Friday, 9 December 2016

'The Snow Queen' at Bristol Old Vic

Photo: Mark Douet

Steampunk cannibals, animatronic aristocracy and flower power. These are just a few of the styles in the Bristol Old Vic’s slightly sinister new show for winter 2016.

Inspired by the Hans Christian Anderson tale of the same name, The Snow Queen (directed by Lee Lyford) is set in an idyllic village where neighbouring children Kai and Gerda have grown up side by side to become the very best of friends, with their hearts as pure as the whitest snow.

But when the tranquility of the village is rocked by the devastating disappearance of child after child, Kai and Gerda are the last two remaining… and the villagers realise that the legend of the wicked Snow Queen (Gwyneth Herbert) - who feeds off the souls of naughty children - might be true after all. So when Kai (Steven Roberts) ultimately falls under the Snow Queen’s spell, Gerda (Emily Burnett) must set out on an adventure to find her friend and bring him home.

The inspired stage design by Tom Rogers is just fantastic - an imaginative and ever-changing combination of rural villages, spiky ice castles, psychedelic florals and more. And the use of projections (both pre-filmed and live) was delightful and effective. Continuing the trend for incorporating the onstage musicians as part of the show, composer Gwyneth Herbert was brilliant as a multi-instrumentalist, conductor and the commanding voice of the Snow Queen.

However, an absolute highlight was a song by a sad reindeer (Dylan Wood) who had lived his whole life in captivity, performed pitch perfectly in the style of The Smiths… although, slightly, depressingly, perhaps the inclusion of The Smiths in a Christmas family show is a nod to the fact that most people of our age are now old enough to be parents. Argh, I suddenly feel very grown up! But it was delivered magnificently and had me in stitches. Bravo.

Photo: Mark Douet
I loved the animatronic Snow Queen, I really did. As a terrifying and monstrous creation, the mammoth puppet (maybe 9ft tall?) was extremely effective. With a face like an alien, white spikes jutting out all over her and gaping holes through her huge ghostly rib cage, in silhouette she was even more frightening than when revealed. Fantastic! And bravo to her various puppet masters who controlled her excellently throughout, as well as designer Marc Parrett.

Another delight were the goblin scientists who worked the wicked Snow Queen’s magic for her… with the lead scientist Dr Boffin (Joanna Holden) inventing all kinds of gadgets to make the Snow Queen even more villainous. Dr Boffin’s sidekick Apprentice (Dylan Wood again) was the perfect foil for her scatty professor schtick. And my scientist friend in the audience reliably informed me that this was an exact recreation of the kind of shenanigans scientists get up to in the lab all day. Who am I to doubt this?

Although a little frightening in places for junior audience members (it may contain scenes of what DVDs euphemistically call “mild peril”), The Snow Queen is yet another Bristol Old Vic triumph. The annual Christmas show from this favourite theatre has become a highlight on the cultural calendar, but after the soaring heights of Swallows & Amazons and Peter Pan it has taken a few years for them to produce something good enough to match. While The Snow Queen is not quite up there with the dizzy heights of Peter Pan (surely the finest Christmas production ever?), it is the Bristol Old Vic’s strongest Christmas show for several years. Enjoy!

The Snow Queen is performed at Bristol Old Vic until January 15, 2017. For more information and to book tickets, please click here.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

'The Accidental Dictionary' by Paul Anthony Jones

You know who you need on your pub quiz team? Paul Anthony Jones, that's who. Seriously, this guy seems to be a fount of all lesser-known obscure yet fascinating wordy facts. 

Some 18 months after the Haggard Hawks language blogger published his book Word Drops (reviewed by me here), Paul Anthony Jones publishes this, his fourth etymology book. This time, his focus is on words that have since done a volte-face, with surprising and often comical results. 

For instance, 'buxom' originally meant 'obedient', a 'penguin' was originally an 'auk', and 'noon' used to mean '3pm' (I think this is an idea we should swiftly return to, I mean, who doesn't need more time in their day?).

Jones' level of detail is commendable and one can only presume this is a man who lives beneath a towering collection of very dusty archaic dictionaries in the British Library. I mean... just how does he find all this stuff out?

Most charming of all? 'Tiddlywink' used to refer to an unlicensed pub. 

There's no need to know any of this... but it sure makes life a lot nicer to find these things out. 

The Accidental Dictionary is published now by Elliott & Thompson.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

'The Day Before Yesterday' - Noel Streatfeild

While waiting to get some keys cut in the market a few weeks ago, I had a rummage around the secondhand book stall and immediately my hand fell upon a lovely green hardback boasting the name of Noel Streatfield. Well known to many as the author of Ballet Shoes and all the subsequent spin-offs, Streatfield is a much-cherished writer whom many women of my age hold a very soft spot for. 

