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Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) and Garrick arrived at Nampara (2015)

Dear friends and readers,

As you doubtless know if you’ve been reading this blog, the new Poldark mini-series is garnering much attention. Among remarkable items of interest suddenly turning up on-line are five texts by him read aloud sensitively, beautifully by two actors. One reason the Poldark novels have not been acceptable to the establishment is that while Graham is alive to this post-modern aspect of his fiction: how you can’t know the past, memory is failing, the universe itself unknowable, much relative, he does not make it central to his historical fiction and mystery larger structures — he mentions it now and again and there is a strong gothic undertow — well this idea and a gothic feel is central to these:

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In Cornwall

Meeting Demelza: a story written late in life where Graham meets his character at last; she tells what still hurts, we feel his ghostly desire: read by Ewan Bailey

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03yqp4r

Ross and Demelza: one of the most powerful and visionary all chapters in Graham, where shortly after they are married, he takes her to an all night pilchard harvest in a brilliantly lit cove — read by Ewan Bailey, from Ross Poldark

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03yqfx1

Three stories, all three abridged:

The Cornish Farm: set in the 20th century, a couple come to live and work a Cornish farm, a haunting marital suicide tale read by Nicholas Farrell

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03ynmf3

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Click on the drawing to enlarge it

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Other places

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Claude Monet, Vetheuil Winter

At the Chalet Lartrec: One not set in Cornwall but the Swiss Alps in the 1960s where the narrator seeks shelter from a blizzard (I thought of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Lodging for the Night”); another haunting tale of apparent murder. Read by Ewan Bailey

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03yngnh

The Old Boys: two now grown up boys meet on the grounds of their school, a meditation on how we re-interpret our past, how what for one is now amusement, for another is deep trauma. Read by Nicholas Farrell

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03ymztf

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If you’ve listened through, you’ll have experienced a shared set of themes, moods, character types and peculiar similarities, down to the man who claims to have strangled his wife resembling Mark Daniels (who in the Poldark books does), the throwing of precious things deep down a well.

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Caeria Israel, a painting inspired by Trollope’s “Malachi’s Cove,” set in Cornwall

These feel dark and the snatches chosen are apolitical. The Poldark novels have a strong element of intermittent sunshine and hope and are political, left-liberal, just now in public media beginning to be talked about for the first time. Read this short essay by Stephen Fielding, a professor of political history at Birmingham:

http://nottspolitics.org/2015/03/11/sexing-up-cornwall-but-theres-more-to-poldark-than-good-looks/

Poldark was actually one of the most radical period dramas of its day, reflecting the influence of the novels written by Winston Graham on which it was based. The first Poldark novel was published in 1945, the year Britain elected a Labour government intent on building a more egalitarian society. Graham’s work was shaped by that context.

His villains are the Warleggans, described in the novel as the “new aristocracy”. These financiers-cum-industrialists are the “the people of the future”, monopoly capitalists in all but name, intent on destroying communities to earn a profit, and able to exploit a legal and political system that reflects their interest. Against them stands Poldark, who, as an impoverished squire, gestured to a more classless past in which squire and tenant shared the same economic interests. As Graham wrote in Ross Poldark (1945): “All men were born in the same way: no privilege existed which was not of man’s own contriving” …

Ross Poldark was, then, one of literature’s classic figures on the fringe, a man of noble birth who identifies with the people rather than with his own class.

I wouldn’t call him Robin Hood, rather a combination of the old romance hero of the Gainsborough films (remember Stewart Grainger in the UK, Errol Flynn in the US) and Che Guevara. Robin Ellis captured this latter aspect of the mood of Graham’s hero in this moment in spades:

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Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark — Drawing by Hope James

Ellen

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In prison, telling of how her stepfather abused her and her mother ignored her distress: Anna (Joanne Froggart) and Bates (Brendan Coyle)

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The Dowager in her mind bidding adieu to any idea of time regained: Violet (Maggie Smith) remembering

Dear friends and readers,

I cannot deny for anyone still emotionally involved with any of these wrenched backward and forward manipulated-for-climax characters, there were still some stirring and/or genuine moments. There is some uncertainty about when and if it will ever end. So to this season’s finale:

For me intense distress over Anna (Joanne Froggart) in prison, humiliated, blamed, her own abused past used against her; some admiration for Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) defying all convention and rank-based demands to visit Anna; the improbable angelic quest of Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) and Mr Moseley to find witnesses to show that Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle) was in York the day his confession claimed he was in London pushing Mr Green (Nigel Harman) in front of a bus (if he went so far as to say that — we don’t know); however unlikely that such a confession would be cast aside, Anna’s release and continued abjection when she returns “home” (she will not go into Downton Abbey by the front door), and, not for the first time, her bleak presence in black during the Christmas festivities, only to be gladdened and rejoiced and taken away to a quiet private space with her beloved at last.

