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Posts from the ‘Reviews’ Category

What do you do when your conscience comes calling? Review: An Inspector Calls.

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I approached the BBC1’s adaptation of JB Priestley’s haunting drama An Inspector Calls with some trepidation. It is well trodden territory for TV and radio producers and the text studied by pretty much every schoolchild in Britain.

However, the assured performances of Ken Stott, Miranda Richardson and David Thewlis soon had me hooked. It’s so long since I have read the play that I couldn’t make any comment upon accuracy, which I suspect was a blessing.

All the twists and turns were there and the clever clues that make Priestley’s work a proper detective mystery. But what struck me most was the unnerving aptness of the story’s message. Priestley’s play, set in 1912, on the eve of the apocalyptic First World War, is an allegorical tale of the risks we run when we ignore our responsibility to others.

The Birling family are confronted with their own failings in respect to their treatment of a poor young woman, Eva Smith. The unpleasant realities of her predicaments are transported into the Birling’s comfortable drawing room by way of the mysterious and all-knowing Inspector Goole.

Thankfully, the production is subtle and doesn’t lay on the spookiness with a trowel. The real suspense and chills are caused by the powerful script itself. But what really lingers in the mind, long after the Inspector has gone, is the striking modern parallels.

In recent weeks, we have found the humanitarian crises of the wider world invading our own parlours. This production certainly made me consider how well I would fare if my conscience were to call uninvited.

The play is a classic, largely because the story is still relevant today.

The mark of a truly great piece of detective fiction.


#TheBigPaintingChallenge – a lesson in how to demotivate women

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On the whole, I’m enjoying the BBC1 series The Big Painting Challenge. There are some excellent tips in these programmes for beginners wanting to attempt the different styles and disciplines of painting. However, viewing this competition has become something of a pantomime in our house in recent weeks. My children find the unnecessary harshness of the two expert judges to be hilarious. Especially as they seem to thoroughly detest the pictures that we all like the best. Obviously, we don’t really understand ‘serious’ art as they do.
But yesterday’s programme, falling as it did on International Women’s Day, was a little jarring. The female contestants, all bar one particularly feisty, more mature lady, have positively wilted under the strict tutelage of the judges. The men, on the other hand, are thriving on the tough feedback, ignoring what they think is unhelpful and soaking up the useful stuff.
I don’t want to fall into the trap of making generalisations about the way in which men and women operate. I happen to believe that our similarities far outweigh our differences. However, having worked as a teacher for over a decade, I can confidently assert that girls thrive under more gentle, constructive guidance. If your criticism is too sharp or not focussed enough then a female student will lose confidence in what they can do well and you can easily find them dropping behind even further.
‘Man up’, I imagine some viewers might say. It’s a competition and if you can’t take the heat, it’s the right thing for you to be eliminated. Well, there is some validity in that. But the contestants are learning from one week to the next and undoubtedly it will be the one who learns the most who comes out victorious. So perhaps the judges should vary their teaching style a little in order to create a level playing field – it’s only some paintings, not open heart surgery!
Perhaps the approach is deliberate, to encourage more male winners of these competitions. Although somehow, I don’t think the tone of the criticism is that conscious. But I do believe it teaches us some interesting lessons about how women operate in the workplace and the classroom. If you want to get the best of us, then make your criticism constructive and be sure to praise those elements we are getting right. After all, if you do get the best out of women, believe it or not, they can be a really tremendous asset.

