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MarkRylanceasCromwell
Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall 3)

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Natasha Little as Elizabeth Wykys Cromwell, Thomas’s wife, who dies of sleeping sickness early in the series

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Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza rescued from an abject life by Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark (2015 Poldark 1): she is facing down Heidi Reed Elizabeth while Ross turns away

Dear friends and readers,

I acknowledge the unfairness of comparing these two mini-series airing at the same time on the UK BBC and US PBS, about which much fuss is being made. Wolf Hall as written by Peter Straughan (with the acknowledged presence of Hilary Mantel) is a throwback to true quality drama of the 1970s through say 2009 on PBS. It may carry on on BBC TV in Britain as many of their serial dramas do not make it over to the US. Wolf Hall has (relatively) long scenes between characters, longer utterances and dialogue weighty with meaning and wit, its model is ironic drama on the stage and great care has been taken with mise-en-scene, culled juxtaposition, flashbacks, and literal accuracies. The new Poldark as written by Debbie Horsfield follows the recent trend in mini-series to reach a wider audience (apparently 7.0 million no longer makes the cut) with short scenes, only rare excursions into longer developed scenes (but they are there, as in the long sequence at the close of Episode 4 from the time of Ross and Demelza’s love-making, marriage, and first time together through to the end of the Christmas visit); its model is action-adventure TV dramas (Master and Commander and Outlanders as the 1970s kept in mind The Oneddin Line and costume drama from the 1940s Gainsborough swashbuckling school),and cost-saving measures which make for crude and abrupt movements between shots, confused chronology and (without Graham there) irritating anachronisms.

I’ve been reading Jerome de Groot’s Consuming History: Historians and heritage in contemporary popular culture — spurred on by some panels at the recent ASECS  and what interests me here is how these two mini-series are presented as historical fiction films, based on history as well as particular novels De Groot writing about the resurgence of history in popular culture. At the same time as academics get ever more sceptical (post-modern) about what we can know of the past, and insist on disillusion and almost disbelief in documentary source, at least “interrogating” them, and self-reflexivity before they will give prizes to anyone; popular culture is devouring historical fiction and it is now respectable, making and going to historical dramas, costume dramas trying to make a comeback (if not based on older great books, based on recent very good ones).

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Is there a difference among historical fiction, historic novels (older written in the 18th century, say Tom Jones by Henry Fielding), and films and “real” narrative history. Yes – especially thoroughly researched history which is often thematic as well as narrative and well-documented. But for readers: do you read an older or historic novel differently from the way you read a historical fiction? More is it not so that historical fiction influences the average person’s conception the past and forces into reactionary historical narratives modern concerns.

Do these historical fictions then become part of the fabric of historical knowledge. Yes. In the case of Graham, he is bringing to bear also the strong pro-revolutionary currents of the 1780s and 1790s into discourse – that’s why the books still matter in some ways (also the proto-feminism and some other themes), Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a revision of common understanding of the Tudor era skewed by Bolt’s and the 1960s desire to worship Thomas More. Morrison’s Beloved is now part of our understanding of the effects of slavery – and the horrific reconstruction period for black people down south. I reviewed Heffer’s High Minds – historian writing popular narrative and it is Tory paternalism that is brought before us despite all his research.

Historical fictions, these 20th and 21st century books, the first four Poldarks and Wolf Hall —  on face of it differ considerably from one another and from fictions actually written in the era they are set; yet both are created from imitating these earlier fictions, what is familiar about the earlier literature of the era, and recent other historical fictions and films. There are long traditions in the representation of the Renaissance and the 18th century. Just to begin with the 1960s on (who has not seen Robert Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons, with Orson Wells, Paul Scofield, Robert Shaw, Wendy Hiller) they imitate Jacobean drama and what is felt is true of the 16th century classics (Machiavelli, Montaigne, More) we get these Elizabethan/Tudor political types as seething with subtexts, as all of them ever so intelligent, witty, ironic, guarded, making killing remarks that are funny. Similarly not to go back to Kitty (Paulette Goddard and Ray Milland) but just the two Tom Joneses (1960s and 1998), the 18th century is a time of sexual transgression, rebellions and riots, country life, manliness as building a world. The source here are also the 18th century novels, from Clarissa to Austen, and the French soft-corn porn too (who has not seen Stephen Frears’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses with the smoldering eyes of John Malkovich), and recently movies centering on traditionally heroic masculine males. (When a person writes a novel set in the 19th century today he imitates novels set in the 19th century and conventions about the 19th century that are found in historical fictions set in the 19th century; so Byatt’s Possession imitates George Eliot as seen through the Brontes.)

Now common sense tells us there were as many witty seething ironic and subtextual people about in say the 18th century as the 16th and just as many dullards, obtuse dense people at the court of Henry VIII as at the philistine court of George III who never made an interesting remark in their lives. Documents easily bear me out that Charles James Fox and Sheridan were far more into wit than Thomas Cromwell or Wolseley. In fact that is part of the power of say Thomas Middleton’s plays (a contemporary of Shakespeare): in Middleton’s famous The Changeling the man who is the evil cente of the play, Deflores (played brilliantly in the 1980s by Bob Hoskins in a BBC production) is not articulate and not very bright; worse yet is the silly heroine (played by a young Elizabeth McGovern in the same production) while the smart people (one played by Hugh Grant before he gave up on serious acting) are done in by Deflores. Deflores can’t and doesn’t want to make smart remarks. They are dangerous.

The great delight for those who delight in this sort of thing of Wolf Hall is the myth that everyone was supersubtle in talk and thought. It gave Hilary Mantel a terrific remit. Her novel (which I acknowledge I did not finish nor even start her Bring Up the Bodies, but which like some watchers I am now intent on rereading to where I left off and now finishing so as to enjoy the film adaptation the more). Her book imitates James Joyce in its self-conscious use of stream of consciousness, fills in with the expected rich furniture and strange doings of the Renaissance as seen in films, other historical fictions, “real” historical narrative, not to omit Shakespearean plays. She has also re-seen the paradigm given us by Bolt and the 1960s so now the ruthless thug politician (Leo McKern) is now true ordinary man, no better (though smarter and with more kindness and braver before the king) than the rest of us. It must be a winner.

The Poldark people have to make do with 1940s novels that mirror the dark times just after World War Two, and to give them credit, they are doing this far more authentically with the central characters than the progressive 1970s mini-series. And as Graham did, they are given voice to the marginalized and powerless, the abject, the lowest of the low, in a wide ranging perspective which includes underlying economic realities. The crime of poaching which leads to the death of one of the characters from epidemic typhus in prison was a disguised war of the propertied against the 99% of the era. Everyone knew it was a victimless crime, punished highly unevenly, the equivalent of Jean Valjean put away in prison for 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread in Les Miserables. We see the stranglehold of monopolies as Ross fails to make a go of it smelting and selling copper himself at prices that will keep the mine going and becomes a free trader (smuggler). So we need vast scenes of peoples not tight encounters of individuals.

I’ve written a more detailed comparison of one episode from each (the fourth Poldark, the first Wolf Hall) on my Sylvia blog (scroll down to the concluding three paragraphs) and so won’t go on at length — until that is, I’ve read Mantel’s books and seen all 8 Poldark episodes, but here would like to turn the depiction of the women in the new Poldark and Wolf Hall. For now I want to talk just about heroines of each. According to De Groot and Miriam Burstein the archetypes across historical fiction repeat themselves – whether the character is called Demelza, Anne Boleyn, or some version of Elizabeth. In short the heroine who is anti-ambition beyond marrying up, who does not act out agency, whose greatest happiness is with a partner, male (or female), being a mother, and virtues are loyalty is rewarded. Books side with constancy, prudence, obedience, domesticity (Katherine of Aragon, Mary Boleyn). Graham departs in giving us Demelza fighting for Verity’s liberty and then punishes her hard. Elizabeth seeking a life outside her family and ending up dead; Verity escaping to a kind of solitude of two in Falmouth.

