Tag Archives: play

DVD Review: The Halfway House (1944) from Ealing Studios


If you are yet to enter the competition at Flickering Myth to win a copy of Ealing Studios production The Halfway House on Digital Versatile Disc, I do suggest that you hurry up and get a move on. This is a film worth seeing for three very good reasons. Pay attention ladies and gentlemen and I shall outline them for you.

Firstly The Halfway House is a fragment of history, a slice of our country’s past, and an especially engaging and vivid one too. For those of you enjoying the developments in three dimensional cinematic viewing or perhaps partial to the high definition of your colour television sets, it might be rather off putting that this is a film presented in mere black and white. I readily admit that I am not an avid viewer of black and white pictures myself.

I can assure you though that the lack of variation in colour is more than made up for by numerous other qualities. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that it added to the charm of the film. In any case, this is top notch black and white, because The Halfway House has been digitally restored to a wonderful standard, so that it is, to all intents and purposes, as good as a modern day release.

This film was originally released in 1944 and judging by references to the date during the plot, filmed in 1943. It is therefore significantly influenced by the context of the ongoing Second World War in Europe. A number of the characters have lost friends, colleagues and relatives during the conflict. Others are affected in other ways.

The Halfway House is somewhat inaccurately and crudely labelled as a horror but in reality it is an interesting infusion of ghost story, fable and propaganda. The propaganda element is particularly fascinating and marks the film out as a genuine historical artefact. It is not overdone to affect the level of satisfaction for a modern audience, but certainly during the conclusion an Irishman’s change of allegiance from neutrality to supporting the Allies is noticeably underlined.

The second principal reason you should see The Halfway House is the impressive and rounded characterisation, forming part of a touching and timeless narrative. Whilst the historical background to the plot is crucial to setting it apart from modern releases, the quality and nature of the storytelling is also no longer replicated by studios today.

The first half of the film introduces a wide range of characters across Britain (showcasing unusual scope and variety of outdoor locations for Ealing Studios), each with their own problems, from terminal illness to divorce and criminality. The second half then brings all of these characters together at The Halfway House, a Welsh inn that may or may not have been destroyed by fire. The kindly and wise owners of the inn, who speak almost poetically at points, help the guests to help each other. Gradually they all gain perspective on their issues and worries by taking time out from the everyday grind. Such an intricately woven moral is still just as relevant today.

The Halfway House is superbly acted, even by modern day standards. It has a marvellous script that seems to transfer something from the original play by Denis Ogden. Primarily that something is dialogue which allows characters to breathe and grow convincingly, as they would on stage. Somehow The Halfway House is full of excellently fleshed out characters, despite the ensemble cast.

The third key reason for seeing The Halfway House is that it is tremendously amusing. Part of that humour arises inadvertently from the old fashioned and outdated formal register of the dialogue, which I have tried unsuccessfully to mirror regularly throughout this review. In certain situations the tone and accent of 1940s British speech, along with that persistent formality, is unavoidably hilarious.

However most of the comedic moments are intentional, with a mixture of fabulous and average one liners on show, alongside character humour enabled by their believability. One moment in the opening segment, in which we meet a dodgy dealing crook, is amusing due to role reversal; our criminal dismisses an employee for NOT having a criminal record and lying about it. This is also an example of one of many moments where the war has turned things upside down.

As if those three major reasons alone weren’t enough to at least have a go at the competition, there are also too many minor points of interest to mention. Director Basil Dearden has been underrated for years, only to be steadily recognised more and more recently as a groundbreaking filmmaker, with films like Victim starring Dirk Bogarde challenging taboos long before that was easy to get away with and just an arty saying. His direction here is simple for the most part, with the exception of one smartly edited action sequence which could fit into a modern film, but effective and professional. It’s remarkable enough they were making films as entertaining as this with the war raging on.  

Good luck in the competition! But basically make sure you see The Halfway House when it’s released on the 20th of June. It’s an unseen and unappreciated classic of British cinema.

Doctor Who: Series 6: Episode 4 – The Doctor’s Wife


Am I getting overexcited if I say that this episode had everything? The Guardian series blog says that at its heart this was just a story of love between a man and his car, “perfectly pitched”. But I think that’s a simplification of the abundance of ideas in The Doctor’s Wife and a misunderstanding of the bond between Doctor and machine. If the TARDIS is a car it’s the fastest and most exclusive vehicle on the roads. And the machine is so deeply rooted in Time Lord culture, carrying such a magical image with divine possibilities, that its equivalent as a car would have to be the very latest model opening up the world for travel in a time of horse and carts. The Doctor, after all, is more than just a poser in a Porsche; he’s an adventurer, explorer and conquering genius. And the TARDIS is his home, the one constant in his lonely existence.

There is too much to talk about after such a spot on execution of a tantalising premise. I had not heard of Neil Gaiman before this week but he brings a distinctive and fresh feel to this episode, with its industrial junk and grimy Victoriana costume. Yes we’re clearly in the classic setting of a quarry, but it isn’t samey; the set is wonderfully lit and decorated to create a unique rubbish dump environment.

 His glittering CV in sci-fi and fantasy is evident everywhere but Gaiman also grasps the history of Who and mines it for inspiration. More than any other incoming writer he creates a fan fest for die hard followers. The focus on a personification of the TARDIS and distress calls from Time Lords such as the Corsair, provides the pudding for lifelong Whovians, whilst the running around corridors is a classic treat many newer fans will have missed from the RTD era.

But it’s not just running around corridors. With the jaw dropping concept of the soul of the Doctor’s beloved blue box transplanted into a woman, it would be easy to gloss over the scenes with Amy and Rory. There’s no doubt that the Suranne Jones and Matt Smith double act steals the show. However the scenes with our married couple continue running themes of Moffat’s reign, raising further questions about the story arc.

What is it with constantly killing Rory? Mysterious and powerful entity House, brilliantly voiced by Michael Sheen, twice kills him with his hallucinogenic tricks. He also turns him against Amy, which is something many are saying might happen for real later on. There are chilling psychological scares with “Kill Amy” daubed all over the walls and some classic Whovian prosthetic frights with the tentacle strewn beard of the Ood.

What next? How about the marvellously creepy and eccentric Auntie and Uncle, both “patchwork people” continually “repaired” by the sadistic House? They add a delightfully quirky touch with touches of humour as well as menace. And Auntie, with what many might have missed as a throwaway line, hints at the story arc of Amy’s pregnancy. She grabs her and says “House loves you” and given that House feeds off of Time Lords or at least their TARDISes, are we meant to take that as a hint that the regenerating child at the end of The Day of the Moon is Amy’s? How on earth do the Doctor and Amy have a child? Is this just an elaborate red herring?

Enough speculation and back to the genius of this episode. House is a great idea for an adversary for the Doctor, an intelligent “entity” and one that simply wants to feed off of Time Lord energy, whilst also having fun with his food. The lovely sci-fi idea of a “bubble on the outside of a soap bubble” of the universe was also introduced through fantastically playful dialogue. Suranne Jones, effectively playing the TARDIS, did an absorbing and varied job of realising the rest of Gaiman’s excellent lines.

Indeed Gaiman’s script was perfectly structured as the TARDIS adjusted to human form, moving the character from nonsense, by degrees, to harmonious cooperation with the Doctor. This is an episode that really rewards a second viewing, as all the seemingly mad ramblings from Idris/TARDIS at the beginning, turn out to be quotes from later in the script or confused foresights from the time machine of what’s to come. For once the accompanying episode of Doctor Who Confidential was a total joy, as Gaiman read extracts from his screenplay that sounded more like intoxicating poetry and far better in many ways than the action brought to life in the episode itself.

Other odds and ends then: Matt Smith was excellent, getting the chance to be emotional, crazy and angry and determined. If we didn’t get many answers relating to this year’s story arc, we did get some partial ones to age old questions about the TARDIS and the Doctor’s past. For one thing we finally ventured beyond a control room. Ok the budget didn’t stretch to that swimming pool, but there was a lovely cameo from Tennant’s old control room. The TARDIS, given a voice, was at pains to say it was she that chose the Doctor to see the universe, not the other way around. And a satisfying explanation for all the random thrills and battles with evil: “You didn’t always take me where I wanted to go,” /”But I always took you where you needed to”.

