Category Archives: Television

TV Preview: The Women of Talking Heads

Talking Heads by Alan Bennett - BBC

The return of Alan Bennett’s anthology monologue series comes at an interesting moment, one where social and technological restrictions meet new expectations on all kinds of diversity, on-set behaviour and the value of the individual experience. When first screened in the late 1980s, Talking Heads was hailed as a masterpiece, gathering some of the UK’s finest actors in a series of short and somewhat radically presented stories direct to camera, celebrating the extraordinary in the ordinary and everyday, those closely observed tragicomic moments and personalities that Bennett has always chronicled so well.

Talking Heads is the perfect drama for our socially distanced world, created during lockdown at Elstree using some of the Eastenders sets (part of the fun is trying to spot them), and unlike much of the content created in the last few months no video calling platforms are involved either as the subject matter or the technical filming solution. Staged demonstrated that TV dramas can still achieve a level of pre-lockdown quality under the right conditions, and while Talking Heads retains a focus predominantly on the domestic, as a collective experience it shows what is now achievable as a seamless visual and technical experience, focusing entirely on the storyteller and their narrative rather than being distracted or disrupted by the medium used to deliver it.

Bennett is a writer who has always served his female characters particularly well and in this version of the play set which includes two new or previously unperformed stories, ten of the twelve Talking Heads have female protagonists, most designed specifically for middle-aged characters. Times have changed of course in the last 30 years and recent campaigns have highlighted the lack of substantial roles for older actors, the dwindling representation of working class characters and the sexual exploitation of female actors within the wider industry, and it is interesting to see how well Bennett’s work anticipates and actively responds to these issues.

Bennett writes particularly well for women and within the ten monologues presented here, there is a strong sense of how the outer lives of the speaker and their public demeanour conceals a more complex, often conflicted, inner life. Looking  across the selection, these are characters that modern drama would rarely consider – the quiet and apparently unassuming vicar’s wife, the antique shop owner and pensioner –  their voices and their stories overlooked for women living racier and more dramatic lives.

That Bennett finds the value in the experience of such women and the simmering emotional pull of desire, vanity, anger, grief and guilt is the joy of Talking Heads. That there is drama and meaning in the most ordinary of lives is Bennett’s point, and beneath the folds of the drabbest cardigan are layers of personality, some of it sympathetic, some utterly monstrous with masses of contradictory impulses to know and be known. No life is truly ordinary at all. It is useful, then, to reconsider a selection of these monologues in the light of modern sensibilities, to consider how the new performances bring a different or more developed insight to Bennett’s original text.

Her Big Chance

Performed by Jodie Comer, this is one of the few stories written specifically for a younger actor, dealing with a world beyond the domestic. Directed by Josie Rourke, this version takes on an enhanced resonance in the light of Me Too and thus retains its 1980s setting. This tale of an exploited young actress has many levels, one of which would read Lesley merely as a naive young woman tricked into appearing in a low-rent film and increasingly exposed both physically and emotionally. There is a version in which her failure to grasp what is really happening is a deluded lunge at fame in which she takes herself and her craft far too seriously, the outcomes entirely due to the personality of the character.

But with the testimonial experiences of recent years and those who have spoken out against film and television industry abusers, Rourke and Comer take a more knowing approach, ensuring that both the audience and Lesley understand the scarring consequences of her various encounters, building a moving sense of her vulnerability as the monologue unfolds.  Screening tonight on BBC1, Her Big Chance picks up the story at different points in time, with Lesley pausing to reflect on her experience as it happens, changing the tenure of the narrative as it unfolds and continually repositioning our image of this young woman as the recognition and experience of violation slowly crystallises in her mind.

And it was all there already, between the lines of Bennett’s script giving the performer any number of possibilities for interpreting this character and her degree of self-knowledge, something which ebbs, flows and morphs across the 42 minutes – one of the longest pieces in the set. Comer chooses these spaces between the words to situated her interpretation, putting a brave face on the narrative itself, even half-believing the effect she hopes this will have on her career and desire to be a serious actress, but in those breaths is a universe of pain, fear, regret and sorrow, that truth sitting like a shadow on her soul.

And while in the dozen monologues on offer Her Big Chance is not in the top tier, Comer’s performance certainly elevates the material and shares with her fellow actors a particular ear for the rhythm of Bennett’s dialogue, those fruitful commas that so purposefully create the peculiarities of speech, cadence and the conversational drift between remembered events and the protagonist’s present mindset. Comer uses the camera so well, open and expressive during the early excitement of auditioning for and landing a big film role, before shyly almost guiltily glancing away, the hint of tears as shame and fear creep in.

It is a theatrical experience with takes sometimes as long as 8-minutes in which Rourke places her camera in a confessional space, adding a girlish tinge to her set, dressed with soft low lighting in Lesley’s bedroom while the backstage area of her movie has hints of neon lights and a glamour just out of reach. There’s something of Tennessee Williams about it at times, a caged creature trying to break free and only falling deeper into the mire while the bolshie fragility that Comer unveils is troubling, dramatising her exploitation but always with the understanding of how that will resonate in twenty-first century Britain.

