Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire (Caitrionia Balfe) drinking, eating, confiding on their wedding night (Outlander 7)

Friends and readers,

I carry on my comparison of Outlander with Poldark (see Outlander as a descendant of Waverley): as film art, as mini-series, made using the same kinds of cinematography (rich, mesmerizing, computer enhancement continual), dramaturgy (figures in a landscape not on a stage, montage, juxaposition), briefer dialogue, both seen as “women’s material,” albeit with plenty of male heroes and villains about, this dyptych again shows where the new Poldark is lacking (see scripts): the pair are symmetrically structured with the underlying paradigm for both a repetition of the same alluring exploration. As Emily Nussbaum puts it,

Outlander is, finally, as thoughtful about male vulnerability as it is about female desire, a rarity for television. It’s a quality that makes the show appealingly romantic in multiple senses (Emily Nussbaum, “Out of Time,” New Yorker, April 8, 2016)

When Dougal proposes that Claire marry Jamie, he says to Jamie and Claire separately that his purpose is both to secure Claire from the depredations of Black Jack Randall (yes played with fierce intensity by Tobias Menzies), and (as Murtargh [Duncan Lacroix] also suggested was needed, wanted) and to secure for Jamie an older mature woman.



It might startle some viewer that Jamie responds to Claire asking him if he will mind that she is not a virgin, no, as long as she doesn’t mind that he is (not that he’s never kissed a woman, “I said I was a virgin, not a monk”). But it fits the frequent reversals of roles in this series.

Garrison Commander when viewed as a whole is the second of two linked phases: in the first (from Jane’s memories in Rent or Outlander 5) we see Tobias capture, at first seem to negotiate with but then longingly flay Jamie, flog him until his back is permanently seared, scarred, somehow made shameful (like a slave’s); in the second, Garrison Commander, Claire lands in his hands for a few hours, and just as she thinks she has succeeded in winning him over to take her into an English situation where she can make her way back to Craig Na Dunn or where she wants to go, he kicks her hard in the stomach, threatens her humiliatingly and seems about to knife her mortally (as it is mortally dangerous for Jamie to come into the English lair).

The Wedding has three phases of love-making: the first just after the episode begins and the two, just married, come into their apartment together, almost as a duty:


the second after a long period of conversation about themselves, only Jamie tells far more of his family, background, memories than Claire, this a deep coming together lovingly, tenderly:


and then the third after Jamie tells her of his preparations for the wedding, where he takes over the woman’s role it seems — securing the priest and ring, getting the proper beautiful clothes which will endow them with great dignity, and finally the ceremony itself; and then third, hungrily, far more aggressively, letting go,


after which they are hungry and morning has come. We are allowed to dwell on each phase feeling it with no interference as it were.

It is framed by another wedding: as the episode opens we see Claire walking a city, perhaps London streets, in modern outfit with Robin Hood hat, and Frank suddenly eagerly begging her to marry him now, at city hall, with no preparations. She protests she has not yet met his parents, to which he responds, well now you’ll meet them as Mrs Frank Randall.



He is (like Jamie) while in the male position, yet abject and in need of her permission. This scene makes a striking contrast to the elaborate decorative ritual Jamie and Claire go through,



and lest we forget this, at end when morning comes and Jamie has left the room, Claire picks up the wedding dress, and out tumbles her wedding ring from Frank. In order to marry Jamie she had taken the ring off, and put it down the front of her corset, and now it falls to the floor almost going down a crack. But not quite. She kneels and picks it up and puts it on the ring finger of her right hand. This knits The Wedding back to the Garrison Commander for of course we know the same actor plays Black Jack as plays Frank.



There is nothing like this kind of consistent loving development in Horsfield’s Poldark. it’s partly the result again of taking a small and self-enclosed portion of a single novel (Chapters 12-15, “The Garrison Commander,” “A Marriage is Announced,” “A Marriage Takes Place,” “Revelations of the Bridal Chamber”); but it’s also this trusting to the material, not feeling that you have to supply something else, or qualify it.

Nussbaum suggests that what we watch in the first season is a “continual crumbling” of a bridge they build between them. I think that’s so, from when she “disobeys” him and he beats her, to when after the witch trial, she at long last tells him of who and what she is, where she comes from (the future), her other husband, and he generously takes her to the stone and leaves her to make up her mind. She does — for him, and again it’s his vulnerability risked, and her desire knitting them as one, her strength too as she says to him, “Get up, soldier” (making us recall her as as a battlefield nurse).

I just reveled in these two episodes. Yes because I loved the love-making (the first time watching I was embarrassed by the candour and directness of the scenes), but also because the way the development was placed against a background of serious disruption of any morality among the English and hedonistic vicarious joy among the Scots (though sometimes the episode again made me feel Claire had landed among a group of disciplined frat boys). In Garrison Commander there is an earnest British soldier who first sees Claire while she is with the Scotsman seeking rent, and thinks she may be their prisoner; he takes her for safety to the English fort, only to find she is now open prey and he can do nothing about it because of his lower rank. This holdover of emotion of a subaltern is matched by Dougal (Graham McTavish) in The Wedding, who clearly would cuckold Jamie, were Claire to be open to this; Jamie’s is as subject to Dougal and Colum as other of the British officers who would try to stop Randall, protect Claire but they can’t. Dougal is the linchpin of both episodes: following Claire into the English stronghold, pulling her out, engineering this wedding, to hold onto her. He has decided she is not a spy and wants her identity as useful to him and has a fierce authority over Jamie, his nephew it seems.


These patterns are not found in the chapters, rather they are filled with nuanced dialogue and thought between Claire and Jamie. In the novel for these chapters there are no memories of Frank. There is loss here: effective as the outward dialogue in the scenes of clash in Garrison, of argument at table, and of gentle and raucous comedy (the priest who must be dragged out of bed and then bribed to perform the ceremony, the trading of Biblical passages, Ned Gowan (Bill Patterson) among teasing prostitutes who are presences out of The Beggar’s Opera), I found the long give-and-take conversations in Gabaldon’s novel much more moving. The movie can risk only suggestive fragments of Jamie’s childhood, boyhood, who was this relative and who that. This is a building up of a picture of him as having pride as Laird.

The next episode, Both Sides Now (Outlander 8) will be a continual movement back and forth from 1943 and the desperate Frank at the police office, with the Reverend Wakefield, told by Mrs Graham that some supernatural neolithic charm has taken Claire off to another time, with Claire and Jamie traveling or wandering themselves as semi-outcasts through the highland’s landscape. They encounter a beggar, Hugh Munro in the novel, now called Willie (Finn Den Hertog) whom Jamie welcomes warmly, and has himself been made permanently mute (his tongue cut out), his feet ruined, during a captivity among the Turks, in Algiers, as a galley slave. Now he wanders through the world.


He is a parallel to Frank.


And this new trio comes near danger.


Again this is a lingering juxtaposition not in the book. But this is for another blog.


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WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 27/09/2016 - Programme Name: Poldark - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: **EMBARGOED UNTIL TUESDAY 27TH SEPTEMBER 2016** Francis (KYLE SOLLER) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Adrian Rogers
Kyle Soller as Francis Poldark — these were “his” episodes

[Note: this blog assumes the reader has read all twelve of Graham’s novels, viewed the 1970s mini-series, and is interested in the content and art of the books and this older and the new 2015-16 mini-series]

Those who are left are different people trying to lead the same lives … Demelza to Captain MacNeil who attempted to console her for death of infant Julia (Jeremy Poldark, Bk 1, ch 4, p 55)

There’s no to-morrow. It doesn’t come. Life’s an illusion. Didn’t you know. Let us make the most of the shadows … Ross to Elizabeth (Warleggan, Bk 3, Ch 5, p. 314(

Dear friends and readers,

The other night I dreamt of Poldark for the first time in a long while. When I first began to read Graham’s books in the 1990s, and then watched the 1970s series, the actors who realized the characters entered my dream life, were there vividly in the way this past year the characters and actors who realize them from the first season of Outlander have. When I woke, I found the new actors from the new series had intruded upon my consciousness. So, although I’ve hopelessly inadequate stills from the new incarnation, I thought I’d record this crossing over for me, but keep the outline of the episodes’s structures brief until such time as the DVDs of the season are made available to the public. I am remembering to hold fast.

My dreams began with the books, and, like Graham at the time said, the original casting was inspired. Many 1970s castings sought to embody what was thought to be the common reader’s image of a character (nowadays there is much casting against character for older novels). Graham’s novels are incomparably better than either series – the politics so relevant to today, is erased or qualified in both series (albeit differently), the analysis subtler in the book on all levels, but of course films can visualize, make oral, offer such specificity vividly as no book can — from the hallucinatory image on the light screen, to the voice, to music — the 1970s series had a haunting refrain.

The only creditable point of view to take on this new mini-series is that there is no such thing as “the real” Demelza or “the real Ross” or any of the other characters. There were the characters as originally conceived, of which I am very fond. But there are now two iterations. In the way historical fiction works, there may yet be more Rosses, Demelzas, Francises, Warleggans as the texts are rewritten, reproduced, re-filmed, re-designed. I’ve just taken on an assignment to review for an 18th century periodical, Martha Bowden, Descendants of Waverley and have found it a help in understanding the Scottish features of Outlander, and take Bowden and other critics’ view of the relationship of the historical setting and times the specific books are written in and filmed to be accurate.

We are on our fourth set of images. There are four shifts of eras: the 18th century itself, which Graham, the 1970s film-makers and now Horsfield seriously engages in, the books written in the aftermath of the horrors of War World Two:

The first edition of Ross Poldark

thirty years later a first series during a time of radical questioning of society, of second wave feminism:

A 1970s edition of Demelza

1990s edition of Warleggan

and now forty years on, a reactionary, war-torn era again, one seeking to believe in group identities which themselves become the source of conflicts.

Ross (Aidan Turner) and Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) on the cliff: end of Demelza as seen in the 8th episode last season

All the heroes of this new series have been exemplary, Francis had a hard time getting there, but once he does, Lady Fortune turns her wheel and he is gone. The heroines are all supporters of the society’s norms, pro-establishment family figures. The working classes are taken utterly seriously, and authority figures uphold the order regardless of personal loyalties (very different from the 1940s books and E.M. Forster) or are savagely repressive. There seems no third choice between cutthroat capitalism and paternal socialism and care of the type the new Ross and Dwight Enys embody.

So, as last time, you can click on the links below to read a summary and evaluation of the comparable older episode, and this time I have added links to summary and evaluation of the two books.