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Scene from Wolf Hall
Hero and heroine scenes from both

For the supposed heroine of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the great and important book on Anne Boleyn is Retha Warnike’s The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn,– she shows the false constructions, where they came from, tries to disentangle this woman from myths, but go look at the popular historical fiction (The Other Boleyn Girl or Mantel’s Wolf Hall – I’ve not yet read Bring up the bodies). In Mantel’s presentation of Anne it’s as if Warnicke never wrote her accurate and moving portrayal of this woman,  caught up in a world of totally male hegemonic world where her family was out to sell first her sister and then herself corrupt coteries, a totally male and we are back with Boleyn as sly, amoral, wrongly ambitious, untrustworthy, deserving almost to be beheaded. I should bring up how in the 18th century Elizabeth Tollett wrote one of these Ovidian narratives deeply sympathetic to Anne, and full of the terror of beheading, but she sentimentalizes her.

We are hearing about the terrific performances of Rylance, Damien Lewis, watching Anton Lesser as More. But what of the women of Wolf Hall? Since she left off Amy Dorrit (Bleak House, scripted by Andrew Davies), Claire Foy has taken on ‘evil’ shallow ‘spoilt’ women — she did this kind of role for the 2010 Upstairs Downstairs, the pro-Nazi, Lady Percy, sexually exploiting the chauffeur. Angel face. But Foy is overdoing it, standing there stiffly; and Charity Wakefield as Mary Boleyn is mawkish (apart from the historical reality Mary was not acceptable at court once she had had a son by Henry who remained illegitimate — has no one read the recent history on these women?). The presentation of these women is not feminist — it’s typical historical fiction across the board. The heroine who is anti-ambition beyond marrying up, who does not act out agency, whose greatest happiness is with a partner, male (or female), being a mother, and virtues are loyalty is rewarded. Books side with constancy, prudence, obedience, domesticity. Graham departs in giving us Demelza fighting for Verity’s liberty but then the structure of the novel and everyone around her punishes her hard for trespass. She was not supposed to rescue Verity to choose her own life. And the actresses can’t do as well. Liz, More’s wife, has depth — but she’s all caution and prudence, won’t even read the Bible, sticks the prayer book as safer but she’s killed off by a dread disease of the era (sleeping or sweating sickness) — so Natasha Little (the great actress of the 1998 Vanity Fair) goes to waste — unless she’s brought back in flashbacks later in the series. By contrast, Eleanor Tomlinson has a complex role to play as did Jill Townsend for Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan in the 1970s. Elizabeth has a real ambition, for society, to rise in life; Caroline Penvenon has agency. The real sin among these women is the same as Anne Boleyn’s: when they are not loyal first and foremost. I admit my bonding thus far from the films is Demelza as played by Tomlinson and Liz Cromwell as play by Natasha Little. The books are different: I deeply enter into Verity’s case, bond with the intelligent Elizabeth but have not gone far enough for a second time into Wolf Hall or its sequel to grasp where I can find some purchase.

What is the definition of manliness in such films or their books? the heroes are Thomas Cromwell who takes More’s old place as the tolerant man of integrity; Ross Poldark who builds a home and world.  It’s curious to see how physicians, Dwight Enys (Poldark), Stephen Maturin (O’Brien’s sea-stories — to me Paul Bettany is perfect) are held in high repute in historical fiction and merchants (Stephen Vaughn of Antwerp, Antonio Bonvisi from Lucca, friends to Cromwell) in Wolf Hall.

For myself I still haven’t enjoyed a costume drama mini-series in the way I am thus far Wolf Hall and also only intermittently the new Poldark since some of Andrew Davies’ film adaptations in the first decade of the 21st century. Bar none (perhaps exceptimg Breaking Bad, better in its depiction of women, probably much more thematically important and relevant), Wolf Hall is absorbing, entertaining most of the time, usually intelligent (though not Anne or Mary Boleyn). Certainly Downton Abbey was problematic even in the first two years. The new Poldark’s closer reading of Graham’s depiction of the sources of Demelza and Ross’s relationship is teaching me why I so bond with these recurring two characters, Wolf Hall is pulling me into strange violent terrors of the 16th century, religious — you can’t mock the way Clive Francis as Francis Poldark or Paul Curran as Jud dared — a world without any individual rights. The savagery reflects our own era.

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

Way back in December 2014 I announced the publication of this volume, edited by James Leggott and Julie Ann Taddeo, in which my own essay on “Epistolarity and Masculinity in Davies’s Trollope Adaptations” appeared. I’ve now read the whole of the volume and had a chance to view some of the films I knew nothing about before reading it. In the Foreword, Jerome De Groot makes a strong argument for regarding costume drama as a central export of British TV, and when done as film adaptations of great books, truly fine movies; at the same time he brings up why and how they are dissed continually. I thought a review of its sections and individual essays would be of interest to those who love these mini-series as I do. Since the volume is quite rich (see the Table of Contents), I’ve divided this blog in three parts following the divisions of the collection. This review is of the essays in Part One: Approaches to Costume Drama.

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From Shoulder to Shoulder, a young Sian Phillips played Emmeline Pankhurst

Clare Monk’s “Pageantry and Populism: Democratization and Dissent: The Forgotten 190s,” is on the power, the liberal outlook, and variety of themes and art of the mini-series and costume dramas of the 1970s. She opens with an excellent demonstration (convincing) that the costume drama of the 1970s has been ignored, partly because it had a number of centrally influential highly liberal mini-series, only one of which has appeared on DVD, Days of Hope (it’s upbeat at last). Shoulder to Shoulder a significant contribution to the history of suffragettes and how they were treated is not wiped out but obstacles are still put in the way of re-digitalizing. Monk demonstrates the richness of the 1990s and a type of structure, pattern, cinematography, historiography is a development of the 1970s and lasted until 2003-4 when (alas) Mobil Exxon withdrew its support. She does not say but Eaton tells you that was when the bottom fell out of PBS. She also shows (I’ve know this for years as does anyone with some access to British TV) that only a small number of British mini-series came over to the US, the type that Downton Abbey comes out of.

The second essay by Thomas Bragg, “History’s Drama: Narrative Space in ‘Golden Age’ British TV Drama, also examines the 1970s, as a seminal period of costume drama: the sixties began it, and it was serious because of the simultaneous presence of the play of the week (Wednesday nights) and the reality that the people on the London stage were the same people on the TV in these plays. They began to cross over to the mini-series in the 1980s when British film having collapsed in the movie-houses (due to Hollywood’s popularity) moves into TV (e.g., My Beautiful Laundrette), writers and all.) Bragg’s thesis is not so admiring of the 70s, is a corrective. The 1970s have been credited with going-out-of-doors and several of the famous mini-series are repeatedly said to be photographed on location, out of doors, most famously Poldark. Bragg demonstrates that while the film-makers did indeed go on location and film some sequences there, these are few and far between. The central space remained the studio and built versions of rooms. At the same time though the uses of camera work changed: in the 1967 Forsyte Saga, a filmed stage play, the camera becomes a narrator, moving in and out of spaces; the rooms themselves are highly appointed visual versions of the era (made to seem accurate by specifically elaborate props). A strong use of mirrors, windows, and angles made the viewer aware there was an outside which was redolent of wide open spaces. Bragg argues this is the equivalent of how historical fiction works or had worked since Scott; the important scene within a confined area, carefully described objects and houses from the era, with occasional forays out to descriptive landscapes. This is interesting: how does one give the effect of a past time in a written fiction.

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A scene of the family group in the 1967 Forsyte Sage (early on, Episode 1)

Bragg suggests this way of filming changed again in the 1990s when TV film-makers no longer had to rely on older film techniques to film out of doors but could take their computer equipment, moving cameras, one tied to the waist of the cinematographers. Then he makes the point that in Downton Abbey, the one standing heir to all these older dramas, focuses on the outside. The way the characters are filmed, walking, talking, interacting the effect is that of a group of people say in a courtyard (as in Poldark when Ross when to market they filmed in a courtyard in Ealing Studios) — but the great emphasis is the house, the lands, the dominating wealth. Where in the 1970s Upstairs Downstairs do we see the grand houses, the outsides, the gardens? we don’t. Some film-makers wanted to give the impression of landscape more than others; I’ve been thinking about the 1972 BBC Emma: this would be one much less concerned to make it seems as if the story is filmed in a landscape but I can see how the disposition, way of filming, where arrangement of scenes is that of the 1970s Poldark, and Upstairs Downstairs.

