Summer of Rockets – BBC 2

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This was fascinating.  I was expecting John le Carre, but it was more Antonia Forest.  I’m sure there’s plenty of spy stuff to come, but I’m far more interested in how sweet little Sasha copes with life at his snooty, sadistic boarding school (Stephen Poliakoff apparently hated it) and how his sister Hannah finds the London Season when she thinks that being a debutante’s a load of rubbish.  And there was a lot of suspense over a broken shoe outside Buckingham Palace.

It’s called “Summer of Rockets” because it’s set in 1958.  Hydrogen bombs, Cold War, etc.  But not much has really happened about that yet.  Not much has actually happened at all.  Apart from some sinister-looking men getting out of a car, the only real drama was Hannah’s mishap with her high heel.  But the characters are all so interesting that that doesn’t really matter.  Every scene’s telling.

Samuel Petrukhin, based on a combination of Poliakoff’s father and Poliakoff’s grandfather, invents and sells hearing aids – to customers including Winston Churchill.  He’s also in the process of inventing hospital pagers.  Clearly a very clever and successful man … but what he really wants is to climb the social ladder.  As a Russian-born Jewish man, who speaks with a pronounced accent even though he kids himself that he speaks pure RP, this isn’t going to be easy.  His right hand man, Courtney Johnson, is black.  You can imagine how the posh types in gentleman’s clubs react when “the darky and the Jew”, as one of them put it, turn up.  And Samuel wasn’t allowed to deal with Churchill during the war years, in case he was bugging the hearing aids.

Samuel’s wife, Miriam, is from the “Jewish aristocracy” – just like Poliakoff’s mother, the granddaughter of a baron.  She’s done all the debutante stuff, but she’s far more lacking in confidence than he is: she’s not kidding herself that it’s easy to gain acceptance when you haven’t got WASP credentials.  However, they’re both determined that their daughter Hannah has to be presented, and poor Hannah is packed off to etiquette school to learn how to walk the walk and talk the talk.  She thinks it’s all stupid.

Meanwhile, little Sasha, brilliantly played by young Toby Woolf from The Last Post, is sent to a posh boarding prep school, when he just wants to go to the local school.  The headmaster makes pointed remarks about how he’s the only Jewish boy there.  The other teachers (sorry, masters) make pointed remarks about him being the son of an inventor.  The poor kid’s clearly going to have a nightmare there.

At the start of the programme, at Glorious Goodwood, once their party’s finally been admitted, Sasha wanders off and is found by posh Kathleen Shaw (Keeley Hawes, who seems to be everywhere these days!), wife of an MP and war hero who seems to be suffering from shell shock.  There’s clearly something very dodgy about the Shaws, which is presumably where the spy stuff’s going to come in.  Samuel is desperate to be best buds with them, because they’re part of the social elite.  It’s obviously going to end in tears … but what I really want to know is how Sasha and Hannah are going to get on.  It was billed as a Cold War drama, but it’s also – I’ll say “also” rather than “actually”, because the spy stuff’s obviously coming – a period drama about class and elitism and outsiders.  And that’s more interesting than spy stuff!

What makes it particularly interesting is that it’s not stereotypical.  I think this can be very challenging for scriptwriters: if they create characters who fulfill stereotypes, they’re accused of perpetuating stereotypes, but, if they create characters who don’t, they’re accused of not accurately reflecting the experiences of particular demographic groups.  There was an argument over this twenty years ago, when Coronation Street brought in its first Asian family, the Desais, as the new owners of the corner shop.  The same arguments still go on now.  I want to say that we should just be looking at characters, not their ethnicity, religion, sexuality, gender identity, etc, but that doesn’t work either because then the issues relating to particular groups aren’t being reflected.

It’s a difficult one.  But I do like the fact that Samuel, Miriam and Courtney are all removed from stereotypes.  Courtney is not the stereotypical 1950s West Indian working-class man: he’s in a managerial role and “talks posh”.  We haven’t been told Samuel’s back story, but we can tell from his age that “Russian-born” doesn’t mean “fled the pogroms” (most of which weren’t even in Russia itself, whatever people may think!!) but rather means “post-Revolution emigre”.  Poliakoff’s Russian ancestors (thank you, Wikipedia!) owned a flat in a nice part of Moscow and a dacha in the countryside.

And Miriam’s from the “Jewish aristocracy”.  No-one talks much about the “Jewish aristocracy”.  There are books like The Matriarch and The Hare With Amber Eyes, about international banking dynasties, but not about people like Rufus Isaacs (Marquess of Reading), Ernest Cassel (before he converted to Catholicism), Poliakoff’s great-grandfather Samuel Montagu (Baron Swaythling), or Montagu’s nephew Sir Herbert Samuel.