Jeremy Poldark: In the midst of life there is death ….

Warleggan: Unabiding renegade; sexual possession; the power of memory ….


Episode 4 (12 in the 1970s series)


It was very well done. Ross was at the center. A full concentration on him as exemplary if non-conventional non-mainstream hero (only he is mainstream, utterly). Turner’s expressions sometimes reminded me of Douglas Hodge who has in his years as British actor, often on BBC costume drama (but now seen as the well-meaning gov’t agency employee in The Night Manager) played the same type as Ross is becoming: the deeply well-meaning man who has realized no one will understand what he is trying to do, and fewer than no one give him credit for any altruistic motives. The new realizations include the visit of Verity’s husband’s eldest daughter by his first wife, Esther: Verity’s new problems, cut off from the Poldarks, and seemingly dependent on her husband for her social life, are felt. The obtuseness of the girl does make for yet another portrait of a woman as really mean; Gabriella Wilde as Caroline is made much worse in the early stages of her relationship with Dwight (though it should be noted this is true to Graham’s book). The baptism scene was touching.

Eleanor Tomlinson and Aidan Turner as Ross and Demelza

In the older series, Ross’s scene negotiating with Trencomb was comically effective, and this was tried for again with Richard McCabe playing Trencomb realistically.

Some of the changes signaled to me that Horsfield just doesn’t trust the books to hold us and they jarred: Ross is made to recklessly endanger himself by going out with the men. He only draws his curtains in the book; in the 1970s he agrees to conceal the goods as his debt-promissory note is bought by Warleggan; but now he goes out with the men. Horsfield has George show up at shareholders’ meetings, George (again!) threaten Elizabeth if she doesn’t get intimate with him, he’ll call in loans (?!). Demelza is not permitted to get herself to shore, no the male must rescue her.


Whenever Horsfield does trust Graham (as in Ross’s remark he wants freedom to call his soul his own) how the film rings out. But she does not trust him to have written adequately as before her Henry James did not trust women writer nor male warrior types. Nor some of the writers of the first 1970s season, namely Jack Pulman in the first four episodes (for Ross Poldark) and Jack Russell for the last four (for Warleggan).

At so many turns she ratchets up what is happening — that’s why the improbable and dangerous going out with the smugglers; why she has Ross deliver a speech at the trial that would have given the judge amunition to over-ride the jury. Horsfield makes Demelza and Ross bicker! She has Demelza smoldering with resentment. What makes them happy in Graham’s book at first is they get along; they see the world similarly. They enjoy one another’s company; they like one another.

A few details worth noting in the order presented in the new film: Horsfield invents and then emphasizes how Warleggan sends a mole to participate in Ross’s company’s meetings. Francis continues to refuse to allow Captain Blamey a place a Trenwith, though seen relenting in his face. Ross says Warleggan wants to own me. The ferocious beating of Jud, with George proclaiming he had not ordered the men to murder Jud. The beautiful harvest scene, with Francis holding out his hand to Ross: “Cousin, it’s an unexpected pleasure.” Meanwhile as in the novel and previous series, Demelza overhears Ross and Elizabeth broaching their love in words once again; she tells Elizabeth of her pregnancy. She and Ross see captured “free traders” passing by the new ruined Wheal Grace. Ross’s dialogue with the prevention men: “Your commitment to the law is heart-warming.”

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 13/09/2016 - Programme Name: Poldark - TX: n/a - Episode: episode 3 (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Demelza.  Demelza ((ELEANOR TOMLINSON) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Mike Alsford

We see her gone fishing. Now the men in the mine blasting. George wrestling with man hired to do with: his hands fists switch to Ross’s as he looks at a worker; he worried, “Were you hurt in the blast? And now illness spreads, Dwight called, but cannot work out symptoms. Unfortunately Horsfield choses to make Ross the hero that saves the day: Ross’s talking of sicknesses at sea makes Dwight remember scurvy. The men need fresh fruit. The meeting of Demelza with Elizabeth in wood and Demelza’s fear Elizabeth will betray her — Heida Reed given a good black hat.

Heida Reed as Elizabeth

Encounter of Ross and Warleggan: Jack Farthing’s needle face in their encounter: “Is that a threat?” Ross over hears women in house: “fish won’t keep … no salt.” Ross now forbidding Demelza to fish: “Have you no sense — do me the courtesy of taking more care of yourself in future.” This is disrespectful voice. Comically Francis seeks metals on his land with magic wand. Lovely Dutch paintings in mind in scenes with Caroline at her desk writing letters (the correspondence found in the book). Caroline’s nasty Malthusianism. Slowly Francis becoming more open as Ross’s company begins to lose confidence of “investors.” We see George rush out to Caroline — like she was a peahen.

The Trencomb meeting – with Demelza a more active presence against it, as she was not in the books or 1970s. Am alternating with George’s pressure with Ross and Elizabeth. Intimacy is what George wants. Long sequence in mine — edgy; memories of Mark’s statements. Demelza shows irritation at Ross’s dealings with Trenwith; she would not be involved; he wants more money and improbably salt for the average person. Then a mining scene: the company needs a pumping engine which costs.
Francis joins Ross in front of Wheal grace: you don’t intend to resurrect her? the curse of the Poldarks is too much ambition with too little financial. Alternation of Dwight and Caroline (going badly on the surface) with Blamey bringing treats to Verity: James and Esther will come in a month, when another engagement rejoicing. An assembly for Caroline’s engagement. What Caroline wants is eternal youth. The quarreling of Ross and Demelza reaches new depths. Demelza’s is a bitter resentful tone. Verity waiting. Dwight ever more seduced by the fruit.

Last part: the really painful scenes of Verity with Blamey’s children. A failure in the episode is Jud’s funeral. The scenario is supposed to be comic but the kind of condescension necessary to make the working class characters at the funeral funny is apparently not acceptable. To do it in this grim way makes little sense. The birth, the baptism, the knock-down dragged out fight of Ross and George in the tavern: in the book, in the 1970s and again today. Ross just has had too much. The family getting together to open Wheal Grace.

A survey shows that the episodes are well shaped, given time, and the threads make sense as they move back and forth. There is no sudden interruption of one kind of matter (say the commercial meetings) with another (the romance stories)


Episode 5 (or 13 in the older series)

Kyle Soller just before he falls

I was deeply moved by how Horsfield, her director and actors performed the death of Francis Poldark. The episode differed considerably from the book; again the method was concentrated, this time on Francis. If you knew (as I did) because you had read Warleggan (ditto), it’s obvious that the whole episode is built for those who know too: it’s filled with ominous hints, and the irony that Francis is now doing all this successfully (including persuading Halse to give a more lenient sentence to a smuggler and even finding his wife will let him into her room and bed) and chance will kill him (in the book later on Ross says he died like a dog or some such words, very bitter). Kyle Soller was again brilliant in the role: he is the linchpin of this episode which keeps returning to him. Horsfield’s character has been quite different from Graham’s in the 1940s and the film-makers of thte 1970s: an anachronistic failing entrepreneur (in the 18th century a gentleman was seen to be a gentleman when he didn’t work) and Clive Francis in the 1975-6 episode was much closer to 18th century norms and Graham’s, with important additions of rebellion, anger, a la Joe Orton plays (which Clive Francis starred in). On the other hand, details provided emphatically by Horsfield are closer, such as Francis holding so desperately onto a nail and not being able to do so for hours on end, as who could? Tiring.

The equivalent Episode in the first 1970s series is by contrast very diffuse with a depiction of the whole community part of the scenario — time given to the informer, to Rosina and Hoblyn, and Caroline (Judy Geeson) shown early on to be trying to understand the lives of those who experience precarious and beaten-up lives, deeply ill because they haven’t fruit to eat. Episode in 1975 differed from the book too and I liked the new pro-family element in the 2016 of bringing Verity back to Trenwith to care for Aunt Agatha (not in book or 1970s). Warleggan’s role is an element but not the key driving force it is in this new episode 5. Ralph Bates was stern, angry, out for himself, but not Envy itself (as Farthing is made to be literally): Farthing as Warleggan again threatens and attempts to cajole Elizabeth into having an affair with him (not in the book at all, not in the previous film). I did find this new change and Elizabeth’s reaction of trying to appease George, made for more details of drama, dramatized moments between the two (in the 1970s he brings presents and is getting along with Elizabeth merely). The new pro-active emotional Elizabeth (different from book and first series) will make the coming aftermath of Francis’s death more emotionally complicated, but I predict or surmise that it will make Demelza a much more hurt character, and the whole relationship between Ross and Demelza painful to watch. The new Elizabeth asks, “Why should not a woman love two men — if a man can love two women.” Indeed, as she claims to have loved Francis, she is now loving two, but Demelza has not loved two men: she has placed her whole identity in Ross as his wife, giving her status and place and self-esteem (that’s the book) and enjoys flirting with Captain MacNeil (that’s the first series), likes his kindly courteous attentions, but knows he is on the side of the law first; she knows where to draw the line, that’s not love.


Details worth remembering. The scenaro shows too much juxtaposition saved by having Francis in so many of the scenes, the POV, and Soller’s acting, his presence: on the beach the two boys running. This is Ross remembering his boyhood with Francis. Francis becoming exemplary: he says “father would be amazed” at his reading matter. People and coves being picked off. There is an informer. Francis as magistrate softening Halse. Quickly Rosina with her lame leg brought in, her father Hoblyn: much less time spent and hard to pick up what they have to do with the story. Again it’s said there is an informer. A swan shown. We see Caroline and Unwin back with her uncle saying she should embrace her fate. Verity on her way back to Trenwith, very glad to be with Geoffrey Charles too. Dwight this stable good man (as is Ross, and as Francis is becoming) who tells off George. A scene with Francis where there is something very touching about him. Uncle Cary now has promissory note of Ross’s.


The party at Killwarren – Both Poldark families showing up. Dinner scene: Elizabeth next to Ross, and as in book she uses occasion to confess her love for Ross; Demelza sits by MacNeil, Unwin and Caroline. We then see Ross meditating over his conversation with Elizabeth. Unwin flees from infuriating Caroline – she is told Dwight is wedded to his work. Dwight called to Agatha. Engagement publicly falls through. A wonderful warm scene of Verity and Dwight over Agatha. Francis now turns his on George: must you be envious even of that? George now turns to Cary. The twin love-making scenes: Ross and Demelza in bed, Francis let in Elizabeth’s room. We are happy for him, but what kind of person is Elizabeth: this is like the cool customer of the book, with her firm self-esteem.