The Day Before Yesterday is a fantastic idea and an even more fantastic concept. Published in the 1950s, Streatfield realised that society was changing so fast that it needed to be recorded and it needed to be recorded by the people who had lived through those times. So with a focus on the period 50 years prior to publication, she asked all manner of people to share their stories of what life was like for them. And the ensuing book is presented at all stages of a girl's life, and crossing the class boundaries - for it is clearly a female reader for whom this book is intended. 

So we start with a Victorian nursery nurse, and move on to a school teacher, and a barely-teenage housemaid. We learn about the changes in transport, as the granddaughter of a coach king shares how her grandfather's empire grew from a few horse-drawn coaches to a fleet of thousands of motorised omnibuses that monopolised the London transport system. We heard first-hand from a suffragette on the frontline, in what is possibly my favourite segment - which is all the more poignant because it is not written by a 'famous' suffragette, but by a woman whose contributions and achievements to the women's rights cause might well otherwise be forgotten. 

This is a truly delightful book. A wonderful snapshot into the history of a long-gone ages that really wasn't so very long ago. As an added curiosity, the book I bought had originally been a school prize from a fee-paying girls' school in Bristol, won by a pupil in 1956. I wonder what happened to the woman who won this book and if she felt as inspired by it as I did, 60 years later? 

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

'Madame Solario' by Gladys Huntingdon

This feels like an ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ moment. An admission of my own failure and confirmation that surely I’m missing something crucial if I could but see it. Because I’m sorry, but I really couldn’t get on with Madame Solario, which is one of the three new Persephone Books for the autumn.

I’m certain this this must be a failing with me and not the book. It must be. Because trying to prove myself wrong, I scoured the internet and read other reviews of Madame Solario that were unanimous in their love of the book, reverential about the writing and which embraced the characters completely. So why did I find it such a slog?

Originally published anonymously in 1956, Madame Solario caused quite a stir in its day with its accounts of unashamed love in a hedonistic summer at Lake Como in 1906. By the time of a 1980s reprint that revealed the author to be American writer Gladys Huntingdon, Madame Solario was accepted as a little-known but well-regarded literary triumph.

All of the ingredients were there for me to enjoy Madame Solario as much as everyone else seems to. Set in glorious Italy at the end of a turn-of-the-century summer, as the over-entitled upper-middle-classes swan about with a mixture of disregard and unrequited love for one another. Fabulous! What’s not to enjoy?!

But it just didn’t work for me. It took such a long time for anything to happen, and then an even longer time for anything else to happen. There were too many characters to try and distinguish from one another in the early chapters that I kept having to skim backwards to refresh my memory as to who they were. I found it impossible to care about any of the main characters, once I’d worked out who they were, and whether they found the happiness they felt they were entitled to. Ultimately it became a chore to read… and when there are so many books in the world that you’ll simply never have time to read, it feels wrong to spend time on a book you are not enjoying.

Of course, it is impossible for everyone to like a book, no matter how good it is. It’s all a matter of personal taste. And I feel I have missed something significant by not falling in love with Madame Solario the way that reviewers such as this one and all these have. So perhaps this will be a book I return to in a few years with fresh eyes and see anew. Here’s hoping.

Friday, 21 October 2016

'The Grinning Man' at Bristol Old Vic

Photo: Simon Annand

Victor Hugo wrote his novel The Man Who Laughs while exiled from France to Guernsey in 1869; exiled owing to the political content of his previous novels. So instead The Man Who Laughs focuses on a boy, Gwynplaine, who was mutilated as a child to have a permanent grin carved onto his face, committing him to a life in the freak shows. But his smile becomes infectious and soon Gwynplaine is embroiled in a quest to uncover his past that, inevitably, flutters over the heart.

While two Hollywood films and several theatrical adaptations have been attempted in the past, here Bristol Old Vic director Tom Morris gives the story of whole new lease of life as a brand new musical called The Grinning Man.

With some of the Kneehigh Theatre crew helping out (Carl Grose has written the script, and Patrycja Kujawksa is in the cast), and with Morris re-enlisting some of the Gyre and Gimble puppetry tricks from the hugely acclaimed War Horse, The Grinning Man is setting its flag quite high with a strong pedigree.

Taking our seats in the Bristol Old Vic auditorium, you’re instantly hit by designer Jon Bausor’s impressive work - with the entire proscenium transformed into a terrifyingly huge grinning mouth, with the blood red mouth creases spreading up the sides of the theatre and poking into the upper circle.