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Rapturous escape

Punishment of servants and largesse on the part of masters and mistresses defined several of the stories brought to a temporary close. In the last two seasons Violet, Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith’s) adherence to duty and not exploiting those beneath her any more than her position demands was continued. She did not permit Spratt (Jeremy Swift) to triumph over Denker (Sue Johnston)’s inability to make a fine soup:

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Delicious soup

Violet was sorely tempted by Prince Kuragin many years ago, actually fled with him, but was pulled from the carriage, by his wife, the princess, and allowed herself to be dragged back not only to duty, but comfort and wealth, and social acceptability. She has reciprocated by paying for the princess to be rescued, giving the princess acceptable clothes and her reluctant husband back. She rises above the princess’s bitter understandable ingratitude.

Princess

It’s an interesting topic: the Dowager’s attempt to do the right thing. I suggest the Dowager has changed over the course of five years — or better aspects of her character have gradually been brought forth. At first she appeared as a kind of dragon lady witch — remember her first appearance, striking in all glittering black.

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She does try to do the right thing, and we have now been given enough of her past to understand her marriage was not super-happy at all; she stayed because it was the right thing to do. Sometimes though these moral “right thing to do” can mislead. When she persuaded the older man to desert Edith at the altar, that was wrong even if it seemed conventional wisdom. She was with Rosamund in trying to remove Marigold from Edith. The “right thing” often violates our deeper emotions and needs — that’s a theme in Anthony Trollope by the way (whom Fellowes claimes to be much influenced by). The perversion of our deepest emotions by being required to follow social rightness — In Trollope’s novel, Lady Anna, the heroine, Lady or Anna Murray refuses to marry the Earl and does the “wrong” thing from everyone else’s point of view; she wins because she’s heir. But other Trollope characters walk away without the big money — in The Warden, Mr Harding for example. The Duchess would have been on Archdeacon Grantly’s side. Phineas Finn walks away to a small salary; he is not made happy and in Raven’s version he does it only because Mary is pregnant. But Trollope does fit in with Fellowes and here (as is not uncommon) if you examine Trollope for real, you find his inferences go another way.

It was certainly a season for older women to be proposed to (a Trollopian theme): Mrs Hughes’s (Phyllis Logan) reply to Mr Carson’s (Jim Carter) is a nearly exact repeat of Mrs Crawley (Penelope Wilton) to Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) and Violet to Prince Kuragin:

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Mrs Hughes: ‘We’re celebrating the fact that I can still get a proposal at my age.’
Mr Carson: ‘And that’s it?’
Mrs Hughes: ‘Of course I’ll marry you, you old booby. I thought you’d never ask.

Where did he get the money? In the original Upstairs Downstairs, Mr Hudson and Mrs Bridges have been saving for their lodging house almost the full five years of the show.

And there were the intelligent conversations between the Dowager and Mrs Crawley once again:

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Otherwise you were invited to enjoy the perversion of natural good feeling, or asked to rejoice in spite, coming comeuppances, abjection, and confronted yet more women who suddenly could put two and two together. The most dismaying was Lady Sinderby (Penny Downie). It was not that she was hiding deep pain; she seemed genuinely puzzled who Diane Clark and little Daniel (HELLO, DANIEL, HIS NAME!) could be?

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I just wish there had been a flicker of recognition and anger in her eyes. I didn’t look but in the script it may say by Diana (Diana or Diane?) Clarke that she expected to be alone with him? I thought she did say that in fleeting passing. The actress the same age as Michelle Dockery, the younger set

(If so, absurd. Jim and I rented a hunting lodge in Sussex one summer. It was once a tryst place for a super rich Duke to have mistress and horses available. We had a large bed with a mirror over it. I kid you not. The building a sort of overgrown hut. I suddenly realize downstairs where younger daughter slept were once servants quarters. This is not marked at all by Landmark Trust who rents such places to people going on holiday in the UK. It was very large down there so lots of servants and grooms as across a yard were old stables — very much marked for our perusal. It was not that easy to get to — as the road is still not marked obviously from a pub, and the bus didn’t go there anymore. Nor were we told which more recent Dukes owned it.)

Rose (Lily James) to the rescue by a series of insistent hypocrisies with all joining in. We were to enjoy Lord Sinderby’s (Aldritch) shame. But what then? everyone conspires together not to help the woman whom he has obviously had a long time affair with, shows no concern for real for or her boy (we don’t learn his name though we do hers, Diana Clark). Meanwhile Lady Sinderby is suddenly unaware of what’s happening, and looks all surprise and bemusement and as ever Atticus (Marcus Bale) notices nothing. There is his half-brother. The character would be great on a slave plantation, surrounded by half-brothers and sisters who were his slaves too; Atticus showed perfect unconcern Beyond yet another women unaware of what’s happening around her (Lady Sinderby); beyond that it’s grating to see how the woman and her child apparently don’t matter, what matters is nothing shall be upset, nor Lord Sinderby embarrassed. Sickening. Yes she looked just fine – but all abasement towards everyone. In a series ostensibly so focused on women, women are dispensable and all children without rich men to keep them.

