Heritage TV.

TV TFI Friday's revival was a mess and descended in its final half hour into a Chris Evans Top Gear campaign broadcast. Sad. Stuart Heritage's live blog at The Guardian sums things up:
"What an odd show this has turned out to be. It’s less a celebration of what TFI Friday was, and more an abject apology. Chris Evans looks mortified by everything he used to do on the show, and the whole thing is suffused with an overwhelming politeness. All the anarchy has gone. It’s sad, like the final scene of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest."
The only time this blog mentioned TFI was back in its primordial stage in relation to Anna Nolan from the first Big Brother appearing on it in an update to a long article analysing the cultural tastes of the housemates. I've been at this for a very, very long time.

Dip Empact.

Film Of the two global destruction comet films released in 1998, Deep Impact is clearly in retrospect the masterpiece, one you'd choose to watch again, especially if you're in the mood for a weep, a weeeep. If Robert Duvall reading Moby Dick to Ron Eldard (Shep from e.r., err, granddad) doesn't do it, then Tea Leoni embracing Maximilian Schell on the beach surely will. Much as I enjoyed San Andreas, it's no Deep Impact (it's not even The Core either but that's a whole other apocalyptic vision).

Either way, the science is the science of these things and io9 have asked a scientist to talk about that:
"Yes, the graphics are, indeed, lovely! We get a nice draw-down of the trough arriving before the crest (although, Dear Hollywood, the odds are 50/50 the crest will arrive first and our heroes will have no warning of their impending doom...) and a huge wall of rapidly-rising water that doesn’t crest. But it’s only one wave. A real tsunami is a whole series of waves, like incredibly devastating ripples in pond triggered by a catastrophically huge pebble carelessly tossed in by the Lord High Director of Impending Doom. Not only that, but the first wave isn’t necessarily the biggest one, especially since nasty constructive interference effects of advancing and retreating waves can spike that tsunami even higher."
Nevertheless, weep. Weeeep. [via]

Waterloo Lives.

History There's a place in Liverpool's shopping area Liverpool One, outside John Lewis, opposite some restaurants and near the Apple shop which most days plays host to some kind of promotional vehicle. A few weeks ago this was youths in t-shirts giving away free cups of Kenco Millicano, once again failing to convince me this faux-coffee house beverage doesn't taste like horse swill and last week what looked for all the world like a instabar giving away free beer.

Being essentially teetotal, or more accurately coffeetotal, I added it to the mental list of things in modern life not worth worrying about because they're so far out of my potentiality to be not worth worrying about along with foreign holidays and a relationship until the next day when I strayed closer on my way back from the cinema and noticed it was in fact a pub with no beer, a pub with no beer that was instead promoting the bi-centenary of the battle at Waterloo.

Inside, instead of pumps along the bar, iPads offered an interactive gaming experience which could lead to a holiday in Belgium to visit the site of the battle, wrangled by actors in costume improvising their way to explaining something of what happened on the 18th June 1815 through the medium of first person narrative.  With only a very basic knowledge of what happened, my interest was peaked enough to play the games and pick up the leaflets advertising local exhibitions.

This week, I've been attending those exhibitions which opened on the 6th June, at the Museum of Liverpool, the Victoria Gallery & Museum and the Williamson Art Gallery, one per day.  Each covers a different aspect of the battle and its legacy and part of a nationwide series of events and shows led by the National Army Museum.  There's plenty of others listed on this page.

Before all of that I realised I needed a primer on what actually happened and who did what to whom, so watched the useful lecture given by Peter & Dan Snow to the Hay Festival (on the occasion of the publication of their book) which is currently on the iPlayer.  Even if you're not interested in the history, it's probably still worth watching for the human interest angle of seeing the relationship between the father and son broadcasting team.

A dense hour which is sometimes difficult to follow thanks to the annoying way the editor cuts away from the explanatory maps at crucial moments it nevertheless explains in basic terms why Napoleon lost.  This boils down to him being an arrogant sod who thought himself invincible until he met a force and a tactician in the Duke of Wellington who unlike others wasn't awed by the fact that he was Napoleon, and who led an intelligent, ingenious army which wasn't afraid to try some stuff.