Transferring the narrative from Hugo’s France to Morris’ Bristol, our revamped story is narrated by the bitter clown Barkilphedro (actor Julian Bleach steals the show), who has served a lifetime in the royal court at the hands of the selfish and unappreciative Clarence family. But how is this story intertwined with that of the small boy, now named Grinpayne (and played by Louis Maskell)?

Child Grinpayne is portrayed by a puppet, and shows us the young boy being brutally separated from his mother and left to fend for himself owing to his hideously disfigured face. Upon saving a newborn baby whose mother died in the snow, he and the blind baby, Dea (Audrey Brisson), are taken in by kindly travelling performer Ursus (Sean Kingsley) and his dog Mojo (a work of puppetry genius from Gyre and Gimble). They grow up to live a life in the freak shows - notably the Stokes Croft Fair: a seedy underbelly of Bristol for those cast out by respectable society.

Of course, the stories of Grinpayne and the royal Clarence family become inextricably linked, and as Barkilphedro boasts of his past glories we uncover the true story of just what caused child Grinpayne to be separated from his natural parents and to be sentenced to an agonised life in the carnival. And all the while, Bausor’s designs continue apace throughout The Grinning Man, turning freak show carts into palace boudoirs, and the entire stage into a gothic cathedral complete with pillars and smashed stained glass. It’s all quite literally a work of art.

Combining the carnivalesque, the pantomime and the musical, Morris’ The Grinning Man is a feast for all of the senses - especially the ears, thanks to the live performances by the musicians at the side of the stage. Bravo!

Photo: Simon Annand
Read director Tom Morris’ diary about creating The Grinning Man in The Guardian here.

The Grinning Man is performed at Bristol Old Vic’s main theatre until 13 November. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

'A Footman For The Peacock' by Rachel Ferguson

Rachel Ferguson is one of those unfairly neglected turn-of-the-century novelists whose novels are being diligently kept alive by a variety of publishing houses. 

She first came to my attention via the 2006 Persephone reprint of her 1937 novel Alas, Poor Lady. Also via Persephone, I found the 1988 Virago Modern Classics edition of her 1931 book The Brontes Went To Woolworths, which I fell in love with first for its beautiful cover and second for its whimsical title, and finally for its magical story (you can read my review here). Later on in 2009, the same book was also reprinted by The Bloomsbury Group, an imprint of Bloomsbury, which reprints (is it still going, does anyone know?) long-forgotten turn-of-the-century titles. 

The discovery that Rachel Ferguson had been a suffragette and a leading member of the Women's Social and Political Union (an era of history that fascinates me, as regular blog readers will know) then inspired me to hunt down a few of her autobiographical novels, and I was lucky enough to track down original hardback editions of both Royal Borough (1950) and We Were Amused (1958), which I heartily recommend. Only Passionate Kensington (1939) is still out there, waiting for me to find it... 

So when I recently heard that new publishing house Furrowed Middlebrow, which is an imprint of Dean Street Press, was planning to reprint a series of forgotten novels by brilliant female authors, I was very excited. In the first volume of nine releases, there are three novels by Rachel Ferguson - of which A Footman For the Peacock is just one. 

So having now set the scene, and with the certainty that I will be writing about further Furrowed Middlebrow titles in the future... here's a short piece about A Footman For the Peacock.

This 1937 novel was considered controversial upon initial publication as it seemed to mock the privileged upper classes, those elite who were living a bizarre life of indulgence and isolation in their palatial country home - one where even the resident peacock's every whim is catered for as standard. But, as with much of Rachel Ferguson's writing, A Footman For the Peacock is a satire; a social commentary of the times. This is an era between the wars (well, World War Two starts during the narrative... although it takes the self-absorbed characters several days to realise it) when the age of the country house was dwindling and the power of the landed gentry was rapidly fading. 

In many ways, the Roundelay family who live within various quarters of the house of Delaye are reminiscent of Dorothy Whipple's classic novel about another faded country pile The Priory (republished by Persephone). In A Footman For The Peacock, the residents of Delaye are treated by Rachel Ferguson with the same lack of respect that they show to outsiders to their home. And her fantastical style of writing, which she carried off so well in The Brontes Went To Woolworths, is reminiscent here, although I feel it doesn't work quite so well with such a huge range of characters. 

