Monday, July 30, 2012

Georgiana & The Duchess

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire & The Duchess

I knew when the film The Duchess came out that I would probably enjoy it very much, if only for the costumes.  I thought perhaps it would be somewhat like the Marie Antoinette film; not only was Georgiana (pronounced George-AY-na) Spencer Marie Antoinette’s (approximate) contemporary, they were also good friends in real life.  I am glad, however, that I read the (nonfiction) book upon which The Duchess is based, because they are enjoyable linked together rather than separately.  

Although I respect the amount of primary research Amanda Foreman did on Georgiana Spencer, I have to confess I enjoyed the style of her book less than I expected to.  Similarly, I liked Georgiana herself a lot less than many people seemed to.  In the film, Georgiana’s rough edges have been smoothed just as Cassandra’s sketch of her sister Jane Austen was cleaned up for Victorian audiences.  One of the things that made it quite difficult for me to identify with Georgiana was her inveterate gambling.  Setting aside the fact that it was endemic of 18th century aristocratic society, the gambling bug got Georgiana early—and it got her completely; I think she was more devoted to it than anything, more than her children or her lovers.  I suppose today she would have had treatment to help her past her addiction, but despite the constant urgings of everyone around her, she got deeply into debt thousands of times in her life and made it even worse by constantly lying about the sums to everyone.  In the film, Georgiana is shown gambling a few times, but it is never suggested that it is an addiction, nor does this particular strand have any bearing on the plot.  (The opening scene of the film, in which Georgiana is holding a man’s three-cornered hat with what appeared to be banknotes in it—I thought she was gathering funds to take to a gambling party.  It turned out this was her early life and she was merely indulging in a game.  Also, when the Duke gave her the ultimatum of her lover Charles Grey or her children, he was carrying what I thought were letters from her creditors.  They were actually letters from her children.)

For many reasons, in the film Georgiana’s family has been collapsed down to just her mother, who is portrayed faithfully by Charlotte Rampling.  However, this is a shame given the wonderful personalities of her brother George, her sister-in-law Lavinia, and especially her younger sister Harriet (who lives on in name only, in The Duchess’ Georgiana’s second daughter Harryo).  Harriet followed Georgiana into gambling, into a disastrous marriage (her husband was physically abusive and may have even tried to poison her), into political fundraising, and into unhappy affairs.  Another character who’s gotten the chop is Selina Trimmer, the governess, who was spying for Georgiana’s mother.   However, Georgiana’s father lives on in a short speech Georgiana gives to her mother after she has found her marriage to the Duke not all she hoped for, which is taken directly from the real Georgiana’s writings—she had hoped the Duke’s somewhat cool exterior concealed sensitivity and emotion underneath, like her father, but found this was not the case.  

Occasionally the Duke starts tottering down the road to pantomime villain.  At the film’s best moments, they equalize the Duke’s shyness with his sense of property; he “did not know how to be romantic; never having experienced tenderness himself he was incapable of showing it to Georgiana.”  I don’t feel like we have to penalize the Duke for finding companionship in his dogs rather than his wife; some people just have difficulty relating to others, and unfortunately these two people had very opposite personalities (fortunately toward the end of their lives, they did manage to “get on”).  “The Duke was drinking a dish of tea with Lady Spencer and Harriet when Georgiana walked into the room and sat on his laps with her arms around his neck.  Without saying a word he pushed her off and left the company.”  In the film, the Duke has a few Soames Forsyte moments, but I think he is most faithfully represented when he tells Georgiana, “I love you.  In as far as I understand love.”  Similarly, you can hardly accuse Ralph Fiennes of playing Heathcliff all over again, even if the costumes are similar—I see more flashes of Oscar from Oscar and Lucinda in his apologetic expressions.  (I confess I have never seen Ralph look more handsome than in this film.)