The worst grating thing was Fellowes’ tendency to when he run out of invented faux obstacles to create tension and climaxes on the back of, he returns to bad servants and we are to rejoice in their comeuppance or downright humiliation. Stowell (Alun Armstrong in the thankless role) was the snobbish butler more willing to hurt others to keep his ego up than his master the arrogant Lord Sinderby needs to:

Stowell

Fellowes made it acceptable by having Stowell mortify our favorite working class turned sop-aristocrat Tom (Allen Leech) and those under him (including Thomas [Rob James-Collier] who got back Big Time with the encouragement of Lady Mary) but who is he? he probably has no money money than Mrs Hughes — in the first season she originally said she was socking it away; now she has a disabled sister she supports (the Tories will like that). We were supposed to enjoy him cringing before others. I have to have been personally hurt directly before I can enjoy that sort of thing. We were also supposed to enjoy how the Dowager finally best Spratt. His spite against Denker is disconnected from her bad behavior in London. These servants are despicable lot, no? both Spratt and Denker are subject to the Dowager — was that supposed to provide our enjoyment?

Despite what we keep hearing about staff cutbacks since the glory days before the war, the Downtown staff never seems overworked (lots of time for self-improvement, museum visiting), except perhaps in the case of Moseley as first footman — and that is treated as comedy–and Moseley’s fault, of course, for trying to get above himself. Who wouldn’t want to be a servant in a great house? My mother-in-law told me it was servitude and discipline from getting up to going to sleep, little money, hardly any time off.

It has been lacklustre season, filled with phony climaxes or dismissals. Mrs Drewe (Emma Lowndes) can’t be fired but she can be erased. This season was at its best when it tried to return to the tone and mood of the first season, but it did not work as in just the way years had gone by, so much pain and melodrama had been put before us. Also its structuring to move to climax after climax this year and not have one-hour long self-enclosed stories destroyed any of the first season’s quietude.

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Canaletto, Alnwick Castle (18th century landscape)

I felt in the last phrase of returning to the Abbey for a singalong at Christmas, they were trying for the quiet naturalness of the first season again. But as is seen from 3/4s of the 90 minutes they cannot — too much water under the bridge and too much expected. So first they have to go away to a super-glamorous place once again. I had thought Alnwick Castle was a testament to Canaletto’s many paintings, the fame of this country house from the Renaissance, deep in Northumberland, but it was apparently Hogwarts they were thinking of — Harry Potter. Whence a very silly YouTube over the preceding week where the characters tried to decide which house each of them would belong to in the school for magic.

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Like parents dropping children off to school

Anibundel remarked that it felt like the cast were hanging around a museum. I noticed only a small segment of the show was filmed in the house. We did see them go into it, through the door, so it was not as with Chatworth in the 1995 P&P where the film-makers were allowed to use only the outside of the house, but only a few rooms were requisitioned. Anibundel said most of the rooms from the Harry Potter films were not there and noted the huge fireplaces (in centuries past to keep the occupants warm). The result was a film experience as absurd as someone wearing an extravagantly overdone dress for a short moment of a day at great expense and trouble. This to impress people fooled by glamour and fame and money. I found the inside of the house gross. As fake as overdone luxury hotels. All gilt, ludicrously over-decorated every inch each wall. Must be awful to sit in — but maybe no one ever really sits in those rooms, much less lie and read a book

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With all this falseness to see this reassertion of how happy everyone is, not just must be, at Christmas, I was gain reminded of what Trollope said he felt like when he was commanded to make a rejoicing Christmas tale.

While I was writing The Way We Live Now, I was called upon by the proprietors of the *Graphic* for a Christmas story. I feel, with regard to literature, somewhat as I suppose an upholsterer and undertaker feels when he is called upon to supply a funeral. He has to supply it, however distasteful it may be. It is his business, and he will starve if he neglect it. So have I felt that, when anything in the shape of a novel was required, I was bound to produce it. Nothing can be more distasteful to me than to have to give a relish of Christmas to what I write. I feel the humbug implied by the nature of the order. A Christmas story, in the proper sense, should be the ebullition of some mind anxious to instil others with a desire for Christmas religious thought or Christmas festivities –, better yet, with Christmas charity. Such was the case with Dickens when he wrote his two first Christmas stories. But since that the things written annually — all of which have been fixed to Christmas like children’s toys to a Christmas tree, have no real savour of Christmas about them. I had done two or three before. Alas! at this very moment I have one to write [said by Julian Thompson to have been “Christmas at Thompson Hall”], which I have promised to supply within three weeks of this time — the picture-makers always required a long interval,–as to which I have in vain been cudgelling my brain for the last month. I can’t send away the order to another shop, but I do not know how I shall ever get the coffin made.

Yes Mr and Mrs Bates hurry off into that dark bare corridor away from the strained singing; there were moments throughout the hour (as I started with) worth the contemplating.

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As for future predictions once again:

Here is a reasonably intelligent review

I have noticed no one has aged much — except naturally. They are all five years older, the daughters dress older; the dress of the servants reflects their changed occupations. I have been glad some of the women are not forced into anorexia: Elizabeth McGovern became that long before this mini-series to make herself viable as a comely older woman. The interviewer said it was to go on until 2010 – I had thought next year would be the last but Fellowes gave another interview which suggested it would drag its coffin on.

