Shakespeare on This American Life: Drama Bug

As readers of my other blog will know, I'm currently listening to All of This American Life in Order and little did I realise that I'd soon find something worth writing about here so I've decided to run a parallel series of posts for this blog in which I'll highlight any episodes with major references to Shakespeare.  For all I know, this could be the only one.  We'll see.

Episode 23, Drama Bug, first broadcast on the 5th October 1996 features a classic story from regular contributor David Sedaris about his early experiences as an actor and the second section concentrates on his appearance as one of the touring actors in an amateur production of Hamlet. 

I've embedded both parts above for speed, but this whole vintage episode is worth your time, with presenter Ira Glass shadowing a school putting on a production of Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers and the theatre going experiences of a man who breathes through an iron lung and also contracted the drama bug after seeing Hamlet.

Ruth Wilson on Hamlet.

The headline's a bit of SEO, especially since she's asked the question rather than proffers the opinion unsolicited, but Ruth Wilson really would be an excellent Hamlet:
""You know what? I'd love to play Hamlet. Shakespeare didn't write that many great roles for women. It's like you come in for one scene then spend four hours waiting backstage for the next line." So it would be good to wrest the role from the boys? "You bet. I don't shy away from a challenge that would scare the shit out of me. You need the fear always to be there. Otherwise you're in the wrong job."
I'd argue against the opinion that Shakespeare didn't write many great roles for women. I suppose it's clearly to say he didn't write many great tragic central roles like Cleopatra.

Torchwood's Army of One

Audio Now that, for various reasons, Torchwood’s taken an understandable “pause”, AudioGo have taken the relatively bold step of releasing a series of continuation audiobooks, investigating their world post-Miracle Day. The first, Ian Edginton’s Torchwood's Army of One, edges itself into the gap between a potential cliffhanger resolution and whatever else Russell T Davies has in mind, visiting Gwen and Owen within a few weeks of Rex Matheson becoming a second fixed point in time, making the most of what's left of the institute's assets and trying to decide on their future.

Meanwhile, a serial killer's on the streets, and although the victims are all in roughly the same condition, “dried-up, dessicated husks” as the box synopsis repulsively has it, they’re different ages and genders, blurring the MO.  The chief headscrather assigned to the case, Lucas Avery, the kind of special agent who wanders around US prime time shows with an acronym in the title, decides Gwen and Rhys will be just the people to deal with this particular spooky-doo and before long it’s business as usual with the added pressure that the former has encountered this particular accident of the Whoniverse before, back in Cardiff.

In Edginton’s story, not much happens, but busily, packing plenty into its entertaining seventy-odd minutes.  The resident alien, while a not entirely innovative creation, somewhat like the monsters from Day One or Angel’s Lonely Hearts without the psycho-sexual angle, has been forced into their position as a result of Miracle Day as we finally discover how the usual denizens crawling about this version of our planet were effected by that man-made event, bringing to mind too the current comic post-magic Buffyverse.  There's an excellent line about how human's are willing to accept everyone not dying but not creates from another world.

There’s also an absurdist vein running through the story with what could have been relatively bland locations and plot-twists rendered with a style not unlike Stephen Poliakoff, in which reality is viewed through synecdoche shaped lenses.  Edginton also like the drop the listener in the middle of a scene, providing initially a poetic turn of phrase which runs counter to many of these AudioGo readings which can border on the prosaic, noting the older age group these must be designed for.  It goes without saying that like it's parent series, this not suitable for younger listeners.  Some of the descriptions of deaths are just creepy.

The writer's clearly comfortable with these characters (having previous written for the comic strip embedded in the official magazine), especially Rhys who’s truer to loveable form here than the psychopathic nitwit he was reduced to in the latter stages of Miracle Day.  Eve Myles would also relish the material Gwen’s given as she’s once again allowed to be kick-ass and still a parent, her boggle-eyed fear intact (even if some listeners might have issues with how certain dominant ideologies are also protected).  Special Agent Avery is a bit bland, but that seems to be a feature rather than a bug, Edginton pushing the cultural contrast as high as it will go.

All of which is helped immeasurably by Kai Owen’s reading especially in the scenes between Gwen and Rhys were he ably voices their stoccato niggling and flirting. Now and then he-becomes-very-pronounced-in-his-performance but usually it’s because the information he’s annunciating will be of vital import later. Once again the clash between Welsh brashness and Washington efficiency is prominent and he very much enjoys those scenes when Rhys gets one over on the Americans, who once again greet him with a mix of curiosity and superiority.

