Monday, 23 November 2020

What I'm streaming: a bit more edge in the royal soap opera

 THE CROWN - Series Four (Netflix)

Not quite bingeing: I’ve taken a week to get through the ten new episodes, covering Diana Spencer’s elevation from playschool assistant to the People’s Princess – the marriage which Prince Charles, in this adaptation, rightly calls a “misalliance”. The interview when Charles said “Whatever ‘in love’ means” is recreated to remind us that Lady Di never was embarking on a Happy-Ever-After fairy tale. We don’t yet get to the “three people in this marriage” interview, but Mrs Parker-Bowles looms large throughout the series, even lunching Diana after the Engagement (factual, we’re told) but never fading out of Charles’s life, which may or may not be the truth. Did he really talk to her almost every day?

Emma Corrin and Josh O'Connor
as Charles and Diana
Emma Corrin looks exactly right in the replica frocks and recreates the Diana we think we knew, fragile and needy, sometimes a bit pushy, always conscious of being an unwelcome but necessary brood-mare. The bulimia puking scenes are overdone. Josh O’Connor’s Charles appears to be developing a hunchback but he gets the voice off rather well. Emerald Fennell’s Camilla has more the look of Sarah Ferguson; intriguing (if it’s true) that she urged Charles to marry Diana but didn’t realize that she needed to let him go, whether he wanted to be let go or not.

Stephen Boxer and Gillian Andersen
as Denis and Margaret Thatcher
These are also the Thatcher Years, of which some of us do not have the fondest memories. Gillian Anderson’s Maggie gets almost as much screen time as Elizabeth our Queen; her portrayal is in the same vein as Spitting Image’s used to be; she occasionally appears to be auditioning for Cruella de Vil, but like Meryl Streep she gets that Nanny-Knows-Best voice off to a T (to a Mrs T!)

Olivia Colman settles very comfortably into Her Majesty’s sensible shoes; the escalating tension during the weekly audiences with the Prime Minister is something you long to believe in. Accurate or not, the scene when Michael Fagan invades her bedroom is pitch-perfect from both parties. Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip is presented as almost a still small voice of calm, not quite the image tittle-tattle gave us over decades past.

Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret and Erin Doherty as Princess Anne are both splendid – imperious, bitter and bitchy. Marion Bailey’s Queen Mother is a bit like Nan in The Royle Family; there’s an edgy moment when she tries to justify her mentally challenged relations (“imbeciles,” they were called) being incarcerated for decades in an Edwardian-era lunatic asylum.

Christmas at Sandringham - not-so-happy families

The ethics – the morality – of this production remains open to question. It must be hard for William and Harry – and everybody else – to know that their friends are watching it and, like us, wondering how much of it is true. Interviews with cast members have stressed that this is a fictional dramatization, but most viewers will accept it as history, despite the liberties taken by Peter Morgan’s screenplay.

This is gossip and speculation lavishly amplified to soap opera. Yes, it’s terrifically well done and makes very watchable viewing, but it does the Royal Family a huge disservice. There’s a key scene in which the Australian Prime minister Bob Hawke bemoans the fact that Diana and Charles’s tour of Oz has set back the republican cause, but now, in 2020, how many people – here in the UK – feel as committed to the Monarchy as they did when Lady Di walked into St Paul’s in that curiously rumpled wedding dress?

Thursday, 19 November 2020

What I'm reading: Your DNA can introduce you to your murderer


Michael Connelly reintro-duces us to Jack McEvoy, the Los Angeles journalist who previously tangled with serial killers in The Poet and The Scare-crow. A woman McEvoy dated is bizarrely murdered, her head twisted through 180 degrees (like Linda Blair’s trick in The Exorcist). There have been similar murders, all women who sent their DNA to a company that can put people in touch with lost or unknown siblings. Jack investigates the link between this seemingly innocuous service and a serial killer who calls himself “The Shrike”, a monster almost as creepy as “The Tooth Fairy” in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon (Hannibal Lecter’s debut).

Michael Connelly is rightly acclaimed as one of The Greats of modern Crime Fiction, and he’s on top form in this pacey, nerve-wracking thriller. If you’re thinking of sending a DNA sample to one of those “Find Your Lost Family” outfits, think again. It may end up in the hands of your future murderer. Fair Warning. 

