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Archive for the ‘Costume drama’ Category

out there on the edge of change.

OpeningShots

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Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) under considerable strain, with Andy Parker (Michael Fox) looking sorry for him

Friends,

In Robin Nelson’s State of Play, a study of “contemporary (post-1990) ‘high-end’ TV drama,” more than once we are told of Tony Garnett’s “famous refusal to make more runs of This Life even after it was a smash hit.” Since Fellowes wants to remain a major player writing costume drama for American TV (the up-coming Dr Thorne will not be his last), he didn’t dare. So we are left with this slow motion good-bye.

Fellowes is having artistic conscience enough to produce more episodes in the mode of this season’s 2nd: the hour feels like not much is happening, not much excitement, because in life that is how it is. And chosing at random, one of the many meals these character sit down to (they seem to have nothing else to do), I find that no change is registered if you notice four male servants stand at attendance for four diners:

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and the way the various ladies in the houses we visit eat breakfast mid-morning in bed, command tea, whatever they want.

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Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary — quite at random

My self-appointed task to finish out what I began is made less arduous because many like myself are doggedly keeping up: bloggers still do recaps whether sarky or perceptive (Anibundel covers episode 3 as “Hughes wedding is it, anyway?“; Episode 4 as The Return of Gwen Dawson).

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So, to begin, for myself I confess to feeling intensely moved by Phyllis Logan as Mrs Hughes during moments of the wedding she wanted with Mr Carson (Jim Carter).

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Look at her face

And the camera switched to Leslie Nichols as Mrs Patmore taking equal emotional gratification from this coming future for her friend:

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And Daisy (Sophie McShea) as ever close by her side

But Mr Mason and Daisy’s (Sophie McShea) satisfaction was marred by the punishment they had again had to take. And how he urged on her she had earned this by her submission to her employers. We also have the snide “Madame Defarge” hurled at her — has Mrs Patmore been reading A Tale of Two Cities? She can’t have seen the movie. The anxiety we were made to feel. Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Lady Grantham may feel enough responsiblity or obligation to her servants and their connections, to push successfully to put Mr Mason (Paul Copley) a farm to work on as a tenant; she may even give up one of her many unworn (unwanted, unneeded) fur coats to Mrs Hughes because Fellowes tells enough truth to show us that servants don’t have super-expensive weddings or dresses, but catch anyone who belongs downstairs upstairs, or in her room without permission, and she is really to sack them, apologies afterward or not.

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She is shocked, shocked, to find them in her bedroom; they scatter — that’s Joanne Froggart as Anna running away from wrath off the screen, Mrs Patmore behind our bride Mrs Hughes suddenly made into a schoolchild …

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Recurring or brought back characters can exert a powerful grip on the engaged emotions of someone who has been watching a soap opera for some years, and Fellowes has been careful to rehire the same actors years later to reassure us these dream figures exist. For me in these two episodes it was the re-appearance of Harriet Walter as Lady Shackleton:

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At the remembered first shot, and when Lady Shackleton not only attempted to reason with Maggie Smith as the retrograde Dowager, Violet, Lady Crawley who had invited her to be an obedient supporter against re-organizing the hospital to make it part of a larger health group (therefore richer, therefore with better services), but referred to her life in just the same way she had the last time we met, I felt a tiny lump in my throat:

Lady Shackleton: “It was sweet of them to let me bring Henry.”
Violet: “Though why couldn’t he stay behind with a tray on his lap? …”
Lady Shackleton: “Don’t be unkind. I never see him. He’s only up here now to look at some horrid racing car.”
Violet: “Does he get on with Philip? – They were friends as boys.”
Lady Shackleton: “I’m afraid he doesn’t like my daughter-in-law.”
Violet: ” — Oh, dear.”
Lady Shackleton: ” — Who does …”

Walters’ voice lingers to give the tremor of unspeakable because however untheatrical nonetheless continual unavoidable heartache …

There were too few such moments for me. When Gwen (Rose Leslie) recurs, I’m again supposed to feel grateful to Lady Sybil (Deborha Findlay Brown) who is presented as almost single-handedly responsible for her great rise in life, but I remember the hard slog, insults (Mrs Hughes told her she had not right to the space she slept in so no right to a typewriter) and the fierce determination it took on her part. What is her reward? To be served upstairs?

Is it for this that she, Lady Edith and Lady Rosemary Painswick (Samantha Bond) are meeting to set up a college to train young women? I grant the good feeling to watch Edith driving Rosemary who broaches the plan to her:

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Our upstairs heroine’s, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) suitors are so feebly there, emasculated into polite Ken dolls, ready to spend the night editing your paper with you (Bertie Pelham) or take you out to dinner inbeween expensive racing car bouts (Matthew Goode as Henry Tablot), that the pleasure is simply in the glimpsed romantic shot if you can identity with the venue:

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To turn to our perpetual presences and symbolic houses, Anna’s joy at holding on her to pregnancy begins to pall from too much use, especially since part of the point is to show us how Lady Mary has a heart after all. If we were to have to come back six seasons from now (fingers crossed this never happens in some movie-house singleton), we’d have to rely on Brendon Coyle’s undercurrent of realism to object to attributing his state of happy fatherhood to his wife’s boss. And Fellowes gives the scene a misogynistic (on Bates’s part) framing bite: his first impulse is to distrust Anna’s trip to London, suspect her of what?

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I was intrigued, held for a time by how a formerly great house, Dayton Park, where Thomas endures his second interview transformed naturally as it were into a gothic mansion Anne Radcliffe would have recognized:

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And there were other explanatory new images, upsurges of genuine feeling, as when Miss Dencker (Sue Johnston) chummily watches Spratt (Jeremy Swift) work on his stamp collection:

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But do we really have to find more servants discovered as thieves and criminals. Spratt is hiding an escaped convict of a relative in the shed; once again Sergeant Willis exerts excruciating pressure on Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) to go to court and re-confess her role in a jewel theft for which she has done enough time.

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Yet as Mr Molseley (Kevin Doyle) tells her and we know from his presence, her life is far from ruined: he will become a teacher, and she his work-from-home seamstress wife. But that’s not the emphasis of this punitive series of scenes.

Why do we have no characters going off — as most wealthy families had — in form of of younger children to grab land and resources as settler colonials in say South Africa, Australia, New Zealand? No one profiting hugely off India? Grand thievery that would not bring any Sergeant to the door, but we could then see where some of the great wealth that made houses like Downton thrive? But no. This common type is missing, no where to be seen or heard of, and I’ve listened to our substitute, the man from Ireland, Tom Branson (Allen Leech) abjure his weak socialism too many times now, and talk fo how he wants to help and do his bit for everyone else, and haven’t the stomach to treat these matters merelyas fodder for supposedly trivial fun sarcasms. I want to turn to Thackeray:

“Come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.”

Maybe not quite? There is the on-going subgothic of Barrow’s frustrated life: a slow march to a suicide attempt.

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Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham seriously displeased with how Thomas exposed Gwen to the company at lunch

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Andy again observing Thomas slinking along

The strength of the series all along (unadmitted-to) has been that at Downton Abbey the men are not all strong and the women not all beautiful.

Ellen

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A close-up

Friends and readers,

More than week late, because before writing my tribute I wanted to re-watch a few of my favorite films, all of which Alan Rickman worked in centrally; but with two good longish clips and a good trailer, and a whole YouTube movie, I add my voice and this blog to the many many paying tribute to Rickman’s acting career and what we know of his private life. Catherine Shoard’s fine obituary in The Guardian does justice to the variety of roles he played on the stage, in movie-houses, on TV; Michael Quinn tells more of his life and describes his mesmerizing qualities in The Stage.

What can I add? Not much I fear because I never saw him on stage, only read about his startling first performance as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, and much later as Hamlet himself. He and Helen Mirren did not receive rave reviews as Romeo and Juliet:

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But as Valmont with Lindsay Duncan as Madame de Merteuil, they made Hampton’s play, Les Liaisons Dangereuses a modern classic.

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Duncan and Rickman in Les Liasons Dangereuses

Years later Rickman played again with Lindsay Duncan, this time in Private Lives.

Nor did I see him in many of his movies and films: he worked for money and fame, as in Die Hard where against Bruce Willis he seems to have played a role equivalent to that Mark Rylance pulled off recently with Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies. The witty European or Britisher against the he-man macho male pro-American ideologies, undermining them a little (the subversion is very slight). Rickman was not above the Sheriff of Nottingham in a successful Robin Hood either.

He often was chosen for or himself chose parts which called for steel, for self-control, abstinence in the self and enforced on others, the punitive and competitive, quiet aggression from the insinuating interviewer Slope in Barchester Chronicles (later cast out):

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to an earnest well-meaning daring politician Eamon de Valero in Michael Collins:

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Part of this thread in his typology led to his reprises as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films.

