Green Book

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This wasn’t what I expected – and, whilst it wasn’t the best film ever, it asked some very interesting questions.  I thought, given the title, that it was all going to be about someone’s experiences of racism, but it went beyond that, and also explored the issues of not fitting the expectations, both external and internal, of a particular demographic group, and trying to cope when you end up feeling that you don’t fit in anywhere.  Even now, never mind in the 1960s, society isn’t set up for individuals.   That all sounds very deep and meaningful, but the story’s told by way of an old-fashioned, “buddy movie”, two totally different people thrown together and bonding type stuff, not very subtle and sometimes more than a bit cringeworthy, but good for plenty of laughs. It veers from the complex to the crude within seconds, at some points. Incidentally, since when was “dramedy”, which I saw on one website the other week, a word?  It sounds like some sort of camel.  “Comedy-drama” will do nicely, thank you.

Also, I was stupidly chuffed to discover that Mahershala Ali’s full first name is Mahershalalhashbaz.  I’ve never come across that name in real life before.  I assume that his parents got it from the Bible, and not from Clover Carr’s poem in What Katy Did At School!

Anyway.  This is based on the true story of African-American classical pianist Don Shirley and his Italian-American driver/bodyguard Tony Vallelonga, on an early 1960s concert tour through various states including parts of the racially segregated South.  The script was written partly by Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son, but some people who knew Don Shirley well have apparently questioned its accuracy, especially in terms of the way it shows the two men bonding and becoming friends rather than just being employer and employee.  That’s quite complex, because the racial issues of the time make the fact of a black man employing a white man to be his driver/minder a very big thing, but the “buddy movie” light entertainment comedy element of the film relies on them developing a close personal relationship.

I’d love to know how accurate the depictions of the two men, as well as their relationship with each other are, because they both sometimes seem a bit … what’s the word?  Overblown?  I wouldn’t say pantomime-ish, but certainly a little OTT.  Tony is quite a caricature of a working-class NooYoik Italian-American.  He never stops talking, works as a bouncer at a nightclub where most of the punters seem to be Mafiosi, and spends the rest of his time with his large and very noisy family.  Women in the kitchen, men in front of the telly, but everyone is devoted to each other.  They do not mix with anyone who is not Italian-American.  He’s also a caricature of a certain type of working-class bloke, commonly found in soap operas and comedies in the 1970s and 1980s, generally.  He hits out with his fists before he thinks, swears all the time, eats with his fingers, and, whilst driving the car, smokes, eats, drinks and then throws the rubbish out of the window.

He also throws two glasses in the bin after two black plumbers working at his house drink out of them.

Don, Dr Shirley, is the complete opposite.  He’s elegant, cultured and refined.  He lives in the most beautiful apartment, full of antiques.  He dresses impeccably, his manners are perfect, and his grammar is perfect.  However, he’s so uptight and snooty that you want to yell at him to loosen up a bit, especially when he’s lecturing Tony about his speech and his behaviour.  Both of them would fit very well into a sitcom, but sitcom characters are supposed to be a bit OTT.  Superb performances from both actors, with the scripts they were given, but I think we could have done with a bit more subtlety in the way both men were written.

The rest of the people in this film aren’t exactly subtly portrayed, either.  Every white character in the South is a racist.  The very first time Dr Shirley sets foot in a bar south of the Mason-Dixon line, he gets beaten up.  When he and Tony go into a posh menswear shop, the sales assistant assumes that it’s Tony who wants to try on an expensive suit.  Every single person they see, black or white, gawps at the sight of a white guy driving whilst a black guy is sitting in the back.  At one point, the car breaks down in a rural area where several black people are working in a field.  More like a scene from a cartoon than a scene from a film, every single person stops, tools in hand, to stare when Tony gets out and lifts up the car bonnet.  And, everywhere they go, the police are just waiting to arrest them.  I’m not saying that this inaccurate, just that it’s a bit heavy-handed to generalise about entire populations of entire regions like that.

However, whilst the film is a bit heavy-handed, the fact of racism in the South in the 1960s is just that – a fact.  The title of the film comes from a guidebook, produced annually from 1936 to 1966, for African-American motorists, because of the very common problems of being refused accommodation, or service at restaurants, or even being told that they couldn’t fill up their vehicles at petrol stations.   This was going on all the time.  A century after emancipation, this was going on all the time.

We don’t actually hear that much about the book, though.  We do occasionally see Tony referring to it for suggestions of places to stay, but, otherwise, the impression given is that he and Dr Shirley didn’t bother to read it – which, for the purposes of the film, is a good thing, because it means that the viewer gets to see just how bad things were, because they don’t avoid trouble.  They haven’t been going long before they take a wrong turn whilst driving at night, get lost, and are pulled over by two policemen – because a black man is in an area which black people are not allowed to be in after sundown.

A brief historical note here.  “Sundown towns” were not particularly a Southern phenomenon.  There were many in other parts of the United States too.  Nor was it always, or only, black people who were excluded.  Some places excluded Jews, Native Americans, Chinese people or Hispanic people.  Welcome to the land of the free.  In the 1960s.  Not the Middle Ages.  The 1960s.

Tony punches one of the policemen.  Again, this all seems a bit overboard.  Maybe it did actually happen, but … would anyone actually do that?  But, for the purposes of the film, it has to happen.  He and Dr Shirley both end up locked in the only cell at a very small police station.  Eventually, the police acknowledge that they’ve got the right to a phone call, so Dr Shirley makes a call … and, the next thing you know, Bobby Kennedy, in his capacity as Attorney General, is ringing this two bit police station to say that the police have got to let them go.  Tony thinks that he’s going to be dining out on this story for the rest of his life.  Dr Shirley finds the whole thing utterly humiliating.  It’s taken away his dignity.

That’s probably the biggest point that the film makes about racism – that it strips Dr Shirley of his dignity.  For all his talent, his education, the way he speaks, the way he behaves, the racist attitudes with which he’s confronted keep challenging his dignity.  He may have the class to appreciate an elegant suit, and the money to afford it, but the manager of the shop won’t even let him try it on.  He’s denied admission to hotels, restaurants and even toilets.  Maybe the title “Green Book” doesn’t really work, because the idea of the Green Book is to enable people to avoid situations where they’re likely to face awkwardness and trouble.  Obviously no-one should have to think like that, and people should be able to go where they want, but, even now, you see comments in guidebooks saying that, for example, women travelling alone would be well advised to avoid a particular place.  Tony and Dr Shirley keep running into trouble.

The next time Dr Shirley ends up being arrested isn’t actually about race: it’s because he’s been caught in a sexual encounter with another man.  Tony bribes the police to let him go.  Again, Dr Shirley is upset at having had to resort to underhand tactics to get out of the situation, but, as Tony points out, it would be very awkward for him, in the climate of the 1960s, if this arrest became known publicly.  It’s already been mentioned that Dr Shirley had been married to a woman, although he’s now divorced, so we’ve previously got the impression that he’s heterosexual.  In an emotional conversation with Tony afterwards, he says that he doesn’t feel as if he’s accepted anywhere.  It seems that he’s referring to sexuality, as well as race, but the subject of sexuality’s never mentioned again, so we don’t really know exactly what’s going on.  I don’t really know why the scriptwriters put that in if they weren’t going to develop it properly.

