’s first visit after which Horatio, still in character steps forward and it become apparent that we’re about to watch a truncated version of the play with him filling in the gaps in the plot:

Then just as events are gaining some momentum, we cut to what looks like the old Play School studio and three slightly nervy Shakespearean scholars who with the aid of presenter/director/writer Ned Rogers (that's Ned Rogers) will it seems be offering commentary on the action rather like the pundits on Match of the Day:

If you've been counting you will have noticed that this video has the kind of redundancy seen in Submarine Command Systems, with three sets of presenters interjecting at various points to help tell the story as well as the video'd theatre and as events proceed the demarcation between their various departments slowly breaks down, with Horatio sometimes offering commentary and the experts providing a synopsis, to such a degree that it's a surprise that ACAS aren't called in.

The problem is that the experts rarely have a chance to say anything interesting.  A typical example is the agreement that Polonius advice to his son and daughter – which we’re not shown -- is a “throwaway scene”, though one admits that it is at least “setting him up as a duplicitous SOB”.  Much is made about the double revenge plot, contrasting Laertes’s approach with Hamlet’s, but Fortinbras, with his own motive for revenge is barely mentioned other than a veiled reference to “Norwegian ambassadors” very early on.

The commentary is also replete with the kinds of contradictions likely to confuse a newcomer.  Before the accidental murder of Polonius, we’re told that “Hamlet shows no remorse” yet afterwards, Horatio steps forward and says “Hamlet does regret the death he gave poor Polonius” (not forgetting that Gertrude says as much herself in the text). No mention is made to the various versions of the play other than to note that “Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I…” only appears in one of them.  They’re clearly conscious about not trying hand too much baggage to the viewer, in which case, why bring it up at all?

If I was viewer new to play, I’m also not sure what I’d make of Horatio’s interjections anyway. He's sometimes silhouetted on set when Hamlet is supposed to be alone and it's only really inferred (which is never enough) that he wouldn’t ordinarily be eavesdropping.  Every now and then, I'm sure I can detect a certain passive aggressive restlessness from amongst the expects because Horatio's stealing some of their best linking material.  They certainly don't have a proper answer when Ned asks: “In terms of the play, The Mousetrap, it does trap the mouse doesn’t it?” I’m not sure how that educates anyone.

What of the production itself?  Events don’t begin well when Hamlet Snr arrives with his voice treated via a ring modular which makes him sound like a Cyberman.  The sets are minimal, the costumes mock Elizabethan.  All very old fashioned and shot for clarity rather than finesse.  Eventually everything settles down into a greatest hits collection which, as is often the way with these abbreviations, emphasises the soliloquies and most notable incidents with each of the main characters given their most prominent scenes.

For the purposes of this mission, I'll admit this is on the edge of being counted as a complete production, but since Brad Yates is quite good in the main role and I did feel as though we’d been through an experience together, it seems fair to give him some due prominence.  Yates has something of the Kevin Kline about him especially in the eyes, but perhaps not quite the fire.  When Eva Loseth’s Ophelia talks at the close of the nunnery scene of “the things I’ve seen” we can’t quite match the horror in her eyes with the preceding action.

Loseth is clearly the best actor in the piece.  In her few scenes, Ophelia comes across as a complete person.  In the aforementioned nunnery scenes she betrays a very controlled fear which breaks only when Hamlet has left and she is gifted the whole of her soliloquy.

Her later appearance in madness is suitably heartbreaking and I couldn’t keep my eyes off her and neither can the other actors who are generally only ok, but really raise their game in these brief moments.  I had hoped she’d gone on to have long and fruitful career, but despite some guest spots in the likes of Quantum Leap and Star Trek: Deep Space 9, she was last seen as Check out girl in Lakeview Terrace (2008).

I'm conscious I've been very harsh on a eighteen year old instructional video which had the best of intentions, . but I wonder about the kids and even adults for whom this was their first and perhaps even only experience of Shakespeare, quietly fulfilling any prejudices they may have and wonder if they know what they’re missing.

But perhaps there is just the chance that they saw the humanity in Yates and especially Loseth’s faces, some of the poetry touched their imagination, and decided to seek out a longer, better production to see if some of that emotional truth was be carried over.  But as the video closes with three good-byes, from Horatio, from the experts and from "Shakespeare" himself, it's really difficult to tell.
Elsewhere I've reviewed Ronald Pickup as Hamlet. I could not find a picture of him as a younger man ...

24 Ronald Pickup

Hamlet played by Ronald Pickup.
Directed by John Tydeman.

