Around The World In 80 Days – BBC 1

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What on earth is this rubbish?   It’s supposed to be a great adventure and a celebration of technological progress, even if it’s rather silly to imagine that Fogg genuinely didn’t realise that he’d gained a day.  Yes, all right, Jules Verne wasn’t very politically correct by 21st century standards, with Fogg rescuing an Indian widow about to commit suttee and then being kidnapped by Sioux and all the rest of it, but he was writing a century and a half ago and, if the BBC didn’t want to deal with that, then they should have chosen a different book to adapt.  This adaptation is just nonsense.  Who remembers Around The World With Willy Fog?  That was 80 million times better than this.  Shame that they didn’t just repeat that instead.

Fogg has been turned into a sort of Blackadder figure, bumbling along uselessly whilst his manservant is the clever one.  I have no objection to the colour blind casting of a black actor as Passepartout, but why on earth have his family been turned into communards?  Half the first episode involved his brother trying to assassinate the president of France.

Where did that come from?  Fix, the man who thought Fogg was a bank robber, has been removed from the story entirely, and been replaced by Abigail Fix, a feisty female journalist.  Yes, I know about Nellie Bly, but this isn’t supposed to be her story: it’s supposed to be an adaptation of Jules Verne’s book.  She and Passepartout are the ones responsible for all the derring-do, whilst the upper class white bloke has been relegated to the status of a total prat.

Seriously, BBC, get over yourself.   If you didn’t approve of Jules Verne’s book, then why did you bother dramatising it at all?   It’s a mid-Victorian book, not a 21st century book.  If you couldn’t accept that, then you should have gone for something else.  Not impressed one little bit.

 

A Very British Scandal – BBC 1

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Well, this was all gloriously scandalous!   Every cliche about bed-hopping amongst the upper-classes – and I do appreciate that it isn’t true in most people’s cases! – in a real life story, which the tabloids of the time absolutely lapped up, not just in the UK but worldwide.  Although, considering that all these affairs were supposed to be going on, we actually didn’t see much of anyone doing more than drinking in bars together – the BBC resisted the temptation to ape Bridgerton!  It was brilliantly well-acted, but the two main characters were both such nasty pieces of work that it was hard to feel any empathy or compassion for either of them.  OK, no-one should be a victim of revenge porn, and I think that the scriptwriters did sympathise with the Duchess, but she was so unpleasant that *I* really couldn’t feel a lot of sympathy for her.  And the Duke was even worse.  But the fact that Claire Foy and Paul Bettany made the viewer feel like that says a lot both for them and for the scriptwriters.

The big problem was that, because it was all so recent, the BBC couldn’t really name a chosen suspect as the “headless man”.  In a historical drama, you can accuse anyone you like of murdering the Princes in the Tower, or put forward any theory you like about what really went on between Mary Queen of Scots and Bothwell.   But there was no way that the BBC could have named Duncan Sandys, Douglas Fairbanks jnr or anyone else as “that man” in “those photos” – it’s just all too recent.   So that did limit the scope of the story somewhat.  But still, very well-written and very well-acted.  Now, having had A Very English Scandal and A Very British Scandal, are we going to have A Very Scottish Scandal, A Very Welsh Scandal and A Very Northern Irish Scandal to follow?!

 

Forged in the Fire by Ann Turnbull

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Large gatherings have been banned, places of amusement have been closed, travel restrictions have been imposed, health-related certificates are required in certain circumstances, and anyone in a household where there’s infection is required to isolate.  Some people advocate restrictions, whilst others are concerned about the loss of their liberties.  And there are grave concerns about the effect of it all on the economy.  Not to mention a lot of conspiracy theories.  No, this is not 2020 or 2021: it’s a book written in 2006 about life in London in 1665/1666.  But doesn’t it all sound strangely familiar?

This is the sequel to No Shame, No Fear.  It’s not as good as the first book, but it’s not bad.  Three themes – the persecution of Quakers, Will and Susanna’s romance, and the outbreak of plague – all intermingle.

Will’s gone off to London, to try to find a decent job which will enable him and Susanna to marry.  Going to London to seek your fortune’s a bit cliched, and I’m sure he could have found a job in Shropshire, but anyway!  The persecution of Quakers is continuing and, when he protests against some of his friends being deported, Will is thrown into prison.  Meanwhile, it’s difficult to get post out of London due to concerns about infection.  Panicking about his safety, Susanna goes to London to look for him – but gets the wrong idea when she founds out that he’s moved in with a wealthy man with a beautiful daughter.  (He’s actually working as the man’s librarian.)

I didn’t find this as good as the first book, as I said.  Will explains that Susanna’s got the wrong idea, but each of them refuses to speak to the other, and they both do a lot of sulking, and they come across as two 13-year-olds having strops rather than a couple who’d been on the verge of marriage. Then Susanna suddenly realises she’d got it all wrong when an old letter of Will’s, which has been backwards and forwards in the post for months, turns up, and, hey presto, all is forgiven, and it’s haste to the wedding.