I saw more of the film adaptations, romances, and in my experience and those I’ve talked to his interpretation of a character in a book deepened, changed readers’ conceptions of the character and even book ever after, charged the presence with melancholy, edginess, menace — self-retreat, keeping back. As a lover he made me swoon, but he was also complicated, the man of sensibility, unsure of himself, disillusioned, all giving and he was convincing as all loyalty

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As Colonel Brandon reading meditative poetry to Marianne in Sense and Sensibility

Now for me (as for Emma Thompson who wrote the screenplay), Colonel Brandon is the hero of Austen’s novel. He and she were good friends: they played the older couple whose marriage is on the edge but just manage out of compassion and understanding to hold together in Love Actually.

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Thompson and Rickman as husband and wife going through ritual of opening presents with one of their children

The last two nights I watched The Winter Guest, Sharman MacDonald’s play turned into a film and directed by Rickman, featuring Emma Thompson and her mother, another actress, Phyllida Law, as mother and daughter, two widows; and Song of Lunch, Christopher Reid’s poem, where he again played with Thompson.

I discerned a kind of repeating theme or thread, not as obviously or directly autobiographical as Woody Allen’s but there in the finest of his films. In these again and again he is a man angry at the world, or isolated from it, and turning on himself so strongly that he estranges himself and others from himself, bitter about what he is doing in the world. This is part of his Slope character; it’s part of the comedy roles. Sometimes he smiles and snarls dangerously as he looks out from within this core. Sometimes he saves others who are suffering similarly as in Truly, Madly Deeply; he enables Juliet Stevenson, as Nina, his widow to let go of him all the while he does not want to let go of her. The poignant image is of him on the other side of a window, a glass cut off from his beloved. The film has several parallel characters, David Ryall as George, a widower; Bill Patterson as Sandy who loses himself in work. Here is the opening segment:

I usually dislike these movies where characters are seen as part of an afterlife, and since reading Lucy Morton’s Ghosts: A Haunted History that even a majority of people believe in ghosts (!), but this one no. What transcends in the film is not so much that Nina has learned to live on her own, but his simple way of talking:

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Iconically Jamie in Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991)

He describes his life with Nina thus:

Well, talking was the major component! Uh, uh, we, you played the piano – and I played and we both played a duet — something, I can’t remember … and you danced for about three hours until I fell asleep, but you were fantastic! — and then we had some cornflakes and when we kissed – which was about — eleven o’clock the following day — we were trembling so much we couldn’t take off our clothes.

Here is how he accounts for his motive in coming back to “the earth:”

Jamie: “Thank you for missing me.”
Nina: “I have. I do. I did.”
Jamie: “I know. But the pain, your pain, I couldn’t bear that. There’s a little girl, I see this little girl from time to time, Alice, who’s three, three and a half, and she’s great, everybody loves her, makes a big fuss, but she’s not spoiled, well she wasn’t spoiled, and she was knocked over, and her parents, and her family, the friends from kindergarten — she used to go to this park — and she was telling me, she, they made an area in the park, gave the money for swings and little wooden animals, and there are these plaques on each of them, on the sides of the swing, the bottom of the horse. ‘From Alice’s Mum and Dad. In loving memory of Alice who used to play here.’ And, of course, Alice goes back there all the time. You see parents take their child off the swing and see the sign and then they hold on to their daughter so tightly, clinging on for dear life, the capacity to love, people have, what happens to it?”

In Song of Lunch, he plays an editor who is aging badly, a failure as a poet, who has asked the woman he lost to another better writer (both aging well), to lunch. He cannot even stop his self destructing for the hour, cannot pull back when confronted by her. Watch the movie, listen to the eloquent poetry:

In The Winter Guest Thompson’s character is a female version of someone threatened this way, pulled back by her mother

It’s as if Rickman had this on-going dialogue with himself.

In Richard Curtis’s edition of his screenplay of Love Actually, Rickman answered a series of silly questions. Among his answers: the actress he loved first in the movies was Jeanne Moreau; his “favorite romantic movie of all time,” The Philadelphia Story; his favorite Christmas song, “Merry Christmas” by John Lennon

Alan Rickman died relatively young of cancer, another person cut off by this spreading epidemic. He and his family have chosen not to say what kind of cancer, but it seems to have been one which devoured him quickly: one person who saw him used the word “terrible” of how he looked at the end; and others who knew what was happening and were close suggest his death was a release. A terrible irony to this sad end. How many people have to die, at how many ages, in what short span of time before some empowered active group of people effectively demand true fundamental research?

Ellen

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Nadir (Matthew Polenzani), Zurga (Mariusz Kwiecien), Leila (Diana Damrau), climax of Les Pecheurs de Perles

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Tonio-Taddeo (Dimitri Platanias) has enabled Canio-Pagliaccio (Aleksandrs Anoinenko) to catch Nedda-Columbine (Carmne Giannasttasio) kissing promising to elope with Arlechino, crisis scene of Pagliacci

Friends and readers,

No I was not in London late last Sunday afternoon, but at a Fairfax independent movie-house, Cinema Art, and by myself with a sparse audience watched a passionately acted and sung Mascagni’s Cavalliera Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Il Pagliacci, a repeat HD screening of a live performance at Covent Garden this past fall. Nor was I in New York City at the Met today at 1 but at an Alexandria City chain movie-house, and with Izzy in a nearly full auditorium watched the live performance today of Bizet’s Les Pecheurs de Perles. Both were superb, both were produced, acted, directed successfully to make them feel utterly contemporary.

What’s remarkable about Le Pecheurs is it was something of a flop in 1863, and now 100 years later it’s not only a stunning success, but had it been done say 20 years ago, the story would have seem absurdly unreal (as it did to Parisian critics). We have a female scapegoat, Leila, a sacrificial virgin whose life-in-death is meant to propitiate the sea-gods, and when she is caught making love with Nadir, the two are condemned to be burned to death. The Met production was aware that everyone in the audience has read in the last few years about the barbaric executions of women for sexual misconduct and of men for what is called treason in the totalitarian religiously-fanatic states of the middle east. Women are enslaved as a matter of course by ISIS, trafficked by everyone else, made utterly to submit or face severe punishment under Sharia law.

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No longer is there a problem believing this kind of what once would have felt mythic stuff. The program notes talked about Orientalism, but the setting, the shawls and scarves, the city glimpsed once or twice in the background was meant to conjure up the world of Mediterranean Africa and the Middle East.

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And even 25 years ago timidity, decorum, the practice of not acting while singing would have buried the startling core of this opera: the famous intensely yearning lyrical song pledging their faithfulness until death between Nadir and Zurga is deeply homoerotic; the two men are in love. As Polenzani (who projected extraordinary sensitivity, nervous distress too, and sang so well I thought of Pavarotti) said, Nadir is lying to Zurga during the whole of the song. Nadir means to find out Leila and be with her again; he has not given her up at all as he promises.

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We can’t say they are homosexual as they don’t act out the intense bonding they have experienced with one another, but all else is in place, for when Nadir is caught making love to Leila, Zurga’s seething fury is not against her but Nadir for betraying him. All the words of Leila’s intense begging of Surga to pardon Nadir in the second act, and Zurga’s desire above all to murder Nadir once he is told that Leila and Nadir love one another demonstrate this.

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Before they are caught

So too the ending. What was substituted for years erased Zurga’s sudden turn-round, his setting fire to the city and village, in order to allow Nadir and Leila time to escape the flames. The program notes said the text became “corrupt” and new unauthentic material was worked in; only in the 1970s was Bizet’s original score and the script restored; this was the basis for a critical edition in the 1990s and this Met opera. What happened in these muddled (really deliberately obscured) performances was that the villagers discover Zurga was the arson and he is burned at the stake, or stabbed in the back, and the final scene was a holocaust with yet another trio. In the opera today and as originally written, the ending is Zurga sinking to the ground in grief. He is the tragic figure of his play.

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How conscious was Bizet of this? French writers of the 19th century were not innocents. Eve Sedgwick wrote a remarkably insightful book on this disguised gay plot in her Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire on this phenomenon. The configuration of the two men with the interface of the female between them is glimpsed in Carmen, with the baritone or Zurga role, the bull-fighter, Jose the tenor whose mortified jealousy drives him to murder Carmen, the sensitive tenor or Nadir, and Carmen a mezzo. Jose or the Nadir character is the tragic figure of Carmen, not the woman. Jim and I once saw an adaptation of Carmen where the opera was done from Jose’s perspective, and today’s performance of Les Pecheurs put me in mind of that sequel or post-text opera. But if Bizet may have known what he was doing, and others what they were watching, like movie critics today who complain when movies don’t fit an aggressive three-part action structure but follow a female pattern of cyclical movement, so the 19th century critics felt there was nothing happening in Les Pecheurs. It was “a fortissimo in three acts.”