Overall, what Army of One demonstrates, just as the Radio 4 plays have, is that Children of Earth accepted, Torchwood's still works best in a thingy of the week format, a kind of adult version of The Sarah Jane Adventures or The X-Files in the Whoniverse, local law enforcement authorities calling in these experts whenever something weird wanders into their jurisdiction. Whereas I spent most of Miracle Day laughing at the show, I spent much of Army of One laughing with the characters again and I can't wait to hear the rest of this series. That's quite an achievement.

Torchwood: Army of One by Ian Edginton is published by AudioGo and is out now.  Review copy supplied.

"and I refused to do it."

Film There's a typically great interview with Werner Herzog in The Guardian today:
"Some years ago, Werner Herzog was on an internal flight somewhere in Colorado and the plane's landing gear wouldn't come down. They would have to make an emergency landing. The runway was covered in foam and flanked by scores of fire engines. "We were ordered to crouch down with our faces on our knees and hold our legs," says Herzog, "and I refused to do it." The stewardess was very upset, the co-pilot came out from the cabin and ordered him to do as he was told. "I said, 'If we perish I want to see what's coming at me, and if we survive, I want to see it as well. I'm not posing a danger to anyone by not being in this shitty, undignified position.'" In the end, the plane landed normally. Herzog was banned from the airline for life but, he laughs, it went bust two years later anyway."
If such incidents were ever included in a biopic of the director the screenwriter would either be accused of being outrageously fictional, or might just be tempted to otherwise make some stuff up because most of us would believe it anyway.

"chic white-and-clear spheres"

Architecture One of my favourite television images across the years was the giant bubble that Anthony Edwards's hyper-allergic ecological watchdog built a life in on Northern Exposure always wondering what it must have been like to awaken that close to nature.

Now, EcoSalon report on holiday homes and guest houses which provide a similar experience with the accent on being able to enjoy the sky:
"Les Bivouacs de la Reine are space-age accommodation capsules on the grounds of a chateau that was built for Josephine, wife of the Emperor Napoleon, just outside Paris. These chic white-and-clear spheres (the smaller bubble can be used as a bathroom) offer a cozy spot for star-gazing, and some open intimacy – you can see everything, but only the animals can see you. French chateaux are certainly leading a revolution in avant-garde accommodation styling."
However beautiful they are, they're also not big on privacy, so it's a good job they're in relatively remote areas.

a bit spoilery

Audio As you'll probably notice, I'm catching up on a bit of reading which includes this useful introductory guide to Big Finish's Doctor Who range from Doc Oho. It's understandably a bit spoilery, but there's nothing here I'd disagree with (especially about the Divergent Universe stories) , plus it offers some useful pointers towards the extra curricular material like The Companion Chronicles.  Long may they continue.

the Harvey Keitel story

Film Aah, Joey Lauren Adams. For those of us who were the right age when Chasing Amy was released in 1996, she was the actress who seemed as though she was going head off and do great things.  Sadly for her, and us (and ultimately Sally Philips when it came to the Bridget Jones job), Jerry Maguire was also released in 1996 and turned RenĂ©e Zellweger into a star and as Joey acknowledges in this video (a kind of moving pictures version of The AV Club's random roles) she'd spend the rest of her career having to deal with the similarity.

She skips over what's arguably one of her best films, A Cool Dry Place, in which she co-starred with one Monica Potter, who was almost the next Julia Roberts. Until Julia Roberts decided that she was going to keep working. If nothing else, this video's worth watching for the Harvey Keitel story which is a decent stopgap until Mark Kermode breaks his silence and tells us his Harvey Keitel story.

Wolfram Alpha on Hamlet.

Answer engine, Wolfram Alpha, have given their database an injection of Shakespeare and the ability to provide quite detailed information about the plays, from word frequency to ACT lengths and the percentage of lines given to each character.

The canon selected is pretty orthodox -- Edward III isn't included and Arden of Faversham is ignored -- but The Two Noble Kinsmen does have a full entry and that's still left out of some complete works.

What do we learn about Hamlet?

The most frequently used word is "the" with the most frequently capitalised "I" which is fitting given the play's depths of self-analysis.

"My Lord" is the two word phrase used most often which also underscores the royalty of the piece.

Surprisingly "England" is mentioned almost as often as "Denmark".