When family ties really matter

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As a writer, I am always on the look out for ideas. It doesn’t have to be plot lines I’m searching for necessarily, but I find observing the way that people behave under certain conditions is very useful when creating new characters. It’s not usually my type of programme, but I’ve found the ITV series ‘Mission Survive’, in which survival enthusiast Bear Grylls puts a group of celebrities through their paces in a South American jungle strangely compelling.
My husband has been shooting me some odd sideways glances as I sit enthralled by the way in which this group of mainly typical urbanites deal with the pressures of the jungle. But I’m picking up some valuable insights into how people cope with the unknown. What has particularly struck me, is the way in which acting cousins Lawrence and Emilia Fox have formed a tight bond during the expedition. The group are pitted against one other in the tasks they are asked to perform, with Grylls choosing one person to leave after each episode. You can see how the celebrities are having their nerves frayed by the pressures caused by lack of food and sleep. They are sniping at one another in their exhaustion and don’t quite know who to trust.
Yet the Fox cousins remain united. Despite the frustrations and the perils of the unknown, they obviously are aware that they can rely upon the other one. When Lawrence Fox experienced a night of delirium brought on by low blood sugar and a fever, his cousin kept watch over him. The next day she threw her arms around him and comforted Lawrence, assuring him that he wasn’t ‘going mad’.
Only people who have grown up together – as friend or family member – can offer such reassurance and love. I found it very touching to see. I think that Emilia would have really struggled through this whole experience if Lawrence wasn’t there with her – even a very gentle rebuke from Bear Grylls had left the actress deeply upset. Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t last five minutes out there. But perhaps if I was experiencing the ordeal alongside a member of my family, I might just last that little bit longer.
Watching this relationship played out on screen has made me think. We don’t often find ourselves in situations like the ones inflicted upon the celebrities in Mission Survive. So the importance of family ties aren’t often put to the test in such a stark way. When I was ill recently, I found it very difficult to tell people what was wrong – even if my behaviour may have seemed a little odd during that period. However, there were certain family members and old friends who I was able to tell straight away – without any hesitation. I believe that the reason for this is that they’ve know me for so long that I’ve become a part of their pack. I feel comfortable enough that I’d not be rejected simply for displaying a temporary weakness.

I’m already thinking of ways in which I might bring this concept into a future novel or short story. For this reason, reality television can be a useful tool for the writer, although it’s no substitute for your own life experiences. The difference with Mission Survive, is that because of the severity of the conditions, the responses of the individuals involved are usually quite genuine. There is very little ‘playing to the camera’. So for us voyeuristic writers, it’s a perfect watch.

Can a drama get away with anything if it’s historical?

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In the week in which The Sun newspaper suggested that the use of topless photographs in their papers was a thing of the past and then triumphantly backtracked, in what we can only assume was an unpleasant publicity stunt, I was quite startled by certain aspects of BBC2’s new drama, Wolf Hall, which I watched on iplayer last evening. The drama is based on the Booker Prize winning novels about the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell by Hilary Mantel. The production values are quite remarkable and the acting superb. However, there was an element of the programme which made me feel uncomfortable.
I was a History Teacher for a long while and I’ve taught the Tudor period at A-level a good few times, so the details of Henry VIII’s attempts to gain an annulment of his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon are familiar to me, as I’m sure it is to many others too. It’s general knowledge. The difference in Mantel’s story is how she concentrates on the roles of Cromwell, Wolsey and More. We get to know about their families and the behind-the-scenes power struggles at court. But one should remember that this is still fiction. We do not know that these conversations actually took place, we should bear in mind that this dialogue is created by Mantel’s literary licence.
So, I was a little perturbed to hear Cromwell and Cardinal Wolsey making jokes about Anne Boleyn being ‘flat-chested’ and indicating their surprise that the king had turned his attentions to her. Indeed, later in the episode, Thomas Cromwell makes a lewd reference to the same thing with Anne’s own sister, Mary, who laughs heartily at his witticism.
I’m sure that Mantel based this observation on evidence she found in contemporary letters and accounts, but is it strictly necessary or appropriate to make it part of the drama? I’ve taught the Tudors for many years without finding the need to mention that Anne Boleyn’s breasts were small. There are a number of reasons why I would not have done. Firstly, because it could never be proved to be correct. The rumour could easily have been spread by her enemies in an effort to degrade, belittle and demean her. To me, the poor woman had had her head chopped off on the orders of her husband, which must surely be demeaning enough. Secondly, I would never say something disparaging about the size of a woman’s breasts in front of a class of students because it would result in the girls feeling incredibly uncomfortable and self-conscious and the boys getting the wrong idea about how they should view women. It’s a teaching no-brainer.
So is it acceptable in a historical drama? I actually think it isn’t. When looking at events that happened as long ago as the 16th Century there is arguably no such thing as ‘historical fact’. As writers, we will always be placing our own interpretations on the piece and actually, we cannot forget the modern audience and how the work will impact upon them. I’m not a great believer in censorship but in making a judgement about what is in good or bad taste and how it will be received by a modern, literate, intelligent audience. All writers must consider this when they put pen to paper.
Later in the episode, there was a particularly nasty, violent assault on a young boy. Again, this is something that even the most hard-core of detective dramas would shy away from depicting on screen. So because it’s historical and dare I say it, ‘intellectual’, that means it’s alright?
I think that ultimately, it’s a question of judgement by the writers and the director as to what is appropriate. But I would suggest that even if your topic is embedded within the culture of the past, your audience are most definitely not, and you should approach delicate issues accordingly.

