Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

“The Crine” and an accent mystery

November 14, 2016

Mrs W and I are thee episodes into Netflix’s mega-budget offering “The Crown,” and are loving it.  (Though I am developing a slight obsession over one character’s accent.)

It’s not just that every shot is beautifully-composed, or that the costumes are gorgeous, and that even the CGI’d locations and sets are indistinguishable from – probably better than, actually – the real thing.

the-crown-lead-large_trans2oueflmhzzhjcyuvn_gr-cealqh55qdyqumvbbbc4cmIt’s the voices.  Claire Foy as the young Queen brilliantly replicates the cut-glass accent of the era; Matt Smith as the Duke of Edinburgh has the perfect upper-class drawl.

I can just about remember real people speaking like that, but only on television and the radio.  By the 1960s the accent was already becoming unfashionable, but clung on in the fruity tones of Maria Bird’s narration of Andy Pandy on the BBC’s Watch With Mother, and a few other broadcasting voices.

The accent is usually called RP – short for “received pronunciation”.  Why “received”?  According to Wikipedia, “received” here has the same sense as “approved” or  “accepted” (as in the phrase “received wisdom”), although my dialectology professor at University, the late Stanley Ellis, declared it was the accent that would allow the speaker to be “received” into upper class society.  In fact, standard RP – these days –  is pretty much a regional accent.  It is standard south-eastern English.  Being English, of course, it comes with an additional class signifier.  It co-exists with London English (“cockney” and others), and the accents of Essex and the surrounding counties.  It seems surprising in 2016, but it’s still true that the higher up the social ladder you are, the more likely you are to speak RP – in the south at any rate.  In reality, most natives are bilingual and can easily adapt their accent according to the circumstance.

“Heightened RP” is what the Queen speaks: an even more marked, “tighter” pronunciation in which a phrase such as “that black hat” becomes “thet bleck het”.  She’d pronounce “The Crown” like “The Crine” which is what I have taken to calling it.  It is a mark of the properly posh. Or was.

Almost no one speaks it now, not even the Queen herself.  Doubtless there are some people who cling onto it, but it sounds so mannered as to be comical.

But, like people who scour period dramas for solecisms like television aerials on roofs, or double yellow lines on the road, I find myself listening very carefully to the accents.

In episode one of The Crown, for example, the Duke of Edinburgh says, “OK, come along.”

I had to wind back and check (cue eye-rolling from Mrs W).  Surely no one, apart from Americans, said “OK” in 1951?

My main gripe, however, is this: how come Alex Jennings (in an otherwise brilliant turn as the oleaginous Duke of Windsor) kept getting his RP wrong?  He’s a native of Essex (I checked) an area with a solidly southern pronunciation, so why on earth did he keep pronouncing “ask” with a short, northern “a” instead of the southern “ah”?  Perhaps it’s deliberate, for some reason?

Update: he’s at it again in episode 4.  “Ask”, “answer”, and a couple of others (I wasn’t watching with a notebook in hand) – again and again, pronounced with a short “a”, yet – oddly, the word “last” was pronounced with the appropriate long “ah”.

I’m baffled.


Book number 2: thank God for that!

October 12, 2016

I’ll be honest – there were times when I thought, fleetingly, that perhaps I was destined to write only one book.  That Time Travelling With A Hamster would have its brief moment in the limelight and then gracefully move along the bookshelf to make room for books by other, more prolific and successful authors.

invisible-coverI would tell myself that Harper Lee  wrote only one book, To Kill A Mockingbird.  (Then I’d remember Go Set A Watchman  and feel a little sad.)

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind was also a one-off, written in 1936, that still sells 75,000 copies a year.

(Incidentally, Mockingbird and GWTW both one-offs, both set in the US deep south, both won the Pullitzer Prize.)

Anyway, the doubts were necessarily momentary as I had a contract to fulfill with HarperCollins and – in hindsight – the problem was not that I couldn’t think of a story to write, but that the initial, enthusiastic reception to Hamster had somewhat intimidated me.  And if I felt that with the modest success of Hamster imagine what poor Harper Lee felt when her first ever book won the world’s most-coveted literary prize and was set by exam boards the world over.

Anyway, it’s done and I’m thrilled with it.  I say “done”: it’s in the final editing stage, where metaphors are unmixed, characterisations sharpened with a word here and there, plot holes that have survived so far are identified and filled in (or disguised), and the copy-editor says things like, “she can’t put it in her jeans pocket because you said five pages ago that she was wearing a skirt.”  I owe an awed debt to my brilliant editors.