The Hand of God

In many ways, The Hand of God (screening on Thursday 2 July) is an interesting companion piece, fronted by a woman whose financial, social and emotional position seems relatively secure in comparison to Lesley. Played by Kristin Scott Thomas this tale of an antiques dealer failing to recognise an important treasure while preying on the homes of the soon to be deceased, is filled with snobbery, avarice and ambition while retaining its small-world community feel.

Directed by Jonathan Kent The Hand Of God is a gripping 32-minutes set in Celia’s shop where, like several other characters in the series, she watches life beyond the window while recounting clients and encounters we never see. Celia frets about an unsold table, the pressures of turning stock over quickly and the transparent games customers play when hoping to find a bargain.

But Kent uses these really interesting slow-tracking shots, a barely perceptible movement of the camera which during the lengthy segments subtly circles across and then in towards the character as her true nature is increasingly exposed. Using this technique, a layer of surface decency is expunged revealing, more subtly than in A Lady of Letters, the snobbery and occasional venality deep within her character.

But there is something incredibly rounded in Scott Thomas’s portrayal which quietly pinpoints grief and loneliness as the origin of her behaviour, while in her most vulnerable moments when exposed and publicly embarrassed, there is an empathy too that suggests how thin her veneer of respectability has been. Scott Thomas has a way of glancing from the corner of her eyes, fearing what our reactions to her will be. The repeated references to Celia’s love for painted furniture and loathing for the denuded appearance of stripped pine favoured by other dealers is crucial to her interpretation, the mask of middle-class decency, culture and poise she presents  hides a multitude of traits that in Scott Thomas’s contained performance seem to surprise her as much as they do the viewer.

The Shrine

In one of the new monologues, Monica Dolan’s character also finds herself surprised by her reaction to the death of her husband, one which in a sense upends the confessional nature of the previous stories. Although other tales have used the camera to unburden their conscience or their hearts, in The Shrine there is sometimes a marked contrast between the things Lorna tells us she feels and her subsequent actions. And while loneliness is an outcome of her newly widowed state, the driving forces of this story are grief and revelation, as Lorna discovers she didn’t know her husband as well as she thought.

Give Monica Dolan any kind of role to play and she will be devastating in it, and she has specialised particularly in the types of women Bennett likes to write about, seemingly ordinary, often put upon and fighting against an emotional repression that eventually bursts forth. In this story, Lorna has supported her husband throughout their marriage, guiltily telling the audience early on that she isn’t upset by his death, creating the impression of a once comfortable but now loveless marriage retained through habit and ease because at their time of life they don’t quite knowing what else they would do with themselves.

But Dolan’s performance is full of labyrinths so the audience is never quite sure how honest Lorna is being with herself and what information she has simply chosen to ignore or deny. Soon we discover regular visits to the place where her husband’s motorbike crashed, a spot which initially she insists has no meaning but is one she continues to return to, holding vigil day after day. The complexities of grief in Dolan’s characterisation manifest as subtle twitches and shakes as though holding in a tidal wave of feeling, telling us she doesn’t care but showing us how destructive Clifford’s death has been.

Screening on 9 July with Nicholas Hytner at the helm – the architect behind the reshoots taking direct control of several of the monologues – he directs The Shrine as though the audience is catching Lora unawares in the midst of other tasks. One scene is almost intrusive as the camera takes her by surprise in the hallway, forcing her to confront a knowledge of her husband  that she wants to hide from. Hytner’s approach isn’t aggressive, more nagging, reflecting Dolan’s own performance in which Lorna knows the truth but wants to pretend a little longer that she doesn’t.

Across the 10 monologues, Bennett’s women prove to be not-so-ordinary after all, and watching them in fairly quick succession it is interesting to consider how easily society dismisses or just doesn’t even see so many of these people. Bennett’s particular gift is for peeling back the cardigan to reveal female characters who may present one face to the neighbourhood but underneath are a blaze of contradictory emotions, hopes, fears and possibilities – their interior life, Bennett argues, is just as vital and valuable as anyone else’s. So, 30 years on the decision to reshoot these is entirely understandable, our context may be different and standards of behaviour changing rapidly, but human nature, is constant and whether it is petty jealousies at the antiques shop or inappropriate love stories, Bennett’s women have seen and felt it all.

The full series of Talking Heads is available on the BBC iPlayer for at least a year. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Series Review: Staged – BBC iPlayer

Michael Sheen and David Tennant in Staged (by BBC)

Who will be first out of the gate when theatres eventually reopen? It is a serious question, one that is surely taxing the minds of producers and directors across the country as they consider what can be safely staged in response to social distancing rules and public health expectations. Musicals with their large cast and crew requirements are likely to be at the back of the queue while plays with only one or two characters may be all that can be offered for a while. As Simon Evans’s cheeky new comedy points out, when the Government finally gives the go ahead, the best prepared teams will have their pick of the playhouses and first dibs on an audience desperate to get back to live theatre.

Evans’s delightful six-part comedy – showing weekly on BBC1 but also available in full on the iPlayer – centres around this notion while drawing on our lockdown experience of video calling platforms as a director tries to herd his two reluctant actors into rehearsals. Online theatre has changed considerably in the last three months, and we now seem a million miles from those tentative live readings on clunky Zoom calls uploaded to Youtube. Creatives have learned a lot and learned fast, and this rapid response to telling stories has resulted in some fascinating new content being created.