After last week’s enjoyable run around, The Doctor’s Wife was a romp, romance and refreshing ideas episode rolled into one. Hopefully Gaiman will be persuaded to return and deliver the kind of one off story Moffat used to do so well. Next week The Rebel Flesh looks set to bring back some sort of Cassandra like creature. But things still look dark, dingy and dangerous.

P.S Are all humans like this? Bigger on the inside?

Black Shorts for the Edinburgh Fringe – Play Submission 2: The Debate


The Debate

Two men sit across from one another at a small table. They both have coffees. A’s is untouched, B regularly sips from his.

A: How would you do it?
B: Pills probably.
A: Yeah?
B: Yeah.
A: I can definitely see the appeal of pills.
B: I mean in a way it could be awful…
A: (interrupting) But they’re always to hand.
B: Yeah exactly.
A: I know what you mean though don’t want it to go wrong.
B: No.
A: Looks really amateurish if it does.
B: Yeah you wouldn’t want all the questions, the officials, the procedures etc.
A: Absolute nightmare.
B: Yeah right, worse than things were already.
A: Mmm.
B: Actually like you say pills are a bit dodgy and low key. I always imagined I’d go out with a big bang, something spectacular like.
A: How do you mean?
B: Well I’ve often pictured it, you know sketched it in daydreams.
A: Go on.
B: There are these cliffs at the coast near where I live. You can drive right to the edge almost to park your car.
A: Yeah. Are we talking Beachy Head-esque?
B: Not really. Isn’t like I have a loved one to jump hand in hand with.
A: Nah me neither.
B: Yeah.
A: So?
B: So?
A: What would you do?
B: Well I’d still take a good load of pills. Then I’d tape the locks down inside my car, in case some survival instinct kicks in if I land up in the water.
A: Mmm.
B: Then depending on where I manage to park, either drive off the edge or just let the handbrake off. Ideally I should accelerate I suppose for added impact and in case some good natured passerby attempts to stop me. But then I’m not sure what the pills would have done to me by then…
A: It’s certainly dramatic.
B: Yeah and a reasonable fail safe.
A: What about people below?
B: Yeah there is that. I guess I could do it at a time of night when there’d be no one about, have a quick check first.
A: And definitely nothing could stop the car?
B: Nah. There’s a rope at the most between you and a rocky fall.
A: There’s still a chance you could end up trapped and awaiting rescue with horrific injuries and no escape.
B:  I don’t think anything’s full proof though.
A: No I guess not, certainly not 100%.
B: And the pills would hopefully take me beyond rescue.
A: Yeah.
B: And like you say, it’s dramatic. I don’t see the point unless it’s more thrilling than the monotony of life.
A: Of course there’s a point, escaping that day after day pain.
B: How would you rather do it?
A: I’d rather a gun. Classic roof of the mouth. But fat chance of getting hold of one.
B: I wouldn’t know how to go about that.
A: Yeah exactly.
B: I’d be scared of just mutilating my face too. Isn’t like I know how to use a weapon properly.
A: Oh it’s pretty easy I think.
B: You reckon?
A: From what I’ve researched I think I could do it. Over in a flash.
B: Oh right…
(A lengthy pause)
A: Do you think that we all discover the same truth? Or something similar?
B: Sorry?
A: I mean, do you think that no matter what the personal reasons, everyone that decides to do it uncovers some sort of universal fact? Like a kind of enlightenment. That it’s all pointless.
B: Umm…I guess it’s possible. Certainly they must all reach roughly the same conclusion about the world.
A: They?
(Another long pause)
A: Has something always defined your life?
B: That’s quite a vague question.
A: I don’t know how to express what I mean.
B: That’s alright. The most worthwhile things are difficult to articulate.
A: Yeah I agree.
B: So give it a try.
A: Well for me…well I guess that truth I was talking about is for me that everyone has a particular conflict that defines them. For me it’s always been a conflict between a desire to make a mark, make a difference, leave some sort of permanent bettering legacy behind and an overwhelming fear of being alone. I don’t think everyone’s conflict is the same, but I think everyone has one. And I think that those of us who decide to escape that conflict have seen the one truth there is.
B: Which is?
A: Life is an insurmountable challenge. You can’t reconcile that conflict, you must choose between one or the other.
B: Which did you choose?
A: What do you mean?
B: Did you choose to make a mark or to avoid loneliness?
A: I chose nothingness.
B: Because you couldn’t succeed in either?
A: I think so yeah. It’s better than the panic.
(A pause)
B: Don’t you have friends?
A: Of course, technically.
B: What do you mean “technically”?
A: Well they are acquaintances. I disagree with that old saying that you can choose your friends but not your family. I was always just lumped together with people; my “friends” were as determined as my relatives.
B: Well determinism is a whole different debate.
A: Is it? Most things are connected, probably underpinned by that.
B: To an extent. But I’ve had the illness I told you about all my life, and it didn’t stop me achieving certain things. I was limited but not beaten by it.
A: Mmm.  
(Another pause)
A: Thank you for agreeing to meet me.
B: It’s no problem, I find it interesting.
A: Interesting?
B: Yeah people won’t discuss this sort of thing openly, sometime it’s more difficult with people you know.
A: Yeah. Why do you think that is?
B: I’m not sure, too uncomfortable I suppose. People let their guard down online.
A: I know what you mean. But normally it’s…it’s just…
B: Sexual?
A: Yeah.
B: Yeah you delve through a lot of scum for something resembling conversation. It’s not really a good place to search for it.
A: But it’s the only place.
B: Exactly.
A: What about a date?
(B nearly chokes on his coffee)
B: What?
A: Would you rather do it at a particular time of year?
B: Oh! Well I don’t know…I guess it’s more about when you feel you’ve had enough.
A: Yeah.
B: Do you have a favourite date for it then?
A: The 6th of September.
B: That’s soon.
A: I know.
(Short pause)
B: How come?
A: What?
B: Why then?
A: It used to be the date we’d usually go back to school.
B: Were you unhappy at school?
A: Not especially.
B: Ok.
A: I don’t really know why. I don’t tend to get things done unless they have to be, by a certain date.
B: Yeah I get that. It’s impossible to motivate myself sometimes.
A: Yeah same.
B: And I completely understand what you mean about life being this whole, this unconquerable and insurmountable thing. There are so many things I want to do but the reality is I won’t even manage half of them. Even books I want to read, they just sit there on this imaginary checklist. It’s not just about time…
A: Yeah you want to do it but it’s like you don’t have the energy reserves.
B: Yeah or not even energy, just the will to do it sometimes.
A: Perhaps it’s because you understand the futility of it all underneath.
B: Maybe…maybe yeah…(checks his watch) Blimey I better be going I guess!
A: Oh right ok…Somewhere you need to be?
B: Yes meeting with a student.
A: Ah.
B: This was really interesting as I said. I talk about ideas in my work all the time but this sort of blunt; stripped down conversation…it’s intellectually refreshing!
A: Intellectually?
B: These things are usually off limits I suppose, for “civilized” conversation, but they’re facts of life like anything else.
A: Intellectual facts right?
B: I’d love to meet again. Are you free at the same time on the 10th? I have to say I’d never have thought a meeting with someone from online could be so rewarding. You tend to think it’s all just superficial, all fake on there.
A: That’s after the 6th.
(A pause)
B: Wait…you’re not…you’re not actually serious about…about all this?
A: (hesitates) Course not… (forced laugh) Course not, course not, God no!
B: You’re alright then?
A: I’m alright?
B: Ok for the 10th? Here again?
A: Yes, yeah why not.
B: (standing to leave. Puts some cash on the table) My shout!
A: Right.
B: (walking away to exit, calls back) Till the 10th then!
A: Yeah.

Super injunctions: Why should I care if the dressing room is full of whores?