I'm going to be honest: this isn't my favourite Rachel Ferguson book (and you can tell from what I've written above that I really do like her writing), but simply by judging a book by it's cover I feel certain that Furrowed Middlebrow will continue to keep reprinting lovely and fascinating novels by a variety of women who have been neglected by history. And with Rachel Ferguson's A Harp in Lowndes Square (1936) and Evenfield (1942) both also republished by Furrowed Middlebrow, and both still yet to be read by me, there is every hope that one or both of them will tick the Rachel Ferguson boxes that, for me, A Footman For The Peacock didn't quite manage to. But you never know, this might turn out to be your favourite Ferguson... We're all different... 

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

'Opal Plumstead' by Jacqueline Wilson

As part of my ongoing, and slow progress, mission to read every single novel about the UK fight for women's suffrage, I recently found myself reading Jacqueline Wilson's 100th novel - Opal Plumstead, published in 2014. 

I'd read a few Jacqueline Wilson books before (Tracy Beaker, The Illustrated Mum) out of curiosity for this writer who is so loved by young readers, and who I once had the pleasure of interviewing in the dingy basement of a Nottingham branch of Waterstones about 20 years ago. I can assure you that I, like everyone else who has ever met her, found Jacqueline Wilson to be an utter delight. 

So I was fascinated to see what she would do with a historical novel about the suffrage era. Having read several children's books on this topic, I am always slightly disappointed that every single one of them uses the tired trope of a down-on-her-luck working-class girl befriending a militant middle-class lady, immediately meeting Emmeline Pankhurst, being thrown into prison and experiencing force feeding, and then falling in love with a kind young man at the end. Every single one of them. Argh!

Thank goodness that Jacqueline Wilson broke that trend, and for that alone I applaud her. It's true, our heroine Opal is a working-class girl who is down on her luck. She is a bright 14-year-old with a scholarship to a good school, and a very bright brain. But when her father is imprisoned for a stupid mistake, her already impoverished family are left fending for themselves and Opal is sent to work at the local sweet factory. Here she indeed is befriended by a middle-class militant suffragette who teaches Opal the ways of the vote (and she does meet Emmeline Pankhurst at her first suffragette meeting)... but this is where the similarities to all the other stories ends. 

Opal Plumstead is truly a story about Opal Plumstead, not about suffrage or militancy or force feeding. Opal is a young girl growing up on the eve of world war one and in a society divided about whether women should have the vote or not, and these two factors unavoidably infuse her story. But they are not central to it. Instead, Opal Plumstead is a historical children's novel about being a girl in the mid 1910s.

In many ways, the character of Opal reminded me of Roald Dahl's mighty Matilda - both are intelligent young women who are exasperated by their silly, useless families but who instead go on to achieve good things with the help of women outside of the home. 

Opal's family infuriated me. Her selfish, mean, cruel mother; her vain, indulgent and spoilt big sister Cassie (who I grew to adore by the end of the book); and her ineffectual and pathetic father. In comparison, Opal's intelligence and goodness seem somewhat sickly and overbearing. And she is a rather hard protagonist to truly like. Opal is self-pitying and a bit sulky, but then again she's a 14-year-old girl who's having a shit time. Why should we expect her to behave like a grown-up when she isn't one?

At 520 pages, Opal Plumstead gives Harry Potter a run for his money in the hefty kids' book stakes, but like all of Jacqueline Wilson's books, it's a quick and easy read (even more so if you're an adult reader!). And ultimately, it is so important to keep reminding young people about the relatively recent history of the suffrage movement that if a popular writer like Jacqueline Wilson can help keep this movement alive for future generations then I'm all for it. 

Ada Campe was in Cress!

Ada Campe (photo by Emily Coles) performing at a What The Frock! Comedy show in 2015
If a show is so good that you need to see it twice, then it’s a show worth shouting about.

Up in Edinburgh last month, I ventured to the warmingly delightful CC Blooms bar on Greenside Lane: a top venue by the way - delightful staff, delicious drinks, and lovely downstairs performance space. On which note, downstairs was where I found Ms Ada Campe working her magic on a captivated mid-afternoon crowd of Fringe goers.

On the afternoon of the last Saturday of the Fringe, I took my seat amid a bustling audience and waited with a mixture of trepidation and excitement for Ms Campe to grace the basement stage, while the gentle soundtrack from Amelie lulled us into a false sense of security…

How does one describe the wonder that is Ada Campe? Part magician, part woman, part music hall genius… she rules her stage like a mildly drunken cat bedecked in costume jewellery, and convincing her audience that they have fallen through a hole in the space time continuum into a surreal and hilarious alternative. I must make it clear - there is nothing unkind about Ada’s performance. So although she includes a lot of audience participation, it is all good natured, good fun and heart-stoppingly hilarious. You will want to be a part of this.