Not today. Penny Woolcock (a British name to conjure with) was credited with the production; a Matthew Diamond (I can’t remember his name and it is not repeated anywhere after you see it on the scroll) directed it for live cinema. The sets were effective, moving from fisherman’s wooden platforms by the sea, to dream visions

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to a city that looked like Naples circa 1950, to Zurga’s office (where he has a computer, smokes, a TV, phone and paces) and back again, with a city in the background. The storm was conjured up by computer technology so we saw an ocean take over the stage; acrobats were seen swimming in the sea to stand for fisherman. A fisherman’s work is dangerous. Both men sang brilliantly. I found Danrau strident, not melodious, but she enacted the part with bravura and believability.

Izzy was much moved by the final quiet moment of Kwiecien on stage: her blog-review finds the setting to be more closely modeled on Sri Lanka and the rituals against climate change in this contemporary mix of the newly found great opera.

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Dimitri Platanias as Alfio (who will become the incensed jealous husband) in Cavalliera Rusticana

Before last Sunday I had seen Cav & Pag with Jim at least twice (with Pagliacci once done with another one act verismo opera) before I saw it again last year with Izzy in an HD Met performance, where an attempt was made to present Cavalliera as a feminist play, all sombre colors with the action directly contradicting the words and sometimes the music. The HD-Met Cavalliera Rusticana made no sense; their Pagliacci was done vividly, with excitement, but too grotesquely as a carnival comedy, it was a coarse performance even if effective.

One problem with seeing this pair is one arrives with the expectation of not being over-excited because it’s almost old hat. The real fun of this new Les Pecheurs de Perles was we didn’t know the story, the phases were a surprise, I had no idea it was homoerotic, and the ending especially broke stereotypes effectively. Yet I was moved by the old pair — as was a woman sitting me who remarked on it. She said she had not expected to be so stirred.

There is a thorough and detailed review of this production, especially musically online by Robert Hugill. What I’d like to add is how effective it was to treat Pagliacci from a feminist standpoint: Damiano Michelietto was remembering Fellini’s 1954 Italian film La Strada, where an itinerant street performer buys or marries, and beats and destroys his clown-mentally disabled wife. Giannasttasio-Nedda’s hair was made up to look like Gelsomina’s, Antonenko as Turrido in Cavalliera reminded me of Zampanò.

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Nedda is harassed by Tonio, terrified (rightly) of Canio, is in love with Taddeo, really in love with him and he with her. Here is a rightly favorable review.

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Santuzza (Anne Maria Westbroek) hoping Turiddo (Aleksandrs Anoinenko) will come back to her and leave off his affair with Alfio’s wife

Presenting Pagliacci in this light made Cavalliera more feminist too: rightly Anna Marie Westbroek as Santuzza is a victim. First the two productions were linked. The village was the same with the murder of Turiddo in Cavalliera occurring the morning, and the murder of Nedda in Pagliacci the afternoon. The same villagers were seen in both; a poster advertising the play within a play of Pagliacci is seen in Cavalliera. The two men doubled the parts of Turrido-Canio and Alfio-Taddeo. Only the lead sopranos were fittingly different: the parts opposed, the kind of soprana different.

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Mama Lucia (Elena Silio) as Turiddo’s mother

In this production, Santuzza attempts to make a friend of Turiddo’s mother and as in the script does not succeed. But during a lull in the action in Pagliacci, Santuzza is seen in the front area before the auditorium with Turiddo’s mother, now grief-striken. So the two operas are intertwined. The two women find comfort in one another; in this production Santuzza is pregnant with Turiddo’s child so the pair become a kind of Naomi and Ruth without (an erring) Boaz.

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For me it worked. The costumes were right, especially the picturesque melodamatic ones of the play within a play in Pagliacci, evoking 19th century melodrama and novel types.

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It made the contrast with reality more ironic and effective. The settings too struck a symbolic chord:

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Turrido found dead — this symbolic town by a movie-house matched the symbolic middle eastern city of Les Pecheurs

They did seem to cut scenes from Cavalliera, thus making it seem more like filler, a kind of framing for the afternoon ferocity. In the production Izzy and I saw last year, Cavalliera seemed much the inferior work, but I’ve seen productions where it was done so beautifully lyrically and pathetically and with real rage (on the part of Alfio) that it overshadowed Pagliacci.

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As Izzy and I left Les Pecheurs de Perles we said how nice to be surprised at an opera for a change. We remembered how Jim had looked up who was singing in a production of Don Giovanni as an HD-Met opera we saw now 4 years ago. Kwiecien was Giovanni and he had hurt himself on the Net (strained his back) and it was feared he would not make it. He did, if only to be in the filmed version (going out “to the world”). Jim would keep up as to what was happening in a cast; when we arrived he’d know the history of the previous opera productions. He would have enjoyed the Cav & Pag I saw last week. We thought he would have loved this Les Pecheurs de Perles. She and I both missed him this afternoon.

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Kwiecien as handsome and alluring as Jonas Kauffmann

Ellen

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Dowager Lady Crawley (Maggie Smith) to Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), POV

Violet, Dowager Lady Crawley: “Dear old Lady Darnley. Always liked to stuff the place with royalty. She was addicted to curtseying! How we laughed. It’s sad to think about it. — Ah, Spratt (Jeremy Swift). Could we have some tea?”
Spratt: ” – Your Ladyship.”
Denker (Sue Johnston): “It seemed a little chilly, m’lady, so I’ve brought you a shawl.”
Dowager: ” – Oh, you are a wonder, Dencker.”
Dencker: ” – Thank you.”
Dowager: ” – I shall miss you.”
Dencker: ” – M’lady?”
Dowager: “Oh, I’m sorry. No, forget I said that. After all, nothing is settled.”
Dencker: “What’s not settled? I don’t understand.”
Dowager: “I thought you told Spratt about the staff being cut back here and at the Abbey.”
Dencker: “Well, I may have mentioned it.”
Dowager “Oh, well … As I said, nothing’s decided.”
Dencker: “But Your Ladyship couldn’t manage without a maid.”
Dowager: “Mrs Crawley does. Don’t you? ”
Isobel Crawley: “Indeed I do, but I don’t wish to upset poor Dencker.”
Dencker: ” But Mrs Crawley also manages without a butler, m’lady.”
Dowager: “That is true, but I don’t think I could break with tradition to quite that degree.
Shall we have some tea?”
Dencker: “Your Ladyship” [distressed, leaving the room]
Dowager: [Calling] “Miss Dencker? – (CLOSES DOOR) – [Louder now] Don’t worry, Miss Dencker. I’ve got a copy of The Lady upstairs.”
Isobel Crawley: “You don’t really mean to manage without a lady’s maid, do you?”
Dowager: “(SCOFFS) Certainly not!”
Isobel: ” – Then why did you — ?”
Dowager: ” – Sometimes it’s good to rule by fear.”

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Far shot of Dencker unnerved, tottering off, Spratt, the butler, Spratt, supposed gratified)

Dear friends and readers,

The Sixth Season’s 1st & 2nd episodes make a telling parallel with Sherlock’s Third Season’s last episode: in both the originating material and ideas having been long exhausted, what emerges is raw actuating core: for Moffat and Gatiss a clever (modern, ever-so self-reflexive) gay subversion of a favorite hero series; for Julian Fellowes, a reactionary push-back by a male Mrs Miniver. I’m one of those who feels the first season was Fellowes at his (dreadful word) charming best: what more characteristic of the man than that flower show (a direct borrowing from Joyce Anstruther’s Mrs Miniver columns as well as the 1941 movie) and Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and her old suitor at the fair where she ever-so-delicately tells him no; and its analogy in a pig show and Mrs Hughes and her present suitor (Mr Carson aka Jim Carter) where she ever-so-delicately tells him (though an intermediary), well yes, but for once on her own terms:

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“I just don’t want to be a servant on my wedding day.”

What is making this happen? ratings, advertisements, money. You don’t cancel or allow to go off-stage a cash cow. Which mini-series have been re-booted with great fanfare forty years on? The hits of the 70s.

For recaps I will be referring the reader to Anibundel (full disclosure, my daughter): The last days of Downton; March of the Pigs. For previous blogs over the 3rd, 4th, 5th seasons; the 1st through 3rd and miscellany and 4th, from my website.

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Jinxed (2)

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Miss Rita Bevan (Nicola Burley) from on high jinxes Lady Mary

Downton Abbey has the advantage over Sherlock in that its mode is naturalistic (the term TV critics use for TV realism) so one need only follow the rhythms of how night follows day, probable consequence from action, and voila, you have your story’s structure. The difference between this year’s 1st and 2nd episode is that in the first it did seem as if Fellowes preening over his success (seen in a recent interview with Judy Woodruff on PBS reports which now acts as an advertising vendor for PBS programs); and having been grated on when it came to doing yet another — he decided for an in-your-face program. Stories circulate that he wanted out after the fourth season, as witness how he was at his wit’s end for matter in the fifth, resorting to repeated scenes of excruciation of our true heroine, Anna Bates (Joanne Froggart). This is alluded to by Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) with a solemnity that hides the ludicrous narrow perspective: “Anna, no woman living has been put through more of an emotional wringer than you.” As an hour it had all the spite of Violet Dowager Lady Crawley (aka Maggie Smith)’s insouciant threat of a dismissal to Dencker, who has replaced the misogynistic role of resident female bitch hitherto Miss OBrien’s. How Fellowes must’ve hated lady’s maids in his male childhood (little master’s thoughts: “giving themselves airs, who do they think they are?”).