On sale in many good and some bad charity shops and ebay a lot, this BBC Radio Collection release with Ronald Pickup in the title role is something of a mystery. It must have been broadcast on Radio’s Three or Four at some point in the 1980s – © 1988 BBC Enterprises Ltd is written on the back of the inlay – but after hunting about online I can find little else. Inside it’s revealed to be one of four contemporaneous releases along with Sir Alec Guinness as Lear, Denis Quilley as Macbeth and Paul Scofield as Othello. Either there was a season or Enterprises were consolidating material from the archive.

As is often the case with radio productions this has clear straight-shooting storytelling which adapts a full length copy of the second quarto, but what I’d like to know is if this was created directly for radio or adapted from a stage production and when. Given that the music is provided by Malcolm Clarke of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, my instinct is that it’s a radio premiere. Clarke is best known amongst some of us for his experimental scoring of Doctor Who episodes, especially the random noise of The Sea Devils. He’s not called upon to do anything special, though the pipes of Fortinbras’s army do have an electronic twang.

Pickup (presumably in consultation with the director John Tydeman) gives us a Hamlet that flip-flap-flops between controlled sanity in public and genuine madness – sparked by the news of his father’s death – in private. It's this weird (for him) geniality that cause’s Claudius to draw Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Elsinore and when they arrive, though the prince coaxes from them that there’s was not a spontaneous visit, it's not until very late in the play that he begins to treat them with much malice (just before he orders their death). He’s as pleasant as Cary Grant in North By Northwest and perhaps even moreso at the end when he knows all hope is lost.

The cast is filled out with a range of experienced stage and radio actors. Martin Jarvis’s Horatio has an unusual independence, loyal to Hamlet but leading his own life. The most disconcerting performance is from Robert Lang, the timbre of whose voice sounds almost but not exactly like Derek Jacobi. Angela Pleasance (Donald’s daughter best known at the time for playing Catherine Howard in The Six Wives of Henry VIII) is an initially extremely aristocratic Ophelia whose tip into madness is chilling, her voice skipping restlessly through the listener's ears, breaking through indiscriminate emotions by the second.

Something I did notice for the first time during the equally unsettling ghost sequence (underscored by Clarke using what sounds like an exterior space ship engine from the Troughton era) is how Hamlet Snr is under no illusions about his wife. Amongst other things he says:
"Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her.
Gertrude was already cuckolding him before his murder, in marrying his brother she’s essentially continuing the "slight" but Hamlet Snr still admonishes Hamlet against hating her and not revenge against her directly because fate will do the work for him, the (sometimes deadly in real life) thorns perhaps prophesying her poisoning.

23 Updated. 12-Rating.

You might remember I said I would contact the BBFC in relation to the 12-rating given to the blu-ray of the RSC production with David Tennant. Much to my delight they've replied:
Ordinarily, very strong language would not be permitted in a '12' rated work. However, with HAMLET, it was recognised that the well-known wordplay upon the phrase "country matters" said by Hamlet to Ophelia would be familiar to most viewers. Emphasis is often given to the first syllable of the first word (as in this case), and the conversation between Hamlet and Ophelia carries a double meaning.

HAMLET is obviously widely known and studied, and the text and numerous theatrical productions of it - as was this one - are available to all ages. Some versions of the play have been rated 'U' or 'PG'; however, it was felt the deliberate emphasis given to the first syllable in this version warranted a '12' and would not confound public expectations at this category. Our Consumer Advice also gave warning of the potential offence that some viewers may take to the wordplay.

Such comic wordplay on very strong language is not unprecedented in '12' rated works, eg THE LOVE GURU and a episode of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT.
Which is about what I surmised and absolutely understandable. Again, I say, amazing. Not just for the RSC risking it, but for the BBFC to give it this level of care and attention.

the midst of.

Journalism Ira Glass, presenter of This American Life, gives a fascinating interview about his craft to Slate. Um, ah, the following quote is out of context, but he describes how I feel much of the time:
"But there's a really fascinating instance of what you're talking about in Chuck Klosterman's new book [Eating the Dinosaur]. I feel like this is a really weird example to bring up, but he interviews me and Errol Morris about interviewing. It's a really funny chapter because I give all of these totally Pollyanna answers—I mean, things I really believe, but I'm like [here he goes into an earnest falsetto, like a very sincere Chipmunk] "I just think that people open up because they sense that somebody's really interested. It's just a natural human thing." And Errol is like "I DOUBT WHETHER WE KNOW OURSELVES, AND THE ACT OF BEING INTERVIEWED IS AN ACT OF ASSERTING A SELF WHICH WE HOPE IS TRUE." Seriously, every answer is like this. I'm like, "I just think it's really swell being interviewed!" And he's like "THERE IS NO SELF.""
I'm in the midst of listening to my fifth production of Hamlet this week (in a desperate attempt to catch up for the project) and I know I'm no further down the line in understanding the play or being able to talk intelligently about it out loud.
Elsewhere I've reviewed The Arden Shakespeare editions of F1 and Q1 at The Hamlet Weblog.