Tony, on the other hand, is happy and secure within his world.  He hasn’t got much money, and he’s got no qualifications, and his manners are appalling, but he knows exactly who he is and where he belongs.  He’s part of a big working-class Italian American New York extended family, within a working-class Italian American New York community.  He’s happily married.  Part of the “bonding process” is that he writes terrible letters to his wife, Dr Shirley dictates romantic letters for him to write instead, and his wife is thrilled – even though she knows very well that someone must have helped him with them.  But he and his wife and their children are all very happy together.  And they’re part of a big network of relatives and friends, all of whom are working-class Italian-American New Yorkers.  He’s fine with that.  He doesn’t particularly want to learn about different things, and he certainly doesn’t aspire to what might be considered a more cultured lifestyle, or a more multicultural lifestyle.

Do you ever think that it might be easier to be like that?  Maybe by the 1960s, things were starting to change, but, before that, a lot of people never moved out of the communities in which they grew up, and never mixed with different people.  Whilst doing some family history research, I found that, on one side, my great-great-grandparents had lived next-door-but-two to each other.  Not quite marrying the boy/girl next door, but as near as makes no difference.  There are still people whose lives aren’t too far removed from that.  Is it tragic, that their lives are so narrow?  Or is it easier to be like that?  And, once you’re out of that sort of set-up, you can’t really go back.

We know very little about Dr Shirley’s background, so it does feel as if some of the pieces of the jigsaw are missing.  He’s very far removed from the stereotype of what a black man in the US in the 1960s should be, but what we don’t know is whether he was brought up like that or whether he’s distanced himself from that.  There’s a mention of a brother whom he doesn’t speak to – although apparently that isn’t true, and he got on perfectly well with his brother.  We don’t meet any of his relatives, and he doesn’t seem to have any friends who aren’t connected with his work.   Whether it was the way he was brought up or whether it was his own choice, or just the way his life panned out, he’s completely detached from “black culture”.

He’s barely even heard of Little Richard and Aretha Franklin, and doesn’t recognise their music when it comes on over the car radio.  He doesn’t eat fried chicken – which is quite a motif of the film: people keep going on about fried chicken.  Food is such a big part of culture.  People who’ve become detached from a cultural group, or even people whose parents or grandparents became detached from a cultural group, will often still eat the food associated with it.  And, in 1960s America, it’s still expected that part of the experience of being black is to grow up in poverty.  At one point, Tony says that he’s blacker than Dr Shirley is, because he does live in a working-class neighbourhood.  Dr Shirley doesn’t disagree.

And, for all his success, he’s deeply unhappy.  And, because of that, he drinks.  And it’s because he feels that he doesn’t belong.

It all sounds so ridiculous, this idea that, in order to belong, you have to conform to cultural norms.  Surely that’s the most prejudiced thing of all.  And yet that’s how it is, even now.   And it’s coming as much from people inside a particular community as from people outside it.  More, if anything.  There are so many films and TV programmes and comedy acts which play on stereotypes of particular groups, and most of that is coming from people within those groups.  Fair enough, as long as no-one’s getting offended by it?  But doesn’t it just make harder and harder for the people within those communities who don’t fit those stereotypes?

That word “community” – it gets used in so many ways, these days.  People talk about “the black community” or “the Islamic community” or “the LGBT community” as if everyone who fits that particular demographic is somehow supposed to have the same beliefs and outlook and interests.  You’re talking about millions of completely different people, living different lives, in different areas.  And yet, all the time, you get political commentators saying that a particular party’s trying to appeal to the X community, or has lost support amongst the Y community.  Or else it’s retailers trying to appeal to the A community or the B community.  As if you’re supposed to vote the same way, and have the same likes and dislikes, as everyone who’s from the same ethnic group or religion or part of the country as you, or is of the same sexuality, or even the same gender.  And then you get people claiming to be spokesmen/women for that community, as if they can somehow represent all these millions of different people.

It’s actually getting worse.  We’ve now got this “cultural appropriation” thing going on, as if you aren’t even allowed to sing particular music or make particular food or wear particular clothing unless you’ve got a personal connection to the demographic group from which it originates.  What is that about?  And people are accused of betrayal if they have a partner from a different demographic group, or express views which aren’t those which people from their ethnic or religious background are “supposed” to have.

Everyone wants to belong.

Or do they?

Dr Shirley doesn’t want not to be seen as black.  He’s not trying to get away from being black, just from the idea that black people have to be a certain way.  He’s actually one of the people who sees himself as being a standard bearer for a particular group, because the reason he’s touring the South is to try to change people’s attitudes, to overcome the stereotypes of what a black person is like.  One of the other musicians explains this to Tony, who’s struggling to understand why this very talented man, who can get as many well-paid gigs as he likes in places where he’s treated with the respect he deserves, is putting himself through all this unpleasantness.  He thinks he can take on the attitudes of racists in the South, and change their minds.  And it would have been great if that was the way things had gone, but it wasn’t.

At one concert, which was meant to be in North Carolina but was actually filmed at the beautiful Houmas House plantation in Louisiana, which I’ve visited, he’s welcomed by the host and hostess and their guests, and sits down at the dinner table with them – even though they do serve up friend chicken – but, when he asks to use the toilet, he’s told that he’ll have to use a grotty outhouse: the proper gents’ toilets are only for white men.  He says that he’s not using the outhouse and, if they won’t let him use the other toilets, the second half of the concert will have to be delayed whilst he goes all the way back to his hotel, uses the toilet there, and comes all the way back.  The host agrees.  We’re left thinking how absolutely ridiculous the host’s attitude is, but we’re also left wondering why Dr Shirley doesn’t just tell him exactly where he can shove both his piano and his toilets.  Tony says that, if anyone treated him like that, he’d use their luxury carpet as a toilet.

Dr Shirley says that what matters is to be dignified.

However, in order for the film to work, either someone’s going to have to give in and accept that they’re in the wrong, or he’s going to have to snap and say that he’s had enough.  Attitudes are, sadly, not going to be changed by a concert tour, so Dr Shirley has to decide that he’s not taking any more –  and, of course, this happens at the last concert of the tour.

It’s in a posh club, on Christmas Eve.  Tony, Dr Shirley and the other musicians want to have a meal at the club’s restaurant before the concert, but the restaurant is whites-only and, despite the fact that all the white people in the restaurant are only at the club because they’ve come to hear him play, Dr Shirley is not allowed in.  He’s told that either he should eat somewhere else, or that some food can be brought out to him in the miniscule dressing room.  Enough’s enough, and he walks out.  He and Tony go to a bar where Tony is the only white person in the place.  And he plays the piano there.  Mostly jazz music.

And then, after this grand denouement, after he’s finally had enough, after he’s accepted that what he’s tried to do hasn’t worked, after he’s stood up for himself – and done it in an immeasurably dignified way, rather than walloping someone as Tony would have done – the film suddenly turns into one of those warm fuzzy Christmas films that get repeated on the Sky Christmas channel all the way through December.

Will Tony make it home in time to have Christmas dinner with his wife, his kids, and their enormous extended family?  As head north, it starts snowing heavily.  They can hardly see for more than a few inches in front of them.  And then they’re pulled over by a policeman.  Oh no!  Are our heroes going to spend Christmas Day in the cells?  Fear not.  This policeman just wants to tell them that they’ve got a flat tyre.  Tony changes it.  They drive on.  But Tony’s tired.  He really can’t drive any further.  So Dr Shirley takes over.  And they make it back to New York City just as Tony’s lovely wife Dolores is dishing up.  Hooray!   And Dr Shirley is invited into join them.  Bless!  Everyone hugs and kisses.  Merry Christmas!

