Saturday, 24 October 2015

"Suffragette" film, 2015

This post contains plot spoilers about the 2015 film Suffragette.

On one hand I was very excited to see the 2015 film Suffragette because this is a period of history I have long been fascinated and inspired by. One the other hand I was very nervous to see the film precisely because I know so much about the era - and I was worried that the film industry would either a) over-dramatise things for effect to distort facts, or b) invent one or two things to make the plot more ‘Hollywood’.

I always refer to myself as a supporter of the suffragists rather than the suffragettes. The suffragists (the peaceful ones who campaigned for many decades but rarely made the news) far outnumbered the militant suffragettes (the ones who got the headlines for the few years they were active), and it frustrates me that the law-abiding, peaceful and effective suffragists are so often overlooked than their more sensational sisters. So while it looks unlikely that a film about Millicent Fawcett’s lifelong campaign and petitioning will be made any time soon, Suffragette is the best we’re likely to get for now.

Directed by Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) and written by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady), there is a refreshing volume of women in key production roles here - which is of course very rare when still only about 10% of films released every year are made by women.

The dominance of Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst in the pre-release advertising for Suffragette is baffling considering she’s in the film for fewer than five minutes. Baffling… or a cynical marketing ploy to boost audiences? I would argue it would have been more impressive and significant to have a lesser known actor take the role of Emmeline for this film to avoid it derailing the narrative.

And while I’m normally a fan of Carey Mulligan, I felt her leading performance here as laundry worker Maud was unconvincing, especially when paired alongside the far more effective Anne-Marie Duff (militant worker Violet) and Helena Bonham-Carter (pharmacist and rabble rouser Edith). In fact Helena, whom I normally shy away from, was so good that I’d go far as to say that hers is easily the best performance in Suffragette.

But what about the menz? As hardened Inspector Steed, Brendan Gleeson is impressively cruel and conniving but with just the right amount of doubt in his heart. However, as Maud’s husband Sonny, Ben ‘Paddington Bear’ Wishaw gives the worst performance of his life. We have seen and enjoyed Ben playing all manner of fluffy roles over the years, from Pingu in Nathan Barley, to Q in James Bond and, of course, the new voice of Paddington Bear. So Ben was going to have to whip out the mother of all monsters to convince us as Maud’s tyrannical and cold-hearted husband… and he failed miserably.

Suffragette did not disappoint me for the reasons I had expected. Gavron and Morgan mostly avoided over Hollywood-ising the plot and inventing too much for the name of drama (as if there wasn’t enough drama in the suffrage campaign to start with). Instead I have two other. major issues with the plot.

The first is the cack-handed way in which the entirely implausible plot of Sonny giving up his and Maud’s beloved son George for adoption so quickly, and the tiny fragment of protest that Maud put up which is entirely at odds with the absolute devotion to her son she has shown until this point - the son whom she barely mentions again in the rest of the film. Yes, Morgan wanted to shoehorn in the issue that mothers were denied all legal rights to their children until 1925, but it was dealt with so clumsily and awkwardly that it made very little sense here.

Moreover, the bizarre narrative arc - or rather, lack of a narrative arc - across the entire film was disappointing. We start conventionally enough with Maud’s story, following her as a laundry worker, devoted mother, tired housewife, and we see her neatly fall into a prominent role in the Women’s Social and Political Union with some new and important friends. But then suddenly Emily Wilding Davison appears and her story takes over, and the film ends with Emily’s death under the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby. But what of Maud’s story? What happened to her son? Where did she end up living, as she can’t have stayed in that derelict church for ever? What did she go on to achieve in the WSPU? Her story is never concluded. It is a deeply unsatisfactory ending.

So while I wanted to embrace a film about the campaign for women’s suffrage because we have waited so very long to have one, I feel that Suffragette has fallen short in a huge number of areas. However, the trailer for He Named Me Malala made that film look extremely interesting. And on Monday I will be seeing the BFI’s newly curated strand Make More Noise: Suffragettes In Silent Film, which is a series of 21 original short films from the 1910s that document the suffrage campaign. So there is still hope that an excellent film about women’s history is out there. I will report back.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

'Rebellious Spirits - The Illicit History of Booze in Britain'

Booze has always been on the cusp of banishment. It's part and parcel of what makes it so much fun. From the prohibition laws of the 1920s to the general fear of moral turpitude, the powers that be have frequently fretted about whether or not we know what's good for us. 

And now, Alchemist Dreams founder Ruth Ball has delved into the cocktail cabinet to research and write Rebellious Spirits: The Illicit History of Booze in Britain (published in a beautiful hardback edition by Elliott & Thompson). 

With a background as a chemist scholar and a career in handmade liqueurs, it's hard to think of anyone better placed to write such a book. What's that? You'd rather someone with alcohol-infused ancestry had put pen to paper? No problem. Ruth's very distant relation is Admiral Edward Vernon who, according to what it says on my bit of paper here, is "the man who invented grog as a way to serve the rum ration to the navy in 1740". It's safe to say that with Ruth at the helm of this book, we're in safe hands.