Again who is the informer. Horsfield brings in Nick Vigus and has him say, Why shouldn’t a man sell himself to highest bidder? Derisory comment thrown at Ross once again over marrying a scullery maid and living in squalor? Gorge wrestling away with hired partner. Cary: What price would you pay for the promissory note of Ross’s? Ross and Francis so hard at work on wall of mine. George’s visit to Trenwith after Francis reception: Elizabeth is welcoming him manipulatively. Ugly words of George to Agatha: the same raw insults as the book: he wishes there was a law to kill off crones; she replies “your mother had no taste. MacNeil now taking tea with Demelza. (Here I can’t resist remembering how deep the scene was in the book where he made truthful remarks about grief to her sense of Julia). Vigus talked of informer, and now we see Rosina and Kempthorne (who is the informer) who claims to make money on sails.

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 13/09/2016 - Programme Name: Poldark - TX: n/a - Episode: episode 3 (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Caroline Penvenen and Dwight Enys.  Caroline Penvenen (GABRIELLA WILDE), Dwight Enys (LUKE NORRIS) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Jon Hall

Dwight tells Caroline of his obsessive love symptoms; by contrast, Ross and Demelza’s uncomfortable conversation. Elizabeth and Francis – modify your hostility. Francis goes to George to tell him, “Never set foot again in my house;” and to implied threat, “it’s a small price for avoiding the noxiousness of your acquaintance.”


Demelza bathing Ross — has Horsfield been watching too much Davies? Elizabeth seen with boy, Francis overlooks and says “I’ll be home in time to read you a story.” We know he won’t. Dwight wants Caroline and Demelza asks, “May not a woman confer status?” Back to blasting in the mine. Ross and Francis looking Ross called above: note from Pascoe “Wanted in Truro.” Francis stays. Horsfield now has Caroline exulting at the jilting, and Dwight relieved; Ross says that Dwight stands for himself, who and what he is, but I find Caroline (like Keren before her) just awful. This one schooled in learning to be heiress she in London.

Trenwith: Elizabeth, Verity, Geoffrey Charles; they have a dinner and desert waiting for Francis who is himself super-excited by the copper he thinks he has found. He rushes to Nampara; finding Demelza confesses at last and her face hardens; “It is my dearest wish to be of use to make amends.” He instist Ross still loves you.” to which she replies “Sometimes I think he lovse Elizabeth better. Francis that she doesn’t think well enough of yourself. “You mistake your own value; do away with notion someone has done you a favor by marrying you.” A version of what he says in the book. Beautful moment
Pascoe tells Ross. The mine, Francis back there. Verity must leave Agatha to rejoin her husband. And now Francis falls deeply into water, pulls himself out enough to hold onto nail. She reinforces too obviously with image of spider in web.

Quietly waiting dinner for him, Elizabeth sends to Nampara for Francis. Ross at home says by Christmas we must have 1400 pounds. Someone come from Trenwith looking for Mr Francis. Back to mine: no one seen him for hours. We see him holding onto nail. Now he should have been dead hours ago … Dwight: Francis missing. One last dream: now Francis dreams it: the two boys running over the shore together. Francis sees Ross as saving him, in Ross’s arms. Back to real men frantically going deeper and finding the dead corpse, still warm and wet. Not good moment to have him say this: “Why the hell didn’t you learn to swim.” Knocking at Trenwith. Elizabeth POV, Ross looking in at her appalled. Funeral. Her crying in Ross’s arms. Demelza watches.

We can see that Horsfield lacks an aesthetically clear structure for Episode 5; she uses too many cliches, and her instincts for the right moment for a statement are often off. There is too much interruption, she is trying to get so much in. But the episode soars through Kyle Soller, sided (so-to-speak) by Aidan Turner, and by Horsfield’s script’s concentration on the figure of Francis Poldark, his dream life, his relationship with Ross, and how he is by chance replaced (not saved, Ross is no miracle worker) by Ross. Ross is now the eldest male Poldark, though the heir as it was understood at the time will be Geoffrey Charles, to whom Francis gave his part of the ownership of Wheal Grace.


There has been interesting illuminating talk on the Poldark Appreciation face-book page and I record some which gives insight into how people today are regarding these different iterations.

Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza, rough working class girl when first taken in

One person (Stephen Burk) on the Poldark Appreciation page wrote that he saw the story as “the evil Warleggen family warring against the good Ross Poldark and family.” He saw “humane values represented by Ross Poldark pitted against upper class snobbery;” he saw this in another version in “Ross’s gentry cousin marrying the middle class sea captain with a troubling past.” He accepted “Caroline’s haughty, flighty character (she was very good by the way) contrasting with the Doctor’s good and stable character.” Demelza’s character he also saw a “contrasts; a miner’s daughter, lower class (probably about the lowest just above slavery, prostitutes or thieves) who has obviously had a rough and tumble existence and who’s entrance had her groveling in the dust wrestling a man, dressed in men’s clothing when Ross saved her. The feisty, “feral” young female with little or no advantages not to mention social upbringing wanting to punch people out when they give her trouble rehabilitated by Ross into gentry, more or less. People though never totally change, they may to an extent but there are always ways of thinking and actions that will remain.” These simple oppositions are at work, and he accepted the class system and was entertained by “the rough lower class Demelza and the cultured, gentry class Ross and their relationship.”

So this is one reason the new Demelza is not liked: he wanted “the feisty and probably surly at times girl” with a loud accent — though this is not what is presented in the book. Demelza does know her place. The viewers today wanted “street wise smartness” to contrast with “Ross’s upper class posture.”

Demelza come to Falmouth to talk to Captain Blamey (Richard Harrington) — I prefer this gentle kind of scene in the series much more

When I watch these films and those of 40 years ago I look for complex characters, subtlety and political and social commentary which is liberal in thrust and values courtesy until injustice begins to rule the day.


Angharad Rees as the witty Demelza at the dinner table with Clive Francis as Francis enjoying the talk

Someone else (Gill Roffey) wrote: “Horsfield has made Ross the focus of everything,” to the “detriment” of the other characters, especially Demelza: “Demelza has a mischievous flirtatious wit. She gets tipsy at her first Trenwith Christmas and flirts with John Treneglos under his wife’s nose. Whenever she goes into society she charms everyone she meets. Horsfield is giving us none of this. When she meets Justice Lister in the book she charms him too, and makes a favourable impression, whereas in the mew series her attempt is clumsy and ill-judged. Then there is the infamous boat rescue. In the book she is the resourceful woman feeding her family, Ross doesn’t know about her fishing. Now, of course, it’s all about him, so he has to rescue her.”

I learned from this and replied: “Yes Demelza is witty, yes transgressive, yes she loves to drink and lose herself in pleasure. I see those social occasions themselves somewhat differently: finally she fails at them (especially that first assembly) because she’s of lower status and is a woman; but after each one she learns how to cope, what she can do and what she can’t. In the later books she is more of a recluse (keeps to herself) but also has made an adjustment to how to run a party. she also throughout continues to defer to Ross: she says early on he is her, he is her life; she has invested his view of him in herself as her. That might not be popular but it resonates with me and Angharad Rees inhabited that and I loved it and bonded with the character in the books. I agree that the books are as much about her as him: her growing up, her education. So yes these changes hurt — especially the bickering between them.

I can see what is meant today: Ross has to be the hero rescuing everyone. For me that’s such a simplification: in the books he makes many errors, some of which are irretrievable. I prefer that too. I prefer a character who is fully human and like us has many failures. The hero of the book and the 1970s was someone with fortitude to endure what goes wrong — due to himself. More novelistic. What such a man might have been, what the women of the era, is something else again.


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Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth — as characters digging the deep past up in the form of a coffin of a Muslim who once painted a mural on a 14th century church wall (A Month in the Country)

Dear friends and readers,

While the fall term has hardly begun, today was time to put in a proposal for next spring for the OLLI (Oscher Institute of Life-Long Learning) at George Mason. I enjoy enormously Booker Prize books, winners, short-listed, nominated. I love most of the film adaptations, which also win prizes.

Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche as the English patient and wandering nurse (screenplay Anthony Minghella)

At the same time I am aware only a certain kind of book wins: you’ll find no John LeCarre’s there. And it’s not just books which can be fitted into formula genres that are excluded, non self-reflexive historical fictions are out. Nor is it that mawkish uplift, and the kind of woman’s novel that garners an Orange prize; anything profoundly reactionary. So casting about for some kind of framework whereby term after term I could slot in books and explore books of our time as well as the publishing industry, I came up with this:

The Booker Prize: a marketplace niche & selling tool?

In this course we will discuss 4 gems of Booker Prize fiction. Some have said the prize functions as a brilliantly exploited marketplace tool aimed at a specific readership niche, just perfect for high quality film adaptations and literary criticism. The books are characteristically historical fiction, self-reflexive, witty and passionate, post-colonialist, and the three of the texts I’ve chosen have been made into great films. I ask that before class begins everyone have read J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country; in class we’ll read Rose Tremain’s Restoration, Ondaatje’s The English Patient, and Graham Swift’s Last Orders.

I originally had Paul Scott’s Staying On in lieu of Restoration, but it is such a painful story of retired people now vulnerable to subalterns and the readers I read with are older retired people, so I worried. I ruled out Carol Shields’s Unless on similar grounds: perhaps they had a grown child who succumbed to such a syndrome. None of the Raj Quartet has won — the prize usually eschews sequel kind of books. A course just on Paul Scott is possible.

Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Staying On carry over the typologies of Brief Encounter

[NB: later on I discussed it with other people in classes and with the organizers and I may well substitute Staying On for The English Patient (after all an exotice romance) and Unless for Restoration (not commonly known history though the topic of mental illness during and after a war is central). They are shorter, easier reads and that they come home to people might make for a much richer class.]

I loved Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, but perhaps that makes the list insularly English. We can discuss it in claas; it is so slender — a characteristic of some Booker Prize books (they gave a prize to a long short story by V.S. Naipaul once). Byatt’s Possession (very precious), Atwood’s Alias Grace (complicated structure and POV too), and Mantel’s Wolf Hall were all too long to do other books with; Adhalf Soueif’s Map of Love long and too Eygptian: I can see doing that with her In the Eye of the Sun, but hesitate before a heavily Jewish population. I like the idea of pairing Alias Grace with the real woman behind the novel: Susannah Moodie and her Roughing It in the Bush. And in future terms I can see myself doing Ishiguru’s Remains of the Day — how I wept over that film with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson at the close, just missed out on what would have made their lives good, just.

