Tuesday, January 26, 2010
You knew this one was coming.
Anyone who knows me at all will have come across my tea obsession in some form, as I’ve written quite a lot about it (a long poem and most recently, an article about its history in TTZ). The line that inspired me to write this now was “I don’t drink coffee, I drink tea, my dear” (which is from “Englishman in New York,” or more accurately, this video). Which is true of me, and I am an American—an an avowed tea drinker quite awhile before I came to the UK. What I am particularly crankifying about this time (instead of waffling on about the history yet again) is how disappointed a tea-fancying Yank might be if s/he visits Britain—depending on where s/he chooses to go.
If you expect everywhere in Britain to be like Devon or the Savoy Hotel, you will be disappointed. Tea is omnipresent—but I don’t think I would be too far from the truth if I said in its most basic form. If you watch the very first episode of New Who, you get an idea from Rose and Jackie Tyler as to what the common Brit drinks as their tea. It’s boiled from an electric kettle (which is an amazing object, it boils the water so quickly—we will come back to it), and is made in mugs with individual tea bags (quite possibly the cheapest kind, bought 80 for £1). Many people will pour a mug of mostly milk, dunk the tea bag in for a few seconds, and swirl around the hot water/milky mixture (“would you like some tea with your milk?!”). I’m not trying to be too toffee-nosed about this method—it often yields decent tea, and I will admit I drink a lot more milk in my tea than I used to. I will even admit I use the cheapie tea bags—though all the while the tea snob in me begs me to bring out the tea strainer and use real leaves. But I digress.
The point is, this kind of basic tea, perhaps with a biscuit, is the mainstay. Very few people brew their tea in a pot now, and even fewer drink loose leaf tea. (This is why, one suspects, Swansea’s Whittard of Chelsea went bust this time last year.) Unless you go to a London hotel or a similar hoity-toity establishment, you are very unlikely to see the whole smorgasborg of trappings that we, as Americans—am I not mistaken?—associate with the effete British and their tea. By this I mean tea sandwiches (cucumber, of course!), scones, clotted cream, lemon curd, and dainty tea desserts and cakes. Devon is another story, where you are served giant scones with jam layered first, then lots of clotted/Devon cream (I am told; I have sadly not been there). In this sense, the St James Tea Rooms in Albuquerque are more the stereotypical afternoon tea parlor (that exists only in memory now) than anywhere in the UK (that I’m aware of).
This isn’t a problem, unless that’s what you’re looking for. I’m cranky because I can’t find a place to get decent tea in the whole of Swansea (and Cardiff isn’t much better). My Welsh tea fanatic friend and I were discussing this, and we reckon there may not be a place in the whole of Wales where you can find that elusive tea room experience (though there is a nice place in Chepstow, I admit). Why should Wales suffer from a lack like this?? It isn’t as if people here are affirmed coffee drinkers (well, not very many of them). In every Welsh work place I’ve yet worked in, it is ALWAYS time for tea. It really indulges my tea fetish to the max to be offered tea every few hours. At work! Where would you find such a thing in an American office? Though sadly, since Whittard of Chelsea’s demise, it’s been hard for me to find new and exotic blends (Builders’ Brew is okay but occasionally you want something with a bit more nuance!)—Twinings is a reliable source and present in every grocery store, yet remarkably expensive for what it is.
I have done the London hotel afternoon tea experience, and the St James Tea Rooms, even if they are faux, are comparable if not more enjoyable than the “authentic” experience. I suppose it’s the last spoke in the wheel, turning from when tea was expensive and drunk only by the elite, to when it filtered down to the lower classes who used it as the centrepiece for their “tea” ie supper, filled with calorific foods so they could get through their tough working days. I can’t be wholly cranky, though, as I have found gems of tea experiences in far-flung places. Gorgeous tea at the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver (yes, I know, we’re back to North America again), Crabtree & Evelyn in Stratford-upon-Avon, Hands in Bath . . . and if I’m honest, the Dragon Hotel in Swansea does a pretty good afternoon tea, too.
I said I was going to come back to the subject of kettles: my Welsh tea fanatic friend told me of a group of students (boys, of course), who put tea bags straight into the kettle and boiled the water around them. That is, I’m sure you’ll agree, disgusting.
And who makes the Best Tea in the World™? My boyfriend, of course. Lucky me.
Monday, January 25, 2010
Lucifer Box, the name, is of course a joke in itself (and his sister is called Pandora!)—matches used to be called lucifers—and neither the hero nor the book take themselves too seriously, though there is a lot of blood and gore, the last scene is quite mad and monstrous, and the sex is more graphic than Torchwood. It has a really outstanding first line, He was an American, so it seemed only fair to shoot him. Like Bond, Devil in Amber is the sum of its settings: a Christmastide, Prohibition-era New York; a Norfolk island; and the Franco-Swiss border.
Lucifer is an artist and also a secret agent and though aware of his own gorgeousness, he’s also aware of his middle age. It might take some readers a bit of time to get used to the fact that(in his own charming metaphor), And, if like me, he travelled on the number 38 bus as well as the 19 (you can almost see Russell Tovey as Rex the bellboy gigolo!). I began to wonder if the book was going to be completely populated by men, but then the charming heroine Aggie shows up. Lucifer rather indulgently corrupts her innocence, but I was quite pleased that I understood the riddle of her name before he did (I rarely manage that). There are some very amusing secondary characters, more caricatures than anything else, such as Mrs. Croup, who’s obsessed with murderers (she made me think of Ma Tyler!!).
There are a couple of nods to Doctor Who, unsurprisingly, in setting, theme, and even little details like the 99 club, which is a speakeasy constructed from the R-99 which crashed (and should have killed Charley Pollard). No one can be trusted and everyone’s ripe for a double-cross. However, in a rather un-Who-ish fashion, the supernatural is taken at, er, face value and this is where the comparison with Indiana Jones seems most apt. This comes to a feverish pitch during the last scene, which actually gave me nightmares.
I guess what makes this so enjoyable is the confidence with which it’s written. The era and the conventions are as perfectly achieved as Patrick O’Brian does with his Master and Commander books, and the authorial voice is so assured, it’s difficult not to take off running with Lucifer from the first page.
David Tennant recently said of his experience of the US, “There’s a tidal wave of positivity, which sometimes obscures the truth.” He found Americans to be friendly and highly optimistic, more so than the whingeing, moaning, but perhaps more pragmatic Brits. That’s his view, and I think it’s shared by many. However, I’ve never found people in the US to be overwhelming optimistic and I haven’t found the British to be completely doom and gloom either. Maybe I’m just unobservant and not in touch with the prevalent national mood. Something I think to counteract this argument is the British attitude toward charities.
I’m not going to say that Americans are ungenerous, by any means. They open their hearts and their wallets all the time for worthy causes. But as a national institution, something that is highly visible in the workplace and on TV, I don’t think it compares to the way the British do charities. There are so many high profile British charities that are constantly on TV in a big way. Comic Relief is probably the first one I ever heard of (“Curse of the Fatal Death,” obviously). This is also known as Red Nose Day, and in November when this happens the shops are full of plastic red noses. The idea is for the ordinary people to do funny things in order for other ordinary people to pledge money for the cause. I find it amazing how many people actually participate, and what lengths (if not creativity) they go to for workplace and other social group schemes.
The willingness and frequency that British celebrities donate their time and talent for such charities is impressive. It also gives you such gems as the aforementioned sketch, ones from The Vicar of Dibley, French & Saunders, Top Gear, Only Fools and Horses, several Catherine Tate sketches (a really funny one is this pre-series 4 collaboration between Tate and Tennant), Deal or No Deal, Tom Jones and the cast of Gavin and Stacey, and so on. Many years ago Caitlin Moran wrote a column for one of the papers, remembering how when she was a kid, staying up for one of the charity nights (I can’t remember which) was a real event, like she felt like she was being a part of something. I saw this go out live last year, and it still makes me squeal.
Children in Need is another in this category, and it of course has produced such memorable moments as the brilliantly-written Time Crash (the end always makes me want to cry). In 2005 there was a tiny Doctor Who Children in Need Special that I didn’t see for many years, featuring a manic Tenth Doctor and a very frightened Rose. The completely bizarre Dimensions in Time was also a Children in Need Special, way back in 1993 (watch it if you dare!). And then there’s Poirot, Hollyoaks, Lark Rise to Candleford, Merlin, The Bill, Casualty, and on and on. As you may have gathered from this clip, (if you weren’t distracted by Richard Armitage’s leather trousers) the mascot of Children in Need is Pudsey, a yellow bear with a bandage.
Another very important and very visible charity (again, in November) is the Poppy Appeal, which is part of the charities headed by the Royal British Legion. The poppies themselves are a symbol from the poem “In Flanders Fields,” written in memory of the fallen in World War I, and indeed, the Royal British Legion was founded after that war. The weeks leading up to Remembrance Sunday will see thousands of volunteers give out millions of paper and cloth poppies to donors, which they pin to their clothes. (Of course in the US we have Veterans' Day, 11 November, which is duly marked with respect—but there’s not a visible sign like the poppies, other than the American flag of course.) Remembrance Sunday is also marked by a minute of silence and wreathes of poppies presented on memorials to the war dead.
There are likely a hundred more charities (I’ve donated to a few) but one unique aspect of life in the UK that is tied up with charities are charity shops. These are like thrift shops, but they are omnipresent. Run by volunteers, these small shops, some specializing in things like furniture and collectables, receive donations of almost anything from people, then sell them at very, very affordable prices. I love them, because in whatever way you support them, everybody wins. I have got some of my coolest clothes from charity shops and for very reasonable prices.
The appeal to donate to charities is everywhere, all the time: on Radio 4, there’s always a special appeal going, and different seasons and events bring different charities to the fore, besides the ones I’ve already mentioned. Finally, and this is what sparked this subject in my mind today, everywhere you go in Britain, you’ll see someone at the street corner selling The Big Issue. This is a magazine with content produced by the homeless, sold by the homeless as part of their job. I always feel guilty going by a Big Issue vendor, as I very rarely have the money to buy one, and they are everywhere in Swansea. I think it’s a good idea, and I try to support it when I can.
In my experience, British people play hard—they love their pubs and they love their long, boozy weekends. But I have never met a people so willing to respond again and again to the call of charity.
Sunday, January 24, 2010
This is a unique book in the canon of the BBC range, and I can imagine the commissioning editor getting very excited about it as Simon Messingham pitched it. I was told in my radio drama writing course that almost all plays start in one of a handful of ways: about a character; about a plot; about an idea. While you’d think the idea books would be plentiful in Doctor Who novels, most of them are really about a plot. The Doctor Trap is more about an idea, and as such I would say it’s at the more mature end of the range.