The cover, once again, is by the wonderful Tom Clohosy Cole.  It really matches Hamster.

In fact, it looks just like a collection of books by an author should look.  Which means I’d better get cracking on book three…

What Not To Do If You Turn Invisible is available to pre-order from Amazon.  It will be published on December 29.






The Encounter: time-travelling magic

June 14, 2016


I’ve written before about my, shall we say, complicated relationship with the theatre.  I take the approach once described by Sir Michael Parkinson: “I have never sat in a theatre without wishing I were in a cinema instead.”

Except…sometimes.  This was one of the sometimes.  Tempted by a friend who promised that it would appeal to my love of magic and illusion, I saw The Encounter, a one-man show with  Simon McBurney, produced by Theatre Complicite.  It was on at the Oxford Playhouse and is now touring France, a nice change for football fans tired of the Euros.  It’ll be back in the UK soon, I’m sure: it’s terrific.

This is how the programme describes it:

Inspired by the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu.

In 1969 Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photographer, found himself lost among the people of the remote Javari Valley in Brazil. It was an encounter that was to change his life, bringing the limits of human consciousness into startling focus. 

Simon McBurney traces McIntyre’s journey into the depths of the Amazon rainforest, incorporating innovative technology into his solo performance to build a shifting world of sound.

It’s this “shifting world of sound: that provides the illusion aspect of the evening.  Audience members are asked to wear headphones and McBurney uses multiple tricks and devices to create a truly three-dimensional picture of McIntyre’s extraordinary  – and true – Amazonian adventure.

When he encounters the more-or-less undiscovered Mayruna tribe in the depths of the jungle, McIntyre realises to his astonishment that at least one of the tribe – an elder he nicknames “Barnacle” – is communicating with him telepathically – the so-called “Amazon Beaming” that is the title of the book on which the play is based.  Subsequent research reveals that this “beaming” has been a long-standing, if little-understood, mystery.

TTWAHThere was another aspect of the drama, however, that caught my imagination, and that was the Mayruna’s concept of time.  In my research for Time Travelling With A Hamster, it became clear to me that our “Western” perception of linear time was not the only one.  Other cultures viewed time as more fluid, and often “circular”.  In the legends of Australian aborigines, this is called Dreamtime; ancient Hindu texts refer to a “wheel of time”.  The Mayruna, too, regard time as cyclical.  In The Encounter, the Mayruna are attempting, in effect to “time travel” back to pre-Columbian times to escape the encroaching modern world.

McBurney is superb in this show, which is bare theatre at its best.  The set is non-existent: a desk, some sound equipment, that’s it.  It’s a bit like watching a radio play, except it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good on the radio.


Blackadder Rides Again

May 24, 2016

It’s hard – and painful – to think that Blackadder Goes Forth first appeared on TV in 1989.  I know.  Twenty seven years ago.

And for 27 years, those of us who loved it have wanted it to come back.  We have lapped up rumours and weighed the options.  Could it be Blackadder in WW2?  (Nah, too much like Blackadder 4)  How about Blackadder in the swinging 60s? (I’d love to see that!)

Either way, it never happened, and the likelihood has retreated still further with the debut of Upstart Crow (BBC2). Ben Elton has sort of recreated Blackadder 2 (the Elizabethan one) but instead of Rowan Atkinson playing Blackadder we have David Mitchell, whom I usually find tiresome, playing William Shakespeare.

The similarities are endless, and tantalising.  I find it impossible to watch Upstart Crow without thinking that Atkinson would make a far better fist of playing Shakespeare, or that the part of Shakespere’s rival, Robert Greene must have been written for Stephen Fry.  The actor Mark Heap certainly seems like he has Fry’s booming, bombastic Lord Melchett in mind.

What was going on?  Did Elton write this, hoping that his pals Rowan and Stephen would agree to be in it?  Could the BBC not afford them?  Did they turn it down because it would inevitably be compared with Blackadder?

And what of Spencer Jones, playing Kempe, an actor in Shakespeare’s troupe?  Jones actually impersonates Ricky Gervais.  This is not a performance “inspired by” Gervais, it’s an outright impersonation: gestures, voice, physical tics: the full David Brent.  It is very odd, and – after a minute or so – not at all funny.  Why would an actor do that?  Why would a director encourage an actor to do that?  Why would a writer as powerful as Atkinson allow a director to encourage a actor to do that?  It’s mystifying.