So he doesn’t “own” DA anymore and is not the only one to dictate the ending so perhaps it will get worse than ever (more fatuously cheerful with made-up crises easily resolved) or it will darken in ways that Fellowes wouldn’t allow. There’s a general strike coming … My sense is Fellowes made this years’ episodes follow closely on the last because he did not want to show the 1930s in England, the real destruction of some of these enclaves, the proto-nazism and fascism, the growth of socialism for real.

One woman on a Downton fan page called this a “fun” interview. Some people have odd ideas about fun.

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So, out my crystal ball: We have two plot lines: Lord Sinderby has a bastard son and now it’s been brought out into the open the sudden bitterness of Lady Sinderby may actuate her into at least a separation for a while. (Maybe just maybe Atticus will notice his half-brother?) Anna and Bates are not home free. Mary will end up with the insouciant cool racing car driver whom she deserves and if he cannot make her miserable, little George will at least grow up to be a twisted ex-aristocrat; Edith (let us hope) return to London and get a nanny. Daisy and Mrs Patmore and Mr and Mrs Carson are provided for; Baxter and Moseley go off into the sunset for other positions in the same great house, or break free, he goes to teach and she to open a millinery and dress shop. We have been told the ending: Lord Grantham dies of a massive heart attack — it was angina and we see how breathless he is when drunk. Other age away, four widows left with another (Lady Rosamund) coming for visits. They have money to travel, at least Cora is young enough, except perhaps Lady Shackleton not far off in her cold cottage. Lady Anstruthers will not be welcome. But Thomas may stay on as butler at last.

Ellen

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Violet, Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) explaining to Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery why the prospect of Isobel Crawley’s (Penelope Wilton) marriage to Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) hurts so

Mary: Granny, I know why you’re finding this difficult.
Dowager: Do you?
Mary: Yes, but you mustn’t give in to it.
Dowager: What? Give in to what?
Mary: Isobel has always been your protege. She looks up to you and you have kept her from harm in return.
Dowager: Have I?
Mary: Yes. So of course it’s difficult that she is to take her place ~ among the leaders of the county.
… you simply have to be bigger than that.
Dowager: Is that what you think of me? That I care about her change of rank?
Mary: Well, you’re not exactly pleased, are you?
Dowager: No. But that is not the reason … If you must know … I have got used to having a companion.
A friend. You know, someone to talk things over with … You have your own lives … Isobel and I had a lot in common. I shall miss her.
Mary: Granny, you’re quite dewy-eyed ….
Dowager: You’ve made me regret my confidence… And for your information I don’t think Isobel has EVER looked up to me.

Dear friends and readers,

Soap operas when they do their work right root their suggestive believable characters into the daily memories and feelings of their viewers. That Fellowes has achieved this may be seen in his continuing audience for a group of stories that he lacks any new material for; one never needed new material for As the World Turns. This week I found my face was wet, the tears had overflowed beyond my eyes over fleeting scenes of decently felt emotion most of us struggle against or want to feel. Some were less tenuously set-up than others. The finest and slowest-fully built up to is above: the Dowager explains to the obtuse Lady Mary that she will miss her friend.

Robert Lord Grantham’s (Hugh Bonneville) close relationship with his dog, Isis, has been before us from the opening credits (much mocked) where we see the dog from the back, presumably walking alongside Robert back to Downton, to the incident where Thomas (Rob James-Collier) ruthlessly locked the dog out in the wet cold wild so he could gain Lord Grantham’s trust by rescuing her, to her just being there, with him. Even that quiet boss-lady, Cora, Lady Grantham, oblivious as she was to the twisting of Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), her second daughter’s character and pregnancy, and much else seemed to notice the dog’s decline, and opened her bed so the suffering creature need not be alone and feel unloved in her last hours:

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Daisy continues to gain in skills and self-respect from the time we first saw her when the series began and she was making the fires in the house, filthying herself in the cold. She’s now reading Vanity Fair under the tutelage of that thwarted teacher, Mr Moseley (Kevin Doyle). While I wish we didn’t each time have to re-assert the justification for learning for Daisy, and this time it was to enable Fellowes to take potshots at the labor gov’t, I enjoyed the visit to Mr Mason (Paul Copley) engineered by Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nichol) so as to keep Daisy’s spirits up. At his dinner table no one insults anyone. He wouldn’t allow it — all is generosity and decent social thought:

Miss Baxter: Are we all finished? How lovely, Daisy, to have such a beautiful place to come to.
Mr Mason: She’s always welcome is Daisy.
Daisy: I’ve not been here enough lately.
Mr Mason: You’ve been busy I know. With your books. That takes up time.
Daisy: I think I’ll stop it now. So I’ll be able to visit more.
Mr Moseley: Do you think she’s right to give up her studies, Mr Mason?
Mr Mason: I do NOT.
Daisy: Don’t you want to see more of me?
Mr Mason: You know I do. But education is power.

Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) had been startled to find herself invited, and once there, perked up, looked like she had some self-respect, enjoyed herself guiltlessly, and held Mr Moseley’s hand as they comfortably came home after a comfortable meal.