Samuel’s not a very good social climber, TBH.  Why give your kids first names that scream “non-WASP”?   And he’s kidding himself that he sounds like an aristocrat: everyone can see that apart from him.  He’s a brilliant man, a genius inventor with so much going for him – but he wants to be accepted into upper-class society, and it’s obviously going to lead him into trouble.  That’s going to be interesting.  But what happens to Sasha and Hannah is going to be even more interesting.

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When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr

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Judith Kerr, who died yesterday, fled Nazi Germany with her family at the age of ten, eventually settling in Britain and becoming one of our best-loved children’s authors. This book’s based on her childhood experiences. Most people (if anyone’s reading this anyway!!) will know this book, but I just wanted to write something about it, to mark the passing of a great author.   Most of the tributes in the media are referring to her as “The author of The Tiger Who Came To Tea”, and she’s also known for many other books, notably those about Mog the cat, but this is the stand-out one for me. I’m better with history than animals, even illustrated animals! It’s a near-perfect example of how to explain difficult subjects to young children in an “age-appropriate” way.

How do you get “Hitler” and “pink rabbit” into the same book title? We see it all through the eyes of Anna, Judith Kerr’s alter ego, nine years old and part of a secular Jewish German family. The book starts off in Berlin in 1933, with elections looming and the Nazis set to take power.  Her father, a journalist, has written articles criticising the Nazis. They have to flee.  Anna and her brother Max each have to choose one toy to take with them. Anna chooses a woolly dog. Later, she regrets it, and wishes she’d taken her pink rabbit instead. When people start talking about the Nazis going through their house and taking their things, she imagines them taking Pink Rabbit. It’s part of a trilogy of books, the second set during the Second World War and the third set during the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, but this one’s special.

At the beginning of the story, Anna, at nine, doesn’t really understand that anything’s going on.  Max and his friends, at twelve, have heard things, names, but don’t understand the potential consequences.  They have fights in the school playground, Nazis versus Sozis, but it’s more a case of each gang wanting to beat the other than knowing what either label stands for.  And everything’s normal.  They go to school.  They play out.  They go home and tell their parents about their day.  And they haven’t grown up with the mindset of being part of a persecuted minority, or even any minority at all.  This isn’t Anatevka, where one community lives apart from another.   Like Sarajevo, like so many other places before all hell broke loose, everyone just lived together.   And Anna and Max’s family are assimilated: they don’t even really bother with religion.

Judith Kerr shows so well how normality can just fall apart.  One minute, Anna and Max and Mama are sat round the table eating apple strudel for afters.  The phone rings.  The next day, Papa’s gone, and they’re planning to go too.  Just like that – leaving their entire lives behind them.   They go to Switzerland, just outside Zurich, and they settle in there, and everything seems to be OK … until some Germans come there on holiday, and the kids aren’t allowed to play with Anna and Max because they’re Jewish.  Meanwhile, a price has been put on Papa’s head.  Again, Anna doesn’t really understand what it means.  Just that it’s not good.

Then they up and leave again.  This time, it’s for Paris.  Another new country, another new school.  New friends.  This time, a new language too.  They’ve just got settled there, and Anna’s doing really well at school, and then a film script that Papa’s written is bought by a film director in England.  So it’s another new country, another new language, another new start.

On the final page of the book, Anna ponders whether or not she’s having a difficult childhood.  She decides that she isn’t – because she’s always been with Mama and Papa and Max, and because it’s all been interesting and some of it’s been funny.

That was Judith Kerr.  She lived this, and yet she could say that, in this wonderful book that she created.  A lot of it’s funny  – their grandma’s obsessed with her annoying dog, the train journey to Switzerland is enlivened by a woman with a cat in a basket, and, when they’re on the train in England, they see adverts for Bovril at every station along the way and think it’s the name of all the places.  But there are struggles too, like their father’s shame when Anna is given a coat by a relative who works for a charity providing clothes to poor children.  And there are moments of real horror, like when they hear that Onkel Julius, a family friend who stayed behind in Berlin and fell foul of the Nazi anti-Jewish laws, has committed suicide.

It’s not bitter. It’s not preachy.  Unlike some articles (it tends to be articles rather than books which do this) written by people who have never even faced persecution or been refugees themselves, it doesn’t try to make the reader feel guilty. Like so many things written by wonderfully brave people who have faced persecution and been refugees themselves, it’s so astoundingly free of self-pity that it humbles you.  It tells a story – and it does it so incredibly well. Children’s books are written by adults, which is problematic because it’s not easy for an adult to speak like a child, think like a child and reason like a child, especially about one of the most difficult subjects in world history; but Judith Kerr managed it.

Rest in peace, Judith. My Facebook newsfeed was flooded with tributes to you within minutes of the announcement of your death.  Your books meant a lot to very many people.  And you were an inspiration in yourself – an inspirational person who led an inspirational life and wrote inspirational books.