Monday, 16 November 2020

What I'm reading: An autistic view of civil war


A first-person narrative of Syria’s civil war is bound to make a harrowing read – even more so when the narrator is an autistic teenager. As the battle between government forces and the rebels (ISIS is never named) intensi-fies, 14-year-old Adam, already traumatized by his mother’s death from cancer, finds the bombings and the disappearances impossible to understand. Painting, in vibrant colours, is his only refuge; “I’m painting the blood on the floor with real blood.” Grief drives Baba, his father, into dementia. Yasmine, the beloved sister who has replaced Adam’s mother as his protector, is abducted. Then, with Aleppo self-destructing, the family flee the city and take to the road to Damascus as refugees.

 Sumia Sukkar has done a brilliant job of entering the autistic mind. She gives Adam a unique perspective: “Maybe bad angels haunt our town, or maybe this is the bad angel’s town.” Inevitably one is reminded of Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond in Rain Man, Adam’s unforgett-able progenitors. Two brutal scenes are told from Yasmine’s viewpoint, and I rather wish the author had done the same with other family members.

This is a book from the “Misery Memoir” shelf, which I don’t often pick from. It’s an intensely disturbing portrait of the unending agony of Syria. Appalling to think that terrors like these still constitute the everyday life of people not only in Syria, but in Iraq, in Libya and in Yemen. Will the unlearned lessons of history ever stop being repeated?

Monday, 2 November 2020

David at the Movies: Pretty - and pretty silly - remake



Sixty years on from the Hitchcock movie of Daphne du Maurier’s haunting romance thriller, Netflix have tarted it up with a glamorous cast and lovely locations, but as with their remake of The Boys in the Band I'm wondering: why? The revision doesn’t add anything new – except colour in place of black-and-white. The story is meant to be “timeless”, but aren’t there any new stories out there waiting to be filmed (David Gee’s Lillian and the Italians, for example – coming soon to a bookstore near you!)?

I’m not sure what the time setting is: a bit more modern than the Forties. Our heroine (Lily James and still nameless, as in the novel) is romanced in Monte Carlo by handsome widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer, sporting an English accent that suggests he was voice-coached by Prince William). He takes her home to his magnificent coastal house Manderley (not sure it’s still in Cornwall – no echoes of Poldark that I could spot). Here we meet the formidable Mrs Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) who has kept Manderley – and herself – as a shrine to Rebecca, the first Mrs de Winter who drowned a year ago.

Mrs Danvers is the key character. In the 1940 version her obsession with Rebecca was threatening and creepy – it was even possible to read in a lesbian undertone. Kristin Scott Thomas is heroically starchy and becomes subtly sinister, but this year’s script makes her more patronizing than obsessive, and the battle between her and the new wife is more a power struggle rather than a study in psychosis.

The 1940 Alfred Hitchcock version
Lily James gives us a feisty Mrs de Winter, but Armie Hammer’s transition from attentive boyfriend to absentee husband is unconvincing. The melodramatic climax lifts the plot out of a rut but, far from satisfying, it is almost ludicrous. Times have changed, and maybe Rebecca is a bit too dated, and a bit silly, for today’s audience. Dated and silly doesn’t usually spoil an Agatha Christie remake (looking forward to Kenneth Branagh’s new Death on the Nile) but it doesn’t work for this Daphne du Maurier adaptation.

Thursday, 22 October 2020

What I'm reading: Miami Vicious

Thomas Harris: CARI MORA

We’ve waited thirteen years for a follow-up to Hannibal Rising, and what Thomas Harris serves up is not another episode from the Lecter legend but a Florida crime vault caper. Disap-pointment clouded the first few chapters of this for me until I was sucked in by the sheer pace of the story. 

Cari Mora is the 25-year-old caretaker of a house on the Miami Beach waterfront, a property that belonged to the late Colombian drug king Pablo Escobar. Buried behind its crumbling sea wall is a safe containing $25 million in gold bars. One of Escobar’s successors sends a team to crack the electronically protected safe. Others are also after it. Colombia’s cartel war opens a new front.

The basic story here could be an episode of Miami Vice, but Cari’s early life as a child soldier with Colombian guerrillas gives an extra dimension. One of the bad guys likes to mutilate women before disposing of them in an acid bath. This – and a man-eating crocodile under the house – bring gothic echoes of our favourite monster. A rival cannibal makes a brief appearance.