Georgiana’s relationship with Bess Foster has also changed considerably.  The film has gone for the simple angle, ie the ménage à trois when the Duke is sleeping with her best friend.  Bess, although portrayed as the humble recipient of a wrath and jealousy Georgiana never in real life expressed directly to her, is nonetheless remarkably dissimilar from the simpering, sycophantic woman scheming for everything she envied in Georgiana’s life.  The rest of the world’s annoyance with her has been transferred onto Georgiana so they can have some spectacular rows and express much more modern sentiments.  Though, for some titillation, Bess does seem to hold some Sapphic feelings for Georgiana, a distant echo, perhaps, of Georgiana’s relationship with Mary Graham, the Little Po, and perhaps Bess herself.  (Georgiana and the Duke’s only surviving son, called Hart, eventually and remarkably formed a very close relationship with Joseph Paxton!)      
A circle of admiring men still surround Georgiana in the film, though it has been constricted and Fox’s and Sheridan’s roles greatly reduced (to give greater clarity to Grey).  This is a shame, but it would have been a completely different film had it focused on the ongoing (perhaps intimate?) relationship with Fox—in this film, at least, unequivocally the two are not lovers and it is Grey (another future Prime Minister) who is the rip-roaring leader of the Opposition.  Even poor, confused Prinny (Prince of Wales, future George IV) barely gets a scene and not even a line.  Georgiana’s political involvement has shrunk to a handful of scenes (though later we do get a few surreptitious glances of the Tory caricaturists) and what is perhaps worse, her sentiments have been modernized.  The sense of the Opposition party that I got from Foreman’s book is that it was far from radical, believed merely in curbing the excesses of the monarchy, and when push came to shove, almost everyone disavowed the French Revolution.  Georgiana’s sentiments in the film about “freedom is absolute” are all very well and good for the plot, but in reality she demonstrated her beliefs quite clearly by siding with her friends the aristocrats in France, more or less talking herself into it along the way.  Nevertheless, it is worth noting that Georgiana was much more successful for the Whigs than her counterparts ever were for the Tories.  Did she ever really embrace butchers to gain votes?  In any case, she was so active in politics that future (Victorian) generations sought to destroy her correspondence.  She was . . . embarrassing.   As for Grey, Dominic Cooper is . .  . there.  I could never while reading the book understand why Georgiana fell so hard for him; in the film, they definitely try to make him the radical, as I mentioned before.  And . . . he runs around a lot?  That makes him better than the Duke?

The film has had to leave out the many trips abroad including the sordid ones during which various mistresses give birth to illegitimate babies:  Bess to several men’s, Georgiana’s to Grey’s.  However, they very emphatically show the Duke’s affair with a milliner and their offspring, Charlotte, who is raised with their legitimate children (in the film, Charlotte takes the place of several of the other illegitimate children, but in real life the Duchess did not grow to love her as her own flesh and blood and in fact the Duke was not very fond of her either).   The film in fact almost ends as Georgiana has to hand off her child with Grey, Eliza, to Grey’s family to take care of—what is clear is that in real life and the film, they both loved this child very much.  With the film ending there, the last ten years or so of the Duchess’ life are effaced, which is a shame because she became a creative scholar and very interested in mineralogy.  I had been kind of hoping the film would show this transformation (I suppose it wasn’t glamorous enough).  

As the filmmakers themselves remark, it can be difficult to make this story empathetic or accessible—poor little rich girl, her father had an income of £700 a week when gentlemen could live off £300 a year.  In general, the film’s dialogue is shockingly direct—the first time Bess meets Georgiana, she repeats rumors to her face that she, Georgiana, has been incapable of conceiving a son for the Duke.  A million other inaccuracies and questionable dialogue abound (though I tend to think this happens when three people write the script!!); the most annoying was Georgiana appearing in public nine (or so) months pregnant.  That would not have happened.  (Also they had the audacity to put handles on the tea cups.)  So when Georgiana offers the Duke “a deal,” I was almost as surprised as he was.  It is, of course, ridiculous that the Duke can keep his double standards, with Charlotte in the household and Bess in plain sight, while Georgiana has to give up her lover and her illegitimate child; yet it doesn’t have to be shoved down our throats.  