It does have a plot, of course, and it does have characters, though the antagonist certainly outshines all the others (since the others are, by and large, robots). The plot sees a mysterious being named Sebastiene (the extra ‘e’ drives me bonkers!) convene a group of world-class (or should I say universe-class?) game hunters and exterminators who kill for sport. He wants them to hunt the Doctor, and to make it easier for them, he’s lured the Doctor onto Planet 1 and made Donna the collateral. This premise, and the subsequent way the hunters act, made my stomach turn at first. The idea is a dark one and full of violence. The Doctor has taken on a legendary status, and while that would seem to make sense with the amount of times he’s saved the world, it’s a bit ridiculous—how could have any freedom of movement (and how could he go anywhere without being recognized) if his mythical status had gotten this out of control?
What really makes the plot thicken is Baris. Now, we all know the sharp, sarcastic bite of satire on fandom enacted on the Fan in “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy”—as the number one fan of the Psychic Circus, he is so excited to finally meet his mecca—and dies for the privilege of it. Baris is certainly shaped in that mold of cruelty—as the Doctor’s number one fan, he not only knows everything about the Doctor (which Clive and members of L.I.N.D.A could be said to aspire to), he’s been surgically altered at the behest of Sebastiene to look like the Doctor (down to DNA and an artificial second heart). The darkness factor just got increased. I don’t know if Messingham was aware of the Doctor/Donna and the meta-crisis clone pawned off on Rose in “Journey’s End,” but the idea of two identical David Tennants playing off each other not only has precedent, then, but it’s got a lot of dramatic (and comic) potential.
Like the Doctor Trap itself, the book then reveals its many layers of meta-fiction that the readers, the Doctor, Donna, Sebastiene, and Baris have to untangle. Like the very funny Batman comic that saw a tipsy role-player in fancy dress believing he actually was the Caped Crusader, Baris spends most of the novel trapped in the death zones of Planet 1 telling himself “I am the Doctor and I have to find Donna!” The real Doctor, masquerading as Baris, helps to keep Baris alive, but he’s playing a dangerous game—fortunately, he has mysterious (and never, to my mind, fully explained) help. Is Baris out to kill his hero? Or out to help him in the only way he knows how? How exactly he manages to survive as long as he does must be testament to some kind of strength of character.
Donna gets about ten pages of snatched-from-the-TV faithfulness before she spends most of the rest of the book with a crushed spirit and acting amazingly un-Donna-like. To be truthful, I think this book could have used almost any companion. It’s easy to empathize with Donna’s imprisoning in an alternate level of reality that isn’t a travel lodge in Bracknell, only pretends to be. Still, it puts the companion in a situation of true helplessness.
There are some nice touches, including a Raston Warrior Robot in Sebastiene’s trophy case (how did he manage to kill it, I’d like to know). In the final showdown, Sebastiene decides to go slightly steampunk, though I wonder if that was written in to match the cover, rather than the other way around?
It’s a fast-paced, well-written, very thoughtful book and rather turns the formula on its head.
Saturday, January 23, 2010
Pantomime season runs from December to February, which I think is one way of coping with the aftermath of Christmas when the year is still comparatively dark and wintry. As I squeezed into my seat in the upper circle last night for Robin Hood, surrounded by children, I remembered once again that a very big component of panto is children and their interaction with the characters on stage. It is very much a call-and-answer format, and in any panto you are likely to hear some variation on “Oh no, it isn’t!”/“Oh yes, it is!” and “he’s behind you!!” Particular to the Cardiff stage (at least I gather) is the actor Andy Jones playing a sort of fool character (Simple Simon in Jack and the Beanstalk, Will Scarlett in Robin Hood) who shouts, “Oggi oggi oggi!”, to be answered by a deafening “OI OI OI!!!” from the children. Similarly, the hero is always cheered, the villain is always booed, and if it’s John Barrowman playing the lead, his appearances are always heralded by squeals of delight and wolf-whistles.
You’ve probably figured out by now that the pantomime dame is a requisite part of the action: an older man dressed in outrageous female costumes complete with obvious bra-stuffing, etc. Interestingly, in this production, this was actually worked into the plot—ie, in most pantos, I take it, the dame is just there with no explanation given as to why “she” is actually a man. Don McLean, who was playing Friar Tuck, answered an advertisement in The Sun for a housekeeper at Nottingham Castle (!). This quickly descended into farce as the Friar was forced into more and more unlikely costumes. I have to say I think Robin Hood was a bit more obviously lewd than Jack and the Beanstalk. Certainly Friar Tuck’s bouncing bosoms meant boobs were constantly the focus of jokes—there was a very naughty dialogue between Tuck and Will via mobile phone—and there was a gaseous baby whose sole purpose seemed to be fart jokes, not to mention the dog puppet that squirted water from its rear end onto the audience. High brow, this is not.
The regional jibes were in full swing last night—the Sheriff’s men shopped at TK Maxx, Merthyr was a source of “monster speech”—though a masterstroke was Tuck singing “Chicken Korma” to the tune of “Nessun Dorma.” “You’re too good-looking to be in Torchwood,” was said from Tuck to Will, and when Robin made a joke about Susan Boyle, Tuck responded, “You only made that joke because her album is selling better than yours.” Robin said he could always hitch a ride with a Time Lord. “Who?” “Exactly.”
Of spectacle there was much. Sword fights, staff fights, big dance numbers, and a witch thrown in for good measure rounded out the first act; the second saw “Nottingham Fair,” complete with drum majorettes, a baby elephant, and a clown on stilts! Maid Marian disappeared on stage, Robin escaped death from dozens of metal spikes, and there was a fight between a Sea Devil/Godzilla and King Kong. Not to mention a very entertaining trip to Camelot so Robin could pick up Excalibur (the Monty Python Camelot, you see). There was another scene with staff training (literally!) where Andy Jones and Barrowman were trying desperately not to laugh at each other, that I think was supposed to be skewed toward US Army boot camp but I’m really not sure!
Cassandra’s cavern set pieces were quite impressive even though her inclusion only makes sense if you think of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (the female dancers were dressed as ravens and the male ones were in S&M gear!). The Sheriff, played by Pete Gallagher, was completely evil and not very imaginative, though he did perform a superb duet with Marian. Marian was played with all of Lucy Griffiths’ earnestness (though lacking the modern sarcasm—I have to confess, though, the whole thing made me want to watch BBC’s Robin Hood series 1 again). It’s curious that this panto lacked the oft-found woman-playing-a-man and the pantomime animal (a horse, usually, with two people playing the front and back ends). The final “wow” of the first act were Russian skaters on ice (no, really!) skating to “Everything I Do (I Do For You)” followed by Robin and Marian skating and singing to the same. Soooo cheesy—and yet, Barrowman was in fine voice for this.
During interval I got tapped on the shoulder—was I a friend of a member of the cast? I was quite bewildered by this question and sadly never quite found out what was going on. I didn’t have the traditional ice cream, and all the bars and lobbies were so crowded I couldn’t even get close to see what kind of souvenirs/food was on offer (I brought some coconut mushrooms to snack on!). The highlight of the second act was Robin disappearing from the Sheriff’s Spikes of Doom and reappearing in a box. Because he was leaning over to address the stage, it didn’t take much for an older lady seated in the box to smack Barrowman on the bottom. This flummoxed him, causing him to forget his lines and laugh hysterically. He encountered her to give him another whack, which she did. VERY HARD. I myself was cracking up at this point. “Meanwhile, back at the script . . .” prompted the Sheriff, more or less indulgently, from the stage. Later, when Robin beckoned Marian to join him and Will on an overturned log, he admonished the audience for its naughty interpretation. After that, all was lost as everything turned into an innuendo. When King Richard returned and Robin proposed to Marian, Barrowman spun as he got on bended knee, declaring to the audience, “I’ve turned.” OMG.
I didn’t think Robin Hood was as well-written musically or dialogue-wise as Jack and the Beanstalk, and it seems to me the sound levels were more oppressive than last time (I sat in more or less the same place). Still, John was all smiles, and since I know from his autobiography that this is the kind of work he loves to do, I knew it was sincere. He’s a gorgeous man, a good vocalist, and an entertainer well worth seeing live. At the end, we were encouraged to donate money to the Haiti appeal (£7000 had already been raised). I went to wait for Barrowman at the stage door, as I had a copy of TTZ to give him. Sadly he slipped out the front, disappointing me for the second time. BARROWMAN!! *shakes fist* Nevertheless, he’d sent one of the cast members to the stage door with signed postcards, one of which I took. The ride back on the late night train from Cardiff will go into the CRANKY YANK on yobs and chavs, I promise you.
I’m sorry to split it again, but there’s so much to say on this subject I have to break it up a bit. And the subject is pantomime, that last holiday tradition, more familiarly known as “panto.”
I’m going to quote now from what I wrote about panto in 2007, which was “published” in my Wales Digests as well as submitted to the BarrowmanOnline fan group after various people suggested it I send it to that group:
Now what is a pantomime, you may ask. It’s very hard to describe. I would call
it theatre’s equivalent to an amusement park, or a vapid, flashy, happy musical
mixed with improv comedy mixed with warped Mystery Plays from the Middle Ages mixed with The Bird Cage. I think it was Bernard Shaw who said that no opera
plot is sensible because in sensible life, no one breaks into song. I think that
is a good way to describe this panto.
It was actually called Jack and the Beanstalk, as most of them are based on fairy tales but retaining only the merest semblance of a plot. All the elements are there—brave Jack slays the giant, he sells his cow for a bag of beans—but there’s a ton of nonsense thrown in for good measure. Take, for example, the unexplainable habit of getting a man to play the old woman’s part. In any case, strange as I found panto to be, I also found it to be quite enjoyable. Audience interaction is a must, and with a
large group of children in the theatre, we had a very good atmosphere. The
supernatural characters, including the Good Fairy Daffodil (who WALKED on stage
in a cloud of smoke) and the baddie Flesh Creep, spoke in verse, but still were
able to bring in modern references. The damsel in distress Princess Apricot
Crumble was every feminist’s worst nightmare, but she did get to sing the
catchiest tunes. Speaking of which, the songs were all lifted from pop culture
with some minor changes (and everyone sang at the slightest provocation, of
course)—“I Can See Clearly Now” being one, “If I Can Dream” being another one,
“Don’t Feel Like Dancing” by the Killers being another one, “Toxic” being
another one (this had to be seen to be believed) and some more that I’m
forgetting. Along with the singing was lots of dancing by furrow-browed children.