In the first episode Fellowes incessantly punished all the servants. I do just hate how Fellowes punishes these people with continual humiliation and has them all so grateful for not being humiliated and punished yet worse. Not much comfort in Mr Carson’s “Nobody’s going to be flung into the road, I can assure you,” to Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) worried he will be fired since he has not been trained for anything but “service.” There was an increase in humanity in the second, in that a kindly solution seems in sight for Anna and Bates (Brendan Coyle) at last: now fully exonerated by the simple expedient of the murderer of Mr Green coming forward to confess (telling enough, one of his victims), our true heroine’s latest theme for self-hated and immiseration: she has an incompetent cervix (it’s almost comical). On the other hand, the solution for Daisy (Sophie McShea) having precipitated the new owner of her Mr Mason (Paul Copley), her father-in-law’s farm (Mr Henderson) into irrevocably throwing him out, because she dared, dared, to speak up against the systemic injustice of the private property system is to push out the Mr Drewes (the ever-patient all-heart Andrew Scarborough) with Mrs Drewes’s (Emma Lowdnes) happiness (!) as Lord Grantham’s rationalization and Lady Grantham’s (Elizabeth McGovern) surfacing plan to replace them with Mr Mason.

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The Drewes, finally tenants turned out

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Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)’s remorse — the last stills of the 2nd episode; in the first season Grantham’s remorse led him to keep Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle), not now

It’s remarkable how these phrases all coming down to the same idea, echo and repeat with variations throughout both episodes: the break-up of the old hierarchy was unflinchingly destructive of all.

The key word being surviving (Lady Mary)

You sound like a governess in fear of dismissal … (Dowager to Isobel Crawley)

Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy): At least you know you won’t be asked to leave until you’ve got somewhere to go.
Barrow: I don’t know anything of the sort.

Interviewer: – Why are you leaving now? –
Thomas: It seems like the right time for a move.
Interviewer: Does it? Does it, indeed?

That’s from the work interview in the second episode, which Fellowes knows as much as anyone else is a form of suppliancy at best, hazing being not uncommon, where Thomas submits to sneers, mortification. What are the duties of an “assistant butler?’ he can ask; he cannot ask for how much on the first go-round. (The first.)

I mean who wants to work in Woolworth’s? Certainly not the Dowager who in the first season couldn’t get over Gwen wanting to go out of “service” to become a typist. Well, in real life my mother-in-law: she traded in a 7 day a week, 11 hour a day job (half day off every other week) for miniscule literal money as a lower governess in a great house for a 5 and 1/2 day week, with a wage that she could just about pay for a flat and her own food on in Woolworth’s. It was much more liberty and money, her own space to live in.

We must give them time to gnash their teeth alone (about the change in power structure of the hospital).

One servant to another: – Did you drink at luncheon? – No, I did not.
Reply: One wrong move and snap, you’re out on your ear.

Consider how Mr Mason grieves when he sees a box he contributed to for some wedding (where he contributed a small sum, so expensive was this box, that took him weeks to save from his income) now on auction. I will be told that I am to read this paradigm and all these utterances ironically, e.g., this is ironic:

Lady Mary: Don’t worry, Carson, your reception will be in the great hall if it’s the last thing I do.
Mr Carson: How reassuring, My Lady.
Edith (Laura Carmichael): How very reassuring .. (Edith was given a few good ripostes)

It’s impossible in context: in the first episode the continuous thread juxtaposed through (until we have our culmination in the auction) is the story of a seemingly smug, remarkably nasty, sneering financially aggressive female hotel servant who lies to intrude herself on Downton Abbey, in order to harass Lady Mary for money because she knows Lady Mary went to bed with the present married Lord Gillingham and can shame Lady Mary in the newspapers. No understanding is given this woman whatsoever. She is like some mean witch a glance at whom leads Lady Mary to fall off her horse. She is as weak though against Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) as — let us recall — an exactly analogous intrusive aggressive female was in the opening episode of the fourth season. Has anyone forgotten the sexually voracious Lady Ansthruther (Anna Chanceller, previously Miss Bingley, her name a perhaps unconscious allusion to Mrs Miniver) who sought to make Jimmy Kent (Ed Speleers) a kept man. In this former story an startlingly old (and some might hope) forgotten stereotype about the sexual appetites of thwarted (i.e., single) women came out.

The most scintillatingly alive moment of the second episode, the most pungently delivered line occurs when the Dowager Lady Grantham revels in a yet another moment of spite: yes her excuse is she is getting back at Denker for telling all the other servants they may be let go (Dencker has replaced Miss Obrien for resident female bitch) by carelessly letting her know she may be fired at any moment.

Sometimes it’s good to rule by fear, Maggie quivers with a spurt of glee. That says it all. Gives the game of inequality away: the 1% enjoy their power. It’s not enough to be rich, you have to be above others and how can you experience this?

But as to costumes, Maggie Smith won hands down.

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Indoors – the dark red suits her very well

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Light blues and greys were favored for her coloring

It seems to me a great effort was made to dress in her a series of exquisitely flattering dresses and place her in angle that favored the outlines of her face, her coloring, caught her body gestures and face. She had so many changes and so many lovely hats, it’s hard to pick. As in previous seasons, Fellowes’s control led to the camera making love to McGovern, so here our aging princess of great actresses. From her career and what I know of her life, Maggie Smith is stuff of the finest spirit.

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Barrow walking into the new intimidating place (don’t miss those lions)

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He of course goes into the servant’s entrance

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Interviewee not making eye contact

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The employer’s unashamed full gaze

So wherein was the 2nd episode superior to the 1st? It returned to the rhythms of the first season. The quiet diurnal feel of every day life. Yes in both of these latest hour concoctions, as he does everywhere, Fellowes slides over the deeper disquiet one should have over any number of incidents in both episodes. The man has an uncanny ability to put his finger on suppurating wounds in relationships and systems and then pull away to safety. It’s safe to dwell on Mrs Hughes’s shyness in marrying Mr Carson who loves her tenderly. Edith’s story and desire to go live in London is told blandly; I’d love to know what Rosamund (Samantha Bond) really does in London. We never do, only that she goes out to plays only when she has friends visiting.

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Lady Edith emerging from her manager’s office where she has lost a round, Lady Rosamund Painswick waiting outside — Lady Mary says she and Anna have had so many moments together, so too Lady Rosamund and Edith (over Marigold) but they are kept superficial where we most want to know

In the first episode Fellowes uses the juiced-up faux crisis in thread after thread become so common in film stories (often disguised by having them linked up to some mystery-thriller conclusion). In the second he does not. There is no juiced-up crisis moment in the interview scene of Thomas Barrow. In both he depends on us caring for the characters and I do for a few: Anna and Mr Bates, Daisy and Mr Mason, Miss Baxter and Mr Molseley, and yes even Thomas, so that another of his gift’s — for plangent dialogue and aphorism were effective.

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Anna and Mr Bates — camera on her

Some might say he overdoes this in the concluding incident of the Drewes — but then we are made to feel a real wrong is done them when from the car, clutching the child, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) smoothly agree ever so quickly with the removal of the Drewes: “it’s for the best.”

One of my commentators recently wrote in response to a couple of my blog remarks: “he refuses to develop his characters in more sophisticated adult ways and deal openly with complex politics”; “fan fictions and postings and blogs too expose the nasty undercurrents of his portrayals, his fatuity“)

Comment; He exposes the weaknesses of his storytelling. I thought the first series of Downton Abbey was brilliant, but I have been progressively more disappointed by subsequent series. As I continued to watch the show, I repeatedly saw him squander enormous potential for emotionally-resonant storytelling.

This emotionally resonant story-telling (thrown away or perverted in the final message or not) was given more play in the second episode. We saw some of it towards the end of the first when Lord and Lady Grantham go down to the kitchen and talk about the food they find in the new refrigerator. The scene quietly epitomizes the theme of changing times: I do not remember either hitherto coming down to the kitchen to grab a snack. Nothing was juiced-up here. After they ate, to bed upstair they retired. In the second episode Mr Molseley (Kevin Doyle) acquiring test exams for Daisy to practice with. For all its slithering cruelty, the way the Dowager handles Dencker is done without juicing the turns. Lady Mary’s reciprocating decent behavior helping Anna to bring a pregnancy to full term.

(Using my crystal ball I predict the birth of a child in the Christmas episode, one who like Lady Mary and Sybil’s child is legitimate with a loving father and mother and assured future.)

