Wolf Hall – one of the best things on TV in a generation

Wolf Hall BBC Hilary Mantel

I think that Wolf Hall probably has been the best thing broadcast on the BBC in the last 5 or so years. Sublime drama – pure Game of Thrones territory in its ability to capture the imagination (sans dragons and gratuitous sex of course).

I’d never even heard of the guy that played Cromwell – Mark Rylance – now lorded as the ‘greatest actor of his generation’. It was all rather devastatingly good though. I’m not the world’s biggest history buff but it brought that period home in spades. Visceral, political, real. Incredibly vivid and accessible, not dusty at all.

Go forth and watch it or risk revelling in your own philistinism!ūüôā

Birdman

birdmanposter

Well that was quite the most surreal movie I’ve seen in a long time.

I saw it at Lincoln Center last night which is one of the big cinema complexes here in Manhattan. However, as it only came out on Friday (and you can’t seem to reserve actual¬†seats like you can in the UK) – I ended up in a most unsatisfactory seat very¬†near the front on the right hand side. The chairs in the cinema are comfortable, but I really didn’t appreciate the viewing angle – up and sideways.

Bizarrely the movie isn’t out in the UK until the New Year. I’d thought that the days of long pauses between films making their way over the Atlantic were over? Obviously not.

I like Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton – solid line-up.

I’m not even going to try and¬†write any kind of synopsis. I liked the sheer craziness and quirkiness of it but I didn’t enjoy the physical experience in the cinema because of my seating set-up –¬†so that dented my enthusiasm.

I’d like to watch it again on DVD at home.

It actually felt more like a stage-play than a movie. The art-house/film-connoisseur set are loving it. Speaking of which, Lindsay Duncan seemed miscast in the NY theatre critic role. Just my 2c.

Pride – when striking miners and gay rights activists joined forces

pride movie poster

I saw Pride at the movie theater (OK, cinema!) at Lincoln Center yesterday evening. ¬†A really wonderful film – I¬†can’t recommend it highly enough. It features Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy and Dominic West among others. The whole cast was fantastic.

Best of all – it’s based on a true story from Thatcher’s 80s. A South Wales mining community –¬†marginalised, bullied and beaten down by the police and by the government of the time – is¬†supported and joined in solidarity by another much-maligned and ill-treated group – the gay community of that era. It becomes patently obvious that they have far more in common than they have that divides them. Although the miners’ strike was ultimately put down – as we all know – the lasting bond between the two groups proved instrumental¬†with respect to progress within the gay rights movement itself and how legislation was moved forward due to the power¬†of the miners’ block vote. See the film to understand what I’m talking about.

It was heart-warming, poignant, sad, uplifting, life-affirming. My favourite film of the year. Very highly recommended and you need not be gay, Welsh or a even a miner to connect with the story which transcends all of the labels. It’s a human story.

New York Times review.

Guardian ‘reel history’ piece.

Guardian background piece on the real story behind Pride Рwell worth reading if you enjoyed the film.

 

“Goodnight you princes of Maine, you kings of New England”

cider house rulesI’ve just finished reading John Irving’s The Cider House Rules. I feel a bizarre sense of ‘loss’ that it has taken me so many years to finally read this book. And it was something of an impulse – picking it up from the library at the beginning of September. I should have read it 20 years ago.

It is a masterpiece; desperately good; devastatingly evocative; though sorrowful and deep; not what I would call ‘feel-good reading’. But so epic; so sweeping. There aren’t all that many genuinely 5*+ books, but this is one of them. John Irving is – for me – an absolute master storyteller. His ability to create characters that truly come alive – and who live on in your mind, long, long after you’ve finished reading the book – is his enduring power. I can’t quite describe it.

The depiction of St Clouds (the isolated, Victorian-esque orphanage in rural Maine, where much of the novel is set) – triggered some of the most powerful flashbacks to my early years at boarding school – itself an isolated, old, Victorian assortment of buildings on the top of a windswept hill in rural Southern England. There was a boys division and a girls division, too. The parallels with the nurses (our boys dormitory adjoined the ‘san’ (sanitorium, the medical wing) were so strong; as was the parallel between Mrs Grogan and the kindly Irish matron we ourselves had, called Miss Coin. To be clear – I am not and thus was not – an ‘orphan’. But even so. There are parallels with ‘that life’ when as a child you grow up without your family. So it resonated on many levels and awakened memories that had lain dormant for almost two decades.