I suppose they wanted a happy ending, and that was the only way of doing it.  The tour didn’t change people’s attitudes.  Dr Shirley didn’t find inner peace and a sense of belonging.  But we got our happy Christmas dinner scene.  A bit of a non sequitur, but, hey, why not?  We don’t have to fit films into pigeon holes as being comedies or dramas, or being buddy movies or films about racism or films about angst or anything else.  This film doesn’t really fit into any one standard category.  It’s just itself.  And people should be able to be just themselves, but the world doesn’t work like that, and it can be very hard if you don’t fit in.  There are better films than this about the evils of racism, but this one’s a bit different, and, whilst it’s got its faults, it’s got plenty to say, and all of that is well worth listening to.

 

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Colette

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This was all right for a wet Sunday, but it didn’t really do Colette justice.  Her life story is fascinating, and a good script could have combined glamour and scandal in Belle Epoque Paris with some serious points about women’s rights, sexuality and transgenderism, and made a very interesting film.  This unfortunately didn’t quite manage it.  Also, it suddenly stopped whilst she was only in her 30s, missing out the most successful periods of her life.  And there was very little historical context: I wasn’t expecting a long discourse on the Entente Cordiale or the Dreyfus affair, but a bit of scene-setting would have been nice!  And was it really necessary to show the husband using the chamber pot?!  Talk about too much information!  It was all right; but it could have been a lot better.

Colette, born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in 1873, later Sidonie-Gabrielle Villars by marriage, is one of France’s best-known female novelists.  In brief, she was born to a rural family in reduced circumstances, married a famous author and publisher known as Willy, and moved to Paris with him. His books weren’t making enough money to fund their extravagant lifestyle.  She wrote the “Claudine” novels, considered very racy at the time, and they proved to be incredibly popular; but he, having put under under huge pressure and even locked her in her room until she’d done what he considered enough writing for the day, claimed all the credit for them.

Meanwhile, he was having affairs with a load of other women, and she then began having affairs with other women as well – encouraged by him, because he thought it’d provide good material for the books!  The film shows them both at one point having an affair with the same woman, played by Eleanor Tomlinson from Poldark.  Colette then moved on to a relationship with “Missy”, Mathilde de Morny, whose mother was allegedly the illegitimate daughter of Nicholas I of Russia and whose father was the half-brother of Napoleon III.  Missy wore men’s clothing, at a time when it was actually illegal (seriously) for women to wear trousers, and the film shows them (that’s “them” as a gender neutral pronoun, not a plural) preferring to be referred to as “he” rather than “she”.

Colette had by this time had begun an acting career as well, and an on-screen kiss between her and Missy caused a riot at the Moulin Rouge – that was one of the bits that the film did quite well.  Acting was how she supported herself after she and Willy separated and eventually divorced – but the film didn’t go that far.  Nor did it show, except in a few slides at the end, her taking legal action to get recognition of the fact that she was the true author of the Claudine books, her later literary success – including the publication of Gigi, on which the famous musical’s based- and her two later marriages, nor mention the fact that she was honoured by becoming the first female author to be buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery.

Question – what do you do about accents, in an English language film set in a non-Anglophone country?  Some of the reviews of the BBC production of Les Miserables have moaned about the characters being given Cockney accents, but what’s the alternative?  You can’t have everyone speaking in ‘Allo ‘Allo French-accented English.  Nor can you really have working-class characters speaking RP: it’d sound wrong.  It felt strange in this that everyone sounded Terribly English, when you knew they weren’t.  The exception was the Eleanor Tomlinson character, who spoke in a Southern drawl that was supposed to show that she was from Louisiana – except that it sounded far more Charleston than New Orleans.

The story of Colette’s life really is very interesting, and the film’s worth seeing because of that.  And for some lovely scenes in the French countryside, although I think they were actually filmed in England!  The “Gay Paree” thing was done quite well too, with nice costumes and some good scenes showing salons and the theatre.  Dominic West as Willy and Keira Knightley as Colette both played their parts well, he as the controlling older man and she as the young wife who finds her own identity and has the guts to strike out on her own.  There was also a very touching scene in which Denise Gough as Missy explains how she never felt comfortable in women’s outfits and knew that she’d “come home” when she borrowed her brother’s clothes.

So there were plenty of positives, but I just felt that the film didn’t tell the story of Colette’s life, or make the very important points about attitudes towards women, towards same sex relationships or towards transgenderism, as well as it could have done.  It raised important points, but the way in which it got them across didn’t quite work.

The Favourite

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 When I was at university, I read a book by an incredibly patronising male historian who said that the court of Queen Anne was like an Angela Brazil novel, with the Duchess of Marlborough as the glittering Head Girl and Queen Anne as the dull fourth former who had a grand passion for her. Abigail Hill would presumably have been the sneaky new girl who split up two old friends.  Can you imagine anyone ever saying that about a male monarch and their favourites?!   This film does largely portray Anne as a weak ruler manipulated by the two other women, not to mention an eccentric who was obsessed with bunny rabbits and didn’t realise that the Battle of Blenheim hadn’t actually ended the War of the Spanish Succession, which is a bit harsh.  However, it’s intended as a black comedy, not a faithful retelling of events and personalities, and Olivia Colman plays the role superbly.  Rachel Weisz as the brilliant Sarah and Emma Stone as the devious Abigail are equally good, and it’s great to see this incredibly important but often neglected period of history getting some attention for a change … even if there are rather a lot of historical inaccuracies and omissions!

I’d love to write an essay about the War of the Spanish Succession, about which I can bore people for hours (I get slightly over-excited at the mention of the word “Blenheim”); but I won’t. Suffice it to say that it went on for over a decade, and, whilst the French candidate did eventually become King of Spain, Britain emerged as top dog, gaining Gibraltar and former French territory in Canada.  And becoming Britain: the Act of Union between England and Scotland came into force in 1707.  And there was a big fight between Madrid and Barcelona, and I’m not talking about football; but that isn’t very relevant here.

Meanwhile, at home, the country was split between different factions – to say Whigs and Tories might be an oversimplification, as a lot of it was more about Court v Country and City v Country and those factions weren’t always aligned with the party divisions; but this period was crucial in the development of the two-party system.  Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, Anne’s long-term friend, became an ardent supporter of the so-called Junto Whigs, who included her son-in-law Charles Spencer, Earl of Sunderland.  They came into conflict with the party led by Robert Harley, cousin of Abigail Hill, later Abigail Masham, who was also Sarah’s cousin.  Anne is often, rather unfairly, portrayed as having had few opinions of her own and being pushed around by other people.

The negative view of Anne is partly due to the picture of her given in Sarah’s memoirs, but they were certainly very close at one time. Were they lovers?  Well, they are in this film, but I personally don’t think they were in real life.  We seem to have lost the concept of “passionate friends”, but I think that’s what they were.  However, there were certainly rumours that Anne and Sarah were lovers, and then, later, strong rumours that Anne and Abigail were lovers.