The four frenemies carrying Jack’s ashes (in a box) to the jetty in “style” — a fancy car

Reconciliation by the sea (Last Orders) — my students loved the film

None of my choices are darkly despairing. There are fascinating films for all four. I hardly remember Tremain’s book except liking it intensely (and have never seen the film).

As a side-note: I noticed something typically about women’s books who win the prize: typically women winning the Booker either write very long complicated books — with a George Eliot impressiveness — and if I chose one I’d hardly have time for another. One or even two swallows do not a summer make for my thesis about Booker prize books. Or they write odd and/or very slender ones. It’s “as if” they have to strike an impression more than the men.

Charity Wakefield as Mary Boleyn (one of a continuum of heroines in Wolf Hall)

This is a new venture like my 19th Century Women of Letters which I hope to develop over a few terms — well within my taste, each time expanding my knowledge this or that way without asking too much, leaving time for scholarly reviews, essays, papers.

These books, indeed this sub-species, will be great fun to write blogs about here too.


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Claire Randall (Catriona Balfe) looking into Farrell’s shop window in a highland village


(Outlander 1, scripted Ronald Moore)

People disappear all the time. Young girls run away from home. Children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives take the grocery money, and a taxi to the train station. Most are found eventually. Disappearances, after all, have explanations. Usually. Strange, the things you remember. Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years. Like the moment I realized I’d never owned a vase. That I’d never lived any place long enough to justify having such a simple thing. And how at that moment, I wanted nothing so much in all the world as to have a vase of my very own. It was a Tuesday afternoon. Six months after the end of the war (taken direct from Gabaldon’s Outlander, opening.


It’s time. Overdue. It may be my readers think I am above Outlander. I am not. I love it. I have now watched all sixteen episodes of the first season three times. I’ve read Gabaldon’s novel, I’ve read her Outlandish Companion. It connects to so much I’m deeply engaged by: it’s Daphne DuMaurier in the high romance mode, elegant, controlled wildness. Outlander is a cross between DuMaurier’s The House on the Strand where the hero travels back and forth between the mid-20th and 14th century:


This older cover for and BBC Radio 7 image for a reading aloud of The House on the Strand capture the strangeness of a book moving back and forth from mid-20th to 14th century Cornwall

Also her historical romances, say King’s General (set in the 17th century civil war), Frenchman’s Creek, or Jamaica Inn (smugglers as misunderstood free-trader outlaws set in the very early 19th). Claire is the many times great-grandaughter of Sophia Lee’s Elinor and Matilda, the twin daughters of Mary Queen of Scots in her The Recess. I’ve been reading about Scotland and its civil wars, diaspora (to among other places, Canada), poetry and fiction by its writers (from Anne Murray Halkett to RLS Stevenson and Margaret Oliphant and onto Margaret Atwood) for years and years.

The immediate inspiration though is the new Poldark. Outlander reflects mores of the last few years far more frankly explored, and unlike the new Poldark thus far is a woman’s mini-series, a proto-feminist series of films. I’ve learned the second season of Poldark is going to depart so radically from Graham’s books as to change a crucial thread across all twelve novels and one of my favorite characters (though like Jane Austen over Emma it seems no one but me will much like), Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan. So I thought I might sustain a comparison of the two similar mini-series: Poldark drawn from historical novels, Outlander from historical romance, both obeying naturalism and verisimilitude once the terms of the fiction are set up). I don’t say I won’t compare the 1970s Poldark nor the two books, Jeremy Poldark (1950) and Warleggan (1953), but I will keep in mind and bring in this contemporary comparable series. Run them on this blog in tandem.

The Outlander resembles the new (2015) Poldark in its grimness, brutal violence, grimyness, the POV from below, the peasants and outlaws, not the elegant and fringe people of the older (1975) Poldark, Oneddin Line. But this is Claire’s story, make no mistake about that. The central consciousness, the voice-over in this season in all but one episode (when it is Jamie’s [Sam Heughan] and that very unusual, as “real” men don’t do over-voice). By keeping the central consciousness a woman’s, the narrator a heroine, Gabaldon kept all the intense ambiguity about a woman’s helplessness in pre-19th century eras against males, who then in reaction to the heroine manifest unashamed or shall I say unhidden attitudes towards her sexuality (the film is written, directed and produced mostly by men): upon meeting Claire Randall (Catrionia Balfe) the film’s 18th century men, British soldiers and aristocrats, Irish thugs and clansmen alike promptly think her or ask if she is a whore because she is alone. Jonathan Wolverton Randall aka Black Jack (Tobias Menzies, also Frank, Claire’s gentle husband in the mid-20th century, a descendant of Black Jack, whom he has been researching) proceeds to try to rape her. But she is a 20th century woman, pro-active on her own and others’ behalf, not inclined to regard herself as secondary person or take punishment, self-confident, with a sense of what she is entitled to.



As our story begins, Claire Randall has been a nurse in WW2 and presided over and helped in horrifying operations, and the war now over, she and her her academic archaeologist husband, Frank (set for a professorship in Oxford), meet again after a near 5 year absence. They visit Scotland for its ruins, look at neolithic sites. They are trying hard to recreate what they once had, but it’s not quite working. The whole section, the way the bed-sit room looked, reminded me of women’s films of the 1940s, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard stuff. The two actors convey the strain the couple is trying to overcome:



I thought of V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival

All photographed with soft brown lights too, stark dark and bleak blacks for the houses, yet in gentle light grey light. He explores genealogy, ruins of ancient fortresses, clans, primitive neolithic stone sites; she half ironically goes along.



Frank has made friends with a local scholarly vicar, genealogist a Reverend Wakefield, as in Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield, played exquisitely fine, with subtle humor and gravity by James Fleet. Our honeymooning (in effect) couple take to visiting this gentle vicar and Mrs Graham (Tracy Wilkinson), his wry housekeeper. Again I was so reminded of say Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers material before the murder occurs. The men discuss Scots and English aristocracy, Scots clans, the injustices of the 18th century, the patronage system, speculate that perhaps Jonathon Wolverton Randall could act with inpunity because his patron was the Earl of Sandringham. Claire goes off for women’s gossip and tea; Mrs Graham asks to read her palm and finds odd marks on Claire’s hand, and tells of rituals she participates in by Crag na Dunn, a circle of standing stones.


They are allured by these woman’s midnight rituals.


Here I was not only reminded of Dorothy in Oz, but the language in the book and series alludes to Frank L. Baum, especially later when Claire-Dorothy wants to get back to the stones as gateway to Kansas, but there is something new here: this is a tale of national identity, of seeking who one is by asking what group one belongs to, and it’s done from a post-colonial perspective, highly critical of the British. Whence the title: Claire is an outsider, a Brit, from elsewhere we know. A Scottish film company is a major producer, Scots actors, venerable (Bill Paterson as the lawyer, Ned Gowan) and new (Duncan Lacroix as the faithful Murtagh, so we are not far from Scott after all) are everywhere. Geography, landscape, blended time frames, intense interiority, mix with lessons in clans, Jacobitism, and the medicine and witchcraft of the era.

What I hope to do is apply to Outlander, several studies of DuMaurier, the gothic, women’s films and Scottish studies, and then by transference see how what is said today about films and books like Outlander relates to the new Poldark mini-series and what is being done to Graham’s Poldark books in them. So this is film, historical fiction, historical romance and delvings into time-traveling fantasies research in progress. It fits into post-colonial patterns too.

We begin for real and earnest when we move into the time-traveling sequence. Gabaldon knows that women in the 18th century went in for botany, studying herbs and so does our Claire so while Frank is buried in papers, she goes back to the stones and touching one she melts into another realm, coming out somehow into the year 1743.

She leaves her car

She has to come close to the stones of Crag Na Dunn to reach the flowers and herbs she wants

She hears something, music, looks up, and moves to touch the wondrous tall neolithic stone

The transported moment


An empty world, different older trees, no city in the distance (this is straight from Hungry Hill)

At first Claire thinks she has stumbled onto the set of costume drama (wonderful self-reflexity here) but no the bullets are real and she finds herself having to account for herself. So a re-naming, using her birth name, Beauchamp, she has to deal with everyone looking at her as stray whore: who else wanders in the wood in just her shift. This is an extraordinary moment that can only be done by a film: having the same actor, Tobias Menzies, play the hard mean ancester, Black Jack. Claire does a double take: he is but he is not Frank

So it’s a re-encounter

He now the 18th century educated man

she still the mid-20th century educated woman

The drums of sudden movement, excitement, she flees, he after and so her adventure begins. A snarling redcoat, upholder of a vicious colonialist order, and she finds herself shot at, nearly raped (this will repeat and repeat) by Randall, is taken up by one of the Scotsmen (Murtagh we later realize), rescued (or herself takes up, saved) by the Scots clansmen, and is paired with the wounded Jamie Fraser, whose arm she correctly sets (and thus saves), and soon she is riding in front of him (anticipating Turner and Tomlinson as Ross and Demelza), warning the clan from her memories of what Frank told her of ambushes, becomes one of them. She resists at first and we get the most old-fashioned of gentle abductions:

Claire: [having fled during the ambush, Jamie having gone back to retrieve her] I hope you haven’t been misusing that shoulder. You’re hurt.
Jamie: This lot isna my blood.
She: Not much of it, anyway.
He: Dougal and the others will be waiting further up the stream. We should go.
She: – I’m not going with you.
He: – Yes, you are.
She: What, are you going to cut my throat if I don’t?
He: Why not? But You don’t look that heavy. Now if you won’t walk, I shall pick you up and throw you over my shoulder. Do you want me to do that?
She: No.
He: Well, then I suppose that means your coming with me.
She – [Climbing, he Grunting] – Serves you right. Probably torn your muscles as well as bruising.
He: Well, wasna much of a choice. If I dinna move my shoulder, I’d never have moved anything else ever again. I can handle a single redcoat with one hand. Maybe even two. Not three. Besides, you can fix it for me again when we get to where we’re going.
She: That’s what you think.
He: Here’s to you, lass. For tipping us to the villains in the rocks and giving us a wee bit o’ fun! [All speak Gaelic] [Speaks Gaelic] Have a wee nip.It willna fill your belly, but will make you forget you’re hungry.