Thankfully, the rest of the show much better.  In fact it could end up being very funny.  So far.  I’ve only seen episode 1.

Instead of comparing it favourably or unfavourably to Blackadder, perhaps we should just accept that this is how Ben Elton writes sitcoms, regardless of who’s in them.

UPDATE: I’ve watched episode 2 now.  I don’t think I’ll be hurrying to watch more.  It was the same jokes again, more or less.  Some very funny lines and Shakespearean in-jokes that we can congratulate ourselves for understanding, but I’m still wishing that Will Shakespeare was played by Rowan Atkinson.  I suppose if there’s nothing else on…

Master of deception

January 17, 2016

Derren Brown: is the joke on us?

A lifetime love of magic and illusion means it’s no surprise that I’m a fan of Derren Brown, and especially the way that, by pretending to be totally open about how he achieves the remarkable effects he does, he has avoided being “exposed” on YouTube as many more conventional magicians are these days.  In truth, he isn’t totally open about his methods.  At least not always.

A recurring theme in his work has been his (apparent) ability to persuade, trick or otherwise get people to do things they may not otherwise do.  Pushed To The Edge (Channel 4, UK) was a highly sophisticated version of  the old stage hypnotists who who persuaded volunteers that they could eat a raw onion like an apple.

But this went much, much further in persuading three people to commit a murder by pushing someoe off a tall building.

No one died.  Unbeknownst to the volunteers their “victim” was on a safety harness.  The edgeparticipants had been drawn into an elaborate and minutely-planned deception, to demonstrate – in a take on the old “Milgram Experiment” – that humans’ desire to comply, to obey authority figures, will push them into some pretty dark places.

If all was as it appeared on the programme, it would be very, very disturbing.  I, for one, was duly disturbed.  I mean you’re getting someone to believe they had murdered someone.  Well, until Derren turned up like a latter-day Jeremy Beadle, to tell them that they had been had.  Erm…ha ha?

Except…I don’t believe it.

I think  that the joke is on us, the viewers.

Here’s why:

It seems obvious that there is a real risk that convincing someone that they are  a murderer when they are not might well be, to say the least, massively upsetting. Short or even long-term psychological damage?  Imagine the lawsuits!  Besides, it’s a truly horrible thing to do.

So I think it’s (nearly)  all been scripted and staged. A fabulous, well-thought-out hoax.

Remember: the one volunteer that was followed all the way through the 90-minute show did not go through with the murder.  The three who did were included in a montage sequence in the last part of the show. They were, I contend, actors.

I think we got the show Derren, and his writers, and producers, and Channel 4 wanted.

Just as well made, but  easier, less cruel, and a lot safer.

And he is, after all, a self-professed deceiver, by trade.


What do you mean, you haven’t watched it?

January 7, 2016

Game Of Thrones, I mean.  It’s awesome, and anyone who hasn’t watched it is missing out big time.

I know: you’ll  be late to the party, but the advantage of that is that you’ll be able to binge-watch them all on a box-set.

To be honest, I think watching it in weekly episodes would be tricky.  Even after watching four series, Mrs W confuses Tywin and Tyrion Lannister, and – to be fair – it is a fabulously complex story.  It involves (if you haven’t heard) multiple warring dynasties in a fantasy world that’s part Lord of The Rings, part Ivanhoe, and part pervy sexploitation flick (so kids: definitely not suitable for you.)

It helps to watch the first few with the handy charactyrionter guide that comes with the box-set.  Or you can watch along with the GoT Wiki on the iPad, but beware of spoilers.  It’ll tell you which series a character appears in, which indirectly tells you when they are bumped off – and they nearly all are, sooner or later, usually very violently

The magicky aspect put me off for ages.  Dungeons?  Dragons?  Dwarves?  Oh for heaven’s sake…  But give it half an episode and you’ll be hooked.

One tip: don’t bother with the audio commentary.  Somewhere the quality control slipped.  I watched the last episode of series 4 with an audio commentary by the actors who play Tyrion, Cersei and Jaime Lannister and it was awful: three actors giggling and making childish double-entendres.  Well, two of them: Nicolai Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister) at least had the decency to sound embarrassed while his co-stars chortled at penis jokes.  (I know: it seems a bit prissy to be complaining about knob gags in the context of a programme as debauched as Game Of Thrones, but…time and place, folks, time and place.)

So now we have to wait until March (March! ) until Game of Thrones series 5 is available on DVD, while series 6 starts shooting in April – even before the book it is based on is finished.