 

 

Slow Train to Switzerland by Diccon Bewes

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In 1863, a young single woman from the North of England went on Thomas Cook’s first Conducted Tour of Switzerland.  Group tours meant it was OK for her to go without a chaperone – hooray!   And, during one of her group’s excursions, they got caught in a storm and took refuge in a mountain hut.  I love how Chalet School-esque that is, over sixty years before the Chalet School opened!    I also love the fact that the author of this book, who retraced her journey -with his mum – is called Diccon, rather than rather than Rick or Rich or Ricky.  It sounds very Frances Hodgson Burnett.  And I’m extremely impressed by just how much Victorian tourists – we’re talking middle-class tourists going for a few weeks, not the wealthy upper-classes who could afford to wander round Europe for months on end and see everywhere at a leisurely pace – got through during their trips.  I like to keep on the go when I’m on holiday, but getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning and not getting to the next hotel until midnight, especially whilst dressed in crinolines and corsets, really would be going a bit far.

The idea of this book was that Diccon Bewes (a British travel writer living in Switzerland) and his mum were going to retrace the journey described in the journal of Jemima Morrell.  She’s always referred to as “Miss Jemima”, because the members of the group (which started off with 130 people but was down to seven by the end, some of its members having only gone as far as Paris or one of the resorts on Lake Geneva) had agreed to call each other “Miss Jemima”, “Mr William” (her brother) etc, rather than Miss/Mr/Mrs Surname.  They were obviously well into holiday mode – even if they did have to don formal dress for their evening meals.

Back in 1863, tourism in Switzerland was just starting to take off – and it was mainly a British thing.  The book tells us a lot about the character of the people who went on these tours, and also about Switzerland and how it was changed by tourism.  We think of Switzerland as a wealthy country, but, in 1863, it really wasn’t.  It wasn’t until I saw this BBC documentary in 2014 about children in Switzerland being used as indentured farm labourers even well after the Second World War, that I realised just how recently it is that Switzerland’s become so wealthy. And it was in no small part the growth of the tourist industry that kick-started that.

Diccon Bewes is a very entertaining writer, and the book’s very readable.  I’m not going to recount all his travels, or Miss Jemima’s, but I thought I’d list a few of the points that particularly struck me, in the hope that someone might read them and that they might find them interesting too!  Some of them are pretty obvious, but the fact that something’s obvious doesn’t mean that it’s not interesting .

  1. Miss Jemima being able to travel abroad with no travelling companion/chaperone.  And the development of group tours in general, making travel available to people who just wouldn’t have had the chance otherwise.  Then as now, people can be snotty about group tours, but I’d have missed out on a lot of the best experiences of my life without them.  So would she.
  2. The tourist industry being the impetus for railway building in Switzerland. Quite an interesting concept when you come from Lancashire and have grown up with the idea that railway building was all to do with the Industrial Revolution!
  3. The difference in types of travel hassle between then and now!  OK, Victorian travellers did not have to pass through body scanners or have their luggage rummaged through by security staff.  But they did have to have their luggage paid at every single railway station where they broke their journey, and pay for it.  And Miss Jemima’s cousin, Miss Sarah, another member of the party, was charged 50 cents at the Douane in Dieppe for carrying Yorkshire curd tarts.
  1. And they didn’t have to go through passport control. No passports required.  Individual British passports weren’t introduced until 1915.  I knew that, but I didn’t know that, prior to that, it was advisable to get a group passport for your party, which listed all the men by name but only gave the total number of women!  Huh!!5. As I said, just how much they did!  Usually a different place every day.  Well, sometimes several different places every day.  A different hotel every night would be a better way of putting it – and this was at a time when travel meant going by trains that took far longer than today’s trains do, diligence (stagecoach), steamer, and, in some areas, mules.  And a lot of walking.  Especially for blokes.  If there weren’t enough mules to go round, women got first dibs.  Eighteen hour days, sometimes.  I’ve done some fairly tiring tours, but I don’t think any of them were as tiring as the ones these Victorian travellers did.  How were they not exhausted?  Oh, and Diccon wondered (and so did I) what they did about toilet stops, but, sadly, Miss Jemima’s journal doesn’t mention anything so indelicate!

    6. Environmental issues.  I often wish I could have visited places in the days when they were less crowded – which is totally hypocritical, seeing as I’m part of the crowds.  And before everything was so globalised.  I’ve got nothing against McDonald’s or Starbucks, but I don’t really need to see them everywhere when I’m looking for an Austrian coffee house or a French patisserie.  But, although I get upset every time I hear that Venice has been flooded again, I’ve never really stopped to wish that I could have seen a glacier in the days when it was far bigger, or to be sad that they’re in retreat.  I will do from now on.

    7. The traumas of the mountain weather never change, though!  You’ve been promised one of the best views in the world.  On the day you’re meant to see it, the clouds are so low and so thick that you can hardly see a thing.  As you’re on an escorted tour on a tight schedule, rather than a Grand Tour lasting twelve months, you can’t come back another day.