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Things were quite otherwise in the dinner scene closely juxtaposed next. I felt for Isobel as those wretched sons of Merton made themselves obnoxious again (to Edith too).

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I loved Tom Branson for getting up and calling one of them a “bastard.” They did throw a stink bomb at any coming happiness in marriage with them in the Merton house. I don’t know why anyone eats dinner at that place: it is a landmine.

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Of course dinner tables have ever been places where you dramatize social agons, it’s inherently theatrical.

The ball of agon has not left the Bates’s residence either. I did love the scene of Anna (Joanne Froggart) and Mr Bates drinking tea so comfortably at home together.

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Here I just wish Fellowes didn’t think it necessary for me to suspect one of the pair is a murderer. I have realized (from reading one of the Downton Abbey facebook fan pages where they regularly take the most small-minded positions, siding with the worst people) that we are supposed suddenly to suspect Anna. This is surely out of character. What would she feel in a prison? horrified. so humiliated and mortified and filled with inculcated self-hatred she’d wither up with shame.

Alas I’ve covered the fine moments and have now to turn to the absurdities and offensive omissions. I omit the condescension enacted towards the Duchess’s adult servants, Spratt (Jeremy Swift) and Miss Denker (Sue Johnston) as children squabbling. To this is Fellowes driven for material you see. Mrs Drewe gets to have her say to Cora, Lady Grantham, but we are not allowed to see or hear her, and doubt we’ll ever be permitted to develop some sympathetic imaginings for the Drewes at home now.

Implications: When told by Robert that Isis has “cancer,” and Cora replied: “Poor old thing … Oh, how I hate that word,” she for a moment redeemed herself, but like Anibundel whose recap is again worth reading, I cannot grasp how Fellowes expects us to take seriously her indignation at her mother- and sister-in-law, Lady Rosamund Painswick (Samantha Bond) at having not told her what she should not have needed telling to know. She will never forgive them, never trust them for not having informed her her daughter had a baby while away on a suddenly “mysterious” 10 month trip to Switzerland:

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Yet worse there was Edith, since Episode 6 closed, set up at last, running a business she owns (left her by Mr Grigson), a job to do, writing she does well, a place to live, a nanny on the spot, with money to pay her:

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And what does she do? return to the Abbey where she hides from Mary and her maid at the station giving up her baby once again to the conveniently there Mr Drewe (Andrew Scarborough)

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in the library again overridden by Mary (coolly despising Edith’s generous impulses to take “an orphan child”), look like some rabbit or deer staring at headlights lest daddy say no to adopting this strange child until mummy declares it is right. The family obtuseness passes to Edith’s father. There’s more than a hint that Tom (Allen Leech) suspects (he asks her more than once to be open with him about her troubles over many episodes). Mary of course couldn’t be bothered to figure anything out about anyone, least of all Edith. Psychologically for Edith it does fit: she is the bullied, over-sheltered, super-ego driven ugly daughter. I hope she never marries, because surely she’ll end up abused — and we saw in the fourth season that Grigson saw this and refrained.

Is there any more to add? I fear Fellowes enjoys inflicting pain on Edith because he likes Mary’s meanness, identifies, triumphs with it. So more obnoxiousness from Lady Mary supported by the complacent Charles Blake (what ever happened Julian Overdeen as the man who worried about the average person’s housing in Britain): if it was so little trouble for Mary to get rid of Gillingham (Tom Cullen) by a kiss in public of Overdeen, why did we have that scene in the park? Fellowes gives away how he manipulates shallowly to milk scenes.

Lady Rose’s (Lily James) continuing charitable impulses and her hurt and fear she will lose her suitor, the good-natured bright Atticus Aldridge (Matt Barber), are a decent note and rightly rewarded by Lady Sinderby’s (Penny Downe) generous liking of her despite her being a non-Jew; Lady Sinderby and her husband showed real awareness of the prejudice against them, he that he needs to fight to maintain respected space to thrive in, and thus is not eager for a daughter-in-law who will not be Jewish (conversion never mentioned), but their son’s total lack of any consciousness of what it was to be a Jew in England in the 1920s brings us back to the incredible. Someone on a Jewish news on-line page suggested he is modeled on Prince William (Charles’s son); so when he kneels to this princess, far from an intermarriage, we have a simulacrum of revered English royalty:

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(Jim was one of those who wanted to see their huge fortunes taken from them, lamented when again the Queen was no longer to pay taxes.)

I suggest Fellowes is moving time so slowly because he does not want to reach the 1930s. He frequently gives Violet quips which are designed to obscure hard truths, this time it was “My dear, men have no rights.” In the real world of 1924 or so the men were in charge, servants were beginning to flee these places for work for money and freedom. There was a general strike in 1926.

But allow me to end on another of the good moments: Tom leaning over a bridge in the green landscape of the Abbey (one of its attractions for him, one he is at work on as steward in his fine office daily), with his daughter, trying to get her used to the idea they will perhaps leave for another country where he will fit in, be able to maintain his identity (and hers) better:

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Now if we could just get a message to Miss Bunting (the show is a continual fantasizing so why not?) to meet him at the New York docks.