One blanket, one whiskey pouch

The band comes to a stone castle that she and her 20th century husband explored now become fully inhabited. I thought I was back with Frank Yerby’s The Border Lord, Book-of-the-Month club special (from the early 1950s like the Poldark series. I though of Radcliffe’s Emily coming up to Udolpho:

they lookuphesitant


Only the voice again is wry, prosaic, slightly comical:

The rest of the journey passed uneventfully, if you consider it uneventful to ride fifteen miles on horseback through country at night, frequently without benefit of roads, in company with kilted men armed to the teeth, and sharing a horse with a wounded man. At least we were not set upon by highwaymen, we encountered no wild beasts, and it didn’t rain.

When they get inside we are not in a gloomy, grand place, but a busy courtyard where everyone is going about her or his daily business. From the next episode:

Mrs Fitzgibbon [Annette Badland]: Mwah! Ye’ll all be needing breakfast, I reckon. Plenty in the kitchen. Away in, and feed yerselves. [chuckles] Murtagh, you look and smell like a rat that’s been dragged through sheep dung.
Murtagh: Gi’ us a kiss, then.
Mrs Fitzgibbon: Oh, no! A kiss, then! [laughing] And what do we have here?
Jamie: Claire Beauchamp, Mistress Fitzgibbons. Murtagh found her, and Dougal said we must bring her along with us, so So.

Mrs Fitzgibbon looks at Claire in ways the men do not, sees what the men do not see

Mrs F: Well Claire. Come with me. We shall find you something to eat, something to wear that’s a bit more Well, a bit more

It’s the voice-over that held me especially in this first episode, compellingly, Catrionia Balfe’s voice perfect for a DuMaurier Rebecca too. A sophisticated use of old-fashioned realism smashed together with fantasy gothic and superb cinematography, a richly colored Scotland complete, with the themed music part minor key bagpipes, make for an undercurrent of thrill. I will be concentrating on the women in the series.

As for the book, the source, this first episode is lifted directly from the novel. Many of the lines are taken from Gabaldon; it’s as if she wrote the book with a film in mind. She began in earnestness from an online experience, a Literary Forum in the Net’s earliest days. In her Outlandish Companion her language gives away hat when she started, Gabaldon had Now Voyageur, the old Bette Davis trope in mind but was also thinking of “the Age of Enlightenment,” i.e., the realities of the 18th century.

I love her illustration are soft-focus photographs or line-drawing illustrations, evoking imagination on the part of the reader: emblems, herbs, older symbolic pictures (the zodaic for example). Much richness for us to explore for quite a number of weeks to come.

From the site of Castle Leogh in Scotland today


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DoubledLifecover (Small)

Having thus become a passive instrument, the fool will be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Friends and readers,

While Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45) has occupied a paradoxically at once hagiographic and controversial position in studies of Hitler’s Third Reich, which suggests an audience familiar with his name, life and writing; he is not well-known to people outside Germany, the religiously inclined, pacifists, and those who’ve studied the elite German milieus who supported Hitler as a bulwark against socialism. The reasons for the peculiarity of the way he’s been heroicized and marginalized come from the unwillingness of people to confront painful realities of the past or overturn the continuing male hegemonic structuring of much human experience and stigmatizing of people who don’t conform to simplistic sexual norms. Bonhoeffer’s is one of the (when we are telling truths) ambivalent stories of those who resisted Nazism.

His life history has been kept muted and/or distorted to erase his homosexuality (an important source for aspects of his thought), especially his relationship with Eberhardt Bethge, who, as the man Bonhoeffer was ineradically in love with, built books intended to mount a difficult barrier to get past. The widely-popular (a surprise best seller of 1953) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison, edited by Bethge from unpublished manuscripts, fits squarely into the kind of first edition Donald Reiman (The Study of Modern Manuscripts: Private, Confidential, and Public) describes as a “family book” where the editor acts as an advocate of the writer’s family’s view of this writer, the family itself (Deirdre LeFaye’s edition of Jane Austen’s letters is such a book), in Bethge’s case also to obscure his actual relationship with Bonhoeffer and his own ambitious political and personal choices during Hitler’s regime.

behgebonhoeffer (Medium)
A photograph of Bethge and Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer has not been forgotten because his extensive original writing (very ethical in bent), the rich, powerful elite group he belonged to (which survived the Hitler era), the positions he achieved in the powerful church structures, and his imprisonment and murder for conspiring against Hitler. He has been useful as a martyr, as a conservative religious hero, an ethical thinker, and a corpus of far from disinterested books and essays continue to be written about him.

Tubingen University Library (where Bonhoeffer studied as a young man)

Diane Reynolds has studied this secondary material, and the extensive primary documents; she interviewed people who knew those who knew Bonhoeffer, visited the places he lived in, and has produced a candid, lucidly written biographical account of the man’s life and his behavior, drawing especially on his letters (the life-blood of biography). She has been preceded by Charles Marsh’s flamboyant biography, which hers is an improvement on because of her scrupulous care not to claim anything for which there is no consistent substantial evidence. Some LGBTQ people may object to her reluctance to concede the probable where the nature of the case cannot provide evidence, such as Bonhoeffer’s sexual activity:  there is evidence for more than one close male relationship and several revealing portraits of male supporters and friends, e.g., Franz Hildebrandt with whom he lived for a time. True acceptance, respect and fulfillment, not to omit safety, for LGBTQ people in society requires adult understanding and acceptance of their active sexual lives, but nothing else is elided over, and she is critical of her subject where criticism is called for. We see a root cause for his reluctant betrayal of his sister and her Jewish husband, and on the other at the same time as he remained loyal to an upper class luxurious community who had supported Hitler: he gave up while in the US an opportunity to escape Germany, the offer of a good position because he couldn’t bear to live apart from Bethge (241-45) or lose his sense of some meaning through belonging with numinous privileged people who shaped important social structures and beliefs in Germany.

Women readers will see how he was willing to support as his patroness the domineering reactionary Ruth von Kleist-Retzlow, who was ceaselessly coercive over her daughters’s lives and engineered the pretense of an affair with her granddaughter, Maria von Wedermeyer. Maria was herself unable to throw off the Nazi training in submissiveness and self-sacrifice until years later. We learn of Bertha Schultz, a brilliant scholar who could only get work as his housekeeper and personal assistant, translated for free for him, and then is dismissed (79-81). He had a friendship with Elizabeth Van Thadden who opened the genuinely anti-Nazi progressive school for girls (Maria attended), had her school taken from her, re-Nazified, and was later imprisoned and beheaded (228-29, 22, 396). He was himself deeply attachment to a number of female relatives: his grandmother, his mother, a life-long close congenial relationship with his sister, Sabine: they go on a walking tour together which may reminded readers of English poetry of William and Dorothy Wordsworth.

This is an excellent biography of a man placed in the context of his time and directed to our world today.

Family summer vacation house in Freidrichsbrunn

Reynolds’s book’s historical significance is its irrefutability and portrait of a fallible and quietly courageous highly intelligent man who was pro-active in creating moral schools (for men), who displayed far more integrity than most, and expanded his horizons: a telling time was his sojourn in New York city where he attended a black Abyssian church and experienced a religious rejuvenation and saw “a view [of life] from the bottom looking up” (66). Just about all he did was in the face of discomfort in others (he was not a manly boy). Sometimes it’s mild (from his family) pressure; he had excellent connections and was chosen for high positions, but in these he encountered outright hostility from his own church and the Nazi state it complied with. And at the last imprisonment, interrogation, and towards the end (when his part in a failed plot to kill Hitler was discovered) vicious abuse leading up to his execution.

A clavichord Bonhoeffer and Bethge played on together

A summary with paraphrased and quoted vignettes: Her book is a narrative of Bonhoeffer’s life.

Part One situates the reader in the Bonhoeffer family background, telling of events and people who influenced Bonhoeffer’s grandparents, parents, moves through Bonhoeffer’s siblings and their childhood during World War One and its aftermath. . A characteristic chapter is called “Life Amid the Ruins:” Reynolds shows the family continuing its privileged life against the backdrop of the growing power of the Nazis, all around them desperation, Berlin crumbling, half starved Berliners, and soldiers posted everywhere in the streets, children with rickets. Hitler ominously blaming Jews, and father and uncle saying that the best types of people were killed off, glimpsing the possibility of a sociopath coming to power. But everything they read, the music they played has nothing to do with what’s happening outside; they lived within an idyllic strain in the European culture, divorced from politics. Bonhoeffer refuses to pursue a career in music (the family’s preference), and moves to theological studies. His sister and friends all marry while he evades a proposed bride for him, a third cousin, Elizabeth Zinn. Reynolds makes an astute use of Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies, where he constructs the image of maleness and femaleness the Nazis projected, one troublingly close to what may be seen today in popular US miliarist movies today. Against this all his life Bonhoeffer had to contend.

Part Two (“Seeking Ground”) while the Nazis begin to seize control (burn books publicly), become violent against Jews (he writes, “literally no one in Germany … can grasp it … major turning point in history:” 7 million unemployed 15 to 20 hungry), he travels (Barcelona, Manhattan, Forest Hills even, Cuba) seeking some meaning, work, relationships, to ground his existence on: he writes a second dissertation, is ordained. Vignettes from this section: “Dietrich [was] vehemently opposed compromise by his church,” sermonized to this effect, but did not go to his sister’s husband’s father’s funeral … here Bonhoeffer writes that Jews are “a problem; they needed to convert;” yet he “writes against persecution of Jews, one must help victims.” May 10, 1933 book burning night. Max Reinhardt fled to LA; Bonhoeffer’s “brother-in-law Rudiger Schleicher, lawyer, joins party, says keeping job helps undermine the state. Nazis imposed level of regimentation that surprised and made fear grow; 50 concentration camps by 1933 … Hans von Dohnanyi, a friend and relative by marriage [later executed] liked by Hitler so original Jewishness forgiven. German Lutheran church yields to become vitriolically anti-semitic; Catholic Youth Leagues are outlawed, Nazi or nothing. In 1933 Bonhoeffer is turned down for pastorate and in October goes to London, shaken to discover himself in radical opposition to all his friends.