James Leggott’s “‘It’s not clever, it’s not funny, and it’s not period!': Costume Comedy and British TV” makes this an unusual volume. Leggott is a BBC person; he teaches film and TV at Northumbria University and is chief editor (he started it) of the Journal of Popular TV. It’s on a topic I’m not qualified to evaluate: a kind of BBC and (in a way) elite costume drama that rarely comes over to the US: Blackadder was a rare cross-over and it appeared later at night on PBS; I watched maybe one or two. Jim used to like them when he was watching TV. He’d laugh and laugh.

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A remembered moment from Blackadder

Blackadder belongs to a sub-genre of hour-long and mini-series which make fun of serious costume drama; He mentions Upstairs Downstairs Abbey and Lark Pies to Cranchesterford (a mocking title). These types include Monty Python’s Holy Grail, on the one side, and Benny Hill on the other: low humor pretending not to recognize its own salaciousness, boy’s stuff. The Carry On movies come out of this: Carry on Cleo for example (mocking the Cleopatra movie). Leggott covers sitcoms: Brass, Dad’s Army, and others which are anti-war, anti-hierarchy. For those of us who didn’t see the full panoply of the 1970s costume drama we won’t recognize what’s rejected and made fun of. Leggott shows these deconstruct and expose the fallacies and harm; they are often attacked — as “not clever, not funny and anachronistic.” So what? Well, as he proceeds he shows that some viewers begin to believe the history they see in these programs; they really do and instead of getting the parody or critique the original shows ideas are reinforced. And some come out of a reactionary point of view very strongly. Apparently you can find British people who believe in the medieval period they see in these or the 18th century mock-ups. Not so much the Victorian.

Marc Napolitano’s “It is but a glimpse of the world of fashion: British Costume Drama, Dickens and Serialization,” attempts to show that the costume serial drama embraces many of the attributes of soap opera by looking at the techniques of serialization. Napolitano says the incessant reiteration of Dickens’s name as what early films were like because Dickens is so cinematic was an attempt to gain respectability; yes Dickens published in installments but his installments were words. What was influential was not so much the vaunted pictorialism of his texts but their open segmented narratives. Napolitano says Dickens’s novels are open-ended; and what we have in costume dramas from Upstairs Downstairs on is an open-ended story that can keep going. In fact, the continuity and themes are grounded in character and setting not story. They use a limited number of sets while an overarching story narrative which ties the season together. By contrast there are older film adaptations of specific books that no longer how long do have an ending because the books have an ending: Forsyte Saga and Pallisers. By chosing this open-ended structure, the writers and film-makers can respond to audiences and experiment. He’s really describing and defineing a television novel: that we have television novels nowadays. He writes in detail about The Foryste Saga, and Duchess of Duke Street. He mentions in a note Breaking Bad. Vince Gilligan had a general idea where he was going but at any point at the end of a season he could have pulled the curtain down; and he did pay attention to audience response and grew far more daring as he goes along. It’s the daring experiment that makes for the innovation. They dare not do that anywhere near as much on PBS, and we in the US get only a limited range of what goes on on British TV.

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A lesser known moving moment towards the end of Davies’s Bleak House: Sergeant George (Hugo Speers) caring for Sir Leicester (Timothy West)

Benjamin Poore develops Napolitano’s essay further — “Never-ending Stories: the paradise and the Period Drama series.” Beyond an analysis of structure he pointed to features we see after 2005 or so. The lead writer who becomes an executive producer and is the linchpin was in place by the mid-1980s. An emphasis on the workplace which makes the workplace a substitute for family (and not said in the essay remains pro-establishment utterly); source texts which are relatively unknown (like Zola’s novel, Gaskell’s short stories — My Lady Ludlow is narrated by a crippled servant in the book); production practices: the fully built complicated set and precinct (the house or department store and land or streets around it); a “warm bath” atmosphere — everyone kindly, communitarian — the new reassurance factor is strikingly different from the 1970s. He discusses Davies’s Bleak House as a half-way between the older forms and this newer one — alas it did not get enough audience and so now the BBC and ITV people want a “springboard’ rather than a classic book. Poore discusses pragmatic practicalities and how decisions are made based on commercial considerations and audience numbers.

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One of the quieter and feminine of the many epistolary scenes in The Way We Live Now, Georgiana Longestaffe (Anne-Marie Duff) writing to her Jewish lover while she is in the London house of the Melmottes

Mine comes next — “Epistolarity and masculinity in Andrew Davies’s Trollope films. Here rather than summarize or evaluate my own essay, and in order not to interfere with copyright (so I won’t put my essay on the Net), I offer Taddeo and Leggott’s summary of my paper in the volume’s introduction:

Perhaps the most subversive writer to examine, Ellen Moody argues, is Andrew Davies whose two BBC adaptations of Anthony Trollope’s novels, He Knew He Was Right (2004) and The Way We Live Now (2001), offer a liberal feminist interpretation of Victorian domesticity and masculinity. Moody closely analyzes Davies’s televisual techniques of filmic epistolary sequences, montage, flashbacks, and voice-over, critiquing and shedding light on the relationship between the original source texts and their adaptations. Davies not only undercuts the conservatism of these novels while exploiting conservative tendencies in heritage films, but also freely adapts Trollope’s male characters’ psychological experience as they cope with the demands the characters make upon themselves while they attempt to enact sexual ideals of manliness and achieve financial and social success.

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In Small Island, the mentally distressed Uncle Arthur (Karl Johnson) coming upon the Jamaican British solider, Gilbert (David Oyelowo)

The section concludes with Karen Beth Strovas and Scott M. Strovas on “music in the British Serialized Drama,” the first half of whose title is “What are we going to do with Uncle Arthur?” It’s more than an allusion to a music hall song and dance Sarah the servant does in the 1970s Upstairs/downstairs,” but is a trope: in Small Island, there is an aging working class man called Arthur, and the joke his while others around him regard him as a simpleton or treat him like one (as in the older programs; Mr Weston in the 1972 Emma is made into a sort of semi-salacious genial simpleton), Arthur is rather cunning, and more sophisticated in his tolerance and observation than any one gives him credit for. There are few essays on music in film of any usefulness — so few have the technical knowledge and those who do can’t write to make themselves understood and anyway write on classical music and history (musicologists). This pair of people manage to describe pieces of music with concrete words that yet eschew technical language. New terms have evolved: source music for music that the characters in the film are making, and underscore music for the music we hear but the characters do not. The thesis is that music is so important to all film, and even in the 1970s ones where it seems it was not used to provoke emotional response the way it is today. The mini-series used the 1970s Upstairs/Downstairs, the 2003 Forsyte Saga and again Downton Abbey. (Before people cry out against this obsession with DA, the people doing it make their materials available for study. The composers for DA have published material that is usable — the way Fellowes’ scripts and 2 of his companion books are scenarios and of real use.) These three mini-series can be used to analyse others — so here again we have a rare instance of the editors and write managing to produce an essay that those outside costume drama might find useful and general.

The Strovas show that what developed is a use of music beyond the opening and close themes. All three have theme music that begins and ends the show each hour, and is brought back in particular different ways to make emotional and thematic points. In the 1970s music was a tool to define and intensity the class conflicts of upstairs and downstairs — and conflicts were much much stronger, it was a polarization. Eventually upstairs took over when the hero became the son and heir, James as a tragic figure, but not so before that. What happened was a development whereby source material states explicitly some of the themes or underscore but in key scenes the two interact so as to musically enact emotions and thoughts and what’s happened. It is much more developed in Downton Abbey because they are more conscious of what they are doing and have more money than U/D did. DA uses music more psychologically and very effective it is — much more lush, but not drooling because of pace. Those who have watched the 2003 Forsyte Saga will know that operatic music is used a lot; the book and film take advantage of Irene being a piano teacher, musical and the wealth of the family leads to soirees and going to opera. The Strovas analyses the first encounter, sex and rapes scene to show our source and underscore music is used as a counterpoint. Sarah in U/D loves music hall and we see contrasts of her singing and dancing downstairs as the upstairs ones sit composedly. A scene at the close of the 2nd season of DA has Mary and Matthew playing the gramophone with a haunting love song at the time and an underscore that stops and starts as well as allusions to a show that flopped. The 4th season of DA used music a lot: Dame Nellie Melba came and sang Puccini; the black Jazz singer of course sang his songs and there was dancing. In both Forsyte Saga and Downton Abbey when a woman is raped, all music ceases where she is.