At the end of the day, it didn’t really matter that much. The favourite phenomenon is fascinating, because, in just over a century, we had a whole spectrum of different relationships.  Elizabeth I had male favourites, and it seems pretty certain that she was in love with at least one of them, Robert Dudley, but that they probably weren’t actually lovers.  James I had male favourites, who almost certainly were lovers.  Charles I seems to’ve been happily married to Henrietta Maria, but he had male favourites who were just friends … and who caused a lot of trouble.  Charles II and James II both had umpteen mistresses and illegitimate children.  Depending on what you read and how you interpret things, William III may have been gay, straight, bisexual or asexual: everyone seems to have a different view on that.  He was certainly close to the Earl of Portland, the Earl of Albemarle and Betty Villiers, but was he actually having affairs with any or all of them?  Then Queen Anne had female favourites, who were probably “passionate friends”, but maybe, especially in Abigail’s case, lovers.  So we’ve got a lot of different relationships there, both in terms of the actual nature of the relationships and in terms of sexuality.

It’s great, really, because people don’t seem to’ve had a problem with the idea of a female monarch having a lover, and people don’t seem to’ve had a problem with the idea of a monarch having a same sex lover. And, as the 18th century went on, an increasing number of British men went to India and formed relationships with Indian women, and people didn’t have a problem with that either.  Then attitudes changed completely during the Victorian era, whether it was because of the religious revival or whatever, and it’s taken us a long time to get back to society having a more equal view of things.

So, anyway, the exact nature of the relationships wasn’t really the issue, and sexuality wasn’t really the issue. The issue was the power and influence held by the favourites, whether they were friends, lovers, someone whom the monarch had romantic feelings for but wasn’t actually having a full-blown affair with, or “passionate friends”.  And Anne’s reign is the one time when it was all about women –  a female monarch with female favourites.

Sarah certainly had a very strong personality. I really like her.  I’d probably have disliked her if I’d actually known her, but, as a historical figure, she definitely appeals to me.  She really got stuck in there, not just during Anne’s reign but earlier on, during the Glorious Revolution.  This was a time when women were not generally involved in politics, but she certainly was.  And she wasn’t a toady.  OK, her big mouth got her into trouble sometimes, and she’d have been wiser to have been a bit more toadyish with Anne – she apparently once snapped at her to “Be quiet” – but you have to admire her spirit.  She came from a fairly minor gentry family, and became the second most powerful woman in the country.  And (sorry for being irrelevant) her red hair genes have come down through three centuries to Prince Harry: I love that too!   I’m rather put out that Rachel Weisz didn’t dye her hair red for this film!

Incidentally, it’s quite interesting that Sarah Churchill was a direct ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales, and that, of William of Orange’s two “main” male favourites, one (Hans Bentinck, created Earl of Portland) was a direct ancestor of the Queen Mother, and the other (Arnold van Keppel, created Earl of Albemarle) was a direct ancestor of the Duchess of Cornwall.   I’m not sure what that signifies, but it feels like it ought to signify something!

The way Sarah comes across in the film is a great image of her. I’d love to think that she was like that in day-to-day life – always ready with a clever remark, brilliant retort or put-down.  It would be wonderful to be like that, rather than thinking of a smart remark half an hour after the event, and knowing that you probably wouldn’t have had the guts to say it anyway!  The portrayal of her probably goes a bit far, but it does a good job in getting across the impression of a very strong woman who knew what she wanted and went for it, and who can accurately be described as the power behind the throne, without ever seeming like a monster or a caricature.  Superb performance from Rachel Weisz.

Abigail, on the other hand, has never appealed to me. That’s illogical, because she seems to have been a much more gentle and pleasant person.  But I think it is this idea of the sneaky new girl who comes between two long-time best friends.  That’s very unfair, because- quite apart from the fact that we’re all entitled to make new friends (I think I probably sounded like someone out of an Angela Brazil novel just then!!) – Anne and Sarah’s friendship had begun to run its course by the time Abigail came to prominence, partly because of political differences and partly because Sarah was often away from court, spending time with her children and overseeing the building of Blenheim Palace.

The film does not show Abigail as being gentle and pleasant, though – it does show her as the sneaky new girl.  And it goes way OTT.  Pretty much everything it says about Abigail is OTT.  Her father lost money and she had to go into service, before Sarah took her into her own employ and then found her a position at court.  According to this, her father sold her, to a dirty old man, and, when she arrived at court, she was sent to scrub the kitchen floors!  Er, no, not quite!  But I kind of like the fact that she’s shown as devious, scheming bitch, who pretends to be oh so nice and sweet, plays Anne like a violin, and is determined to take Sarah’s place by whatever means possible – and succeeds in doing so.  Emma Stone does a great job!   It’s probably very unfair to poor Abigail, who was probably nothing like that bad in real life, but … well, she’s just never appealed to me, and I’m afraid it rather amused me to see her portrayed like that.  Sorry, Abigail!

So many historical inaccuracies, though! The fact that Harley and Abigail were cousins was conveniently ignored: he was shown as getting her to pass information to him by threats and bullying.  And where was George of Denmark, Anne’s husband, who was alive until 1708?  He was never even mentioned, never mind shown!  Nor were Sarah’s children or their spouses, despite the fact that her ambitions for them were such an important part of what went on.  Nor were the Jacobites: neither the issue of the succession nor the fear of a French-backed Jacobite rising got a single mention.  Nor did the Act of Union.  The relationship between the Marlboroughs, who do seem to’ve had a very happy marriage, wasn’t portrayed very accurately.  As for the language … the term “Prime Minister” wasn’t in use then, and, as much as Robert Harley was a prat, I hardly think that anyone in c.1705 would have described him as one 🙂 .  And the men’s costumes are much more Georgian than of Queen Anne’s time.

Then there were the bizarre bits that they completely made up. One of them involved Abigail spiking Sarah’s drink, causing Sarah to have a riding accident from which she was rescued by a brothel keeper.  Oh dear.  I don’t expect 100% historical accuracy in a film, but at least keep it real!  It’s not meant to be a parody, or a Carry On film.  And they claimed that Sarah tried to blackmail Anne by threatening to publish explicit letters which Anne had sent her.  Even if they had been lovers, there’s no way Anne would have written explicitly about it.  Their letters are full of codewords.  And the whole incident was a fabrication.  OK, it’s fiction, but I do wish they’d explained somewhere that it wasn’t meant to be accurate!

And poor Anne! What was all that bunny rabbit stuff about – who dreamt that up?  I found the depiction of her very annoying early on, but it did improve.  It was explained that she’d had seventeen pregnancies and no surviving children.  Poor woman.  How horrendous is that?  Medical historians seem to think that it was due to “sticky blood”, Hughes Syndrome, but obviously that couldn’t have been diagnosed or treated at the time.  And, although the Glorious Revolution was mentioned, I think she must have had “issues” over that, given that she seems to have been quite a conservative person. Did she genuinely believe the warming pan story?  Did she talk herself into believing it?  Then there was her gout, which played a big part in this film, with Abigail shown at being good at alleviating her pain.

She certainly didn’t have things easy, and it seems quite unkind that the film … mocks her, for lack of a better way of putting it. But it does show her coming good in the end, realising what Abigail’s really like and putting her in her place … but that isn’t historically accurate either!