Jack Trott, the hero, has a brother named Simple Simon who’s supposed to be seven, though the actor must have been 50 +. He also had a mother who was actually a man, but who got to wear the coolest costumes (I’d love to design costumes for panto!). Jack rode around on a Vespa while his mother drove a golf cart. One of the coolest parts was when they escaped the giant’s Cloud City to ride around Cardiff—which was achieved by means of a large movie-style screen which filmed IMAX style car’s-eye-view of Cardiff. Like riding a roller coaster! The giant was awesome, an eight-foot-tall animatronic monstrance like you’d seen on a Tournament of Roses float. The beanstalk was really cool, as well, though he didn’t actually get to climb it. There was a glow-in-the-dark section where dancers dressed up as butterflies and owls flew around.
And the jokes! Needless to say it’s not the most high-brow humor. But most of it is slapstick and kid-friendly, especially at a matinee. There was one part during a Simple Simon/Dame Trott scene where I could not stop laughing. And the potshots at Welsh cities were unmistakable—Port Talbot and Newport did not escape a lashing, and Swansea really got it. “If you enjoyed today’s performance, tell all your friends you saw it at the Cardiff New Theatre. And if you didn’t enjoy it, tell them you saw it at the Swansea Grand!” I then had ice cream at the interval, which is THE done thing. At the end, the entire theatre sang happy birthday to an 87 year-old Cardiff woman and four lucky children got to go up onstage.
And John? . . . When we got inside, we found out that John was not actually there because he had a throat and chest infection. Bad luck indeed! So I didn’t get to meet him, and I didn’t get to see him in a role I see would clearly have suited him well (they kept all the jokes in, like “Fee Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of an American” and he brought his brother Simon a Dalek as a gift, when all he wanted was Billie Piper). Still, as you can see, the panto was fun.
I’m sure you won’t be surprised to note that I bought another ticket for Jack and the Beanstalk and actually saw Barrowman in the role.
I’m so very glad I did. John was back by Wednesday and seeing him lived up to every expectation. It was really a difference to see him onstage and performing the part—he was fantastic. Such energy and humor—not that the understudy wasn’t any good, but there’s just something about John that makes you want to keep smiling the whole way through. Plus he really is too gorgeous—-even from the upper circle I couldn’t believe how good-looking he was. It was a weird disconnect, too, hearing this voice you know from CDs and TV and trying to reconcile it with the fact it’s coming from a real live man on the stage in front of you. I was impressed at his vocal prowess, as well—even though he was recovering from a throat and chest infection.
His interaction with the children was especially endearing.
I went again to a panto this year, at the Cardiff New Theatre, with John Barrowman in the lead. And I’ll tell you about it and how it fit into the pantomime mold in the next entry.
The calling of Santa Claus by his British name of Father Christmas is becoming rarer, though I admit the fact he inhabits a “grotto” to have thrown me for a loop the first time I heard it. Probably not without reason, “grotto” to me connotes mermaids. All a grotto is in this case is a winter wonderland of glitter and fake snow, but for awhile I wondered if Father Christmas had a Deep Sea Theme.
Christmas card exchange is, in my opinion, out of control. (I mean that in the nicest way possible.) Because charities provide boxfuls of affordable cards (which benefit the relevant charity, natch) it seems that anyone and everyone is eligible for a Christmas card. The people you’d likely not associate with card-exchanging are always the ones who will give you one at the last minute and you will be left “umm”ing and “ahhh”ing because you didn’t think to get them one. The only reason I’m being cranky about what seems like a kind custom is that everyone at the workplace is responsible for getting everyone else at the workplace a Christmas card, even if they just sign their names. This gets expensive. In the end, they all fall down the shoot in Tesco for “Christmas card recycling,” so it seems a self-fulfilling prophecy for disaster!
Hailing from the great Southwest, we have a tradition of luminarias/farolitos that really can’t be beat by anything decoration-wise from Britain. Because most British homes are multi-storied and narrow (and often semi-detached or terraced) there isn’t much room for Christmas lights (or, as they are known here, fairy lights). If people decorate it’s usually their tree in the window, and possibly some lights around the window(s). Very rarely do you see the bombastic displays that are common in my hometown, with toy trains, reindeer, icicle lights, chasing lights, Santa Clauses of every description, etc. Oxford Street in London, however, is an exception.
In Albuquerque, there is no such municipal responsibility as switching on the city-wide light display. In Swansea and Cardiff, at least, November 15th seems to be the traditional date for turning on the lights. These lights can range in number and complexity as well as design; I saw lovely giant blue stars in Cardiff this last year, and the tiny town of Chepstow had similarly sapphire enchantments. The turning on of the lights is also opportunity for a parade; in Albuquerque, I suppose, the equivalent is the Twinkle Light Parade. However, scary as it may seem, the inflatable snowmen and things are really catching on here. Most British people I’ve ever met have fake trees of plastic that sit up in the attic most of the year and come down to be assembled, with curses. In my personal experience, our tree decorations are quite eclectic and I’ve yet to see the like here—most trees follow a pretty basic color scheme with simple baubles and strings. A bit ho-hum and conservative, in my opinion.
I have never heard the Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day, but then I have never actually watched, as broadcast, Doctor Who on Christmas Day (a tradition since 2005!). Speaking of rulers, people are very miffed indeed that Cromwell abolished Christmas in 1647. Fortunately his successor Victoria did much to popularize Christmas, especially as Albert is credited as the one to introduce the Christmas tree from Germany into British households. Dickens did at least that much, if not more, to popularize Christmas and especially make it a time of joy for children; reading A Christmas Carol will certainly reinforce this idea. I recently visited the Dickens House Museum in Doughty Street which was, unsurprisingly, decked out for Christmas. There was charming decoration in the form of greenery (unfortunately plastic, as the placard helpfully informed, because real greenery would bring in insects which would destroy the museum!) and period illustrations from Christmas Carol. There was a lovely little Christmas tree, with unlit candles on its boughs, and again a placard helpfully informed that fire was a very real danger with illuminated candles in sometimes very dry, tinder-y trees—someone in each family was given the sole job of watching the tree closely every night to prevent fire.
The Dickens House also informed me that in Dickens’ time, more hymns were sung than carols (no Wham, then) and that’s why every Dickens adaptation under the sun has “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” (“Away in a Manger” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” both have different tunes but the same lyrics in the UK. Talk about confusing.) It does surprise me to hear very little in the way of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, etc, in the department store muzak—rather, there’s a limit to how many times you can hear “Wonderful Christmastime” and the Band Aid song.
In the US, December 26th is a very ordinary day. In the UK, it’s Boxing Day. Boxing Day only became an official holiday in the 1870s, but it has always traditionally been the day when servants and tradespeople were given gifts by their “superiors.” Nowadays it’s a day when most institutions are closed and so most people are at home, eating a lot and watching TV. There is nothing very official to do on such an official-sounding day (despite Mr Copper’s dubious information in “Voyage of the Damned”). Returning one last time to Dickens, until fairly recently Christmas was celebrated from December 24th through January 6th, Twelfth Night, the Epiphany, the Feast of Fools. King’s Cake was often consumed and the idea of a Christmas season was a bit more akin to Hanukah. Generally all the citywide decorations come down shortly after January 6th, and most of the mince pies are gone by then, as well.
London at Christmastime is lovely. There’s an ice skating rink near the Strand, and the municipal side of the light-decorating is taken very seriously, with the different boroughs invoking different schemes. I heard a charity singing beautiful carols at Victoria Station. The churches of Wren and Hawksmoor are at their most beautiful at this time of year.
There’s one last Christmas tradition I haven’t discussed, but we’re saving that for last.
This is going to be unseasonable, but trust me, the lead-up has a purpose. All the glitz of Christmas is over, but I still remember the season with fondness, and the differences between British Christmas traditions and their American counterparts are still vivid in my mind. (part 1/2)
Because, obviously, there is no Thanksgiving, there is nothing holding British retailers back from starting to advertise for Christmas right after Halloween (to be sure, Thanksgiving doesn’t stop American retailers from doing the same). This is when mince pies begin to enter the shelves, and they won’t leave until mid-January. I’m a big fan of mince pies. In fact, you might say I’m a huge fan of mince pies. Because we don’t really have them in the US, after I had my first pie I realized that I liked it very much and I must eat as many as I could when they were available as who knew when I would next taste one? This creates an ongoing tactic of mine to buy up all the mince pies after Christmas, the ones up to 70% off their original price, and brighten up my January by devouring them. Oh, and I shouldn’t neglect to dispel a bit of confusion: mince is the British word for hamburger (ground round) meat, but it also refers to a pie with fruits and sweet stuff in it (at one time containing meat and some of them still do).
You can’t have mince pies without sherry; it’s a cardinal sin against Christmas if you do. I remember my first year in Britain in 2006, going to a Christmas reception at the Egypt Centre, where I volunteered. I had my first tipple of sherry, and discovered, like mince pies, I liked it. Sherry is more easily had in the US but it’s not necessarily a Christmas drink and likely to be consumed by 86-year-olds. It seems to me in recent years things are getting a bit more stingy; I remember December gallery openings where sherry was offered for free, but you don’t see that happening anymore.
There are no candy canes at Christmas! While I’d read the origin stories for candy canes I didn’t realize they hadn’t translated, like so many things, to Britain. Of course there is no egg nog either. There’s a pub not far from me that serves mulled wine. (You may recall Clarence the Angel in It’s a Wonderful Life asking for mulled wine at Nick’s in George Bailey’s vision.)
Christmas pudding is rather prevalent, though. Not omnipresent, however, as different families seem to have different customs for their Christmas dinners—including the dessert (or the pudding, the generic English term for dessert, which is confusing!). I had my first proper Christmas pudding this year, and I have to say, again, I enjoyed it very much (though it is rich). Similar to, but not the same as, is Christmas cake, which is similar to the American fruitcake which gets so much flak. It’s in a rectangular shape whereas American fruitcake is usually circular, and it has a layer of marzipan under hard royal icing. (Blegh.) I had a Christmas Yule log (in January of course, for 75p!) which was delicious. (Similar to the French bûche de noel.)