Between genuinely impressive magic acts, improvised chatter with the audience, random and enthused shouting, and bursts of rehearsed material… you leave after an hour feeling bowled over and wondering what it is you’ve just seen. So much so that I went back the next day to find out… and found myself a very willing accomplice in Ada’s final trick of the Fringe. One that involved me donning unusual headwear, reading out cryptic messages, speaking to a spirit guide and so much more… which I will not say for fear of spoiling the show for future attendees.

And with that, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to make yourself a future attendee of the Ada Campe experience. Whether she is in Cress!, or whether she is elsewhere. You never know… you might find yourself going home with a slightly warm finger of fudge.

Ada Campe is the alter ego of Dr Naomi Paxton - actor, comedian, writer, suffrage expert and more!

Friday, 16 September 2016

'The Rivals' at Bristol Old Vic

Photo by Mark Douet

“She came from Greece, she had a thirst for knowledge…”

There’s definitely a touch of the “I want to live with common people, I want to do whatever common people do” about leading lady Lydia Languish in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 comedy of manners The Rivals.

With an all-consuming passion for trashy romantic fiction, our well-to-do protagonist Lydia has set her heart on marrying a poor man for love, rather than a wealthy man for his fortune. But her aunt with whom she lives, Mrs Malaprop, has other ideas.

And with that, the scene is set for a topsy turvy social satire set in the sumptuous townhouses of Bath, where Sheridan was living while he wrote the play. It is no coincidence that Bristol Old Vic is presenting The Rivals in this its 250th anniversary year, which is almost exactly the same age as the play. And it’s lovely to be able to sit back in the auditorium and watch a performance just as Bristolians would have done two and half centuries before.

As the title of the play suggests, nothing is straightforward in this comedy or errors… with Lydia’s heart being torn between her beloved poor Beverley and his ‘rival’, the wealthy Captain Jack Absolute with whom her aunt wants her to marry. Little realising they are the same person. And Lydia is not the only one in a romantic tryst - indeed, there are almost no characters in this play for whom there is not a complicated confusion of the heart.

Of course, being Bristol Old Vic, there are a few little extra touches to The Rivals. Director Dominic Hill has made the inspired move of giving Lydia (played with astoundingly good comic timing by Lucy Briggs-Owen) an Essex-ish inflection, which works to hilarious effect. Although I was a little less sure of the touches of modernity brought in via Polaroid photos, typewriters and a character reading the Beano. It just didn’t seem like it added anything.

And with a cast this good and a script this funny, you just don’t need the modern extra touches. The unintentional linguistic slip ups of social climbing Mrs Malaprop (played brilliantly by Julie Legrand) are now the stuff of legend - so much so that the word ‘malapropism’ has now become embedded in our language and earned a place in the dictionary as a consequence of her mistakenly using the wrong word with amusing consequences. “We will not anticipate the past”, she declares with absolute surety… as those around her nod obsequiously. While on another occasion she generously declares of a suitor, “He is the very pineapple of politeness.”

This latest production of The Rivals is an excellent, old-fashioned night out at the theatre - with plenty of laughs, good natured ribbing and wonderful wigs on show.

The Rivals is being performed at Bristol Old Vic until 1 October 2016. Click here for more information and to book tickets. This is a co-production with the Citizens Theatre and Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

I'm blaming Brexit for the selling of 'Bake Off'. Bear with me…

Mary Berry looking terrified of a bloody big cake

Of course there is no place for Bake Off in a post Brexit Britain… It was inevitable that the last few things people liked about Britain would be sold to the highest bidder in this Brexit-shaped hell we’ve ended up in. Here’s why...

While I don’t watch The Great British Bake Off, I cannot deny its popularity, nor the all-encompassing love for it that is exuded through every pore of the TV-owning population.

Just a glance at my Twitter or Facebook timelines on a Wednesday evening is enough to indicate the devotion felt for this comfy cooking show among the overwhelming majority of people I know. The national outpouring of anger and grief at the news this week that Channel 4 has poached the show from the BBC for a preposterously huge sum of money is not a shock. It feels like it did the week after Princess Diana died.

And it’s not surprising. After the 52% voted us out of the EU, the grieving 48% who wisely wanted to Remain were ridiculed for our anger and unsympathetically told to “move on” and “get over it”. Given this, the anger and upset at the move of Bake Off (a move which, clearly, will spell its rapid decline in quality and it’s sudden demise in popularity) is inevitable. Just as the rapid decline in quality and the sudden demise in popularity of Britain post-Brexit is inevitable (you didn’t really need me to spell that metaphor out, did you? Did you?!).