In summary – gold star for raising awareness for a neglected period of history, low marks for historical accuracy, high marks for a very entertaining script with some brilliant lines, top marks for great performances by three great actresses!

Mary Poppins Returns

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Obviously this requires deep historical analysis 😉 .  Jane Banks is now a trade unionist, and runs a soup kitchen.  And wears trousers.  And acquires a working-class toyboy.  Go Jane!   Michael Banks is one of many people at risk of having his home repossessed due to the effects of the Depression.  Oh all right, all right, I just want an excuse to talk about Mary Poppins Returns.   It was never going to be as supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and practically perfect in every way as the original, and it’s a bit unfair of critics to compare the soundtrack to songs which have been around for over half a century and which everyone knows and loves, but it was still pretty good.

Sadly, I have never acquired the ability to make things tidy themselves up and put themselves away just by clicking my fingers.  But Mary Poppins has taught us all that a laugh and a song help the job along, and that we should prioritise spending time with people who are important to us over work.  That’s important.  Then there was that GCSE history lesson when the teacher started talking about suffragettes – and my school was absolutely obsessed with suffragettes, because the Pankhurst sisters all went there (Christabel hated the place, but the teachers never told us that) – and someone piped up that they knew about suffragettes because of Mary Poppins.  “Mary Poppins was a suffragette?” asked the teacher in bemusement.  “No – Mrs Banks was,” this girl explained helpfully.  And the class started singing the Sister Suffragette song.  See – it’s proper historical stuff!  Very educational 😉 .

Quite seriously, whereas the original film was set in what’s become mythologised as the pre Great War Edwardian summer when it was Grand To Be An Englishman in 1910, the mood in Mary Poppins Returns is very different.  This is the Depression.  Jane is running a soup kitchen, and organising meetings in support of workers’ rights.  Michael, a widower with three children, has borrowed money from the Dawes et al Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, can’t repay it, and is at risk of having the house repossessed.  Like a lot of upper-middle-class fictional characters in books set during the inter-war years, with the very honourable exception of Madge Bettany in The School at the Chalet, it doesn’t seem to occur to him to try to reduce his living expenses, and he seems rather put out at having had to get a job; but, hey, we wouldn’t really want him to lose the house on Cherry Tree Lane.  Mr and Mrs Banks have presumably passed on, but Ellen, now played by Julie Walters, is still around, as are a lot of the neighbours.  And Michael’s three kids are incredibly cute – especially the youngest boy, who is absolutely gorgeous.

All is not lost!  Michael and Jane have inherited some shares in the bank from their father.  But they can’t find the share certificate – and the Banks entry in the share ledger has, unbeknownst to them, been destroyed by the dastardly nephew (played by Colin Firth) of Mr Dawes junior.  So maybe all is lost after all.  And, in the middle of this, Mary Poppins returns.  Hooray!

Emily Blunt plays Mary Poppins with a really OTT posh accent, which was a bit annoying.  I didn’t expect her to try to sound exactly like Julie Andrews, but it sounded a bit artificial, more like someone doing an impression of a posh accent than someone who genuinely has a posh accent!  Oh well, never mind.  She’s still got the talking umbrella.  And the handbag which a million things seem to fit into.  And there are magical adventures!

Not too many spoilers, but the adventures do very much mirror those in the original film. We haven’t got Bert, but we’ve got Jack, a lamplighter who was one apprenticed to Bert, and he and the other lamplighters have got a dance scene which is very reminiscent of Step In Time.   Meryl Streep plays Mary’s cousin Topsy Turvy, who runs a mysterious shop, in this film’s answer to the scenes with Uncle Albert floating up to the ceiling.  There isn’t a horse race, but there are adventures under the sea, and a brilliant music hall scene in which Mary Poppins sings a Marie Lloyd style number with a lot of innuendo … which doesn’t really sound like something Mary Poppins would do (although presumably it’s in one of the books?), but it’s a brilliant scene!

There’s no equivalent to the Bird Woman scene, but it is very much a London film.  I don’t entirely get London – most Northerners don’t! – but it is always lovely to see a film paying homage to a city which someone loves, and this film does do that, just as the original does.

And, of course, it all comes right in the end.  The kite – the original one, from Let’s Go Fly A Kite – is involved.  And everyone floats off on balloons.

I feel as if all I’ve done is compare it to the original, legendary, Mary Poppins, film, but the directors and scriptwriters have made it inevitable that everyone will do that, by including so many scenes which mirror those in the original film.  And, whilst nothing could compare with Mary Poppins, this is really very entertaining, and it’s a great film to see over the Christmas period.

Peterloo

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The Peterloo Massacre was a seminal moment in our history, and it’s long been a cause of local grievance that it isn’t well enough known and that there isn’t even a proper memorial to the victims. Whilst this film could have been a lot better, with some of it seeming more like Blackadder than a serious historical drama, it did get across the message that this was a peaceful protest, by people demanding their natural, inalienable rights – and those are concepts about which we don’t hear enough these days – which was turned into a bloodbath by a social and political Establishment which was totally disconnected from the vast majority of the population.  It was part of a period of repression that also involved banning trade unions and trying to tax the working-class press out of existence.  Be angry.  Be very angry.

This was about a time in particular history, but that feeling of being disconnected from Westminster, or Washington, or wherever it is in whichever country you’re in, that feeling that the political class doesn’t represent you and doesn’t care about you, is hardly unique to 1819. I’m not criticising any particular politicians or any particular political party, but I think that a lot of people in a lot of places feel like that at the moment.   There was plenty of discussion in the film about people who are all talk and people who actually try to get things done.  I’m always saying this, about many things, but these days there’s a lot of talking and not a lot of doing.

Think about Peterloo, think about the Chartists, think about the suffragettes. If you’re from Manchester, be incredibly proud of the part our city played in it all.  But remember just how bloody awful the events of 1819 were.  People came in peace.  Fifteen of them were killed, and hundreds more injured.  This wasn’t in Tiananmen Square or Soweto or Cairo: this was here.

Some of the characters in the film were real people. Some of them, notably a family with Maxine Peake as its matriarch (why is someone who is only seven months older than me being cast as a matriarch?!) were fictional.  A lot of the dialogue was taken from speeches made at the time, and, speakers in Regency times being rather fond of overblown oratory, it did get a bit … well, overblown.  But it was genuine.  And some of the characters did point out that it sounded a bit overblown!

I have to say that I could have done with some of the characters being a little less exaggerated, though. I wasn’t overly impressed with the OTT portrayal of the Prince Regent, and some of the other Establishment figures came across almost as pantomime villains whom you felt that you should be booing and hissing.  It was very much Them and Us, and They are the enemy, and They are oppressing Us, but that effect could have been achieved without going quite so far down the road of caricature.

It wasn’t just the rich and powerful who got a bit caricatured. Some of the working-class characters came across a bit like Comedy Northerners.  And I felt that the portrayal of Samuel Bamford, who’s a local hero – which Mike Leigh, from Higher Broughton, will know jolly well – bordered on the disrespectful.  At times, he was shown more as a bit of a prat than the highly-respected local leader of the reform movement.  They even had him only turning up at St Peter’s Fields at the last moment, presumably because his group had stopped off in a pub in Harpurhey along the way!  He was a great man.  He deserves better than the way he was shown in this film.