Ellen

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Anna Netrebko as Iolanta and Piotr Beczala as Count Vaudemont (Tchaikovsky); Nadja Michael as Judith and Mikhail Petrenko as Bluebeard (Bartok)

Dear friends and readers,

If you needed confirmation, in the filmed interview conducted by Peter Gelb between the two one-act operas of the singer/actors for Bluebeard’s Castle with the production designer of both, Mariusz Trelinski (a iconoclastic courageous film director, like Netrebkvo, a Russian separatist), Trelinski made the brilliancy of the coupling of the two operas plain: these are two phases in the life of one woman, not a particular psychological person, but an archetype.

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Trelinksi tries to transform the Tchaikovksy’s opera: Tchaikovsky meant us to see the utterly submissive Iolanthe, as a blind (disabled) mythic figure, whose loving father, King Rene (Ilya Bannik) mistakenly shields her from understanding she is blind, to prevent her rich suitor, the Duke of Burgundy (Aleksei Markov) from knowing about this by imprisoning her, allowing her to come into contact only with a nurse, her husband, a huntsman, and two (sneering) maids. Trelinski juxtaposes this material with Bartok’s legend of Bluebeard, the story of Judith inexplicably (she is given no past, except she has escaped her bethrothed) continually pleading with this cruel, sardonic, and murderous male to allow her deeper into his castle from door to door until she reaches a wood where she finds herself surrounded by haunted, wounded, and dead women and must remain forever herself.

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We are supposed to see Iolanta has changed one supposed benign tyrant for another as Judith has exchanged one openly fearful one for another.
Trelinski’s production reveals Tchaikovky’s supposed sentimental romantic piece is a transparently cruel story of a young woman kept helpless and obedient to a tyrannical obsessive father, King Rene (Ilya Bannik).

That Trelinkski meant the pair to be read as feminist mirrors of women’s oppression was obvious: though he was not willing explicitly to say anything concrete, even Rupert Christiansen of the Telegraph saw this. As Iolanthe began the stage was turned into a movie-screen as a black universe, with stars, flowers and figures that suggested fragility, at the bottom of which was a lovely faun, which reappeared on the screen until Iolanthe’s father murdered it and it seemed a real fleshy body bleeding to death hunt up upon a nail. There is a long tradition of equating fauns with women (e.g., Marvell’s “Nymph complaining of the death of her faun”).

As Bluebeard opened a similar film screen took over the stage, similarly blackened with fragile petals, stars, small woodland creatures, only instead of a pastoral wood with a what looked like a square shoe box as dwelling, it kept turning into fearful images of elevators, tunnels, prisons, tables where hospital like operations could be performed (Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein used the same medical imagery):

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At one point the same shoe box like square appeared but this time tiled like a bathroom (or the NYC subway), with Judith crawling on the ground, kneeling, clutching at the wall, a strong version of Iolanthe’s stumbling about. Netrebko’s outfits, a white slip, and a garish blue day dress were counterparts of Michael’s white slip and acqua blue gown.

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Both women had the same white round flowers handed to them by men. Both operas had walls covered with stuffed deer heads. So this is what all those 19th century fairy tales were covering up. At the close of Bluebeard’s Castle, Bluebeard is having sex with a mannequin half-buried in a grave in a landscape that seemed something left over from bombing in a war

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I would have liked to conclude the pairing was feminist but alas both operas resisted this imposition strongly. Had the Met opera had the nerve to end Iolanthe before the hero count persuades Iolanthe’s father to yield her up to the doctor, it might have worked for the first opera. But the second half of this play was dedicated to the still popular idea that if you believe yourself into health, have the will say not to be blind, you will be cured. This because a wonderful God has done this to you to show you just how good he is. In return, you of course must worship him abjectly.

"Iolanta"

As staged, the opera ends in this ludicrous Busby Berkeley spectacle of rays of green light like the spokes of a crown as everyone thanks God profusely — before of an unexpected and added on entry of the Trelinski’s father tyrant in a silent dumb show (so not part of the original script or singing): King Rene comes out and instead of smiling rejoicingly because his daughter’s eyesight has been restored after the hero persuaded her she wanted to see him and has been united to him, and throws out grim looks of anger and resentment.

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This shot is from earlier in the opera but it shows how the King is presented — against the grain

Bartok’s opera makes more sense if you see it as misogynistic. Judith is endlessly masochistic; she just cannot get enough intense pain; she begs for more keys to open more doors apparently so she can submit and suffer and writhe some more. Bluebeard is her God, teaching her how to experience things physically:

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Never mind that study after study has shown that the mashochistic woman who just loves abuse is a myth. The women at the close are just as hauntedly submissive as Judith; Bluebeard who is dressed (appropriate to his music) as an pleasure-loving (he smokes cigarettes, drinks wine) sardonic Citizen Kane type, more insouciantly rakish than murderous.

