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?

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.

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

What I'm Reading: the ruthless Saudi Crown Prince

Daniel Silva: THE NEW GIRL

Khaled bin Mohammed, generally known by his initials, KBM, is the proactive and ruthless Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Previously famous for opening cinemas and allowing women to drive in the Kingdom, he’s now reviled because he ordered the murder and dismemberment of a Saudi dissident in the embassy in Istanbul. Reema, his 12-year-old daughter, attends an exclusive private school in Switzerland. Only a handful of people know who the New Girl's real identity, so her kidnapping should have been impossible. Because there are geopolitical ramifications, the Prince calls in the world’s most efficient spymaster to mount a rescue – Gabriel Allon, head of Israeli Intelligence.

Racing between Geneva, London, Washington and Tel Aviv, there are (literally) explosive moments in the muddy trail followed by Gabriel and his mixed team of Israeli/MI6/CIA operatives. There’s another New Girl in the story, Rebecca Manning, newly appointed to Moscow's SVR (the former KGB) but previously close to the top of MI6 - Gabriel exposed her as a "mole" in The Other Woman, the previous Silva novel. Rebecca is the illegitimate daughter of the most famous double agent of them all, Kim Philby.

This is one of Mr Silva’s more "audacious" spy thrillers. In a Foreword he makes no secret of the fact that he has drawn on a real-life Saudi prince known by his initials – and widely believed to have sanctioned a grisly murder in an embassy in Istanbul. Silva fictionalizes the British Prime Minister (more Cameron than Johnson), but he avoids naming the Presidents of the USA and Russia (as previously, he calls Russia’s head of state “the Tsar”, a term that could almost be applied to the imperious current White House ruler!).

Bold, brisk and highly believable, The New Girl showcases Daniel Silva’s exceptional grasp of global politics. Incidental details are always a pleasing part of the mix: the sedate Essex village of Frinton-on-Sea provides one of his UK locations. This is my third Gabriel Allon adventure in a little over a year. It’s the best of the three – and one of the finest in the 20-plus series.

Friday, 3 July 2020

What I'm reading: Gays in High Places


It’s the winter of 1976. Tom Wildeblood, a 20-year-old rent-boy, accidentally becomes a private eye following the murder of another youngster from the Piccadilly arcade where punters find their prey. The trail rapidly leads to Gays in High Places, notably to the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe. In this ‘What If’ version of real events, amateur hitmen have murdered Thorpe's toyboy Norman Scott and are now looking for our inept hero and his boyfriend.

With Tom Driberg, Harold Wilson and Marcia Falkender in its cast, Beneath the Streets is an uneven mix of the mighty and the mundane. Tom’s estranged mum and dad in Reading are about as mundane as you can get. In Downing Street, Wilson is a fading force, over-reliant on Falkender, a PA with too much power. We are reminded that people in high places frequently have feet of clay – in Jeremy Thorpe’s case, very muddy clay. And the story ends with a chilling hint of other shocking scandals that, in 1976, were still under the radar.

Friday, 8 May 2020

What I'm streaming: Rock Hudson, the pioneer of gay liberation


This is up there - for me - with Grace & Frankie in the "Best of Netflix". It starts well in a splendid recreation of 1940s Hollywood with a far-from-fictitious LA gas station, run by Ernie West (Dylan McDermott, clearly enjoying himself in an off-character role) with a sideline in pimping his hunky attendants as gigolos and rent-boys. The hunkiest of the gigolos is Jack Castello (David Corenswet), a wannabe filmstar who can’t even get hired as an extra until he screws Avis Amberg, a studio head’s neglected wife (Patti LuPone, outstanding in a cast of fine actors). Another of the gas station boys is Archie (Jeremy Pope), a cute black guy whose first ‘client’ is Roy, another struggling actor who will come to be superstar famous when his name is changed to Rock Hudson (Jake Picking, a very good look-alike).

David Corenswet and Dylan McDermott, a gigolo and his pimp

When Avis takes over the running of her ailing husband’s studio she ‘greenlights’ a movie about Peg Entwistle, the actress who jumped off the Hollywood sign in the 1930s. The movie is scripted by Rock’s new boyfriend Archie and directed by another newcomer Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss, who played Gianni Versace’s serial killer stalker a couple of years back).

There never was a movie about poor Peg, and this take on her story goes somewhat off the rails when the decision is made to change Peg to Meg and give an opportunity to Raymond’s gorgeous black girlfriend Camille (Laura Harrier). So, the two big twists on the ‘real’ history of Tinseltown are the breakthrough for black actors on screen being brought forward by several decades, and Rock Hudson becoming a pioneer of gay rights also many years before any major player risked coming out of the closet.

Jack Picking as Rock Hudson: "Fill it up, and while you're about it ..."

Gays everywhere knew that Rock was a ‘fag’ but it was kept a secret from his female fanbase until just before his death from Aids in 1985. Even today, when privacy is harder to come by and a number of high-profile stars are Glad to be known to be Gay, there are several who aren’t (naming no names).

Other real-life people are woven into this story – Vivien Leigh, Cole Porter, Anna May Wong, Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah, always a joy to watch) – which adds to the glamour as well as the authenticity. The making of the Peg/Meg movie becomes a bit tiresome – I wish they’d thought up a grander project for the era of Mildred Pierce and The Best Years of Our Lives – but the gas station brothel contributes plenty of juice to the story (and it’s true) and I relished the fantasy that Gay Liberation was kick-started by Rock Hudson in the 1940s. He could be canonized!

The real Peg, who jumped off the big H in 1932

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

What I'm reading: Love in the shadow of the gas chambers


I had reservations about this. I still do. A love story in a Nazi death camp? I still question the ethical stand of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which made the fate of one German officer’s son an ironical counter-point to the systematic slaughter of six million victims of Adolf Hitler's extermination programme.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is based on the true story of Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who chanced into the job of tattooing the new arrivals, Jewish and Romany, at the twin Polish concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. He falls in love with Gita, also from Slovakia, who escapes the gas chamber by getting clerical work documenting the deportees (the Nazi obsession with documentation makes the Holocaust even more chilling). Their love affair consists of snatched moments together and is overshadowed by the constant threat of illness or execution. The most beautiful girl in the camp becomes the plaything of the commandant. Some of the women processing new arrivals steal cash and jewellery which Lale smuggles to the local villages through bribed guards to be exchanged for extra food. 

'Work will set you free.' The great Nazi lie.
This is a harsh story, but it could have been harsher. Heather Morris gives us one glimpse of the gas chamber in operation and a few glimpses of the rain of ash from the crematorium chimneys, but she spares readers the most harrowing images we have seen in other accounts and TV documentaries. Josef Mengele appears (‘this man whose soul is colder than his scalpel,’ she calls him), but she gives barely a hint of his obscene medical experiments on prisoners. Yes, it’s all been detailed before, but I think we do the six million dead an injustice if we gloss over the full horrors of the Final Solution.

Morris writes in the present tense, as does Hilary Mantel. Past history in the present tense grates with me (the only time I enjoyed it was in John Updike’s Rabbit quartet, four of the greatest novels of my lifetime). But, for all my reservations, I can see why The Tattooist of Auschwitz has been so widely acclaimed. It has a surprise ending. And there is an irresistible charm to the notion that Love can blossom, can flourish, even on what in another memorable phrase the author calls ‘the threshold of Hell.’