This week super injunctions have once again, ironically, been in the news, largely thanks to a confession from the BBC’s Andrew Marr. He believes the balance has strayed too far in favour of gagging the media, despite having his own super injunction to conceal an affair. He supports the call of many to put the rules back in front of MPs for debate. Why should such extreme privacy only be available to mega rich politicians, TV stars or footballers?

 They may be able to keep a lid on certain stories with their fat cheques but they can’t stop us discussing the issue itself. And it’s a difficult and ethically complex problem. On the one hand we can’t have censorship coming before free speech, but to live in a free society privacy is also important. Continually we are told that if a story is in the “public interest” it shouldn’t be hidden away under lock and key. But what does that actually mean? The hypothetical (but all too common) “footballer and a prostitute” scenario, is wheeled out by both sides of the argument again and again.

Those speaking up for the principle of super injunctions argue that what anyone does sexually is their own business, just as their health or bank details are. Footballers are private individuals that just happen to be prominently in the public eye. But the reason they are so closely studied by the media and their fans is not what they do off the field, but on it. Any personal problems they may have, whether it’s the fallout from shagging Imogen Thomas, an addiction to scratch cards or a fear of candyfloss, should be resolved in their own time and space without intrusion.

On the other hand of course the opponents will bellow in outrage that footballers are role models for our children and should behave as such. They may be talented but with such lucratively rewarding contracts they should act responsibly in return, and concentrate on delivering the best performance they can, week in week out in a professional manner, without the distraction of off the field turmoil. Season ticket holders, investors and fans in general may all feel justified in wanting to know whether their star striker is wasting his wages and fitness on whores after training sessions.

I have to say I have more sympathy with the pro-privacy side of the argument, when it comes to footballers and their whores at least. Of course with the ludicrous money they’re earning they should be focusing on giving our clubs’ the best they can offer on the pitch every weekend. But frankly I don’t care about their numerous and identical scandals. It’s an inevitability that young men, their wallets brimming with cash, end up disgracing themselves and living dangerously. If they can play brilliantly and indulge their dirty hobbies in private, then so be it. I don’t watch football to judge morality.

It’s only when the scandals are published that they become disgusting influences on our children, when the role models become corrupted and misery heaped on the club and the player’s personal life. And as for the “public interest” argument, there are minimal grounds for exposure for the genuine good of the population. The public’s interest in rumour and gossip is another matter altogether to their wellbeing and rights.

Ignore what I just said though. I may not be at all interested in hearing of their latest filthy fumbles, but for everyone to turn a blind eye would mean the disrespectful bastards get away with it time after time. Enough of them already escape the consequences by wielding their wealth for a super injunction or a quiet payoff for the mistress. Countless clowning cocks lucky enough to play football for a living probably simply get away with it because they’re not good enough, or famous enough, for anyone to care if they cheat on their wives and the mothers of their children.

There will undoubtedly be cases when it’s best and fairest if privacy is maintained. There will be others with a real and pressing “public interest”, far more vital than a lustful midfielder’s latest lay, that must see the scrutinizing light of publicity. The only sensible way to deal with the issue is on a case by case basis.

When it comes to football though, like it or not, there is a paparazzi culture for finding out the bedroom deeds of the Premiership’s so called “stars”. The players know this is a fact of life as much as we do. If they want their right to privacy preserved the only way forward is for them to start behaving gratefully and respectfully. They should appreciate what they have enough not to jeopardise it. There’s no need for super injunctions without scandal in the first place.

The Art of the Short Story – Reading and Writing Challenge Month


For weeks now I’ve attempted to absorb myself in the art of the short story. Not just to read lots of new ones and re-read old ones, but to look closely at their composition, compare their merits and work out why it was that these fleeting snapshots of life seemed so much more like art than their beefier cousin, the novel.

At the end of my blitz of numerous tales I feel at once wiser and just as ignorant. The fact that my study of these stories has been so intense, the fact that it was indeed a solitary blitz, meant I had much less time than I would have liked to dissect, contrast and concoct thoughtful, satisfactory points and conclusions. This mini task within the greater, rushed whole of Reading and Writing Month has certainly not proved to be the magic pill I might have hoped for; I have not morphed into a masterful writer myself simply by consuming such a renowned, diverse range. But I am glad I was ambitious and wide ranging. I feel as if I’ve discovered intriguing examples I’ll be able to return to again and again as an inspirational template and model for my own work. Or works I’ll re-read simply to marvel at and endlessly reinterpret and enjoy.

Even prior to this challenge I found that a certain type of short story would leave me baffled. It would feel as if I’d barely read what could be called a “story” at all. Ernest Hemingway was one of the particular authors that could simultaneously make me feel cold and unmoved and fascinated. At A-Level I studied Cat in the Rain and for this challenge I read other tales from Hemingway’s “First Forty-Nine Stories” collection, including Homage to Switzerland and One Reader Writes. One Reader Writes is barely two pages long and feels as though it were lifted straight from an experiment in a creative writing class, as the narrator, clearly barely literate, attempts to write a letter about her husband’s syphilis. Homage to Switzerland presents three almost identical but also very different conversations at a railway station in Switzerland.

This last story is more typically Hemingway. He simply paints the picture of a scene to the reader; who watches. It takes the rule of “show don’t tell” in storytelling to the extreme. It points towards any number of possible truths about the characters, just as the famous Cat in the Rain does. The reader is left to interpret, as if watching a scene from a play. Indeed the quote from The Guardian on the back of my Hemingway collection sums up, what in the end, is his subtle brilliance:

“The author’s exceptional gift of narrative quality gives the excitement of a well-told tale to what is, in fact, a simple description of a scene” (my emphasis)

Here then is the first vague, hardly groundbreaking truth I began to comprehend better about short stories; that they can show us the many, differing qualities of a specific scene, much like a play. They can have as much or little drama as the reader (or the audience) chooses them to. Their brevity and focus also means that short stories encompassing a substantial sweep in time become harder to write. They’re also more likely to succeed if they contain dialogue. I do not say light-heartedly that dialogue is easy to write, but simply that good short stories rest on their ability to show us things in flashes, like a play. This is easier to do with well written dialogue. The professional looking winners, submitted by amateurs, to last year’s writing competitions, for Summer and Halloween in The Guardian and Telegraph respectively, mostly contained convincing dialogue, from which the reader can infer.

Chekhov was of course a playwright and this might explain his aptitude for the short story. In an insightful and enlightening introduction to a collection of Chekhov stories, Richard Ford makes a number of points about the merits of Chekhov’s writing that can also be applied across the board to short stories. Firstly he highlights how teachers were always telling him it was the sheer economy of Chekhov’s writing that others tried to replicate. As he concludes though, whilst this was evidence of accomplished craftsmanship it was hardly remarkable. What Chekhov did to elevate his writing, what made them art, was to expose universal, everlasting truths of the human condition still relevant today. His stories, the most famous of which being The Lady with the Dog, went against convention by taking established forms and zooming in on their less explored aspects. Like poetry, or a well executed play, Chekhov slowly makes us accept facts of existence we knew to be true all along; he simply crafted the circumstances and phrases to express them.

And yet short stories don’t all have to be masterfully subtle scenes, open to endless interpretation. The subtlety helps and it certainly doesn’t do any harm to have the fine focus of a scene. But they can also be the seeds of future novels, as Haruki Murakami’s Firefly became Norwegian Wood or symbolic essays on ideas. If I had to categorise the stories I have read, and I don’t think it would be wise to, I would divide them between these focused scenes and explorations of a particular idea. Fiction, in this condensed form, can be a far better, fuller examination of any idea than a hard written essay. Short stories can also better express something, without all the trappings and requirements of a novel.