Didonato

During the regulation hyped interview (by Joyce DiDonato) Netrebko said she felt for her character, stumbling about helpless and indeed she was poignant; Beczala is less of a phony than many of the singers and he refused to pretend to have psychoanalyzed his part and said what was hard about it was all the high Cs. In the filmed interview with Gelb, Michael seemed aware of the contradiction of claiming a perpetually longing- punishment type as an icon for feminism as she volunteered the interpretation that Judith wanted to see within herself, and what the “the world” is for real behind doors. Gelb (like the Telegraph) seemed a bit nervous at this open explicitness of what the opera might be about, for he immediately cautioned her “not to give away the story.” It was a rare good instance of how spoiler warnings function to stop bringing meanings of story into the openly discussable.

Very unusually for the movie-house audience I have now observed for four years there was little applause at the end of either opera or after some remarkably sung arias, especially those (in my view) of the unfortunate Michael whose acting was stunning; she had to have been exhausted.

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I applauded for her but no one else did. The people around me were silent altogether. Were they embarrassed? The audience at the Met applauded now and again for some spectacular singing (it seemed to me) but did not stand up as has become the custom (the audience nowadays seems to do this to congratulate themselves for coming).

I decided to go out of curiosity. When the New York City Metropolitan opera chooses to do this kind of pairing, how they do it is significant. Izzy and I had been complaining all season of how conventional what we saw was, well, here was another instance after The Death of Klinghoffer (however in reality tame the opera is) of courage. It would be easy to make fun. Iolanta just needed to be mainstreamed and all would have been well. Bluebeard needed to stop imitating gangsters from movies and Judith their faux-glamorous beat-up molls. I prefer to take seriously what took itself seriously: these are two productions saturated with unexamined assumptions about disease and women, the first exposing teleological absurdities, the second genuinely mirroring a deep sickness in the images we are surrounded by in popular and high art. Torture came to mind; they were torturous, so appropriate to our political landscape today? I was relieved to escape when they were over.

I wonder what Jim would have thought of it. Had he and Izzy come with me (she didn’t come either) they’d have discussed the music and perhaps the singing. I found nothing thrilling about the 19th century opera and do not wonder it has rarely been performed since it was first paired (and then dropped from) the Nutcracker Suite. As for Bartok’s music, it seemed to me harsh and dissonant. I can’t say I enjoyed anything, perhaps the images of fawns at the opening of the first opera were touching; I was genuinely horrified when what made to seem an apparently real faun was knifed to death and hung and when Bluebeard was having sex with the mannequin.

Ellen

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Derek Jacobi as Alan Turning being interviewed (1996 Breaking the Code, directed by Herbert Wise, script by Hugh Whitmore)

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Victor McLaglen as Gypo Nolan (1935 The Informer, directed by John Ford, script by Dudley Nichols)

Dear friends and readers,

While I bought in New Year’s Eve quietly, alone with my cats, I watched two films: both unexpectedly great: Breaking the Code, a 1996 90 minute British TV film, based on Andrew Hodges’s 1983 biography of Alan Turning, and John Ford’s The Informer which was so powerful, a piece of German expressionist art turned to popular movie account I was astonished.

You can watch all of Breaking the Code on line instead of (wasting your time) seeing The Imitation Game:

I hope you took the hour and one half out. If not, here are a few notes which perhaps might tempt you. Instead of presenting Alan Turing as a kind of (freakish) autistic person never getting long with anyone after a brief youthful friendship in school with a young man who died of TB, Derek Jacobi plays a complex man who has a number of relationships, but is unable to fulfill himself as centrally part of his life because of the cruelties of the anti-homosexuality of English culture, the lack of understanding of a sensitive unconventional mind.

Breaking the Code is set mostly in the 1950s. There are flashbacks to the 1930s in school (a young Blake Ritson plays the friend who died from TB) and then to 1940s when Turing is hired (no atmosphere of paranoia or heroism; no justifications of murdering people to protect the “enigma code,” no silly team of a few men saving the world who also happen to be spies); in the 1996 film we see a slow building of relationship with his immediate boss (who is not crazily hostile, but half-sympathetic, played by Richard Johnson), and the woman he engaged himself to who did love him and he loved (played by Amanda Root), but he did not want a sexless or false-front marriage. I found very touching the depiction of Jacobi as a homosexual man trying to find companionship and the lack of dignity and threat, the sordidness and contempt of what he had to endure in the one person he could find to spend time with him.

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I could understand deeply how someone brought up in the 1950s looking at homosexuality might say I don’t want to be that, I don’t want to know that and hide away. He is seen having an affair on Corfu (where he could have some safety). Equally gripping was the way he was treated in 1951. Pinter plays the M16 person who begins to have Turing monitored and put pressure on him after the trial: yes for national security it’s said. As we look at the desk where he slowly he gathered the drugs he used to kill himself we have a sense of how this came from a process across his life. Prunella Scales is brilliant as his genteel mother who has no understanding of her son and repeats the world’s cant to him but loves him; Alun Armstrong as the relentless narrow police officer (he reprised a verision of this as Inspector Bucket in Andrew Davies’s mini-series Bleak House).

Here is an account of the staged play and the awards it won. Herbert Wise’s work includes I, Claudius; High Whitemore many different stints writing one-time plays for British TV, and 1970s to today’s mini-series (including Stevie [Glenda Jackson as Stevie Smith], A Dance to the Music Of Time, recently The Gathering Storm.