That was Sunday.  On Monday I spent the day at the Museum of Liverpool, though the Waterloo portion took all of twenty minutes, their contribution amounting to a single cabinet containing an engraving of the battle to take Hougoumont Farm which was an important strategic moment during the overall campaign and some miniature ship models created by French prisoners.

Despite its size, I nonetheless learnt two things from this display.  Firstly that Waterloo near Crosby is so named because of what was then called the Royal Waterloo Hotel which opened on the first anniversary of the battle and because some of the buildings in Waterloo notably the Potters Barn park buildings are replicas of the farm houses from the original Belgian area answering a lifelong question as two why we even have a place called this nearby,

The intricate models were created by prisoners placed at short notice in half-completed gaols off Castle Street as a way of earning money for them to feed and clothe themselves.  Within war during that period, the agreement was that the upkeep of prisoners was paid by their own side, but a disagreement on this occasion (over and above the actual war) meant that funds were not forthcoming and so these little ships, with their astonishing levels of detail came into the world.

At the other end of the day, my historical appetite whetted, I decided there was nothing for it but to visit Waterloo itself.  Deciding that Belgium was a bit ambitious, I went straight to James Street Station and bought a ticket for its local namesake, if only so that there'd be a decent photograph to put at the top of this blog post.  Apologies for the results.  With the best of intentions, I rushed this because I heard the train back to Liverpool and panicked.

Waterloo is the jumping off point for Anthony Gormley's Another Place, a marina and the Crosby Plaza Cinema.  But with dinner time upcoming, I simply walked the main street eyes open for any buildings which looked vaguely Belgian (none did) (not that I know anything about architecture) and visited a couple of charity shops and the most exciting thing to happen was that I banged my head on a shelf in a bookshop as I leaned over to smell a candle in the shape of a glass of coca-cola.

To Tuesday and the long, steep walk up Brownlow Hill to the Victoria Gallery & Museum for their Relics and Remembrance exhibition.  Sporadically spread throughout the building in various display cases, this group of objects focuses on the conclusion and aftermath of the battle underscoring how many of the artifacts available to view are due to the efforts of souvenir and memento hunters picking over the bodies of those who'd fallen.

In the Tate Hall on the top floor there's an Eagle Standard captured from the Napoleon's 105th Infantry Regiment by the 1st Royal Dragoons which as a symbol of empire building was an easy way of demonstrating the allies had won when it was shipped to London to declare Wellington's success.  It's not a unique object, the Emperor presented nearly a hundred to his army in 1815 but like all of the object in the exhibition it's about what it represents rather than what it is.

Elsewhere there's a French dragoon's helmet, a signalling drum from the 1st Regiment of the Foot Guards, a French Shako plate and rosette from a fallen French soldier's hat, a Legion d'honneur medal, a Waterloo medal and a camp kettle and stove all taken from the battlefield at the close of business and they're uncomfortable to look at because they're someone else's property, the property of someone who lost their life on that day.

Perhaps the most gruesome revelation for me is about the trade in the teeth of the fallen.  Many of the younger soldiers were recruited because they had good, strong teeth capable of working with ammunition if necessary which were then harvested from the battlefield after their death to be used in expensive dentures.  This was called "Waterloo ivory" and it's impossible to imagine what it must have been like for those charged with having to pull them from the corpses.

Providing context is a near contemporary aquatint by Matthew Duboury created in 1817 showing the morning after the battle, the anguished faces of those still in pain on both sides, a different kind of heroism in the air from them and those treating them.  Not that there seems to be much air.  A fire at the near centre of the image is sending black smoke into the sky creating an overcast battlefield on an otherwise clear day,

At the absolute centre of picture amid the pain and suffering and looting, a farmer stands calmly with a well to do gentleman and his son, point across the field, explaining it seems the previous nights events, beginning, already, perhaps, the process of mythologising the battle, the first tour guide.  But unlike present day when visitors can only imagine the victories and horrors which occurred in the surrounding fields, here they're all too present.