Henry “Orator” Hunt wasn’t portrayed particularly favourably either, but I think the portrayal of him was a lot more accurate – a man from a well-to-do background who liked to portray himself as a man of the people, who won huge popularity (although I’m not sure that everyone would have been fanboying/fangirling over him quite as much as they did in this), and who genuinely believed in a cause but was pretty self-serving at the same time. I was going to say “Remind you of anyone?”, but I think that’d be unfair.  Hunt didn’t want to be Prime Minister: he did genuinely devote his life to the cause of the reform.  Maybe he deserved a little bit better than the way he came across in this, as well.

The film began four years before the massacre, with Waterloo, and a young working-class soldier from Manchester returning home. As with the early scenes of an episode of Casualty, when you find yourself trying to spot who’s going to end up having a serious accident, you knew that he would be caught up in the events of August 16th, 1819; and his family, led by Maxine Peake, were the conduit via which many of the events were shown.

In the years immediately following the end of the long period of war, the economy went into decline and there was an upsurge in radical activity. I thought that the reform movement could actually have been explained a little more clearly.  The Blanketeers’ March wasn’t really shown, and the term “Blanketeers” wasn’t even used.  I don’t think the term “Hampden Clubs” was used either, and I’m not sure that even the Manchester Patriotic Union, which organised the meeting which became Peterloo, got name-checked.  Having said which, the Corn Laws were explained, and there was also a lot of discussion about factory strikes, and I suppose they didn’t want the film to seem like too much of a lesson.

We saw reform meetings – involving both men and women – and we heard a lot about the activity of the press. Those scenes were excellent.  However, we were also shown court scenes, and they were like something out of a Carry On film.  People being transported to penal colonies for minor offences which were largely due to desperation and poverty was not funny.  OK, Carry On films and Blackadder and so on can get away with making things like that funny, but this was meant to be a serious film.  Also, if you must use a “funny”-sounding Northern surname, then, if the scene is set in Lancashire, you should use Sidebottom.  You should not, as this film did, use Micklethwaite.  That’s a Yorkshire name.  Got it?!  OK!

I’ve got a horrible feeling that some people are going to find some of the accents and dialect funny as well. They weren’t funny: people spoke in dialect at the time.  I did think that some of the accents were a bit wide of the mark, but accents have changed in 200 years so it’s hard to tell.  Anyway, as I said, people spoke in dialect at that time.  Read Samuel Bamford’s poems.  Or Edwin Waugh’s poems.  They’re part of our history.

It was good to see that most of the cast were local. Plenty of familiar faces in there!   It’s a great shame that it couldn’t be filmed locally, but town just doesn’t look anything like it did in 1815-1819 any more!   Nor does the surrounding area.  I did think that some of it looked rather too rural even for 1819, but then it wasn’t clear exactly where all the out of town scenes were set, so it’s difficult to say.   I do have to say that I was quite put out to see a review in one of the papers which mentioned drilling on Saddleworth Moor.  No, no, no!  It was filmed on Saddleworth Moor, but – and the film did state this quite clearly – it took place on Kersal Moor.  As the local Chartist meetings would do later on.  Kersal Moor is about a mile from chez moi.  I spent my first term of primary school very close to it (er, until the building half-collapsed, luckily not during school hours, and they had to move us to Bury Old Road).  It used to be known as the Mons Sacer of Manchester.  It is an incredibly important historic location.  I will not have anyone mixing it up with Saddleworth Moor or anywhere else!  Kersal Moor, OK!  Kersal Moor!

Meanwhile, the authorities were paranoid about any sort of lower-class activism, because of the French Revolution. We’ve all heard the “Orf with their heads” jokes, but it’s hard to overstate just how deep this fear ran, not just in Britain but across Europe.  There was a huge shift to the right because of it.  Again, this came across in the film as being slightly comedic, but it wasn’t – it was genuine fear.  None of which excuses the appalling repression of the times.  The Combination Acts banned the forming of any sort of trade unions.  The Seditious Meetings Act of 1817, a response to the Blanketeers’ March and also to uprisings elsewhere in the country, banned meetings of more than fifty people.  And, as the film showed, habeas corpus – i.e. the system via which unlawful detention can be reported to a court and it be demanded that the prisoner be brought to court for a hearing to determine whether or not the detention is lawful – was suspended following a minor attack on the Prince Regent’s coach.

After Peterloo, things got even worse, with the passing of the Six Acts. Drilling with arms organised by anyone other than the authorities was banned – and that act was only repealed in 2008!   And stamp duties were increased, and imposed on publications which had previously been exempt because they weren’t actually newspapers but were publishing opinions.  We’re hearing a lot at the moment about repressive regimes in the Middle East.  This was here.  And it wasn’t that long ago.  Someone aged, say, fourteen would have been well able to remember the events of Peterloo.  If they’d lived into their 80s, they’d still have been alive at the turn of the 20th century, and they would have known as children people who, had they also lived into their 80s, would have known people born in the 1970s.  It’s that close.

Having said which, it was closer to the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution than it was to today. Now, all that stuff written by Hobbes and Locke and Montesquieu in the 17th and 18th centuries is rather boring.  I was thinking about it recently in relation to the issue of the separation of powers in the United States, but that’s beside the point.  Also, being a royalist, I tie myself in knots over the events of 1688 – all that social contract and de jure and de facto stuff goes round and round in my head!  But all of it, the ideas of the crucial developments in this country during the 17th century, the ideas of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, the American Revolution, the French Revolution – it is crucial. We’re talking about the Rights of Man.  And, indeed, the Rights of Woman – thank you, Mary Wollstonecraft!

Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, spoke about the natural, inalienable rights of the people, and the duty of governments to protect those rights – and, crucially, said that it was OK to overthrow a government which didn’t protect those rights.  Parallels were drawn between the French Revolution and the Glorious Revolution, and the speakers in the film referred to the Bill of Rights.  That’s the Bill of Rights of 1689.  It requires free elections, regular Parliaments and freedom of speech in Parliament, it bans the levying of taxes without Parliamentary consent, and it also bans cruel punishments.  (We’ll draw a veil over its connection with gun laws – that’s America’s issue, not ours!)

No-one talks about it any more. The only time that the settlements after the Glorious Revolution have really been discussed in recent years was when the succession laws were altered so that royal boys no longer took precedence over their sisters in the order of succession.  No-one talks about natural, inalienable rights any more.  I don’t think most school exam syllabuses (syllabi?) even include the Glorious Revolution any more.

Why not? I know Whig history’s considered old hat now, and maybe the liberal elite don’t want us learning anything that makes English/British history sound positive, but this is important!   Or is it that Victorian sentimentalism over the Jacobites mean that people don’t want to hear about the Glorious Revolution?  I did say that I tied myself in knots over it!  Or is it something to do with William of Orange’s name becoming associated with the Troubles in Northern Ireland?   I don’t honestly know.  Suggestions welcomed!

Or is it that we just don’t talk about rights any more? In the Q&A session afterwards, Mike Leigh, writer and director of the film – brought up a couple of miles down the road from chez moi!- got quite angry when talking about people not exercising their right to vote.  At the time of Peterloo, people genuinely believed that what they needed was the right to vote, that that would change things.  Manchester didn’t even have any MPs in 1819.  Hardly anyone round here had the vote.  It’s different now.  We’ve got representation.  And yet the turnout at the last general election, across the country, was only 68%, and even that was the highest since 1997.  Did we get the vote, feel that it didn’t change things after all, and lose interest?   Can people just not be bothered?  Whatever, in 1819, it was different.  A crowd of up to 80,000 people – certainly at least 60,000, and this was at a time when the population was far smaller than it was now, and when most people had to make their way there on foot – turned up to hear Henry Hunt speak in Manchester on August 16th, 1819.