    8. The British links to the development of Swiss winter sports.  At this point, the British were keener on winter sports than the Swiss were. Thomas Cook even introduced a skating tour of Switzerland in 1905.   The Cresta Run, built in 1884, was a British idea.  We should really be winning medals galore at the Winter Olympics!  Hmm.

    9. The importance of appreciating the simple things.  I do actually do this!   Getting excited over an Alpine flower meadow, rather than wanting to be going bungee jumping off a bridge or the side of a dam.  Obviously Victorian British tourists did not have the option of doing bungee jumping, but some of them were weirdly obsessed with the idea of climbing the Matterhorn.  I’m with Miss Jemima and the Alpine flowers on this one.

    10.And, of course, taking shelter in a mountain hut during a storm.  Annoyingly, this bit was actually in France – whilst visiting the Mer de Glace near Chamonix – rather than in Switzerland, but never mind.  All these years, I’ve been reading Chalet School books and wondering how likely it was that people stranded in a storm would actually have been able to find a mountain hut that was conveniently open.  Evidently, it really did happen!

So there.  This is a light-hearted book, but there’s plenty of stuff in it that’ll really make you think.  Very enjoyable.

Gentleman Jack – BBC 1

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Anne Lister’s diaries have been described as “the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbian history”.  They’re on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, and include commentary on the major national and international events of the day as well as details about her personal life.  Anne was also a successful businesswoman, a traveller, a climber (and a social climber!), responsible for a huge amount of work at her family home, Shibden Hall near Halifax, and married (“celebrated marital commitment with”) her final partner, Ann Walker by their taking communion together on Easter Sunday in 1834.   She went against everything that society expected of women of her time and her class, but she seems to have been completely comfortable in her own skin – and her own masculine-style black clothes.  What a fascinating character!  Ann Walker’s also interesting, although her story’s much sadder: she suffered from depression and, after Anne’s death, was tricked into leaving Shibden Hall, declared insane and taken to (as it would then have been called) an asylum. Suranne Jones, Sophie Rundle and the rest of a strong, Northern-led 🙂 cast are doing an excellent job of portraying their story.

I did wonder if – this being the cosy Sunday 9pm period drama slot – the scriptwriters might be tempted to make Anne Lister into a much nicer person than she actually was.  Admirable, yes – likeable, not so much!  And if they might be tempted to turn her relationship with Ann Walker into a fairytale romance.  It wasn’t!  But no – it was pretty much warts and all.  Well done to Sally Wainwright and the rest of the scriptwriting team!

Black mark for anachronistic language, though.  People in the 1830s did not go around saying “Either way works for me” or “They’re a handful”.  But, especially after ITV 1’s Victoria had Robert Peel sounding like he came from the East Midlands rather than Bury, gold star for getting most of the characters in this Halifax-based series genuinely sounding like they came from Yorkshire!

The series opened in 1832, when Anne was 41, so there’s a huge amount about her life that we’re not going to get to see.  Maybe an opening for a prequel some time?  We won’t see her having affairs with other girls whilst at school.  We won’t hear her thoughts on the Peterloo Massacre.  We won’t see her travels to the French court.   But, hey, you can only fit so much into eight hours!

In 1832, she was returning to Shibden Hall, which she’d inherited from her uncle, after a long time away.  I went to Shibden Hall on Saturday, and so I particularly enjoyed seeing the house and gardens on TV on Sunday.  It was really nice to see a TV series that was actually filmed where it was set, rather than Budapest filling in for Virginia or whatever!   Immediately, we got the impression that Anne was a real force of nature – everyone was all of a doodah about her return!

And then we saw so many different facets of her fascinating personality that every scene seemed to bring something different.  She was a snob – talking about “shabby little Shibden” (having seen what the panelling was like before she did it up, she had a point, but still!) and clearly feeling that she belonged in far higher social circles than those she’d be mixing in there.  She was a proto-feminist – and made an interesting point about the 1832 Reform Act enshrining in law the fact that women were debarred from voting because of their gender, a point that was to be made repeatedly in the 1901-1914 era, when there was talk of bringing in universal male suffrage without giving the vote to any women.  She showed affection for her family, yet her main concern about the death of her groom seemed to be scientific interest in how death actually came about.  She also showed her affection for her horse, but was tough enough to put him down when it was necessary – shooting him herself when her new groom couldn’t bring himself to do so.

She was a businesswoman, seeing new opportunities such as developing coal mines, and so hard-headed that she had no compunction about evicting an elderly tenant whom she felt was unable to farm efficiently.  And she was fine about collecting the rents herself, and even sitting in the pub to do so.  Yet we saw how deeply she could feel, and how she was broken-hearted that her former lover had dumped her in order to marry a man.

We saw that through flashbacks.  I’m never sure that flashbacks really work in period dramas, but Pride and Prejudice used them, so I suppose they’re OK!  We also got moments when we just got Anne’s thoughts as a monologue, as if she were addressing the viewer – which was a bit weird, but I don’t know how else we could have “seen” her thoughts.  She wrote everything down.  In code.  Brilliant!  And what a good job, from a historian’s viewpoint, that the code was cracked, and that the relative who first read her journals decided not to get rid of them – as he was advised to do by a friend who thought that they might bring scandal on the family.