The development of the fight over who will control the hospital. Mrs Hughes’s stubborn resistance of a take-over of “her day” by the hegemonic order she has lived in all her life. Not that she escapes it much: I foresee the wedding will be in the schoolhouse (like everything else, as the Dowager would doubtless tell us, standing on the extensive property of Lord Grantham) during this moment of (for her) liminal transition.

The two continuous threads of the second episode concern the question of where the latest wedding (in the series) is to be held and the question of the hospital. I found the dialogues over the hospital improved as the characters (the way they do in soap opera structures) recurred and re-formulated their positions over and over, bringing in new aspects as they went. And will end on two of these from the second episode:

The first intertwined with the thwarted marriage of Isobel Crawley and Lord Merton (Douglas Reith):

Walkingandtalking
Walking and talking

Isobel: ” – Do you post your own letters?”
Merton: ” – Ha! It was vital it went off today and I’m never very good at delegating. As a matter of fact, I’m glad to see you. I’d value your advice. I’ve had a letter from the Royal Yorkshire Hospital, asking if I’d head the new Board of Charitable Donors. We’d be working alongside.”
Isobel: “Well, that’s if I stay the almoner, once we’ve amalgamated.”
Merton: “Well, of course you would.”
Isobel: “When we combine, we’ll avoid duplicating our efforts. The whole thing would work a lot more efficiently than it does now.”
Merton: “So you don’t disagree with the plan? Well, don’t you see what it could mean? How old is our X-ray machine? Does Clarkson really know how to use it? What advanced surgery do we offer? None.
If a family at the Abbey has a cut finger, they go to London, – but what about everyone else? – I bet you’d go to London too. – (CHUCKLES) I probably would, but I shouldn’t have to. And what about people who don’t have that option? So the battle lines are drawn and now we must fight it out.”

Upon Lady Grantham visiting the hospital (she is leaning towards giving control to a larger authority): part of the context is Isobel and the Dowager’s on-going vexed relationship

Dowager: “I don’t want Cousin Cora to feel outnumbered.”
Isobel: “It isn’t friendly, you know, to stir her up into opposition.”
Dowager: “It’s not very friendly to squash her into submission either.”
Cora: “Excuse me, but I don’t need to be stirred or squashed.”
– The facts speak for themselves.
– Your facts or mine? – What’s the difference? – Mine are the true facts.
Dr Clarkson (David Robb): Shall we continue this in my office?
Dowager: “I wish we could persuade you to help us stem the tide of change.
cora: “I’m just not convinced it’s the right way forward, to go backward.”
Dowager: “I do not understand you, my dear. – Are you saying Dr Clarkson is a bad doctor?
Cora: ” – Certainly not.”
Dowager: “And the other doctors that use our hospital — are they no good either?”
Cora: “I’m sure everyone does their very best, but there are new methods now, new treatments, new machines. Great advances have been made since the war. – Can’t we share in them?”
Isobel: ” – Hear, hear.”
Dr Clarkson: “Of course. I intend that we should.”
Isobel: “- We haven’t got the money.”
Cora: “- I see I’m not needed to lend you strength.”
Dowager: “You’re fully in command of the argument. Have you no pride in what we have achieved with our hospital?
Isobel: “I don’t think pride comes into it.”
Dowager: “Well, I warn you, Dr Clarkson and I will fight to the last ditch.”

And so the Dowager will. So did the aristocrats as a group, including those who lost much property. But these super-rich people, they keep making a come-back. It’s a big deal when they come down to breakfast:

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Cora putting together her own meal:

Ellen

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Cumberbatch in the 1890s costume (and the expression on his face in the contemporary scenes match)

Friends and readers,

Once more on these Sherlocks: my general assessment and a recap have been ably set forth by both my daughters (general assessment by Miss Izzy; perceptive recap by Anibundel). As Izzy says, the scenes were far too short, the lines ludicrously overproduced and action made over-melodramatic as movies and TV too are becoming more and more as a matter of course (or it would be not so oddly abruptly comic) aka script is crude. So far I agree. What interests me in Anibundel is the word “oddest:” “this was quite possibly, the oddest episode of Sherlock I’ve ever seen.”

I explore some of these odd elements in this exhausted reprise/coda of the third season of Sherlock (many months after the previous three, Last Vow, “Camp becomes Sentiment”). I suggest that at heart the series has all along had a gay sensibility, which, because the writers have now used up anything they had really to riff off of the original stories and films, faute de mieux came out very strongly in this coda. Rather like Alice in Wonderland everything else has shrunk or grown impossibly large.

First, as a retrospective on all we’ve had before (from A Study in Pink to The Reichenback Fall) this New Year’s special reduces the dazzling center of all of them to a drive to be super-clever, cleverer than any other costume drama on the block. As I think back I find the first season much better than that, and the second, especially actually having contemporary thematic relevance, though the obsessive repeating scenes of this and thus its overt central theme, hatred, fear, retreat, and paranoia have real purchase on what is displayed as news in public media this past year and enacted by the armies of many states.

But look at what that hatred is embodied in: an abominable bride herself, a dreadful creature, over-made-up, with dripping red lips, who appears to be a riff on one of the more memorable horror movies of the 1930s, sheerly on the basis of the bride’s appearance:

Sherlock-The-Abominable-Bride-Emelia-Ricoletti.

The team outdoes The Bride of Frankenstein, and Natasha O’Keeffe is given a camp opera diva name: Emilia Ricoletti. Remember Have Gun will Travel where Matt’s gun was all phallus? What an enormous one is here.

This is not just an outbreak of male insecurity (alluded to it when people refer to the misogyny run wild of this episode)? This mad image reappears several times, and is matched by Amanda Abbington as Mrs Watson turning up in a bridal outfit as elaborate and detailed and lacy as Diana Spencer’s, only she’s in black and with her head and utterly covered. No eyes to be seen even. Is this an allusion to the Muslim burka? Or is it fear of brides. Or, as in the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies book, a send-up of quintessential heterosexual sexual customs?

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Open screen, all dissolving away

Structurally this is a time-traveling film which begins in the past, then fast forwards to now, then reverts, and then fast forward, revert, fast forward with a final revert: at first the 1890s are the reality, and then the 1890s are a dream/nightmare endured by a 21st century Sherlock, then the 1890s erupt again (like some Jekyll), take over for a while, and then suddenly Sherlock awakens, and we are to take this crazed past as dream, only the camera moves so swiftly and blends the time capsules so that when we end in the 1890s the inference is the contemporary age is the dream.

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Periods twisting like a mobius strip

Within this moving remit, there are continual self-reflexive remarks about the events we are seeing, those remembered and those to come as written by Dr Watson, who is himself controlled (it seems) by an illustrator who has invented ludicrous hats and mustaches, as well as some inexorable material forcing him to keep Mrs Hudson to the margins of the text. Una Stubbs complains in the form of a caricature of her role in Conan Doyle’s stories:

MrsHudson

Mrs Hudson: And I noticed you’ve published another of your stories, Dr. Watson.
Dr Watson: – Yes, did you enjoy it?
Mrs Hudson – No.
Dr Watson: Oh?
Mrs Hudson: – I never enjoy them.
Dr Watson: – Why not?
Mrs Hudson: Well, I never say anything, do I? According to you, I just show people up the stairs and serve you breakfasts.
Dr Watson: Well, within the narrative, that is, broadly speaking, your function.
Mrs Hudson: My what?!
Dr Watson: Don’t feel singled out, Mrs. Hudson, I’m hardly in the dog one.
Mrs Hudson: “The dog one?” I’m your landlady, not a plot device. Do you mean The Hound Of The Baskervilles? And you make the rooms so drab and dingy.
Dr Watson: Oh, blame it on the illustrator, he’s out of control! I’ve had to grow this moustache just so people will recognise me.

What she could complain about more cogently with respect to this episode and the whole of the third season is this: the inset story is though one dependent on mad femme fatales, with a crazed bride wants to murder her bridegroom and succeeds. None of this has any serious reality. Where there is some is in thee women at the margins of the film and they function as mainstream reassurance: they stand and wait for and on their men. That is the use of Mary Watson (as we all know, Freeman’s partner in real life). The film-makers use the recurring woman characters in this series for reassurance of emotional warmth and continuity, stability — a sop to the mainstream audience oddly out of place. I’ve read the Mary Marston will be killed off if this series ever recurs again. Because the shows don’t care in the least about women

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One of her piquant gestures

This includes Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) as a woman in the 1890s living as a man, dressed, acting as a man (tranvestite anyone?) in order to have the active male career she was denied in 2015. it’s reassuring to recognize her. Remember how hard she was slapped, anyone? Some women viewers have kept asserting how the women in this Sherlock series are strong. If so, they are hardly ever there, getting 5% of a typical program (an exception was the episode which featured Lindsay Duncan as a Mrs Thatcher type), and continually as mainstream conventional as the males are individually questioning norms of all sorts.