As well as ITV’s Lockdown Stories and the Donmar’s Midnight Your Time, several well-known theatre writers and performers created the anthology series Unprecedented, using the premise of video calling to tell a fascinating range of tales that covered everything from neighbourhood parties, vile team meetings and domestic abuse. No two perspectives and, crucially, no two filming styles were the same offering plenty of innovative approaches to what are straightened circumstances.

In a sense Staged is the culmination of all of that new knowledge, combining different kinds of camera, some installed as (or made to look like) webcams and others set-up and operated in the actors own homes, adding a level of polish to the show that would have seemed virtually impossible a few months ago. It also gives Evans greater flexibility in how he tells the story using a wider range of footage, including scene-break captures of deserted London streets, so eerie during the first phase of lockdown, and more sophisticated film cutting techniques that hardly betray the unusual circumstances in which this show was created.

Much has been made in the press of the obvious comparisons with The Trip, but that makes it sound derivative and although the slightly vexed two-person conversation is structurally similar, Staged actually seems better situated in the faux social-realism of fly-on-the-wall style “mockumentaries” as well the vast body of work generated about life backstage. Staged is more than merely 90-minutes of random banter between actors Michael Sheen and David Tennant, and Evans uses the time to construct a sense of how their personalities and frustrations have consequences for the work they are failing to accomplish.

While largely fictionalised, the border with reality – these are their homes and families – draws a line directly back to the comic seriousness of Victoria Wood’s earnest documentary sketches from the As Seen on TV series, passing through both The Office and This Country as it delineates its scenario so, rather than a workplace or a village, Staged is confined by the video platform and the physical boundary of the protagonist’s homes, using that to drive conversation and elicit reactions.

And this episodic production also speaks to theatre and film’s fascination with itself. At its heart, this is a story about the creative process and much of the humour derives from the ineffectual director losing control of the rehearsal period while mishandling various eruptions of theatre-politics that threaten to derail the play entirely. In this sense, Staged has everything in common with All About Eve, Present Laughter and, more recently, The Understudy (also recorded during lockdown), part of a long history of self-anatomising theatre and film.

As a story, then, Staged sits in this much broader context , giving an added dimension to the interactions between Evans, Tennant and Sheen, providing psychological insight into the fluctuating emotions of characters prevented by the pandemic from doing their jobs. At only 15-18 minutes per episode, these are perfectly pitched bite-sized pieces that can be eeked out or consumed in one sitting via the iPlayer, either way Staged is a richly rewarding experience.

The first episode is predominantly exposition as Evans establishes the premise. Initially it is a little stagey as Simon anxiously waits for lead David to convince Michael to costar in a revival of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author and to undertake rehearsals online so they are ahead of the competition when playhouses reopen. Padding around in his dressing gown and staring anxiously at the view, the heightened style is a little broad, but soon settles into an addictive rhythm.

The messes Evans creates for himself are pure sitcom as poor judgement and a lack of authority cause a ripple effect across the series. The consequences are left to a selection of juicy cameo roles in which producer Jo and a series of fabulously-timed guest stars pick up the comedy baton – none of whom should be spoiled in advance, the impact of their big reveal in the show is best discovered in the moment. The biggest of these appears in Episode Three when the original actor that Michael replaced must be told he is off the project. What ensues is a hilarious conversation initially between characters Simon, Michael and David, and then eventually with the guest star as the conferencing technology itself becomes the means of twice catching David out in silly lies that leave him with egg on his face.

Another well-known performer appears in Episode Five as Simon haplessly  recruits another actor to the cast without really having a major part for them, leaving David and Michael agog as they withstand their guest’s aggressively upbeat approach to lockdown. And finally in Episode Six a joyous cameo from a theatre legend drafted in by Simon and producer Jo to get his errant leads and rehearsals back on track. The recurring appearance of Nina Sosanya as fierce producer Jo is wonderful, and while you long to see more of her dismissive cool, her rationed appearances are, at the same time, just enough to pep-up the action as she savagely berates Simon’s failures. Listen out for her unseen assistant’s hysterical quip about furloughing him.

All of this builds a strong frame within which the two leads can shape their performances, the tenure of which ebbs and flows throughout the series as they bicker and support one another in what are two very game performances. The chemistry that Sheen and Tennant have developed overcomes their physical distance. As egos clash over credits, they force each other to stand in the corner for lying and brutally criticise each other’s appearance and performances – David is “cartoonish” according to Michael, while Michael is “mumbly” in David’s view – the enduring affection and respect for one another defies their socially distant technological interactions. Changing the credits at the beginning and end of every episode to reflect the discussions and dramas within is also a very nice touch.

The character of David is given the broadest context in some ways with scenes filmed around his home, participating in rehearsal calls from different rooms while interacting with his family or dealing with the pressure of lockdown. He is the more introspective of the two, and Tennant creates a sense of isolation and purposelessness in David, a man lost without the work that defines him. Wearing the same costume throughout, the strain of being trapped at home overwhelms him and he spirals into a kind of functioning depression as the series draws on, struggling to focus or find any creative satisfaction in the stunted play rehearsals.