Rebellious Spirits is a damn fun read. How could it not be? With chapters devoted to each of the major spirit groups (whisky, gin and co), as well as the infamous speakeasies that have become so painfully hip again, Ruth has truly committed herself to the business of becoming the biographer for booze. So much so that she has not only recreated the recipes for several cocktails from days of yore, but also brought them up to date for more contemporary palates with a mixture of alcohols that are less likely to, err, blow the brains off our more delicate constitutions. If there's one thing alone we learn from Rebellious Spirits, it's that our forefathers were much harder drinkers than we are. 

I love the mix of historical facts with recipes and personal stories from the characters involved. And the characters we meet on the way are fascinating - as are the ingenious lengths they go to in order to conceal their illicit booze making from the authorities. To avoid giving away any spoilers, the best I can say is that you must read this book and learn that there are people out there who quite literally died so that you could enjoy a dram of whisky when you fancy one. 

For more information and to buy a copy, please click here

Thursday, 15 October 2015

'The Crucible' at Bristol Old Vic

Cast photo by Geraint Lewis
Arthur Miller’s famous 1953 play The Crucible made its British debut at Bristol Old Vic in 1954, so it is only fitting that it returns to this famous stage to mark 100 years since Miller’s birth (and 10 years since his death).

This is my second viewing of The Crucible, having previously seen a very dry production at the Nottingham Theatre Royal in the late 1990s. I’d be lying if I said I had enjoyed that one back then. But the opportunity to see this production directed by Tom Morris - the theatre’s executive director - was too good to pass by.

Morris wisely chose to present a ‘straight’ production of The Crucible, with none of the puppets or other distractions some of his other shows have become known for. When the script and cast are as tightly knit as they are for this performance of The Crucible at Bristol Old Vic, there is really no need for anything extra.

Centred around the moral backbones of John (Dean Lennox Kelly) and Elizabeth Proctor (Neve McIntosh), the entire and expansive cast is faultless. Particular praise must go to Rona Morison whose performance as teenage troublemaker Abigail Williams is outstanding - and whose narrative threads the whole show together into a disaster of literally biblical proportions for the town and the Proctors.

We open on Rev Parris (Jude Akuwudike) and his niece Abigail fretting about Parris’ daughter Betty (Zoe Castle) who has apparently been struck dumb and motionless after a night of revelry in the woods with Abigail and some of the town’s other young girls. Rumours quickly spread that the girls were engaged in witchcraft and this escalates to suggestions the girls were conjuring the spirits of dead babies, drinking blood, dancing naked and flying through the air like spectres. The town is divided between those who are quick to gleefully believe such scandal and those who think the girls are just playing for attention. But Abigail’s devious past leads her to guide the girls into truly terrible behaviour… while the illogical actions of the religious zealots and Governor Danforth (Jeffrey Kissoon) is spine-chillingly horrific.

Famously inspired by the metaphorical Communist witch hunts that informed Miller’s experience of life in America in the early 1950s, he uses the actual Salem witch trials of 1692 as an allegory for the horror of publicly - and falsely - accusing innocent people of all manner of evils with not a care for evidence, proof or reason. As has been noted by many, the message of The Crucible can be applied to any era you care to mention and this is doubtless part of the play’s resounding power.

For a contemporary spin, just consider the current trend for social media shaming. Where interfering people illicitly take photos of strangers doing perceived wrong acts, and post them online for others to share, name, shame and compulsively vilify. At times this has even resulted in people losing jobs and relationships with no course of action to defend themselves… and even if they did, nobody would listen because it is much more ‘fun’ to believe the salacious rumours than to listen to facts and reason.

The haunting refrain of “There’s a beautiful home of the soul … ‘Tis a land where we’ll never grow old” through this production of The Crucible is heartbreaking in its truth and simplicity. There’s a reason why Miller’s play has survived for so long and with its timeless message it will surely survive for generations to come.

The Crucible is performed at Bristol Old Vic until 7 November. Click here for more information and to book tickets.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

"The Amazing Equal Pay Show", 1974

From out of the second wave Women’s Liberation movement in the 1970s and 1980s there came a powerful surge of feminist theatre and film groups. One such collective was the London Women’s Theatre Group, formed in 1972 when Midge MacKenzie placed an advert in a newspaper looking for women to join her in forming their own filmmaking collective. In a pre-punk spirit, they forged on regardless of whether or not they knew how and taught themselves the required skills as they went along.

The sixth film to come out of the London Women’s Theatre Group (LWTG) was The Amazing Equal Pay Show in 1974, which worked with the Women’s Street Theatre Group (WSTG) to turn some of their feminist street performance into cinematic film. The result is a chaotic, anarchic and “political burlesque” (according to the BFI) about women’s fight to be paid the same as men for doing the same work. Watching it in 2015, I am again reminded of the punk DIY spirit, even though the main UK punk heyday was still around the corner waiting to explode in 1976.