And if you’re already a fan, here’s my guess.  Jon Snow will marry Danaerys Targaryen.  Isn’t she the “rightful” queen anyway?  The good have to win.

Don’t they?




Lang Lang and Liberace

December 2, 2015

Went to see Lang Lang last night, the renowned Chinese pianist who, it seems, divides opinion.  A rather sniffy review in The Telegraph was typical of Lang Lang detractors: style over substance, too much of a showman, etc.

One comment online amused me: “Lang Lang needs to remind himself that he is a Pianist (sic) and not an entertainer.”

Like, you can’t be both?

Me, I like a bit of style and showmanship and my musical ear is not so sophisticated that I can necessarily tell when it overshadows the substance.  He sounded excellent to me: he played it all without either sheet music or wrong notes and that’s impressive to start with.

When I was a kid, there was still a place on TV for pianists as light entertainers.  Bobby Crush was a a teenager who won “Opportunity Knocks” and was rather like Liberace in his twinkly campness.  And what about Gladys “Mrs” Mills?  She was a jolly piano-thumper, with dinner lady’s arms and a repertoire of end-of-pier singalongs.

Anyway, This (below) is Lang Lang on The One Show about a year ago.  The really fast stuff (Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca) starts at around 7.50.

Last night, Lang Lang’s  main piece was a Mozart concerto in C minor which sounded lovely, but he was more subdued than I was hoping.  His encore was more to my taste: an impossibly fast version of Chopin’s Grande Valse Brilliante, with adornments aplenty, great leaps in the left hand.  Add a few more rings on his fingers and grins at the audience and he could be a reincarnation of Liberace.  There are those who would say that is a bad thing.  Not I.

Here’s Liberace, from 1969.

And, just for fun, a six year old Lang Lang wannabe called Chung Chung:


Writing a comedy about comedy writing

June 10, 2015

episodesWriting comedy is hard.   I’ve tried it.  So to try to squeeze comedy out of the plight of writers writing a sitcom would seem to be a case of writerly navel-gazing at its worst.

Thank heavens, then, for Episodes (BBC-2) which, having reached its fourth series, seems finally to be getting the attention it deserves.  Annoyingly, like someone who claims to have seen The Beatles in The Cavern in 1962, I have been a fan of this show since the first episode.  Honestly.  But I’ve spent the last three years enthusing about it to blank faces.

The “sit” is this: Beverley and Sean (played by Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan) are a married British couple whose gentle, thoughtful, witty Britcom has been bought by a Hollywood studio.  The studio then proceeds to rip it to shreds and remake it, replacing Richard Griffiths (he was in series 1) with Matt Le Blanc of Friends fame.

But that was series 1.  It has now matured into a comedy about the insincerity and venality of the TV business and has gone from being pretty funny to usually hilarious, never more so than in the scenes with Le Blanc who plays a priapic, amoral version of himself, frustrated at being in a show that’s much less successful than Friends.  He picked up a Golden Globe in 2012 for his performance.

It’s a weird US/UK hybrid.  It’s co-written by David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik (Crane co-wrote Friends) and made by Hat Trick Productions of the UK.  It’s shot mainly in the UK (Camden in London apparently doubling for Las Vegas in one episode.  I know, I know…) but goes out first on Showtime in the US.

Anyway, it’s very funny and available on Netflix, and last night I properly LOL’d and was still chuckling as I got into bed at this scene.  Episodes Series 4, ep. 5 Matt,  so cash-strapped after being ripped off by his late accountant that he might have to consider selling his vineyard, accepts $500,000 to attend the birthday party of the world’s second-most-murderous dictator who is a huge fan of Friends.  Once there he bumps into an unlikely fellow guest…

(The answer to the above puzzle: turn it upside down!)

The Audience and its audience

June 5, 2015

My mind wanders easily in the theatre.  I think it’s the fakery of the whole thing, the spare sets, the imagined actors waiting n the wings, mouthing their lines, the sound of footsteps on wood when it’s supposed to be gravel… everything, really.  And then I start to drift off.  Mainly I’m wondering what I’ll say to Mrs W that expresses that I’m not loving this, but pretending that I like it enough so that I don’t ruin her evening in the hope that one day she’ll come to see a musical with me which, frankly, is the only sort of theatre I can stand – probably because you’re not usually expected to take it at all seriously.

a91752d9-pfaudience2015jp-02406-edit_05c08005c03f00001e(Theatre-going friends don’t invite me any more.  They have spent too many intervals sipping HOW MUCH!? gin and tonics and hearing me slag off the play that they were – up till then – quite enjoying.  I don’t blame them.  I’ve probably quite spoilt their night.)