If you can believe it, the first place I ever heard of Christmas crackers is The English Patient. The scene is Christmas in the late 1930s in the desert. Trying to preserve their traditions, the ex-pat English people have their Christmas traditions, including crackers (represented by Ralph Fiennes looking rather cute wearing a paper hat). Crackers are another 19th century phenomenon and everyone has them. They are small paper thingees you tear with another person at the table and they pop. Inside is a paper hat (I love them, the sillier the better), a toy (ranging from the useless to the almost-cool), and a truly awful joke. Again, it’s possible people go overboard considering none of the stuff in the cracker gets used and is most likely thrown in the bin/recycling with all the other Christmas trimmings. Charades are often played in tandem with the Wearing of Silly Hats.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
. . . a well-worn rant about the shortcomings of Americans. I never understand
what people are thinking when they do this. Do they think I’ll appreciate their
candor, or have they simply forgotten that I am one of the species myself?
This passage from Notes on a Small Island reminds me of the first time I met the late Aeronwy Thomas, Dylan Thomas’ granddaughter. I had just started working at the Dylan Thomas Centre at the very tail end of the Dylan Thomas Festival 2008. I was doing my best covering the bookshop, where I was frantically making coffees for people. This is, of course, DTC’s busiest time of the year. I didn’t know who she was at first—though I ended up spending much of this day talking to her husband—and just overheard her sitting at one of the tables. She had recently been on a book tour of America and was complaining about the shortcomings of the country and the people themselves. I suspect mostly it was a tiring trip and since she was secretly undergoing treatment for leukemia, my first impression of her as quite crotchety was probably ungenerous. Eventually she asked for a white coffee, and I must have asked her what that was. I don’t know if she heard my accent at that point—if she did, she made no apologies and no acknowledgments. She was always polite to me after that, in my limited acquaintance with her, though she did have quite the reputation at the hotel where I used to work as a demanding prima donna.
Because I’ve worked primarily in customer service jobs, I get a lot of questions about my accent. At the hotel , I would often get, “That’s not a Welsh accent, is it?” In people’s favor, they often asked, “Which part of North America are you from?” so as not to offend me if I was Canadian. This is how I knew my accent wasn’t changing, though sometimes there was surprise as people had observed that I wasn’t British but apparently my American accent wasn’t very strong, either. Certainly after people have found out I’m American, they haven’t made any disparaging remarks (unlike in France, where once at a party every time I was introduced as an American, the resident wit added, “unfortunately”). Most people are generally curious and many are actually envious! The US they know is from TV and films or the sun-soaked locale of Florida. During my week at the call centre, surprisingly few people ventured any kind of opinion on my accent, though I did once get into a long conversation with a Scottish guy about where I was from.
I remember a lot of excitement during the 2008 Presidential Campaign, though that’s partially (but not entirely) because some Americans I knew had thrown a party to stay up all night to see the results. (I only made it til 2 am, I believe, when I finally switched off the computer and waited to see the results in the morning!) Similarly, there was surprisingly obsessive coverage of President Obama’s Inauguration this time last year, which I did happen to watch (though my Indian housemate was a lot more excited about it than I was!).
My friend Katie had a very funny mix up in 2006 which I am always happy to trot out: when I invited her to the student house Thanksgiving, she said she wasn’t sure she could celebrate the holiday of us throwing the Brits out. Certainly she had Thanksgiving mixed up with Fourth of July. I’ve never quite known how to celebrate Fourth of July in this country—I end up doing nothing. Fortunately the three Thanksgivings I’ve had here I’ve managed to cobble something together.
And what is it Brits have to say about Americans, if not bad things? Everyone at the hotel had had positive experience with American guests, praising their generosity and politeness. (Though it is amusing to note that I always knew guests were American if they asked for ice water with their breakfasts, as it’s a given to provide people with this in restaurants in America. Conversely, I knew a group of guests were Russian when they asked for lemon, not milk, with their tea and used up all the honey.)
I’d like to think the conflicts of previous centuries were behind us!
“Where does your boyfriend live?”
I either get a quizzical look from this, or else an involuntary snort of laughter. If you have trouble seeing it yourself, pronounce the word. Resemble a vegetable? I confess I didn’t see the humor in it for a long time, as I had read the word before I ever heard it said. I know I initially thought Bill Bryson made too much of strange place names in Notes on a Small Island, but incidents like this make me realize he’s absolutely right. The British Isles have some absolutely bizarre and ridiculous place names.
I suppose we should start with the obvious: Mumbles. This is something like why Brits drive on the left side of the road and MOST OF THE REST OF US drive on the right side: everyone thinks they know the answer, but no one has yet given me a convincing explanation. The explanation quoted in tomes such as Real Wales is that the strange name comes from the French “mammelles,” meaning “breasts,” which is supposed to be what the two rocks going out toward Mumbles Head resemble. And then there’s the chestnut: is Mumbles or THE Mumbles? I noticed the sign as I walking referred to it as THE Mumbles, which makes something silly-sounding appear even more poncy, in my opinion.
Llantwit Major is somewhere I’ve never been, and I can’t say I’d want to with a name like that. Sounds like “Half-Wit Major,” or “Dim-Wit Major” (though I’m told Llan, a common prefix, has to do with a saint). It took Adi’s delighted yet perplexed point of view to remind me of the absurdity of Sketty: in Welsh it’s Sgetty, which she knowingly misconstrued as P’sgetti. Then there’s Mold . . . yes, that’s a Welsh town name. If you’ve watched Torchwood you may remember Splott (which Ianto helpfully informs us is prounounced “Sploh”)—it’s an estate area of Cardiff. I remember several co-workers at the Museum had a really good time over the etymology of Tai Bach—Welsh for “small houses.” Which is really the same as the little boys’/girls’ room. “Sarn” isn’t particularly funny unless you’ve seen “Planet of Fire”! The mother of them all is Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwll'llandysiliogogogoch, a disappointing place to visit.
Apparently the little county of Dorset has a large population of strange place names, among them Briantspuddle, Whitchurch Canonicorum, Speen, and Droop. Scotland has some winners, too, of course, like Ecclefechan, Dunbog, and Spittle. I’m sure you can Google some good ones on your own. I haven’t been keeping a list particularly when I was working for an inset company that required calling secondary schools across the UK, but a few place names were so memorable they do spring to mind: Cobwebs Cottage (in Newton, near Caswell), Woollacot Mews (a street), Giggleswick, Biggleswade, etc.
It seems every time I go to London I find a new funny or interesting street name. Chorleywood, Ickenham, Hanger Lane, Sudbury Hill, Pinner, Putney, Burnt Oak, Tooting Bec (especially when there are Yetis to be found), Goodge Street, Cockfosters, Canada Water (sounds like a brand of soft drink), Rotherhithe, Epping, Fairlop, Barking, the Hams, Cutty Sark. I’ve never heard a concrete origin story for Elephant & Castle or Angel. It’s always struck me as ironic that all the Ripper murders went on in Whitechapel, surely a place of holiness at some stage in its history? The Original London Walk, of course, is a good way to discover some of these obscure and interesting areas. And then when you’re a Doctor Who fan, the silliest things can set you off: J and I first met near Eccleston Bridge. You can imagine why the Ninth Doctor was on both of our minds.
Finally, since I do get asked this on a fairly regular basis, where does the name “Swansea” come from and what does it mean? The Welsh name for Swansea is Abertawe, which simply means “the settlement on the Tawe River” (which is indeed the river that runs through Swansea. The truth is no one can really say where “Swansea” comes from, though it is generally believed it comes from the Norse and that a Viking called Svein (or some variation thereof) settled the place. The Norse contribution to this area is undeniable but whether that story is apocryphal or not, we don’t know. One thing’s for certain, it has nothing to do with swans!
Monday, January 18, 2010
I walked to Mumbles yesterday. In case you don’t know, Mumbles is the once-quaint-now-trendy fishing village west of Swansea. It’s January, but for once it wasn’t raining (nor even snowing!) and the sun was shining. I didn’t walk as far as the pier, but I started to get the song from Sweeney Todd stuck in my head:
Where I’d really like to go
In a year or so
Doncha wanna know?
Do you really wanna know?
By the sea, Mr Todd, that’s the life I covet
By the sea, Mr Todd, oh I know you’d love it
You and me, Mr T, we could be alone
In a house wot we’d almost own . . .
I realize Sweeney Todd isn’t the best gauge of historical practice, but the British have a documented relationship with seaside resorts which, if you think about it, is kind of amusing since it’s all one big island. (I also realize that almost every country bordered by the sea has resorts and a history of going there, from Malta to Iran.)
I have to confess this is something I didn’t think about until I started working in the Tram Shed for Swansea Museum this last spring and summer. Coming from a landlocked state, sure, we had summer beach vacations to California and Virginia Beach. I have to confess to a limited background on this ,but what I’ve read on the history of transportation in Britain suggests that, other than big events like the Great Exhibition of 1851, ordinary working people had a) little time for holidays (a few days at most); b) a limited number of places they could practically go. So the southern coast of England and Wales were the usual spots.
I mentioned to you last time about rock and how I had difficulty even picturing it from Tim Richardson’s description; now I’ve been to enough seaside towns to understand what it is (and I’d never put it in my mouth). But that’s part of the collective British consciousness of going to the seaside. I listened to that video in the Tram Shed about the Mumbles Railway (first passenger railway in the world) so many times that I’ve picked up the information from osmosis, but most memorable were the days when the reenactor would take school children on the old tram car and pretend they were going to the seaside.
Everyone here, from Dawn French to my Swansea friends of a certain age, remembers having grit-filled sandwiches at the seaside. There are the inevitable donkey rides (never saw any donkeys at Santa Monica Pier, though I suppose there could have been!). In the beginning (ie, mid- to late-nineteenth century) there were bathing huts and bathing costumes. The children were always amazed when the reenactor told them of the costumes (hats, heavy skirts, bloomers, etc) women had to wear for “sea-bathing.” Certainly it’s a miracle that more people didn’t drown. They would always end the session by singing songs like “Oh I Do Like to Be By the Seaside” and the one about Daisy and the bicycle.
Oh, and the Punch and Judy show. You can’t conceive how excited I got about seeing a Punch and Judy show. All the adults around me regarded the live show for the kids with indifference, but then they had all seen them throughout their youths. Punch and Judy made me think “medieval,” for some reason (probably because of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, to be honest!) and it did seem somewhat amazing to me that such an old, populist art form could still be going. So I did finally get to see my first Punch and Judy show, and I was a bit shocked by the violence. Of course, it is all perpetrated by puppets and the psychopathic Punch gets detained by the law in the end. Still, the dog and then the baby getting thrown down the stairs, not to mention Mrs Punch getting her lights knocked out, disturbed me slightly. When I talked casually to one of the performers, he downplayed my domestic violence fears. Someone, I can’t remember who, suggested that it was simply an unflinching historical record of the times in which it was conceived. The humor, despite all this, is quite charming.