On a Monday – someone made the point in the Q&A session that this would have been more difficult once most people were employed by others, rather than being independent handloom weavers. Mike Leigh also made a point in the Q&A session about self-education.  I do feel constrained to point out that Samuel Bamford attended Manchester Grammar School until his dad fell out with the Latin department, and that he then attended Middleton Grammar School, but, yes, it was an excellent point about the 19th century idea of self-improvement, so crucial then and even more so in the Victorian era which lay ahead.  You didn’t hear anyone sneering at the organisers of the Hampden Clubs and the Manchester Patriotic Union for being swots and geeks because they liked to read up on politics and history.

I’m waffling now. If anyone is bothering to read this, which they probably aren’t, thank you for bearing with me – I am actually now going to get to the Peterloo Massacre. Whatever gripes I might have had with other parts of the film, the scenes showing Peterloo itself were superb.  People came in peace.  From all over the area.  Wearing their Sunday best.  Flags flying.  Bands playing.  I’d hesitate to say that it was a day out, because it was a serious political meeting, at a time when reform was urgently needed; but it was an occasion.  Nobody went there looking for trouble.  There were no rogue elements.  Even had the Sun been around at the time, it couldn’t have tried to blame the working-class people of Lancashire for what happened.

Hunt began to speak. People cheered.  A bunch of magistrates watching from a nearby house issued an arrest warrant for Hunt and three of the organisers of the meeting.  And sent for the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry – who galloped towards St Peter’s Fields, killing a two-year-old child as they went.  They charged into the crowd.  There was chaos. They began hacking at people with their sabres.  There was panic.  People couldn’t get away: the area was too crowded and the troops were blocking the way.  We can’t be sure of the total number of dead and injured, but at least fifteen lives were lost, and probably more.  It came across so well in the film.  No dramatic air shots, no big panoramic shots.  You, the viewer, were right in there.

Afterwards, a number of … commemorative items, for lack of a better word, were produced. It sounds tasteless, but, although we can’t be sure, it would be nice to think that they were sold in order to raise money for the injured, as well as to show support for the dead, the injured, and the cause of reform in general.   They included a medal bearing the Biblical text “The wicked have drawn out the sword, they have cast down the poor and needy and such as be of upright conversation”.  That sums it up rather well.

The film showed several scenes featuring journalists, from Manchester, London, Leeds and elsewhere. What happened was widely reported in the press.  Shelley wrote a poem about it.  I’ve also heard a theory that Keats included veiled references to Peterloo in To Autumn. There was widespread anger in Manchester, in the rest of Lancashire and across the country about what had happened.  But the response of the authorities was to pass the Six Acts, which I’ve already mentioned.  The Manchester Observer newspaper’s offices were repeatedly raided: the newspaper closed in 1820, although the Manchester Guardian was founded in 1821.

Reform did come, eventually, but it was to be over a century before there was universal suffrage.

We’ve got a red plaque there now.  It replaced an earlier blue plaque which didn’t make what happened very clear. The new plaque’s an improvement on the old one, but there still isn’t a proper memorial, even though a campaign to build one’s been going since 2007.   Events are planned to mark the bicentennial of the massacre, next year.  I hope they get the publicity they deserve.

The film didn’t tell you what happened afterwards, to either the real or the fictional characters, or to the cause of reform in general. Mike Leigh said that he wanted it to end, there, in 1819 – with the raw grief of the family we’d been following throughout the film as they laid one of their own, one of the victims of Peterloo, to rest.  He went to a peaceful reform meeting and never came home.

This wasn’t in the Middle East, or China, or one of the dictatorships of Africa or South America, or Stalin’s Soviet Union.  This was here, in our city, under a repressive regime which existed in our country.  Some of this film leaves a lot to be desired, but please don’t let that detract from the importance of the events that it’s covering.  This story needs to be told, and it needs to be known.

 

Battle of the Sexes

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Billie Jean King is an icon of tennis, the women’s rights movement and the LGBT rights movement. This film did so poorly at the box office that I assumed it hadn’t done her justice – it was only on at the pictures very briefly, which is why I missed it – but it turned out to be superb.  Very impressed. I’d love to know what Margaret Court, about whom there’ll no doubt, and with good cause, be another row come January, thought about being cast as the villain of the piece.  Bobby Riggs, meanwhile, just came across as a bit of a prat.

Sports films can be awkward. Nobody particularly wants to see actors and actresses and their body doubles pretending to play a tennis match.  If I want to watch tennis (which I do, pretty much all the time!), I’ll watch a proper match involving professional players.  But this wasn’t really a sports film, or a film just about the famous match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs: it was a film about people standing up for something they believed in.

The issue of equal prize money between men and women in tennis is still ongoing. It was only in 2007 that Wimbledon and the French Open began awarding equal prize money across the board, and the question still comes up umpteen times a year.  Back in 1970, a tournament was organised in which female players were offered only one-eighth of the prize money being offered to male players.

Billie Jean King and eight other women players, championed by publisher and former player Gladys Heldman – the Heldman character in the film also made a point about the anti-Semitism prevalent in some American sports clubs at that time – set up their own tour, sponsored by Virginia Slims cigarettes. I’m so ancient that I can still remember the days of Virginia Slims tournaments (I mean in the late ’80s and ’90s, not the ’70s!)!   It eventually became what we now know as the WTA Tour.  They were banned from tournaments organised by the USLTA (now the USTA), and a lot of women’s events outside the US were also dropped.  However, they stuck to their guns, and formed the Women’s Tennis Association, and their position gradually improved.

Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs, a retired player in his mid-’50s, had got his life in a mess because of gambling. Whilst his gambling addiction wasn’t the main focus of the film, it did raise the important issue of the number of professional sports players who struggle to cope with retirement, and fall into gambling or alcoholism or other addictions.  He came up with the idea of a match against a top female player, but, although he made a lot of remarks about women belonging in the kitchen and so on, it was clear that he didn’t really mean it, and that he was desperate for money and playing up the image of himself as a male chauvinist pig because he knew it’d gain publicity.  It’s known that he and Billie Jean King kept in touch after their match, and remained friends until his death.

Margaret Court, on the other hand, was depicted as an absolute bitch. I don’t honestly think that’s accurate: there’s never been any suggestion that there was bad feeling between her and Billie Jean King when they were playing.  Billie Jean King had a husband at the time, but had begun a relationship with … I thought Marilyn Barnett was her secretary, but she was portrayed in this as her hairdresser.  Anyway, they began a relationship, which went on for around a decade.  Eventually it all ended very unpleasantly, with Barnett revealing the relationship publicly and suing her for palimony, but that was years after the period covered by the film.  The way it was shown in the film was that Margaret Court had realised about the relationship, and she was shown making homophobic remarks and saying that she hoped Billie Jean’s personal life would fall apart and cause her tennis to do likewise.