Yet, Tennant doesn’t let the audience feel too sorry for him, tempering his creation with less appealing traits including a self-absorption that leaves his wife to manage their five children while almost neglecting their care in favour of calling Michael when he is required to parent. David also lies and manipulates other characters to avoid difficult confrontations which end up rebounding on him in a number of amusing ways, his sulky annoyance at being caught out in Episode Three is a highlight in an overall performance that is the essence of tragicomic.

Michael’s point of view is quite different, and the webcam angle is the only one the audience sees from his perspective. Other aspects of his life are referenced in conversation, but this singular view adds a layer of privacy to his character that fits the slightly belligerent disdain with which he regards the entire process and especially his Director. There is a different kind of ego in Michael which Sheen plays up to, one based on his professional success and lack of rejection. Some of the most entertaining conversations with David involve a sniping comparison of their theatre credits and this version of Michael thirsts for praise.

Michael is a far less introspective character than David, so softer tones are added in the concern for an elderly neighbour, a conversation that escalates across the series as he is blackmailed for secreting empty bottles in her recycling bin and eventually becomes involved in something more concerning. Sheen keeps Michael’s inner world under wraps to a degree, talking largely about work and nonsense but rarely giving much away about his emotional state. Yet, there is also plenty of humour in Michael’s continual ire with an argument in Episode Four one of his best moments while his menacing tendency to loom into the camera shows a technical understanding of film that proves extremely adept.

As their long-suffering partners Georgia Tennant has the best of it, a superwoman figure able to manage their many children, help a friend give birth, sell a novel and support her husband – mirroring the actor’s real self where she has additional hats of actor, photographer and producer. She has a naturalness on screen that suits the tone entirely and amusingly refuses to indulge David’s maudlin demands for attention. Sheen’s partner Anna Lundberg is less successful and while her wider life is more limited, Lundberg’s performance is too knowing, not quite meshing with the understated, conversational silliness of the very British humour.

In just three months, we have come a very long way in the quality and invention of shows created under socially distanced conditions. The success of Staged lies in the strength of its premise feeding through the structural and visual storytelling concept. How quickly Evans and his team have learned to get the most from the technology available, making a virtue of the video calling platforms we are all enduring. The fictionally lethargic Sheen and Tennant (or should that be Tennant and Sheen) might not be first out of the gate with their Pirandello, but while we wait for theatres to reopen, watched slowly or in one sitting, you’ll be glad to share a bit of lockdown with them both.

All six episodes of Staged are available on the BBC iPlayer for at least a year or screening on Wednesdays on BBC1. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Knives Out – London Film Festival

Daniel Craig in Knives Out (Director Rian Johnson)

Cosy murder mystery adaptations are a much loved TV staple, endlessly repeated on ITV3, but in the last 10 years the crime drama has changed dramatically and even the cosy cornerstones of Sunday afternoon television have taken on a far darker hue. The emphasis is now on the gritty and the grisly with gruesome murders often shown in frightening detail – think The Fall, The Killing and Luther. Even the ones that shy away from such excruciating visual assault take a tone of portentous doom like BroadchurchHappy Valley or The Missing, leading the way with multi-episode series that lean on the conventions of psycho-drama with dark subject matter including child abduction, serial killers and rapists.

And that more serious approach has made its way into even the lightest dramas; Midsommer Murders is fun but the inventiveness of the modes of death has always been grim – from death by cheese wheel to a pitchfork to the back through a deckchair. Think too of the more ominous tone that dogged the later Poirot and Marple adaptations as the protagonists were plagued by doubts and worries about the human condition, things that never used to trouble the Belgian detective and St Mary Mead villager so intently. Sarah Phelps’s Christmas adaptations have only continued the trend with a brooding tone to her versions of And Then There Were NoneWitness for the Prosecution and The ABC Murders. 

Big screen adaptations of crime stories tend to suffer from trying to squeeze a sizeable and complex novel into under two hours losing some of the characterisation that makes the story tick. Often, they are forced to bow to Hollywood conventions to liven things up as Kenneth Branagh did with the strange action sequence inserted in his adaption of Murder on the Orient Express that found an extensively mustachioed Poirot dangling from a train. But this intensity wasn’t always the case, serious adaptions of Agatha Christie films in the late 1970s and early 1980s morphed into something a little more exuberant, and by the time Peter Ustinov made Evil Under the Sun in 1982 everyone was having a lot more fun with a genre tipping over into self-parody.

Jonathan Lynn’s Clue which followed in 1985, a cinematic interpretation of the board game, was a hoot with a stellar cast of comedians including Tim Curry, Madeline Khan and Eileen Brennan. But more recently, inspired by Scandinavian dramas, even film outings for murder stories have followed television with the same preference for moody and brutal depictions of crime including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Snowman with varying success. When did fictional murder stop being fun?

There are fashions in crime writing just as there are in other cultural fields and now Rian Johnson – who was previously at the helm of a Star Wars film – is given free-reign to reverse the trend creating a movie that has all the hallmarks of a much-loved genre which he places in a very modern black comic wrapper. Knives Out is not a spoof, the tone is considerably sharper than that, but it is a loving homage to the lighter crime dramas that Johnson would have watched as a child, including Murder She Wrote which is given a momentary nod as a character watches an episode on their laptop. The film has the momentum of a thriller but the jaunty tone and all the fun of a comedy where the actors are the only ones taking it seriously.