Being broken-hearted didn’t stop her from spending the night with another former lover.  She had rather a lot of them!   But she wanted a wife.  A couple of days ago, there was a protest march calling for equal marriage in Northern Ireland.  One of the women marching summed it up very well when she told a Sky News reporter that no-one was asking for special treatment, just that everyone should have the same rights as everyone else.  Anne Lister wanted to find a life partner, and she wanted that partnership to be a formal commitment, and she saw that the fact that that would be with a woman rather than a man shouldn’t be an issue –  at a time when the word “lesbian” didn’t exist and so many gay (to use the modern term) people ended up in heterosexual marriages.  She wanted a wife.

Just going back to the issue of the relationship between her and Ann Walker not being a fairytale romance, I’d like to  think they did genuinely love each other, but Ann Walker’s money was certainly a big attraction – as this first episode made crystal clear.  And it’s known that they argued over finances, that Ann felt neglected because so much of Anne’s time was taken up with business and politics and that Anne wasn’t as understanding as she might have been about Ann’s bouts of depression.

I feel rather sorry for Ann, and I was glad to see that the programme did deal sympathetically with her.  We didn’t really get much idea of her from herself, it was all about what other people thought about her, but that was probably quite accurate.  She was very vulnerable – a wealthy single woman, prey to fortune hunters and without the strength and confidence that she probably needed, and struggling with depression.  Sophie Rundle played her very well – and the supporting cast were excellent too.  We met various Lister and Walker relatives, and two of Anne’s former lovers.  And we also got to see the lives of the tenants and the servants – which is a staple of period dramas theswe days, but wasn’t always.  But it was always Anne Lister around whom everything revolved.  Emotional one minute, hard-headed the next.  What a complex and intriguing personality.

However, one big facet of her personality wasn’t shown, and that was her religious side.  She’s known to have had a strong Anglican faith, and evidently found no problem with being a practising Christian and being in a same sex relationship.  Nearly two centuries later, the subject of religion (not just Christianity, but religion generally) and sexuality is still contentious, despite all the progress made in gay rights in other areas of life.  It’s something which causes a lot of distress to a lot of people, and is an area in which little progress seems to be being made.  In that respect, Anne Lister was ahead of our times, never mind her own.  I really hope the BBC aren’t going to pussyfoot around this.  Maybe it’ll come up next week.

Sadly, Anne died aged only 49 and only six years after her marriage to Ann, of a fever caused by an infected insect bite whilst travelling in Georgia (the one in the Caucasus, not the one in America!).  By the terms of Anne’s will, Ann should have had a life interest in Shibden Hall – which she deserved because it was her money that paid for it to be done up, as well as because of her relationship with Anne! – before it passed to some Lister cousins.  However, Ann, who struggled with mental health problems, found it difficult to cope with the pressure of running both Shibden Hall and her own property, and probably also with the gossip about her relationship with Anne.  She was forcibly removed from Shibden Hall by her own family and the local constable and taken to an asylum in York, before eventually returning to her childhood home.

So there isn’t going to be a happy ending to this story – but (as well as the Shibden Hall estate, which is rather a nice place for a half-day out) there’s Anne Lister’s legacy to history, which is an important one.  That’s recognised by the fact that there are blue plaques commemorating her life both at Shibden Hall and at the church in York where she and Ann Walker had their ceremony.   And this series is about to make her very well-known.  Just spare a thought for Ann as well, eh?  But Anne’s the character who grabs your attention, and Suranne Jones really did a very good job of portraying that.  This looks set to be an excellent series.

 

 

 

New Term at Malory Towers by Pamela Cox

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I approached this book with a fair bit of suspicion, as I would a cover version of an iconic song (I’ve never quite forgiven Atomic Kitten for murdering “Eternal Flame”) or a remake of an iconic film. It just couldn’t be the same as the “real” Malory Towers books which I and some of the other girls in my class at primary school first read way back when, could it? Well, no, it wasn’t. There wasn’t even a midnight feast. The pool barely featured; and Susan wasn’t accused of being “frightfully pi” even once. But I think I quite like this gentler version of Malory Towers. As a kid, I used to think, as you do, that I’d have been well in there with the MT in-crowd. Now, I don’t even want to think about what Alicia and Betty would have done to a swotty fat girl with zero self-confidence and a Northern accent: I’d probably have run away after a week! But I think I might have stayed in this form, with Felicity Rivers and her friends.