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Poldark 1975-76: one of four sets of paratexts that opened and closed the mini-series, each having images epitomizing the actions of the four episoces and accompanied by the same memorable alluring music

Ellen

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Love’s Labor’s Lost — Peter McGovern (who sings with a voice worthy the first actor who played this role — and Feste too) — just of one of the many strange images in this production

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Love’s Labor’s Won — the key ritual moment made torturous

Dear friends and readers,

I might not have noticed that the Folger Shakespeare Library offered an HD screening of a paired production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost and Love’s Labor’s Won (Much Ado About Nothing re-named as an act of faith by Christopher Luscombe, the director of both), had I not over four weeks spent well over an hour (I wish it had been longer) watching, listening and reading a Future Learn course, Much Ado About Nothing, sponsored by the Shakespeare Trust Birthplace, the Royal Shakespeare Company also in Stratford, England, and the University of Birmingham on Much Ado About Nothing in Performance. (See my blog outlining this course, scroll down.) The same cast, the same set based on Charlecote Park, the same time, just before (LLL) and just after (LLW) World War One.

The underlying thesis of the course was that a “dark” interpretation of Much Ado About Nothing, one which gives as full weight to the Claudio-Hero story, the malevolent action of the depressive betrayer, Don John, as to the Beatrice and Benedict witty courtship, makes much more sense of the whole play. I noticed as with Josh Whedon’s production of MAAN in his own home on film, the Dogberry and Verges story took on resonances which were not snarkily condescending towards lower class people, and instead brought out how these ordinary townsmen found out the sinister plot, reported it, and their nervous (perhaps depressive) leader, Dogberry, lived in his own agon of continually corrosively self-flagellated pride. Nick Haverson played Costard and Dogberry. Michelle Terry was both Rosaline and Beatrice; Edward Bennet, a fully-felt enactment of Berowne and Benedict.

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The drive around the park (Love’s Labor’s Lost)

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Opening match-set between them in Much Ado About Nothing (aka Love’s Labor’s Won)

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Love’s Labor’s Lost. The two times I’ve seen LLL every effort was made to make it hilarious, and in one case they succeeded brilliantly with the play within a play (rather like the Pyramus and Thisbe play inside Midsummer Night’s Dream). This production did not go for this kind of comedy at all, and indeed not much humor except the occasional exposure of absurdities, people spying on one another, found out and the like. Rather it was a dance of figures in a leisured landscape.

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The secondary gentlemen vowing their abstinence, the secondary ladies sauntering through the grounds

Yet there was no strain in bringing out the darker threads in the talk of the play. They seriously presented the poetry as arising from illuminated enthralled visions of love. Given the talent of Peter McGovern, songs were added — all highly longing and erotic, and meditative. I began to wonder how the other productions had managed to be funny.

The play’s wordiness came out a lot: its puns, its mockery of language. In the present US atmosphere and mass media (epitomized by the many PBS costume dramas where characters hardly have a long utterance lest the audience grow restless) this does not please. (Hilary Mantel and Peter Straugh’s Wolf Hall is a recent exception.) I saw empty seats after the break, even though the break itself had had a 10 minute fascinating film by the theatrical designer who showed us how he used the choice of Charlecote Park to make his stage settings. He seemed to want to bring the proscenium stage back.

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For me the result was a revelation: the acting and the four young men opening themselves up to charges of softness, open vulnerability, in short the “feminine” projected an undercurrent of eroticism towards their unknown targets (after all they have hardly seen the French princess and her ladies) not contained by the heterosexual relationships. The men were so (if you will) unashamed of their depths of feeling and softnesses — they were not afraid lest they not be perceived as manly. Jane Smiley suggests this fear limits the kind of male characters we can have on screen.

The play made me want to reread early criticism of this play which argued it was made for a group of young male aristocrats, which included Southampton, who was perhaps an erotic target or lover (?) of Shakespeare. Not working to make it hilarious (you have to work at such effects) brought out its “queerness” in the original sense of the term. Why have four young men vow not to have sex, not to be with any women for three years (not to eat much or sleep much either); why this symmetry which is so artificial. Why the emphasis after false performative erotic behaviors? I wondered what modern “theoretical” and queer studies or the new historicism makes of this play. Surely that sexuality is constructed as well as really impelled by appetite and vision.

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Unwanted women — whether goddesses or huntresses

I felt exhilarated by something that had been revealed by the turns from patterned behavior to visions to deep sadness. The sets and costumes with their strangeness, fairy tale elements, references to war fit well too.

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Love’s Labor’s Won: After all I was a wee bit disappointed perhaps because I was expecting too much. The talk of the actors, the designer, the director, script writer had all been so intriguing about the dark currents and unappreciated veins of comedy, I forgot that they couldn’t get beyond the text of the play. Individual actors could pull out of lines new sources of emotion; but there is a limit as they have to reach to its darknesses beyond what the language lets us.

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A normative scene as the nurses and returning soldier scenes fade from memory

You cannot cut the wry satiric highjinks which seem somehow are out of kilter with the driving force of Don John and the way the Hero-Claudio story was pulled out as well as some currents in Beatrice and Benedict. I began to think of all the many melancholics in Shakespeare’s plays. Usually Shakespeare empathizes. Not here. But what is Don John given to do? Very little. He is lame in this production — from the war?   The actor played an excellent game of billards. It may be Luscombe has overinterpreted a somewhat confused “problem” play

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Wonderfully timed comedy as the chief of the watchman takes it upon himsef to tell Leonato that Hero was wrongly shamed

Several of the actors brought something new to the play, especially Michelle Terry. She lent depth and a sense of the past she had had with Benedick to her part. She would sound sudden notes of self-controlled desperation. She is not conventionally pretty, not quite a “jolie laide” in the way of say Jodhi May and I fear that will limit her career, the parts she is permitted to play.

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The wedding terror

Nick Haversham playing Dogberry turned the part into one of an anguished man hurt over how everyone despises him — and yet it was his (or his silent partner, making me think the same actor must’ve played Sir Andrew Aguecheek to this characters Toby Belch in TN) persistence that brought the criminals to light.

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Love’s Labor’s Won — Nick Haverson as the sensitive Dogberry

Luscombe’s directing brought out how the deceit practiced by Don John to shatter his enemies is a mirror of the other deceits to manipulate Benedict and Beatrice and to punish Claudio too. Don John has no trouble persuading Borachio to masquerade with Margaret as Hero (rather improbable). How different is this from the deceit swiftly practiced on Benedict and Beatrice by their respective friends to break down their pride. The manufactured ending is based on more masks and more deceits. But since everything is swept under the rug at the close when Claudio is forgiven by Hero and Beatrice forgets whatever her past experience with Benedict was, this parallelism loses its significance. I wish I could have compared the other dark versions of this play discussed in Future Learn and look forward to seeing the Shakespeare Re-done version of MAAN with Damien Lewis as Benedict and a non-passive Billie Piper as Hero.

I loved the new seeming 1920s kind of music, and the settings from World War One as the play opened and then ended were very effective. There were many references to death in both plays, in Love’s Labor’s Lost the death of the French king, the funeral like structures in the play,

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In Much Ado, men are not to be trusted; at the drop of the slightest excuse, they humiliate and (Leonato too) threaten to kill women. They are more loathe to kill one another:

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Again death: the supposed death of Hero, Beatrice’s wanting Claudio dead, the funeral service all led to group mourning. Then the grieving over World War one and all those deaths, all those gone? But then the getting together of the couples and especially Beatrice and Benedict.

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What was it we were to feel? The play does call for dancing at its close and the actors dance away.

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It seemed to me the paired plays enriched my understanding of Love’s Labor’s Lost more they did Much Ado About Nothing. Bringing them together suggested that this “problem” aspect of Shakespeare’s plays, deep melancholy and visionary undercurrents are not something that starts after Romeo and Juliet (Twelth Night can be played as deeply bitter), or around the time of the great tragedies (as who could laugh at All’s Well’s that Ends Well, and the intertwined rage, desperation, hypocrisy, sexual crises of Measure for Measure), but are there from the very beginning.