I think Keira Knightley is very beautiful and probably more beautiful even than Georgiana.  She also happens to take very well to 18th century costumes (demonstrated memorably when she was 17 in Pirates of the Caribbean).  The costumes of this film are, of course, amazing and appropriate to the trendsetter that Georgiana was (although I’m not sure there was any evidence in the book that she designed her own gowns!).  Georgiana, among many things, introduced those giant headdresses which we associate with the 18th century; she also introduced muslin to England.  I would definitely watch the film again just to look at the clothes. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan’s Batman films changed my life.  Maybe at first in not very noticeable ways, but with increasingly large scale.  Batman Begins was highly enjoyable and introduced me to a bevy of Cillian Murphy fan girls (the pleasing result was being led to Breakfast on Pluto and other important works in the Modern Irish Novel).  Perhaps more lastingly, it fostered the creative impulse on, and as I regard any writing I do as a good thing, it represents new directions in which my writing ventured.  However, it was The Dark Knight that took me by surprise by the complete obsession it engendered in me.  Perhaps the fact I was at the time employed part-time, away from home, and unattached contributed to the single-minded enthusiasm, but (and thank Swansea Central Library for coming to the rescue) I became a voracious reader of any Batman comics I could find.  I’ll never be an expert—I think I liked Batman at least since watching The Animated Series as a kid, but I only started reading the comics in 2008, and by then a 69-year legacy was already spread out.  But I must have had a decent enough grasp because I got a chapter on comparing Batman to Doctor Who published in The Mythological Dimensions of Doctor Who in 2010.  And I kept reading fan fic, and I kept writing it.  In this world of Fifty Shades of Grey, fan fiction can’t be considered completely irrelevant—some of the best writing I think I’ve ever done was for The Dark Knight.  And it’s brought me closer and closer to official sanctioning—I can’t discuss it at the moment, but I am working on an academic book that deals with Batman that should be out by the end of the year.  

But this is where it all becomes a bit bittersweet.  I have wondered over the past few days whether if the fan I was between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight would have felt differently, perhaps even much more positively, about The Dark Knight Rises than the fan I am today.  I suppose it’s irrelevant, but there’s no denying that while I am a fan of the Nolan!verse, I am also a fan of the universe of B:tAS and the various universes contained within generations of the comics, (even of the fan-produced audios!) of which I had very little knowledge in 2005.  One of the great joys of Batman—and this was one thing that linked it up in my mind, and which is, incidentally, one of the reasons probably that I am a big fan of both—is that you can superimpose your own continuity and your own “canon” onto what already exists and absorb what you like best out of all of that.  I really like these ideas of hyperdiegentic universes (thank Umberto Eco and Matt Hills for that) and the overlaying archontic (thank Abigail Derecho for that) quality to multiple readings of the same source text. I really like what J-Horror Girl did toward the end of Can’t Get You Out of My Head where two universes’ Jokers observe and react to one another. I got slightly bothered when I read someone’s comment basically accusing Nolan of “stealing” bits of already-written Batman from other people and making it “his” Batman in the films.  In my mind, in appropriating motifs, characters, and storylines, I don’t think this counts as “stealing.”  For example, Batman Begins gets much of its structure, characters, and tone from Batman: Year One.  Did I know that in 2005?  No, I learned it because I loved Batman Begins and The Dark Knight so much that I read “the originals” and found out for myself.  To me, this is a method of mirroring back things that have worked and transposing them onto a new form.     

Maybe this is my overcomplicated way of saying that with The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan’s Batman ceased to be quite so much “my” Batman.  I can still recognize that it was a conclusion intelligent, well-crafted, and authentic, yet it didn’t move me in the same way.  I can’t help thinking this is my fault, that it’s due to something deficient in me, rather than the film being faulty in some way.  While I know I will see TDKR again, I don’t have the burning desire to see it, read about it, and think about it all the time. 
Let’s start with my two air-punching moments. {SPOILERS} I was so excited to see Cillian Murphy back for a brief scene as Jonathan Crane.  It was wonderful symmetry with his similarly short scene at the beginning of TDK as well as a nice framing device for all three films.  {/END SPOILERS}  And the other was the scene in which Catwoman and Batman, in a graceful, almost balletic display, fought their mutual enemies in tandem.  In general, I was extremely impressed with Catwoman—she was probably my favorite element of TDKR in general.  For one thing, although Rachel was a strong moral guide for Bruce/Batman in the two previous films, showing courage in the face of danger multiple times and one of the few people to criticize Bruce, in an action film, her role seemed rather passive.  As a person, she was admirable, but as part of a film, she sometimes amounted to no more than a plot device.  With very few other female role models in the previous two films, it was a breath of fresh air to have Catwoman/Selina so prominently featured.  Sure, as a thief who is much less hesitant to kill than Batman, she can hardly be called a paragon of traditional virtues.  Nevertheless, Catwoman has had her own moral code, and the Nolan/Hathaway version is no exception.  