Just this sort of visual reportage is the focus of the Williamson's exhibtion, which with the aid of some objects from the actual battle on loan (as most of the items in these exhibitions are) from the National Army Museum, offers some historical background to one of the largest paintings in their collection, Thomas Sidney Cooper's The Battle of Waterloo, 16–19 June 1815, the Defeat of Kellerman's Cuirassiers, which you can view on Your Paintings here.

As Dan Snow eloquently describes in the Hay lecture, this is the moment when the French Cuirassiers were sent, without other support, up a ridge towards the Allied army in a futile attempt to break through, which an Ensign Rees Howell Gronow of the 1st Foot Guards, quoted selectively in the accompanying text but in full here:
"You discovered at a distance what appeared to be an overwhelming, long moving line, which, ever advancing, glittered like a stormy wave of the sea when it catches the sunlight. On they came until they got near enough, whilst the very earth seemed to vibrate beneath the thundering tramp of the mounted host. One might suppose that nothing could have resisted the shock of this terrible moving mass."
Wanting to take everything in, approach the painting almost like a film, I took a chair from a stack within the centre of the display room and sat down in front of it. After about five minutes I took out my notebook and jotted down some odd comments which will be the basis of the next paragraph, but the experience was overwhelming in a way which is rare with still images.  As I keep having to remind myself, most classical form art work deserve longer than the glances we usually give them.

Cooper paints the scene almost like a sea landscape.  Half of the canvas is consumed by the sky, a grey, forbidding miasma created, much like in the Dubory aquatint, by fires, this time in the far distance.  In the foreground, the ridges of the Mont St Jean are laid out like rocks on a beech, the whites and blues of the French soldier uniforms and horses crashing against them in waves.  Although the faces of man and beast are distinct, the overall impression is positively abstract.

The painting was originally submitted into a competition for creating works of art to be displayed in the new Houses of Parliament in 1847 and goodness knows where it would have hung even if it is portraying an Allied victory.  After the fall of Napoleon, relations between the British and France thawed so perhaps its not surprising that it didn't end up there but in the collection of a provincial art gallery.

Accompanying the painting are other items from the Williamson's collection related to Waterloo and the Napoleonic period.  There are three other paintings by Cooper which suggest he was otherwise interested in more sedate subjects, Cattle by a Stream, Sheep on a Hillside and Cattle in a Stream.  Painted a few decades earlier, the style is markedly steadier, more clinical, though it's clear that in these moments he's learning mammalian anatomy ready for his future adventures.

There's also a large collection of caricatures depicting international relations in the period leading up to Waterloo by James Gillray and Isaac Cruikshank, though they sadly both died before they could tackle the ensuing hostilities.  A clear forerunner of modern newspaper cartoonists, Napoleon is generally shown as a small man out of proportion with his world, Josephine as a corpulent vessel and French soldiers as grotesques.

The Emperor comes off badly from the brush of William Daniels in his portrait too, with his smudgy, indistinct skin and features resembling Peter Lorre in The Man Who Knew Too Much.  His portrait of Wellington is far more heroic and dynamic though the painter notorious fell out of favour with the Duke after turning up late and drunk for an appointment.  The Duke, finding the artist on his doorstep told him that he didn't want to have anything more to do with him.

The rest of the works are pure mythology.  Lady Elizabeth Butler's watercolour Napoleon's Retreat from Moscow and the three nearby illustrations of British soldiers by Richard Caton Woodville are of the sort you might expect to find in educational school books concerning themselves more with itemising the uniforms and landscape rather than the reality of the kind which can only really be discovered in the eyewitness accounts of the time.

After spending nearly a week learning about the battle of Waterloo, what have I learnt about the battle of Waterloo?  Everything and nothing.  On the basis of the displays and objects, if I hadn't watched the lecture by the Snows on Sunday, I'm not sure I would have had a clearer sense of the great movements of the battle, the historical signifance of some of these objects, the strategic importance of, for example, Hougoumont Farm.