A perfect partnership; The psychological thrillers of Nicci French.

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The weather has suddenly turned colder. It feels as if we are now entering winter proper, with the threat of snow and of sharp,icy mornings. This means it is also the season of enjoying a flurry of televised detective and mystery dramas. After months of scarcity we now demand abundance. However, 2015 doesn’t yet appear to have delivered in spades on my expectations. We have Broadchurch and Silent Witness, of course and the new series of the Swedish Wallender has been airing on BBC4 to fill that notorious drama free zone that is Saturday nights. Wolf Hall is also about to begin its run on BBC 2, although I’d put this more in the costume drama category.
Call me greedy, but I’d really like some more. Luckily, a trawl through ITVplayer turned up an expected treat. The three part 2011 adaptation of Nicci French’s novel, What To Do When Someone Dies is currently available. Starring Anna Friel and Marc Warren and renamed Without You for television purposes, it is well worth a watch.
Set in cold, wintry Manchester, thirty something Ellie Manning is forced to come to terms with the tragic death of her husband, Greg, in a road accident. What complicates matters is that a mysterious woman died in the car with him, the beautiful Milena. Despite her friends and family being convinced that Greg was having an affair, Ellie soon discovers that many of the facts just don’t fit. She decides to begin her own investigation to clear Greg’s name and discover what really happened to him. Friel is always very watchable and manages to portray the grief of a bereaved wife extremely well.
I read this particular Nicci French novel whilst on holiday a few years back. The husband and wife writing team of Nicci Gerard and Sean French have always been favourites of mine. They are masters of the psychological thriller genre, unafraid to dwell on the details and intricacies of the human psyche. My favourite of their books is The Memory Game, which plays with our perception of the present and the past.
A few of French’s novels have been made into television dramas and films in the past, with varying success, but Without You effectively captures the tension of the book and the superior cast raise it above the ordinary.
Nicci French have, within recent years, ventured out with a new series of books featuring psychiatrist Frieda Klein. But their stand alone psychological thrillers remain the duo’s best work; with recent, madly hyped books in the same genre (I shall mention no names) paling by comparison.
So, if you are looking for a little more selection in the mystery dramas currently on offer, check out the ITV3 page on ITVplayer, you might just stumble upon a real gem.

This week’s Silent Witness; a homage to Barbara Vine

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You’ve got to love Silent Witness. Back for it’s eighteenth series and still coming up with strong storylines. This BBC drama has lost its way on occasion, notably in series fifteen and sixteen, when the format was tiring and the writers made up for this with increasingly ludicrous and gory plots. With the arrival of David Caves, as fellow pathologist Jack Hodgson, the programme has reinvigorated itself. What is particularly of note, is the great relationship between the character of Jack and scientist Clarissa Mullary, played by the brilliant Liz Carr. Carr is a stand-up comedian and a campaigner for disabled rights, she is also the only physically disabled actress starring in a prime time British drama. It doesn’t really need to be said that we obviously need more. I’ve always liked the fact that the main actors in this programme always get equal billing and firstly Amanda Burton and now Emilia Fox, are undoubtedly the stars of the show.

This week’s two-parter I particularly enjoyed. It immediately reminded me of Barbara Vine at her very best, even down to the setting of the London Underground, including the focus on a west London Tube stop. The story was reminiscent of a combination of ‘Grasshopper’ and ‘The House of Stairs’, focussing as it did on a pair of young, lost souls who find solace in one another. Only later do we discover that one is using the vulnerability of the other to manipulate them into carrying out their murderous bidding. There was a very atmospheric section at Mornington Crescent, where Nikki fears she is being followed through the empty tunnels, it immediately put me in mind of a similar sequence from the early eighties horror classic, ‘An American Werewolf in London’ which also took great advantage of the inherent spookiness of the London Underground system.
There was also an interesting sub-plot involving a young policeman trying to piece together the events of his father’s death twenty years earlier, only to discover a secret he should never have attempted to uncover.