Hamlet: The Texts Of 1603 And 1623 (The Arden Shakespeare). Edited by Neil Taylor and Ann Thompson.

As part of a more inclusive approach introduced in the third series of The Arden Shakespeare is this fine publication of the first quarto (Q1) and first folio (F1) of Hamlet to accompany their more formal version which relies on the second (Q2). The folio hasn’t entirely been out of circulation, but this Q1 is a valuable addition, a rare occasion to read a carefully edited version of the actual text rather than the discussion of it. The cover acknowledges its unusual nature with a negative version of the image that appears on the 1604 text.

Though initially thought to be an early first draft, Q1 is now generally believed to be the misremembering of earlier production of the play by the actor who played Marcellus also doubling some of the other smaller roles. It’s most accurate in and around their appearances (perhaps because as was the practice then that the players would only be given the sections they were in) but elsewhere strays from the other versions considerably, generally toward the climax which is most heavily truncated.

In the play’s most famous speech becomes “To Be Or Not To Be, - ay, there’s the point” and is spoken definitively to Ofelia (as she is here) at the opening of the nunnery scene rather than as a soliloquy and appears very early in Act II. The three scenes covering Hamlet’s period abroad are replaced with a short extra covert moment between Horatio and Gertrude covering much the same ground and the text is almost half as long as Q2. Polonius and Reynaldo even find themselves given their character names from the earlier Ur-Hamlet – Corambis and Montano.

Given its adjunctive nature, with the exception of a brief discussion of the philosophical choices that underpin this edition, such textual analysis is developed in footnotes and left to the main edition. Instead, the introduction by editors Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor offers an extensive and fascinating production history of Q1 from some early eighteenth century attempts through to recent rehearsed readings at the RSC and Globe and beyond, describing the challenges involved in presenting this unfamiliar text.

How is it, my lord?

As Thompson and Taylor authoritatively demonstrate, Q1 is no longer dismissed out of hand. A Red Shift production at the turn of this century chose to emphasise these differences by showing Claudius “rehearsing” those speeches which were most jumbled emphasising those passages with the most clarity. Actors and directors are relishishing the chance to look at the play from a different perspective, turning the textual deficiencies to their advantage.

Hamlet: The Texts Of 1603 And 1623 (The Arden Shakespeare) edited by Neil Taylor and Ann Thompson is published by Methuen Drama. £12.99 paperback. ISBN: 9781904271802.

"I feel like maybe my muscles have seized up or something..."

Gossip Congratulations, Charlie and Konnie.

Elsewhere I've finally seen the RSC production of Hamlet with David Tennant. The ensuing review is as ramshackle and inauthoritative as you'd expect.

23 David Tennant


Hamlet played by David Tennant.
Directed by Gregory Doran.

When I first heard about this production, I almost exploded. Already some way into this project, the idea that the then star of my favourite franchise would be appearing in my first or second favourite Shakespeare play (yes, still osculating with Measure for Measure) was almost too heady to contemplate. Yet somehow, because of this and that, fear and finances, I missed David Tennant tramping about the Courtyard stage, and regretted it ever since. So when it was announced that the production would be filmed for the BBC, I was elated, yet still because of the usual family related responsibilities on Boxing Day and then realising that I’d like to see it first on blu-ray (it sparkles!) that I only finally sat before it yesterday afternoon. As expected, I squeed. A lot. Do not expect this to be a deep textual analysis. If you'd like to read a deep textual analysis, there's a very good one here.

I do at least have a programme for the stage production. When I visited Stratford last year, the wonderful staff at the RSC made a special arrangement to have one delivered to the venue within a couple of days for me to buy so that I didn’t have to mess about with mail order. It’s a wonderful thing; I read the booklet just before watching the blu-ray and though it obviously wasn’t a substitute for the real theatrical experience, it certainly helped to increase my anticipation if not participation. In a change from what seems like the usual format of short essays about various aspects of the play, this is has a production scrapbook (now available for download) which outlines the work of the director and the various production department such as costume and stage management.