Part Three is called the “Incomparable Year” (1933) and Part Four “Reconfigurations” (taking the reader up to 1938 and Bonhoeffer’s first arrest). In ’33 he met and his relationships with Bethge and Ruth von Kleist-Retzlow flowered. While the Nazis are toting machine guns and beginning their imperial conquests, he opens Finkenwalde, a “confessing” school offering an idyllic community for (male) students by the North Sea. While fighter planes are taking off, he teaches pacificism and joins the world of country landed estates. Until the concentration camps begin to open, he, his friends, associates, his sister seem to think somehow they will be insulated, and carry on their lives. Vignettes: these elite families moves to small houses in Charlottenburg (Marienbad), as good for conspiracy; musical evenings are a cover for politics, people from all walks of life, a refuge too. Karl, his brother, stays on with Nazis as psychiatrist saying he is moderating worst aspects. Bonhoeffer’s grandmother is horrified to see a cousin emigrating – having to take his chances like everyone else in this world. Ruth comes across with money for seminary in Sweden (which Bonhoeffer described as “wonderful years”). Dietrich’s prison writing includes letters to his grandmother – of how he felt for defenseless epileptics. By 1935 his sister Sabine (married to a Jew) begins to understand the terror of Nazism (they come to her door for information), but her brother “would be alive now than 30 years ago.” Bonhoeffer shows a problematic disposition to spend his sister’s money on holidays for himself.

Finkelwalde by the sea: now a Bonhoeffer memorial

Parts Five through Seven (“Cornered”) bring us to the heart of the book (1937/8-43): Reynolds weaves the unfolding of the Nazi barbaric world inside Germany with the lives, work and reaction of Bonhoeffer and many of his friends and associates. The great value of this part of the book are these individual stories and the depiction of intimate life of the semi-protected elite, what emerged in public social life in Nazi Germany at the time, and the punitive patriotic culture of Nazism easily sliding into cruelty to the weak, vulnerable, despised, anyone who dissented. Bonhoeffer seems to have joined the “underground” resistance about 1938; some of his associates compromise, some try to ignore what was happening all around them; others looked simply to survival (insofar as one could as food shortages and bombing had begun). Vignettes: November 1937 27 Finkenwalde seminarians imprisoned; 1938 Dietrich arrested, interrogated, banned from Berlin. He has underground collective pastorates, apprentices in a remote village (with Bethge there, later doing “quite well”) … Dietrich living a nomadic life working on ms’s. Neimoller released and then swept up, disappears; Confessing church fools take an oath of allegiance that Hitler treats with [the] contempt [it deserved].

A revealing element about Bonhoeffer is he continues to write optimistically, perhaps conceiving himself as supporting the spirits of others; a close friend said it was pride that kept him from revealing his anguish, but the letters have a jarring disconnect. His theological writings “encode” (that’s the word Reynolds uses) justifications for homosexual love; his bitterness against Bethge; his misery at the harsh isolated conditions of the prison (he does use the word “horrible” once). But the letters keep his hidden life in a closet.

Reynolds shows how average Germans appear to have felt about the war at this time: we have to remember Germans supported the war, and Bonhoeffer’s activity would have been seen as that of a traitor: So more vignettes: June 17, 1940 France caves. German newsreels exulted. Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy quoted. Fair haired young men: “what does it matter if we destroy the world? When it is ours, we’ll build it up again” … Germans are ecstatic at victory over France; foresee short war; Germans torpedo 600 prisoners headed for Canada; meanwhile Bonhoeffer’s sister, Sabine, now in Oxford moves with her husband to one room with 14 trunks. Bethge’s behavior reminds me of the enigmatic amoral characters in LeCarre’s novels: he decides to marry a Bonhoeffer niece, Renate, many years younger than he since he finds himself in “untenable” position. The long sections on the reality of Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Maria are important to read: we see her mother tried to protect her, regards Ruth’s tactics as a nuisance; for Bonhoeffer Maria is cover and unreal wish fulfillment dreams (of what neither he or she wanted). After Stalingrad, Bethge sends Bonhoeffer a picture of Napoleon; a letter remembering a year ago they were together when they shared a hotel room. Reynolds brings in the male couple in another surprising best seller of the era: Santayana’s The last Puritan.

Parts Eight (“Locked in”) through Ten (“Saints”) take us through Bonhoeffer’s years of imprisonment, his murder and the first build-up of hagiography. This was for me the most moving part of the biography. The conditions in which Bonhoeffer lived and eventually (he managed to make friends, his prestige and connections and his family’s money brought him food) even wrote were utterly wretched and dangerous. Reynolds maintains her cool stance towards the letters, pointing out repeatedly the undercurrents of bitterness (towards Bethge), egoism (in his approach to Maria), leaving the reader to feel uncomfortable, askance, compassion or astonishment. Just one vignette from many: Hitler carried a whip, beat his dogs and took disproportionate revenge on those within his reach after the bomb (detonated under a table) failed to kill him. Newspapers presented this as a coup of officers power-hungry … he writes suffering a way to freedom. He looked ill on his daily walk. There seems to have been opportunities for him to escape, but he withdrew with the excuse he didn’t want to endanger others: throughout his life he had what (I’d call) bad dreams of having a devout death which he yearned for, and one explanation for his persistent refusal to escape is a probably half-conscious death-wish.

One can fill out this section with some of the material Bethge published in 1953 (now available in an expanded edition): the book as constructed by Bethge presents a striking contrast to Primo Levi’s If this be Man and The Truce. Readers are not shown which letters were meant to be passed around by his relatives, which private (very few): Bonhoeffer persists in hoping, presenting himself as looking forward to release (his mother was fooled for a long time), comfortable. But there are striking breaks: for example, the narrative of Lance Corporal Berg, where suddenly Bonhoeffer reveals a gift for narrative, powerful drama: we first witness an interrogation which shows us how one need not resort openly to violence, torture, emotional bullying to subdue a prisoner. He shows how prison itself is an excruciating experience because those running it are implicitly bullying all prisoners all the time. A man with his face blown away shows up, and everyone is horrified by the ugliness of the man and they are mostly very kind to him, they feel sorry for him, they respect him for having allowed this to happen to him, but when for a moment he loses it and began to cry and complain, immediately they are hostile. Another man they deride, berate, kick, just shit on because he ‘deserted” — would not obey orders. It includes poems (e.g, Night Voices in Tegel) about his experience of the night in these prisons.

Reynolds shows how Marie distanced herself from the Bonhoeffer society, and tried to tell some truths, but her silence (as well as his sister Sabine’s) implied consent to Bethge and other interested witnesses’ stories. Her upper class strong sense of herself and understanding of how to get along in higher echelons served her well, and she somewhat recovered, even married, became a highly successful businesswomen.

Maria von Wedermeyer

If I have some criticism, it’s that I missed a sense of deep inwardness, which might have come from more analysis and quotation of Bonhoeffer’s ethical and religious treatises. Take the “Prologue: A Reckoning made at New Year 1943, also called “After Ten Years.”

He opens up with a (Samuel) Johnsonian meditation about time. “Time is the most valuable thing that we have, because it is the most irrevocable.” He writes of people “with no ground under their feet.” Here he recognizes that obedience to others to erase the self comes from cowardice and Germans have been deluded to think they kept their liberty by service to the community. An extraordinary passage about folly: folly is far more dangerous than anger; it’s worse than evil. Again folly there is no defense. No matter what you see the fool carries on. (This reminds me of Trump supporters.) The fool is self-satisfied, it’s easy for him to become aggressive, he’s harder to cope with than a scoundrel. Folly is capable of any evil. He reminded me here of Erasmus’s profound ironic (sardonic) In Praise of Folly. The worst blaspheme is contempt for others. (Again I thought of Trump, his insistent derision of others.) Bonhoeffer insists we must regard others not in terms of what they can do or do do but in the light of what they suffer. That in social life there are laws that cannot be eradicated and are powerful than anything that may claim to dominate them. How reprehensible to sow mistrust, how dangerous, when we should strengthen confidence in the self and others. (I thought of training programs in the US gov’t today where employers are taught to suspect and turn others in.) I liked his definition of quality. To have an experience of nobility, of quality you have to renounce all place-hunting, break with the cult of stars, must look to pleasure in private life as well as have courage to enter public life. Most people only learn wisdom (at all?) from personal experience. This explain insensibility to suffering. Death has become what people live with daily. We must not romanticize it; we do still know too much about the good things in life and that helps. But prolonged insecurity, and destructiveness of prolonged anxiety dissolves attachment to life. Which leads to him asking if people individually or as a group are of any use? He insists an experience of incomparable value is to experience life from below, and if you can’t at least try to see and empathize with those from below: history from below, the outcasts, suspects, maltreated, powerless, oppressed, reviled.

I want to emphasize that Diane Reynolds’s book is an enjoyable book to read. She recreates places, times, idyllic and nightmare experience. The reader who is familiar with 19th century novels will find parallels between characters in Tolstoy and this German milieu (Ruth as kind of Prussian cross between Countess Rostov and Anna Mikhailovna). It belongs to our conversations today about how what happened in Germany between the 1920s and well after the end of WW2 parallels the increase we see today of violence, racial, ethnic, and religious hatreds and intolerance and the complicity of our present (ever self-regarding, enrichening, luxurious) establishment as found in books like Volker Ulrich’s Hitler’s Ascent, 1889-1939. Reading it ought to worry readers right now.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in LeCarre’s A Most Wanted Man: about extraordinary rendition in the context of an exaggerated “war on terror” which has led to stark erosions of civil and social liberty — I can see Hoffman playing Bonhoeffer


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Shylock (Matthew Boston) about to extract his pound of flesh from Antoine (Craig Wallace)

Dear friends and readers,

Although Izzy and I got to Aaron Posner’s District Merchants, a daring adaptation of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice directed by Michael John Garces, at the end of its run, I write a brief review to recommend going to any revivals, or other productions of this new play you might hear of. It’s a triumph made out of indictment, empathy and humor.

Posner has taken up the challenge of a play whose plot-design is anti-semitic, by making the anti-semitism of all the characters but Shylock’s daughter an explicit issue: Shylock self-consciously argues his rage comes out of an alienation forced on him, reinforced by his hurt at how his daughter has been taken from him.

Shylock’s refusal to allow Jessica to go out among non-Jews estranges her

He is thus given more specific reason for resentment as he believes there was a conspiracy among these characters to remove his daughter from him — as well as take the money he relies on to live. Posner sets the play in the District of Columbia during re-construction (Ulysses S. Grant is president) and re-imagines all characters’ interactions and personalities along analogous lines so as to dramatize equally unjustifiable racism, class snobbery and disdain, and by extension hatred of the other in whatever form cruel emotional violence may take. Antony is now Antoine, a free black and prosperous businessman.

I found myself wishing Posner could have made one of the character a stray Islamic person. I was also puzzled as to why he did not include homosexuality as in fact Shakespeare’s play not so hidden text is the displacement of a semi-betray of Antony’s love by Bassanio so as to get enough money to court and marry the richly endowed Portia. The RSC production of The Merchant last year brought this out. The new play is clearly not bothered anachronistic thought, so why erase the original play’s depiction of thwarted repressed homosexuality?