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The set ourside Charlecote Park: Love’s Labor’s Lost

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The set inside Charlecote Park: Love’s Labor’s Won

I should say how I hope more of these RSC productions come to the Folger on the HD screen.  If I lived closer I would go to their poetry readings and lectures regularly. The trip is an hour and fifteen minutes for me (car, walk, train, walk again and then reverse it).

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I had arrived early and saw an unusually good exhibit about the discovery of the Longitude: Ships, Clocks and Stars.

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Much to my surprise the Folger had on loan all four of Harrison’s time pieces: the cumbersome first three with their pendulums and complicated works. Beautifully shiny gold. How could he have thought such a machine could withstand an ocean storm. And how super-careful the two institutions had to have been to send the clocks across the ocean. And then Harrison final transformative insight into a stop watch was shown by having in the exhibit the exquisitely beautiful one made by Harrison himself. There were other pictures of people I’d read about but never seen an image of, interesting maps, educational explanations about the problem of finding the longitude, the attitudes of the learned astronomers. I barely had time to get in as the play began.

Intermission: There is a public relations young woman who greets people at the door and tries to make everyone feel “at home.”  Another new idea is to set up a separate wine bar downstairs; this makes for shorter lines and I was able to drink my whole glass of wine each time before half way through the intermission and get back in in time for the interviews with the director and set designer. The second time I met and talked to a friendly French woman and she was taking the Metro too so my trip home so I did not feel bleak and lonely the way my trip home usually does.

Ellen

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Maggie Smith, here as receptionist still

Dear friends and readers,

It’s been almost two years since Part One. Izzy and I went again because we had been moved, exhilarated and for a time intensely cheered by the 1st Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Unexpectedly it almost pulled it off: again Ol Parker gave to powerful actors some speeches that resonate deeply with anyone thinks he or she has experienced irretrievable loss and gets a second chance, with longing for companionship, self-doubt; since I’ve watched Richard Curtis’s Love Actually twice since (two Christmases where I sorely needed some wish fulfillment), this time I saw the parallel with this Christmas film: an overall trajectory of hope, optimism, good things occurring, lucky strokes, within which each set of characters experience real anguish, and we see how much failure and loss and compromise in each case there is. Yet in each case some love, companionship and at the moment of the ending joy is known and celebrated. Love Actually is better because the anguish arises more naturally, out of family situations, long-known people — as it did in the 1st Hotel movie, but then this is supposed to occur abroad among old or aging people whose lives at home and families have fallen apart and are just about making it in this hotel now filled with retired, aging, and about to die (the bleak joke is) people.

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Last time Judi Dench as Mrs Greenslade (Evelyn) was narrator, now it falls to Maggie Smith as Mrs Donnelly (Muriel). It’s not so much voice-over as she soliloquizing using voice-over in front of us. Not easy to do, and again I was powerfully reminded of her performance as Susan in Bed among Lentils (linked in below). Maybe it was the working class accent, or her real desperation and gratitude to have found a substitute son, family, place she belongs in and functions once again to save, but I found her character so much superior to that of the Duchess she has been enacting lo these five years. No comparison. The director, John Madden filmed her in continual close-ups, and she has not used any Botox or cosmetic surgery so all the deeply felt inward life of her comes out on her wore face and large blue eyes. The closest to true devastation this movie comes is when Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) rushes back from the wedding reception because he misses Mrs Donnelly and worries about her, and for a moment thinks her dead. I feared I’d go into hysterics. No, just resting. It’s a trick, a manipulation of the audience’s emotions, and this is done more obviously and with more strain than the first time round.

I should qualify if you hated the kind of thing the first movie represents, or hated it, you will hate this yet more. Little irritants: preaching against “self-pity,” and how we all can make it, and in the movie several of our original group have improbably become successful entrepreneurs. All I can say is we overlooked that and entered into what was not cant. The young Untouchable girl who began the first movie is brought back at this movie’s end for Muriel to thank, and I did break up into crying when Maggie as Muriel talked of how there is no ending, and death is somehow part of a continuation. Not so. For individuals there is an ending.

Cut to wild Indian dancing at the close of Sapoor and wedding reception, a combination of traditional Bollywood dances with modern Indian movie dances. They dance on behalf of life in the midst of aging, loneliness and coming death.

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Not everyone of the original band is there,

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so there are two newcomers: Richard Gere posing as a writer, and thought by Sapoor to be the inspector sent by the American corporation to whom he and Muriel have applied for a loan to renovate the hotel and open a second to accommodate more guests, needed to provide enough profit.  Tamsin Grieg as Miss Lavinia Beach (pseudonym), a real hard inspector for a rival chain whom Sapoor misguidedly pointedly neglects.

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I last saw Grieg as Miss Bates in the 2009 Emma by Sandy Welch and Miss Hardiment in the 2010 Tamara Drewe from Posy Simmonds;  I knew I had seen her or at least heard her distinctive voice, before but would not have placed her as the same actress who did either of those two very different parts until I saw her name in the credits.

20th Century Fox and two Indian production companies produce the most alluring of colors, it’s filmed on location. the cinematographer, Ben Smithard, again knows what he is doing: there was a moment when the camera looks at Judi Dench as the eyes of the loving Douglas (Bill Nighy) and she just looked transcendantly beautiful, even if she is in her 70s.

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As in Love Actually and the previous Hotel, Nighy delivers the memorable epitomizing moments. It’s no use to go over the plot-lines this time; they don’t make much sense; they carry on from the previous (so I wished I could remember the previous better), giving some momentary closure to a few when the first movie gave no closure, left the people there still single, with their families back home fallen apart or gone. Now they have formed more definite heterosexual couples having sex (this time there is no gay man), even Sonny Kapoor’s mother must be included, dragged in, to her credit, most reluctantly, to (as Touchstone in As You Like It would say), the mandatory country copulatives — all but Muriel. The character is to my mind given more respect even if the pragmatic realist would say, well of course, she’s too old, who would love her but as a grandmother. I’m tempted to say go see to watch and listen to Maggie make a movie once again, or better yet click your way through Alan Bennet’s Bed Among Lentils.


Keep clicking to see the whole

Izzy and I went at the last minute; we bought take-out Chinese food to bring home, set up our supper in front of the TV and watched World’s Ice-Skating on NBC.

Ellen

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Demelza (Angharad Rees) climbing up on Ross’s (Robin Ellis’s horse), (1975 Poldark)

Dear friends, readers, and class,

This is a continuation of the lecture I wrote as a blog, Ross Poldark, the first phase, which takes into account my first blog on the book, Ross Poldark, Revenant, and on the 1970s mini-series, An 18th century Cornish Che Guevara figure. I’ve added a few thoughts on the first three episodes of Debbie Horsfield (script-writer and “creator”), Ed Bazalgette (director) and Eliza Meller (producer) of the 2015 Poldark which have not quite covered this first of the 12 novels. The stills are mostly from the 1970s mini-series as all I have for the recent one are a few promotional stills, which typically distort what are the characteristic images in any film.

Last time we emphasized the salient characteristics of Ross, which included the above categories, a sense of his rootedness in costume drama of the 1940s (Stewart Grainger) as well as his historical conditions: he is not the heir to the Poldark estate, Francis Poldark, the son of the oldest son, Charles, is. He thus comes home to a small inheritance of a ruined mine, home, neglected property, the young woman he had loved and thought himself pledged to engaged to that heir. He had been assumed dead, out of the way. To this I’d add he is an ordinary man, somber, serious, whose troubles are those that anyone of the 1940s and again 1970s might identify with today: he wants to integrate himself into his community, make a respectable living, is a responsible man with a depth of intelligence. His desire to do some good is what particularly dates the norms to the 1940s after WW2 and again before the Thatcher era.