Written and directed by Johnson there is a real confidence in how classic characteristics are integrated into the story of a crime novelist murdered in his country mansion without losing the tone of highly respectful mockery that Johnson maintains faultlessly throughout the film. It all takes place in a big Gothic, faux Victorian pile full of dark wood paneling that gives the setting a claustrophobic and doom-laden feel more redolent of horror films. At the centre of the interrogation room is a chair with a huge halo of daggers and knives pointing to the head of whoever sits in it – very Iron Throne – while in the house the unfortunate Thrombey family gather for a fatal party.

The limited cast of characters restricts itself further, with the most likely set of suspects given the most screentime, all with equally plausible financial motives and all heard to have some form of run-in with the deceased in the days or hours prior to the murder. Stir-in a changing will, some bumbling policeman, a subtle massaging of time and an arrogant freelance detective and Knives Out really hits the mark.

Johnson wastes no time in getting to the point, the murder happens, suspects are introduced with their motives spelled-out immediately and the murderer is revealed to the audience. Seemingly in the know, like an episode of Colombo, it’s now up to the authorities to put all the pieces together while we sit back. Well, not quite because Johnson has plenty of tricks up his sleeve to entertain and double-cross us, not least in having us sympathise with the perpetrator and the unfolding circumstances that set them running like a scared rabbit, as not only the dapper detective but also the rest of the family come after them without knowing their guilt.

And Johnson isn’t nearly done with us as the sands start to shift revealing more layers to the story than we first supposed and – as all great crime dramas should – recasting the entire problem in an entirely new light. In the meantime there is plenty of humour drawn from the wonderful characterisation and unfolding scenarios that Johnson so skillfully creates. Each member of the Thrombey family is given just enough screentime to suggest the extent of their personality and how the events of the film affect them. Leading an exemplary cast is Christopher Plummer as the victim – mostly seen through flashback – who exudes frustration with his relatives and a stern authority when dealing with their many failings directed at everyone except his sweet young nurse Marta who becomes a close friend and confidant. Plummer is particularly funny during his own murder scene taking notes on the method for use in one of his future plots – such moments of dry humour abound through the film.

Portrayals of his adult children are led by Jamie Lee Curtis as “self-made” businesswoman Linda who prides herself on creating her own firm from scratch and building it into a successful enterprise. There is just enough of Linda to see her tenacity and dismissal of the weakness she perceives in the rest of the family – a trait she wholly shares with her father – but Lee Curtis also shows Linda’s protectionist approach, refusing to be drawn into criticising her family by the goading of the detective, as well as a softer side revealed in a single look towards the end of the film as a crucial revelation is made to her. Don Johnson as her husband is far less principled, outraged by the change of will and leading angry protests to suggest his own double-dealing that he goes to some lengths to conceal.

Michael Shannon as Walt Thrombey Linda’s brother heads his father’s publishing business dedicated to its principle client but the menacing Walt is not as weak as he appears to be. Toni Collette is full of earnest self-delusion as an Instagram Influencer whose online success cannot fund her entitled lifestyle or her daughter’s private school fees, and while most of the junior generation remain largely in the background, Chris Evans’s bad-boy son of Linda and Richard enjoys every minute of his caddish part and the chance to slink-off his goodie twoshoes Captain America image.

But it is the central roles that yield the most joy with Ana di Armas’s nurse Marta as the family outsider whose “good-heart” makes her the perfect aide to the investigation while managing to convey genuine upset at Harlan Thrombey’s demise – the only character who really cares he’s gone. Best of all is Daniel Craig’s hilarious Benoit Blanc, the unusual private detective whose fearsome reputation for solving crimes gives him licence to refer to himself in the third person and adopt a Southern accent. This is one of Craig’s best performances, a rare outing for comedy skills only hinted at during his tenure as the rough tough James Bond who blasts through walls and adjusts his tailoring while leaping from a digger onto a moving train. His deadpan performance in Knives Out is full of great lines and beautifully-timed delivery that result in plenty of laugh-out loud moments. It is a real pleasure to watch Craig showcase his skills for whatever a post-007 world might bring.

Brilliantly managed by Johnson who controls the twists and turns with aplomb while delivering enough new information to keep the audience invested, Knives Out is a celebration of the light-hearted murder mystery with a modern twist. Stylish, hilarious and full of love for the genre, Knives Out is dead fun.

Knives Out is on general release in the UK on 27 November 2019. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

A version of this review was posted on The Reviews Hub website.


Adapting Les Misérables: Psychological Depth and the Period Drama

Dominic West - Les Miserables

The BBC’s adaptation of Les Misérables has been a huge success, gripping Sunday night viewing for the last five weeks offering the first truly comprehensive dramatisation of Victor Hugo’s mammoth novel. Andrew Davies has changed our relationship with the period drama and as a result of an equally epic War and Peace two years ago, and a trilogy of enduring hits two decades before – Pride and Prejudice, Vanity Fair and Tom Jones – he has created works in which the characters feel as rounded, human and as flawed as their original authors intended while making their timeless emotional and intellectual dramas feel contemporary. The success of Les Misérables lies in the psychological truth of the characters with Davies treating Hugo as his most important co-writer.

Reading the novel for the first time aged 17, and countless times since, the scale of this 1200-page behemoth is initially overwhelming and intimidating. A cast of hundreds with the action taking place across the vast geography of France in a 20-year period as the nation agonised over its recent revolutionary past and a political battle between monarchy and republic which led to frequent, violent confrontation akin to civil war.