Apparently, to help her get into character, director Gregory Doran took actress Mariah Gale to the spot in Stratford where in 1579 a girl called Katherine Hamlet died in similar circumstances to Ophelia. They found that no girl attempting to pick flowers at that river bank could leave without having been scraped and being covered cuts and bruises. Her dress would be dirty. Which is why in the production Gale looks as though she’s been through a war. Similarly we discover that even with the understudy process, the play can’t be interpreted and rehearsed twice and since one actor can’t mimic the work of another, it’s not simply the person stepping up – as Edward Bennett did when Tennant hurt himself during the West End run -- who’s flying by the seat of their pants. The rest of the company must react on the hoof to the changes being wrought.

But to the point: Tennant is extraordinary, the reviews did not overplay his achievement. It is impossible for me to watch this consummation without five years of his performance in Doctor Who jangling about my head and indeed, it’s my impression that his approach to extrapolating Hamlet’s feigned madness is to tap into his Doctorish tendencies, the gurning, the rapid diction, his entire physical presence springing and elasticising about the rest of the household, rubbing the back of his neck as he offers a long drawn out thoughtful “Weeeelll…”, his accent almost but not quite the same as the terrestrial John Smith figure the timelord became in the story Human Nature. This was photographed just weeks after he left his role as the timelord (June 2009), and its perhaps fitting given the context that the ghost of the tenth Doctors still hangs in the air.

Arguably he is even more compelling during those moments when these tendencies are in check, when the sober version of the character is to the fore. This is most clearly apparent in the opening wake as we see the weight of his father’s death across his sagging shoulders and right through to the apparition’s appearance. There follows a compellingly lucid moment, as he addresses us through the lense, his eyes piercing like a sword, when we watch him first take the decision to become “mad” and then after a jump cut change his entire attitude. He, if you’ll pardon the expression, regenerates.

To an extent, Tennant is so strong, he threatens to overpower everything else. This might have been less likely on stage (especially at the Courtyard were actors are easily obscured) and whilst I’m willing to admit that it could simply be caused by this fanboy’s obsession, a huge percentage of Gregory Doran’s “film” (this was shot with digital cameras) is in close-up and does seem to favour Tennant above the other actors. Despite its three hour running time, this Hamlet is by no means an ensemble piece. The prince seems to spend to time at all in England with no mention of pirates, no letter sent home, which curtails Horatio’s part somewhat (he is indeed more like Hamlet’s “companion” than in independent figure).

None of which should be seen as a criticism – perhaps aware that the star power will be bringing in an audience less aware of the play’s intricacies, Doran’s has rightly decided to keep the story relatively linear. His Frankenstein-like text is mainly F, but as is the fashion, some of the structuring, notable the placement of “To Be or Not To Be” favours Q1. Fortinbras was apparently originally cut when he was preparing the original stage script yet was reinstated during rehearsals because the actors believe that the play works best with this extra political angle. Nevertheless, that presence is still minimal on-screen; we are gifted with the meeting between Hamlet and Fortinbras’s Captain from Q2 (and the ensuing soliloquy) however he’s missing from the finale which chooses to cut away just before the Norwegian prince storms Elsinore.

Doran has also decided to enunciate Claudius’s "reconciliatory" speech about how the “common theme / Is death of fathers”. Patrick Stewart plays both Hamlet Snr and Claudius, the former retaining a very real, very physical presence in the murder exposition. Oliver Ford Davies’s Polonius is permitted to dominate the first half of the running time. He's clearly loved and shares a good relationship with his children, who complete his authoritative advice for Laertes, having probably heard it already dozens of times. Even in the scenes were Claudius appears, when Tennant isn’t in the ascendancy, Davies’s deft performance has the focus in a way which I’ve rarely seen before.

Until he’s shot. Then Stewart’s Claudius emerges and it becomes immediately apparent through the crook in the actor's lips, that the new king is of the kind to sit back and watch a game play out amongst his subjects. From the opening scenes of the play, Doran cuts away to footage of the action from he perspective of a CCtv camera – he’s very interested in surveillance culture and that was demonstrated by a set of two way mirrors in the stage production (perhaps influenced by the great hall in Branagh’s film). At first it seems tricksy and irritating because we aren’t sure who is watching, and that’s especially true in the nunnery scene when it become the trigger for Hamlet turning on his former girlfriend. Later, after The Mousetrap, the prince reaches up and angrily pulls it from the ceiling, wires and all. “Now I am alone” he says.