Which brings me to the fact that some of my favorite Batman titles over the years have actually been Catwoman titles:  Selina’s Big Score, When in Rome, and so on.  She has been realized perfectly in the film, in my opinion, with the right amounts of style and glamour, fitness and finesse, a self-preserving sarcasm and wit, and, as I said, her own very defined opinion of right and wrong and who should be punished for which crimes.  I won’t go into too much detail about specific scenes and quips in order to keep the spoilers to a minimum, but I will say her interaction with Batman/Bruce was spot-on—she grew to fall in love with both aspects of him, which is definitely key, in my opinion.  Even if she betrayed moments of sentimentality, which Batman was always prompt to point out, she played him for a schmuck multiple times, getting under his skin like no one else could.  Finally, I wasn’t sold on seeing her costume before the film, but by the end of it, I really liked the way it combined function and style (and how her “ears” were actually her goggles). 

I was also highly impressed by the introduction of police officer character Blake who, in keeping with the sentiment of Year One espoused in the first film, was one of the few good characters who could be trusted.  {SPOILERS}  I agonized throughout the film whether he was going to turn out to be evil, even though from reading an Evening Standard review which promised to be “spoiler-free,” I had a feeling he was going to turn out to be the Robin character.  And frankly, well-done.  They managed to strip all of the camp out of that stereotype and make him realistic and yet with just enough of the ghost of the original character to pull it all together in the end, in one of the film’s most exciting sequences.  {/END SPOILERS}  As ever, it was a pleasure to see recurring members of Batman’s “gang,” Alfred, Lucius Fox, and Jim Gordon (who in the end got a highly mobile and heroic moment akin to the one driving the armored truck through downtown Gotham in TDK).  {SPOILERS} It was sad if not surprising that Gordon’s family had left him.  {/END SPOILERS}

To make this film was in some ways a Catch-22, because you were never going to please everybody.  There was such pressure, I imagine, to do everything twice as good and twice as big as in TDK.  To that end, I will make the controversial statement that I found this blowing up of scale ineffective in many senses for me personally.  Examples?  The opening.  For me, it was confusing, in fact boring (seriously!  I was shifting to look at my watch!), and I kept thinking to myself, “When they introduced the Joker in a scene that was in function similar to this one, they did it much, much better—such seamless marriage of intent, performance, and narrative.”  This was something I found myself thinking throughout the film.  Most of the big set pieces of the film had me reacting this way—instead of being impressed, I was just annoyed and thinking how much better it might have been.  I guess this is irrational of me and rather unfair.  I realize the fact TDKR was set eight years after TDK was done for many reasons, but I suspected one was, in the wake of the fact that Gotham’s crime rates were down, its populace enjoying “peacetime,” to make the absence of the Joker believable and more palatable.  I KNOW that Heath Ledger’s death would have altered any plans there were for the third film[1], but the complete absence of even a stray remark .  . . kind of hurt me.   I’m sure, as I said, the clean break was deliberate, for multiple reasons, and yet the fan girl was disappointed.

I suppose this “reset” button coupled with the strong resurgence of themes, ideas, and even characters from the first film almost made me feel that TDK had been forgotten.  For one thing, other than Rachel’s death, Gordon’s promotion, and a few sundry odds and ends, you haven’t missed much if you saw Batman Begins, then missed out on TDK, then saw TDKR.  Again, I’m sure much of this was done with an ideal symmetry in mind, and if I was purely objective I think I might be able to appreciate that more.  As it is, the fan that I am today has developed a real annoyance with the whole Ra’s al Ghul storyline, and while I think it was done better in Batman Begins than it was elsewhere, its return was greeted with apathy by me.  {SPOILERS} Though I was very impressed by Ra’s himself making a cameo.  {/END SPOILERS}  