Because the values endorsed by Bake Off are the values of old-fashioned Britishness that the Vote Leave-rs wanted to return to. So of course they’re upset - by out-bidding the BBC for Bake Off, nasty old Channel 4 has destroyed the ‘British’ bit of Bake Off that viewers loved. Now it'll just be some unknown glossy haircuts in a field with a bit of undercooked batter. There will be nothing 'Great' or 'British' about it.

Bake Off summed up everything that was quaint and charming and safe about Britain. It was all Mary-Berry-From-Off-Of-The-1950s standing thigh-deep in sponge cake while smiling; naughty but nice Mel and Sue keeping the inhabitants of The Big White Tent in perky order; mildly handsome Paul Hollywood offering gentle criticism of a charred crumpet; while a variety of civilians try their best to whip up a top quality macaroon in a marquee surrounded by lush green grass and pastel coloured bunting. It was an 11-week celebration of safety, cosiness, homeliness, gender stereotypes… it’s a Tory dream. This is everything David Cameron wanted when he had his vision of the Big Society. And where is he now? Oh yes, he didn’t survive the Brexit apocalypse either.

While I’m not suggesting that all Bake Off viewers voted Leave, I’m imagining that about 52% of them did. And those 52% are mourning the symbolic loss of the old-fashioned British values they apparently wanted Britain to return to (where women knew their place, where the grass was always green and the cakes are only ever homemade and perfect). While the 48% of Bake Off viewers who voted Remain have found a more socially acceptable, less politically volatile way to express their Brexit grief, they’re still unhappy. Because nobody is happy in this new post-Brexit landscape. How can you be?

Of course there is no place for Bake Off in a post Brexit Britain. This is what you voted for when you voted Leave. The demise of Bake Off and the out-bidding of your favourite English things to a commercial channel… it’s all just a metaphor for the miserable demise of this country as a result of the 52% who voted us out. You can't have your cake AND eat it.

Monday, 12 September 2016

'National Velvet' And The Long-Lost Pre-Teen Feminist Film

As a pre-teen girl, I was horse mad. My weekly horse riding lesson was the highlight of my week; a week peppered by devouring my subscription copy of Horse & Pony magazine, reading every single pony novel I could get my hands on (Ruby Ferguson and her ‘Jill’ series - yay! all three Pullein-Thompson sisters and their squillions of pony book series - yay!), and sleeping in a bedroom wallpapered with posters of horses. So it logically followed that I also loved any film with an equine creature in it.

National Velvet (1944, Clarence Brown) and it’s successor International Velvet (1978, Bryan Forbes) were my two firm favourites. I would watch them over and over again. Taped onto VHS from TV broadcasts, I watched them until I could quote the scripts off by heart. I delighted in the stories, the successes and the fantasies of winning against all the odds.

But little did I realise that I was watching, especially with National Velvet, a surprisingly feminist children’s film. One that I suspect would be very hard to get made now. Re-watching National Velvet again at the weekend, I was struck by how unusually feminist it was and how far removed it was from what a contemporary kids’ film portrays.

National Velvet

Set in the 1920s, our 12-year-old shero Velvet Brown (played by Elizabeth Taylor, who was indulgently allowed to keep the horse after filming wrapped) is a pony mad girl. With her kind and enthusiastic nature, she is introduced as an everyday example of a good, wholesome schoolgirl. She lives in a chocolate box pretty Sussex village with her equally wholesome sisters (the eldest is played by a 19-year-old Angela Lansbury) and their naughty little brother Donald who collects bugs in a bottle stored around his neck. While her parents run the house and the family butchers’ shop in an unparalleled vision of equality. Despite an initial suggestion that Mr Brown (Donald Crisp) runs the home with a rod of fear, we quickly realise that it is Mrs Brown (an Oscar-winning performance from Anne Revere) to whom everyone capitulates.

And Mrs Brown… what a woman! Where is the film about HER life?! We learn, as mere exposition, that 20-something years previously she became the first ever woman to swim across the English Channel. An achievement that won her a cup, money and fleeting glory… but which is now largely ignored. Why? How? Yet with gentleness and intelligence, the all-seeing, deep-thinking Mrs Brown looks out for her children and husband, and gives her family a seemingly free rein to make the decisions that they think best. And, most importantly, to learn from their mistakes. Rather than be prevented from experiencing life in the first place.