I first discovered John Irving way back, when I was a university student in Massachusetts, New England, in the mid 1990s. A person I was in love with (a long story and certainly beyond the scope of this blog; he was a Swede) had said to me that a book called A Prayer for Owen Meany had changed his life. I took that with a rather large pinch of salt but I did end up getting it out of the library. It was – and perhaps remains – the most unforgettable book I had ever read. I never talk about the book’s content or try to ‘unpick’ it; I’d much rather let others experience it for themselves, without letting them form preconceptions beforehand.

Wilbur Larch and Homer Wells (the two central characters in The Cider House Rules) now join Owen Meany and Johnny Wheelwright (from A Prayer for Owen Meany) in that pantheon within my mind – that special place where they will live on, in perpetuity.

As an aside – I came across this long, and interesting, Telegraph interview with John Irving from last year; it’s definitely worth reading.

Blackout (Channel 4; Review)

Blackout (Channel 4; Review)

blackout channel4I watched Channel 4’s film ‘Blackout’ last night. The premise is simple – the UK is the victim of a cyber-attack that brings down the National Grid. This power outage – that affects the entire country – lasts for several days (I think it was 5 days in total).

What this dramatisation sought to show was a rapid decline into lawlessness and ‘dog eat dog’. Imagine people ‘coming together’ and supporting one another? Uh uh. That’s not going to happen (according to this film). It was quite ‘edge of the seat’ stuff, much of it filmed (and told) through camera-phone and camcorder footage (think ‘Blair Witch Project’). The tension was certainly ratcheted up and the end was quite shocking. I thought the acting very good and the characters believable. They had an ‘every man or woman’ quality that made them easy to believe in.

Sadly – I don’t think that the scenario put forward by this film was ‘only the stuff of fiction’. I could see it happening. The London riots of a few years ago have made it very clear that such things are entirely possible here. The UK is an extremely individual-orientated (versus community-orientated) country and those scenes of neighbours not knowing one another, massive mistrust of strangers and the general feral instincts of some of society’s more unpleasant components were – to my mind – entirely plausible.

I’ve made this comment once before – but I think back to when I was last in France and engaged in a long, long conversation over dinner with a very ordinary British couple who have lived in rural France with their family for 10 years and who have said how entirely different it is – values and community-wise – vs the UK. I was struck again by that thought last night.

Anyway, if you’re in the UK and haven’t seen it – I recommend it. It’s presumably available on 4od for a while.

Et in Arcadia ego

brideshead castle howard

As part of my great northern road-trip we visited Brideshead (aka Castle Howard), not far from York. It is one of England’s ‘great’ country houses and is set in exquisite rolling parkland. It is still owned and lived in by the Howard family (whose lineage have owned it for more than 300 years).

Whilst Castle Howard is famous for being one of the grandest stately homes in this country – it is more famous as its alter ego – Brideshead – the home and setting of Evelyn Waugh’s masterful 1940s novel – Brideshead Revisited. The novel recalls those halcyon days – that English Arcadia – bookmarked by two great wars that would end forever with the outbreak of WW2. Those of us who reflect on that era – on that other Eden – with fondness and nostalgia, find the novel to be particularly powerful.

The two central characters in Brideshead are Charles Ryder and Lord Sebastian Flyte who meet as undergraduates at Oxford. For the holidays, Sebastian takes Charles to the family home at Brideshead and here Charles becomes enchanted – both by the house and the Marchmain family of which Sebastian is the youngest son. Charles’ and Sebastian’s own relationship blossoms into what society would doubtless dub a ‘romantic friendship’ – deep, profound, obsessive, platonic (- or not; that is left unclear).¬† In that era, romantic friendships – both male/male and female/female – were not uncommon among the upper classes.

Sebastian – dear, sweet, pretty Sebastian – still retains, as a young adult, his childhood teddy bear – Aloysius. I was pleased to spot Aloysius in one of the bedrooms in the house, as you can see below:

aloysius brideshead revisited castle howard sebastian flyte teddy bear

He is a rather lovely bear. And to those who recall the supremely good 1980s Granada TV 10-hour serialisation of Brideshead, here is a picture of Aloysius held by his owner Sebastian (played by Anthony Andrews) standing alongside Charles (played by Jeremy Irons):

sebastian flyte charles ryder brideshead revisited aloysius castle howard teddy bear

I should probably say at this point that the recent Hollywood movie remake of Brideshead has had very lousy reviews compared with the 1980s UK TV series – which you should buy on DVD if you haven’t seen it. Utterly brilliant and widely and rightly trumpeted as one of the best things to come out of British television in the 1980s.

Anyway, more of my photos of Brideshead:

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