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.