In a refreshingly frank and interesting introduction to the collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Murakami talks about the difference for him, as a writer, between short stories and the novel. As always I find his distinctive Japanese symbolism captivating, even when he’s not crafting anything creative:

“To put it in the simplest possible terms, I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden. The two processes complement each other…”

Certainly there is substantial crossover in style and themes from Murakami’s novels to his short stories. Like his most celebrated novels, these tales are often heavy with nostalgia, sentiment and emotion. I mentioned ideas, but Murakami is a writer more interested in feelings and moods. His short stories allow him to explore these moods in isolation, touchingly and with symbolism. Many of his stories are symbolic and for me at least, irresistibly enthused with ingredients like adolescence, love and Japan. He is also an old fashioned storyteller in the sense that his short stories are often told by a character, or have happened to a friend of the narrator. Stories are currency to be passed around and retold, often based on perplexing coincidence that cast life in light or shadow.

Among my favourites from his collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman was A Poor Aunt Story, apparently one of his youthful, inexpert creations. This was a story with a symbolic idea at its heart, as opposed to someone’s emotional journey; the narrator wanted to write a story about a poor aunt, only for one to appear stuck to his back for the world to see. It seemed to me a wonderfully poetic way to make a point about the forgotten members of society, the pieces in the background.

Murakami also has the knack for the occasional, sensational and fantastical funny tale. A perfect day for Kangaroos, Dabchick and The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes were all witty and amusing. Other personal favourites from the collection included: Hanalei Bay, Where I’m Likely to Find it (wonderfully mysterious), The Seventh Man, Hunting Knife and Birthday Girl.

Like Murakami, Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer excellent at moods, and I thoroughly enjoyed his atmospheric collection “Nocturnes”. This was five stories of music, love, nightfall and heartbreak. Here we find another string to the short story bow; loosely connected stories, that are quite separate but as a whole unite to portray one emotion, one truth or experience.

So finally then, to ideas. Whether they are sci-fi musings such as the poetically described automated house, with all its rhythm and life, in There Will Come Soft Rains from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, to Thomas Mann’s more intellectual and philosophical ponderings via his protagonist in Death in Venice, the short story can properly showcase them all. Mann’s masterpiece is a superbly written meditation on obsession, love, beauty, youth, art, ageing, inspiration and everything in between. It’s also just a damn good story, with an impressive sense of place, created from very little, compared to the time devoted to beauty and reflection.

Stories need not replicate the sweep of Mann’s success to be brilliant of course; I’ve already praised the narrow focus of the genre. They can deal with aspects and ideas within a grander theme. From the collection of love stories, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, The Hitchhiking Game by Milan Kundera and Lovers of their Time by William Trevor, stand out. Kundera’s story for its exploration of role-play and the need for a balance between meaning and fun in a relationship; what he calls “lightheartedness and seriousness” (reminded me of his unique philosophical novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being). And Trevor’s for its portrayal of the decay of love over time.

My three favourites from my fleeting trawl through the form then: The Hitchhiking Game, Death in Venice and Murakami’s Where I’m Likely to Find it.

Thus concludes my inadequate summary of the art of the short story. But as I say, I do feel enlightened and extremely excited to have reignited the joys of reading and writing.

The i: Media revolution or pointless newspaper flop?


At Waterloo station the other day I finally succumbed to curiosity. I found myself staring blankly at a WH Smiths emblazoned with a small red letter “i”. In just one moment, demoralised and waiting for a train, all the hype and advertising culminated for me. It was only 20p, let’s see what all the fuss is about. I lugged my stuff over to the store, handed over my solitary coin and headed for a drink to dissect the nation’s latest news phenomenon.

Or is such a big deal? I sit here with two copies, having purchased a second for the purposes of writing this piece. And from the outside it doesn’t look so extraordinary. Sure I’m familiar with the concept, the image they’re trying to sell. It’s a concise compilation of news and opinion, an intelligent but manageable information snack to be devoured by your busy city type. It ought not to appeal so greatly here in my rural setting, and yet the first two local shops I tried were sold out yesterday. Not just a paper for commuters rushing through London terminals and underground stations then? Perhaps it does have some foundations of longevity; having said that, it could simply be the novelty buy of the moment.

If you’re reading this and saying to yourself “what on earth is i?” I am frankly astounded. I don’t believe you can have avoided the marketing blitz accompanying its release. It adorns the side of London buses, plasters newspaper stands and rules the ad breaks at times. The strap-line at the top of the front page reads: “As seen on TV: Britain’s concise quality paper”.  They’re fully aware of the exposure i is getting and I’m guessing the idea is to hook regular readers early. The dirt cheap price will be crucial to the appeal, as will the two key selling points; concise and quality. It’s broadsheet meat in tasty tabloid nuggets.

Essentially it’s a bite-size version of The Independent. The fact that it’s The Independent launching the i does bode well in many respects; The Independent is the newest established national paper in this country. Launched in the eighties it knew how to exploit gaps in the market with price, design, image and politics. Nicknamed the Indy, it used the slogan “It is. Are you?” at its birth in 1986. Such lines show that even back then this was a paper that knew how to bag itself a target market of aspiring intelligent types looking to distinguish themselves from The Guardian or The Times. It would be simultaneously liberal and opinionated, and respected and trusted. In 2003 it took on a tabloid format, which begs the question, why the need for the i?

The clue is in the name. The i is unashamedly jumping onto the Apple bandwagon. We arrive in a new decade, the teenies or whatever follows the noughties, grappling with the coming of the iPad. The iPad seems to herald a new media age in a lot of ways. Countless commentators and reviews argue over its purpose, with many concluding it does not have a particularly functional one. In technology the iPad is halfway between a laptop or netbook and a smartphone or iPod. It fails to do certain things these old staples do so well, whilst also doing some new things no one is quite sure whether we want yet. Most reviews also conclude that the iPad is so much fun, it scarcely matters what it’s for. It’s an inexplicable indulgence, until the content starts to catch up.

 But unavoidably the ethos around the iPad is the direction of travel, the way things are going. People want everything they do, everything they consume, to be aesthetically dazzling and finely crafted. They want to look cool when they read the news and they want to feel cool. They want it to be easy but still be well informed afterwards. They want colour and images. The i is the newspaper equivalent of the iPad; it’s well designed and bright and fun, but it hovers in a new uncertain territory between purposes. Is it broadsheet or tabloid? Paper or magazine? Light or heavy news?

At first I was reading the i trying to work out whether it lived up to its brief of “concise quality” sufficiently, and even if it did, whether it was good enough to warrant such a category of publication. I mean can’t even the busiest person simply selectively scan their favourite paper? I was judging each article to decide whether it had the depth of broadsheet and snappy digestibility of tabloid. The selection of topics for articles is certainly suitably intelligent, with nothing too light or smutty about cheap celebrities creeping in. On the snappy front the opening double page has a “news matrix” with summaries of the day’s top stories, so the reader has at least an overview of everything. This does seem surprisingly handy.

In fairness to most of the articles about serious stories, they do an admirable job of cutting right to the point without being patronising or watering the issue down. But unavoidably there is an unsatisfying lack of depth. Everyday there is a fairly substantial opinion piece however, which can’t be accused of cutting corners. Indeed the opinion section of the paper is a good example of successful fusion between manageable and satisfying content. An “opinion matrix” summarises views from other publications, a bold and genuinely informative move in keeping with The Independent tradition, adjacent to an article from one of their writers. I really like that it quotes other papers, and I imagine the average commuter without the time to buy and read a range, does too. There is only the one opinion piece per day though.

This week the content of the i has been somewhat heavy on anti-Murdoch sentiment, what with the ongoing hacking story and the takeover of Sky forever raging, which I found tiresome. It’s of course admirable to expose such stories, under reported in other papers, but it compromises the potential for other news and comment in such a small paper, and also The Independent tradition of staying above the fray (despite an undoubtedly left-wing reputation).

The television schedule is well designed, split as it is into categories with key programmes, and a smaller list with the all junk underneath. Ideal for those that work all day. There’s also a section called “iq” which seems to be dedicated to the likes of style and recipes and again has a good balance between brevity and depth. The arts area of the paper seems somewhat recycled each day, with film and theatre listings and descriptions; no reviews. Not being a businessman I wouldn’t know if the business section was adequate, but it has its own “news matrix” which seems a good, broad introduction to all the main action of the day. The sports pages are really quite short but do touch on all the main issues; football transfer gossip, Six Nations, Andy Murray.