Worth noting:

The database puts the first date of publication as 1604 which is the date which appears on the cover of Q2, but doesn't take into account Q1 and ignores the date of the first production in 1599/1600, but that's just nitpicking.

Under the search for Hamlet there are other options, one of which is "referring to a fictional character".  Clicking on that takes the user to King Hamlet rather than his son but there doesn't seem to be a way to get to a profile of the prince.

Searching for Prince Hamlet, takes us to a definition page for the word "prince" and the connected person is the singer Prince.

But otherwise this could prove to be a useful academic tool, especially the option which allows for comparison between plays.

Mark Morris’s Darkstar Academy

Audio One of the minor pleasures of AudioGo’s Doctor Who range is in hearing how each of the readers interprets Amy Pond, their collected accents wandering from highlands to lowlands with some audibly taking vocal run up to each line of dialogue. Clare Corbett’s been the best at this, usually offering a sound that’s near indistinguishable from Karen Gillan, but you must at least applaud Clive Mantel or Stuart Milligan for the attempt, neither of their alpha male basses really suited to the sarcastic Scots girl, especially since it’s never been properly established exactly where she was born.

So it’s a disappointment to report that with Mark Morris’s Darkstar Academy, Alexander Armstrong when faced with the challenge decides it would best not to even attempt Amy, sticking with his usual genial English delivery. Indeed, unlike some readers, he makes little attempt to replicate any of the regulars and barely distinguishes much between the other characters. Or indeed between scenes, providing much the same delivery to the dialogue and action sequences, neither gifted with any great urgency leaving the sound design to do much of the work in that department.

But that’s not the only disappointment because Morris’s story is a bit of a minor entry anyway. Perhaps it was unfair to listen to Darkstar Academy straight after the magnificent Shada, especially since it has much more limited aims across a tinier duration, but unlike some writers who make the most of the audio medium, Morris is content here to simply provide a piece of short fiction which takes about an hour to read and probably would have worked just as well within a Christmas annual and I’m trying to be as polite as I possibly can.

The story begins well enough. The Doctor’s being plagued by attacks brought on my seepages of artron energy, or time slippage, and sets the TARDIS down at the source, what appears to be a 1950s English public school. The incongruity of that leads him and his friends to explore the old building and as in the best of these stories, not everything is as its seems and it develops into a fairly enjoyable, if also fairly typical base under siege piece with the inhabitants of the Academy menace by the giant crab-like spider things imagineered on the cd cover.

Morris nicely observes the banter between the regulars and the Doctor’s usual bluff in the company of figures of authority, the headmaster in this case, and there’s a real sense of wonder as the school begins to give up its secrets. We’re introduced to Milton, a school boy who knows he’s a bit of genius who is instantly likeable in a similar vein to Cyril from The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe or Young Kazran from A Christmas Carol, the kind which Matt Smith always such excellent chemistry with.

But there’s a constant sense that we’re not hearing anything new (I know, in Doctor Who, the very idea!) and as Morris paces towards the climax and his base under siege gives way to another locale, it becomes apparent that the writer has in mind some cross-genre hijinks the nature of which might leave some listeners sighing. Or if you’re me walking up Catherine Street in Liverpool this afternoon, saying, “Really? Is that it? Again?” with someone giving me an understandably curious look as I passed them.  Oh, well.

Mark Morris’s Darkstar Academy is out now from AudioGo.  Review copy supplied.

embedding links

Music Spotify now has an option for embedding links in websites. How shall I test it? Oh I know ...

Yes, that works.


Film Unsurprisingly there have been few romantic comedies about grief. The tonal shift from the utter-devistation of the loss of one's loved one to the sharing of romantic witty banter with a potential partner near impossible to achieve. The most prominent example, Sleepless in Seattle managed the switch by having Hanks’s character externalising his the loss through a radio show, with Meg Ryan vocalising our reaction, and keeping the two separate for the duration. Most often, when this most tragic of events is brought in proximity with comedy it's in the horror genre but during Scream or Shaun of the Dead there’s little time to dwell before the next action set piece.

Delicacy dwells. When Parisian office worker Natalie (Audrey Tautou) loses her husband in the most brutally unexpected way, she’s unable to cope with the change in perspective that the rest of the world has of her. She just wants people to treat her the same, but none of them know quite what to say, and that awkwardness leads to loneliness and much like Hanks in Sleepless, Natalie finds herself consumed with work, desperately wanting to Vulcanise her emotions in case she lets the grief in. The wandering eyes of her boss don’t help and it's only until she unconsciously senses a similar emptiness in a co-worker that she’s able to articulate her feelings.