Hugo’s multi-stranded narrative follows a group of characters who become unexpectedly enmeshed in each other’s lives as the various subplots draws them all to Paris for one explosive and poignant conclusion that neatly unites history, politics and fiction in what is an exceptional achievement in storytelling. Les Misérables is also an incredibly unusual novel taking a sequential approach to its character-histories, linked only by the protagonist Jean Valjean whose own life story is constructed through his appearance in other narratives – there is a book of Fantine, one of Cosette and a book of Marius, but only in the final section does Valjean warrant his own.

Frequently too, the story is disrupted by Hugo’s many digressions lasting for 10, 20, sometimes 100-pages, taking the reader out into a contextual discussion that showcases Hugo’s views on topics as diverse as a particular order of nuns, the construction of the Paris sewers or the penal system. These can be bulky and distracting but are designed to give a complete picture of the world of the novel, one that helps us to visualise particular locations or to understand why individuals choose to act as they do.

For example, more than hundred pages is dedicated to the Battle of Waterloo, a defining moment in modern French history for Hugo’s generation, yet it is not until the final couple of pages that two characters we know – Thenadier and Colonel Pontmercy – are brought together in a way that reverberates through the story. It is no coincidence that this was the starting point for Davies’s adaptation, a startlingly clever move that immediately set the tone while relegating the central character to several scenes hence, just as Hugo himself chose to do – Valjean is a fully-rounded and quietly heroic creation but he is also a cipher for other narratives, Les Misérables, quite deliberately, does not begin with him.

Few other television writers would be as brave and what Davies has done so effectively is to distil all of that text, those sub-narratives, events and detours into a tidy episodic structure that really for the first time does full justice to Hugo’s spectacular and intricate work. With six hours to play with, Davies has included scenes and vast swathes of the text never fully dramatised before, which for lovers of the richly layered novel is such a thrill. The root of all of this is that Davies simply trusts Hugo to tell his own story rather than inventing his own simplified version, and it is a joy to see the reverence this production has for the source material.

Each week, there has been a recognition that the density of Hugo’s writing is deliberate, that the small moments including the cruel abandonment of Fantine as a practical joke in Episode One, to the criminal events of the Gorbeau Tenement as Valjean is lured into a trap in Episode Four, and the even the tender relationship of Marius’s tragic father watching his boyhood from afar, are fundamental to the psychological shape of the story and what each character chooses or is compelled to do as a result.

Les Misérables is richly captivating, lyrically beautiful at points while also fierce, angry and incredibly moving, but what makes it so compelling is the endless compassion for the poor, the destitute and the wretched. Almost all of the principle characters have their story told in full and Hugo offers endless scope for redemption, no one is ever written-off for having once engaged in criminal acts that prevent them from changing their behaviour, on the contrary we see how often their transgressions are driven by desperation and circumstance rather than genuine depravity. Even the monstrous Thenadiers are softened by Madame T’s devotion to her young daughters (a “she-wolf” in Hugo’s description) and, in Olivier Coleman’s excellent performance, a fear of her husband with hints of domestic abuse, while the adult Eponine and teenage Gavroche redeem the family name with their bravery and self-sacrifice.

Valjean is the most obvious recipient of Hugo’s benevolence, and in spite of the bitterness of his incarceration for stealing a loaf of bread (which the novel makes clear was to feed his sister’s starving children) extended to nearly 20-years by repeated escape attempts, Valjean overcomes past hurts to become a respectable and generous man. Dominic West has been superb in a role that evolves considerably in the course of the novel; at the beginning, finally released from prison Valjean is all the things policeman Javert goads him with – coarse, embittered and quick to reoffend, his short temper frazzled by the suspicion and hostility that greet him.

West’s thoughtful performance conveyed the brutality of Valjean in Episode One, broken-down and almost feral, his whole body thrums with fury, dejection and injustice until the Bishop’s act of salvation creates a fascinating dilemma in the reawakened conscience of Valjean that West conveyed exactly. We have watched his humanity germinate and blossom in the ensuing episodes, and West has well conveyed the commanding factory manager troubled by his thoughtlessly harsh treatment of Fantine, and how his instinct after the Champmathieu affair in Episode Two is always to sacrifice himself to protect others, even at the risk of his own incarceration.

It is his fatherly devotion to the protection of Cosette that has been so warming in a man who has never known the simultaneous contentment and pain of unconditional love. A crucial moment in a dress shop in Episode Four was a wonderful example of screen acting from West as Valjean recognises for the first time that he is about to lose his adoptive daughter to the adult world and, still indulging her enthusiasm, a frozen smile with eyes full of sorrow conveys a moment of real heartbreak for the character, one which significant events in Episode Six will demonstrate means he will always sublimate his personal happiness to the greater good.

The idea that a person cannot be defined by a single act pervades the novel, most notably in the upright and steadfast certainty of Javert whose dogged pursuit of Valjean across the years is shown to be both noble and misguided.  The psychology of Javert is calibrated slightly differently to his nemesis, seeing the world through the prism of law and order, where an individual’s approach to rules and expectations determine character and behaviour.