I found out that at one point, Swansea was poised to become the next Brighton in terms of resort towns. This was the very early nineteenth century, and Beau Brummel often relaxed in the town. It was this pivotal time when Swansea swivelled between industry and recreation, and in the end became an industrial town. By the time of the 1851 census, the east side of the town by the river had all become devoted to copperworks, steelworks, and shipping (all the coalmining was in the Valleys). I often think about how differently things might have turned out, if Swansea had gone the resort route. I have even thought about making the “never-was” into a musical!
The Two Ronnies at the Seaside
Sunday, January 17, 2010
I read Tim Richardson’s Sweets: A History of Candy before I found Steve Almond’s Candyfreak and therefore introduced myself to concepts I had never heard of before: rock, rhubarb and custard, pear drops, barley sugars. Personally, the myth of Turkish delight shattered for me: I had read (and watched, the Wonderworks mini-series on PBS) The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and like Edmund, had been lured by the White Witch’s promises of Turkish delight. However, many years later when I found a hexagonal box of Turkish delight at World Market, I was very disappointed by the sickly sweet, gooey mess—I think I had been expecting something like solidified hot chocolate. I had also heard of, but never seen, Jelly Babies, thanks to Doctor Who. Based on the glimpse I had seen of them close-up in the TV movie, I thought they were basically gummi bears. Alas, I ruined Jelly Babies for myself when I overdosed on them. One on its own was okay, I discovered, though far less delicious than gummi bears (in my opinion). But J made the mistake of buying me a packet of them when we first met in March 2007 and in anticipation of my first-ever live transmission of Doctor Who (“Smith and Jones,” to be precise), I ate them all. Now I can’t look at Jelly Babies without feeling sick.
Before all that, though, were Cadbury Crème Eggs, which only appeared in Albuquerque at Easter time (according to Cadbury’s website, “Crème Egg season” is from January 1st through April 4th). I didn’t realize that Cadbury was a confectionary company (one Richardson described in great detail in Sweets), nor that it had earned its own theme park. I just knew I liked the crème eggs. Much later, I got a Crunchie bar in my stocking (from World Market again) and not long after that, the Smith’s chain in Albuquerque started carrying Fruit and Nut Bars (a foreign concept; fruit in a chocolate bar?!). When I was in France, the University vending machines used to carry Maltesers, which I thought for ages were French.
Since then, I have been trying to do research, as it were, into British confectionary. I’ve been a big fan of the Starbar (“milk chocolate shot through with peanuts and creamy caramel”) though that may have stemmed originally from me seeing it in the Vermont Trading Company catalogue and thinking it looked heavenly. I still love Crunchies, but I’ve recently discovered the Wispa bar (it disappeared in 2003 only to recently be brought back). The Fudge is the best thing on Earth you can get for 15p. The best ice cream cone I have ever tasted has to be the 99 Flake I had from a stand on the Thames when I was visiting J last summer. I’m sure the company helped, but the photos on Facebook attest to how much I loved that ice cream. I’m also a big fan of Licorice Allsorts.
I came in contact with the Kendal mint cake when I was in the Lake District in 2007, and it sounded so good I saved the one I bought in Grasmere until, by the time I opened it up, it had sort of dissolved into sugar.
I think I might need a separate entry just to talk about British cakes and biscuits!
I would never, for example, in the States say “I’m just going to pop to the loo” (which sounds effeminate in the extreme) and certainly not say “I’m going to the toilet.” That’s considered somewhat offensive, as we call it the bathroom or the restroom (or the washroom, if you’re in Canada). The commode is the toilet. I think maybe this distinction may have come about because in French the room with the bath is the salles de bains, but since a toilet and a bidet used to be kept in a separate room, that was la toilette. At home, we always “did the dishes,” we didn’t “do the washing up.” We cleaned the house, we didn’t “tidy up.” And don’t get me started on “rubbers” and “erasers.”
Another one that puzzles me is diaper and nappy. I have real difficulty calling what a baby wears a nappy; that word makes no sense to me and sounds ridiculous. On the other hand, where the heck does the word “diaper” come from? “Fringe” makes some sense as opposed to “bangs,” but then my mom has suggested that “bangs” might come from banging your forehead. (And mom/mum. I have to snicker at “mummy,” since that makes me think of Egyptian cadavers, to this day. I prefer not to call my mother “Mum” since that’s redolent of chrysanthemums, but I will call other people’s mothers “your mum” to spare them double-takes.)
While on the subject of babies, what we call a stroller is here a pram (I would guess from “baby perambulator”)—both describe what it does. Similarly, a lift does lift and an elevator does elevate. However, a jumper doesn’t jump—you do sweat in a sweater, and I don’t see anyone going around in a jump-shirt as opposed to a sweatshirt. Perhaps you do tap a tap, though I don’t suppose you faucet anything. You can train in “trainers” (I always called them tennis shoes, though they have a multitude of names) but I don’t think you can “plimsoll” anything.
The subject of waste always catches me out (or indeed, trips me up). “Rubbish bin” has always sounded remarkably fey to me, though I employ it more and more; I’ve been known to say “trash can,” though. “Wastepaper basket” is an alternative, though I don’t know of anyone who really says that anymore. It seems in general the British terms are more fanciful. An “ice lolly” is a popsicle (presumably from “ice lollipop”) while a “lollipop man/lady” is a crossing guard! Certainly the latter conjures up more the function of the job! A “lorry” is a bizarre one; at least you could claim that truck “trucks” (as in the verb, unless the verb came after the noun?). “Milk float” is a preposterous but picturesque term for a truck/lorry that delivers milk, supposedly because when it was originally a horse-drawn cart the milk appeared to float? A “mobile” is indeed mobile and a cell phone describes exactly what it is, so I use them both. A “coach” here means a big type of bus, usually for inter-city travel, while people in the States look querulously at me when I say I take the coach rather than the train (“is that a bus?” they ask). You don’t go to the “cinema” in the States, you go to the “movie theater.” You never watch the “telly,” only the TV!
The British are always employing brand names in place of nouns. A biro is a pen (though I sometimes get confused and think stylo, which is the French). I recently confused my mom when I said “hoover” instead of “vacuum.” I completely missed the joke the first time around in Harry Potter with Spell-o-tape (as opposed to Cellotape, which we Americans just call “tape”). One exception is “paracetemol,” which I am always amazed people take the trouble to say—you would have thought by now it would have developed a nickname.
The coup de grace of embarrassing mix ups, though, is the pants/trousers one. I have taken it so far to the extreme that I use “trousers” 100% of the time, even at home, because I really don’t want to get them mixed up. I wonder when and why we stopped calling them trousers, since “pants” comes from “underpants,” which must come from “pantaloons” (though to make it more confusing, it’s pantalons in French for the things that cover your legs, and le slip for underwear).
We could do a whole entry on words without ready American equivalents (“berk,” “naff,” and “twee” come to mind; the Doctor saying “too right” to Rose after she said “I love you” puzzled me for a long time) as well as the barrage of swear words, and I think I’ll leave the regional vocabulary and sayings for another entry, too. I’m sure as soon as I post this I’ll think of a dozen more, but I guess that’s the fun part of it—the languages are constantly evolving, sometimes in totally different directions.
I recall reacting with amusement to Bill Bryson’s rather quaint view of British weather (then again, he was from Indiana): I like knowing that so long as I do not go walking up Mount Snowdon in carpet slippers in February, I will almost certainly never perish from the elements in this soft and gentle country. However, the last few years have made this exercise in poking fun rather too picturesque, especially the last two winters. Living in Britain, I have found three items of clothing to be essential: an umbrella, a pair of boots, and a decent coat. All over Swansea, carcasses of dead umbrellas are to be seen, discarded after the wind has blown them inside out. This is a very visible reminder of the truly nasty weather we sometimes have. I have been known to take an umbrella, a hooded jacket, and a change of trousers and shoes on my walk to work due to sudden downpours that completely soaked me through. To a girl from Albuquerque, this is a baffling thing to get used to.
I was miserable throughout the months of October and November 2009 because I had not yet been prevailed upon to buy a pair of winter boots or Wellies (almost never called Wellington boots these days). My first steps outdoors on an even showery day would soak my shoes and socks through to an unbearable degree and I’d squelch unpleasantly to work. If I was lucky, I’d get to dry my feet and socks out in front of a space heater/electric fire. Such events put me in a thoroughly bitter mood, and I wondered what I’d done to deserve such treatment just for walking out of doors, and was even more enraged when no one seemed to sympathize. To most people, it was an inevitability and shame on me for not being prepared. It was, of course, the frequency of this kind of weather that suddenly made the lightbulb go on in my head regarding the omnipresent obsession with tea, but we’ll save that for another time.
And this is really only Swansea we’re talking about. My original place of study for the MA was going to be Edinburgh, and I don’t know that even I could stand such dull greyness all the time, without the benefit of the sea (though I guess you can get used to anything). Not to even consider the Scotland further north, or London’s micro-climate (which I’ve since experienced in its range of oppressive heat and surprising chill), or the northeast. Hex’s comment to Ace in The Settling has always stuck with me: “you southern wuss.” Still, I had a somewhat hair-raising experience in Ludlow last year during the Great British Snow Storm, which hit that area fairly hard. I remember waking up that morning to a text from Jamie regarding the snowfall and thinking it surely couldn’t be so bad in the area, before I opened the curtains! I consider it a point of pride that I didn’t slip and fall down, much less freeze, in my quest to see the castle, the museum, and the library in a skirt and no boots!
But living in such a place of Swansea, with its undeniable natural beauty (which improves the further west you go, into Mumbles and the Gower), I can’t be completely cranky about my lot, weather-wise. Welsh people have told me it rains in Swansea more than anywhere else in Wales, but I can’t believe that’s totally true. I have experienced beautiful stretches of summer days, very hot sometimes in a place that lacks air conditioning, and sunny autumns and springs. Every day like that makes me quite grateful and I appreciate the sunshine much more than I ever did, or ever will, in New Mexico. The verdant greenness of the British Isles is also, still, a continual surprise, though it comes with it the unwelcome consequences of damp, mildew, mould, and slugs.
People think I must be insane to go from the almost guaranteed dry heat of New Mexico to this changeable and very often damp and rainy island, and while I can’t admit to enjoying being caught in a downpour, I don’t hate it as much as many people. I think I’d much prefer it to the pitiless winters in places like the Midwest. And it’s always an excuse for a cup of tea.