In these closing stages, it’s almost as though in this production Claudius has been aware of Hamlet’s “performance” and of the visitation of the ghost from the beginning because, its inferred, he’s been watching this CCtv footage. When he rises and approaches Hamlet with the lamp during The Mousetrap it’s as though he’s saying “You haven’t beaten me yet!” (at which point Hamlet too realises he’s being spied upon leading to his later vandalism). When the king rises after Hamlet fails to run him through on the way to Gertrude’s chamber, even if the prince’s speech appeared as voice over, his uncle clearly knew of his presence and was quietly willing him to send him to heaven. He grins broadly, manically even, during Ophelia’s funeral, enjoying the spectacle. If this Hamlet is feigning madness, this Claudius is just psychotic.

The setting is a modern stately home that brings to mind Thomas Vinterberg’s Danish Dogme film, Festen. Interiors are mainly shot on a single set inspired by the stage version, columns and mirrors and ebony fittings intact. There are a number of exteriors, including some atmospheric tunnels and Doran makes good use of silhouettes and shadows. Despite the dinner jackets and silk dresses, this is clearly the royal family and Claudius and Gertrude are regal figures ahead of rest of the household. When Polonius describes to his boss Hamlet’s treatment of his daughter, Ophelia stands somewhat in awe and there’s a lovely moment when Gertrude approaches and falters over the girl’s name because this is probably the longest time they’ve spent in the same room together.

Despite all of that, the infamous “one thing”, I’ll be remembering this production for is the 12-rating. A glance at the back of the box reveals that the show “contains one use of very strong language and moderate sex references”. Given that this was first broadcast between four and seven on Boxing Day I couldn't quite understand what could lead them to this conclusion, especially considering that this isn't some eccentric modern adaptation. It didn’t take long for me to realise that it has to do with country matters or rather “cunt-ry matters” as Tennant’s stress pattern has it during the run up to The Mousetrap, which let's agree, amazing. The BBFC website doesn’t confirm that this is the one use. I have been in touch and will update this entry should a reply be forthcoming.*

Illuminations, the production company behind this television adaptation blogged their way through filming, though I’ve so far studiously ignored this diary and the BBC's official website (spoilers!) which is why this review probably just impacts on the surface. But I suspect I’ll be returning to this production again. Given my fan gene, I’m very much aware that because I was focusing on Tennant, I didn’t pay enough attention to Penny Downie’s Gertrude. As yet I haven’t quite decide how much she knows, when she knows it and how much of a performance this version of the queen is giving for her husband at the end. But it’s a measure of the complexity of this production that I’m desperate to find out.

* The BBFC have offered this full and frank reply.

in hindsight.

TV Anna Nolan from the first Big Brother UK, in hindsight:
"As I was sitting on that couch 10 years ago, all cameras on Craig and me, waiting for the show's presenter, Davina McCall, to call out the winner's name, two thoughts went through my head. The first was: "I could kill for a pint of lager"; the second: "How do they choose the winner?" I had not seen how we came across, I didn't know yet that the production of this massive show brought narratives, drama, love stories and war into what had seemed an uneventful 10 weeks. Big Brother had created personalities out of all of us, and we were the last to know. The Z-list celebrity had been born."

if only I'd had a camera.

Food Sarah Morgan is a freelance film writer and her blog, Sunset Gun, is one of my favourite reads for its emotionally inciteful commentary on classic cinema.

She recently visited New York on holiday and took a cab from the airport which included a pit stop for some food.

The resulting video is like a modern Cléo de 5 à 7 as we watch a slightly bewildered Morgan being fed by this taxi driver in one of those moments were most of us might say later, "if only I'd had a camera".

Vincent and the Doctor.

TV "Hello, and tonight’s Middle Row will concern itself with a single artistic achievement, this week’s Doctor Who, Vincent and the Doctor, which we’ll discuss with Behind The Sofa reviewer Stuart Ian Burns. In it, the timelord as currently played by on television by Matt Smith meets the Dutch impressionist a year before he committed suicide as they battle against an invisible monster. Here’s a clip …"

“You can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs.”

“If you made an omelette, I'd expect to find a pile of broken crockery, a cooker in flames, and an unconscious chef.”
"That’s the wrong clip.”

“(interrupting) Yes, that’s City of Death.”

“Oh right. So Stuart, what did you think of it?”

”Marvellous. Absolutely. Absolutely marvellous. Certainly one of the best episodes of recent years.”

“Now, Richard Curtis isn’t known for being a writer of science fiction. Did you have any reservations about him writing for Doctor Who?”