Then the Great Fire breaks out, and there’s a detailed description of the characters’ escape from it.  Interestingly, it also makes a point about the number of books destroyed in the Fire, something which you never really think about.   And it all gets even cornier as Will’s estranged dad is so relieved to find his son alive that he decides he doesn’t mind about him becoming a Quaker and marrying a lower-class girl.  It really is a bit corny, but it’s a young adult book, not an adult book, so maybe I was expecting too much.  And I suppose it’s no cornier than Elizabeth Bennet completely changing her mind about Mr Darcy after reading his letter, or Scarlett O’Hara suddenly realising by Melanie’s deathbed that Rhett Butler’s her true love!   So maybe I’m being a bit too critical – I probably wouldn’t have worried about it being corny if I’d read it when I was 11 or 12.

So, like I said, not as good as the first book, but certainly not bad.

 

Judy, Patrol Leader by Dorothea Moore

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On Judy Bethune’s first day at a new school, she catches a burglar at half five in the morning and rescues two girls from certain death by drowning in the afternoon.  A few days later, she rescues two children from a cottage buried under a collapsed cliff.  As you do.  She follows this up by rescuing the local squire when he’s fallen into his lily pond.

Then the train on which she and her friend are travelling breaks down; they have to get off; they head to the nearest post office to wire the friend’s parents to tell them what’s happened; and, as they’re heading back towards the railway line, they find a secret passage down which is hiding a gang of criminals, including a little old lady whom they met on the train, who is actually a smuggler in disguise.  As they try to escape from the tunnel to alert the police, it caves in, and, whilst attempting to dig their way out, they find a load of extremely valuable jewellery which highwaymen stole from one of Judy’s ancestors in 1715.  The smugglers tie them up, but they manage to break the cords and get away, complete with the jewellery, which is then sold to enable Judy’s uncle to give up his job and buy their ancestral home.  Just the sort of thing that could happen to anyone.

Yes, all right, it sounds absolutely ridiculous – but the story dates back to the 1930s (although, confusingly, my copy, which is from the 1950s, refers to the Queen rather than the King) and even some of Enid Blyton’s books from the 1950s show the boys at the centre of all the derring-do whilst the girls stay somewhere safe.  So books like this, showing girls being brave and daring and carrying out heroics, are actually a pretty big deal when put into context.  Even if it is so bonkers that it reads like a spoof.

Judy is an orphan, whose guardian is an uncle who teaches classics at a girls’ school somewhere on the English coast … I think it’s meant to be Essex, because the school’s called St Oswyth’s, but it’s not actually specified.  The uncle is given a dog’s life by his pupils.  Judy lives on the Orkney Islands, with Mrs McKay, an old schoolfriend of her late mother’s.  When Mrs McKay has to go abroad due to a family crisis,  Judy takes herself off to live with her uncle, and is enrolled at the school.  There, she hopes to make lots of friends, as she’s previously lived in a tiny fishing village where there were hardly any girls of her own age.  And she wants to start a Guide pack, as she was a very keen Guide in the Orkneys – although, as we’ve already been told that there were hardly any teenage girls there, this doesn’t make a lot of sense – and learnt all her rescuing skills that way.

However, most of the nasty cliquey girls at the school, as well as making poor old Mr Bethune’s life a misery, aren’t keen on either Judy or the idea of Guides.  But Judy’s heroics win them over, and a Guide pack is started.  And they go on a jolly camp – once the local squire grants them permission to camp on his land, after Judy’s rescued him from a  lily pond.  Then she and her friend head off by train to spend the holidays with the friend’s parents, and all these adventures happen.   OK, you get adventures in most books in this sort of genre, but I think that that was the most far-fetched series of events I’ve ever come across.

Absolutely bonkers, but very readable!   It certainly wasn’t boring 🙂 .

A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus

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I quite liked the idea of this book, about three young orphaned evacuees hoping to find a new family during the Second World War.  There was a bit of a Noel Streatfeild feel to it, and I loved the fact that the children were always reading and that a lot of the action centred on the local library.  Also, the snowball fight with forts and snow angels sounded distinctly Chalet School-esque!  The characters were mostly very convincing, and it could have been a very good book with a bit more attention to detail.

Unfortunately, the American author seemed to have done very little research into her subject.  There were irritating errors such as the school summer holidays taking place in June and July, when it’s July and August in England.  There were frequent mentions of rationing, but I honestly don’t think that she quite understood what it meant, because everyone always seemed to be eating cakes, biscuits and chocolate.  And we were informed that the wireless reports about air raids gave out so much detail that listeners were even told exactly which streets had been hit.  Hardly.