Given the advertising and hype, it was disappointing to visit the Museum of Liverpool on Monday only to be greeted by a single display case which is actually smaller than the advertising banner in the foyer, especially since it has the same prominence as the other exhibitions in the publicity leaflet.  Expectations are expectations.  Which isn't to say the objects within aren't precious, and I didn't know that French soldiers had been held in the city centre.

It's through these rare objects that we get some sense of what it must have been like on that battlefield in the those days just trying to retain some sense of being, for soldiers on both sides of the battle.  Perhaps it is because there aren't too many of them that we're forced to spend more time scrutinising them, really concentrate on the implications what it means to be in their company two hundred years later.

Waterloo Lives continues at the Museum of Liverpool, Victoria Gallery & Museum and the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum until 24 October 2015.

Soup Safari #36: Cream of Roasted Mushroom at The Old Blind School.

Lunch. £4.95. The Old Blind School, 24 Hardman Street, Liverpool, Merseyside, L1 9AX. Telephone: 0151 709 8002. Website.

My Favourite Film of 1995.

Film The following was originally posted on my Hamlet blog in 2006. Blimey. That was a long time ago.  Also the first paragraph now feels like I was cheating on Cornerhouse and FACT.

It's December 1995, I'm at university the first time around and I live very close to the one cinema I would say that I ever really loved, The Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds. In The Bleak Midwinter turned up pretty much unheralded but I'd read about it in Empire Magazine who gave it a sparkling review and having loved everything else Kenneth Branagh had directed (yes, even Dead Again) and being someway into a lifelong appreciation of Shakespeare I knew had to go and see it..

The Hyde Park was the kind of cinema in which any film could potentially be packed out because the audience tended to go see whatever was on. I took my tall friend Dave with me, even though he wasn't sure if it was his kind of thing - in black and white and about theatre - and we sat at the back of the balcony because there was more legroom.

I'd like to be able to give you a long flowing description of the experience of seeing it for the first time but I really can't. I remember being enchanted and laughing a lot and feeling very Christmassy afterwards and Dave saying that it wasn't what he was expecting and that he really enjoyed it but other than that I'd say that it just made me more excited about seeing Branagh's Hamlet the following year, this almost being a rehearsal for that.

It wasn't until the following Christmas, when I was given the video that I really fell for the film. There was certainly the nostalgia factor - I'd left university by then and it reminded me of a good night out at a place that I wouldn't necessarily be able to go back to with someone I hadn't seen in months. But it was also that it somehow managed to distill everything I felt about Shakespeare into an hour and a half and was also brilliantly funny and touching.

The following year, in 1997, I watched it around Christmas time again while I was wrapping my presents. And again in '98 and since then it's become part of the ritual. When I say that I watch it every Christmas, I really do. Which seems like the definition of a favourite film. Each viewing it means more or less to me than the year before depending on what else is happening in life. Last year I was at university again nd it just fitted into the many hundreds of other films I seemed to be watching. This year I noticed that the main character mentions in his opening monologue that he's thirty-three and I realised that I'd be the same age as him next time I see it.

Perhaps I should provide some background because I know that this isn't a film many people have heard of (it's not even available on dvd). In The Bleak Midwinter (or A Midwinter's Tale as it's called in the US) features Branagh and Shakespeare stalwart Michael Maloney as Joe an out of work actor who decides to produce Hamlet at Christmas time in a disused church in his sister's home village of Hope. With him are a group of actors, some in the offseason from seaside shows, all with their own neuroses and the film charts the rehearsal process and the production. It very much follows the structure and style of the Hollywood backstage films from the heyday of the studio system, except with obvious nods and influences from sources as diverse as Woody Allen, Ealing comedies and silent cinema.