Thursday, January 14, 2010
Bill Bryson in Notes from a Small Island managed, in my opinion, to temper a crotchety, Yank-skewed (though considerably Anglicized after 20 years’ exposure) view of Britain with genuine humor and affection. I’m going to try to emulate his style to the point of focusing on the small details as they seem to bring out the most authenticity and humor, but with the attempt to detail the things I wish I’d know when I came to this country, and the stuff I’d tell you before coming here that wouldn’t be in the guide book. I will try, anyway.
The first time I saw Coronation Street, I was in Spain. BBC World Service was one of the few stations we could get from the time share. My friend and I—two Americans living in France, on holiday in Spain—were in Torremolinos, swamped by English ex-pats (though that’s not what this vignette is about; we’ll come back to that). The point is, I, an experienced Anglophile, had never before heard that sad, old-fashioned tune, had never seen that old road sign that welcomed you to “Coronation Street.” I had heard of the programme, of course, knew of its longevity (heavens, it was older than Doctor Who!), and knew it was beloved.
I believe this was a “classic” episode of Coronation Street; it was most certainly not contemporaneous to the year of 2005. It was bizarre to be watching a winter story with pints and fights and tears and angry northern accents in southern Spain where, even in February, it was almost warm enough for t-shirts. I concluded with a sense of bewilderment, as the credits ran silently (which meant, I knew that much, that a character had died), that it was Not Actually Very Good.
One of the first things I had to learn when coming to Britain was the difference in status between soaps in Britain and soap operas in America. In America, as far as I could tell, soaps were on in the daytime, to be watched by old people and stay-at-home moms. They had bad acting and tortured storylines. I had never followed any and didn’t know anyone who did.
In Britain, soaps are almost considered serious television. They are shown at prime time, make an appearance several times a week, and are followed voraciously by people of all ages and all walks of life. They don’t have “seasons” and “reruns” as we do in America. They go on and on and on, providing steady work for actors and writers for years. At certain times you find omnibus editions of your favorite soap to catch up on what you’ve missed. (Sundays in 2006 I used to spend watching the English-language omnibus of Welsh-language soap Pobol y Cwm.) The Christmas specials of the big soaps are unmissable events.
The big soaps, of course, are the aforementioned Coronation Street, East Enders (identified by the bewilderingly ‘80s THUM-THUM-THUM-THUM of its theme tune), and Emmerdale. The first takes place around Albert Square in a northern town, the second in the East End of London, and the third in a farm somewhere. You notice, of course, that they all share a focal point of a location—similar, I think, to American soaps and many TV shows in general. From these big ones you go onto lesser tiers, until you get into stuff like Hollyoaks, universally derided and watched by a certain segment of the population. I admit, because my housemate in university was addicted to Hollyoaks, I watched it too. What was I thinking?!
I’ve never been quite up on what separates lower-tier soaps from police procedural dramas or hospital dramas. My boyfriend never quite explained to me how one of his favorite shows, The Bill, devolved from a serious police show to a soap in its strange current timeslot of post-watershed. Are Holby City or Doctors soaps? Perhaps it’s all in how involved and contrived the storylines are: I would walk up in the middle of East Enders or Emmerdale and ask what was going on. I would hear a stream of names and who had tried to kill who, who had succeeded, who was actually someone’s brother and they would be about to commit incest, but it never quite sunk in.
Sunday, January 10, 2010
“No,” Nydia replied. “They killed her.”
The president, who was in direct communication with Medellín, had no doubts.
“How do you know that?”
Nydia answered with absolute conviction: “Because I’m her mother and my
heart tells me so.”
I’ve read five of GGM’s books over the years, and this has been my favorite so far. I liked Love in the Time of Cholera a lot, but I did have some reservations about it and I will always have melancholy feelings associated with it for reasons I won’t discuss here. (I also thought Living to Tell the Tale was very accomplished.) In any case, though it diverged wildly from the style I had come to expect from Márquez, I thought it was a fantastic book. It got me through some very trying reading conditions (airport, airplane, doctor’s office) and I found it hard to put down. I was a tiny bit skeptical when J gave it to me, seeing as how the subject matter is 100% serious, but it was an astute choice after all.
As I learned from Living to Tell the Tale, GGM had a long career in journalism, and it shows in the precise, detailed, fact-driven, but human narrative he has constructed out of numerous interviews, reports, newspaper and TV program accounts of the kidnapping of 10 Colombians in 1990. Despite the violence, demoralization, the pain and suffering endured not only by the victims but their families, the book is balanced and even hopeful. You know which of the hostages survived and which were murdered before going too far into the “story,” but it’s still a gripping and moving tale. The conversational style is adept for giving history lessons (“Colombia had not been aware of her own importance in the international drug trade until the traffickers invaded the country’s highest political echelons through the back door . . .”) and for describing the conditions for the hostages.
An unexpected but sweet outcome of reading News of a Kidnapping was that I grew to value something J’s written on this subject all the more for its handling of the politics and the fictionalized but still characteristic main players.
I’m now debating with myself whether to read the scripts for the other plays in the collection or buy them on CD first. The other three scripts are all highly regarded (at least I think!) so it’s a tough decision.
I was delightedly surprised when I listened to The Fires of Vulcan: it’s a Seventh Doctor/Mel story and while I had wanted to hear a Mel story for a long time as I suspected they were rehabilitating her with the same success as they rehabilitated the Sixth Doctor, I had just seen “Dragonfire” and didn’t know what to think. For Steve Lyons’ first play, it’s crackin’. It tackles Pompeii from an entirely different perspective than “Fires of Pompeii,” and in my opinion, it’s better. Mel works extremely well in this story (you’d never guess this was originally a story for Ace—that is, unless you read the script book and see the first draft—but I’m getting ahead of myself).
The opening scene, which takes place in 1980, reminds me of Liz Shaw/Five story from the Short Trips range, though I can’t remember the title. (This “frame” story also reminded me of The Stone Rose in a pretty obvious way.) I only wish UNIT officer Muriel Frost and Professor Scalini had been used more in this story, rather than just as bookends. Other than that, the opening was great (Lyons grabs the listener from the get-go) and considering I’ve been reading up a lot on hoaxes (don’t ask), the “hook” is very much in tune with that.
There’s a curious nuancing in the story that takes place, practically, because of its original setting as a later Ace story—instead, with Mel, the Doctor is very mercurial. It’s strange to see him certain of his doom in season 24 (it ends up being a very similar time paradox to the one in Glorious Revolution, but I digress). What I love about this play is the way Lyons (almost) never jumps from plot point to plot point: everything is progressed in a logical fashion that makes it seem that much more naturalistic. For example, though the Doctor has much more serious reasons for discouraging Mel from staying in Pompeii, he gives her four perfectly legitimate ones: she’s not dressed for the time and place, “the Romans are quite a barbarous people” (take that , James Moran! J/K),” we have a habit of attracting trouble, no good can come of meddling in your own history” (the last, of course, reminding us of that ultimate adventure, “The Aztecs,” which we’ll come back to).
Although Mel is confused and frustrated by the Doctor’s darker turn, she decides to stick around. I love that graffiti plays an important part in Fires of Vulcan (as it did in Rome, actually). Lyons is wonderful at adding the history in, not too overtly and not sloppily (as I tend to do). Parts of the play are quite funny. My favorite gag—and it’s the most shocking one!—is when Aglae takes her newfound friend Mel to her workplace, the Lupanar. This is a hilarious moment that works so well on radio, as Mel puzzles over the symbols on the sign—are they really what she thinks they are? “It bespeaks the nature of the Lupanar.” Once Mel, embarrassed but unfazed, gathers Aglae’s meaning, Aglae has the dreaminess to ask, “Do you not also serve your master [the Doctor] in this manner?” AS IF! :-D
But Lyons has an affection for Mel and has picked out the best bits of her character while playing with the more stereotypical aspects (like her vegetarianism). Mel befriending Aglae, for example, is perfectly in character. She’s assertive but shuns violence, argumentative and acerbic but really very kind. It makes it all the more amusing that the Doctor almost loses her in a game of dice to the boorish gladiator Murranus (a similar scene takes place in Letters from a French Actress, actually). Actually, almost all of the Roman/Greek characters—Aglae, Murranus, and Valeria the Greek innkeeper, particularly—are very strong, likeable, and feel like flesh and blood (and are not nearly so annoying as the family in “Fires of Pompeii,” IMHO). The antagonists Celsinus and Eumachia are slightly less well-rounded.
The play made a very big deal about the futility of the offerings made to various gods so that Pompeii would not be destroyed (obviously they didn’t work). However, the Doctor says ,“it’s not for me to judge your culture.” Mel obviously reacts in a similar way to Donna against the injustice: “Can’t we do something?” Interestingly, in contrast to the Tenth Doctor and Donna actually scooping the family up in the TARDIS and taking them to safety, in this story Mel and the Doctor tell people to save themselves but we have no idea whether they make it to safety or not.
The fourth part has wonderful suspense, though the narrative bypasses the final carnage (difficult to do on audio anyway) for the twist at the end.
I couldn’t resist reading the script of the play before I wrote this review, and at once I noticed how different the Roman/Greek names look spelled than said. In Lyons’ introduction, he’s on to his weakest scene, but it was actually better than he thought. The scenes seemed quite short on the page but they were the right length on audio. Obviously, all the actors did great jobs and the music, sound design, and technical recording stuff was done by Alistair Lock.
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
As series 2 started off with a visit from old baddies the Sontarans (or rather, a Sontaran), series 3 started off with a visit from the Judoon (or rather, at first, a Judoon). “Prisoner of the Judoon” by Phil Ford was a decent way to start off a season, but rather ho-hum compared to the rest of the series. I personally like the Judoon (“Smith and Jones” is one of my favorite stories), and Ford managed to milk some comedy from them. I was pleased when SJS advised Rani, Clyde, and Luke to “leave it to the professionals—UNIT.” We find out soon, though, that the Judoon policeman who has crashed on Earth has lost his prisoner, Androvax, who has apparently stolen Sharaz Jek’s costume.
Everyone makes much of SJS and her possessed acting in stories like “Masque of the Mandragora” and “Hand of Fear,” and you can tell Elisabeth Sladen is having the time of her life getting back into the groove as Androvax possesses her and she goes all evil. To be fair, there isn’t much scarier to youngsters than having adults of authority whom they can trust become frightening and irrational. Episode 1 ends with the charming device of Gita, Rani’s mother, doing some “guerilla planting.” By the way, Rani has become so engrained in the series that, while I miss Maria, she is rapidly becoming one of my favorite characters. I still like Clyde the best, though, because he makes me laugh.