A choral moment with Lancelot (Akeen Davis) to the fore

Still, given the recent massacre at Orlando (which included hatred of gays, of latinos, a man who abused his wife and was himself Muslim), it’s a remarkably timely re-write, and part of the strong response the audience gave to the play came out of the whipping up of hatred and fear we’ve seen in present political campaigns in the US and UK. There was even an unintended frisson in the theater when Lancelot become an ex-slave servant of Shylock, after having been asked by Jessica to help her run away from her father and steal his money and jewels (very dangerous for him) asks himself the question, “To leave or not to leave.” Posner could not have foreseen how that would resonate just after Brexit. Ryan Taylor wrote of how heartening such a production feels.

four lovers
There is a star-gazing scene where two different levels of time are brought together: Bassanio (Seth Rue) and Portia Maren Bush) at the back, Jessica (Dani Stoller) and Lorenzo (William Vaughan) at the front

I don’t want to give the impression the play was simplistic rhetoric or even crude; except towards the end when Posner seemed not to know how to end his play, and had too many soliloquys of hurt, distress, anger, the experience is not preach-y. Like a number of the appropriations of Jane Austen novels into films set elsewhere and in modern times I’ve seen, he follows closely the outline of Shakespeare’s play where he can, omitting excrescences like the choice of caskets ritual, and developing much further the meeting, courting, and wooing scenes between Jessica and Lorenzo become a southern country boy on the make.

Jessica and Lorenzo

We see Portia growing up under a kind of tutelage by Nessa (Celeste Jones)

Portia and Nessa

Scenes of funny (and painful) wit when Bassanio overcome by honesty in his love for Portia, tells her he has been passing for white and is half-black. She herself has been training as a lawyer at Harvard (in Boston) by dressing as a man.

Bassanio proposes to Portia, blurts out the truth about himself, Nessa looking on …

The different characters are given depth by having them as the play unfolds tell us their pasts. Chris Klimek found the whole mix “marvelous” and sobering. Jeannette Quick does justice to the complexity of what’s satirized (for example, lip-service to progressivism) and the way the different levels of memory, story, and interaction veer between “ridiculous hilarity and despondency.”

It makes us rightly criticize Shakespeare’s play. Posner probably means it as a sort of correction. We see Shakespeare’s Shylock from this renewed humane angle, from the world seen from below (except for Portia all identify as potentially and really outcast, powerless, reviled). At the same time I have to admit that after all when Posner does include Shakespeare’s lines, they stand out as having more purchase on why we must renounce insensibility to the sufferings of others, for our own sake show how dangerous is sowing mistrust, wrong and dangerous violence for violence. We must be merciful to expect mercy:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes

Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech is hurled at the audience. Lines from Shakespeare here and there raise and complicate the play’s perspectives. I especially liked how Antoine refused to accept rescue through a quibble — because he reminded me of Trollope’s Mr Harding who wanted to be morally right and justified. So Shylock could have killed Antoine, but at the last moment, the stage goes dark, and we learn at its close Shylock suddenly turned and walked away.

Quick and Barbara Mackay describe the suggestive symbolic setting (Tony Cisek) : an attempt was made to make us feel a civilization and place under make-shift construction, with columns (one still wrapped), ropes with hooks (suggesting ships). There was a real attempt to give a feel of what DC was like in the later 19th century: mud, much of it empty; that it had been a place where free black people lived before the war. I found the costumes a fun combination of musical-hall stage 1890s, accurate women’s dress and today’s fashions. Lots of music: a banjo, percussion, spirituals. Life has charm, it is good.

Another proposal scene

Posner has done this kind of adaptation twice before: the “excellent Stupid F—ing Bird (an adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull) debuted Woolly Mammoth in 2013); Life Sucks (or the Present Ridiculous Situation (an adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, in 2015).

I had not thought until writing this review how appropriate this play was as a choice near Independence Day, July 4th, and will now link in Frederick Douglas’s famous speech: “What to the Slave is the fourth of July,” as read by James Earl Jones.

Antoine remembers his past too


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Oh, my beloved, shall you and I
Ever be young again, be young again?
The people that were resigned said to me
—Peace will come and you will lie
Under the larches up in Sheer,
And eating strawberries and cream and cakes—
O cakes, O cakes, O cakes, from Fuller’s!
And, quite forgetting there’s a train to town,
Plotting in an afternoon the new curves for the world.

And peace came. And lying in Sheer
I look round at the corpses of the larches
Whom they slew to make pit-props
For mining the coal for the great armies.
And think, a pit-prop cannot move in the wind,
Nor have red manes hanging in spring from its branches,
And sap making the warm air sweet.
Though you planted it out on the hill again it would be dead.
And if these years have made you into a pit-prop,
To carry the twisting galleries of the world’s reconstruction
(Where you may thank God, I suppose
That they set you the sole stay of a nasty corner)
What use is it to you? What use
To have your body lying here
In Sheer, underneath the larches?
Margaret Postgate Cole (1893-1980)


From the first episode: Ashe (Anthony Andrews) goes down into the pit to defuse a bomb for the first time, the men wait up on the ground; we see Sergeant James (important character, Maurice Roeves) LCorporal Salt (Kenneth Cranham) and Corporal Horrocks (Ken Kitson)

Friends and readers,

I thought at this moment — after the bombing of the Brussels airport and central train station, considering what might happen short- and long-term as a result, the turn to the extreme right in South America (Brazil, Argentina) — that it might be appropriate to write about serious anti-war films, of which the 1979 Danger UXB is a mini-series you should not miss. It seems so a propos.

The stories are about a bomb disposal unit in World War Two, where about one-third of the characters we become involved with are blown up in their efforts to defuse bombs planted all over England (it seems) during World War Two. I cannot speak too highly of it — it’s the quietude and lack of melodrama with which it’s done too. One earlier episode called Butterfly Winter is about how Germans littered towns with hundreds of small bombs — how do you cope with these. How find 254 bombs in an area? One man does die when he goes out by himself too quickly, too humane; he should have waited for another member of the team to help. We just see the sudden explosions from slightly afar each time, or as they would have been seen by survivors. Then the unit commander, Brian Ashe (Anthony Andrews in one of the superior roles he enacted) is told, they rush to the spot and identify what’s left of the body. A moving scene in a church not overdone for once brought tears to my eyes.

LCorporal Salt (Kenneth Cranham) listening to his distraught wife after he insists they must leave where they are, which she has made a sort of life for herself in (Digging Out)

Digging out is another I’ll single out (the 9th). It’s semi-famous, written by Paul Wheeler, who wrote episodes 5-8 of the 1975 Poldark series. Here we follow one of the non-officers in a unit whose wife and children live in an area of England just then being bombed heavily by the Germans. He wants leave to go to his wife to persuade her to move which move she is resisting. During the course of the hour he becomes drunk in oe of these corroded awful bathrooms I recognize from Leeds in the later 1960s — the harsh realities of every day life in England are really presented in this series. He comes across a girl caught in a collapse of a building near a bomb and risks his life and that of his mates (against orders) saving her: they are as non-officers and non-trained people not supposed to cope with bombs. He is crushed by what happens in both cases, and then punished for disobeying orders — which our hero, Anthony Andrews, head of the unit tries to mitigate.

I watched, riveted to my chair each time. I’ve found myself beginning to worry with intense anxiety over Brian Ashe, whom I’ve gradually invested so much concern for. The 8th episode they and he alone — are trying to defuse a new kind of trickier bomb — each time the Nazis make them harder to defuse. This time they must freeze the mechanism. Use liquid nitrogen. The focus in the episodes is repeatedly on working the technology right and its trickiness; instead of brute heroism, we have people coming up with solutions by technology but it’s very ambiguous this heroism. Once the men save a young woman pinned down by a bomb and the only way they can think to save her is pull the bomb up by chains, swing it over her onto a wagon and then rush like crazy with the wagon to the sea and heave it high. The bomb explodes mightily in the water. They were dangering their lives and those of anyone in the factory. The heroine (Judy Geeson plays the part — she is to me drippy, just grates with her upper class mannerisms but she is supposed to be upper class) has a husband who works at Bletchley and he has a nervous breakdown and kills himself. Sometimes the new fangled tech stuff kills psychologically; it demands an attitude of mind unnatural to people.

The group rushes to take Ashe to the hospital (The Pier)

The final episode shows what happens to Brian Ashe as his body recovers from a blast that hits him in episode 12: I know I’ve said I’m one who doesn’t care if someone tells me the ending of whatever the novel or story is — except in some peculiar cases. Well I am that different from others that yesterday I found I couldn’t watch until I finally went over to wikipedia and ascertained that Ashe, my favorite character, did not die at the close of 8, merely very badly wounded ….

In our last hour, he is deeply depressed is the way people would put it, distressed is the word I’d use, angered at the deaths and destruction he’s seen, feeling the futility and failure of what he’s done, blaming himself, also simply in a lot of pain. The problem with series comes out in how he seems to overcome this: he wants to return to bomb disposal, and he’s not up to it. He does manage this with great pain, and the others let him risk his life to do this. They chose a bomb where only one person is needed. Two men offer to be next to him but he won’t let them — against the rules. So he is risking just his life. The problem is the show can’t help but endorse heroism and war at long last by doing this. Also the norm of the “stiff upper lip:” he apologizes to others too often.

We have a conventional toned down marriage where another set of mainstream values is endorsed. Class. The men are all enjoying themselves with working class women in jolly ways that the officers seem not to join in on; no they go off and have an elegant dinner.

It’s a kind of little upstairs (officers) and downstairs (men), with our Sergeant James just looking on at the men. He is the person who got Ashe to return, a liaison individual who belongs no where. Too serious for these working people and not elegant enough for dining. I suppose it reflects a reality but this reality while consciously shown is endorsed.

The quiet, lack of exaggeration and deep impulse to show what the experience of war is, how terrible fills each hour. I find myself having to stand by the door of a room while watching it so I can run away if anyone who I’ve grown attached to is killed — or anyone at all really. Each episode ends so quietly too, no cliff hangers. Just about every show has an important death, and often accompanied by anti-climactic behavior on the part of the people biologically, familially or by where they lived attached to the dead person, sort of flat. The men in the unit are quietly deeply disturbed but move on. Nothing melodramatic so you almost overlook it as sometimes it does not occur at the hour’s every end. It’s brought home to me how bombs are so horrifying, how they are still used — cluster bombs nowadays are used. Bombs laced with poison gas. Think of these drones. No trial to prove someone guilty of anything; a whole group of people hideously hurt, killed, their lives and futures wiped out.