After all this analysis though I remembered how crucial the comparison with the iPad is to understanding the i. Frequently I toy with it in those cavernous Apple stores, knowing full well I haven’t the funds for such an extravagance or even if I would use it at all, should I win the lottery or rob a bank. But every time I go in for a discrete fondle of the touch screen, that indescribable feeling Apple manufactures so well washes over me. That feeling of being at the forefront; the vanguard of technological advancement. As if I’m in an incredibly cool sci-fi film, not my mundane life. That feeling of childish play, somehow fused with the realisation you’ve arrived as an adult with the James Bond gadget to prove your maturity and success. Look at the tech they let me unleash! Behold the luxuries that make up my exciting everyday existence!

Like the iPad, the i is a symbol of a life style choice, a lot more than just a paper. Now it might be the case that your choice of paper has always been a significant indicator of outlook and ambition, but the i is a heightened version, harnessing the 21st century Apple fever. It popularises that choice and makes it available to the masses as a statement of intent. “Look at me, I am intelligent but too busy to stop, I’ve arrived!”

Even if you don’t consciously think this, the colourful design and appeal of the i put it on that similarly luxurious plain to the iPad. It really is well designed, easy to read and pretty to look at on some pages. And why shouldn’t intelligent news be a pleasure to look at? Why does it have to be bunched in dense text and an excruciating eyesore? Especially when you’re jammed in like sardines on the tube. The colour coded pages help you swiftly find what you’re looking for and the multitude of colour photographs let you feel the news, experience the world, rather than simply read about it. Like the touch screen of the iPad, the i feels interactive at times and immersive despite its concision.

One thing that really baffles me is the continually shabby state of The Independent website following the launch of the i. To truly capitalise on the stylish Apple-like aesthetic they’re cultivating with the i, they would lure people to their equally swish website. But for ages The Independent’s website has been the drabbest online newspaper around. Some would simply call it functional, with its white background and lack of trimmings. But a hideous mustardy brown colour is used across the top and the font is squat and awkward to read. It’s a real shame, because it’s so bad it often puts me off delving into the regularly insightful, impressive content, which has real depth that goes beyond the snippets in the prettier i.

I would do well not to push the comparison with the iPad too far. The i lacks the level of interactivity and excitement cutting edge technology like the iPad can provide. It is, at the end of the day, a slimmed down newspaper. But its design and marketing reflect a cultural trend. There’s nothing wrong with what the i is trying to achieve, and it’s admirable in fact to see something try and keep print publications fresh and competitive. The threats of the iPad and the internet could jeopardise journalism and courageous solutions are needed. The i does the right thing by embracing the challenge of our new aesthetically obsessed, Apple stuffed world, rather than denying it. With its colour, cool and seamless advertising spaces and refreshingly un-patronising news, the i has the potential to be more than an early 2011 fad. Crucially, at 20p, you may as well give this stylish “essential daily briefing” a whirl, before properly digesting your preferred daily in the evening.

Unconventional style: Inglorious Basterds, Juno and The Ghost


(some spoilers)

The most stylish person in a room looks different to everyone else. Often the first step to style, the boldest move towards quality, is doing something different and distinctive. A lot of the time these risky moves will end in tears but some people just have the knack for it.

Three such people are directors Quentin Tarantino, Jason Reitman and Roman Polanski. Recently I’ve watched some of the best known, latest works of all of these men and it’s clear they’re endowed with the lucky gift of success when embracing the unconventional.

Firstly Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds is such a fascinating, intriguing picture. Events within the plot and elements of the execution bear Tarantino’s sensational touch – leading Nazis weren’t slaughtered in reality in a cinema in Paris – but that does not mean there aren’t serious elements to this film too. On the surface it’s a simplified, warped version of history, with a non-existent band of American Jews exacting revenge for the Holocaust, which wasn’t widely known about until the discovery of death camps at the end of the conflict. But at the very least it’s a sumptuous exercise in the best of filmmaking and with its faithful use of various languages, does say something factual rather than fictionalised about the misunderstandings and deceptions of war. It’s also, somehow, hilarious.

As the film’s star Brad Pitt says in one of the interviews on the Blu-Ray disc, this film plays out more like a novel. It’s broken into chapters, the first handful of which establish the characters and the rest bring them together for an explosive, visually stunning finale. Only a few of these characters are typical and expected for the wartime context; the French farmer in the marvellous opening scene for example. But the rest are Tarantino creations. They’re extremely vivid and engaging but also wild, sometimes implausible extremes, almost as if plucked from the pages of a striking graphic novel. Somehow the director/writer makes them wonderfully believable and then gives them bags of room to play in his chapters, which often consist of one, long and extended scene.

The opening scene establishes the marvellous character of the “Jew hunter” played by Christoph Waltz. There are some splendid, picturesque shots of the French countryside, followed by a wonderfully tense dialogue scene indoors. The interrogative German is sinister through his politeness, only to reveal the true nature of his visit. Other scenes in the film get similar space to breathe and come to life, in particular another edge of the seat, tense encounter in a tavern. This is the film’s longest scene and is incredibly realistic and satisfying as the spies, including the wonderful Michael Fassbender, attempt not to blow their cover. Language again plays an important role, and does so throughout, becoming almost another character. Often Inglorious Basterds feels more like a play, only for some explosive action to remind you that only a film could deliver such thrills, laughs and intrigue. Ultimately the spot-on dialogue, lengthy scenes, exploration of language and sensational characters and events, is not only stylish but says something worthwhile about the war.

All of these films say something worthwhile. Juno chips in with messages about taking people at face value and what really makes relationships work, as well as challenging views of young people. And The Ghost, whilst being primarily an impressive exercise in storytelling rather than a substantive study of politics, does have some underlying messages about identity and ethics.

If you had one word to describe Juno, chances are it would be “quirky”. Anywhere you look online you’ll find this label plastered to the film’s witty face. Personally it seems an unfair, limiting term for such an intelligent, funny, well-acted production. But I guess it is undoubtedly true. Juno isn’t your average teenager. She’s witty, quick and cynical. She wasn’t used by some sex mad male but got knocked up by banging the best friend who’s crazy about her out of boredom. She sets about helping a deserving couple, rather than unthinkingly obliterating the fledgling life inside her.

The couple she decides to “donate” her child to are almost as important to the story as Juno. Played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, they are the grown-up heart of the film, the crucial counterpoint to Juno’s usually happy exuberance. All the cast deal superbly with fast, funny dialogue, including Juno herself, Ellen Page, as well as her Dad and Step-Mom, J.K. Simmons and Alison Janney. And of course the love that suddenly blossoms at the end with Michael Cera, is wonderfully touching and encompassed by the duet which ends the film.

Of all these films it’s The Ghost with the most stylistic flourishes, perhaps ironic given the everyman Brit accent adopted by Ewan McGregor. There are no jaw-dropping stunts in this film; all the drama comes from the story and suffocating, tense locations. When crucial, potentially stunning events occur in the plot, Polanski deals with them with the utmost style. The film starts by simply showing an abandoned car to heighten the mystery surrounding the death of the previous Ghost Writer, rather than showing a spectacular murder scene. At the climax of the film McGregor’s character is abruptly hit by a car out of shot; we only see papers scatter and swirl in the traffic, littering the street.

Rich in detail, in The Ghost we learn surprisingly little about anything ever. Polanski somehow captures the Dan Brown like, page-turning twists of the novel and distils them on film, whilst also adding a layer of intelligence to the swerves of the plot. You are gripped, determined to keep watching for the big reveal. A reveal cunningly disguised throughout and then stylishly unveiled with an anticipation building close-up of a gradually passed note. The Ghost is immensely enjoyable and stylish; I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

So filmmakers do something different, unpredictable and restrained if you want to make it big and be lavished with praise.