Unfortunately, this series is running up against Broadchurch on a Monday night, but it is certainly worth setting the recorder for or catching up with on iPlayer. The writing is always interesting and original and the two hour format means it is faster paced than many of its rivals. Silent Witness continues to live on…

Five great book adaptations for the screen

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Having spent New Year’s Eve at the cinema with my children watching the new Paddington film and thoroughly enjoying it, it got me thinking about the books which have translated best into films and TV. The subject of adaptations is always a thorny issue. My Mum is very unsure about the future television programmes, now in production, based on Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. When books are very close to a reader’s heart, trying to transfer that magic onto the screen can prove disastrous and be bitterly disappointing for loyal fans. But on the whole, taking a bestseller and making a movie out of it should pretty much be a banker for the big studios, which is why we get so many of them.

For what it’s worth, these are my top five choices:

1. The Box Of Delights by John Masefield was made into a BBC Two drama in 1984 and was shown on consecutive Christmases over the following years. This series is a magical memory from my childhood. I used to read the book at the same time as watching the programme, for maximum enjoyment! Although the special effects are dated now, the acting and script were terrific and very closely followed Masefield’s wonderful tale. But it was the haunting musical score, adapted from the Christmas carol, ‘The first Noel’, that made this series so special to me. The thought of it still sends a little shiver down my spine…

2. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by Tolkien.
I’m not a great fantasy fan but JRR Tolkien’s books have got to be the exception. He created a whole new world within his series of books. Many had tried and failed to bring that world to the big screen before director Peter Jackson took up the challenge at the start of the 21st Century. The books were written for the most part during World War Two and published in the 1950s. Since that time, they have become amongst the best-selling novels ever written. But Jackson did the books justice. The viewer can immerse themselves as fully in these films as they could in the pages of Tolkein’s books; a truly incredible accolade. There are some real highlights in these films, even for those who don’t necessarily enjoy the action and magic. The relationship between the Hobbits; particularly the friendship between Frodo and Sam, for example, is superbly rendered by the actors and script.

3. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.
I had certainly enjoyed reading Du Maurier’s 1938 novel about a young wife having to live in the shadow of her predecessor and discovering that she must have confidence in herself if she wants her marriage to survive. However, this is one of those rare occasions when I think the film was better than the book. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier, I first saw this 1940 film at a screening when I was at university. It seemed to capture the atmosphere of the novel perfectly and is remembered best perhaps for Judith Anderson’s portrayal of the wicked Mrs Danvers. For me, the great performance is from Fontaine, who manages to flesh out the protagonist’s character very well, despite having to take on the challenge of being the leading lady with no name. Fontaine gives her more gumption than she ever had in the novel, which is what transports the film onto a higher level. This is a story which can only ever be re-imagined effectively in black and white!

4. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell.
This was a novel that I studied at university and greatly enjoyed. Ultimately, it is a romance between Margaret Hale and mill owner John Thornton after their two worlds collide when Margaret is forced to move from the countryside to the industrial town of Milton in the north west. Gaskell’s novel was published in 1855 and was designed to highlight the important social issues of the day. However, the book is never didactic, which it easily could have been, and the tensions and drama created by a strike at Thornton’s mill prove to be perfect literary devices for Gaskell to make her book both gripping and thought provoking.
In 2004, the BBC adapted the book into a Sunday evening mini-series which proved to be equally as good as the novel. In fact, I used the segments depicting the factory workers to show my classes when I was teaching about the Industrial Revolution. But more than this, it was the superb love story between Hale and Thornton which was beautifully played by Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage which made this series really excellent.

5. The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney.
I am not particularly a fan of kid’s movies and it’s my husband who usually takes our children to the cinema. However, we have a junior club at our local picture house which shows movies for a pound on a Saturday morning. On one particular day, the film we wanted to see was sold out, so I opted for the alternative instead. It turned out to be The Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, the second of Kinney’s franchise. To my astonishment, I really enjoyed it and found myself both amused and moved by the film. As with all great adaptations, it’s actually pretty tricky to put your finger on what makes it work, but the humour is very well played in these films and you begin to care about the main characters and what happens to them; even Rodrick. After seeing this movie, my daughter wanted to read the books and now is an avid fan, waiting eagerly for each new episode to be released.