The use of American language by British characters grated as well, especially as I’m not sure that terms such as “students” and “assignments”, rather than “pupils” and “homework”, would have been used even in the US in 1940, but, OK, the book’s aimed at young American readers, and I accept that children of that age might be confused by unfamiliar terms such as “autumn” or “nappy”.  But the errors about the war and the school holiday times were disappointing.   And it was a shame, because, as I said, the characters worked very well and it could have been a very good book had a little bit more effort been made.

The plot was actually pretty daft, but I suppose it was no more unlikely than those in a lot of older books for young children, and this definitely had a pleasantly old-fashioned feel to it.  Our three children, two brothers and a sister, were orphans from a well-to-do family, living with their grandmother in London.  Oh, and that’s another thing.  Why are fictional evacuees *always* from London?!   You’d think that no-one was ever evacuated from any other city?  Gah!

Anyway, when she died, they apparently had no other relatives, family friends or anyone else to take them in.  They were at boarding school, so the logical thing would have been for them to spend their holidays at those hostel type places for children whose parents were in India etc, and for their solicitor to act as their legal guardian.  But, OK, children’s books aren’t always logical, so the rather bonkers idea which the solicitor came up with was to evacuate them to a village in the Midlands along with the pupils from a nearby state day primary school (er, even though the eldest boy was 12) and hope that the family with whom they were billeted would adopt them.  Er, right.  But not to mention the fact that they had money, so that they wouldn’t attract any gold diggers.

Of course, they had a couple of disastrous billets, and various problems at school, but did eventually end up with a very nice lady who was happy to adopt all three of them.   It was a lovely ending, and it was a lovely book in many ways, but those errors about Britain in general and wartime Britain in particular really were rather annoying.

No Shame, No Fear by Ann Turnbull

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  This month’s Facebook group reading challenge was to read a “tender teen romance”.  So I read a book about the persecution of Quakers during the early years of the Restoration.  It’s a tender teen romance, OK!  Will is 17 and Susanna is 15.  And it’s very hard to find historical fiction with tender teen romances which *doesn’t* involve someone getting killed in the Great War.

This is a “young adult” book (what used to be called a “book for older children” in my day) so it doesn’t go as deep as a book for adults would, but it’s still very interesting.  We tend to think of the Restoration as being a very positive time, after the repression of Cromwell’s era, but, of course, it wasn’t.  This book’s set in 1662, so we only get part of the Clarendon Code, the big clampdown on Dissenters/Nonconformists, but we get enough of it to see life made very unpleasant for our characters – they’re subjected to assaults in the street from local hooligans, to the authorities invading their homes and businesses, and then to imprisonment even for children.

This *is* a tender teen romance, as I said, set in Shropshire, and we see Will, the son of a well-to-do Anglican family, being attracted both to Quakerism and to Susanna, the daughter of a lower-class Quaker family.  Their romance and Will’s religious conversion take place against the background of oppression and the opposition of his family.  It’s the first book in a trilogy, so it ends with Will going off to London to seek work, but we know that they’re going to get married and live happily ever in the end.

It’s not a pleasant time – and, of course, it’s so ironic that the official view of 17th century England was that it was Catholics who persecuted religious minorities.  Both Britain and America are still fighting the battles of the 17th century, in many ways, and this is how things could be for people before the Glorious Revolution.  It’s worth remembering that.  Having said which, look at some of what went on under Pitt the Younger.  But that’s getting off the point.  This is a very interesting young adult book, and offers a very different perspective on a time which is generally associated with – apart from the Great Plague, which we possibly don’t want to dwell on too much at the moment! – jollity and theatres and Charles II’s love life.  It certainly wasn’t like that for everyone.

 

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – Lowry Theatre

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This was a real treat, a much-needed pick-me-up in what’s been a pretty rotten week all round.   A lot of emphasis was put on the need to keep strong and hold on to hope, and on Lucy as the bringer of light, and I think that’s something we could all do with at the moment.  Actually, just to be pedantic, I think someone rather needs to brush up their Latin, given that “bringer/bearer of light” would be Lucifer rather than Lucy 🙂 , but it was a nice idea!   Interesting interpretation as well: as I understand it, the name Lucy was chosen purely because it was the name of C S Lewis’s goddaughter, but I do like the idea of connecting the character with the name’s literal meaning of “light” (lux).

Emphasis had also been put on the wartime context of the story.  The same thing was done with both the stage adaptation of Bedknobs and Broomsticks which I saw recently and the CBBC adaptation of Malory Towers, so it does seem to be a trend.  When C S Lewis wrote the book, publishers weren’t keen to have too much reference to the war in children’s books, in case it triggered painful memories, but I think it’s quite positive that that’s changing now – although purists will obviously prefer adaptations to stick as closely as possible to the book.  This was a musical, and we started off with a soldier singing “We’ll Meet Again” as the evacuees boarded their train.  And the good animals in Narnia were very much shown as a wartime resistance movement.  Mrs Beaver even told the Pevensies to listen very carefully because she’d say this only once!