Obviously I knew Felicity, Susan and June from the original books.  All the teachers were there too, but, apart from the two Mam’zelles, they didn’t feature much, though. We didn’t see Miss Grayling welcoming any of the new girls to the school. I was slightly put out when I arrived for my first day at secondary school – along with around 110 other first years – and found that we weren’t each going to get an individual pep talk from the headmistress about how the school would turn us all into strong, capable women 🙂 . And, although Darrell and Sally made a brief appearance in the first chapter, and Bill and Clarissa’s riding school was mentioned (sadly without any clarification as to whether Bill and Clarissa were together or whether they were just good friends), none of the old gang were there, apart from Amanda who featured as the Games Prefect.

I always felt sorry for Amanda. GO authors do like to punish characters who break their rules, but it always felt very harsh that Amanda should lose her chance of being an Olympic swimmer and Mavis her chance of a singing career just because they showed off a bit. I’ve also got a weird recollection of, at the age of about eight, telling my grandad about Amanda. Why I thought a 68-year-old man would be interested in Malory Towers, I have no idea – poor Grandad!!

Anyway. The old characters didn’t feature much, but the new girls, and the girls we already knew, were quite well-drawn.  You don’t expect a Malory Towers book to go too deeply into people’s personalities, and this didn’t, but they all seemed quite realistic.

There wasn’t much actual action. Apart from Felicity worrying about whether or not she was doing a good job as head of the form, it was all about who wanted to be friends with whom. Even the tricks, which were, as ever, played on Mam’zelle Dupont, were about trying to impress other people rather than just for fun. Veronica wanted to be friends with Amy, Freddie wanted to be friends with June, Bonnie (were any teenagers in the 1950s actually called Bonnie?!) wanted to be friends with Felicity.  Felicity and Susan tried to get Bonnie to be friends with Amy to get her away with Veronica and to get her off their own backs, people kept overhearing things and getting upset, people were jealous of other people’s friendships … it actually wasn’t a bad reflection of what a group of 13-year-old girls can be like!!  But it was made clear that no-one was all bad or all good. And, in a way more reminiscent of the Chalet School than of Malory Towers, people did genuinely try to be nice to all the other girls, even those who’d behaved badly. No-one was sent to Coventry. No-one was the victim of a group bullying campaign.

I don’t think that writing a book like this about the original characters would have worked.  Darrell persuanding everyone to give Gwendoline Mary a chance, or Alicia realising that she’d been behaving like a bitch, just wouldn’t have rung true.  But, because it was a different group of girls, it worked OK.  I’m not sure that it really felt like Malory Towers, though.  Maybe it needed a midnight feast by the seawater swimming pool …  😉

Victoria’s Palace – ITV 1

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Queen Victoria could eat a nine-course meal in half an hour. That’s pretty impressive. Prince Albert insisted that all leftovers from the Buckingham Palace kitchens had to be given to the poor. That’s even more impressive. Hopefully, none of this was until after the Palace kitchens had been tarted up to stop them getting flooded with sewage from the River Tyburn.  Parts of this programme felt like a genuine historical documentary, about the transformation of Buckingham Palace into both a centre of state occasions and formal entertainment and a working family home, and about Queen Victoria’s life in general.  Other parts of it made me wonder if I’d accidentally switched over to either a cookery programme or the ITV drama “Victoria” (how many clips from that did they show?!).  But it was all very watchable.  Hey, talking about food is always interesting!  And the presenters were very understanding about Queen Victoria’s struggles following the death of Prince Albert.

It started off covering what it said on the tin – the history of the Palace during the reign of Queen Victoria. We heard about how unhappy Queen Victoria was during her childhood at Kensington Palace, and how Buckingham Palace seemed like a glorious escape from all that. Then about how she and Prince Albert thought that Buckingham Palace was too small for their family (at a time when similar-sized families were all living in one or two rooms!!) and wanted a new wing built, but, to avoid putting too much of a strain on public finances, Brighton Pavilion was sold to fund the building work.

I’m not actually convinced that that’s right: I thought the money from the sale of the Pavilion was spent on the purchase of Osborne House. It was interesting to hear about how much stuff was brought from Brighton to Buckingham Palace, though, notably for the new Chinese drawing room, and even more interesting to hear about how this very lavish room was used on a day-to-day basis by the royals. You see these very ornate rooms in stately homes and wonder what it was like actually to live in them, especially with young kids, but I suppose it’s just what people are used to.

We also heard about the construction of the famous balcony, and saw a picture of Victoria, Albert and a load of others standing on it to welcome troops back from the Crimean War. I’m not sure whose idea the balcony was, but it was a stroke of genius! It’s been such a focal point on so many occasions, from royal weddings to VE Day. And it’s something that only the Royal Family can do. Would hordes of people turn up to see politicians stood on a balcony? I don’t think so.

However, after that, we were told that “food became the centre of Victoria’s life”, and the programme then wandered off into Mary Berry territory.  It was fascinating to hear about the conditions in the kitchens, and about just how much food was consumed.  It was nice actually getting to see the present-day Palace kitchens – although they were rather dull-looking, all stainless steel surfaces! – and it was even interesting to hear about how the old Palace kitchens, before Victoria and Albert’s renovations, regularly got flooded with sewage!  But I’m not sure that we really needed to see people making roast quails, or sitting at tables laden with food.  I wonder what ITV did with all the food afterwards!  I’m not sure that I really needed to know that eating so much rich food gave people flatulence, either, but never mind.