Danger UXB is a work of real integrity. Writers included Jack Pulman (again), Alan Plater, other familiar names from the 1970s I recognized. It is very much told from a man’s point of view. Judy Geeson (Caroline Penvennen in Poldark) is susan, the one repeating woman character and like the others docilely domestic — almost. She has an affair with Andrews thought she’s married to a man working at Bletchley. So here too it breaks taboos: good heroines were not supposed to have affairs like this — without great trauma.

Susan (Geeson) looking out the window — there are many such quiet stills

It’s usually talked about as having no women. That’s not so; they are not central but they are there, I’d say almost very mainstream values for women are in place. They are shown to have sex themselves and enjoy sex; they drink; our chief heroine is an adulteress. Our heroine is also ever so obedient to Daddy who is this “generous man” but of course knows she should go back to her husband and if he had not had a breakdown (from Bletchley stress) and died, she’d not have been able to become Ashe’s partner/wife at the last. So the sexuality of the programs are not presented to liberate women so much as something that pleases male viewers because of the way it’s presented. They are finally docile sidekicks. The final episode has the girl who early on presented as a manipulative tramp getting involved with Ashe’s batman, and finally pregnant and Brian Ashe’s batman marries her. Ashe has told him he need not, how does he know her baby is his? So no it’s not at all feminist. Women are seen from the outside as men see them.

The overarching struggle of the series is the education, and disillusionment and moral strengthening of Brian Ashe as he learns to be a good commander: he learns about himself and finally has this moral triumph; each episode is show the unit overcomes some technical difficulty — or not. Now Susan the one major character is a woman who does not have a lineal story of triumph; she moves from her father’s daughter, to adulteress deeply in love, back to wife to nurse her husband who kills himself anyway, and then onto becoming Brian’s fiancee; from man to man. She works behind the scenes effectively to help Brian by enlisting her father’s patronage network in the same repeated ways; at the end she’s where she was at the beginning but her emotional and moral life is so much more satisfying. Like Ashe’s batman, Salt (after the death of his wife from a bombing) becomes involved with less respectable woman, a music hall entertainer who we later meet as a prostitute; she is doing the same job for higher fees is her view. He cannot accept that and maybe he’s right. She is living a hollow life. We glimpse women suddenly made widows. Brian’s aunt is a longtime widow who apparently lives a quiet upper class gentry life where she has time to make herself available to Brian as caring stable surrogate mother.


The mini-series’ central focus is technology: danger clever deadly device here. Instead of brute heroism, we have people coming up with solutions by technology but it’s very ambiguous this heroism. Judy Geeson’s husband who works at Bletchley has a nervous breakdown and kills himself. Sometimes the new fangled tech stuff kills too. What makes Ashe a hero is he can do technology well. Some intuition usually bettered this kind of theme: he leaves engineering school before he can get his degree so in the last program he cannot be promoted to a job higher than he had to keep him in bomb disposal. He doesn’t have the certificate. In fact he had not been at Oxford or Cambridge but was in the Technical Modern school (or whatever they used to call them). It showed up how injustice happens over these certificates and kinds of schools available to people. The paratexts opening and closing each episode show us the noise and strength of the machinery building bombs, firing them, sending them off to be used. The mini-series shows us how frail people are as they used this iron, steel and their electrical killing devices.

Some mini-series have not been re-booted; I suggest perhaps one sign of real superiority is the sense that you cannot reboot. This one cannot be re-booted; it’s not just that sensationalism has invaded and pervades the BBC nowadays but the whole mindset of integrity and true anti-war presentation (somehow not glorifying war at al and yet respectful of those risking their lives, fighting, the civilians.

A comparable work from the later 1980s shows up some flaws in Danger UXB. A Piece of Cake, like Danger UXB, has been admired as an unusual anti-war war film. It was done in the later 1980s and I’ve begun watching it. Only 6 parts it still merits discussion on the level of Danger UXB — or the recent (hardly seen at all, it disappeared in the US so quickly) Kilo Two Bravo. A Piece of Cake is about a flight squadron in WW2. It falls off towards the end, suddenly the incidents become shorter and the themes are not focused. A couple of romances start up where women are hardly distinguished from one another. (They have no coherent story.) It’s as the movie did not have the courage to paint as dark a picture of the human sides of the reality of group combat as it seemed to be moving towards.


A Piece of Cake surprised me in two ways: first it’s ironic; the characters are presented as these admirable upper class males but as you watch you realize a couple are real shits, the commanding officer who seems so knowing and elegant and competent is a fool who thinks of war as an excuse for adventure and living in French castles where there is luxury and servants. It is unusual for a film to be ironic: to expect us to realize how inadequate awful &c characters are. One I can think of is the 1972 Emma. Its center is an unhandsome intelligence office, the actor who played Hooper (Thomas Hope) in Brideshead Revisited and is now Dr Pascoe in the new Poldark.

There is a technology theme here too: the captain at first insists on following heroic kinds of group behaviors that are not longer applicable and threaten everyone’s lives. The group must fight individually. He loses a number of men to his stubbornness. He wants to control them and be Top Male. Then the use of the technology of the airplane endangers them. There is zenophobia against their allies the French who we see them with. Again and again their own blindnesses, mores (which are after all why they are fighting), make it difficult for them to use the new technologies the way intended.

Piece of Cake shows up Danger UXB in two ways. First A Piece of Cake brought home to me how improbably nice and kind are most of the men in Danger UXB (one episode is about a shit commander, petty, enjoys tormenting the men with the “rules,” but he is outed quickly because all conspire together to get rid of him), how well meaning, how respectful between classes. In Piece of Cake they are more real — nasty some of them, use class to put down the men below, corrosive. In Danger UXB the survivors are technically very good (not physically brave or heroic necessarily at all, not conventionally), but in Piece of Cake you also have to have the kind of personality that survives corrosive competition, put downs; you must not be the person in the playground recognized to have coolies — and the second person to die was the type who others bullied and he tried to do a stunt in his plane. This level of human nature is kept out of Danger UXB for the most part. It is responsible for some of the deaths, and then having funerals conducted in ways that grate on people because too much class distinction is observed.

And far more people die in this series. I did realize that of the 12 we become really attached to in Danger UXB only 4 died and 2 we don’t know. That’s softening too. Almost everyone dies in A Piece of Cake; by the end we have a whole new bunch going up, and we feel they are not going to last much longer either — flying war planes is not a piece of cake. Churchill’s speech about their “sacrifice” registered this. Some of the actors who had individual stories and were grieved over when dead were almost nobodies when they were in it and went on to become stars (though it took time): — Jeremy Northam, Nathaniel Parker are among them. I did think the quiet bitterness of the film superb.

After watching all 20 episodes of Jack Pulman’s 1972 BBC brilliant, moving and complex, War and Peace, I’m convinced this is another such mini-series, taking its considered quietly tragic vision from Tolstoy’s book.

Anthony Hopkins as the young Pierre, come to be there as his father dies, stalked Anne Blake by the Countess Drubetskoya, anxious lest the letter which leaves the estate to him is snatched out of his hands (Pulman’s first episode)

Notably powerful were Frank Middlemas as General Kutusov, David Swift as Napoleon.

Angela Down as Maria Bolkonsky (another of my favorite actresses from this era) – we watch our princpals age, learn, become sober thinking adults and yet ironically remain what they were when they started, learning in effect very little in a deeper way, or unable to change or take in what happened to behave differently

As I love movies so and think watching them can be as reading a book, I’m going to watch alternatively with this (thanks to a friend), the 1966 Russian epic War and Peace by Bondarchuk, and the sadly abbreviated but intelligent and well-shaped Andrew Davies’s 2016 version. We have agreed to read this book over the summer on Trollope19thStudies @ Yahoo (hoping the site remains), starting probably sometime in June and ending September. My project for it is going to include books on Tolstoy’s book, and I’ve gotten myself an older good translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, as revised and edited by Amy Mandelker; as well as a novel focusing on Sofay, Parini’s The Last Station, and Rimvydas Silbajoris’s War and Peace: Tolstoy’s Mirror of the World. I’ll at long last listen to all of David Case’s reading aloud of this book which I gave up on twice because I was trying to listen while my husband was dying of cancer.

Recently revived as a film, Journey’s End with James Norton (who plays Andrei Bolkonsky in Davies’ War and Peace film)

REGENERATION, Tanya Allen, Jonny Lee Miller, 1997. Tanya Allen and (a favorite actor for me) Jonny Lee Miller (Regeneration, 1997)

I had registered for a Smithsonian course in World War One supposedly centered on a group of books, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, R. C. Sherriff’s frightening play, Journey’s End (I experienced it with Jim – the whole theater is made to feel as if you are in a bomb field), but when I saw how superficially All Quiet on the Western Front was treated (out of three hours, no more than 20 minutes — if that — of discussion) and how the history was presented as top down and about elites quarreling — and how upbeat the presentations I lost heart. So I am going to try Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way (short-listed for the Man Booker), Sebastien Japrisot’s Un long dimache de fiancailles (I’ve got the translation too, by Linda Coverdale and I saw the film with Izzy when it came out) and Pat Barker’s Regeneration on my own (a film here too). When I don’t know: I hope to get to them this summer. I almost hope a proposal for a paper on Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde (which I have prepared an edition of for Valancourt Press, and the editor-publisher is stalling on) to be given at a conference at Chawton Library is rejected, so I can do this.

What can I do better in the world as a reader and writer than read and write about and maybe teach such books?

A landscape still from Regeneration


I’ll close on two more poems written during World War One, both by Edward Thomas (1878-1917)

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying tonight or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

In battle scenes from Davies’s 2016 War and Peace we see the horses dying too

As the Team’s Head-Brass

As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed an angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.
    The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,
The ploughman said. “When will they take it away?”
“When the war’s over.” So the talk began—
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
“Have you been out?” “No.” “And don’t want
to, perhaps?”
“If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm. I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more. . . . Have many gone
From here?” “Yes.” “Many lost?” “Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.”
“And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.” “Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.” Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

castposing (Medium)
The cast or crew in Danger UXB acting out posing as the Bomb disposal unit posing for photos in a town they are trying to rid of planted landmines – we see how awkward it is to pose as heroes in the expected way — the mini-series has endless nuances of this type in all sorts of situations


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