There is also the attempt of Watson humanly to reach Holmes. To reach the depth of gravitas somehow conveyed by Bernard Cumberbatch now and again, and more frequently by Freeman (especially when he’s given lines from Conan Doyle as he is several times). This sort of thing could have been the heart of the story and given it some meaning, especially when because there are some telling stills and a dialogue between Watson and Sherlock at a still central point of the whirling:

Watson: Holmes, against absolutely no opposition whatsoever, I am your closest friend.
Holmes: I concede it.
Watson: I am currently attempting to have a perfectly normal conversation with you.
Holmes: — Please don’t.
Watson: — Why do you need to be alone?
Holmes: If you are referring to romantic entanglement, Watson, which I rather fear you are, as I have often explained before, all emotion is abhorrent to me. It is the grit in a sensitive instrument.
Watson: — The crack in the lens.
Holmes: — The crack in the lens.
Watson: Yes.
Holmes: Well, there you are, you see, I’ve said it all before.
Watson: No, I wrote all that.
Holmes: You’re quoting yourself from The Strand Magazine.
Watson: — Well, exactly.
Holmes: — Those are my words, not yours!
Watson: That is the version of you that I present to the public.
Holmes: The brain without a heart. The calculating machine.
Watson: I write all of that, Holmes, and the readers lap it up. But I do not believe it.
Holmes: Well, I’ve a good mind to write to your editor.
Watson: You are a living, breathing man.
– You’ve lived a life, you have a past.
Holmes: — A what?!
Watson: — Well, you must have had
Holmes: — Had what?
Watson: — You know.
Holmes: — No.
Watson: Experiences.
Holmes: Pass me your revolver, I have a sudden need to use it.
Watson: Damn it, Holmes, you are flesh and blood, you have feelings, you have You must have Impulses.
Holmes: Dear Lord, I have never been so impatient to be attacked by a murderous ghost.
Watson: As your friend, as someone who worries about you. Wwhat made you like this?
Holmes: Oh, Watson Nothing made me. (DOG YELPS) I made me.

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In this still it would seem Sherlock is a figment of Watson’s mind

Their words suggest that Gatis and Moffatt have fallen for the shallow view of the Doyle’s hero that he is cold, inhuman, and somehow sick because not sociable. The cant of the last 30 years has been that people only come alive when socializing. So this moment is not developed into anything beyond the literal surface meaning at all. Yet the 1st and 2nd seasons of the series showed they were much more intelligent and aware than that. So they kept this superficial. If you can credit third grade psychology Sherlock is a horrible person, but the world has been filled with all sorts of people who lived and thrived and wrote and created mostly for long periods alone. Thoreau, anyone? Is he disabled? He denies it and this dialogue certainly gives us nothing to suggest he is. If it had been delivered less abruptly, it would have been witty.

The only depth of emotion permitted is fraternal: implicitly if it were allowed (as it was in the 1st and 2nd seasons) between Watson and Sherlock, between Rupert Graves as Lestrade (yes) and Sherlock, affection strong. We have two Mycrofts, and here is the core of this piece, the give-away. The startling reconfiguration of Mark Gatiss as the caring Mycroft in 2015 as the indifferent gross obscenely fat Mycroft of the 1890s. The grotesqueries of his hands, his face, his stomach are insisted on; we watch him eat like some spider and it’s made disgusting, the actor or computer image of Gatiss filmed so as to arouse recoil. I’ve seen this in Sondheim: the grotesque male or female body: made hugely large (as in Sally Potter’s lesbian Orlando out of Virginia Woolf’s book). He matches the bride’s overgrown gun. And he seethes with hatred of Holmes. Gatiss’ hidden nightmare self.

So the scenes with Moriarity seem oddly beside the point, not worked into any of the stories: Andrew Scott like some dead wax figure. The scene beside the falls can be seen as sheer contrast to all the concern (moving into the sentiment of the third season) the other characters display for the alienated Sherlock. Or its another hallucination, matching the crazed murderous bride. All coming out of whose mind? From where? in the third season we met quite a conventional pair of parents for Sherlock (the father played by Cumberbatch’s real actor father) and Gatiss as the caring brother (recurs here).

One obvious explanation for the existence of this curious on one level inexplicable travesty of all that went before is money and advertisers. I understand an enormous number of people tuned in to watch in the UK and US and wherever else the show reached. Appointment TV returns. It’s to be rerun on PBS and to be put on their website for 10 days (“only”) starting a week from now. The film-makers themselves invite us to see it this way. They tell us this was a chance to dress the actors up in Edwardian dress. They want to feel they made a crude, abrupt comic soup, ratcheted up by computer techniques, in the background the usual clanging music. Camp.

But if you watch and pay attention, Freeman as Watson has the same longing disquieted look he had in the first season. The key is to relate this to all the grotesque imagery found in many gay works, the gravity with which we are given bizarre camp images. The disability is not to be found in any character of this series. It could be located in the society around them, only the film-makers elected not to allow us to believe in any outside society (the way we do in Conan Doyle and most of the Sherlock films, including the most recent, Mr Holmes). So they are condemned to go ricocheting round and round because their target is closed off.

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A typical expression of Watson not only in this episode but throughout the series, from his first psychiatric session on …

Ellen

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Pericles (Wayne T Carr) and Thais (Brooke Parks), tempest-tost, he grieving, she dead (Shakespeare’s Pericles, directed by Joseph Haj, scenic design Jan Chambers, Folger 2015)

… your present kindness/makes my past miseries sport … (Pericles)

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Anita (Natascia Diaz) and Maria (Mary-Joanne Grisso (from this season’s West Side Story by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, choreographer Parker Esse, directed by Matthew Gardiner, Signature 2015)

Friends and readers,

Any one who comes to this blog regularly could come to the conclusion that here in the Washington DC area we’ve had a spate of politically-atune, actuated, effective films and stage plays from Antigone to Trumbo, or this blogger is obsessively seeking these out and writing about them. Where I went has of course not been pure serendipity, nor do I deny enjoying telling others what I’ve seen and recommending what’s significant. Nevertheless I have here mirrored without making any effort the reality that the last few months in DC and Virginia have seen staged and screened as many or more relevant, pertinent, and grounded as deeply in human psyches and family and socially pressured-dramas as in any time I’ve been here over a few years (or in New York City, where I came from in 1980).

This year’s Pericles and West Side Story are en rapport too. Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre was not written with the refugee exodus from the Middle East into Europe of 2015 in mind; Sondheim and Bernstein’s West Side Story was written and a stupendous hit more than 40 years before the endless war abroad, spread of guns with daily massacres, whipped up hatred for “the other” in the last year or so of the Republicans running for President. But effortlessly the first was made to speak to us about powerless wandering individuals in a vast world of treachery, betrayal, exploitation and nature’s indifference, and the second couldn’t help but show us the same violence intrinsic to American male culture as is found in the Oxbow Incident (for example), or city streets then and movie theaters (or agencies, stores, malls, wherever today), the power of the gun to kill so easily, and ethnic hatred.

My desire to demonstrate the moving marvel that is the Oregon production of Pericles re-created here at the Folger is made easy for me by directing the reader to Susan Galbraith’s A Magical Pericles, DC Theater Scene. If you don’t believe her, Kate Wingfield is grudging; I’ve read the play several times (I once planned to write my dissertation on one of Shakespeare’s late tragic romances, of which this is the first, the others Cymbeline, Winter’s Tale, The Tempest) and was re-persuaded the first two acts are by him but from a very bad or corrupt quarto where what we have is half-remembered scenes (the man is trying hard): many lines here and there his, passages, the fishermen’s language jokes, e.g.,

    The blind mole casts
Copped hills towards heaven, to tell the earth is thronged
By man’s oppression, and the poor worm doth die for’t …

They say they’re half fish, half flesh. A plague on them! They ne’re come but I look to be washed. I marvel how the fishes live in the sea … Why, as men do a-land — the great ones eat up the little ones …

Die, koth-a? Now gods forbid’t, an I have a gown here, come put it on; keep thee warm … a handsome fellow … we’ll have flesh for holidays, fish for fasting days, and moreo’er puddingg and flapjacks

    the rough seas, that spares not any man,
Took it in rage — though, calmed, have given’t again
I thank three for’t.

The which hath fire in darkness, none in light,
Whereby I see that Time’s the king of men;
He’s both their parent,and he is their grave,
And gives them what he will, not what they want.

the whole conception his, reminding me of The Merchant of Venice and as a first full run of the motifs of the late romances.

Pericles1609Quarto

The production turns into self-reflexive parodic comedy (with an unacknowledged wink) some of the more stilted passages, and into semi-dumb show the paradigmatic moments, investing what adult emotion fairy tales allow until the moment Shakespeare’s text emerges at the first great tempest. Carr is up to it:

thegodosthisgratvast

The god of this great vast, rebuke these surges,
Which wash both heaven and hell; and thou that hast
Upon the winds command, bind them in brass,
Having called them from the deep! O, still
Thy deaf’ning dreadful thunders; gently quench
Thy nimble sulphurous flashes! — O, how, Lychorida,
How does my queen? — Thou stormest venomously;
Wilt thou spit all thyself? The seaman’s whistle
Is as a whisper in the ears of death,
Unheard — (III:1)

Pamela Roberts also is eloquent and makes detail about the production by me unnecessary. I should add the use of computer-generated movie-like images in across the walls (as seas, stars, islands) worked beautifully (as these did in Antigone earlier this year).