David Oyelowo’s Javert is a tad less sympathetic than in the novel, and his pursuit of Valjean, the affront his freedom represents to Javert’s quite black and white concept of criminality and justice, has been less well explored, but Oyelowo has shown the dogged determination and fervent disgust for transgressors of any kind that fundamentally shapes Javert’s personality. You see him visibly blanch when encountering Fantine as a prostitute and at the residents of the Gorbeau Tenement, seeing only their actions and not the cause, leaving them with few options. This clarity of thought and of how monochromatically Javert sees the world will be challenged in Episode Six in an excellent opportunity for Oyelowo to demonstrate his skills and how well he understands this character.

Hugo’s endless compassion has been very evident on screen, most obviously in the sympathetic, though never mawkish, treatment of Fantine (Lily Collins), capturing her romantic naivety and the inevitable decline from poverty to shame – and how ghoulishly wonderful to see the teeth-pulling in all its horrid glory enacted by a chilling Ron Cook. Davies has maintained Hugo’s complex presentation of characters so even the students who we finally meet in Episode Four led by the dedicated Enjolras, and the romantic awakening of the dreamy Marius (Josh O’Connor), retain their individuality as well as their collective political fervour which during the superb barricade sections ensures you feel for the grandness of the gesture they are making as well as the smallness of its effect in the overall history of France.

There have been many adaptations of Les Misérables but none of them has felt as complete and satisfying as Davies’s approach, given the space to breath and evolve by the BBC across many episodes. From the interior depth of the characters and the grittier choice of locations, to the way in which the series as a whole has captured the politics, the history, the romance, and themes of social justice that unite Hugo’s vast novel, Davies and his team have told the story with a care and attention that has been impressive and very welcome. While much of Marius’s political and personal transformation as well as the context of the student’s experience building-up to the barricades has been sadly cast aside, Davies only fault has been to be so disparaging of the musical which, though decades old and by necessity a much shorter stage piece, had captured the spirit and feeling of Hugo’s words better than any other adaptation by drawing directly from them for the charming solos and rousing company numbers. It’s easy to scorn musical theatre, but Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s love and reverence for the novel shines through every moment of their composition.

It is the psychological complexity of the characters and a respect for the original author that has made Davies work so successful for so long. So many period dramas just tell the story, using the basic plot but without really creating a true sense of the world in which it exists or any credible sense that the characters are as human as we are. The desperation to prove contemporary relevance leads to rewrites, invented backstories and in the case of Agatha Christie adaptions entirely different murderers. You never feel with Davies’s work that he believes he knows better than Victor Hugo, and the original novel is always the heart and soul of each scene – contemporary relevance is stamped all the way through his productions because these novels deal with the enduring struggles of human nature as pertinent to 1832 when the latter part of the novel is set to 1862 when it was written and to 2019. With one final Episode yet to air, it’s clear that Andrew Davies’s adaptation of Les Misérables will be the definitive one for years to come.

Les Misérables is showing on BBC1 and Episodes One to Five are currently available on the BBC iPlayer and will be available for a year. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


TV Preview: The Little Drummer Girl

The Little Drummer Girl - BBC

We are in a golden age for drama and the BBC is at the forefront of a new wave of high-quality, unmissable storytelling, delivering some of the best new content this year, a lot of it in the last few weeks. Killing Eve, Trust, Press and Black Earth Rising, multi-part tales with high-quality performances. And then there was Bodyguard; collectively the nation’s heart stopped every Sunday night watching Jed Mecurio’s tense and twisty tale of politics and terrorism, so if you are feeling bereft by its conclusion then only one writer can even possibly compete, John le Carré.

A little over 2.5 years ago Sunday nights meant only one thing – The Night Manager – a multi-funded game-changer that brought the ambitious production values of film to the small screen with considerable style. Now, the same company have adapted another le Carré novel, The Little Drummer Girl, set in the late 1970s and examining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict played-out across Europe as spy organisations interconnect with terrorist cells. The first two episodes were previewed at the London Film Festival ahead of the show’s UK air date of Sunday 28 October, promising a story every bit as gripping, dangerous and obsessive as Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston proved to be. Warn the pubs, restaurants and bars because once again none of us will be going out on a Sunday night.

Episode One begins with a bomb delivered by a beautiful blonde woman and her mysterious companion to a Jewish home in Germany where it explodes killing a family. A Mossad agent known as “Marty” is on the trail of a Palestinian anarchist group targeting Israeli officials and known for recruiting a terrorist network to aggravate the conflict in the Middle East. But Marty needs an agent, enter Charlie, an actress spotted in a ropey pub theatre production of Saint Joan and offered a touring role in As You Like It. She is pursued to Greece by the enigmatic “Becker” who makes his presence known.

With Charlie firmly in their sights, Episode Two focuses on her incendiary political views, colourful backstory and just what they need her to do. Information is drip-fed to her as Marty’s team try to entice and force her help with some murky espionage. Meanwhile a second team has apprehended a key source and must make him reveal the whereabouts of an important meeting. With Marty closely connected to his equivalent number in Germany, just what can a single English woman achieve, and is Charlie on anyone’s side but her own?