But for Markus (Francois Damiens), it’s the emptiness of the life not led, of a person overlooked by society and so whose overlooked his own potential, marinating in the juices of self-doubt and politeness. Having moved to Paris fifteen years before with hopes of becoming absorbed in a new culture, he finds himself continuing to be defined by his Swedish heritage, working for a company based in his homeland, living among IKEA furniture and still looked upon as an outsider. When Natalie gives him some attention, he’s brimming with excitement but having (we assume) spent so much of his life alone, how can he possibly trust that she’ll love him back?

Adapted with his brother Stephane from his own best selling novel, David Foenkinos’s film somehow manages to transform these melancholic nuances into something incredibly funny. Even before Amelie put her on the international map, Tautou was already enjoying some success in these tonally unusual stories and part of the fun, surprisingly, is watching her friends unable to cope with her emotional resilience, and that she’s best placed to decide on her emotional arc. It’s a part she was destined to play. Literally. In the book, a chapter was apparently written in the form of a screenplay with Tautou cast as Natalie in a fantasy version of her life.

But it's in the sequences in which Markus has to cope with her interest that the film really finds its comic heart. Perhaps it's the laughter of recognition from those of us introverts who’ve been in a similar situation, but Damiens impressively observes the constant state of worry inherent in being even friends with a beautiful woman, not knowing what to say or even when to speak, of hesitating throughout each encounter and finally reasoning that since this person is far too good for you and at some point will probably become bored, there’s little point in trying, even in the most obviously romantic of situations.

Like Sleepless, your tolerance for Delicacy ultimately depends on how willing you are to wallow in all this and allow yourself to drown in the overflow of sentiment. But not all of those emotions are explained. Natalie’s best friend is also “enjoying” her own emotional arc, but the Foenkinoses demonstrate the necessary self-absorption of grief by never quite explaining her moments of desolation. That ambiguity gives the film a weight missing from most modern romcoms and shows that this first time director is able to leave the requirements of his natural medium to one side and trust his audience’s imagination to fill the empty space.

DELICACY opened at Picturehouse @ FACT in Liverpool on 13th April.  Here are the screening times.  

Review screening attended.

Gareth Roberts’s adaptation of Douglas Adams’s scripts for the incomplete (at least on television) Doctor Who story Shada

Audio About twenty minutes ago, or actually twenty minutes plus the length of time it takes me to write this review, rewrite it where required and post it, plus the gap for it to be linked on Twitter or found by you through your favourite RSS reader then however long it is after that when some of you are idly looking for something to do at work that isn’t working which means it could be days, years for those of you who’ve come here from search engines, so more like, some singularly indeterminate time in your past, I finished listening to this audio reading of Gareth Roberts’s adaptation of Douglas Adams’s scripts for the incomplete (at least on television) Doctor Who story Shada.

Apparently when the script turned up at AudioGo it was substantially longer than expected. They’d thought it would fit into the dual jewel case they use for all their Target novelisations but here it sits on ten cds, with a duration of eleven hours and thirty minutes. That’s very long. Far longer than the two to three hours of television Shada would have been had it been completed, and certainly longer than the version knocked together by Big Finish a few years ago with the Eighth Doctor stepping into the Fourth Doctor’s shoes, Tom Baker unavailable at the time. I don’t know how long the recent fan reconstruction with the bits of animation is, but not eleven and half hours.

Which makes it an intimidating listen and wanting to savour each of its ten discs and seventy-six chapters, I’ve let it replace the usual sounds of the world across various bus trips, walks to work and lunch breaks over the past month, reader Lalla Ward’s elegant voice (with John Leeson as K9) an ever present companion as fares went up, weather's changed for better and worse and I’ve tucked into yoghurts and apples and the odd packet of Smokey Bacon crisps. It's provided some much needed suspension of disbelief training at a time when reality has been ever present, that nagging sensation that life actually isn’t a dream.