To that end, although I understood the necessity to the story, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the way Bruce/Batman was sidelined from the main action.  Er . . . how not to spoil .  . . {SPOILERS} The long sequences in “some unnamed Middle Eastern country” bore much thematic symmetry to the long sequences in “Bhutan”—which I actually really liked as a new contribution to the Batman mythos—yet felt in some sense like they belonged to some other film.  Perhaps I’m being needlessly nitpicky.  I have to admit I did feel another potential air-punching moment when Bruce did manage to climb out of the well of sorrows or whatever it was called.  Just as, despite the appalling violence, I did feel some savage pleasure as Batman was able to beat Bane in the final confrontation.  {/END SPOILERS}

And that’s a point.  He’s been notable by his absence so far in this review.  What of Bane?  I have to admit I have not yet read a comic where he featured prominently, so I like to think I came in with an open mind.  My feelings of ambivalence regarding the whole film are probably focused on the figure of Bane.  I like Tom Hardy, and I think he had the physical presence required for a villain who needed to be believably able to smash Batman to a pulp.  Although the review in the Evening Standard claimed that there was no “excuse” given for Bane’s wish to take over and destroy Gotham, which would have been a “multiple choice origin” on par with the Joker’s, this was not the case, and while the truth was ingenious and also made Bane somewhat sympathetic, it also diminished him somewhat as a villain in the end.  

The Dark Knight rises, in multiple senses, and even from a Year One-inspired beleaguered beginning, TDKR strips all supports from Bruce/Batman in this swansong for the hero.  Financially and spiritually bereft, lured out of retirement by a conflicting set of values, Bruce makes many almost fatal mistakes, which of course test him as a hero.  Even the people he trusts make mistakes, which makes him even more vulnerable.  (There were certainly several gasp-inducing moments to this end.)  Whatever your opinion of Gone with the Wind, you have to agree that Scarlett O’Hara gets put through the wringer as far as her character is concerned, and as such makes a perfect illustration of a hero who actually changes and grows through the course of a fiction.  Has Bruce changed?  Physically and mentally, his endurance has risen parallel to his commitment to Gotham, and the ending certainly seems to suggest that he has changed.  {SPOILERS}  Oh, what to say about the ending?  On one hand, I really like that Bruce/Batman was able to get his statue and his “afterlife,” with Catwoman no less, and have a successor to inherit the mantle, much like successive Robins—or indeed, Dread Pirate Robertses—inherited their mantles.  But part of me felt he should have died.  You see, there are two Phantom of the Opera camps:  those who think at the end of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, he died of a broken heart, and those who think he lived and went on to do other things.  (Evidently Webber himself is of the latter camp, as evidenced by the film and by the existence of Love Never Dies.)  I am of the broken heart camp, because I like the mythic finality.  However, another part of me wondered whether it wasn’t all some delusion of Alfred’s, given Bruce’s earlier “hallucination” of Ra’s.  {/ END SPOILERS}

Perhaps the vision of “my” Batman would have never worked on the screen anyway, and I’m sure Christopher Nolan knows better than I do.  Yet I do feel discouraged by having such a strong mixed reaction to the film, as it means I cannot express the same gung-ho enthusiasm about it as I was led to believe would be my due after having lived so vicariously through TDK.  

Who knows, perhaps after time I will grow to appreciate it more? 

[1] I conscientiously avoided any news or scoops about The Dark Knight Rises until the last possible moment, so I don’t know how much or how little planning was affected.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Sweeney Todd

I have seen a number of stagings of musicals over the years, from Broadway tours to West End originals, to high school productions and amateur productions somewhere in between.  Being able to enjoy a range I think is important, because the story and the music have to be engaging, and the rest can be added or removed as appropriate.  Still, I have to say it was a great honor to be able to see Sweeney Todd in the West End, especially considering I’d gazed at the posters with longing for months, thinking, “Oh, I’d really like to go see that . . .”  