”When Curtis was announced as a writer, I was one of the few who probably had quite mixed feelings about it. Having grown up with his work, quoting chunks of Blackadder with friends during chemistry lessons at school, crying through Four Weddings and a Funeral and in adoring Notting Hill, I’ve simultaneously hated Bean, sat stony faced through The Vicar of Dibley and wondered why he’s been so determined to turn Comic Relief into contradiction in terms.

"He's written a time travel adventure before of course ..."

"Black Adder: Back and Forth -- yes -- but that was really just a mechanism to visit the same characters in other time periods. My ambivalence reached its zenith when I chose to analyse Love Actually for a university dissertation and found a deeply misogynistic work in which all the middle class white men are permitted to romance and marry the help and the female characters must give up on romance either to care for a disabled relative or live in a loveless marriage for the good of the children. His follow-up, The Boat That Rocked, was an editing disaster that continued his slightly dodgy approach to sexual politics with its resurrection of the Chaucerian bed trick.

Only in recent times has the Make Poverty History campaigning drama The Girl in the Café offered some of the old sparkle with its May to December romance and a social conscience and it’s that writer that I hoped would pitch up with our favourite timelord and his current plus one. The pre-broadcast press releases about Curtis having an idea in his head for years about illuminating Vincent Van Gogh’s madness and deciding it would be best served as a Doctor Who story suggested that it could go either way.”

“And which way did it go for you?”

“Well, I think it’s important at which point we should take a short break to discuss what we want from a Doctor Who episode. Personally, I don’t care, other than that it should be good. Of course, whether some is “good” or “not good” is an open and lengthy discussion, which I suspect we don't have time for, but generally I have a very relaxed attitude to what the franchise is offering and indeed tend to be equally impressed when it’s breaking out of formula to propose something different like Love & Monsters or using that formula to make a specific point about it or its main character like The Waters of Mars.”

“Which is a given, I suppose, um …”

“I think the success of the episode, and an extraordinarily successful episode it is, clearly Curtis’s best work in five years, is that it manages to do both. Richard Curtis fighting against Doctor Who’s formula and presenting us with the best of both worlds, a campaigning drama about mental health that requires a phone number over the credits versus celebrity pseudo-historical, the Doctor fighting the psychological demons inside someone else’s head, the head of Vincent Van Gogh chasing an alien that can be poked by an easel.”

"So it’s a bit of an atypical episode, then?”

“The scene beneath the stars is the perfect example. However important the Krafayis is in forcing the Doctor to visit Provence and providing the expected action sequences, it’s one of those rare occasions, rarer still on the television wing of the franchise these days, which I sometimes wish would happen more often, in which the usual shocks take a back seat to offering an insight and perspective on history and its fellows,”

“How insightful is the episode in terms of Van Gogh’s work?”

“I'm not enough of an expert to really comment on the aspects of the episode that directly reference the work, though some of the recreations of the paintings were startling even if now and then -- for example his bedroom -- historical accuracy was apparently fluid at best, but then, if you assume that this is the Whoniverse's version of the man's life rather than our own, everything's hunky-dory. If Dickens can erroneously take his speech tour to Cardiff, then this is fine too. My first proper experience of Vincent Van Gogh’s genius was at library school…”

“You went to library school?”

“Yes, well it was a university degree in information studies, but I like to call it library school, just as I went to “film school” years later. You do know we’re still on the air?”

“Oh yes, sorry. Go on…”

“We’d been tasked, in that pre-Google period, with carrying out a literature search for sources of information about one of his paintings. During the course of finding articles and books related to the Starry Night, of which we only had a small black and white illustration, I was amazed to discover, as we all did in the Doctor Who Confidential that accompanies the episode, that he produced from his cell of the sanatorium. I couldn’t understand how such a troubled figure could paint something that beautiful, from memory.

Now, I’m surprised to find that Doctor Who, in a scene that might otherwise have only strained itself onto the pages of a spin-off novel in which the timelord his current plus one and Vincent himself look up to the sky and he describes what he sees do I finally get some sense of how it happened. As the “real” sky digitally swirled to recreate Van Gogh’s vision we discover it’s because the artist was able to remember not the real image but how it effected his emotional well-being.”

"Woud Lord Reith be pleased with the way the paintings were portrayed?"

"I certainly think that any UK museums with Van Gogh paintings on display should brace themselves over the coming weeks. But even taking into account the scenes outside the church in which the Doctor's manic name dropped reached Vasari levels this wasn't a documentary. But we did at least get more of a sense of Vincent as a painter and his abilities, certainly than we did with Shakespeare."

"The theme of mental health has been covered across television in recent times, most recently a season on BBC Four which included another showing of the Stephen Fry documentary about his own condition. Was this a worthy contribution?"