Ross Poldark and Demelza may be seen as coming of age novels: our hero returns home from the wars, which he escaped his youthful rebellions to, and now he tries to make himself a life, to marry where he will be comfortable, a woman who provides a household (his choice to marry and Demelza too partly fits in with the first part of Amanda Vickery’s At Home with the Georgians where she depicts the male of the 18th century eager to marry a genuine home-maker, to begi his career as a respectable male). I wrote a separate blog on mining (& smuggling) in Cornwall with particular reference to Ross’s thwarted heroic efforts. In the first she grows up: she comes age 11-14 into the first minimally decent stable surroundings and people who treat her in a civilized manner since her mother’s death. In the second she too comes of age, partly by finding where she differs from Ross, who by the end of the first novel has become an unquestioned parent-husband-master, someone who opinion of her is all encompassing, who is her. She is to learn he has feet of clay. Jud and Prudie are in effect her surrogate parents.

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Where Jim Carter (in the background) has helped Ross fend off Demelza’s father and she protests against giving her meagre salary away

We omitted talk of Jim Carter, with Jinny, important presences and characters in Ross Poldark and Demelza. On some deep level Ross identifies with him, feels for him (as Ross does not quite for Mark Daniels). Jim is of the wretched of the earth, has been given little chance to develop his gifts, and has not had the individual esteem to refuse to return to the mine when he, like his father, develops lung sickness; still he does not make enough money as a tributer and poaches to put food on the table his manliness demands. This is not to blame him, but we are to see that he is not a flawless character. Jinny is not really happy with him; he will not listen to her greater prudence. He knows how dangerous poaching is (no matter how unjust the laws); she becomes subject to rape and even death when he steals out. Ross’s anger at himself for not saving Jim but persistent impulse to not behave in the amoral hierarchical ways of he gentry leads to his decision to marry Demelza. He will do the right thing. The community think he is sexually using her carelessly as any aristocratic male would; he proves them wrong. Central to the book is his learning experience at the trial, Book 2, Chapter 4.

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Jinny and Jim at their wedding listening to her father

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Zacky Martin

Also the rivalry with Francis. Quite apart from Elizabeth. My research into the period of the Renaissance through early 19th century shows such internecine quarreling and betrayals (Ross almost drowns Francis in their first encouner in the mine when Francis tries to open himself to Ross) occurred regularly between a male heir and especially a cousin, the son of the second son: I found it in Vittoria Colonna’s extended family, and in Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea’s brother, who murdered his male cousin Hazlewood in Northampton, and could not recover a life afterwards. Primogeniture is not a system to foster kindly feelings (as Austen said the system which demands none of a group of sisters “come out” until the oldest is engaged leads to animosity).

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Clive Francis as Francis as we first see him

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Frank Middlemas as Charles

Powerful scenes in Book 2 are the trial (covered in the last lecture) and Ross and Demelza’s plunge into becoming lovers: she desperate to avoid returning to her imprisoning home, he drunk, wretched, overcome with a need for human contact. She does not entrap him; she fears earning his contempt and he almost does react that way when in his mother’s dress he compares her to his mother. Book 2, Chapters 5-7. The careful slow believable and probable build-up; Demelza’s intense awakening and joy afterwards; his acknowledgment that this was not just “an expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” Elizabeth comes more for help with Francis who her own rejection of has driven from her and into drinking, gambling, promiscuity, debt, thinking to play on Ross’s love for her, but finds something has happened between the two and it is too late for her. To its credit the 2015 Poldark followed this trajectory including his decision to marry Demelza out of a liking and respect for her, that she had become part of his life, and the intensity of their congenial sexual encounters.

So the last phases of the book. Several inward looking threads:

1) Ross falls in love with Demelza, begins to appreciate her as an individual; he continues to love as this icon of aristocratic elusive beauty, Elizabeth. The love begins in the chapter of the harvest of pilchards, Book 3, Chapter 2; Graham may have written as well but he never wrote better. The greatness of it is it’s a recreation of the Daphnis and Chloe (Longus), Paul et Virginie (later 18th century), Tristan and Isolde archtypes interwoven completely with the detailed dramatization of a harvesting of pilchards by a community deeply in need of these fish to sell and to eat, in the context of a real Cornish cove. She packs a picnic supper. Much of the space is given over to describing the intensely important and ultimately successful catch through the use of the nets, yet our emotions are intensely with the each of our two presences.

‘Ross,’ she said, ‘dear Ross’ ‘I love you, he said, ‘and am your servant. Demelza look at me. If I’ve done wrong in the past, give me leave to make amwends.’ And so he found what he had half despised was not despicable, that what had been for him the satisfaction of an appetite, a pleasant but commonplace adventure in disappointment, owned wayward and elusive depths he had not known before and carried the knowledge of beauty in its heart.

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A famous shot from the 1975 series when Ross tells Demelza he will give her his name, marry her

2) The failure of Elizabeth and Francis’s marriage. She prefers her son, Geoffrey Charles, is not finally in love with him, and his failure to cope with the world she can be patient with, but not empathize or help. That they have had no further children is to be taken as a sign of unsatisfactory sex: an 18th belief is still wit hus that satisfying sex brings about orgasm and orgasm pregnancy. It’s a myth used in novels by characters to try to prove a woman claiming rape was compliant (in Richardson’s Clarissa, in Kleist’s Marquise of O) Elizabeth’s resurgent love for Ross comes out of her dissatisfaction. We see Warleggan waiting on the side; he has lent Francis money and bound him that way.

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Norma Streader as Verity: her close relationship with Ross slowly built up

3) The story of Verity — lonely, depressed, without feeling alive for herself (one of the many great chapters of Poldark series, all 12, is Chapter 14, when she returns to her room and faces what is her probable destiny: used but useful in her extended family. So ailing, she comes to stay with Ross and Demelza. Demelza fearing scorn holds off, but Verity wins her over by opening up her own tragedy to Demelza. Their shopping trip is to me a delight: like Ross’s trip to the fair in the first book, it enables Graham to present the 18th century world to us, shopping in the provinces, how people made their clothes. And we have a long trope of female friendship, so rare in male novels (hardly seen in most movies).

4) Graham has said that he did not plan another book, Ross Poldark was stand-alone, but I wonder if by the end of the book Graham knew he would continue: these latter two are the sort of thread that demand fulfillment. Demelza begins pro-active, diplomatically to question Ross to find out about this loss of love and hope Verity had known. Why start such a plot if you don’t mean to continue it into another book. Ross is right to worry about Blamey we are to feel too. A genuine gap between them. They will have male versus female reactions to primal experiences in later books. There is also what is going to happen to Jim Carter? Prudie and Jud kicked out of their jobs? will they continue alienated?

On average there was a three-year gap between Graham’s new books (not the rewritings) but Ross Poldark was 1945 and the very next year, 1946 Demelza. Jeremy Poldark appeared 1950; Warleggan 1953.

5) The last episode: Ross and Demelza are invited to Trenwith and almost torn apart by the pressure of the house and its history, the paintings, the sense of an ancient family Ross belongs to which she is outside of, but Demelza has a realistic success. She is helped to assert herself by Verity’s presence, by drink (she’s not perfect) and by her own native abilities against the spiteful Ruth Teague. Her pregnancy is actually a burden. Her first attempt at social class adjustment and we see in these scenes Francis instinctively kind and Elizabeth not deliberately hurting anyone.

One way to write a historical novel set in a given period is imitate the novels written in that period. Graham is imiating Emma where Austen’s Jane Fairfax plays so exquistely high culture music but Harriet says she prefers Emma’s poorer execution because the “performance” was so great. Also the songs easier. Elizabeth’s harp playing and use of Handel does take those who can enter a higher realm into it: that includes Francis (it is sad how their marriage fails). But Demelza’s folk approach is accessible, sexier and is liked by more. Demelza is getting back but before a sour note enters, Ross taps her shoulder lightly.

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As the novel ends Ross and Demelza achieve communion of spirits walking home in the landscape as Verity has walked by his side with him. Far from this ancient imposing house, with its picture, night and the “old peculiar silence” ceases to make a barrier and “becomes a medium.” Their different pasts and personalities “could not just then break their companionship for long. Time had overawed them. Now it became their friend”

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For next week: Demelza is not a sequel but a continuation. All the novels are continuation, continuing the story. Each one has a peculiar structure and themes of its own but they do not introduce a new set of characters who are dismissed from the action beyond the one novel. In Demelza Graham widens his purview to include the 18th century wold through a Cornish lends: topics will include medicine, law and justice, smuggling, banking.