Which is how headstrong pre-teen Velvet, who has won a feral horse called The Pie in a raffle, is able to enlist a 20-something drifter called Mi (Mickey Rooney) to help her train the horse up to enter the Grand National race… with the full support of her parents. Remember, this is a 12-year-old schoolgirl who rides and trains a 16-hand racehorse (for non-horse fans, 16-hands is pretty darn big), who persuades her mother to give her the £100 needed to enter the horse in the race (which turns out to be the £100 her mother won for swimming the Channel), and who - ultimately - ends up cutting her hair off and dressing as a male jockey to illicitly ride the horse herself… and WIN the Grand National. Remember, this is a 12-year-old girl who is allowed to go to Aintree with a drifter whom the family barely knows in order to achieve all this. Amazing! (It probably doesn’t need to be said that in the 1920s a 12-year-old girl would be banned from riding in the Grand National. Indeed, female jockeys of any age were prevented from racing in the Grand National until 1977 as a result of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 - and, to date, there have only been 16 female jockeys at this race at all, despite around 40 horses and riders taking part every year.)

Countering this, we are reminded that Velvet is a child every so often by the way she is chided from one of her parents to put her brace back in her mouth or to wash behind her ears. And there are frequent mentions of the fact that Velvet is prone to fainting when she becomes over excited. Which suggests she is weak, feeble and perhaps mildly hysterical - none of which is particularly helpful to a feminist narrative. It is a strange add-on to Velvet’s character that we are shown these signs of perceived weakness in her character, but perhaps this is needed to balance her out?

‘International Velvet’

The 1978 follow-on International Velvet is somewhat less strident in its feminist goals but is still interesting to comment on, not least because it shows the dramatic downward slide in how women are presented in films in the 34 years that passed between the two. In International Velvet, Velvet is now an adult woman who becomes the guardian to her orphaned teenage niece Sarah. Inexplicably still alive (since 25 is an average age for a healthy horse), Velvet’s champion horse The Pie has just sired a new foal whom Sarah falls in love with and calls Arizona Pie. A keen horsewoman herself, ambitious Sarah follows her dreams and ends up riding Arizona Pie in the Olympics… before falling head over heels in love with a man and getting married to live happily ever after. A more traditional girl-loves-horse-and-married-man ending. But still a fun film.

What now?

Being child-free, I don’t spend a lot of time watching kids’ films. But a quick Google search brings up offerings such as the cartoon My Little Pony franchise (lots of glitter and unicorns), and relatively recent re-workings of the classic novels Black Beauty and My Friend Flicka. More generally, contemporary kids’ films - particularly those aimed at girls - seem to favour Disney cartoon princesses, and any number of anthropomorphised cartoon animals that you care to mention. But… no strong-willed young girls being encouraged by their mothers to live their dreams (even if that means going off to the male-dominated Aintree with a 20-something man you barely know!).

While it doesn’t seem wise to allow a 12-year-old to go off on adventures with a much older, unknown man, the essence of National Velvet is simple - follow your heart, listen to your passion, believe in what you want and you can make it come true. For Velvet Brown, it was never about winning fame and fortune but about proving that the underdog (in this case, a horse deemed wild) can achieve as much as anybody else so long as you treat it right. For Mrs Brown, it means allowing your children the freedom to be themselves and to learn to make your own decisions from an early age. The kind of freedom that children these days don’t seem to be shown or offered. Which is a big shame.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

'Fran & Leni' at The Assembly

When I went up to the Edinburgh Fringe for five days last week, I did so without wearing my reviewing hat (a jaunty pink beret, since you ask). But in the days since I saw the two-handed play Fran & Leni at The Assembly, I’ve been unable to stop thinking and talking about it and now feel compelled to write a little something about it. So what follows is arguably less a review and perhaps more a musing on what was a very enjoyable and most thought-provoking piece.

Created by Old Trunk Theatre, Fran & Leni is written by Sadie Hasler who also performs the role of Leni. Fran is played by Old Trunk’s other half, Sarah Mayhew, who also directs the piece. And together they have created a back catalogue of work (judging by their website) that I would love to take a look at.

With literally thousands of shows on offer at the Edinburgh Fringe, it can be hard to know where to start - especially if you only have, as I did, five days. In that time I saw 18 shows, which I don’t think is too small an effort. While most of those were stand-up comedy (with my What The Frock! roots, this was unavoidable), I added in a handful of theatre shows this year, which made for a good balance against the constantly frivolous.

Fran & Leni could so easily have escaped my attention if it were not for journalist/musician Rhodri Marsden highlighting the play on his Facebook wall after he saw it the previous week. On a whim, I snapped up a ticket for myself. So thanks, Rhodri - without your tip off, I’d have missed this altogether. Which would have been awful.