Partly, this was because this version starred Michael Ball, who I loved from afar as a teenager in Albuquerque and who I first saw in the 10th Anniversary Les Miz concert from Royal Albert Hall.  I was 13 or so when I fell in love with his dulcet tones as Marius, and it is well-known that he has since gone on in the intervening time to play Jean Valjean.  He isn’t, though, known for his villainous roles, so it was a great pleasure to see him utterly relish the role of the murderous barber.  My friend Aya managed to get us front row seats, and it sent chills down the spine to see Michael Ball’s eyes glittering malevolently in songs such as “Epiphany” and the final scenes.    

Also, I admit I was intrigued by the costuming (and ultimately, set design) which put the production some time in the 1920s or 1930s—Mrs Lovett with a white butcher’s coat, a cloche hat, and bobbed hair; Pirelli with a van (this stretched incredulity a bit with the madhouse scenes).  Most productions seem to favor some mid-Victorian pastiche period (amusingly the film’s costumes suggested the 1840s but featured Tower Bridge which was not built until the 1890s).   Also, and in general, though Andrew Lloyd Webber has composed my favorite musical of all time, I do enjoy a bit of challenging Stephen Sondheim from time to time, and you can’t get much more challenging than Sweeney Todd, both musically and thematically.  

Sweeney Todd has to hinge on his macabre humor, and a production, it seems to me, must succeed on how well it can do both sides of the coin:  the horror and the humor.  The horror, of course, is written into the plot from the moment go:  people being murdered and turned into meat pies is grisly!  But there is so much darkness in this play, sometimes it literally seems to stagger under the weight—and it can make the dispatching of people by razor almost comical or, worse, as in the stunning scene of Sweeney in “God, That’s Good” singing of the daughter he’ll never know while routinely slitting throats.  The full-frontal attack on the hypocrisy of the law and society, with the chorus’ commentary, seem to suggest this whole business could have been prevented by Lucy Todd’s not having caught the eye of evil Judge Turpin.  Todd seems a villain by circumstance, not necessarily by nature—but how do we know for sure?  What will become of Anthony and Johanna after the play is over—will their cursed existence strike a second time in the second generation?  And the juggernaut of Todd’s revenge, once set in motion, from the time Toby sings “Not While I’m Around,” to the bloody conclusion, seems struck through with awful destiny.  So much death!

Yet there is a lot to laugh at in the play, too.  Mrs Lovett makes at least as fascinating a character as Sweeney Todd, due to her cheerful and pragmatic nature balanced by her ruthless selfishness, not only reflected in her meat pie business, but in the way she goes into denial once she thinks she can earn Sweeney’s love.  This is bitterly apparent and also extremely poignant in scenes where it’s clear all he can brood on is his revenge.  In a serious context:  the absolutely gorgeous “My Friends.”  In a hilarious context: “By the Sea.”  While it was the film that opened to my eyes that Mrs Lovett was actually slightly older than Sweeney and they would have been teenagers in the same neighborhood, Imelda Staunton’s delivery of “By the Sea” was easily the most scene-stealing set piece (though my favorite song from this musical, “A Little Priest,” was also absolutely fantastic).  Acting on stage, as we know, has to be painted in broader strokes than other kinds of acting, but Imelda Staunton was so good in these scenes at conveying nuanced emotion that I almost hoped Mrs Lovett and Sweeney Todd would get away with it and have their seaside wedding.  However, when Toby sang “Now While I’m Around,” and then when the Beadle played his parlor songs, the conflict of emotions was stupendous.  It made really impressive theatre.

The cast overall, you’ll not be surprised to hear, was very strong and convincing, Anthony in particular stealing the show in a role that is very difficult to take seriously.  Sweeney Todd actually had some quite funny moments due to the factory whistle squeaking at unexpected times and “mad-people” jumping out of the orchestra pit at us.   