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Aidan Turner as Ross working at his desk

The new mini-series, a few sketchy thoughts on Episodes 1-3:

I find I’m too attached to the novels after all and have a hard time judging this new one rationally. My worst complaint comes from the new dramaturgy: the scenes are far too short; in the modern way these begin at the end of a scene, are epitomizing, and have a momentary shot which suggest what was to happen and then we switch. The film editing feels crude: we move too abruptly from shot to shot.

Watch any 190s or 1980s mini-series: last night I was watching Barchester Chronicles, a mini-series from two novels by Anthony Trollope; what a striking difference from these new Poldarks; BC resembles the old Poldarks and The Oneddin Line. The three (BC, old Poldarks, and Oneddin) are all literate. Characters are presented with coherent thoughts; they talk to one another and express understandable ideas; debate issues. The scripts were hard-worked on and made sense. The writer does not have the time to develop complicated utterances or she fears the audience will not understand more complicated thoughts when not attached to something immediately personal.

Apparently some Poldark fans (on the facebook page) notice that the chronology from episode to episode is confused. PBS dumbs down by substituting bloody thrillers and situation comedies dressed up as costume drama (Doc Martin, Call the Midwife); the BBC carries on costume dramas of good books, with the alternative solution of having characters grunt at one another, and substituting scenic camera work (technology). It’s not the fault of the actors nor even the scriptwriter – though she appears to know little of the 18th century when it comes to underlying manners and attitudes nor director: the long hand of Mrs Thatcher, budget cuts, and despising of education is at the core of all this.

An overt feminism makes all the male characters order the females around peremptorily. That’s not how it worked. Alas the screenplay writer has not begun to read or understand some aspects of the actual male practical life of the era either, nor the 1790s revolutionary period — which the 1970s writers did. She gets wrong how men were paid; they did not get salaries but worked as tributers, entrepreneurs. The new Francis is made more sentimental and less cynical subversive — which is like the book, Francis’s wit (what are you being saved from? for?) which came from the book is gone, but perhaps the feminism of the producer and writer could not bear to show a man so careless of his wife, so easily promiscuous. Elizabeth in the book and in the 1970s movies was ambitious, cool, wanted to be seen, to go to London and shine in court (she never got the chance); they are sentimentalizing her too. Some of the face-book fans are happy that the portrait is more positive without examining why or how.

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Ruby Bentall as Verity and John Hollingworth as Blamey — good in these roles

The Verity and Blamey story is fairly told and even all the parts, but it needed to be spaced out much more. It’s like a near final draft that needs more interweaving and raison d’etre somehow. I can see that there is a real attempt at time to film scenes from the book that were not filmed before.

I find I miss badly some of the original incarnations: Clive Francis as Francis, Norma Streader as Verity, Frank Middlemas as Charles. We also in this first episode have more romance than money scenes; the gardens are overdone the landscape does not look like Cornwall; the music is inferior to the original episodes and the paratexts not so aptly chosen; they are not original, not thought out. Turner and Tomlinson are good — his is an attempt at a hard unsentimental conception. the Jack Farthing as George Warleggan has the tones of Ralph Bates; Nicholas, the father is gone, but Pip Torrens as the corrupt ruthless uncle, Cary, repeats the tones, notes and kinds of sayings about profit) the old Nicholas uttered. But a number of the actors are weak (especially Kyle Soller in the role of Francis as narrow, spiteful, not bright); Heidi Reed Elizabeth is presented as in love with Ross — nothing about her complicated desires for status, wealth, social life. They don’t know what to do about some of the characters that are not driven by love primarily so have Ross and Demelza sort of be around one another pointedly. They do not have the guts to show characters immoral and careless the way the first series did. Phil David (superb actor) as Jud is thrown away; his gnomic statements of pessimism personalized so lose their meaning. Lots of the working class characters simply in effect dropped. They don’t want comedy or at least not the kind the first series did — it’s melodramatic. To be fair, the original 1970s series often omitted Graham’s best lines, the darker melancholy sceptical ones. It did include the comedy.

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Ellis delivers a creditable performance as the narrow minded judge

On the other hand, it is also a different form of making movies; movies are made differently and I thought the third episode though also ‘dumbed down” used pictures again and movement beautifully to convey the love affair of Ross and Demelza. They are good actors.

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Instead of actors in a stage being filmed; we have figures in a large screen who are part of the wholistic picture, and much is conveyed through gesture, picture, angle of shot. Still, they don’t use montage cleverly (too much money?) and Horsfield has Aidan Turner charging through the landscape on his horse as if she doesn’t know what to do with the actor — the imitation of Colin Firth half naked in the water by Turner with Demelza as voyeuristic in the grass was embarrassing and broke the suspension of disbelief utterly.

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Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza and Aidan Turner as Ross

Eleanor Tomlinson’s portrayal reflects our modern mood (she begins in distrust) but it is to my mind closer to the conception Graham had than the previous Demelza — who reflected “sex kitten” moments in the 1960s films (Tom Jones) and was far more 1970s feminist as well as not realistic. It was anachronistic in the extreme for her to tell anyone she did not know who the father of her baby was, much less its real father, Ross. The beaten down, shy, but slowly emerging Demelza in 2015 reflects our own distrusts and sense of darker realities. There are a few scenes (too brief but there) from the book where they shop, he buys her a cloak, she prepares decent food for him, we see them eating and talking together (alas no dialogue).

There is much to like — very very much to be moved by. In the way of modern adaptations the film-makers take a back story and put it as prologue so we have “Ross in America” and then a scene from his parting with Elizabeth, after which here we are in the coach again. I had hoped for the death of Joshua (which opens the book) but not to be. Phil Davis is a great actor, he’s not comic like Paul Curran, but he’s in a way more credible as a presence than Jud. The actor for Jim Carter resembles the earlier actor.

I am warming to Aidan Turner and thought he has some really effective moments. One stays with me. Demelza is leaving, walking off with the dog, as Prudie has told her see what he said, you’ve more trouble than you are worth, and she looks up and there is Turner photographed on the horse against the sky, looking magnificent somehow. Memorable. There’s a different concept for Demelza for Eleanor Tomlinson; she is made more central to Ross’s decision to stay, not a thief, desperate in a more abject way. In the book he never thinks to go;

The politics are the not the progressivism of the 70s but mirror dark and grim British moods of today.

Thus far I am not sure it will become mythic: the first Poldark had something deeply original about it — the music, the different paratexts carefully chosen to capture important moments (closing of Grambler, Smuggling, killing the informer); time will tell whether that these 8 hours have captured a new original spirit equivalent or analogous to the older one. It’s at a disadvantage being second but Andrew Davies in 1995 knocked the 1979 P&P off the map. Maybe they are trying too hard. Since they are communicating pictorially, they need to have more nerve in filming bold sudden moments of magnificence (Ross on his horse coming up to Demelza and taking her back when she runs away). They try for subtle symbolism in the simplified dialogue: when at the close of third episode he tells Elizabeth he is not leaving Cornwall, he says he had lost something, and his way, and now he has found it; that something is symbolized by or is also Demelza on his horse behind him as his wife. His choice of her embodies his values and the way of life he wants to lead.

Ellen

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John Constable (1776-1837), Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831)

A Syllabus

For a Study Group at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Eight Wednesday later mornings, 11:50 to 1:15 pm, Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road. Fairfax
Dates: Classes start Mar 25th; last day May 13th.
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

The first Barsetshire novels: Trollope conceived of his famed Barsetshire series while walking in the beautiful purlieus of Salisbury Cathedral in England, and of the writing of 2nd Barsetshire novel, Barchester Towers, an enormously wide-selling book at the time and never out of print since, Trollope wrote he took “great delight” and predicted Barchester Towers would be one of those by him which “live” on and are read for a long time to come. It has never been out of print. Nowadays some see it as the first academic and job market satire. By the 3rd, Dr Thorne Trollope knew he had created more a world for many characters to exist in, and by the 4th, Framley Parsonage, he was mapping his imaginary places, and its characters and sites spilling over into a real political England through railway lines to various place in Britain and abroad. In an 8 week course we’ll read Barchester Towers and Dr Thorne, and see excerpts from the 1982 BBC The Barchester Chronicles, which begins with The Warden, the 1st Barsetshire book, a novella, which students may read on their own or see in the form of the 1st seven episodes of the series before the course begins.