Branagh says that it isn't autobiographical, but when Joe describes his passion for the play, that he saw it when he was fifteen and it changed his life that's exactly what the director has said about seeing Jacobi at the RSC all those years ago. His motivation for making the epic film version of the play later mirrors one of Joe's needs here - to try and make something which has a reputation for being musty and boring and making it exciting for a new generation, essentially dragging out of slow amateur schoolroom readings.

Having tried acting and been around a few actors I can absolutely say that the film captures the brilliance and pain of the art, the fact that it can boil down to bringing the deep seated emotional crap that you try to suppress up to the surface in order to entertain others. But what is really clever, is that having suggested from the opening that all of the characters are pretentious and affected and everything everyone expects actors to be - John Session's raving queen and Richard Briers grumpy old man, for example, in a series of carefully chosen two-handers he carefully peels away the surface and reveals them to be perfectly normal people like us, absolutely aware of the mask they're otherwise wearing to get by in the profession.

I think the film was derided at the time as another opportunity for Ken to give his chums something to do, but I thought it was unfair, particularly since it allows them to reproduce the fragile chemistry that any short term group dynamic has but also because many of them are producing what I think are career best performances. People like John Sessions or Celia Imrie, so often stuck playing grotesques and eccentrics are brilliant here when demonstrating the serious side of their all too camp exteriors. Gerard Horan, latterly typecast as policeman is beautifully touching as Carnforth the man with the drink problem. To be honest the only weak link is Jennifer Saunders with her mad American accent who looks like she's charged in from a Comic Strip skit, but there no doubt she's fulfilling the role of the big producer redolent of the genre.

The film is composed rather like a something from earlier in that century - most of the action plays out in medium or wide shots in deep focus with the actors moving into the foreground and back again creating the effect of seeing characters on a theatre stage - there are very few close ups and they only appear late in the film as the group is fractured and the infighting and arguments have begun in earnest. There are montage sequences, such as the audition process and the costuming but Branagh uses a series of jump cuts and juxtapositions to move the story forward.
Branagh employs lighting akin to film noir which fits the mood of the play in production and there are some lovely compositions as the actors walk in and out of silhouette.

Noir is also implied in the costumes that are finally selected for the production within the film which have a kind of 40s gangster style - and there's a spectacular use of a machine gun which accentuates that idea which I don't want to give away. There's also very little music. The film opens with Noel Coward singing 'Why Must The Show Go On' and ends with a plucked instrumental version of the titular Christmas carol. It's a brave stylistic choice but it gives room for the actor's performances to provide the emotional core and make the one musical moment from inside their story - when Nina (Julia Sawalha) sings Ophelia's lament - all the more heartbreaking.

It has dated slightly. One of the jokes hinges on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers which to be honest seemed out of the date at the time although the target audience will at least have heard of it - I'm not sure what the equivalent now would be - probably Xbox or Wii. Also, when Nicholas Farrell's Tom is auditioning for Laertes, he goes into a wild digression about how relevant Hamlet it and mentions that it's like Bosnia. That would be Iraq now I suppose. One element that hasn't aged is the crucial plot point of the filming of a giant sci-fi trilogy that could be the new Star Wars, especially since we've actually had a new Star Wars trilogy (coindentally featuring Celia Imrie as a fighter pilot) and since and everything seems to be about pre-planned franchises and series now.

Some other things I noticed watching it again the other night - the (uncredited) puppet theatre girl in the audition scene is Katy Carmichael who played Twist in the sitcom Spaced. The brilliance of the acronym LCA - Less Crap Acting. Joan Collins as Joe's agent gives probably her best performance since classic Star Trek's City of the Edge of Forever. That Maloney is the best Doctor Who we never had and is completely wasted playing the range of wackos always seems to now in tv dramas - this is the man who stole Juliet Stevenson from Alan Rickman in Truly Madly Deeply after all.

Stylistically different to anything else what Branagh has directed but still with that love of theatre and theatrics, it touches me each year and even with the darkness, somehow manages to put me in the Christmas mood. There is a scene in which people talk about what makes their life worth living and someone mentions Brief Encounter and offers to buy someone as a present. Do yourself a favour and hunt a copy of this down in time for next Christmas because if you're a reader of this blog I really think you'll enjoy it.