But then it was back to the more serious stuff, and we heard about Prince Albert tackling the inefficiency and corruption within the Royal Household, and his and Queen Victoria’s joint involvement in putting pictures from the Royal Collection on display and creating the Palace ballroom.  In a relatively short space of time, they really did do a very impressive job of turning a palace that hadn’t even been completed when Victoria first moved in, and that’d undergone a lot more work since then, into … well, one of the most important buildings in the world, a centre of politics and culture, the focal point of the nation.

As with the recent BBC 1 programme about the role of music in the lives of Victoria and Albert, the programme did a good job of showing just how completely everything changed when Prince Albert died.  I can’t believe they trotted out the idea that Prince Albert died because of the trauma of finding out about the Prince of Wales and Nellie Clifden, though.  OK, it didn’t help, but they didn’t half overplay its significance.  But they dealt very sensitively with the sadness of Victoria losing both her mother and her husband in the same year, and then withdrawing from public life … and, not unreasonably, they credited Disraeli with coaxing her back into it. Victoria does come in for a lot of criticism over what was seen as dereliction of duty, and it was touching to hear the programme explain that, in addition to her grief, she’d lost her self-confidence. It’s very hard to mix with anyone when you feel like that, never mind be the head of an empire.

Happier times lay ahead, with the opening up of the Palace for royal garden parties, and then the Golden Jubilee and Diamond Jubilee festivities, with Buckingham Palace and the Mall as the focal point for them.  The programme did have rather a feeling of one of those A-level history essays where you get off the point and then hastily shove in a reference to the actual essay question, with references to the Palace being shoehorned into talk about Queen Victoria’s life – I’m not sure that which room she met Disraeli in was really that relevant to anything! – but it did undoubtedly get across the point that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert transformed a palace which had only been owned by the Royal Family since 1761, and hadn’t really been used much until 1837, into one of the most important and best-known buildings in the world.

I recently went to see an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace and, even though it was early in the morning, and the Queen wasn’t even in residence, there were just hordes of people, from all over the world, standing outside, looking at the Palace, and taking photos.  The Gallery only opened in 1962, incidentally, and the main Palace only assumed its current appearance after building work in 1913.  It’s not all about Victoria and Albert!  But they were the ones who made it into a symbol of the nation and the monarchy, and, whilst this wasn’t the greatest historical documentary I’ve ever seen, it did explain that.

That’s two programmes I’ve seen about Queen Victoria within a few days.  Given how many programmes are being shown this month to mark the bicentennial of her birth, there will be lots more to come!

 

 

Queen Victoria: My Musical Britain – BBC 1

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This was an unexpected treat. Really entertaining!  I love the idea of Queen Victoria helping to popularise the “wicked waltz”, being serenaded by Prince Albert with songs he’d written himself, holding “impromptu jamming sessions” with Mendelssohn and being so obsessed with Jenny Lind (of Barnum fame) that she cut short a formal dinner with the Prime Minister to go and see her. Not to mention having her favourite celeb singers at her 16th birthday party – how cool is that? We even got brass bands and the Halle Orchestra – hooray!!  And the music halls. I think Lucy Worsley was pushing it a bit by saying that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s romance was responsible for a century of British music; but, in this year which marks the bicentennial of their births, this was an interesting and original take on their lives and influence.

I was half-expecting Lucy to dress up as an opera singer and prance about on stage, but she actually managed to act like a serious historian for once. OK, she changed into a black dress when talking about Queen Victoria’s later years, but it wasn’t a particularly Victorian black dress! It’s usually Suzy Klein who presents the BBC’s musical history programmes, and I hadn’t realised that Lucy was so into music. We saw her playing the piano very impressively!

I’d never particularly thought of Queen Victoria in terms of music, either. Ask me to name a “musical monarch”, and I’d have said George II, Henry VIII or Elizabeth I. Young Victoria apparently found George II’s type of music boring, but was really into Italian opera. We got this rather lovely image of her, at a time at which she was given virtually no freedom by her mother and Sir John Conroy, being allowed to go to the opera and getting quite obsessive over some of the singers. Some of them came to sing at her 16th birthday party, and she took singing lessons from them. Lucy’s theory was that it was a way for an emotional person leading a very restricted life to express herself. I like that.

We’re all rather past the idea of Queen Victoria as a repressed and grumpy person who was “not amused”, and we know that she was into dancing. I didn’t know that Johann Strauss actually wrote a waltz for her, though. This was at a time when the waltz was still considered quite scandalous, so Victoria was out there at the cutting edge of things! It was rather pushing it to claim that it was Victoria who popularised the waltz, though, especially as she wasn’t actually allowed to waltz – all that bodily contact! – until she married Prince Albert.

