Saturday, 31 December 2011

Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down for BBC's 'Great Expectations'

Thumbs up

The opening scene, dripping and dank with the sight, sound and imagined smell of the marshes. Magwitch's appearance shocking but compelling. The boy Pip, emboldened through his fear.

Thumbs down

The lack of humour throughout - humour so evident in Dickens even in the most serious of his works. Here its absence was most felt in the portrayal of the Gargerys - no simple sentimentality or touching gaucheness from Joe; Mrs Joe's harshness not reflected in the mirror of absurdity, and therefore not tempered as it is by Dickens. Herbet Pocket, enthusiastically played here by Harry Lloyd, but not the hilariously lovable character of the book - the fight scene between Hebert and Pip, for example, was robbed of all its comic potential, dismissed in one blow.

Thumbs up

Miss Havisham's haunted appearance. The spectre of her beauty in Gillian Anderson's performance, more tortured as the years pass by.

Thumbs down

The grown-up Pip all too poster beautiful; Estella (forgive my saying) not nearly beautiful or alluring enough. And Pip as a pouting, supercilious adult descends so far that we can't recover enough sympathy for him to cheer his redemption, such as it is.

Thumbs up

David Suchet's Jaggers - his intelligence and smouldering scorn for Pip so well expressed in voice and eyes. His cutting precision - we can easily believe his success and reputation as a top London lawyer.

Thumbs down

Miss Havisham's death - while applauding the BBC effects department I can't comprehend or forgive the decision to make this a deliberate act of self-immolation. Dickens means the fire as fate's revenge on Miss Havisham for the two lives she has tried to ruin; it is hellish retribution not willed oblivion.

Overall score: 7/10

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

A Christmas quiz - books, films and music

For your festive fun and entertainment, try my Christmas quiz. Click on the Show/Hide button at the bottom to find the answers. Please comment to tell me how many you scored (but don't check out the comments until you've tried it yourself - there may be spoilers).

Round 1 Books

1. Which much-loved Christmas classic of 1978 is wordless?

2. Who wrote of a child's Christmas in Wales?

3. Which Shakespeare play has the lines: 'At Christmas I no more desire a rose/Than wish a snow in May's new-fangled mirth;/But like of each thing that in season grows.'?

4. A page from which Christmas book?

5. What are the opening five words of Clement Clarke Moore's poem, A Visit from Saint Nicholas?

6. What are the closing five words of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol spoken by Tiny Tim?

7. Apart from A Christmas Carol there are four other works by Dickens generally grouped together as 'the Christmas books'. Can you name one of these?

8. Which Agatha Christie novel has 'Christmas' in its title?

9. Who wrote about 'the journey of the Magi'?

10. In which Victorian classic does Tom Tulliver come home for Christmas?

Round 2 Films

1. Who played Scrooge in The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)?

2.  In which 1994 film does Father Christmas fall to his death from a roof on Christmas Eve?

3. In Love Actually what is the title of the Christmas Number One hit recorded by Billy Mack (Bill Nighy)?

4. In which 1942 film does Bing Crosby sing White Christmas?

5. Name this 2003 film.

6. What name is given to the Pumpkin King in Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas?

7. Which 'miracle' was originally seen in 1947 and has since reappeared differently - for example in 1959, 1973 and 1994?

8. What is the first name of the character who was 'home alone' at Christmas in 1990?

9. Name this 1946 Christmas classic.

10. Which 2003 film was publicised with the strap line 'He doesn't care if you're naughty or nice'?

Round 3 Music

1. Who went 'rockin' around the Christmas tree' in 1962?

2. A Facebook campaign helped prevent a fifth consecutive X Factor winner from topping the UK Charts for Christmas 2009 and helped which US performers to Number One instead?

3. In 1973 Elton John invited us to 'hop aboard the turntable' and... what?

4. According to the well-known carol, 'Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen.' What date is that, in Western tradition?

5. Who featured with the Pogues in the recently re-released Christmas favourite Fairytale of New York?

6. Which song featured in the film version of 'The Snowman'?

7. Which Christmas artefact did Lady Gaga sing about in 2008?

8. The title has been brushed out of this famous Christmas album cover. What is it?

9. In the song Twelve Days of Christmas how many birds are there in total?

10. Which 1980 song became a Christmas favourite even though it has nothing to do with the festive season except for the line 'Wish I was at home for Christmas'?