Nevertheless, I can’t help wondering what the moral is supposed to be.  If the Judge and the Beadle get their comeuppance, how are we to reflect on the fate of Lucy?  And Toby, made into a murderer by Sweeney’s hand?  When Mrs Lovett and Sweeney appear at the end “out of Hell,” I can’t help feeling the musical has brought them back for more than musical symmetry. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Never Had It So Good

Never Had It So Good:  A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles

I’m surprised, and yet not surprised, that I didn’t review this book’s sequel, White Heat, which covers the years 1964-1970.  The only elegy I could give to it was my article in TTZ13, “How Bazaar,” which was inspired by White Heat and how Polly fitted into the dolly-bird type. The reason I’m not surprised I didn’t get around to a review is because Dominic Sandbrook’s tomes are monumental in size (literally and figuratively) and scope, making getting through their combined 1,600 pages a real achievement.  I was probably too busy getting on to the next thing to write the review that White Heat deserved.  

I do, however, recommend reading them in reverse order the way I did.  It’s a bit like seeing the culmination of someone’s life story and then going back in time to see how their parents met.  (Similar to the process of everyone being familiar with William Hartnell’s end-of-career crotchety-ness by the time he left Doctor Who in 1966; very few know the utterly fascinating story of his youth and maturity as I have found by reading Jessica Carney’s Who’s There?)  Of course, I am reading both these books for enjoyment but also in order to understand one year, 1963, as best as I possibly can, and it is my belief that in order to do so I must understand what came before and what happened afterwards.  So, although it is a lot of time to invest, Sandbrook’s two books have helped me do that in a way that I feel is, if not exhaustive, at least comprehensive.  

Sandbrook’s thesis is that neither were the 1960s as revolutionary as most people claim, having built upon, of course, trends from the 1930s; also, he tries to show that many of the events the press would claim riveted the psyches of the general public were a blip on most people’s radars.  (You might be forgiven for coming away from Sandbrook’s books thinking the only thing on Britons’ minds in the 1950s and 1960s was gardening!)  However, Sandbrook builds up his arguments by way of a comprehensive picture of the political, cultural and intellectual sides of the life of the nation as a whole.  For me personally, the political sections are very tough-going; nevertheless, he emphasizes narrative and character, making them far less boring than they could be.  (I think I learned more about politics in reading these books than the rest of the books I’ve read combined.)  

Sandbrook begins the book with the Suez Crisis of which, I must admit, I knew absolutely nothing; in terms of American history, it probably wouldn’t even garner the status of a footnote.  President Eisenhower told his speechwriter, “Of course, there’s nobody, in a war, I’d rather have fighting alongside me than the British . . . But—this thing!  My God!”  Harold Macmillan dominates this book, as much as his successor Harold Wilson will come to dominate the second instalment.  For both characters, Sandbrook reserves a certain sort of restrained fascination.  Macmillan (“Supermac”) is characterized as “an American’s Englishman—the slight exaggeration of a type” who nonetheless has killer political instincts.    Sandbrook presents portraits of other key political figures (in both book); one striking such one is Enoch Powell (“the father of Thatcherism”), whose extraordinarily serious work ethic can be summarized: “When invited by a Birmingham contemporary to come and have some tea, he replied, ‘Thank you very much, but I came here to work.’”   

As in White Heat, Sandbrook is at pains to illustrate that, even if Macmillan suggested that “most of us have never had it so good,” many more were still in severe poverty.  He has a whole paragraph on the primitive bathing habits of many Britons up until about 1954, which sounds practically Victorian, “Usually the members of the family bathed one after the other, topping it up with pans of hot water, but the bath water inevitably became ever cloudier and dirtier, so that the last bather effectively wallowed in the family dirt.”  In such a climate, it’s easy to see why a consumer-based affluent society would have been so desirable for so many.  The result, however, quickly made some disenchanted with the “Americanization” of the culture.  Its advertising absurdity—which is one reason I’ve always found the 1950s in the US so incredibly boring and bland—is illustrated in an advertising campaign which claims that Horlicks can save a broken marriage and cause a woman to become a fabulous dinner party host once more.  For every woman for whom the corralling influence of radio programs emphasizing her postwar role in the home drove her insane[1], there was one like this:
I often feel at the end of the day that all my efforts have been of no avail.  I remember all the polishing and cleaning, washing and ironing, that will have to be done all over again, and like many other housewives I wish that my life could be a little more exciting sometimes. But when the evening fire glows, when the house becomes a home, then it seems to me that this is perhaps the path to true happiness.    
Sandbrook is in his element when he describes some of the important intellectual movements of this period, including the “Angry Young Men,” whose writing, frankly, sounds like pointless waffle to me (though I do like Philip Larkin’s poetry).  Kingsley Amis, the bizarre Colin Wilson, and John Osborne are all identified with this movement though they didn’t know each other and didn’t work together.  Also, there was the “kitchen sink drama,” which was the specialty, it turns out, of Sydney Newman, which unfortunately was a rather misogynist genre, excluding all but Shelagh Delaney.  And then there was New Wave cinema.  To Doctor Who fans, arguably the most important film of this tradition is This Sporting Life, which got William Hartnell cast as the Doctor.