Mr Beaver had been turned into a bit of a whingeing comedy figure who seemed to belong in Dad’s Army rather than ‘Allo ‘Allo, or indeed The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Reepicheep only featured in passing and wasn’t even named, but you can’t do everything when you’re adapting a complex book for a 2 hour stage show.  They’d really done a very good job of it.  The actor and actress playing Edmund and Lucy were years too old, but I suppose you couldn’t really have little ones playing such big roles twice a day for weeks on end.

And it’d been Celtified.  The professor’s house had been relocated to Aberdeenshire.  I can’t remember the book giving any hints about where it was, but I’ve always assumed that it was somewhere in rural southern England, because kids weren’t usually evacuated too far from home.  Having said which, Mrs Macready does sound like she’s Scottish.  Most of the music sounded very Celtic, and there was a lot of dancing jigs!   We all associate C S Lewis so closely with Oxford that I suppose we tend to forget that he was actually from Belfast, with some Scottish ancestry: I’m not sure if that’s why the composers/choreographers Celtified it, but it worked very well.

I’m making it sound as if it was nothing like the book!   It was – the main elements of the story were all there.  Like a lot of people, I first read the book as a young child, and I’m not sure that you really take it all in at that age: there are some very powerful themes in there, and, of course, there’s been some controversy about them over the years.  But the main themes of sticking by your family and friends, of clinging on to hope, of courage, of fighting for what’s right and of good triumphing over evil are fairly universal in children’s books, and that very much came across in this adaptation.  And sticking together and not losing hope are themes that couldn’t be more relevant at the moment.  Love and best wishes to anyone reading this – stay safe x.

The Tsarina’s Daughter by Ellen Alpsten

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I’ve been waiting for decades to find a novel featuring the Tsarina Elizabeth as the main character, rather than as a minor character in a book centred on Peter the Great or Catherine the Great, so thank you to Ellen Alpsten for writing this, and thank you to Amazon for making it available on a 99p Kindle download.

However, it was quite an odd book: it couldn’t quite seem to make up its mind what it wanted to be.  Much of it was a historical novel, which was what I wanted, but there was a very odd fantasy (a nod to Game of Thrones?) passage about Elizabeth wandering into the mysterious Golosov Ravine and being attacked by evil spirits, quite a lot of very slushy romantic/sexual passages, and one bit, about Elizabeth making sweet bread with salt instead of sugar, which read as if it’d been written by Laura Ingalls Wilder or Elinor M Brent-Dyer and really did *not* seem to belong in a book about 18th century Romanovs.

All in all, it was a good read, though.  The Age of the Empresses is a fascinating period, but people just tend to jump from Peter the Great to Catherine the Great and ignore everyone in between.  However, Ellen Alpsten’s previous book focused on Catherine I, Elizabeth’s mother, and much of this book covered the reign of Anna Ivanovna.  It ended when Elizabeth deposed Anna Leopoldovna, Anna Ivanovna’s niece and regent for Ivan VI, but I think there’s a third book to come, which will cover Elizabeth’s own reign.  It’s fascinating that all these women ruled the vast Russian Empire in a man’s world.  And, indeed, that they all had lovers – in Anna Leopoldovna’s case, lovers of both genders – , which would have been considered very shocking at most European courts, but wasn’t in Russia.

Some of the lesser characters had been merged together, to keep the cast list down, but the author did explain that.  And Praskovia Ivanovna, the third surviving daughter of Ivan V, wasn’t mentioned at all, but, again, I suppose the author was trying to keep the number of characters down to levels she felt were manageable.  My one big gripe in terms of historical accuracy or inaccuracy was that the book suggested that Ivan V wasn’t actually the father of any of his daughters, which isn’t something that’s generally believed.

It even gave that as the reason why Elizabeth launched her coup, which I didn’t get at all. She launched her coup because she wanted to rule, and because the two Annas made a mess of things and were seen as allowing a German takeover of the court and causing great suffering amongst the Russian people.  Why not just stick with that?  Anna Ivanovna was absolutely vilified here, which is very much the Russian view and not always the international view; but the book was written from Elizabeth’s viewpoint, in the first person, so that fitted.

Despite the odd mishmash of styles, I did really enjoy this, and am looking forward to reading the third book in the series.  As I said, it’s wonderful to find books focusing on the women who ruled Russia in the period between the two “great” reigns.  Elizabeth made a huge contribution to Russian history, and indeed to European history, and she doesn’t deserve to be neglected in the way that she often is.  It really does annoy me how practically every book and TV programme on 18th century Russia just jumps from Peter the Great to Catherine the Great!  Well done to Ellen Alpsten for breaking that trend!