If there’s such a thing as a master opinion on the experience (rather like a master shot or a grand narrative), it’s that, like a good meal or a glorious summer, I’ve not wanted it to end.  But as with slices of pizza or the pages of a desk calendar, I’ve counted down each of those ten discs until today when the tenth arrived with the inevitably of an empty plate or the middle of September.  Knowing that it’s always best to confront these things rather simply let them slip by, I gave that final disc my fullest attention, sitting on our back balcony tucking into jellybeans and watching the audience for the visiting Easter circus in the park leave this afternoon’s show.

For all its duration, Shada’s story is relatively simple to describe. On a visit to Cambridge, the Fourth Doctor, Romana and K9 find that their friend Professor Chronotis has inadvertently “borrowed” the Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey from the their collective home planet, a book powerful enough to be of interest to intergalactic criminal genius Skagra who visits Earth to steal the volume and utilise it in his plan to take over the universe, or something like that, the something like that having all the important vagueness which appears on the back of the cd box and presumably the paper version so it’s probably unfair to include specifics here.

Suffice to say that Roberts takes full advantage of the textual real estate open to him having ignored the old Target novelisation restriction of a hundred and forty odd pages to produce something which isn’t just a adaptation of a bunch of scripts, but a celebration, of Douglas Adams, of Doctor Who and of Shada's own tortured history. Like the best of those old novelisations, victims are given entire poignant back stories, the relationships between major characters are extemporised and the overall story allowed to breath and actually make better sense than it ever has.

That Lalla Ward’s the reader also makes perfect sense. This is her fourth performance of a version of this material and she’s magnificent, us all become time tots being read a bedtime story by Auntie Romanadvoratrelundar. Rising to the challenge of conjuring this diverse set of characters, she turns in valid performances for all of them, from the slow delivery of scatterbrained Chronotis to the Dent-like naivety of Chris Parsons. Her rendering of Scagra’s sentient ship is a tour-de-force of matronly sexuality and even her Tom offers some notion of one of most recognisable voices in entertainment history. A bit.

She’s aided by some intelligent sound design that evolves across the story to put her voice in the crowded streets of Cambridge, in the console room of the TARDIS on the echoey environs of various spaceships. Some of the sound effects aren’t quite right, especially K9’s laser, but the weezing groaning sound of the blue box is present and still has the power to transport our imaginations, especially on audio. In places, crowds of voices are created by having Lalla’s voice in duplicate and triplicate.  Much is gained from being able to listen to this story.

But something is lost.  A paper copy of Shada will still be essential.   Gareth Roberts’s afterword from the book isn’t included.  Just as the Hitchhikers books allow us to notice the poetry of the guide entries, because of the sheer amount of text only perhaps on paper can we properly relish the delights of Scagra’s back story, Clare’s passion for Chris and the undergraduate humour that propels the narrative forward. None of which should draw away from the achievement of this audio book, which more than justifies its extended length. Just be sure to savour it.

Doctor Who: Shada: The Lost Adventure byDouglas Adams is adapted by Gareth Robert and read by Lalla Ward with John Leeson and is available now from AudioGo. Review copy supplied.

"an area of Liverpool known as The Dingle"

Radio The Afternoon Drama on BBC Radio 4, tomorrow (Bank Holiday Monday), is set in the Dingle in Liverpool:
"Past and present collide when an old man refuses to leave his home, which is due for demolition: He looks back to his past and finds strength and meaning in a wild, strange ritual of his childhood. The burning of an effigy of Judas Iscariot was performed every Good Friday in an area of Liverpool known as The Dingle. This evocative, romantic and defiant drama is an elegy for the death of a way of life. The voices of real people who used to take part in the ritual are woven into the drama."
The programme notes say that the Dingle is in Toxteth, whereas my understanding is that it borders there and Aigburth.  I'd welcome a clarification.

"just six days after the disaster"

Film At this anniversary, The Bioscope delves into the film which was made of Titanic and its sister ships a hundred years ago. It's rather more than you might imagine. The problem is, few people thought it important enough to capture much of its history on film until it sunk:
"The fact that the launch was filmed by a minor film company and paid only meagre attention by the film press shows what comparatively little interest the Titanic had for the media at this point. The Animated Weekly film with these two sequences was first shown in New York on 21 April, just six days after the disaster, so if they were shipped from Belfast then would have had to have been sent out on 16 April, which seems an extraordinarily rapid turnaround. But for some strange reason the laying of the keel and the launch were not included in the British version of the reel issued by Gaumont at the start of May, and are now lost."
In our image saturated culture, it's becoming increasingly difficult to imagine a time when history unfolded outside the gaze of everyone.