Monday, 12 December 2011

Writing is talking to an ear in the dark

Shortly before our music and reading collaboration Born at the right time, the singer Billy Mitchell called me at home. ‘I’ve just finished reading your stories, David,’ he said. ‘You’ve told my life in there.’ I still cherish this as one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever been given as a writer.

Billy was talking about the stories in my collection We Never Had It So Good. Like me, he grew up in a North East mining community and at one level must have seen parallels in the locations and characters I used for the book. His comment seems to go deeper though, and certainly much of the writing is interior, based on the perceptions and sensibilities of a young boy such as he and I were in the mid-to-late 1950s.

Was Billy the reader I had in mind when I wrote the stories? Or was I, in a sense, talking to myself, or rather to the young boy I may have been then? The answer lies somewhere between the two. Did you ever as a child camp overnight (if only in the back garden) with a friend, or have what is these days called a sleep-over, perhaps one of you lying in a sleeping bag next to your friend’s bed? If you recognize this situation, or some variant of it, chances are you will remember too, after the jokes and the horseplay and the repeated calls from downstairs - ‘Do you two know what time it is? Go to sleep’ - how you would lie there talking quietly in the dark together, in a kind of intimacy. That’s the best way I can describe how my writer talks with my reader.

Nor is this confined to semi-autobiographical first person narrative. My thriller 11:59 has the central character Marc getting things off his mind in a confessional way. Though I tell the story in first person present tense for immediacy, I always felt while I was writing that I was inhabiting both Marc and his trusted, listening confidant.

Even the soon-to-be-published Mr Stephenson’s Regret, a third person historical, seems to work best where I can hear the central character Robert unburdening himself to me in the role of friend, perhaps a surrogate of his close friend George Parker Bidder who comes to the fore in the novel’s epilogue. And the articles I write for this blog and various publications are often conceived in the unsleeping darkness and shaped for the unknown bosom pal who is my reader (always one in my head, though I hope there are a few more of you out there).

I don’t consciously set out to think and write like this; it’s the way it comes out of me, as if I’m acting as a medium for my characters, my words, in a one-to-one seance of imagination. When the spirit is truly with me, I would not be alarmed to hear someone say in the dark, ‘That’s him, that’s Uncle Albert, I know it is,’ or maybe the voice of Billy Mitchell: ‘You’ve told my life in there.’

Friday, 2 December 2011

Review of 'At Home' by Bill Bryson

It's a while since Bill Bryson has written a travel book, but he certainly wanders far and wide with this one, though he never leaves his own house.

The answer to this paradox is in the structure of the book. Bryson packages his short history of private life into a sort of rambling tour around the rooms of his home, a mid 19th Century former Church of England rectory in a Norfolk village. (This American writer has lived for many years in England.) He uses the function or former function of each room, or sometimes its contents, as his starting-point for a wide-ranging, leisurely and digressive examination of the way our domestic lives have been shaped by innovators of the past. Many of those had enough idiosyncracies and obsessions for our guide to spin humour from, in much the same way he does with characters he meets along the way in his travelogues. Here he is not taking us along the Appalachian Trail or for a walk in the woods, but across time and continents, drifting pleasurably, with occasional swoops and dives, so that we feel sometimes like the boy being taken for a magic ride by the Snowman, where walls are no barrier and there's no particular schedule to worry about.

And that's the feel of the book - an engaging adventure, a fun exploration in the company of an amiable, cherubic narrator - if not the Snowman perhaps a jolly, anecdotal uncle. Don't look for structured history in Bryson's work, still less for philosophy, as some reviewers seem to have expected and been disappointed not to find - these are not Bryson's style. He's a dipper-in, a snapper-up of trifles, a jackdaw for twinkling facts.

Bill Bryson

The only further gem it would be a delight to have seen revealed by the author as he guides us through his home would concern the daily detail of his own living there, and his family's, but he keeps that particular private life out of these pages, and we can't really blame him for that in these prying days.

The tour through the house is anyway nothing more than a convenient device, and Bryson cheerfully drops it in several places when he can't map out a starting-point for what he wants to include precisely from the room we are in.

The whole tour is so discursive that I get the feeling he could have taken us back to the beginning and started again with a whole different set of interesting things to say. I'd happily sign up for that tour too; Bill Bryson is very good company.