The second episode does a funny thing where it drums up sympathy for Androvax, as he’s a Destroyer of Worlds whose world was destroyed. But this has the ring of not-quite-truth, much like the Joker’s multiple stories of how he got his scars in The Dark Knight. In the end, SJS wisely doesn’t try to psychologically profile Androvax and he is handed over to the proper authorities, the Judoon. In a typical Ford scene, the Judoon are hampered by not being able to go after Androvax because the door through which he vanished was marked “Authorized Entry Only.” (Staggering Stories had a field day with this.) Also a gem was the Judoon commandeering a car and offering its driver compensation. “Someone will destroy you!” “Sounds like you need a cuppa tea.”
“The Mad Woman in the Attic” by Joseph Lidster was a very odd one. There were parts of it that seemed incongruous and stuck out, but the overall concept, and especially the way Eve and her Ship were realized, was very creative and unusual. The Mad Old Rani in 2059 (something to do with the Australian K9 series? Or “Waters of Mars”?) remembers in a fit of pre-teen pique she wished her friends would just leave her alone, that she bristled at the fact SJS didn’t seem to take her entirely seriously for a moment caused her great distress later on (“I never told her how grateful I was”). The story is structured intriguingly, I will give it that, but Rani’s motivation is just a bit clunky. Maybe I’m being too critical. Great joy was felt when “Zodin” was mentioned by SJS, and creepy abandoned seaside fun fair had Lidster written all over it. I believe this was also the story where we saw clips of SJS with Doctors Three and Four, which for all the fan girls and boys out there, was infinitely pleasing.
I had a major problem with the “homeless people” who had been disappearing from the closed fun fair. I’ve never seen such coiffed and groomed homeless people in my life, and despite the actors’ best efforts to look creepy and extraterrestially wigged out, it just came off laughable. The concept of Eve’s “playtime” was a good one, however, and Eve herself, both in the writing and acting/makeup/costume, played the fine line between potentially dangerous and appealing very well. Like Rani, we weren’t immediately sure whether to trust her, but in the end she was absolutely impossible to dislike. There was much of the Gothic in the presentation of her Ship, and it’s unusual that, instead of villain runaround, the cause of the problems was that a) Eve couldn’t find her Ship; b) Eve was a mere child and didn’t understand how her powers were causing distress; c) Eve’s “father” had kept her locked up for her own protection, not realizing this was doing more damage; d) the Ship misinterpreted Rani’s wishes, with disastrous consequences. Complex, eh? The ending was a bit too “get-out-of-jail-free,” but obviously I was pleased that future Rani ended up okay.
“The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith” by Gareth Roberts got huge viewing figures because of David Tennant’s guest appearance as the Doctor, and while that must have boosted the show’s profile, it saddens me that people who wouldn’t tune in on SJA’s merits alone are lured only by the promise of David-ness. As for the story itself, it felt rather schizoid to me. I absolutely loved the first episode and will admit it made me cry.
The first episode managed to both be sweet, very mature in terms of emotions, and appealing for a young audience (I thought). I sympathize with SJS in terms of emotional attachments to the Doctor/s (see “Once Is Never Enough”) and the fact that, as “School Reunion” revealed, SJS being dropped off at “Hand of Fear” has emotionally stunted her in terms of making long-term relationships, not the least of which romantic ones (“I cut myself off from other people for so many years”). She reacted exactly as I would expect a real person when they’re of a certain age, falling in love, and Clyde, Luke, and Rani reacted just as I thought they should for people of their ages, wanting to be protective of SJS but also wanting to be happy for her.
Like most viewers I love the bitch-fest between Mr Smith and K9. When SJS finds out that the kids were spying on her as she went on a date, Mr Smith chides the kids for their lies: “Veracity level 12%.” “Do not exceed your function, Mr Smith,” says K9. On the whole I find the K9 in this series to be slightly more emotional than the character really should be, but in general I quite enjoy the cattiness between supercomputers.
I have to say I didn’t find this Nigel guy attractive in the least, but the music at the moment where he proposed to SJS made me squee and want to cry. Emotionally I felt this episode was perfectly crafted, and the “awww” factor was very high, but not to the point of cheese. Clyde’s difficulty in trusting Peter and the whole romance seemed apt, and as usual there was his sarcastic sense of humor to take the edge off things; investigating Peter’s boarded-up flat, “lair of the living dead!” I think we all began to wonder whether SJS might be possessed again when she uttered quite chirpily, “At my age, why wait [to get married]?” For dramatic purposes and also to emphasize SJS’ emotional vulnerability her wedding was moved up. The Brigadier couldn’t be there, “still in Peru.” May I say I loved SJS’ dress? Rani was in a brighter shade of pink, and my gut feeling that Clyde was starting to fancy her was knocked off kilter by the fact Luke went all “whooaaaa” when he saw her in the dress.
The fact the Doctor stepped in to stop the wedding made this squee-ful romantic smile, but from then on the story drooped. The “dimensional shift” with the Doctor, Rani, Clyde, and Luke stuck in a different second than SJS, Peter, and the Trickster didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Yes, the Trickster was back. I don’t find him that effective of a villain, I thought once was enough in the first season. Frustratingly the Doctor was rather annoying in the second episode and weirdly out of his depth in the tone. There was a lot of useless running around, and the emotional intensity of the climax was rather watered down, I felt, by the Doctor’s presence, not enhanced by it. The Trickster had resurrected Peter in order to make him fall in love with SJS and she with him so she would be distracted and then the Trickster would gain access to the Doctor (no, not like that you pervs). I think? Anyway, in order for everything to work out right Peter had to give up his chance at life and SJS had to give up someone she really loved. And say goodbye to the Doctor again. I did love that he said, “Don’t forget me, Sarah Jane.”
I’m probably the only person in the world who found “The Eternity Trap” by Phil Ford to be possibly the most entertaining story of SJA ever, but I’ll stand by it. I also took copious notes which shows my devotion to it. How could I not love a ghost story set partially in 1665?! The totally evil Erasmus Darkling stole the children of Lord Marchwood, so the legend said, and left “one of the most haunted locations in the UK.” I’m a sucker for this stuff, even if the story goes AT GREAT LENGTHS to remind us over and over again that ghosts don’t exist.
The location for the house is the same one that doubled as Versailles in “Girl in the Fireplace.” Professor Rivers (River Song??) is conducting experiments at the house and has invited SJS and the gang to come along. Ford seems to be taking the mick out of ghost hunters in general, but there are some great atmospheric touches in this story and watching it around Halloween helped. The music is absolutely fantastic, very Pirates of the Caribbean. The story’s tone in general reminded me quite heavily of “Ghost Light.” How on Earth Clyde knew that Roman roads were lower is beyond me.
At its best I find this story echoing some of the scary devices of “The Empty Child” and “Blink.” It also has fencing, which I find irresistible (the actor playing Lord Marchmount also caught my eye, I must admit). Some of Clyde’s funniest moments EVER were in this story, and though Professor Dave from Flashing Blade podcast found Clyde’s cowardice over ghosts disappointing, I thought it was yet another enjoyable aspect to his character. “Harry Potter gets a close shave off Sweeney Todd!” The sets for Darkling’s lair were extremely spooky. “Super spook smackdown!”
The episode ending was a bit of a cop out, but they often are. Again, I see tones of “Silence in the Library” when SJS realizes that “no one died here”—all the “ghosts” are being saved as the people were on CAL’s hardrive. Which is a heartening and totally appropriate thought for a kids’ show. Of course the steampunk in me approved of Darkling’s machine “a portal to another galaxy.” “Living people trapped between dimensions” doesn’t sound all that different from current “theories” as to what ghosts might be. The only low point of the story was Colin who, as Prof. Dave rightly points out, doesn’t develop as a character at all.
I don’t seem to have taken any notes for “Mona Lisa’s Revenge,” again by Phil Ford, but obviously after the story before it, it was bound to be a disappointment. I found it quite weird, though with some very interesting ideas. Clyde’s propensity for art was fortunately noted in earlier stories, but point after point became more and more unbelievable and the whole house of cards came tumbling down at the end. For example, I can’t ever imagine the Mona Lisa leaving the Louvre—can you? The Temple of Peace in Cardiff, even dressed up as some generic London Gallery, is hardly going to be the place to receive it, and Clyde winning the competition to see the Mona Lisa with that piece of artwork was highly unlikely as well. Anyone hoping to see “This is a fake” would have been disappointed as well.
There were, however, some interesting points in the story. Drawings coming to life is an attractive concept I’ve long enjoyed, and I’m sure many people would love to talk to the Mona Lisa should she ever become flesh. Like the Professor here, no doubt there would be a bit of an element of hero worship. Lisa’s brother the Abomination being painted by meteoric minerals from outer space was a truly strange idea that ultimately went nowhere. I don’t particularly like Suranne Jones or the way she characterized Lisa, but to each her own. SJS had very little to do. The Highwayman is an armed thug who I thought was going to become of great importance to the story since she was clearly a woman dressed up as a highwayman! However, he was played by a man and never spoke. What a missed opportunity. I suppose that could be said for that story as a whole.
“The Gift” was written by newcomer Rupert Laight and lacked the urgency of the previous seasons’ series enders, so much so that I didn’t realize it was the last story! However, there were some very endearing touches to this one. Yes, it featured the Slitheen/Blathereen again, but in a mostly novel way. Again I was struck by how cute baby Slitheen are.
The Blathereen pair of Leaf and Tree are voiced by a pair of accomplished actors whose voices were so familiar I spent much of the first episode trying to figure out who they were, and much of the second fixated on them after I had read the credits! Like Rani I very much wanted to believe that the Blathereen’s offers were genuine, though SJS was as usual correct to be over-cautious. Clyde taking K9 to school with him to help pass his exams was a harebrained, Clyde-thing to do and fortunately allowed the story to move along when it seemed our heroes might be defeated!
Luke was out for most of the story having been infected by rackweed and near death (apparently). I began to wonder if he is being written out of the series as he seemed to be sidelined from the action a lot this series. SJS also seemed mostly ineffective until the second part. “Profit is our progeny!” the Blathereen cackle. I found it very significant that the crux of Torchwood: Children of Earth was horrible aliens using human children as drugs, while in a much milder form, the Blathereen are planning to use Earth to fuel their own addiction to rackweed. Fortunately before this can happen Rani, Clyde, and K9 are “saved by the bell.” From here, things wrap up mostly neat and tidy, but the best bits are yet to come.