I’ve never heard anything to suggest that that actually happened. However, in recent years, Margaret Court has been very outspoken against LGBT rights, and that’s led to calls for the Margaret Court Arena, the second court at Melbourne Park, home of the Australian Open, to be renamed.  Several players, including Andy Murray, have spoken of the possibility of boycotting the court, or even the whole event. Some of her comments, especially about transgender children, are just beyond appalling, and really have disgusted players, fans and everyone else.  She didn’t attend the Australian Open last year, knowing that she wouldn’t be welcome.  So it wouldn’t surprise me if she had made comments like that, but I’ve never heard it suggested that she did.

She, then the world number one, played a “battle of the sexes” match against Bobby Riggs, and he absolutely routed her. It was hinted in the film that maybe she lost deliberately.  Again, I’m not sure that that’s ever been suggested.  There have been suggestions that Bobby Riggs lost his match against Billie Jean King deliberately, which wasn’t suggested in the film; but I don’t think that’s true either.

Teddy Tinling, the British dress designer and former player, who famously upset the powers that were at Wimbledon by designing lace pants for “Gorgeous” Gussie Moran in 1949, and designed Billie Jean’s match for her match against Riggs, was, by contrast, shown as being absolutely lovely – incredibly supportive of all the women players and, openly gay himself, supportive of Billie Jean in her personal life too. The film didn’t show too much about her family, but she’s spoken openly about how she was frightened of coming out because of the attitude of her very conservative and religious family.  It did show her being warned that the women’s tour could suffer badly if sponsorship were to be withdrawn by businesses with homophobic attitudes – and, when her relationship with Marilyn Barnett was made public, she did indeed lose millions of dollars in endorsements.

After defeating Margaret Court, Bobby Riggs challenged any other female player to play him. Billie Jean King accepted.  He might have been doing it for the publicity and the money, and she might have felt that it was all pretty stupid, but, as she’s said, if she’d lost, live on prime time TV, to a retired player 26 years older than her, the reputation of women’s tennis and the morale of all the female players would have been badly damaged. The film made the match look a lot more serious than it was in real life – there was a load of silly OTT pre-match stuff in real life, dressing up and so on – but, even in real life, it was a big thing, and attracted a huge amount of attention.

Billie Jean won the match, 6-4 6-3 6-3. How much of an effect it actually had on women’s tennis, and on women’s sport and indeed feminism in general, is a moot point, but she’d certainly never have heard the end of it had she lost.  Maybe it was a big moment.  It’d be nice to think so.

However much effect that match did or didn’t have, Billie Jean King is a heroine, both as one of the greatest tennis players of all time and as someone who’s fought for equal rights. It’s a great shame that this film didn’t do better at the box office, because it really is worth seeing – not just by tennis fans, but by everyone.

 

Emmerdale 1918 – ITV 1, and Journey’s End

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Two very different looks at the Great War, one on TV and one a film adaptation of a play written in 1928.  I am a great believer in the power of soap operas to get messages across 🙂 , and I love the idea of exploring history via soap characters – maybe ITV and BBC could do more of this!   Personal history is increasingly popular, probably because the rise of the internet’s made it so much easier for people to become involved in genealogy, and the idea of this was to show how the war affected a number of individuals from Esholt, the Yorkshire village where Emmerdale used to be filmed, in a series of programmes presented by Emmerdale actors whose characters have similar jobs/positions.  Journey’s End, by contrast, was about fictional characters but took us right into the hell through which soldiers were living during the Spring Offensive of 1918, with almost all the action taking place in an officers’ dugout in one of the trenches.

It (Journey’s End) focussed on the mental hell as much as, maybe more than, the physical hell.  Although the action all took place towards the end of the war, we see at the beginning the attitude associated with the early months, a naïve young lad straight out of school desperate to get stuck into the action.  He was sent to the Front after only a few weeks of training.  Emmerdale 1918 showed us a video of some of the training: Charlotte Bellamy (Laurel Thomas) commented that it looked more like her legs, bums and tums class at the gym than something designed to prepare novice solders for war.

Our lad, Second Lieutentant Raleigh, was a public schoolboy with relatives in high places, and pulled strings to get himself assigned to a company captained by a family friend who’d been a few years above him at school, someone he’d always hero-worshipped and who’d got a bit of a thing going with his sister.  Only they weren’t at school any more, and the boy he knew at school was now aggressive, anxious, drinking too much, and convinced that his relationship with his friend’s sister would break her heart – either he’d die, or he’d go back to her a completely different man from the one she knew and loved.

We didn’t actually see the fighting, although we heard about the men who’d been killed: we saw how things played out in the dugout.  It wasn’t easy to watch: it was very intense and, because it was nearly all set in such a confined space, and over the course of over a few days, quite claustrophobic: it probably got the psychological hell across as well as any dramatisation could do.

The second episode of Emmerdale 1918 was also about a young lad with no military experience, going to the Front.  In this case, he was Joshua Booth, a working-class lad from a small Yorkshire village.  Of the 200 people living in the village, 50 went away to war.  That’s very hard to take in.  25% of your local community gone to war.  They don’t seem to have been in a Pals battalion, which at least was something.  In this case, we got the background: we saw the normality of this young man’s life at home, and we were read extracts from his letters to his sweetheart – who threw him over and married someone else.  You don’t expect that in a war programme, do you?  I know it sounds daft, but wartime romances are meant to end in either tragedy or joy, not in one partner dumping the other.  It was far less tense, far less intense, because it was indirect, and not so focussed on a small space and short period of time; and yet it had the intensity of being about just one person and, significantly, someone who really lived.

Different approaches, different backgrounds, and yet both stories ended the same way: neither young man survived.  Journey’s End didn’t tell us what happened to his comrades.  Emmerdale 1918 did tell us that the other 49 men from Esholt who went away to war all survived, which was incredible really … and yet some of them must have had life-changing injuries, physical or mental, and none of them could ever have been the same again.  Nor could anyone else who lived through that time.  The series is about the fact that it was a total war: we’re also getting land girls, chefs, vets … everyone’s lives turned upside down.

Do schools did get kids to compare The Soldier and Dulce et Decorum est?   It was a standard English Lit GCSE essay topic in my day.  Journey’s End was very Dulce et Decorum est: you just felt broken. Emmerdale 1918 inclined more towards The Soldier – not as sentimental, but concentrating on remembering the bravery, the heroism, the sacrifice.  More John Maxwell Edmonds – for our tomorrow, people like Joshua Booth gave their today.  So many lives lost, so many other lives irrevocably damaged.

It’s hard to believe that we’re now almost as far from the end of the Great War as the end of the Great War was from the end of the Napoleonic Wars.  25 years ago, people were starting to day that the idea of Remembrance would gradually die out, but it hasn’t.  It’s good that it hasn’t, but what a tragedy that, every year without fail, there are more and more war dead to be remembered.  And more and more people who’ve survived but suffered life-changing physical injuries and or horrific trauma.

Journey’s End is hard going, and certainly not enjoyable, but it’s worth watching.  As for Emmerdale 1918, I think this is a brilliant idea.  Soap stuff makes headlines!  We’ve seen that with so many crucial social issues. Can it now branch out into history?  OK, I think this series is a one-off, and I don’t think we’re about to see the cast of Coronation Street marking the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre or the cast of EastEnders showing us life in medieval London … but it would be great if we did.