“I think it was. The extrapolation of the painter’s mental state was sensitively tackled as Curtis and Moffat recognised there’s only so far you can go at tea time on Saturday. The trick is to focus on the Doctor and Amy’s reaction to the painters mood swings, his drift between lucidity, extreme moments of inspiration and the depths of darkness and despair. Broad strokes to be sure, but there has to have been some children watching last night who noticed the similarities between Vincent’s behaviour and that of a relative.

But notice that this story doesn’t offer any easy answers. In the past few years we’ve been shown the inspirational, often messianic abilities of the Doctor to inspire people to be better – not least at the close of the previous episode. Yet here was a man who the timelord knew couldn’t be saved even after dragging him through time to show him the effects his work would have on future generations, demonstrating the difference between some mood swings and a genuine psychological condition. That’s very powerful.”

“Now, when people think of screen Van Gogh, they’ll immediately think of Kirk Douglas in Lust For Life, but there was also of course Tim Roth in Vincent and Theo – which the title of this episode refers to – John Simm in The Yellow House. How does Tony Curran measure up?”

"He’s riveting. Authoritative in his gait yet also somewhat child-like, he invests the painter with a singular genius that's also hypercritical. He’s exactly like many of the artists I’ve bumped into over the years, unable to quite comprehend what is about them which makes them do that. But in some moments, especially when he was confronting the monster, he reminded me a lot of the tenth Doctor, who on reflection was quite a lot like Vincent, the lucidity, genius and darkness. In that way you could view the eleventh Doctor’s actions in trying to offer emotional support to the painter as a way of salving his own demons.”

“What about the accent? There’ll be some might question the wisdom of not offering a Scottish Van Gogh.”

“It’s a brave decision, especially considering the casual viewers who might wonder about all of the regional accents on display here – the waiter in the café being another example. Of course, it’s a continuation of the accent confusion in the TARDIS’s translation circuits last seen in The Fires of Pompeii, in this case Scottish equals Dutch. But it aided Curran in finding that slot between the crooked self portrait and human being without the ever present need to maintain the accurate inflections in his voice, useful on the speedy television schedule this was probably shot on.”

“Now, some have argued that in concerning itself so much with Van Gogh’s state of mind it stopped being proper Doctor Who …”

“(interrupts) … but as I said earlier, it depends what we mean by “proper Doctor Who”. The set-up was very similar to The Time of the Angels from earlier this series and the spin-off novel The Stone Rose, the Doctor noticing something unusual about a museum object and jumps into the TARDIS to investigate, and, since Curtis hasn’t had the memo about its erratic behaviour, the Doctor’s able to steer the time machine to the exact moment (if not quite location) in space and time, unlike almost every episode in this series.

Plus, art and art galleries have been very present in Doctor Who over the years most notably the, ahem, aforementioned City of Death whose Louvre scenes with a fourth Doctor looking for information were very much like the Musee D’Orsey scenes in this. It was certainly a more dignified homage than Mona Lisa’s Revenge, The Sarah Jane Adventures episode, mainly because Bill Nighy’s curator was allowed to be expert and illuminating without being a twit yet still share some bow-tie humour with Matt. Nighy was once Russell T Davies’s choice to play the Doctor incidentally, and was announced as such by the Daily Mail, so it’s lovely to see him in the franchise finally.”

“Did you think the Krufayus was a worthy opponent?”

“The – Krafayis – was the kind of fantastical creature we’ve been seeing a lot this season, and this was the kind of giant chicken I remember from school books when I was a kid as the possible missing link between the dinosaurs and the battery egg poppers of the modern world. It's also another lost soul, alone. Arguably the episode could have worked without it, like a 60s historical, but I suspect even Moffat and Curtis weren’t brave enough to write an episode without a monster. The bravery was to not let it overpower the episode – as arguably happened in The Shakespeare Code – and let the celebrity still be the primary focus.

The decision to make it blind is part of what John Moore from the Den of Geek website notes is the episode's obsession with "sight" and seeing beyond what's in front of you which was, of course, an obsession of the impressionists and other avant-guardians though interesting the term "impressionist" was proposed by a critic, Louis Leroy, but was using it in a critical sense: " Impression—I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it … and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape." Which sounds like an average review of this episode on Gallifrey Base)

“... it let us see one of the Doctor’s gadgets.”