In a nutshell, Fran & Leni is a play about female friendship - about how women stick together through the horrors and injustices life (and men) throws at them to come out on top. But it’s also about much more than that. Set in the late 1970s, our sheros meet at a north London school and bond over a shared love of music and a homelife they would both rather avoid. Perhaps inevitably given the period in which the play is set, the girls form a punk band called The Rips which briefly becomes a minor sensation.

Bookended by modern-day Leni giving a talk in Foyles bookshop to promote her recently published autobiography, Fran & Leni is a cleverly composed snapshot at a sequence of crucial events in the friends’ lives that led them to a silence of 15 years. Underpinning everything is a catalogue of crimes hurled at them by a range of men in their lives, be they fathers, managers or anything else.

Yet Hasler’s writing is subtle enough that this isn’t an hour of relentless feminist rantings (although that also sounds fun), but instead the delicacy with which she writes means that by the time the heartbreaking reveal comes the audience is left with a cold stomach, hairs on their arms tingling, and a righteous anger and indignation at what unfair and unequal atrocities women have to endure. Just for being women.

Punk is always an exciting time to look back at, and given the relative scarcity of women in punk compared to the volume of men in the industry (a musical genre that, despite its egalitarian suggestions, was still woefully sexist and exclusionary), Fran & Leni is clever enough to create this moment for two seemingly ordinary female characters to come out of nothing into something.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

'A Lady & Her Husband' - Amber Reeves

There are few greater literary treats than the bi-annual publication of a few new books from the wonderful Persephone Books in London. And this re-issue of the 1914 novel A Lady And Her Husband by Amber Reeves is, of course, no disappointment.

Amber Reeves had a fascinating life story, not least of all because she was the muse for the character Ann Veronica in HG Wells' 1909 suffragette novel of the same name. (I wrote about Ann Veronica here back in February 2012.) Reeves and Wells had had an affair in which both seemed to inspire the other in equal measure, and many say that A Lady And Her Husband is Reeves' response to Ann Veronica. Having read both, it is interesting to be able to compare them. 

In A Lady And Her Husband, we follow middle-aged and privileged wife Mary Heyham who, when her youngest daughter announces her engagement, is given a gentle job with the family's thriving tea shop business to help occupy her time. This job involves going around the tea shops with a secretary and checking on the welfare of the many young ladies who work in the shops. But what happens is that Mary's consciousness is rapidly raised to socialist values and the awful treatment that the waitresses and staff endure at the hands of her mean-spirited husband, who also pays them very meagre wages. And in turn, this opens Mary's eyes to her own culpability in the mistreatment of the waitresses and she vies to do all she can to turn things around. Inevitably, this ties in with her waking up to the state of her own marriage and treatment within it.

One recurring factor in the novel is the way that Mary's suffocating and tedious husband James, who can best be described as a phenomenal bore, repeatedly refers to Mary as "little mother", "old mother", "the absurd old lady" and so on. He repeatedly belittles her opinions, plays down her intellect, stifles her views, ages her, and tries to remind her that she is weak, sickly and infirm (she is not). In fact, this presentation of Mary from James is so enduring and repetitive throughout the book that I was truly stunned to learn two-thirds of the way through that Mary is in fact only 46 years old. I had to put the book down at this point, flick back to earlier sections to check I had read passages referring to Mary correctly, and then re-read the passage when she reveals her age. I felt truly incensed on her behalf.

Ultimately, Mary is in a very privileged position. Thanks to her husband's philanthropy, she is extremely wealthy. So much so that when she decides to leave the family home and seek some solitude for a while in a rented flat in Chelsea, she has the funds and resources to do so seemingly within the space of a few hours. There is no recognition that Mary is in an unusual and fortunate position to be able to do this, and I found this a little frustrating, given how common Mary's treatment must have been in many marriages of the time. 

While A Lady And Her Husband is perhaps not a compulsive page-turner of a book, and it definitely has various ebbs and flows to the narrative, it is still a fascinating story. However, I would have liked to learn more about the young women who worked in the tea shops, and to find out what became of the troubled waitress Florrie (to whom several chapters are devoted early on, but then she disappears from the story). To me, the characters within the tea shops were among the most intriguing and curious and I'm now led to wonder if there are more novels that delve into the early 20th Century phenomenon of tea shops as a new and acceptable space for women in public (women who had previously been denied unchaperoned public places).

But as always, Persephone Books does not disappoint and having read this, I will definitely be seeking out more from Amber Reeves. Although something tells me that Persephone themselves may well see their way to reprint further books from her in the future.