This is my top five (at this moment in time) but I’ve no doubt others will disagree. If I’ve left out something obvious, feel free to let me know.

A cinematic chiller for the weekend after Christmas

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The Haunting of Radcliffe House is a feature length supernatural thriller that you could easily have missed, tucked away as it was at 9.35pm on Channel 5 last night. For those who enjoy a good haunted house mystery on a cold mid-winter’s night, it is definitely worth a look. Starring the excellent Olivia Williams and one-time Hollywood star Matthew Modine the story revolves around a family’s move to a derelict mansion on the Yorkshire moors, where the wife’s job is to oversee the property’s restoration for her American employer. Tensions between husband and wife are apparent almost immediately, as is the mounting sense of foreboding which builds when the secrets of the labyrinthine country house begin to reveal themselves.
The tale is fast-paced, full of creepy vignettes and with a perfectly menacing performance by Modine. There are undeniably some horror cliches dotted about in this drama; with bricked up doorways and disconnected telephones ringing in the dead of night but enough original little details in the script to make the viewer overlook them.
Overall, a thoroughly entertaining watch, with atmospheric direction and plenty of genuine chills.

Is writing just an elaborate form of therapy for the author?

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Whilst listening to the writer and comedian Sarah Millican on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs this morning, I was fascinated to hear that Millican began writing in earnest after the painful and unexpected break-up of her first marriage in 2004. The reason for this was threefold; the writing helped her to escape from the unbearable situation in which she found herself, the fact that others laughed at the routines she based around the divorce made her feel she was not alone in her anguish, and finally, we must assume that the divorce created the opportunity for her to tour the country and do stand-up.
In the intervening decade, Millican has found great success with her career and now has a new husband, a fellow performer on the comedy-circuit. Sarah Millican’s story made me think. Many of the comments she made had a profound resonance for me. I started penning my first novel roughly two years ago and I am now beginning my seventh. I’ve often described my method of writing as borderline compulsive. From start to finish, it will take me about three months to write a book.
But this burst of creativity did not spring out of nowhere. Like Sarah Millican, the writing of my first novel was borne out of a very difficult period in my life. It was nobody’s fault and just one of those things that happens to plenty of people, but for a few months back then, the only thing I could manage to do in order to hold things together was to write. I suppose it was a form of escapism, but even if it was, it worked. not overnight, that’s for sure, but over the following months and year I began to recover, my novels giving me the respite I needed to achieve it.
Hearing Sarah Millican’s story, it made me wonder how many other people have been spurred to creativity whilst at their lowest ebb. Nowadays, I write my books for an entirely different reason and am perhaps more circumspect about them. But I would never have started this whole author business at all if it wasn’t for that temporary crisis in my life which of course, never feels temporary at the time.
It is one of the reasons why I feel particularly protective of my early books. Those stories and characters helped to lead me through the darkness. As an author, we can only hope that our books might strike a chord with someone going through a similarly testing time. In many ways, it is what the arts should be about. We are sharing our experiences of what it is to be human, through good times and bad.
I’m very glad that Sarah Millican decided to embark upon her career in comedy, she’s extremely good at it and it was obviously what she was always meant to do. But was it worth the trauma and upset which set her on that path in the first place? Who knows, it a question I really couldn’t answer myself. All we can do as writers and artists is move forward with our work, in the knowledge and hope that what we create now will be born out of joy rather than pain.

A disappointing end to an otherwise great drama #TheMissing

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I have to force myself to write this post when what I’d really rather do is forget I ever watched the final episode of The Missing.
This superior drama has gripped me from the very beginning with it’s script, acting and production values. I’ve invested a great deal of emotional energy in following its twists and turns. I know I am not the only one.
But about twenty minutes before the end of this last episode of eight, I found myself shifting forward in my seat with a slowly dawning horror that James Nesbitt himself would struggle to portray.

We weren’t actually going to get a definitive answer to the fate of Oliver.

Now, BBC dramas have done this to me before, but do I ever learn my lesson? No. Here I am again, feeling disappointed and frankly, rather upset. I would have watched the next series anyway, because the acting and direction have been so good. Now I’m not so sure.
A mystery thriller that continues over 8 hours needs to be resolved. I am a mystery thriller writer and I can attest to this fact. It’s a shame, because it feels cynical.
Perhaps I will see things differently in the morning. But for now, I’m seriously not impressed.

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