The LWTG filmmaking styles foreshadow the work of punk directors such as Derek Jarman and Julien Temple, particularly in the later’s 1980 film about The Sex Pistols: The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle. Aside from both films being superficially concerned with money, they are both films led by a duo of chaos-creating grotesques.

In The Amazing Equal Pay Show, the Machiavellian and upside-down moustachioed male villain (played by a woman, of course) parades around as a top-hatted circus leader who manipulates the women into doing what he wishes in the interests of boosting his capitalist purse. And at his side is the grody Poodle - a dollybird puppet trussed up in stockings and suspenders, pink wig and with a mask covering her true features; a woman who is routinely reminded to dance and distract the masses from their misery. The age old trope of man pitting women against women and hoping for a fight.

Meanwhile The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle has the Cockney pantomime villain of guitarist Steve Jones lording it around the UK in a Rolls Royce as he hunts down the unscrupulous Malcolm McLaren who is delivering his step-by-step guide to generating cash from chaos while on the run from the establishment… with dwarf Helen Wellington-Lloyd and punk matriarch Jordan bringing up the rear in bondage wear.

The overriding message of both films is "no future". For the Sex Pistols there was no future for the working-class youth, and for the London Women’s Theatre Group and Women’s Street Theatre Group there was no future in a capitalist society that was determined to keep women in the kitchen, dependent on men for every single penny. Neither film ends hopefully, but both show the underdogs kicking against the system and fighting for a voice.

The Amazing Equal Pay Show is clearly a consciousness-raising tool, drawing women’s attention to the gross financial inequalities they endured at the hands of men, but doing so in a carnival manner incorporating circus ringleaders, song, pantomime, drama and horror. With no clear narrative, and the cast swapping characters and genders, it’s not surprising to learn filmmaker Midge MacKenzie had spent time in the 1960s with the likes of Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc Goddard. 

What stands throughout The Amazing Equal Pay Show is the LWTG’s burning desire to speak on behalf of all women and to give them the voice that patriarchy and capitalism denied them.

In an era where women couldn’t buy anything expensive without finding a man to stand as guarantor for them, an era with no social media and many homes still not even having a telephone, a voice was one of the many things that a lot of women were denied.


In 1975, Midge Mackenzie would go on to devise, develop, co-produce (and author the accompanying book to) the BBC’s groundbreaking TV drama Shoulder To Shoulder about the suffragette movement, which remains the only televised drama of this important time. While director Linda Dove would win awards for her feminist film-making in subsequent years.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Threat Of Women With Voices

Twitter is good because it gives a public voice to women who previously were denied that unless they were one of the few who managed to win a newspaper column. Twitter is bad because it gives an anonymous public voice to certain men who want to shut those women up and think that rape threats are the answer.

Top tip - rape is never the answer. I can’t believe some people need to be told that. It’s up there with ‘Don’t kill’.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been on the receiving end of violent and sexual threats on Twitter in recent years. But I haven’t lost sight of the fact that every single time it is a result of me having spoken out about something to do with feminism.

More often than not, the aspect of feminism I’ve spoken out about has been something to do with violence against women: eg my support for the closure of sexual entertainment venues (also known as lap dancing clubs or strip clubs); my support for the survivors of rape who have had their right to anonymity waived by the media without their consent; my professional opinion about why jokes about rape and sexual violence against women are not acceptable. You get the drift.

I was asked by a newspaper to comment on a particular story earlier this week, and my gut response was to say ‘no’ because I knew that to say anything about this particular story would lead certain people (men) online to threaten me.

But I did give a quote.

And despite the predictable violent and sexual threats I’ve since received I’m glad I gave a quote, because if my reason for being silenced was due to fear of intimidation then patriarchy has won. And then what hope do women have?

However, it is unacceptable that there remains no way of regulating the hate speech that certain people on Twitter (and other forms of social media) think it is their right to lobby at strangers in the name of banter or free speech. The ‘report’ function on Twitter? Useless. Almost as useless as the ineffective ‘report’ function on Facebook.

As 2015 draws to a close and 2016 beckons, it remains depressing that women are still routinely subjected to abuse and sexual threats every time they voice an opinion that threatens the fragile male ego (ie that men are not the only gender that matters. Again, I can’t believe some people need to be told this).

The high profile instances of women being violently threatened online are numerous, and one or two people have since been prosecuted. But it’s far from enough. There needs to be accountability for threats and hate speech online. These idiots need to learn that they can’t get away with making threats of sexual violence online any more than they could get away with making the same threats to someone’s face. Hate speech is a criminal offence. Hate speech is not the same as free speech. Seriously, it's not.

I really don’t know what the answer is. But something needs to change.