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Then I turned my attention to a novel, by Liam O’Flaherty, DVD, a redigitalized The Informer with a feature describing the filming (means, cost, people involved, goals, first reception), George Bluestone’s famous essay comparing the book and film (Novels into Films). Unfortunately this film is not on the Net, but a thorough defense and explication of in lucid terms (it has been attacked) is:

A Ford Crucible by Blake Lucas. It’s long interested me as an exploration of a role once regarded as abhorrent to all people fighting oppressive gov’ts, tyrannies, wars (when E. M. Forster said he hoped he’d betray “his country” before his friend”), informing for monetary or other rewards on friends, colleagues, family to powerful people. The opposite of the today reviled and hounded-down and punished “whistleblower.”

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I was deeply moved by McLaghlen’s performance of a non-thinking hulk of a man driven by poverty, a desire to stop his girlfriend from selling herself on the streets as a prostitute, a momentary blindness to all the consequences of his act (not just the immediate murder of the man he informs on, but the results on the organization of which they are part, the man’s family) and unawareness of his own feelings. Yes the movie is a lot more sentimental: in the novel the characters are far harder, selfish, his girlfriend is treacherous, the man he informs on a treacherous murderer himself; to make the movie more widely appealing Ford turns ordinary people into exemplary heroes and heroines, but this does not detract from the central fable of the awakening of this man’s remorse and the relentlessness of others around him to his act. The use of fog, of mist, the black-and-white interfused medium of the few streets, and rooms and archetypal direction is daring — Gypo Nolan is a sort of Frankenstein monster rejected by all a seething and bewildered humanity. He cumulatively gains dignity and forgets what he has done because it is too unendurable.

Since this past summer when I began once again to watch American-made movies from the 1930s to 40s, I have been so startled at how many were superb, not because of the Hays Code but in spite of it. These were pre-1950s, pre- the successful attempt of reactionary and rightist groups in the US to remove all pro-social feeling, all history from a working class point of view honestly represented. This is tale of Irish people as they seek, violently, crudely, to achieve political independence. O’Flaherty’s Famine, a novel set in the the 1840s is part of this history, and John Ford and Dudley Nichols committed to making films of integrity and intelligent art.

On one of my listservs, a member argued how important it is to pay more attention to how history is rewritten. What is erased and subsituted. Look at the difference between The Imitation Game and Breaking the Code, at The Informer versus Zero Dark Thirty.

Ellen

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Dear friends,

It’s said they recorded this in 1971 when the war in Vietnam was not over: the US gov’t was bombing hospitals in Vietnam; they thought, What could they do about it? they decided to sing and record a song in which they pretended “the war is over:”

A hundred and ten years ago, this short French film, “The Christmas Angel” was made, and thanks to a friend on one of my listservs I watched it last night and can share it here:

An early film adaptation.

Ellen

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Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois (1951 Kazan/Williams Streetcar Named Desire)

Dear friends and readers,

Another announcement of a publication. (Rest assured very soon this will stop and I will return to our regularly scheduled programming mostly about films and books.) I’m happy to say my review of Nora Gilbert’s Better Left Unsaid: Victorian Novels, Hays Code Films and the Benefits of Censorship is now published on-line in Cercles: Revue pluridisciplinaire du monde anglophone

Better Left Unsaid, reviewed by Ellen Moody

Those who read this blog more than occasionally may recognize a few of the films I’ve written blog reviews of: Preston Sturges’s Miracle of Morgan’s Street, Cukor’s Philadelphia Story and Gaslight, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. I’ve been enjoying myself mightily watching (and re-watching) a selection of the films covered by this book and also reading for the first time (Thackeray’s Catherine: A Story) and rereading (Bronte’s Villette) a selection of its Victorian novels, not to omit material on actresses and other people centrally involved in film-making.

The book is significant because aspects of its thesis, its assumptions may be found in many recent and older publications. Perhaps among the more interesting of the secondary books I read was the collection by Kucich and Sadoff called Victorian Afterlife (about historical fiction too), and some of the individual screenplays and books on these films; also James Chandler’s The Archeaology of Sympathy comparing 18th century sentimental novels with (among other film-makers) Capra.

I would not have thought comparable Austen’s Mansfield Park with Cukor’s Gaslight:

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Ingrid Bergman as Paula Alquist readying herself virtuously for bed (1944 Cukor/John Van Druten Gaslight).

I also liked following trails away from the main movies and books under consideration; one of these I’ve seen before included a commentary on the famous scene between Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront where in the make-believe cab seat we and Charlie Malloy (Steiger) are made to feel Charlie’s terrible betrayal of Terry Malloy (Brando)

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(Kazan/Schulberg, 1954 On the Waterfront)

I wish I had made more time to develop separate blogs on these books and films but do urge my readers to read and to watch or re-watch these books & films.

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See some Christmas commentary coming out of It’s a Wonderful Life this year – Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey pleading with the inexorable banker to give him more time (it’s the banker who has been able to steal the money George had been saving to pay his debt).

Ellen

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