So last night was just me and Mrs W at the Apollo Theatre to see Kristen Scott Thomas playing the Queen in The Audience by Peter Morgan.  You’ve probably heard about it: it’s the one about the Queen and her private meetings with her Prime Ministers

It started off promisingly enough.  The audience were tittering from the off.  Actually, that goes for most audiences so far as I can tell.  God, they’ll laugh at anything, specially if it’s Shakespeare.  Last night, John Major fumbled with his hankie momentarily and there were gales of hilarity.

Honestly, it wasn’t that funny.

But then I started to get irritated.  John Major would not and did not, I am absolutely certain, break down in tears in front of HM as he recalled his humble upbringing.  Winston Churchill would not and did not address her by her pet name, Lilibet.  Harold Wilson would not and did not adopt a cod-German accent and tease her about her family heritage.  What’s more, he’s depicted as an oafish, northern chancer, overwhelmed by the grandeur of his position.  He was an Oxford don, for God’s sake!  These are more like comedy sketches, never more so than when Margaret Thatcher appears, in hectoring caricature, rather than in character.  They should just hire Steve Nallon and be done with it.

But perhaps I’m missing the point.  Perhaps this is meant to be a comedy.  If so, it’s just not funny enough.

Thing is, once you start to notice things, it’s hard to stop.  Anachronisms?  Yup.  For example, it’s 1985 and Mrs Thatcher s heading to the palace.  The Sergeant-at-arms (or whoever it is) warns Her Majesty with the words, “I thought I’d give you a heads-up, ma’am.”  A ‘heads-up’?  In 1985?


L-R Sir Anthony Eden, Allan Cuthbertson as Col. Hall, David Robb as Dr Clarkson

The second half settles into a surer rhythm, but I was thrown off-track by the appearance of Sir Anthony Eden.  Who diid he remind me of?  I was convinced that the actor playing him was the same one who had played Colonel Hall in the Fawlty Towers episode ‘Gourmet Night’ (he of the tiny wife and the huge twitch), and then I realise that whoever did play Colonel Hall must be at least ninety by now, and that was me distracted for the rest of the play.

And then it came to me when I was in bed, and I woke up Mrs W to tell her, not the she expressed any gratitude.  It was the doctor from Downton Abbey.

Glad I cleared that up.

Magical and fabulous: There Will Be Lies by Nick Lake

June 1, 2015

God, I hate so-called “magic realism”.  In books, at any rate.  I don’t get along with Gabriel Garcia Marques, or Isabel Allende, or any of that lot.

(For some reason, I don’t mind it in films.  I’m thinking of The Green Mile, which I like a lot, but there are plenty of others.  I’m not sure why this is.) lies

So  a bit of the way into There Will Be Lies (And Then There Will Be The Truth) by Nick Lake, my heart sank a little when it became clear that a large part of the story would involve the protagonist, 17 year-old Shelby, and her relationship with a fantasy coyote creature who protects her, warns her and leads her into unimaginable danger. At this point I would normally have sighed and  picked up something else.

Trouble is, Nick Lake is my editor at HarperCollins and had the immense good sense and taste to get HarperCollins to buy my book Time Travelling With A Hamster (Spring 2016)  He’s read mine; I should at least read his. And it’s brilliant!  Phew. Shelby has grown up in Arizona, home-schooled by her uber-potective mum and, despite sounding like a typical, worldly American teenager, is woefully ill-prepared for the world.  After she is hit by a car and breaks her leg, she and her mum begin a road trip during which a shape-shifting Coyote turns up in the guise of the handsome Mark offering advice and warning Shelby that all is not as it seems in her life.  She will be lied to – but how and by whom?

There are some terrific twists in the plot, and Shelby’s voice is unique and utterly plausible.  It’s hard to believe that the book was written by a middle-aged Englishman and not a whip-smart US teen. The magic realism is perhaps better described as “fabulism” for it draws heavily on Native American myths which reminded me of the Australian Aboriginal timelessness they call “Dreamtime”, and it’s so deftly handled, and greeted with such scepticism by Shelby, that it slips down without any of the prickles of irritation that I normally experience with this form of story.

PS It has just occurred to me.  Is time travel “magic realism”?  I guess it is, in a way.  In which case I have just written a book in a genre I thought i hated.  Huh.