Prince Albert did a lot of good things, but he was undeniably rather boring, and he wanted Italian opera and Viennese waltzes out and German classical music in. But he wrote his own love songs for Victoria, and serenaded her with them. That’s so romantic ❤ !! OK, it’d only work if you had a partner with a good singing voice, but Albert and Victoria both did have good singing voices. They played duets on the piano, as well. So sweet!

They did still go to the opera, as well – and I think it was a valid point that their presence helped to make opera-going, which had become associated with drunken posh blokes trying to seduce opera girls, respectable. And they held musical soirees at home. It was overplaying it to say that it was their interest in music which led to the increase in interest in musical entertainment generally, though! It was part of the general growth of leisure activities during the Victorian period, and, to be fair, Lucy did point out the importance of the development of mass production of musical instruments at more affordable prices. We got to see a brass band. Yay, I love brass bands! I’m not sure that Queen Victoria was particularly into brass band music, but, if she wasn’t, she didn’t know what she was missing! And we heard about the birth of the Halle Orchestra. Always nice to get some Mancunian history into any history programme 😉 . Lucy noted that Sir Charles Halle always made sure that some seats at the Free Trade Hall and anywhere else that the Halle were playing were made available at low prices. Music for all!  One thing that wasn’t mentioned was church music, but maybe that wasn’t particularly Queen Victoria’s thing.

Of course, Charles Halle was originally from Germany, and, as Lucy kept saying, the music scene in Britain at that time was dominated by Germans.  Mendelssohn notably spent a fair amount of time in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s.  I’d never realised that Victoria and Albert were so pally with him: the Queen’s patronage was a real boost to his career, and he even used to go round to see them and they’d all sing and play the piano together. That’s brilliant! And, whilst I’m vaguely familiar with Mendelssohn’s Scottish symphony, I wouldn’t have thought to connect his interest in Scotland with Victoria and Albert’s well-known love of Scotland. Er, having just looked on Google to see when his Hebrides Overture was composed, I see that it was after a visit to Scotland in 1829, well before Victoria even came to the throne! So that’s another area where Lucy’s arguments were pushing it; but they did undoubtedly create interest in Scottish culture outside Scotland.

Going back to the subject of opera becoming respectable, Lucy then started talking about a Swedish opera singer – and I knew before she said the name that she meant Jenny Lind. How cultured am I?! Well, OK, not very, in fact – I only know about Jenny Lind because of the Barnum connection! But Victoria was apparently a huge fan of hers. She went to see her sixteen times in one season, threw flowers at her, gave her a dog, and cut short a formal dinner with the PM in order to go to one of her shows! She was really keen. And then Prince Albert died … and she never went to a public concert again. That’s really sad – and we got some poignant images, from things she’d written in her journals, of how it’d taken her a while even to listen to music again, but that, when she did, particular pieces reminded her of Albert. I think everyone can identify with that. We’ve probably all got songs/pieces of music which remind us of loved ones who are no longer with us. But she chose to have the Royal Albert Hall and the Royal College of Music founded in his memory – and that, as Lucy pointed out, says a lot about how important music was to both of them.

We then moved on to the music halls. Much more my sort of thing than German Lieder or Italian opera! And the “By jingo” song, which always annoys me because the peoples of the Balkans got a very raw deal due to the obsession with restricting Russian influence!  Anyway. Lucy then claimed that Queen Victoria wearing black all the time was partly an image thing, and facilitated the branding of the monarchy because everyone knew that she always wore black. I wasn’t impressed with that. It was mourning black, OK – she was in mourning for her dead husband, not trying to look cool l like I did when I was 14 and wanted to wear black because the Stone Roses did!  I’m not even sure what wearing black was supposed to have to do with music – although the idea seemed to be that it was all part of the idea of Queen Victoria as the face of the British Empire, and that music played a big part in promoting imperialism via both music hall patriotic songs and the music of Elgar. Hooray for Elgar – finally, a top-level British composer.  I take the point about music and imperialism, but trying to connect that with Queen Victoria wearing black wasn’t overly convincing!   Oh well.

The programme finished by talking about Wagner’s Lohengrin being played at Queen Victoria’s 80th birthday party, and how Wagner’s music was to become synonymous with the Nazis, and Queen Victoria would have been devastated to know what lay ahead for Anglo-German relations. Things had rather wandered off the point by this time, and topping it off by saying that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s romance was responsible for a century of British music was definitely going over the top, but it was a very interesting programme. The bicentennial of Victoria and Albert’s birth, in addition to the popular ITV series about them, means that we’re going to be hearing a lot about them this year, and it’s going to be difficult to find different and original angles. The BBC managed it with this programme, and Lucy Worsley, who can sometimes be very irritating, did an excellent job with it. Queen Victoria wrote in her journal that she was “very, very amused”, with three underlinings, after one Italian opera performance. I was pretty amused by this programme!