In addition, the Folger team has had the intelligence to put on-line stills from some of the more wondrous, narrative:

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Amando Duran as Gower comes from the grave and ancient (even to Shakespeare) poetry to play narrator —

tragic and funny moments from the play.

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The three fishermen, in the center Michael J Hume who also plays Pericles’s wise moral mentor, Helicanus, and then turns into the vamp-bawd, of Mytilene:

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U. Jonathan Toppo one of the fishermen, now her sidekick pimp, Boult.

It’s more than a wondrous production. I saw something as deeply uplifting from Pericles at the Delacorte with Jim in the 1970s. It taught me what I know about books: years later the same work speaks to you in a way consonant with your life in a new time. This time watching people who died or were thought to be dead brought back, death conquered, I was brought to tears. Pericles is Lear in reverse. When Pericles says to his daughter, Marino, now found , “Thou beget’st him that did beget thee,” and “This is rare dream that e’er dull sleep/Did mock sad fools” (V:1) I thought of Jim he appears to me in my dreams. If you want to have your spirits cheered for this winter solstice, and live in the DC area or can get there, you can do no better.

But I also liked how they managed to do (as in The Tempest and Cymbeline) capture the malice, envy, indifference to suffering, sale of souls and bodies that is the world in other of the scenes, from hired assassins, to fishermen, to pimps:

Marine: “Thou hold’st a place for which the pain’st fiend/Of hell would not in reputation change/Thou are a damned doorkeeper …
Boult: “What would you have me do? go to the wars, would you? where a man may serve seven years for the loss of a leg, and have not money enough in the end to buy him a wooden one (IV:6)

I wish I could find as accurate reviews of Eric Shaffaer’s most recent Sondheim (he is ever in charge, and this was his choice for the Christmas mainstream-enough program). I can find none. Nor are they generous with photos (foolish). Esse and Gardiner do little that is original or different or especially inspired. They try to follow the original Broadway production, with the difference that they have a lot less to work with (props, space, dancers, money for supremely good dancers and minor roles). They also alter some of the silent staging so that Tony and Maria are seen to go to bed together the one night they are together, and the white gang just about rapes Anita when she comes to warn Tony that Chino has a gun. I assume my reader knows the story and characters of this adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet story.

The decision which seemed to me most right was to turn the production as much as possible into sheer dance and song. The story and characters became part of an expressionist dance.

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The white male gang

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Anita (Natascia Diaz was the strongest performer on stage, she exhilarated the audience as no one else did)

But (as with Shakespeare), the work can carry itself if everyone will but try, and that’s what happens in this production. The crowd of dancers, actors, singers are there in front of you interacting in visceral ways.

You also see what makes for a lasting classic: the older work gets new electric relevancy when it’s redone in another era. When Chino gets a gun and kills Tony the meaning now is different: we see how much easier it is to kill. They had Maria take the gun from Chino and her words cursing it had a new resonance. Also the speech of Doc against whipped up hatred. There is no place for these lovers and their ideals. This is one not to miss this year too.

Haj says in his program notes that Pericles is a play of survival, loss, maturation, and reconciliation. There’s not much to reconcile. Shakespeare opened with a cruel incestuous king and his daughter; Pericles left his baby, Marina, with a queen out of Snow White; having buried his beloved wife, he wanders griefstruck, alone. When the gods or fortune are finished playing their games with him, he exhibits acceptance, resignation, expansive relief. Gower has told us again and again what we are seeing is “in the old story” if you cannot believe. If it is all improbable, including several abandonments, the actors on the stage filled the roles with an intense enough identfication from somewhere.

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A balancing act on a swing

The program notes for West Side Story tell of the 1950s gangs in NYC, the immigration into the northern cities of the US from the south, and into NYC in particular, hispanic people from Latin and South America (listen to Juan Gonzalez about Puerto Rico’s position as a century-old colony), the destitution and poverty of the slums, the violence resorted to by the males excluded from economic hope. We all know homicides, racism, inequality, violence is as intrinsic to American experience today as it was then. Signature sees this musical as “plea for tolerance, acceptance and love.” I was impressed by how it ended on another widow — like Natalie Wood in the movie, Mary-Joanna Grisso who gives the most moving performance of the ensemble, genuinely convincing, plangent, trembling, leaves the stage swathed in a widow’s cape and shawl. Her brother, lover and fiancee all dead, Anita last seen racing away in a seething rage for having tried to forgive, and been near raped for her efforts.

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No lack of women in widow’s scarves today

Ellen

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Angela Down at center as Sylvia Pankhurst (Episode 6 of 1974 BBC Shoulder to Shoulder)

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Anne-Marie Duff, Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter as Violet Miller, Maud Watts, Edith Ellyn (2015 BFI Suffragette)

Dear friends and readers,

You have two tremendous treats to avail yourself of this November where we are enjoying a spate of significant politic films. It’s another one of these re-creations of an excellent, original and effective mini-series of the 1970s 40 plus years on (e.g., Upstairs and Downstairs, Poldark). It’s also another riveting new woman’s film, the kind scripted, directed on some woman’s issue (e.g., Bletchley Circle to The Crimson Field, scripted Sarah Phelps).

On-line at YouTube you can watch six 75 minute episodes of Shoulder to Shoulder, (without commercials), and hear the theme song Ethel Smyth’s grand March of the Women:

Episode 1: Emmeline Pankhurst (Sian Phillips); Episode 2: Annie Kenney (Georgia Brown); Episode 3: Lady Constance Lytton (Judy Parfitt); Episode 4: Christabel Pankhurst (Patricia Quinn); Episode 5: Outrage! (it ends on Emily Davison’s suicide by throwing herself under a group of race-horses, Sheila Ballantine as Davison and Bob Hoskins as Jack Dunn); Episode 6: Sylvia Pankhurst (Angela Down).

And in cinemas, there’s Suffragette, screenplay Abi Morgan (who wrote Truth), directed by Sarah Gavron with a cameo peformance as Mrs Pankhurst by Meryl Streep. It also has the theme song, but it only comes in towards the film’s close (as uplift).

I have no reviews of Shoulder to Shoulder to offer; I knew of it by word-of-mouth from other women, especially anyone who has written or read about the suffragettes. I suspect it’s not available as a DVD for the same reason as the Bletchley Circle was cancelled after a second successful year.

Suffragette has been reviewed, not altogether favorably (see Variety). Perhaps since it is a woman’s film, and also about the woman’s movement, the critics have been very hard on it (see the New Yorker especially). A. O. Scott of The New York Times Suffragette justice.

This one has an argument to make, or rather a series of arguments about the workings of patriarchal power, the complexities of political resistance and the economic implications of the right to vote. You might come for the feminism, stay for the class consciousness and arrive at the conclusion that they’re not so distinct after all.

Probably the re-booting (as in the case of the others this year) of Shoulder to Shoulder into Suffragette will please modern audiences more than Shoulder to Shoulder, with its 1970s staged dramaturgy, slower movement, longer scenes and speeches, less closely graphic violence (though Shoulder to Shoulder is as unbearable in its force-feedings and it has several not just one), and I hope people will be drawn to Suffragette. Both movies show how vulnerable and frail are individual revolutionaries and movements against the power of a gov’t with military and legal powers to control, punish, silence, and kill people. Still over-praising something (I believe) in the end is seen through by people and distrusted so upfront I’d like to say that good as Suffragette is, Shoulder to Shoulder is finally superior art.

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Police breaking up the women’s demonstration and starting to beat them up

Suffragette‘s central problem is it’s too short and it has been influenced by the use of gimmick and juiced-up plots in mystery-spy thrillers common in mainstream films. So the focus in Suffragette comes from a little climax-ridden plot-design where we are supposed to care intensely if a police officer, Steed (Brendan Gleeson) turns our heroine into a mole on behalf of a gov’t bent on surveillance headed by the heartless monster, a fictionalized side-kick of Asquith (Samuel West) and his henchmen. Scenario familiar? Here is Steed trying to secude, frighten, & bribe our heroine:

Brody-TheToo-EasyHistoryofSuffragette

We then enter into thriller-like story arcs where our heroines outwit the police in planting bombs, breaking windows, and finally managing to reach the newspapers when unexpectedly Emily Davison (Natalie Press, the daughter in Bletchley Circle) throws herself under the horses in a race course watched by the king.

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Emily Davison contemplating what to do to reach the king, or attract attention (Maud is unaware of the lengths Emily is prepared to go to)

This is not to say that Suffragette doesn’t do ample justice deeply even (partly due to superb performances) to the human feelings among the women and in delineating the break-up of the marriage of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) — though it chickened out in showing us the scenes of harsh domestic violence clearly visited on Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff) off-stage. Since a punch-shock element was what the film partly relied on, this was a loss.