Mr Harris now writes a leaner, meaner prose (I didn’t like his random mixing of past and present tense), but there are frequent glimpses of the master’s old magic way with words. A storage facility smells of “sour shoes and old bedding ... the air of plans miscarried”. This is a ghoulish, garish read, pretty well unputdownable. That said, one vital ingredient has been left out.

Come back, Hannibal! We miss you.

Friday, 16 October 2020

What I'm reading: LGB parenting

Christopher Preston: THE DONORS

Chris Preston is a member of my Gay Authors Workshop group in London. This is his second novel and draws, I’m guessing, on some of his own experiences.

London in the 1990s, the era of Aids. Mark and Adrian, a gay couple in their thirties, decide to respond to adverts for sperm donors in the Pink Paper. The advertisers are lesbians, singletons and couples, keen to be mums and hoping for gay men who will want to take a paternal interest in their donations. I hadn’t realized that the D-I-Y procedure can be just as effective as the more expensive fertility clinic. A landlady in my student days used a turkey baster, I can’t remember why. 

Mark has a few misfires but Adrian hits the spot very quickly. As Adrian’s relationship with pregnant Sheryl deepens, Mark begins to feel neglected. His personal life, like his career as a theatre designer, lurches between hits and misses. 

All the characters here have the feel of real people taking one unusual step in otherwise ordinary lives. The Aids epidemic doesn’t cast too big a shadow. The story has moments of tenderness, moments of anger, moments of cruelty – all of which give it the immediacy of a soap opera. It’s a very engaging read and would make great television.

Saturday, 10 October 2020

What I'm reading: the best novel of the past fifty years?


In 2018, 9,000 people voted for this as the best of the Booker Prize-winning novels in the award’s fifty years. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children had previously been hailed as the best of 25 and then 40 years.

I’m a huge admirer of Anthony Minghella’s 1996 movie of The English Patient, but I’d missed reading the novel until now. It’s only 320 pages, but I found it a tough read. Stylistically it’s very dense, skipping between present and past tenses with frequent viewpoint switches. The story is fragmentary, and it certainly helps to have seen the movie which had a more linear timeframe.

It’s 1945 and Italy has been liberated by the Allies. Hana, a young Canadian nurse, is looking after a hideously burnt man in a ruined villa in Tuscany. She is joined by a fellow Canadian, Caravaggio, who seems to be AWOL, and a Sikh bomb-disposal sapper, Kip, with whom she falls in love. The English patient (who is not actually English) tells the other three of his time before the war exploring Egyptian ruins in the Sahara and of his affair with the new young wife of one of the archaeologists’ backers.

Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas
as Almasy and Katharine
As in the movie, the relationship between Almasy and Katharine has a kind of cold intensity. Almasy’s trek across the desert to fetch medical aid for Katharine, left injured in the Cave of Swimmers after the plane crash, is epic, but I wasn’t moved by it as much as by the tenderness between the nurse and the sapper.

The desert scenes and Tuscan landscapes are as vivid on the page as in Minghella’s visual feast of a movie. A sequence when Kip defuses a bomb is very cinematic. The English Patient is clearly a masterpiece of English writing, but I could only read a few pages at a time. There’s a lyrical quality to Ondaatje’s prose which requires re-reading as you go. Occasionally I felt I was getting echoes of T.S. Eliot. The only comparable novels I can think of are Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, which I hugely admired in my twenties but would perhaps find a bit ‘indigestible’ today.

Wikipedia will remind you of all the Booker shortlisted novels and winners through its 50-plus years. My personal favourite, not a winner but shortlisted in 1980, is Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, a deeply powerful novel on the theme of Faith and Human Frailty. And I remember reviewing Rushdie’s Shame (1983), another runner-up, as a work of “Genius”, not a word I’ve been generous with. Looking for books that have given me the most pleasure rather than mere admiration, I’m going to plump for The Carpetbaggers and The Adventurers, both by Harold Robbins, two novels from the 1960s which thrillingly explored the world of Hollywood and Jet-Set celebrity.  Do I need to hide my head in embarrassment?

I’d welcome seeing your all-time favourites in the Comment Box.