Soup Safari #35: Sweet Potato and Butternut Squash at the Best Bites Cafe.

Lunch. £3.00. Best Bites Cafe, Williamson Art Gallery and Museum, Slatey Road, Birkenhead, Wirral, CH43 4UE. Phone: 0151 652 4177. Website.

Soup Safari #34: Leek and Potato at The Waterhouse Cafe.

Lunch. £3.65. The Waterhouse Cafe, Victoria Gallery & Museum, University of Liverpool, Ashton Street, Liverpool, Merseyside L69 3DR. Phone: 0151 794 2348. Website.

Soup Safari #33: Sweet Potato at The Waterfront Cafe.

Lunch.  £3.95.  The Waterfront Cafe, Museum of Liverpool, Liverpool Waterfront, Pier Head, Liverpool L3 1DG. Phone:0151 478 4545. Website.

iPlayer Shenanigans.

TV For various reasons I've spent a lot of time using the iPlayer lately notably since programming became available for a month. Some notes:

(1) The Roku 3 app is broken.

 There are black bars at the top and bottom of the screen obscuring part of the picture and no, not because of the ratio of whatever it is that I'm watching. Here's Ian Hislop becoming increasingly cross on Have I Got New For You, as per the Roku:

Notice the top of the BBC logo is cut off.  And in the same shot on the Chromecast:

Which is I think you'll agree is really annoying.  Luckily I have both, but accessing programmes is much, much easier on the Roku, without the rigmarole of having to connect to the Chromecast then navigate through the iPad app to find the latest Helen Castor documentary. According to this Twitter user, it's been like this for months:
Which isn't like the BBC, they're usually right on top of this sort of thing.

(2)  Last week's issue of the Radio Times remain immensely useful.

Although the iPlayer has its categories and schedule functions, both require a lot of scrolling this way and that and prodding or clicking to find out what a programme is about.

But the schedule is still available in an usable format in back issues of your usual listings magazine (which in my case is still the Radio Times).

When I have a spare twenty minutes now I glance through the past week's issue and add anything I might have missed to my favourites and even if I still don't get around to it, iPlayer remembers it anyway and it'll reappear when it's inevitably repeated (which is especially true of BBC Four).

(3)  I miss the RSS feeds.

The iPlayer used to have RSS feeds which updated when programmes were added that couple be run through filtering programmes creating alerts on certain keywords.  They recently turned them off to be replaced by a new API which looks somewhat complicated and isn't properly available to the public yet.

(4)  Archive and Exclusive categories.  Also more subcategories.

I've mentioned this before, but it would be great if the iPlayer had categories for the old programming they upload and for exclusive content.  The former's pretty easy for find via the BBC Four Collections page and the latter does have a page but both are seem to be updated manually by a human and in the case of the latter not everything appears.  The Premium Bond thing isn't there, for example.

It would also be handy if iPlayer took Netflix's lead and included a few more subcategories.  The BBC Music category is becoming increasingly bloated because it dumps everything in together rather than separating between genres and delineating between music and music-related (ie, documentary and interview) content.  The documentary category does have some delineation in a drop down on the website with names like "crime & justice" or "life stories".  Why can't I just look at the classical or jazz content in music?

(5)  Alerts

Which is partly related to (3) and (4) but it would also be useful if there was an alert system for when exclusive and non-broadcast content (including red button) is uploaded to the iPlayer.  There's a whole bunch of stuff, concerts and such, which hasn't appeared on a main television channel which could easily go unnoticed unless a viewer or listener happens to be viewing and listening at the right moment to be directed there by a presenter.  Sometimes items are mentioned in the weekly BBC newsletters but I've resorted to setting up IfTTT email alerts for the @bbciplayer and @bbcarts feeds (and @bbcarchive) to plough through to see if anything crops up.

Otherwise, carry on iPlayer.  You're a modern technological marvel.