Jackass 3D


Here’s how I expected Jackass 3D to play out:

Annoying American Moron 1: You ready for this man?
Annoying American Moron 2: Yeah dude, ready as I’ll ever be.
Annoying American Moron 1: Ok man brace yourself.
Annoying American Moron 2: Oh Christ dude wait up…
Annoying American Moron 1: 1, 2…here it comes man…3

(Some form of speeding projectile crashes into Moron 2’s private parts)

Annoying American Moron 2: Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!
Annoying American Moron 1: Bulls-eye man!
Dimwit Onlookers: Hahahahahahahaha awesome!

(Close-up of throbbing impact area, rendered an unappealing, dangling reality by the magic of 3D)

Repeat scene to fill film.

This still isn’t a million miles from several scenes in Jackass 3D. Needless to say their painful, sickening stunts are more inventive and impressive than my example, but imagine my surprise when I didn’t find the American morons annoying. Imagine my even greater surprise when I left the cinema thinking of Jackass 3D as the finest example of 3D technology I am yet to see and a film that gets back to the exciting core of the genuine movie experience.  My previous experience of the Jackass franchise had me fearing a series of painful experiments on the man vegetables, but this turned out to be so much more than that.

Firstly then the use of 3D. Jackass 3D’s title sequence is nothing less than a visual spectacular that leaves other films I have seen through the Elton John style magic shades in the dust. Avatar resembled a video game most of the time for all the ranting and raving about the uniqueness of the experience, and for me there was miniscule wow factor in watching a poorly conceived game I couldn’t even play. Similarly Alice in Wonderland was an arty, surreal cartoon and Toy Story 3, despite its brilliance in other areas, an animation. There’s still a feel of artificial computer generation to the wonderfully distinctive action sequences.

In Jackass however there’s no sense of fakery or techno tweaking to the visuals; just silly, outlandish, dangerous, exciting stunts, performed by real life humans, in exquisite, vivid detail in front of you. The title sequence is full of colourful and crazy costumes and sets. Best of all it’s a slow motion compilation of a series of outrageous set pieces that brilliantly use 3D. A ceiling fan is decimated, smashed to smithereens by the head of a flying moron. Paint balls fly out of the screen at you. It’s all obviously purely performed and crafted to justify the 3D of the title, but a film like Jackass, with no conventional requirements like plot, gets away with it. And the reason it all looks so spectacular is because someone could afford to just play with 3D for once, rather than make an ordinary film and chuck a few gimmicky effects in somewhere.

Whilst the rest of the film comes nowhere near to the 3D wizardry of the opening, apart from an explosive, debris strewn end, it has its own charms. And when 3D effects do occasionally pop up throughout, they are all the more impressive and appropriate for being shots of real things: plumes of water leaping from the screen, a party popper inflated by on-demand fart reaching out of the screen towards you. When the 3D effects aren’t deployed though this is still an enjoyable film, finishing just as you start to become mildly bored by it all. Well perhaps enjoyable is a poorly chosen word. Certainly watching a room full of men puking after drinking the “sweat suit cocktail” and a man propelled skywards in a porta-loo full of shit, is far from enjoyable. These scenes have the whole room collectively groaning and looking away, chuckling with embarrassment and suppressing the gag reflex.

Other scenes are genuinely enjoyable and funny, such as the opening “high-five” gag in which various members of the Jackass team are floored by a giant hand, and the “electric avenue” tazer gauntlet challenge. Again the entire cinema gasps and giggles at the pain. And much of the humour here comes from the irresistible on-screen camaraderie of a group of idiotic, thrill seeking guys having a good laugh. They’re rarely as irritating as I feared; you’re sucked in by their games and the sight of full grown adults clinging to the joys of childhood.   

Frankly it seems stupid to dwell on what Jackass 3D isn’t. It obviously lacks the conventions of an ordinary movie. It won’t be for everyone. But by being different it gets back to the core of what movies are about. Going to the cinema should be a group experience in which rows and rows of people are provoked into a reaction; an ooh, an aah, a chortle or a scream. Good cinema sparks conversation afterwards. Jackass 3D shocks the audience. It ticks all the boxes and by properly exploring 3D technology, finds itself at the cutting edge of filmmaking. Most of all though, it’s damn good fun.

On London/Birdsong at the Comedy Theatre


I have fallen in love again. How refreshing though that it’s not a woman that is the focus of my affection, but a city. Like a woman, this city is indifferent to me, but unlike with women this vast, inexpressible indifference merely adds to the irresistible charm of the place. I like feeling insignificant and anonymous within its boundaries, in fact I positively relish the sense of oblivion. The hustle and bustle, the noise, the possibilities; it all submerges every little, trivial concern I might have. I drown in the ocean of seemingly limitless fuel for my imagination and oh how good it feels. To feel simultaneously satisfied that I am gradually gaining a geography of the place, whilst barely scratching the surface of what is really there, of all that’s on offer. Gorgeous girls galore, lines and lines of landmarks, tearaway taxis, bulging buses, teeming theatres, pulsing pavements and many marvellous museums; it’s all there. If variety is the spice of life then London has a hot twang I am acquiring a ravenous taste for.

But now I am worried, I do not have my next trip lined up, pencilled in the diary. I am hungry for the city and fear the withdrawal symptoms. Having only recently discovered the joys of walking the capital I crave the stroll crammed with sights and sounds. How can anything else compare? Things simply happen in London. And on such a majestic scale that it still feels like the centre of a world empire, still feels like a great, churning engine of commerce that could achieve so much. There’s so much to discover. I’m not one for shopping, unless it’s an awe inspiring jaunt through the grandeur of Harrods, not buying anything but soaking up my surroundings. And yet this weekend the scale of the shops in London surprised my senses and seduced me. Why I don’t know, I’ve always known they were there, been there before. But this time I found myself thinking how wonderful it would be to able to pop out from home, my own base, to these places, perhaps with one item in mind, only to leave with others you forgot you wanted or didn’t know you did. I could have spent hours and hours trawling through books, it seemed impossible that they would not have what you wanted and even if they didn’t there was bound to be at least three or four alternatives you’d never have thought of. You’d feel nervous about the state of your bank balance and a little guilty, but in an exciting way; how could life ever be boring? And in some places things were cheaper anyway! What am I still doing out in the dead limbs of the countryside, when everything gathers there at the heart of everything?

Of course I know this is naive and not everything about London is great. I felt pursued by Cafe Neros the whole weekend for example, to such an extent that my train even passed one of their out of town storage facilities. They seem to have an outpost on every street. It’s either them or Pret A Manger, or often both. And I know perhaps a prolonged stay might have me cursing the dirty grime and toil and danger of city life. But increasingly now, in what I would like to think of as my clearer moments, I am realising that “life is islands of ecstasy in an ocean of ennui”, as The Dice Man puts it, and London is the sort of place that the islands are more frequent. I mean for me at the moment simply a glimpse of the skyline is thrilling and I can’t imagine that thrill ever dying out completely. So I think I’ve decided as one of my life’s few certainties that I want to live in our glorious capital city, even if I must wait a few years: London is the goal.

Anyway onto the main event then, after the distracting diversion of my musings. I was in London yet again to see a stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ successful novel Birdsong. It seemed appropriate that I would see this acclaimed First World War story dramatised a day before Remembrance Sunday, but insensitively inappropriate, if only in a trivial way, that the home of the production was the Comedy Theatre on Panton Street, just around the corner from Trafalgar Square. Whilst there were moments of comedy in Birdsong this was hardly stand-up and the key overarching themes were mainly grim and immensely serious. Nevertheless I swallowed my grievances about the suitability of the theatre and purchased a programme.