The chapter The End of Empire is an important look at independence for British colonies (1956-1963) and how this impacted the British public as well as the policy-makers themselves.  This, of course, caused the first rush of immigration from the West Indies, though as the book points out, “Thousands of men from the West Indies had already been to Britain.  They had served in the British imperial forces during the Second World War[2], where they had been well trained, well paid and given assistance with their board and lodging.  It was hard to return to the backbreaking, threadbare and authoritarian world of the islands after the excitement of, say, London at the height of the struggle against Nazi Germany.”  Many years ago, when I was still in high school in Albuquerque, one of my friends came back from having spent the summer in England.  He said he had never seen such anti-Black racism in his life as he did in England.  This really surprised me; after all, Britain had no War over slavery nor a civil rights movement.  However, this was before I knew about the Notting Hill riots:  “although popular tradition in the twentieth century held that Britain was a uniquely tolerant and welcoming haven for foreign refugees from poverty, oppression, and persecution, the fact was that immigrants were usually objects of suspicion, prejudice and contempt.”  

We saw a film recently called Made in Dagenham which celebrated the women workers of the Ford Dagenham plant who went on strike in the later ‘60s.  However, their “victories” have the slight shine of nostalgia to them when you examine the entire union situation of the early ‘60s.  The film I’m All Right, Jack satirizes union activity to the point that “there is no place for an honest and virtuous individual in the modern world of consumerism, greed and special interests.”  The early ‘60s also expressed disdain for the “Establishment,” by such entities as Private Eye, That Was the Week That Was, and Beyond the Fringe.  And let’s not forget the birth of CND.  

There is good amount of coverage on the subject of TV, such as the launch of commercial television in the UK[3], though slightly less emphasis on what was on the TV (though, as I suspect Sandbrook is a Doctor Who fan, that show is not ignored and earned quite a bit of discussion in White Heat; I also learned a lot about Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars).   I also suspect Sandbrook is a Beatles fan, as he is circumspect about their origins and rise in Never Had it So Good and wrote eloquently on their subsequent musical experimentation and ascension in White Heat.  His writing about the Beatles is among his most entertaining, and I think it’s fair to say he finds John Lennon overrated, plugging the virtues of Ringo in this book (in a survey in February 1963, Ringo’s favorite songwriters are Burt Bacharach and “McCartney and Lennon” and his ambition is “to be happy”) and bigging up Paul’s genius in White Heat.    

I’ve never been a fan of Bond.  The movies are boring, and I see little appeal in Bond’s character (even as played by Sean Connery).  I did read Casino Royale and quite enjoy it but was rather shocked by the misogyny and racism.  It’s good to know that I am not alone in my bemusement for Bond, though even Umberto Eco has said that the appeal “consists of finding [oneself] immersed in a game in which [one] knows the pieces and the rules—and perhaps the outcome—drawing pleasure simply from the minimal variations by which the victor realizes his objective.”  The book draws to a close with the Profumo scandal, the bowing out of Macmillan, the zenith of Beatlemania, and Bond himself.    

[1] I take this more from Stephen Barnard’s chapter in Women and Radio than from Sandbrook.
[2] I did learn from The Woman's Century that “colored” West Indian women were turned away from wartime roles by racist organizers, though some determined women did get through the rigorous application process.
[3] Though Sandbrook repeats the truism that the reason Grace Archer was killed off on The Archers was so the BBC could compete with the launch of ITV.  The real reason, as revealed in William Smethurst’s The Archers:  The History of Radio Drama’s Most Famous Programme, was because he wanted the block the actress’ union activities.