Unusual for le Carré, The Little Drummer Girl is one of the few books with an independent female protagonist. Adapted by Claire Wilson and Michael Lesslie who collaborated closely while taking the lead on specific episodes, they have used le Carré’s base to make Charlie a fascinating and complex character with more than a bit about her. That shouldn’t be a surprise in 2018, but Charlie is a multi-faceted creation which in Florence Pugh’s excellent central performance leaves plenty of unanswered questions, proving to be every-bit as slippery and ultimately unknowable as her spymasters.

An intelligent girl living on her wits and an assured sexual confidence, the magnanimity with which she eases from actor on tour to agent-in-training is intriguing, taking it all in her stride with surprisingly little resistance or fear. Despite claims of a difficult background it becomes almost impossible for the other characters or the audience to know how much Charlie is acting and the extent to which she’s always some character or other. No one is ever who they seem in a le Carré, not even to themselves, least of all the supposed heroes, so seeing Pugh explore the edges of her character over the remaining four episodes will be a treat in itself.

Again, no le Carré story is complete without a series of intrigues within intrigues, and already the first two previews have established seemingly rival organisations, a dangerous and unstable political context, the involvement of innocents and a multinational landscape. And all of that gives rise to plenty of questions which the remaining episodes will answer. Do Marty’s two teams know about each other and why is there an English woman (Miss Bach played by Clare Holman) working for Mossad – is she a genuine recruit, a secondment from British intelligence or a plant? What role does “Michel” (Amir Khoury) have in the terrorist network, what is his link to Charlie, why did he plant the bomb and did both his brothers really die for the cause?

There are also links to the German secret service, and potentially to Charlie’s own father who may or may not have “disappeared” depending on which of her stories are true, and are her sun-worshipping actor friends as innocent as they seem? Events move fast in these initial episodes, establishing the various players and setting the scene for what’s to come, but although we are following Charlie, none of that means she or we are on the side of the good guys, but it’s going to be fun finding out.

Continuing his run of darkly engaging TV roles which mostly recently included a pivotal role in Big Little Lies, Alexander Skarsgård plays Becker/ Jose / Peter / Michel, a man who is at least one if not all of his men depending on the day, the scenario and the game. Like the most accomplished poker-player he gives nothing away, a consummate spy, it’s never clear what his motivation might be. By the end of episode two, he proves as complete an actor as Charlie, but strangely abstemious, he is no brooding hero, Becker clearly has secrets.

Skarsgård and Pugh crackle together, like an ever-evolving game of cat and mouse where you can’t tell who is toying with who. Repeatedly he leads her to the brink only to rapidly change the tone, while Charlies responds by trying to outwit him, using her allure to compromise Becker but neither succeeds in besting the other. Setting-out on a mission together, Becker tries to protect her from his superiors but whether their chemistry becomes physical or merely the mutual recognition of two performers knowing they are being played remains to be seen.

Another man with secrets is Marty Kurtz, the Mossad leader who leaves a trail of mystery in his wake as he spins a complex web between his shadowy German contact with furtive meetings over coffee and cake, the recruitment and grooming of Charlie to undertake a secret infiltration, and what we presume are his second team, hidden in a bunker somewhere extracting compromising material. Michael Shannon’s accent may be quite gloopy, but his character is like smoke, a man with his eye on the end result whatever the cost. All of this bodes well from a plot that will twist and shift in the coming episodes.

The Little Drummer Girl has lots to do to visually compete with Susanne Bier’s outstanding work on The Night Manager, a glossy treat that juxtaposed brutal violence with beautiful cinematography and picture-perfect locations. The trick for South Korean director Park Chan-wook is not to bother competing at all, at least not in quite the same way. Using the in vogue 70s aesthetic, Chan-wook uses colour rather than light to tell the story, saturating his images and particular characters with bright Mediterranean colours – vibrant yellow, deep sea blues, spring greens, orange, the occasionally flash of scarlet, and because it’s the 70s, brown. They bring a sensuality to each frame that oozes from the screen, whether set in the cosy autumnal interior of a London pub or the richly sunlit beaches and taverners of Greece.

And there is plenty of dazzling location-hopping to take the audience away from our dark Sunday nights and off to London, Munich and Athens already but with a trail leading across Eastern Europe and potentially to Israel by the end of the series. Chan-wook draws it all together in a carefully controlled visual design that uses wonderful examples of brutalist architecture to graphically marry different locations into one cohesive show.

Similar to the 2012 film version of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, there are plenty of concrete and marbled interiors that represent the 70s so well, sleek, clean and a bit emotionless with hard exteriors that the characters must reflect. And concrete in particular responds so well to the rays of coloured lighting that Chan-wook employs to vary the tone and intimacy of his scenes. The whole concept is richly detailed and should offer just enough exotic allure to keep the nation gripped while we try to work out le Carré’s complex mystery.

Scheduled to air from Sunday 28 October, this version of The Little Drummer Girl is everything you could want from a le Carré adaptation. While updating The Night Manager to the period of the Arab Spring added new resonance, here the 1970s setting still has plenty to say about the complex nature of the secret world in an increasingly fractured Europe. Bathed in shadow, vibrantly coloured with an absorbing plot, characters with plenty of dark edges and abundant intrigue, the nation’s new drama obsession is here. This really is a golden age for television drama, but with this one don’t believe anything you see, keep your wits about you and enjoy!

The Little Drummer Girl starts on Sunday 28 October at 9pm on BBC1. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


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