Perusing it prior to the start of the play I was intrigued by the sensitive artwork and pleasantly surprised to recognise a number of the performers. I knew Ben Barnes, of Prince Caspian fame, was playing central character Stephen Wraysford but couldn’t really care less about his previous body of work. However Nicholas Farrell has an impressive stage, film and TV CV. I think it was predominantly Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet that I recognised him from, in which he played Horatio. But he’d also been in Torchwood and Spooks. Spooks is one of my favourite series, not least because of its endless vistas of a glamorous London, and I was delighted to find that Isabelle Azaire, the main female love interest of Stephen, would be played by Genevieve O’Reilly, who played a double crossing CIA agent in the last series, working for a shadowy secret organisation and seducing MI5 officers with sultry American tones. The other most recognisable face was that of Lee Ross, playing the role of vital sapper character Jack Firebrace, whose credits included Eastenders and The Catherine Tate Show.

I did have slight misgivings about the fact that Farrell would play both cruel, unloving French husband Rene Azaire in the early scenes and Captain Gray later on, just as Iain Mitchell would play both the insufferable French oath Berard and then the insufferable English oath Colonel Barclay. But both actors produced such accomplished performances that I was willing to overlook this choice of economy. In fact in my view Farrell’s experience clearly showed and he was the highlight of the play in terms of quality acting. I had wondered if the performers would adopt French accents for the French scenes but was relieved they did not, with Farrell differentiating between his two characters sufficiently with a well executed Scottish accent for Captain Gray. The fact that everyone was speaking English in France was dealt with as matter-of-factly and skilfully as in the novel, with one of the characters remarking at some point that Stephen’s French was excellent, for which he thanked them.

I had always liked the novel by Faulks. In fact at the time I had first read it I was enthralled by it. A friend of mine remarked the other day that it had felt too much like a novel and I know what she means. It feels terribly contrived at times and is riddled with cliché and the play does not get away with them so well. I really should have re-read the book in order to properly critique the play and also in order to recall whether or not it was truly as good as I remember. Perhaps I was simply seduced by the period as the war fascinates me, as well as the romance, I’m a hopeless romantic. But from memory I know that the narrative sucked you into Stephen’s predicament so you felt strong ties with him. What I liked was the way the powerful and passionate love scenes early on gave Stephen a back-story and purpose that differentiated him from the usual heroes of the trenches. The book is rich with incident and historical detail but is not overloaded with it; here I disagree with my friend. I have read historical fiction that makes a fetish of research, David Mitchell’s latest The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet did it for long periods, but Birdsong did not. In Birdsong the focus was the emotional and timeless themes of humanity.

Some of the most affecting and accurate of these themes are difficult to express in words on a page, let alone dramatically on stage. There’s no doubt that a lot of what is good from the novel does not successfully transfer and the shame for the play is that Rachel Wagstaff tries to convey Stephen’s motivations and musings poorly. Neither Wagstaff’s writing nor Ben Barnes’ acting is up to the long passages in which Stephen is supposedly composing thoughts for his diary, alone at the front of the stage. Much of the first act, in which Stephen falls for the married Isabelle, is driven by his private reflections. Of course it was always going to be impossible to transform the explicit, erotic sex scenes of the novel to the stage without creating a very different type of production altogether, but for the entire first act you can sense Wagstaff wrestling with the dilemma of how to convey the intensity of Stephen’s love adequately, knowing how vital it is to the events that follow. Somehow in the novel you get caught up and follow Stephen along, not questioning whether this is just seedy, passionate lust or misguided youthful emotions. In the play though when Barnes says “I love you and I always will”, each time it sounds childish and clichéd and I would find myself agreeing with my friend more and more. Barnes just seemed far too smitten in a sickening sense, rather than a stirring, moving one.

In the programme I found that Wagstaff’s first play had been called The Soldier and was set in 1915. So she was on more familiar ground in act two when the action jumps forward to The Somme in 1916 and a wartime setting. It’s disappointing that someone could not have done a better job of act one though as I know how riveted and gripped by it I was in the book and genuinely despondent to find the action skip so far ahead. And caring about the love story becomes so crucial later on. Nevertheless I am making it sound worse than it was. Despite the clunky awkwardness of Barnes’ soliloquy like sections at times, the actual scenes were passable to good, if lacking the emotional  power (and erotic excitement) of the novel. And act two was a considerable improvement, despite the tedious diary format continuing, only this time with working class lad Jack Firebrace’s toned down, simpler reflections on things and letters back home. Generally though the camaraderie of the front Wagstaff captures well, with the humour of jolly idiot Berard in act one replaced by male banter and the idiocy of officers.

Another friend of mine, this one a fellow fan of Birdsong, was eager to hear how the tunnels were reproduced on stage. For this was another unique feature of Birdsong’s take on the war: action in the competing tunnels both sides dug out beneath no man’s land for various reasons. There were communication tunnels, fighting tunnels and explosive tunnels for blowing up the enemy from below. Birdsong has nearly been made into a film several times and I always thought that the claustrophobic, atmospheric scenes in tunnels, particularly the shoot-out, would make dramatic action set pieces. And so they did on stage too. Much of the effect of being underground was created through lighting, with blackness enveloping the stage besides gentle amber glows at the front. The rest was done by a low overhanging wall that came about half-way down the stage. The actors would then crawl beneath this, before emerging into the front of the stage, further along the tunnel where you could stand. Then for the fight with German soldiers, when two tunnels found each other, dust poured out along with sounds of an explosion. The Germans emerged stunned and surprised, brandishing pistols at the elevated rear of the stage, looking down on the Brit characters at the front. Shots that smash your ear drums were fired and an even louder, brighter grenade thrown. I had never seen such exciting scenes on stage.

But then I’m still a relative newcomer to theatre. I now have the inclination to discover more of it (particularly the charm and sophistication of Shakespeare) but it’s a world that was mostly cut off to me whilst growing up. Edging my way to my seat was still an act of deft, death defying balance as far I’m concerned. This is not me moaning though; I absolutely love the look and feel of the theatre. Just to know the building oozed history compared to the local multiplex was so interesting and fascinating to me. And even my balcony seat, when suitably armed with £1 binoculars, was the best of both worlds; broad overview of everything coupled with close-ups.

In the final act Birdsong came into its own. Even Barnes, who had struggled to convince me he had the required acting heft to play Wraysford, upped his game a gear. It was now that I remembered how this portion of the novel was the most moving and the play benefitted considerably from ditching the unnecessary modern day section of the novel, which seemed to be there simply to reflect Faulks’ own experiences in researching the book. Faulks and Wagstaff had both been heavily dependent on the diaries of soldiers in their writing process, but the difference was Faulks had interweaved his research in a different, rich style, whereas Wagstaff had actually simply used the diary device in her drama; it seemed unimaginative and unable to truly engage the audience. In this final chunk of the play the lonely speeches at the front of the stage were ditched almost completely and when they were used they worked much better. There was also more time on stage for both Jeanne and Stephen, who had a connection I did not recall from the novels but was intriguing. Jeanne was wonderfully played by Zoe Waites. She seemed strongly drawn to Stephen, desperate to share her sister’s secret with him to ease his gloomy woe but too loyal to break her promise.

Then there were the big climatic scenes: a reunion between Stephen and Isabelle and a claustrophobic collapse that imprisons Jack and Stephen in the tunnels. I wish I could remember the novel better, as I have a feeling there were changes, particularly as I remember a bird being used in the tunnel and Stephen’s phobia manifesting itself down there. Generally though this theme was dealt with well, with some nice dialogue between Stephen and Jeanne when she tries to lift him from depression and they debate the merits and evils of Birdsong. The scene in which Stephen sees Isabelle again was so moving, far more so than the joyous larking about of the early affair by the river and despite these scenes not completely convincing me. I was so affected by the speeches about love, even with some corny, cheesy lines, that I had to rush to the toilet when the play had finished and dispatch a rash text to the one I love in vain; my equivalent of a drunken splurge of affection, so intoxicated was I by the drama that I simply had to tell her I loved her, it was all that mattered. The effect this scene had on me somewhat overshadowed the final scenes with Jack in the tunnel and the rescue and the end of the war. But these were also well done. I was so relieved the play ended on a high and overall there’s no doubt that it was a quality production, if a little flawed at times. From my recollections of the novel though it was never going to surpass its brilliance, merely echo it and be good in different ways.