In fact though Suffragette also delivers a kind of history lesson. It may be said to be equally organized as moral paradigm. Maud is a factory worker doing hard labor ironing in a laundry for years, during much of it in her earliest molested by her employer continually as a condition of remaining employed.

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Given an extra job to deliver a package at the end if the day, Maud rushes for a bus

Maud is therefore naturally attracted to a hope of some better life she intuits the women’s movement offers; when she agrees to go along to listen to Mrs Miller’s speech, she finds herself persuaded by one of the MP’s wives (Romola Garai) to read a prepared speech. Instead she ends up answering questions put to her by the prime minister, Asquith (Adrian Schiller). He asks her what does she think the vote can do for her. She can come up with nothing; she does not know how it could improve her life. The film’s story then proceeds to teach Maud and us why the vote influences women’s lives. Why votes matter.

Maud is slowly radicalized for the same reasons the women in Shoulder to Shoulder are (see just below), and becomes a suffragette. She demonstrates and is beaten and punished. At this her husband, Sonny (Ben Whislaw) becomes humiliated, shamed, and his manhood so threatened, that he throws her out of their apartment. He has the undoubted right by custom. He clearly also despised her when he married her because he knew she had been molested for years and so he regarded himself as “saving her,” putting her on the “right path.” His attitudes are all screwed up by his society’s norms. They lead him to destroy her and the marriage. Worse, he has the legal right to refuse her any access to her child and the right to give the boy up for adoption, which he proceeds to do when he finds he cannot care for the child himself.

Had women had the vote, laws would not give him such a complete right over her and his child. Could she get the vote now, she could vote against such laws and customs. At the film’s close a series of intertitles tell us that five years after a portion of women were given the vote, the custody laws were changed and women had a right to keep their children. Sonny could no longer punish her, himself and their child like this.

Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) works as a doctor, and apothecary in her husband’s druggist shop: we learn she was not allowed to go on to professional school as women were not allowed; the story at the close implies that with the vote, such schools would have to open their doors to women.

Edithapothecary

Mrs Miller has nowhere to turn from an abusive husband; she will if she can change parliament. There is no help against the employer-molester; there are not enough jobs and those available to women are mostly dreadful hard work. We see a motif in other women’s films, like Water where an older woman saves a young widow who is being coerced into prostitution: Maud rescues a girl from sex harassment and degradation: she knows Mrs Miller’s daughter is submitting to sexual aggression by the boss, so daring arrest, she shows up at the laundry, takes the girl to the house of the MP wife (Garai) and the wife hires her. She is now protected insofar as the system allows: based on a decent kind individual. The movie-viewer can think to her or himself the equivalent of what legislation can provide today: women’s shelters from domestic violence and abuse.

These stories of the fictionalized characters are said to be partly based on real women, but they are enunciated in such a way as to show the viewer why the vote matters.

The only historical women we see are (briefly) Emily Davison and Meryl Streep as Mrs Pankhurst, posed to recall Sian Phillips in the same role:

Streep

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There are no explicit paradigms or lessons taught in Shoulder to Shoulder, the cast for Shoulder to Shoulder are not working class women (the “foot soldiers” of the movement, as the policeman tells Maud who her “masters” will dump when they don’t need them, after their lives have been ruined), but the elite types who ran the movement. Except — and it’s a big except — the lesson in the grinding nature of the experience of proselytizing, punishment, political in-fighting and finally prison which we are given a full brunt of, and our heroines (except Mrs Pankhurst the highest ranking) are force-feed repeatedly, humiliated by the clothing they must wear, put into solitary confinement.

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Christabel starting out (her first speech)

In comparison to Suffragette our heroines’ sufferings are intangible. Respectability, loss of society (but they don’t want that), companionships, acceptance of a much harder life where they do strain to support themselves by teaching, working in shops (or owning them). As in the other 1970s mini-series, our central characters are drawn from the elite, while in 2015 they are drawn from working people. So it takes a little imagination to enter into what is presented.

OTOH, just about all the characters in Shoulder to Shoulder represent real historical people, much of what is presented is accurate (if much must be left out).

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The real Annie Kenney

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Georgia Brown exuberant as Annie

There is therefore much less false melodrama, and because of its length, we get a long arc of the whole movement from the later 1890s to when Mrs Pankhurst and Christabel supported WW1, and the aftermath of that war.

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The most moving episode in Shoulder to Shoulder focuses on the real Constance Lytton (described in my previous blog this week, Victorian into Edwardian, scroll down) who takes on a working class persona and the treatment meted out to working women in prison is inflicted on Lytton.

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A photo of Lytton dressed as Jane Warton: remarkably Judy Parfitt comes close to looking just like this

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This is the only still I could find on the Net of Parfitt — she is to the left, feeling utterly wretched after having been beaten and force-fed and is now forced to wait for a judicial hearing

The focus in Shoulder to Shoulder is on the human relationships among the characters, and the drama comes out of ideological, political, psychological clashes, its power on how the characters are transformed, variously destroyed, shattered, turned into ruthless political machines who show no gratitude towards those who helped them, especially in the case of Christabel Pankhurst

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Christabel fiercely waving her flag

towards the Pethick-Lawrences, a couple who gave up their fortune, respectability, good and moderately useful lives to the movement only to be thrown away, and towards her sister, Sylvia who persisted in wanting equally to fight for social justice for all people, including working class men, immigrants, issues like civil liberty.

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Sylvia setting up a shop in a working class neighborhood

Both movies make the point strongly that the prison experience is the second reality the women’s movement contended with that radicalized them, and I now realize this is a central theme of Lytton’s book. Lytton’s book is as much about prisons as it is about the suffragette movement. She makes the point that one way you can gauge your success as a political movement is if the establishment puts its leaders in jail.

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The police have kept an eye on and take Maud away

Lytton’s book appears in both Shoulder to Shoulder and Suffragette as Dreams; the title today is Prisons and Prisoners (Broadview Press, edited by Jason Haslam). (I am now in the middle of Constance Lytton’s memoir of her life from the angle of her conversion to the womens’ movement and radicalization through her experience dressed as a working class woman, Jane Warton, in prisons.)

Lytton opens with showing the reader that the votes-for-women movement emerged as a possibly effective force when 1) the upper middle and middle class women enacting leading, and making connections for it realized after 3 decades they would never get the vote unless they severely disrupted the workings of everyday society; and 2)the women were radicalized into real empathy with working and lower class women by their experience of the harsh indifference, cruelty, even torture of the prison system with its principle mechanisms of violent punishment (including force-feeding which led to further pain in vomiting), humiliation, brutalization, and destruction of personalities through alienation. This is what Lytton shows the reader; as a person with a bad heart, she died not long after after her release from the treatment she had received.

Lytton may not appear as one of the characters in Suffragette but her words provide a voice-over as Maud Watts reads her book; and she is the central character of the crucially effective episode of the mini-series.

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The group early on in Suffragette

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The group towards the end of Shoulder to Shoulder

The sense of life as on-going, a cycle, so characteristic of women’s art ends both films, in this case politically appropriate. Lytton really emerges only in one episode (3), and Davison in another (5), and of the on-going characters my favorite was finally Sylvia, partly because I’ve loved other characters Angela Down played at the time (she was Jo March in a 1970 Little Women) A long talk with the inimitable Bob Hoskins (very young) precedes Sylvia’s final walk off onto the street with her latest ally, Flora Drummond (Sally Miles). When I get the book (I’ve bought it from a used bookstore site, I’ll blog again). We are made to feel we have gone through so much (6 times 75 minutes is a lot of experience time), and the photography of the two inside the crowd makes the point they are just two women inside a larger group.

In Suffragette after Emily has thrown herself under the horses, we see Maud, shaken, but walking off. She must live on; she has shown she will find her son and communicate with him; Edith’s husband locked her in the bathroom to prevent her from joining lest she be arrested again (she has a bad heart we are told); we see the police officer, Steed, his employers; Maud, Violet Miller and Edith get together again in the WSPC office.

The writers for the 1970s series are among the best of the era: Ken Taylor, Hugh Whittemore, Alan Plater, Douglas Livingstone (originally they wanted women scriptwriters but the era just didn’t have enough of these); its creators were Georgia Brown, Verity Lambert, Midge Mackenzie, directors Waris Hussein and Moira Armstrong. If their characters are too harmonious and well-bred to begin with, by the end they are strongly pressured, conflicted, angry. Suffragette has a woman script writer, Abi Morgan, woman director, Sarah Phelps, three women producers Alison Owen, Faye Ward.

The title Margaret Mitchell wanted to give her famous historical novel, Gone with the Wind, was Tomorrow is another day. It’s a saying that captures the underlying structural idea of many a woman’s art work

Ellen

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