“Yes! Those scenes of the Doctor in the TARDIS talking to himself as he searched for the hugeywhatsit tossing other items across the TARDIS floor, were one of the few occasions so far this series where we’ve seen what this Doctor is like when he’s alone and unlike Tennant but like Tom, he’s not self conscious about it, happy to jabber away at inanimate objects. Matt relished these scenes with their gesticulating opportunities. But the writing throughout tapped into the incongruity between his impotent inscrutability and the giddy professor sock puppet he uses to mask it.

It is strange, however, seeing the Doctor, who's supposed to be possessed of a special insight into the universe, employing a hugeywhatsit to identify the thingydoodah (and witness the reappearance of Hartnell's image in this episode, followed by Troughton - never mind the crack, what's that leading up to?). But kids love gadgets. Look at the tricorder like abilities of the sonic screwdriver. Plus I’m sure they will have loved the scene in which he and Amy demonstrated a few more of the console’s controls.”

“A good episode for his companion Amy?”

“Yes, though again there’s still an unreal element to her, not least after the events at the close of the last episode, and it’s interesting that something wasn’t made of how her character might have changed in the absence of Rory and how she remembers her past now. She’s certainly flirtier, I suppose. One of the few oddities in the episode was in her relationship with Vince which seemed far further developed by the end than their screen time might have suggested. Was something cut of their evening alone together while the Doctor was away monster chasing?

But this was otherwise a spectacular episode of Karen Gillan, forever offering some business even in scenes were she wasn’t the primary focus, for once showing us some of the chemistry we've seen she has with Matt in real world interviews. I loved the way she said "Of course" when asked if she'd be following the Doctor in to the church having been told not to. I'd postulate that if you were to watch this series in production order you'd be able to more clearly see the two of them getting used to their roles and what works best, rather like Lalla Ward in her first season."

“What did you think of the look of the episode. It was certainly cinematic.”

“Yes indeed. Tragir doubling for Provance rather than Venice this time and again able to create the most convincing sense of place we've probably ever seen. All the primary colours. It’s quite startling after a couple of episodes very much grounded in television direction to be handed something which returned to the feature film photography of earlier episodes. Jonny Campbell, who also shot the “vampire” episode clearly has a very cinematic eye and strove to make the visuals match the lushness of Van Gogh’s painting. Witness the opening scenes of the cornfield, the luminous shot of Amy in amongst the sunflowers and the closing scenes shot on a turntable to demonstrate Vincent’s head spinning as he listens to Nighy’s tribute.”

"What did you make of the use of music at the climax?"

"Your tolerance for the late appearance of Athelete's Chance probably depends on whether you've been swept away by the previous forty-odd minutes. It's certainly the most Russell T Davies-like climax we've seen this series, though it could more closely attributed to Curtis who has provided similar moments in his own films - Joni Mitchell in one of the few emotional true moments in Love Actually. Popular music isn't as alien to Doctor Who as it use to be and has been employed to underscore emotional beats before. The lyrics, which talk of taking the opportunities in front of you while you still are reflecting in Van Gogh's particularly fruitful final year and are entirely in-tune with Curran's teary performance which reflects the moment when the painter realises what he is capable of. Plus, at least it wasn't John Denver's rendition of Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)."

“Finally, what was your favourite moment?”

“Predictably it has little to do with the main plot. It’s when the Doctor takes Vincent back to the TARDIS only to find that its been flypostered. He simply sighs and creates a hole big enough to open the door. Then, when the machine lands in the future, we simply see the scorched remains of the posters left on the face of the blue box having not survived the time vortex. It’s one of the few occasions when the mad details of the Doctor’s life are vividly demonstrated.”

"Stuart, thank you. And Vincent and the Doctor will be on the iPlayer for a few more weeks, released on dvd and blu-ray twice, and repeated on BBC Three until the end of time…”

R-a-x-i-c-o-r-i-c-o-p-h-e- [ping]

Sport No, not the World Cup. There was controversy at the 2010 Scripps National Spelling Bee in the US, made internationally famous by Jeff Blitz film documentary Spellbound) when effectively the needs of television dictated how the competition was run.

Like all such things, its best to read the unfolding narrative but if you have seen Blitz's documentary you'll understand how serious these kids and their parents take the championship and how any advantage, however slight can make all the difference.

As to what happened next, npr has a live blog.

This is a song called Ironic.


Never mind the Pandorica opening, this is the musical equivalent of a space/time implosion, especially for long term readers of this blog, and not least because it happened at the House of Blues in 2005 and this is the first time I've heard about it. Later Lavigne repaid the favour. Notice how the audience know the lyrics to this song:

Now searching for some missing Kate Bush / Tori Amos duet.
Elsewhere I've reviewed last night's Doctor Who. It's a bit old school.