When Mr Smith amplifies the frequency of the school bell to kill the rackweed, Rani considerately covers K9’s ears! When people’s mobile phones emit this noise it thoughtfully says “Mr Smith calling” on the screen. J The rather graphic but very well-written course of action SJS takes against the Blathereen is bookended by an extremely funny, “There should have been another way!”
10. The Beaux’ Stratagem (George Farquar)
A Restoration stage play about husbands and wives adapted, surprisingly, for radio. It was very silly but translated well as it was speeches, singing, and would NOT have benefited from a laugh track. The actors were having the times of their lives hamming it up- Boniface the innkeeper and his ale, for example. And I liked all the usual cracks about church, Frenchmen, the country, etc. It certainly had the flavor of Marriage of Figaro or Cosí fan Tutte if not all of the charm. At least the woman got her divorce at the end!
9. Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers (Rob Grant & Doug Naylor)
Speaking of Red Dwarf, imagine my delight when I found this new instalment of the comedy on BBC7. It’s a multi-parter and I’m kind of cheating because I’ve just heard the first instalment, but so far it’s been very enjoyable. While technically it’s Chris Barrie (Rimmer) reading from the new book of the same name, his ability to do voices, plus the appropriate sound effects, make it almost a full-cast play. (His Dave Lister is quite miraculous!) I’m amazed at how well Red Dwarf translates to radio, but it’s all down the clever, cynical, silly writing.
8. Bleak Expectations (Mark Evans)
I listened to all but one of the third series of this Dickens spoof, and I have to say I found it quite addictive the more formulaic it became. It starred Tom Allen as the young Pip Bin, Anthony Head as his nemesis Mr Gently Benevolent, James Bachman as Pip Bin’s sidekick Harry Biscuit, and Geoffrey Whitehead as Wackwallop. Harry Biscuit’s inventions that never worked (“I need more swans!”) as well as his catchphrase “Harrumble!” pleased me to no end, as did Pip Bin being tortured by “cheeseboarding,” as did the dreadful puns (“the town of Coke and its suburb, Diet Coke”). Perhaps my favorite was A Sort of Fine Life De-Niced Completely, in which Mr Benevolent was disguised with a West Country accent and catapulted a metaphor-spinning urchin into a balloon.
7. Cadfael: Dead Man’s Ransom (Ellis Peters/Burt Cootes)
Narrated by Michael Kitchen, this play should wipe from your mind the version with Derek Jacobi and bring you closer to Cadfael’s Welsh roots. Philip Madoc was superb as the Benedictine sleuth (though I keep thinking it’s my former professor Nigel!). I often find narration in radio plays obtrusive, but this was fine. It had some great period music, and split into five parts seemed just about right— the cliffhangers, with one exception, were quite meaty.
6. Night Talker (Danny John-Jules)
No, I did not realize this was written by the Cat from Red Dwarf until just now when I thought the name sounded familiar. All thoughts of celebrity aside, this was a delightful gem broadcast on BBC7 in the days leading up to Halloween (among many very well-done thematic plays for the spookiest time of the year). For a 20-minute play this was superb. Night DJ Andy Stone is a jerk, putting his listeners and co-workers down, but in the course of a few minutes we learn he lost his twin brother, his birthday is Halloween, he hasn’t seen his parents in years, and he’s in love with his producer! Was it spooks in the studio? Sort of in the vein of Frank from last year--♥
5. Blue Veils and Golden Sands (Martin Wade)
Martin Wade seems to be showing up as often in the last few months as Nick Warburton did last year. That’s okay, he’s a competent writer and really shone in this unusual and, to a Doctor Who fan, highly interesting bio-drama. DW fans may already recognize the title. The subject is Delia Derbyshire, the lady who, in the 1960s, took Ron Grainer’s composition for the Doctor Who theme and used then-cutting edge Radiophonic Workshop techniques to render it. She wasn’t given credit for her contribution until much later, and to be honest, though I admired that a woman had made such a big contribution to DW in the ‘60s (like Verity Lambert), I didn’t know a thing about her. I had no idea that a) she went to Cambridge; b) that she financed it by selling presents people had given her; c) that she was a chronic alcoholic and socially inept; d) that she was brilliant and just wanted to be recognized; e) that she was totally bonkers! If these facts intrigue you, listen to this very moving, eye opening, and winningly acted (Sophie Thompson was great as Delia) play.
4. The Voyage of the Demeter (Robert Forrest)
I listened to this on Halloween in the dark, which was a bad move. I didn’t realize until the very end that this was basically fan fiction for Dracula, but at that point I didn’t care. It was scary, scary stuff. Marine voyages can be claustrophobic at the best of times, but all the actors ramped up their performances to give us the sounds of madness, of becoming unhinged, and Dracula himself was sophisticated and very scary. It was sufficiently free-standing to enjoy, but it helped if you knew that Dracula came from Romania (according to Stoker of course!) in boxes of earth aboard a Russian ship called the Demeter . . . A nice bookend for the adaptation of Dracula I heard on BBC7 in February.
3. The Penny Dreadfuls Present: Guy Fawkes (David Reed, Humphrey Ker, Thom Tuck)
I am not entirely clear how staged versions of radio plays recorded in front of a live audience work, but this one seemed to. It’s a version (half comedy, half history) of an event which all British children are taught at school- but, being an American, I only knew rudiments beyond what was explained to me in V for Vendetta. This set the record straight. Its humor was goofy, Horrible Histories-style. It was also intelligent and went very in depth into the characters and motivations. Percy’s studied dullness, Waad’s pantomime villainy mixed with thoughtful insight bounced wonderfully off Guy Fawkes’ zeal.
2. A Dangerous Thing (John Sessions)
I’m not sure what the dangerous thing is that’s referred to in the title. John Sessions was first known to me as the voice of Tom Baker in Dead Ringers and later it came to my knowledge that he had auditioned for the part of the Eighth Doctor. While I’m annoyed that such topics as this play can only come to radio with a heavyweight like him behind them (or maybe it’s sour grapes), I was heartened upon hearing this piece because it’s very similar to the style and subjects upon which I love to write. It’s a retrospective on the friendship between little Alexander Pope (John Sessions) and satiric Jonathan Swift (Timothy Spall). It combines John Adams with City of Vice with old skool historical writing— but that’s allowed because Pope and Swift can get away punning and prima-donna-ing. I love when you find a play that you strongly suspected would be your cup of tea, and it is.
1. Chimes of Midnight (Rob Shearman)
Just over a year ago, I heard the first two episodes of this Eighth Doctor/Charley story and knew it was going to be as good as they said it was. My only complaint is that it gets a bit talky in the third episode, but other than that it’s an almost flawless example of audio writing done well. It does have a seasonal theme (“Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Mrs Batterly’s plum pudding”), which perhaps invokes Dickens (the play could certainly be said to have things in common with “Blink,” “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” “Kinda,” “Paradise Lost,” “Age of Steel,” “The End of the World,” etc). The opening could easily be clunky in the hands of a lesser writer, but the fact Charley and the Doctor materialize in darkness is great for audio listeners and forces them, as well as Charley, to use all of the five senses. It sets up a wonderfully intriguing mystery in an Edwardian house where time is behaving in all sorts of strange ways. Then there are the murders, all of them grotesque and surreal. Who is Edward Grove? Even if you think you have it figured out, you won’t guess the Frankenstein-like twist. The ending is so poignant and moving, tied up in Charley’s past and her love of the Doctor- it was perfect for the team that is India Fisher and Paul McGann. “We chose life.”
I should also mention:
I listened to quite a few of the BBC7 repeats of the second series of Mark Gatiss’ Man in Black, some of which were very weird indeed (there was a disturbing one where a man was about to get married and he was pursued by the phantom of his future self who’d become a drunken murderer due to the marriage; though perhaps the most memorable was Crawley being invaded by zombies).
I also listened to quite a few of Dickens Confidential by Mike Walker. I really liked the premise of these, but found some of the writing to be pat and too cutesy by half. It’s Dickens as a newspaper writer with his novelistic career just taking off. Recurring characters include budding reporters Agnes (posh, subjugated, and possibly eyed by Dickens) and Daniel (northern, bumbling, well-meaning). My favorite of the plays was Why Are We in Afghanistan? Dickens in these plays is a dreadful misogynist and class-ist as well as obsessed with social justice- probably as near to a balanced portrait of Dickens as we’re likely to get. I enjoyed the cynical tone about how the Crimea started. I also liked the bomb-on-balloon (only on radio- surprisingly the conventions like “look, we’re descending” were not irritating).
The Female Ghost, all directed by Marian Ann Carey, was a trio of very strong adaptations of ghost stories written by women with a distinctly feminine twist, just in time for Halloween. My favorite was “The Cold Embrace” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon; Jonathan Firth was perfectly cast as a selfish German artist who abandons his fiancée who subsequently drowns herself. The final scene is at the Paris Opera Shrovetide Ball, which of course I loved. “Man-Sized Marble” was unnerving; two poor but happy artists in their little cottage, the superstitious local woman, the Irish rationalist doctor . . . and two stone villains who come out of their tombs to kill them! “Afterward” was just one of many plays that featured Americans; not surprisingly as it was written by Edith Wharton.
I heard three of The Newly Discovered Casebook of Sherlock Holmes by Anthony Her, a silly spoof much in the vein of Bleak Expectations, though perhaps even more outrageous, with Roy Hudd as Holmes and Geoffrey Holland as Watson. Holmes being described as a “toffee-nosed ponce” never ceased to amuse me, as did his constant bitch-fests with Mrs Hudson. The stories included Tweeny Sod and his pornographic lantern shows and the slightly offensive tale of a Chinese botanist/drug dealer/laundrette. The best joke was easily when Watson asked the name of the music hall singer, “Ellie Mentry, my dear Watson.” Also it had a real knack for sly winks at the listener: “By God there’s an orchestra in here with us!”
It’s very seldom I listen to readings of books as serialized on radio, but I stuck with The Canterville Ghost as read by Alistair McGowan because I’d wanted to read the book for a long time. It was well-realized, funny, and sad. I loved how the theme music communicated all the moods perfectly. Also again the plucky, rational, vulgar Americans tearing down British superstition!
I’m ashamed to say I listened to the first three episodes of Chain Gang and then stopped and never wrote in with a storyline, despite the suitably sci fi direction in which things were headed (it was written by Shearman, after all!).