Required Texts. Students are asked to bring a copy of the novel and any essays we may discuss for the week to class. These will usually be provided in the form of an attachment sent to the students’ email the week before.

Required reading:
Trollope, Anthony. The Warden, introd. David Skilton. NY: Oxford, 1980.
—————–. Barchester Towers, ed. Robin Gilmour. NY: Penguin 1994.
—————–. Dr Thorne, ed. David Skilton. NY: Oxford, 1980.

Format: Study group meetings will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

March 25th: Introduction: Trollope, life, early career, The Warden
April 1st: Barchester Towers, Volume I or Chs 1-19 (“Who will be the new bishop?” to “Barchester by Moonlight”)
April 8th: Barchester Towers Volume 2 or Chs 20-34 (“Mr Arabin” to “Oxford – the Master and Tutor of Lazarus”) & the effect of illustrations
April 15th: Barchester Towers:Volume 3 or Chs 35-53 (“Miss Thorne’s Fete Champetre” to “Conclusion”) an excerpt from Barchester Chronicles
April 22nd: Dr Thorne, Chs 1-11 (p. 1-155) (“Greshams of Greshambury” to “The Doctor Drinks his Tea”): in context, AT’s developing art
April 29th: Dr Thorne, Chs 12-23 (pp. 156-310) (“When Greek meets Greek” … “Retrospective”)
May 6th: Dr Thorne, Chs 24-34 (pp. 311-460) (“Louis Scatcherd” to “Arrives at Greshambury”), & The Cornhill
May 13th: Dr Thorne, Chs Chs 34-47 (pp. 460-end) (“St Louis Goes out to Dinner” to “And who were asked to the Wedding”); looking forward to Framley Parsonage & briefly on the last two Barsetshire novels (The Small House at Allington and The Last Chronicle of Barset).

Suggested reading and Viewing

Barchester Chronicles. A 7-part BBC mini-series, 1983. Dr. Gilles. Scripted Alan Plater. Featuring Donald Pleasance, Nigel Hawthorne, Alan Rickman, Eleanor Mawe, Barbara Flynn, Susan Hampshire, Geraldine McEwan, Clive Swift
Bareham, Tony, ed. The Barsetshire Novels: A Casebook. London: Macmillan, 1983.
Kincaid, James. The Novels of Anthony Trollope. OXford UP, 1977.
McDonald, Susan Peck. Anthony Trollope. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
Moody, Ellen. Trollope on the ‘Net. London: Hambledon and Trollope Society, 2000.
Snow, C. P. Trollope: An Illustrated Biography. New York: New Amsterdam, 1975.

Online group readings:

The Warden and Barchester Towers
Dr Thorne
A blog: Shoverdosing on Barchester Chronicles
From my website on Anthony Trollope

BarsetshireReDrawnfromSketchMadebyNovelistSadleirCommentary162
Drawn by sketch by Trollope (circa Framley Parsonage) by Michael Sadleir — click on drawing to make it much much larger

Ellen

The Flying Dutchman, WNO
Eric Owens as the Flying Dutchman

Dear friends and readers,

Are you someone tired of over-produced plays, movies, operas? This opera has one set, a proscenium arched rectangle which serves as backdrop for ships, the port, houses, places for dancing, and ghostly sequences. Are you tired of scenes where you are continually distracted from the characters’ personality, situation, engagement with other characters? This production leaves you to experience for lengths of time the central psychological state of each character alone and as they are in contact with others all aria long, framed by occasional eruptions of the male and female choruses. You are given a chance to savor the characters’ and the music.

pair
Christiane Libor as Senta

OTOH, if you are tired of symbolism, of 21st century interpretations of older material, this production will not serve as a relief. For me the quiet use of costume, prop, and pictures (set designer Giles Cadle), not to omit the racial composition of the cast to suggest that the Dutchman is not just some Gothic Wanderer, male outcast wandering amid seas, but a cynosure of the black slave of last century and the exploited and destroyed and angry and brooding black man of today made the production more meaningful.

Owens’s performance a few years ago as Alberic the dwarf in a kraken rage intended to evoke black men’s rage was repeated here — only he is not in a rage so much as as profoundly melancholy and in need. The use of red (=blood) ropes to entangle him was part of this. The drawing that Christiane Libor as Senta is so taken by reminded me of so many depictions of black men in the 19th century either as slaves or sharecroppers or stage minstrels:

SentaatPicture

With Oscar Wilde (“contradiction is the bugbear of little minds” said he or something like that), I don’t mind contradiction. So somewhat startlingly to me who have endured so many outrageously masculinist (not to use a worse word) Wagnerian operas, as we neared the ending where Christian Libor as Senta dressed in fire-engine red is about to board the ghost ship, to follow her dutchman about for life, out came a row of whorish (from their make-up and centuries of stereotypical wigs, outfits, leering expressions, exposed breasts) frightening-looking women. They reminded me of the women imprisoned forever in Bluebeard’s Castle in the recent HD Met production of of Iolanthe & Bluebeard’s Castle. Instead of being asked to condemn Senta for her sudden withdrawal from the Dutchman, we were asked to identify with her justifiable fear. The words in the surtitles of her change-of-heart aria to Erik, whom she had been engaged to before her father was seduced by the Dutchman’s gold and had deserted, referred to her long knowledge of Erik and how much affection they had known:

WNO-DUTCHMAN-HUNTER-ERIK
Jay Hunter Morris as Erik dressed as white southern gentleman (might have been a slave-trader from his costume)

I heard someone remark on how Senta’s father (Daland, sung by Peter Volpe) would have seemed to someone in the later 19th century acceptable and understandable, and how we saw him today as absurd, naive, over-bearing, a fool to give his daughter away like this; as with the HD Met opera, this one production attempted to address this shift in values on behalf of a women’s autonomy, and in a similar spirit. Only this heroine was strong and would not become a hag accused endlessly of infidelity. This did not quite work as the feminist interpretation of Iothanthe and Bluebeard’s Castle did not work because neither are true to the opera’s libretto or music.

This opera is about a deep longing for death, for surcease; this is Tennyson’s poetry longing for rest from too many of the world’s demands and imprisonment. The Dutchman longs to die again and again and is death he says. At the close of the opera, dressed all in white, Senta flings herself into the waters to drown. She is so distraught at the Dutchman’s fate she wants to join him in death itself now too. I cannot find any photos of this scene so will refer to the reader to expressionist drawings of this final moment of the opera:

19thcenturydrawing

A couple of people around me agreed the opera was “well-sung.” There was no intermission so no let-off in build-up. A woman nearby declared it “perfect in every way.” No more detail than that. It was directed by Stephen Lawless and there are two different conductors listed. For myself I admit I thought some of phases of the male and female choruses dull (as obvious as Oklahoma in early versions): too much simpering sentiment over women cooking and sewing and admirable manly males.

The-Flying-Dutchmanship
A typical choral scene of men

The Flying Dutchman, WNO
Women with spinning wheel in front

It required patience somehow for me to sit through some of it.

Nonetheless I felt good I had gone when I read in my playbill that this production was modeled upon or similar to the one done at Glimmerglass in summer 2013. I went because Jim had bought tickets for he and I to see a Flying Dutchman at Glimmerglass during the later part of the second week of August 2013. He had bought for a concert as well as Camelot. He also got two lovely rooms for us in a boarding house by a lake. We never went. By that time the cancer had metatasized into his liver for over a week and he could hardly walk from one room into another. He knew by the last week of July he would not make it but did not know why. I can’t replicate what we would have known, nor bring him back to enjoy what he would have been engaged by. But I went partly on his behalf, in his place even if I am now half a person.

I suspect he might not have liked this production that much. When we went to a recital by Owens, he said Owens could not let himself go enough, not allow himself the inherent variety that was in him because of his black identity and memories. Had to remain noble. It was probably the symbolic direction because in Porgy and Bess Owens was remarkably many-sided and brilliant.

FlyingDutchmanEricOwensCoryWeaver

I recommend going if you live nearby or if the production moves to where you live, or if it’s aired, turning on the TV or your computer to watch.

Ellen

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