The Song of Lunch/ The Fry Chronicles/The Road/South of the Border, West of the Sun


Trawling through various cultural mediums is for me not just a search for entertainment and means of passing the time but a hunt for reassuring truths, universal truths of life that we all share and when found elsewhere as better formed, well expressed versions of your own troubles offer satisfying comfort. I am no poetry connoisseur but when I do read poems the ones I enjoy speak to me for saying something true, often in the simplest of ways.

Take The Song of Lunch, a BBC adaptation of Christopher Reid’s narrative poem, recommended to me by a friend. Through the artificial constructs of art it says something true and genuine about life, rising above the reality of existence. Of course lunches with old friends are not the profound verbal duels shown here, they are not always feasts of slow-mo exquisite detail. But at times the language, the imagery of the poem is spot on and the sentiments exact. That feeling of so much change and yet so little. Those regrets impossible to accurately voice. The simultaneous significance and insignificance of everyday gripes like the noise of the next table, the disappointing wine. On the whole the dramatisation of the poem works well too and certainly the first half an hour or so is immersive and engaging. Alan Rickman’s lazy, lingering, drooling tones suit such a piece perfectly. You rejoice with his ageing character as his planned escape from the office comes off, via the “yawn” of the lift and enjoy his observations of the London crowds. The direction matches the poem well, vividly evoking stand out lines and images. The arrival of the old lover and the disbelief and resurgence of old feeling is also dealt with well, but as Rickman’s character loses himself amongst his thoughts the adaptation struggles to convey the essence of the words, resorting to overlong focuses on Rickman’s vacant, ogling face. During these moments the drama loses its urgency and coherence and even Rickman’s loving recital of the language, full of irresistible rhythm and emphasis, cannot avert awkwardness for the audience. Despite this and the sense that the adaptation worked best at the beginning, only to trail away, The Song of Lunch was a beautiful, meaningful and enjoyable watch.

Emma Thompson, the old flame and muse of Rickman’s character in The Song of Lunch, also features prominently at times in Stephen Fry’s latest and second autobiographical work, The Fry Chronicles. This book focuses on Fry’s Cambridge years and the formative years of his career, mainly in comedy. However the book joyfully flits about all over the place, touching upon all manner of topics. Forgive me for what is a very Stephen Fry-espque tangent, but the cover of The Fry Chronicles, by which I mean the covering of the book itself, is extremely attractive and I cannot understand the unrealistic snobbery of people who continue to adhere strictly to the old mantra “never judge a book by its cover”.  It is surely impossible today not in some, even wholly unconscious way, to judge or dismiss books based upon their colourful jackets. A writer can slave away at the world’s next great novel only for it fall flat on its face, or be devoured by entirely the wrong sort of audience, because of a wrong decision in the marketing department. Fry’s book is carefully kept simple, with a mostly pure white background and a tasteful picture of himself accompanied by the title in bold blue. The quotes selected for the cover go some way to conveying the essence of what is in inside. I have also bought and shall soon read C by Tom McCarthy, the expected winner of this year’s Booker prize. His publishers too have done a fine job of creating an enticing, attractive cover, reflective of the book’s content (a whirl of lines reflect the theme of communication) and informative (positive criticism expectedly prevails), without excluding anyone by opting for a garish pink. A nice touch to The Fry Chronicles’ cover is that the inside cover has a coloured stripe pattern that matches that of the socks Stephen sports on the cover and generally such colours would seem to represent his personality too.

Cover rant over, is The Fry Chronicles actually any good, jostling for position as it does with whopping political memoirs from not just Blair himself but his advisers and fellow New Labour architects and other assorted celebrities with bright, bubbling, amusing lives to share? The answer is yes and I have not even quite finished the thematic, slightly chronological trip through Fry’s memories as yet. Of course like any autobiographical work has its faults but Fry does his best to acknowledge them. It is also surely more entertainingly, amusingly and playfully written than a host of other similar works set to come out in the endless run-up to Christmas gift season. Fry’s book will ride high on the bestselling lists right up to the turkey dinner and beyond, and deserves to. Not only is it stuffed full of interesting content and fascinating anecdotal tales, but offers an enormous amount of wit, humour and personal, emotional insight; of the truth I search for on my cultural wanderings.

If anything the book starts slowly with a brief focus on Fry’s adolescent addiction to sugar, which if I am honest I found irritating and hard to relate to, but never boring as the sheer energy and wit of Fry’s prose carried me through this section. Once he reached the start of Cambridge however I could identify far more and I whizzed through this portion of the book. Every now and then Fry will interrupt the recounting of actual events to bemoan his lack of confidence and express his own doubts. He fears that he has become a jack of all trades, master of none and that he has squandered natural talents. It is comforting to hear a man of such talent and intelligence admit to such fears about topics as wide ranging as ambition, fame and relationships. He even hopes that his trials and tribulations are merely facts of the human condition, shared by all, and in so doing says something true. At times his refusal to analyse the failings of others as he examines himself is frustrating, with most name-drops also accompanied by gushing praise, but this is all tolerable as he repeatedly acknowledges he is too kind to be a critic, can be seen as arrogant and would not want to judge anyone but himself, in what is after all, an excellent autobiography first and foremost, as well as a snapshot of the entertainment world of the eighties (which Fry makes accessible to those not familiar with the era, as well as the ardent fan).

If Fry’s book is for the most part a light hearted, jovial glance at what it means to be human, set amongst manicured university grounds and the artificial, rich entertainment world, then director John Hillcoat’s 2009 cinematic imagining of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road is a bleak and brutal, stripped back stare at the core of existence. Unlike Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps which I reviewed last week, concluding that it had little purpose or idea of what it was, this movie has a strong narrative and never fails to engage, doing so on a number of levels. Early on we are struck simply by the aesthetics of a barren, apocalyptic landscape, the moving soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and the emptiness of father and son walking, emaciated and dirty. Then there are moments of genuine tension, excitement and action when the gangs, cannibal or not, emerge and threaten to discover our protagonists and then no doubt exploit or kill them. The scene where a gang member discovers the crouched Viggo Mortensen whilst taking a piss, clutching a gun with just two bullets left, bullets meant for his son and himself should they be necessary, is incredibly tense. It emerges that to be a father in such an environment means being just steps from being a killer. The film grapples with some big ethical questions around suicide, parenting and violence by placing them in a fictional, extreme context. Even without thinking about these deeply it’s impossible not to be moved by the bonds between Viggo Mortensen’s father and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s son, who both give excellent performances, or not to be gripped by the hard hitting action or grim scenery.

For me the most moving parts of the film were the flashbacks that revealed the boy’s mother choosing to leave the father and son, effectively choosing to die rather than go on living in a dangerous, frightening, fallen world. Viggo Mortensen’s character must deal with the fact she chose to die rather than be with them throughout the film as he clings desperately to life for his son. Again here I found that elusive truth that could resonate in my own life; people can do irreparable damage to each other, unimaginable hurt, just by living or in this case by choosing not to, but for her things were clearly so bad for it to be the only choice, the only path forward. This passive process, this capacity to senselessly destroy the meaning of the lives of others, is also recognised by Haruki Murakami in his novella South of the Border, West of the Sun.

I read this in its entirety during a series of train journeys this weekend and found it compulsive reading, for want of a better less clichéd phrase. This is the second Murakami I have read following Norwegian Wood and he seems to have an ability to articulate romantic feeling that I find fascinating, given the differences that perhaps ought to exist between Japanese and Western culture. He seems to capture some sort of universal feeling, especially when writing about the ambitions and frustrations of adolescence. His style is simple and elegant and full of spot on imagery, whilst always retaining a sense of urgency and passion. I could empathise with the narrator of South of the Border, West of the Sun despite our vast differences; he a wealthy, Japanese bar owner, facing a mid-life crisis and the return of a childhood sweetheart, me an ordinary student in Britain. I could share the agony of his conflicting desires and that sense that incompleteness will always prevail. In fact the novella seemed to conclude that such incompleteness was the only certain destiny of the human condition and that life will always be a meandering search for truth in vain.